The floor, if it could be called that, stirred and shifted silently beneath the unconscious man. It grew still and quiescent as the figure moved and groaned.
I am still alive, was D’s first thought as he became aware. It was hard to think beyond that. Thinking caused spikes of pain through his brain. His head hurt. Everything hurt, but his head worst of all. But he had to think.
Before was murky, uncertain. There was the sense of a vast dark space and overwhelming fear, being grasped at amid indecipherable sounds and screams, blind panic, running wild through impenetrable darkness, a sudden impact against the back of his head knocking him from his feet, a sensation of falling.
And before that fragment of memory… nothing. As if behind a heavy curtain lay a solid stone wall, cutting off his life and memories, as impenetrable as the Stygian darkness around him. He had no idea of the memory fragment’s meaning, or what might have preceded it, or if it had been a nightmare created by his mind and meant nothing at all.
My name… my name is… D? That one letter, that one sound, was all that came. He felt there was more, there had been more, there must have been more, but it would not come, nor anything else. He must have lived, had a life filled with faces and places and experiences, but none of it appeared in his mind.
Wait. Are my eyes open? D blinked several times. Even that sent a wave of pain to his temples. There was no change in the perceived darkness around him. Another question: Am I blind? But there was no way to test that.
D’s awareness of his own body grew stronger, at least, as he struggled up from unconsciousness into bleary wakefulness. Aside from his head, he was sore and tender in many spots, but nothing seemed broken or torn inside him. Lucky, perhaps. He was naked. Was he supposed to be? It didn’t feel proper or normal.
D reached up with one arm and gingerly touched the back of his head. He hissed and drew his hand back, fingers sticky. The head-blow in his memory must have been real, then. He needed to know how bad it was; he reached up again.
Softly, softly. D’s fingertips whispered over his scalp. A palm-sized area was sticky, and every touch sent a wave of pain and nausea through him. He wasn’t certain, but it seemed flatter than the rest of his skull, even slightly depressed.
Skull fracture? he thought. Internal bleeding. Cerebral hemorrhage. Stroke. The dreadful possibilities danced through his mind.
And there seemed nothing he could do about it. Not without aid. Not without help.
D opened his mouth to cry out, to see if anyone else shared the darkness with him, but a wave of dread swept over him, a certainty that becoming noticed would be foolish or deadly. His mouth closed again almost by its own volition, his heart pounding.
He was in pain and confused and frightened. He wanted so much to sleep and rest, but knew that was dangerous with a head injury. He should try to sit up and then… he wasn’t certain what might come after that.
D put out his arms, meaning to move to hands and knees, then stopped.
In his concern with his injuries, he hadn’t stopped to wonder at the oddness of the surface on which he lay.
The unseen surface was—D struggled to find words that made sense—not flat or smooth like a normal floor. It was lumpy and uneven, an assemblage, a pile of… some kind of thick tubing or, perhaps rolls? Their substance was firm but yielding, but a stiffness lay beneath that top layer.
In the darkness, he ran a hand along one of the tube-things. It was irregular in shape, tapering somewhat. At the smallest point, it began to widen again, then divided into smaller tubes—
Fingers! They’re fingers on a hand, on an arm. A chill of dread swept through him. He ran his hand back up the arm, past the slight bend of an elbow, up to the shoulder and… nothing.
The arm ended, skin stretched over the stump and somehow sealed with no sign of stitching. He felt another of the “tubes,” then another, his mouth dry and heart pounding.
Arms. He lay in a pile of amputated arms.
Then the arms twitched, and moved, and began to grab at D, at his wrists and ankles. He screamed, and screamed again as his sudden reaction triggered a massive wave of pain through his skull, greater than before, greater than he could ever have imagined. It swept over him, drowned him, and darkness took him once again.
The arms explored the limp figure. Fingers dragged the main bulk of arms behind them, pausing to touch and feel the unsundered one’s skin and body. When two hands passed close to each other, each would make strokes on the other’s palm before moving on.
