06 Jun Harmburger
“Harmburger”Written by Jonathan Wojcik Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 32 minutes
I don’t know if any of this is going to get through to anyone. If it does, it’s probably because they wanted it to, in which case, I’m really sorry. Maybe they just don’t even care; maybe it doesn’t matter because there’s nothing we can do.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen some weird new shit around town, and more importantly, you’ve realized it and you’ve remembered it while everyone else goes about their day in ignorant bliss. I don’t know how far it goes, but so far, nobody has shown any capacity to register what I’m saying. I can spam it up and down the internet and I don’t get one relevant response. Nothing. I’ve considered that I might just be crazy, but even crazy people can get some sort of reaction; someone will at least try to humor them, calm them down. I’ve tried doctors, police, professors, they all just stare off into space when I start to describe this shit, like something is actively blocking the exchange of information.
My biggest fear isn’t even that I’m all alone. My biggest fear is that I might still only perceive bits and pieces of something bigger, or worse, that my capacity to perceive all this is shrinking. I can write it down, I can record every last detail, but it’s not going to matter if I become like everyone else. I could wake up tomorrow and look at my journal entries and only see a pile of mysterious cake recipes. Who the hell knows.
The first thing I ever saw was one of the pick-up windows. It was just like any other you might see at a fast food place, but it was right on the side of my own goddamn house. Nothing amiss indoors, but outside, half the block was lined up on my front lawn, reading over a glowing menu full of scribbly-looking gibberish and receiving their “meals,” if you want to call them that, almost instantaneously. They all acted like it was their usual, mundane lunch stop. Even while the mail lady sucked some rancid-looking glop out of a plastic pouch, congealed blood dripping down her chin, she told me it was the “best she’d ever had.” All my questions were met with those blank stares and stupid smiles. I couldn’t tell who or what was actually handing out the food, or where it was coming from. I could only see blackness… at least that’s how I remember it. Maybe I saw something else, but it’s gone now. God. And it was only the beginning.
All the restaurants in town, the real ones anyway, are typically deserted. Employees still show up to some of them, but they don’t even realize that no customers are stopping in. Some of them even host new windows, parasitically siphoning off all their business. The things seem to multiply constantly; I’ve seen them indoors, outdoors, on houses, on trucks, even one on a tree. A window to nowhere on the trunk of a fucking tree dispensing deep-fried slop to an ignorant gaggle of hikers.
Near as I can tell, all of the products are meat, or some vague semblance thereof. I can’t always tell what kind of animal or even what kind of body part it used to be. I’ve seen things that could have been dredged from some black, godless deep-sea trench, gelatinous slabs of flesh in blindingly unnatural colors, fried bugs just slightly larger than any I thought existed.
It isn’t just the windows, either; I’ve started seeing this shit right on supermarket shelves. Foreign-looking packages with that same gibberish language on it, occasional bouts of quasi-English like “NUMBER A MILLION TASTE!” or “IT CAN DREAM A GREAT FLAVOR!”
It all has the same stupid logo on it, too. Sometimes burnt right into the cuts of meat. A bug-eyed, cartoon hamburger in a little chef’s hat. Sometimes it’s winking. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it only is after I’ve looked away.
There are even people sucking down the shit on live television. The talking heads come back from commercial licking blood and grease off their hands. The weather lady shows up looking like an extra from a slasher movie, red stains increasingly thick on a blouse. I don’t think she’s changed in weeks. Nobody else cares. Nobody thinks anything is odd or new or different. Nobody but me.
My appetite for meat is thoroughly dead, to say the least. I don’t think I could ever trust it again, but I’ve noticed non-meat products are growing steadily rarer. Fruits and vegetables are sitting out longer between restocks. A lot of things are just getting phased out to make room for all the new items.
I shouldn’t have to say this if you could already read and comprehend this far, but for the love of God, don’t eat it. Don’t taste it. Don’t touch it. Try not to even smell it. The more people eat, the less they act like themselves. The funnier they talk. If you know something’s up but you can’t see what I’m seeing, I advise you stick to cereal. I haven’t found anything fishy about any of the cereal yet.
I can’t begin to postulate what’s behind it all. Aliens? Terrorists? Illuminati reptiloids? I could believe damn near anything at this point.
The ads are everywhere. Flyers, neon signs, billboards, all of them written in some weird foreign language I can’t find any match for, plastered with goofy artwork of bug-eyed hot dogs and steaks and less identifiable things. People stop and stare at them compulsively, pupils dilating while their clouded mind registers God only knows. A lot of people say the same exact thing, in the same exact tone and rhythm, every single time.
“Mmm-mm-mm-mm-mm! That sounds good enough to eat!”
I hear it a hundred times a day, when I risk going out anyway. Then they’ll head straight to one of the impossible windows, the infected supermarkets, the rapidly multiplying vending machines or one of the green doors.
Those awful fucking green doors.
I don’t know if they’re actually new or I’m just newly capable of seeing them. The first one I noticed had “grown”, for lack of a better word, on the back wall of our local Shop-Rite. An ugly, faded seafoam affair, smeared window shaped like their burger logo, chrome handle flecked with rust. Same as all the others I’ve seen since.
People were coming and going at a steady pace, but even when I staked it out for a good six hours, I never saw the same patron coming back out again. I guess that should have been a big warning sign, but I couldn’t take it… I had to know.
It didn’t lead into the store, of course. I knew it wouldn’t. As soon as I stepped inside, I was assaulted by the sound of eating. Feasting. Wet, breathy chewing sounds drowning out everything else, tugging at my gag reflex. There were bars, tables and booths scattered in disorganized patterns around rows and rows of buffets. Many seats were occupied, but the bulk of the customers were eating on foot, wolfing shit down right out of the bars as they went along. I knew none of them could comprehend what they were really doing, where they really were.
The decor was almost, but not quite in the style of a retro fifties diner, maybe with a dash of Doctor Seuss. A lot of the furnishings looked chunky, soft and plastic, like they were designed for children, though I can’t imagine any child with such depressing taste. Booths were lined with putrid, off-green cushions. Tables were a hideous yellow-tan with chipped, chrome trimmings. The floors were pale blue tile, like a public restroom, many pieces missing or disheveled. The walls were more of that tacky chrome interrupted by fake wood paneling, giving way to glass windows from about waist-height to the ceiling.
Yes, windows. Not visible from the outside. I had stepped through a door in the middle of one plain, solid brick wall, but from inside, it was glass all around. They were so thick with grime that I could scarcely see through them, but I could tell it wasn’t the correct view from behind the Shop-Rite. It looked more like some murky storybook vista, simple, blocky houses on rolling green hills. Despite the steady stream of people coming in through the door, I couldn’t see a single sign of movement or life out there.
I began to wonder if I might look suspicious, just standing around and gawking while everyone else was heading straight for the food. I thought I might as well make some effort to blend in…mistake number one.
Most of the offerings were typical of the shit coming out of those take-out windows or invading the grocery shelves; a heap of raw, red steaks sat on a bed of black, clotted blood. Oversized, pasty white drumsticks dribbled cold, yellow juices. A long trough of chunky, pinkish slop jiggled like pudding as people scooped it onto their trays or straight into their grease-caked faces. I think I pulled my shirt up over my nose around this point.
I thought I recognized a lot of exotic fare – frog’s legs, chicken feet, beef tripe – but I couldn’t be quite certain. I wasn’t sure if chickens had that many toes, or any frogs I knew of grew exactly that large. There was a tray of what I thought were fat, segmented seed pods, until one of them abruptly curled and uncurled, twice, like a beckoning finger. Absolutely made my skin crawl.
There were tongues. There were brains. There was something like clear, yellow spaghetti in a pasty brown sauce. At least, that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself it was. There were fish fins and goat eyes and even bones, just steaming hot, perfectly bare white bones.
I could barely take the sight of anyone eating. Mrs. Faber, a grim and crotchety old bag from down the street, was digging like an excited child through a big heap of what looked like horse teeth, sucking off whatever scraps of gum tissue she could find. I felt my stomach shudder. We made eye contact, and for a moment, I almost thought I saw a look of horrified clarity, like the fog was almost lifted from her mind and she was just about to ask me what in God’s name she was doing.
Instead, her eyes glazed over and she smiled that chillingly idiotic smile.
“Just like mama used to make!” she said in a hokey, sing-songy tone she’d have never been caught dead using, popping another gnarled, yellowed molar into her mouth and sucking noisily.
I could taste my own bile by the time I backed away from that godless orgy of culinary depravity.
That’s when I saw it.
The thing I’ve come to think of as an “Egghead.”
It was wobbling around the bars, arms flailing blindly. A chalk-white, naked, sexless human figure dominated by a featureless beach ball of a head, a stick figure made flesh.
The “alien invasion” theory was already sounding better and better.
The thing was working its way down one aisle at a time, and didn’t look at first like it had any particular goal in mind. It occasionally clutched at someone’s hair or clothing, almost as though desperate for attention or even in need of help, but nobody so much as blinked in its direction.
I assumed I could get away with ignoring it like everyone else, until it finally hobbled its way down the opposite aisle and crossed my direct line of sight.
It froze there.
The blank, smooth egg-face turned directly towards me.
I don’t remember the sprint home, but I do remember it was the dead of night when I exploded out of that ugly, greasy green door. It couldn’t have been later than noon when I first entered, and I couldn’t have been ogling the horrors therein for more than forty minutes, from my perspective.
I don’t know if anything followed me, but I barricaded myself in my bedroom that night, just to be safe.
The doors and the windows are everywhere. If you can read this, only go out when you must, and don’t go anywhere new; it might be newer than you think.
They used to be people.
I’ve seen it a lot in the weeks since the buffet. Not everybody shows the signs, but some people, the ones who get hooked the hardest on that sick, foreign meat-slop, only seem to gain weight from the neck up. Hair falls out. The first thing to disappear are the eyes, then the mouth seals shut and the whole head smooths over. They start to wander aimlessly, invisible to everyone else, forgotten by friends and loved ones. They do nothing but mumble, groping their arms around like they’re hunting for their lost eyes.
I killed one today.
I’d spent my afternoon scrounging around town for normal things to eat, an increasingly challenging task. Avoiding the overtly weird shit is only the half of it; I have to be careful for anything that boasts a “new formula” or “improved flavor.” Sometimes I just have to scan the package for the hamburger logo, or check the ingredients for some new gibberish like “EXTRACTED BONE JELLYS” or “NATURAL LIFE PARTS.” Some of the untainted stuff is skipping the shelves and going straight into dumpsters, which I’d been digging through when the Egghead got the jump on me, cornering me in a one-way alley between a Safeway and a Walgreen’s.
Its head was bigger than most, an impossibly bloated globe that almost brushed the walls on both sides. I don’t know how its feeble, chalky body could have held it up; it was barely more than a skeleton, thin skin shrink-wrapped tightly to its bones. All that remained of its former identity was a black dress tie, swaying like a pendulum from its pencil-thin neck.
Its incoherent mumbling sounded at once panicked, apologetic and threatening as it staggered towards me, limbs outstretched. I had nothing to defend myself with but a bag of stale bread and a warm can of coke.
