This story was rejected by the online publications Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. I made the decision initially that I would retire it from the story submission circuit after two rejections and publish it myself here. I will be grateful if you read it and tell me what you think. It’s weird. You’ve been warned.
Few among those stooping, naked things in the cave remember a time when a passage led to brighter, more massive chambers–places where the Great Lights shone down until collapses forced survivors to this tiny hole at the edge of the world.
Gen cannot remember those times. He remembers the cave when it was twice as large and his fellow humans numbered ten times what they had become. He remembers when the dripping gardens still made the walls glisten with succulent sap and the cleansing stream washed in life and swept out death. But that time is gone.
Perched on a boulder that fell during the last cave-in, Gen likes to stare beyond the cave’s mouth, out over the drinking pond whose surface is perpetual stone, to look at the curious shadows cast by menacing grey pillars that taper upward many times Gen’s full height and terminate in an impenetrable canopy of interwoven steel rope. Countless blinking lights line the snaking steel, giving off beautiful milky whites, effervescent blues, and faintest yellows; often appearing in massive clusters for brief moments to make even the most timid cave-dwellers stare out in wonder, other times going all but silent while Gen and the others shiver in fear.
The old ones say there is nothing in that other world but illusion, that beyond the lights is a darkness colder than the cave. Some brave or hungry enough have ventured out across the motionless water and never returned. The old ones are satisfied. Gen is not.
A stench fills the cave, and it grows worse with time. The stream once carried the filth through the wall and away. Now it piles up along with corpses. No one knows what to do. The sick and old take up precious space and grow in number, much to the misfortune of everyone: some stink worse than the death and the excrement.
The pool’s surface moves and all of the cave-dwellers recede as far back as the sloping wall of fallen rock will allow. Gen waits in jittery silence as the first white tentacle breaks the surface and finds footing on the jagged floor of the cave. Another stretches out and another, grasping and slipping back until firm rock is gripped. When enough slimy limbs have found an agreeable hold, the thing pulls its shapeless mass of throbbing flesh out of the water, shudders there on the rock for a few short breaths while the blinking lights shine through its papery skin to reveal whirling goo-shapes within, and then dies. Gen and a handful of others, who have waited and watched in wonder and terror, spring forward and tear the thing open, each slurping up a mouthful of the sour stuff inside before taking handfuls to all those others who cannot move. It is the same ritual they have performed since the last cave-in, only now the feeders are far outnumbered by the infirm and the children.
A child slurps the paste from Gen’s hand. Only the children seem to digest the stuff with any form of satiation, but they are still weak. They are different from the others. Their skin is oddly gray and their bodies hairless. They are genderless unless inspected closely. The old ones say lack of true light made them so. Gen wonders.
So much time has passed since the last tentacle thing came that most of the cave-dwellers are dead. Those who are left moan and writhe on the rocks in delirium. Gen has stayed still on his perch longer than ever before. Staring into the forest, he tries to ignore the stench, but there is no getting used to it.
The time has come.
When he crosses to the edge of the pond, a child appears at his side. It clings to his back with slender fingers as he swims across, releasing its grip upon reaching dry land. The ground beyond is soft and warm, utterly alien next to the cold rock Gen has always known. He hears the child climb up behind him. The lights above are brighter now—too bright. Gen has to shield his face and turn it downward, feeling a surge of despair that he cannot see the same wonder in the lights he had lusted after in the cave. The child, though, looks up and squeals with glee. Its weird face is stretched into what must be a grin and it seems livelier than any children had been in the cave, laughing uncontrollably and running around Gen.
Gen walks on, the child still skipping around him, and takes in the scenery below the lights. The pillars are metal—but not like the artifacts of his youth. The material of the pillars is smoother, purer. He touches one. It’s like water that will not bend to his hand. He runs his fingers gently around the cylindrical trunk, walking around it, and gasps at what he sees on the other side.
The being standing before him is barely half his size. Its skin is grey like the child’s, its features ambiguous: neither male nor female. Below the neck, its body is covered in a substance like that of the pillars, only softer. Gen is suddenly embarrassed of his hairiness and shifts uneasily.
It isn’t startled by Gen.
The child grows silent and stops its merry prancing, standing in front of Gen and looking at the being. Gen understands moments after the child does. These two things standing before him in the forest of metal and light belong together. With pride and relief, Gen nudges the child forward and is met with a look of deepest gratitude from the being. The two new companions embrace like mother and child. The being gives Gen another lasting look, then it and the child turn and leave him alone.
Some time passes while Gen stands motionless and watches them go. He notices for the first time how marvelously the lights dance off the metal pillars. He sets off alone, but not back to the cave.