Have you ever really listened to the music the play at clubs, these days? I'm something of an audiophile, and one of those amateur discjockeys that seem to think we can make it sharing our mixes and making a name for ourselves, and I like to think I have a pretty good ear.
I used to go dancing pretty regularly, and the last time I went I couldn't keep focused on the music - uplifting chart-topper tunes meant to keep people moving until they dropped. I said something lame to my partner, who'd obviously needed a break anyway; she wandered off to get something to drink, leaving me to rest by myself and try to get my bearings. The air was heavy with the atavistic atmosphere that comes from too many people packed into too little space.
You know, now that I think of it I don't know if I've ever seen so many groups in their own separate worlds.
A guy came up to me, assuming that since I wasn't dancing I must want to dance, and made some small talk at me. It probably wouldn't have mattered if I was dead - he was desperately hoping for some kind of response, but I guess whatever I said wasn't interesting enough, and he wandered off - still talking to no-one in particular, the buzz of his voice still ringing like a grenade between my shoulderblades.
That was when it first came to me, I think, but it didn't really click until later. I had one hell of a headache, and the amount of people that were trying to peddle suspicious pills that contained a formula that was half vapid consumerism and half placebo weren't helping. What I really wanted right then, more than anything, was some ice water and the music to stop for just a second.
So I got my way to my feet and made my way towards the washroom. It was on my way there that I noticed them; the double-doors you can find at every club, no, at every institution in this country. It's always the same. Employees only! Do not enter! I'd like to say I've always been a rebel and that I was pretty interested in messing with tradition, but it might have been that I'd just gotten lost with the noise and the crowd; I can't really tell you for sure.
What I wasn't expecting was the drop right through the doors. I must have fallen a good couple of feet, and didn't land on mine, that's for sure. Looking up, I could just see a halo of concrete and rebar above me, with no way out and no way in. Under my shoes lay a maze of wires and what looked like bones, but couldn't have been; they were too polished and smooth, devoid of any flaw or blemish that might mark them as once having come from another human being.
Then, the roaring music subsided and the artificial skylight above was stilled as a slab of equally fake stone was slid into place over it. I was completely alone in the dark, under a club, surrounded by what seemed like bone.
So naturally the first thing I did was light up a smoke, right?
"Cut it out, those things are a plague."
The first words he spoke, right before knocking it from my hands, and I must've jumped out of my skin. I think he was younger than me, though I don't know how much younger; he had an unhealthy glow to his skin that was exacerbated by the now dwindling light from my lighter. Somehow, I regained my composure and struggled to find my words.
"You're messing with me, right?"
Was the best I could manage, trying to crack a smile and look tough. I knew that with the grit in my teeth and the grime under my eyes I looked anything but, and his laughter just made me feel like fading away into the gloom around us.
"Nope. Welcome to Hell."
That got me going, if only because I'm pretty cynical, or like to think I am.
"Yeah, well, I don't believe in that sort of place. Where are the meadows, laden with Asphodel?"
"You missed them, all we've got here is concrete for as far as the eyes can't see."
At some point we'd started walking, and I'd lit another cigarette, much to my companions obvious disgust. Despite the fire making me feel calmer, the ashes hung around us like his silence - and I finally put it out and instead kept the way lit with only the flame from my lighter, shivering between my trembling palms.
"So I guess that makes you my Virgil, then?"
I joked, not expecting a response. He laughed and nodded his head, staring straight into the distance - maybe he could see better than I could.
"Technically. We already know each other, though, so you can cut out the act."
Shrugging at the comment, I covered my eyes as the darkness faded around us in an instant, replaced by a searingly bright light that came from all too many strobe lights, pulsing like the epileptic dancers above us. It appeared we had made our way back into the club above, by another one of those ominously marked doors - but everything felt like it was too grainy and too impermanent, an illusion played by the rapidly flashing lights.
"You'll notice that it's completely empty - there aren't that many virtuous heathens left these days, though I always felt that virtue was pretty arbitrary in the first place." My companion began, looking around the uninhabited dancefloor; around us, the phantom snippets of song and conversation continued to appear and disappear, punctuated by staccato bursts of disjointed music.
"This is where I stop, right?" I interrupted, grinning like I'd said the world's funniest joke.
