Sunday, March 29, 2009


The thing picked up its pace and coursed ahead. Peter was compelled to take swifter strides to stay with the librarian, whose lack of caution in this place was unnerving.

Berlin! He could remember his first experience in the city. It was not entirely different from London – especially in light of his experiences in the cities of Asia. But the novelty of the city upon his first visit to it – its architecture, the streets, the sorts of things that one would see in German windows and hanging from German balconies – had been sufficient to pull Peter's attention in so many directions that, on his first afternoon out, he had failed to take note of any significant landmarks and gotten lost. It had been only a little problem to find his way once again, such was the helpfulness of its citizens in those days before a weakening mark had begun to drag on the soul of the common Berliner. Yet, it had been frightening for a moment – exhilaratingly so. For a moment it was suddenly Peter against the city, a huge living thing in whose innards he was then lodged.

Strange thoughts were becoming less strange with every minute. The objects on display, the objects hidden in corners – what bizarre information could they hold? There was no use pondering the question, for the librarian was moving much too quickly to allow Peter to stop and inspect anything – and so, his mind numbed itself with other images – of Berlin, of London, of San Francisco. Essentially beneficent giants, all.

A new beast, this. A new stretch of innards. Would such a repository be its heart? Its brain? Its colon? Peter understood that even still, the arcade was creeping into his memories of happier places. London, city of the moon, excreting into the Thames. San Francisco, a great missionary entombed in a foreign land. Berlin, letting the hours dwindle in lewd clubs while the teeth grind away from the gears of the city.

He got the sensation that the place was a maze, but if this was true, then its dimensions were, like the curvature of the earth, too large to be noticeable. The librarian seemed to be leading straight ahead at any rate.

Two hours, perhaps. In the center of the path was a dome. It was as wide as a king sized bed, about as tall at its zenith as Peter's waist, and made from . . . resin? Amber? . . . some shining, glassy substance. The librarian moved past it before Peter, accompanied by a reflective doubled on the dome's surface. Peter's guide brushed against the dome, or perhaps only its cloak did. There was a wet sound, like pulling a fruit apart, or twisting a moist stick, and an aperture opened in the amber dome.

Surprised, Peter halted and shifted back a step.

A finger – no, a thin, black limb – protruded from the aperture, which was now large enough for Peter to crawl into. It was not quite segmented, but long and whip-like, like an insect's antennae. It snatched at the air, no more than a foot or two, but fruitlessly.

For its part, the librarian seemed to have no sense of what was occurring in his wake. This was confirmed when the antennae – such alacrity, like a frog's tongue – shot forth a distance of yards and hooked itself to the mimic's cloak.

Yet, the librarian kept moving –

The antennae afforded Peter's guide only a second of slack, and in another the cloak would drop to the floor and be drawn into the shining dome –


  1. Here was Peter Cox: having used an ancient artifact to project his consciousness through space and time, now following a vaguely phallus-shaped cyclops through the meandering avenues of a titanic library-city.

    Peter thought he was handling the situation well, all things considered. Few in number were the minds of men that could accommodate these extraordinary circumstances without bursting at the seams, and he had come dangerously close to his limits himself. How much more strangeness and wonder could he really tolerate? If he did go mad again in this place, would he ever find his way back to his body?

    Peter had walked so long and so far that he was now completely dependent on his alien guide for direction. Though the creature was ostensibly helpful, there was something about it that Peter found menacing, and more and more he regretted his decision to follow it. Perhaps it was something about the way the thing wobbled and leaned, or its penchant for mimicking human voices?

    No, it was what Peter didn't know about the creature that unnerved him. He could not discern its motives, if it had any, though the appearance of its timing was increasingly suspect: how had it known to approach Peter just as he wanted to look for something? Could it read minds? Even its appearance had to be intuited - a columnar body, a single eye - and these vague impressions were disturbing enough; God forbid he should glimpse the thing's true visage in the sickly orange illumination of this place, for that might just push him once more over the proverbial edge.

    So when the librarian's garment got snared by the tendril, it was a big deal.

