The Road Less Traveled
I remain convinced that if anyone else had found the cylinder, there would be no story to tell. A well adjusted person would've taken it to the police, to a pawn shop, or simply left it buried. Curiosity kills the cat, if it's lucky.
The logging woods were my secret refuge from the concrete and asphalt monstrosity where I lived and worked the other six days of the week. Some part of me recoils from it and must be periodically recharged by immersion in natural beauty if I'm to keep up the pretense of being a civilized adult.
It was on one of these Sunday hikes that I found the cylinder. I tripped over what I assumed was an unusually angular rock. If I hadn't looked back to confirm it, you wouldn't be reading this. When I did, I noticed at once from the texture that it wasn't rock but concrete. And that it wasn't some formless lump, but the protruding corner of a cube.
Some rectilinear shape, anyway. This was the hook. The catnip. The gentle tug on the loose thread which made it impossible for me to stop. With an hour's work I'd managed to clear away most of the dirt from the top of the structure as only an an inch or two concealed it. There was a manhole, or something very similar in size and shape. But it was hinged, with a padlock.
I searched the rusted lock for a logo of some kind to get an idea of where to start. "Locks ltd." I smiled. I don't know what I was expecting. "Company inc."? I took some photos with my phone, briefly turned on the GPS and saved the coordinates. "I'm not done with you" I muttered.
Submitting the photos to a subreddit specific to my city yielded some promising information. One user suggested it was an abandoned utility enclosure. Another said it was a disused sewer entrance. Not likely in that location. Another suggested it was for storing rainwater. A week of tepid workaday routine blurred by. I was consumed for most of it by thoughts of the chamber.
When I returned, I was prepared. Or whatever you'd call bringing $12 Wal Mart bolt cutters. They did the job but were mangled beyond the possibility of reuse in the process. I got what I paid for. With the lock removed I squatted over the hinged steel lid, slid my fingers under the rim and lifted with my knees. It budged but did not open as easily as I hoped. I wondered if my back would give out before the hinge did.
With a loud groan, the lid gave way. Rank air issued forth from the opening. I regretting not buying something to cover my mouth and nose. But after waiting a week to get this far I was in no mood to stop here. There was a rusty ladder just inside. I thought for a moment about what would happen to me if it broke under my weight and I fractured my ankle or something. Nobody knew where I was.
The nagging splinter of curiosity in my mind took the wheel and soon I was descending the ladder into the black, pungent unknown. I flipped through a few pages on my phone before I found the light widget. I tapped it and the rear flash came on and stayed on, sparing me from using the screen to light my way.
Inside the concrete chamber, on a raised platform in the center of it all sat a steel cylinder. Somewhat rusted itself but in much better shape than the ladder or manhole. The only clue to its contents were written on one end of it in cyrillic. I scanned it with Google translate but as my phone couldn't get a signal underground, it eventually gave up. So did I. The sun was going down and I felt certain that whatever I came for could be found in the cylinder, so I headed home.
I picked up a take and bake pizza from Ernesto's deli on the way home. This was a common occurrence, and I think only my weekend hikes and fast metabolism prevent me from ballooning up. My cat, All Ball, began yowling at me about six minutes into baking it. Pavlovian reaction. She knew it meant there'd be pizza soon and that she had to begin wearing me down before it finished.
It reminded me to check her dish, waterer and litterbox, which my ex had lovingly written "The Shitter" on the side of in sharpie. "You little fur goblin, you have plenty of food, fuck off." The yowling intensified. In the end she claimed most of it. I was distracted by the cylinder.
The only seam was around the rim at one end. Twisting it hard enough made it rotate. It turned out the entire thing was threaded, and could be twisted off like the cap to a soda bottle. The rust made that a difficult proposition but with a little sweat I soon had it open. I poured out the contents and began examining them.
Inside I found a pair of dusty sunglasses, a brittle yellow booklet, and a beige plastic case containing several cassette tapes. I suspect the case was white when new. The cassettes were in relatively good shape but the labels were all in cyrillic. I'd taken an elective course in Russian but was out of my depth. Thank god for Google. Scanning the characters with my phone revealed that the text on the lid of the cylinder read "Native Modesty".
