by leslie vanexel


            As soon as he was dropped into what seemed like a trap door and began sliding down a cylindrical ramp, he came to the conclusion that this was some sort of representation of a mouth.  That knowledge didn’t make his situation any easier, and, as a matter of fact, he screamed even louder.  There were lights emanating from the walls of the cylinder, giving it a grayish tinge.  He splayed out his arms and legs in an attempt to slow his meandering descent.  The break points within each section gave little friction to slow his decent; his screaming stopped without his awareness, he was exerting too much effort trying to slow himself to waste any screaming.  Each seam he passed would tear at his hands momentarily, giving him the delusion that he might be able to slow himself down.  A half of a second of possible deceleration was better than nothing, and although the tubing swerved up and down somewhat, it still maintained a downward slope steep enough to make the attempt to stop futile for anyone that might have been thinking clearly.

            Fear of the unknown as well as fear of good old fashioned death kept the clear thinking at bay.  He kept his eyes opened wide, hoping for some end to the anxiety he was facing:  a bar to grab, a steel grate, some netting, a rope, a superhero to bust in and save him.  Everything was fair game in his mind, there no need to nit pick about style.  The severe rigidity of his full shank boots may perform admirably in the situations for which they were made, but for traction to slow oneself while sliding down a steel tube into what would presumably be a gullet full of hideous body mutilating machinery, they were far from adequate.  He slid up and over a ramp, too fast to be able to do much of anything but catch a little air over the hump, the change of body position had him spinning and twisting.  He landed shoulder side down, a couple more seams rattled him over onto his stomach.  He stayed spread eagle in this fashion and noticed that the slope was lessening in grade.  He made this realization about the same time that he could make out what would appear to be his own screams echoing in the tube.  As he slowed, the screams lessened in intensity and pitch, like the winding down of an anxiety machine.  The parts of the machine grinded to a halt with Dean on his hands and knees, shaking and somewhat hoarse, with a blank ‘not quite a smile’ on his face.

            He stayed stationary for a while, not quite sure whether or not he should try to get up, or brace himself for another slide.  His eyes were focused on the small lights that were embedded into the tube.  They were in lengthwise rows, embedded under a clear layer that was flush with the walls of the tube.  He rubbed a hand over them to ensure himself of the smooth transition between the surfaces.

“Heh… Ha!”

He looked up, following the tube’s symmetrical stripes of lights into the grayness from which he came, and felt the smile slowly slide across his face.  His brown eyes, which up to this point had a victimized doe in the hunter’s crosshairs look about them, slowly receded into their appropriate sockets, and he blinked a couple blinks to clear away the disbelief.


He put a hand to the crotch of his barely faded blue jeans to make sure he hadn’t pissed himself.

“Thank God!”

He let his head rest upon the what could now considered to be the floor of the tube.

“Warm…  Where the hell am I?”

He lifted his head up, with recognition in his eyes, and slid a hand over the metal.  The surface was far too warm to be normal.  There had to be some sort of heat source nearby.  Probably an engine of some sort…  Most likely the thought of this being a machine is what made him think of an engine.  There were no other indicators to reflect that.  No noise, no smell of fumes, no vibrations.  Every so often he could feel the entire structure shudder.  The tubing felt thin in comparison to the shaking.  Must be its footsteps…  He put an ear down on the floor, listening for any indicating noises.  What’s that?  He could make out some sort of rhythmic pattern.  Tock, tock, tock, tock, tock.  He couldn’t quite make out what it was.  Knocking?  Pinging?  Some kind of sound on metal…  “What the hell is that?”  It’s getting louder…  and faster…  The sound was accompanied by some sort of whining.  Like metal rubbing on metal…  He could only make out that whatever it was was getting louder.  Louder like something… that’s coming closer…  “Shit.”  He stood up quickly and was greeted by a crack on the head from the top of the tube.  “Damn it!”  Damn it!  Through the pain he envisioned a massive wall of rotating drills, a roto-rooter for the pipes so to speak.  Just itching to instantaneously decompose his body with extreme and painful indifference.  He could feel the first inkling of metal that would undoubtedly penetrate his flesh without regret, except for my own, of course!

He turned around halfway while hunched over, puzzled by the fact that he was about to run in the same direction he was trying to keep from going a couple minutes ago.  “Damn it!”  He started running, er, hobbling, squatting style, down the tube, its relative flatness gave him reassurance and he didn’t bother to look too far ahead.  The sound increased in pitch as well as volume and some high school physics class lecture on the properties of sound waves flashed through his head.  “Up.  Farther?  Down?… Um.  Shit!”  He kept moving, only paying attention to the step or two in front of him while still mumbling under his breath.

“Ack!”  He stopped short of another drop off, feeling stereotypically screwed except for the fact that he didn’t run right off into it.  The lights had stopped just about at the edge, which made the hole all the more ominous and conveniently placed.  He looked back into the darkness, then jerked his head forward into the darkness.  “Shit!  Oh!  Closer!  When the pitch increases, it’s coming closer.  Yes!”

“Wait!  No!  Shit!”  He parroted his head back and forth, unsure of what he should do.  Each move was accompanied by a slight jerk in his body, slightly reminiscent of a seizure.  “Damn it…”  His uncertainty was visible in the light that reflected in his eyes each time he jerked his head.  The vibrations were slightly offset from the sound.  They were strong enough for him to feel them through his boots, their stiffness still giving him no assistance whatsoever.  Sudden death on impact down the chute, or a good mulching from the Body Annihilator 5000.  The sound and vibrations grew much more quickly, now.  Their acceleration obviously purported his demise. 

“Okay.  Shit.  Okay, okay.  Less blood, less pain.” 

He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. 

“Go!”  He made a slight motion toward the abyss, but only a slight one.

 “Okay.  Go!”

He shook out his hands a bit.  The noise was permeating though his body now, his own body’s shaking was matched by the walls around him.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it!”

He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.  In through the nose, out through the mouth, Here we go.  It’s my choice…  He lifted his left foot, and took a step.

“Ow, ow, ow!”

