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Author Topic: Fortnightly Writing Competition "Underworld" June 1st - 15th. (Or thereabouts.)  (Read 487 times)

RetroJay

  • Frankly, my dear, I'm a Kerbal and Proud of it.
    • RetroJay worked on one or more games that won an AGS Award!
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Okay.
Let's see if I've done this all correctly.

After my wonderful victory (I'm still expecting the cheque in the post.)  (laugh)
I have been thinking of a topic for our next FWC.
After our trip to the stars how about, in the words of 'Status Quo' we go "Down Down Deeper and Down"?

This can be anything from under the sea, under the Earth or the actual Underworld. (Anything, as long as it's below us.)
Let your imaginations run riot.  (laugh)

If I've done something wrong, please let me know.  :-\

Yours, Jay.
« Last Edit: 01 Jun 2021, 18:56 by RetroJay »

EjectedStar

  • I'm Bobbin Threadbare, are you my mother?
Thoughts of Gold

“Will you hurry up?” Rosco’s voice hissed out from somewhere in the darkness.

“I’m trying!” Terren croaked back, the scuffing of his boots ringing loud in his ears, bouncing off the irregular shaped passages of the cave.

The two boys had been traveling downwards for what felt like days, but the actual time passed was only a few hours, the twisting maze-like passages of the cave impeding their progress. Terren only had three panic attacks in the time that they had been traveling, which in his book, was a resounding success.

Rosco sighed and the light scrapings of flint on steel could be heard. After a few moments the tunnel around them glowed into life as Rosco’s lantern took flame. The short and stocky boy faded into corporealness as the darkness abated, his usual goofy grin absent from his face.

“Better?” He asked, his voice dripping with derision, “or do I need to come rub and pat your back again to stop you from crying?”

“Hey!” Terren shouted in a half whisper, “you said you wouldn’t make fun of me for that!”

Rosco patted the air with his free hand, “Alright, alright, sorry.” He turned and looked back down the tunnel they were currently traversing, “According to the map, we’re just about to the back entrance of her cave. We really shouldn’t dawdle too much, and we really shouldn’t be talking much right about now.”

Terren rolled his eyes toward the other boy’s back, “You’re really the one to be lecturing me about talking too much.”

“You’re right,” Rosco said with a half-hearted shrug, “I just kind of get serious and less talkative when there’s a real chance of being eaten. Call it a character flaw, that’s okay with me. Now, are you ready to come along or do we need to wait for this fainting spell to be over again?”

Terren mumbled a quiet profanity under his breath.

“Great,” Rosco whispered, “glad to have that over with. Let’s continue, shall we?”

------

Another two hours of near-darkness spelunking ensued before a soft, golden glow began to lead their way through the cramped cave. Soon, the two boys poked their heads out of the narrow passage and into a sprawling cavern, full of golden treasure.

Terren gawked, he had never seen so much gold in his entire life. Piles and piles of the soft metal lined the walls and floor of the entire cavern. There was so much of the stuff that it completely blanketed the ground, no trace of hard stone made its way past the golden sea. Not just gold made up the hoard, treasure chests spilling with gems and pearls were placed haphazardly throughout the cavern, marble statues, opulent tapestries, all other manner of expensive items were strewn about.

“There,” Rosco breathed into Terren’s ear, his word so faint and quiet that Terren wasn’t sure he actually heard the word, or just discerned it from the pressure of the moving air and the boy’s outstretched arm.

Sitting upon a large pile of golden coins, lay a leather book, it’s cover scuffed and torn, the juxtaposition of its plainness sticking out like a sore thumb amid such opulence. Terren craned his neck around the rock he was currently pressed against and took in the rest of the room. “I… I don’t see her,” he dared to whisper.

“Hm,” Rosco mused as he followed suit and stuck his head further out, “she must be out raiding.” He paused for a few moments before he started unbuttoning his cloak.

“What are you doing?” Terren asked, watching the boy throw the garment to the ground.

“Taking an opportunity,” Rosco replied, tightening his belt across his midsection, “she’s not here, so let’s get this done and over with.” With that, he strode confidently out and into the cavern.

Terren watched wide-eyed as his companion stepped uncaringly across the golden coins that made up the ground. He knew they must eventually cross into the cavern, but never in his wildest dreams did he think they’d be striding in without a care in the world.

Almost unhurriedly, Rosco strode out to the pile of coins, stepped up it a few feet, scattering gold as he went, and snagged the unassuming book from its perch. A few heartbeats passed with nothing obvious happening, and he turned and held up the book, a goofy grin plastered across his face and a finger pointed toward his prize.

Terren couldn’t hold in his laugh, the kind that forms in your stomach and rips itself from your throat. The journey down had been so treacherous, the build up to stealing the spellbook, everything that had led up to this point being so full of stress… and then Rosco just walks up and picks it up. Completely ridiculous.

A gust of air blew the hair back from his face, and a large black mass swooped down from the ceiling, crashing atop Rosco, sending sprays of gold coins in all directions. Terren’s laugh instantly turned into an incomprehensible scream as the massive dragon leapt upon his friend. The beast filled his vision, its form so huge that the cavern seemed almost smaller than it had been seconds before. Somehow it had hidden somewhere in the gloom of the ceiling far above them, pressed between the stalactites that hung down into the cavern.

Before Terren knew what he was doing, he found himself running, the scream still echoing out from his throat. He was surprised to find himself running toward the incredible creature, as it turned it’s spiked and scaly neck in his direction. Red eyes pierced out from the inky blackness of its face, the scales so dark it was hard to make out the shape of its features, other than its terrifying silhouette.

Terren dove to the side, crashing down amid the gold as the beast opened its maw and a blast of fire erupted in his direction. The fall to the ground knocked him groggy for a few heartbeats. He scrambled, something cold and cylindrical passed between his palms and he grabbed at it senselessly. He felt the dragon’s presence above him, and he knew it was over, too late to fight, too late to abscond. He struggled to shield himself from approaching death, but the dragon’s mouth clamped down over him, serrated teeth as long as his forearm snapping off his view of the cavern.

------

Rosco came to with a start, gold clinking around him with every move he made. He stood slowly, his body aching and his head pounding from where he must have smashed it upon a poorly placed gold bar. He froze as he lifted his head and saw the scaly black tail of Chaelis, the Dreaded Dragon of the North. He panned his vision along the dragon and was confused. She lay upon her gold, asleep. Rosco tore his head about, looking for his companion, but he was nowhere to be found.