Bizarre. The booklet appeared to be instructions for some type of small personal computer called a Didaktik Gama, with little greyscale illustrations. On the back were two numerical strings I recognized as latitude and longitude coordinates in faded pen. I sat dumbfounded by all of it. Then hit up Ebay for a "Didaktik Gama" and a tape drive.
The only guy selling one wanted $600 but living alone and working all the hours I could get left me with ample disposable income to match my ample curiosity. Thinking things through a bit more, I also bought an NTSC to SECAM adapter.
The next week went by again without anything to note except concern from coworkers that I hadn't been very responsive on Facebook. I told them I had a project keeping me busy. One of them joked that it was a nuclear bomb. Another joked in deadpan that was exactly the sort of thing I’d do. I promised I'd tell them about it over beers and pizza after work one of these days, as if I wasn't getting enough pizza in my diet already.
It was a little embarrassing how savagely I tore open the package when it came, like a five year old on Christmas. The label said it had actually come from Russia. That explained the absurd shipping cost. The computer itself was in much rougher shape than advertised, I now guessed he'd used the photo from the Wiki article about Didaktik computers instead of a real photo of the unit. Not a problem so far as I was concerned, provided it worked.
It did, although only with great difficulty. I had to hover over the keyboard with my phone to make sense of the keys, and point it at the little CRT television I'd fished out of the dumpster outside my apartment complex some time ago to translate the characters on the screen.
When I found out online that any number of tape players would have worked I kicked myself for not doing my homework before submitting payment. But things were moving forward. That itch in my brain was being scratched for the moment, and releasing dopamine.
The tapes were numbered, so I loaded them in the indicated order. Miraculously all were still readable. The metal cylinder must've helped slow down the normal rate of decay for magnetic tape. Some method to their madness, I thought.
It wound up taking three full hours before I'd loaded the contents of every tape. Finally a circle appeared in the center of the screen with a larger circle around it and a small circle intersecting the large one as well as a tiny dot off to one side of it. A prompt appeared onscreen in the upper left followed by a blinking question mark.
I immediately tried "Native Modesty". It displayed a rapidly blinking X, then the question mark again. A 2 now appeared next to it. Three tries, I figured. I sat back and gave it more extended thought. I scrutinized the logo. It wouldn't be there for no reason. Was it a hydrogen atom? Then what was the little dot? It could be the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, in which case the dot was the Moon.
It kept me up into the night but I eventually collapsed, mentally exhausted. Weird how sitting in one place and just thinking nonstop for hours can make you feel like you've run a marathon. I did wind up making good on my promise to meet up with the guys for beers and pizza.
I lied about the project, said I was building a motorized bicycle. Something in my gut told me I was onto something that it would be unwise to talk about indiscriminately. Darts and karaoke followed. Partway through "Rock Me Amadeus" it struck me. The orbital diagram. Native Modesty. It was an anagram.
We split the check and parted ways. I must've been driving like a madman but mercifully evaded police attention. Once home I searched everything to do with Galileo. "And yet it moves". He'd never actually said it, just a popular misattribution. My wandering brain during that insipid karaoke number stumbled across it nestled deep in the recesses of my memory.
I confirmed with an online anagram generator that it was a match for Native Modesty. I fired up the computer and began the arduous process of loading the program. I didn't want to do this too much as the tapes were quite old but I also worried about leaving this ancient piece of shit computer on for days at a time.
Finally it finished and I was presented with the orbital logo and blinking cursor. "And yet it moves", I typed in cyrillic. I was somewhat baffled that it worked. Was I intended from the start to translate it, anagram it, then translate the result back to Russian? Who programmed this, and why?
The display was now overtaken by a circuit diagram. My heart sunk. I'd never tried my hand at amatuer electrical engineering. Never even touched a soldering gun. Cyrillic text below the diagram, when translated, read “Avert gaze from picture tube while in use. If unavoidable, wear included eye protection.”
I took pictures of the diagram. I tried pressing every key but this schematic seemed to be the only contents of the program beyond the password screen. So I turned it off, packed the tapes back into the beige case and turned my attention to browsing for electronics kits. Yippee, I thought. More shit to buy. I thought better of it as there was a Radio Shack nearby that had not yet gone out of business. It was closed at this hour, so I retired for the evening.
