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by William Alan Rieser
Something eldritch and menacing permeated his skull from the dark alley. Chollie gnawed the danger mentally, staring down a welding arc without a safety mask. Going in, he'd be blind with no foreseeable exit. The inky conundrum of the street rapidly absorbed several lives in a decadent, eerie silence. It was only a day and a night since the mystical presence manifested itself in the alley as an innocuous, vapory child of willowy, fanciful smoke. But now its second evening of lurking, incomprehensible and clinging fear approached. Chollie instinctively tasted its raw abnormality, but conquered his hasty emotional sense of it. The control wizards had no data for him, a numbing first for intrusive rescue-squad technicians. In that business,such rare situations were digitally chamfered by the programmers with what usually worked. For an unknown penetration like this one, it signified the apparent flawlessness of the opposition versus the inadequacy of his team's available resources. Without possessing a pattern or the most meager of clues, Chollie was limited by his wits, desire, and battle experience.
The alley was mysteriously unscannable. This, according to Control, was inherently impossible in view of their backup technology, but even the virtual absorption probe had been repulsed and even ruined by the intruder. A method would eventually be found to pierce the invisible shroud, but it was late in coming. When Sully, his best friend, attempted to liberate the locals with his heavily armored squad, they vanished mere moments after entering the enigma. There were no responses of any kind. Except for a brief audio signal that sounded like a muted jackhammer, deep in the street's bowels, Sullivan and the crew were MIA. Just fifty feet before him. It was a violation of common sense. He siphoned its violence from the air, breathing it to enhance his own growing dissatisfaction. Chollie was the toughest, smartest, most successful squad leader because of his ability to improvise against and overcome horrific odds. Sullivan was a good reason to get his blood ignited. The innocent residents were another. His choice was to do the backup job himself, or wait for a promised advantage from the technical demons. In his current mood, waiting was a loathsome option. Lives could be irretrievably lost by poor timing. "The death carnival! Satan hawking the rides," he thought, remembering a recent horror flick. "It's medieval! Lovecraftian. I'll counter them with superior wickedness."
"Give me a read, Skunk," whispered Chollie into his comlink from a shadowed cloister below a staircase. He had a full view of the ally entrance.
"Old-fashioned brownstones. Should be cobblestones. Lots of gates and stairs. No illumination anywhere. No residuals of any kind, not even the crew," said Skunk. "The scopes are zero. Nasty. Like your counterbore simulations."
"No boot chemicals?" asked Chollie incredulously. "No molecular residue?"
"Not a trace. Everything is functioning outside. I've got you perfectly captioned. But, once you step into that place, you're on your own. It must be an unknown repellant or blocking signal. Nightmare scene, man!"
"The other squads?"
"Getting into position now. They're a mile away from us to the east and west on the other calls. They keep asking if you know what's going on yet. You're the one with the rep, so I figure they'll key on what you uncover."
"Damned insane," replied Chollie. "Total question marks. Tell them to hang tight unless you don't hear from me in an hour. Sully's countin' on me."
The last street lamp across from the alley was bright at its source, but it diffused greatly at the entrance as though a light-smith deliberately wanted to diminish clarity. "A clue," reasoned Chollie, staring at the range of that light on the rest of the well-illuminated block. "They must have an immense generator to do a thing like that, to select portions of radiance." Chollie crawled to a corner of the liver-colored brick building that framed the turn into the ebony street. There were cobblestones at the edge of visibility, attenuating in the near blackness. He smelled the outre, cloying effect beyond that edge, smelling rank, musky colognes of asbestos mixed with soy spray. He clawed at the smothering solitude as though he was glued to a flat rock at the bottom of a well filled with slick, acidic foam. Chollie felt the alley's bunched, hopeless air, thick with dark fog, thin with barely detectable currents. He saw the bricks altered into obsidian slate not six feet beyond his position. "They know I'm coming. Charles Alley. Bad luck for them," he compelled himself to feel.
