Michael wasn’t the smartest man in the world, but that had never bothered him.
Earning mediocre grades throughout high school, he’d immediately signed up with his uncle’s construction company after graduation, happily accepting the labor-intensive job in lieu of any more schooling. With hard work and patience, he had climbed through the ranks of the company, eventually claiming the title of foreman just after his thirty-first birthday.
Due to his cheery attitude and string work ethic, he was always assigned to the most difficult tasks, from clear cutting swamplands to repairing sewage tanks. His newest job was no different, the slow and arduous task of rewiring the older subway tracks of New York. While others balked at the idea of days alone in the dark catacombs of old New York, Michael took it in stride, thanks largely in part to the hefty pay the city had offered and his wife’s second pregnancy as a constant reminder.
Dropping from the rusted iron-wrought rungs to the slickened stone floor, Michael did a quick inspection of his gear, as per usual. He had enough coiled wire to string along the long forgotten walls, as well as a light pick and a few dozen light-weight aluminum pitons to post said wiring up safely. A pair of industrial-strength flashlights dangled from his hip, along with an assortment of tools that could come in handy in any given situation. He also carried a Glock .009, just in case he bumped into anything unsavory.
It wasn’t unusual to stumble across “Hobo Towns” in the tunnels beneath New York, great expanses of subway station that had been conquered by the city’s homeless as a place of refuge and solace. While Michael felt no real desire to harm the unfortunate souls, he was often alone in his peaceful sentiments; the homeless were not known for a forgiving attitude, and never wanted to give up their subterranean lairs without a fight. Michael had never encountered one, but he’d heard enough stories to know that it wasn’t merely an urban legend.
“How’s everything look?” Crackled a warbled voice from a large handheld radio, one that had clearly seen better days.
Michael palmed the hefty device, pulling it from the notch on his belt. “Yeah, the whole place is what we expected.” He replied, hoping that the warped hiss he was hearing was just audible on his side of the conversation. “Probably looking at a few months’ worth of work here.”
The radio crackled and spit, but no reply barked from the other end. Michael merely shrugged, plugging the radio back into the slot of his belt before beginning his work. This section of subway hadn’t seen use in well over twenty years, something that was clear with just a cursory glance. The stone walls and floor were cracked and rime with mold, vast swathes of webbing from spiders spread high overhead, and a perpetual dripping noise echoed from the surrounding darkness.
Michael tugged hard on the wiring trailing from the higher tunnels, showing he was ready for a live feed. Mere moments later the low hum of electricity rang through the air as the insulated wire became live, the few lights Michael had pinned to the walls flickering to life, chasing away the creeping shadows that had begun to consume his weakened flashlight. “Much better,” he mused, looking down each side of the tunnel while trying to decide which way would be best to start with.
His musings were cut short when he spotted one of his fears come to life: footprints. The perpetual sludge from countless rainfalls had slowly sunk to the bottom most levels of New York, the bowels of the ever-thriving nexus of human activity. Down one path of the tunnel was a clear set of foot prints, small and narrow like those of a child.
“Shit…” Michael mumbled to himself. Looks like today isn’t going to be that easy after all… “Hey guys, we got a situation down here.”
The radio crackled in response, but no words came through in any discernible way. Must be all the interference from the rock and metal, Michael thought with a grimace. If there was a kid down here, he’d need help finding him so they could contact the authorities. No way was it safe for anyone to remain down here, not even Michael and he was a trained professional.
“Hello?” He called down the tunnel at the darkness, hoping that maybe the kid would be close enough to hear him. He knew for a fact that these tunnels could go on for days, the blueprints showing every side tunnel and way station that had been built this deep so many years ago. Finding anyone down here would be worse than finding Waldo.
“Fuck… I’ll just have to find him as I work.” Michael shrugged. He had a job to do and was on a semi-strict timeline.
The next few hours died in quiet boredom as Michael slowly worked his way down the tunnel, measuring out six feet of wire before wrapping them about a piton, firmly hammered into the crumbling stone walls. Once attached, a small bulb would be attached to an open coupling in the charged wire, allowing the gloom of the musty sepulcher to be forced back ever so slowly.