When I finally got a chance to visit, one of the two scrawny bearded fellows who both looked to be college aged studied the diagram on my phone and picked out the components it called for. Some of the resistors were of a type not made in the US, and not made in Russia since the 1990s but those could be improvised by combining two smaller conventional ones.
I drove home dreading the process of putting it all together. I'd bought a soldering iron, a spool of solder, and all the little accoutrements they convinced me I'd need for this. Like a trip to the mechanic, there was little way to be sure how much of what they prescribed was actually necessary and how much was shameless upselling.
Putting it together went quicker than I thought. Most of it could be done with the breadboard I’d purchased. It called for a small CRT monitor that Radio Shack didn’t have, but I realized I could cannibalize the little TV I’d used as a monitor for the Didaktik Gama since I’d already gotten everything from that program that I knew how to.
The resulting contraption was a huge mess of wires, resistors, breadboard and amatuer soldering. I wound up hot gluing all of it to the backside of the CRT for portability. Judging by the coordinates I found on the back of the instruction booklet I’d have to take it someplace.
I didn’t get a chance to for most of a month. The coordinates turned out to be very near the border to Canada in the middle of the wilderness. It would be an all day drive, plus however long I’d have to stay, plus a day for the return trip. My work schedule made no time for such a thing. Until Labor Day. It would be tight, but depending what all I found at those coordinates I felt confident I could do it. I made a note to stock up on caffeine pills.
The Sunday before Labor Day rolled around. I’d shelved the computer, cylinder and bizarre device, almost forgetting about them. Almost. That splinter was still there in the background, pestering me. As the date approached it grew louder and more insistent. I was practically manic by the time I set off for northern Washington.
I brought all of it, not knowing what I’d need. I could have saved myself some trouble and just brought the gizmo. I could have also forgotten about the whole thing and moved on with my life. God help me, if only I’d done that. I made good time thanks in part to an app that lets drivers warn each other about upcoming speed traps. I wondered about the legality of it but chose not to look that gift horse in the mouth for the time being.
The coordinates eventually required me to offroad. “YES!” I cried, finally feeling vindicated for buying an SUV. This would be the first time I’d ever properly needed one. There was a muddy path of sorts but it got narrow enough in some places I doubted it was ever meant for cars. Motorbikes maybe?
The trees eventually got thick enough I had to park and continue on foot. It was less than a mile according to my phone so I just took the CRT device, reasoning that I could come back for the rest if I had to. Not much daylight left though.
For a few minutes of wandering in the cold, damp darkness I wondered if perhaps I’d gotten the coordinates wrong. Then, illuminated by the phone’s rear light I spotted a handrail. Rusted to shit, but that was par for the course. Soon after, the walkway began. I had some serious fucking reservations about it, picturing it collapsing under me, jagged fragments of it cutting my legs to ribbons and giving me tetanus.
Maybe I’d been a bit dramatic. It held up well enough, although I was still extremely cautious about where I stepped. Before long I came upon a staircase. Shit! First the ladder, then the walkway, now this. But I’d come too far to be stopped so easily. Taking care to shield the CRT device under my jacket from the occasional water droplet I gingerly descended the stairs, to find more walkway at the bottom. But also, a dim light in the distance.
I hadn’t seen any power cables strung along the ceiling or walls of the cave on the way in. How could there be light? When I got close enough, a turnoff in the cave terminated in a moldy concrete wall with a rusted metal door inset in it.
There was a metal plate to one side with a little aperture above it. I reached out and touched the plate. It didn’t look like any handprint scanner I’d ever seen so I guess it just sensed my body heat, as the aperture above it opened to reveal a dusty lens. I wiped the dust away. What now?
There was nowhere dry to sit. Although the temperature down here was actually fairly comfortable, the constant filtration of rain from the surface formed a creek down the cave floor, rivulets of water down the walls, and the occasional droplet from the roof. I’d come bundled up, assuming cold would be the problem. I’d made no real provision to stay dry. I did bring energy bars though, so I dug into one of them while I thought.
Something to do with the CRT, surely? Or else why have me build it? I’d also brought the sunglasses recommended by the program. If I wasn’t meant to look at it during operation, who was? My gaze shifted to the exposed camera lens above the hand plate. It was worth a shot.
The circuit called for a 6 volt battery. I’d considered powering it with 5 rechargeable AA batteries since they’re around 1.2v each but given the age of the instructions, reasoned they probably intended a small lead acid battery like the ones used to start motorcycles.
