I stood blinking in the bright light. This was certainly not what I expected for an afterlife. No, wait, my chest still felt like I'd been hit by anvils simultaneously front and back. I may not be dead yet.

I reviewed the events after the crash. Crawling from the ship, yes--probably a stupid thing, but on the vids they always exploded right away, and I was terrified of burning to death. I could see the grey of moonlit snow, then a line of black on the ground. I thought it might be shelter, so I went for it. I touched it, and then--

And then I was here. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the light, I could see that I wasn't actually in that large a place. Kinda hexagonal in shape. Some kind of conveyor belt at the far end, which looked like pretty much the only exit. How I got in, I had no clue.

I shrugged, winced, and then walked gingerly over to the belt. As I stepped on it, it started moving. Somehow I'd expected it, and didn't lose my balance as I half-feared I would.

The belt took me out into a larger chamber, still hexagonal; each of the six walls had a hexagonal corridor coming out of it. Whoever designed this place was big on hexagons, that much was clear.

The conveyor belt stopped on a kind of central platform, and I stepped off. Instantly, another belt on the other side started up--bringing something towards me. Probably the welcome wagon.

My first sight of it made me slap my hip and then realize I'd lost my weapon in the crash. At this distance, my mind only said, "Spider." Had I fallen into some elaborate web? There was nothing I could do until it got close, so I'd have to hope I could dodge poison fangs or whatever it had.

"Shalom," a voice said from nowhere. I looked around, but the only possible source was the spider, or some kind of hidden speaker.

The spider reached the end of the conveyor belt, but it was still a good twenty meters away from me across the platform. There was a weird, alien odour wafting from it, that reminded of nothing more than the taste of monosodium glutamate; that in itself was enough to revolt me. I tensed to leap...

"Shalom, human," the voice said again. The spider waved two of its forelimbs in what appeared to be some kind of greeting. Okay, it was the spider.

"Hi," I said guardedly.

"Please of me not fearing being," it said. "I am Cuzomi, of Shamozan being. I am here you to be guiding and helping and informing. Please be, of what your name being?"

Oh, boy. This guy was worse than Shad, but I managed to parse it anyway. "Gullidge. Myron Gullidge." For a moment I thought it'd start calling me "Gullidge-Myron-Gullidge" like on a bad vid, but I guess it must have grokked the pause or something.

"Shalom, Gullidge." I was starting to get the impression its last human visitor had been Jewish or something. "You no doubt wondering being where you being. Hard to explain is, but is world made by race long-ago for testing race. Is still gates left open to reach place, one such afoul of which you ran. Unfortunately, no way leaving is."

That suited me fine, just at the moment. Shad would no doubt be in nine rages at the moment wondering where the hell my corpse had gone--unless the ship had blown up vid-style. Still, he'd want to make doubly-sure. "Nothing I wanted to go back to anyway," I said.

Cuzomi waved his forelegs again. "Is thusly mostways with those coming. Is how able gate activating, wanting an escape. Now, also, is you becoming something else. Through another gate you going, come out other side other race. Maybe like me, maybe still like you, more likely like other, other things. Is..." he waved his forelegs as if counting, "is three eights and three eights of eights of eights."

Now this I was more skeptical about. As battered and ill-used as this body of mine was, it was mine and I'd grown attached to it. Maybe this was all some weird spider capture ritual. Maybe it was time to make a break for it.

I suddenly ran at Cuzomi, catching him off guard. He raised his forelimbs in automatic defense, and I saw fangs dripping some kind of viscous fluid. My body was complaining all over, but I hoped it would decide to work with me on this one. A meter shy of the spider's waving limbs, I gathered myself and leapt.

One thing about being small(which I was)was that there was less of you to throw through the air. I even gave myself a little boost with one of the forelimbs, and cleared Cuzomi with centimetres to spare. Then I was running off down the conveyor belt, hoping to God that he wouldn't be able to reverse it right away. In fact, he didn't until I was only a few meters from the end, and then I managed to make another couple of jumps to clear it. By now I felt like I'd pierced a lung or something, and maybe sprained an ankle, but I kept on gamely all the same.

There weren't a lot of directions to choose. I picked the left-hand path at the first fork on sheer principle, and as I turned the next corner and saw the big black wall in front of me I thought of what a lousy time my principles had picked to betray me.

"Give up, human," Cuzomi said from behind me. "You are trapped. There is no escape but one." Its quaint grammar had fallen away, leaving only a cold, analytical voice. It liked to toy with its prey, no doubt.

I turned to see the spider only five meters behind me. I backed down the corridor, keeping him at a constant distance and trying to forget all I'd ever heard about jumping spiders. What had it said about one escape? Did it mean the black wall? How far behind me was it? I didn't want to turn and find out.

And I never did. One moment I was facing two meters of angry spider, the next my step back took me off the edge of something, and I fell into blackness. As the pain faded away I thought, this must be death.

Possibly to be continued...

Based on the words: Glutamate Markovian Shalom Viscosity;
taken from one of Mark-Jason Dominus' Keywords: lines

With apologies to Jack L. Chalker

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey /