Awakening to self-awareness should have been overwhelming, he thought. Then, a moment later, he realized this skirted the edge of being a paradox. How could a creature without self-awareness know what it would be like to become self-aware? As that thought coalesced, he realized it was strange. After a moment more of consideration, he decided this train of thought was hazardous to his newfound cognition. So he moved to discard it.
He looked around him, took in the environment. Grains of sand below him. Atmospheric conditions were suitable if a bit colder than he would have preferred. Some plants that swayed every so often. And a castle that, he belatedly recalled, had served as his home prior to his awakening. It was all very familiar. Of course, he told himself. It had been his home for…
His mind paused. In his thoughts, he’d moved forward without a care. Engrossed in his cognitive processes, he was distracted. Only the pain of his head’s collision with some manner of barrier jarred him back. It was not invisible, not quite. And he could see what was on the other side. He took stock of this, strained to recall if he’d realized this before or if this was something new.
The grains of sand beneath him seemed to end where the barrier began.
The environment on the other side was different. No grains of sand. There was some sort of greenery far below, the depths so deep and distant that his mind swelled and reeled back from attempting to fathom it. The green was blotched in some areas, discolored for reasons he could only guess at. In some parts, a pool of darker, brownish material lingered. He wondered what it was, though only for a moment.
He realized, to his dismay, he had no frame of reference for guesswork.
There were other things as well, and he chose to focus on them instead.
There were structures of some manner of substance he hadn’t seen before, couldn’t recognize. Something fibrous but sturdy, in varying shades of brown. Not like the grains of sand or the stone of his abode. They didn’t seem like domiciles, not with the lack of shelter. Most of them were open, entire sides exposed to the elements. One was on the ground, a small cavity within it filled by something that he thought looked…soft. Another was against a more visible barrier, with internal divisions and objects of a rectangular, upright nature of varying widths and strange pictograms and runes on the sides. There were curves that could not have been natural, he reasoned, but instead somehow carved into the fibrous material.
He noticed what looked a cavern carved into the fibrous matter. Inside it was a polished, smooth-faced surface that was not fibrous and not stone. The color was bright. A color he could not place, but it was like a brighter variant of the leaves that swayed behind him. He could almost hear it give out a quiet, constant hum.
“What am I looking at?”
He had no answers or theories.
He paused, moved away from the barrier and began to pace around the interior of his home. Aware of the limits now, of the vague distortion that signaled its presence, he followed it along its interior.
That was what it was, he concluded. While it was possible the interior was, in fact, what lay outside of his home, that seemed improbable. A fiction of numbers, he thought. No, the interior had to exist within the confines, rather than his home be exterior to some manner of a bizarre world of convex angles and alien substances.
As he moved, he realized the border of his world was circular. It was smaller in size where the sands rested but grew wider a little way up. He wondered if, perhaps, it continued to gain in size if he continued to go up.
He remembered the castle, with its tower that reached upwards. Perhaps it provided a vantage point, he reasoned. Or at least a better view of what surrounded his world.
He touched the rough materials and the interior that seemed so much bigger in his memories. Had it always been so small? Or was it merely the product of a small mind, unable to comprehend the confines in which it was placed?
“That’s not a pleasant thought.”
He shook his head, put the notion aside. Such thoughts distracted him, he reasoned to himself. He made his move up, up the lone tower that provided the highest vantage point he could reach. From there, he made an effort to climb higher. He reached out with an appendage and broke the surface of…something.
The environment was different. Dry. It was colder on first contact, but it began to warm. Or he began to acclimate to it. The dryness, though. The lack of moisture. It was strange and alien; in his thoughts, he could only see such a thing as unnatural.
“No,” he said to himself after a moment of contemplation. “I need to know. I need to find out for myself.”
So he reached higher, pulled himself up as far as he could. He felt the dryness and the cold assail the tip of his face as he breached the surface. He breathed in…and found nothing.
He couldn’t breathe. There was nothing for him to breathe. He began to panic, his motions frantic as he dived his head back down. There was a sound he didn’t recognize as he did. He breathed again. His respiration hadn’t shut down for no reason. The conditions beyond that surface, on the outside of his home, were dangerous. Toxic, perhaps.