Chollie set his jaw in a tight clench and undulated across the wavering line between the building corners. The weirdness immediately covered him with its diaphanous skin. The only sound came from his knees and elbows as they swished him forward. He knew he was being stealthy, yet, compared to the alley's suppressed voice, he was a band playing a Sousa march in a hospital's critical-care unit. Not good. A dozen feet into the alley, Chollie stood up and rationalized. "No sounds. No light. No movements. I can't see much of anything. That's the reality. No insects, rodents, or birds. That's odd. Every alley has its cats, its pigeons, and its multitude of flies. But not here."
He forced himself into idle, waiting for his eyes to adjust, needing to distinguish shapes by defining hundreds of minute shades of black, gray and charcoal. Just when he thought he was ready, Chollie stepped forward and promptly smashed his right knee against a fire hydrant, which only became apparent with the pain. "Where did they go?" he asked himself, grimacing. It became obvious he was missing more than he was seeing. Contact lenses were switched by implants to lunar bandwidths between infrared, ultraviolet, and the latest interblue. He was visually stunned with the result. There was no helpful color at all to guide him. The only visual improvement was the alley's geometry, which defined its angles better than before. A unique crosshatch superimposed itself on his imaging, as though his eyes were multi-faceted. Dimly, Chollie saw hundreds of bleakly repetitive brownstones, parked cars, garbage cans, and doused street lamps like a giant fly. "Sully would've done the same thing," he reasoned. "Where did he go in? Something must have attracted him. He's too crafty to get trapped, unless...."
"Shit!" he proclaimed with incredulity as he witnessed the alteration. The cobblestones disappeared in a wink. His boots were surrounded by tarry slime and the street surface was suddenly slicker and flatter. The bumps were ousted by ooze. There was no time for Chollie to think about that anomaly. Dead ahead a rotating brick wall challenged his sanity. He stared in disbelief as a blacker-than-black oval pulsed erotically in the dark rusty chunks like a convenient portal to a hellish masonry pit. It literally looked like the best, and now the worst, part of a woman, inviting him to a spider's idea of coitus. His mind conceived perpetually unsatisfied genitals edged with razors, ready to extract severe penalties for either premature insertion or
withdrawal. Rhythmically, the opening altered between micro and macro-terror, entrancing him while generating his first intimation of morbidity.
"This must be the place. Got to get out of this mess and bring in the tank," he thought as his blood's circulation surged.
"Skunk! I'm comin' out. Get the M12 ready!"
The comlink was silent. Skunk hadn't heard. Chollie took a step backward and slipped, falling heavily on his right side with a curse. Reality immediately redefined itself at that moment. The alley tilted. He was unable to grab anything to prevent his slide toward the portal. It was inhaling him into its maw like blood through a relentlessly sucking straw. He had no leverage. Desperately, Chollie held out his arms wide to grip the edges of a chained bicycle. It was futile. The chain snapped sickeningly in his ears. The portal simply expanded and whooshed him helplessly, mortally inside with its horribly strong vacuum.
So deposited, he saw with relief that it was a small room, barren except for a singular, spiral staircase in the center. "At least I know what got Sully's attention. Is this an invitation? Am I supposed to go down? What happens if I refuse?" Chollie turned around to face a solid wall of concrete. The portal had disappeared as quickly as he was ensnared.
"You didn't tell me this was a fuckin' one-way!" he shouted angrily, unclipping a laser gun with one hand and energizing his mini-klieg with the other. The staircase beckoned, offering a direction, down into further darkness. Whatever the truth, it was down there and Chollie steeled himself for the unknown. He advanced to the top step and grabbed the banister while seeking a view below.
"I'm comin' for ya', Creeplink. Better have insurance."
Two more steps and the spiral animated, filled with violet and mauve. It became an escalator and carried him in phosphorescent helix to its destination. "I was right! It is a carnival. Where are the bloody clowns with their axes? Come on, you sons of bitches. Show yourselves. You're dealin' with me."
