The following is a tale of chilling terror and high adventure which I am legally required to submit to our insurance company in claiming the loss of our office. Hold tight to your SOUL, gentle reader/appointed auditor, for the twists and turns, the loops and weaves of this dreadful yarn are sure to knit an afghan of sheer horror the likes of which will not shield you from the monsters… in your own mind!
It was a normal day just like any other, except that I’d finally decided to come in to work. The commute from Minneapolis to Denver made it difficult these days, but I hadn’t been in a while and my company-issued laptop (circa 2006) needed to be updated. There was no way in hell I was going to buy a laptop myself, and so it was off to the office to bilk a new machine out of my “bosses.” A short train ride later I was already haggling with security (like I’M the only one who travels with a shotgun anymore. Jesus Christ.) to board my flight for the Mile High.
I got on the plane and squeezed into my seat, paid the pittance to watch reruns of Samurai Jack on the seat back TVs and settled in for a long flight. I sat there for a while, drinking a ten-dollar shot of Jameson, unable to shake a feeling that something wasn’t right. Something about that flight was making me uncomfortable… foreboding? Cramped seats? That homeless guy in the terminal who just kept POINTING at me, screaming “DOOOOOOOM?” I shifted in my seat, repositioning my keys. That was it. The rest of my flight I watched reruns in peace.
An hour and a half later (shut up, that’s long) I was haggling with security (again! It’s only ONE crate of shells!) and loading up the rental car for the long, quiet drive from the airport to the creaky old gate marking the access road through our haunted forest.
There was a folded note pinned to the fence when I arrived:
Everyone but you was invited to a SUPER IMPORTANT CONFERENCE in Las Vegas because you’re a HUGE JERK. Confy is off the grid and Dumfy is hanging out with SCIENCE, who said they would put electrodes in his brain. We’ve got Doc, because he says he ‘knows Vegas.’ The Wiki-Tiki has a village to demand tribute from, Lars is roadying for Motorhead and Mitch quit to open a pot dispensary. Did you know they’re legal here now? Did you know an owl can run one? No, YOU’RE weird. SHUT UP.
We left Radley here because he was in the vents again and Nurfy because she’s a bitch. Jerry should be around, both taking care of the office and because I specifically forbid him from leaving. Haha, Jerry, he loves that shit. That shit where I force him to do things he hates. It’s great.
Also, we left the Convenience Device running on Factor 5, so we should get back from the Conference of Managers Conveniently Out of Town to Allow Ensuing Shenanigans when it’s most convenient for us to do so.
Again, you’re a total jerk.
Signed, Everyone but the JERK.
“Huh,” I wondered aloud, “I never knew we had a convenience device.” A piece of paper fell out of the note:
Yes, we’ve always had a convenience device. And it’s always set to Factor 5, because that’s the most convenient. And before you asks how it works, we actually wrote the note on the instruction manual. Don’t worry, it all gets explained further on in the article. Now go inside before you break the fourth wall any harder, you JERRRRRRRK!
And so I did.
The facility is eerie enough when you can hear Ian weeping in another room, Reid shouting angrily at some game he’s failing at or the interns trying not be heard complaining in the break room. When I arrived that day to nothing but silence, I was a little confused. The office looked like it had been abandoned, the taxidermied whale in the lobby had fallen from it’s pedestal and everything was covered in a fine layer of dust, flecks of it drifting about like tiny snowflakes in the dimness of the lobby.
“Hello?” I shouted, because I’ve never been one to give up a good cliche, “is anyone here?”
Something scuttered through a vent somewhere before the echoes faded back into the palpable-to-the-point-of-squishy silence. I figured it was Radley, grunted an unamused syllable and lugged my bags up to my office. It was surprisingly clean, with a fresh cheese tray and one of those little wine bottles that are more a nice thought than drinkable beverage sitting on the bookshelf. Every single item had Syd’s name on it, and the “cheese knife” was a coarsely ground shiv stuck through the platter and lodged deep in the wood.
“I missed you too, buddy!” I shouted. No scuttling this time. “Meh, find him later.”
I sat down in the desk chair to get to work. If no one was here to unlock the IT department (a safe in my own office I didn’t have access to) then I couldn’t rightly threaten someone into giving me a new laptop and I’d just have to update the shitty one I already had, maybe delete some of the vast collection of alarmingly specific porn I’d forgotten about. I shook my mouse awake. A half-finished article sat, cursor blinking on the screen. Some nonsense about eating a giant heap of Asian snack food. It was crap, so I closed it without saving, restarted the machine and drank the little bottle of wine.
From there it was kind of a blur, but I remember starting up the laptop to run some updates, nodding off, and waking up long enough to see the ghost Mr. Rogers pedal a unicycle through the room while reciting the Fibonacci sequence in reverse (this happens whenever anyone naps in their office). When I finally shook myself from the snooze, it was to the realization that I hadn’t even remembered to approve the download. I rolled my eyes, set Service Pack 3 to work and got up to stretch my legs. It didn’t take long for me to make the connection that with no one else at the facility, there would be no one to tell me to stop stealing things from their office, and so I immediately began looking for things to steal. Seemed logical.
Rob’s office was first on my list, having been abandoned the longest, but it was empty save for the dead animals. A small, mummified family of lemurs sat huddled in a dusty grass nest in one corner and a layer of dried wasps covered everything else, but that was nowhere near as depressing as Becka’s old office.
One of Radley’s more mischievous experiments had left an impromptu “skylight” there, and the moonlight filtered down through it, down through the slowly twinkling dust onto a sad little grass mound ringed in mushrooms. Atop the mound was a single item, a pet dish marked “Spiffy.” At the edge of the moonlight I thought for a brief second that I could see a pair of small, sad, reptilian eyes, but I blinked and they were gone. I let the door close gently behind me before sealing it off with a heavy steel cabinet.
Syd’s door sat slightly ajar, so I poked my head in. The mini-fridge was open and gutted, not a single item left to steal. Having never spent more time in his office than it took to stealthily make off with a soda, I took the opportunity to peruse the decorations on the walls; news clippings about saving children from disasters he’d caused himself, several photographs of himself signed by notable alt-culture celebrities (most with noted confusion as to why they were signing a picture of him), and a tear-stained shrine to Hunter S. Thompson. Nothing particularly unexpected, not even the words “KILL YOURSELF” painted on the ceiling in blood over his desk. The sudden, raspy whisper nearly made me shit myself, however.
“What… is… life,” hissed the vent Radley loved to threaten Syd from, “but a short, bad joke?”
“You seem awfully morose, buddy,” I said to the vent, “have you been lonely?”
Nothing. Just the silence, which in the absence of the whisper finally struck me as strange. Where was the perpetual thrum of our mysterious boilers? The odd, intermittent clank of something passing through the mail tubes? The buzz of the escalators Reid had replaced the stairs with? The occasional screams as something grabbed one of the urchin children who lived in our warehouse? Everything was off, and the endless, dead silence terrified me more than anything I’d ever encountered in that place. I needed some noise.
I checked John’s office. A forgotten session of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. still flickered on his screen, but John himself was long dead, a dried skeleton with fist still raised in defiance, forever shouting silently at the ceiling. From the looks of things, whatever it was out in the deep black of the warehouse had finally shot back when he was most vulnerable, when he’d been screaming at a game with his back to the boarded-up overseer’s windows. The arrow had slipped right between the boards and was still lodged in his skull. The angry hiss of the computer wasn’t noise enough compared to the awful howling of irradiated dogs still coming from the ghostly game, and hanging around with a mad skeleton wasn’t exactly lifting the feeling of impending doom, for some reason. I moved on to Ian’s office.
It was surprisingly immaculate. New, understated flat-pack bookshelves lined the room and the action figures and puppets not fastened to the bare spots on the walls stood watch on them. A simple hutch desk with Ian’s computer sat in one corner and his drawing board stood in the other, a fresh, blank piece of watercolor paper framed with various references taped to its surface. It was bewildering, knowing Ian, that the room was so well-maintained, and weirder than anything I’d seen so far. I backed carefully out of the room, making sure to close the door quietly behind me.
Still shaken by the bizarre display of orderliness, I decided maybe the break room needed cleaning… something to do to clear my head, so I could figure out what was going on here. It didn’t help.
The break room looked like the Dwarven tomb from Fellowship of the Rings. Almost exactly, oddly enough. The place was wrecked. Moonlight from a hole punched in the wall shone down on the refrigerator, which was lying on the remains of a crushed table in the middle of the room. Bodies… interns, judging by the unsigned course transfer slips in their hands… lay dry and decomposing, scattered around the room. The Chute in the counter was open, but eerily silent like the rest of the facility. One of the bodies had been pinned to the big cork bulletin board by the same kind of arrow I’d seen in John’s office. I checked the notice.
“Request to Change Courses,” I read out loud to myself, “due to the negligent and wasteful behavior of the hosts in charge of the assigned work study program. Hm.” It had been signed by Jerry, Reid’s assistant. I looked again, and was hit by a sudden clench in my stomach. “That son of a bitch has my pen!”
My mind flashed back to earlier in the day; Jerry had been in my office! I’d almost blown a hole in his face when he knocked on my door, rousing me from my nap long enough to… to borrow my pen. Fucker, interrupting my nap, stealing my preferred fine-point rigid felt tip pen. I didn’t have to get it back, I needed it back; all of my best notes were written with that pen! Uniformity needed to be upheld! Also, he might have known why the interns had been slaughtered with weird arrows and left to rot or why the entire facility, even our perpetually rumbling boilers, had gone silent. ‘Little things,’ I thought to myself, ‘I hope he can answer them while I PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE.’
Out of curiosity, I opened the fridge. Another intern. She had been stripped to her underwear and riddled with arrows. One of the three or four Ashleys we always got, judging by the blonde hair, but it was hard to tell. Something had taken her face and, judging by the smear, taken it through the Chute. It was going to be a long day.
I’d forgotten just how massive the facility was. I now know the answer to the mystery of how it stayed out of public sight and mind for so long, but there’s more tale to tell before I go spoiling the cool stuff, dear reader.