The book lay at Rosco’s feet and he gingerly pulled it from the ground. Another cascade of gold clinked its way down from the disturbed book. He froze again, but the beast did not move. Now that he thought about it, the dragon was suspiciously still for having just ambushed him from the ceiling.  Cautiously he moved around the beast, but still, it did not jostle, did not draw breath.

Rosco approached the beast’s head and the confusion still pawed at his thoughts. A golden shaft poked its way out between the dragon’s eyes. Atop the shaft sat a golden spearhead, covered in black ichor. The boy shook his head, how could a dragon as armored as this impale itself on a piece of treasure in its own hoard?

“Terren?” Rosco called out, looking over his shoulder, “where did you get off to?”

Only silence answered him, until a muffled voice much closer than he expected called in return.

“By the gods,” the voice shouted, “am I dead?”

Rosco arched an eyebrow and kneeled near the dragon’s bared teeth. “Terren,” he said loudly enough for the boy to hear, “were you… eaten?”

“Rosco?” The muffled voice shouted back, “oh thank the heavens, you’re okay!”

Confused but relieved Rosco stood from his haunches and shook his head. “I can’t believe you’ve done this,” he said, not able to contain a laugh as his eyes panned back up to the golden spear that had driven itself up through the dragon’s brain.

“I didn’t mean to- wait, what?”

“You’ve completely wrecked the local economy!” Rosco laughed again, “look at all this gold! Once word gets out that Chaelis is dead, every peasant within twenty miles will be climbing to the front entrance of the cave to retrieve a bit of her hoard!”

A few moments of silence passed before Rosco heard a quiet sigh emanate from between the dragon’s teeth. “Will- will you please just get me out of here?”

“Yeah, yeah, in just a moment,” Rosco said turning and surveying the dragon’s hoard of treasure, “I want to get first pick of the loot before you can get your grubby, dragon blood covered hands all over it.”

« Last Edit: 02 Jun 2021, 06:24 by EjectedStar »

RetroJay

  • Frankly, my dear, I'm a Kerbal and Proud of it.
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Nice story, EjectedStar.

It did remind me a LOT of the 'Hobbit' and the Dragon 'Smaug', though.
Never the less... A nice story and nicely written.

I am wondering whether Rosco, blinded by greed, just left poor Terren in the Dragons mouth.  8-0

Hope we get some more stories, soon.  (laugh)

Mandle

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Fleeing

Day One. Base Camp.

We haven't seen the sunrise for days now. The ground beneath our feet grows colder and colder. What was once an abundant field of rich flowing springs wherever we spiked it has become a rancid plain of drooping foliage ripe with the stench of decay.
We must set out on the climb, all of us, to seek answers.

Day Two. Beginning The Ascent.

We've lost two already. We pondered whether to bring the dehydrated husks of their bodies with us or to leave them behind.
Eventually we turned our backs on them and chose the easier way forward, pushing through the thickening stalks.

Day Three. A Barren And Forsaken Land.

No matter how deep nor how strongly we spike the ground, there is no sustenance forthcoming. Twelve fell this day. We are becoming hardened to the losses. We left them behind without a second thought.

Day Four. Screams From The Heavens.

We saw light again today for the first time in days. But it was not a peaceful dawn. A voice came down from above. It sounded like the voices we have heard all our lives that come from the sky, from between the waving strands. But then its low pitch grew higher and we felt fear. The ground shook as if a giant had taken hold of our realm and the light broke through the limp stalks that had once stood proud over these fields. There was no rejoicing in our ranks at this dawn. Thirty or more had not awoken this morning to see it, or to feel the quake.

Day Five. Motion.

The light intensified and then faded away, but not completely. The screams from the heavens died down and then a gentle rocking motion started. One that we had heard tell of by our fathers, which they had heard tell of from their fathers before them. We left a trail of our fallen fellows behind us. We had stopped counting. It was either climb or die now. There were no fertile springs left in this land.

Day Six. The Ridge.

A surprise! Upon peaking the ridge we met another group of survivors. They came up to us from lower down the spine of hard terrain marked by nubs of outcroppings hidden just below the surface. We asked them of their stories, but they were woefully as depressing as our own. There were no drinkable springs down back where they had come from. We could only huddle together in conference without any hope to share between us.

Day Seven. The Final Climb.

We lost half the numbers from both bands combined on the final haul up the last slope. The rocking motion of our world has stopped and now, shockingly, a bright cold blue-white light glares down on us. The new light casts shadows in harsh relief from the drooping stalks that once stood so high and proud. We have to duck under their slouched arches where we would have once jumped to and fro between the forest of their lushness. The landscape grows tighter on both sides as we climb the narrowing bridge from the ridge our two camps met on to the summit looming above.

Day Eight. Summit And Fire.

There are less than a few hundred of us left now. It does not feel joyous to us as we reach the summit of our world. The bold blue-white light swiftly falls away on a hard edge of shadow as we glance around us from between the two massive pyramids on both sides. There is the sound of something heinous and fatal blooming into life from far below. We huddle together in fear. From around the edges of our final summit flames shoot up, orange and blue. We break from each other and flee every which way in panic, each of us dividing ourselves from our others and leaping off into the inferno to become a brief spark and then nothing.


EPILOGUE:

It was Janey who found Trooper out on the back deck next to his bowl of water. Janey was only six years old and thought it was funny that Trooper had fallen asleep like that with his tongue hanging out. She tried to wake him up by calling his name a few times but he didn't wake up.
Kerry, Janey's biological mom, came out and she knew right away that poor old Trooper was done, but it didn't stop her from shrieking in the sudden grief of the moment and screaming for Kristie to get the car back out.
They carried Trooper to the car and strapped Janey into the front seat while Kristie drove and Kerry sat in the back with the German Shepherd she had raised from a pup draped cold over her lap. Kerry knew what the coldness meant but she talked to Trooper anyway and told him that everything would be okay. Through her tears.
It was only a ten minute drive to the vet and they got brought straight into the examination room but there was nothing that Doctor Evens could do except provide a quick cremation.
Within the hour, the teary sniffling family were headed back home in their car with the urn.
The next morning, after some discussion, they mixed some of Trooper's flea powder with the ashes so that he wouldn't have to scratch in doggy heaven, and they spread him in the little ferny glen at the bottom of their yard.
« Last Edit: 06 Jun 2021, 13:20 by Mandle »

BarbWire

  • Purify the World!
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                                                                          Down Down (Deeper and Down)

On the deck of HMS Ambassador, Bathyscaphe Neptune was being prepared for its maiden voyage, to the Nirvana trench, deep in the Equatorial Ocean.  Watching on, as technicians and engineers carefully examined the impressive craft, was Commander Rhys Edwards.  Tomorrow, after passing final safety checks, the exploratory mission would be given the go ahead, allowing him to pilot Neptune.

In the meantime, all Rhys could do, was resume normal duties.  Born into a family with a long Naval history, the sea was in his blood.  Career choice had been a foregone conclusion.  At twenty eight years old, he had rapidly risen through the ranks, which resulted in a lot of responsibility being placed on young shoulders.  He took to the job like a duck to water.  Veteran Officers, who were advocates of the older and wiser rule, often questioned his leadership skills, making life difficult.  Whenever stress levels were rising, a visit to the Ship's well equipped gym always had a calming effect.  This is where he was headed, now.  Working out sculpted a well proportioned body, while clearing the head of day to day clutter.  Clean shaven, boyish, looks easily attracted female attention, especially when in uniform.  Unfortunately, he was married to the Navy.  They stood no chance.  That night, Rhys slept soundly.

The next morning dawned bright and clear.  A shower was followed by a light breakfast.  Wiggling into a tight, all in one, biolite suit, specially designed to constantly monitor the health of the wearer, was a challenge.  Over this body stocking, casual clothing was worn.  Full military regalia would be totally inappropriate.  Visiting the bridge, to liaise with fellow Officer's, he was pleased to hear that there had been no dramas to report, during their watch.  He made his way to the deck.  Looking out at a calm, flat, sea he felt relieved.  Ideal conditions for the launch of Neptune, home for the following two months.

Submersible technology had advanced, in leaps and bounds, since the first quarter of the twenty first century, when a catastrophic disaster was threatened, due to vast amounts of plastic contaminating the aquatic environment.  World governments, recognising the need for urgent action, cast aside petty squabbles, agreeing to pool resources and scientific knowledge , in a concerted effort to resolve the problem.  Underwater craft fitted with equipment to suck, filter, chemically treat and neutralise this disgusting waste, were invented.  The clean up operation took twenty years, and was a complete success.  A meeting of minds, led  to a meeting of oceans.  Hence the Equatorial was formed.  Legally binding documents, were signed, stating that all countries shared access to this water way.  Depths exceeding 35,000 feet, the previous record, were soon broken.  It was estimated that the Nirvana trench could be at least 40,000 feet. 

Although there was adequate room for a three man crew, inside the the two storey conical craft, standing vertically, Rhys had opted to make the dive alone.  Extensive training, in the handling of Neptune, was a great confidence booster.  Enjoying his own company had never been an issue. 

Gathered to greet Rhys was a party of well wishers.  There was much hand shaking and back patting.  Jake Simmonds, stepped forward.  "Good luck, mate.  You lucky bastard."  Rhys laughed.  Relinquishing command of Ambassador, to his second officer, he said "Take good care of her for me."  Climbing into the hatch of the craft, he settled into the comfy seat at the controls.  Powerful winches lifted Neptune over the side of the ship and into the water.  Firing up the engines, he began the downward journey.

A slow descent offered ample opportunity to marvel at the healthy, diverse, fish population.  Whales were plentiful, and judging by the young swimming along by their Mothers, breeding was going well.  Dolphins, naturally curious creatures, found the craft carrying its occupant, interesting.  Peering through the windows, they excitedly clapped their flippers and clicked a greeting, transmitted by the speakers.  Great enjoyment seemed to be gained by circling and gently bumping Neptune.  Sharks were a bit worrying, canned food sprang to mind.  Colourful coral reefs, and seaweed forests, were a photographers dream.

So awe inspiring were the sights that Rhys had no time to think about nourishment.  Perhaps if the menu was more cordon bleu than cordon bleugh, he would have looked forward to meal times.  Packs of a specially prepared sloshy grey substance, fortified with vitamins and minerals, really didn't do it for him.  At night, Rhys transferred to the sleeping compartment, where he read books, listened to music and played video games.  He slept blissfully.

By the start of the second month, he began the descent into the Nirvana trench.  Signs of life were few and far between.  The darkness was oppressive.  Even powerful lights did little to pierce the gloom.  Cataloguing new species was important at this depth, so he hoovered up likely looking candidates and stored them.  According to the readout it was Thursday 27th June 2052.  Down, down, deeper and down he travelled until, eventually, Neptune touched solid ground.  He had reached the bottom of the trench.  More samples would be needed, but that would have to wait until Friday.  It was bedtime.

A violent lurching of the craft awoke rhys with a start.  Scrambling down to the lower level, trying to collect his thoughts on the way, he peered at the controls through bleary eyes.  There were no malfunctions or software problems.  The gyroscope mechanism should have kept Neptune in an upright position, but so forceful was the pressure exerted, by what Rhys assumed to be a strong current, the craft tumbled along, uncontrollably.  He now knew how his undies felt in a household dryer.

Luckily the sturdy restraints, anchoring him to the seat, prevented him from being tossed about and sustaining serious injury.  Rhys decided there was nothing he could do, but sit back and hope for the best.  When the tumbling stopped, he heaved a sigh of relief.  Attempting to focus on the view outside, all that could be seen was churned up sediment and plant material.  He then realised that the craft was teetering on the ledge of a sizeable opening.  "What the heck?" he questioned aloud.  "Surely it doesn't go down any dee....."  Before Rhys could finish the sentence there was a sucking noise, as if a plug had been pulled from a bath and Neptune was descending at unprecedented speed.  'Danger, danger'  warned a disembodied voice, accompanied by a shrill alarm.  "You don't say" hissed Rhys.  The depth countdown also flew by.  At 53.000 feet, he passed out........

.......  Rhys was standing at the easel, in his studio, painting a picture.  Unsurprisingly, it was a seascape.  Every brush stroke had been a labour of love.  When it was finished, there would be a place awaiting on one of the walls in his house.  There was always room for one more.  Turning away from the easel, he crossed the room and went out the door.  Dwarfed by a vast glistening cavern, it was obvious he wasn't following the mantra.  It reminded him of when he had first arrived here.  "I am Angelica and this is The Kingdom" had said a kindly voice.  No, not said, but telepathically relayed.  We have welcomed many of your kind, through the ages.  Rhys had only just regained consciousness and was confused.  He wanted to answer his host, but didn't know how.  stories about subterranean aliens, for want of a better word, had been told for years.  It would now seem that it was fact rather than fiction.  This being, although human like, was definitely not of our world.  "See what you want to see.  Be what you want to be"  The words played in his head, over and over.  Angelica faded away.  He thought of Bywater the town he had always loved.  He thought of the home he had grown up in.  He thought he would like to be an artist.  All these things came to pass......

