Rudy Valentino climbed down the rusty broken ladder until he reached the bottom of a long, dark tunnel. He stared up at the diamond shape chalked beneath the storm drain cover and aimed the torch forwards, grimacing at the foul stench filling his nostrils. The effluent debris of baby wipes, condoms and faeces drifted past through the sewage system.
Rudy followed the slow steady stream of discarded items, hoping they might lead to an outlet, then removed the map from his trouser pocket.
The map had cost a month’s wages to purchase from Gabriel Santini, an ex band member of The Razors. Santini was the lead guitarist in the The Razors, a band who had achieved infamy when their lead singer, Vince Razor, had disappeared overnight ten years ago. According to legend, Vince had walked out of rehearsals at the height of the band’s success to buy a packet of cigarettes, then never returned. Rumours swirled around the Underground Universe that the lead singer had died, quit music, or changed his identity to live anonymously in the suburbs. But those close to him told another story – he’d left everything behind in search of the Golden Gretch – and was never seen or heard from again. But Vince Razor was not the first. Others had come before him, seeking the guitar, never to be seen again. And those who did return were unrecognisable, their faces physically warped, their minds cracked and ajar so the light got in.
Cursing the dying batteries, Rudy tapped the torch until it flickered back to life and studied the badly drawn map. He frowned. Then turned it first sideways, upside down then righted it again, cursing Gabriel Santini’s poor drawing ability. Rudy knew if he walked in the wrong direction he could be lost for days or starve once his rations ran out, but if he followed the diamond symbols marked on the map he might follow in Vince Razor’s footsteps. Leaning against the wall, he felt the slow undulation of the tunnel beside him and thought he heard the walls breathe. Nervously, he tossed the backpack over his shoulder and marched forwards in his damp clothes, feeling the damp gnaw at his bones, and kept the torch level in case he didn’t like what he saw below.
The tunnel stretched on for hours.
The sound of escaping air hissed behind him. Rudy spun around and shone the torch in the opposite direction, expecting a snake, but found was nothing there.
Pointing the torch downwards, he noticed his numb legs were submerged in water. And the water was rising. Rudy rushed in the opposite direction, his eyes widening with fear as he chased a pinprick of light in the distance. Soon the water reached his waist and Rudy felt his body lift from the ground. Craning his neck to the ceiling and gasping for breath, the current forced him down river. Desperately swimming against the tide, he swallowed mouthfuls of dank brown water while furniture, dead creatures and excrement the size of boulders sailed towards the tunnel’s mouth.
Rudy screamed when he saw the edge of the world.
His body in free fall. Floating in space. Riding the air currents.
Rudy blacked out.
Then choked and vomited brown liquid with lungs swollen like balloons as he regained consciousness. Gasping for air, he raised his head out of the water and upended himself, then rolled onto his back, shivering. He stared up at the tunnel mouth miles above and wondered how he could have survived the fall. Closing his eyes, he brushed a hand along his trouser pocket and felt the map. Relieved, Rudy reminded himself not to fall asleep, and floated on a vast sea.
A slow and measured sound, like the beating of wings, came out of the darkness. Then something brushed his legs beneath the water, testing his reflexes. Rudy gazed into the water and drew his legs closer to his body, afraid of what lurked below. He felt it again and thrashed in the water, swimming away, before submerging his face in the water to see his pursuer.
Beneath the waves a blur of three beautiful gilled women circled him, their hair trailing like smoke through the waves.
Darting back to the surface, Rudy felt a hand wrap its bony finger around his leg and tug him deeper into the water. At first it seemed playful, almost seductive, but then all at once, perilous. Rudy’s lungs swelled. Lost beneath the waves, he kicked and thrashed in the water while the women swam beside him, kissing him on the lips and filling his lungs with air. One gilled woman stretched out her legs and wrapped them around his waist, smiling, while another woman glided towards his torso with her jagged teeth bared. Thrusting his arms above him, Rudy slipped from the embrace and reached the oceans’ surface, gasping for air. An object, perhaps a hand, wrapped and squeezed his body. With a powerful jolt, Rudy felt himself pulled backwards through the water, travelling at breakneck speed, and riding the waves.