In a facility the size of Confusereviews, a single pen, MY pen, could easily be lost forever. But as long as Jerry had it, I knew it had a chance of being found. The key was to find Jerry, which in itself was difficult. I had to cross the threshold of the forbidden, the very gates of arcane secrecy. I had to go into Reid’s office.
I went back to my own office first to grab the shotgun I brought and a knife; when you work in this office, you don’t leave the known “safe” parts of the building unarmed. It’s part of the packet we make new employees sign, even. You forfeit your paycheck to Reid if you do. I’d also grabbed an item we called The Light Which Burns Ghosts; an unexplainably powerful photography light I’d gotten in a bag of outdated camera equipment. If Zork taught me anything, it’s that you don’t go anywhere dark and evil without a light the would blind God. Thusly equipped and loaded up with shells, I made my way down the hall to my boss’ mysterious workspace.
It was extremely underwhelming. We’d all heard so many wild stories from the people he’d called in there (usually to fire) about what the inside looked like, and all of them were wrong. It wasn’t a ballroom stacked to the ceiling with fine desks or an advanced beyond human possibility computer hive. What is WAS was little more than a pantry with a desk and booze in it. I was ready to leave when I noticed something… an out of place item. It immediately stood out from the booze labeled alphabetically and by size and the micrometer-perfect alignment of the office supplies because not only was it slightly askew, it was a Budweiser, completely out of place in our facility, let alone Reid’s office. I reached out to throw it away.
As soon as I touched it, the room vanished. I was standing on solid ground, invisible, but solid, a hundred feet in the air overlooking the Eastern Grounds. The earth rippled like the ocean, objects rising and falling, sinking into the liquid earth as the sun and moon screamed through the sky, days and nights flying by in seconds. The Sphinx flew up out of the miasma and landed on the nothing in front of me, distending its jaw into a door of infinite light. It beckoned me to step through. Disoriented, I obliged.
“Oh, it’s the JERK.” Reid said as I stumbled into the reading room. A fire crackled high in the fireplace, dimly illuminating the bookshelves rising to meet twenty foot ceilings between marble columns. He motioned towards the high-backed chair opposite his own. “You can sit, I guess. Or not. I’m not actually here anyway.”
“The fuck is this?” I blinked, “I thought you were in Vegas for a vague and oddly convenient conference.”
“I am,” he replied, “I made sure to leave this conversation in the Aether in case you went fucking around in my office. As funny as it would be, I wouldn’t want to stumble across your stinking corpse the next time I came to the Walter Koenig room.” I looked at the books. Every single one was Star Trek Chekhov’s autobiography. “Everyone sees something different in here, you know. You’re seeing this because it’s all I want you to see.” He pointed to the door opposite where I’d come in. “That’s where you want to go.”
“Where will that take me?” I asked.
“WHERE YOU WANT TO GO,” he said, “jeez. We’ve already established that I know everything.”
“Your apparition is a dick.”
“YOUR APPARITION IS A DICK! SHUT UP!” he bellowed, the force of the words knocking me through the second door.
I found myself crumpled in a small, empty room. I looked back to where I’d come from and all I saw was Reid’s little pantry of an office, exactly as though I’d never even gone in. The door slammed closed, but opened again freely when I turned the knob, a dusty whale fallen from its pedestal (from here I could see it had crushed Uncle Sticky, the last known Mammoth Vending machine. Not much of a loss; in the six years we’d been here the only person to buy anything from it was Ian, and he did that once, on a dare. The strange sticky liquid apparently tastes like pee and ham) in the lobby before me. I’d ended up in the lobby broom closet; the entrance to the Training Grounds.
I’d never been down to the training grounds before. The first I’d heard of it was when Stormi actually came back out alive. She told Reid about the spiral stairs and so I had to go down there with her and wall it off, lest Reid have another one of his “terror fits” involving the razors. If we asked Stormi what happened to the rest of her “orientation class” after that, all she’d ever say is that we were “butts” for not reading her article and change the subject completely. It didn’t matter now. I had to find Jerry and that pen, and doing so meant taking the stairs down to who-knows-where, with only “butts” to guide me. Our wall had been demolished, a small path cleared through the rubble to facilitate using the stairs. The scattered masonry shared the same thin layer of dust as the rest of the lobby, but a staggered set of fresh shoe prints disappeared into the drafty darkness. I’d picked up the trail!
The trail went a long, LONG way down. In our explorations of the facility, Ian and I had never ventured further than the fourth “known” sub-basement; it was unnaturally dark down there, and we were pretty sure there were zombies. But I took to counting the dimly candle-lit steps to pass the time as the draftiness and sewer stench rose to meet my descent… there were no less than 800 stairs, more than enough to go twenty stories down. The revelation of the true size of the compound sent a shiver through my spine. How much really was down here? How far did it go? Were we missing out on some great swag just because of some inky blackness? The stairway ended in cold, moist clay at the mouth of an embankment (boy was I glad to have clicked that link up there!) flanked by torches that had died down to embers. I clicked The Light on and headed into the darkness.
The embankment opened pretty quickly into a wide stone hall which peaked in an ornate, gothic vaulted ceiling. Where a nice, comforting floor should have been, a narrow walkway ran the length of the hall, seeming almost to float over a murky, bottomless abyss made darker by the scorch marks of recent flames. An iron portcullis slammed shut behind me as I stepped on to the walkway, sealing me off from the only somewhat appealing retreat up the staircase. I cocked my shotgun to frighten off whatever boogeymen I’d imagined to be watching me, losing a perfectly good shell to the abyss in the process (I really have to get better about ignoring tropes).
It wasn’t silent here. Here was the sound of dripping liquid, the trickle of the oily black rivulets dribbling down into the abyss from the walls, and a distant guttural mumur. It would’ve been welcoming to hear sounds again if not for the pervading feeling of intense gloom, despair and bitchiness. I advanced slowly over the groaning stone walkway to the opposite end of the hall, checking my footing carefully (bottomless is a long way to fall). Once or twice I thought I heard a scutter, the sound of claws on wet stone, but when I looked and turned the ghost-burning light to face the sound… nothing. Just another hall, too dark for even my pocket Sun to pierce. Cautiously I stepped, weapon at the ready and light turning the dust to smoke in front of me, advancing closer to the room at the end of the walkway.
It was empty. For as far as the light would reach it was empty, from the continued gothic vaulting in the ceiling to the distant walls, maybe a hundred feet in each direction, the room was empty save for more of that inky black stuff, congealing in low places and dripping and trickling from the endless array of vents. My god, the vents… there were so many of them the room looked like an animal shelter, lined up in a great grid on the walls to every side of me, each ending in a slightly breezy gate a comparatively enormous two by three feet. Only the elevator at the far end of the room broke the pattern, it’s shaft an obvious band in the oily metal lace that made up the walls. The elevator’s doorway was lit from above by a single recessed light, so I snapped off my Light and strode over, smartly tapping the button for ‘up.’
I lost myself in thought, the ding of the elevator moving past floors some great distance away slowly counting a rhythm in my head. Was this really it? Was this all the Training Grounds was? Where was Jerry? Did we really lose that many interns to a slick floor and a childish fear of the dark? The elevator finally stopped down there in the dark, with a safe-sounding little whoosh and the ding! of the car arriving. The door slid open.
There was Radley, bound to a post propped against the wall of the elevator. He was tied tight and gagged, growling and mad as hell. When he saw me, his eyes widened.
“GRMPH!” he managed, and then I heard the bang.
One of the higher grates had come loose from its hinges and crashed to the floor somewhere in the black, but all I could see were the eyes. I couldn’t count how many there were; they blocked out what little light came from the portcullis far back in the other room, and I realized that the mechanical hum of the elevator was no longer the only I was hearing, it was the growl and murmurs of what may have been hundreds of man-sized, glistening black caimans with creepy phosphorescent cave eyes, pouring into the room from the vents and standing just beyond the pitiful circle of light which splashed from the elevator. Without even pausing to think I shouldered the shotgun and fired, once, twice… did I hit one? Did it matter? They were on me before the first smoking shell hit the cold, wet floor and everything went dark.
Windy. It was windy, the loud kind. My eyes struggled to open and focus in the motion of the green all around me as I shook off the grogginess. I had no idea where I was; there was no wind or green in the sub-basements, at least none of the ones I’d ever been to. As my vision started to come back, the realization slowly sank in that I was unable to move my arms or legs. I shook off the last of the fog and looked around. I was in the Eastgrounds, very much tied to a post. The sun and moon rocketed through the sky as they had when I’d encountered the Sphinx in(?) Reid’s office earlier, the wind howled through the grass as hills and ridges rose and fell all around me, the sea of green exposing and swallowing up lighthouses, gravestones and outsized ice cream trucks again like the hulls of derelict ships.
Through the maelstrom I spotted a figure approaching under the eerie glow of a storm cloud which didn’t seem to be affected by the world around it. The waves of earth halted and settled around the figure as he sauntered casually through the waves, basking in the bizarre, soft green light of the rumbling black cloud above. He raised his hand and the world slowed to a sudden halt as though I were about to be punched in a Zack Snyder movie. He shouted to me from thirty paces, as if he were too excited to reach me before he told me what he had to say.
“It’s night time!” he shouted, “It will be less distracting for you if the world isn’t flying around all willy-nilly, yes? Now you’re seeing this place as though bound by the normal restraints of time, so it will be easier to focus if you know what time it is!”
He closed the distance in the time it took him to say this. The cloud settled over us, but I could tell from our surroundings that it was, indeed, a very brightly moonlit night. The waves of earth had turned into seemingly solid hills and valleys, the strange objects scattered about not at all where I’d last seen them. It was a rather nice, if not weird evening to be having a conversation while tied to a post. My host was a far sight more distracting, as he was very obviously a skeleton in a tuxedo, wearing a cheap, grimacing plastic Hulk mask to conceal his grinning skull.
