Heedful Hospitality

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“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily.  His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun.  Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings.  It was a modest hut.  A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood.  A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames.  It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food.  This was my Grandmother’s recipe.  So you can guess that it’s an old one.”  She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do.  She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait.  Her silver hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip.  All at once completely alien and somehow familiar.  Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman.  My name.  But who… am I? 

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl.  Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out.  A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast.  Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva.  Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth.  The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional.  He was missing someone.  Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth.  He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide.  He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed to even know at all.  Robert remembered some of who he was.  They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face.  Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched.  His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them.  He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda?  Who is she?  A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.”  The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young.  When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t let her know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

 “You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name.  Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think.  His name was infamous enough that he knew to hide it from even this frail woman.  And she was so pleasant!  The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite.  He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut.  As if the potato was wrapped in guilt.  Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him.  He knew he had to get back to safety.  His mission was a failure, but he gleaned some important facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East!  You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes.  My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.”  She laughed softly and shook her head.  “Ever since that one day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear.  Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed.  He winced as the woman put her hand softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest.  Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could.  He must have been here for days.  Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand.  He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care.  I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home.  We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die.  Even if we do.”  He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness.  For now I must leave.”  She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers.  He was startled, and looked into her eyes.  Hazel, but darker.  He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People – Elves – went about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed.  “Roger Theregin?  More like Lord something-or-other.”  Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine.  She flicked her eyes over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag.  The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker.  Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows.  The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human.  To think that I would believe such a poor lie.  And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth.  Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause.  The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans.  This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family.  The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming.  Resisting the urge to take the large knife from her left and cleave it into his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented son.  So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world.  Even the Capital of the Imperium itself.  Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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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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Shooting Stars

 

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The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin and Robert stood frozen, clutching his suitcase.  He stared at the corpse of his friend as it floated eerily just above the floor, dead nose inches from the tacky carpet.  Gulping with a dry throat made him cough, and Robert covered his mouth involuntarily.  The man with the gun turned his sneer to a frown as he tightened his aim on Robert’s face.

“Don’t.  Move.  Slowly toss the suitcase down and put your hands up.”

What can I do?

Moments passed, and he tossed the suitcase to his side just as the man began to bloat with rage.  It quickly floated away and bounced around in the seats across the aisle.  He was in no position to negotiate here.

Here goes nothing. 

“You’re not going to get out of here alive if you don’t put down that gun.” Robert leveled his eyes at the man with a monotone drone his father used to use on him.  The man was defiant, like Robert used to be.

“Pfft!” The man expelled air in disbelief.  “No one in the U.E.R. knows this is happening right now.  No one but you.  And you have no way to contact anyone.”

He was wrong there.  This entire time Robert had been using his mobile to send a live stream of this attack to executive officials at the Consortium.  The communicator was floating now, dangling from his suitcase that hovered off to the side, above the seats.  If the man looked close, he could easily see a red light blinking softly.  But his attention was wholly on Robert, who continued his speech craft:

“Doesn’t matter.  You get to Persephone on schedule, you have security waiting.  You deviate from this shuttle’s flight path, you have military personnel just itching for action.”

The man stared with an empty face at Robert.  Slowly, the gun went to his side. Relaxing.  His eyes were deep in his face, and when the lights flickered for a moment he looked like a skeleton.  A slow smile found its way onto the tired man and Robert’s blood turned to ice as he spoke.

“We have seized Persephone, and the Prime Minister’s office there.  He’s surely been executed by now.  Justice… Justice is almost here.”  The man’s whisper was below a breath, and Robert only saw his lips move:

“Any minute now.”  The man was very assured of himself.

“Justice..?  What “justice” is this? Whose justice?  Who are you?!”  Robert shouted now, and the gun raised again in response to his agitation.

“We are the remnants of those you sent into space — those you sent to DIE!”  The man shouted at him, gun flinging wildly around with each gesticulation.

“What are you talking about?  Forced colonization ended over two decades ago!  Reparations were made!”

“Fool!” The man screamed. His teeth were bared with his lips pulled back in a snarl.  It took all the will he had left to keep his finger from the trigger.

“You think that those “contractors” you use are willing employees?!  What man would willingly take his family on the first deep space colonization?”

Families?

Robert only knew that the contractors the Consortium used for deep space were paid well, and supplied well.  He was under the impression that they were all willing scientists and engineers and workers.  Everyone in the world was.  Robert could only stare blankly at the angry terrorist, too confused to speak.

“What do you think happened to the colonists from before?  They just lived on like usual!?  Why did we need to have mass incentivized immigration to the Lagrange colonies then?!  They should have had plenty of people there already!  Are all of you so stupid?!”

“We thought there were casualt–”

The man slammed his fist into his chest loudly, grabbing at his heart.  His teeth were grinding, and Robert could hear them.  They sounded as if they would explode into dust any second.  Several seconds passed.

“You had… no idea?  No one did?”  Tears poured from his eyes in steady streams.  He did not sob, but the tears would not stop.  Robert shook his head.

“I have no idea what you are talking about.  We thought the contractors were all professionals looking for new frontiers.  ‘Pioneers and Adventurers!’ Haven’t you seen the promo commercials?”

“Good God.  It was only the execs who knew?   How could they keep such a secret, so many military personnel were used to move us all…” The man’s voice cracked.  He looked even more tired now, older.  Weaker.  Smaller somehow.

“Jason got us so riled up.  We were away for so long… No contact, or news… We just thought you all had forsaken us, and just used us up and tossed us aside.  But…”  He trailed off, staring out the window just over Robert’s shoulder.  The Earth stared back at him pleadingly.

“Hey… What is your name?” Robert asked quietly, with caution.  He slowly lowered his hands, and the man did not react.  His unblinking stare reflected the glow of the lights inside the cabin.

“It doesn’t matter.  All of this will be over soon.”  He sounded if he had already died.

“What do you mean?”

“Axis is coming.  It’s probably almost here.” The man whispered with great reverence, as if speaking of a mighty, vengeful god that could hear him.

“Axis?  What is that?” Robert asked, egging him on for more information.  If he noticed that comm device, all of this tenuous trust would fly out the airlock.  Robert needed more information.

“Axis is the reason you came up here, Robert.  But we lied to you about the specifics.” A sardonic snicker.  The man looked down and shook his head.  Robert was confused still but the shuttle’s autopilot interrupted, announcing that they would soon be docking at Persephone.

“I’ll get us away from the station.  There’s no reason for you to die there anymore.”

“Wait!!” Robert exclaimed as the man began to duck back into the cockpit.  “Why did you want me?  Why me?”  The man paused for a moment, and without looking back he spoke to Robert.

“I’m sorry about your friend.  I am.  And your family on Earth.  But there’s nothing we can do now.  Looks like you’re coming to space with us.  We will find a way to make you… useful.”  The door shut behind him, and the man whispered to himself in solitude as he flipped switches.

