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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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
Click here for the next part!

Sea of Faces

Click here for the Tale before

 

As the fog of oblivion filled Robert’s vision, he could feel the fishing boat tumbling farther down into the unnatural whirlpool.  It was as if a massive hole in the ocean floor had opened up like some great drain stopper, and now all of the world’s water was pouring down into the planet.  Robert was falling and suddenly found himself floating in that great infinite inkwell of in-between.  Apart from existence.

The darkness was not so complete this time, stars peppered the abyss from great distances, speckling and sparkling from afar.  Focusing on them, Robert felt as if he was being drawn in.  They twinkled and beckoned pleasantly.  He found one, pulsing alone among the millions, and his vision was focused on it.  He could not look away, and he had no eyelids with which to blink.  It pulsed louder, brighter.  He felt warmth emanating from it, a strong sense of comfort, safety, and a dash of happiness.  But those feelings passed onto an aftertaste that was a deep sense of… hopelessness?  Exhaustion laced with defiance?  Both.  Waves of emotion washed over Robert’s mind, and he felt a strong connection.

He tried to stare into the light, which was not any closer but pulsed more and more and faster and brighter and faster and then he was sitting on a steel park bench, the sun above pulsing with warmth.  Almost throbbing.  A cosmic heartbeat comforting him.

 

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The skyscrapers towered all around him, covered in shining glass and chrome.  They looked differently than any he had seen before.  Some sides were straight, others sloped up to make a curved edge.  Many of the buildings were connected by several bridges, and on top of the bridges trees grew tall and leafy.  As he looked around, he noticed every building’s top in view had veritable forests growing from their roofs.  Many buildings had large vines growing up the side, making this strange landscape seem as if the civilization had collapsed, and nature was claiming what was rightfully hers.  Robert stared in wonder and fear, searching for familiarity.  The architecture was completely foreign, and as he stared more and more it became familiar.  The way the trees curled around corners, and climbed with the steel.  Flowing naturally through concrete tubes cut into the sides, guiding their growth.  Nature seemed in control of this world.

The streets were bustling, people wore business suits cut differently than Robert was used to.  They looked cool and crisp though, hip.  He was looking around in awe and listening to birds chirp triumphant as he noticed each person had a red tie, and wore gray suits.  One group wore blue ties.  Robert looked down at his own clothes, and noticed he fit right in.  The place around him was remarkably clean, no trash on the ground or any stains on the street.  The familiar cleanliness of a civilization with pride.  Robert felt a warmth in his chest swelling up.

Vehicles that he had never seen quietly swooped around the streets, and he noticed that they hovered slightly above the ground, rising and falling with the terrain.  Robert had never seen anything like this before, but inside he felt strangely acquainted. Staring at one hover-car, he moved his eyes over its smooth blue frame, shaped like a teardrop.  He felt confused, as he knew that this was all wrong, but how could it be?  He had lived near this city his whole life.  His wife worked here too, at one of the schools.  As he thought about the civilization he found himself in, he grew more familiar with it.  He had a job here, and he was late to work.

Robert stood up quickly and straightened his red tie.  This was the Port District, and he had to make it to the office in time to catch the ride to Persephone.  He hailed a cab, and felt the familiar dip in the hovering as he sat inside.

“To the Main Port, please.”

 

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The cabbie nodded and smiled and merged into the traffic with the nearly identical hover-cars.  The styles were all the same, save for the colors.  Robert remembered how thankful he was for the efficiency of it all.  The cars used hyper-solar panels, the technology that made the Second Industrial Revolution possible.  There was no longer any need for mining fossil fuels, but the rare-earth minerals used in cities and machines were nearly gone.  Lucky for Robert, he worked for the United Earth Mining Consortium, which specialized in mining near-Earth asteroids for the metals used in every aspect of society.  A extremely lucrative business and a near monopoly that was subsidized by the United Earth Republic.  Robert was lucky enough to snag a sales representative job and earn the red tie just in time for the mining boom of the last 20 years.  His wife taught at the local private academy, and they lived a picturesque life in a home with a view of Millennium City, where the great Port District in this hemisphere was.  On a clear night, they could see the twinkling of Persephone in the sky, hovering in geosynchronous orbit high over the Port.