His heel touched down on the side of the wall and slid.  Unfortunately, his other foot stayed where it was and he was first forced into impromptu splits, then tumbled slightly sideways and headlong into the hole.

“Ow!  Shit!”

His wild ride was stopped short after a few feet with a header into a level section.  He opened his eyes and tried to stand up out of the fetal position he was in when his feet went out from under him and he fell down onto his back.

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

The sound of machinery was all around him and the embedded lights were back, but they were moving.  He tried to get up again, only to flounder back on his back.  After settling with his arms and legs in the air, he noticed the sensation of the seams riding up his back, one after another.

“Huh?”  Huh?

I’m moving?  He was being pushed back the direction he came by a flat wall.  It perfectly mated with the cylindrical walls of the tube, preventing anything from slipping by with a heavy rubber skirt that rubbed against the walls.  He could feel the heavy metallic sounds vibrating through the moving wall.  The noise permeated through his entire body, originating in his head and left shoulder which were pressed up against the wall.  The metal surface had a solidity that felt far more sturdy than the walls of the cylinder, it reminded him of the doors in naval ships, or prisons.  It felt as though someone were pounding the back side of the wall with a sledgehammer, right about where his head was.  He flopped about, forced into tumbles and rolls in an attempt to get himself oriented differently, ending up at best with his head off the wall, but being knocked by each seam he retraced.

He stayed where he was, tired of struggling and mildly satisfied with his position by keeping his head off of the surface, hoping that if he paid attention, some sort of avenue for escape would present itself.  As the passageway veered diagonally up, he turned to rest, sitting with his back against the platform, legs crossed, riding the seams like a kids roller coaster.  The sliding wall maintained an excruciatingly constant speed, regardless of the direction of travel.  His weight on the uphill section changed absolutely nothing.  The tone, the pitch, the frequency; whatever mechanics were involved in keeping the thing moving, his existence was insignificant to them.  He kept his eyes directed towards the darkness of the corridor, patiently riding out each seam as it slid up his legs and under his butt.  Some massage…  He couldn’t really remember the wild ride he had upon entrance, or where the entrance might happen to be.  “Even if I do see it, how as I supposed to climb up the damn thing?”

He rested an elbow upon his knee and his chin upon his hand with a loud “FUCK!” to signal his ennui.  His pensive look and explicative was congratulated with a small change in the far reaches of the tube.  A smear of gray slowly drizzled into existence on the upper side of the tube, becoming more distinct and solid and he moved toward it.  It slowly changed shape into the wall of the tube, adorned with the shimmering glow of sunlight.  His eyes glistened in response to, what he would later call, an angelic event as he saw his golden, radiating opportunity making it’s way toward him with stoic persistence.  The alternate passageway seemed faded into view as he approached.  He fidgeted around, totally oblivious to his earlier comment on the logistics of escape, raising himself up to a squat.  He pushed himself forward with one leg, letting a hand slide against the wall for balance.  His other foot stood solidly in front of him, toes raised up so that each seam would slide under with the least amount of interference.  His free hand was extended in front of him, rigidly pointing like an ancient war general’s, toward battle and impending victory, for king and country.

He squinted harshly against the glare as he approached, maintaining his surfing stance while navigating the pipe.  He inhaled and exhaled loudly out of his mouth in quick repetition, keeping his eyes focused on the clarifying opening.  I have to do this.  I have to make this.  I’m going to make this.  As it closed in, he raised his pointing finger to maintain direction and determination.

“Okay.   Okay.  Okay.  You can do this.  You can do this… Shit!  What an I supposed to do?”  As the opening came within reach he stood up, placing each hand on opposite sides of the vertical tube.  The hollowed ‘thwack’ was barely audible over the noise of the machinery as he pressed with both arms, lifting up the leg that was against the sliding wall to rest upon the now exposed edge.  As soon as he was above the wall, the sound of gears whining together and the harsh pounding of metal became almost unbearable.  He steeled himself against the noise that rattled his skull.  He looked up to take in something other than the sound and the blue sky that he saw appeared distorted in its brightness.  He exhaled through his teeth in an attempt to gain a better foothold.  He hopped his hands up the sides of the wall, and as he stood up on the edge, his foot slipped off over the other side of the wall, leaving him dangling.  The flesh on his arms shook as he strained, he looked down at diminishing open section, then at his foot that still dangled within the space.  “Nnggngng!”  His arms shook violently as tried to get the height to save his foot.  The free foot scratched at the side wall, unable to get footing to assist in any way.  He couldn’t help but look down at his soon to be missing foot and whimper as he strained harder.  The two crescent moons faded away rapidly, and his stomach muscles cramped as he pointed his foot down to barely retrieve it prior to terminal modification.

“Oh God!  Thank—”

He couldn’t hear the squeaking of his sweating hands as they slid down the walls, he only looked up at the blue sky as it lifted up farther away from him.  “Agh!”  He didn’t think at all about where he was going, or what was about to happen, just quickly curled up into a ball as he fell.  He wrapped his hands around his knees and tucked his head down, trying to compact himself as much as possible to avoid being mangled by the juggernaut’s desire to mash him against the intersection.  He landed hard on his side and was instantly warmed by the surface, but maintained his position. 

The surface’s heat made his open his eyes and take notice of his surroundings.  Upon opening his eyes, shielded wiring focused into view a few inches in front of him.  A bundle of clear sheathed wires was wrapped in front of him; below that they all spider webbed out across the semi-flat surface that he was on, going into what seemed to be small rubber nipples which were scattered about around him.  As he shifted he could feel the slight abrasion as the upper side of the tube rubbed against his fleece jacket.  He groaned slightly as the lump of the seam slid down his shoulder, creating a slight tinge as it passed over his elbow.  In front of him was a set of gears, which as far as he could tell, drove the sets of treads that seemed to form an X pattern against the walls of the tube.  The gears were large and seemed to be crudely built with darkened splotches of grease which complemented the grainy patches of rust upon the teeth.  As he looked at them they began to glow with a strange shine.  The greasy spots shone brightest, and in wonderment he squinted to get a—  His eyes were distracted by the light above him.  He turned just in time to see the edge of the sky pass as the machine passed from under another opening.  He lifted his head toward the light and was greeted by the ceiling of the tube.  “Shit!”  The crease of the intersection slid down his cheek before passing over his shoulders, wedging him back into his confine and leaving him back in the darkness of dilated pupils and dim light.  “Damnit.”

