Guided by the compass, John ventured south among a barely visible trail that wound through a maze of ponds were grey vines grew in the fetid waters. For a time John slowed his advance, questioning whether he ought to follow the direction of a stranger he knew nothing about.
Despite the dubious nature of the man in white, John knew so little of anything that he had no alternative to the strangerâ€™s directive. Every time he tried to think more clearly, the nauseating pain in his skull would simmer again, threatening to overwhelm him all over again. Frustration seized him. John kicked the dirt, clenching his fists uselessly as the uncaring world took no notice of his gesture.
Clenching his teeth, John push onwards, now clinging to the hope that the man in white might help him remember the world beyond the fog shrouded valley. Though a lurking fear had begun to grow ever stronger in him, that what he saw was all there was.
Out of the gloom emerged a truly strange sight, one which stopped his incessant thoughts in their tracks. A pair of steel bands appeared on the ground; equidistant, parallel, and stapled to thick wooden planks lying upon the ground by iron spikes. For a moment he stared at the metal ribbons, an echo of a memory waiting for the deep sound of a massive steel tube to come lumbering along at any moment.
Yet there was only silence, and the errant thought soon vanished as John began to follow the steel trail. All other notions were banished to the dark corners of his mind. Time wore on as he made his way along the gentle curves of the twin still bands, sometimes hopping between the wooden boards without touching the gravel between them to break up the monotony.
While indulging this base impulse John stumbled into a cement platform rising beside the iron trail. Behind the platform lurked an imposing cement building with hollow, black windows staring back at him. For a moment he considered continuing along his way, but some command from the depths of his mind compelled him to investigate. He heaved himself up onto the crumbling platform, searching along the faÃ§ade for some clue or remnant of what he was looking at.
A board covered with tattered papers provided his first inkling of context. Schedules for arriving and departing trains were plastered on the largest, while the other two were red tinted documents extolling the virtues of Soviet Socialism. A voice in his head said that the latter papers should not be taken at face value, though he could not recall any knowledge of this Soviet Socialism. For perhaps the first time he questioned the notions that came unbidden from the depths of his mind, feeling a twinge of pain as he struggled to remember where such thoughts came from.
The sound of furtive movements shattered Johnâ€™s introspection, his eyes going wide as he searched for the source. Some creature of considerable weight was shuffling about behind the wall. Heart pounding, he drew out the pistol and peeked through the darkened window, scanning the interior for any sign of the beast. An indistinct shadow passed through a rear door, vanishing too quickly for him to get a decent look.
Needing to know what it was, John pulled himself through the window, making his way across the debris strewn floor. Twice he stumbled on overturned benches before he reached the rear door. Before he could step outside, he heard the same furtive sound echo through the room.
John spun around finding himself staring into the face of an impossible chimera. The head of grasshopper stapled to the torso of a human atop the tail of a serpent, lobster claws on its arms, all encased in a gleaming gray carapace. He backed away. The monster advanced on him, clicking it claws as it slithered ever closer. Outside he turned to run, only to find himself before a maze of cinderblock buildings infested with dozens of similar chimeras lurking about.
Shivering with fear, John turned to face the monster that would kill him, his hand drawing out the pistol as he did so. For an instant he thought about whether he would aim for the beast or press the firearm against his own head, uncertain which would be the more prudent course of action.
The sound of gunfire cracked through the world, several moments passing before John realized he was not the one shooting. The chimera before him recoiled, bluish liquid leaking down its frame. It shrank away, giving him his only chance to escape. Back he ran, through the darkened building to the platform. There he was confronted by the man in white who had given him the note, cradling a rifle in his hands.
â€œQuickly!â€ he barked, seizing Johnâ€™s arm, â€œthe Oumrzmya wonâ€™t be distracted for long.â€
Being spoken too was so alien to John that he could not resist following his apparent rescuer. The stranger pulled him further down the trail of iron, to a long box straddling the iron bands on wheels. Inside the shelter was a bed made of cardboard in one corner and a few bits of glassware on a stool in the other.
Papers were scattered across the entire interior, blanketing the floor and tacked to the walls. The man in white slammed the sliding door shut, sending a shudder through the entire enclosure.
â€œGreetings my friend, I am Dr. Erik Reinheim,â€ the man in white said, turning to face him with the same, hideous fake smile as before. â€œYou no doubt have many questions for me, no?â€
John tried to form words, but couldnâ€™t quite fit them together. Overwhelmed by the situation, he simply stared at his host, painfully aware of the tension building in the silence. He began shivering, desperate to end the silence, yet terrified of what might come next.