He was deposited gently on a concrete floor, an obvious basement. It too seemed barren, like the room upstairs. Chollie strobed the klieg in quick bursts along the walls. He stopped short at the sight of an unusual array of uncouth bulges, blistered with odd, pimply, bulbous growths. One of them stirred as he neared and Chollie observed what could only be a human nose. The material obliterating the hidden face was a thick, ash-gray fungus, blotched with purple. Grabbing his knife, he began to methodically slash until the fungus sloughed off in layers. He was soon rewarded with Sully's face. His friend was breathing hard, struggling for air. Worse, he was tearful and crying, which was more unusual than the craziness around them. Sully had always been his equal in fearlessness. But this was virgin territory, psychic reality, a never-before-encountered death stimulus.
"I figured you'd be lollygaggin' while I was doin' all the god-damned work. Where are the others?"
Sully quickly snapped out of it. "All along the walls, Chollie," he said the moment his mouth was free of muck. "I couldn't stop it. Weapons don't work."
"Who are they?"
"You mean 'what', don't you?"
"Unless we are. Maybe Earth belonged to them first. They sure can control it better than we can."
"Have you seen them?"
"No. Hell, I didn't know it was you comin' through that door."
"What door? I came down a spiral escalator."
Both men looked at the same spot. Chollie saw his spiral. Sully saw his door. Neither spoke as both images melted into the pallid, mottled gray of the cellar walls. Chollie busied himself removing the rest of the fungus, only to discover that Sullivan was further pinned by thick metallic bands about his neck and limbs.
"This is completely absurd," he stated with frustration.
"Worse! We never saw it coming. They don't fight fair, whatever they are."
"What about the locals? Are they here too?"
"Could be. My whole team is right here on this wall, but I can't make any of 'em out any more. The others could easily be near. I didn't see any of them. Morales was next to me, so he's probably the next bump over."
Chollie scanned the wall with his mini-klieg.
"Sorry guy, but you're the only bump. This wall is flatter than a vacuum pallet. There's nothing else here."
"That's awful! Where the fuck are they? And where are the locals?"
"Tell you what. I'll bust you out of these things and we'll do a search."
"Luna class, I hope."
"Shit, yeah. Something's gotta work down here."
Chollie eviscerated the fungus which, when separated, seeped into the concrete's pores.
"Mighty unfriendly bastards, wouldn't you say?" Sully opted for quiet contemplation.
Chollie investigated the bands. They were bonded to the concrete walls by a tough, unyielding cement. There were no fasteners of any kind. He finally succeeded in breaking the connection with an ultrasonic chisel. In moments, Sullivan was free, grateful, and ready for anything. It was a trait which endeared him to his team leader.
"I think that squares Lhasa," mentioned Chollie with mirth.
"I hope you called in the M12."
"I tried. The comlink's dead. Skunk's been told to wait an hour. It's only been fifteen minutes."
"Where do we start?"
"Corners and cracks. Got to be a weak spot somewhere. Any grates or drains?"
"No. I already checked. Just an air-conditioning vent in the ceiling."
"Were you guys pulled in or did you walk into that wall?"
"Neither. All of us were on manhole covers. The second we tried to jump off, the sewer holes opened wide and down we came, vertical and quick."
"Was the street slimy?"
"Not a bit. It was filled with rubble and things like bocci balls with spikes. That's why we got on the manholes, to get out of the way."
"Clever, I'll give them that. Now it's our turn." He activated the Luna probe. Both men watched the device scan the cellar for life. There were multiple signals, most of which they recognized as human. Others were not. Chollie was about to put the probe in second phase to locate the enemy when a bright blue light surrounded it without preamble. When their sight recovered from the sting of its intensity, they saw that their device was no longer there.
Chollie viciously dug a blade into the corner seam. Suddenly, silver bands of metal appeared implacably around his biceps, wrists and ankles. He was yanked forcefully across the room, helpless, and pinioned to his host's specimen tray. He looked at Sully and phrased a silent order with his eyes. Sully obeyed and started to rise from the floor where he was probing cracks with his knife. Before he could stand, however, similar bonds enclosed him around the neck and knees, pinning him awkwardly in the very spot where he had just been freed.