He couldn’t hear his own curses through the noise.  As his eyes readjusted to the dim light he could see one of the sets of treads slightly above him.  It didn’t have linked metal, like conventional tank treads or chains, but a smooth band, almost like the rubber band tanks he remembered making as a boy out of a combination of Tinker Toys.  The blue-gray treads themselves seemed totally silent in comparison to the gears and whatever mechanism he laid upon.  The knocking noise that came from the thing under him changed position in a very particular pattern.  A muffled rapport of metal parts, the speed of the sounds is what made it so hard to identify before.  He couldn’t see what was beyond his feet and kept his legs tucked up as he attempted to rotate his body to get a better view of this machine.  He squirmed to get his arm out from under him and the machine screeched with the cry of scraping metal as his orientation changed and his body slowly started to shift and slide forward.  His hand ended up on one of the rust laden axles and slid off to the right following the axle’s rotation.  His body was still too confined within its space to afford him opportunity to contort himself for any means of avoidance and he merely put his hands out in front of him and pushed his head up against the wall of the tube to get to one side of the main cogs that hungrily expected him.

“Ow!”  His forearm landed on the same axle, and as it spun off it rotated his body around, turning him upside down with his head now resting upon the flat surface of the gear and an ear being tickled by the built up rust on the axle.  Looking around the best he could, no avenue of relief presented itself and he laid there, enjoying the discomfort as much as possible since the alternative involved some method of mutilation.  I’m not sure if this is better or worse.  He was upside down with his legs folded underneath him, the back of his head riding a gear just to keep the rest of his body out of it.  The glimmer of sunlight distracted him from his head massage as he watched another vertical opening go by; his current position made it an impossibility to move, let alone extract himself up and out.  Sweet.  “Okay, next one, no matter what, I’m going for it.”

He grabbed a hold of the axle with both hands and twisted them hand over hand to match its speed, hoping keep them stable enough to be able to wiggle himself into a new position.  He turned his body slightly, just enough to get his legs to slide a little to one side, just enough to be able to move them when the time came.  “Okay.  Last time.  Let’s do it right this time.”

When the familiar shine of light started in front of him he took a deep breath, exhaled quickly, then pulled with his hands on the axle to raise his torso up a little bit, slapping both hands up against the front vertical wall of the passage.  As the machine rolled forward, the motion straightened his torso and he was able get up upon his knees.  He pushed himself up into a stance and quickly braced his hands and feet against opposite walls.  A seam attached the two tube sections together leaving a ridge which protruded enough for his feet to gain purchase.  He watched the tail end of the device leave his sight just as his right foot slipped, sending him down off kilter with a leg on each side of what would be the continuation of the vertical section downward.

“Damnit!  Why’d I have to pick the one with the chasm of death under it!”  He could hear a slight echo of his own voice over the fading sensory assault of the juggernaut as it continued down the horizontal passage.  He stood spread eagle over the hole, unable to get enough purchase to pull himself across and into either one of the sides, or back up and into the vertical section.  The top of the horizontal section came a few inches below his shoulders and he could use the walls with his hands just enough for balance.  “Shit!”  Times like this he had to more than acknowledge his lack of flexibility, but restrained the slurry of oaths promising to stretch more in the future upon his survival of this predicament.  He could feel each notch of tread on his boots as it slipped like a ratchet bringing him closer to irony and the eventual indifference that follows an anticipated death.

Immediately after falling he couldn’t really remember what would have been the actual beginning of the fall, merely the fact that he was now falling with what little control he could muster from all four limbs skidding against the wall.  The rapid thuds that resounded from each limb striking a seam made a Clack clack, Clack clack; Clack clack, Clack clack sound reminding him of the old wooden roller coasters which consistently boasted excellent safety records until inevitably someone was decapitated or had a hand amputated.  His screams were nothing like those of the average poorly maintained carnie ride’s passengers, but the shriek resounded through the darkness of the tunnel, all the way down to the approaching well lighted bottom.  He tried to look down at the landing; it’s brightness was a powerful annoyance, unidentifiable until he emerged from the tube and hit bottom.

The impact of the water knocked the wind out of him, and he struggled against the disorientation of panic and near weightlessness, thrashing about momentarily, then ceasing motion.  He waited for his body’s balance to stabilize itself; it turned and listed slowly as he fought the urge to breathe.  His stomach tensed up, unwilling to accept a postponement of breathing; he had the semblance that up was directly to his right and started in that direction.  Swimming quickly, the drag of his limbs against the water reminded him more of a thin oil, than water.  He kept his eyes closed as he moved through the liquid; his arms were useless through the higher viscosity, so he only kicked with his legs, keeping his hands in front of him.  He hoped that he wouldn’t need to worry about running in—  TWACK!

His fingers crumpled under as he struck the metallic surface, he opened his eyes and looked around.  There was a splotchy glimmer of light to his left, he started toward it when his eyes closed tightly to try to squeeze out the pain that flared out from them.  He moved a few more feet with a hand over his mouth, barely able to control his motor reflexes.  His free hand waved about in front of him against the metal surface.  As his fingers felt the cold air against them, he pushed himself out with the free hand, inhaling deeply as he did, greeted with a burst of pain that trailed its way down his throat and into his lungs.  His hacking cough echoed throughout the room and he attempted to open his eyes and focus on anything around him.  His vision was blurred and he tried to blink away the residue of whatever he was swimming in, his coughing was slowly replaced with a pained dry wheezing kept his breathing stable, strained, and restricted.  The liquid was surrounded by a metallic flooring which spanned several feet in all four directions.  Each side ended in a wall that continued up to the ceiling, one of which had a circular passageway similar in size and shape to the ones he had already been in.

