This story is paired with “The King in Yellow (Suite)” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
I had never heard of a planet named Cassilda, and it was not listed on the charts or in the records of either the Terran Alliance or the Mervogian Federation. Aerwynna, who had found out from colleagues about an inhabited world in this lonely sector of space, brought the ship into orbit. We scanned the surface. It was an oxygen atmosphere planet with flora and fauna similar to those that supported humanoid life. We detected only three cities on it. The cities were not large, though they registered a high level of technology. Yet their space gave no evidence of satellites, drones, or space stations. Further, we had not detected scans or any sort of monitoring coming from the planet down below us.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“Crazy. They have cities, motorized vehicles, and power sources just as advanced as what we have on the ship, but no one is flying, no vehicles are moving, no scans coming our way, no attempt to contact us. I don’t think they know we’re up here.”
“Should we try to contact them?”
“I haven’t detected a lot of agriculture—some gardens are under cultivation, but no large-scale farming operation, and not enough food being grown to sustain cities this size.”
“I’ll send out a hale and see if we get any response.”
I went over to the communications array and sent out a message that would register on all frequencies and contact any communications receptor from any of the civilizations with which we did business. The lack of agriculture had encouraged us to at least explore the possibility of trade with this world. It might be a top market, though the oddities we had encountered here puzzled us.
We waited. Finally we received a response. It was a robo-response that gave us permission to land. We set an approach course and descended. Breaking through the cloud cover, we saw landing pads. To our surprise, several of the pads moored starships—all sizes, from small cruisers like ours to large ships. One military class-A starship sat on a dock. I could tell by the numbers and logo that it was a Terran ship, but I also saw Mervogian and Glinn craft. What looked like a Golorian diplomatic corps ship also sat on a pad. We headed for the designated site, settled, turned propulsion off, and dismounted.
Outside, an eerie stillness greeted us. We listened. We were on the edge of a large city. Buildings rose into the sky, their steel and glass glimmering in the morning sunlight. But the noise of bustle cities make did not sound in our ears. The silence seemed complete.
“Thomas, this is weird,” Aerwynna said. “What do you think we should do?”
I looked around. “I don’t know. It certainly is weird, though.”
We probably would have left but that we saw two things, one on the port side and the other starboard of our moored star cruiser. We could see, parked at a considerable distance from our ship, a motorized vehicle they had driven. They had appeared out of nowhere and walked at some distance. We also heard a muffled to the left, turned, and were startled to see a young woman at the edge of the landing pad. Her pink coloration told us she was an Omrite. Barefoot, her hair long, she wore a smock so thin, ripped, and threadbare it barely concealed her body.
“Please, for the love of the spirits, help me,” she said, not loudly. “If those people approaching you see me, they’ll kill me. Hide me, I plead. My name is Mara. I’m an Omrite. You can see that, I’m sure. I speak your language because I have lived here and this is a Terran planet. For the love of whatever god you worship, conceal me or I’m a dead woman.”
Aerwynna glanced at me and told the young woman to come up. She walked the ramp, keeping low. Aerwynna took her inside by a cargo door. She came back. I looked at her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “She’s frightened, but otherwise seems pretty stable. She said, ‘Don’t read the book.’”
“That’s what she said. Maybe she is a little wacko.”
By now the party approaching from the starboard side had drawn close enough that we could see them: two men and a woman. Tall good-looking, but oddly dressed, they smiled as they approached. They did not look hostile and carried no weapons. They were Terrans. One man was black; the other had peach-toned skin like a Mervogian or Barzalian. The woman looked like the majority of Terrans, with brown skin, dark eyes, and glossy black hair. I noticed held a yellow-bound book under her right arm.
She bowed. “Namaste,” she said. “I greet the divine in you. My name is Lajiti. This is Terrance and Alfred. Welcome to Planet Cassilda.”
She wore the garment Terrans call a sari, which many women of that race of beings wears, but she also had on a fur cap with ear flaps, even though it was not cold. Terrance wore striped trousers, a polka-dot shirt, and purple canvas shoes. Alfred dressed like people had dressed in the older days of Earth (I had seen this in films about Earth’s history): boots, tweed pants, a frock coat, a white shirt with a cravat tie, and a tall hat.
I bowed to them. “I am Thomas, this is Aerwynna. We are Mervogians and represent a supply company that sells agricultural products.”
We waited. The stylish people said nothing—they looked puzzled, as if we told them we had come here to blow bubbles or teach them how to properly use trampolines. After a moment they seemed to recover their senses.
“You are well met,” Lajiti finally said. “We might be interested in your products, but hospitality is our first order of business. We invite you to dine with us and to be guests on our world.”