"A fine mess you've got me in," cried Chollie. Both men laughed aloud, their usual response to craziness. It was one of the reasons they had lasted so long as friends and become a good team. But, almost simultaneously with their bravado, more enigmatic bands materialized around other limbs. Neither man could move, and Sully dropped his knife.
"Situation seems secure, sir," he offered with a smirk. "At least your lamp works."
"They don't seem to be concerned with our dicks," responded Chollie, making both of them choke. Laughter as a weapon? Maybe they react to humor?
"I got snagged about two minutes after getting here," said Sullivan dully.
"OK, so they're not as slick as our women. I wonder if the other squads are facing the same dilemma in their sectors? "Do they use hallucinogens? Visual-lapse chemicals? They probably think that by testing us, capturing the best of the lot, the things they want will be easy pickings."
"Same thing on Skunk's scope?"
"Yeah, but more intense. Either there're more of them here, or they're charging up to do something. Can't focus on the alley. Some kind of stigmatism." Got to find a way out, he thought. There's always an alternative.
"Any idea why? Why here in the city?" asked Sully.
"None. Not much above us except residents. Nothing really significant enough to suggest a plausible motive." Maybe it's a substance in the building. Something forgotten in a storage container? Something we don't consider valuable or interesting. For aliens? Who knows?
"Remind you any of that spaghetti virus?" queried Chollie.
"You mean the thing that mutated from the bio lab? Yeah, a little, come to think of it. But that wasn't capable of defending itself, remember?"
"We don't know what's important to them."
"No, we don't. Neither do we know who or what they are, let alone what they're after. Could it be us? Why? Contact, zoo specimens, chemical sources, dinner?"
"That's a lot of questions," stated Sully. "And no answers."
"Too many for dumb grunts." Is it us? he wondered. Why does this place look so strange to me? "Does the cellar look the same as when you got here?"
"The door and the escalator are gone."
"Easy come, easy go," commented Chollie quietly, beginning to sweat a little.
"Coming is more fun than going," said Sully with emphasis. "Actually, the cellar does not look as solid to me as it once did. More like clay."
"I suppose we can rule out alien gang rape?"
"No, not that! Anything but that," cried Sully, and they continued to laugh.
"Maybe, hah, we walked into something we're incapable of understanding. Our first real chamfer bust." It must be us.
"Right! If it's real, it can die. I think we'd better get serious."
The walls visibly moved around them like an erratic roller-coaster. Little, egg-sized ovals of dim white materialized in the malleable surface like cysts. They were unmistakably fashioned like human eyes. "So! Another clue," thought Chollie. "They're well familiar with our species."
The walls started to close in on them incrementally, just like in a hundred B movies watched with admiration in his youth. It took most of Chollie's self-control to prevent a gasp from escaping through his twitching lips.
"It wasn't like this before," said Sully studiously. "I believe they drugged me, like that stuff they used on us in Serbia."
"Like that! You were more resistant than me, remember?"
"Yeah, but this stuff is more powerful. I'm reacting. The walls are moving in."
"I see it too, so that's probably real. We need a better tactic than guessing."
"You're right, Sully. What can we use? Traditional weapons are useless. If we can surmise their presence, perhaps the light from our combined lasers might move them. Or shoving our mini-kliegs down their throats."
The room shrank noiselessly around them. The only light source was Chollie's lamp, still rolling on the floor where it had fallen. The corners and cornices became indistinct as they melded together in curves. Gruesome ripples of hidden vermin punctuated the elasticity, now of a leathery, sack-like consistency. The contours stretched and wrinkled like an immense bag. The eyes began to bulge and pop out, lurching to the bottom as their sockets sealed behind them. The confining manacles withdrew without warning, and the two men fell onto the piled eyes and each other.
"I don't think I'm getting this," said Sully, struggling under Chollie.
"I'm tired of this bullshit. Let's try something original."