He folded his arms over the edge, trying to gather himself with deep breaths and downcast eyes.  His breath hissed through near clenched teeth as he looked about his surroundings through the hazy glare of pain.  Now that he had opportunity, he looked down at the liquid that he was in.  The slightly yellow tinge made him feel like he was in a vat of urine, but the caustic scent reminded him more of chemistry class.  “Great.  I’m in acid.”  As soon as he said it he realized that his face and hands were beginning to itch.  He vaulted up easily upon his hands and rolled himself over onto the metallic surface trying to keep from touching his stinging eyes with his hands.  He sat up and his back started to itch as well so he stood up and began running in place, moving his arms back and forth to rub his clothes about his back.  “Argh.” 

His entire body began to itch and as he gyrated more fiercely, he heard the sound of metal grinding and ratcheting upon itself, a sound similar, but higher in pitch than the last one.  His Richard Simmons workout slowed to a halt as he squatted slightly, bringing his hands slowly in front of him.  One eye squinted slightly as he listened for the direction from which the sound came.  The sound shifted and changed in pitch and tone, different parts were moving at different times, but all were heading coming closer, behind and up, on the left hand side.  Whirrr.  Clack.  Whir, whirr.  Clack.  Cla-clack.  He took a step forward, then pivoted quickly on that foot, bracing himself for whatever was approaching.  Clack.  Cla-clack.  Chink.

He turned and pulled his head back, the mechanism was only a few inches from his face.  It was metal, but not made out of the same materials as everything else.  It’s a… baby?  Poorly crafted, the thing looked like a crude metal sculpture of a baby.  The roundness of all of the limbs and the general size made it seem to be the only thing it could be.  It was supported from a mechanical arm that protruded from the back of its head, the gears at each joint controlled its movement.  The arm came from an opening in the center of the ceiling, next to the opening from which he fell.  He hadn’t remembered seeing it when he first looked around.  The gears whirred jerkily and quickly as it inched closer to his face.  Everything below the neck shifted listlessly as it moved, they seemed to have no gearing of their own, just limply followed wherever the head guided.  The arms and legs oscillated to a stop a few seconds after the head.

He took a step to the side and the head followed, blinking as it turned.  Its eyes were shiny black circles, slightly too large for the face, with metal flaps for eyelids that came together then retreated.  They were clearly there for show, but the eyes definitely seemed to be how it saw him.

The baby blinked a couple of times, each lid moved slightly out of sync, making a rapid succession of clinks at it did so.  He blinked along with it, unable to really react to this gross caricature in front of him, his eyes widened and his mouth drooped in horror as its own mouth opened.  More accurately, the head was split in two at about the height that the mouth would be, and the whole lower section pivoted and shook as it separated like a Muppet.  He couldn’t feel the itching anymore.  The motion was jagged and quick, like an on/off switch; it opened and closed a few times, resounding a clack each time it shut.  Clack, clack clack!  With each movement the rest of the body jittered slightly.  The mouth stayed open momentarily then sound came out.

He heard the sound of a small child, not a baby, but more of a little girl, very young nonetheless.  It laughed, giggling like a child at play. 

“Hee hee hee hee!  I’m hungry!”  Its little arms wavered slightly with the utterance.

“What the fuck?!”

The mouth shuddered a few more times and repeated, “Hee hee hee hee!  I’m hungry!”

“Ugh!”  His voice cracked in mortification.  Just as he tried to take a step back, the eyes blinked once out of rhythm, and the baby shifted to the right, then came forward and left, shoving him hard to one side, knocking him off balance.  He tumbled and slid back into liquid.  After surfacing he and shook his head hard, reaching with closed eyes for the edge.

“Hee hee hee hee!  I’m hungry!”  Clack clack clack.  Whirr,  clack clack.  Chink ka-chink.  “Hee hee hee hee!”  The sound and voice moved about him, over his head, then down next to him on his left. “Hee hee hee hee!  I’m hungry!”  He could hear the mouth chattering quickly next to him.  “Fuck!”  He pulled up quickly on the edge to get out of the acid, and the baby blinked a couple times and chattered its giggle.  “Hee hee hee hee!”  He heard it come around to his front.  It slammed him hard on the forehead, driving him back into the pool.  It chattered a laugh at him and blinked each eye slowly.  “Hee hee hee hee!  I’m hungry!  Hee hee hee hee!”  When he surfaced and shook his head, his eyes burned more fiercely.  He rubbed them with a hand, unable to fight the instinct, and let out a yelp as his eyes tormented him with vehemence.  He blinked continuously, attempting to summon more tears to rinse the pain out of them as he waded.  The baby stayed a couple of feet out of reach; its head occasionally shifted slightly to keep him it the middle of its field of vision.

He backpedaled slowly wading himself toward the other side of the pool, keeping his eyes on the baby.  It sat motionless, good.  Just stay there, I’m not going anywhere.  Stay right there.  He didn’t want to look back, or change anything about his orientation enough to trigger whatever amount of movement was necessary to make the baby take action.  His nostrils flared from the fumes, and he tried to maintain tranquility as he swam, keeping his arms and legs under the fluid.  He could hear the slow swishing of water that his arms created as he slid, more or less, motionlessly toward the farthest possible location from the baby.  His eyes continued to burn, and as he kept blinking, he noticed that his vision was starting to blur.  Not good.  Not goo—  The baby’s head cocked slightly to one side, then the body raised up and cackled slightly as the baby pivoted on the centrally located arm and started to swing around to his location.  Shit!  “Hee hee, hah ha!”  He turned his head and noticed that he was still a couple of yards from the edge.  “Argh!”  The baby slowly rotated on the arm around the perimeter of the pool, taking several seconds to swing around to the other side. A sour frown slid across his face and he didn’t bother attempting to pick up the pace.  The automaton moved fast enough that by the time he got a hand onto the edge, it was already clicking over him, its limbs still slowly rotating, tinkling lightly with a sound that resembled chain links.