As the fourth hour crept to a close, Michael noticed that the tunnel he was following was opening wider, probably into one of the many old way stations that dotted this underground complex. The tracks at his feet, ruined by lack of maintenance and the damp conditions, were likely a fine example of how the coming bunker would look, more cavern than structure. Edging around a wide puddle (for fear it was deeper than it looked), Michael hastily drove a piton into the wall next to his head, wrapping a new length of charged coil and plugging in a fresh bulb to allow him a better look at what he would be dealing with.
Only to come face to face with a few dozen blank stares.
His fear confirmed in the worst way possible, Michael could only sigh as he watched the mass of ragged homeless shy away from the brilliant corona of light. All of them looked as if they hadn’t seen the light of day in recent memory, their skin ashen and smudged with grime and mud. Clothes, haphazardly sewn together by a blind seamstress, reeked of filth and urine, a palpable wave of rank wafting away from the crowd like a tangible wall.
“Umm… I’m from the city, just doing some maintenance. No need for alarm.” Michael called out, holding a hand up in nervous greeting.
They seemed wholly unimpressed, now moving about the large cavern, fascinated with their own designs. The track, now wide enough to fit a pair of trains, was deep set into the ground, with a wide expanse of cracked cement that once served as a waiting area for bored passengers. Small smokeless fires glowed with dying embers, huddled masses of rotting cloth gathered around them like wingless moths in search of hope. Michael truly hated encountering things like this, though this was on a whole new level.
“You just gonn’ stand there-a gawkin or ya gonna move on in?” Rasped an old man at Michael’s elbow, causing him to jump in surprise. The man, bent and crooked with age and dressed in what was once a fine looking coat, hacked and laughed at Michaels expression, slapping his knee with mirth. “Wowee, you ain’t gonn’ last long down here with that yella bit o’ spine, fella!”
Gasping for breath, Michael glared at the old bum, clearing his throat. “I’m here to-”
“-fix up tha tunnel, yeah we hear ya.” The old man finished, grinning with a mouthful of brown teeth and blackened gums. “Jus’ move on through, we won’t pay ya no mind.”
Michael, surprised at how nonchalant the beggar was, merely nodded. “Well… thanks, I guess.”
“Just don’ go down tha there path,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger across the way station to a darkened hole in the wall, clearly something that had occurred years after the construction of the area.
“Why?” Michael asked, eyes locked onto the shadowy entrance of the hole in the wall.
The old man merely smiled before shuffling away, his steps rustling noisily due to the plastic bags wrapped around his feet. None of the other homeless even so much as looked at me, merely sitting or standing in abject silence, staring at their small fires or into empty space. Michael couldn’t help but feel sorry for them, couldn’t help but feel ashamed at the small welling bit of fear he had of them. These were merely people who’d had a bad string of luck, he told himself. No reason to be afraid of them.
Despite his own assurances, he made sure to click the safety off his pistol as discreetly as possible. None within the crowd seemed to notice, or if they did they didn’t seem to care.
Michael carefully spent the next few minutes unrolling a more wire, taking a few quick measurements of the area in order to try and guess at how long he would have to work around the eerily silent crowd. His first few attempts at placing the lights along the wall were clumsy at best, his fear of turning his back to the crowd making his work shoddy and rushed.
But after the third light flickering to life, Michael began to fall back into his habitual motions, keeping a sideways glance on his shuffling companions, each shying further away from him as he added more light to the darkened chamber. The wall he chose to follow, a long expanse of cement that had held up well over the years, was sadly the wall that was bringing Michael ever closer to the gaping darkness of the cave entrance.
Once the light of a freshly powered bulb sprayed down into the darkened maw, Michael could only shudder at the roughly hewn passage lying before him. Unlike the rest of the tunnels and stations he had studied from weathered schematics, this was a completely unmarked pass that had obviously been added by unskilled hands. Thin layers of cool moisture hung to the sloping walls, fetid puddles of water pooling along the passages floor, rife with mold and flies. The entire tunnel itself felt colder than the rest of the way station, the shadows seemingly lashing back from the presence of the light, as if offended.