........In 2080 a ship, navigating the Equatorial ocean, happened upon debris floating on the surface.  Hauling the offending flotsam aboard, a close inspection was carried out, producing startling results.  After cleaning the barnacle encrusted, mangled, wreckage the name Neptune emerged.  Human remains were found.  An identification tag revealed the name of the individual as Commander rhys Edwards, who had been reported missing, presumed dead, in 2052.

« Last Edit: 09 Jun 2021, 22:36 by BarbWire »

The Donor

Gregory had done a lot of things in the name of science, but he had never jerked off an extra-terrestrial before.

“Remember the three rules,” said the man who had introduced himself only as ‘Mac’ but was apparently a high-up in the intelligence services.

“Don’t talk. Don’t touch the sample. Don’t make eye contact.”

The clunky mechanical creaking of the elevator signaled the approach of the alien. The facility in which they currently stood was over a kilometer underground. And there were only two ways in. That rickety elevator was one and the other was above his clearance level.

Gregory waited for the elevator to reach the bottom. He thought it sounded close but it kept getting closer. A strange audio illusion. And then it did stop. And the elevator's metal doors ground open.

Three men filed out. Each as plain-looking as the others.

“Where’s the… where’s the donor?”

Mac spoke, “Two of these are men. One is the Donor. You are going to jerk them all off and collect samples from all three.”

“A shapeshifter… but why?”

“Because that is your order, doctor.”

“Then give me a different order? I’m not jerking off three blokes in an underground chamber.”

“It chose you, doctor.” It won’t ejaculate for anyone else.”

“I’m flattered,” said Gregory. “Well, who’s first?”

And so it went that the good doctor did do his duty and jerked off the three men with gusto.

When he came to, the lab was empty of all personnel. He stood alone in the middle of the lab, no other signs of life. The sample containers remained unfilled and his head burned. He moved over to the elevator shaft. The lift was not there. He was stuck underground.

“Doctor, oh shit. You're alive.” It was Mac’s voice over some kind of speaker system. “We thought you were dead. You broke the 2nd rule.”

“Don’t touch the sample.”

“You didn’t just touch it doctor. You were… enjoying it. You should really be dead.”

“What came over me.”

“Well, I could answer that in two ways, doctor.”

“Well, get me out of here.”

“No can do, doctor. You drank the sample. There’s no telling what has been unleashed. Concrete is being poured over the facility as we speak.”

At that, Gregory heard a loud wet splatter echoing down the elevator shaft. He was being buried alive.

“I’m sorry, doctor.”

“Mac! Mac! Noooooooooo!”

Mandle

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@Stupot

Brings a whole new meaning to a "Mac Happy Meal"

RetroJay

  • Frankly, my dear, I'm a Kerbal and Proud of it.
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OMG!  8-0
I always felt that there was something inherently Evil with 'Ronald' (Thoughts of Pennywise.)
Never again will I buy a milkshake from them. (laugh)

Some good and ... Ahem!... odd stories here.
By my count we all have about six days before the end of this competition.

BarbWire

  • Purify the World!
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What a clever idea, Mandle. 

Stupot, yours was puke provoking, but made me laugh  :-X Actually, is there more to this than meets the eye  :-\

What I would like to know is where have Sinitrena (Usually the first to post)  Baron and Repi gone ? 
You were certainly quick off the mark, EjectedStar. Very good story, again  :)
« Last Edit: 13 Jun 2021, 13:01 by BarbWire »

Sinitrena

  • Mittens Serf
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Trigger warning, also giving away some plot points so:
Spoiler: ShowHide
There’s suicide in this story, caused by someone killing his own child in an accident, so treat with caution.


The Road

They say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I’d never taken this literally. I wouldn’t even have known how. But here walked through the valley of the shadow of death, looking down the straight path into the abyss and underneath my feet I could make out bones and scrapped metal between the pebble stones. No other path offered itself to me, no other thought but to keep moving, further and further down.

Looking back, I don’t know why. Looking back then, I saw nothing where I came from. With every step I took, the last footprint vanished from existence and the last meter of road I had taken became nothing but shadow and fog.

Even in front of my feet, fog and darkness seemed like a constant companion. I could make out the strange pavement of the road, but hardly anything else. I could make out the entrance to the cave that seemed to call to me, but trying to see the mountain the mouth surely must have led to was impossible.

Thinking was never my strongest ability, but here I don’t even know if I tried. My legs seemed to know the path and my mind didn’t bother to question it.

Underneath my heavy work boots, I felt skin squeeze and flesh squish and bones snap. Scraps of metal, red like my truck, drilled into my sole. Or was it my soul? It felt like it, because every scrap brought back part of the memory, every splint splintered the belief in me that I was innocent, that it was not my fault.

The desert I walked through was silent, but that didn’t stop the car’s tyres from squealing or the mother’s scream from piercing my ears. Or the ball from bouncing again and again in my head as it slowly disappeared into the hedges.

When I reached the gate in the cave’s mouth, my memory of this day had nearly fully returned. I remembered the football rolling into the street, I remembered turning the wheel to avoid a collision with a child that didn’t follow, I remembered the truck hitting a parked car, I remembered the other car swerving into the little girl, I remembered her squashed between the hood and her mother’s fence.

It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t driving too fast or didn’t pay enough attention, I tried to do the right thing by evading an accident on the street. I tried. I...

The gate glowed golden or shimmered in the non-existing sun. It was almost blinding and I shielded my eyes with my hands, but with the next step the effect was gone and I just stared onto your usual iron gate. It might have been more fancy than your everyday garden variant, a bit like a haunted castle, but nothing too special.

But the moment it glowed, I think it judged me and it decided. The beam passed over me and the memories were not just memories, they were life. I was there in the car again, I saw the children play between the cars, though I know I didn’t see them then, and I heard the girl call out to the boy to stop. He didn’t follow the ball, but I didn’t know and then the crash…

There was no Abandon all hope, ye who enter here above the gate. Not that I even know where this sentence comes from. I only vaguely thought that it had something to do with hell and here I stood at the gate of hell.

The entrance, the cave mouth, was nothing more than a hole in the stones. Pretty large but only generally carved into the shape of an archway and not otherwise decorated. The stones surrounding the gate quickly vanished into the all encompassing fog and I only saw a wobbly mass of white beyond the entrance, either to the sides or up or even further into the cave.

The wrought iron gate swung open with a creak when I approached, reminding me once again of the squealing tyres. Darkness seemed to seep out of the white mist. Long tentacles of black air crept towards me on the ground and gestured for me to follow them inside. With every one of my steps they seemed more impatient and insistent, even though I did not halt or falter even once. I never slowed down. I wouldn’t even have known how or why. This was my way and the way I wanted to go.

If only I remembered why. I was looking for something. Someone?

Like this guy from the myths, Odysseus or something? Looking for his wife in the underworld?

Why was she here, though? Why would she be here? The answer flickered in my mind like a warning sign – because she was never baptised. That’s why she would go here. That’s what granny always told me.

I dove into a white ocean. The froth and waves prickled on my skin and sharp, invisible stones cut into my flesh, like they did before when…

When what?

When…

Deeper and deeper I walked. For now, there was still ground under my feet, though I couldn’t see it. The salty water burned in my eyes. I wanted to turn around but behind me there was nothing. Was there ever anything?

When the water of the river closed over my head, there was nothing behind me then. The current splashed against me with prodding fingers and tentacles of icy water pulled me down. Then, I still remembered the bridge and the reasons, now the bridge was nothing but a faint line on a faded picture and the reasons were crushed bones on a path through the desert.

But when I succeeded, there would be no bones under pebble stone and no tattered skin of a crushed girl. When I found her, there would be no metal scrap drilled into her neck and her lungs would not have been squashed under the woman’s car. The ambulance would not have been too late and the medic would not have pronounced here dead on the scene.

With this thought I broke through the surface. Undersurface? No matter. It was underneath me and the water broke apart for my legs like a curtain. For a moment, I hung above the world and underneath me my street came into view. There were the front gardens and the pavements and the river just a block away with the bridge that led to the city.

I walked up to the bridge three days later after the funeral I couldn’t go to. I took the car bridge not the one for pedestrians right next to it, I don’t know why. Maybe because this was the bridge I always took? Because it was the bridge I took that day? Maybe because she had never even once sat her feet on the other bridge, because it was the border of her kingdom? Because it was the drawbridge of her castle and the ice cream parlour on the road opposite was her fortress? But the car bridge never mattered in her games and was only ever the bridge daddy took to go to work? She would have to take in a years time when she started secondary school?

I blinked when tears started to fill my eyes and then slowly dripped from my face. I followed them fall, down and down and down to the scene below. I hadn’t cried yet. I hadn’t…

I hadn’t had time.

She had no time.

The tear fell and it was one of a thousand, of a million raindrops that splattered onto the water of the river when they dragged me out. I saw it now as they tried to pump air back into my lungs, but her lungs had collapsed and would never suck air into them again.

I saw myself walk over the cobblestones of the pavement, dragging my fingers along the wrought iron fences and gates. For a moment, the sun blinked through the heavy clouds and blinded me, and if it had not, I would have stepped into the oncoming traffic. I’m sure some people would have called it a sign from god, a warning or a curse. I didn’t. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t think at all, I didn’t even know what I was doing.

When I stood on the bridge…

It was the wrong bridge. I wanted to visit the border of her kingdom, of a kingdom that would never dominate the world, and I wanted her to tell me of it again. And again. And again.

But when I looked from one bridge to the other, when I tried to look from one bridge to the other, my eyes were always drawn to the water below and to the thoughts I could not stop. How easy it would be. How fast. How I could not leave her there alone. How jumping would bring me to her.

How the sky could open the floodgates of hell and I could not cry for… for…

… for my daughter!

When I stepped over the banister, the rain drenched my good shirt and I knew the wife would be angry with me. For the shirt she’d have to iron. That’s what I though she would be angry about.

But all was gone when blissful nothing dragged me to the underworld.

Further and further I sailed down to the ground and back in time to the faithful day. I passed over the red truck driving over the bridge and to the two children playing throughout the whole neighbourhood. The truck rounded the corner and the ball bounced through the open garden gate of our neighbour’s. The neighbour’s boy started to run after it, but my daughter, sweet angel that she was, called out to him to stop.

But it was too late. The car swerved and it swerved towards her. In the last moment I woke up out of my stupor and raced towards her. With talons I didn’t know I had I swooped her up and with wings in black and green I flew her away. She cried out, but I held her close to my chest, pressed her against me as if my life depended on it. Hers did.

Time had slowed down as I fell through the sky and the accident happened in slow-motion underneath.

After just a few metres, my flight was brought to a sudden halt. The wings I was not used to were to weak to carry us further. We glided back to the ground, slowly. I sat my daughter down and released her from my arms. The wings of her guardian angel flapped a few times and then time reinstated itself and I could not react any-more.

The car – it came towards her. It had changed direction, had always changed direction like that. I had seen it then and I saw it now. I had sat my daughter down in its path.

I grabbed her, I started to run, away from the car. But the swerving car was faster and hit me, hit her. I stumbled and she fell from my arms and when I got up again my next steps were through a white foggy desert over broken glass and broken bones.

The road to hell is paved with the bones and blood of my daughter. It leads through a desert of unshed tears and the rain-clouds of broken dreams over her kingdom. And maybe I walked through the desert the thousandth time, and will walk through it again and again.

--------------------------------------

Valley of shadows: Psalm 23, out of context
Abandon all hope ye who enter here: Dante’s Divine Comedy
Odysseus: Orpheus would be the one my narrator was thinking of. He was the one who tried to save his wife from the underworld. Odysseus had other problems but his wife was alive.
Not being baptised and suicide are both reasons for some groups of Christianity that people would go to hell. I can’t say I agree, but my narrator does.


Sorry, that turned out rather depressing.

I’ve caught up with the other stories, and dayum. There’s some great stuff, albeit rather bleak. What will Baron do?

Baron

  • Mittens Serf
  • AGS Baker
  • Rottwheelers
  • Not-so-Evil Banana Dictator
    • I can help with AGS tutoring
    • I can help with voice acting
    • Best Innovation Award Winner 2011, for the concept and management of SWARMAGS
    • Baron worked on one or more games that won an AGS Award!
    •  
    • Baron worked on one or more games that was nominated for an AGS Award!
Yeah, I went kinda dark as well - kinda really dark.  Sorry for the length, but I cut all I could to have it still make some kind of sense.  :P

Pretty Dark Things

   It was a nice day for late November, or so they had claimed on Lilah's newsfeed.  But here among the banking towers the faint midday sunlight was reserved for those at the top of society, glinting off the shimming pinnacles of downtown New York like a mirage of gold.  But neither gold nor warmth trickled down into the street canyon below.  There a brisk wind sliced with chilly menace, laying bare the myth of gentler times ahead.  Down on the streets life was harsh, and seemed ever on the verge of growing harsher still.  Lilah shivered.