I gotta get out.  Gotta get out.  There has to be a way out of this…  I can’t let myself die in this kind of situation.  He looked around again through squinted eyes and down turned eyebrows, slightly muddled in mind, but still sure that there was something that he was missing.  He turned up and to the left where the darkness of the circular passage broke the uniformity of the brushed metal surroundings.  It didn’t seem to be any more than about seven feet off the ground, more than adequate for him to reach up to.  It won’t do me any good if I can’t get out of here.  He slowly moved, keeping a hand on the edge of the pool, toward the side opposite from that of the opening.  The baby stayed motionless until he approached a corner; it then whirred harshly, clicked and shook lightly, then started its movement around to his location.  As it approached him the head cocked slightly and the body dropped as its mouth opened.  “Hee hee, ha hah!  Hee hee, ha hah!”  It’s high pitched whirr dropped to a lower grinding noise as it slowed to match his speed. 

He was breathing heavily as he reached the middle of the side, exactly opposite of the opening.  From this vantage he could see that the passage was sort of a tunnel, more of the same cylinder shape, but there was definitely light coming from the other side.  His throat was tightening up more (probably a reaction from the fricking acid) as he took a few fast deep breaths.  Okay.  Okay now.  He licked his lips once and immediately began coughing.  “Fucking acid!  Okay now!”  A couple more deep breaths and he raised himself up slightly, then descended into the acid.

            He began swimming in the general direction in front of him, keeping his eyes closed and hands in front of him.  After a few seconds of willing them, he opened his eyes and looked up, hardly able to distinguish the approaching darkness of the edge of the pool through the pain pouring into his face.  He could only keep his eyes open for short bursts, using those opportunities to correct his trajectory as he went.   His receptacles of fire could only make out a difference in light and dark of the liquid, and he aimed for that edge with his hands in front of him and kicking as hard as he could.

              As soon as he broke the surface, he slammed his hands down and hoisted himself out of the pool, trying to restrain his coughing as he moved.   “Hee hee, ha hah!”  He slipped on the wet metal surface and had to catch himself as he scrambled to the opening.  Clack.  Clack.    “Shit!”  He clawed on all fours towards the opening, blinking rapidly in an attempt to clear his hazy eyes.  His tight throat had him wheezing as he ran, the clacking was slowly increasing in intensity.  He reached up and latched the edge of the opening, pulling himself up quickly, then scrambling on his hands and knees to clear the opening.  The light that protruded from the other side of the cylinder revealed a far wall.  He stopped, crouched on all fours, then looked behind him toward the clacking infant as it came into view.  It stopped right in front of the opening, close enough that he could touch it.  Its limbs wavered jaggedly as it stopped.  Apparently it can’t come in here.  At least I’m safe for now.  “Hee hee, ha hah!”  The laughing was coming from behind him.  “Hee hee, ha hah!”  He turned to see another baby, limbs wiggling with each opening of its mouth as it chattered at him.  “Hee hee, ha hah!”  Their laughter alternated in stereo.  Both ends of the passage were blocked by the metallic infants.  Clack, clack.  Their eyes blinked offset, but together it almost sounded like clapping.

            He crawled up to the other end of the passage and looked around the baby.  There were the metallic walls the similar pool of acid, two openings in the ceiling; one in the center for the baby, the other offset slightly.  Identical.  Great.  He pursed his lips together and sat down in the passage.  He crossed his arms and let out a groan like a pondering old man as he looked at the other baby.  It was very similar, but he could make out subtle differences in the shape of the face, the position of the eyes, the offset of that grotesque blink.  “Hmmm.  I need to think about this for a bit.”  He scratched at the dull heat that prickled his flesh.  “I gotta find some way to wash this shit off of me, and quick.”

            When he woke up, he couldn’t quite place where he was, mostly because his eyes were cemented shut with mucus.  Shit.  He rubbed his hands together, feeling a slick film that coated them.  Everywhere he contacted flesh, his hands slid greasily along.  He rubbed his eyes, rolling off large chunks of hardened mucus as he did, all the while trying to pull his eyelids open.  He put a couple of fingers on the top and bottom eyelid and pulled, making an opening large enough for light to smear in.  He let out a light sigh of relief as he worked on the task of clearing an eye enough to provide sight.  He spit on his fingers and rubbed the liquid in, slowly loosening and cracking flakes from one eye.  He freed most of the lashes from one eye enough to give him a bleary eyed look as he turned to the opening on the left side.  The baby was motionless, its crinkled visage was cracked in the middle by the open mouth, now silent and frozen.  He crept over to it, ever cautious of the possibility of that laugh coming at any moment.  As he put out his hand, the baby jerked backwards slowly, its mouth chattering the entire time.  He sat back down and it came back to a state of rest just outside the passage.

He looked about his surroundings, his eyes always returning to the hole in the ceiling from where the arm protruded.  That’s gotta be it.  There’s no other option.  He moved closer to the baby and it, once again, backed slowly away from him.  It doesn’t move nearly fast enough.  Oh well.  What’s one more time.

Dean exhaled hard and had to mentally restrain himself from licking his lips again.  “Okay.  Last time.  One last time.”  He alternated rubbing his hands together and making a sharp motion forward, as if attempting to will himself forward with his own hands.  He rocked back and forth in his squatting position, and exhaled short, quick breaths.  “Come on.  Come on now  Go!  Go!  Go!”  He shuffled quickly toward the entrance of the tube, keeping his eyes focused on the baby.  After a couple of steps, the baby clicked and starting retreating back.  “No you don’t!”  When he reached the edge of the tube he poked his head out and stood up diagonally, lunging for the baby, wrapping one hand around the stem at the base of its head and the other around the neck.  The baby jerked slightly and dropped a few inches leaving him splayed out almost horizontally with one foot still propped up on the edge of the tube.  “Hee hee ha hah!  I’m hungry.”  His foot slipped off the edge and he swung down, hanging onto the infant, its loose jointed body giving easily to his momentum.  The clacking of the gears deepened in pitch and slowed, lowering the baby enough that his feet were kicking the top of the pool.

