He thinks he can hide from me, but I have seen his type before. They’re all alike; hideously malevolent creatures who swarm in the night and impose themselves onto places once thought to be uncompromisingly private.
He doesn’t see me yet, but he will. He will move around the white room, my white room, the white room that is my private sanctuary, until he finds something to eat, then move on as though he had already been granted permission to undertake such an expedition. As is common with creatures of his persuasion, he thinks there is no danger in his future. This time I will not hide as I did before on the pretext of watching the bloom of his nefarious activity. This time I will tell him that he has breached the boundaries of my territory once too often. This will be the last time he will assert his arrogance. I will hide and wait him out. Then I will pounce.
How slowly he moves. How precarious is his ambulation. Every few steps he pauses, as would any coward, uncertain of his next step. Fortunately, he does not see the flake of food that has lodged in a long black crevasse some distance behind him. I have had my eye on that fragment for some time. Had not the giant beast entered as I was making my way towards that morsel, I would now be in my lair with enough food to last for some time. Then again, if I had completed my mission, I would have lost the opportunity to confront this interloper, this miscreant, and forcefully eject him from my domain.
Look there. He can’t even stay on his feet. Maybe he ate something that disagrees with him. He certainly doesn’t look bright enough to know the difference between wholesome food and common poison set out by the beasts, and hardly smart enough to know right from wrong. There he goes. Another few staggering steps. I might laugh aloud except I don’t want to give him an excuse to run from me. I want this confrontation, this opportunity, to punish the fool. Why does he keep thrusting his head so close to the wall?
He has placed himself in a poor position to observe the movements beyond the portal through which the beasts come and go. If he keeps up this heedless disregard, the beasts will return, see him and crush him out of existence before he can reposition his antennae.
It is so easy for them. I couldn’t picture myself killing off another creature simply because they are smaller than I am. No, that is not true. It’s boastful and misleading. I have taken the lives of those less agile many times. If I had not, I might not have survived. I just want to make myself believe the giant beasts are more evil than they are. Or is it envy that I will never stride the soil beneath my six feet with such presumption as they do on two?
There. He’s finally figured out whatever it was that had so first captured his attention. Finally, he is moving along. Soon he will be directly across the room from me. Then I will move to the center of the space, claim my rightful position, and wait until he takes note of me. Then he will have to decide. I believe he is a coward. He will flee when he sees me stand my ground. He will not commit to a confrontation. Such is the way of all poltroons. I have seen their kind before. They are the most loathsome subspecies of our kind.
Ah. Here they come again, the beasts that can destroy us all in a dash of a wink. Giants, all of them. I’ve seen as many as three and four gather together in this confined chamber. I’ve seen hundreds in hideously noisy gatherings in larger chambers. I’ve heard that thousands can congregate for rituals too horrible to detail here. Fortunately, I am safe behind this large white bowl that springs from the ground and belches up a roaring thunder at their very touch.
Look at that fool. He doesn’t even know he’s in danger. With any luck, the beasts will spot him and do my work for me. It’s not that I am afraid of him. It’s just that I believe the smartest survive over all others. It’s not the size that counts as much as quickness and cunning.
Oh, no. Not the noise. Such terrible sounds. How can they stand to listen to each other’s voices? How can any creature make such unbearably impossible squeals and tormenting high-pitched squeaks? How did they ever get to such dominance? The mere fact these festering dolts stride over the world is testimony to my belief that there can’t possibly be an almighty.
Why would any deity have given such power to such unworthy animals? Their tentacles embrace the other’s body. I’ve seen this kind of demonstration before. The way they rub their bodies against one another leaves me puzzled. It makes no sense, yet I’ve seen them do it in and out of their skins and often in the softness of their natural flesh. And the noise they make during this ridiculous interaction — their voices are terrible enough. This manifestation only makes them more unpleasant to accept.