It was a pain to carry but I didn’t want to fuck up something that crucial. I’d duct taped to the monitor, leaving it unconnected until I meant to use it. I attached one alligator clip to the red electrode and one to the black.
The monitor hummed to life. I remembered the instructions and pointed it at the camera. From the reflected light I could see it was emitting pulses every few seconds. It gave me a mild headache but I stood firm, monitor pointed at the camera. After a few pulses, the aperture closed, a loud grinding noise followed, and the door slid open. Eureka.
I disconnected the battery in case I needed the device later. Just through the door was an airlock of sorts. A green screen monitor in the wall flickered to life with blinking text. I tried my phone only to find there was no service, so I couldn’t translate shit. But I did have photos of the screen I’d taken during the process of running the program. One of them displayed “And yet it moves” in cyrillic, before I’d hit enter.
I punched in the same string of characters. Loud chunky whirring noises followed. The door I’d come through slid shut with a bang. I cried out in protest but it was too late. The inner door then slid open with a dull electrical whine.
Once inside I set down the CRT device by the door. It was a bitch to carry and so far that was the only thing I’d needed it for. I sized up the room I was in. The very slight curvature of the outer wall clued me in to the fact that it was part of an immense circular underground structure. A diagram with a legend and various labels in Russian confirmed this, just in front of what looked like petite train tracks.
I couldn’t read any of it but there was a button to press, and I certainly understand buttons. It emitted a loud buzz and after a short wait, some sort of little people mover trundled up to the station. I was startled by a recording of a Russian woman calmly reciting some sort of instructions or warning. Probably “Mind the gap, keep your hands and arms inside” and whatnot.
The ride was illuminating. Along the way were murals depicting scenes of rural labor. The workers were in sharp red and black contrast, and the sun had a hammer and sickle in it. Equally distributing sunlight to the plants I suppose. I had a sense of who built all of this now but it still wasn’t clear how or why.
The first stop were barracks of some sort. Very nicely apportioned although the wood was rotting and many of the lights flickered or didn’t work at all. It was somewhat surprising that any of them still did, although older bulbs are indeed made to last. I knew of one in a firehouse that made the news for shining continuously for over a century. Before the era of planned obsolescence.
There was another map of the facility outside the barracks. I now understood it was a colony or base of some sort. This was the section the personnel lived in. There was a cafeteria, the entry plaza, even what the illustration suggested was a small indoor forest.
For morale, maybe? Whoever designed this place intended people to live down here for years, possibly decades at a time. As further evidence of that, one of the sections had a nuclear symbol on it. At least now I knew where the electricity was coming from.
There were other computers, but few would boot and none of the tapes were good. Stored in the open as they were, that was unsurprising. There were shelves upon shelves of Russian books. I could only read the dates. None more recent than 1987. Some of the posters showed generic human figures going through what I recalled were safety procedures for nuclear war. Crouching under desks or tables, that sort of thing.
A shelter, then. Sealed from the outside. But how could it have been built here during the cold war without our own government finding out? And where was everyone? I expected skeletons at least. It definitely looked lived in.
Remains of meals left out to rot sat here and there, clothing strewn across beds, notes taped to the computer monitors. And the pantries were mostly empty. The remaining boxes of dehydrated foodstuffs were covered in cyrillic text, with unfamiliar animal mascots on the front.
Finding nothing of note, I returned to the tram. In order I explored the cafeteria, the little indoor forest (which turned out to be comprised of artificial turf and fiberglass trees with a looped recording of birdsong playing over loudspeaker and murals of nature on the walls) then finally some sort of laboratory complex in the center. I had to make nearly a full circuit on the tram to reach the stop from which the middle of the facility was accessible.
A pair of security doors sat propped open with pieces of lumber. Hastily scrawled notes were taped to either side of the doorway. Warnings or invitations? I began giving serious thought to whether the airlock doors would even open for me when I tried to leave. I wished I’d tested that when I came in. Being me, I couldn’t just turn around, go back and make sure. I was close to something. So close. I could feel it in the little hairs on my neck.
Through the security doors was a lead lined spherical chamber with a walkway around the rim. An open door in the far side of it led to a small viewing room which, through thick tempered glass, looked out on the device in the center of the chamber. The viewing room had several ancient computers inside and wiring running in conduits along the wall.