He gripped the neck tighter, twisting the body slightly askew.  The weight he placed on it strained and eventually snapped the mechanism that held the mouth closed.  A loud ratcheting noise crackled as the jaw dropped open.  He looked straight ahead at what he supposed should be the throat, now elongated and distended from his weight.  “Hee hee ha hah!”  He couldn’t tell exactly where the sound was coming from from his peculiar vantage point, it didn’t quite seem like it was coming from the mouth.

K-K-K-K-K-CRACK!  The straining groans of the arm ceased as it gave way under his weight and dropped under his weight and collapsed to a straightened arm, dunking him up to his chin in the pool.  “Damnit!”  He pulled himself up, reaching hand over hand enough to be able to get a foot on top of either side of the baby’s head.  He rested his head on the now vertical arm that he was hugging and breathed heavily onto it, taking a moment of solstice since he was out of the pool and seemingly in no immediate danger.  TINK!  He didn’t even open his eyes when he dropped a couple inches.  “Fucking A!”  Inhaling deeply, he raised his head then opened his eyes.  He peered up at what wasn’t the stripped out gearing of the arm, but the stressed and bent retaining bands that held the arm onto some other assembly.  “Argh!”

He leaped up quickly, grabbing as high as he could on the arm, pulling up, then hugging the arm with his legs the minimize the slippage and reach up higher.  After a couple of these maneuvers the single warped bands on either side of the arm audibly protested the movement and he froze, wide-eyed and pressing his cheek on the pitted surface of the cool metal.  He looked over at the top of the ceiling that was slightly below his eye level, into the room that seemed to exist in this darkness, and up at the bands that seemed to quiver a few feet above him.  “This is fucking ridiculous.”  He whispered it under his breath, trying to take care not to disturb the fatigued metal.  He pursed his lips and stared at the floor next to him, every illusion of safety and the warm nurturing bosom of his mother poured out onto that floor.  It almost glowed with the reverence of a religious icon.  He stared at it hard, hoping that it would become closer through his dedication.  The bands sighed above him, clearly unhappy about the slight waver that his movement had caused.  Gottagogottagogottagogottago.

His hand slapped the floor hard and he pressed, trying to raise himself up.  The bands still whined as he pushed, raising a foot as he did, wiggling his toes in the boot to try to get enough height.  The boot shook violently as he fought his own inflexibility, shaking his whole body in the process.  His foot finally cleared the edge and he finally exhaled through gritted teeth.  PING!  One of the bands sounded its freedom as it tore free of its previous lifestyle and descended past him.  The arm immediately shifted away from him and slid out of the restraint of the remaining band.  He let go of it as it gave out from under him, waving that free arm back and behind him in a vain attempt to balance his body.  He toppled backwards and landed with a shoulder on the other side of the opening, immediately opening his eyes to inspect his surprising safety.

The baby didn’t make a sound as it plopped into the acid below.  He had almost hoped for a death groan or something to give him some satisfaction of victory.  “That wasn’t very dramatic.”  He pushed himself up, retrieving the one leg that still dangled in the hole and flopped over onto his hands and knees.  He looked around, and was pleasantly surprised to be able to stand up in the corridor that made up the ceiling area above the pool.  He bent backwards and extended his arms into a grand stretch, groaning deeply and exaggerating his body position.  He smacked his lips a couple of times and looked around his new environment.

The dim light didn’t afford much information, he reached out a hand to touch the coolness of the adjacent wall.  He started walking, sliding his fingertips along the wall as he went, maintaining almost an arm’s length from it.  “I’ll probably regret it, but anything’s gotta be better than this.”  As he walked he picked up the pace, his footsteps fell with confidence and he increased his stride.  He could hear the echo from his boots resound from both in front and behind him, his mouth grew more stern with each ‘thok’.  The echo slowly raised in pitch and decreased in length, he squinted his eyes lightly and slowed his walk, peering into the fuzzy gray that was in front of him.  It slowly solidified into a form, increasing in size till it pushed out the darkness entirely, leaving only the dull metal finish of the wall in front of him.  There was light coming from the corridor to the left, he waited momentarily, before the bend, taking a slow deep breath.  He closed his eyes, turned the corner, and walked.

He took a couple of steps before opening his eyes and his nostrils flared slightly as he squinted from the light.  It wasn’t very bright, but his darkness acclimated eyes protested.  The light originated from a room that opened up about twenty yards down the hallway.  It seemed very blank, but the haze from his eyes made it difficult to tell.  His pace slowed to a light tick tick as he walked, trying to suppress the soles of his shoes.  He rounded his steps as he walked, letting the soles roll as he walked.  It took several steps before he noticed that his boots bent far more than they used to.  He stopped to look down at them, the leather uppers were soaked still from the acid and he could see that the rubber soles had been considerably worn and somewhat pitted from their experience.  “Shit.  I guess this stuff isn’t real rubber after all.”

He looked up quickly, half surprised to hear his own voice reverberate through the hall.  He was tempted to shoosh himself for being so loud when he heard a loud crackling accompanied by the flickering of a bright bluish light from the room ahead.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  In through his nose, out through his mouth, then he started walking.  He kept a constant rate, a good rhythm with his steps.  Light flickered again with the crackling noises following shortly behind.  Hopefully that means it’s far enough away to give me some advance warning.  He ran his tongue over the front of his teeth and exhaled as he crossed the entryway into the room.

The light that emanated from the left side of the room was bright.  Very bright, in fact, as it made Dean wince.  He gave out an uncontrolled yelp and the light and sound abruptly stopped.  He blinked hard, trying to acclimate his hazed over eyes to the returned darkness; he took a step back, realizing his helpless situation.  He was about to retreat back into the hallway when he heard a sound that stopped him before he could set his foot down.

“It’s about time you got here!”

“What?”  A voice!  A person’s voice!  Thank God!  It’s about time something go right around here!

“Heh.  I, uh, said that it was about time you got here.”

He blinked a few more times as he took a step forward, trying to divine an image to match the sounds he was hearing.  It was a man’s voice, not very deep, but still on the average side.  There was a human form ahead of him and as he walked closer, it started to take a more definite shape.  Something about that voice seems familiar…

“This is going to be weird.  Hold on, lemme get the lights.”

