Friday, May 1, 2009

On Life in the Arcade

By no means did Peter feel that the time was dragging. No, nothing like that – the time was whipping him more like, for his attention could only dwell on its passing for a short period before it was distracted by some sound or sight. Over the course of another hour or more his awareness of the library's contents had grown more and more acute. The great canyon or cavern, he had come to realize, was populated. The Librarian was there and was, probably, a living thing. The same could have been said of the domed molester.

A few of the visible artifacts seemed to have been once-living creatures, preserved specimens perhaps. Peter wondered if there were organic components to some of the devices he saw, or if perhaps what appeared to be a biological specimen could possibly be another tool for storing data. What was the human brain if not that? It was not inconceivable (not at this point, in this place) that what seemed to Peter to be a worm in a jar might have been someone's phonograph.

He had not yet seen anything quite like a living specimen, however – the closest he had come to that had been twenty minutes before, when he and the Librarian had passed by a lower level shelf apartment which had apparently been filled with a giant aquarium. All that remained was jagged sections of glass, as tall as Peter, jutting up from a metal and plastic frame that had been set into the compartment itself. Inside, there looked like there was still about a foot of greenish water standing. In their path, away from the shelf (which Peter had little interest in exploring further), lay a brown, segmented, flatworm-like creature. After a moment of thought, Peter identified it to his satisfaction as some kind of finless, armoured fish. He did not have much time to inspect the throwback – he had heard of the body impressions of such creatures found in the cliffs of Dover – before it disappeared under the Librarian's cloak. There was a brief sucking sound, an expansion and deflation as before, and nothing left of the fish but a trail of pungent smelling moisture in the Librarian's wake. What the aquarium had demonstrated was that there were both living things held captive here, and that there were, perhaps, forces or beings here with the will, possibly the need, to devour them.

There were other creatures, Peter knew, though he had not seen them. There had been the squeaking noises which he had first detected at his entrance to the gallery, and which periodically resurfaced in sudden waves of chatter that quickly faded into a few stray squeaks and then silence. There had been other noises, too, from somewhere in the orange glow above, long, solitary whistles. He had thought he had heard the flapping of wings as well.

But, yes, the question could be asked – and what else would Peter do as he followed his loathsome guide at distance – were these things living? Surely they moved, uttered foul noises, and at least one of them ate or performed some function analogous to it, but were they alive as animals and plants?

The spaces between shelves were on the scale of highway intersections. Burdened by the certainty that he and his guide were not alone in this arcade of relics, Peter found passing through these intersections a dreadful experience: he felt terribly exposed.

The Librarian had come to a stop, right in the middle of some hundredth intersection like this. It abruptly leaned leftward, into the space between two of the edifices. There was a smacking sound from somewhere underneath the cloak and, as if following a scent, it set off in that direction with no hesitation.

Encouraged by the prospect of coming to the end of his journey, Peter followed.

The Librarian was moving more quickly than usual, and Peter began to jog to keep up. "Is it this way?" he called ahead, halfway to the canyon wall. His shout was thrown back at him, "This way!"

The ground rumbled. Peter felt and heard a long-wave humming. Ahead of him the Librarian seemed shorter for a moment – no, it was descending – there was an opening in the floor, a square, man-sized portal, cut right from the floor with no embellishments. His guide disappeared down the shaft.

(Peter failed a sanity check for the progressive strain of being in the arcade: -1 sanity.)


  1. How Peter could ever hope to recount his adventure in full to Irene, he did not know (assuming he ever made it back to his room in Berlin at all!). He had not the words to express his horror and amazement at all he beheld, and he wondered if Menagerie might be a more appropriate descriptor for this place than Library.

    This thought troubled him; for what if his guide secretly intended to keep him here indefinitely? Perhaps it was a mistake to let the thing taste his vomit, for by now surely it had concluded that the Englishman was edible.

    Still, Peter had no choice now but to continue. As he noticed the librarian (zookeeper?) sinking into the floor, he dashed forward so as not to be left alone and exposed; but he was not quick enough, and found himself standing before a dark, square shaft.

    "Shite," he swore. "Now what?"

    Just then, he thought he heard the great wings again and looked up in panic as he reflexively assumed a crouching position. Were they getting closer, or was his mind playing tricks on him? He looked back down, considering the shaft again...


    ALICE was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?'

    So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

    There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" (when she thought it over afterwards it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

    In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

    "Here we go," Peter said to himself. He got on his belly and slid his body into the shaft until he was holding onto the edge with just his fingers.

    He closed his eyes and let go.