Was his curt, bemused reply. He was fiddling with the lights, which had begun to dim and already returned the comforting darkness from before. I realized I preferred it to the chaos of the lights above; I could close my eyes and think, unlike their frenetic dance. A click brought me out of my reverie as the wall slid open with a hiss of steam and an odd noise that sounded like a balloon deflating. Beyond lay a stairwell, carved of the same polished materials from before.
I'm in pretty good shape, so it wasn't the length of the stairs that got to me - it was the transparency of the walls. Like some aquarium, I could make out the distant forms of what might have one been people, stretched out so thinly that they looked like paper. They were floating around us accompanied by the pounding pressure of the beats from before, looped endlessly in the same two-chord 'song', punctuated only by unintelligible human-like sounds.
"So, what about them?" I asked cautiously, trying to remember my cantos. He laughed in a very disjointed manner.
"We ran out of humans that had a lust for anything, even themselves. Those were demons; I guess you could call them temps. It used to be much more exciting down here; but that was a different time. If you're wondering, you can't break the glass - they try, occasionally, and sometimes visitors do, too; but it isn't really glass, and they're too weak to break it in the first place."
Leaving more questions than answers, he grabbed hold of a nearby pole with a great relish, sliding it down without explaining what he'd meant. I tried to copy his example and fell off the pole, screaming as the darkness enveloped me.
Crashing into a pile of refuse and garbage bags scattered around my fall, I only cut a few shallow wounds into my face along my cheek and upper lip. Standing unsteadily, I surveyed the kingdom before me, its back-alley pits filled with overflowing white plastic. Curiousity got the better of me and I cracked one open - styrofoam peanuts and torn paper spilling out in a torrent across my feet, explaining the utter lack of a smell, but not the lack of people.
"Ran out of gluttons, then?"
He answered enigmatically, kicking one of the bags with great force. It exhaled a little sigh and exploded open with a satisfying rip. For whatever reason, I followed his lead, marvelling in the way the sacks crumpled underfoot.
"As far as punishments go, this isn't half-bad." I admitted, but he shook his head.
"It's not my place to tell you to stop assuming things, but stop assuming things. We still have to find the lord of this place."
Our 'digging' had exposed a thick leathery hide, but I could not tell what it belonged to. It did not move or draw breath, and it took me some time to realize that whatever had been, it now lay dead.
My host knelt on one foot, expression unreadable.
"Friend of yours?"
I asked as he began to sift through the rubble, finding a hatch near the lifeless form.
"He ran out of food, I suppose. We tried to feed him with some of the underperforming staff, but they were too stringy and willing to offer much nutrition. Maybe the place simply outgrew the need for a watchful eye; not even I can say for sure. But yeah, I guess I'll miss him."
He was halfway down the hatch, so his face wasn't visible at all - but by his words alone, I felt that maybe my host had cared - and for some reason the thought comforted me, just a little.
As for the hatch itself, the ladder within took us into an empty register room, ticket stubs and torn bills from different denominations littering the floor. The music had all but faded, and I could hear the faint sound of yells and screaming, as if a distant fight had broken out in the world above.
My host had opened up a concession stand and helped himself to some cheap candy - I grinned and did the same. We stood around in silence listening to the screaming for awhile, chewing the tasteless sugar and calories; mine had been made artificially bitter, his artificially sweet.
"It's weird, isn't it? That they're fighting over something no one'll remember about in the morning, and yet it's the most important thing to them in the world, right now."
"Sure," I began, "But can't you expect some people to interact with others just to show off what they have?.. Or, hell, what they don't have? I mean, it's a form of belonging in a way; a clique for those that choose to define themeslves by the torn battle-standards of their material status. I've always felt it's pretty lonely myself, but why judge them for it? And who, pardon my ramble here, but whom staffs this place? I didn't even know this stuff could go bad."
"Blame the hired help. They're all lazy do-nothings these days." He laughed, crunkling his plastic and throwing it to the ground. I curled my lips and grabbed it reflexively before tossing it into a bin. Litterers, I guess, would be a circle I'd condemn in a heartbeat.
"If you keep doing that, you'll be here all everything." He murmured, pointing to the detritus still littering the floor. "Let's keep going, all right? You're getting there."
