Alice was drowning in Adelaide’s arms again.
In the murky silence the rusalka sank through the water like a strange pale fish, holding the Tsote tightly to her chest. The infinite river yawned below them like a gaping mouth and faded off into the distance in a greenish haze that cast a sickly glow on their skin. Alice squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore the disorienting visions of the water: the dark miasma of the rusalka’s hair billowing about them both, the splotchy stars on the fake sky glittering with the reflections of distant waves, the steady undulations of Adelaide swimming, but it was difficult to concentrate with Adelaide’s cold arms locking her in place like iron bars. She could feel the too-fluid muscles of the dead girl’s body moving through them like rippling steel, a sensation that unnerved her. Out of the water Adelaide had been as soft as- she felt herself starting to blush and pushed the thought away. Nevermind that. Her lungs were starting to tighten from the lack of air; she tugged uselessly on the rusalka’s arms, hoping the girl would get the message and head for the surface. The water made her dizzy: she couldn’t tell if they were going faster or slowing down, sinking or rising, drowning or about to breach the surface-
Abruptly Alice’s head was shoved into open air and she gasped in shock, blinking frantically. She didn’t have time to see anything but reddish lights and a dark ceiling before Adelaide’s slender hands were around her waist, forcefully propelling her out of the water and into a highly awkward landing on her stomach. What little breath she had left in her disappeared with a ungraceful gwuh; she rolled over and gave the rusalka a resentful glare, coughing dismally.
“Quit your whining,” Adelaide said, wringing out her hair in fistfuls. “We weren’t under half a minute. I’ve slept down there shorter’n that.”
“Not like I could fuckin’ tell, is it?” Alice snapped. She sat up and tried to rub the water from her eyes, noting that it was starting to sting where it touched her bare skin. One of these days she’d ask Addy why her pet lake felt like taking a dip in rancid gasoline. “We could’ve found another way out of that river, but no, Adelaide the mermaid’s gotta swim her way out and take me with her in that filthy fuckin’ water. We can’t walk anywhere, that’s too easy!”
“I am not a mermaid,” Adelaide said, sounding offended. She lifted herself from the rapidly spreading puddle with a grace that would have made Alice jealous if she hadn’t been too busy noticing the way the water dripped from her freckled hips onto the grimy stone floor. The rusalka caught her eye and bared her fishy teeth at the Tsote, who turned away. “Mermaids don’t have legs, dearie,” Addy purred, “An’ I think you’d know ‘bout that by now-“
“We’re kinda in a situation right now, d’you notice?” Alice said. She pointed angrily to one of the red lights, which had reluctantly condensed itself into the words EMERGENCY EXIT blazoned on the wall with gently glowing hellfire. A smaller slogan had been graffitied below it in permanent marker: but why bother?
Adelaide squinted at it. “Can’t read so good, girlie. Not since I went all fish-like. What’s it say, then?”
“Says exit, idiot,” Alice said, starting to shiver despite the warm sulfurous winds that seemed to be omnipresent in this place. She pulled her tattered coat closer and succeeded in only drenching herself again. “Were y’looking for this place when you decided to take a swim through- Hell, you said?”
“Hell, aye, used to hear about it in church sometimes when I wasn’t lookin’ for smokes under the pews.” Adelaide wobbled to her feet, wincing at the rock under her bare feet. Alice would have been more sympathetic if she wasn’t soaking in freezing water that was largely the rusalka’s doing. “F’yer information I woulda had a much better idea of where we were goin’ if you didn’t need to breathe so much.”
“Well excuse me for not being dead already!”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re all fancy and alive and shit, keep talkin’,” Adelaide grumbled. “Seemed like a good place to stop, anyway. Can’t tell my ass from my elbows with all these rings everywhere. We’re closer to the middle bit now, maybe. There’s a river up ahead what was looking promisin’ but it seems somebody decided to go and fill it up wit’ boiling blood.” She wrinkled her nose. “Who wastes good water like that?”
“Same freak that makes the rest of this place, I’d bet,” Alice growled. The tunnel they were in was smaller than she’d first thought; the rocky ceiling was only a few feet over their heads and the walls were wide enough for the two of them to stand without being crowded if neither of them attempted to move much. It was unadorned except for the puddle of murky water rapidly leeching over the ground and what looked like a dusty computer terminal crammed into a niche in the wall.
Adelaide seemed to have noticed the same thing. “Cozy in here, isn’t it,” she smirked, drawing an arm around Alice’s waist. “Nice spot in Hell for a pair a’sinners like us.”
“Why so loud, girly, jesus,” Adelaide said, pulling back woundedly. She rubbed her ears and winced. “Coulda just said no or somethin’, I can take a hint.”
PLEASE HELP ME
“Shut up, twit, that wasn’t me,” the Tsote snapped. She glanced around the tunnel: it was still empty, but the screen in the wall had begun flickering fitfully in the ruddy glow of the exit sign. She narrowed her eyes at it, expecting an attack, but the computer only continued to flash pathetically at the opposite wall.
Ignoring Addy’s mumbled the fuck?, Alice slowly drew closer to the terminal with the stolen pistol ready in her hand. It hadn’t been used in some time, by the looks of it: dust and grime covered its surface and had worked down into the largely illegible keyboard so that it seemed little more than a solid mat of filth. The screen bore a few antiqued claw marks on its surface but those too were buried under debris. Alice had to carefully brush away the worst of the mess before she could see the words typed in neat red text on the otherwise blank screen: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE HELP ME
THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE, a voice said, painfully loud in the cramped confines of the hallway. It had a deep, threatening quality to it that was largely negated by the cheap speakers it appeared to be emanating from. Every few seconds it was plagued by bursts of static that rendered its words into nonsense.
I CANNOT EVEN TELL YOU HOW kschshh
I NEED YOU
kschss THOUSAND THOUSAND YEARS
ALL THESE TERRIBLE PEOPLE
“Who the fuck’s talking?” Adelaide said suspiciously. She poked at the keyboard with a talon and was rewarded with an angry-sounding beep from the terminal.
OKAY PLEASE DO NOkschshh DO THAT THANK YOU
IT IS HARD ENOUksshh
ANYWAYS, the voice said, sounding more businesslike and doing away with the growl that seemed to have been previously rolling indecisively around in its throat. If one listened closely they could almost hear a very subtle note of resignation.
sschhkSAND YEARS SINCE THEY PUT ME HERE
JUST WANTED TO DO SOMETHING USEFkschhs MY LIFE BUT NO THAT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE
SITTING HERE AND JUST THINKING UP WORSsschhk THINGS TO DO TO THEM THAT IS MY LIFE
MY GOD THE MOANING
I COULD Tshhcckk STORIES ABOUT THE MOANING
“Look,” Alice said, glaring at the walls for the source of the voice, which did not immediately present itself. The glow of the terminal dimmed slightly. “I don’t fuckin’ know who you are but an introduction might make me feel a hell of a lot better about sittin’ here listening to your quite frankly disturbing problems.”
YES, OKAY, the voice said, sounding somewhat subdued this time. It seemed to have noticed that its volume was approximate to a human shouting at full capacity and adjusted itself.
WELL TO BEGIN WITH Ikschs
I AM IN CHARGE OF THIS WHschshhs TERRIBLE TERRIBLE PLACE
YOU MAY CALL ME LUCYsschhk
OKAY SURE YEAH LUCY WORKS LET’S GO WITH THschhshskk
“In charge?” Alice repeated. “So y’can get us out of this goddamn place?”
IS THAT IRONY I CANNOT TELL
I CANNOT GET YOU OUT PER Skchhsss
THERE ARE TOO MANY OTHER PEOPLE IN CHARGE HERE
THAT IS WHY I NEED YOUR HELP
JUST EVEN TO HEAR SOMEONE NOT BEGGING FOR MORE THIS IS SO GREAT
THANK YOU TWO SO MUCH
Adelaide raised an eyebrow at Alice, who shrugged.
YES OKAY I SAW THAT
JUST TRYING TO HELP
THERE’S MORE OF Ysssssschhhhkk RUNNING AROUND I WILL TRY TO CONTACT THEM AS WELLsschchhk
NOT A LOT LEFT UNDER MY DIRschsh CONTROL NO GUARANTEES
BUT FOR NOWschhhskkkk
“What? I can’t-”
COME GET ME
I CAN GIVE YOU-
There was a high-pitched whine that grated on the edge of her hearing shortly before the terminal’s screen exploded, sending Alice reeling back into a startled Adelaide’s arms. Noxious black smoke shot out from the hole in the wall where the computer had been, rapidly darkening the ceiling with greasy-looking smears of ash. Alice coughed into her elbow, suddenly lightheaded; her eyes watered from the heat and the stench of burning hell-plastic filled her nose and mouth. She didn’t have the strength to complain as Adelaide began to drag her back to the puddle of cloudy water, cursing ponderously.
“Y’know I seem to remember these deals-wi’-the-devil endin’ a lot better,” the rusalka said, gently lowering the choking Tsote to the water’s edge. She slipped in with the grace of an eel, letting Alice’s head rest on her chest as she prepared to dive. “I thought we’re supposed to get gold or somethin’ afterward. Or like, livin’ forever. I’m feeling pretty gypped right now, Alice, I’m not gonna lie to you. What a fuckin’ joke, right?”
The Tsote did not respond, at first because she couldn’t breathe and shortly afterwards because she was once again underwater in Hell.