Shooting pain nearly made me collapse, but the stranger came to my aid, holding me on my feet. I mistook it for kindness until he slipped a leathery loop of rope around my neck. I pulled away and tried to flee, but it only tightened as he yanked me back.
“What do you want from me?” He told me I couldn’t be trusted yet. That I might be dangerous, but that if I came quietly he could heal my injuries. I grudgingly obeyed, taking note along the way that the rope had the same consistency as my garments.
The entire time I was on the lookout for opportunities to slip my bonds and make a run for it. But once we reached the middle of the pillar, such thoughts immediately evaporated. Before me stood a dingy white fortress, walls made of rough, pale bricks. Once we got close enough to examine them, the main doors turned out to be fashioned from bones, lashed together with leathery cord.
“I don’t understand. There’s no black fog here. Where I came from, there was this dense black fog everywhere.” He explained that the black fog is an illusion meant to keep us from straying too far from the “rejuvenation pits”, as he called them.
“Once you crossed the boundary, it no longer had any hold on you. So the illusion fell away. That’s also how the rest of us escaped.” The rest of us? He swung the door open and my jaw dropped. There was an entire village inside, populated with all manner of partially metamorphosed monstrosities like us.
The absolute last thing I expected to encounter down here was any semblance of civilization. As he led me inside, I studied the various tents distributed throughout the interior of the fortress. The tent poles were all fashioned from bone, the fabric was predictably the same sort of leather I’d fashioned my garments from.
“This is incredible. How did you build all this?” He pointed to one of the mutants, currently busy pouring steaming white sludge into brick shaped molds. “The bricks are made from powdered bone, bound together with an adhesive made from boiled ligaments. Our own remains, fished out of the black jelly.”
Indeed, there was a pit of black goo in the center of the settlement with a shaft above it. I stopped in my tracks, but he reassured me we were safe. I didn’t believe him until he led me to a stable, also made from lashed together bones, in which several bugs were restrained.
Another monstrosity milked the abdomen of the nearest bug. It secreted familiar black sludge into a bowl fashioned from the top half of a human skull. “You’ve…been down here a while” I muttered, “haven’t you.” He stared wistfully into space. “We all have.”
I then asked why they didn’t simply build a structure with which to reach the surface. “No need. We can just ride the bugs. That’s how we conduct raids of the surface to bring back more food for the captive insects.”
I choked. “You what? You mean to tell me you bring innocent strangers down here and feed them to those things?” He didn’t take kindly to being judged. “We’re just making the best of a bad situation. Same as you were before I found you, isn’t that right?”
I insisted it wasn’t remotely comparable. “After all you’ve been through, how could you subject other people to it?” He assumed a subtly defensive posture. “Who said anything about people? If you saw them yourself, you wouldn’t…Look, there’s a lot you don’t know about this place. You’ll understand if you go up the shaft.”
In order to do that, I first had to fix my arm. This entailed biting down on a piece of leather as one of the villagers amputated it with a saw which was itself carved from bone. After that, I submerged myself up to the neck in their black pool. When I emerged, my arm had fully regrown.
The next step was to request permission from their leader. They warned me before entering his tent, the largest and most ornate of the bunch, that he’s suffered more mutation than any of them. It turned out to be a severe understatement.
The tent interior was dark enough that I could barely make him out. Or her. No way to tell until it spoke. But even when the first words escaped its convoluted mouthparts, it was too far abstracted from human vocal patterns to say anything concrete about who or what this creature was before the bugs did their thing.
“Why have you come here” it gurgled. I explained everything as best I could remember, from the day that I saw the suited men removing the insectoid remains to present. “…I see. Do you come from another settlement?” I shook my head and described the time I spent by the sunlit pool with the others.
The mountainous, jiggling mass of mismatched body parts released a guttural sight. “Primitives. How I hoped you had resources to pool with ours. No matter. I’m told you don’t yet comprehend where you are. What it is that you’re inside of.”
I disputed that, describing the cosmology of this place I had so far worked out in my head. “Still just a glimpse” it insisted. “You have my permission to ascend the shaft and see for yourself. Then you’ll understand.”
That’s all I needed to hear. Soon I’d be back home. None of this would matter. I wouldn’t need to understand anything more about this place if I could escape it! The hobbling creature with the lamprey mouth then led me to the center of the settlement.
Another of the mutants brought me a docile bug fit with a saddle and reins. I was offered brief lessons in how to ride it but I declined, eager to be on my way. With a little experimentation I worked out on my own how to control the beast. Gripping the edges of its carapace tightly to avoid falling off, I rode it up the nearest wall of the fortress and onto the rocky ceiling.
I then made my way to the bottom end of the shaft. What exhilaration when I passed over the rim and began ascending it! At last, a way out of this fucking nightmare. On and on it went, the tiny speck of light in the distance growing ever larger along the way.
The closer I got, the more the texture of the tunnel around me changed. Where it had been rocky at the bottom of the shaft, it now transitioned gradually into a soft, undulating, fleshy material I couldn’t guess at the nature of. Nor did I particularly care, so long as I could leave it behind and return to a normal life.
I emerged onto the roof of a rusty, circular iron building of some kind. All manner of pipes and clunky air circulation machines surrounded me. When I looked back at the tunnel I stepped out of, I nearly collapsed in shock.
It wasn’t an opening in the Earth, but the orifice of an unfathomably long, thick tendril which trailed up into the sky. When my eyes followed it up to its source, just as promised, I at once understood. The entire sky was blocked out by a massive, pale, veiny creature.
Jet black eyes all over its surface from horizon to horizon periodically opened and closed. “What the fuck is that thing” I thought. “What holds it up?” As I scanned my surroundings I realized this was just one of thousands of towers, densely clustered, blanketing the landscape in every direction as far as the eye could see.
No grass or trees anywhere. Just endless rusty machinery, pipelines snaking across barren, rocky terrain from one tower to the next. It was bitterly cold, so it must’ve been fumes in the air rather than heat which made distant towers appear hazy. Everything further than a mile away shimmered subtly, like a mirage.
I began coughing erratically as the thick air pollution invaded my lungs. My eyes were also beginning to water. Everywhere I looked I saw another thick fleshy tendril, like the one I emerged from, reaching down to the top level of every other tower. Where am I? There’s no place like this on Earth that I know of.
Rather than wait to be seen, or worse, captured, I headed back into the tendril’s orifice. I didn’t especially want to, having just seen what it’s attached to, but I still meant to return home somehow. “This just wasn’t the right way” I told myself.
Stay Tuned for Part 11!