At first the movements of the arms were random, then began to coordinate. Dozens wormed under the edges of the man’s body, levering it up and allowing others to move underneath, until the man lay atop a blanket of arms, all oriented in the same direction. Fingers flexed and pulled, and the body shifted slightly. The arms repeated the motion again and again, inchworming the body across the carpet of arms.
D roused, groggy and weak. His head hurt terribly, and he wondered if he was dying. He felt the assembly of arms moving him, but could not resist.
It was difficult to judge distance in the darkness, but it seemed like the arms carried him dozens of yards before stopping. D felt the arms relax beneath him, and his body settled.
D could make no sense of it. He could make no sense of anything.
He stared upward into the darkness. There was no reason to move. Moving would hurt. He would lay here and die, or not.
After long moments, he heard faint noises from above. Distant booming sounds, a rustling slithering susurrus, a clicking against a hard surface. The memory-sense of a vast space came back to his mind from earlier, and he felt his anxiety and dread spike, his pulse and breath quicken.
He realized in surprise that the blackness above him was not uniform. There were two shades of black, so alike their difference was almost indetectable. The lighter shade formed a large circle above him, and the sounds he heard seemed to come from that shape.
The clicking sound was growing louder, closer, and D somehow knew something large was causing it. Something very large.
He needed to move. He needed to MOVE. He could not move.
Something blocked part of the circle above D, a black shadow against almost-black background. No, he realized, two somethings. Another shadow had intruded into the circle opposite the first. One was all angles and corners, the other frills and fronds. Both were intrinsically wrong in a way that made D tremble.
The sharp-angled shadow shifted with a shriek like twisted metal. A sudden shower of objects fell toward D. There was no time to brace or dodge. The things thudded into him, chest and stomach and arms and legs. One struck across his face, making him gasp. Weakly, he tried to bat the things away—
—and realized, as the cascade slowed and stopped, the objects were more amputated arms. But actual amputated arms, what one would expect of such. The upper ends cut and raw, blood half-dried, the arms limp and lifeless. D wanted to recoil from what he felt under his own fingers, but there was nowhere to recoil to. He shuddered and gasped, trying not to gibber in mindless horror.
Then, from above, came a groaning sound. Looking up, D saw the second shadow’s fronds moving in apparent agitation. The groaning grew louder, and louder again, and with an ear-pounding retching noise, D and the surrounding arms, lifeless and lively alike, were drenched in warm, noxious liquid from the thing—the creature?—above.
D tried to roll away, but the liquid and the stink were everywhere. It was in his eyes, his nose—oh God—his mouth. He gagged and tried to retch it back out.
It grew warmer on his skin where it had splashed, and then it began to itch as if a million tiny worms were crawling over him, and then into him.
Now D was gibbering, in terror and horror. He scratched desperately at his skin, but there was too much to reach it all and not enough fingers, and where he scraped or tore his skin, the worm-burrowing sensation grew only more intense. D curled into a ball, arms wrapped around his head, and screamed until he could scream no more.
D had no idea how long he stayed like that, how long until he noticed the itching and worm-ravished sensation was fading, fading, and finally disappearing.
He slowly uncurled. D opened his eyes, and he saw.
He saw. That was the first shock. What lie around him was now visible, dimly illuminated as if by bluish moonlight. What he had before inferred by touch could now be seen.
The arms he had touched before, that had touched him, lie around him in a large circle, perhaps ten meters across. D and the arms lay in a large round chamber, the walls dark and metallic. The walls curved inward as they rose, becoming a curved roof with the round opening at its apex. It was a pit, shaped like a giant kettle.
Or a cauldron.
The dead arms that had cascaded onto him lay close by. But where the arms had been cut, he could see edges of existing skin stretching out, growing over the raw muscle and bone, joining where edges touched, becoming healed over like the first, living, arms. And he could see dead fingers twitch, and twitch again, as they came back to life.
The older arms were moving closer, dragging themselves over each other. As they reached the area splashed by the stinking liquid, they began to rub themselves against damp spots, twisting and rolling in an almost sexual way, like a young cat in its first heat.