Seconds later, Rudy felt his body rise miraculously from the sea, levitating above the water.
Grimacing in pain, Rudy felt something slice into his torso, then plunged head first onto a hard grey surface below. Bloodied and bruised, he stared at a sodden rope wrapped around his chest, squeezing the breath from his lungs, and clawed at the knots until it loosened. He took a deep breath and panted as a hand reached down and pulled him to his feet, enveloping him in an old worn blanket.
“Are you okay? I thought I’d lost you to the sea witches.”
Rudy’s eyes widened when he saw a woman’s scarred face beneath a carpet of long, curly grey hair. “Is that what you call them? Sea witches?”
“That’s what my father and my father’s father before him called them. They’re vicious, intelligent creatures, who have bewitched many a lonely sailor to join them in Davey Jones’s locker.”
Rudy placed a hand on the old woman’s shoulder and muttered under his breath. “Thank you, I owe you my life, man. My name’s Rudy.”
“You can call me Vanessa,” announced the old woman, “and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Rudy.” She extended a hand and gestured to the sea around them. “Say hello, Betty,” hollerred the old woman, stamping her feet.
A huge roar filled air for miles around as the boat rocked and leapt into the air, splashing on the ocean surface as Rudy gripped the nearest object and staggered across the vessel, suddenly feeling sick.
“Betty’s a woman’s best friend. She may look old and covered in barnacles, but she’s a tenacious old sea cow, just like me.
Rudy frowned. “Erm, I don’t mean to be rude, but where is she?”
Vanessa laughed, making the scar split her features in half like a watermelon. “You’re sailing on her.”
Scratching his head, Rudy stared at the rubber-like floor and watched it rise and fall as it if were breathing.
“Now come with me and we’ll get you warmed up and on your way, young fool,” said Vanessa. The old woman walked away and entered a wooden shack fastened with ropes on to the back of the vast mammal. Entering the shack, Rudy watched her fill a clay bowl from a cauldron above a small fire in the corner of the room. He slumped to the floor beside the fire and felt the warmth return to his fingers and toes while she passed him a bowl of soup.
“Drink slowly or you’ll burn your tongue.”
Rudy nodded and sipped from the bowl.
“What were you doing out there alone in the sea? Did your boat sink?” asked the old woman.
“I fell into the ocean when a tidal wave washed me down a sewage pipe into the sea. I was searching for the Golden Gretch.”
The old woman studied his face with a quizzical look and shook her head.
“It’s rumoured to be a solid gold guitar played by the most famous musicians in the world, man. It’s the holy grail of instruments, a guitar designed with no frets, like a violin so that you can play the notes between the notes. It’s rumoured to be made by God to channel choirs of angels and anyone who plays it will instantly become a better musician.”
“I take it you’re a musician, then,” laughed Vanessa.
“You could say that,” blushed Rudy, avoiding her gaze. “Or at least I used to be until I lost my mojo.”
“Well, I’m rather fond of musicians so why don’t you lie down on that bed over there and get some shut eye. We can talk about it again in the morning.”
Feeling tired, Rudy set down the empty bowl and crawled under a blanket on a nearby mattress, yawned and absently surveyed the room around him – a beer tankard sat on a ledge opposite. He opened his mouth to question the old woman about the diamond engraved into its design, but it was too late. She closed the door behind her and returned to sailing the sea cow across the oceans.
Rudy awoke to the sweet scent of charred wood from the dying fire, its embers blackened with brief dancing flames and smoke. Looking around the shack he slowly remembered the tankard and took it down from the shelf. He rolled it over in his hands, admiring the rudimentary diamond shape and carvings that appeared to tell a story between a man and a woman. Setting the tankard back on the shelf, Rudy smiled, patted the map in his trouser pocket, and walked out the shack to quiz the old woman.
“Where are we?”
Vanessa laughed. “At sea – where do you think?”
“But there’s nothing out there for miles, man.”
“Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. Have you tried looking up?”
Rudy gasped at a pink sky filled with a myriad of lights that flickered on the roof of the world. He squinted between the clouds, spying huge cities woven into the ceiling, their buildings stretching down towards him like fingers.
“My god, is that what I think it is? Holy cow.”
“That’s Osmosis, one of the last great citadels in the free world. They say humans can only reach it every one thousand years when the seas rise to meet its great cathedrals spires. I use its city lights to guide me at night.”
Fascinated, Rudy stared at the metropolis above him, watching its red canals filled with trains and boats that travelled above him.
“Last night you talked in your sleep – you were muttering something about a map.”
“Yeah, probably,” replied Rudy, checking inside his pocket. He took out the folded piece of paper and saw that it was damp and slightly smudged, but still legible. “It’s a map to the Golden Gretch.”
“Hand it over,” scowled the old woman, releasing her grip on the ropes to guide the sea cow.
Rudy shook his head. “Not until you tell me about the tankard in the shack – the one with the diamond engraved on the side.”
Vanessa shot Rudy a look of contempt which chilled his bones. “Why you ungrateful little bastard. Why should I tell you anything? Give me one reason why I shouldn’t feed you to the sea witches.”
“Because we’re both looking for Vince Razor, man.”
The old woman sighed and looked away to avoid Rudy’s gaze as the sea cow dipped its head gracefully beneath the water. Vanessa tugged at the huge ropes wrapped around the huge beast and sailed it against the current towards a foaming circle ahead. Suddenly the sea split in two when a vast school of plankton darted in opposite directions, seeking refuge from Betty’s open jaws. It scooped and swallowed them deep into its belly, releasing an almighty low groan of satisfaction as Rudy covered his ears while Vanessa grappled with the hungry beast, guiding it around for another sweep.
“You get used to Betty’s eating habits – this is her biggest meal in some time, the poor thing must have been ravenous.”
Rudy felt the sea spray splash across his face and shook the water from his hair. “So old lady, are you going to tell me about Vince Razor, or not?”
Vanessa glanced over her shoulder and spoke softly. “I loved him once, you know. I thought he loved me, too, but then one night he moulded that tankard beside the fire, and offered it to me as a leaving present. I thought he was mad to go in search of that stupid guitar, but how can a lonely old woman sailing a sea cow judge anyone else?”
Feeling pity for the old woman, Rudy reached inside his pocket and unfolded the map before her eyes. Vanessa smiled when she saw its design. “That’s Vince’s handiwork, I’d recognise his poor excuse for art anywhere – his beer stein wasn’t exactly pretty. Well, according to the map we’re not far from the filtration station now.”
“What’s a filtration station?” asked Rudy.
Vanessa aimed a long bony finger at the horizon. “That is.”
The sea cow ploughed through the tides, its body battered and struck by wave after wave, slicing through the water with all the grace of a moving, rolling rock. Rudy stared into the distance as sea spray funnelled into the sky and fell all around him, and watched a black speck grow into the size of a fist, and then an island. Vanessa pulled back hard on the ropes and slowed the creature beside a mountainous red island draped in translucent tubes that towered from the skies. The network of tubes snaked inside a huge dome chamber just beyond a wooden jetty, swollen and pumping furiously, as if it were alive.
Rudy stepped onto the jetty and stared in wonder while he waited for Vanessa to join him on the red opaque surface wavering beneath his feet. He stared at the map, trying to decide which direction to follow, when a voice called from behind.
“I never did tell you how I got this scar, did I?” shouted Vanessa.
Rudy turned to see the old woman tugging the ropes as she silently rode the creature away from the wooden jetty and out into the open sea.
“I loved Vince Razor but he broke my heart when he tried to leave in search of the Golden Gretch. I was so lonely that I imprisoned him for years, until one night, he tricked me and lived up to his name. He slashed me across the face, stole my life raft, and escaped to this godforsaken place. If you find him then, please, tell him I’m sorry.”
Rudy raced towards the sea cow, just in time to see Vanessa toss his back pack on to the wooden jetty. “Hey old lady, how am I supposed to get home without a boat?” screamed Rudy.