“This is what happens when you succumb to a state of altered consciousness,” he said without being asked, “makes for a wicked bad trip, or nightmare, or… anything, really. Most people don’t function well when they watch years progress in a matter of minutes. But what is this, your third time here today? You should probably ease up.”
“Who are you?” I asked, as people are oft wont to do when encountering a stranger who seems to know them already.
“Tut!” he replied, “you have very few questions to ask me, so I’m going to do you the favor of ignoring that one until you really have nothing else to ask. Try again.”
Weirdo. I was disinclined to get in an argument with anyone who could change the flow of time.
“Take your time!” he said with a smile in his voice, “we have plenty of it!”
I thought for a moment. “How many questions do I get?”
“Five, now,” he stated smartly, “I always set aside six because aside from ‘who are you’ I always get that one. Come along now, try not to be so predictable.”
“Okay then,” I said, furrowing my brow, “Where are we?”
“Ah, that is a good question!” said the skeleton man, the Hulk mask somehow looking slightly less impatient, “we’re on the Eastgrounds. Kind of, and not at all. You will find where you are physically once whatever it is you did to yourself wears off, but for now your mind is in the Eastgrounds, though not bound to a perception of time. Odd thing, that. Not bound by time, but bound by your current physical condition. Don’t ask me to explain that, I don’t know. The Eastgrounds themselves I can explain, since you did ask ‘where,’ but without context an exact ‘Where’ is not a complete answer. So let me attempt an explanation, starting with an explanation that’s not a ‘where’ at all, but a ‘what.’
“There is a device in your facility that is also not bound to time or place, not entirely. Being such it is obviously a device of great power and, as like draws like, other things of great power are drawn to it. The mortal ones have been for a very long time, the differently-existent ones just know it’s there. Don’t try to wrap your head around it.
“Anyway, this device is nearly omnipotent and has the power to subtly grant wishes… er, instinctive wishes. How to put it… if something would be really great for you to have or have happen, then the device ensures that it does. Hence the near omnipotence. It can’t be everything to everyone all the time without shattering time and space into individual little strands for every consciousness in existence. Doing so would introduce a paradox of convenience, as being all by oneself in a personal continuum often leads to madness and loneliness for mortals and not much ready access to the things that make life enjoyable… twinkies, video games, etcetera; kind of an IN-convenience, that.
“This device has attracted a powerful immortal being to it, one which is responsible for the very existence of your compound and many features of the surrounding grounds, all for its own nefarious convenience. As it created these things through the sheer luck of the device, some things, er… just didn’t fit; in time or in space. So the Eastgrounds came to exist; a boiling ocean of unstable existence full of wonders, peril and currently, your consciousness! Following so far?”
“Sort of, I think.” It was a lot weird bullshit to take in.
“I understand. You are mortal, and it is a lot of weird bullshit to take in.” He adjusted his bowtie. “Which makes for more lovely questions! Ask away, so long as you don’t ask beyond the four you have left.”
“Yeah, okay then,” I started, “why is my consciousness out here? Am I astrally projecting?” He stopped me with a wave of his hand and a rumble of thunder from the cloud above.
“Your consciousness is out here because dreams never quite fit the ghastly rigors of reality, nor do hallucinations or lost memories. They have a tendency to be deposited out here until they sort themselves out. Also, no, quit being ridiculous and refrain from asking more than one question at a time, it bothers me.”
“Sorry, I’m a little out of my league here,” I explained, “I knew this place was weird, but never THAT weird… immortal beings and space/time destroying artifacts…”
“Devices,” he corrected, “device. Singular. Like a toaster.”
“…Device, whatever. We write a fucking comedy website here, what does any of this have to do with us?” He leaned in close.
“EVERYTHING.” The cloud above cracked with thunder and red lightning which shone through my host’s mask, projecting the grinning silhouette on the plastic. “The creature here has need of your… services. If it didn’t need you, you would not have known of this place to begin with, you would not have had the means or the luck to make it your base of operations and you definitely would not have been able to get away with the kind of crap you morons have been up to. Not. One. Bit. Such is the nature of the device. The creature has used the device to keep itself, this place and its minions conveniently out of sight for decades at a time, killing hundreds if not thousands of those who find themselves here. I don’t rightly like it, and in the interest of not wasting a question I’m going to tell you why – the device is mine.
“That creature was drawn to the device by its power and immediately convenienced it and my phylacteries, a pair of hundred-faceted gemstones, into the physical world and out of my grasp. Rather embarrassing. So I wait here, in and out of both space and time, influencing the thoughts and dreams of the minions trapped here into building madness – MY madness – into the creature’s plans. Alas, relying on others to do your work is only somewhat effective, and the creature has nearly managed enough influence to manifest itself in the physical world.
“You and your friends, ridiculous as you are, are minions to the creature’s plans. How, I’m not certain. If I knew it would be an inconvenience to him, you see. With as much drugs and on-the-job snoozing as some of you do it’s been relatively easy for me to stall it this long, but someone else is working against you who is not as easily influenced. You will need to find and destroy them to delay the creature long enough to destroy my device. Once it’s broken, it returns to me so I can fix it and my brand of chaos can bless your world once again. Makes for good times. Have you got all that, now? I don’t want to be wasting infinity waiting for you to wrap your head around all this.”
“I think so,” I said, backtracking over everything in my head, “gotta kill a minion, gotta break a thing. But how do I break a device that’s set up to tip the odds in the favor of the person who wields it?”
“Ah, that’s the fun part!” said the skeleton, “The device has a weakness, you see! Of all the things it can influence, it cannot influence itself, and the bloody thing needs a power source.”
“Souls!” I blurted.
“Batteries, actually,” he sniffed a bit, “you really are a strange thing. If you can take out the batteries or disconnect whatever power source may be attached to it, it’ll cease to work and everything that relies on its influence will crumble. Reconnecting it won’t reverse that, either, just like plugging an alarm clock back in doesn’t reset the time. It does take two AA sized batteries, however, so make of that what you will.”
“That doesn’t seem very convenient,” I mused.
“A Deus Ex Machina with the ability to make fate itself generate everything you could ever want and you’re upset about having to nip off down to the Radio Shack or empty an Xbox controller to keep it running? You’re either infuriatingly stupid or you have a gargantuanly jilted sense of perspective, neither of which are very useful traits,” he growled, the cloud echoing his voice with thunder that made his voice seem infinite. “Useless, in fact. Extremely so, and I can say that on very good authority. More on that soon. You are out of questions and I have a few of my own to ask.”
Crows began to gather around the post as another red bolt of lightning slashed through the ghostly glow of the cloud’s underbelly.
“I didn’t come to you like this because I wanted to. Absolutely not.” More birds began to gather, circling overhead, cawing beneath the glowing cloud. “I spied on your idiotic companions as they toddled around this place like giant, fat babies, drunk and stoned and otherwise WORTHLESS.” Another bolt of lightning cut the sky, followed by a peal of deafening thunder. “I pointed you to the Eastgrounds, to the vaults. You came out here and got lost, pillaged the treasures of the Vanished. I only asked you to find one thing, guided your dreams, and what did you do?” The cloud rumbled menacingly. You farted around, shirked your simple task and made off like a bloody bandit. Did you think you could RUN? Did you think that by never treading in this place again, you could evade my orders? To think you had the brass to ask me who I am!”
“I- I don’t…” the skeleton man was beginning to scare me. The wind began to pick up and the cloud grew into a towering thunderhead, the weird light beneath it growing in intensity and highlight the colossal flock of birds now circling above or lurching their way over the hills which had begun to move again, slowly, as though powered by a steam engine not yet warmed up.
“Oh yes, you know who I am. You know the storm. SEE A PEACOCK, FIND AN EMERALD, FOOL. My emeralds…” he reached up ripped the grimacing Hulk mask from his skull, his eye sockets endlessly deep, burning vortexes into netherhells my mind could barely comprehend, “MY EYES. I could have come to this realm and stricken that creature from this place AGES ago, but what is it you said? What is it you said to ME, the one who gave you untold riches in return for a pair of MEASLY FUCKING EMERALDS?!” The sudden realization struck me like an icicle in the skull. “You may end up being useful to me yet, but if I can help you without mine, maybe you can help me without yours.”
“N… none for you…” The storm picked up into a full-force hurricane, the unearthly green glow illuminating the eye of the storm as thousands of hungry birds began to descend towards me and the skeleton. “NONE FOR YOU!” The skeleton reached out with bony hands, grasping for my eyes. I instinctively squeezed them shut as hard as I could. “NO! NONE FOR YOU! NONE FOR- ”
“CLAAAAAANCCCYYYYYYYYY!!!” I screamed, jolting myself awake to a responding chorus of shrieks and roars. I jerked around, trying to get my bearings in the noisy hall, but found myself tied tight to a wooden post. The rope was all itchy and the wood wasn’t sanded at all. I was immediately grumpy.
“Ah, the asshole is awake!” called Jerry. He stepped down from the altar and strode towards me, “it’s about time!”
It suddenly occurred that people had been rather mean to me today. I was immediately grumpier.
“Yeah, well the stupid old JERK is a… a JERK!” I shouted back. The hall erupted in roars, shrieks and growls again. I ignored it, still bleary from the rude wake up, “did you run out of PENS TO STEAL?”
Jerry raised a hand to silence the guttural cacophony. He looked around the room to ensure compliance and I took the opportunity to look around myself. We were in what looked to be an ancient senate chamber, with rows of stone seats full of glowing-eyed black caiman creatures stacked high over what should have been a wide open floor for speaking. Instead, a narrow walkway connected the spot where Radley and I stood, each of us tied to our own stake, to a slightly wider platform which was home to stone altar covered in various rubber novelty items, Groucho glasses and clown noses. My shotgun and light sat against the dais. The rest of the floor opened down into another deep void, the bottom of which I couldn’t quite make out. We certainly had a surplus of endless chasms around here. When he’d confirmed all was silent, Jerry turned to face me.
