Candescent Clarity

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His heartbeat thundered painfully in his ear, mixing with the strange whispers that came and went like a terrible breeze between rotting trees.  He swore that he could feel spit spewing from empty space next to him as the strange language dripped into his ears.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

He shivered so hard he thought his back might spasm.

Robert knew that his wife would never make it off the planet, like most of those on Earth. There were only so many shuttles that were capable of escaping the gravity-well.  Not nearly enough.  They never made enough.  A terrible case-study of financial Darwinism.

He heard the airlock open, a whooshing creak accompanied by shouts and boots thumping into the passenger cabin.  Voices other than the ones from the darkness trickled through the flimsy plastic door to the suitcase compartment he crammed himself into.  A thin line of light gave him the air he needed to breathe and allowed him to hear his soon-to-be captors.

“Well, looks like Brillby finally offed himself.  Poor bastard.” A gruff chuckle.

“Have some respect, Clark.  The man lost more than most.” A reverent voice said.

“Hey — I said ‘poor bastard’.  Just… keeping it light.” Clark grumbled.  Slow, heavy footsteps.

“Jackson, what do you think?”  Silence.  Boots thumped around, and he heard the steel click of a rifle loading a bullet into its chamber.

“There will be no need for that, Clark.  Robert and I know each other.”  Robert felt frost spread within his gut.

Who is Jackson?  I don’t know anyone named —

The compartment clicked open and light flooded fiery fluorescence into his retinas.  Squinting, he saw the familiar sight of a gun barrel leveled at his face.  A man’s eyes came into focus, eyes dark as coal looking furiously at him.  A large hand came from the side and pushed the gun barrel down.

“God, Clark.  You still can’t listen.  You want to be stuck on sewage duty again?”  The older voice chided like an irritated father.

“No, sir.” Clark still stared at Robert with hateful daggers, unblinking.  He backed away, and allowed the older man to step forward and stare at Robert.  A shock of white hair on top of his head was contained by a small black beanie, a large and regal white beard covered his face and went down to the center of his chest.  The bluest eyes Robert had ever seen.  Like clear ice over a frozen lake.  He had seen this man somewhere before.  Somewhere.  But where?

“Robert, get on out of there.  Out of the shadows.”  Robert sheepishly climbed down with the awkward movements of an older, out of shape man.  A foot down onto the chair below – with hands still in the luggage hold – he began to slip and the artificial gravity caused him to fall — but Jackson caught him.  Strong despite his age and taller than he expected, Robert was set down onto his feet by Jackson holding him under his arms.  Like a parent sets up a toddler.  He felt the blood rush to his face.  Recovering quickly, Robert spoke:

“You said you knew me.  Explain.” The men erupted in laughter around him.

“This one has balls, lieutenant.”  Lee giggled.

“Leave us.” Jackson whispered.  The two guards exchanged glances.

“Sir?” They both said together.  Jackson remained silent, simply looking at them from the corner of his eyes.  They both looked at each other and shrugged in unison, walking toward the airlock.

“We’ll be right outside, sir.”  Jackson waved his left hand at them, his right on his sidearm.

“I know why you’re here, Robert.  Do you?”  Jackson asked as he stared unblinking with wolf-eyes.  Robert replied with silence and a stare.

“I finessed my way into this universe.  I followed you from outside your real home, back on Sedgebrook Drive.  You fell through quite the rabbit hole.  Again.  Do you know what’s happening yet?”

“What are you talking about?  Sedgebrook?  I lived outside of the city, within view of the Great Elevator.  What do you mean, ‘this universe’?  Who are you!?”  Robert said.

The older man shook his head.

“When you think of your wife, what memories do you see?”  Robert’s heart skipped a beat.  Those strange memories of a different timeline flashed again into his vision as he conjured the image of Linda’s face.  Something was horribly wrong.

“I… I don’t know what’s happening to me.  These memories aren’t –”

“Those are your true memories, Robert.  Each time you slip between worlds, they become harder to see.  Given enough time, they will vanish completely.  You have to focus, focus on your love.  That’s the only thing that they don’t understand.”

A thunderous explosion shook the Gwaden, and they both lost their footing and fell into seats across the aisle from each other.  They locked eyes and Jackson stood remarkably fast for someone his age.  He leaned over Robert and put his left thumb in the middle of his forehead with a soft force and his right thumb into the skin over his heart.  An electric current rushed through Robert, and memories he had forgotten about rushed back to him in an instant.  The cold forest.  The sands of post-war America.  The lights flickered and died inside the shuttle as another explosion rocked the Gwaden, and the red glow of emergency lights filled the cabin.  Whispers violently hissed, forcing fear to flow into Robert’s body.  A fear laced with anger.  He remembered everything now.

