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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Calcutta, 1946

This is a story recounted to me by my Indian grandmother, who is now in her 80s. She lived in Calcutta through the late 1930s to 1947, when her family moved to England to escape the violence in the region. She was about 9, according to her memory. This period was just before the British Partition of the region based on religious population, where Pakistan and modern-day Bangladesh were created as a separate country for the Muslims, and India was made to be solely for Hindus and Sikhs. This action created the largest population exchange in human history. The story takes place on August 16th, 1946. A day that first was supposed to be known as Direct-Action Day, but became known as the Great Calcutta Killings. Within a short time, over 4,000 were left dead. Even more homeless after the fires died down. This event sparked several days of violence across India, with Hindus attacking Muslims, and Muslims attacking Hindus — the “Week of the Long Knives”.
My Grandmother’s family was upper-middle class, and their home stood tall and clean. They were able to hire housekeepers and pay them well enough to provide for their own families. She was raised Catholic, since the family was close with the British and wished to remain so, but the city itself was predominately Hindu and had a large Muslim population. The Direct-Action day was supposed to be a Muslim-organized peaceful protest to show defiance to the British rejection of the proposed 2-state solution, but quickly turned violent after the heat and fiery speeches turned the hearts of men darker than coal. There are conflicting reports on who started the violence, but both sides were guilty in participation of slaughter and ethnic-cleansing. Skirmishes lasted for days. Factories where Hindu workers lived were invaded and the walls coated in blood and gristle. Homes where Muslims lived were chained up and burned to the ground.
What she remembers is being on the roof of their home with her sisters, taking the day off because of the planned protest scaring her family into isolation. They had a milkman, whose name she could not remember, coming down an alley delivering his goods as usual. He was a young Muslim man, probably no more than 18 years old. Door to door he went about his rounds, and as he drew closer they waved to him. He smiled and waved back as several Sikh men appeared from the shadows and stabbed him with their knives and sliced with their kirpans, each taking their turn thrusting the young man between his ribs, back, and eyes as his screams turned to gurgling noises and silence. They continued their stabbing even after he was dead until they were exhausted and blood filled the alley. The sisters were frozen in horror on the rooftops, as one of the men noticed them and spoke:
“Sorry to have let this filthy Muslim get so close to you, friends!” They dragged the man’s corpse and shoved him down a nearby manhole and left cheering to themselves. About this time, smoke could be seen from the downtown area, as fires were being set to businesses and homes. 

Her and her sisters finally broke from their shock and ran inside, horrified. Luckily their father had the foresight to prepare for this. A detachment of British guards had been sent to their home to protect the family, and all day they remained inside. Screams and crashes mixed with crazed laughter and chanting echoed outside in the city, and crept through their windows. They were inside all day, mortified of what was happening outside.
As night fell, the violence subsided slightly. Every night she would go outside to look at the stars before bed, and out of habit she snuck away from her parents and sisters to go to the roof again. Smoke made the stars blurry this night, and fires burned creating strange shadows that flickered and danced to the music of chaos. She heard the awful sound of metal scraping against concrete, and ducked down behind the low wall that ran along the border of the roof. With the curiosity inherent to a child, she peeked over the wall to look down into the alley where their acquaintance was brutally murdered earlier. The manhole was being pushed aside from below, and when the creaking stopped there was a terrible silence for a moment. A man, clothed in shockingly white robes, came from within the man-hole. He climbed out, and looked around for a while. She recognized the young man from earlier, the milk-man.
“Impossible” she told me. “It was impossible for him to have survived that attack. And his robes were so white and clean, even coming from the sewers of Calcutta! But that was when he looked at me. I felt cold, but not the type of cold from an icy wind from the North. This cold came from my heart — no — my soul! I felt frost inside of myself, and I could not help but cry. I felt so scared and alone then, in that moment. And then he nodded to me, and began to walk away. Something was off, and I couldn’t figure out what! And then I looked closer. His feet appeared beneath his robes as he moved slowly away. They were twisted backward, completely opposite of a human’s feet. He walked toe-to-heel, as we walk heel-to-toe. My father always told me of bhoots, mostly as stories used to entertain us. But now, I have seen one. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision of tears to get a better look. But he was gone. The silence was broken again and more screams came from up the alley. A woman’s scream, and men’s laughter. I ran back inside to be scolded by my Father. I never told anyone in my family this, for fear they would think I was crazy. But the next day we left the city under British escort, and my sisters protested as they complained about leaving their friends alone. But me, I just wanted to get away from that alley. From that angry, lost soul.”

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

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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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