   Around her people bustled to and fro, rushing about their business.  But not Lilah.  Her business was as a witness.  Not of the dour looking business folk frowning disdainfully at their chilly predicament and looking greedily towards the glowing heavens.  No, her business was the folk in between that seemed to melt into the gritty landscape, camouflaged against the pity and the predations of the mighty: the addicts, the homeless, the unstable, the hopeless.  Lilah was a professional journalist, giving voice to the downtrodden and forgotten street people who blended so easily into the rest of the trash-strewn pavements of the city.  Well, she was a freelance journalist at any rate, published three times now in Liberal Hearts Review, an up and coming uptown circular.  Truthfully she was only a warm breakfast and a friend's couch removed from the folk she wrote about, a fact that stirred a grim fascination within her.

   But now her editor had teased her with news that a big paper (he declined to mention which one) was sniffing around her stories.  They might be interested in syndication, he said, if Lilah could flesh her work out a bit, adding more colour and grit.  Oh, she'd give him grit.  She gritted her teeth against the cold, or maybe it was the grit in her teeth blown up off the dusty concrete.  She looked at her watch despite herself.

   Of course it was her editor's idea to take Jacqueline along.  Jacqueline was a Park Avenue socialite who liked to play at being a photographer in between shopping binges and wild parties and crash diets and charitable causes.  It was not that Jacqueline was mean-spirited about her wealth (Lilah had slept on her plush couch on more than one occasion), but she couldn't help but wear her privilege on her sleeve.  She certainly couldn't keep to anything as proletarian as a schedule.

   To pass the chilly minutes Lilah went over the project again in her mind.  She had already spent the morning interviewing the huddled homeless, pumping them for information about the rumours that swept the street more quickly and cruelly than any early winter wind.  Whispers of a serial killer that preyed on the weak and the forlorn after dark.  Tales of a lair in the sewers or in the subway tunnels, or maybe deeper yet in the bowels of the earth.  Of course no one could name names or point fingers (it was always a friend of a friend of a friend who had heard it first), but Lilah took pride in a good ground game.  The stories churned like wisps in the wind, but she had been able to map the pieces and their frequency, and had triangulated the epicentre with uncanny accuracy.  Of course her editor knew nothing about this new angle, but Lilah was not about to squander an opportunity to investigate such a juicy story in the safety of numbers.  Now all she needed was the silver-spoon shutterbug to see if the rumours were true.

   “Lilah, dear!” called the carefully affected voice of Jacqueline accompanied by the familiar clopping of her high-heeled boots.  Her blonde hair was blowing from beneath a fur hat (fake she assured Lilah, a little too earnestly to believe), and her make-up was immaculate enough to guess at the sleep rings under her eyes.  Still, Jacqueline shone like an angel in this place of black suit-coats and faded tatters.  Lilah herself was not an unattractive girl, but her straight brown hair and bohemian garb made her look something of a peasant next to a princess.

   “Up too late at the museum gala ball?” Lilah asked, shaking her watch.

   “Don't be ridiculous, Darling,” Jacqueline scoffed.  “Last night I was at the Waldorf reopening party.  The dreadfully dull museum gala ball is tonight!  Now do look at these perfectly wretched hobos I snapped on my way down the block,” Jacqueline continued disdainfully, sliding through the pictures on her camera.  “Look!  She's wearing what used to be a metallic puffer jacket from the 1990s.  I think a mouse is nesting here where the seam is burst!”

   Lilah forced a smile.  “That's great, Jacqueline!  They might just run that with the story.  You got her name, right?”

   Jacqueline's face betrayed the slightest look of panic before recovering its practised facade.  “Oh bother,” she said.

   “Don't worry about it,” Lilah said, dragging her colleague down the street.  “I've already interviewed her – lovely person, really.  But you are right about the mice, unfortunately....”

   Jacqueline shrieked despite herself, and then returned Lilah's smile.  Well, if they weren't exactly close, at least they were on friendly terms.

   “Here we are,” said Lilah, turning a corner into an alley.  The noise of the streets seemed to fade behind them, replaced now with a vague hum pierced by sudden clanking sounds of ominous origin.

   “Are you sure about this?” Jacqueline asked, unable to hide the tentative tone.

   “The homeless are more victims then vicious,” Lilah replied.  “We'll be fine as long as we stick together.  Flashlight?”

         *   *   *   *   *

   And down they went, through an abandoned parking garage, into the dark underbelly of the living city.  The occasional flutter or scuffle belied life in these first few levels, sometimes human but too wretched to brave the wind and light above, but often animal (although at times it was hard to tell the difference, even in the full glare of their flashlights).  Lilah tried her best to get quotes or info on life in the underground, or to see if anyone had heard of homeless children going missing (although not entirely true, it did tend to elicit more helpful responses).  Most of the squatters were stoned beyond coherence, and at least once the piles of rags seemed more corpse-like than alive, but at last at the bottom-most depths they found an old toothless man that mumbled angrily and pointed towards a grate on the floor.

   “They scream in whispers,” was all they could make out, over and over again.  “They scream in whispers.”  Jacqueline took his picture, although the man recoiled like a vampire from the flash of light.  Lilah did not write down his words.  Those she would not forget.

   Listen as they might at the grate, all they could hear were the quiet sighs of air buried too long against its will.  It took both of them some effort (although Jacqueline's seemed half-hearted), but eventually they managed to pry it up and descend a rusty service ladder still further into the blackness.  Here was a silence more sinister than even the creepy sounds above, like the dread menace of the grave when the last desperate twitches of life have ceased.  Eventually the pair emerged into tunnels so old that the bricks themselves had begun to drip into stalactites. 

   “Surely there is nothing deeper,” Jacqueline whispered, afraid of disturbing the smothering silence.  “A man can only sink so low.”

   “What is that, then?” Lilah whispered back.  For down the tunnel there was now the faintest glow, and the unmistakable movement of shadows on the wall.  They froze, listening, and there was indeed the faintest clack-and-whir as if from some half-broken machine.  Jacqueline withdrew a pepper spray bottle from her pocket.  Lilah smiled, flashing the palm-sized pistol that she kept in her own.  Nodding to each other, they slowly crept towards the light and noise.