The lights forced him to shy away, closing his eyes.  He could see the light shine red through his eyelids as he squinted them slowly back open, attempting to speed the correction for the brightness.  He could hear footsteps coming closer and, out of habit, he looked down at the shoes as the first identifier to the type of person he was talking to.  They were fairly standard looking boots, very well used and worn and just about falling apart.

“You might as well look up now, it’ll take you a while to get used to this.  Trust me, I know.”

When he looked up he thought that he was in front of a wall, the metal was reflecting his image back at him.

“Odd, isn’t it?”

 “Wh- what?!”

He was looking at himself.  Not exactly, because he didn’t have a beard and the image had a shortish one, not very well trimmed, but neat enough.

“I said odd, isn’t it?”

“Uh… what?”

“Ugh, forget it.  Let’s start over.  Hi.  I’m you.  You’re me.  Or, to be more correct, you’re me at a time that is, about as far as I can tell, for me about four months ago.  Since I was you, I know that it will take you some time to get used to this concept.  Stop me if I’m going too fast for us.  Hee hee.”

He dropped back to a sitting position on the ground, unconscious of the fact that his mouth was still hanging open.  “So what you’re saying is that you’re me?”

“Yup, four months from now.  Err, for you that is.”

He crossed his legs and perched his chin on an upturned palm.  His brow was wrinkled in a state of confusion.

“I told you it would take you a while to get used to it.” 

Both of them were looking each other over, the other one took a step or two to the side, looking at his profile, then a little closer to his face, which he then inspected.  His puzzled look wasn’t mimicked on the other one, but replaced by a slightly twisted grin, sheepish, but still full of confidence.

“Man, you got torn up!”

“What the hell is this?!”

The image sighed and scratched the back of his head out of mild annoyance.  “I don’t know why I’m upset about you not understanding, after all, I didn’t.  As a matter of fact, it took me about a week before I truly accepted that he was right.  But that’s why I won’t be offended when you don’t believe me now, cause I hadn’t.” 

            “Okay.  Let’s suppose then that, for the sake of argument, what you’re saying is true.  Then you ought to be able to tell me what the hell I’m doing here.  I mean, what the hell we’re doing here.”

            The other one crossed stood up and crossed his arms.   “Well, that’s the one thing I don’t know, or more accurately, I don’t remember.  All I remember is that we were hiking and then we were in the hole.  But that’s not important, what is is the fact that I do know how we’re going to get out of here.”

            Dean stood quickly.  “Really!?  Well, let’s go then!”

            “Hold on, tiger.  We don’t get to leave at the same time.  That would be what the sci-fi shows call a time paradox.”

            “As if this wasn’t?”

            “Well, it is and it isn’t.  As far as I’ve been able to figure out, this is more like what I would call a ‘non-intrusive temporal spiral.’”

            “Eh?  How could you ever term this as being non-intrusive.  I mean, you’re talking to me.  Doesn’t that seem pretty intrusive to you.”

            “No, no, not that way.  It’s more like, for each of us, there is one fate, one destiny, one direction our existence can take.  This is unalterable in itself, and although we interact with each other, we are unable to change either our own, or the other’s destiny.  This is because I was you at one point, just as I was in your shoes a few months ago, and just as some other me was telling me this exact spiel.  Not that I remember it exactly, but that it must have been so because I’m saying it now.  Get it?”

            “Kind of, but I don’t see how this can be unalterable by either of us…  I mean, what if I had never come in here?”  Dean took this opportunity to look about his surroundings.  There was ample enough light to see, but not the entire room at once.  Through the film of haze he could distinguish a large flat surface, like a rectangle that protruded from the floor, as well as some smaller squares around it.

            “If you hadn’t, then none of this would have ever happened for any of us, but that’s a moot point because you had to, just as I had to, just as it is the destiny of all of the infinite number of us that have, do, and will ever exist.” 

            “Hmm.”  He walked over to what, upon closer inspection, seemed to be a workbench with chairs.

            “That is a good example of what I’m talking about.  Recognize anything there?”

            Upon the table top there were various crudely designed tools, most of which appeared to be designed for metalworking, including a small furnace or kiln, and several molds, many of which were sullied with a purplish-black metallic residue.  It reminded him of iron residue.   There were hammers and chisels and something that looked like a cross between a pair of pliers and tongs.  Mixed amongst the tools were a few poorly made cogs and rods, bits of gears and screws, two small cylinders connected at a joint.  It was pitted and not at all smooth…  That looks exactly like an arm off of one of those disgusting baby chara—  “What the fuck is this?!  Did you make those things?”

            “Yup.  Just like you will.”

            He turned around to face himself and clenched his fists so hard that the veins in his arms started protruding.

            “Hey, hey!  Take it easy.  I had to.”

            “How the hell could you have to?!”

            “Because I had to deal with the exact same things four months ago.  Those things are fucked up aren’t they.”
            “God damn right they are.  So why subject me to them if you had to suffer the same thing?”

            “Like I said, to maintain the continuity of the spiral.  If I hadn’t, then you probably wouldn’t have ever come here, and then I wouldn’t be able to get out of here like the me before me did.”

            He immediately calmed after once again hearing about escape and shoved his hands into his pockets to restrain any snap decisions.  “Go on.”

            “About time you start listening.  Okay.  Here’s the deal:  When I got here four months ago, this whole episode occurred, and like you I was pissed, bla bla bla, then I believed him, then he explained about the device we found, how it works, what it does, then we activated it and he went away.  Now it’s my turn.  Look over there.” 

He pointed at the corner of the room on the other side of the table, the haze made it hard to distinguish what was there.  The other Dean walked over to it and he followed, still leery, but a little too overwhelmed to dispute.  It was a large rectangle that emerged from the wall and was, for the most part, featureless, except for two scoops, one green and one blue, each on opposite ends of its length.  There were shaped like eggs, narrow on top, concave into a scoop, and  flat on the bottom, obviously meant to be used as chairs.  He couldn’t see any buttons or dials or levers, just the two scoops.

