Let’s Talk About Net Neutrality

It’s under attack…again.

On December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) here in the United States will vote on repealing the net neutrality rules set by the Obama administration.  As of right now, most experts think the vote will go through.  From what I understand, there will be five people voting on it.  It looks like two of them will be voting “no”, whereas the other three (including FCC chairman Ajit Pai) will vote “yes”.

Now why is this important?  Well let’s start by defining what net neutrality actually is.  Google defines it as “the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites”.  What this means is that, under the current law, you pay one price to gain access to all the internet has to offer.

Currently, the internet is classified as a Title II public utility.  It has been that way since the FCC in 2015 voted 3-2 to enact these new rules.  Now the tables have turned and it’s looking extremely likely that the current FCC will vote to roll those rules back, classifying internet as a Title I, which was the case before the 2015 rule change.

But what does this actually mean if the vote goes through?  Well…no one is really certain.  Supporters of rolling internet back to Title I typically frame their argument as pushing back against what they see as restrictive government regulation over Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  But supporters of net neutrality are worried about what ISPs might do without the restrictions.  One of the scenarios that could come to fruition would be introducing tiered service packages, which would essentially mean that if you want to access something like Netflix, you might have to pay more money.

This is a graphic that has been circulating for a long time, showing what this scenario might look like:

 

 

Yeah…it’s not pretty.  And there is at least one real world case of this in the form of Portugal, where internet plans look a lot like cable plans do here in the United States.  Now it isn’t one hundred percent certain that it’ll happen, but if a huge company like Comcast is given the opportunity to make more money, do you really think they won’t jump at the chance?

This is where net neutrality opponents (like Pai himself) will say that if an ISP does something that people don’t like, then the market will decide their fate.  This means that people will switch to another service provider who doesn’t do those things, and the service provider who does will go out of business.  Now that’s all well and good as an argument…

…except that it’s total bullshit.

Here’s the thing: this argument only makes sense in a market where there are many different companies competing for the same space.  But that’s not so with internet service providers.  Many places only give you one or two choices for internet providers.  Where I live, for example, I have the choice between CenturyLink and Charter, which is essentially the choice between DSL and Cable.  Which is basically the choice between crap and not-crap.  I had CenturyLink for internet back when I lived with a roommate, and we had random disconnects all the time before they managed to fix it.  We called them more times than I care to remember, and it took them literally almost a year before they figured out “oh hey, if we switch the port they’re on, it fixes the problem”.  So switching to Charter was a no-brainer.  But if Charter starts throttling my internet speed or forcing me to pay extra for Netflix, I don’t really have any other place to go.  I just have to deal with it.  And that’s the case for many people, some of whom have less choice than I do.

A lot of net neutrality opponents love to phrase their agenda as “restoring internet freedom”.  But with the current market, the only thing repealing the Title II classification stands to do is allow internet providers to gouge their customers.  And while Pai has argued that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will protect consumers from unfair practices, an Ars Technica article points out that a pending court case is poised to strip the FTC of its authority on the matter.  Without any protection, consumers will find themselves at the mercy of internet companies.  And that is not a situation that is likely to turn out well.

Also, does anyone else find it just a little too convenient that Ajit Pai previously worked for Verizon?  I’m sure there’s nothing going on there at all…

Now, there are ways you can voice your opinion on the matter.  There are sites like Battle for the Net which will help you contact Congress and inform them of your opposition to the vote.  You can call the FCC itself at 1-888-225-5322 and inform them of your opposition as well.  And it’s not like you’ll be alone.  When the FCC did an open comment period on the issue of net neutrality, a study estimated that a whopping 98.5 percent of non-spam comments were in support of net neutrality and against the FCC’s intention to roll back the Title II classification.  And not only that, but another Ars Technica article found that 50,000 customer complaints against internet providers were excluded from the FCC’s net neutrality repeal docket.  It’s as if the FCC is willfully ignoring these comments in favor of pushing their agenda.

Will our voices actually sway the vote?  I can’t really say.  But if you’re one of those people who feels the need to do something, there are options out there.  Tell them your opinion.  Scream it at them if you have to.  At the very least, they’ll know we won’t be silenced so easily.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Advertisements

Out of Mind

Welcome to the eleventh of twelve!

