Thursday, February 11, 2010

What is it part 2

This is the second installment of the story. If you haven't read the first part, you'll find it in the next older post.

Degren's strong hand caught his collar and yanked him to the far end of the cave as a pterodactyl's head shot through the opening, blotting out the light. It made a deafening scream as its shoulders hit the cave mouth, bringing its jagged beak up just short of Decker's face. It snapped and writhed, trying to inch its way into biting range.
His eyes had adjusted enough to make out the creature's face when it shot backward out of the hole, allowing the now-blinding daylight to ray in. Its hungry scream turned into a surprised screech; one of the giant mastodons must have grabbed it. Degren clapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the other side of the cave. There was a black void in the wall; another passage! They dived for the new hole, hoping the pterodactyl wouldn't wrestle free in time to maul them while they crossed the cave.
The blackness in the new hole seemed perfect. Decker reached out to touch the sides and stumbled into emptiness, then banged into Degren's back, drawing a sharp grunt out of the big man. The noise of it echoed back at them, seemingly from great distances. The screams of the pterodactyls and the bellows of the mastodons were muffled and distant. As his senses began to acclimate and the thunder of his heart ebbed slightly, he noticed a sound like rushing water. Staring into the darkness at his feet, Decker thought he could make out a sort of dim neon glow. He crouched, reaching downward. His hand brushed the stone floor near his left toe, then brushed a pebble before its questing path. His hand struck a hard ridge and then nothing. He heard the pebble strike something lower and he overbalanced forward, barely catching himself. As his eyes learned to gather the faint luminescence of the rushing water far below, he saw that he and Degren stood on a wide ledge over a subterranean canyon. It was hard to judge the distance, but he noted the rattling of the falling pebble for a disconcerting length of time.
"I wonder when this crazy trip's gonna end," he muttered under his breath as he scrabbled back from the precipice.
"Trip?" Degren, a muted shadow in the darkness, slipped forward into the low phosphorescent glow. "Are you going somewhere?"
"Yeah, um, no," Decker turned to stare into the hollow voids of Degren's eyes, "I mean, this little hallucination, my peyote trip."
"The duration of your hallucinations I could only speculate on," Degren said, "but rest assured, the place you are now in is no figment, nor am I."
"You would say that. Anyway, what now? Is this someplace you've been before?"
"I have been in the outer cave, where we first escaped the monsters. There were no openings in its walls then, save its entry. I suggest we take a look back the way we came."
Decker peered up the short tunnel back to the first cave. He could see the light shining in from the outside, and hear the sounds of a gargantuan struggle. "The monsters are still fighting outside. Let's wait a while and see what happens."
Degren grunted and settled down against the wall. He seemed most interested in taking a nap, but Decker was too antsy to sit quietly. He dropped down next to Degren, trying to make out his expression in the soft, slate-gray shadows"So your friend, um, whassisname. He got jacked up on cactus before he disappeared?"
"Furge. Yes, he was seeking the wisdom of his ancestors. It is strange; no one has disappeared in this way for many dozens of seasons." Degren scratched his head. "No one has ever told of a thing such as this; that one person replaced another."
Decker noted that the chromatic trails before his eyes were losing their vibrancy, and that his companion's words were becoming clearer in his ears. "I still think this is all part of my little peyote dream, but if it weren't, I might think that this was the first time two people from alternate universes sat down in the exact same spot at the exact same time in their relative worlds and went on a spirit quest. The fabric of each universe might then become permeable, due to the matched perception shifts of the two people." He was really starting to feel like he'd gone off into some warped, Castenada-esque alternate reality.
"Your words are strange to me, but I think I make out their meaning," Degren said. "You are saying that worlds stand next to worlds, but may not usually see each other? Like the world of the living does not usually see the world of the dead?"
"Yeah, some people where I come from like to speculate on such things. I guess it's like all that other metaphysical crap; I'll believe it when I see it."
"Are you not seeing it now?"
"Debatable. Could be the effects of the drug."
"I have seen it. I did not partake of the cactus."
"You are a hallucination."
Degren thumped Decker's chest with a thick finger. "I felt that. Did you?"
"Ouch! Yes, I felt that. Your point is..?"
"Never mind." Degren sat silent for a moment. "I would like to find my companion, Furge. Our life together is full and good."
"If I'm right, I'll come down soon. Then everything should go back to normal."
"I do not think you are right, but I am willing to sleep on it for a little while. I don't know why, but I find I am very tired."
"Makes sense to me. I'm pretty bushed, too. I'll just wake up back in the cabin and this will all be over."
"If you wake up here with me, will you help me find Furge? It seems that your fates might be entwined."
Decker, certain that he'd wake up back in the shack, agreed sleepily. "Sure thing, bub. See you never."