            “This is, as far as I can tell, some sort of teleportation device.  Since it doesn’t have any screws or panels or any other way to get into it, it’s pretty hard to figure out exactly what it does, but what we’ve surmised is that it takes the physiological data of two individuals.  One it uses to fuel the device,  and the other it uses as the data set to transplant him to a different realm or dimension, or time space or something, whatever.  I and all the others before me have pretty much figured that it would restore us to the location and time just before we fell in the hole.”

            Now that it was mentioned, he couldn’t quite remember how it was that he ended up dropping into the corridor.  I was just going for a day hike and—

            “Are you listening?”  The other Dean seemed to be growling at him.  “Anyway, let’s get started.  Here, you sit in this one.  He pointed at the green colored scoop, and I sit in this one.”  He reluctantly followed, still unsure about whether or not he should even listen to himself so obediently.  After sitting, the other him walked over out of view.  “Don’t worry.  You’ll figure it all out.  I did.”  The voice retreated into silence, then the footsteps ceased, and a couple of seconds later the seat began to hum lightly.  Okay.  One is for fuel, and the other gets teleported.  Which means he leaves and I stay, cause it’s fate.

            He could feel an odd tingling as the machine began to vibrate, it made an oscillating sound that seemed to go in and out of frequency.  He was beginning to feel lightheaded but the strain on his body made him unable to move from the chair.  The pitch changed as a light seemed to tinge his vision, enveloping everything in a green haze.  It started smelling like ozone.  Shit.  This was a mistake.  Mistake, mistake, mistake!  The machine ran for not more than thirty seconds when the pitch dropped dramatically, and the green haze faded.  He blinked a couple of times and tried to shake off the tingling dizziness in his head, rubbing the top of the head with one hand.  The machine belched out a massive cloud of white vapor and began to hum again, more quickly this time, increasing in volume and pitch.  He stood, wild eyed and a little dazed, inhaling deeply what appeared to merely be steam.  The machine’s pitch increased into a whine and turned to see the other him still sitting in the other chair.  The moisture in the air was making his skin itch again, and with a short spasm of irritation, he rubbed his arms and starting walking over to the other chair.

            The whine was now accompanied by a crackle as a blue haze engulfed the other him.  It seemed to be more of an aura, deepening in color, making it hard to see the other him sitting there with closed eyes.  Screw fate!  He stood over the other Dean and after a quick snort-like inhale, grabbed him by the arm and shirt and ripped him out of the chair.  The aura didn’t follow him, but began to dissipate, with brilliant flashes accompanied by crackling noises.  He watched him splayed out on the ground as the whine lowered and began to pulsate, he turned and sat in the chair himself.  The aura instantly returned to it’s bright blue color and the whine increased high enough to almost not be perceptible.  He could see the outline of the other him begin to move.  The crackling became more persistent as the aura began to flicker. 

            “No.  NO!”  The other dean was starting to get up, his eyes were still closed.  His motions reminded Dean of a newborn kitten, blind, weak and mewling at the world.  The flickers grew more consistent, and everything went white.  Uh oh.  All sound was gone, and he couldn’t even scream as his flesh was rendered into each individual atom.

            What?!  “Ah!”  His scream was cut short by the realization that he wasn’t in pain.  As a matter of fact, he was feeling downright great.  Everything felt good.  His skin no longer itched, his eyes no longer plagued by the haze and burning from the dull ache of acid.  The only thing that made all of this seem real was that his clothes still showed the wear of his escapade.  He padded himself down to take inventory of all his parts, smiling as they all came back accounted for and in seemingly proper working order.

            He looked around and was surrounded by green and brown.  Trees.  There were trees all around him, of the pine variety.  “Oh yeah.”  His voice seemed clear and loud in this environment, it didn’t echo, just cast itself out and away with nothing to confine it.  He looked down at the trail that he was standing in the middle of and around at the rocks that lined the sides of the trail, creating a distinct boundary of the trail’s limits.

            “Hah!  Ha ha!”  He danced a couple of circles in place, unconcerned about the goofy look on his face kicking up tufts of dust as he kicked his feet.  He stopped immediately when he noticed the section of trail immediately in front of him discolor slightly, shifting between brown and black.  He knelt down and rubbed his hand over the dirt as he moved slowly toward the anomaly, pausing when his hand dropped through the trail.  He pulled his hand back, then stuck it in again.  Each time, the trail, in a circular section, flickered momentarily, exposing the metallic walls he now recognized so easily.  “Shit…”  He stood up, looking about the brush flourished on either side of the trail for something to cover the hole with as he heard the crunch of footsteps in the distance.

            He ran off to one side and crouched behind one of the tall pines.  He watched the trail from the direction where the footsteps came, and dropped his head into his hands as he noticed yet another version of himself walking briskly toward him.  That’s right, I was walking down the trail and must have just walked off into the hole.  He couldn’t remember the actual event, but the hiking and falling part were pretty well burned into his mind.  He sat and watched, waiting to see his past play out in front of him, as his other self approached the hole.  A couple of steps before the plunge, they both started when a crackle of thunder lumbered through the sky.

            “Ugh.  I’d better not take any chances.  Time to go.”

            “Why do I always talk to myself like that?”  Shit!  If he doesn’t fall, then there’ll be two of us and everything will get even more fucked up.  He took a deep breath then sprinted up and around to face the startled version of himself.

            “Odd, isn’t it?”

            “Wh- what?!”

            He reached out with both hands, catching the other off guard and pulled him off balance and sidestepping right into the hole.  He watched the image of the trail flicker slightly then shimmer  The echoing screams of the other faded then halted with the end of the shimmering.  He knelt down and felt the now solid surface of the trail, all traces of the hole now gone.  “Humph.  Fate, my ass.”  His satisfaction was cut short by sound of the first droplets lightly tapping the foliage.

            “Ugh.  Time to go!”  He turned and starting walking quickly back to the trailhead.  The crunching of gravel underfoot helped to ease him.  The crunching got louder as he picked up the pace, and he focused on the symmetry of the sound.  It’s rhythm reassured him that like each pebble’s direction underfoot, he was able to choose his own fate and his destiny was all his own.