I screamed at it, told it I didn’t know what it wanted, that there wasn’t anything I could do, but it just kept coming. Mumbling. The moment my back hit the wall behind me, I snapped. I grabbed the nearest garbage can lid and swung with all my strength, slamming it straight into that fat, bulbous face like a battleaxe. It felt like striking a huge, taught basketball. The mumbling grew more frantic, more confused as the thing stumbled backward, gravity tugging at its awkward cranium, arms whirling cartoonishly as it fought to regain its center of balance. It was like some bent slapstick routine, like somebody struggling not to drop a wedding cake.
I charged, screaming like a banshee as I struck again, and the thing finally toppled. Slowly. Like it was filled with air.
As it hit the ground, that massive noggin exploded like a swollen tick. With a wet splash, pinkish gore and hunks of rubbery white flesh gushed out of the alley and into the street.
For one terrifying moment, I wondered how the scene would look to the rest of the world, if they’d just see some random, senseless act of murder against a completely normal, innocent human being.
The people already nonchalantly stepping over the scattered piles of gore would have eased my mind, if it weren’t for what happened next. One of those piles started moving.
Something about the size of a baby was squirming out from the pulverized sludge, a fat, slightly oblong shape with a lot of thin, wriggling appendages underneath, still too thick with gore for me to make out any details. It was still between me and freedom, and I could only watch in a confused stupor as it unfurled a pair of big, transparent fins and abruptly took flight, buzzing off into the afternoon sky like a bloated, fleshy bumblebee. It thankfully never seemed to notice or care about me.
Funny how I settled on “Eggheads.” I just thought they looked like eggs. I didn’t know they literally were.
A woman stopped dead in the crosswalk to smile and wave at the thing as it disappeared into the skyline, then continued on her way with only a momentary look of puzzlement; that “what am I doing?” look followed by the “well, whatever” one I’ve grown so accustomed to over the past several weeks.
When I got home, I started reading up on diseases. Parasites. Bugs. Puzzle pieces dropping into place.
There’s a kind of wasp that lays its eggs in a live caterpillar. When the larvae hatch, they modify the host’s entire metabolism to suit their needs; the caterpillar eats more, grows bigger, all to provide the developing wasps with more sustenance.
This kind of shit is everywhere in nature. There are microbes that make mice suicidally attracted to cats. There are flies that grow inside the heads of ants who keep on moving even after their brains are eaten. It all makes so much sense. Maybe they’re from space. Maybe they’re from hell. Maybe they’ve always been here, toppling one species, one civilization after another. Who knows. They feed us so we can feed them, so they have a nice warm body to keep them safe and nourished until they don’t need us anymore. We’re just a herd of cattle, oblivious to our position in life as we’re fattened up and slaughtered by something that looms just above our understanding of the natural order.
I don’t know why I can see them, why I can see what they’re feeding us. I’m like a cow who grasps exactly what goes on in the slaughterhouse, and I can’t stop thinking about what a cow could ever hope to accomplish with that knowledge.
Your guess is as good as mine.
Today, I followed one of the flying things.
They eventually break out of the Eggheads on their own, often taking thirty minutes or so to wipe the gore off their slimy bodies with their squiggly legs before they take to the air. They’ve never shown any aggression, or any acknowledgment that I exist; they just flutter away like they’ve got somewhere to be.
And apparently, they do.
It was in a Wal-Mart parking lot that I witnessed another hatching; the egghead was stumbling between cars, clawing at its own face, reaching feebly out to passersby like it still thought it could be saved. It hadn’t even hit the ground before its featureless face started to crack audibly, pink goop dribbling out like raw yolk. It collapsed against a minivan and slumped limply to the pavement as a big hunk of its scalp popped off with a wet, solid crunch. The thing inside was throbbing, swelling up like a pufferfish to push open what was once a human skull.
It throbbed and squirmed its way out of the ruptured cranium, looking like nothing so much as a wet, rubbery horsefly made of chewed gum, or an inverted brain with membranous wings. Its branching limbs writhed like nightcrawlers, barely supporting its bloated, rugose body. The wings trembled, almost cautiously at first, before it took its first blind leap into the air… and smacked wetly into the ground.
It was a dud.
It took another shot at flying, awkwardly bobbing for a few feet before it dropped like a rock with another pitiful, wet smack.
I laughed pretty hard. When invisible monsters are devouring the human race and nobody cares, you tend to take whatever entertainment you can get.
It took off again in the same direction, landing itself on the hood of a jeep. The little guy was determined.
That’s when it dawned on me – the opportunity I’d stumbled upon. They’d always disappeared into the sky before I could even get a sense of their direction, but I could easily tail this one on foot. I figured, worst-case scenario, I’d see nothing new and have to take a bus back into town.
As luck would have it, its destination wasn’t far. I came close to giving up, waiting for the damn thing to collect itself every ten to fifteen feet, watching it plummet like a bent paper airplane and flounder like a dying fish for minutes at a time, but not an hour had passed before I learned its little secret, half a mile from the crumpled remains of the egghead.
Between the magic doors, garish advertisements, mutant snack food and odd shit I can’t even begin to get into, I’d never stopped to think about the bright blue, portable toilets that seemed unusually common as of late. I never needed one, and with the seemingly perpetual road work guzzling our tax dollars for as long as I’ve lived here, it’s not as if they were all that strange a sight.
The grimy, plastic door quietly swung open as the brain-bug flopped closer. I feigned disinterest, doing my best to pass by as obliviously as everyone else, but snuck a quick glance into the open honeypot.
The Brainfly, as I decided to dub them, was already careening down a long, dark tunnel, stretching as far as the eye could see, all somehow contained in a single small, portable shithouse. Nothing unusual, these days.
As I made my way back to my car and drove the rest of the way home, only one thought persisted.
I had to know.