Now they’re shedding their skins. I was afraid of that. I’ll move further back behind the bowl so I am not injured by the rain of debris. Layers and layers of bright, colored skins fall to the checkered, white floor until a pile obstructs my vision. If he has a brain in his head, he would take this opportunity to hide. But I doubt he is that alert.
More embracing and grasping and in a flash they’re gone. The pile of their fetid skins remains in the center of the room. A mass of height and unpleasantness, it is surely an indication of the blight they represent. They will be back though, knowing the subspecies as I do, but not for some time. Now, what to do? I still have not eaten. And, while there is always food embedded in their fowl skins, it is nourishment nevertheless. But I am more interested – no, intrigued – by an adversary that waits beyond. I am superstitious enough to know that once you’ve set out on a path, nothing should deter you from your appointed goal. The elimination of my enemy is reason enough to keep me focused on completing the necessities of my life.
The noises from the giant beasts can be heard in the distance. I recognize it for what it is, not that I understand or particularly want to know its social significance. Suffice it to say, there is time enough for me to do what has to be done before they return to cause thunder to erupt in the white bowl overhead or pick up their skins and fasten them to their obscene, distorted bodies. They are in the other chambers deep within their nest. I have been in all of them and feel safe only in this white room. I cannot explain why nor do I feel it is important to do so. Their many other chambers are filled with what they believe are necessary to sustain them when all that should matter are character and survival. I do believe the future will prove them lacking in the first, which will surely undermine their ability to sustain the second.
Now I will make my move. A quick skitter propels me to the side of the pile of skins. I surprise myself with my agility and speed. Few others of my kind could’ve covered the distance from behind the white bowl to the middle of the room and the pile of skins in such time. I am not even winded. I am filled with my own possibilities. I have not survived this long because of hesitation or cowardice.
My, the smell is horrific. How can they stand themselves? The stench is so overwhelming they should suffocate from their own scent. I have two choices now if I am to locate him. I can burrow through this mess or go around it, which is preferable because it will give me a continuous view of my surroundings. I could, of course, climb over this heap, but that would take too long and leave me vulnerable should the beasts return before I have completed my hunt. No, I will move carefully along the perimeter. I will find him and, if he chooses not to leave, destroy him. Then, if there is time, I will hold my breath and feast on the tiny animals that weave their lives in the skins of the beasts.
Slowly now, I must maneuver myself around the side of the skins, always keeping in sight the portal through which the giant beasts pass and beyond which is their monstrous warren. Were I that large, oh what I could make of life then.
Another few steps now, and he’s disappeared. There is no trace of him. The flake of food remains untouched. A few more short steps takes me nearly around to the other side of the pile of skins and still there is no sign of him. He could have fled or ventured into the skins for safety or sustenance. I can’t take too much time here. To pause is to die. I have learned that much when you come out of our darkness into their light. Unless you forage below in the time of all darkness, you live at the mercy of the beasts.
“I have spent too much time at this,” I say aloud to myself.
Then, just as I am about to give up my search and forage into the pile of skins, I see him at the far edge of the pile. This time I am less than half the distance to him that I was before. He is even slower than I thought and quite a bit larger. His hairy antennae are half again as long and more articulated than are mine. He is consuming something he found in one of the skins. He doesn’t see me and yet I feel I cannot simply let him have his way where he has no right to be. There is no need to rush at him. The confrontation will come soon enough. I move silently though not quietly enough and, at not more than a few body lengths away, he turns.
“I’ve been watching you,” I say with typical boldness in my voice, my jaws held wide to inflate my size and exaggerate my ferocity. He appears neither to be surprised or frightened.
Moving around one of the skins on which he is feeding, he says, “Is that how you pass away your time?”
He is massive. The skeletal armor on his back is laced with thick protective layers. His sides are marked with scars of previous battles. His six legs show signs of great conflict. There is a natural kink in one that I too possess. His eyes take me in and remain impassive. Yet I cannot back off from my objective.
“I pass the time as I choose and where I choose and in my own territory.”
“Is that why your back is so arched and your sides heave with anger? You think I am trespassing in your territory?”
