The Anomaly, or the Rise of the World-Wheel


by Gunnar De Winter
Issue 4: Faith | 3,700 words

©Anna Velichkovsky

If you believe the legends, the city of El Haifa has been around forever. Of course, most rational people know it has to have had a beginning, yet that moment is obscured by a mist of time so thick that no one has yet been able to pierce it. What is known, is that, for as far as the written records go back, El Haifa has always been a huge mixture of cultures and species. Since their arrival, the prevalence of humans has been steadily rising, but pockets of other races remain. Despite superstition and distrust, these diverse groups coexist peacefully. For most of the time, at least.

Ezeke Aliël, El Haifa: A History, pg. 218

Derreck closed the old leather-bound history book. Nothing useful there. Nothing that so much as hinted at the Anomaly, which led him to conclude that it was indeed an unprecedented phenomenon. The hole had appeared only a few weeks ago. An unsuspicious hillock in a less than high-end part of town had simply disappeared, leaving a large, slightly tilted hole in its wake. But it was no ordinary hole. After less than a meter, it became so dark, so utterly pitch-black, that no one had dared to venture in. It exuded an atmosphere that increased the heartbeat, or whatever analog in other species, of all who came close. Unease spread through the surrounding quarters. Even the supposedly fearless stone men of Batar avoided the place. As did everybody else. Soon, the hole was situated in an abandoned domain over which it ruled in silence.

The hole and the surrounding area quickly became known as the Anomaly. A zit on the face of El Haifa—a zit everyone ignored. Almost everyone, at least. As it goes with all unknowns, the majority is afraid, while a minority is intrigued. 

The Council had quickly quarantined the area and contacted Derreck.  His skills as private investigator had become known following his assistance in several mysterious high-priority police cases. Once, Derreck had fallen easily into the role of detective, but his penchant for independence had led him to turn his back on an official career.

He put the book back in its place. Nothing there. Or in any other book he had consulted, for that matter. There was another option. Time to visit Zuq.

When doing business with Amfibians, keep an eye on your goods. And another one on your money.

Zack Danbar, Master-merchant

Derreck knocked on the small circular door. 


“Zuq? It’s me, Derreck. Open up.”

“Get lost. I’m busy.”

Derreck sighed, “I need your help.”

“Are you still there? Bye.”

The young man lowered his voice, “It’s about the hole.”

Slimy sounds indicated Zuq was moving. “Come again?”

“You heard me.”

The door opened and Derreck looked down at Zuq’s large grin, almost splitting the latter’s face in half. “Why, if it isn’t my good friend Derreck. My apologies, I thought you were someone else.”

The Amfibians were small, reaching up to about the hips of an average human. Their pudgy, sullen appearance belied their shrewdness and cunning, making them a race of infamous traders, each one specializing in a specific kind of merchandise. Zuq’s area of expertise was knowledge. 

“Close the door behind you.” Zuq turned around, his laterally flattened tail swinging around. Supported by this tail, the barrel-shaped body ended in a large, semi-circular head with two small black eyes and dorsal nostril-stripes. The longest edge of the head was characterized by a huge mouth, sheltering a substantial number of small, razor-sharp triangular teeth. 

Zuq slithered to a chair at his round table in that unusual half-walking, half-swimming Amfibian gait. With a gesture of one of his six small limbs, all ending in six identical multi-jointed and very sensitive digits, he invited Derreck to take a seat. 

The human barely managed to sit on the small, slimy chair.

“So,” Zuq said, “what do you know about the Anomaly?”

Derreck, awkwardly seated, shrugged. “Not much. The question is: what do you know?”

Zuq’s beady black eyes focused on Derreck. “Also nothing much,” he responded after a few seconds of silence. “Nobody goes or is allowed to go near the thing, so there’s not a lot of information to be gathered, I’m afraid.”

“Interesting phenomenon, though. And knowing you, you probably have some ideas about it, no?”