The soft, distant rushing of water awakened him. At first he feared his eyelids were stuck shut, then he realized that the light was actually so dim that it seemed as though he still held them closed. His back and shoulders were stiff; his neck ached all the way to his eyeballs. The cold of the cave wall he leaned against permeated his being; he shivered uncontrollably. He staggered to his feet and tried to shake off a bout of dizziness, stumbling forward until his left foot met empty air. With a shock of memory, he realized that he was about to tumble into a dark chasm, the bottom of which contained a (probably freezing cold) raging underground river. He wheeled his aching arms backward, letting out a wild, mournful, "Shhhiiiiiiit!"
A familiar sensation jarred his awful reality; a strong hand grasped Decker's collar, yanking him back from the edge. "You're not getting out of our agreement that easily," Degren growled.
"Okay, this is absolute bullshit!" Safe at the cave wall, Decker shook himself free of the big man's grip. "What kind of a twisted fucking pseudo-science fantasy dream is this? I want to wake up!" He was gesticulating wildly, occasionally banging his knuckles on the stone of the cave. A manic spark of resolve fired in his mind. "This isn't fucking real. I'm going to prove it. I'm going to jump off that fucking cliff!"
He barely saw the shadow of Degren's impending hand before it struck a mighty slap to his cheek, rocking him back against the cave and bringing a whole fireworks display to the inside of his eyeballs. Degren's shadowy face was in his; both his hands were balled into fists and woven into Decker's collar. He was speaking slowly and intensely. "This is real. Do you understand? I care less if you live or die than that I find my Furge. But I think I need you to help me find him, and I do not think you really wish to die. That is what would happen if you leaped from that cliff. Do you believe me?"
Decker stared into that intense face as the fireworks in his eyes slowly faded, leaving only a throbbing headache. "Okay, I believe you. A guy could probably die in a dream, but he probably wouldn't get a headache." He shook his head and pulled his arms in across his quivering chest. "You can let me go now. I'll behave."
Degren went to the cave mouth this time. Decker watched him disappear up the short tunnel, then quickly scramble back down. An ear-rending screech followed him, then a squawk of pain. There was a muted rumbling from the tunnel. Decker felt a slight shuddering in the stone beneath his feet, and a cloud of dust blew in behind Degren as he rolled to his feet. Bits of rock skittered down to their feet, and the light from outside vanished entirely. Degren motioned Decker back from the cave mouth. "Must have started a landslide out there with their fighting. We'd better give it some time before we check it again."
"Oh for....shit." Decker scratched his head and slid to a sitting position against the wall. "Do you think we're trapped?"
Degren squatted next to him. "We'll wait until the rumbling stops, then we'll take a look." Something in his voice made Decker less than hopeful.
Several minutes later, Degren emerged from the nearly-clogged tunnel. "Looks pretty bad. Must have been a major crack in the shelf over the outer opening. The whole roof of the cave we started in seems to have come down in one piece. We'll have to find another way out."
"Then we're completely screwed, right? No food, no water, stuck in a big hole in the ground like some fucking trapped mice!" Decker sagged further down against the rough stone while rubbing roughly at his face with his hands. "I should have stayed in Scottsdale. I should have sucked up to all those pasty old RV hags. What the hell!"
Degren gave him a look of pity mixed with dismay. "Why don't we take a look around? Maybe it's not as bad as we think."
Decker glared up, ready to spit out some more vehement self-pity, but then he saw how close to cracking the bigger man was. "Ah, shit, maybe you're right. Let's go for a little mosey, see if there's anything to see."