Cats. I remember there were animals called cats. D was struck by the sudden image in his mind, then the further realization that his head did not hurt. He reached up and touched the sensitive spot. It felt… normal. Undamaged, the depression in his skull gone. Even his lesser injuries, the bruises and contusions he must have gotten from his fall into the pit, gone.
Somehow, the creature’s vomit, or whatever it had been, had healed his injuries. Had given him an ability to see, even in near-complete darkness. The fluid imparted a miraculous vitality, even giving life, or some form of it, to severed limbs. It must have had a similar effect on him.
He’d remembered cats. He strained to recall more memories, his life, how he had arrived here, but it was still murk and shadows. Do brain tissue and neurons take longer to heal than muscle and bone? He would have to wait and see.
The squirming older arms had reached D’s side. They began to stroke him, to rub against his still-damp skin. D wanted to pull away, but they were all around him. He cupped his hands around his genitals, closed his eyes, and shuddered as the arms moved over him like five-fingered slugs.
The roving arms absorbed the remaining dampness on D’s skin. His skin soon felt dry, but the arms around his head took longer to wick the moisture from his hair. Eventually, they withdrew.
D opened his eyes and sat up. He looked around. He could no longer see amputation wounds on any of the arms, but it was clear which arms were older, and which were the new arrivals. The newer arms moved with uncertainty, almost randomly, while the older arms dragged themselves towards the newer with what seemed like actual purpose.
When they reached the newly revived arms, the older arms reached out and began to stroke the new arrivals’ palms with quick movements of fingers. Some new arms jerked back or shied away; others twitched at the first touch but allowed the stroking to continue.
After a moment, D recognized the finger movements and what must be happening. The older arms were spelling out letters into the palms of new arms. They were communicating.
He felt a tapping on a knee. He looked down.
The arm at his side was thinner than most. The skin born a multitude of small wrinkles, and a scattering of age spots. From the slim shape of the wrist, D guessed it had been a woman’s arm.
He stared at it, uncertain. The arm dragged itself higher beside his leg, tapped again.
D reached out, opening his palm flat and extended it toward the old woman arm. He touched it gently. The arm’s fingers drew back, hesitated, then reached out again. It explored his fingers with its own, hitched itself a little closer and began to draw letters on D’s palm.
WAT R YU, it spelled out.
After hours of slow, awkward back and forth, D had a few answers, but still far more questions and mysteries.
The revivified arms were intelligent, after a fashion. He didn’t know how that could be possible; the phrase “muscle memory” came into his mind, but how could that keep any knowledge of language and writing? It seemed impossible, but here it was.
Unless this is all a nightmare.
But it seemed vividly real. He would have woken a dozen times over from a dream so horrible, so wrong.
The arms had little knowledge of what might lie outside the pit. They had been “born” here, and except for fragments of skills somehow kept from previous lives, had only their limited environment and experiences on which to base a worldview.
To the arms, D was a freak, a giant misshapen monster. He was two arms, with a great lump of meat and bone connecting them, and two more arms, crippled and deformed, unable to make sign with others, growing from the opposite end of that massive lump. D managed, after some time, to give a kind of explanation what his head was, and its importance.
The arms’ curiosity and concern had overcome their caution when they’d felt obvious injuries, even if to a strange bony protrusion from one end of D’s main meat-lump, and they had moved his fallen unconscious body to where it would receive a healing Benevolence.
The arms’ existence revolved around the Benevolence and the Tithing. D could understand that “Benevolence” was the shower of frond-vomit, which apparently happened on a regular basis, but he had trouble understanding what “Tithing” could mean when the arms had literally nothing to give. But the—things—that delivered the new arms and the frond-vomit were, if not strictly worshipped by the pit’s arms, accepted by them as part of the natural order of things. What terrified D was normalcy for the arms.
D could not explain that he was the normal creature, that the arms and their pit were the strange and inexplicable things. He knew this intrinsically, but with his own mind and memory clouded there was no way to argue or discuss the point with the ambulatory limbs.