The passage went deeper into the earth, some twenty feet over a gradual slope before turning sharply, the rest of the darkness now out of sight. Thin coatings of mildew and mold hung from the walls like sagging flesh, the color of the recently deceased. Altogether, a wholly unwelcoming place.
Sadly, Michael had been given strict orders by his superiors to document all damage that the tunnels may have endured during the interim years since their construction. Heaving a sigh, Michael sheathed his hammer, put his most recent piton pack into a holster; he had to look in the cave, no matter how creepy it appeared.
His first step into the tunnel, marked with a sickening squishing noise akin to gelatin being chewed upon by a particularly rude eater, brought the haunting voice of the old man over the silent crowd. “Don’ say I dinnae warn ya boy.”
Michael didn’t even bother to look back at the speaker, choosing instead to merely push through this job as quickly as possible. While he was proud of his work ethic, he was truly beginning to regret his decision to take this particular job. With the thoughts of his beautiful wife to bring him comfort, he trudged onward through the muck and the grime, the brilliant beam of his flashlight slicing through the heavy veil of inky blackness clogging the shaft.
The tunnel continued to spiral and descend, sometimes gradually in a gentle slope, while others forced Michael to carefully climb down a sudden drop. His thick coat and padded jeans, while normally stifling and hot in the New York heat, seemed to be too thin now that he was descending into the bowels of the earth, his fingers numb from the biting cold.
“How far does this hellhole go anyway?” He grumbled to himself, stumbling over some loose rubble for what seemed like the fortieth time. “I must be at least a hundred feet deeper than the sub-system… hope this doesn’t open into some cave system or something.”
His fears were rapidly becoming realized as truth as the tunnel ended in a wide ramp of gravel and mud, leading into a wide open cavern the likes of which Michael had only ever heard about. His high-powered flashlight, advertised as being the strongest on the market, could do little to the overwhelming darkness of the apparently never-ending night that Michael had wandered into. The ceiling, too high for his light to reach, dripping continuously countless droplets of water, covering the entire cavern in a fine, cool mist as well as creating massive reflective pools of silver mirrors.
“What in the world is this…” Michael muttered as he walked deeper into the chill of the cave, rubbing at his arms to try and warm himself. His thoughts are interrupted however with the tell-tale sounds of splashing, of floundering; something else was in the area, in the cave, and emerging from the water.
“Who’s there!” Michael called, whirling his flashlight in a wide arc in search of the noise, his other hand reaching for his pistol. The splashing continued, echoing from all around, from above and below, from the crushing darkness moving all round him. Spinning to make way for the exit, Michael was horrified to discover that his explorations had led him further from the entrance than he thought, as it was now out of sight.
Michael was lost.
The floundering noise grew louder, more urgent, with a wet sucking groan joining it. Michael chose a direction and began jogging, doing his best not to panic, even as the wet sucking noises began to emanate from all around. The bright beam of light showed little due to the silvery fog of the cavern, save for a dozen or so feet of blank stone, marred only by the occasional puddle of cool water.
“Can’t believe… this is happening… to me…” He gasped as he jumped over a wider pool, still scanning the edges of his vision for the familiar stone wall that could lead him back to the entry, and his escape.
Instead he finally caught sight of what was making the noises within the darkness.
Rising from one of the hundreds of silvery pools on arms long since rotted, a waterlogged corpse was pulling itself from the waters slowly, the wet sucking noise gurgling past it’s lipless mouth as it slowly expelled water from its lungs. Hairless, the entire beast was made of translucent flesh, thick black veins visibly moving beneath the bloated skin as the creature clambered from the pool.
Whirling his light around him, Michael realized that almost every pool he could see had similar sights crawling from them, all groaning, wide hands outstretched towards him with boneless fingers, fingers that writhed like worms from a clump of clay.
“Oh my God…” Michael muttered before breaking off into a dead sprint, pushing past one of the few monsters that had managed to stand, knocking its upper body back and forcing it onto its forearms, a savage hiss breaking past rotting teeth.