“No one ever returns from this place, young fool. Not even Vince Razor.”
The sea cow lurched back into the ocean currents and the old woman returned to her lonely life on the waves.
Feeling abandoned and alone, Rudy claimed his backpack from the floor and checked its contents. Inside was a bottle of fresh water, a parcel of cooked fish wrapped in paper, and a collection of dried sea weed. Vanessa had provided him with fresh rations. Kneeling down he touched the island’s red opaque surface which stretched like a drum skin, undulating and smooth, with blue veins shooting in all directions. With a sigh, Rudy studied the map and followed the water’s edge beside the domed filtration station, looking for an entrance. With each step he heard the sound of marching drums. They grew louder and louder, until at last he found a diamond shaped hole sliced into the wall like a door, and crawled inside.
The filtration station pulsated with deafening force, it’s walls receding and expanding in a ceaseless motion, pumping red liquid through huge chimneys that stretched into a never ending sky. In the centre of the chamber a black vortex swirled and sucked everything towards it like a magnet. Rudy clung to the walls, never daring to look down into the whirlpool for fear of losing his balance, and stumbled around the chamber’s edge until he came to an adjoining path that led into another identical room, and then another. Once he reached the fourth chamber he felt tired and disorientated and sat down at the vortex’s edge to rest and look for clues.
According to the map, the Golden Gretch lay just beyond the eighth chamber.
Rudy rejoiced in the thought of leaving the mistakes of his pathetic life behind him, and proving everyone he knew wrong. He’d grown old playing the gig circuit in different bands, always teetering on the edge of success, waiting for the moment a talent scout spotted him at the next concert. But time has a way of catching up with those who never watched the clock, and before he knew it, he’d become just another broke and balding musician, living in a bedsit with songs as rusty as his guitar playing. But Rudy still believed in a better future. He’d heard rumours of the Golden Gretch, a guitar that could nourish the soul and guarantee fame and fortune. It was buried somewhere out in the labyrinthine tunnels of the Underground Universe, where no one had ever found it. And now it was within his grasp – just beyond the eighth ridge – like a drunk’s last drink.
He climbed to his feet in excitement, and slipped on the liquid surface.
His body slithered down the ridge and was suddenly swept backwards, drawn by the current, towards the centre. His head bobbed beneath the thick red waves and rose again as he desperately tried to catch his breath, coughing out the liquid from his lungs. Rudy outstretched an arm to gain purchase on the disappearing edges of the whirlpool, and watched it slip from reach. Then something gripped his hand. It pulled him upwards, back onto the chamber surface. Rolling onto his back and coughing out the foul liquid in his lungs, he stared up at a hooded figure leaning over him, his face obscured by a cowl.
When Rudy finally regained his breath, he spluttered out the first words that came into his head, and thanked the stranger. “I thought I was going to die. Thank you for saving my life, man.”
The figure nodded silently, then turned to walk away.
And Rudy saw a diamond shaped emblem embroidered onto the back of his robes.
“Wait. Who are you?” exclaimed Rudy.
The figure stopped and spoke in a slow deep timbre that resonated within the walls. “I’ve been watching you. Take my advice and leave this place, before it is too late.”
Rudy shook his head. “No, I’ve made it this far and I’m not giving up now. You have to help me,” pleaded Rudy, rushing over and gripping the stranger by the shoulder. He gasped when the stranger turned. Half his face was disfigured and slumped like avalanche that threatened to spill of his face at any moment. Rudy stepped back and recognised the curse of the Golden Gretch.
But there was something else, something familiar in the stranger’s eyes.
“I recognise you. You’re Vince Razor,” announced Rudy.
“Vince Razor died a long time ago. I am now a disciple of the Order Of Hathor and have renounced all names.”
“That will probably make things difficult to have a conversation, so I’ll just call you Vince, for now. What happened to your face?”
“The chambers are deafening and the gravity so powerful that over time our features weaken, forever marking us.”