Reality was unraveling around me. Former neighbors were fighting in the streets for rancid mouthfuls of fish guts. Giant hamburgers were lighting up the night sky on neon signs that dwarfed entire buildings. Things were eating people from the inside out, and all I wanted was an answer. Even a hint. Any lead I could find. I didn’t suspect there was anything I could do, and any day now I could wake up another deluded zombie, another gluttonous slave to their deep-fried maggots and pickled eyeballs.
They could grind me up and serve me at the buffets for all I cared.
I just had to know where that damn tunnel went, where the brain-eating bastards were really going. I laid awake that night, my mind racing with images of alien motherships, parallel realities and subterranean cities.
Tomorrow, I’m going in. Either I die knowing one more piece of the puzzle or I somehow kick their gooey little asses. Who’s to say they’ll even be prepared for an intruder, if they think they’ve got us all fooled?
I don’t expect to be some kind of hero, but so far, I’m the only one I know who even has a shot at trying.
I was not prepared for what I found in that tunnel.
It stretched on for over a mile in the back of what should have been the 3×3 interior of a port-a-potty, I’d been lead there by a flying brain, and what I found still succeeded in surprising me.
I’d planned to come prepared, but there was ultimately little that I thought would be useful. I packed a store-bought survival kit – ropes and flares and whatnot – and a heavy, metal snow shovel, the only weapon I really thought would accomplish anything. The Eggheads only ever responded to bludgeoning, and even then, that only seemed to speed the hatching process. No way could I have hit one of the Brainflies with a bullet, but in a closed space, I supposed I could give one a good thwack.
Besides the fundamental impossibility of its existence, the tunnel was wholly unremarkable. A slightly rounded, concrete corridor interrupted only by squareish, rusted grates. The distant droning escalated as I progressed, and soon enough, the tunnel gave way to what I suppose I can describe as a sort of “factory floor.” I don’t know how long I spent just standing slack-jawed, my brain fumbling over itself to process everything I was seeing.
Think of everything that comes to mind when you hear “machinery.” Turning cogs, conveyor belts, churning pistons, whirling fans. Mechanisms of every conceivable design and then some, cranking and pumping away in a space so vast that no floor, ceiling or walls could be seen in the distant darkness.
Now, imagine somebody threw all that away and hired clowns to remodel.
Fifty or sixty years of neglect later, you might have something close to the Burtonesque hell I’d stumbled upon. Everything alternated between cold, grimy steel and a sort of Candy Land motif, with vividly striped plumbing and polka-dotted ductwork.
I jumped as a shower of sparks flew from an immense, robotic arm overhead, its rusted metal casing and tangled red wiring a stark contrast to its Mickey Mouse-glove hand. I found myself retreating a few steps into the tunnel as it reached out, joints groaning with neglect, and pulled a tremendous lever with a shining pink knob, an action inexplicably punctuated by a sound like a quacking duck.
Instantly, a checkerboard-looking conveyer belt squealed to life, issuing forth a procession of what may have been dead pigs, though I couldn’t see their heads, or even the ragged stumps where any may have once been attached.
With a ridiculous slide-whistle sound, another huge object rose into view; an angular, pink and purple funnel the size of a swimming pool. One by one, the mystery carcasses tumbled off the belt and into the huge trumpet, each followed by a torturous rending sound and a brief but voluminous geyser of thick, brown blood.
The stink was overpowering.
Mesmerized by the spectacle of Willy Wonka’s Sausage Factory, I nearly fell on my ass as a large object shot over my shoulder.
It had come up through the tunnel behind me, and narrowly dodged my head by a few inches. As my heart cautiously restarted itself, I filed away the knowledge that I was still of no obvious concern to the things, even intruding as I was into what may have been their headquarters, or at least an extension of it. I wasn’t sure whether or not that was reassuring.
The parasite had banked sharply upwards as it left the tunnel, but I could still hear the distinct fluttering of big, membranous wings between the whirring, grinding and occasional goofy honking of the factory.
I craned my head, waiting for the irregular crackling of the equipment to illuminate the gloom. Sure enough, I could see hundreds, thousands of glistening, pinkish shapes passing a good ten to fifteen stories overhead, all in the same direction. I followed. A network of catwalks made navigation relatively easy, and I was usually able to keep sight of the concrete wall I’d emerged from. Tunnel entryways were frequent, Brainflies periodically zipping through to join their brothers and sisters above. Even if I lost my way, I was confident that another tunnel might empty back into the real world, and probably in a populated area. They needed bodies, after all.
I shuddered. Not at the thought, but at how casually the thought had come. I was growing too used to this. Uncomfortably comfortable.
The Seussian slaughterhouse offered no shortage of grotesque spectacles.
Rivers of meat-slush oozed their way along metallic chutes as wide as city streets, putrescent corpses bobbing sluggishly in the current – and sometimes against it.
Towering circular saws loomed like macabre Ferris wheels, chewing their way through slabs of solid, fresh meat that could have fed whole towns. What living thing could even have that much flesh on it?
A steady splattering turned out to be a blender the size of a small house. Literally just a scaled-up, household blender. It even had a giant-sized dial, albeit with only one labeled setting: “EXCITE!!!!”
I suppose you could describe the endless truckloads of live, white mice pouring into it as “excited,” in a sense.
I passed bubbling lakes of entrails, fermenting tanks of gasping fish heads, mountains of broken, bloodied bone.
An endless procession of meat hooks ferried a bizarre menagerie of carcasses along a tangled railway system, from skinned cattle to things I doubt you would have found in any textbook. There were insect-like forms as big as a man, tentacled masses dribbling oddly-colored ichor and something I can only describe as a hairy swordfish.