“Maybe.  I believe you enough to let you live, but my friends…  They probably won’t.”

shooting-stars-1

Robert drifted over to his phone, and ended the live stream.  He pulled himself into the seat and looked to his left out the window.  The vastness of space stretched itself before him, and he could see the blockade of frigates created in response to the alien discovery on Luna.  Something wasn’t quite right though, and he couldn’t place his finger on it.  He stared, confused at a shadowed part of space behind the ships.  A large place without stars.

Impossible.  Must be a trick of the light. 

He stretched his vision to see as best as he could toward the ominous darkness out there, beyond the frigates.  Robert passed several painful minutes in silence and he saw the shadow slowly grow.  A couple more stars disappeared within it. The darkness had been gathering its strength beyond the blockade.

“Fuck.  It’s a giant asteroid.” Robert breathed.  He pounded his communicator’s speed dial and reached electric along with his soul for his wife, searching.  Hoping.  He begged for her to pick up, but it was a Monday, and she was probably still in class.  Looking at his watch as the phone rang, he pleaded for some cosmic being to tell her to pick up the phone.  But nothing was listening.  Nothing good, at least.  Unknown to Robert, his extreme emotions and fracturing psyche were the source of macabre delight to the demons that placed him here in this universe.  He was nothing more than a pawn.  His fear and frustration and existential horror tingled the shadows and made them dance with delight.  Lights flickered in the cabin.  Whispers of their ritual leaked into his mind and tickled his ears, and Robert whipped around to find what made those sounds.  A language he had never heard but for some reason found too familiar.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

In this moment he finally reached the front desk of the school, and he asked to speak to Mrs. Lowman, with as much normalcy as he could muster.

“Linda… You need to dismiss class and get everyone out of there.  You need to go to the emergency shuttle outside the city, a panic will start soon.  I know it.”

“R.J., wait, what are you talking about?  Everything is fine here.  Nothing is wro–“

“Listen to me, Lin.  You have to trust me.  Get out of there, please.  Please.”  Robert began to cry.  “There’s an asteroid coming.  It’s terrorists.”

“Robert James, this isn’t funny, ” Her voice cracked and gave a nervous laugh.  “You got me, OK?”  Suddenly he could hear a siren go off in the background, and the kids all screamed in unison.  “Robert, oh my god. It’s on the Persephone camera feed.  You weren’t lying!  I have to go, but how did you know?!  I can’t do this alone R.J.!  Where will I meet you?!”

“I’ll find you!  Don’t go to Persephone! It’s a trap!  Linda?  LIN?!” But the line was already dead.  He looked at the communicator and saw that there was no service at all.  The Consortium must have alerted everyone, just like he had hoped.  But there was no way to prepare for something like this.  A mass evacuation plan had been discussed, but there were nowhere near enough shuttles available for an exodus like this.  He could only imagine the chaos his wife would have to endure trying to escape.  If she could even get out of the city.  But why was the service cut off so suddenly?

He floated over to the other side of the empty passenger cabin to look at the Earth.  He felt cold as he stared at massive shooting stars entering the atmosphere, and he couldn’t understand what they were.  But then he realized that they were the various O’Neill colonies slowly falling into the atmosphere.  New Sydney, New Beijing, New London.  They were being ripped apart by the Earth’s last line of defense.  Several million people lived in each of them.

Something suddenly slammed into the window Robert looked out of, and he screamed at the unknown horror as it drifted away.  Then he noticed that it was a human corpse.  More of them were tumbling by, and it sounded like a hail storm outside.  The ship turned away from Earth as he watched the burning colonies returning home.  A bright flash lit the night side of Earth below him, as one cylinder hit the Indian subcontinent.  His view turned with the ship, and he saw what was left of the great crown jewel of humanity’s first steps into space.  Persephone was now nothing more than a blossoming flower of twinkling glass and steel that spread partly into space, partly into orbit, and partly into tiny lines of fire streaking down to the Earth.

The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin, a steady rhythm to accompany the sobs of Robert James.  The shadows watched him and trembled with pleasure at his hopelessness, whispering among themselves in impossible tones.

On the Earth’s surface, a child in a rural area stared up in wonder at the great streaks of light flying across the sky.  He giggled and laughed as he held out his arms like an airplane, running back to the house as fast as he could.  He wanted to share this moment with his mother, who waited inside crying as she watched an emergency broadcast repeat itself.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Infinite Ice

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The stare of stars from eons ago gave a passing glance to the tiny craft drifting slowly away from Persephone Station.  Veiled by the darkness and coasting through space, it went unnoticed on the radar of the large U.E.R. frigates that formed a mechanical canyon around it.  Drifting and rotating slowly.  Just like a bullet that was stuck in time.

“Even if a member of the crew looked out a window, they might not even notice this thing.”  Jason Gathers half-chuckled as he took a small swig from the bottle.  Nose burning from the scent, a tiny bit trickled from the corners of his mouth and bubbled in the small cabin around him, twitching and trembling tiny little amoebas of alcohol.  Silence purred.

“Wish I could at least listen to music, this is going to take a while.”  He gobbled up the bubbling bits of whiskey from all around him, and Jason reminded himself of a dog he used to have.  Junior giggled endlessly watching the dog chase after the bubbles that Jason blew for the pup to chase.  After papa taught him how, Jason Junior loved blowing the bubbles himself.  New liquid appeared in the small compartment as he stared out the window at the stern steel sides of the massive warships.

These bubbles came from his eyes, translucent and reflecting the lights that littered the sides of the frigates.  Thousands of portholes stared at Jason.  He stared back.  Thinking.  His wife used to tell him that he thought too much.  After what happened on the mining base, she never spoke about it again.  She never spoke about anything.  Tears constantly flowed from her hazel eyes as she stared off in silence.  She gazed at the spaces in-between atoms.  A half-trained doctor that the workers had access to made some vague diagnosis:

“She’s traumatized, Jason.  There’s not a lot I can really do for her besides some kind of therapy, and I don’t have the time…” The Doc motioned behind him – like a ringleader in a circus – to the lines of tiny dirty cots behind him in the cave that was his clinic.  Coughs mixed with wheezing breaths and the barely audible sound of mice chirping to each other from the shadows.

“There’s not enough meds to go around to fight this flu, and the accidents keep piling up.  I’m doing the best I can.  I’m sorry.”  Jason stared back at the Doc.  His eyes must have been hollow looking, tired.  He sure felt tired.

“Look, Jason…” The Doc put his arm carefully around the shell of a man, and walked him out of the cave clinic and into the main cavern.  Even through his shirt, the Doc could feel that he was cold.  Stalactites poked down threateningly.  They seemed larger than usual.  At least it didn’t smell like gangrene out here, Jason thought absentmindedly.

