Published in Abandoned Places in 2014. This story was partially inspired by a dream I had in which I was walking from dark rooms to bright rooms, and something was pulling me backwards. I don't remember the dream very well. Only the feeling it produced. The imagery came together after I saw Blue Man Group's rock concert tour, particularly the segment entitled The Complex on the DVD. I replicated these feelings in prose.
It has some gore and violence but nothing too extreme. Horror is not my usual genre, but when so inspired, I enjoy exploring such things.
I had an idea for how the story could continue. I even sketched out a broader world. As of yet, I have not had a chance to expand on this sketch, but I'm still open to it.
By James L. Steele
The rat’s eyes had always been open, but until right now he had never seen a thing. There was a light hanging over him, bright white, but also streaked and speckled with red. The rat blinked. He became aware of his arms and legs. Something digging under his fur and into the skin beneath. It smelled... The rat instinctually took sharp breaths through his nose. The straps holding him down smelled organic, like they were once alive but now were not. In a room full of sterile plastic, metal and brick, their scent stood out.
He tried to lift his left arm. It was held down tight and remained firmly pressed to the padded table. He raised his right arm. It was free to move. He raised his arm over his head and looked at it. Short, brown fur. Long claws tipping long, bony fingers. His arm was all bone and fur.
The rat raised his head slightly. It was free to move and he sat up as far as he could. The light was in his eyes no matter which way he turned. He held his hand up to block the glare and tried to look around, but the light was so intense he couldn’t see anything beyond the table.
He had an impulse to reach out towards the light. The rat reached into the beam. His claws collided with glass, making a light chink sound. At first he didn’t know why he was doing this, but quickly something occurred to him. Something he knew unconsciously. He groped the light fixture, felt around it, fingers moving from a hot glass surface to a cool plastic one. Eventually he felt something he recognized. He twisted the piece of plastic.
The light shut off. The room dimmed, lit only by the softer overhead lights. He blinked the spots from his vision. It took a few minutes for his eyes to calm down. Finally he was able to look around him and confirm with his eyes what his nose and sense of touch had already told him.
He was strapped to a padded table in a very sterile room. The wall ahead of him was stone, painted white. The ceiling was metal. He looked down at the floor. It was tile, covered in blood. The rat looked side to side. The walls on either side of him were also crimson, but the blood was dry and cracking.
He leaned forward more, trying to sit up. Something tugged the back of his head, resisting him. The rat reached behind his skull and felt it. A piece of plastic was firmly attached to it. The rat felt it all the way around, but he couldn’t identify it. The thing was long, flat and joined to a long cord extending backwards beyond his reach.
Suddenly his ears woke up. He became aware of the regular beeping coming from behind him. The rat’s ears swiveled in the direction of the sound, then his head turned with them.
Out the corner of his eye the rat saw a terminal. On the screen were lines moving from left to right. The beeping coming from the machine matched one of the lines. This line matched the beating in his ears.
The rat felt agitated. The beeping sped up to match. The rat turned around, reached over and pulled at the strap holding his other arm down. It was so tight he could not work his fingers underneath. The beeping sped up as the rat became frantic, trying to pull the strap off, trying to free his arm. His legs kicked, but they too were held down.
Another impulse kicked in. He leaned forward. The cord attached to his head tugged him backwards, trying to retract, but the rat resisted and forced his head forward. He opened his muzzle and gnawed on the strap. This felt quite natural. Satisfying in a way. He bit and chewed the strap, tearing fur out of his arm—the mechanical beeping sped up as he panicked and gnawed and thrashed.
Finally the strap snapped and opened. His other arm was free, and he extended it proudly. With a slight victory fresh in his mind, he opened his mouth and tried to shout for help. No sound came from his mouth. The rat opened his muzzle again and tried to scream for help, but nothing happened.