Their cargo was so twisted, it was some time before I even noticed what was wrong with the meat hooks themselves. They had no wheels, but clung to their rails by metallic, spider-like legs, tip-tapping along with blinding speed.
The further I advanced, the louder the wet, slimy flapping of the alien flock. More and more streams were converging into a single mass migration, their collective wings nearly drowning out the buzzing, grinding and splattering of the factory. I still wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I was getting closer.
I had ascended six levels from my starting point when I had my first run-in with non-brainfly life. My mind almost tried to brush it off as a rat, at first; a tiny, white shape scurrying in my peripheral vision.
We both froze when I moved in for a closer look. The odd little being was only a few inches tall, pale and vaguely humanoid, with a large and nearly spherical head. It reminded me strongly of one of the Eggheads, but there was little chance this thing had ever been human. Where there should have been eyes, there were only a pair of gaping, bloody-looking holes, and its mouth was a simple, circular hole. In its pale, translucent little hands, it carried a hunk of meat.
It didn’t look dangerous, but it could have breathed fire for all I knew.
I cautiously raised my shovel and took a step back, not wanting to arouse any aggression, and the diminutive imp jerked into motion. In an instant, it crammed the meat into one of its empty eye-holes and took a flying leap off the catwalk, landing with a soft, wet splat on a lower level and scampering off into the darkness.
From that point on, the tiny creatures seemed to be everywhere. I’d catch them watching me from around corners, or busily snatching scraps of food from the conveyer belts. I suppose the rat comparison wasn’t that far off.
But if the brainflies flew, and the little goblin-things were only vermin, exactly who or what had the catwalks been constructed for?
I would get my answer soon enough.
Following the airborne river of winged brains, I was ultimately brought to what seemed at first to be a steel wall, held together with colossal beams and rivets. To either side, it appeared to gradually curve away.
The exterior of a roughly circular structure.
High above me, my stream of brainflies was pouring through a grated porthole a hundred feet wide, gaps just large enough to accommodate their wingspans. I could make out additional portholes to my distant left and right, more slimy flocks streaming in. This had to be it. Home base. The mothership. The catwalk continued through a significantly smaller porthole into something like a vast stadium, distant electric lights confirming a circular shape about a mile across. Its floor was solid, polished concrete, while its ceiling was obscured by a torrential storm of living bodies, dozens of brainfly streams converging into the open roof of a looming, concrete tube at the center of it all. A good twenty stories in height, an eerie green glow poured from the top of the monolithic tower like some doorway to another realm; a wormhole back to whatever obscene universe the things truly called home.
A three-dimensional web of suspended pathways encircled it all, intertwining with a network of immense, grimy pipes a semi could have driven through. It was all so magnificent, so horrific, I almost didn’t realize I was still moving forward, my jaw hanging in dumb fascination, nor did I immediately grasp the significance of a metallic sound from behind me.
A sound like a gate being shut.
My brain mulled over the thought for a few more moments before I wheeled around in a rush of panic.
The tunnel had indeed closed off.
The soft roar of the brainfly tornado was joined by a new sound, not unlike the bleating of an alarm bell.
And then came the meat.
I had the good sense to start moving as soon as the nearest gaping pipe began to shudder and gurgle, trickling a thin stream of red-brown slime for a few moments before finally erupting with a torrent of chunky sludge.
All meat. Meat and meat-juice.
A few yards away, another pipe vomited to life.
At first, I thought the intention would be to drown me. I didn’t doubt for a second that there was enough meat in the factory plumbing to fill this place completely, but it was quickly apparent that my demise wouldn’t be so simple.
The meat seemed to spread out much farther than mere gravity would dictate. Wherever I ran, it seemed to flow directly towards me, winding in streams like the pseudopods of an enormous amoeba.
Not my imagination.
It was the worst-case scenario, but at this point, far from surprising. I’d already seen moving, twitching things come out of the take-out windows, things that couldn’t possibly have been alive but wriggled frantically even as they were torn apart and devoured the increasingly fatter, greasier mouths of my neighbors. A chain of green-tinged sausages rose shakily from a nearby heap like an intoxicated cobra.
I gagged a little.
Emerging mostly from the outer edges of the chamber, the living flesh was forcing me closer towards the tower, where I would have no choice but to ascend the catwalks.
I was probably going to die either way, and it was probably going to be hideous.
At least I might sneak a glimpse at an alien world on my way out.
By the time I had climbed only three levels, I couldn’t see any empty floor space below me; only a solid lake of meat, rippling with unnatural life like a pit of deformed, blood-soaked maggots. I could see pieces beginning to climb after me, questing blindly until it figured out the stairwells or simply creeping snail-like up the side of the tower.
A few managed to catch up with me or even cut me off, momentarily, but the shovel turned out to be an excellent choice. What I couldn’t smash or sever, I heaved over the side.
Something like an inside-out penguin toddled up to my feet on the fourth level. One good smack, and it crunched wetly into a perfect, comical disk, still wiggling uselessly.
Rancid brains burst like spoiled pumpkins under my wrath. A writhing mass of intestines inexplicably squealed and “died” once I chopped off what it was loosely employing as a head-end.
A giant heap of pinkish slime gave me some momentary trouble on the sixth level, shrugging off one blow after another, until I was stricken by its overwhelming chemical stink and brandished one of my flares, hoping it might be flammable. As though it knew exactly what I was thinking, it retreated like a snail into a rusted, metal drum it had been lugging around.
Though individually pathetic, the meat creatures were persistent and increasingly bizarre.
Somewhere on the eighth, possibly ninth level, I turned around to find a big fish-head attempting to sneak up behind me, tip-toeing comedically on a pair of eerily human, feminine legs. It froze up when I coughed, as though realizing too late that I’d been watching it for a good four or five of its exaggerated, sneaking steps.