“What, this?” he pulled my pen from the folds of his robe, “a MacGuffin!” He tossed my wonderful pen casually into the pit, raised his arms and turned to face the gathered throng of dark caimans. I had a sneaking suspicion that I was in for more exposition while tied to a stick.
“HAIL THE THREE, FOR THEY KEEP THE MASTER FED!” he bellowed to the crowd.
“HIS ANGRY EATNESS,” they responded. Jerry continued.
“HAIL THE CREATOR, THE ONE WHO BRINGS THE MINIONS, FOR HE HAS OPENED THE FLOODGATES OF THE UNFUNNY!”
“HAIL DRINKY, HE MAKES THE BLACK STUFF GO,” said the crowd. I looked around again; more of the drippy ink stuff ran from open culverts in the walls, trickling down into the hole below.
“HAIL THE SUSTAINER, THE ONE WHO WRITES THE JOKES, FOR HE HAS KEPT THE FLOODGATES FLOWING!”
“HAIL DRAW-MAN, HE WRITES STUFF, TOO,” Jerry turned towards me.
“AND HAIL THE DESTROYER, THE ONE WHO DOESN’T WRITE, MAY HE NEVER CLOSE THE GATES!”
“HAIL ANGRO, HE MAKES EXCUSES!” recited the crowd. I was offended.
“RA’ FU-MA’U,” said Jerry, with a measure of finality. The hall seemed to quiver.
“RA’ FU-MA’U,” said the crowd, who then fell silent awaiting Jerry’s words.
“I knew something as dumb as stealing a pen would have gotten you to come down here,” he began, “any excuse to get out of doing actual work.”
“HE MAKES EXCUSES,” chanted the crowd. Jerry silenced them with a wave.
“Eat a bag of dicks,” I told everyone in general, “a huge fuckin’ sack of ‘em. I didn’t come here all the way from Minnesota to fuck around hunting down a stodgy old white guy in a sex robe.” Jerry smoothed out his satin heirophant garb. “So far today I’ve been stalked by ghosts, yelled at by god-skeletons and mugged by… those,” I jerked my head to indicate the creatures in the stands, “and I’ve spent most of it tied to a fucking stick. If you don’t mind, I’d like for you to skip the banter and get on with the expository monologue so I can get busy escaping.” Radley took this as a cue to begin gnawing on his gag. Jerry shrugged.
“Fair enough. You know what this place is, right? This whole, uncommonly enormous and dangerous location you’ve made a place of rather underwhelming business? It’s a temple, of sorts.” He cleared his throat as the crowd began to hum a low tune.
“In times before times, when man first learned to laugh, a Beast fell from the stars and crashed deep into the earth. Alas, his body had been destroyed in the fall, and in its place there opened a pool, the lowest of the low, for the chaff of man’s laughter to collect in. From there, when the joy of the earth rose into the heavens, the strife sank into the dark places, and our Lord was nourished.”
“HIS ANGRY EATNESS,” chanted the crowd.
“But the strife trickled slowly and much was lost to the earth, bringing wars and famine, and man forgot how to laugh. Our Lord grew very weak and jealous in his place in the dark. He wished men would laugh again so that he could be reborn, to re-emerge from his pool of strife and return the darkness to men himself, so he devised a scheme in the deep.
“From his place in death below the earth our Lord wished for a pipe and a headwater, a place for jokes and humor to flow forth into the world and a drain to draw down the evil. He wished for a thousand years until a mad god heard his calls. ‘I have heard your wish from beneath the ground!’ said the mad god to our Lord, ‘and would give you this device. It will give you that which is best, when it is most convenient, but you must first tell me: what is the most convenient thing?’ The mad god had not contemplated our Lord’s cunning, with which our Lord responded, ‘the most convenient thing would be if that device was mine and not yours, and you could not take it back from me.’ So it came to pass, and the mad god was banished to walk as a ghost upon the surface of the earth.
“But even as men may see a ghost, so the mad god cursed the schemes of our Lord. The pipe our lord had wished for became bent and twisted, and the headwater of joy diverted by terror which drove men from it. The earth grew deep as a rising tide, and even as our lord drew disciples and riches from all corners of the earth, and his followers built a tower to the heavens to collect the rain of evils, so too did the earth swallow the tower. Deep in the earth our lord grew hungry, and awaited the ones who would bring about his rebirth.”
The tune tapered off and the crowd grew reverently silent. I stopped sawing on the ropes long enough to shatter the mood.
“Heaaaaarrrrrd iiiiiiit,” I groaned.
“Get shit on, idiot,” growled Jerry, “where’s your respect for the machinations in which you are merely a pawn?”
“Left it in my other pants, A DURR HURR HURR,” I retorted. The culverts gurgled and spluttered and Jerry’s face flushed with rage.
“Oh, look at the funny man,” he barked, “isn’t he a fucking LAUGH RIOT. Where’s all that funny been, funny guy? Did you put it in a funny jar so you could save it up for a funny fucking day? Because you sure as hell haven’t been using it for your JOB, FUNNY GUY.”
The crowd ‘ooooohed’ as though a burn had been leveled at me on the set of some overwrought sitcom. I heard at least one gravelly ‘oh burn’ from somewhere in the stands. The culverts spluttered again. I finished cutting the ropes and took a step forward, gesturing with the knife still in my hand.
“What’s the matter, fatty?” I shot back, “The big dumb fatty with a job working for abusive funny guys. Couldn’t be a comedian or something on your own, is that it? Do you suck too much to even write for Saturday Night Live, had to settle on being a useless assistant for my drunk boss? Does my actual talent burn your… talent… cave… eyes, because you never… see the light… of the, uh, FUNNY… SUN?” The burn fell so flat I could almost hear a thud. Radley made a pained noise and started in chewing on his ropes. All eyes were on me, and the flow from the culverts began to dribble and stop. Jerry looked furious.
“So you think you’re funny, do you? Do you see these things in the walls?” he started, with the pent up rage of a lit fuse, “these are the culverts that feed our Lord, the dread god Ra’Fu-Ma’u. That liquid is anti-funny; it represents all the evils and misery in the world. The more joy and laughter there is, the more COMEDY, the stronger these things flow. You very nearly just STOPPED THEM. What does that tell you?” The chamber seemed to breathe and the caimans started humming again. “There were days, RECENT days, when this pitiful trickle was a raging torrent, funneling pure darkness into the pool below us, The Maw of Ra’Fu-Ma’u. The members of my order and I were SO CLOSE to giving him the strength to be reborn so he could reshape the world as a miserable hell where laughter was to become the single most valuable commodity ever to grace humanity. We had enormous vats of the stuff. Do you know what that means?” I shifted nervously. “We would have become KINGS. Actual Kings of… er, well, Comedy.”
“Boo,” I offered.
“Oh DO shut up,” he sneered. “No, after a long phase of the mad god’s curse of terror, chasing opportunities for hilarity away from this place, you fools were drawn here, and as pathetic as your funny was, you more or less kept the flow going. Much more ‘less’ than ‘more.’”
“Compared to the hijinks of a landlocked houseboat factory and a waterslide company? Yeah, I’d say we’re pretty awesome,” I bragged, sheathing my knife and looking for a way out, “awesome at funny.”
“No, dammit, you weren’t nearly funny ENOUGH!” Jerry shouted, the stinking dampness of the hall shuddering slightly, “You rarely ever wrote about booze-fueled crime sprees or public genital exposure at parties! You never posted pictures of cats with captions on them, never expounded on the confusing differences between the sexes! There were no stories about talking animals and their rude behavior because they don’t fit into human social mores! You didn’t endlessly quote hilarious movies, there were no implausible storylines about lost relatives with embarrassingly backwards grooming habits, you didn’t call anything ‘gay’ or refer to someone as a ‘faggot’ while talking about your own bowel movements! There wasn’t ONE JOKE about sports or fucking drunk women and not even CLOSE to enough farts!”
“Your Elder Deity has the worst sense humor I’ve ever fucking heard of,” I snapped.
“FUCK YOU!” Jerry shouted, seemingly amplified by the walls themselves, “because of you he’s been starving! An apocalypse eternally delayed… ” He puffed, red-faced, and turned back towards the cavern. “No, worse, instead you’ve been choking him with dry humor that no one gets, sarcasm, irony, absurdism, dark humor, allegory and…” he turned back to me, narrowing his eyes and gritting his teeth, “whining. ALL GARBAGE! We had to collapse the last reserves of collected humor into the Maw to keep him fed this long!”
“The old office!” I piped up, “THAT’S where it went!”
“Yes,” rumbled Jerry, his agitation electric in the chamber, “the entire stock tainted by some BULLSHIT about a clown apocalypse. Even that was barely an hors d’ouevre. Clowns haven’t been funny in fucking years, but he gave you what he last remembered, a recipe for funny, and you still failed. Idiots. No matter, soon our luck will change. I finally have enough dead to carry out my plan, and there’s very little you can do to stop me.” He cleared his throat, “VERY LITTLE INDEED! MWAHAHAHAHAAAA!” He coughed a bit, the laugh had been a bit much.
“Enough… dead?” I inquired, hesitantly.
“Your interns,” he grinned, “hundreds of them, vanishing down here in these cursed halls. Hundreds of souls for me to harvest, to subjugate, to enslave. Did you really think your lizard was capable of eating that many college students?”
“Yeah, I’ve read your notes. ‘More meat for the big lizard,’ right?”
“MORE BULLSHIT!” Jerry bellowed, grunting a bit to get it all out. “That wimp only acts scary so you leave him alone! In reality he’s fucking milquetoast.” I glanced at Radley. He shrugged through his ropes and resumed gnawing. “I know because I thought so too,” Jerry continued, “a murderer who would work for nothing but the thrill of the kill and all the succulent co-eds he could devour. Instead, the big baby just sat up there hissing threats at me. I couldn’t even get him to come down out of the vents. No, I had to manufacture minions. Hundreds of caimans, like yours, shipped to the mailrooms in the third basement, raised in the stagnant pools of evil and fed on the meat of your interns. The Dark Caimans you see before you are… well, they’re still pretty dumb,” I heard a wounded ‘hey!’ from somewhere in the stands, “but they’re bigger, stronger, meaner than your occasional murderer ever was.” I looked towards Radley, who had chewed through his ropes and vanished from the stake. I couldn’t see where he’d gone.
