Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Answering the Questions You Might Have About the Kharbat

You have just been attacked by a Kharbat. It has sprung on you from hiding, in some place where you foolishly imagined yourself safe; and even as its many glittering fangs sink deep into the flesh and bone of your shoulder, you know that any attempt to save yourself is futile, that you were always fated to perish in this way, and this beast was always fated to usher you screaming into the world of the dead.

What is a Kharbat?

I don’t know.

Why am I asking you?

I am the world’s leading expert.

How can you be an expert and still know nothing?

I didn’t say that experts on this monstrous species were exactly thick on the ground. I know a few small things, the answers to basic questions, the sort of thing you might be wondering about as you struggle in vain to defend yourself.

Like what?

Well, to start with, the Kharbat is not a species, not in the plural sense. It is a unique creature, alone in all the universe, and it’s just your bad luck that you happened to run into the one, here in this dark place, so far from any centers of civilization, and certainly from anyone who can hear your anguished screaming. But that’s the kind of environment it likes, when it exists.

“When it Exists”?

Well, you see, you just stumbled upon the defense mechanism, and most dangerous weapon, of the Kharbat. It is a creature of probability that can hide better than any living thing ever has, because up until the very moment when you felt its claws rip into your upper arm, it didn’t exist. There was no Kharbat, anywhere in this universe or any other; and there never has been a Kharbat, in this universe or any other. No Kharbat has ever been catalogued; no catalogue has ever been imagined. It was, in fact, impossible to conceive, even in a nightmare; the instant anybody came close to positing anything like it, it moved farther away, by becoming even stranger, and therefore outside all known referents, as well as any known hypotheticals that could be accessed by those referents. It was a non-thing. Until you were in the right position to be attacked by it, and even then it wasn’t real until it drew blood.

That’s ridiculous.

Well, yeah. But look. That’s precisely what makes the Kharbat so dangerous. Humanity has already been aware that it might encounter monsters unprecedented in its experience, and has therefore always devoted part of its intellectual energy to concocting such creatures out of smoke and shadows, as hypotheticals, to test its response. Of course, the more limited the conceptual building blocks, the more likely it always was, that the hypotheticals would be composed of bits and pieces already encountered, like the woman (ingredient #1), with the head of snakes (ingredient #2), whose gaze could turn you into stone (ingredient #3). None of these things represented an impossible leap for someone who lived in ancient Greece, and even today, many of the hypotheticals being groped for by the imaginations of mankind aren’t gigantic leaps either. The Giant Gorilla and The Giant Lizard in particular are just extrapolations from observable reality, only bigger, and The Giant Octopus-Headed Man is only that plus a little genetic tinkering.

So?

So: Anybody who conceives such a hypothetical is performing a function important to the survival of your species when that inevitably leads to speculation about how such a creature can be stopped. Create a vampire? Well, it’s an unlikely beast, but you can always try a stake through its heart. Create a hulking artificial man constructed of the corpses of the dead? Well, for God’s sake don’t antagonize it. Create a zombie? Shit, what can’t you do? Bare minimum, you can chop off its head, but after that, there’s any number of more creative ways to dispatch their sort, and for over fifty years now the human race has been excessively invested in positing them. It’s the same function that our most distant ancestors were serving when they sat around their campfires and wondered just what they would do if they ever ran into a creature stranger, and more dangerous, than the irritable bear who ate Uncle Clem. That function, imagination, is one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary advantages, and I assure you: it has saved lives.

Can it save mine?

No.

Why the hell not?

Because that, again, was the primary weapon of the Kharbat. It was just outside the human capacity to conceive of it, and therefore outside of humanity’s capacity to concoct a counter-measure. Further, as something that didn’t exist, it was also impossible to observe, and so it remained not only outside the realm of the hypothetical but also outside the realm of the possible-to-learn about. Never in your life before this point did you ever, or would you ever, be within beer range of some guy with hideous facial scars, like the ones this Kharbat just gave you right now, who could say, “Oh, these? Well, therein lies a tale.” And therefore provide you with the chief advantage of every horror story idiot who ever wandered into a forbidden place in search of a fabled monster: to wit, advance word.

Okay. I think I get what you’re saying. But I’m being attacked by the Kharbat now.

Yes.

If I survive—

You won’t.

But if I did—

You won’t.

But if I DID, just for the sake of argument, wouldn’t that blow the whole deal? If I somehow managed to stab it in the right internal organ and stumble back to civilization and tell the world about what I just endured, wouldn’t that blow the one thing the Kharbat has going for itself?

I see where you’re going with this. You’re picturing an angry mob with torches and pitchforks, hunting the beast down, and finally cornering it in a trap it cannot escape. This has been known to happen to other predatory menaces. But again, the Kharbat only exists while it’s mauling you. If you somehow pulled off a miracle and threw it off, it would cease to exist, would cease to be even hypothetical, and would not be anywhere on your plane to be found. Even if you staggered back to some candle-lit tavern and told everybody about the unimaginable creature whose assault you’d just improbably survived, and even if you related your story so persuasively that everybody followed you back here and found the signs of a titanic struggle, and even if nobody posited that you might have misidentified some more mundane creature like a mountain lion, and even if the story stuck and the Kharbat became the legend that mothers warned their children about, forevermore, it would be last anybody would ever see of the Kharbat, but not the last of the problem, because all you will have accomplished is move the boundaries of the human imagination farther away from their current positions, and therefore create a perfect habitat for whatever being comes after the Kharbat, something just a little stranger than the Kharbat, which could itself lurk in nonexistence and attack some other poor bastard whose world had never conceived it. A Kharbat Plus One, if you will. Or rather, since it will look and act nothing like a Kharbat or anything else anybody has ever seen or imagined, some other made-up word: a Griskarg, or something like that.

What would that be like?

I don’t know. And you’re too busy being eaten by the Kharbat to worry about such possibilities.

It seems to be lingering over my leg. Tell me anyway.

By its very nature, it’s nothing you could describe, or comprehend. Any creature who replaced the Kharbat—and someday, one will replace the Kharbat—will be some other poor bastard’s problem.

Okay, so what if it the Kharbat kills me, as now appears increasingly likely? If it only exists while it’s mauling me, what happens afterward? Does it shamble closer to town and start eating other people?

No, it doesn’t. Again, the chief evolutionary advantage of the Kharbat is that it does not exist. Once it has manifested in its assault on you, it has created proof that it exists and has therefore doomed itself to a painful end. Like the bee that dies from its sting, the Kharbat perishes the first time it strikes. At the moment there is nothing left of your mortal form, the Kharbat is poisoned by the agony of corporeality and itself vanishes, as it must. It does not return to its point of origin, because that is no place at all and cannot be accessed. It instead goes nowhere, a subtle distinction that could fill many quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore and was indeed what the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem “The Raven” was trying to puzzle out before being harassed by that talkative bird. Never mind him; it’s more than I have time to go into, and more than you have time to hear. Suffice it to say that you are the only prey the Kharbat will ever know. It’s an honor, really. Like meeting a celebrity. And then, at some point in the future, some other lone traveler will be happening along some other isolated place, and meet whatever incomprehensible, unimaginable monster comes after it.

So this is, what are you telling me? Some part of the natural circle of life?

See? It’s not so hard to understand. This has been happening all along. You can’t feel all that persecuted. You’re just the latest schmuck this happened to.

It does hurt, though.

Yes, I imagine it would. It doesn’t look fun at all.

That’s no consolation.

I know. I can honestly hardly imagine.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with a trio of chaotic paladin cats.