Some fat, white bug, like a woodlouse, tumbled out of the fish’s mouth, chittered angrily and fled on its hind legs before I knocked the fish-thing over the edge.
The further I progressed, the weirder the things emerging from the factory’s plumbing, things that must have grown and festered far longer in its lightless, metal bowels. I could barely liken some of them to any animal or body part; pustuled yellow tubes looped along like inchworms, and tentacled black blobs floundered like stranded fish in pools of their own yellow-green secretions.
I was waging a war against hot dog scraps from planet X.
I was beginning to get cocky.
No matter how horrendous, every meat-beast had an easy weak point. I was increasingly confident I could make it home alive, wondering if, perhaps, they had only put the world under some sort of hypnotic spell because we were simply too powerful, too dangerous for them to defend against. I was beginning to feel like a hero after all, like I was living my own video game.
This self-important high was cut short on about the fifteenth level, when the first real wrench was thrown into my “hit things with a shovel” strategy.
The thing blocking my path was not made of meat. Not on the outside, at least.
It appeared to be made entirely of iron, rugged and nearly black. A torso like a department store mannequin stood atop three jointed, knobbly legs, and its single arm terminated in a pair of jagged tongs, periodically clacking shut. The oversized head resembled some sort of huge pot or boiler, with a pair of cartoonish, painted-on eyes. An orange-yellow glow could be seen through its many cracks and vents.
I didn’t suspect there was much a shovel could do to this one, and it neither backed off nor approached. It simply stood there, waiting. Daring me to make a move. I could see a dense river of meat-bodies surging along the path only three levels below, making the same slow spiral around the tower as I was. Fragile or not, there was no way I could keep their numbers at bay forever.
I wondered if I’d be taken alive. A dozen images flashed through my mind. The eggheads. The things I’d seen here. Things I’d seen in PETA propaganda videos. Any one of them could be my fate.
“Let’s just talk about this, sonnymom.”
The voice snapped me back to reality – if you could call this a reality.
It had come from in front of me. From the robot cook, or whatever it was.
It spoke again.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, missygeorge.”
Besides its mangled grasp of pronouns, it spoke English with remarkable clarity. Its voice was soft and feminine, with just a slight metallic quality.
“I’m sorry?” was all I could manage, still dazed.
“We can put you right back where you belong, little thingadoc. We can even fix you up like the rest. You’ll never know.”
I knew exactly what it was talking about. The brainwashing.
As far as I knew, I was making first contact with a non-human intelligence, and I had a billion questions about what they were doing to us, where they came from, what else was out there in the universe or multiverse, or whatever we might be living in.
Only one thing actually came out.
It sighed a hollow, metal sigh, a little smoke escaping from its face-vent. It seemed to sink a little at my response. “If that’s how you want it, whatchamawozzle.”
It rose threateningly on its three legs, and I realized what it reminded me of; a barbeque grill.
In the blink of an eye, its clawed arm shot out and clamped around the handle to my precious shovel, effortlessly tearing it from my grip and dropping it to the walkway.
It shot out again, and this time got me by the neck. It slammed me to the ground, taking apparent care not to choke me just yet, but at least cause considerable pain.
Its legs clanged noisily as it positioned itself directly over me and planted its metal ass directly onto my stomach, pinning me down even tighter. Lines of black grease began to roll down the thing’s artificial face, sizzling furiously.
I screamed weakly through the creature’s grasp when a single, tiny droplet met the exposed skin of my arm. It felt like being branded.
The monster giggled.
It spoke out the laughter like it was reading from a bad script. If its eyes had been real, it would have been looking directly into mine, and if it had lips, I’m sure they would be smiling. It bent forward, the grease now cascading in a thick curtain, threatening any moment to start raining in hissing streams onto my exposed face. The claw around my neck tightened, finally pinching shut my airways. It was going to burn my eyes out while it strangled me to death. I let go the thing’s arm to shield my face as best I could, wishing I’d had the foresight to be wearing heavier grade gloves as I awaited the torrent of boiling grease, the thing’s giggling reaching a fever pitch.
“Heeheeheeeheehee! Hahaha! Eeehee… hee…heugh!?”
It stopped. The grease didn’t come.
Removing my hands from my eyes, I saw that the monster’s head had turned away from me.
“YOU!” it shrieked.
I couldn’t tell what it was looking at, until it unexpectedly loosened its grasp on my neck and lurched to its feet.
I could see small, white shapes out the corner of my eyes.
“EEEEUUUUUGHHHHH! GROSS GROSS GROSS!”
It wailed like a child as the rubbery hobgoblins scrambled up its metal body like boneless gecko lizards.
It started to stumble about, trying its best to pick off the teeming pests with its single arm, but they slipped through the claw-like jelly.
I wasn’t sure how long it would be distracted, and I dove for my shovel before teetering painfully to my feet.
I could see the swelling legion of meat just one level below.
“VILE THINGS! VIIILLLLE! THEY’RE IN MY VENTS!”
I was almost too fascinated to act.
The hobgoblins had pried the lid off that rusty grill-head, exposing an oily, blackened little form underneath. It was too tangled and burnt to make out, but I could see various limbs waving frantically to keep the gremlin-things at bay.
I raised the shovel, prepped to strike.
All at once, the little creatures snapped their heads in my direction, and dropped like flies from the metal being, falling to the path and scattering out of sight. The grill-face, too, turned towards me.
“Th…thank you! You have no idea what–”
I let out a berserker howl as I brought down the shovel squarely on that black, twitching body, splatting it with a wet crunch and a deafening bang against the white-hot grill it rested upon.
The metal construct stood still and silent for several agonizing moments, before it finally began to pitch backward, creaking like a rusty door before banging to the ground, dead or asleep or whatever the shit I just did.