The Port District was filled with Consortium employees with their red ties.  Color-coded ties for job sectors, color coded cars for different services.  All moving cogs in the wonderful machine of Terran society.  As he passed through a service industry bloc, he saw how drab a gray suit was without a tie.  He almost pitied them, but then the grand vista of the Port came into view.

From far off, the Port’s elevator seemed like a strange line dividing the sky in half before disappearing into the clouds.  Up close, the sheer immensity could begin to be appreciated.  Like a child looking up at a theme park ride, Robert strained at the cab’s window to discover how high up he could see.  The Great Elevator stretched up higher than his eyes could strain.  He knew that Persephone was up there, nearby the orbital station connected to the elevator that acted as a counterweight and allowed it to stay in place.  Truly a marvel of modern engineering, Robert could not help but feel proud to be a part of a civilization that had conquered such heights.  Both he and Linda would share that awe sometimes, each sipping their nightcaps and staring up at Persephone and the other orbital stations that twinkled with the stars.  He never noticed, but she always held his hand a little tighter when they looked up together.

After paying the cabbie, Robert made his way through the military checkpoint.  He never understood why, in such a peaceful time, they still felt the need to strip everyone down and comb them over.  It wasn’t even degrading to him anymore, but just a hassle.  And no matter how many times he saw the same soldiers, they never got any nicer.  Humorless as they always were, Robert still tried to make them laugh.

“Geez, you aren’t even going to take me out on a date first?”

Awkward silence, save for the sounds of the metal detector and the shuffling of boots.  Robert was irritated at being even later than he already was, but he buried it deep down.  He didn’t want to cause a scene with the soldiers.  They always pointed their rifles at the crowds and at who they were searching, and Robert remembered his first time and how mortified he was to stare down a half dozen barrels.  He nearly pissed himself.  But now, it was just business as usual.  The cost of security.  They treated everyone as if each was about to detonate a thermal charge at the first opportunity, even though terrorism hadn’t been an issue for some time.  After Unification, and when the orbital stations finally began producing food and water for everyone, times got more peaceful.  Sure there were whispers of workers on Earth and in Orbit that were treated unfairly and exploited, but those were just rumors.  No concrete evidence, and certainly no terrorism came of them.

Finally the soldiers finished their duty, and he slipped clumsily back into the gray suit and red tie.  Catching a quick glance into a mirror as he walked by to make sure he looked dapper, he made his way into the large sphere that was the vestibule of the Great Elevator.  Shockingly white on the outside, he always wondered how they kept it so clean.  Crowds meandered through the concourse as a monotone voice spoke about travel times and departures.

“The next run will begin at 2100.  The next run will begin at 2100.”

A man at the bar nearby laughed louder than he needed to.  A mother tried to comfort her child across the hall.  The miniature human stood crying in the middle of what appeared to be their entire family’s belongings, clutching an over-sized stuffed bear.  Robert stood as the crowd moved around him, and his legs would not move.  He had no need to, and he felt unnatural.  Out of place.  An observer.  Like he did not belong, even though he had been here countless times before.

He stood there, alone and isolated among the sea of faces that swirled and twisted around him.  Countless conversations blended together in one unearthly chorus, and Robert felt confused for a moment that seemed to be a universe of its own.

 

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tales of a travelling salesman final

 

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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My Late Uncle Clive (2)

Click here for Part 1

 

 

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.

Click here for the next part!

My Late Uncle Clive (1)

I was never close to my uncle, but then again, no one really was.  His work always came first.  He never came to any family gatherings, no matter how much anyone asked him.  Even physical letters went without reply.  He never even showed up for my dad’s funeral!

I resented him for that, until I saw his work.

He was an archaeologist who focused in ancient languages and cultures.  Clive Sterrenson was his name, and in his field he was widely respected.  Being in his old office was the nearest I ever came to visiting him, and he was dead now.  At his funeral, there was no family, only colleagues who seemed older than the manuscripts he pined over.  Funerals already make me sick, but the smell there was really terrible.  Something about the way old people smell really flips my stomach around inside me.  There was only one other middle aged person there, who seemed strangely out of place.  A blank face and a white suit he wore among downcast grimaces and black clothes.  I approached him, and asked him how he knew my Uncle Clive.  He stared back with that blank face and muttered:

“School.” Without another word he turned and walked away, disappearing into the crowd of mingling mourners.  Odd.  I talked politely with some of my uncle’s old friends, and they were remarkably tight-lipped with me about his work.  Each question was answered without specifics and between quick glances between each other.  My uncle had died of some sort of flu that took him in his old age with his weakened immune system.  Natural causes.  But there was something about this funeral that made me curious.  I felt compelled to learn more about my uncle, a man his own family did not understand.  I always liked a challenge, and I used to read the Hardy Boys when I was a kid.  Maybe there was something beneath the surface of all of this.  Maybe I just wanted to understand what kind of man would ignore his family for some old tomes and ancient etchings.

