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“Yes. Reconnoiter. Get a feel for the place. And, of course, scope out the enemy’s position if possible.”
The doctor was shaking his head. “No, Kearns. It’s too dangerous.”
“And scrambling into a hole with tons of rock over his head isn’t?”
“You know I would not ask you if there was another alternative, Will Henry,” Warthrop said to me.
“I have one,” said Kearns. “Dynamite.”
“Please,” Warthrop said, closing his eyes. “Just… shut up, Kearns. For once. Please.” He gave my shoulder a pat and a paternal squeeze. “Snap to, now, Will Henry. But slowly. Slowly.”
Holding the lamp before me, I crawled inside the cleft. It narrowed almost immediately; my back scraped against the top, and debris rained down and pooled between my hunched shoulders as I inched forward, the lamp offering little guidance in such close quarters. The pathway through the fall was a hazard of arm-size splinters and hard stone, and it continued to shrink as I progressed, until I was forced to lie flat and scoot forward, inch by claustrophobic inch. I could not judge how far I had traveled; pressed on all sides, I could not even turn my head to look behind me. Time crawled along as slowly as I, and the air grew colder; my breath congealed around my head and I lost feeling in the tip of my nose. Now my back rubbed continuously against the top, and I worried I might become hopelessly wedged inside this dread defile. And, if that should happen, how long would I have to remain stuck like a cork in a bottle, until they could dig me out?
My difficulties were compounded by the grade of the defile; it did not cut straight through, but zigged and zagged and rose generally upward, compelling me to force my body forward by pushing with the balls of my feet.
Then all at once I stopped. I laid my cheek against the dirt, trying to catch my ragged breath, struggling to contain my rising panic.
For it appeared I had come to the end of it. A foot before me was a wall of dirt and rock; the way was blocked. I might be a few inches from the other side or I might be several feet; there was no way of knowing.
Or might there be? I wiggled my left arm in front of me and scratched at the dirt gingerly with my fingernails. If I retreated now, I would have to back my way out, which would prove even more difficult, but a worse prospect by far was returning without the answer the doctor sought. I wanted to impress him; I wanted to confirm his judgment that I was indispensable.
Whether it was by my scratching and scraping against the soil or by my weight pressing down on a particularly unstable spot, the earth abruptly gave way beneath me, and I tumbled down in a torrent of soil and stone, losing the lamp in my helpless fall, rolling head over heels before coming to a jaw-jarring stop upon my bottom.
Fortunately, the lamp survived the fall as well; it lay on its side only a few feet away. I snatched it up and held it as high as my arm could stretch, but I saw no opening or even a hint of one; it had collapsed behind me, and the face of the blockage appeared despairingly uniform in its craggy appearance-I could not tell from whence I’d come.
I paced the length of the wall, anxiously scanning its earthy sides, and spied nothing that might give away the location. I was trapped.
For a moment I nearly swooned with dismay. My companions were far on the other side of the impassable traverse. There was no way to signal my distress, and rescue might not come for hours, if at all, for now I stood between this brooding wall and whatever lay on my side of it-and I knew what lay on my side.
Steady now, Will, I told myself. Steady! What would the doctor have you do? Think! You can’t go back. Even if you found where you fell through, you dropped a great deal down, and how will you get back up again? You have no choice; you’ll have to wait for them to rescue you.
What was that? Did I hear something sneaking up behind me? A scratching sound, a hiss or a huff? I whirled around, the lamp swinging crazily in my shaking hand while with the other I fumbled for the doctor’s revolver. A shadow jumped to my left, and I swung the gun toward it, jerking the trigger reflexively, wincing at the expected report that did not follow: I had forgotten to take the safety off. And then, to add to my chagrin, I realized the jumping shadow was my own, thrown by the lamp when I turned.
I took a deep breath and eased off the safety. To steady my jangled nerves I remembered my triumph beneath the platform-how I’d dispatched the young Anthropophagus with practically my bare hands-and I shuffled forward, squinting into the gloom.
I was in a chamber roughly the same size as the feeding pit. Small bones-bits of shattered ribs, a spattering of teeth, and other shards and fragments impossible to identify-littered the floor, though not with the same overwhelming abundance found in the first chamber. The floor itself was as hard as cement, packed tight from the tramping of their enormous feet over a span of twenty years. Scattered throughout the chamber-I counted seventeen in all-were gigantic nest-shaped mounds, easily eight feet in diameter, oddly multicolored and glimmering as if encrusted with diamonds. Upon closer examination, I discovered the reason for their strange appearance: The nests were fashioned from tightly woven strips of clothing, blouses, shirts, trousers, stockings, skirts, undergarments. The peculiar glittering points of light had been produced by the reflection of my lamp in the faces of watches and diamond rings, wedding bands and necklaces, earrings and bracelets-in short, nearly every kind of adornment we humans are fond of draping ourselves in. Like the Indians of the Great Plains with their buffalo, the Anthropophagi wasted nothing; they had fashioned their nests from the attire of their victims. I imagined them using the bone fragments scattered around the floor to pick our flesh from their teeth.
A high-pitched huffing came out of the darkness behind me. I swung my weapon round, but nothing leaped at me from the shadows, no beast rose from a nest to its full towering, terrifying height. I held my breath, straining my ears and eyes, until, though I saw no movement, I identified the direction of the rhythmical wheezing. The comparison may be absurd in the circumstances, but to my ears it sounded like the rapid respirations of a snoring infant.