I prodded it a few times before cautiously stepping around it and continuing up. Something didn’t want me to reach the top, and I felt pretty good about it.
The rest of my climb was relatively uneventful, broken only by the odd hot dog squid or scuttling pork ribs. It was a full twenty-three flights up that I was at last roughly level with the top of the tower, the walkway branching around it in a perfect wall-to-wall spider’s web.
Up close, the sight of the brainflies was more awesome and more hideous than I could have imagined. Bathed in that alien light, the roaring funnel of unearthly life was almost too beautiful to have burst its way from formerly human skulls. The death toll they represented must have been staggering.
That terrible beauty rather harshly clashed with the figure standing a few yards ahead on a raised, rectangular platform, back turned towards me as it overlooked the tower and appeared to fidget with a large control console.
I blinked hard, trying to register its strangely familiar shape. It had no apparent head or neck, its body only a broad, rounded mass, like a squashed barrel. A pair of dark, mushy limbs extended from its sides.
A white object bobbled around on its upper surface.
I didn’t want to accept what I was looking at.
It was…it was too much. Even now. It was just…
It was just fucking stupid.
It was a hamburger.
In a chef’s hat.
Like the logo.
If I could sneak up on it, I could plunge my mighty blade straight down into its big, stupid bread-head.
There was no way it could hear me coming above the teeming bugs.
I took my first light, cautious step.
It whirled around.
For a long time, we just stared at one another. The rancid-looking beast regarded me with bulging, bloodshot eyes the size of soccer balls, oozing and twitching as it looked me up and down.
I didn’t know what else to do, what was going to finally break the staring contest. I lowered my shovel and raised a hand in greeting.
The moldering sandwich stood still for a few more moments before those slimy eyeballs rolled in their lidless sockets, as if I’d just said or done something even more ridiculous than the thing’s very existence.
I almost began stammering a follow-up statement, when one of its slimy appendages suddenly reached for a huge, bright red switch on its console and nonchalantly pressed it.
It raised one sludgy beef-hand and gave a sort of toodle-oo finger wave as its entire platform abruptly plunged through the floor and disappeared out of sight. The elevator shaft sealed off behind it, and moments later, the catwalks began to flood with activity.
From somewhere on the opposite side of that glowing, flying brain-tornado came dozens of new shapes. Meat-beings were pouring from some unseen new opening, already looking larger and meaner than any of the oozing rejects I’d been mowing down.
I didn’t suppose my little gremlin-friends were waiting nearby with any flamethrowers.
The first thing to reach me was a squiggly, bear-sized yellow mass of soft, tangled limbs, rolling along at a seemingly abnormal speed. It looked almost like an octopus, until a long neck snaked out from its warty folds, snapping at me with an orange beak.
A giant, boneless chicken.
Why was this my life?
With a surge of contemptuous bloodlust, I hacked mercilessly into the abominable thing long after it had ceased moving, only for something else to whistle just over my head.
I spun around in the shredded remnants of the octobird, coming face to featureless doll-crotch with a pair of skinned legs, six feet high and fused at the hips. I staggered back, foolishly slipping in the scattered chicken guts and landing flat on my back.
The legs terminated in needle-sharp lances of bone, precariously balancing on the metal mesh of the walkway. They raised one wicked lance into the air again, aiming straight for my eyes, and it was a miracle I put the shovel between us quickly enough. The leg seemed to momentarily vanish with the speed of its strike.
It took a moment to regain its balance as it bounced off the shovel, the thin tip of its bone holding up distressingly well. I barely managed to sit upright as it took a stab for my heart, and I scrambled to my feet just in time to deflect a third strike.
Enraged, I swung the shovel like a barbarian’s axe, and the legs toppled. While they flailed over the guard rails, I could swear to God I heard them utter a soft, high-pitched “uh-ohhh.”
From another direction came a throbbing heart the size of a small car, ambling along on its branching veins, an equally gigantic steak knife protruding from its center like a metallic snout. It reared back, raising itself a full eight feet on its tendrils, and let out a high-pitched, ratlike squeak.
I attempted to flee down another branch of the metal web, but my course was soon interrupted by a clattering, scarecrow-like assemblage of bone shards and flimsy sinew, chattering its many fractured, dog-like skulls as it swung a large, saw-toothed jaw bone at my stomach.
I struck back with my own weapon, its skulls splintering even further beyond recognition.
My adrenaline was surging. As single-minded as the gore-faced hordes themselves, I demolished one twisted child of Satan’s deli after another. I toppled shuffling golems of pork scraps, wailing ghouls of dripping lard, a serpentine mass of fused chicken feet and even that giant, squeaking heart, its arteries dousing me with geysers of hot blood as its throbbing at last subsided.
I was almost disappointed by how easy it had all been.
I shouldn’t have been.
As I stood in a puddle of mashed viscera, blood and who-knows-what-else streaming off my face, I heard mysterious clang echo through the vast space, and felt the walkway shudder under my feet.
It was followed by another.
The shaking intensified.
It reminded me rather uncomfortably of huge, heavy footsteps on the grated floor.
Two guesses what it was. Come on, I dare you.
As the stomping grew louder, an even larger figure emerged from the other side of the flying brain tornado, a shape looming fifteen feet tall in the dim, flickering green light.
Like the pressure-cooker bitch, or whatever that was, it had a largely metallic appearance, though at the same time, strangely organic. Its spindly, nearly skeletal body didn’t seem like it should have been heavy enough to rattle the floor so violently, its long, bony feet terminating in thin, sword-like talons.
Most of its weight was likely concentrated in its head, immediately recognizable as the shape of a sausage grinder, slowly wavering with each laborious step.