But for how long?

“They hate me, Robert.  I try to save the souls they keep.  You are not alone in this game.  Millions of people over the course of human history have become trapped in their game, replaced by the elites of their malevolent society…”

A blast rocked the ship, cracking a hole in the hull of the Gwaden.  Air began to rush out of the docking bay, and he could hear the screams of Lee and Clark as they were sucked into the vacuum of space.  The artificial gravity created by rotation was stopped as the frigate lost power, and Jackson skillfully glided over to the airlock and pounded his fist on the emergency seal to force the door shut.

“They are going to kill us both, Robert.  Fill your mind with thoughts of your wife, and your life.  Maybe they will be strong enough to –”

Another explosion rocked the ship and there was the monstrous sound of steel being ripped apart, violently tossing the shuttle out into space.  Crashing and tumbling, Robert was bounced around inside the cabin along with Jackson.  He protected his head the best he could, and pissed himself only a little bit.

“Dream of her to escape, Robert.  You must dream of  -”

A stray slug of iron tore into the shuttle, tearing it in half like a wet paper bag.  Robert’s eyes dilated from fear.  Remembering the first time he was knocked out by the vacuum of space, he could not help but let fear wash over him.  There were no happy thoughts to be had.  Clutching at his throat, his lungs burned as the air was pulled out of them.  He felt his eyes bulge, and begin to pop.

Stars looked on, devoid of emotion.  They had seen this all before.

And they would see it all again.

 


 

A washcloth woke him, icy on his steaming head.  Comforting.  Soft.  A skillful hand dabbed his fevered skull with the caring touch of a mother.  Almost settling back into the pillow, Robert began to sit upright and pain shot through his body, driving him back into the bed.  His legs were like hard, dead rubber.  Forcing his eyes open, the natural light made him squint.

“Hush now, don’t try to move.  I found you in the dark wood.  You should know better than to go there.  Bandits love to ambush travellers.  You had nothing but the clothes on your back when I found you.”  Robert’s eyes had adjusted and focused on the elderly woman who was tending to him.  The corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly upward, the tiniest smile.

“Where -” A cough thundered from his chest, labored.  He felt exhausted and weak. “Where am I?”

Who am I? 

This thought he kept to himself.  Robert knew his name, but his mind was a terrible mixture of shadows and fog.  He was scared, and tired.  So tired.

“You are far from home, ser.  Human land is a week’s ride from here, with a fast horse.  And we don’t have any of those left.” The woman sighed.  Something about the sighs of the elderly make one feel an existential despair, and it weighed on Robert’s fragile psyche.  Tears began to form under his eyes.

“Shhh.  There, there…  Don’t worry.  You have surely heard tales of Elven hospitality?”

 

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The Celestial Elder

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Jason Gathers looked back at the colonies being pulled into Earth’s gravity as he began to prime the small craft for a long burn.  Fire spread around the O’ Neill cylinders like fearsome flowers, orange mingling with yellow and red with a terrible fury.  The screams of millions of people burning alive went unheard as his engine spun up, and he felt a heavy sorrow grow inside his chest.

“I wish she could have seen this with me.  Who knew that revenge could be beautiful?”  Jason softly slurred to himself.  “Her hair was the same color when the sun shined just right.”  He felt a small pride that he had turned a group of exploited slave laborers into an efficient task force.  Each of their charges detonated at the right time, at all the right places.  The Earth’s gravity did the rest.

“They were good men…”  He whispered to the memory of his wife. “Friends, even.  But we all made sacrifices for this cause.”  As his engine kicked into gear and the long burn began, the charges he had secretly placed on their vessels exploded and destroyed all evidence of their involvement.  Shadows watched, pleased with the dark fruits of their labor.  Their suggestions in this universe have climaxed to this result.  A beacon he had dropped into orbit began an automatic broadcast on all channels, which had previously been completely jammed.

“People of Earth.  Escape while you can.  We are here to bring a new age to humanity.  We are here to show you that Earth is too small and too fragile a basket to put all of our eggs in.  We have played in this cradle for too long, and despite our advances the Earth cannot thrive under the weight of all of us.  Look above you, now.  See the terror the Republic and the Consortium have created.  They are destroying the colonies, and their sloppy work creates more destruction for the people on Earth, while they hide comfortably in their shelters.  They do not care for those in space.  We are expendable to them.  Rise up, and leave now.  We need your help to achieve humanity’s destiny, to spread our civilization to the stars.  Come, join us and prosper together in space.  Or stay, and die.”