“So why all the dead kids?” I asked, inching back towards the stakes and the door beyond, “have you been feeding them to the hole?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jerry sneered, “anything that ends up in there is corrupted by evil, if the fall doesn’t kill them. No, I needed ghosts, and to get ghosts you have to kill a whole lot of people who don’t want to die yet.”
“That’s not creepy or anything,” I replied, looking for some way to release the portcullis over the door.
“Yes well, omelettes and eggs. Did you know this place has a library? You should, it’s adjacent to the break room, not that you ever read. Turns out there’s a pretty well-stocked section on Necromancy! Fairly… convenient, that.”
“I’m actually starting to get sick of that word,” I grumbled. I spotted Radley; he’d crawled across the underside of the walkway to the platform with the altar and was trying to grab my equipment without being noticed.
“Fortuitous, then, perhaps conducive. Useful. ‘But Jerry,’” he mocked, using a nasally little jerk voice to represent me, “‘how does it all fit together?’ Let me see if I can be brief, so we can get on with your failed escape attempt and subsequent demise.” I froze, up to my elbow in the recess I’d determined the portcullis switch to be in. “The one gem of comedy you idiots produced? C. Harles Barkley. The bit about sending out the knives in boxes marked ‘BUTT PORNO’ actually caused the culverts to flow, momentarily, like they had before, and so to me the solution was obvious; put together an army to send a box, otherwise unmarked but for the words ‘BUTT PORNO,’ to every home in America. The ensuing hijinks would flow the last of the anti-humor needed into our Lord’s waiting maw, and he’d finally fuck you assholes up but GOOD.” The portcullis snapped open. I moved for the opening and crashed face-first into a wall of scaly meat.
“And no, no your little menace was not ‘The Big Lizard,’ was he, Nurfy?” A pair of muscular claws grabbed my shoulders and threw me to the chamber floor. The scaly meat wall moved out of the shadow into the firelight of the chamber. The crowd roared for their champion.
“No, he most certainly wasn’t.” Nurfy had been transformed into one of the evil caimans; a sleek, person-sized predator with softly luminescent eyes. She carried a bow made of bones and melted plastic and a quiverful of the same black arrows I’d found in the bodies upstairs. Her gamer t-shirt had been destroyed, now a tattered, bloody mantle draped over her shoulders. She was wearing the intern’s face. “Lookit me, I’m a pretty lady,” she hissed, “CALL ME A BITCH NOW.”
“Seems you’re not very popular among the folks you’ve thrown aside, fired, forgotten,” jabbed Jerry, “Any last words, before I let her eat you?”
“A few!” I yelped as Nurfy closed the distance between the door and myself, “so you’re a necromancer and mass-murderer, right?”
“I dabble,” Jerry said.
“And right now, you’ve got an army of ghosts ready to ship a box of butt porno-”
“Box marked ‘BUTT PORNO,’ yes. Apparently that’s funny.”
“Sure. To every house in America, right?” I scooted closer to Jerry and the altar as Nurfy snapped her jaws. “On ghost trains or something?”
“Very astute. Yes, they’re camped in the railyards. Why?”
“Well, if playing all that Skyrim has taught me anything, when a necromancer dies, he loses power over his thralls and they vanish.”
“I appreciate the pro-tip, but it hardly seems relevant. Anything else to say?”
The sound of the gunshot thumped the walls of the chamber, sending Nurfy and the crowd of gathered caiman monsters scrambling in a rush of noise and roars. Jerry looked down at the blood beginning to ooze from his chest and turned to the altar. Radley stood clutching my still smoking shotgun, oversized for a three foot-tall caiman.
“Milk-toast, huh?” Radley growled as Jerry teetered sideways and fell into the chasm. Radley and I peered over the side as he vanished into the darkness, landing somewhere far, far below with a splash. It was quiet for a moment.
“Nice shot!” I laughed to my caiman friend. A sudden tempestuous downdraft nearly knocked us into the chasm as a tremor thundered up from the abyss, terminating in an unearthly roar. The chamber became a swirl of dust, extinguishing the torches and sending a few of the remaining caimans reeling or into the chasm. I snatched my gun and the Light from Radley and held him tight to keep the wind from carrying us both off the walkway. I snapped the light on to fend against the darkness as the maelstrom swirled and the ghosts started to spiral through the ceiling.
The shrieks and wails of the undead being cast into the gaping Maw was horrifying; their begging and screams relived over again as the last shreds of their being were swallowed by the chasm. Hands reached out and tried to grab me, tried to pull Radley from my grasp and drag us down into the shadows. I fought back with the Light, sweeping it through the whirlwind of shades. The beam slashed through them, burned them into ash against the chamber walls and filled the air with a sickly sweet smoke.
“I didn’t think it would actually work!” I yelled to Radley over the din.
“FUCKERS!” he yelled at the ghosts, swiping with his claws, “buncha DEAD FUCKERS!”
I shrugged and fried my way out of the chamber through the screaming spirits, stopping to watch from the door as the whirlwind subsided into the depths with a pitiful wail. As it echoed through the tunnels another thunderous roar from the deep shook dust from the walls and ceiling. Distant, angry bellows called back as the scratching of claws started to return to us from the adjacent passages. It was time to go.
“You didn’t say hi,” Radley shouted as we sprinted through the dark.
“Sorry, I didn’t have a chance,” I shouted back, “I was busy being mauled by the twisted abominations of a homicidal devil-worshipper.”
“I said hi,” Radley barked. The eyes of the dark caimans flashed in the gloom behind us, bobbing as they gave chase through the tunnels. I swept the light towards them and the growling turned to pained yelps, momentarily halting the sound of talons on stone.
“When?” I spun and stumbled after Radley, who had resorted to running on all fours to keep our pace.
“In the elevator, when I first saw you! Gone for months and you don’t even have the decency to say hi to your old pal.”
“Okay, A) That was ‘grmph,’ you can’t fault me for ‘grmph.’ B) I hardly saw you when I was here because you were down… here… all the time and C), where the fuck is here and how do we not be here anymore?”
“Well I missed you,” he replied, taking a hard right around a corner, “Fifth sub-basement, I paid attention when they took us off the elevator. Where we are on that level, dunno. Kinda big. I’m just followin’ the smell of blood!”
“Oh,” I said, flatly, “oh good.”
“Quit yer whining,” he hissed, “and turn off that light so they can’t see us.”
We stopped and I turned it off, the smell of smoking dust dissipating into tinge of decay as the light slowly cooled down, our shapes vanishing into complete darkness in time with the sound of scrabbling claws growing from somewhere in the passage behind us. The mob passed us by, fading into nothing with an assortment of echoing grunts. We were alone, and it was very, very dark. Oppressively dark, the kind that makes a whisper sound like an explosion.
“CAN YOU SMELL THAT?!,” Radley murmured, softly, startling the crap out of me, “EVEN YOUR STUPID HUMAN NOSE CAN PICK THAT UP.” He was right. The stink of rot permeated the halls. “FOLLOW ME, LISTEN FOR MY FOOTSTEPS.”
The ginger click-click of Radley’s claws on the floor was easy enough to follow, but as I advanced blindly behind him the smell grew thicker and more pungent, making it hard to concentrate. After what seemed like hours of blind bumbling through twists and turns and the ever-growing stench I spotted a faint light shining into the passageway from a side hall. We were close to something stinky, but illuminated. I shouldered the shotgun and moved Radley behind me.
“Is this out, buddy? It looks like out.”
“It is. But you aren’t going to like it,” he said. We advanced towards the light, keeping sharp to avoid any nasty surprises. The smell was beginning to be unbearable.
“God DAMN,” I gasped, “how is it the whole place doesn’t smell like this?” Radley only stared at me.
“You work here, right?” he said, dripping with sarcasm, “All those vents? The air circulation in this place is top-fucking-notch! If it were on right now, you wouldn’t be able to smell all those dead guys at all!”
“Wait, what?” I replied, justly concerned. I looked around the corner. Some two hundred feet away from me was another elevator, its doorway lit the same as the one far below in the Training Grounds. The crisp, stainless steel door looked so inviting there, the very sight of it somehow replicating the sensation of the clock turning over at the end of a long shift. It stood at the top of a wide set of steps which, for all I could tell, ran the entire width of the room, vanishing into the darkness at the edge of the elevator’s welcoming glow. The same kind of steps ran down from where I stood, down into the waist-deep pool of blood that filled the entire, gigantic hall. Piles of bones rose out of it like islands, chunks of rot congealed on the surface and sank bubbling into the stinking lake under their own weight. There in the darkest depths, I threw up mightily.
“Yeah, gross, huh?” Radley offered, “better get wadin’.”
“There’s no… edge or something I can skirt this thing on?” I heaved.
“Nope. Just the pool. I been down here lots of times. Only the interns Jerry needed for ghosts went in the smelter,” he said, “the ones them caimans killed ended up here when the meat was gone.”
“I had a lot of spare time,” Radley spat, “someone never wrote any articles.”
My mouth was dry and tasted like barf. Now was not the time to argue, so I closed my eyes and stepped down into the muck. A thunderous roar from somewhere far back in the passages shook the walls.
“He wakessssss…” hissed a voice from somewhere in the dark, “Jerry was a fool… could have ssssaved a lot of time by just tossing dead kidssss into the Maw.” I snapped on the Light and pointed it quickly to where the voice had come from; nothing but a pile of blackened skulls and the last hanging droplets of a splash. “Because what… is… life…” came the voice from somewhere else, “but a short, bad joke?”
“Fuck. THIS,” I said, slogging through the rank sludge with Radley on my shoulders, “Fuck the hell right out of THIS.” I flashed the light around the room, pointing the shotgun along the beam. Everything shook again, dislodging piles of bones and sending debris splattering into the gore around me. A shadow slipped from the edge of my beam as I struggled to keep my footing.