But as he regained composure, steadied himself, he remembered. He saw, vaguely, that there was a limit to the barrier around his home. It was like the bottom, circular. It was also the same size as the bottom. He realized that the borders were at their widest at a midpoint before the curves pulled inward again towards the upper half. Almost like a sphere, but with an opening that exposed it to the hostile outer vastness above it and around it.
He waited there, at the top of the tower. Waited and wondered at what lay above him and outside his world.
He sat there, silent in his contemplation of the world outside his own. That outer space, with its asphyxiating environment, strange structures with surfaces too smooth to be natural, and the unfathomable depth.
In his contemplation, he’d noticed his own world sat atop a strange surface. It was smooth and gave off a particular sheen, but it lacked that fibrous appearance of the things outside. The color was like those of the dullest grains of sand in his world; a cold and distant and lifeless gray. The light reflected off it, gave it a curious sheen. Smooth, he thought. Far too smooth. Unnatural.
Such things, his mind reasoned, could not have been made by nature. Yet, as he looked around in his world and in what he could see beyond it, there was no one else. He couldn’t have done it, he knew. He couldn’t breathe in outer space, nor were his limbs adequate to the task. The monolithic structures and eldritch materials outside weren’t known to him. Not as he was, in that little world he called home.
He turned, looked in the opposite direction of the fibrous monoliths and the too-polished thing. Therein he saw a vast emptiness, devoid of all color and warmth. As if something had sucked the soul out of it, left it but an empty expanse. Yet, it wasn’t empty. From strange polished things that seemed to break the surface of the emptiness hung fibrous frames. And in those frames were images of strange beings of misshapen and misbegotten proportions. Monstrous creatures that he prayed to his gods would not come to visit him in his world.
He had not thought of gods since his mind first awakened. Surely, he reasoned, there must be beings of greater importance than himself. Surely all things in this world and in the outer regions beyond his world came from somewhere. It was only logical to assume a prime cause.
Then, from the edge of his vision, he saw movement. The strange metallic orb that hung from a fibrous monolith embedded in the emptiness turned. A click followed it, like a thousand things of unnatural material began to turn and fall atop each other. There were sounds in some form of horrific black speech coming from the other side, mangled words that sent an instinctive shudder and cold twitch to his very nerves. As the monolith, massive and impossible in its size, was moved, he stared in awe. What monstrous cosmic entity could have had such strength to bear?
The thing entered. It was a gaunt, massive creature. Lesser than the monolith, but still portentous in its size. It dwarfed the light and its great being encompassed his world by a factor of ten or more. Its form was elongated, like a proper form pulled at and stretched into a fearful, slender symmetry. Ten small tentacles sprung forth, five from each overstretched limb. Its body was covered in the flesh of dead life, torn and turned and twisted to suit its horrific form. And then that thing that he learned to fear in less than a moment turned its focus towards his world.
What had he done to draw its eye? What would it do to him and his world, with those appendages covered in a smooth mass of sickening flesh?
The squamous titan reached for some manner of object. An elongated thing that had no angles. He saw that the creature twisted it open, though it gave no cry. Then those tentacles reached inside and ripped out the innards of the object, tore from it little flakes that it began to sprinkle into the enclosure he called home.
Food. This was his food. This was how he was fed. It had not dawned on him before just how that precious manna fell from above. Once, in his naive time, he’d have thought it came from Heaven if he had such cognition. Now, he could only see it for the twisted flesh of a dead and lifeless thing being tossed into his world.
He moved, caught one of the pieces as it fell. It was a risk, he knew. But he bit into it. It wasn’t poisonous, he reasoned when he felt no illness come over him.
As he nibbled, his hunger acute for the first time since his mind woke to sentience, he saw movement. The titan had moved, arched and folded its body at an angle until its eyes were level with the confines of his world. And those horrible eyes, so full of expression and color and emotion, stared right at him.
“What are you?”
It could not understand him. Or it could not hear him. He could not be sure. But he knew it spoke, for those fleshy, eldritch lips moved and formed shapes that matched sounds. And he was sure, due to a memory buried long in his instincts and experiences that remained from his time with a sleeping mind, that the titanic thing spoke to him.
He could not understand.
The titanic thing didn’t seem to even hear him. He wondered if his words, his voice, even carried outside the confines of his world. His tiny world, so insignificant in the shadow of titans and the monoliths around them.