“Please, take me with you, man. You left behind a life of fame and riches to find the holy grail of instruments and become a better musician. But I’m different to you. I left behind a legacy of bad cheques, debt, broken marriages and broken dreams. I haven’t got a life to go back to,” pleaded Rudy. Tears streamed down his face as he dropped to his knees and clasped his hands together in prayer, waiting for an answer, and remembered his promise. “Please, wait…I have a message for you. I met Vanessa and she begs for your forgiveness, she’s sorry for mistreating you.”
Vince cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “Vanessa almost prevented me from seeking the Golden Gretch and finding my true path in life, but I should never have scarred her…Thank you, this means a lot to me and for that I am forever in your debt.” Vince Razor folded his arms. “Very well, but if you follow me then you can never go back.”
“I don’t care, okay.”
Vince Razor gestured for Rudy to follow him.
Rudy rose to his feet and shuffled after the disappearing figure, cautiously following in his footing around the swirling liquid mass. Reaching a great hall, Rudy eyed a myriad of adjacent chambers pumping the strange liquid through the filtration station, extracting large blackened tumorous rocks onto the floor. At the end of the hall Vince beckoned him forward, then leapt and disappeared into a secret opening below. Trembling with fear, Rudy peered into the void, then took a deep breath, and stepped off the edge.
Weightless as a bird, he floated through the darkness.
His fall was broken by an elastic-like surface. Rudy bounced and slid down another passageway towards a light, then came to a halt when his head cracked on a hard surface. With a groan, he rubbed his forehead and found himself in a room scattered with furniture carved from rocks. Large planks of driftwood were nailed together to form makeshift tables and chairs. Rudy settled into a chair and watched Vince Razor silently tend to a kettle over a small fire, then hand him a warm beverage. Rudy brought the cup to his lips and savoured the strange liquorice drink, and looked wildly around the room for signs of the fabled musical instrument.
“How did you find me?” asked Vince slowly, his mouth puckered and misshapen.
“The map,” replied Rudy, removing the paper from his pocket and unfolding it. “Gabriel Santini sold it to me, he said he copied it from your original.”
Vince Razor’s face curved into a uneven grin. “That blaggard. He was always riding my coattails and profiting from my music any way he could. Knowing Gabriel’s entrepreneurial skills he probably made and sold hundreds of copies.”
Rudy sighed and stared directly at Vince. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve only ever dreamed of writing music and being adored, but I haven’t written a new song in years. Somewhere along yellow brick road I lost my mojo, man, and I know the Golden Gretch can help me find it again.”
“The Golden Gretch cannot grant you fame and fortune, it is merely a conduit to express your true feelings. Believe me, I experienced adoration but it was just…emptiness. The truth is I left it all behind because success didn’t change how lonely I felt inside. The rest was just myth and money. Besides, it is stored in that old luggage trunk you are using as a coaster for your drink.”
Rudy choked on his beverage and set the cup down somewhere else.
He stood over the large luggage trunk beside him and felt his body tense with excitement. With tremoring hands he unlatched the clasps and lifted the creaking lid. Inside was an old electric guitar, its golden body flaked with cracked paint, rotten wood, and a thick layer of dust. Rudy removed the guitar and puffed to disperse the dust. Beneath the dust, the humbuckers and strings were rusted brown.
Rudy felt the weight of disappointment descend across his whole body and root him to the ground. “I thought gold couldn’t rust…or like Neil Young said, rust never sleeps. I don’t mean to be rude but are you sure this is it?” frowned Rudy.
“It’s been under the protection of the Order Of Hathor for centuries. Play it and you will know it’s real,” sighed Vince.
“Can I?” smiled Rudy.
Vince pointed to an old Vox guitar amp in the corner of the room.
Rudy plugged in the guitar cable and flipped the switch. The amp buzzed to accompany the sound of blood rushing through his veins and temples.
An electric pulse surged through the air when he plucked the first note.
Exhilarated, Rudy let the sound ring out through the air, bending the note and sending its pitch soaring like a beautiful birdsong of harmonics and feedback. The room swayed ever so slightly and Rudy staggered like a drunk.