Robert cried, his imagination showing him images of chaos in the major cities.  People fighting over each other to leave Earth.  Soldiers struggling to keep control and to keep their fingers from their triggers.  His wife alone in a crowd, trying to herd a group of small children.  There was almost no way for them to get out in time.  Not with an entire city trying to evacuate.  Hope was translucent, faint as a whisper in a thunderstorm.  If the colonies roaring into the atmosphere did not create the panic, then that broadcast that just played over the intercom certainly would.

In the cockpit, Jason’s accomplice cried too.  He was frustrated with his cause, knowing now that the people they condemned to die on Earth were mostly innocent.  There was no way to contact command and to call off Axis’ descent.  It probably had too much momentum anyway.  It could not be stopped.  Something else was bothering him.  Racking his brain, he could not remember why Jason ordered him to kidnap Robert James Lowman.  He couldn’t even remember the orders.  The shadows stared through him with smug, obsidian smiles.  They knew why.  Confused and isolated with his guilt, he programmed the autopilot to take Robert to the hidden fleet behind Axis, and sat back in his seat.  He stared at the blockade of ships in front of him that ignored this shuttle, turning to face the ancient celestial demon that doomed their home world.   Flashes erupted silently as he coasted above their firing solution.

“Useless.” He mouthed silently and put the small, silenced gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.  His body recoiled, and floated up.  Blood and brain vibrated strangely in zero gravity as the shadows laughed, dancing along with the crimson bubbles.  Whispers filled the cabin as the man’s dead body floated and dreamed of another universe.  Whispers from shadows that were always watching in pleasure.

Robert had moved ahead to the front of the craft to take Omar’s body and give it some semblance of respect by covering his dead face with his coat and placing it in a seat.  Robert could hear the raspy conversation, and stifling his tears he drifted toward the cockpit to investigate.  He gasped when he opened the door, seeing the corpse floating in the same moment as the whispers went silent.

“I must be going fucking crazy.” Robert muttered to himself.  He put himself in the pilot’s seat after softly pushing the corpse down and behind the chair.  Robert had no sorrow for this terrorist, regardless of his situation.  The only thoughts he could think were of Linda, horrified on the planet’s surface as humanity’s impending doom coasted toward them.  Remembering some basic flight controls, he began to flip switches and tried to move the yoke.  It was stuck in its programming, and he was unable to move the controls.  A notice flashed on the instrument panel:

PLEASE ENTER THE PASSWORD TO ACCESS FLIGHT CONTROL.

‘Password’ did not work.  ‘Guest’ did not work.  Robert slammed his fist in frustration on the flashing screen, which also did not work.  To the pleasure of the darkness, he was trapped in this thing on its way to the last place he wanted to be.  He pushed himself back into the cabin, searching for the escape pods in the back.  Their doors had been welded shut.  Probably a preemptive move by the terrorist to stop any escape.  Without options, Robert glided to the seats on the right, resigned to gazing down at the tracers within the barrage of hot steel.  Suddenly the front of the asteroid appeared underneath the shuttle, and he could see that the U.E.R.’s attack was barely whittling away at the surface.  The explosions were probably gigantic,  but the sheer size of the asteroid made it useless.

“Useless”, Robert muttered angrily.  He stared down at his elder, the massive stone rolling beneath him.  Pockmarked with craters, the ancient drifted underneath the craft for what felt like ages.  He tried to look off to see the edge, but the immense rock stretched out to blend with the darkness of space.  There were abandoned structures that dotted the landscape, old mining bases probably.  Finally the end of the space boulder appeared, and he could see mammoth thrusters that were darkened and cold.  Without realizing it, Robert had been crying this whole time, tears filling the space around his face.  He was startled into a scream as the V.I.’s voice broke the silence:

“Please buckle your seat-belts and prepare to dock.  We have arrived at our programmed destination.  Thank you for flying with The Consortium, where your comfort is our priority.”

Docking clamps loudly clamped onto the side, shockingly fast after this announcement.  He looked out the window and he could see dozens of ships surrounding the shuttle.  They were older transport craft, dirty and outdated looking.  There were massive guns on each of them, and he knew that they must have been jury-rigged to become a fighting force.  He saw the space around him disappearing as the shuttle was brought into a docking bay of a much larger ship.  Steel and chrome shined beneath the lighting inside as he saw the name of the craft painted high above the deck and the walkways.  The U.E.R.’s Gwaden.  The old ship thought to have been lost over 20 years ago on a deep-space patrol now closed around him.

