At least it felt like I fell. The notions of up and down were moot.
At first I had been drowning in a morphine-like ecstasy, and exhilaration I could not describe. But it had faded sharply, purged from my system. When my focus and clarity had returned, I realised what I had done. This thing had trapped me, pulled me in, and played on my longing to be ahead of the curve.
Now I was tumbling in the dark.
The LED torch flapped against my wrist, the strap thankfully still present. I managed to thumb the switch, and the harsh light was one hell of a relief. My resolve was still there, somewhere, dented by the way I had been duped. Still though, I was undoubtedly the first human to be here. Whatever this tunnel was, some exotic natural wonder, or put here by damn Martians, it had sucked me through. Preferentially, no less. The pride helped to block out some of my predicament. The torchlight illustrated nothing at all. Only my own body reflected any light back. I really was suspended in a void, as if surrounded by a thick oil spill. There was nothing out there. Even the nagging feeling of vertigo in my stomach was fading now. Where was I going?
I was hungry. It must have been at least an hour since I started falling. Maybe more? The blackness was cloying, and I found my eyes darting around, desperate for something to focus on. I was alone.
Had I fallen asleep? I felt groggy.
I could hear something. I tried to spin myself around, point the torch in the right direction. It sounded like a gentle whisper, almost musical. It could have been from miles away or from behind me. My skin prickled. Something was watching me. I forced myself to turn around, but I was met with more gloom. Was it my imagination, or had the air increased in temperature?
The air was definitely getting warmer. The sounds were increasing too. Mournful wails, shouting words I didn’t understand. My right hand went to the handgun in my belt. Knowing it was there reassured me, even if I had no target. I was scared shitless, there was no doubt about that. But the irritation was returning. What was the point of this? To torment me?
I jerked awake, my neck snapping up. Something was touching me.
I screamed, and with the tips of my fingers felt leathery skin move away. I had put myself into an uncontrollable spin, and realised with a heady mix of surprise and fear that there was a light below me. It was white, but cold, cruel.
I was falling towards it. I closed my eyes, but the whispers were getting louder. They were so close, and I knew that something grotesque was right next to me. More than one. Hundreds. Bodies pressing against each other, slithering like serpents. They caressed me with razor-edged claws, splitting the skin of my arms. Shivering with terror, I used every ounce of strength to open a single eye. Through blurry vision, I could see a burning white portal thundered towards me. I was heading for the centre. My mind was rejecting the image. The dimensions here were beyond my comprehension, vast distances and shapes. I fell through the portal.
I awoke kicking and screaming. Had I passed out? It stank in here. The ammonia smell from earlier, mixed with something I couldn’t immediately identify. I realised suddenly, and was nearly sick. It was rotten flesh. Dead things. My feet were touching the floor. There was gravity here, and definitely sound. I hesitantly pushed downwards with one foot, and whatever was underneath made a wet sucking noise. It sounded a lot like fresh meat. The sky above broiled with black clouds, casting impenetrable shadows over everything. Glimmers of white light fluttered in like a strobe, providing microsecond snapshots of my location. My torch was long gone, with only the broken strap left behind.
I could see creatures, shambling forms moving erratically towards a mountain in the distance. There was a leathery whisper as they moved; a ghostly sound that made my heart hammer. I could barely make out the destination. The staccato pulses of light revealed virtually nothing. I waited briefly, but nothing happened. No unwanted surprises. Nothing at all, in fact. What was this? Why had I been drawn here? To be summarily ignored? My anger was pushing the fear down, rage filling my veins. The indignant fury burned hot in my gut, and I knew that if I were to be humanity’s sole representative here, if I were to die so far from home, these monsters would hear what I had to say.
“Hey!” I managed with a cracking voice.
More conviction this time.
“You invited me. Dragged me into your pit, and for what? To keep me waiting?”
Something changed in the air. The creatures were no longer milling, and had instead, taken several respectful steps away from me. A furious white light erupted from the mountain ahead, the surface of the monolith splitting open like an egg. It pivoted around like a spotlight, and shone directly onto me. I was expecting warmth and heat, but it was a cold, piercing beam. It felt like I was being dissected. That was when the mountain decided to speak.
SMALL, PETTY, CREATURE. SURPRISING YOU ARE EVEN HERE.
The voice was ancient and cold, every word a thunderclap in the air.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I said, voice getting bolder. I found my hand drifting to the gun.
THIS PLACE IS NOT MEANT FOR YOUR KIND. NOT YET. YOU ARE NOT READY.
“Not ready? Not ready? I came here myself, made it through your damn portal. I am ready. You owe me, whatever the hell you are.”
I felt sick, exhausted, and fairly sure that I was going into shock. I coughed, accidentally taking in too much of the stench. I rubbed my eyes, and found myself smiling. I had nothing to lose by being honest. The thing hadn’t replied, the bright light oscillating over me in silence.
“If you’re going to kill me, get on with it,” I said boldly.
NO. YOU WERE FREE TO GO, BUT YOUR ARROGANCE AND SPITE REQUIRES CORRECTION.
“Bullshit,” I said, but my resolve wavered. Had I misinterpreted this? Was this thing a conqueror or something so alien, I had never had a chance of understanding it?
WE WERE OLD WHEN YOUR WORLD WAS LITTLE MORE THAN DUST. WE HAVE SEEN SO MUCH, MET SO MANY. YET ONLY A FEW CAN BE PRESERVED. WHEN THEY ARE READY, THEY ARE ALLOWED INSIDE.
It was referring to the things in the dark, loitering in the tunnel. They were waiting at the gates of this place, desperate to get inside. I had pushed my way to the front of the queue, and sincerely doubted that they would appreciate that. A dull chill was spreading across me.
YOU HAVE EXHIBITED NO TRAITS WORTH KEEPING. YOUR RACE WILL BE RE-EVALUATED AFTER LINEAR TIME HAS ELAPSED.
Guilt was rapidly dissolving my anger.
YOUR BRETHREN ARE NOT PLEASED WITH YOU. THEY DECIDE YOUR PUNISHMENT.
Arms grabbed me from behind, their touch as light as paper, but unearthly strong. A jagged edge began to saw at my flesh, and I screamed until I was hoarse. Fibrous blades stabbed and cut, and I felt something foul and alien pour into me. My screams became muted gargles. I desperately grabbed for the gun with my right hand. I’d take something with me, or myself, before I was torn apart. Before I could so much as raise the weapon, the skin on my arm began to slough off like damp paper. It twisted and fused into the gun, stretching the metal through tissue and bone. I started losing consciousness, the pain overwhelming my senses.
“What….what are they doing to me?” I gurgled.
SENDING YOU HOME.
The doorway behind me pulled and tugged. My deformed body was being dragged backwards. I flailed misshapen limbs in an attempt to stay.
“Why…why do they care? Why are they here?” I spat. My broken fingers could not get a purchase, and I was sliding backwards. Just as I started to cross the threshold, the entity replied. The words were hazy and indistinct, but I would remember them until I died.
THEY TRAVEL HERE BECAUSE IT IS THE ONLY PLACE THEY CAN. DID YOU NEVER WONDER WHERE YOUR DEAD GO, HARRISON MARTINS?