So before I knew it, I was pulling up in front of an esteemed college with towering spires and glamorous architecture with the loud and old truck I had.  I found a spot between a Lexus and a Bentley.  I remember feeling glad that even if normal teachers did not get paid as much as they should, at least these college professors were taken care of by the university.

The secretary seemed to be expecting me because she was stoic as a wall until she heard my name, which brought a smile to her face and a flurry of motion to her hands.  Ruffling through some papers and dust, she found a letter that my uncle had written and addressed to me!

“Why wasn’t this just mailed to me?” I asked, annoyed.

“He left specific instructions with me to only deliver it in person, and if you came in ‘of your own volition'”. She said with a forced smile, the smile of someone trying to assuage a problem customer.  With a sigh I took the letter, and she led me to his old office.  Dark wood everywhere, giant bookshelves on the walls that were behind and flanking his massive walnut desk.  This place took fantastic care of their professors.  The woman closed the door behind me without a word, and left me alone in the dusty darkness.  Thick curtains blocked out most of the light, only a sliver of sunshine found its way in.  Dust danced in the thinness of it.

I sat at his desk and a massive creaking shot out from underneath me.  All of this money can’t stop chairs from squeaking.  Looking at his desk, I saw it completely covered in papers and rolled up manuscripts, and in a large jar for pencils I saw an awesome letter opener — probably the coolest I have ever seen.  The child in me lit up as I saw the light reflect off of its gold.  It was shaped like a tentacle, the handle thick and there were suckers that fit my fingertips perfectly.  The opener was more like a knife I saw, the tentacle part curving down then flitting out toward the tip, the blade surprisingly sharp for a normal letter opener.  Probably some gift from the college.  A model ship in the room hinted, perhaps, at an affinity for the nautical.

Perhaps.

I opened the letter with ease, the blade doing the entirety of the work.  Surprisingly sharp.  The letter was covered in beautiful penmanship.

 

“Dear (Redacted),

I’m sorry for never being around.  I wish I could have apologized to my brother before he left us.  But it is my own fault.  This damned work I have been involved in for 40 years now has finally killed me, if you’re reading this.  And Miss (Redacted), if you are reading this, mind your own goddamned business.

Sorry (Redacted), but she is a bit of a snoop.  She’s probably still reading this.  So I’m going to hide another note somewhere in this room for you.  It’s in something… that holds the whole world in it.  Even you should be able to figure that out, no offense.  Burn this note so no one can — “

 

The door swung open with a clatter, and I was so startled that I quickly stuffed the note into my crotch for some reason.  Why not a pocket? I have no idea.  The strange man from the funeral was there, dressed in pressed khakis and a blue shirt.  A student?  He looked extremely irritated.

“What are you doing in here?” He spat words laced with venom.  I sat back in the chair and leveled my eyes toward him like I do with my son when he has an attitude.

“Perusing my late uncle’s work.  What are you doing barging into a dead man’s office?”  His face became even more irritated, narrowed eyes became the slits of a snake’s nose.

“I’m here to protect your late uncle’s work, all due respect.”

“Oh, were you a student of his?” He looked like he had been stung, and he shuffled slightly and became visibly uncomfortable.

“That is no concern of yours.  We were colleagues.  We were working together when he became ill.  I’m here to collect his things.”  Not if I could help it.

“You will do no such thing, not until I say so.  He made me his executor.  What was your name?” The man turned on his heel and said as he walked down the hall:

“Good day, sir.” Extremely strange.  Naturally I had to find out more.  So I collected as many papers as I could carry, loaded up my truck, and instructed the secretary to ensure the door remained locked and no one got into that room.

I’m home now, and about to go through some of his works.  Hopefully my boss is alright with me cashing in more vacation hours.  I will update as soon as I can.

 

Click here for Part 2

 

 

 

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.

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

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.

cloud gif

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.

 

highway

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