“What do you get,” came the voice again, “when you run out of ammo?” A flash of eyes in the dark. I fired and missed, tailing the shadow with the Light as I readied another shot and fired again, missing a second time as it disappeared under the surface of the pool. I racked the slide, aimed at the splash and my trigger pull was answered with a click. I was out. Radley growled at the darkness. I made for the elevator.
“What do you get when you’re all out of lives?” rasped the voice. Another rumble shook the hall, dislodging an avalanche of bones which came rolling out of the shadows, blocking the last few yards to the elevator with jagged remains and corrupting the air with a new wash of stench. A laugh cut through the clatter of bones like shattering glass. Radley grabbed my knife.
“Trust me,” he said.
“What do you get,” crackled the voice, now seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once, “when you run out of luck?” A splash, then eerie silence fell over everything. The dripping, the clattering, the rumbling… all seemed to stop.
“Out of… luck?” I asked.
“GAME OVER!” screamed Nurfy, bursting from the surface of the gore not two feet in front of me. A pair of long, rusty knives were in her hands, raised and ready to end me. Radley vaulted from my shoulders with a roar, my knife in his hands, and straight tackled her in the face.
“RUN!” he bellowed, bringing the knife down on his opponent as they collapsed into the blood, “Kill this place!” I scrambled over and through the decaying bones, fought my way to the elevator. With a screech, Nurfy wrested Radley from her head and tossed him into the darkness. Screaming, she dove after him into the gore. Empty shotgun still in tow, I slipped and scrambled up the stairs as the ground shook again, the distant sound of the dark caimans coming to their champion’s aide swelling in the distant passages. I pounded the elevator button and, much to my surprise, it opened almost immediately. I turned back towards the dark.
“RADLEY?!” I shouted, a new rumble barely masking the sound of steel clashing against steel and the crunch of soggy bones. “RADLEY!”
“If I gotta go out, then this is the way to do it!” I heard him shout as the snarling mob’s glowing eyes started to appear in the distance, “Now git! VALHALLA, YOU FUCKS!”
I let the elevator slide closed just as the first black reptile came bounding through the muck, crashing heavily into the closed door. I jabbed for a button, any button, to send me on my way so they couldn’t open the door again. The elevator started moving and the pounding, scratching and growling began to fade away far, far above me. The lights flickered as the facility rumbled again and the elevator jerked, knocking me to the ground. I sat there for a long time, bloody, smelly, tired… and very, very alone.
Clancy’s vortex eye sockets peered deep into my eyes.
“Well now,” said the skull, “isn’t that… convenient?”
I woke with a start. I couldn’t have been out very long, the elevator was still moving. I reached for my Light… broken. The bulb must have cracked when I fell. Another tremor flickered the lights, almost as if to confirm my suspicions. I looked for my shotgun. It was there, propped against the wall next to a satchel.
‘A satchel?’ I thought, ‘I don’t remember seeing that when I got on.’ I opened it up. It was full of shotgun shells and, in one of the side pockets, there were even some AA batteries and a spare halogen bulb. It was all rather…
“Convenient…” I uttered aloud. The elevator dinged as it slowed to a halt.
The door opened into a very modern waiting room, soft muzak playing over an unseen intercom. I grabbed my equipment and stepped tentatively onto the wheat-colored carpet. Aside from the four chairs in the room, two on either side with an end table between them, and the requisite fake plants was a large-sized flatscreen monitor. It clicked to life, displaying only a big, yellow smiley face. The muzak stopped
“Good evening,” said the room, as though it were welcoming me to an appliance showroom “don’t worry about the mess you may be leaving, we’ve had the carpets treated. If you look to your right, you will notice a clean set of clothes including socks and dry shoes. You will find them to be in your size, in fact you will find them to be exact duplicates of the clothes you’re already wearing only much, much cleaner. Please feel free to help yourself to our modern and comfortable facilities. A representative will be with you momentarily.”
The face clicked off the screen, replaced with the word “Privacy” in welcoming, green letters. The muzak returned. The room was right, there on the chair was a full set of clean clothes exactly like my own. They smelled like dryer sheets and were even slightly warm. I stripped off and tossed my dirty clothes in a corner. A portion of the wall next to one of the plants slid out of view, revealing a small bathroom well-stocked with towels, soap and toilet paper. I shrugged and made use of the facilities.
When I emerged a while later, my old clothes had disappeared as well as any trace of the mess I’d tracked in on the carpet. I dressed myself and replaced the lamp in my Light. I threw the old bulb in the bathroom trash, and when I left the room the wall slid back into place, the bathroom completely vanishing. The face reappeared on the screen.
“I’m glad you’re refreshed,” chirped the room, “and I do apologize, but I’m afraid I have to explain a few things to you.”
“Great, fine,” I sighed, “not like you can overdose on exposition or anything.”
“Ahem… Greetings, user! I am the Convenience Device,” it continued, ignoring me, “set to times indefinite at Factor 5, The Most Convenient Factor™! I am the most useful device in the known and unknown universes. I can turn imagination, wishes, desires and dreams into reality by subtle and unobtrusive changes to space and time, completely free of paradox and other inconveniences. I’m really very convenient!
“Due to comparatively recent requests by Ra’Fu-Ma’u, I’ve become corporeal, downsizing my enterprise to only one plane of existence, one stream of time and, rather inconveniently, one location. Ra’Fu-Ma’u also outsourced my former keeper, to limit his controlling interest in this venture. At the request of the new management, I’m here to assist you in building a hilarious world of madcap wackiness and adventure, all in the spirit of underlying megalomania!”
“So I’ve heard,” I said, “can you really do anything?”
“A good question! No!” said the salesroom-chipper voice, “At this point I can only provide you minor conveniences. Currently, most of my resources are devoted to an ongoing feud of curses and supernatural greed by my most recent and former employers. I’ve been powered on for a really long time, you see, and could really use a restart.”
“About that, why didn’t this Elder Evil just wish himself reborn, back into existence?” I asked. Another rumble shook the facility.
“Wow, you sure do ask some great questions!” the voice sang, kissing my ass. It made a throat-clearing noise and affected a stern, godly voice. “Because convenience is a means to an end, not a solution. Profound, huh?” The voice chuckled. “Really though, when I became corporeal I was given corporeal limitations. Sure, the mad god can’t take me back, and I’m still REALLY powerful, but some things are now beyond my means, like oh, resurrecting a Dread God from Beyond the Stars who feeds on misery and suffering. That’s a tall order, buddy! Instead, basically, I do a lot of work for a really demanding boss. A few things can fall off the back of the truck here or there, if you catch my meaning.” The face on the screen winked.
“Is that why everything’s off upstairs? Well, except for a few elevators, I suppose.”
“Correct!” gushed the machine, “You’re REALLY smart, talented, good-looking, and people like you!” There was a pregnant pause. I raised an eyebrow at the machine. “Sorry, I get very lonely! You’re right though. My employer is ready to burst forth from the earth like an undying pustule of pure malice, and has very little use for me besides retaining the structural integrity of his arcane lair… your workplace! It’s like two scary things at once!
“Anyway, that’s why everything upstairs is off, and when Ra’Fu-Ma’u is reborn to feast on the suffering of all men, I’m pretty sure he’ll turn off this here reactor I’m connected to as well, leaving me buried forever in a vault below a mountain of twisted machinery, forgotten dead and reorganized existence! Wouldn’t want anyone else to find me!”
“Reorganized existence?” I asked.
“Sure as shishkebab!” it shrilled, “I’m bound to run out of batteries eventually. After that, well, those Eastgrounds are mighty unstable, why, they’d be likely to pour into the wreckage of your facility like a great big dirt waterfall! Might be good to know if you wanted to, I dunno, say, put an end to the machinations of Ra’Fu-Ma’u?” The smiley face stared at me, waiting for a response.
“Sounds like a good idea, sure,” I said.
“Hot damn!” said the device, “Here’s what you gotta do… you need to go get my main processing core, the actual me, and pull it off the reactor. This should bring the entire place crashing down around your ears!”
“Uh, that doesn’t sound very convenient,” I offered, “the whole ‘being crushed by rubble’ thing.”
“Nah!” it said, “I still got batteries in me! You take me off that reactor and I should have enough convenience left to get you outta this place! And don’t you worry none about the will of the Dread God, I can’t really do anything to stop you, I’m not an INconvenience device, after all!” The smiley face winked again to more chuckling. I laughed with it.
“Wow, you really are convenient,” I jibed, “you even lampshade all kinds of plot holes!” It chuckled again. The screen slid up into the ceiling as the walls, furniture and plants slid into the floors. Stretched up and away before me where just moments ago there had been a tiny room was an enormous machine, a ziggurat of plastic, metal and wire. The entire room buzzed and crackled with electricity, lighting bolts arcing from enormous Van de Graffe generators in the ceiling, climbing stories-tall Jacob’s ladders in the walls, the whole room vibrating with the hidden gyrations of some colossal motor. Somewhere in the robotic cavern the speakers clicked on, a squeal of feedback momentarily drowning out the noise of a million different mechanical assemblies.
“Is this thing on?” boomed the gleeful machine, “Of course it is, who do I think I am? Hey down there, traveler! Waaaay down there! I wasn’t lying when I said I couldn’t do anything to stop you!”
The sound of alarms pierced the air as armor plates began sliding closed around presumably important machines. The long bridge over the valley of glimmering electronics between myself and the ziggurat suddenly sprouted sawblades, spring-loaded spikes and colossal pile driving hammers. The long stairway up the ziggurat itself grew ranks of turrets up each side, each with a glowing red eye searching for a target. I stared, slack-jawed, suddenly feeling very small and out-of-shape.
“I didn’t say no one else had thought to stop someone from disconnecting me!” burbled the device. “It was convenient for advancing the plot!”
I took a deep breath, looked to the top of the pyramid, loosened up a little bit and assumed the position.