    "Stop!" Peter yelled as he ran forward to place himself between the aperture and his guide. Pivoting so that the librarian was behind him, he grabbed the ropey protrudence with both hands and pulled with all his might so that it hopefully would not be able to retract.

  2. "Stop," the guide repeated.

    In Peter's hands the tendril felt more like a wire - hard, cold, and pliable - than a rope as he had expected. The wire tried to retract, but it could not best the human's strength. Instead, it pulled into a taut line from the gaping aperture to the cloak. Peter found himself looking into the opening straight on now. It was fleshy and orange - in another light, it might have been pinkish - like the inside of an animal's mouth, though the lining of the hole was tattered and textured something more like a burst gourd. Brownish fluid pooled in the lower corner of the gash, drooling out like blood, like salivation, like mucus. It made no noise.

    Behind him, Peter heard the rustle of fabric sliding off a body and falling to the ground.

    (Peter passed a sanity check. -1 sanity.)

  3. Peter loosened his grip incrementally on the wiry antenna so that it might be able to retract, whereby bringing the librarian's snagged garment toward him.

  4. Bit by bit he allowed the tendril to pass through his hands. Cold scales slid across his palms, and, then, a tiny three-pronged claw no bigger than a button. It was the terminus of the antenna. The creature was empty-handed so to speak.

  5. Peter abruptly released the tentacle and took a step backward as the thing retreated through the oozing orifice.

    "Please," he said to the librarian, "replace your cloak. I do not wish to look upon you without it."

  6. Before him, the amber dome closed around the orifice, leaving no trace of an opening.

    There was an inhalation from the librarian, like some sick old patriarch drawing in his last few breaths through a throat thick with mucus. "My skin," it said, almost unhappily and in no voice but Peter's.

    Peter heard it move, unsheathed. Pulling a stick from the mud - passing a large stool - chewing meat - these sounds, moist bodies pushing past or through one another, were the nearest referents Peter could summon from his own experiences.

    "Very well," it said, finally responding to his request. "Proceed. Bon chance."

    He could not yet bring himself to look at his guide's bare anatomy - but was it any better to stare at the amber dome or any other one of the millions of forsaken contraptions, consigned to this absurd warehouse?

    It moved again, the sounds were even wetter and louder; Peter feared the worst. Was his guide falling apart? What gruesome mess of bits was collapsing onto the ground just inches behind him?

    There was a sting, a raw spot on his consciousness where something had been wearing away at him. The numbness began to break away under the barrage of weird assemblages before him and the threat of a discombobulating alien anatomy to the rear.

    (The accumulated experience of traveling in the long halls and being in the presence of the disrobed alien is stressful. Peter fails a san check. -2 sanity.)

  7. Peter carefully stepped backward, keeping his eyes on his feet, until he found the fallen cloak. Bending at the knees, he crouched and gingerly picked up the thing's "skin" and held it out to the side as far as his arm would reach, as though trying not to contaminate himself with its unwholesomeness.

    He had to suppress the urge to retch.

    His head turned in the opposite direction of where he sensed the creature to be, his eyes squeezed shut, Peter's fraying nerves caused his voice to come out a yell: "Go on, take it! Clothe yourself, God damn you!!"

  8. "Go on!" it echoed. "Clothe it yourself, God damn you!!"

    Peter heard the sloppy sound of the thing shifting on its wobbly axis. He heard the breathing, like a drain emptying through kitchen scraps, again. "Ribbons, slashed on salts, proteins in chains," Peter said from somewhere behind himself. "Even better, would you fetch it for me and bring it here?"

    The librarian had come very close now and even in relative stillness, the constant pulling and shifting of fluids and organs, all unseen by Peter, created a softly smacking sound, not unlike that of a kiss, but spread across a wet chorus of licking and pushing . . . Peter could feel heat near his bare neck. He could hear something moving, kissing itself, just behind his ears.

    "Ribbons? Please?" it whispered.

  9. Breathing through his mouth to spare his sense of olfaction, his eyes averted in disgust, Peter would have stopped his ears as well were his hands free. Holding the cloak out and open by pinching a corner in each hand (the way a child might play at being a bullfighter), he hoped the meaty-sounding librarian would finally be able to drape the garment over its loathsome, sticky corpus.