“Just try and talk to her.  I know it’s hard… All of us cried for you.  Just like we cried for the Willow family, and for the Karns.  I’ll tell you the same thing that I told them: Talk, be with each other, be there for each other, and for god’s sake – keep working.  Idle hands do the devil’s work, they say.  Sure wish they’d give the guards more real work to do.  I hear they get fed well.  I bet they could mine if they tried…”  He trailed off awkwardly.

Jason stared at Doc’s face.  He was trying hard, but Jason’s mind hardly retained any of what he said.  His wife was essentially catatonic.  She had one sick day left from work, but if she didn’t show up for her shifts then they would put her out the airlock.  Just like the old lady Karn, after her sons were killed for insubordination.  Jason forced a smile.  The doctor forced a smile back and disappeared back into his clinic.

More tears were bubbled around Jason in the cabin of the craft.  His hand was playing with the grip of his sidearm absentmindedly, and he took his hand away to swat his stray tears.  Only a few more minutes before he would be able to kick the engine on, and get back to Axis.

An old proverb of sorts crossed his mind: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”.  Space was very cold.  He saw his wife’s streaming tears turn to ice in an instant as the air whipped out of the airlock.   Tiny bits of ice spiraling into infinity.

 

 


 

 

“I’ll never get sick of this view, R.J.  It makes you feel small, every single time.  It’s humbling.”  Omar was looking over Robert’s shoulder at the Earth’s sphere below them.  A beautiful orb hurtling through space.  The moon could be seen hovering over the opposite side of the blue and green glow below.

“I wonder how long ago that weird shrine-thing was placed there on Luna.  Do you ever think of that?”

“Not really, Omar.  I’m actually crunching some numbers in my head.  Do you have the recent market price for yttrium?  I think it spiked again because of the U.E.R.’s increase in ship production.”

“Sure.  I probably have it in my folder here.”  He started ruffling through his papers and Robert thought about other polite ways to tell him to shut up.  He needed silence to think every time before a negotiation.  “Robert-time”, his wife called it lovingly.  She always knew to just give him some chamomile tea and to go watch the TV in the other room.  God, he loved her.  And he was lucky enough to be loved back.

“Here, R.J.  This is that memo they sent out the other… What the fuck?”

Robert looked to Omar, irritated.  His eyes were wide and locked straight ahead.  Robert followed his gaze to the door to the pilot’s cabin, which was ajar.  Dark blobs came tumbling and fluttering out, the strange dance of liquid in zero gravity.

Omar unbuckled his seat belt and pushed off his chair, drifting quickly to the front.  Steadying himself quietly on  another cushioned chair, he slowly reached out and poked one of the dark blobs and Robert watched as the liquid trembled away from him.  Looking at his finger, the color drained from his face.  He looked at Robert and mouthed:

“Blood”.

The sound of a heart thumping filled Robert’s ears.  He and Omar stared at each other, each wondering what to do.  All the while the blood tumbled through the air between them.  Robert grabbed his suitcase, and he looked up to see a man wearing a pilot uniform holding a large knife to Omar’s throat.  A skinny, long blade.

“I take it this one’s name isn’t ‘Robert’, is it?” The man sneered through gritted teeth.  Robert reached his hand up and out to Omar’s horrified face.  A vain gesture.  The blade pressed tighter against his throat for a moment, drawing blood.  Robert continued to stare in silence, unable to respond to the terrible question.

In one swift motion, the man flicked the knife back, pushed Omar to his knees with a hand and a quick kick, and stabbed straight down into the back of the neck.  After a spasm, Omar’s dark eyes rolled back into his head.  The man grinned as the limp body was pushed onto the ground, and bounced softly back up.  Floating face-down as if possessed.  In shock, Robert could only feel a numbed surprise at how little blood came out.

“You’re coming with me, Robert — or should I say R.J.?” The sinister sneer was almost cartoonish in proportion to his face.  R.J. felt cold, only his friends called him that.  How could he know?  Robert’s face was an open book.

“We know more than you might think.  We have people in the Republic government, in the Consortium…” The man chuckled as he drew a small silenced gun and pointed it at Robert.

“We are everywhere.”

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

 

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Whirlpool

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The alarm bell rang with intense fury as the storm outside the ship’s cabin faded into silence.  The ocean waves bobbed the vessel up and down, and Robert’s great fear of drowning blended into nausea.  The crew was shouting outside, working effectively even without their captain.  Robert stepped over Captain Gathers’ sleeping body and peeked outside at the deck.  The horizon was swallowed by the immense titan of the sea, with its riders perched on top, preparing for battle.  It was larger than he had expected, for it was still growing toward them.  Surprised that it hadn’t arrived yet, he realized that it must be impossibly large.  Even its riders must be gigantic.

Robert was startled by 2 crew men suddenly outside on the deck, but they were distracted by the .50 caliber machine gun that they were bolting into place, facing the direction of their impending doom.  A titanic rumbling was growing louder, and no one could tell if it was the sound the creature made on purpose, or if it was the sound of the massive water displacement as it came toward them.  Regardless, men were having trouble fighting off their fear.  One man alone by the helm clutched at a picture of his wife and young child, born just before he left on this mission.  His last mission.  Tears blended with the sea spray as he pushed the throttle down further, trying to pull away from his fate.  The engine roared over the crashing of waves on the bow.

 

whirlpool 2

 

Robert still struggled to remember who he was, and how he got here.  Collapsing into a chair, he held his head in his hands and tried to fight off his nausea.  He felt a ring on his finger and looked at the gold glistening in the flickering light.  Married.  He grabbed a wet wallet from his hip pocket.  Photographs.  Children.  He saw one of his wife from their wedding day.  It was almost ruined from the water, but he could still see her eyes, and the way her black hair fell over her shoulder.  As if an invisible artist took great care to make sure she looked perfect.

“…Let me help you clean that up, breakfast is on the table.  I took today off so I could try to cheer you up…”

He snapped upright as a memory shot electric through his body.  Eggs, over easy.  Toast, perfectly tanned, lightly buttered.  Bacon, crisped to perfection. Coffee, black, with cream waiting to be used in a cute little cup with a tiny little handle.  It all was coming back to him now.  His unemployment, his depression.  The reason he used dreams to escape his life each morning with a new nap under an old oak.  The way the sun shone through the leaves that day, when he fell into some terrible reality.  To escape, he must dream.  But to truly dream, he must escape.  The strange old man!  The words he heard, urging calm, must have come from him!  Did he know how to truly escape?   To truly dream?

The .50 cal exploded from outside the cabin, and Robert was so startled that he fell back down.  He almost hit his head hard enough to be knocked out, but it just throbbed red hot in agonizing waves of pain.  He knew what he had to do.  He had to get back and save his wife from his copy.  The Dark One.  It ate the tanned toast that should be his, and had the wife that he should be with.  Rage bubbled inside of him as he imagined the malevolent smile looking at him from his own doorway as himself.  Robert stood and looked out the window, the gun chugging bullets as the boat bobbed up and down.  The leviathan was still growing larger now, consuming the entire horizon.