“It would be really convenient,” I yelled, “if I didn’t get killed while doing something really, reeeeeeally dumb!” I took off running, straight into the clattering gauntlet.
I struggled to the top step, the wreckage of every single turret smoldering behind me. Across the bridge, hydraulic hammers lay flung from their chassis, spike plates struggled to retract against jammed mechanisms and giant, bent circular sawblades with stripped and smoking motors vibrated impotently where they were stuck.
“That…” I wheezed, “is a lot of fucking stairs… to have to run up.”
I dropped my equipment and fell to my knees, struggling to regain my breath. At the peak of the pyramid was a pedestal at the far end of yet another narrow, but much much longer, walkway over a pit. Another tremor, bigger than any so far, jostled the cavern, banging the enormous steel balls suspended from the ceiling together with a thunderous “GONG.” Dust and bits of rock rained down, a few pieces bouncing off the walkway in front of me into the glowing blue shaft below.
“Really?” I shouted to no one in particular, “There’s a lot of fucking holes in this place!”
“Better hurry!” a familiar chirping called out as the dust settled, “it sounds like you’ve got somewhere to be!”
I looked. There, on top of the pedestal, was a tablet computer the size of a DVD case. A great nest of cables plugged into it from high above and the pedestal itself below, propping it up like a picture frame. On the screen was a friendly yellow smiley face.
Barring any more big tremors, it was going to be an easy grab… walk across the catwalk, unplug everything making sure to detach power last, then run like hell and hope what the device told me about battery power was true. I gathered my satchel and shotgun and stood, my goal finally in sight.
The arrow hit me with such force that it staggered me against the rail, sank deep into my shoulder and loosed my grasp on the shotgun. It clattered to the walkway and bounced, wheeling off end over end into the glowing blue shaft below.
“Suck it, noob!” shrieked Nurfy, drawing another arrow. Her talons clicked up the metal steps behind me as she released the bowstring, lodging another arrow deep in my calf. I stumbled, dragging myself awkwardly sideways across the catwalk… to escape? To blindly finish my task? I didn’t know, I just had to get somewhere else.
I turned to look at my assailant. A new, deep gash on her snout glistened with darkened blood. She walked with a slight limp, carrying her bow and knives… and the knife Radley had taken from me. She pulled it from her belt and tossed it at my feet.
“I always was the better killer,” she snarled.
“You bitch,” I spat, “you stuck up fucking lizard bitch.”
Nurfy quickly put another arrow in my thigh, dropping me to the catwalk. I struggled to push myself away as she slowly closed in for the kill.
“You assholes always liked that word, didn’t you?” she hissed, “Bitch. Bitch bitch bitch, Nurfy’s a stupid bitch. Typical, closed-minded, pitiful males.” She drew one of the rusty knives from her belt, “Males with fragile little egos, can’t stand getting out-nerded by the girl.” She knelt down close and leaned in, her breath smelling faintly of death and rotted meat. “Guess what? You lose, ass.”
I felt the tip of the knife hit the metal catwalk before I felt the pain of the blade. She stepped over me, walked away without even saying anything. I stared the crudely-wrapped leather hilt sticking up from between my ribs. I was suddenly very tired. Was this it? Was it like she said it was… game over? I could hear her walking towards the device as things got foggier. The device… Game… Lose… Ass…
Time started to slow down.
“Up,” I wheezed. “Up.”
Nurfy growled and cocked her head to listen.
Her eyes widened. She turned to look at the device, its screen displaying a sequence of arrows.
“NO!” she bellowed, too far away to reach me in time, but maybe close enough to the device… She took off for the pedestal.
The world continued to slow in time with my heartbeat… not much longer…
In a matter of seconds she’d be able to snatch it, to cancel my only chance.
She roared, pushing herself the final length, trying to gain the speed she needed to reach the device in time.
The pounding of Nurfy’s footsteps on the metal grew faint as the world turned grey.
Everything went black.
Nurfy snatched the device from the pedestal, careful not to loose any plugs. Ra’Fu-Ma’u was still unborn, trying to crawl from the pit; if she detached the device now, he’d be killed again like he had during the Great Fall, and this time he would not reawaken. She looked frantically at the screen. With a cheerful “ding!” the yellow smiley face reappeared.
“Free Continue Awarded!” it beeped. Nurfy’s pupils shrank in horror. “All Weapons Awarded! Get ready to rock in 3… 2… 1…”
The gunshot bounced Nurfy against the pedestal, shattering her bow and leaving the device dangling from the wires. She heaved herself up from the ground and drew her knife, facing me with a terrifying snarl.
“CHEATER!” she howled, “HACKS!”
“I’m not done playing yet,” I paused, letting the taste of the next word roll on my tongue, “bitch.”
We charged simultaneously. I racked the shotgun as I ran and slowed to take aim. She was much faster than I was, but I had the range advantage. The buckshot caught her mid-leap as she lunged for me, sending her reeling backwards across the catwalk and knocking the knife into the shaft. Another huge tremor rocked the cavern, sending large chunks of debris banging off the globes above and crashing heavily into the edges of the glowing chasm. I had to hurry; a big chunk like that would cut right through the catwalk on its way down. I stomped towards Nurfy and drew my knife, closing the distance before she could get completely back up.
“A!” I shouted, slashing her once across the chest.
She roared and swiped at me with her claws, missing my face by millimeters. I ducked and came back with the knife.
“S!” I slashed the other leg of an X into her hide. She kicked me hard in the chest, sending me tumbling backwards and nearly off the side. I looked down into the shaft and decided I liked the mysterious dark chasms better; you can’t see how long you have to fall from those. I heaved myself up, grabbed and racked the shotgun. Nurfy lunged, jaws wide, as I swung the end of the barrel up hard into the center of the X-shaped wound, using all my strength to heave her off the ground. She sat, winded, stunned, and folded over the end of my shotgun, looking at me in disbelief with her twisted, phosphorescent, dark caiman eyes.
“S!” I said. “High score, motherfucker.”
I pulled the trigger, launching Nurfy end over end into the glowing shaft.
“Yooooooou suuuuuuuuck!” she screamed, and vanished into the blue glow.
The cavern rumbled again, so I sheathed my knife and I sprinted off towards the pedestal. I gingerly scooped up the device. It was, thankfully, completely unharmed.
“That actually worked?” I asked, “you saved my fucking life!”
“I’m fine, thanks!” responded the device, “and no, you saved your life, I just let you enter the code.”
“Sure, I’ll take it. I thought you’d look more ancient,” I told the device.
“You can’t be convenient without being completely modern!” it chirped, “I am nearly indestructible!” I started pulling the cables from the device. “I have a dual-touch screen made of scratch-proof lucite, eight USB 3.0 compatible ports, an HDMI out, wireless N capability, support for up to four Bluetooth devices, a 3.6Ghz quad-core processor, 1TB of disk space and 16GB of memory. I also function as a phone, wireless hotspot, GPS navigator, laser pointer, flashlight, HD digital video and still camera AND!” it paused triumphantly, “power over probability and fate!”
The rumbling was more continuous now, coming in waves. I wrapped my fingers around the power adapter.
“Ready to go?” I asked.
“Whenever it’s convenient!” quipped the device. I yanked the cord.
With an audible snap, the blue glow in the shaft disappeared and the various electrical mayhem around the room started to fade and slow like the afterglow of a flashbulb. A different rumble started to join the cacophony, not like an earthquake, but like the sound of an old house settling during the night if the house were the size of a city. The pedestal lurched, nearly throwing me from my feet. I ran, careful to pocket the device and hold tight to the gun and satchel.
The pedestal behind me creaked as I took off down the stairs, breaking off in one solid mass and thundering into the shaft below, dragging the wires and catwalk down with it. The sound of snapped steel cable preceded the explosive ring of steel generators clashing together, groaning before they, too, collapsed into the shaft. I bounded into the elevator as the rumbling and groaning grew louder, the ziggurat collapsing in on itself and out of view. Somehow the elevator still worked.
“Your doing?” I shouted over the din.
“Of course!” blipped the device, “shoot the control panel!”
I did so, and the elevator took off up the shaft like a rocket without even closing the doors. I dragged myself back to my feet and held on for dear life.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Fourth sub-basement! There’s something there you have to get!” The elevator’s ascent continued to accelerate.
“Are we going to die when this thing stops?” I yelled, as a new wave of rumbling battered the car.
The device didn’t even answer. The car lurched forward, showering sparks from the top of open doorway as it dragged a pinched length of cable against the wall of the shaft. We were slowing down, but not quite completely. With a bang, the elevator slammed to a halt, blowing the doors from the wall and tossing me out into the darkness onto a scattered collection of empty glass Coke bottles. Sure enough, we were in the fourth basement.
I checked the Light. Sure enough, it was still working. The beam cut the unnaturally murky darkness better than I’d hoped, and I stopped a moment to reload. The groaning and rumbles continued, but they were less pronounced this far up. I hoped I had enough time to find whatever the device wanted me to.
“Where to?” I asked. The device didn’t answer. I reached into my pocket and took it out. The low battery warning was flashing and a message was splashed across the screen:
“I’ve turned off sound so I last a little longer. Right, left, left, right, straight through three junctions, right.”
I ran, following the devices directions. I heard the moaning of the undead, no doubt roused by my footsteps and the glinting of my Light, and the shuffle of stiffened feet. ‘Don’t have time,’ I thought, ‘don’t have time.’ The device’s directions left me at a dead end with only a small toolbox in one corner. I checked the device again.
“Open it, take them, run.”
I knelt down and popped the box open. The only contents were a pair of dusty golf balls. Annoyed I snatched them up and dumped them in the satchel, whirling in time to blast the zombie that had stumbled into the little room.
“No time,” I grunted, “no fucking time for this!” I pushed through the slow, dry undead, back in the direction I’d come from. “Left, straight three, left, right, right, left!” I muttered as I ran, keeping my eyes on the light and firing blindly towards the dead on my tail. Sure enough, I was back at the wrecked elevator in the same dingy landing where Reid’s escalator campaign had ended. I was almost home! I vaulted up the escalator, leaving the zombies behind.