    It was, evidently, a painfully maladroit thing, utterly lacking in any useful protuberance or telekinetic ability - which, in any other context, would have been a relief to discover. But Peter found his limits once again tested as the thing fumbled clumsily bare centimeters from his own skin.

    As little as he wanted to make actual physical contact with the alien, he hoped to lay eyes upon it even less; either, he feared, would induce him to run as far from his guide as he could manage, leaving him alone and adrift in this timeless, endless expanse.

    "I'm holding it out for you," he explained, with forced, strained calm. "Just.. just lean into the cloak with your head, or whatever you call your uppermost extremity, and I will let it go."

  10. He felt a wave of pressure as the cloth rustled between his hands. The librarian was moving into it. "Ribbons. Or whatever you call. It . . . I will. Take it!"

    Peter did not need to look. If he had, he would have seen the shimmer of the cloth, the bulge of the thing's top, and – if he was especially unlucky – a few inches of the unhappily-naked alien's back. "Your salts?" it muttered as it came towards Peter. "Please?" Peter fully regretted having ever said that word to his guide.

    Its body was between Peter's arms now. Breathing through his teeth as consciously as he was, he couldn't help but to remember that sad axiom of trench warfare, "If you can smell it, you're breathing it." What, then, was passing over his gums, his tongue, his throat? What residue could still be collecting in his lungs?

    "Proceed," Peter said from the other side of the curtain. What was the matter, couldn't it just lift itself up? No – Peter would have to draw the clothe down the creature's back, or else leave that back exposed.

    He started to pull the cloak into place. The unwholesome thing rose up between his arms, pushing nearer and nearer to Peter's face. The eye was bearing down on him, wide and hungry. What was stopping it?

    (Peter passed a sanity check.)

  11. Peter hurriedly yanked the diaphanous, shimmering cloth downward to cover the alien's repulsively tumescent form. Revolted by the prospect of inhaling and contaminating himself with the vile thing's essence, he held his breath and resolved to finish the task as quickly as possible, even if it meant not getting the cloak on completely straight.

    As he knelt and tugged the librarian's garment into place, he was suddenly and quite jarringly reminded of unrolling a rubber prophylactic...

    At which point, he grunted loudly in disgust and rolled a short distance from the thing. He landed on his hands and knees, his eyes fixed on the ground.

    Don't vomit, don't vomit, don't vom--

    Peter vomited.

    When his heaving abated, Peter rose shakily to his feet and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. There was an awful taste in his throat, but he hoped the forceful expulsion of acid had cleansed him of some of the alien's foulness. He took a deep breath to steady himself and glared at the shrouded librarian.

    "Oh, you want salt now, you nasty bugger? I'm sure there's some salt in that!" Peter said harshly, indicating the puddle of bile glistening on extraterrestrial stone; for he imagined that some part of the librarian had found the episode cruelly amusing.

  12. The thing swayed as Peter let his insides fall from his mouth.

    "Nasty bugger." It leaned forward and began to wobble towards Peter's rejected meal. It stepped or shifted the base of its mass onto the puddle, soaking the edge of the cloak in human digestive fluids. Still using Peter's voice, it cooed. "Ribbons . . ." Neither the word nor the tone had been in Peter's vocal repertoire since he had stepped into this place. But there they were, combined with his own flawlessly replicated voice. Peter had to wonder where the librarian had acquired these elements of speech, or if they were its own.

    The body of the thing swelled in one great pulse to twice its thickness, and immediately deflated. There was a hiss, not of air passing from a balloon, which would have been relievingly comic, but of electrical crackling once again.

    "Go on proceed!" Was it ordering Peter now, or did it just need a bigger vocabulary?

    It moved away, down the gallery in the direction - Peter was fairly sure - that it had been going before. The amber dome did not open again as it passed by. Except for a streak of moisture left in the librarian's wake, the vomit was all but gone, sucked up into the librarian's internal workings.

    "Horse?" it said, imitating Henri's French accent. "Proceed."

  13. Peter followed the foul thing's lead, though at a somewhat greater distance than before. He hoped it would not be too much further; this place was getting to him.