How could something ever be so big? 

A sound came from behind Robert and before he could turn in time the Captain had his arm in a lock behind him and his face pressed up against the tiny circular pane of glass.

“You really fucked up now, bud.”

“Please, please knock me out!” Robert groaned out as his shoulder almost dislocated.  Tendons stretched and popped as Gathers squeezed Robert’s forearm higher up on his back.

“You don’t get out that easy, bud.  You cannot escape.”  Robert’s face paled as he saw the faint smile of a Cheshire reflected in the thin pane of glass his face was pushed against.

“We are everywhere.”

 

whirlpool 1

 

Robert struggled and slammed his head back into Gathers’ shifting face, and a half-human squeal erupted from it.  Whirling around to face his assailant, Robert saw shadows spiraling back into the ears, mouth, and eyes of Captain Gathers, who now stood before him.  He looked confused.

“Hey… You knocked me out!”  Robert breathed heavily and rubbed his left shoulder.  He saw his chance now.  Anyone else would have just thrown themselves overboard and let the sea take them, but Robert could not bear to face that fear.  Not yet.

“I’ll do it again if you give me the chance, boy.”  Robert straightened his back and put up his dukes.  He wanted to get the hell out of this reality before the sea creature swallowed him up whole along with the boat.  Gathers let out a huge laugh and gave Robert a straight kick to the chest, flinging him back into the bulkhead.  The wind was knocked out of him and he couldn’t stand up or resist.  Gathers picked up Robert by his shirt, and brought his feet up off the ground and slammed him back into the wall.

“I’m going to work you over, buddy.”  He sneered into Robert’s face as he raised a fist.  The .50 caliber erupted hot lead outside, startling the Captain.  He dropped Robert and looked outside, pressing his face against the glass.

“My God… I’ve killed us all.” Robert stood up behind him, and paused awkwardly.  Should he try to knock himself out?  He didn’t have to worry about it for too much longer, as the aquatic behemoth suddenly began to submerge itself just as it came upon the boat.  The men at first began to cheer, but then the sheer mass of the being going underwater created a massive maelstrom off the port bow.  The gaping maw of an ocean god pulled the boat in and as they went down the boat tipped onto its side, and the death screams of fishermen filled the rushing vortex of wind and water.  Filing cabinets tipped in the cabin, and the corner of one impaled the Captain against the door with a wet thud.

“I’m sorry… Eveline.. Junior… Forgive me…” Bubbled blood coughed from his mouth as he breathed his last.  A fire extinguisher caught Robert on the back of his head as he stared at the dead man who wanted a better life for his family.  Sympathy came easily as darkness filled his vision.  More darkness.  Infinite darkness.  Almost as black as his wife’s hair.

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

 

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Just Beneath the Surface

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A darkness so complete.

He felt cold.  Looking all around, there was nothing to see.  He could not even see his hands or his body below him.  He felt as if he were a solitary eye floating in ink.

A darkness that breathed.

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Escape to Dream

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Knuckles aching on the wheel, Robert glanced again nervously into his rear-view mirror.  His imagination had been playing tricks on him – the police officer was exactly what he appeared to be.  Not a horrifying demon aching to consume him.  Merely a man.  Robert began to pull over, the black truck crunching onto the gravel shoulder of the road.  The cop’s car eased in behind him, and rolled to a stop with a loud creak.  Dust settled around them both as Robert looked again at the policeman and his dark sunglasses.  He was still just a man.

For now.  I have to make this as quick as possible.  

With an involuntary sigh, Robert stared at the road stretching itself out in front of him.  The trees swayed lazily in the breeze, the clouds slowly tumbled over each other across the bluest sky he had ever seen.    This was a day to stretch out somewhere silently in the shade of a great oak – maybe in a park somewhere – and dream.  Sitting in the quiet of the truck’s cab with the windows down, a cool draft of clean air caressing his beard and hair made it almost impossible to keep awake.  He snapped himself alert and rubbed his tired eyes.  Falling asleep was exactly what the darkness wanted.  For a reason unknown.  Something they desired was dependent on his being unconscious.  They needed him to fall into strange and impossible universes.  They wanted him to descend further into the endless depths of thirsting darkness echoing with the laughter of forgotten gods.  But his eyes were so heavy now.  Too heavy. The lazy air was laced with the faint scent of wild flowers.

wildflowers

The cop knocked on the roof of the cab and shocked Robert back into this reality.  Quickly jerking awake, Robert began to apologize:

“Officer, sorry for spee–“

“License and registration.” He cut Robert off with a blank expression that was somehow laced with suspicion.  No doubt earned through countless stops just like this one.  Countless apologies that fell on deaf, stoic ears trained by years of experience.

“Sure! Just, uh, bought this truck, actually.  So the registration is not updated yet but let me give you the card of the fellow that sold it to me.  It’ll check out.”  A nervous grin spread on Robert’s face.  His normal salesman smile probably wouldn’t have helped him anyway.  Not with this statue of a man.  He looked at Robert’s license, then at his face.  Without a word he turned and walked back to his squad car that looked freshly cleaned and waxed as it glistened in the shimmering sunlight.

Hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, Robert’s hands tapped with the rhythm of war drums from a far-away land that he had never even thought of once in his life.  He stared straight ahead as best he could, watching the clouds roll over the world in front of him.  The cop was probably far enough away that he was safe.  Both Robert and the cop were safe.  With a sigh and a stretch he eased his head back to look into the rear-view mirror at a towering juggernaut with black armor walking toward him.

Goddammitholyshitwhatthe —

His hands fumbled clumsily for the keys and they flew up into his beard and got tangled in the wiry hair that he was still not used to.  Swears turned to pleas for mercy as he finally just ripped the keys out, taking a chunk of hair and skin from his horrified face.  Blood trickled down from his chin as he shakily put the keys in the ignition, the car growling instantly with desperate fury.  As he peeled away, throwing up gravel and dust, he stared at this new creature.  Towering and slow, the armor was shining shadows, absorbing light and yet glistening like folded steel.  It came to a stop and stood with its freakishly long arms crossed, the sharpened smile so familiar to Robert now adorned the black space that was its face.  Tires gripped the pavement and pulled Robert away, and he looked again at the monster.  It pointed now in front of his truck, and he followed its gaze to a billboard that read:

We will always find you.