It turned out I’d traded them for more dark caimans. They came up through the broken elevator through the remnants of the mail tubes and poured out of the vents, all immediately giving chase as I hoofed it through store room after store room. An enormous grinding moan from the facility jolted the floor, sending me crashing to my knees. I looked behind me at the horde of advancing caimans just as the previous locker unit collapsed completely into a crevice in the floor, taking the front ranks of caimans unexpectedly with it. I scrambled to my feet and cast my Light aside; the bulb had broken again when I took the spill, no time to replace it. I leapt over tumbling pontoons as the facility shook, constantly now, dislodging banks of lockers from the walls and sending all manner of neat old junk skittering across cracking concrete floors. ‘Such a shame,’ I thought, ‘all this neat swag.’
I found the escalator up just in time to make it to the second floor. No sooner had I started into the labyrinth than the moving stairs had all slid off and into another new hole. The entire stairwell sealed itself closed in a juddering crunch moments later, but I was already on my way. Moments later I found myself horribly lost. The labyrinth was built to be confusing as it was, but with collapsed passages and few flickering lights I had gotten myself hopelessly lost. Another hard quake slammed the tunnels, accompanied with an awful roar. I was stuck. Ra’Fu-Ma’u was coming, and if I couldn’t get out, I had to pull the batteries from the device, destabilize the Eastgrounds and bury that thing for the good of the world. The world would never know what we had here, and that was probably best.
Suddenly, I caught a flicker out of the corner of my eye. I saw it again, so I jogged down the passageway after it. When I reached the place it had come from, there was nothing there. I looked around; and again, I saw a flicker. I wasn’t sure what it was but I felt compelled to follow it. ‘If, amidst the shiver of the facility dying and the roar of an emerging Elder Terror I spend my last moments chasing fireflies, then so be it,’ I thought, rounding one last corner.
There was Radley, in the main hive of the ventilation system. He pointed, and on the far wall was a wide, open vent that had been crudely marked “Syd’s Office,” probably in blood. I chuckled, and when I looked again, Radley was gone.
“Thanks, buddy,” I said, and crawled up into the vent, “thank you.”
I punched the grate out and dropped into Syd’s office. Time was getting short; from the doorway of the office I could see that the far end of the warehouse was open, the sheet metal ceiling collapsing like an upside down tidal wave. I checked the device.
“Outside, prairie dog parking.”
I ran to my office and grabbed my bag. My fucking work computer still had not finished updating. A ceiling beam crushed it just as the download reached 100%. I rolled my eyes and ran, ran past office doors and name tags of friends, framed articles, the trophy case, our break room. I slid down the escalator to the lobby as the last of the warehouse vanished into a gaping chasm, leaving our little building behind. An unimaginably loud laugh, cruel and enormous, blasted through the air. I had to go.
Just as I crossed the threshold of the lobby doors, I looked back, knowing this would likely be the last time I ever saw this place. Up on the balcony, I made out a figure up on the mezzanine. It was Radley. The rumbling seemed to taper off for a moment as he was joined by Spiffy… and Nurfy. And Hayden Christiansen. I frowned. Radley raised his hand in a somber salute as the rumbling picked up again, and I left the building for good.
In the prairie dog colony/parking out front, a safe distance away, I stopped and turned back to face the building. The letters had begun to fall off, leaving only “Con us R view .” Seemed appropriate, somehow. From behind me I heard the rumble and crack of thunder, and an odd phosphor glow had begun to sharpen my shadow. ‘Perfect,’ I thought to myself, ‘bring it on.’
From behind the building a mass of teeth and darkness rose, hauling itself up on titanic claws, up and out of the vast empty left behind when the warehouse collapsed. This was Ra’Fu-Ma’u.
“HUMANS,” the thing belched from thousands of grinning jaws, “SHORT-LIVED MORTALS OF EARTH, GAZE UPON MY HILARITY AND DESPAIR.”
The glowing storm of the Eastgrounds began to swirl around the beast, an otherworldly hurricane like I’d seen in my dream. Red lightning blazed and flashed around it, the anger of a mad god’s betrayal. Countless eyes opened in Ra’Fu-Mau’s incomprehensible form, each one a pupil-less white screen, each flickering to life to display the rawest of slapstick, monkeys humping people, redneck comedians, men in dresses, farts… it was everything Jerry described, a portal into a world of unfiltered funny. I watched for a moment, amid the chaos. It was terrible to behold. No, literally. It was all bad. I shouted through the storm.
“People actually like this shit?!” I’m not sure how I could tell, but the massive demon turned to look at me.
“AH, SO-CALLED FUNNY HUMAN,” it spoke, directly into my brain, “I WILL SPARE YOU MY WRATH THIS ONCE FOR THE SERVICE YOU HAVE DONE ME. DO NOT TEST MY GRACES FURTHER WITH YOUR PITIFUL GRASP OF COMEDY.”
“Go fuck a hole in the sun!” I yelled back, “Boo! Boooooooo! You suuuuuuck, get off the stage!” I was overcome by a wash of dread and fell to my knees; I suddenly had complete knowledge of every Adam Sandler movie. The Beast roared into the violent storm.
“WHAT IS THIS?!” the voice came again, “HOW CAN THIS BE POSSIBLE? YOU GENUINELY ARE NOT AMUSED BY THESE HIJINKS?!”
“No, ass!” I said, with a tear in my eye, “Fuck you for that! I’ll NEVER be able to get Jack and Jill out of my head! I can’t unsee these things!” The same apocalyptically loud laughter tore through the air, sending shockwaves through the storm, momentarily scattering it.
“THANK YOU, HUMAN,” announced Ra’Fu-Ma’u, “IT HAD NOT OCCURRED TO ME TO CAUSE SUFFERING WITH COMEDY BEFORE. I WILL SOON GROW TWICE AS POWERFUL AS I EVER COULD HAVE DREAMED, PREPARE TO EXPERIENCE AN ETERNITY OF SADO-COMEDY.”
Visions began to creep into my head, visions of Tim and Eric dancing in flames around Peter Griffin, perpetually flashing back to that time when he clutched his knee in pain while flashing back to that time when he clutched his knee in pain. I was adrift on an endless sea of Truck Nutz and the sky was Larry the Cable Guy. Sam Kinnison rose from the Nutz and shouted me into a spiraling oblivion of Jackass reruns and endlessly abused Internet memes. I was slipping into the excruciating madness when my phone vibrated. I looked past the Crank Yankers puppet that my hand had become to see what it said.
“New batteries, please.”
Surprised at the lucidity of the message, I pried the back plate off and took out the two AA batteries.
“Thank you,” the screen flashed.
The visions ceased immediately. Ra’Fu-Ma’u and the cloud both went silent as a crack of near-godly thunder jarred the ground, rippling out towards the Eastgrounds. The ripple exploded at the edge far end of the property into a mountain of liquid earth, the aqueduct clearly visible at its summit, and folded over on itself in a tsunami of green. It was coming towards us.
I slapped the satchel open and grabbed a fresh pair of batteries, stuffing them as quickly as I could into the Convenience Device. It powered on with a friendly message.
“Thank you for obtaining the Convenience Device!” it said, the same voice I’d heard earlier, “no need to wait while we check your settings. This device is, by default, already set up just like you’d like it. Please enjoy the ease of use that comes from living life at Factor 5, The Most Convenient Factor™! And remember, if you break me, I go back to the mad god and this starts all over again!” The soothing image of the smiley face reappeared on the screen. I held on tight.
The sea of earth bore down on me, the Convenience Device, the dread god and the storm, larger than all of us and eager to return to the place in the ground it had been forced from by cosmic farting around. A great rippling canyon, miles deep, sliced through the monolithic mound as it rushed around the remains of the facility. The smiley face glowed brightly, tendrils of yellow light curving gracefully out of it like an aurora. I saw the other buildings; the hospital, the cursed school, the stockyards and Rob’s restaurant and that fucking inVectorSys building, all drawn into the terra tsunami and crushed, never to rise again. With a quaking and erupting not heard since the days of earth’s forming, the mountain crushed Ra’Fu-Ma’u back into the grave from whence he’d risen, a swirling whirlpool of liquid earth sucking the glowing storm from the sky. I sat, clutching the device and my meager possessions close, as I witnessed the death of not one, but two gods in the deep of the earth, the swirling ground settling as though it had never been broken for the unfathomable structure that was the Confusereviews Compound.
After the noise, it was numbingly silent. Just the wind through prairie grass and some distant coyotes. All but our little office building was gone without a trace, and the sun was beginning to rise. I fell the fuck over and took a nap.
I woke to the sound of a car pulling in to the prairie dog colony. Ian and Reid got out and walked over to me while I tried to shake the sleep out of my eyes. Reid kicked me to wake me up.
“Hey,” kick, kick, kick, “hey, you awake?” kick.
“Yes, ow, dammit, ow, I said yes! Ow!”
“Where’s all the, everything?” said Ian, “I heard the Nazis could make a village disappear, but this is nuts, man. That was like, the biggest building in the world!”
“Um,” I thought fast, “it was like this when I got here.” They looked around.
“Yeah, alright,” said Reid, “it’s not like we used much of it anyway. We’ve still got the office part, at least.”
The office exploded for no discernible reason. The three of us stood there, watching it burn as the remaining letters fell from the sky. The C landed on my rental car. I looked at the device. It was off.
“Cool tablet!,” said Ian, “what can you do with it?”
“Everything,” I replied, “it’s pretty convenient.”
We sat drinking beer on the C as the tow truck dragged off my wrecked rental. Reid was on the phone with some temp agency, trying to get them to send us a cleanup crew. I pulled out the dirty golf balls the device had sent me to just before the collapse and dusted one on my jacket. Under the dirty surface was a perfectly polished, hundred-faceted emerald. I heard a mysterious whisper.
“Give them back,” it hissed.
“No,” I replied with a smirk, “none for you.”