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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Gravity

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Snapping out of the fog in his mind, Robert remembered he was running late for his meeting.  Hand tightening around his steel suitcase, he began to power walk through the crowd, meandering around people on their way to somewhere else.

Running late is one of the worst things.  You have to choose between lying and being honest and either option sucks because you’re still late.  Robert hated lying, so he tried to think of why he was late.  He was… Sitting in the park on a bench watching the people and the birds and the sun.  Not a very good excuse at all.  He was lucky to be an executive, or he would be fired.  But what about before that?  Why did he decide to sit?  He normally was never late.  Or, at least, he couldn’t remember being late before.

Why can’t I remember more?  

It was past rush hour, but the crowd was unusually thick.  Like cattle in the early 21st century.  He rode an escalator that was so crowded he couldn’t continue walking, and he tried to think to pass the time.  Tried.  Peering into his memories was like staring into a fog with the sun shining into it.  The past was an amorphous expanse of blinding light, and as he tried harder to remember he nearly fell off the escalator as the ride came to an end.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” An angry man he bumped into exclaimed.  Robert further buried his irritation and began to apologize as he recognized a friend from his department who should have been at work already.

“Shit.  Sorry, Omar.  I’m in my own little world today…”

“Oh, its you!  Happens to the best of us, obviously!   I’m running late too.  It was such a beautiful day outside I couldn’t help but daydream.  The light was coming through the trees in such a way…” Omar trailed off for a moment, staring through Robert’s face.

“I still get amazed by how different and… Well… Idyllic the world is now!  It used to just be my family who would get strip searched but now everyone does! Hah!” He smiled large through his beard with genuine happiness.  One of the first stories Robert heard from him was about his grandfather, a Sikh who was attacked because he looked like a “Muslim”, a follower of one of the many religions that became swept under the rug over the past few generations. Muslims and Christians fought for centuries over strips of land and ideology.  None of that mattered anymore.  There were some sects that still operated in secret, but during Unification religions became blended.  The strange discovery on the far side of Luna shattered most human preconceptions about being the center of the universe.

“Yes, the world does seem to be working together much better now, huh?” Robert clapped him on the back and they began to walk together toward the shuttle-pod doors.

“Speaking of work, lets get a move on!”

 

earth-and-moon

 

White tile covered everything, reflecting light ad infinitum through the hall.  The ceilings were tall, and crystal chandeliers as big as freight trucks twinkled high above.  A wide window at the end of the concourse showed the skyline, green and chrome mingling together in an awe-inspiring vista of civilization.  People walked in and out of the pod doors that blended into the walls seamlessly.  The ‘whoosh’ of the grand elevators arriving and leaving were subtle and could almost be mistaken for a breeze.  Robert looked up at a skylight, and something about the way the light came through the trees on top of the building made him feel nostalgic.  Out of place.  Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.

“No more daydreaming, R.J.!  This one’s about to leave!” Omar began to trot, and R.J. got up to speed quickly behind him.  Omar swiped his card and doors whispered open and shut behind them as they found seats and sat down.  These pods are normally pretty crowded, but Consortium employees had exclusivity to a few.  The V.I. hologram’s blue face appeared on the screen, on cue:

“Pleaaase fasten your safety belts, and place all belongings underneath your chair or in the bins above you.  We will be embarking shortly to Shangri-La.  Pleaaase fasten your safety belts…”

“So who do you have a meeting with today, R.J.?” Omar asked as he stuffed his suitcase underneath the seat.  It was too wide, and he was trying to angle it just right so that it could fit.  Robert was already good to go, and he looked at his watch as he spoke:

“One of the contractors… I can’t remember the name of the fellow but the company we are using for this expedition is the deep space one… Shit I can’t remember the company name either.  One secon–”

“Oh, you mean Zaeonic?  They’ve been out in the asteroid belt for a while, from what I hear.”

“Yes! That’s it.  Thanks.  Yeah they’ve been developing bases out there, and a colony from what I hear.  It’s been some time since they’ve been back here.  Almost 20 years actually.  The contact we have had with them has had some good info.  They seem to have found a rather large asteroid with significant deposits on it, that they say is en route to our gravity well.  I’m meeting with advance representatives to discuss compensation.”

“Wow, I can’t believe they’ve been able to keep it out of the news.  If its as large as your expression gives away, then they might be able to build another whole colony out of it!”