 

He slammed his fist on the wheel in rage.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought off accepting the truth of his situation.  The roads were familiar now.  He was almost home, where his wife waited patiently to find out what happened to her husband.  She must be either terribly scared or terribly angry, and Robert felt terrible to be the cause of either.  The truck roared down the road, going around one curve on what felt like two wheels.  The air whipped into the cab through the open windows, flicking drops of blood from his chin onto the windshield and all over the place.  A red, macabre version of Jackson Pollock’s work.  The wind smelled impossibly fresh, the rain’s scent still strong from the night before, mingling in along with the growing sound of sirens behind him.  The cop car began to pull itself closer to him, and Robert glanced to try and catch a glimpse of the demon, but it was the policeman again behind the wheel.  He was probably oblivious that Robert was fleeing because he had turned into an armored hell spawn moments before, with arms that dragged the pavement and threw sparks with each step.

The policeman pulled the cruiser up close to the truck’s bumper, and nudged it.  At the speeds they were going it caused Robert to nearly crash, a horrifying lurch to the right and then straight again let him have a moment of relief.  Robert had almost over-corrected, nervous and exhausted as he was.  Even in this situation, with tons of steel and fire rushing down the road – trees whipping by – the roar of the engine was more like a hum trying to coax him into sleep.  The cop was gaining again, and moved to try and hit the side of Robert’s truck inside of the next curve on the right.  A near-miss that could have been the end, Robert looked to see a familiar block up ahead, he was so close to home now!

So close.

An amazing tree stood towering on the corner of his street, a tree that his son had played under all those years before with the neighbor boys who were also grown now, working and living somewhere else in this universe.  As he began to slow and turn the corner, he could almost see the shadows of the life that he was racing back to: a football spiraling slowly through the summer air into the hands of a laughing child as the smell of slightly burnt hamburgers danced into their noses.

The cop almost caught his bumper again during the turn, but the maneuver was unnecessary.  Robert had taken the corner too quickly and over corrected, causing him to fishtail down his street.  The truck finally caught traction, but the angle of it threw his truck onto his next-door neighbor’s yard and into their apple tree with an immense thundering.  The windshield shattered and rained glass onto Robert’s head as it slammed into the steering wheel, and it was only through sheer will that he remained conscious.  Pain burned red hot throughout his body, pulsing.  The sun even seemed to pulse in tandem, high in the sky.

Steam poured from the crumpled hood of the truck, and the crash lured neighbors to their windows to investigate the normally quiet suburb.  Sirens began to drone louder as he unbuckled his seat belt, and collapsed from the car in an exhausted heap.  His head hung low and he stared at the grass, vibrantly green and pulsing with detail in rhythm with his pain.  Blood trickled down his face and dripped slowly onto the ground, and he forced his head up to look at his house.  His wife’s car was in the driveway, and his heart nearly exploded with joy.  Tears welled up as he staggered to his feet, clutching ribs that felt broken.

Only… a few steps… 

He shuffled and kept staring at his house, at the windows and the door.  He knew in only a moment or two his wife would look out and see him like he had never been before.  A fear blossomed inside of him.  A fear that he would be a stranger to her like this, unrecognizable with the blood and the beard.  The suit that was once so fresh was sticking to him with sweat, and covered in stains.

A few… more steps…

A ringing in his ears began, and it drowned out the sounds growing around him: The shouts of policemen drawing their guns and telling him to get on the ground, the screams of housewives running back inside their homes.  But the wind blowing through the trees remained clear.  The calming rustle of leaves against each other, and the whispers of molecules winding their way through the branches.  The only other sound that was just as clear to Robert was the familiar moan of his front door that always creaked no matter how he oiled it.  A former source of frustration coaxed the tears of joy to flow harder.  The front door was opening, and his beautiful wife came out.  Her long, black hair flowed over one shoulder, and she stared at him in disbelief.  She recognized him!  But the recognition was tainted with something else.  Something familiar to him now after the last few days.

Horror.

She turned and went back into the house, covering her mouth with one hand.  The door stayed ajar.  Robert was exhausted, and he collapsed onto the grass and pain exploded in his chest from shattered ribs.  He used his entire strength to look up at his home, the one that he had fallen in love and raised his family in.  He looked, and he saw himself standing in the doorway.  Clean cut, wearing a fresh new suit tailored to fit.  A black suit with a black shirt and tie.  The Robert in the doorway smiled at him, with a horrible malevolence.  The smile of a sadist.  The Robert in the grass collapsed, and had no strength to lift his head more, so that his view of his doppelganger was sideways and distorted.  Robert could feel his hands clench into fists and his teeth grind together as the other Robert smiled and turned his head to match the angle of the true Robert.  The fake mouthed three words as the tunnel vision grew and unconsciousness gripped the real Robert:

“We are everywhere.”

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Dream to Escape

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anime rain

 

The lock turned on the wooden door as the rain began to fade.  A dull roar reduced to a whisper. Stepping away, he tried to control his heart’s violent thumping against his ribs, aching with each breath.    The door pushed open with horrifying slowness, opened just wide enough for the man’s words to come into the room.

“Maintenance?  Maintenance.  Sorry for coming so early but… uhhh… the water is out.  Still… uh… trying to find the problem” He trailed off awkwardly.  “Are you awake, mister?”  The door opened a bit wider so that the top of his head could poke in and look at Robert, who had just finished rumpling the bed to make it seem slept in.  Like a bed should be when one has paid for a hotel stay.

“Yes,  I’m awake now” Robert dourly spat at the handyman.  Exhaustion had whittled away at his typically affable demeanor, exposing the irritable asshole that lives within us all.  “Hurry with whatever you need to do.”  The man paused in the doorway after sliding in, looking around the room sleepily.  Robert watched this with vexation and repeated: “Hurry.”

“Fine, fine, jeez.  Sorry.  I’m still half in bed.  I’ll get out of your hair as soon as I can, buddy.”

Robert was filled with a subtle fear.  However, the bile of irritability was thick in the sea of his emotions and he could not help but think:

I’m not your God-damned “buddy”, guy.  

 Taking his tool kit along with a new found irritability that Robert gave him, the handyman moved past Robert’s grim face and crossed arms without a glance.  Getting into the bathroom, he had a passing thought about how bad moods spread quicker than the common cold.  Facing away, Robert looked through a crack in the curtains at sunlight finding its way into a new day. Warmth. A distinct pleasure spread into Robert’s bones.  But it did not last.  Relief was fleeting, as that familiar tingle of ice wormed into his body. He knew he could not stay here with the man so close by. It was only a matter of time until the shadows grew a horrible cloud in the space around the stranger, an impossible geometry of spiraling ink that spread its tendrils around whomever it needed to use to get to Robert.  The word’s of his old friend, who had been consumed by a skillful demon right before his eyes without him even noticing, crept into his thoughts again.

“We are everywhere.”

Robert James felt his stomach writhe hungrily within his gut, searching for food that wasn’t there.  He decided to leave without a word to the man who’s face he had already forgotten.  Besides, the room seemed like it was growing colder already.  Darker, even. Jingling on the end table, the room key barely came to a rest when the door slammed satisfyingly shut behind Robert and he walked out into the breezeway.  The ground was slick with a rain that now was being pushed away by the warm eastern zephyr of the rising sun.

