I awaken to the room breathing and undulating, a warped mass of green-grey flesh. Slime drips from the ceiling, gurgling like rain through a broken gutter. Thorn-like prongs—teeth—protrude at random intervals, seeping venom from their tips. My bed is gone, instead I find myself lying in a writhing tangle of living cords, translucently pale, squirming over me. They aren’t warm but a sickly clammy cold; a deep submarine cold.
I struggle with the shock of my sudden awakening, the cloying tangle of worm-like cords smothering me, restraining me. Where my window used to be is a puckered, breathing sphincter bristling with shark-teeth—the hot rush of rot on the stagnant air drawn in. No city outside but a nightmarish fusion of biological mass and strange black architecture—the angles make no sense and my brain hurts when I think of them.
The slippery mass of cords tangle my limbs and smother my mouth. There is a rush of fluid in the bed of muscle as it draws me deeper into itself. It has the same slick snotty resistance as a clam.
Am I to be rendered some woman-shaped pearl?
My panic subsides as I force my rational mind into control. To resist will only break me. This will pass soon; the trick is to accept the illogical, to swim in the madness without letting it drag you away when it recedes.
I relax my muscles, let the slime-water envelope me, the cords embrace me, draw me in. I can’t breathe through my mouth; there is only the salty taste of the fluid. That doesn’t matter, the slits behind my ears open and raw gills filter oxygen from the muck.
I can make out the window-sphincter through the lapping fluid,—opening and closing, opening and closing. Focus on that, match its pace. Breathe with it. Find the arhythmical beat.
And just like that the madness washes over and away, and I am lying wrapped in my sheets atop my crumby mattress in my fifth floor apartment. The window is just a window, and beyond it stretches the city, a galaxy of tiny lights set against the vastness of the night.
I pull myself free from my sheets.
The reality wave has passed. I’m surprised I slept through the quake that surely preceded it. His dreams are getting more frequent. I take a moment, pacing nude to the window, basking in the Euclidian lines of the neon-laced towers. I let the normalcy set in, let reality cool. It’s still a little malleable at this point.
I check my phone for the time:
2:37am, Saturday, 4th November 2053
Time to get to work.
The night air is like soup, high humidity. It makes everyone’s skin glossy-slick. No one is wearing much; light fabric pasted to flesh, tattoos coiling; eyes bright and wild. Heat like this turns people into animals—roving the streets in packs. Vice is thick in the air, the heady sense of looming misdeed.
Just the way I like it.
“Lo, He his risen and slumbers again. And he shall rise once again, broken from eternal slumber…”
Some street-preacher screaming his heart out, telling us things we already know. He’s old and haggard, and looks like he’s been sleeping rough out here in the predatory wilds of the city. But he has a warped piece of sunken gold in his hand and the glint of fresh madness in his eye, so I can only assume he’s legit.
“…He wakes, and wakes again, rousing in post-apocalyptic bliss; sated by the souls of millions, and the million more He shall devour.”
Hallelujah, preacher. You sing it loud. It ain’t gonna do a lick of difference.
I hang a left into Hydra Alley, steam rises to meet me from the vents of the fast food restaurant on the corner—a hundred ways to cook squid, none to stop it squirming once it’s in your belly.
I haven’t eaten anything myself, of course, management doesn’t like the girls to look bloated—at least not if it isn’t part of the act.
Best to work on an empty stomach anyway.
There are a lot of cracks in the pavement on Hydra—no one’s bothered with repairs in ages—I make sure not to step on any of them.
Better safe than sorry.
The rattle of the K-line train reverberates off the walls and through the cement underfoot.
The club makes us come in through the back door, which means we’ve got to climb the narrow steps that lead down from street level. The steps are always slippery and the ground at the bottom is permanently wet—not something you want to do in heels, trust me. It’s a hard call whether you’d risk falling or touch the slick concrete with your bare feet. I’ve been on those stairs more than once when a shift happens and I don’t have words to express what that narrow staircase becomes.
I’ve just got the door open when another wave hits. Just a minor one this time, but it still catches me off guard. I guess that wasn’t the K-line rumbling then.
The door-handle twists in my hand latching onto me with fat, hungry suckers. I force myself to keep moving forward through the curtain of pink liquid cascading down over the entrance. The fluid is warm and there are thousands of little crustaceans swarming in it—like salmon through a stream. I feel them getting caught in my hair, slipping into my ears. I can hear them murmuring to each other excitedly. A sharp pinch makes me wince as something nips at my ear drum…
The tight passageway from the back alley is bright raw and fleshy, pushing in at me. I ignore it and push on through the diaphanous fronds that sprout from the undulating pink.