The Amfibian’s huge, flat dark tongue slowly traced the outline of his pointy teeth. “Perhaps. But even if I have, I can’t hand them out for free, you know. I have to respect my trade, dear Derreck.”

“I wouldn’t dare to imply otherwise, good Zuq. Maybe I can make it worthwhile for you to collaborate with me in this inquiry?”

A twinkle arose in Zuq’s eyes. “What do you propose?”

Derreck shifted in his seat, leaning forward. “Well, as you said yourself, nobody has gone near the mystery hole, so no one really knows anything about it. What if I could get you close enough to allow you to do whatever investigations you deem fit?”

“Hmm…” Six uncannily flexible digits massaged a relatively large greenish head. “Two conditions.” A digit on another limb unfurled. “One, all knowledge concerning this anomalous phenomenon I might acquire is mine exclusively, meaning that you agree to a clause of secrecy in the collaborative contract I’ll set up. And two,” another digit followed, “I’ll initiate our temporary partnership only after you’ve sufficiently demonstrated that you can indeed acquire unlimited access to the Anomaly.”

Derreck pursed his lips. “I agree if you, in turn, agree with two conditions of my own.”

“Let’s hear ’em then.”

“First, you share all potentially relevant information with regards to the thing we investigate. That means not holding anything back, as you’re prone to do.” Zuq barely managed to suppress his wide Amfibian grin. “And secondly, I have the lead on this one, which means that, even though you might dislike it, I’m the one making the decisions.”

Zuq’s grin didn’t waver in the slightest. “I wouldn’t dare, dear Derreck, to suggest otherwise.” The small, black eyes narrowed a little and the slimy skin between them furrowed. An Amfibian’s frown. “Agreed,” Zuq said finally as he held out his top left limb. Derreck spread out his fingers in a claw-like fashion, hooking them in Zug’s counterparts, locking in a what passed for a handshake among Amfibians and their clients.

They released their hold on each other.

“So,” Zuq said as he rummaged through one of the bulbously designed cabinets that filled his house, “let’s make it official.” He conjured up a template contract that allowed for easy modification and a black bottle of dark liquid. They agreed remarkably quickly on the contract and opened the bottle of liquor that traditionally sealed an Amfibian contract. The exact nature of the almost black fluid was unknown to anyone but its makers. All Derreck knew was that it possessed one of the vilest and bitter tastes he had ever experienced.

“Cheers,” Zuq said solemnly, unable to fully expel the ambiguous sparkle from his eyes.

El Haifa’s power structure is often illustrated by a pyramid metaphor, where each group is controlled by a less numerous, but more powerful, collective. The problem is that nobody seems to know who’s at the top of the pyramid.

Brionni Al-Awas, former Council member

They had contacted him less than a day after the quarantine had been instated. Derreck, sleeping alone for once, woke with an inexplicable feeling of unease. As his eyes adapted to the twilight that captured the city just before dawn, he began to discern the outline of a person in a dark corner of the untidy, damp room he rented above an herb shop. 

A small person.

The moment she stepped into the bit of light that penetrated the old curtains, he recognized her.

“Dame Laetia, always a pleasure.”

Dame Laetia, also known as the Damselfly, was a female Wisp, completely hairless and possessing a very slight build. Despite their apparent physical fragility, Wisps were known to harbor a remarkable strength. 

Keeping her gaze fixed on Derreck with the intensity of a predator, she walked, almost glided, closer to the bed. If it were anyone else, the floor would’ve creaked. Now, Derreck could only hear his own breathing.

The Damselfly stopped. “Mr. Laplace,” she said with her ethereal, eternally whispering voice, “the Council would appreciate your assistance in an investigation.”

Derreck ran his hand through his unkempt hair. “Derreck will do, Dame Laetia.” He yawned, “How can I help?” 

“Why don’t you use your famed capacity as private investigator to figure that out?” Dame Laetia asked with a level voice. Neither humor nor resentment shone through. 

Derreck smiled, not letting his annoyance play out on his face. “The Anomaly,” he simply said.