The shuttle’s movement ceased with an iron screech as Robert’s heart pounded in his chest.  Who knows what these rebels would do to him?  They would probably think he killed the pilot.  He floated up and hid in an overhead compartment, not able to stop tears welling up in his eyes.  He was completely hidden, but he was not alone.  His fear was with him.  The shadows were with him, keeping him company.  And he could hear their gleeful whispers.  He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to fill his mind with his wife’s beautiful face.

Linda…

Suddenly he was seeing flashes of her in places they had never been.  Like lightning illuminating a darkened art gallery.  A beach at night somewhere, walking from a strange automobile that hadn’t been relevant for generations.  The same car at a 20th century drive-in theater.

What are these memories?  

He had no time to think more, as he heard the airlock start to open with a hiss and the creaking of metal.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Sand

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Alone and writhing in the obsidian emptiness of space, Robert James strained to breathe. The vacuum of darkness pulled at his lungs with furious persistence. His lungs burned for oxygen and his mind screamed:

PLEASE GOD LET ME WAKE U–

night sky hanging with a moon bro

Eyes opened to what looked like some dark corridor with holes dotting the walls and ceiling, light poking through them all into the dusty gallery. Robert could hear whispers echoing from every direction, the languages twisting between each other like tangles of smoke. Forgotten tongues blended with the arcane, and they all reached into his mind with each opaque syllable. Inhuman laughter let loose, laughing at him. His hands clutched at his ears to stifle the sounds, but they crept from within his skull. Heart heavily thumping a primal rhythm to accompany the intoxicating multitude of forbidden sounds driving him unceasingly to madness and he felt a scream begin to erupt from his mouth –

 

He was staring at an old ceiling, a brown-green-black blotched work of shitty abstract art. Heat filled the dry air as an ancient ceiling fan lazily rotated above him with infuriating slowness, creaking.

This is not my house… This isn’t even the place where I fell asleep…

He sat up to look at an obviously abandoned and ancient hotel room, completely dilapidated and… plain nasty. There were some big black bugs on the rotting dresser, and a dirty grey rat sitting propped up in the corner… Relaxing?

Oh… The dream. Right. Time to wake up.

Robert pinched himself as hard as he could and twisted a large fold of flesh on his forearm with all of his might, digging his nails in with extra force he summoned with desperation.

A desperation that comes from fighting a descent into psychosis.

Well…

Blood spotted on his arm. It continued to ache as he waited to wake, and he noticed the amount of dust and sand covering the floor. The mattress he was on, more a pile of springs and cloth, creaked with his standing up. The corner-rat scampered off into some hole, leaving Robert alone with his confusion. Shoes gritting the sand he walked to the window, covered by blinds that seemed dozens of years his elder.

“Might as well see where I am…” R.J. whispered into the musty air. Droves of dust flecks that were dancing slowly in the strips of light became erratic with this sudden gust. The pane of the window was covered in grime and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his suit, a dry cough escaping his mouth.

Robert James looked out upon a desert scene, sand dunes reaching to the horizon, the area near the old hotel could only be recognized as a former parking lot by the tops of cars peeking out of the drifts. The place was apparently named “Hotel Kansas”, as the sign sticking out of a golden heap read.

Looks more like the Sahara than Kansas. What happened here?

Robert ripped the hotel room door open after it stuck for a moment and it flew open abruptly. Sand spilled into his shoes from the mound that had blown up against the remnants of the building.

“Great.” He stepped outside, crunched up a hill, and looked around with eyes reaching for the blurred horizon: there were no other ruins in sight. He strained his eyes to the distance where motion glimmered through waves of heat rising off of the sand. The sun was beating down on a mass exodus of people.

Where are these people going? Why are they here?

Robert’s curiosity suspended his disbelief, and questions flooded his mind. He slid-walked down the dune he was on, and hiked carefully up the next one. His feet slipping down with each step, laboring to climb what seemed to be a disintegrating hill. Reaching the top, he crouched to hide his profile from the crowd and looked on. Hundreds of dusty people with down-turned faces slunk in huddled masses, all lurching toward some unknown refuge off to the empty horizon to his right.

As R.J. looked closer, he could see that there were military personnel urging the people forward, his ears catching the echos of men speaking to the crowd in a mix of English, Spanish… Chinese? Further ahead of the crowd, Robert saw a small detachment of desert fatigues talking together on a crest of a dune, pointing farther to R.J.’s right. He followed their gaze, and saw a massive wall of sand hanging on the horizon. It was so colossal it seemed to be still, but they all knew it was moving. Quickly too.

The men slid back toward the main group in a tumbling rush, and met with the other soldiers. They all seemed skittish, pitching glances around. One pointed in Roberts direction, and he felt the icy hand of a chill brush down his back. They dispersed and herded the crowd slowly toward where R.J. was. The sandstorm was closer now, the people were moving along faster with the soldiers trotting beside them. A baby’s cry carried over the sand and through the shimmering heat, wailing forcefully.