â€œAh, the quiet type,â€ Dr. Reinheim said, breaking the silence. â€œOr perhaps you do not know where to begin? I think this is quite likely, as there are many unique features of the Belkovoly impact zone which newcomers find, vexing.â€
The good doctor turned and rifled through a bundle of papers. While this was happening, John edged towards the door. He looked out through a gap in the metal sheets, seeing dark shapes moving through the gloom. Without warning Dr. Reinheim leaned against him.
â€œSee something interesting my friend?â€ he asked, shoving his face against the gap. â€œAh, the Oumrzmya are on the move. Splendid.â€
John looked up at the good doctor, still trying to figure out what he wanted to say. His mind flicked through multiple topics, yet he could not form a sentence to save his life. The effort sent a prickling pain through his skull.
â€œAh, you must be wondering why this is splendid. It is because when the Oumrzmya move, they leave behind a gap through which one might enter the main facilities. And that is where you must go, my friend, if you wish to learn the truth.â€
A moment of silence passed between them. John felt certain he could not trust the good doctor, yet the man offered him his first real taste of direction. He nodded. Dr. Reinheim grinned broadly while clapping his hands together in excitement. Quick as a flash he retrieved a second assault rifle from the other end of the box and shoved it into Johnâ€™s hands.
â€œYou know how to use one of these, correct?â€
John nodded, pulling the receiver back and flipping off the safety catch.
â€œAh, splendid,â€ the good Doctoer crowed, unlatching both doors and heaving them aside. â€œYou will go westwards, through the barracks area, while I make sure most of the Oumrzmya are out of your path.â€ He hopped down through the eastern door, shouldering his own rifle. â€œWait for my signal friend, and then make your move.â€
With that the good doctor vanished, leaving John alone again.
Silence returned to his world, pressing in on all sides. He gripped the rifle more tightly. Around the edges of his vision appeared lurking monsters which vanished when he turned to get a closer look. It was almost a relief when a wailing squeal ripped through the quiet permeating existence and signaled John to go.
He plunged into the fog, running with direction and purpose across a field of frozen dirt. Not far away was a maze of square, cinderblock buildings littering the landscape. Furtive shadows moving amongst them sent him to cover. Filthy pipes poking out of drainage ditches or hollow huts provided him shelter from the lurking horrors. A few times Oumrzmya slithered past his hiding place, though often he simply waited in tense silence for the appearance of monsters which never materialized.
The frozen soil gradually gave way to cracked pavement. Towering structures with black, hollow windows took the place of the small huts along the road. A strange feeling compelled John to enter one. The dank interior was littered with moldy papers and overturned furniture, while rusting light fixtures hung uselessly from the ceilings.
While walking along a corridor lined with ruined offices, John saw the dreary world fall away around him. Light flooded into the more orderly hallway while faceless people rushed around him or worked their light boxes in the offices. The unreal sights and sounds around John began making him feel nauseous. Out of the stunning brightness appeared a familiar figure, a suited man who John was certain he had known in his past existence.
Trembling, John shouldered the rifle and fire twice. An otherworldly wailing screech ripped through the shallow illusion, pulling him painfully back to the real world. Pain ripped through his head, sending John to his knees. He lost his lunch, gasping and clawing as the dreary corridor swam back into view.
Ears ringing, he rose shaking to his feet. There before him was a crumpled Oumrzmya lying dead in a pool of sickly green ichor. It twitched unnaturally at his feet, several times threatening to rise again. Yet despite his gnawing fear of the beast, he knew that it was dead. With his rifle ready for further monsters, John stepped over the corpse and continued down the hallway.
At the end of the building he found a fire escape which led down into a square below. There he was greeted by the crumbling visage of a mustachioed man standing astride a marble plinth. The face seemed oddly familiar. Beyond the stone man stood a great complex of interconnected buildings gilded in tiles of polished stones. Even in the dim light of the world they shimmered as John walked past.
He cautiously ascended the stairs of the nearest entrance, passing beneath a mighty hammer and sickle embedded above the hollow doorway. Inside was a lavish atrium, a marble floor standing below a domed ceiling, with a pair of staircases winding elegantly from either side of the room to a balcony at the opposite end. John took one of the stairwells, arriving in a long corridor strewn with overturned boxes and shattered glass. The stench of decay washed over him as he walked by abandoned conference rooms and ruined offices.