I stepped out to examine the thing in the middle of the chamber. It was a platform with a metal chair welded into place on it. Above and below were two large hollow glass hoops filled with a substance I guessed was mercury.
Each hoop was attached to a robot arm resembling something you’d expect to see assembling cars. Looking carefully, one hoop was very slightly smaller than the other. Overhead lights cast sharp shadows from the chair. Were people executed here?
No, that couldn’t be. I knew what an electric chair looked like. And what gas chambers looked like. This was neither. Stepping back into the control room, one at a time I booted up the computers. To my relief they didn’t use tapes, but were instead connected to some type of hard drive as revealed by the same loud clunky whirring I’d heard in the entry lock. On the desk with the monitors sat some sort of chunky electronic wristwatch. I picked it up and turned it over a few times in my hand, then put it in my pocket.
One by one as they warmed up, on each monitor appeared some kind of elaborate geometric sigil, encircled by cyrillic text. All but one then appeared to go through some sort of automatic diagnostic procedure, occasionally displaying page upon page of complex equations, then diagrams of the chamber with little check marks appearing next to various parts of it. The computer in the center, however, displayed only a question mark and a blinking prompt.
I got out my phone again, brought up the photo and typed in the cyrillic characters from the password screen. It went blank for a moment. Then displayed a crude, looping animation of a generic human figure putting on a wristwatch of the type I’d pocketed earlier, then sitting down in the central chair. Like hell, I thought. But then, why was I here? Why did I build the device? Why did I buy the computer? Why did I bring that cylinder home with me if I wasn’t going to see this through?
I can think of so many movies where the main character keeps exploring or investigating long after you feel certain a sane person would nope the fuck out of there. Now I understood. When you’re living it, a sort of perversely intense curiosity grips you. Like a primal drive you never knew you possessed. Having never seen anything truly strange before you feel compelled to put one foot in front of the next, almost daring things to get even stranger.
So with no small amount of trepidation, I stepped across the small gap from the walkway around the rim of the chamber onto the central platform, and sat in the chair. Again, it must’ve sensed my body heat because the robot arms immediately began grinding to life.
The first, larger hoop came to rest angled at about 45 degrees. The other too, but inclined in the opposite direction, with me caged by them in the center. The whine of electric pumps sounded and the mercury could be seen circulating in the hoops. Faster and faster.
Naturally that’s when I chose to come to my senses, and began to panic. But the hoops started to crackle and little wisps of blue electricity fanned out from their surfaces making me fearful of what might happen if I touched them or even got close enough for them to arc. So I sat there, gripping the armrests with white knuckles as the electrical hum grew louder and the mercury circulation continued to accelerate.
The chamber around me started to blur. And “glitch”. I don’t know how else to describe it. Like it would drift around me a little bit then snap into place. I wondered if it was my perception being fucked with until I noticed the chair and platform weren’t affected. The blurring and glitching grew more severe until everything outside the hoops distorted to the point that it resembled a kaleidoscope.
A piercing white light enveloped me. I felt weightless. No chair, no chamber, nothing. I couldn’t move or feel my limbs. I caught myself wondering if I was dead until the light receded. I collapsed onto a verdant grassy hill. The sun was shining, birds were chirping. I rubbed my eyes and double checked to make sure my arms and legs were where they should be.
In the distance was an odd purple curvilinear cabin of some sort. And a glittering pond, a fountain, a treehouse….and...a house shaped like a hamburger? I squinted. Yep. A fucking hamburger house. I descended the hill. Two indeterminate balls of red and blue fluff approached me. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out if they were animals.
When they got close enough I could see beady black eyes amidst the fur. They made excited high pitched noises and tried to climb on me. What in god’s name are these things, I thought. They seemed to think I had food on me. I tried telling them I didn’t. One asked what sounded like a question. In Russian. Oh good, more Russian. The other said something to the first. Then they scampered off into the distance.
Approaching the unusual cabins, I came upon bushes. I couldn’t place the smell until I was nearly on top of them. But there it was before my eyes. The bushes weren’t conventional foliage of any kind, but clusters of french fries. Holy hell. How did I get here? What in god’s name is this place?