Robert stood and looked up again to see the storm, now noticing flashes of lightning within, and in the blink of an eye it seemed to change the direction it was heading, turning now toward him. The icy hand cemented its grip around R.J.’s heart.

Why can’t I wake up Jesus God please let me wake up I want to go home to my wife an–

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

 

A hollow, mechanical drone violently filled the air, echoing into the expanse like a foghorn. It was distinctly artificial, and loud enough so that R.J. was forced to cover his ears, but the vibration was so low and loud that he could still hear it no matter how hard he pushed his hands against his head. Sand slipped in tiny avalanches on the dunes all around him. The bones in his body shook, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the sound or the fear. The horrible tone lasted for a full minute.

The people all stopped silently in a valley between dunes, for just a moment, and looked around. The soldiers frantically urged them to continue, each holding a gun in one hand while windmilling their other arm fervently. As they saw the sand storm crash over the hills around them, spilling over them, they broke into a frightened sprint.

Like… roaches…

The baby continued to cry, but was cut off by another drone. Robert felt that the sound sounded ancient, somehow. Primeval. The sandstorm ceased along with the hellish tone, and there was a second of false silence as his ears rang. The chilling screams of the forsaken filled the air, drowning out the cries of the child. Robert beheld something which defied logic, and his eyes locked with horror on something that should never be able to exist.

A silver serpentine behemoth looked down at the crowd, and towered above the landscape. Sand fell from it as the harsh sun reflected off of chrome and it made a series of sounds: Horrifying whirrs from unseen gears, disgusting clicks from a gaping maw where dozens of cold steel mandibles slammed together in hungry anticipation. Hundreds of bright red eyes covered what could only be its head, flashing and darting in all directions. Robert fell to his knees in terror, as he watched the extermination of his species.

We are… vermin…

The mechanical colossus curled, lowering itself to the sea of humans trying to escape. Arms appeared, like titanic scythes, and began to slice into the crowd with the quick, efficient strokes of a skilled surgeon. The dunes surrounding were painted with splatters of red, turning the sand dark like mud. Sparks erupted all over the monster’s body as the soldiers began to fight back in vain. Robert cowered as bodies were tossed like insects into the air, the air whooshing around him with each methodical pass. Blood flecked across his face as a lone officer shouldered a rocket launcher and looked up to fire, hands shaking. The fear forced his aim to land only a glancing blow off what must be the being’s torso. It turned to focus its ancient gaze on the mortal, and another drone echoed out, freezing the rest of the humans where they stood.

An all-too-brief moment passed, and with strange intelligence, the thing leaned down further. The baby had survived somehow and was crying again into the macabre silence. A tumultuous sound creaked from the silver horror and its body opened to allow mechanical tendrils to spread from within. They reached, spreading around the baby to cradle it carefully and bring it back inside. Its desperate mothers’ arms were outstretched instinctively as the steel mountain confirmed the child was tucked safely within the darkness of its frame. With stoic professionalism, the carnage began with a new sincerity. Robert turned down the dune he was on to run somewhere, anywhere but here.

Silence. A gunshot, a loud thump of a muffled blow against the sand which peppered the back of Robert’s neck. Overwhelming silence. His feet scrunched the ground. There was nowhere to escape, nowhere to go. He was not sure if he could die anymore, but if he could he did not want to go like this.

My wife has no idea what is happening to me. How long have I been out? Am I even alive anymore? I want to go home…

The ground rumbled and he looked back, against his better judgement. Through tears of fear he caught a glimpse of shining silver as it slithered back into the dunes, whispers of sand moving and becoming louder, taunting him. It was coming for him now. It knew.

He looked down at the roofs of cars just under the sand in this desert of a parking lot. Roberts mind sparked with some understanding now, he had to go to sleep, and fast. He had to get back home, back to his wife and his life – however bleak he thought his existence to be, it was worlds better than where he was now. Worlds. His mind filled with thoughts, images, feelings of his wife. Her long, black hair. Those big, dark eyes. The beach at night when he proposed. He forced his mind to fill with only thoughts of her.

Her.

Dream to escape. Escape to dream.

Robert James jumped as high as he could for the first time in over ten years. As he guided his body, a fraction of a second he wondered if he had died and this was his hell. His hands clasped behind him as he flew head first toward the roof of a rusted car. His wife’s face filled his mind’s eye.

To die, to sleep.

To sleep…

Sleep.

Perchance to dream.

wispy sand gif

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