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He stood for a moment looking at the parking lot, as steam began to twist off of the gray asphalt, curling between a few cars that braved the storm from the night before.  One in particular caught his eye, a dark blue sedan with a white top. and white-walled tires.  A real looker of a vehicle.  Robert gave a long and admiring gaze at that car, as the sun almost made it glow with an aura.  One imperfection caught his eye though.  A cluster of thin parallel lines ran along the length of the car; a light color against the dark blue.  Like scratches in the paint.  From claws of onyx.

His stomach groaned again and he turned to the diner, which was surprisingly open at this early hour.  Eggs and coffee and bacon wafted into the warming air, and Robert walked in again to see the same bubbly brunette with the shining smile.

“Good mornin’ mister!  What can we get for you?”

“Cupocoffee” Robert mumbled, with a weak smile as he looked around him at the counter.  Mostly clean, a few big stains that surely had been scrubbed hundreds of times to no avail.  The main faded hue was a sad-looking tan.  It was a shame, Robert mused, when a business either doesn’t care or can’t afford to keep up appearances.  Glancing at the mostly empty restaurant, his eyes found a sight when they came upon an aged man with a shock of white hair on his head and a long white beard; An over-sized, worn and torn brown jacket covered his broad body. Blue eyes staring right at him.  Robert sat up with a start as he stared back at the frozen eyes staring ice through him.  Into him.  A blink and the man had vanished.

Robert whipped his head around at the waitress, who was grabbing creamer from underneath the counter.  She obviously didn’t see what happened, and he asked:

“MISS! Who was the man sitting in the corner over there, just a moment ago?!”  She stood up quickly in surprise and looked at Robert’s wild eyes and tired face.

“Man? Which man?” She pondered, putting a finger to her chin and looking around the place.  “Him?”  Robert turned to look at a different man, a much younger one who was clean shaven and was actually Jim from the repair shop, face down gobbling up a plate of eggs and hash browns with a ridiculous amount of ketchup.  It was as if he actually added hash browns to a plate of ketchup, instead of the converse.  Strange.  Robert turned and shook his head, sipping carefully the cupocoffee that the nice young lady gave him.  She apologized for her memory and shrugged, going about her duties.  He gulped the hot liquid down painfully, a fire brewing in an empty stomach, and he realized he should eat something too.

“Miss, sorry, but could I also have a bagel with cream cheese?” He said sheepishly.  Jim had paid and waved as he stood to leave.  The waitress went to prepare the modest breakfast and Jim walked over.

“Hey, R.J.!  Should have gotten the eggs scrambled with onions and peppers!  Real good here.  Anyway, that starter of yours should be coming any time now, them boys out west get up earlier than me!”  He gave Robert a pat on the back, and they smiled at each other.

“Great!  Thanks again for helping me out, Jim.  I’ll be around here somewhere, maybe I’ll find a nice spot in the shade to slee — er —  sit in… for a while.”  Robert’s eyes were still heavier than anything he had ever lifted before. Despite the coffee.  It takes a while to kick in, really.  A bagel magically appeared before Robert, along with a smiling waitress telling him to enjoy it.  It quickly began to vanish as Jim disappeared out the door and into the waiting day.  It was going to be a big one for Robert, and one filled with mystery.  The darkness waited for him out there, in the hot sunlight.

It hid between molecules within the air, hoping to snare him around the throat and whisk him into itself.  Pushing the empty plate away and putting money on the counter, Robert thought of the darkness as a horrible, amorphous mass of squirming serpentine shadows, red eyes appearing and disappearing all over the quivering horror.  It grew, and pulsed.  The air swirled colder inside the diner, the curls of the young woman’s hair suddenly appeared darker under the fluorescent light that flickered above.  She was wiping the counter, and Robert stood to leave with his eyes locked on her as she suddenly froze during her cleaning rhythm.  He whirled around to leave, thinking that he saw her eyes flick up at him as he turned.  The door was heavy as he pushed his way out, and he turned to his right walking along the side of the restaurant.  As he walked past the last booth that was by the window, he turned to look in at a single coffee cup resting on a barren table.  The place where that strange man sat, eyes blazing cold fire into Robert’s mind.  Some strange sense of… urgency?  Staring from the corner of his eye was a new gaze.  He looked over his shoulder as he walked away, the waitress stoically stared after him as Robert fled from her sight.

He trotted a fair ways behind the diner, the dirt giving way to taller grass and the trees stretching to the sky.  The shade was still a bit wet from the night before, but not as hot as the sunlight.

This will be a good place to wait.  

The waitress never emerged from the restaurant.  The imagination plays terrible tricks on a tired mind.  But the coffee cup… That stood out to Robert.  The bubbly young lady said that she did not remember, but how do you forget someone as distinct-looking as he was?  And how did he vanish?  He thought hard about what he saw, and he rushed back into the restaurant.  There was a napkin there, by the mug.  Something was written on it.  His feet flew over the ground and into the diner again, breathing hard he moved to the booth where the waitress was finishing cleaning up.  The napkin was on the tray behind her, resting on a table while she worked.  He took it and read it to himself.  The short chortle of disbelief came from his mouth, and he crumpled it up and threw it back down.

“Dream to escape.”

Tell me something I don’t know.  Waste of — wait.  

The man had vanished into thin air like demons had.  And had an obvious interest in him.  Who was this man?  He left something behind – a message – to reach out to Robert James… What could this mean? Why did he stare so coldly, with such ice?  Robert shivered as the shade of the trees fell over him once again.  He stood with his back to one, and crossing his arms he looked at Jim’s place.  This would be a good place to wait.  Clouds slowly wafted overhead as the sun continued its march higher into the blue sky, a grand illusion.

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It wasn’t long before a truck rumbled into the parking lot of Jim’s.  Robert stared as the dust cloud that once trailed behind the hauler now filled the air around it coming to a rest.  One man hopped out of the large truck while the other stayed inside with it idling.  Jim came out to meet them, a handshake and a smile produced a signature on a clipboard and a wave goodbye.  A sequence of actions as old as commerce.  Starting slowly, the giant truck lurched forward and gained speed away from this glimpse of a town.  Jim was unaware that Robert stared from afar as he rolled his tool box out by Robert’s new truck.  The starter is easy enough to replace, since he was done faster than Robert expected.  30 more minutes in the shade alone was almost therapeutic to him; the air idling between trees and leaves was clean tasting and invigorated his spirits.  The long walk across the grass made him think of childhood gambits as a knight, cardboard shield poised to defend.  His eyes were achingly tired and Robert had to consciously focus on holding them open sometimes, but he now felt a kindling of small fire within his soul.  He was this much closer to his wife, and he knew that he had no idea how to protect her, but maybe he could keep her safe somehow.  Move her around from town to town, give her a bit of excitement.  He stifled a chuckle and began to walk inside of Jim’s cluttered office, greasy footprints lining the concrete floor.