   They began to round the corner, noticing that the masonry of the floor gave way to more steel grating.  Indeed, the steel bars were now on all sides, and above something resembling fire-escape stairs stretched out of the light, no doubt providing a different route back to the surface.  Below was nothing but blackness, although they thought they could imagine the vague outline of pipes and catwalks in the brighter flashes of light.  Another step and they could see the lights were flashing on the wall as if from a projector, showing what might have once been segments of black and white movies, but the scenes were cut and disjointed, and looped endlessly again and again.  Another step and they came to notice that the shadows were made by bobbing dolls, strung disturbingly from their necks by strings that attached them to some kind of conveyor belt that twisted them first one way and then another in a macabre dance of the hanged.

   “What do you think this place is?” Jacqueline asked, daring to snap a few photos.

   “I don't know,” Lilah replied, recoiling from the dancing dolls who seemed to leer hideously at her.  “A warning to stay away?  But it's so bright and obnoxious that anyone nearby would be drawn to investigate....”  Suddenly Lilah new exactly what the purpose of this place was, although she hardly dared think it.  Her body seized stiff, and she fumbled for the pistol in her pocket, accidentally dropping it onto the grating on the floor.  “Jacqueline,” she squeaked feebly.  “It's a trap.”

   And then the grating gave way and they were falling into blackness.

         *   *   *   *   *

   “And what have we here, hmmmm?” crooned a voice, and a hand brushed too familiarly against her cheek.  Lilah came to with a jolt, realizing that her arms and legs were restrained, although her body was upright.  She stared fearfully at the man in front of her in the half-light.  He wore a theatre mask over his face, but it was done up in make-up and lipstick to look like some hideous parody of beauty.  Blonde and white tufts stuck out akimbo to frame the mask in great matted chunks, more like a mangy mane than human hair.  But the eyes were the most haunting part of him, mad and ruthless and lustful all at the same time.  And around them the small bits of skin that were visible seemed to bubble like the scales of a cold-blooded lizard.

   Lilah was suddenly aware of weeping, and the man stepped back to reveal Jacqueline chained on the floor, a great bruise across her face.  Her fancy clothes were ripped, and Lilah could see through the tatters that there were scratch marks all over her soft skin.  In dread, she turned back to their captor, and despite the impassive mask the eyes belied a cruel smile.  He waved something that smelled like cooked meat in her face, and to her horror she realized it was a human arm.  The man turned the hand part towards him and stuck a cooked finger into the mouth-hole in his mask, biting off a bit of flesh.  Lilah gagged in revulsion.

   “Welcome to my sanctuary, my dear lost little birds,” said he as he chewed, waving the arm expansively about him.  It seemed like he was wearing some kind of monk robe, but Lilah was distracted from his clothing by the faint outline of a maze of steel stairs and catwalks above and below.  Her heart caught in her throat at the silhouette of another female form, minus an arm, dangling upside down through bars which she now realized were on all sides of her.  She choked back the panic rising like bile in her throat.

   “Who are you?” was all she could manage.

   The man tucked the cooked arm into his robe pocket and held up her notebook, chuckling to himself.  “Always on the clock,” he chided, tossing it carelessly into the corner.  “Do you know I was once like you, working my days away?  Like a beast in the yoke!” he shouted, suddenly angry, but just as quickly returned to a crooning tone.  “I was on a trading desk, you know.  They used to call me Mr. Big.”  He raised his hand up to the one solitary bulb of light dangling above the ceiling bars, and Lilah could see his nails were inches long, more like yellowed claws, and that the back of his hand carried the same bubbly scars as his face.  “They told me I could own the world!  And I very nearly did,” he giggled, now rubbing his hands together like a child.  “I knew they had their knives out, behind their backs, just waiting....” he trailed off, kicking something else across the floor to tumble down into the labyrinth of darkness and steel.  Only when it was gone did Lilah realize it had been her pistol, and she swallowed weakly.

   Mr. Big came to stand behind her, which was much worse, for now her imagination tortured her as to his next move.  His next words came as a raspy whisper, right near her ear: “Do you know what people are like when it's their ass on the line?  Do you know what a man will do to save his own bacon?  Do you know who he'll step on to raise himself up?”  Again the wicked chuckle, and Lilah tensed as the clawed fingers came to massage her shoulders.

   “Oh, I know,” he said, now teasing her hair between his nails before moving on to Jacqueline.  “I know!” he shouted.  “That's why I built this, as a bolt-hole, just in case it all went south.  Just in case the great pyramid of assholes started to crumble, drowning us all in their shit!  I was ready, even though I didn't see it coming when it came.”  Jacqueline trembled at his feet, but Mr. Big now seemed lost in his own narrative.  “They smashed planes into my office,” he ranted.  “Took out the four floors below me.  My own coworkers used me as a human shield to shelter from the heat!  That's what people can do if you push them to the brink,” he growled, clawing at his mask.  “And it's only gotten worse since – yes, I keep up to date on the news down here.  Super storms and great recessions and demagogues and virus plagues!  The ship is obviously sinking, and the clowns in charge just keep the band playing!”

   Lilah tried to steady her nerves.  She was probably going to regret it, but the words came bubbling up out of her mouth.  “So who's the clown in charge down here?” she asked.  She made herself make eye-contact with Mr. Big.

   Slowly, ominously he turned.  There was a fire in his eye quite apart from the old burn scars.  Mr. Big stalked menacingly up to her, and grabbed her chin with that hideously clawed hand.  “Oh, things down here are just as bad as they are up there,” he whispered.  “Maybe even worse, if you're on the bottom rung.  But here's the difference: the clown in charge down here doesn't sugar coat it with lies and platitudes.  What you see is what... you...  get!”  His breath rasped through the tiny hole in the mask, drowning Lilah in a stench so foul that it made her eyes water.  But still she held his gaze, not daring to look away.  Dangerous animals could sense weakness, after all....

   A squeaking came from along the catwalk and they both turned to see a beautiful woman in a wheelchair just outside her cell.  “Excuse me, sir?” she asked in a surprisingly professional voice.

   “Uh?!  What is it, Miss Teschmacher?”

   “It's the twins, sir.  You told me to tell you as soon as they were ready.”

   “Oh yes,” Mr. Big muttered.  “Yes!  I remember.  You will have to forgive me, ladies,” he said in a magnanimously civil tone, releasing his grip of Lilah's face.  “I'm afraid I have business elsewhere at the moment.  But let's do lunch tomorrow, shall we?” he asked, mischievously prancing towards the door of what Lilah realized was their cell.  “I am, after all, a man of many appetites.”  And with that he swung the wheelchair into the cell and pushed, so that Miss Teschmacher fell out onto the cell floor.  In horror Lilah saw that she was entirely missing her legs.

   Mr. Big merely laughed and strutted away down the catwalk, whistling a merry tune to himself.

   “What happened to you,” Lilah asked, unable to tear her eyes from the stumps on the woman's exposed thighs.