“You don’t belong here. I’ve marked out the space within these walls.”
“If the scent I noticed when I entered was yours, I can assure you it is not powerful enough to warn off the most timid of our kind.”
“But you did notice it?”
“And you chose not to honor it?”
“I choose what I choose to honor or avoid whenever I choose. I am too old to bother with such adolescent posturing.”
“I am not an adolescent and I make no idle threats.”
“If you are so eager to do battle, then perhaps you will at least let me finish my meal. I have been nursing a wound and have had little opportunity to replenish myself.”
“If you were so diminished, why did you pass up that piece over there,” I ask directing one of my antennae in the direction of the flake of food caught in the crevasse.
“Yes. I noticed it too. And perhaps you would have been foolish enough to waste your digestive energy on that inedible scrap, but I prefer more worthwhile nourishment.”
“You are unusually demanding for someone so deprived and enervated.”
“That also sets us apart. I will not lower my standards simply for convenience.”
“And what else separates us?”
“Your eagerness for combat and my aversion to taking the life of another.”
“You talk like a coward.”
“You call me a coward?” I scrape my feet threateningly along the cold surface of the room and take several quick steps towards him. “You hear my words as such because you, and not I, are the coward.”
“Well, you can’t make me believe you’ve ever been called brave.”
“If my enemies were alive, I can assure you they would say otherwise.”
“If they were alive they would more than likely be my friends and deplore your aggression.”
“Enough words,” I rail and lunge furiously toward him. He deftly sidesteps my talons. I am so angry I underestimate his speed and the momentum of my own eagerness. I lose my footing and roll past him. He looks at me with contempt. I want to tear his heart from his body.
“You’re so filled with anger.”
“This is my territory. You knew that.”
“What will it cost you to share its bounty with another?”
“I do not share when I do not have to.”
“And when is it that you have to?” he asks.
His question perplexes me. He stands his ground as I ponder my next move. He is more agile than I imagined. I underestimated that, and his size. But he hasn’t moved much from the position he was in when I first came up behind him. There has to be a way to reach his sides, his weak spot, so I can tear at his underbelly. I flip out my talons, but he swiftly parries them aside.
“And what if you win?”
“I will win,” I say with renewed confidence. I can sense his weakness, his fear of me.
“I will savor your insides.”
I try another thrust but he is too quick, his talons too experienced. There is a deftness and economy to his movements that I have to admire, as much as it infuriates me. “Then you will be gone.”
“But replaced by another. You can be assured of that. I’ve already caught the scent of others in my search,” he says motioning to the wall. “We are not alone. One is never alone.”
“Then they too will die,” I say, unconvinced of his claim, though the location he indicates is exactly where his movement near the wall is halted and erratic. As he speaks, he changes position so that his tail is touching the edge of the pile of skins. Now I can’t get around him. However, neither can he fall back to another defensive position. I’m not certain what he is up to. It doesn’t matter. I only want to see him dead at my feet.
“I’ve been coming here for a long time. Long before you probably took your first meal. I think that makes you the intruder and not I.”
“More of what you do not want to hear,” he says. “You see, as you have been observing me, I have had you in sight for some time. I saw how quickly you fell back when they shed their skins and began to mate. You looked so frightened, I thought you would run for your life.”
“You know, if I left you alone you’d probably talk yourself to death,” I say, unnerved that he had been tracking me as I had been stalking him.
“At least I would be in good company. A lot better than I am now.”
“You infuriate me.”
“But be careful there, your temperament does not serve you well.”
“It has served me well enough so far.”
“But not much longer, I’ll wager,” he says, backing his tail deeper into the tumble of dark skins.
I have to find a way to dispatch him soon or I will be too exhausted to make it back to my lair — or worse, unable to scurry aside should the beasts return. I watch him more carefully than I have any of my other adversaries. There is a quiet stillness about him that I have never encountered. He is neither angry nor fearful as I had once gauged. And as I move to gain the advantage of position, he continues backward until he has embedded half his brown body in the skins. Does he think he can make himself disappear? Does he think me a fool that I don’t know what he is about?