Sharp, angry Russian shouting pierced the air. I almost fell on my ass when I saw who it was. Ronald McFucking Donald came out of the hamburger cabin, big floppy shoes, fire engine red wig, yellow jumpsuit, the works.
He continued shouting and gesturing wildly. The red and blue creatures came to him and fell in line. Then Grimace emerged from the purple cabin. Grimace. The pear shaped purple guy. He looked frightened.
Birdie climbed down from the treehouse, and joined the others in the lineup. The redhead clown looked them over, apparently deemed them satisfactory, then barked out commands. I watched from behind the french fry bushes, damned close to losing my mind at how weird all of it was.
Suddenly all around them appeared rectangular portals. All close to the same size but not quite. Some wider than they were tall. Others slightly rounded. From this distance I could make out children sitting in various different livingrooms, peering through the portals at Ronald and the others.
He put on a wide smile. He and the others began acting out some sort of skit. A fellow dressed like a cartoon robber dashed in, said “robble robble!” snatched a hamburger from Ronald and then ran off.
I expected a harsh shriek in Russian. Instead he gave an exaggerated sigh and put his hands on his hips. Many of the children watching through the portals laughed. Birdie then flew after him as the portals followed.
With the help of Ronald and Grimace they quickly subdued him and retrieved the burger. Ronald held it up, took a big bite, smiled and recited some kind of slogan I couldn’t make out. Then the portals rapidly vanished.
Once they were all gone, Ronald stomped around yelling in Russian at Birdie, Grimace, the robber guy and the two creatures I now recalled were “fry guys”. They cowered as he yelled. He withdrew a whip and began lashing Grimace as Birdie cried and pleaded with him incomprehensibly.
A loud beeping came from my pocket. They all stopped what they were doing and turned to look at me, their eyes wide and expressionless. Then they broke out in a sprint towards my hiding place. I panicked and fumbled with my jacket, pulling out the watch I now remembered I’d taken. I almost threw it away, but noticed right as I was about to that it displayed a countdown four seconds from 0.
Once it hit zero, my surroundings began their familiar kaleidoscopic dance of distortion. It peaked right as the fast food creatures were nearly upon me. The white light again swallowed me whole.
I tried to laugh but found that I had no mouth just then. Nor a body of any kind that I could feel. I floated for a few more seconds in that comforting void until it again receded, depositing me onto a cold concrete floor.
I dry heaved. I don’t know whether it was fear or the process of transport. When I felt my wits had returned, I scoped out the room I was in. A concrete cube with no doors or windows. Just a single bulb hanging from the ceiling by wiring. In the middle of the room was a pedestal with a familiar metal cylinder on it. In the far corner, a small body hunched over as if to hide.
“Hello? Don’t be frightened. I don’t know how I got here. Is there a way out? Are you hurt?” It twitched almost imperceptibly in response to my voice. And began to turn towards me as if in slow motion.
I noticed then that words were etched into the walls. Over and over, looping around the room from floor to ceiling. A string of cyrillic characters I now knew like the back of my hand. “And yet it moves.”
When I looked back at the child, it was standing. I couldn’t determine the gender. It wore a white sleeping gown of some kind. But the face. I couldn’t force myself to acknowledge it initially. But reality is what continues to exist even if ignored.
The face was as smooth and featureless as an egg. I cried out, and backed into the corner. The light began to flicker. Each time it flickered, however briefly, the child moved towards me by the smallest increment. The flickering intensified. Longer and longer without light. It drew closer, moving further each time. The watch in my pocket began beeping. The light went out.
I continued screaming as the darkness tore apart around me into the geometric fractalized nonsense from before. Not before I felt a small, cold hand grasp at my throat. But it wasn’t touching the watch, so it was left behind. I still cannot say what might’ve happened otherwise. Or where I’d be now if I hadn’t pocketed the watch to begin with.
As it had now saved me twice, although from what I could not precisely say, I took the trouble of strapping it to my wrist. I could see now that it was counting down sixty seconds, and must have been doing so each time I was sent someplace new. None of it made much sense to me, but at least I now suspected I knew where all the shelter personnel had gone.
I was deposited in a crumbling building. Outside, thick grey stormclouds rolled by overhead. Every other building was in the same or worse shape, like a war zone. I detected motion on the street below. Three creatures like nothing I’d seen until now hopped along.