“Hey!  Thanks again, Jim.”  Robert shook Jim’s hand as he rose to greet him.

“No problem at all, R.J.!  Be safe out there!”

“You too!”  The door shut behind Robert and he nearly sprinted to the black truck.  It was pretty clean on the inside, despite some usual wear and tear.  The engine started and he rolled out back onto the road, pulling the motor for all that it was worth.  A new exhilaration found its way into his body, forcing a smile of clenched teeth to appear.  The highway stretched itself before him again, and he flew down it toward his home, to his great love.  He had to get back and he knew he would finally be where he belonged.  To the woman who – for whatever strange reason – accepted him.  Loved him.  Believed in him and supported him for no reason other than love.  He could never repay her for all the support she gave.  He had once found her platitudes about finding a new job obnoxious and annoying, but he knew she was doing all she could to support him through his overwhelming depression.  Love.  They say it makes the world go around, and that may be true.  But love undoubtedly was the reason for Robert’s life.

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Someone once said that we live life in the pursuit of beauty, and all else is just a form of waiting.  Robert knew all those years ago, when he fell in love with her, that he did not have to wait ever again.  Not as long as she was there by his side.  The fire burned strong in his soul again, like it did when he was a younger man under the stars on a beach at night.  The truck barreled down the road, passing cars fast and pulling the world underneath it.  A billboard stretched out on the right up ahead, and Robert stared with disbelief.  Alone, framed by a piercing clean white, were black letters that read:

Robert, go to sleep.

The cycle must continue.

Fury forced the truck faster down the road, and soon he passed another billboard, reading:

We will find you.

His chest was burning with tingles of love that quickly caved to the overwhelming fear. A fear that comes from facing a universe filled with a vile darkness permeating the physical world with its evil will.  A darkness that defies logic and reason, a darkness with intelligence. A darkness that has hunted Robert.  Stalked him.  Anger brewed again.  The anger of being toyed with by something beyond your control.  Imagine being an ant that is being fried by the magnifying glass of a horned demon-child with the shadowy cheshire smile of madness.  A siren came up from behind him along with the red and blue flashes of a police officer.  He was being pulled over, and looking in the rear-view mirror he saw red eyes and fangs that stretched over darkness.  A blue hat rested on its head.  A blink and a glance brought a normal human into frame, motioning to him to pull over.  Robert’s hands gripped the wheel and he squeezed them as hard as he could, knuckles growing whiter with each passing moment.

 

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Spiral of Shadows

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The horns were all Robert could see for a moment.  His eyes focused on the demon perched on the back of the Harley roaring toward him, shadows swirling violently behind it.  There were two sets, one beginning from the being’s brow and extending back, with only a slight curve inward toward their tips.  Perfectly symmetrical.  The second pair came from just behind its cheeks, and curled over like the horns of a ram.  Like some horrible helmet.  They were blood red and shined with polished brilliance, reflecting the light from the sun glaring down on them.  Robert tried to swallow, but he couldn’t.

He and the shadowy demon flew at each other, alone together on this stretch of highway.  Heart pounding in his flesh, he stared at the face of the darkness. The smile stared at him harder than the red eyes that sat above, unblinking. The teeth were perfectly straight, sharpened to points.  So symmetrical. Robert was paralyzed, he could feel his eyes bulging out of his head at the horror. Smiling ear to ear, the mouth wrapped around its black head.  It tossed back, laughing wildly at everything. Shadows whipping around like tentacles flapping in the wind.  So close now! Robert could not move, and he felt that he was watching himself from somewhere deep within his body.  Like those terrifying dreams we have from time to time, a strange cursed passed down through history.  A sensation of paralysis and gripping fear that may permeate into our waking state.  A brush with hell.

Numb to the world, he could not feel his hands clutching the wheel.  He squeezed so hard that pain echoed in his metacarpals; bones that broke when he was a kid and never quite set back right in his hands.  He stared at the being bearing down on him with intent to kill, and he thought of Linda.  His wife’s face blinked into his mind, a breath in his ear, the smallest whisper.  A reassurance.  The words that were whispered are words we all wish to hear, the most comforting phrase a person can know.  These are, all at once, words of forgiveness and trust, loyalty and joy.  Words that are as old as humanity.  Words necessary for life to continue:

“I love you.”

At the moment before the impact, time slowed down.  All in one second he stared, noticing the being reaching out for him, one arm stretching out with onyx claws.  Within this moment, the claw melted into a black-gloved hand.  It was rising to shield the face of a human in black, slamming into his car.  The creature had abandoned this husk within a fraction of a second.  The man was tossed into the windshield, tumbled over the roof, and thudded on the road behind Robert losing control of his car.  Slamming into a tree, he managed to slow it down enough that he wasn’t knocked out, while protecting his head with his arms.  He always wore his seat belt, and it cut into his chest with burning force.  The horn exploded past the ringing in his ears, droning out into the sky.  The car was totaled, at least beyond what Robert could repair.  Bleeding and groaning he spilled out of the car onto the grass.

Holy shit.

 He managed to get up, his left leg shouting out in pain to his brain.  Both the motorcycle and his car were wafting black clouds of smoke lazily into the sky.  Finally, the car horn was fading down into silence.  Robert limped over to the man in black, laying face down in the middle of the road.  Blood pooled underneath him, thick and almost reflecting the serene sky above.  His head was cracked open, and Robert remembered something similar from when he was a child.

The memory rose to the surface, where back in his home town where he was teased by a bully, and Robert challenged him to a bike race down a steep hill.  Robert was eager to put that giant of a kid into his place.  The bully naturally accepted and rode to the appointed place.   Robert prepared by going home for his favorite shirt, and he made his way there.  But not before his mom made sure he ate a big lunch.  She thought he was just going to play as usual, and he needed the energy.

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The sky now was the way it was then, blue with only a whisper of clouds high in the sky. They were like white feathers up there in the light blue hue.  Robert won that race, but his opponent had lost in the worst possible way.  Halfway down, he lost control of his bicycle and toppled head first onto the asphalt.  The blood was thick, and almost reflected those celestial feathers hanging in the blue.  The smell was the same too.  Copper laced with something else.  That big lunch his mother made for him – salami on rye – made a surprise appearance that day.  As if on cue.

This day though, his stomach was cast iron.  He did not feel queasy at all looking down at the dead man.  Relieved, he began to limp away down the long highway flanked by trees.  He was hungry and tired and his body ached with every step.  Birds called out their songs to the sky, intermingling with a wind that traced its way through the trees.  The breeze was cool, and he raised his face to the sky for a moment before continuing his walk.  He felt like some great weight had been removed from his shoulders.

His leg had mostly stopped bothering him, and sticking to the shade he began to walk briskly down the road.  Nervously he hummed to himself as the trees helplessly listened.