His mind grew clearer as the hours passed. Words and meanings, sparked by the dialogue with the old woman’s arm, came into his mind more and more. But specific memories, personal memories, still eluded him. It was as if he had entered a theater of mind, but a black curtain still sealed the stage from sight.
He realized, after what must have been countless hours, that he wasn’t feeling hunger or thirst. Yet another benefit of the frond-vomit, it seemed.
He heard a distant sound from the opening above, a soft slithering like a snake across sand. All around the pit, the arms tensed, many rising on fingertips as if listening. Without ears? Perhaps skin or fingernails had become sensitive enough to feel sound waves.
The old woman’s arm signed swiftly across D’s palm: TITHE. Then the age-spotted arm backed away, turned towards the wall, and moved quickly toward it. All the arms turned away from the center of the pit and began dragging themselves toward the edges. Their movements seemed rushed, even frantic.
Arms squirmed beneath D’s body. He had been laying on them; there had been no avoiding it. The pit contained at least three or four layers of arms, slowly churning to bring lower layers to the top, so none had to remain buried beneath their fellows.
D rolled over, allowing the arms under him to move with the rest. But the movement had only placed him atop others. They twitched and struggled under him. He rolled again, but there were still arms everywhere around him, under him. Where they could, fingers, even some fists, poked and pounded at him, trying to move his weight away.
D felt confused, uncertain what was happening, why it was happening, or what he should do.
He got to his knees, picked up an arm and tossed it towards the wall. Then another, and another. If he cleared enough away, he might find the cauldron’s bottom, be able to rest against solid metal instead of human flesh, not distress the strange creatures that had saved him from death.
The slithering sound above was growing louder. Arms that had reached the walls climbed over and onto each other, creating sloped scree-like piles against the walls. The center of the pit had grown shallower, creating a slight bowl shape where a level ground of flesh had been. D was still near the center.
He tossed an arm. What am I doing? Tossed another. There were still arms beneath him.
The slithering noise was loud now. It was close. D wanted to look up, he couldn’t look up. Is this what I should be?
The slithering stopped. D froze for a second, then instinct took over and he lunged to one side, rolling.
A long-jointed leg, chitinous and insectoid, whipped down into the cauldron, through the space D had occupied. The leg’s end was sharp and barbed; it stabbed through an arm D’s movement had uncovered. The arm’s fingers spasmed as the quasi-insect arm drew its prize upward.
D’s eyes followed the captured arm; he couldn’t help himself, even though his heart was pounding, his mind crackling with fear like an electric shock.
The moon-vision granted D by the frond-vomit let him see what perched at the edge of the pit’s opening. Spider. Snake. Toad. GIANT spider-snake-toad-THING!
The thing shook the captured arm off and sent it flying out of the visibility allowed by the pit’s opening. Another long insect-leg appeared by the other side of its head and began plunging down as the first raised up for another stab.
Blind panic took D. He jumped up, no longer caring about the arms under his feet. One step, then another, and he jumped towards the wall. Behind him, he heard the whish of the insect-leg directly behind him, the dull thud of a sharp chitinous barb stabbing into another of the floor-bound arms.
D crashed hard into the wall, taking most of the impact with his shoulder. His lower body struck the scree-hill of arms crowded against the wall; D heard a loud crack—no, several cracks—as one knee smashed into something.
He turned over, back to the wall now, and stared at the tableau taking place before him.
The thing at the pit’s edge stabbed down, again and again and again. Each time, it snagged an unlucky arm from the middle portion of the pit. There seemed to be a safety margin of about five feet from the cauldron walls where the thing’s claws couldn’t quite reach, but there hadn’t been time, or space, for every arm to reach that zone.
D lost count of how many of the arms the thing took. Fifty? Sixty? Maybe more.
Then the thing stopped, as suddenly as it had begun. It withdrew from the edge and the slithering sound rose again, fading as it grew more and more distant.