As they grew closer I could see they were people, with agonized expressions on their faces. Their tongues hung from their mouths, bloated to several times normal size, and they were wrapped head to toe in thickly bundled yellow cord of some kind.
I made my way down to street level to meet them. I searched my jacket for a knife to cut their bonds with but found nothing useful. When I descended the stairs one of them was already trying to force itself inside through the doorway. “Easy fella. I just got here. Where is this? What’s happened? Are there any more survivors or just you three?”
He glared at me, wild-eyed, and howled as best he could with a swollen tongue. He stretched it out towards me as if trying to lick me with it and cried in apparent frustration because it wouldn’t reach. The other two could be seen through the windows on either side of the door, hopping about, groaning and crying, seemingly as desperate as this one to get inside.
I turned to leave. That’s when the one stuck in the doorway spoke. It was slurred because of the tongue but understandable, and refreshingly in English. “You….will be...delitized.”
I furrowed my brow. “Pardon? I’ll be what?”
It grunted and resumed struggling. “Delitized! Permanently, forevially delitized! Permanent ham and cheese skin, permanent ham and cheese tongue! From your real working delitized eyeballs down to your delitized toes, with ketchup and taco sauce for blood! Forevially wrapped up in the yellow rope and loving it!”
I noticed more had shown up outside. Groaning, crying, or babbling about “delitization”. The one in the doorway, pushed by the throng of hopping madmen bound up in yellow rope just outside, began to slide through.
Some of his skin, crispy on the outside by the looks of it, began sloughing off. As slabs of his flesh fell to the floor, the muscle underneath oozed with what I recognized by the strong scent was sour cream.
I managed to vomit this time. But when it stumbled towards me I collected myself and retreated up the stairs. I looked at the watch. Twelve more seconds. On the blown out second floor I was again afforded a panoramic view of the city street below.
It was now jam packed with those people. Or things. Bound up in yellow rope, hopping towards the commotion I’d started. Bloated tongues hanging out, swinging to and fro. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of them spreading out in all directions, forevially delitized and loving it.
The one from the doorway began stumbling up the stairs just as the watch started beeping. I caught a glimpse of what remained of his face staring at me with a mixture of rage and confusion as the distortion overtook my surroundings.
I wanted to cry. Of course the light wouldn’t let me. I didn’t have a body here, at least not one I had any control over. Everything else seemed worse, so part of me wished I could stay here. But as before, the light faded and I found myself someplace new.
An infinity of possible realities. Had to be. Multiverse or whatever. I was never one of those guys who followed this shit, all I had to draw on were half remembered episodes of that Michio Kaku science program I used to watch while stoned with my roommate. These weren’t different planets, or time periods. They were possible Earths. Parallel dimensions, whatever. Of which there are supposedly infinite.
I exited the darkened room into a bustling city. The sky was pure white like on a winter’s day, but it was comfortably warm. Several men and women in business suits hurried past me, all appearing nervous and looking at the ground. I might’ve written it off as a fluke except everyone else I saw was doing the same thing.
A woman gasped when she spotted me. “Don’t look!” she said in a harsh whisper. Like some hidden camera show and I wasn’t in on the joke. “Don’t look at what?” I asked. She stared at me as if I had two heads. “Don’t talk about it either, idiot! It can always hear us. Keep your head down!” With that she hurried off.
Alright, I thought. An alternate Earth populated by paranoid schizophrenics. By now I’d seen worse. As I navigated the city I suddenly came upon an unfamiliar sight. Something like an elevated highway but many times wider, passing overhead, supported by pylons mounted to the tops of buildings. I went around the block to see if it continued, and it did.
I’ve found in the past that if you pretend like you belong someplace you’ll be surprised how far you can get, where you can access and whatnot. Works even better if you’ve got a clipboard and hardhat. But just by strolling about like I owned the place I was able to enter an office building and ride the elevator to the top.
I eavesdropped on some conversations on the way up. Bizarre nonsense. “It’s a fine day we’re having, absolutely nothing is wrong” one man said while sweating profusely. The woman he spoke to, on the verge of tears, replied “Yes, it’s quite pleasant out. Because there is no danger and I suspect nothing I am likely to enjoy a walk through the park after work.”
On the top floor I could get a proper view of the elevated highways. No building anywhere was taller. They were not highways, as I discovered when I saw the first of the creatures traversing them in the distance. They were walkways for immense creatures, from which to surveil the city below.