Weaving and ducking, Michael ran deeper and deeper into the cave, doing his best to contain his fear as he passed by more and more of the strange creatures. Harsh cries, warped and bestial, echoed along the cavern walls; just within sight the creatures lurked in the fog, moving to and fro on long wobbly limbs, far faster than they should. Every time one got close, the rancid smell of rotting fish would accompany the garbled howls of the creature as it tried to grab him, fingers elongating as they reached for him in a hideous parody of human hands.
But still Michael evaded, dodging them at every turn, running deeper into the darkness, into the fell chill of the fog. Finally, rising in the distance like a forgotten shrine, Michael caught sight of the wall.
“Yes! Yes!” He cried, clambering over a pair of gelatinous arms as they emerged from a pool he had strayed to close too.
But his cheers fell only on the ears of the damned he realized. The wall he was now running to wasn’t that of unworked stone, but of carved rock. Moss-covered works of titanic proportions, resembling a twisted visage of the creatures chasing him, save for a mass of sinuous tentacles dangling from the vaguely humanoid face. The statue, easily a story tall, sat motionless in the position of the Buddha, multiple arms curved at inhuman angles, each bearing a bowl dribbling thin streams of pestilent water down to another, all leading to a wide basin that could easily be mistaken for a small pond.
“Oh God… God no…” Michael sobbed as the rising cries of the creatures echoed from the shadows. The statue itself seemed to give off its own light here, though from where Michael couldn’t tell. Only now did he realize, as the creatures slowly circled him on all fours, boneless limbs moving unsteadily below their frail frames, that these fiends hadn’t been chasing him with the intent to catch him; they’d been herding him.
“Tha’ they ‘ave my boy, tha’ they ‘ave” Confirmed a hauntingly familiar voice from the briny basin, before Michael’s vision swam with stars, fading into the familiar darkness of sleep.
Michael awoke cold, colder than he had ever felt before. What he had prayed was only a whiskey-fueled nightmare greeted him with solemn silence, hundreds of the strange beasts standing around him at a respectable distance. The cool stone beneath his bare back and legs stuck to him painfully as he pushed himself up, only to feel a warm hand steady him on his shoulder.
“Steady now lad, ye’ve had a hell of time.” The old beggar soothed him, gently pushing him back down. Michael resisted, throwing the man’s hand off him and rolling to his feet. He saw that the cold stone he had been resting on was a raised platform of black rock, probably marble, covered in carved figures doing despicable acs.
“What the hell! Who are you? What the fuck is all of this?” Michael shouted, waving over the crowd of monsters and wishing desperately for his pistol.
“Yer gun would do ya no good ‘ere.” The bum calmly explained, walking around the altar with not the slightest impediment. His earlier limp had apparently been an act. “Aye, that it was. ‘Ave to keep up appearances then, right?”
“What appearances?” Michael demanded, fighting a wave of nausea that wracked through his body.
“Tha’ I be human o’ course.” He replied with a wide grin, far wider than any normal man could produce. “Hard to feed on yer people if they see me like the lot o’them, right?”
The crowd of onlookers seemed to thrum at the statement, a wet noise that was profane to the ear but somehow conveyed… humor? “Wha…What are you?”
“Jus’ a creature doing his best to make it in this rat race of a life.” He shrugged. Bereft of his coat, the aged shirt easily showed how bizarre the gesture was, as bones seemed to ripple beneath the bum’s skin. “Yeah, I know. I be needin’ a new body, tha much is certain.”
“You can read my mind.” Michael could feel the blood draining from his face, his hands and feet numb from the cold.
“Mind ye, I rarely go fer bodies like yers, people tend to notice the changes.” He continued to explain, ignoring Michael’s statement. He was walking away from Michael now, unbuttoning his shirt slowly as he went. He was slowly ascending a set of black stairs next to the statue that led to the largest basin. “But yer people ‘ave forced me hand, so to speak.”
“How?” Michael asked without thinking, doing his best to keep his mind clear while trying to figure a means of escape.