D took deep breaths of relief. This was Tithing, then. The arms received a gift of Benevolence, but it came with a cost. Some of their number were taken and… what? Eaten? That seemed the most likely fate.
D realized what the Benevolence was. If human parts were a food source, those parts needed to remain fresh and unspoiled. The frond-vomit kept those parts alive, even in their amputated state, until desired.
There were monsters, literal monsters, outside the pit.
But to the arms in the pit, it was natural. It was the cycle of life. They knew nothing else.
He gasped in sudden pain. My foot! Wha—?
He looked down. An arm was twisting his toe backward.
“Ow! Stop!” He kicked out and broke the arm’s grasp. Then he noticed the agitated motions of the arms close around him. He looked closer and saw the cause.
There was an arm amid the others that lay quivering. Several of its fingers were twisted in wrong directions and growing discolored and swollen. There was an unnatural bend just below the wrist. Several arms were stroking it gently.
Oh God, my knee. When I jumped, I must have….
He had hurt one of the creatures who had helped him. Maybe crippled it. Guilt swept over him.
Another arm, big, bulky, well-muscled, grabbed onto his calf. The fingers dug in and squeezed hard. It felt like D’s leg was in a vise. He gasped and shook the leg, but the arm kept its grip; it squeezed even harder. D gasped and lost his balance, falling sideways onto the pile of arms.
Then they were on him. Pinching, squeezing, twisting, moving over him. Moving towards his throat. He struggled, trying to keep them away, but there were so many of them.
Then some of his attackers backed away, followed by several more. D twisted his head and saw the old woman’s arm pulling itself across the pile of arms, It spelled into each palm she passed by, and the attacking arms retreated one by one. Finally, they had all backed off. The old woman’s arm waited down by D’s right hand.
What happens now? D wondered. He opened his palm.
There was a trial, of a sort. There was testimony, of a sort, fingers signing words into palms and those hands signing it on to the next. And of course, there was a verdict.
U MUST LEEV, the old woman’s arm signed. U SAVED SOM OF US BUT U R BIG U R MENACE U MUST LEEV.
D could see the sense of it. He could see the justice in it.
What he couldn’t see was a way out of the pit. HOW CAN I LEAVE, he signed back.
They found a way. They wanted D gone. The arms stacked themselves beneath the edge of the pit’s opening, hands clutching other arms, a truncated pyramid of flesh. However, it could not reach the actual edge but came close enough that D, if he climbed and stood at its peak, might jump high enough to catch the edge and pull himself up and out.
D climbed, trying to keep his weight balanced so as not to cause the pyramid to collapse. The pyramid trembled slightly as he climbed. The lower layers were already holding up a lot of weight; D’s extra pounds only made it worse. He climbed as swiftly as he could, wanting to let the arms reach the end of their ordeal, but he had to focus on each movement too. It kept him from dwelling on the dread that awaited; at the end of this climb were monsters. At the end of this climb, he would probably die.
D reached the peak, crouched there for a moment, got to his feet on the uneven precarious surface, and looked up to the edge of the pit’s opening. He stretched up his hands to reach and grab the edge but there was still several feet to go. He would have to make a standing jump. He wouldn’t have thought so, but luck was with him in that regard. The Benevolence, the frond-vomit that had baptized him, made him feel more capable. Better than…
What was I before this? Who was I before the pit? D still couldn’t remember, but somehow, he was certain that earlier version of himself wouldn’t have been able to make the needed jump, might not even have tried.
All right. It’s time.
He bent his knees and assumed a half-crouch, eyes upward, focused on the lip of the opening. He visualized his hands catching the lip, holding it. I can do this. I can do this. One. Two. Three.
He jumped. He felt his fingers catch the lip. And felt them sliding on the metallic surface.