I followed the sound, sliding forward flat-footed lest I step on a bone and alert whatever it was to my presence. The huffing led me to the far side of the den, to a mound nestled against the wall. Slowly I raised the lamp to peer over the edge.
Within the bowl-shaped bed lay a young male Anthropophagus, surprisingly-at least to me-and almost comically small, perhaps only two or three inches taller than me, though easily fifty or so pounds heavier. The oversize eyes set in its shoulders were not closed in its restless slumber-the creatures have no eyelids-rather a milky white film, a protolid, shimmered wetly over its obsidian orbs. Its football-size mouth hung open, exposing the triangular teeth, the smaller gripping ones crowding the forward part of its mouth, a dense thicket of the larger slicing and tearing ones bunched closely behind them.
The juvenile twitched in his sleep. Was it dreaming, and what god-awful sort of dreams do they have? I could hazard a guess. His jerky movement may have been a symptom of something other than a dream, for he was missing a forearm, the knotted flesh around his right elbow a swollen mass of infection. Somehow he had been grievously wounded, and I recalled the bizarre bonding ritual of the species, the reaching deep into each other’s mouths to scrape clean the teeth. Is that how he’d lost his arm? A slip of his claw, and the mouth of his elder smashed down, tearing the joint in twain and then swallowing his severed arm whole?
The wound wept yellowish pus; clearly the thing was suffering and likely was not even sleeping. More probably it had slipped into a delirious semiconscious state. Its normally colorless skin was flushed with fever and shone with sweat. It was dying.
That explains it, thought I, kneeling before its bower, staring at it with morbid fascination. Why she abandoned him. He would be a pointless burden to her.
I must confess my feelings were mixed. I had witnessed firsthand the savagery of these monsters, had seen the destruction of which they were capable, had even come close to losing my own life to their ravenous rage. And yet… and yet. Suffering is suffering still, no matter what manner of organism suffers, and this particular one suffered greatly, that was clear. Part of me was repulsed. And part was possessed by profound pity for its plight-a much smaller part, to be sure, but a portion nevertheless.
I could not abandon it; I could not leave it to its misery. Practically speaking, it would have been imprudent, for what if he woke and commenced to cry, which might summon his mother to his side and to my certain death? I did not know where she had taken the others, if she lay hidden in a secret antechamber but a dozen yards away, or if she had retreated to the deepest hole of their underground burrow. And my empathy, strange and unnatural as it might have been, compelled me to put an end to the creature’s agony.
So I leaned forward, my stomach rubbing the edge of the nest, and leveled the doctor’s gun at its groin, at a spot just below its drooling lower lip. It did not occur to me until much later that the sound of the gunshot would far exceed any mewling cry the dying Anthropophagus could have produced. Not close enough, I decided. I wanted it to be quick and sure, so I brought the barrel within an inch of its glistening pink belly. I cocked the hammer with my thumb, and it was that tiny click, that smallest of sounds, that woke him.
He moved with lightning speed, faster than I could pull the trigger, faster than the beat of a fly’s wing. His left arm slapped the gun from my hand as he erupted from his sickbed, snarling and spitting in a delirious rage born of fever and fear. He hurled his body into mine. The lamp flew into the air and smashed down in a burst of flame. We tumbled across the floor in a tangle of flailing arms and legs, his snapping mouth catching upon the tail of my jacket and shredding it to pieces, his left claw swiping at my face while I held on to his wrist, pushing with all my might, with my free hand jabbing at his eyes, which were burning fever-bright now, and by the glow of the fire I could see reflected in them my own face, contorted in fear. Our awkward death dance spun us into the wall; I used its support to bring my foot up and kicked him in the privates as hard as I could. My blow only served to enrage him, and indeed appeared to reinvigo-rate him: He began to club me about the head with the stub of his right arm. I slipped to one side to dodge the furious blows, and fell backward into empty space.
Our match had taken us to the entrance of a narrow tunnel, and into that steeply downward sloping sluice I now tumbled, carrying him with me. End over end we rolled, like two acrobats at the circus, arms and legs intertwined, falling for what seemed like an eternity before slamming to a stop at the bottom, into a mound of fallen rock and loose soil. Stunned by the impact, my grip loosened on his wrist for an instant, and that instant was all the monster needed: He pulled my forearm into his powerful jaws and bit down. The pain was explosive, and I howled in anguish, punching him blindly with my free hand, until, in my desperation, I caught hold of his wounded appendage, yanked it to my mouth, and bit down as hard as I could upon the festering wound. Thick viscous pus filled my mouth and poured down my throat; my stomach heaved in protest-in another moment I would vomit copiously over his corpse-but my desperate ploy succeeded. His jaws released my arm and he fell away from me, roaring his anguish. Ignoring my own searing pain, I felt around the floor, my hands (invisible in the pitch black though only a foot from my eyes) falling upon a melon-size stone. I snatched it up, raised it high over my head, and brought it crashing down upon his writhing body. Again and again and again, against soft flesh and hard enamel, against anything that moved, my sobs and screams gradually overcoming his. Blood and stringy bits of tissue flew in all directions, landing in my eyes and my open mouth, soaking my shirt, flowing down the incline and saturating the knees of my britches. His cries died away altogether; he went limp; and still I pummeled him, again and again and again, until all energy was spent and the rock dropped from my rubbery arms. I collapsed on top of his lifeless form, gasping, my sobs gut-wrenching and hysterical, at once loud and wee in the confines of the narrow space. After regaining some of my self-control, I pushed myself up, became sick, then fell back against the tunnel’s terminus, clutching my left arm, which now throbbed and burned as if on fire.