He felt his throat with his newly freed hand and shouted again. No vibrations. No lump in his neck. Nothing... The rat felt that something should have happened. He should have been able to make a noise, and his inability to make a single sound made his entire body thrash. He kicked his feet against the straps but they wouldn’t move. He leaned forward. The cable retracted him—it was always there, always pulling his head backwards, but he fought it, leaned over and gnawed the strap on his leg. The machine was beeping so fast it was screaming. In his mind he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
One strap broke. He leaned over and chewed the last one. He ripped out chunks of fur, bit and pulled and scraped his teeth against the skin-tight strap, heartbeat echoing in his oversensitive ears both in blood flow and the mechanical screaming.
The strap broke. The rat swung his legs over and slid off the table. His feet came down on the tile floor and he settled on his toes. He tried to stand up straight and balance on his feet, but his body pulled him into a slightly hunched posture and his feet sprang up to his toes. He stumbled a few steps away from the table and the incessant noise. The cable coming out the back of his head gently pulled him backwards, but the rat moved against it. He turned around and faced the noise.
A taut, blue cable stretched around his skull, past his muzzle, across the room and into a hole in the wall. The beeping was coming from a terminal screen next to this opening. It was still erratic, and so were the lines. As he stood free from bondage, the lines gradually calmed down. The beeping quieted from constant screaming to regular nagging. His heart stopped pounding in his ears.
The entire room was covered in blood. Blood was smeared all over the floor, walls and even the ceiling. The overhead lamp he had switched off was splattered with it. The rat looked down at himself.
His chest fur was supposed to be cream-colored, but it was matted and smeared in red. He curled his neck to his chest and scented himself. The blood did not smell like his own. A distant, formless memory told him the blood was human.
He looked up. His eyes traveled down the cable to the wall. He moved his head. The cable moved with him, still taut and trying to retract. The rat reached up with one hand, grasped it and pulled it towards him. More cable easily fed from the hole. He released his grip. The cable retracted, yanking the rat towards the wall. He stumbled to keep himself from falling over and stood fast against the retracting cable.
The way it curved around his head strained him uncomfortably. The rat turned around, letting it straighten out. He reached behind himself and felt where it connected again. There was a receiving plug embedded into his skull. He could feel where the cable’s connecter ended and his skull’s connecter began. Thick metal clips joined the two.
He lowered his arms and stood hunched over on his toes. His muzzle turned his head in every direction, taking in all the scents. There was a lot of metal and plastic and blood around here.
There was a doorway straight ahead of him. It was open, with dried blood leading out. The rat walked towards it. The cable tugged his skull backwards. He walked against it. The tugging became a little stronger as he approached the door. A few more steps and the tugging was more noticeable. The rat stopped just before the door, reached behind his head and felt for the metal clips. His fingers were on them. Somehow he had a feeling that if he flipped the clips to the side, the cable would come out.
He nudged one of the clips...
Something told the rat it wasn’t a good idea.
While he pondered this, the beeping across the room became slightly more agitated.
The rat lowered his hand. The machine’s tone returned to a normal pace. The rat took a few more steps against the cable, walked up to the door and peered out.
Before him stretched a long corridor just wide enough for one person. It was so long the end reached the vanishing point. The soft lights were on, illuminating the whole length in clean, even white. Lining each side of the hallway were doors. Many, many doors, each marked with strange symbols the rat didn’t recognize. Some of these doors were open, most were closed. Streaks of blood lined the floor, leading away from the room in which the rat stood. Footprints were smeared into the stains. Smears of dried red lined the walls all the way to the vanishing point. Negative handprints where blood was not dotted the walls all the way down as far as the rat could see. The beeping of the rat’s heartbeat echoed down the corridor.
He stepped into the hall. His claws clicked on the tile floor, made a few cracks in the blood. The cable gently pulled him backwards. He stopped at the first door on his right. He looked down at the handle. At first he wasn’t sure what to do, but another distant memory lifted his hand and placed it on the handle. He twisted it. The handle turned and the door pushed inward.
The room on the other side was dark. The rat’s eyes adjusted. After a moment of staring into the darkness, the rat could make out a table. Another terminal. Another monitor in the wall. Another hole in the wall with the connecting end of a cable sticking out of it.