With one quick jerk backward, my enemy embeds himself so deeply in the folds of the skins, you can’t tell where they began or his ugly carcass ends. Then I realize what he is up to. Now I have other, more pressing problems. I spin around but it is already too late. One of the giant beasts is standing in the portal leading into the white space. He points in my direction and lets out a howl such as I have never heard. The companion beast at the portal beside him is upon me before I can react.
Something a hundred times my size lands nearby, almost tearing off half my right side. I stagger under the closeness of the blow. Another lands so close, it blows up the air around me, flipping me over onto my back. The beast in the portal continues to howl as his companion continues his attack upon me. I quickly right myself. Neither beast has noticed the devil so close in front of me. There is no expression of satisfaction on his face. His antennae don’t even twitch with interest. I have to make it into the pile of skins if I am going to survive. If I am going to die, I will make certain to take my tormentor with me.
A third object lands further away and gives me an opportunity to seek shelter. As my enemy is now nowhere to be seen, I lunge for the spot where I last saw him and burrow myself into the thicket of skins. I am instantly plunged into darkness. Even the smell doesn’t seem so objectionable now. I don’t know whether to press deeper or maintain my position in case it is necessary to flee the skins. I can feel the stillness all around me. I know he is in here. I also know he is too smart to move or communicate with me. Then again, why would he want to communicate with me? I had expended all my energies trying to kill him simply because he was searching for food in my territory.
Suddenly the skins press in about me, and my world is tossed end over end. I cling desperately to one of the skins, but the tumult is so violent that I am barely able to steady myself. I suspect what is happening and for the first time fear for my life. The beasts have probably gathered up their skins and are taking them to a place where they can separate them in order to find where I am hiding. At that point, the beasts will pounce upon any movement or creature scurrying from the pile. What can I do? There is no place to go. I am doomed. The only satisfaction I will get is that I will not perish alone.
I can feel the skins press against my body as the pile reforms into an even tighter web. I am left upside down but still, if temporarily, alive. I finally let go of the skins around me. There is no place to fall because there is no place to move. My limbs are strained and stretched numb. I am disoriented. I want out of the filthy darkness. If I am going to die, I don’t want it to be crumpled up in a heap of stinking beast skins. When the tightness around me eases, I know the end will be near. I can see skins being peeled apart from the pile. Frantically I try to hold on to a nearby skin, but I am unsure which one would be safest.
As the skins around me continue to be pulled away and flashes of light slip into my darkness, I can just make out the face of my adversary. I grab hold of a particularly foul smelling skin and pull myself up in the direction of the voice. “Where are you?”
“No,” he commands, “over here.”
I climb up and between a flap of skins that seem attached to another on all but one side. “How did you get in here?”
“What if they look in here?”
“Then you’ll get your wish.”
“That your death would have been worthwhile if it included me.”
“How did you know that?” I ask, but there is no response.
As the other skins are pulled away one by one, more and more light pours through the openings. The secret flap of skin in which we are hiding gives us cover while allowing some view of what is going on around us. The two giant beasts are towering overhead, exchanging words of urgency.
One has both his limbs clutching something large and dark as though he is waiting to bring it crashing down on our heads. If we are caught, there is no place to run. But as another skin is removed from the heap, I can tell by the noise the beasts are making that they are growing tired of the chase. I have seen this character fault, this impatience before. Most of the beasts I have encountered seem to lose interest in whatever it is they are doing faster than their passion had first been aroused. We, on the other hand, never lose sight of our goals and the importance of survival. The beasts act as though survival is rarely, if ever, on their minds. If this is true, I envy them the breadth of their freedom.
“How long have you been hunting in that chamber?” I ask.
His antennae are now actively combing the air for signs of movement. “What difference does it make?”
“What difference does it not make?” I insist, as if he is withholding something that is rightfully mine.