I’m through to the club’s backroom and everything is back to normal. The tide is out—some things will be the same some will have been washed away or irrevocably altered. Clothes are scattered everywhere, draped around the makeup area—empty reminders that not everyone leaves after a show. The facilities are pretty basic, three dressers, three mirrors—no there are four tonight. Some of the girls think it’s lucky to get themselves ready in the Fading Mirror when they get the chance—supposed to help with dropping the final veil.
Idiots, He will find you when He’s good and ready and not before.
I’m not due to dance tonight, but I’m still dressed so I could, if it comes to it. I’ve taken the time to accentuate the gills in my neck and my half-length Kimono is fastened so that it splits almost to my groin. I take a moment to make sure everything is lined up just right—it’s about hinting rather than showing. I can’t stop myself from running a finger over my latest tattoo. My skin twitches involuntarily at the touch, causing the iridescent scales of the sea serpent to flash. It feels like He might wake any moment–but no, it must have been a trick of the light. Things won’t get really wild for another half an hour—at least that’s what the portents on the radio said.
I rub my hand down my flat belly teasing the serpent—a good thing I haven’t had anything to eat, I feel delicious.
The club is near the new waterfront, where Old City and New City meet, so it is quite literally a dive-bar. Clive thinks this is the height of wit and is very proud of his pun, so much so that he has it woven in neon over the main entrance at street-level: The Dive.
For all his sleaze, kitchness, and desperation, I like Clive. He isn’t too much of an asshole and he makes sure to crack a few skulls if the clientele get a little too handsy. He’s like a not-so-bright but street-ready big brother.
In keeping with Clive’s theme, The Dive is festooned with nautical paraphernalia. From the wooden helm-wheel of some lost and sunken schooner set above the bar, to the fish tanks that line the south walls by the booths, or the old figurine of Neptune, complete with trident—but with a plush squid where the head should be—set on one of the structure’s many pillars.
To his credit, the paintings of wild seas and scaly beasts of legend that cover the walls are lovely, and in direct contrast with the low lighting and the seedy patrons. Times are tough all over, especially for a place like ours. Of course, there are painted sirens and mermaids framing our little stage—the pole brass, rather than steel, to keep the theme.
I wave to Clive, who is taking tonight’s shift behind the bar. He’s tall, lean, wiry, and insists on wearing mirror-shades, even at night, even inside. He claims it adds to his mystique. He’s finishing polishing his pride and joy, a copy of the woodprint The Fisherman’s Wife’s Dream. It is one of the earliest depictions of tentacle porn in human history. Clive loves that stupid thing. It’s not even an original. Though what is, these days? At least Clive doesn’t have us girls wrestling octopi, yet. It wouldn’t take much; this place is on the bones of its ass as it is. Who knows, maybe in a month—if we’re all still here—I might find myself grappling with an invertebrate in an inflatable paddling pool on stage, for the kicks and arousal of a room full of weirdos and pervs. Hell, maybe Clive would splash out for a clear bottomed pool if we went that way?
But hey, who am I to judge?
As it stands, the main thing keeping this place afloat is our Tidal Surge nights, and in particular Ondine, who headlines them.
Nights like tonight.
If The Dive is rundown and ugly, then Ondine is the one beautiful thing in it. She’s almost legendary on the street: talented, mysterious—more than special enough to flaunt herself at the highest levels. Rumour has it that when she began to dance, the Hierophant himself offered to pay to see her lift the final veil, but she stayed down here with us bottom feeders, shimmering like some sunken statue of a goddess, just out of reach, half hidden in the waving weeds, but you’d give your last breath to reach her.
There are nights when I can’t face the cheap booze and clammy perverts, times when I’d rather eat the glasses I’m cleaning than feel another bill pushed into my waistband. Ondine is why I keep coming back—it sure as hell isn’t for the tips.
I suppose it’s hard to get regular tips when so few last long enough to become regulars. Nights like this are the only times you can be sure of seeing someone you know.
There’s Felps, he always sits by the bar and watches everyone—it’s kind of his job, though he only gets hired when things are pretty far gone. Felps is a nice guy when he’s at home but everyone knows he’s a fuckin’ tourist—everyone but him. He usually misses the worst of it when the wave hits, there’s just that Yith staring out of his dead eyes while he drinks mechanically. Never complains about the bill at the end of the evening though, and he tips well. I think he believes he has a drinking problem, but it’s far worse than he knows.
Then there’s Fat Norm, last name’s Grimes or Dimes, something like that. Total perv, but rich—made it big when the sunken cities arose with all that tainted gold—so we all fawn all over him. He smells like mackerel and tastes far worse. He’s still better than the Lurker though.
The Lurker only shows up when Ondine dances, sits in the same place, doesn’t order a drink, doesn’t tip. Not even Clive has the guts to ask him to leave. The guy doesn’t take off his coat or hat—none of us want him to.