The nearest one resembled a tremendous black hairy beast. Spines or long quills of some kind ran down its back. Its gait resembled a jungle cat but the arms terminated in recognizable hands with simian-like fingers.
As I watched, the beast surveyed the city street below, then seemed to pick out one person in particular, reach down, and grab him. The poor bastard let out a scream audible even from where I stood, perhaps half a mile away.
My jaw dropped. It wasn’t going to...was it? It lifted him to its mouth, and bit off the lower half of his body. The upper half dangled from its claws, gushing blood as the man continued to scream.
The woman from before burst into the room. “I knew it! They told me you came through here. What’s wrong with you? I told you not to look!” I grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted at her. “Are you fucking kidding me? These things lord over you, picking you out at random to eat and your solution is to pretend they aren’t there?”
She looked at me with apparent confusion. Then at the beast outside. I noticed for the first time it was also only looking downwards. “No. How do you not know? Not those things. THAT!” She pointed at the sky.
I peered out the window. Where I expected to see the sun, there was instead a gigantic iris and pupil. It darted around a bit, then came to focus on the woman and myself. She started screaming, not quite drowning out the beeping of my watch.
I was still holding onto her when it took me. She didn’t come through any more than the child had. Just evaporated with the surroundings. As the white light surrounded my field of vision I braced myself for whatever might come next. Only to find myself deposited on a metal chair, welded to a platform, in the center of a spherical chamber.
I laughed until I cried. Then remembered the watch. It was still counting down. I tore it off and threw it to the far side of the chamber. A buzzer sounded, and the mercury within the glass hoops stopped cold. The crackling ceased, and the robot arms positioned the hoops so I could leave. I did so with a spring in my step.
What are the odds? Out of infinite possible realities, to return to my own. After I’d given up on it, resigned myself to endless travel through the unknown and unknowable. Perhaps programmed into the watch? To bring the subject back after a few short trips. Like our first experimental manned flights to orbit.
I ran laughing from the lab complex, nearly tripping on the lumber propping the safety doors open. The tram was waiting for me where I’d left it. I withdrew another energy bar from my jacket and scarfed it down on the way, tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. It was a hell of a story. One I knew better than to share with anybody, as I’d forgotten to take pictures. Isn’t that how it always goes.
It finally stopped at the entry plaza. I hopped out of the tram, made my way into the airlock, then eagerly typed in the sequence of characters it expected. The inner door slid shut, the outer door opened and I exited into the cave. The cool, fresh air tasted impossibly good to me. The outer door slid shut behind me with a clang, and I began my ascent to the mouth of the cave.
It was dark when I reached the surface. I’d expected that going in. Wasn’t too much trouble to find the car. Once inside I tore off all the layers, started the engine and twisted the climate control knob all the way towards “hot”. Not so much to get warm, although I didn’t mind it, but to get dry. I set my GPS for home. It said “searching for satellites”, and hung there.
I gave up on that, reclined in my seat, and once it was warm enough I shut off the engine. I felt too exhausted to drive safely, that could wait for tomorrow. I woke up once a few hours later. Thought I heard distant voices. Nothing but darkness on all sides, so pulled my jacket up to my neck like a blanket and dozed off again.
When the sun came up I ate the last energy bar for breakfast, took a leak behind a tree, then started driving. I was elated to put all of it behind me. Part of me mourned the fact that I could never tell anyone if I didn’t want to wind up institutionalized, but I’d certainly discovered what I came out here to. I could finally stop prying. I knew better now.
I turned on the radio. Only static. Fuck, something else I’d need to drop money on when I got back. I only put it together that something wasn’t right when I pulled over the rise and saw the city in the distance. Multiple plumes of thick black smoke rose from various points. Some buildings were still ablaze.
How long was I gone? Did time pass differently while I was in there? What could have happened? War? A terrorist attack? I was so consumed by these worries that I didn’t notice the deer dart out in front of me. The impact was bone jarring. The airbag worked as intended, sparing me any serious injury, but when I got out to inspect the damage I discovered those were the least of my concerns.
The deer lay before me on its side. Neck clearly broken, head hanging at an odd angle. Its bloated tongue dangling from its mouth, its body wrapped up in yellow rope.
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