It was impossible to tell for sure which way the water below them was flowing, but they decided to try their luck in the direction they thought was upstream, on the idea that they'd be getting closer to the water that way. They went left along the ledge, which initially threatened to narrow so much as to strand them. They had to creep along single file, backs against the stone, for what seemed like several hundred yards before it widened out again. At that point, it almost immediately started descending in slopes and ragged steps. Degren paused. "Maybe we should try the other way."
"Why? We're bound to get closer to the water this way, right? I'm getting pretty damned thirsty, brother! And I wasn't comfortable on that narrow ledge, anyway. I don't really want to do that again."
"The way these ledges descent here suggests that the river is flowing in the same direction we're walking. It may very well drop just as fast in the bottom of this chasm as these ledges do here. And we're getting deeper in the earth. I don't think that's a likely direction for our escape."
"Well, let's at least see if we can get to the water this way. It sure sounds louder to me. C'mon; another twenty minutes, and if we can't get a drink, we'll turn around."
They hadn't gone five hundred feet when the ledge ended what seemed to be a plate metal bridge to a large, stilted wooden platform. There was what looked to be an old gas lamp burning on a slender metal post at the far end, and the handrail parted just to one side of the lamp. One side of the rail turned downward and outward, as though a set of stairs or a steep ramp extended over the void. The deck boards were warped and cracked, and Decker could see areas where worms or beetles had eaten away large quantities of the wood.
Decker pulled up short of the rickety-looking wooden structure. "Damn, I don't know if I'd trust that thing."
"Well, it's turn back now or trust the fates," his furry companion replied, "and I'm quite content to turn back." Degren reached for the cavern wall, propping himself against it. His hand struck something smooth that gave inward as he leaned. A metallic clank issued from where he'd placed his hand.
Decker snapped to attention. "What was-" before he could finish his question, a series of grinding thuds and the trembling of metal beneath their feet cut him off. A queasy sensation rose in his belly as he felt the bridge they were standing on slowly tilting toward the edge. The wooden deck appeared to be unaffected, so both men stumbled onto the boards. Decker could feel the wood sagging and cracking under his weight, but there was no choice; the metal floor lurched and screeched away into the gloom with a great, long, stone-rending crash. Where they had been standing seconds before, they stared into a billowing cloud of dust. As it cleared, they could make out what appeared to be some sort of old metal framework attached to hinged rods and gears, all of which was now twisted and broken.
"M-must have been some kind of suspension bridge or something," Decker stuttered between adrenaline gasps. He could hardly take his eyes off the ragged gap, but the platform was creaking threateningly underneath him. "Shit! Shit! Shit! What now?"
"We'd better see if we can get over to that lamp, find out if there's a stairway where that railing drops down." Degren scoped out the boards in front of him, trying to see between to where the joists must be. He eased slowly along over a shadow line that he judged to be a larger support. "See if you can get on the same line I'm on, but stay back a ways. Better if we don't have both our weight in the same area."
Things were generally firmer near the lamp. Decker grabbed the pole and scanned the narrow iron stairway that zigged from one small platform to another as it descended into the chasm. At every third or fourth platform was another lamp pole. Most of the lamps were burning, though it appeared that further down more of them were out. They paraded downward to a vanishing point.
"Christ on a crutch, it's a long way down!" Decker felt light-headed; vertigo threatened to send him reeling back across the deck, back where he could not see the terrible spectacle of thatincredible drop. "Jesus, man, I don't think I can do it. I don't think I can go down those stairs!"
Degren put his hand on Decker's shoulder, eliciting a trembling groan. "What choice do we have? There is no way to go but down."

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