"Knife climb," shouted Sully, and both retrieved two notched, serrated daggers from their belt sheaths. The blades penetrated the sack horizontally and quickly so that the men could propel themselves malevolently upward with sheer muscular effort. They reached what had once been the ceiling, now a reversed, crinkled, black prune that disappeared into what was formerly the ceiling's air vent. Clinging to the knife in his left hand, Chollie swiped the second across the prune's lined face, tearing it and releasing a foul stench that nearly gagged him. Sully attempted a similar strike, but was forestalled. To their combined incredulity, the men's embedded knives altered to vertical. They found themselves sliding back down, ripping the sack in long gashes as they plummeted to the uttermost bottom. The incisions self-healed as the men descended.
They couldn't help splitting open some of the eyeballs when their weight crash-landed. It was difficult for them to stand. A greenish gas emitted from the broken orbs and filled the bag. Then, as they gasped in the fumes, a new horror fell upon them through the formerly sealed slits in the giant tote. Sully's crew came pouring through, vomited down the wrinkled chutes to join their leaders. They were soon followed by the original captives, the local residents and their pets, frozen amidst their terror. All of them were paralyzed and helpless, prone with the grim certainty of death on their faces. They crushed open the last of the remaining eyeballs in a macabre human-animal stew, but it was hopeless to look for help among these new arrivals. Only Sully was animated.
"Plunge them," commanded Chollie, thrusting his knives directly into the bag wall in an attempt to gouge it open. It was no good. The blades dissolved when they were withdrawn, and he held the hafts up for Sully to observe. Too late, another thought occurred to him. "It's crazy, but I feel like this is something worse than a trap. It feels like we're in some ugly transport, speeding us away to another galaxy."
Both became cognizant of another feature of the green gas. As it liquefied, their boots began to smoke and burn in reaction to the vapor's intrusive acerbity. Time was running out. Desperation replaced strategy.
"Guess we insulted our host," said Sully, kicking the tote with futility. They tried to use their fingers and nails to dig into the bag, but it was to no avail. They flung reeled line claws as high as they could, but the pincers failed to pierce anything near the prune. They shot their lasers until the charges read zero, to no effect. Finally, per their long-standing agreement, they triggered grenades to prevent their unknown captors from taking them alive. Detonation miserably failed them.
"Can't fight our way out, can we?" bemoaned Chollie. "Can't even go on our own terms."
"I hate to say this, Chollie," answered Sully as the gas penetrated their lungs and brains, "but I've figured it out."
"I know! It's the only... possible... answer. It's a stomach."
In the final distortion of perception, both men lay voiceless and immobile as the black prune, finally revealed as a monstrous alien head, came ready and ravenous as it floated down to them. It unfolded a red portal of its own, filled with alien cutlery, rasps, and crushing pistons.
* * *
"Well, dad, did I pass?"
"I'm afraid not," said the father. "You neglected some essentials, something a future Governor of this sector of the Crawl cannot do."
"Oh, come on. I did my configurations exactly the way you taught me. What do you think, mom?"
"I agree with your father. Now some parts of it were much improved over your last lesson, like the enticements within their environment. You showed some superior skill in maneuvering them to congregate inside the shuttle, and your duplications of certain structures is laudable, but your protocols are still quite juvenile."
"What do you mean? What protocols?"
"When dealing with such primitive entities," explained the mother, "if sentient communication seems impossible, then a substitute must be found. You caused these creatures tremendous anxiety needlessly."
"That's not fair! I introduced myself and told them what it was all about."
"Yes, in our language, which is gibberish to them. You neglected to switch on the translator again. All you succeeded in doing is frightening the poor things into believing that they were being ingested. These creatures actually survive by eating other creatures on their planet. Given their minimal technological abilities, they had no idea we are inviting them to a reception or that their meager achievements have been recognized."
"Oh, wow. No wonder I failed. What should I do?"
"Your father will reset the temporals. Put them back where they were and do it over again until you get it right. They are expected at the Boundary so that they can be initialized into reality. We have to instruct them gently that they are not the center of the universe. You'll have to refine your technique. Now do it accurately, or you can forget about nebula races for the next eon."
Story copyright 2002 by William Alan Rieser WRieser283@aol.com
Illustration copyright 2002 by Jon Eke email@example.com
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