The rat left the door open and backed away. He walked up to the next door, on the left. He reached out and turned the handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. The rat pushed again. It gave a little—something on the other side was holding it closed, but was buckling. The rat pushed again. The door opened more. He sank his claws into the tile, flexed his leg muscles and pushed with his whole body. Something bent and twisted and caved inward. The door flew open, sending something metal crashing into the opposite wall.
This room was lit. There was more dry blood on the floor here. Four rows of black countertops and cabinets filled this room laterally. The rat was staring down one of these corridors. The counter space was littered with broken glass and dried chemicals. Broken vials, test tubes and beakers were everywhere, and liquids of every color and consistency were strewn about the walls, floor and cabinet faces. A folding chair, bent out of shape, was wobbling by the opposite wall.
The rat’s nose drew him into the room to investigate the strange smells. He walked in, feet crunching on the broken glass. He felt a little prickle, but the skin was thick enough to protect his feet. He walked through glass and chemicals, bending down from time to time to scent a conspicuous area. Each time it was blood mixed with something metallic, blood mixed with some scentless fluid, blood mixed with bone marrow, blood mixed with sterile-smelling blood—as if it had been created fresh in a machine instead of in a body.
The rat walked around the lab, wrapping the cable around several cabinets as he wandered the room. He opened cabinets, but found only boxes of useless things he couldn’t identify.
The rat lowered his hands from an open cabinet and walked to the door, glass crunching under his feet. He paused. He noticed the cable. It was wrapped around the entire room like a chaotic web.
He relaxed his resistance. The cable pulled him. He allowed it to guide him backwards around a section of cabinet, through an aisle, around another cabinet, back through another aisle, around the corner, back around another turn, down an aisle, around and around. Finally the cable pulled him back out the door.
He paused and looked down the hallway. The perspective distorted the length of the corridor. The mechanical beeping filled the hallway and overtook his thoughts for a moment. The rat stood still against the backwards tugging of the cable. Then he walked to the vanishing point.
He stopped at the next door. It was open, and he peered inside the modestly lit room, another lab with more broken glass and spilled liquids everywhere. The faux granite countertops were ripped off their bases and scattered about. The cabinets in this room were smashed to pieces, splinters of wood mingled with the shards of glass. Broken microscopes and lenses were part of the sharp rubble.
The rat leaned forward, drawing the cable out a few centimeters, and scented the air inside. More blood. More unidentifiable liquids. Flesh. Fur.
There were holes in the wall, the stone was crumbling and insulation had spilled out. A couple countertops were lying beside these holes. They had also damaged the floor. There were enormous dents and gashes where flat tile should have been. The rat walked closer and inspected. Large sections of tile had been ripped up. Half the floor tiles were pulled out and scattered around, now part of the glass/chemical debris. Deep claw gouges were on the remaining tiles. Beneath the tile was a metal floor. There were shallow claw marks gouged in it, as well. Blood had filled the grooves and was now a dry coating on the edges.
The rat walked closer to the hole in the wall. Claw marks had pierced the stone. He held his hand up to the claw marks. The claw tips didn’t match. Just to be sure, the rat pushed into the stone and swiped. He made a slight scratch in the stone, not nearly as deep as the one on the wall. The shape of the grooves didn’t match.
He turned from the wall and walked around the lab, scenting everything. The vials and beakers had once held more than just fluids. The rat found fingers lying around the room, some human, some looked halfway between a human’s and his own.
Tufts of fur lay half-dissolved in puddles of chemicals. Claws that looked nothing like the rat’s also littered the floor. A finger, bisected straight through the bone, lay splayed out down one aisle. The rat found twenty more around the room, each very different from the others.
The rat found discs of various diameters but the same thickness. Thirty of them lay around like discarded pancakes. They smelled like flesh, human and something else. The rat sniffed many up close but dared not touch one, and he could smell bone, blood vessels, fat, fur... They were curiously bloodless, but did not smell dead. As far as his nose could tell, the slices were still alive. The rat found one disc pinned underneath a broken microscope. The rat realized the discs were cross sections of an arm.