“We are overwhelmed by your graciousness,” Aerwynna said. She had a good sense for business and usually did most of the talking when we negotiated deals.
“Excellent. We’ll send a party with vehicles to escort you to your quarters. For now, accept our welcome and our good will. They party will arrive here in an hour to convey you to our compound.”
We thanked them. Before they left, though, Lajiti gave the book she held her arm to Alfred, who handed it to me.”
“We give you this—our holiest text. Read it at your leisure. We are pleased to have you as our guest.”
With that they returned to the vehicle in which they had driven up. We watched them depart. Aerwynna turned to me.
“That was creepy. I almost feel like we’re walking into a trap.”
“The Omrite girl?”
“She’s creepy too, but let’s talk to her.”
We went into the ship but could see no sign of the Omrite woman. I spoke passálon, their main language, fairly well. I had learned it because we did business with several Omrite colony planets. I called for her in her language. After a moment, Mara appeared. She had been hiding in the main corridor.
“Are they gone?”
As we said they were, Mara spotted the book. You would think Aerwynna held a serpent or a hideous insect under her arm the way Mara looked at her.
“That’s the book,” she said. “Destroy it. It’s dangerous. Please believe me. What I’m saying may seem delusional to you, but please hear me. You detected almost nothing on this planet, did you not? No evidence of a large population, no communications, no space travel? It’s because of the book.”
Aerwynna and I exchanged glances.
“We promise we won’t read it,” Aerwynna said, looking at Mara. Her garment was so thin and ripped we could see the nipples on her breasts and tuft of green public hair between her legs. “You can tell us about that later. Let’s see if we can find something for you to wear. Come with me.”
She turned to me. “Just promise you won’t read any of that book,” she repeated.
“I promise,” I replied.
Aerwynna led Mara back to our quarters. I glanced down at the book. Its yellow cover bore the title, The King in Yellow.
Anytime you are prohibited from doing something, you want to do it. The strong urge to open the book and glance through it rose in my mind. Why did this young woman fear the content of a text so much? What harm might it do to me? I probably would have peaked at the book’s content but that the behavior of the inhabitants we had met so far on Planet Cassilda, and the conditions here, gave me pause. Something weird had taken place on this world. I decided to follow Mara’s prohibition, at least for now. I laid the book on a shelf.
A few minutes later, Aerwynna retuned. She had dressed Mara in a white garment—one she wore when we went to arid worlds—Omrite planets were often hot and dry. Her pink skin, green hair, and amber eyes and fingernails stood out vividly against the white cloth of the dress Aerwynna had given her. Omrites were some of the most beautiful beings in the galaxy. I noticed a white scar running down the left side of Mara’s cheek, which meant she had been “pledged”—selected as a child for a vocational path that required her to remain celibate all her life. She, like about a million other people from that race, had left their world and settled on various worlds to start new lives free of the religious restrictions of their home planets. Refugee Omrite women often worked as prostitutes.
“Are you hungry?” Aerwynna asked.
The girl looked thin. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied. She looked up at me, eyes full of anxiety. “You didn’t look at the book, did you?”
“I read the title.”
“The title won’t hurt you, though it makes you want to read what follows.”
“What is the danger of the book?”
“It will drive you mad. That’s what happened to this planet. The population, literally, went insane. It wasn’t always Planet Cassilda. It used to be called Grissom—named after an early space explorer from Earth. Someone brought a copy of The King in Yellow here. People read it. It’s actually a play, and theaters performed it and the media outlets produced and televised it. Pretty soon, almost everyone on the planet had read it or seen it performed.”
“And?” Aerwynna prompted.
“Destruction. People began to murder each other. They suspected others were stalking them and mass killing depopulated our world. Soon everyone was talking about Carosa, which was some kind of dynasty or lineage; and of Lake Hali. My customers—I was a sex worker, you probably guessed that—started wanting me to pretend I was Cassilda or Camilla, two characters in the play. They wanted me to do bizarre things too. I heard all their crazy talk about Uoht and Thale and Aldones. Pretty soon, the men who paid for me got violent. They asked me if I would wear ‘the Mask’ when we were in bed. When I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about, some of them beat me—one man got after me with a knife; one tried to strangle me. I ran off and hid. I found out what had happened and then met up with some people like me who had never read the book.”
The desperation in her looks and the fear and horror in her eyes as she told her tale had the ring of truth. Of course, we both obviously thought Mara could be the one suffering from madness, not the people of the planet.
“You need to get out of here,” she warned. “They’ll come after you. They’ll want to kill you because you haven’t brought the Yellow Sign.”
“What is that?”
“Something in the book. I don’t know. They’re crazy.”
Aerwynna brought her bread and porridge. She tried not to eat too quickly.