No! D strained, curling his fingers, gaining only a fraction of an inch. Desperate, he heaved up enough to hurl one hand forward, to slap his arm against the metal. Luck was with him again; his naked skin received more traction from the flooring than clothing would have. He reached out swiftly with the other arm. He was being held there more by friction than by strength. D rocked his lower body from side to side, heaved again, and got one leg over the edge, gaining enough support to not fall back into the pit. He gasped in relief, brought the other leg up over the pit’s edge, and lay there for a moment, waiting for his pounding heartbeat to ease.
When D’s breathing slowed, he crawled back to the pit’s edge and looked in. The arms’ pyramid was crumbling away, levels disassembling, some arms moving with deliberation, others tumbling down the sides of the pyramid. D hoped he hadn’t hurt any of them.
He backed away from the edge and stood. For the first time, at least the first time he could remember, D looked at what lay outside the pit of arms.
A vast space stretched away. Everything seemed made of metal or stone, though it was hard to be sure in the pale illumination of moon-vision. The huge curving roof, though it seemed made of stone, appeared ribbed and textured like something organic, like the bones of some immense beast.
The floor was smooth and, even in D’s moon-vision, appeared polished. There were dark circles in the floor, perhaps a hundred meters apart. D realized they had to be other pits.
What should I do? What’s in those other pits? The vast floor stretching before him appeared empty. It looks safe, for the moment.
He heard a sound behind him.
He turned slowly, with dread.
On the other side of the arms’ pit were two creatures. A thing made of boxes was the closest D could come to describing the larger. Boxes that shifted and folded into and out of each other in impossible ways. He had seen it before, in barely discernible silhouette, when it had dumped its load of arms into the pit.
The other was a beetle-thing, though it was more thing than beetle. Its thick legs moved in wrong directions and had too many joints. It appeared the size of a bus.
D’s breath grew shallow. He stood, unable to move as he stared at the things and the things stared back at him. Or so he assumed; the thing made of boxes had nothing resembling eyes.
The beetle-thing turned and began to move around the edge of the pit, towards D.
Fight! D’s mind cried. No, are you crazy? he answered himself.
Flight? To where? D almost laughed.
Freeze. D stood still. Very still. He was a rabbit. He was a stone. He closed his eyes to slits, afraid even to blink.
The beetle-thing’s head was only inches from D. It’s head moved slowly up and down, as if sniffing him.
Then it turned away, turned around and went back towards the thing made of boxes.
D watched, still motionless, amazed he was still alive, as the thing made of boxes dumped a fresh supply of amputated arms into the pit, arms that somehow tumbled out of a large “box” that had been solid and sealed and then suddenly open with no visible transition.
D’s eyes widened when the beetle-thing’s head turned inside-out and the vomit-fronds unfolded from within. The fronds stretched out over the pit, and the retching up of the miracle puke began.
The beetle-thing folded itself back together, and the two creatures moved off toward one side of the vast space. There were openings, tiny at this distance but certainly huge up close, at the bottom of the far wall.
Why am I still alive? Perhaps D’s exposure to frond-vomit had changed his odor. Perhaps he smelled like he was part of this place now. Would that work across the board, or was it a one-off deal with the beetle-thing? D couldn’t know until he came face-to-face with another of this place’s creatures. He’d try to avoid that.
D turned and looked at the openings for the other pits. He walked toward them. Something in him needed to see.
He went to the next pit and looked carefully over its edge.
Hearts. The bottom of the pit lay covered in hearts, all beating bloodlessly, without cease, to no clear end. D stepped back from the edge, shaken. He wondered if the monsters had left the hearts below with rudimentary intelligence like the arms. What thoughts would they have? What would they believe? How could they communicate with each other? All moot questions; D could see no way for communication between disembodied hearts and an unsundered human.
D went to the next pit, peered inside. He stared down for a long moment, then his legs buckled and he went to his knees. D crouched there, looking down, for several minutes more. He shuddered and wrenched himself away from the edge, his face now wet with tears. He lurched to his feet and ran toward a group of openings in the distant wall.
D was staggering when he arrived. He chose an opening at random and darted in. A broad passage, riven through stone, or something like stone, stretched before him. It twisted and turned and doubled back on itself, and even the moon-vision barely helped him to see the way.