The beeping from the hallway sped up. He straightened up and let the cable retract him from the room. This time the cable had not wrapped around anything so leaving was a straight walk this time.
He stood in the hallway again, bent down and scented the blood on the floor. It continued onward, down the hall. He walked forward. The beeping calmed. It had faded to a distant echo. The cable tugged him backwards harder now. The rat worked his legs extra, resisting the pull.
Something was wrong with the rest of the corridor. Just ahead, the floor was broken. Tiles had been ripped up, holes punctuated the walls, insulation ripped out and cast aside. The rat climbed over the crumbling stone and brushed and kicked pieces of debris out of his way. On his way by, he peered into the wall. Behind the stone was solid metal. It was scratched up as well. The rat stepped over a hole in the floor and moved forward.
After a distance, the rat turned around and looked behind him. It was like seeing through time: the pristine perfection of the hallway in the past, to the crumbling ruins of the distant future in which he now stood. The cable hung in midair, wobbling up and down with the rat’s slightest movement, the blue line connecting the past and the present. He turned and faced forward. The end of the hallway was in sight, a single closed door. The rat leaned forward, dug his claws into what was left of the floor and pulled himself and the cable into the future.
The next three doors were locked, but the rat could smell blood-saturated air behind them. He stepped over more broken tile and stone and came to a door on the right that was open. He peered inside.
This chamber was massive. The ceiling was low, which made it feel cramped, but it stretched on and on. Inside this room was a grid of tables, some large, some small. Hundreds of tables laid out before him. On top of each table were the remains of glass tanks. The sight drew the rat into the room. The cable wrapped around the doorframe, rubbing the paint off as the rat pulled against it. The rat leaned harder and forced the cable with him. Pressure was building up, like the plug at the base of his skull was dislodging from his body. It was painful, it was uncomfortable, but he had to see what was in here.
He walked between two rows of tables. Broken glass and globs of some kind of gel littered the floor around them. The rat stepped in some as he walked through. It didn’t feel cold, or warm, or like he had anything on his foot, and this got his attention. He stopped, lifted his foot to his long muzzle and scented it. It smelled neutral, like it wasn’t there at all. He licked it. It tasted like nothing. As far as his senses were concerned, this stuff wasn’t there.
There was something else on the floor. The rat bent down and sniffed it. Somehow he knew this scent... It was familiar. It was a small rabbit. Its white fur was soaked in the gel, and glass was sticking out from all over the rabbit’s body. Cables hung from its skull. The rabbit’s eyes were open, but there was no life in them.
Something was wrong with the rabbit’s eyes... The rat looked closer, sniffed. The eyes were not supposed to be there. They were too large. They weren’t a rabbit’s eyes. They belonged on a human, and they were so big they bulged out, grotesquely distorting the face.
The rat looked up. He lowered his foot and stood as straight as he could on his backwards legs. He was standing somewhere inside the grid of tables. Now he noticed something he had not seen before. There were animals everywhere, scattered around like the broken glass. Their scents were muted by the gel that coated everything.
The rat walked to the next table over. This tank was more or less intact, resembling a fish aquarium. The lid was still on it. Various cables were running from the top and reached down to the skull of the occupant. A puncture in the glass was an opening for the occupant of this tank to attempt escape.
A dog lay halfway in and halfway out of the tank, its chest impaled on a piece of glass. The cables from the covered top ran into the dog’s skull. The bottom half of the tank was still full of gel, and the dog’s feet dangled—
The rat recoiled a couple steps. The cable drew him back another three steps. He reached out, grabbed a table and held himself still. When he was in control again, he pulled himself forward, towards the dog.
The dog’s hind legs... The rat walked around the table, looking at them from various angles. The fur ended at the hips, and beneath this line were legs that were completely wrong. The rat recognized this on a subconscious level. This creature had the body of a dog, but the legs of a human. They were horrendously out of proportion and hung in the gel at the bottom of the tank, completely useless for walking. They had prevented the dog from escaping this tank.