I do my rounds—freaky warbling flute music plays on the radio, hurting my head. I can’t wait ‘til the show starts and they play something else: anything else.
I take a few drink orders and I can feel their eyes on me. The first dancer can’t have been all that good if they’re still able to focus like this. Then again, maybe, just maybe, I’m ready to start taking centre stage myself. Tried it once before, but I still can’t quite bring myself to let go, sure I can survive one…but to become one with the wave and ride it out…
The tell-tale rumble makes the glasses tremble on the bar. The vibrations through the floor make my bones sing like tuning forks. Everyone around me is seated and I catch hold of the bar to steady myself. He is shifting again, going to be a big one this time.
Not long now.
An image of Ondine flashes in my mind, she must be so close to reaching beyond now. There’s a wildness about her eyes and her perfect flesh doesn’t seem to fit her anymore. She’s got tattoos just like me, but not street ink—mine are just imitations. The designs she bears are swimming through her all the time, as if her skin is just a thin membrane holding back a whole ocean where strange creatures peek from cracks. I could watch them pulse through her all day, rising, falling, filling her with a pent-up tide of life that might burst into our world at any moment.
I feel a tingle as the music begins to change. I look over to Clive and he nods: it’s beginning.
The first you know about a wave is not when it hits you; it’s the vacuum before, the silence as the whole universe draws back.
Ondine takes the stage and I stop breathing, the tray in my hand weightless, the shadows in the corner thickening. Felps catches my eye from his place at the bar—something very old is gauging my reaction to the vision on the stage.
The first robe is salmon pink, an undulating thing of tassels and silk. Ondine stares out at us all with bright golden eyes. I hang there between sea and sky, and with a sound like building thunder the wave sweeps in.
The air turns thick and golden like syrup, and everything is slow and graceful. At first, the walls undulate like a mild acid trip, the waves painted on the cracked plaster coming to life. The sirens leer with excitement. The universe is still holding its breath like a battered housewife, not sure how bad the beating will be this time, but sure that it is coming.
There is fear, yes. There is excitement too.
Motes of dust shine in the candy-coloured stage lights. Droplets of moisture from the ceiling glisten like liquid stars. People’s thoughts are like half-understood echoes in the air. My skin is alive with sensation; the nape of my neck tingling, the wood of the bar under my hand sensual; my nipples press against the inside of my bra.
The crowd slouches in their seats, getting comfortable with the surge of sensation.
Ondine lets the salmon outer-robe tumble off her shoulders.
Everything slow; everything achingly beautiful.
Her presence is like gravity, unrelentingly dominating. You cannot help but bend to Ondine’s presence.
I know they’ll be showing the sacrifices on TV, priests and priestesses in their hooded robes casting eager children from the cliffs into the foaming waters below and the anticipating tendrils that writhe ready to devour them. People will be weeping with joy as they behold the spectacle, yet it is here that the true worship, the true wonders, occur.
Alien limpets sprout from the walls, which have traded plaster for scales. The shoddy furniture is now made of translucent bone, strung together by pale sinew. I’m having trouble concentrating; my mind wants to liquefy and seep away on the churning reality. Fear rises, but I pay it no mind. I don’t fight the madness.
You have to bend or you’ll break.
The first to go are always the ones who resist.
Ondine’s golden eyes search the audience, her attention an invisible caress. For the briefest moment, her gaze lingers on me and I can’t breathe. All I can do is stare at her shifting tattoos that scream and hiss in silent agony. I let her desire wash over me along with the madness of the reality wave. The mixture is intoxicating and I’m shocked to discover I’m wet—a low pressure in my belly, the rising insistence of a most sexual urge.
Beneath the cast off robe, Ondine wears Victorian burlesque lingerie in deep-sea hues, the clasps of which are delicate little shells. I can’t help but look at the warm lamps set in the stage, with brass clamshell guards directing the soft glow up at Ondine as she grips the brass pole and whirls. The motion creates a dreamy mental vortex.
I can make out her flesh behind the living ink, pulsing and shining with sweat. There are things moving underneath her skin—her true form? Or merely more mutation brought on by the degrading tide of the dreams sent out by a slumbering god-monster?
The bra goes next, flung away with casual disregard. Ondine’s nipples have a greenish hint to them.
The audience ignores the changes happening around them: the barnacles that appear on the floor and their flesh alike, the scuttling crustacean things that move about in the slime-water at their feet—abstract awful things that have no right to be, licking the lust-sweat from their skin.
The full force of the wave hits, and with it the pulsing scaly walls tear in a heaving torrent of warped biological drainage—a whale has been gutted in the room and the bar shoved inside. Giant molluscs wearing golden ornaments rush out, squealing in obscene delight. The rent in the wall is accompanied by a fog horn scream.
The clientele is changing now.