“Indeed, mister Laplace. We want to know what it is, why it’s here and, if applicable, who’s responsible for it.”

“You think this has been orchestrated by someone? To what end?”

“We keep all theories open until we know more.” Her pale, almost translucent arms reflected the precarious light of the rising sun that carefully began to assert its daily authority, giving her the glowing appearance that characterized Wisps.

“What’s in it for me?”

“The chance to examine something truly mysterious.” She waited a brief moment, examining Derreck’s response. When nothing noticeable caught her eye, she added, “and, of course, the chance to do so exclusively, initially at least, for a sizeable monetary reward, the magnitude of which depends on the speed and success of your inquiry. If we are satisfied with your job, one million qubs, tax free, will be added to your account.”

The young man was unable to prevent his eyebrows from shooting upwards. “That’s sizeable indeed.” He frowned. “Well then, there’s no harm in having a look, I guess.”

“Very well,” the small glowing woman silently walked to the edge of his bed and took a badge from the inside pocket of her dark green vest. “This will give you access to the quarantined zone.” Soundlessly, she turned and walked towards the door. As she opened it, again without the usual creak, she said, “we’ll be watching,” and disappeared into the hallway.

Even though there’s no real caste system in El Haifa, it’s a simple fact that most of the resident sentient species are, due to their innate nature, more or less attuned to certain tasks. Therefore, it’s not perplexing that several vocations and avocations are, to some extent, dominated by specific peoples.

Marbo Dell’Ant, People and Policy, pg. 62

Derreck looked down at his grinning temporary partner, then back up again at the large, dark hand preventing him from passing the quarantine border. Exuding confidence, Derreck took the circular golden badge from his right jacket pocket and held it up.

The hand disappeared, replaced by the face of the bent down Inspector Barek. “Hmm,” the stone man murmured, producing a deep, almost subsonic, rumbling.

The stone man straightened. “Very well,” he said, turning and putting on a white glove, amply illustrated with deep red glyphs. He used his gloved hand to casually push aside a heavy wooden board, one of many that lined the quarantine zone. It might not seem like the most adequate protection, but the glyphs told Derreck that the wood had been treated by thaumathurgs, which meant that passing without the proper preparation would have unpleasant consequences. 

Inspector Barek joined the two inside and slid the wooden pane back in its place. “So, here you are.” The tall, broad-shouldered Batarian looked down upon Derreck and Zuq, his intimidating presence belying the generally kind-hearted nature of the stone men. As with all groups, there were rotten apples, but luckily they were outnumbered by their peers, such as the Inspector, on the other side of the law. 

“Anything else I can do for you gentlemen?”

“Not for the moment. Thank you, Inspector.”

“Okay. I’ll get you a glove.” Barek turned and exited the quarantine zone.

“He couldn’t get away fast enough,” Derreck said.

“Not surprising,” Zuq responded. “Can’t you feel it?”

Derreck nodded, his earlier confidence replaced by inexplicable unease. The discomforting aura surrounding the Anomaly was as strong as ever. He noticed the hairs on his arms rising. Zuq didn’t have any hair, but his black eyes scanned the environment nervously.

“It’s silly, really,” the Amfibian said, “there’s nothing or no one here.”

“I guess we just have to learn how to live with it, if we want to figure this out.”

Zuq’s long cylindrical tongue flitted out and remoistened a large area of his head. His two top limbs made a shrugging motion, accompanied by a sinuous flexing of the digits. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Breathing heavily, man and Amfibian made their way past small shrubs and patches of grass that seemed to be the universal characteristics of fallow land. At the center of this poor people’s park once stood a small hillock, a playground for children and shady merchants of less than legal substances alike. But then, just a few weeks ago, the Anomaly had appeared, a gap in space so black even the brightest light was unable to penetrate further than a meter or so. Derreck had been surprised that no one had ventured in, as there was no lack of treasure seekers in this part of town. Well, at least no one they were aware of had ventured in.