I nodded, and he motioned towards the washroom. I'd like to say I felt pretty weird about following a stranger into it, but at this point I was pretty much numb to sound of roaring water rapidly approaching. The sink had been crushed by something, chunks of porcelain and other unidentifiable materials strewn on a mossy cavern-like floor pierced by the flow of water as raging as any river I'd seen.
"Don't touch the water. If you get swept away in anything that petulent, you'll just end up feeding into it yourself, until all that's left of you is water yourself." My host explained, cupping the water in his hands even as he spoke. The water slid through them, and I could faintly hear anguished yells - vitriolic slurs that slid into one another as powerlessly as their speaker imagined themselves powerful.
"Thanks." I replied, stepping over the water as my host smiled.
"No problem. Do you think you're getting used to it, here?"
At first, it seemed ridiculous - but then I grinned as we made our way down the cliffside below. "Yeah, I am."
It was a good thing, too. Somehow the chasm along the river had led us back into the club above, now completely wrecked and ransacked. A million different songs from a million different genres played all at once, but they were only soothing, nothing more. I felt that if I stayed here long enough, I could get used to it, perhaps; the cacophony was almost pleasant. The schismatic waves of sound, however, also served to distract from the wan shapes lurking in the shadows and hiding as we approached. I realized why they were frightened, and grinned toothily at them - they remained hidden.
Pulsating in the center of the room was a rope made of something livid and wriggling - maybe it was a livewire, but the constantly changing light in the room, as shifting and vivid as the music, made it hard to be certain. A great tomb that looked far older than the room and entirely out of place here, rested nearby; emblazoned with the imagery of an axe taller than myself against some animal's face, worn away by time. Nodding in respect to the tomb, my host and I climbed the rope readily, and found ourselves in a garden.
And such a garden it was! Despite having grown in the ruins of the dancefloor from before, it was beautiful - so many flowers and trees that I could not tell you the names. Wooden idols taller than the eye could see having broken through the ceiling and stretching into infinite darkness above; how they bore strange fruit that made me wonder at its nature. The scent was almost dizzying in its beauty, and if I had not been with a friend, I might have taken the time to root around in the soil and marvel at them; but for how rude it would have seemed.
"You, uh, seem a little transfixed there." My host said, grinning.
I didn't respond with a comment, just a roll of my eyes and a motion for him to continue - he shook his head but followed my lead; and I guess you could say I'd developed a rhythm for the place by now. One of the smaller trees in the far corner of the garden, though still larger than us at its smallest branch, dug through the floor and not the ceiling. We dropped from branch to branch, finally emerging in a private room that I'd imagined only in the back of expensive Hollywood films and the feverish brains of certain individuals.
Around a small table, uncomfortable looking chairs stood, facing a private projector that held little more than an old test pattern. Several shadows detatched themselves from the wall, spider-eyed and cloying. They approached my compatriot and whispered to him, before vanishing into the gloom around us.
"They like you, dumb as they are. If I'd betrayed as much of their trust as you have, I don't think I'd be so gullible - but then again.." My host shrugged, and we shared a laugh. I wanted to light another cigarette, but my respect for this peculiar friend had grown quite too strong; besides. The familiar ring of an elevator had captured my attention; we stepped in and it went up before a button was even pressed; then crashed downwards at a horrifying speed, screeching mechanically all the while.
As we stepped out of the creaking slide-doors, their maw opening and closing in broken discord, we found ourselves ringed by a great pit from which stood shuttered and curtain-closed partitions. Signs in tongues I could not read stared back at me, and I knew somehow that I beheld the corpses of giants.
We stood in marvel and respect for some time, before my host jumped down into the pit. I watched his form fall and never heard a sound -
Then, without thinking, I ran forward and hurtled myself into the abyss.
Around us, all was dark.
No longer could I see my host, though I could hear his voice as from a faint distance.
What he said, I could not hear, but I knew that I agreed - and we laughed as we fell, neither of us truly seeing the other.
Stepping outside of the employee's only room I was greeted by the roar of music - the kind of crowd-pleasing pop that's been tuned up half to death and doesn't even resemble music, not anymore. One of the security toughs noticed that I'd been in the private room and loitered over, spitting words at me; I simply smiled and apologized.
Because I could hear the music underneath, and knew just which song would play next.