Finally, the passage seemed to near its end, indicated by a smidgen of actual light ahead.
The passage opened onto an immense ramp that curved down to another vast spread of floor. At the outer edge of the ramp, D found a vantage point to look down over the space.
There were more openings in the far wall of the floor space, each emitting a reddish but natural light. They illuminated the space, if dimly. The openings had to lead outside.
D lowered himself to the surface of the ramp. He knew, now, there was no hope. No escape, no sanctuary.
D remembered everything now. It had come back upon looking down into the pit of heads.
He had looked into the pit, and one head had looked back at him, and recognized D.
He had recognized her as well. Her lips had moved, but no sound came out. Lungs had a pit of their own, he supposed. But he knew what she had been trying to say.
Daniel-l-l-l, her lips had formed. Daniel-l-l-l-l-l-l….
His name. He remembered it now.
On the floor stretching before him, a huge amoeba-like creature entered through one of the exterior openings. It had two pseudopods stretched out in front of it, surrounding a group of about fifty humans, corralling them, herding them forward.
The humans were naked and beaten. Heads lowered, shoulders slumped, they shuffled more than walked. They had lost everything, including themselves, and had no inner strength left.
Or, almost. As D watched, one human, a young woman, suddenly dashed to the side where the amoeba-giant’s pseudopod blocked escape. Another, a young man, crouched down and cupped his hands firmly together. The woman lifted her foot into the man’s support, and as she did, the man straightened and lifted, throwing the woman high. She cleared the top of the pseudopod, slid down it’s other side, and ran back toward an exit, back toward the outside.
A new pseudopod shot from the side of the amoeba creature and struck the woman with a crack even D, high on the ramp, heard. She collapsed like a puppet with cut strings, sliding over the polished floor, leaving a blood trail in her wake, stopped and lay motionless.
The larger pseudopod close to the young man shifted and moved. It knocked the man down and rolled over him. The man disappeared beneath the huge creature’s crushing weight, screaming. Some of the other humans stopped and looked for a second, then turned away and began walking again, guided by the amoeba’s pseudopods.
D watched it all, his mind dulled. It was all so familiar. It was almost how his own escape attempt had gone.
The New Old Ones. That was what people had called them.
He hadn’t made his run for it until deeper within the vast complex of tunnels and caverns, on the level with the pits of body parts. Perhaps the amoeba-creature escorting the group of humans that included D assumed none of them would try anything so deep within the underground hive or whatever the complex was.
The darkness, black and absolute, had driven him to panic. Perhaps adrenaline had enabled him to jump for the pseudopod he knew lay in the darkness next to him, had enabled him to claw his way up and over, to drop clear on the other side and run blindly into darkness until he felt the impact against his skull and then the falling sensation.
And all he’d had to do to attempt the escape, to get that far, was leave his wife and children behind.
At least he hadn’t seen his children’s heads in that pit. Small mercies. Undeserved mercies.
He stood, slowly, and went down the ramp to the floor below. By the time he reached there, the amoeba and its humans had entered one of the other openings and disappeared. D paused by the body of the young woman, but she was very dead.
He walked through an opening to the outside. Reddish light shone down on him. The setting sun’s light seemed sick and feverish. It was changing too, to move in line with the new laws and lords of the universe.
It didn’t matter how it had happened. Black magic. Some quantum science project gone very wrong. Maybe the originating cause had occurred galaxies away, and humanity and everything they had built were just trivial collateral damage in the greater scheme of things. But something changed the principles that had governed the universe and allowed the New Old Ones to rend the barrier between and impose their own.
D looked out over what had been a major metropolis. Some stumps of buildings remained among the ashes and rubble. Everything was gone.
He lowered himself to the surface, then tilted his head back and looked up into the darkening sky.
There were no more stars in the sky. Great horrors drifted across light-years. And they watched.
D put his head back down. He closed his eyes, and he waited. He waited for the frond-vomit smell to fade, and for something to notice him.