I heard a horrible screech from behind me that sounded like “Naked Lunch by Peter S. Burroughs!” but might not actually have been that. I spun around in time to see my friendly business man interrogator’s perfect hair begin to boil. Jets of slime erupted out of the follicular lava and hardened into two-foot long eyestalks. The expression on his face was still calm and congenial; his body language not so much. He sprang towards us.
Decker didn’t miss a beat. She whipped her backpack off and swung it into the things head. There was a loud thwack, and both of its man-eyes popped out as it flew to the side. On of the eyes collided with my forehead and shot vitreous humor, or maybe some kind of prop adhesive, all over my face. I fought the urge to brush it off. No time to worry about that now. I grabbed Decker by the hand.
“Let’s go!” I said. She grinned and sprang into motion.
“What the fuck do we do next?” I said between labored breaths as we ran in a random direction. “We’re all out of doors.”
“Have you found the target?” Decker asked. She didn’t sound winded. No matter how much fried corn she ate, she was always managed to be in perfect shape when things were trying to kill us. “Is Axon synced up yet?”
I’m synced up, said Axon in my head. The visible doors you opened are just the surface interface.
Okay, I said as if I knew what that meant. So where do we go?
Keep going. Make a 115 degree right turn precisely when I say.
As we ran several of the doors opened and things that were mostly people piled out. Their screeches of incomprehensible literary references echoed through the hallway.
Turn right now, Axon said.
I banked sharply right. A wall loomed three feet in front of me, threatening to body check me if I didn’t stop. I kept running. If you can’t trust the voices in your head, you shouldn’t be walking into a giant office-slug to begin with. A second later I smashed into something wet. It was an enormous membrane disguised as a wall, and Decker and I tore right through it and fell onto the floor. And by “floor,” I mean “organs.” We were back inside the giant slug’s guts.
I turned around to see a half dozen business-slugs trudging towards us. Bits of them have fallen off, and there was slug poking through various parts of their outfits. The torn edges of the membrane-wall swung closed like a cat flap and began to stitch themselves up.
I’m reinforcing the membrane, said Axon. It won’t hold them back for long.
Of course it wouldn’t. It never does. Decker was already standing, and she reached down to help me to my feet.
“That was fun,” she said. “What’s next?”
Head forward through the passageways. I’ll guide you. You’ve got less than three minutes.
We started forward at a trot. Once again I appreciated the texture of slug-insides on my unshod right foot. At least I still had my sock.
“Those people were slugs,” I said as we trekked along what might have been an enormous slug kidney. “And this thing we’re inside is a slug. How does that work?”
“It’s not a slug,” said Decker. “It’s a snail.”
“When I broke through the lobby I ended up in this crazy maze that looked like it was made of colored porcelain. I solved it when I realized it was a snail’s shell and the twists followed the golden ratio. What did you get up to?”
“I opened a lot of doors,” I said. Damn. Whenever we got split up she always made it sound like she had wild fantasy adventures while I filed the paperwork. Which was more or less how our delivery business worked, now that I think about it.
“Are you going to leave that eyeball on your face?” Decker asked, “because you are totally pulling it off.”
Here we are, said Axon before I could respond.
“What, here?” I asked.
“Is this it?” asked Decker. She swung her bag around to her front and unzipped the top. “I’ve got a bag of sand in case we have to match the weight of an idol on a pressure switch.”
“There’s nothing here,” I said.
It’s through that membrane there. You’ll have to find a way through.
I stepped forward and touched a piece of wall that was apparently a membrane. It stretched from floor to ceiling, about seven feet up, and was made of a thick, tough material. It’d take a lot time to hack through with the Damascus steel broadsword that I conveniently forgot to bring. Or own in the first place.
“How much time do we have?”
A minute and a half.
“Crap. Maybe there’s something in the package that’ll get us through.”
No. The package is for when you meet Sigmurethra.
“This is a snail, right?” asked Decker. “Et voila.” She reached into her bag and pulled out an unopened two pound box of coarse flake Kosher salt.
“Why the hell do you have that?” I asked.
“You never know when you’re going to have to bind demons,” she said. “Or Kosher a side of beef.”
“You’ve never done any of those things!”
She grinned, tore open the top of the box, and threw the entire contents onto the membrane.
“I don’t think this will work at this scale,” I said. “Factoring in biology, I mean.”
“Of course it will,” said Decker. “Esoteric sources show that Tsunade, paramour of Jiraiya the Gallant, utilized salt to develop her slug-based magic system.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but sure enough, as we watched the membrane dissolved into a pile of shriveled, desiccated organ meat. I don’t know if it was magic or osmosis, but it worked.
Once it was gone, the flesh-wall revealed an ordinary looking room. Unlike the office building, this one really did look ordinary. It resembled a small apartment, and I could see cheap Ikea furniture, one of those green fridges left over from the sixties, and the back of a 22 inch CRT TV.
The only thing unusual about the room, aside from the fact that it was in the middle of a giant snail, was the fact that the walls and the ceiling were all covered in pictures. Pictures of flowers, of grass, of gardens, and of other snails. They were all from a low angle, and shot with craft and artistry. If snails had photo contests, these would be serious competitors. There were also pieces of paper with streaks of slime across them in some kind of pattern.
It’s writing, said Axon. Writing in snail.
Snails have a language? I asked.
They do now. Right here. In this room.
Can you read it?
I’m working on that.
“We have a live one,” said Decker. I hadn’t noticed her walk into the room. She stood just past the television and waved me towards her.
I walked over and saw what she was pointing at. Just past the TV there was a small table. On it sat a small, ordinary looking snail, staring at the screen. Until that moment, I wouldn’t have been sure I could tell the difference between a terrestrial gastropodic that happened to be facing a television and one that was actively watching TV. But how that I saw it, it was obvious. The TV was showing some kind of gardening program, close ups of grass and flowers, some shots of snails slowly munching on weeds and just really enjoying themselves.
“Holy shit,” I said.
Decker looked over at me. “You’ve got something, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
It hit me all at once, with the weird logic lat lets you know when your cat wants the chicken instead of the fish. The most dangerous thing in the world, whether you’re talking snail monsters or world leaders, is a crappy imagination given the resources to make it real.
“This is all like, snail fantasy,” I said. “Gourmet snail-restaurant advertising. Snail porn, maybe, but that cheapens it.”
“But snails barely have brains,” said Decker. She wasn’t contradicting me. Just exploring the edges of my idea. “They can’t process art or porn or art-porn even if someone gave it to them. Their minds are too small.”
“That’s the point,” I said. “Somehow, for some reason, someone has taught this snail how to dream.”