The pod began its acceleration up, like a bullet from a gun.  Robert never got used to it, and his hands tightened around the cushy arms of the seat.  The vehicle shook like it was an old plane flying through a storm, and the gravity pushed down hard on Robert’s head, and he stiffened his neck against it.  Omar was shouting over the sound of the vehicle and the classical music that was supposed to calm passengers:

“You look green!! It’ll be over soon enough, my friend!”  Robert’s eyes were closed and he ignored his friend.  He was too busy focusing on not dying / having a panic attack.  He had made this trip dozens of times, and he hated it more each time.  He wouldn’t mind a slower trip – even if it took a day or two – if he didn’t have to deal with this feeling every single time.  An hour was a long while, but after they reached a certain point, the force became much more subtle as the gravity from Earth became weaker.

“Welcome to Shangri-La.  Please find your luggage and exit the pod in an orderly fashion.  Thank you for taking the Great Elevator, made possible by Anaheim Electronics!”  The V.I.’s face flickered a bit before clicking off.  Robert always thought the face was creepy.  Shadowed eyes with the forced smile of its programming.

The pod doors opened to the gray, steel promenade of Shangri-La.  A variety of shops were doing business with the crowds of people.  A ramen shop was next to a Texas BBQ stand, and a gift shop flanked both.  Everyone walked about in their uniformed gray suits, some with red ties, some with the blue of the United Earth Republic.  Even fewer had green ties, which were either business owners somewhere or workers of one of the contractors for the U.E.M.C.

With a name like Shangri-La, Robert felt a bit surprised by how non-descript the station was.  Without the shops on the promenade, there was nothing of note on the station.  Sure, some back-deals were discussed over a latte or some Thai food once in a while, but other than that there was no windows or anything that allowed one to see the view.  The station was more functional than feng-shui.  Robert was confused by his surprise.  He froze.  He had been here dozens of times.  Was his memory already beginning to go?  As he searched his thoughts he remembered bits and pieces of former travels here.  Glimpses into the past.  Flashes of the faulty camera in his mind.

“Let’s get to the shuttle.” Omar said as they began to weave through the crowds.  It was more crowded here than the last time he was here, Robert noticed.  It wasn’t even rush hour.

“Yeah.” Robert said, somewhat annoyed.  Of course they had to get to the shuttle.  Running late, no less.

“I hope that Zaeonic rep is running late too.  He has a wealth of excuses that could be true, and I haven’t even thought of a good lie yet.”

“Well, lying isn’t your thing Robert!  That’s why we love you.  You don’t sugar-coat shit.”

“I was sitting on a bench watching people and the birds, man.  I have to think of something else.” Robert chuckled a bit, embarrassed.  Omar laughed openly.

“Yeah, you should find a better excuse.  And don’t turn red when you say it.  Like you are now!”  Omar laughed and Robert sighed as they both began to walk faster.  They turned the corner around a cupcake shop to get to the docking ring.  Luckily they had a private shuttle waiting for them, so no one was being kept waiting by their daydreaming from before.  The military personnel surrounded the check-in kiosk for their shuttle, and pointed their weapons at them both until their ID cards checked out.

 

o-neill-colony

 

“Sorry for the inconvenience, sir.  Move along.” Robert wondered how many times he had heard that in his life.  Always the same phrase.  He and Omar ducked in unison as they entered the craft.  Luxury didn’t always mean larger.  The seats that they had on there, however, were the best Robert had ever sat in.  His rear tingled with anticipation as he set his suitcase in the overhead compartment.  It was more relaxing than he anticipated, and he felt if he closed his eyes he could fall asleep instantly.  But the view was too good to miss.

Persephone was off to his right outside, a giant wheel-and-spoke colony that rotated to create artificial gravity, identical to Shangri-La but much larger, and with great windows to look out of.  The shuttle released its docking clamps and gently pulled away from the station.  The view changed to be that of the Earth’s sphere, a grand orb beneath them.  A giant marble of blue and green and sparkling white.  The other colonies could be seen now, giant cylinders that had great mechanic arms that opened and closed to simulate night and day.

“O’ Neill Colonies… I’ve always wanted to visit one, Omar.  They look awesome from afar, though.”

“Yeah, I have some family on that one over there — New Sydney.  They’ve sent me some really amazing pictures.  I’ve never been myself though, too –”

“Too busy.” The two of them said in unison, and chuckled a bit.

“Hey, we have to work to eat, right?” Robert quietly said as he rested his head back and stared out the window.