A pair of slimy eyeballs, like the burger-man’s, stared down at me from one side of this huge contraption, and where there should have been a handle was only a black, skeletal arm, ending in another of those white cartoon gloves.
Its worst characteristic, by far, was the way it breathed. A hollow, metallic wheeze of increasing speed and intensity; the panting of some starving dog who just caught a whiff of fresh roadkill.
It stepped effortlessly from one catwalk to another, like a spider scrambling in slow-motion along the strands of its web, and as it drew closer, something unimaginably worse began to happen.
The meat, all the meat I had just slaughtered for at least its second time, was beginning to move once more.
As one, the mutilated horrors around me began to writhe, stumble and drag themselves towards the grinder-headed giant, whose single arm shot out the moment one groping, rolling pile of giblets came within its impressive reach.
It lifted the shining, sticky mass up to the filth-caked funnel on the top of its grinder-head, and dropped it straight in.
It continued to stomp its way in my general direction, scooping up more monsters and dumping them into its upper orifice until they were nearly spilling over the sides, a churning bathtub full of flesh and innards.
The thing was slow, but as I ran from one end of the spider’s web to the next, I found every possible exit sealed tight, and by now, the meat rising from below had almost reached my level. There was no way out. There was nothing to fight.
I could only keep running.
I turned to look back at the grinder-being, still ponderously but relentlessly pursuing me in a straight line as I was forced to zig-zag.
It snatched up the last straggling monster – some sort of spider-legged, white pod resembling nothing I really recognized – and dumped it in with the rest. Without slowing down, the monster clenched its now blood-soaked glove and began spinning its entire arm in its socket, around and around with a ratchet-like noise, the collected mutants churning and twisting as they were sucked deeper into the grinder.
I turned to continue running, but made it only a few more yards before a sickening, flatulent sputtering sound echoed through the chamber, and something thick, warm and wet slammed hard into my back.
The catwalk dropped away as I was swung through the air and brought to face the grinder-man’s unblinking gaze.
I was being held tight in an enormous, pulpy pink hand, wavering on the end of a tentacular limb comprised entirely of raw, ground meat. It had formed the limb from every walking nightmare I had spent the last of my energy putting down, and flung it like a lizard’s tongue with pinpoint accuracy, instantly subduing me from a good twenty meters away.
I squirmed and thrashed desperately, but only felt further mired in the dense, tarry muck. The crank-arm continued to twist, and more squirming noodles of processed tissue slithered along the length of its makeshift appendage, cocooning me in more layers of raw flesh.
I was reminded yet again of a spider.
As I sank deeper into that stinking, sloppy mire, I suddenly found myself transfixed by what was directly behind the metallic giant.
I could finally see into the tower.
Into the vortex.
Down into where those wretched, alien brain-hatchers were all going in such a hurry.
At first, I was only confused.
The significance of what I was seeing almost didn’t want to register.
Bitter, rancid meat-juices were beginning to flood my mouth.
Tendrils of beef-sludge were probing at my eyes and nose.
My world was going black.
I was being smothered to death.
…But on the inside, I just couldn’t stop laughing.
I awoke the following morning on the floor of my own home.
My body was caked with meat-gunk, my clothes sticky with blood.
Not a dream.
What little must have been in my stomach promptly emptied itself onto the carpet.
I guess I’d be tearing those up soon, if there was any real point.
I staggered to the shower, my mind racing with all I’d seen in the meat factory.
They had, apparently, neither wished to kill me nor erase my memories.
I guess they knew, as well as I did, that there was nothing I could do to them.
If cattle couldn’t do much to change their fate…
What hope could there be for the cattle feed?
I tried to get a fountain coke at the 7-11; some sort of pinkish gunk coiled out like soft-serve, smelling like hot bologna.
I cut open what I thought was a watermelon. The inside was a lot like a brain.
I unwrapped an almond joy and got nothing but a length of bone, filled with a clear yellow mush.
I put money into a coke machine.
I saw the bottle tumble to the bottom.
I reached through the door.
All I pulled out was a heart.
I hurled it to the pavement and stomped it into nothing but a red, sticky stain.
I came home starving, not even surprised by the flock of chickens hobbling around my front lawn, plucked and headless.
I staggered to my kitchen and cracked into another box of cereal from my dwindling stash.
Cat food stink.
The words “SUPERIOR FOOD MATTER” had replaced “Frosted Flakes.” Tony the Tiger was just a grainy photograph of a bobcat.
A box of Lucky Charms now said “ADDED TISSUE RIND” above some shitty JPEG stock-art of a nobody leprechaun.
The Cheerios had become “ORGANISM PART!!! ADD FLUIDS.” The rest of the box was dominated by a close-up of clammy, grey intestines.
I rummaged through the whole supply in a daze.
“REDD BLODD MATERIALS” “MARVELOUS FOOD NUGGET”
None of this was there when I bought it. I didn’t bring home anything with a single letter out of whack.
The last box used to be Cocoa Puffs. My favorite.
Fred Flintstone still looked like Fred Flintstone, just far too real. I could see every pore on his life-like, fleshy nose. This was now, apparently, a box of “FLAVORED MEAL SUBSTANCE.”
I ate it.
I ate it and it was goddamned delicious.
So was the mysterious can of “YOU’RE (sic) FAVORED MEAT PASTES” waiting for me on my coffee table. So was the cup of what looked, smelled and tasted like liquid bacon, straight from my own tap.
The black thing in the refrigerator was as sweet as maple ham, even if it looked like the bastard child of a caterpillar and a starfish.
The best thing, by far, was the steak. The huge, red, juicy steak ready for me in the seat of my car.
It wasn’t even the flavor that made it so good.
It was the screaming.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
🔔 More stories from author: Jonathan WojcikPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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