   “The same thing that will happen to you, if not worse,” Miss Teschmacher spat, pushing herself up into a sitting position before scooting back towards her wheelchair.  “Now shut up and rub this marinade all over yourself.”  A plastic bottle was tossed at Lilah's feet.

   “I...  I can't reach it.”  Lilah flexed against her bonds.  She was tied to some sort of upright plank affixed to the middle of the floor.

   “Too bad for you,” Miss Teschmacher said, hauling herself up into the wheelchair.  “He doesn't like it when you don't listen to instructions.”  And with that she wheeled off, slamming the door to the cell behind her.

   “Holy fuck,” Lilah said, squirming at her bonds.  “Jacqueline, are you all right?  Jacqueline?”  Lilah turned to see that Jacqueline was no longer whimpering, but rather undoing her bonds with a key.

   “What?!” Jacqueline shrugged, clicking off the last of her chains.  “When all you date is rich pricks, you learn how to pick pockets and take a beating.  Oh, yeah, now suddenly I'm the monster!”  She rolled her eyes at Lilah as she stooped to work at the other woman's bonds.  “In the real world, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.”  Soon they were both free.

   “Does the key work on the door?” Lilah asked, suddenly seeing her friend in a whole new light.

   “Give me a sec,” Jacqueline cursed, reaching through the bars to try the lock.  Lilah picked up the notebook and the marinade (which read Dr. Cawlins' Special Sauce), but there was nothing else in the cell.  Then there was a very satisfying click from the door.

   “Oh Jacqueline, you are fantastic!” Lilah whispered.  They tiptoed out and along the catwalk, painfully aware that the bars and grating of the open-concept prison made it impossible to hide out of sight.  Somewhere in the distance there was a muffled scream, but with the way sound echoed down here it was hard to tell where it had come from.  They rounded a corner and there was an unmistakable sound of a gun cocking.

   “Don't move an inch or I'll tenderize your meat,” Miss Teschmacher threatened.  They both turned around to face their assailant.

   “He doesn't trust you with bullets,” Jacqueline replied dismissively, not bothering to raise her hands as Lilah had.  “If he did, you would have blown your own brains out long ago.”

   Miss Teschmacher's well-practised poker-face gave nothing away.  “I guess we're gonna find out,” she retorted, but that's as far as she got.  At that moment Lila squirted the Dr. Cawlins' Special Sauce in her eyes, causing her to scream in pain.  Jacqueline grabbed the gun and checked the chamber.

   “Empty,” she said, unable to hide the satisfaction from her voice.  She flipped the gun around and brought it down hard on the back of Miss Teschmacher's head.  The crippled woman went limp.

   “She's just a victim like us!” Lilah said, tossing the bottle of marinade aside.  “It's classic Stockholm syndrome!”

   “Those screams will bring Mr. Big,” was all Jacqueline replied.

   “This place is full of screams.”

   Jacqueline shrugged.  “Well I'm not carrying that sack of bitch up all those stairs.”

   Lilah looked up to see the steel stairs snaking away into the blackness.  “I will,” she said.

   Up, up they climbed, and soon they came to the projector and the dancing dolls.  “There,” said Jacqueline, pointing at the ceiling just before they entered the trap.  Lilah had to strain to crane her neck under the dead weight of Miss Teschmacher draped over her shoulders.  She saw the fire-escape ladder in its upright position out of reach above them.  “Give me a boost.”

   Lilah grunted, gently lowering her load to the grated floor where Miss Teschmacher moaned and clutched at her head.  Lilah stooped and braced her hands to let Jacqueline step into them.  “One, two, three!”  Lilah heaved as Jacqueline lunged for the fire-escape ladder.  Remarkably she reached it on the first try, pulling it down to its full extension.

   Miss Teschmacher started laughing, and sat up.

   Jacqueline ignored her and started climbing the ladder.

   “This is exactly how I lost my first leg,” Miss Teschmacher said casually, as if they were all just buddies shooting the breeze.  “It'll be my arm this time.”  Then she lunged and wrapped her arms around Lilah's legs, clutching them in a death grip.

   “We're trying to save you!” Lilah cried, trying to pry the other woman off of her.

   “He'll catch you,” she said.  “He always does.  Listen, he's coming!”

   All three of them froze, and above the clacking and whirring of the projector and the doll jangling mechanisms drifted the unmistakable sound of a male baritone in full song.

   “Let go!”  Lilah pleaded, beginning to pull at Miss Teschmacher's hair in desperation.  “I'll carry you up, I promise.  Just let me go!”

   “There is no escape,” Miss Teschmacher said simply.  To her horror Lilah began pulling out whole tufts of hair from the other woman's scalp, but still the grip did not lesson.  The ominously pleasant singing grew louder, and Lilah began to punch with her fists.

   “He's faster than you think,” Miss Teschmacher said despite the blows to her head.  “He'll catch you, no matter how quickly you run.”

   “Help me!” Lilah called to Jacqueline, but the fire-escape ladder suddenly recoiled up into the ceiling once more.  “Jacqueline!?!”

   “He can't catch us both, if we go different ways,” Jacqueline called down.  She ripped a length of tattered clothing from her body, and began tying the ladder to its frame to stop it from lowering easily.

   Lilah screamed, but not in rage.  Miss Teschmacher had bitten her leg so hard it felt like a chunk had come loose under her jeans.

   “Here,” said Jacqueline coolly, tossing a small iron bar down through the ladder opening.  Lilah grabbed it and started stabbing it at Miss Teschmacher's head.  On the third blow the woman collapsed, blood running down her face, but she laughed maniacally.  The singing now seemed to echo all around the chamber.

   “Jacqueline, let me up!” Lilah cried.

   “A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do,” was all Jacqueline replied.

   Lilah peered uncertainly into the pitch black tunnel down which they had come, her only other means of escape.  “I don't have a light!” she screamed.  But Jacqueline had already started climbing the steel stairs back to the surface.  Grimacing against the pain in her leg, Lilah began to hobble desperately into the blackness, careful to avoid the trap door again.  Miss Teschmacher laughed, wriggling her leg stumps grotesquely in the air.  And Mr. Big just sang happily, for there was nothing he enjoyed better than a hunt in the dark.

*   *   *   *   *

   A shower, a nap, and more make-up than usual was all it took to get Jacqueline to the museum gala ball that evening.  There the pompous egos of the upper crust rubbed against each other like great tectonic plates, with the colossal stresses and grinding forces hidden just below the surface.  She was surprised to find she enjoyed the gala more than she thought she would.