“By fixin’ yer subsystem!” The bum laughed, shedding his shirt with a casual roll of his shoulders. One of his arms sat too low, connected near the upper most rib, and his chest swelled and deflated in numerous spots far to disconcerting to not be repulsed by. “Such a thing’ll only lead ta more of yer fools and blaggards comin’ down, lookin’ fer answers! ‘S why I fled the oceans, settled here.”
“Settled here?” Michael repeated, voice cracking. The basin was stirring, the tranquil black waters within beginning to roil as the homeless speaker ascended the stairs. Shedding his pants, the dirty skin rippled and flowed as if the man’s very vital fluids were fighting to burst from him. His thighs seemed swollen, flushed in numerous spots while grey as stone in others. His arms, heavy with… something, something vile waved high above his head.
“I only seek what you seek from your pitiful life Michael…” The voice said, no longer the drunken drawl of the old bum but now something far more primal, far more intelligent. “Peace.”
And with his final word, the old man split like an overripe melon, thick strips of flesh falling to the wayside as another translucent beast began peeling itself free of its fleshy husk. Michael didn’t even realize he was screaming until he felt the worm-like fingers of the crowd wrapping about his limbs, lifting him high into the air. Struggling in vain, Michael’s screams rose in pitch as several tentacles, black and veiny, rose from the cool waters of the basin. Thick quills slid from the slime-covered appendages, slowly circling around what was once the old man, which seemed to have dropped to whatever it could call knees, arms still raised high as if in rapture.
“Peace through isolation Michael,” The Voice spoke within his mind, a slippery feeling seeping through his skull that he couldn’t seem to shake. “A peace that can only be maintained if you and your kind stay above ground.”
“W-w-we will!” Michael screamed, thrashing as best he could against the iron-clad constrictions holding him high in the air. “I swear to God, we’ll stay away from here! Just let me go, I have a wife and children!”
The bum-turned-nightmare began to shudder in ecstasy as the sharpened quills sank into its softened flesh, tearing it slowly apart almost casually, revealing the writhing mass of black tendrils that nested within the twisted frame of the unholy beast. The crowd, moving in unison somehow, slowly began passing Michael closer and closer to the opened mass of bile and blood, the stump of writhing black worms.
“I know you will stay away Michael, and I know of your child and mate.” The Voice assured him as he drew ever closer to the basin. One thick tentacle slid forward, quills slowly receding into the limb as it gently wrapped about Michael’s naked torso, the freezing mucous seeming to sear his exposed skin away with merely a touch. “You will bring them to me, as a tithe to your new God. Do not worry, I am far more merciful than your false deity; after all, I will deliver unto you the gift of eternal life, in exchange for your eternal servitude.”
Michael’s shrieks ended with but a sudden, and sickening, crack as the tentacle reared back from the expanse of sizzling flesh across Michael’s chest, bringing the sundered torso and worms closer to the wound, allowing the quivering mass to crawl along the ebon sinew and into their new home, in Michael’s chest. Michael could only stare in silent horror as the ruined mass of the former bum, split and shattered to the point where only one of its serpentine arms was still intact, reached forward and grasped him by the shoulder, pulling its own gaping wound closer to him in order to aid its internal parasites in their journey.
“Welcome to the fold Michael…” The Voice whispered darkly into his mind, an unseen smile gracing whatever would pass for the abominations face. “You have but a few weeks before you will prove to unstable for work on the surface; begin your new life by stopping the restoration of the subway system high above. And bring me your mate and child… I’ve not tasted the flesh of the unborn in nigh a century.”
The tentacle dropped Michael roughly atop the wide black altar before silently slithering back into the dark waters of the basin, dragging with it the still twitching remains of the faceless monster that had tricked Michael into his descent to Hell. He could feel the worms writhing within him, slowly working their way through his muscles and along his bones, slowly gaining control over his limbs as his body quickly went numb.
“It’s not bad…” One of the translucent nightmares gurgled to him, passing him his bundle of clothes. “It’s not bad…”
Michael may not have been the smartest man in the world, and now that he was watching his own body dress against his will, it kind of bothered him. After all, if he were smarter he may have never taken this god forsaken job.