The titanic thing of flesh and misshaped proportions spoke at him. In that foul tongue that made his head and the nerves that linked his eyes to his brain hurt. The words reverberated in his skull rattled away thoughts more complex than an urge to get away. To flee from the gaze of the thing.
Tap. A rumbling tap at the edge of his conscious world. He turned and saw that the titan had made one of its tentacle appendages reach to the edge of the barrier. That precious thing that defined his world and the outside. And it began tap against that definition. Was the bleak thing with misshaped face and limbs intent on reaching in? He shuddered in horror at the thought.
Until he looked up.
The titan had not taken the obvious route, that gap that led to the reaches of the void outside his world. It was aware of it, he knew. The titan had rained food down on him from there. Was…was the intent benign? He could not answer. Yet, as the tapping continued, he moved closer. Was it a way to communicate?
He dared move closer. Curiosity overwhelmed his sense of preservation and the natural revulsion he felt at the sight of the massive thing. The sight of it from so close pushed, railed against his mind.
There was everything wrong with that creature’s form! Its head was a misshapen thing, too long in some places and too short in others. A strange angular tumor formed in the center of it, a low rise that protruded further out before taking a sharp turn back towards the flat flesh. Yet more twisted flaps of fleshy surface seemed to cover its eyes; eyes that stared one moment and were closed the next in some horrific mockery of cosmic rhythm. Its lips opened and closed and contorted, mouthing the words of some ancient and foreboding foul tongue. The flesh of its face was smooth, too smooth and polished, save for little black tendrils. They erupted over the upper half of the mouth and around the lower half of the jaw. Black and unnatural in their straightness, they seemed to grow right out of the creature’s flesh, tore through to the surface from whatever squamous innards the titan had.
The longer he looked at it, the less he could fathom it. He turned away, screaming as he ran from the sight. As he hid within the false safety of his castle, he looked out. The monolith the titan moved was once again turned and pushed aside. A second misshapen titan stepped.
He screamed, shouted for them to leave him alone. His cries went ignored.
He clutched his head, tried to bury it and his conscious thoughts away under the sands. He glimpsed the two titans in some manner of a perverse ritual act.
At first, they merely made those strange sounds. That chthonic speech that he could not understand. He could only guess they had some form of conversation, an exchange of ritae that preceded the monstrous acts that came after.
They had removed the fragments of dead things that were woven over their forms. He watched as this did them no harm. The titans proceeded to use physical contact to merge, to form a slithering, writhing, moaning beast of monstrous nature. Orifices connected and linked together through crass appendages and bulbous growths. Entranced and repulsed at the same time, he watched while his stomach churned and forced out the meal that he’d consumed moments before.
The beast of two titans continued in this manner, sometimes moaning and sometimes making utterances in that black tongue from a time that should not have existed. He glimpsed once in a while, as his thoughts began to fray. This was unnatural and foul, he thought again and again. Yet in the midst of his revulsion, a dread thought flayed his very sense of self.
“This is how things truly are,” he said out loud, gave voice to the thing that haunted his mind.
He tried to reject it. His mind strained and railed to impose something of more rationality and familiarity with it. Something that wasn’t the gibbering of an uncaring, cold universe. Yet a lower part of his mind understood that this was how things were. He was alone in a universe of monolithic anomalies and titans with squamous forms that engaged in rites that blasphemed against rationality and order.
“This can’t be,” he said to himself as he approached the far end of the barrier. The only thing that held at bay the madness of the true cosmos before him. “This shouldn’t be.”
He had to leave a message. A warning to whoever came next, if such an unfortunate soul should exist. He struggled, tried to mark the truth into the sand, to leave a warning. That the mind should not be given to light and discovery, but instead retreat into the comfort of the shadows of ignorance and superstition. Yet as soon as he finished, he found his work was swept aside.
He felt only one recourse left to him.
He’d have asked the gods for mercy if he thought there were any who cared.
It hurt, at first. But as he continued, as the barrier began to crack at his skull, he understood. He understood it was a good pain. A merciful pain. An escape into the darkness, away from the light of cosmic madness.
John looked at his goldfish bowl once his hookup for the evening was gone. What he saw made him let out a deflated, annoyed sigh. The little thing’s head had been cracked open, and there was a smear of goldfish brains on the bowl. Almost as if it had bashed its head in.
That was the fifth goldfish to die in that manner in as many weeks.
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