 


 

Outside of Persephone, a man paused in his  work.  His shuttle was docked illegally, but none of that really mattered.  His mag-boots clung hungrily to the outside of the station, hanging in the black.  He stood on one of the spokes that connected the two main rings of Persephone and looked up, taking in the view.  It was beautiful, but the man’s face was unmoved beneath his helmet.  He stretched, and reached into his pack to pull out the final charges.  He set the big block of explosive onto one of the cross-joints, and carefully stabbed the detonator into the pliable bomb.  The last one.

“I wonder if anyone ever made this stuff into a figurine or something.  It’s tougher than Play-Doh, but…” Tears welled up in his eyes.  His son was on his mind.  Little Jason Gathers Jr.  He would never see him again.  The companies put him to work as soon as he could hold a hammer.  He resisted as many in their early teens do, and the company security threw him against a bulkhead and shot him before the man could react.  The man remembered simply falling to the ground and staring at his dead son’s open eyes.  One of the officers spat something about how that hammer was a weapon.  The eyes. Pleading eyes.  Eyes that used to shine with such hope.  Thinking of this memory his soul felt weighed down by invisible gravity.

“This is for Jason.” The man muttered to no one but himself.  Plans were in motion already.  Everyone would finally know of their plight, the struggle that the rugged pioneers of space faced at the hands of the suits from the Consortium.  Everyone.  He climbed back into his personal craft and detached the cable from the station, coasting away on inertia.  Silent running.  He would drift for a couple hours.  He took his helmet off, blew his nose, and opened a nearly empty bottle of whiskey.  The last bottle he had.  But this last bit would be more refreshing.

Hard work always made whiskey taste better.

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final
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My Late Uncle Clive (2)

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I’ve lived alone since the kids have grown up, and my wife left me soon after that. We stayed together to raise the family, but she never really loved me. I don’t resent her for anything at all, so lets move along as I correct myself. I don’t live alone, not really.

 

My dog Max was a big ol’ Golden Retriever, and in his prime he was rambunctious and would bark at everything. But as time went by, he became more reserved. Some people follow the same pattern. I’m just glad he didn’t follow the terrible pattern that is senility. Max was my best friend, and he always managed to find his way up to my lap no matter how tired he was.

 

I got home, and I was greeted by the familiar thumping of his tail on the hardwood floor of the hall. I flipped lights on and kicked my shoes off and scooped all the old boxes of take-out off of the kitchen table and into the trash. I threw down the old manuscripts and papers, and took some fresher take-out from the fridge to sate my growling stomach.

 

Max found his way in with me, and sat eagerly by his feeding frenzy area. His tail was uncontrollable as I poured fresh food into his bowl. We ate together in silence as I looked at these strange documents. The night was steadily growing darker, but I forgot to turn on the lights and my eyes adjusted without my knowing. They were too fascinating to peel myself away from. There was something about the strange, completely foreign symbols. They were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Pictographs and dashes and curls all blended together into some forgotten story.
Some of the scrolls were something similar to ancient Sumerian. But they were also not quite like what Google searches spat back to me. There were flourishes here and there, and odd pictures blended in between some of the lines. The text spiraled around some of these eldritch images. One in particular caught my eye. Some strange octopus, turned upside down but with angry eyes carved right ways up in the head of it. The tentacles held different items: A cross, a strange “Y” with two dashes in the botttom, and knives. I stared at the image for longer than I thought, because Max’s whine broke my concentration. He stared at me with keen interest and tilted his head. I took another bite of my food and it was already cold! Time was passing by with unusual expediency.
The night had fallen completely by this point, and to see I had my face pressed up all the way to the papers. I didn’t even notice! I stood and flipped some lights on to continue, but then I heard Max begin to bark at the front of the house. Extremely out of character for him, the barking was persistent and growing louder. He never barked at anything anymore, not even the mailman. But something had grabbed his attention with an eerie tenacity. A loud knocking broke the silence from the front door, and Max’s barks turned to growls. No one ever visited me, not even my kids. And at this hour?
I grabbed the bat that was by the front door and looked carefully into the peephole. On my front step was that strange man from before, his brown hair was carefully combed in a modest pompadour, and he was wearing a dark coat. He looked nervously over his shoulder and reached up again to knock when I popped the door open a crack. My eye was the only thing he could see when I asked:

 