The rat resisted the gravity of the cable and walked deeper into the chamber. Scattered on the floor were various other animals with hideous deformities. Rabbits with human lips in place of their normal mouths. Dogs with human fingers where their claws should be. Cats with human noses. Mountain lions with human torsos, arms, or legs. The distant beeping of his heart sped up. By now the rat had walked around the entire room. The cable hadn’t wrapped around anything, so exit would not be a problem.
Something big was on the floor in the distance. It looked even stranger than anything the rat had seen so far, and he climbed through the debris towards it, fighting the cable and his heartbeat.
He climbed over broken glass and tile, sloshed through more gel. Lying on the floor a few paces away was a tiger. An enormous gash was in its stomach, and its fur was saturated heavy with blood and gel. The rat approached, bent down, and sniffed it. It was strange. It had human arms and legs, a human torso, but fur covered the human parts. It had fingers, also covered in fur. The paw pads were molded to these new fingers, as well as the feet. This creature didn’t look deformed, but nicely averaged out between human and tiger.
The rat held his hands up to his eyes. They resembled the tiger’s in that they were a nice average between human and rat. He looked down at his matted torso...
The beeping from down the hall sped up. The rat relaxed and let the cable pull him back. It wasn’t easy this time; the cable took him over various tables and he blindly groped behind him, felt his way around each table and navigated to the door in reverse, never taking his eyes off the tiger.
Glass broke beneath his feet. He pushed a small aquarium off a table. Glass shattered. Plastic rumbled. Metal clanged. Gel spilled and flowed across the broken tiles in slow motion. The sounds echoed around the chamber. The beeping sped up even more and the rat now ran backwards with the cable, eager to return to the past and the safety of the hall.
Finally he reached the door. He noticed the cable had worn the paint off the frame at his eye level. Quickly he walked down the hallway, stepping over more scratched tile and debris from the wall.
The next door was on the left, and the rat peered inside. It was another chamber full of tables and glass tanks. All of them were shattered. Bodies of more animals were scattered about, lying in contorted positions. The rat cautiously walked inside and examined the floor. Bodies of dogs, rabbits, lions, small cats and many, many others were slumped around here. Something about their scents... They were different, but they all had something in common. The rat walked inside.
He bent down at the closest body, a dog, the same breed as the one in the other chamber. The fur heavy with blood and gel, skull still connected by cables to the top of the tanks. A few more sniffs and the rat realized it was female. The dog was pregnant.
The rat stood up and surveyed the rest of the room. Every animal was carrying young. A few of the bodies had ejected the infants shortly after death. These infants were distorted and in various stages of development.
A rabbit with human ears in place of its animal ears. A tiger with a human face. A small otter with human skin instead of fur. The beeping from the hall sped up even faster.
The rat opened his muzzle and tried to call out to ask if anyone was here. No sound came from his throat. He wanted to scream for someone to answer him; for someone to be alive, but he couldn’t make a sound.
The rat backpedaled and the cable dragged him to the door. The rat stopped himself at the door and looked at the end of the hall. The beeping echoed from the distant past and sped up. He started running. The cable resisted him, pulled him back harder than ever. The rat ran, but with the cable gripping his skull he only managed a strained walk. The rat dug his claws into whatever tile was still left, gouged the walls and forced himself forward. He kept his eyes on the door at all times. It was coming closer. It was only a few dozen paces out of reach.
The cable held him back. The rat reached behind his head and gripped the cable. He pulled it, trying to force it forward, but it didn’t help. The cable was taught, trying to recoil and take the rat with it. He fixed his eyes on the door. He gouged a floor tile with his toe claws and pulled himself forward. The cable pulled back. Every step was an agonizing effort.
He passed another open door. Habitually he turned his head and peered inside.