  2. "Oh," he said as his toes struck a level plane two or three feet below him. As the stone gently rumbled around him, the commonplaceness of his own comment struck him as funny. When he moved to rest the balls of his feet, they slipped from what was actually a narrow terrace, and he let out another brief cry, not the chuckle he had had in mind.

    Peter let his body slide over the ledge until he was hanging on this new lip. The grade was steep, but he felt he could control his slide . . .

    Peter gently lowered himself down the slope to another inches-wide terrace, and another, and another, and then to a level stone surface. There was a tunnel before him, square and roughly cut into the dark stone. The rumbling halted.

    Above Peter, the orange glow of the arcade. Before him, down the tunnel, there was a dim gray luminance, and in that he could see the pillar-like silhouette of his guide. Though the tunnel itself was dark, the floor beneath him reflected some of the light from above.

  3. It is said there are no atheists in foxholes.

    Never an especially observant man when it came to matters of religion, Peter nevertheless found himself murmuring a psalm embedded in his memory through years of compulsory church attendance in childhood:

    "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil..."

    He crept forward, following the librarian's wobbling silhouette. On the surface, he could have at least fled from danger, but here there was no such option. He very well could be walking into a trap, and despite his prayers, he was afraid.

    "...for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”

    A chill ran through Peter with the knowledge that, wherever he was, it was far outside the sight of any earthly God, well beyond the reach of any deity that had any love for humankind.

    He had never felt so alone in all his life.

  4. The terrain had ceased to shake.

    Pat, pat, pat, his footfalls echoed in the dark tunnel.

    The librarian was swaying in one place like a branch.

    Slightly winded, Peter halted at a decent distance from the thing. He looked around, peered at its silhouette in the rainy-day light from somewhere along the tunnel, and saw nothing. "What is it?"

    The librarian moved under its cloak and the eye turned to Peter. Unseen, silent, not a word passed. Peter could only hold the librarian's non-gaze for a moment - he heard it, another sound.

    Rainfall. From outside? Was this a hallucination or was there just beyond the pillar of the librarian an open space, complete with weather? No, of course not, some inner voice reminded him. Whatever is out there must be more horrible yet.The sound of the rain picked up, and the illumination flickered. A storm!

    Suddenly, words: "Pass the wine!" the librarian seemed to demand, still in Peter's voice.

    The flickering of the luminescence increased and the pitter-patter rose in volume even more so and . . . in the static of the storm, Peter could begin to make out individual sounds. Pitter. No, clatter - click - squeak.

    The walls of the tunnel blackened and surged forth, as if the passage had been suddenly converted into shadow, as if it were folding into itself. The shadows rolled towards Peter and his guide, clittering and clattering like no storm Peter had ever weathered.

    "Das schmeckt!" cried the librarian, who ceased to sway and coursed directly into the tunnel's tenebrous folds.

  5. (Oh, also, sanity check! Peter failed. -3 sanity!)

  6. No retreat.

    No escape.

    His senses rendered near-useless by the cacophony of bedlam and the oppressive oblivion of the darkness, Peter walked forward to his presumptive doom.

  7. The darkness was already upon the librarian. Its cloak rustled as the black waves surged around it, seeped underneath it. Immediately, Peter's guide started convulsing, contracting. Was it dying? No, just feeding - rapidly pumping the substance of the darkness into itself, as it had done the vomit and the ancient fish.

    What could it have been eating?

    What had just a moment before appeared as a wave of shrieking sack clothe was now revealed to be a mass of thousands, millions of tiny black bugs.

    They ran towards Peter, onto his shoes, into his pant legs. They started to bite. The sensation of pulling and piercing started first at his ankles and in a breath had moved up his shins. A multitude of jaws or proboscises, tearing bits from his skin, plunging their alien feeding apparatuses into his flesh.

    He bounded backwards, crushing dozens under his heels, trying to shake the most intrusive and painful members of the swarm out from his pants. Not beetles, more like fat, black wingless flies. They gnawed at him and squealed from inside his pants.

    In the midst of the swarm, the librarian pulsed - from thick to thin to thick again. Before it, an orgy of prey items, all apparently senseless to the grazing column in their midst.

    Peter could not join the librarian there. He swatted his thigh, felt something burst beneath his clothes, just above his knees. Ichor stained the fabric of his pants. He leapt and danced away from his guide, away from the swarm.

    The bugs poured towards him. Millions of tiny mouths . . .

    The two acts he had just resigned to loss - retreat and escape - became at once Peter's guiding beacons.

    (Rolls for damage and sanity. San passed. -1 hit point.)

  8. Horror and survival instinct forced Peter to flee the way he had come, though he suspected that the passage had closed by now; or, even if the way was not shut, it would be too steep for him to ascend in time to save himself. (And if he did make it out alive, where then would he go without his guide?)