And then he saw it.
Floating in the air like a mote of dust. A star aglow.
Sound made visible to the human eye.
Confused, Rudy plucked another note, then another, and saw star after shooting star sparkle in the room around him.
Cresting on a wave of beautiful melodies, Rudy felt his heart open and joy flowed through him like a child. With every note he felt his body becoming lighter, shedding its skin. He caressed the fretless guitar neck like a violin, riffing between the notes as he wrote his first new song in years. New chords floated and separated into dizzying, cascading notes, forming into a comet’s tail which sailed through the tunnels outside of the room.
Rudy Valentino left his body.
He watched himself leave the room and chase the notes through the ceiling, floating through towering tubes that led into the whirlpools he had so deftly avoided. His body reached a giant beating chamber at the centre of the Underground Universe. It chimed like church bells, heaved and sucked him into its centre, then spat him out. A powerful force sent him flying forwards until he came to a hatch in where the notes danced and flowed through the red walls, and disappeared.
Rudy reached out and lifted the hatch.
Music drifted outwards and upwards up to form stars which glittered and sparkled in a dark ceiling.
He felt his body rise to join them.
And looking down, Rudy Valentino saw the truth.
Beneath him, a huge monstrous stingray-like creature the size of a planet journeyed through the vast black nothingness of space, its vast colourful body dipping and diving through cosmic winds. The creature surfed gracefully through tides of stars, then lifted its head and turned its magnificent eye slowly towards him. A loud deep moan emitted from its widening jaws. Rudy recoiled in fear, flailing his arms and legs in the air, suddenly aware that he was flatting miles above it. Helpless, he stared across the blankness of space and saw more creatures calling to each other, their bodies radiating like butterfly wings. Without warning, Rudy felt the air suddenly sucked from his lungs and plummeted back through the hatch. His body fell like a stone through a succession of tunnels until the sensation of skin enveloped him, and returned to him to his body.
Confusion welled in his brain when he found himself standing in the centre of a room with a guitar strapped around his neck, staring at his bleeding hands.
“It’s okay, Rudy, you’re back safe and sound with me. You’ve been playing the Golden Gretch for three days solid,” said Vince Razor.
“What happened?” muttered Rudy, falling back into his chair.
“Your dreams came true…You played the Golden Gretch and wrote the music of your hopes and dreams, except, that wasn’t all it did, was it? The guitar showed you another universe beyond our own.”
Feeling giddy and hungover, Rudy ran his fingers through his hair and placed his head in his hands, desperately trying to comprehend what he had just seen. He slumped in the chair and felt his head ache and throb as if his brain was swelling.
“Don’t you see, Rudy? You’ve been on a journey of enlightenment, like me. You travelled through the Underground Universe – from its head, through its stomach, and finally into it’s beating heart. When you played the Golden Gretch you witnessed the truth behind your existence. The Underground Universe isn’t real, it never was.”
“I…don’t think I understand,” whispered Rudy.
Vince Razor grinned. “I didn’t, not at first. We’re all just parasites living inside a giant creature that’s floating through time and space. I mean, have you ever stopped to ask yourself why the walls breathe?”
Rudy felt his chest and head tighten. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, absently noticing his fingertips were grooved with calluses from playing the rusty guitar strings.
“The Order Of Hathor worships the creature with music from the Golden Gretch because we’re all dependent on the creature’s survival, for our survival. Now you understand why I left the music business. Everything is meaningless in comparison to the truth.”
Vince Razor held out a mirror and Rudy shuddered at his reflection.
Rudy ran his fingers through his warped features, and knew he had spent too long in the filtration station. Its centrifugal forces had disfigured him and he could never return home. Vince dressed him in a robe and placed the Golden Gretch in his hands, then led him along a secret passageway, until they reached a hatch made of skin.
And whistling a new melody, Rudy Valentino stepped out of the Underground Universe forever, ready to give the performance of a lifetime.
Copyright A.P. Hilton – all rights reserved
Copyright A.P. Hilton 2022 – All rights reserved