Derreck’s brow was damp with sweat as they neared the hole. Zuq seemed to have trouble keeping his facial muscles under control, resulting in tiny undulations of slimy skin, regularly hydrated by his tongue, a sign of apprehension.

“Here we are then,” the Amfibian said, trepidation oozing through his voice.

“Indeed.” Derreck swallowed and looked into the darkest darkness he had ever seen. “Let’s get to work.”

Statistical analysis has shown that some areas of El Haifa appear unusually susceptible to unexplained phenomena. The question is whether this just an artifact originating in the tendency of sentient beings to see patterns everywhere, in other words a pattern founded in coincidence; or whether there is actually something weird going on?

Professor Aurburn Specks, El-Haifa University of Technology (EHUT)

“Any ideas?”

The first few days, neither Derreck or Zuq had been able to remain close to the Anomaly for more than a couple of minutes. But as the week neared its end, some habituation seemed to take place. By now, they could stay on site for almost an hour before they teetered on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

The Amfibian shrugged. “Maybe.”

Derreck turned his head. “Go on. Remember our contract,” he added jocularly.

His slimy partner stared at him blankly. “Indeed. Well, there have been some hypotheses that explore additional planes of reality. Other realms beyond—or next to, whatever formulation you prefer—ours. Perhaps this is a door to exactly such a place.”

Derreck’s face turned pensive. ‘Hmm. Sounds far-fetched if you ask me.”

“Hey, I never said that the people uttering these ideas were accepted by their peers.” Muttering, he added, “or entirely sane. But,” Zuq turned his attention back to Derreck, “do you have any better ideas?”

“Unfortunately, I can’t say that I do. This thing, hole, door, is weird. So maybe a weird explanation warrants further exploration.”

“Exactly what I thought,” Zuq said as he placed the metallic case he had carried with him that day on the ground and unlocked it. Tilting back the upper lid revealed a flat white oval shape composed of four segments. One intricate red symbol adorned the object.

Derreck’s eyes narrowed. “Is that…? Looks like something from the thaumaturgs. Is it?”

“None of your business, partner.”

“Now, now. Need I remind you of our contract again? Share all information, remember?”

Zuq carefully unrolled a long, thin cable that was attached to the insect-like thing in his box. “Share all information pertaining to this case.” His voice took on a sarcastic tone. “Remember?” Before the young private investigator could respond, the Amfibian continued, “and you neglected to include a clause specifying who decides that.” A grin appeared as Zuq adopted an over-the-top formal attitude. “Thus, dear associate, I feel necessitated to explicate, once again, that the exact nature and origin of this object is, as one might say in common vernacular, none of your business.”

Derreck shook his head, a suppressed smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

A smirk garnishing his wide face, Zuq retuned his attention to the cable. “Let’s just say that I know someone who knows someone.”

“Fair enough. At least inform me on what you’re planning to do,” Derreck requested as he noticed the object rising slightly, flexing four pairs of segmented legs.

“This little thing here will allow me to take a peek at what lies beyond that veil of darkness. Hopefully.” The cable that wasn’t attached to one side of the object/insect ended in three thin needles. Accompanied by a grunt, Zuq inserted these near the back of his skull. “That’s never pleasant.”

The insect jumped up and scurried towards the edge of the Anomaly, unwinding the cable with it. It halted at the edge of darkness. Zuq closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “Here we go.” The insect jumped in.

The long cable unwound completely in less than a second. Zuq threw his two front limbs over his head and winced as the needles were jerked out. 

Derreck’s head turned back and forth in confusion before he started running towards Zuq.

Most knowledge has a price. And, just like with any other commodity, the value rises in concert with rarity. But, information that only you possess can, quite literally, be priceless. As such, the argument could be made that such knowledge should be pursued at all costs.

Zuq Siqr, knowledge merchant

“Zuq?” Derreck bent down, gently stirring the prostrate Amfibian. “Zuq? You okay?”