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After what seemed like forever, he happened upon a small town.  It was the type you always pass on the way to somewhere else, and if you blink twice you’ll miss it.  A gas station, a diner, and a small motel were the only establishments that he could see.  All of them seemed very old, like folks haven’t passed through in a long time, and it was only by the grace of God that they managed to stay open.  The gas station was the first he came upon, a place named “Jim’s”.  A small mechanic’s garage was attached, where a man was underneath a black sedan that looked completely shot, and a small truck was parked next to the wall outside. Robert swallowed, and hoped this fellow took credit cards.

“Hey there!” Robert said amiably, walking up to the mechanic now rolling out from under the car.  Tools were littering the ground, grease seeming to cover everything.

“Hey there, mister.  How can I help you?”

“You must be the Jim.  I’m Robert, Robert Lowman.  Call me R.J.,” The salesman in him was coming out again, and he smiled at Jim’s face covered in the grime of hard work.

“Say, does that truck happen to be for sale over there?  My car just got wrecked a ways up the road, and I have to get somewhere.” Hiding his unease, Robert was in a hurry to escape for a while. He needed to get away from the eyes of strangers.  He felt extremely paranoid even talking to this man for a moment.

How does the darkness find me?

“Actually, I have been trying to get rid of that thing for a while.  Some guy came here, asked for it to get repaired, and then just disappeared.  Strangest thing.  So yeah, you can have it budd —  er  — R.J.!”  Jim was visibly pleased with how has day was turning out.  He was thinking of maybe getting his son that bike he wanted.  Robert moved in with a fair offer, uncaring of running his credit up.  Thoughts of holding her in his arms again made financial worries seem distant.

“Sure thing, sir!! Thanks for not low-balling me.  Let me get your information then I’ll get the keys.”  Jim wiped grease from his hands onto the grease on his overalls, and the exchange went quickly. Robert was eager to get on the road again.  He was completely exhausted and felt that he would fall asleep if he kept his eyes shut longer than a blink.  Hopping in the truck, he put the keys into the ignition and the engine just made a strange clacking sound.

“Starter’s out? That’s strange… I just replaced that the other week.  No matter, should have another one in the back somewhere.  I’ll get it swapped right away.”  It turned out that he did not, and after looking for several minutes apologized and said that he ordered one from a store up the road.  They were going to drive it out in the morning, so Robert was stuck in this glimpse of a town.  Robert normally would have felt frustrated or angry, but he knew he did not have the time for that.  Walking toward the diner, he could swear that he could feel the man began to be framed by swirling shadows.  He whipped his head back around and looked at a normal Jim walking back inside his shop.  Trees stood tall around the town, and stared at Robert, who shivered as he began to navigate around rusted out cars with tall grass growing out of them. An ancient refrigerator was yellow in the partial shade, patterns of leaves dancing across its door.

Better get some food to go.  Can’t spend too much time near people, obviously.

The diner was almost as dirty as the garage, and he would never have eaten here if he was not starving.  When he grabbed the door handle, he also grabbed a fat round roach that crunched in his hand.  Normally it would have startled and made him disgusted.  Today, he just wiped it off on his pants and walked inside the restaurant.  He could feel the eyes of patrons looking him up and down, and he buried his anxiety with the perpetual smile of a salesman.  He ordered a burger, fries, and a Coke from a bubbly young waitress with bouncing brown curls.  Sitting at the counter, he tried to read a newspaper someone had left behind but could not focus with the eyes tracing over his body.  Suddenly he stood up, deciding to wait outside for his order.  The uncut grass was safer company than that of strangers.

 Finally the girl came out to him, white teeth shining with youthful optimism.

“Have a great day, sir!!”  He took his bag and walked to the motel without a thank you or hesitation, taking long strides.  A nervous pace like walking through a parking lot late at night.  Crunching through some grass for a few seconds, he stepped onto the pavement of the motel’s modest parking lot.  It looked like it was well taken care of, unlike the rest of the town.  Freshly swept and windows washed, and a clean bell tingled in the air as he walked into the small office.  An old man tended the counter, and cheerfully greeted him.

“Hello!  My name’s Don French, and this has been my family’s motel for a long time.  You look like you could use a good night’s sleep!” He gave a strong chuckle despite looking very frail, his white hair thin on his head.  Wrinkles carved strong lines all over his face.

“Hey Don! This place is a sight for sore eyes indeed.  Got a room?”

“I got a whole bunch!  Let me get your card and information here,” He said with a smile.  Soft music buzzed from a radio that seemed to match Don’s age.  Robert scribbled his information with intense speed, his hand aching from the tenseness of gripping the pen.  The exchange was quick, both men practiced in the process of buying and selling.  A few smiles and a key let Robert into a motel room, with a very comfortable looking bed that Robert knew he could not sleep in.  He promised himself to not even touch it, no matter how inviting it was.  Even the smell wafting up from it – fresh linens – could not coax him into its soft promise of comfort.  He understood that even a wink of rest would fling him into a river of oblivion, filled with its currents and eddies and sharp rocks.

Robert stared out the window, looking outside on a world that appeared bent on catching up to him somehow.  A strange chase that was chilling to think about, the darkness hiding in the universe itself searching everywhere all at once for a single man.  Could the plaster in the walls sense him? The lamp, or even the light itself that radiated from it?  The shadows that stood tall on the wall behind him?

“We are everywhere.”

Robert tried to think which word of the phrase was the most horrifying.  “We” implies numbers, possibly great ones.  A whole team of shadow beasts with some devious objective.  “Are” cements the fact that they exist.  And reinforces the “we” from before, and with confidence.  And “everywhere”?  Well…  One finds it easy to think of those implications.  Robert’s legs twitched with an anxious tic.

The wind blew briskly outside as the sun drifted lower in the sky.  Shadows cast from the trees grew longer, and darkness crept over the land.  Robert’s stomach rumbled, and he appreciated it.  The hunger should help keep him awake.  He played a tune with his hands on his knees, an ancient rhythm that has been played time and time again by those familiar with struggle, or with a battlefield.  The beating of drums that came from his hands was the song of nervousness, of anxiety and a lingering fear.  It had played in the hearts of those who have stared death in the face, and lived.  Lived to know that one day they would have to raise their sword again against that Black — the Nothingness.  Raise their sword and watch it disintegrated by the scythe of Death as it cuts down to push them into the darkness of Shakespeare’s “Undiscovered Country”, from whose borders no traveller returns.

But Robert’s tune was somewhat different.  He had the knowledge that there are fates worse than death.  The madness that he had felt in those spaces of time, those places darker than black.  The whispering tongues that wagged in the darkness.  A place that ripped and pushed into his mind and abused his senses with overwhelming inputs of emotion and physical horrors.  Madness.  Robert shivered, and tapped his hands harder, faster.

He had to stay awake.  He had to make sure his wife was safe.

It was going to be a long night, he mused.

Tap tap.

Tap tap. 

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