A security guard in a khaki uniform that made him look it was a designed for a covert operation in an Old Navy stood outside the door to the stairs. He stared intently at Decker as he spoke into his radio. As I approached my chest burned from running while holding my breath, so I gasped to get more oxygen. The guard’s gaze snapped towards me as I barreled towards him, and his eyes widened. Either he wanted to shoot me in the face or he thought I was a celebrity. Probably not the celebrity thing. Thank God he wasn’t armed. Probably. I took another deep breath and held it. The instant I stopped breathing he shook his head in confusion, probably wondering why he was looking with shock in a random direction at empty space, and turned his attention back towards Decker.
I stepped past him and yanked on the door handle. It was locked. Or maybe it was push not pull? That had almost gotten me killed by an oyster one time. Long story. I pushed it, and it still didn’t budge. Dammit. I turned to glance at the guard and saw a ring of keys dangling off his belt. An actual ring, at least three inches in diameter, full of actual, dangling keys. Maybe thirty of them. Terrific.
I tiptoed over to the guard and gingerly reached down to detach the ring from the faux-alligator-skin belt cinched tightly around his waist. I grabbed it. He swatted at me like my hand was a pesky squirrel crawling up the side of his leg looking for nuts. I tried again, and he swatted at me again, only hard enough to sting this time. This brilliant tactic was not going to work. The mechanism for detaching the loop required too much force to do without him noticing. I needed different approach. A different, much more humiliating approach. I wondered if that happened every damn time to the Green Berets, too.
I took another, quieter breath, and held it again. Then I dropped to all fours and crawled so I was directly in front of him. I leaned back on my knees, face to face with his general groinal region, hoping very hard that Decker wasn’t looking, and that if she wasn’t she was too busy with her faux-robbery to snap a picture on her phone. It wouldn’t be the first time. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, I began to unlatch the guard’s belt buckle. He noticed at least once, and reached down to readjust his belt. But he couldn’t actually see the buckle past his paunch, so he didn’t fix it. Once it was unlatched I slowly, ever so slowly, pulled the belt out, loop by loop with my right hand, my left hand on the keys.
After a long, agonizing minute they came free. For a long second I stared at the guard’s crotch, an inch in front of my face. The temptation to pull his pants down was nearly overwhelming. Not because it would be funny, which it would, but because it was the worst idea I could possibly think of. I’m not the sort of guy to do that, really; sometimes our brains are slaves to circumstance. But I pulled myself away, crawled over to the door and stood up.
I took another breath and started to try each key. The 27th key did the trick. The one labelled “lobby stairwell,” but in my defense the handwriting was really small. I opened the door and stepped inside.
When I looked through the doorway it looked like stairwell. Then I walked through, and everything changed.
Well, I thought. This explains everything.
Put your shades on so I can see, said Axon.
I pulled a pair of AquaBlock sunglasses out of my front pocket and slipped them on. I felt that weird pressure that meant she was looking through my eyes.
How, exactly, does this explain everything? She asked.
Okay, maybe not everything. But it at least explains why there was an office building I’ve never noticed before in the middle of Ducksburg.
I know, I know, that should have been a clue. As should the fact that it was a small package local delivery. D&D Deliveries never gets used for those. When people want a small package delivered locally they almost always use the big F or the big U. And yes, that is what those of us who run independent delivery services call them. All of this meant I shouldn’t have been so floored when Axon spoke in my head. But I was, because, as you might have already worked out, I do actually have a superpower: willful ignorance.
But there I was, staring at stars that weren’t stairs, in a building that was definitely not a building. Everything around me was some shade of a color that was equally offensive to both red and brown, and pulsing. Organic. It oozed fluids, and various pores and pustules exuded a slime that looked like…
Now’s not the time to be thinking about lube, Dendrite. You have the rest of the day to do that.
“Right. We’re inside some kind of creature. Of course we are. Why not? So what do I do?”
You know what to do. Get to Sigmurethra’s office. Deliver the package. Get out. You have nine minutes.
“Right.” I closed my eyes, and proceeded up the lumpy masses that lead up to the higher floors. This was, after all, still a stairwell. I tried very hard to avoid the walls, but it didn’t help. I had to brace against them, and twice I had to squeeze through passages too tight to fit through without squidging against the sides. At one point my left foot got stuck in a viscous patch of much, and when I wrenched it out my shoe didn’t come with it. I saluted another fallen comrade and trudged forward. I lose a lot of shoes like that; always the left. Decker says there’s a deep mystery in that. It sounds ridiculous, which means it’s probably true.
The various organs and membranes around me made lurchy, squelchy noises that sounded like someone had done something truly unspeakable to a washing machine. I half expected someone’s soggy laundry to spew out of one of the orifices. Maybe everyone’s missing socks. Maybe this is where bad socks go when they die.
As I sometimes do in situations like this I was struck by how weird everything looked. I know, it’s obvious that it would look weird inside of a giant creature, right? But it’s not. Before I started doing this stuff I assumed, without ever thinking about it, that I had a good idea what it would look and feel like, just like you are doing right now. Because I watched movies. And read comics. And daydreamed about infiltrating living alien spaceships with blaster pistols and mech armor. We all know what organs look like because we’ve watched people sliced open on TV, and we know what a room made of flesh looks like because of horror movies. But we don’t. Not until you’ve been there. As often as I do this I never seem to lose those idiotic assumptions, and every time, every damn time, those assumptions are digested.
A few unpleasant minutes later I pulled my sticky self up onto a protruding lump of something that passed for a platform. As I stood up, it saw it had a perfectly ordinary looking door, stamped with the number 3. Convenient. I opened it, held my breath, and stepped through.