“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I… Haven’t been honest with you, sir.”
“Well anyone could have figured that out, buddy. You’re not a good liar.” He chuckled and reached into his back pocket, at which I slammed the door shut thinking he was going for a gun.
“WAIT! I’m a detective! I was getting my badge!” he shouted with frustration. I carefully peeped out the peeper, and sure enough there was a gold shield there, held up next to his sheepish grin.
I opened the door again, this time unlatching the various locks all of the way so that I could let him in.
“Well, why didn’t you just start with that yesterday? Would have been much easier for both of us. Plus I thought you were some creepy and stuck up asshole.” He laughed at that as he stepped inside, hanging up his coat.
“I get that all the time. There’s a lot to tell you.”
I cleared the manuscripts off of the table hurriedly, putting a pot of water on to boil for a french-press brew. All the while trying to think about why a cop would be interested in my late uncle.
“I’m just going to dive right into it, sir. I’ve noticed a pattern in some recent cases, as well as some cold cases going back… quite some time.” He produced a file from thin air, it seemed.
“Oh, by the way. My name is Detective Jackson, call me Trent. I’m sorry for yesterday. I’ve had to be extremely cautious. I’ve been receiving death threats for my work, which is unusual, because I thought only I knew about it. Even my boss doesn’t know I’m here right now. I’ve kind of become obsessed. But hear me out.”
“Sure. I have nothing else to do, and I haven’t had company in years. Plus I like stories!” I smiled and he gave a thin smile back.
“Women have been disappearing from this town for hundreds of years. But people always assumed they were runaways, or something along those lines. Because there was no discernible pattern or similarity. Until I took the time to do all this work. Every 4 years, a young woman vanishes. She is always between 16 – 25, and according to the reports that are complete, they have no real close friends, and their family is broken. Fathers or mothers gone or addicted to drugs, you know. Very sad situations.” He spread the thick file out on the table this whole time, laying out photographs from recent years, and ending with one from a very long time ago. The type of photograph from when folks never smiled. Her hair and eyes were as black as the underside of the clouds outside that wandered through the night.
“People always assumed that because of their home situations, and their ages, that they simply ran away, or killed themselves. No one had ever been found, and so without a body they remain a missing-persons case. Never able to warrant a full on homicide investigation. There were never any witnesses to the disappearance, it was like they just walked out their homes one day and never returned. But this is where it gets weird. All of these disappearances began when the college was founded. I’ve even found old primary documents from colonial eras about some disappearances, but those were assumed to be Indian kidnappings or the like.”
The sound of my phone timer exploded into the kitchen, and scared us both. He actually stood completely upright and drew his gun, which he now awkwardly put back into his holster. The coffee was ready.
“But I have made a map of the disappearances, and they all are within 30 miles of the college. I had been researching strange disappearances like this, and apparently there was something similar going on in Louisiana a long time ago, and it had to do with some strange cult that required human sacrifice. Throats were cut, then burned, or simply just burned alive. Really horrific stuff. But your Uncle intrigued me because some of the records from that case had strange manuscripts remarkably similar to what he was working with when I went to canvass the staff at the college. He said that he wanted to meet me, that he had something to tell me that would blow a hole in this case but… He died within 48 hours of talking to me. That is how I know something is seriously amiss here. Of course there were the death threa — ”

 

 

Max began barking again, furiously. He had barked more this night than in the last few years all together. I stood and looked for him in the front, and saw he was foaming at the mouth and barking like a wild animal. His eyes were crazed and my heart was pounding as suddenly the window shattered inward, and the room burst into flames. The curtains caught fire and the fire spread over pictures on the wall and an old couch as Max bolted from the living room and into the kitchen, barking and barking and barking. Trent stood and had his gun drawn just as another Molotov cocktail burst into the opposite end of the house. The heat filled the air as flames began to cover everything.
“Save the manuscripts!” I shouted at him, as I grabbed an old family picture of mine. From a time when we were happy. With the picture in one hand, I scooped the massive retriever under my other arm, and followed Detective Jackson as he kicked down the back door and covered the flames there with a blanket he had found. We tumbled out into the dewy grass and stood in the night, watching the flickering flames spike up high into the sky. Tires squealed out front as the culprits got away. No time for even a glance.
“Well, I guess we should go to…. well my place isn’t safe either.” He looked at me, then the ground. Within an hour we awkwardly were checking into a hotel together. He passed out in one of the twin beds, and I sat in the other, typing this. I will update soon.

 

Something is afoot.

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Escape to Dream

Click here for the part before

 

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.”

tales of a travelling salesman finalClick here for the next part!

Spiral of Shadows

Click here for the Tale before!

 

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.

cirrus clouds

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.

~*~*~***~*~**~**~*~***~**~**~*~**~***~*~**~**~**~**~**~**~**~**~***~**~*

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. 

motel2

 

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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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