Many had the Look that is so fashionable—that Innsmouth Look—but it’s worse now. They bloat and deform. I don’t want to watch as their skin rips open to reveal mutant lust made flesh.
Instead, I turn back to Ondine.
She is bucking onstage in a wild sexual dirge, nude now save for her fishnets and garter-belt, aquatic blue-green and stark against her paling flesh as horrors push out, straining her skin in an attempt to break free.
My gills itch and I have the strangest urge to feel her tongue press between their folds.
She is good, practiced, though. She can contain it until the tide reaches its peak.
Fluids gush from the walls—hot and organic and slippery. The scent is pungent and makes me gag, but I can’t help breathing deep, savouring the musk.
The mutant pervs are touching themselves as they watch. They are unrecognisable as human now. Many are covered in the tittering crustaceans, allowing them to crawl over and, in some cases, into them. Sea-centipedes the thickness of my arm and the length of my leg squirm into openings, spraying bright hallucinogenic ichor. I watch as one man grips the slime covered creature before it can retreat inside another man, and holds the hot stream of rainbow chemicals to his mouth.
Another masturbates openly while suckling at one of the many teats that have grown across his booth—sickly yellow milk running over his chin.
Ondine has risen on all fours now, bent backwards, her head hanging back, her belly facing the ceiling, displaying her vivid womanhood to the quivering assembly before her. They call out and leer and moan, but I can barely hear it. The air so heavy it distorts the sound into slo-mo whale-song.
Ondine’s tongue springs out, obscenely long and thrashing like a skinless tail. Her movements are no longer graceful, but jittering and disturbingly awkward, like old stop-motion animation. The lights are dimming and the itch in my skull burns at me.
Who am I?
This is it, the final wave. I’m sure to be dragged out with it.
I’m just a broken set of neuroses and base instincts bound together with the lie that I am a person and poured into weak meat.
I’m so small. We’re all so damn small. The universe doesn’t care. The Great Rising was an apocalypse for humankind, millions upon millions devoured as the deep cities rose to spill forth their horrors—and the Earth doesn’t care. The universe doesn’t care. Not even the Waking God Himself cares. It is not directed malignant hatred. It’s worse: indifference.
For what are we to Him but squirming proto-conscious life to be scraped off this spinning ball of rock and water we call home?
The hubris of our species crushes me.
This is it. The wave is at its very peak.
With a grin, Ondine catches my eye, blows me an upside-down kiss, and turns herself inside out, pussy first.
Her final veil lifted.
Her true form revealed.
There is only horror and awe.
And there in that moment is meaning, creation, chaos—the arching approval of the melting crowd. For just an instant, she takes us with her, shows us the splendour of the world beyond; a world you cannot see with mortal eyes.
It’s a game of chicken now—how long will you watch? How long before you can’t look away? Bright currents of colour I couldn’t name flash in motes, circling the room. You can taste them—a dreadful synaesthesia that will be with you for days and will be missed when gone.
…stream of consciousness means nothing…this is a flood, I don’t know what I’m looking at any more, my brain screams that it shouldn’t exist, my nerves ache to touch it…
…small bubbles begin to burst over my vision…
I let my own clothing drop to the floor, as overcome as any of the perverts who are oozing onto the stage. Ondine gathers them in, but I stand firm, refusing to take that last step. The ink on my body is writhing, angry, twisting dragons and desperate Piscean terrors.
She beckons and I go to her. I step upon the stage and her new flesh enfolds me. I imagine that she is more tender with me than the wretches she has already engulfed. I still recognise her lips, red as murder, the smile wicked and broad. She draws me in for a kiss. The thinning crowd roars its approval, a breaking wave of sound…
Puddles of hot juices cool on the bar floor.
The place is empty, just the Lurker, Clive, Fat Norm, and Felps.
I am alone on the stage; naked and shivering, jerking like a landed fish. I hock up a rubbery orb—the size of a quail’s egg—from the back of my throat. It quickly dissolves as reality cools.
A parting gift from Ondine.
That and the new ink that swims and glides over my skin. They’re only infants now, but they’ll grow.
I take a ragged breath—this is my big break, I guess, I’ll be dancing alone next time.
Benjamin Knox is a rogue author and Scotsman best known for his short horror fiction, in particular the Dead of Winter stories. He has been in several anthologies including Suspended in Dusk 1 & 2 and the Bloody Parchment collections. For further strangeness visit www.benjaminknox.net
Toby Bennett is a veteran fantasy and sci-fi author with over eleven novels to his name, including the fan favourite Heaven’s Gate, and annual Creepy Christmas installments. He lives and bleeds in Cape Town, South Africa.
Together Knox and Bennett are responsible for the four volume cyberpunk-horror series VIRAL.
If you enjoyed this story, let Benjamin & Toby know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Ramiro Roman.