While inspecting one of the larger chambers there came an alien buzzing from the ceiling, followed by a flood of piercing light. Johnâ€™s head almost exploded as he staggered through the blazing hallway. The blinding light and earsplitting noise emanating from the fixtures above was almost too much to bear.
Covering his eyes and ears, John groped blindly through the building, desperate to escape. Without warning the floor gave way, sending him sliding down a putrid ramp of rotten floorboards washed smooth by time.
Head spinning, John rose to his feet, finding himself standing in the middle of what had once been a large building, but had been hollowed out some superhuman beast until it resembled a cavern. As he rubbed his temples, John caught a glimpse of movement ahead in the gloom. A shape rose from its nest, a gargantuan monster stretching the length of a building.
As the beast opened its massive eyes, there came a horrendous wailing that tore into Johnâ€™s very soul. For the monster was comprised of dozens of living human beings, all lashed together in a state of living death. Their wails of ceaseless agony echoed through the hollow chamber. All at once John felt a surge of energy. He turned and fled from the abomination, hearing the frightful sounds of the monster giving chase.
A tentacle raced around towards him, a voice telling John that if he were impaled by the tendril he would share in the fate of those already devoured. He shot at it, the appendage exploding in a plume of green ichor.
He barreled headlong through a door too small for the beast to enter, hoping to delay what seemed inevitable. The entire building shook when the monster impacted the wall, cracks appearing across its surface. John ran through the empty warehouse, only to find another foul sight awaiting him on the other side.
There before him was a swirling pool of palpable darkness, a hole in the very fabric of reality itself. A great crash spelled the end of the warehouse wall, the chorus of wailing dead approaching in earnest. Trappe, John pulled the pistol from his belt with trembling hands.
Before he could carry out his final act, however, the good doctor appeared at his side and casually took the pistol from his hands.
â€œGood work,â€ he said, patting Johnâ€™s shoulder. â€œNo one else has gotten this far before.â€
John turned, watching as the wall of the warehouse gave way, revealing the blasphemous monstrosity that would be his end. The tentacle pierced his torso, and for a moment he felt his mind touch the collective thoughts of a hundred accursed beings doomed to spend a nightmare eternity together. Then, before John could be added to the collective, the good doctor pushed him into the void.
Absolute silence enveloped John as he fell into the heart of the world. The tentacle and the beast that it was attached to disintegrated above him, evaporating into the nothingness whence it had come.
Deep below the darkness abated, and John found himself in a cavern of pulsating vines. At its heart lay an array of nine men around a central stalk. Feeding pipes sustained their lives, while above was suspended a central brain. For the top of each manâ€™s head was missing, their extended spinal columns intertwining into a single brain.
One of the bodies stirred, the tubes retracing long enough for it to speak with disused vocal cords. â€œWhat do you desire?â€
â€œI want to know who I am,â€ John replied in his own disused voice. He fell to his knees. â€œWho am I?â€
He was lifted by an invisible force, his headache becoming unbearable. Then he blacked out.
When he awoke amongst green trees, John believed for a time that he had entered some other world. He wondered from the mountains, delirious. His world became a blur until a vehicle topped with flashing lights stopped before him, a pair of uniformed men shouting at him in Slovakian.
Falling in and out of consciousness, John reflected upon the strange new world around him. The clear skies and bustling cities were alien and strange. When he was delivered to the United States Embassy and forced to speak, John found himself struggling to form words. His tales of flesh beasts and lobster snakes served only to amuse the bespectacled man who insisted upon calling him Allen Carver.
For Allen Carver was the name that they had called John before his descent into the crater.
Allen Carver had been a clerk at newspaper whose name held significance to the people of the living world. From what he could gather, Allen had last been seen departing on what was supposed a vacation to Kiev. In fact, Allen Carver had been hoping to make the jump and become a journalist. The mysterious Belkovoly Crater has seemed like a perfect breakout story.
During Allenâ€™s investigation the guards had apprehended him, and after a brief scuffle, knocked him unconscious. Details were fuzzy, and much of it he had to imagine afterwards from what others had told him, as his lived memories had faded into oblivion.
Over the next few weeks he settled into something of a routine. Slowly the people he had known before the crater became familiar again, though they always seemed distant and distrustful. He found himself more comfortable with strangers, and soon the old guard fell away. Because they were the friends and acquaintances of Allen Carver, and as time continued to grind on it became ever clearer that he was someone distinct from the man they had known.
Those who had feared that their friend had perished were not wholly wrong. Though he now possessed the looks, the memories, and the life of Allen Carver, he would always be John Doe.