“Do you have trouble finding food?”
“The only food I get is what I steal. The Dragon Faction controls the food supply.”
“The people you first met are from the Dragon Faction. They ruled the planet. They’re artists—dances, painters, musicians. The books affects them differently for some reason. They became kind of wise-crazy and have gotten power and held it. But they’re just as mad as the others, though in a different way. The other group is the Hyades. They’re violent and aggressive. They’ll probably attack you. They attacked and killed off all the embassies and all the military expeditions the Terrans sent here after the planet rebelled.”
Aerwynna looked up Planet Grissom on our information array. The entry confirmed what Mara had told them. Grissom, a protectorate of the Terran Alliance, broke off relations six years ago. The Alliance thought one of the hostile races about the planet had perhaps captured it. When answered with what the entry described as “irrational communication,” they sent diplomats and, later, troops. The diplomats were captured and later released. All those held prisoner, the report said, suffered from considerable delusion and eventually had to be institutionalized. The military expedition experience determined resistance. The Alliance eventually decided to abandon the planet because the cost of recapturing and securing it would be too high and because its strategic importance was minimal.
“For a few years I was able to survive,” Mara said. “I learned enough about the content of the book to role play when I did business with the Dragon Faction. But the last couple of years, they started a movement to root out ‘phantoms’—that’s what they call those who haven’t read the book and don’t ‘know the King.’”
As she said this, our sensor alarm went off. Aerwynna activated visual. We saw a large crowd of people converging on our ship.
“The Order of the Pallid Mask,” she said. “They’re the main faction on the planet. The Dragon Faction rules them because it controls the food supply, but there are more Pallid Mask than any other group. They’re your average people, not artists or philosophers. The book affects them differently. It makes them wild and violent. They’ll kill anyone who isn’t a follower of the King. You’d better get out of here.”
The mass of people drew closer, converging on all sides.
“Get rid of the book first,” Mara said.
“We’re not going to read it,” I told her.
“Get rid of it. You won’t be able to resist reading it. Please believe me. I know this. I’ve seen it happen. Where did you put it?”
I didn’t mean to tell her, but my eyes must have wandered over to the shelf on which I had placed it. Mara saw it, sprang up, leaping with marvelous adroitness, and ran for the off-ramp door. We had not secured it and it opened automatically.
Once outside, we saw on the viewing screen, the mad-looking horde of men and women running toward her, screaming, “Phantom!” She held up the yellow-bound book.
“The Yellow Sign,” she screamed in English and flung the book high into the air. A roar went up from the crowd. I thought they meant to rip her to pieces, but all of them stumbled in the direction she had flung the book, hands extent, fingers grasping. She hurried back into the ship.
I wasted no time. We blasted off. Aerwynna calculated an arc that took us safely out of the planet’s gravitational field. Soon we detected several starships following us.
We hid in the congealing dust of a plantesimal. Aerwynna grew up near The Tangle, an area of unstable space consisting of many small, independent worlds. She knew how to navigate worm holes, ghost basins, and space anomalies of every sort. The smugglers who lived in The Tangle had taught her how to hide a ship in a plantesimal. The irregular energy emissions that radiate from those proto planets can hide a vessel of considerable size. Most pilots do not know how to enter the unstable mass of congealing particles that can shred a starship if it enters too quickly or too slowly. We moored and shut down.
“Just in case they pursue us,” Aerwynna said.
“They will,” Mara responded. “I committed blasphemy when I said I possessed the Yellow Sign.”
Sure enough, their warships patrolled the area for two days. We stayed put in the plantesimal. On the second day, the waves of energy buffeting our ship began to make us ill—Mara especially—but the Cassildians finally called off the search. We came out of hiding. After a few hours in open space, we all felt better. We headed into the Tangle, to Planet Hulda, where Aerwynna had grown up. There we would be safe. A representative from the Terran Alliance heard what had happened and listened to our story about Cassilda. To our surprise, some record of The King in Yellow survived on earth, though the Terrans thought it not a genuine work but a fiction itself from a larger story that used it as a plot element.
A sizeable group of refugee Omrites lived on Hulda. Their community promised to help Mara build a new life there. Aerwynna and I give Cassilda a wide berth when we go out that way, knowing we are considered blasphemers and criminals by the insane population that rules it with the delusion from a piece of fiction.
I shudder to think that I almost opened the book jut to read some of it. So fragile is our sanity, so precarious our hold on what makes up the real.
David Landrum’s speculative fiction has appeared in over 150 stories in various magazines and journals. His novellas, The Prophetess, ShadowCity, Strange Brew, and The Last Minstrel, and his novel, The Sorceress of the Northern Seas, are all available through Amazon.