“Since I was small. Since I was younger than you,” he whispers. “Younger and obviously smarter.”
“Then how come we never saw each other, or smelled each other’s scent?”
“The room always smells of their smell and so many other scents. It’s a wonder we can leave any trail behind us. That’s why I could barely smell you.”
“Maybe my scent was so weak because it was so much like yours?”
“That’s ridiculous,” he shoots back.
“So you really were there before me?”
“I’m telling you, don’t move.”
Suddenly it is important for me to make amends for my anger and indignation, especially since I am about to die. “I’m sorry. I just need to know.”
“If you move once more I can assure you there won’t be anything left of your foolish carcass for them to squash. I guarantee it.”
I can see from the pocket of the skins in which we are hiding that the other beast skins are spread out on a broad, white surface surrounded on two sides by walls and the other two sides by the giants themselves. They are talking to each other. One picks through the skins again in frustration. He drops the end of his limb on the platform, which nearly shakes us both out into the open. I can feel him breathing at my side. I cannot see his eyes in the shadows. But at this distance I can easily make out his scent. It is as familiar as my own.
The voices become lower and lower and less agitated until one of the beasts throws up his limbs, turns to the other, shrieks out something so loud it hurts, and leaves. Strangely, I am calmed by what had been my adversary as soon as I climbed into this protected recess. I know we remain in great danger but somehow having him at my side increases the possibility of our survival. There is a steadiness about him that I have to admire.
“Not yet you fool, they could be out there waiting for us,” he warns, extending one of his large talons across my path when I try to crawl out.
I know better than that. I feel stupid in his presence, where I now want to appear clever and knowing. “How long should we wait?”
“A little longer.”
The remnants of the pile are moved clumsily about the white surface, but the intensity of their hunt is greatly diminished. How can they be so casual about searching out and destroying their enemy? Are they so indifferent or is food so plentiful in their world that they can afford to pass up a worthy, if minor, meal?
“That was close,” I say.
“We were lucky. They’re not as smart as other beasts I’ve encountered in this nest.”
“Only because they made the last mistake. I’ve seen what other beasts can do when they really want to find us. I’ve seen them shed their skins and drop them into huge containers of hot water that spin round and round. That’s what I expected them to do to the pile in which we had taken shelter. Instead they gave up quickly and let us get away.”
“Did it make a tremendous noise? The spinning container of hot water?”
“It shook the room. Another one of their awful sounds.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Why are you so interested?”
“Just tell me how long.”
“Not so long ago.”
“You lost a friend there?” I can see his expression sadden.
“It’s probably safe now.”
“Why won’t you tell me?”
“I lost my mate.”
“You were not with her?”
“I was on the other side of the room. We were searching for food when they threw something at us. It missed me, but knocked her off the ledge we were on. She landed on a pile of skins in the middle of the room like this one. I watched them pick up the whole pile and drop it into the water. I saw her sucked into the steaming pool along with all their skins. Then they closed something over the top of the whirling water and walked away. It was terrible. Terrible.”
“I’m sorry I said those things to you, even more sorry about attacking you. Though if I hadn’t, I would have never found you.”
“One of the things they sometimes do when they’ve left a chamber is turn day into night. They haven’t done that yet.”
“But I think it really is safe.”
“You know, I don’t know why I didn’t just kill you back there. You gave me so many opportunities. It would have been easy.”
“But you didn’t.
“No,” I offered, in a voice no longer swelled with the need to threaten.
“Let’s get out of here first and I will tell you why I think you did not take advantage of my youth.”
And than I knew, cursing myself for what I might have done.
In the last year Arthur Davis has been fortunate to see eighteen of his stories accepted/published in The Rusty Nail, Bewildering Stories, Uncharted Frontier, eFiction/Fantasy, Fiction on The Web, The Write Room, The Stone Hobo, Thoughtsmith, Danse Macabre Magazine, The Faircloth Review and The Eerie Digest.
In 2012 he launched Operation Outreach, The Armed Forces Collection.