Through the open door were rows and rows of tables. Bodies were on these tables. Human bodies. Animal bodies that looked human. There had been white sheets covering them, but these sheets had been torn off and the stomachs, necks and chests had all been torn open, contents strewn about the floor like the glass in the previous rooms.
He couldn’t enter the room. The cable was too tight to move to the side, so he only stared from the hall at the tiger with the human body, covered in tiger fur. The next table down was a rabbit with white fur, but also with a humanlike body. Further down was a full-sized human with catlike limbs and no fur. The beeping sounded like it was coming closer as it became faster and louder.
The last table caught his eye. On it lay a large rat with a body like his own: with brown fur covering his body, backwards legs, a long muzzle, and large feet with thick skin under the toes. Its stomach had been ripped open. It was looking straight at him, jaw hung open in a silent scream.
The beeping of the rat’s heart echoed so much it sounded like a continuous scream. The rat opened his mouth and tried to cry for help, but no sounds came out. The machine down the hall screamed for him in a high-pitched wailing of erratic pulses.
The rat ran towards the door. The cable pulled him back just as hard. The rat clawed forward, earning only a centimeter of progress for every hundred steps he tried to take. The door was so far away but so close. Just a few more paces and the handle would be in reach. The pressure at the base of his skull was incredible. The rat strained and stretched and pulled and pulled and pulled—and the cable gave another centimeter forward.
The beeping was distant and quiet and incredibly fast, but to the rat’s ears it was inside his skull, filling him up. The cable was so tight the rat felt it pulling the tip of his tail through his spine. The rat was soundlessly screaming the whole time, begging someone to help, to answer him, to be alive and get him out of here.
A few more centimeters. He was at the door. The handle was just barely out of his reach. Another centimeter and his fingers would touch it. The rat leaned forward but the cable wouldn’t move. It was taught, stringing the rat to the distant end of the hall, holding him here.
The pain at the back of his skull was excruciating. The rat kept screaming, hoping to make a sound, any sound. The beeping of the distant machine was his voice—his pounding heart was his only means of communication.
Still no closer to the door. The rat reached behind his head. He found the plug in his skull. He felt around and found a metal clip. The machine screamed for him as he flicked one of the clips aside. The plug budged. He found the other clip, rested his fingers on it.
The machine screamed for him at the top of its lungs. The rat strained to stand still, contorting his entire body to resist the backwards force. He flicked the clip. The cord budged again. The rat gripped the plug and pulled. It was firmly stuck to his skull, but it was moving. He wiggled it back and forth, straining and struggling and screaming soundlessly as he worked it loose.
Finally the plug popped free. The cable zipped backwards. The rat turned and watched it retract all the way down the hall. It traveled so far back he couldn’t see it, but he heard the echo of the clunk as it slammed back into its hole in the wall.
The machine stopped beeping. Now it emitted a constant, high-pitched whine. The rat’s heart stopped. So did his lungs. He ran forward a single step, grabbed the handle and twisted it. The door swung inward. The hallway turned 90 degrees to the right. The rat stumbled to the corner and looked ahead.
Another hallway stretched out before him. Tiles were ripped up. Walls were shattered and crumbling. Much of the ceiling was pulled down, but the lights were still working. The corridor stretched to the vanishing point. Every door was open. The bodies of various deformed animals lay in the hall, hands outstretched, mouths agape and eyes open in agony.
The rat tried to scream. He tried to shout for help, to cry out no—no—it can’t go on forever!—There has to be a way out!—It has to end!—Help!—Someone help me—!
He was lightheaded. The rat felt his chest. His heart wasn’t beating. The rat ran. His legs carried him two steps and then they gave out. His body crashed to the floor and he writhed there, gasping for breath and clutching his chest. His lungs didn’t work. His heart was dead still. The rat felt nothing in his chest. He pounded his chest, squeezed it, trying to start it again.
His vision blurred. He reached out and dug his claws into the tile. He pulled himself forward another centimeter, and then his muscles cramped and died. Behind him the high-pitched whine of the machine echoed down the hall. It was the only sound in the entire world. His only cry for help.