Groaning, Zuq turned around with a swing of his tail. After blinking rapidly a few times, he started massaging the top of his head. Meanwhile he sat up straight, looking at Derreck. “What the hell happened?”

While releasing a soft sigh of relief, Derreck responded. “I was kind of hoping you’d be able to tell me. What did you see?”

Zuq stood up with a push of his tail and said, “Nothing much. Darkness. And a flash of blinding light. And then your face with a worried look.” He stopped massaging his head and grinned. “Your concern is touching, but I’m fine.” The grin disappeared and was replaced by a contemplative look.

“What are you thinking?”

“Hmm? Oh, just a feeling. There was something there. Even though I haven’t the faintest idea of why I should think that.”

“What was there?”

“I don’t know!” Zuq suddenly snapped.  “Okay? I. Don’t. Know.”

Derreck held up his hands. “All right, don’t fret. We’ll find another way.”

Zuq seemed immersed in thought. Then abruptly, “Derreck,” he focused on his partner, “it’s been fun. I’ll send you a message if I get through in one piece.”

“What are you—” Before Derreck could stop him, Zuq slithered towards the Anomaly with surprising speed. Derreck ran after him, but his temporary associate disappeared into the pitch-black hole. The final flick of Zuq’s tail looked like a goodbye wave. Derreck skidded to a halt right in front of the gaping gap in reality. “Zuq? Zuq!? Are you there?” The private investigator shook his head. “You stupid, stubborn Amfibian. What the hell were you thinking?! Can you hear me?!”

A low rumble alerted Derreck seconds before the earth beneath his feet began trembling. The ground he was standing on seemed to undulate. Waves in an ocean of dirt. He staggered backwards. Sounds came out of the hole—sounds of something big moving. Derreck turned around and ran. He heard a shearing noise and felt clumps of soil hit his back, spurring him to hurtle himself forward. Quickly, he turned and saw something emerge from the Anomaly. A wheel. A huge wheel wrestled itself through the opening. The Anomaly crumbled, sand and soil filling up the inscrutable hole. 

The wheel, seemingly made out of wood, rolled on, making its way through whatever obstacle it came across. No ordinary wood then, Derreck thought before he noticed that the wheel’s circumference was divided into large squares, each carrying a symbol of sorts that left imprints in the stirred-up earth.

He glanced up, looking for the wheel. But the artifact was already out of sight, leaving destroyed houses and screaming people in its wake. 

Quickly, it became known as the World-Wheel. It unabatedly continues its path. Using the fastest flying machines they could develop, the thaumaturgs have confirmed it effectively travels across the known lands, only to disappear over the horizon into the forbidden areas and return on the other side of the city’s furthest expanses after a period of time. No one understands where it gets its energy, or what, if anything, it’s trying to say with the recurrent pattern of symbols it leaves behind. Meanwhile, its path has been cleared and it has become a part of life among El Haifa’s residents. Just another mystery.

Ezeke Aliël. Mysteries of El Haifa (addendum c), pg. 301

Derreck stared at the piece of paper. He, and others, had been searching for the possible meaning of the string of symbols that the World-wheel shallowly indented into the patches of malleable soil it crossed.  

He had been staring at it for weeks now. Often, he wondered whether Zuq had been able to send a message, as the Amfibian had promised. Equally often, he chided himself for thinking that. 

His mission was officially finished. The Council had begrudgingly accepted that a conclusive explanation for the Anomaly was probably never to be found. They told Derreck that the interpretation of the symbols had been entrusted to others and paid him his fees. Minus a deduction for the “lack of decisive resolution.”

Derreck himself, however, had been unable to close the case. Not until he figured out what the symbols meant, if anything.

Then, one late night, as the burgeoning daylight impatiently crept beyond his window, the shadow of the window’s edge snuck across Derreck’s desk. And suddenly, he saw it. 

Zuq did send a message.

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Gunnar De Winter

Gunnar De Winter

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher hybrid who explores ideas through fictional fieldwork.