For those who don’t know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write a short story each month and post it to the blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  So without further ado, I present to you “Out of Mind”.

(Warning: some graphic descriptions of violence follow.  Viewer discretion is advised.

Also swearing.  But if you’ve been reading my stories thus far, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.)

 

“Dropping out in three…two…one…”

Everything jolted and shuddered as the large cargo vessel exited faster-than-light travel. The terminals on the bridge uttered a chorus of chirps and beeps as the crew checked the ship’s status. It was a large, rounded room with clean, gray walls. Different crew stations, each with large control panels and holographic projections, lined the outer wall of the room.

“Location,” the captain asked.

Up in front, Sidney Lehmann scanned his hazel eyes over the blue-tinted hologram hovering before his eyes. It depicted a complicated star chart.

“Right where we should be sir,” he said.

“Excellent.”

Sidney let out a quiet sigh and brushed back his light brown hair. Despite the fact that it was just a routine faster-than-light jump, he had still felt uneasy. But then again, such was his natural state. Beneath the kind, shy smile was a man beset by unease over the smallest of things. Occasionally, it could blossom into full-blown panic attacks, although he had learned how to mitigate them as best he could.

At a mere twenty-five years of age, Sidney was particularly young for being the navigator of an entire starship. But his natural talent for piloting boosted him through the ranks.

Despite the fact that he knew everything was running smoothly, Sidney was still anxious. It had started when the captain received orders to divert course into a nearby asteroid field for an unscheduled mining trip. In his head, he knew such diversions were common. Cargo ships could become amateur miners in a pinch, especially when the amount of resources wasn’t enough to justify sending out a full-fledged mining vessel.

Sidney knew all this. And yet, he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling of anxiety.

That feeling was only exacerbated when the ship’s alarm suddenly started shrieking.

“What the hell happened,” the captain asked, rocketing up from his chair.

“Sir we’ve detected an impact on the ship’s hull, near the cargo bays,” another officer reported.

“Damage?”

“Checking…there doesn’t appear to be any discernible impact to the hull’s integrity.”

“Then shut that alarm off,” the captain ordered. The shrieking ceased a moment later. “Damn thing’s too sensitive,” he muttered. He sat back down and pressed a button on the armrest. “Maintenance, report,” his voice echoed over the intercom.

“Here cap’n,” a voice responded.

“How are things looking down there?’

“Just had a lil’ bump off the hull. Nothin’ to make a fuss over. Might have a ding or two but that’ll be all.”

“Good. Keep me posted if anything changes.” The captain stole a glance at Sidney. “I thought this area was supposed to be clear of debris?”

“It’s not his fault captain,” the officer chimed in. “What struck us was too small to be picked up on long-range scanners.”

The captain let out a small chuckle. “The hazards of space travel huh? Expect the unexpected.” He stood up and stretched. “Well…it’s getting late. I’ll be down in my quarters if anyone needs me.” He made his way toward the lift. As Sidney watched, the captain froze mid-stride, one foot hovering in the air. Glancing around the room, he found the same thing everywhere: people frozen in time, trails of white computer code streaming off of their bodies.

“Is something wrong,” he asked aloud.

An unseen voice spoke in his right ear.

“Everything’s going fine. We’re just going to jump forward a bit,” it said.

“Okay. What do you need me to do?”

“Just relax and focus. What happened next?”

Sidney took a deep breath.

“Well,” he began, “after the captain left I stayed on the bridge for another…hour I want to say. I was double checking the sensors to ensure that no other debris was in danger of colliding with the ship.”

The world shuddered. Suddenly, there was a hand on Sidney’s shoulder. He looked up.

“Eventually, someone tapped me on the back and told me to go get some sleep. They said they could take care of things on the bridge for the night.”

“And so you went to your quarters?”

“Not right away,” he replied. The bridge shifted and warped. Sidney was now standing in the lift: a cylindrical shaped elevator that took people to the different decks of the ship. “First, I made my way down to the cargo area.”

“Why?”

“I have a friend who works the night shift,” Sidney explained. “I went to meet up with him, just for a little bit.”

The walls of the lift faded away into darkness. Lights clicked on in the distance and slowly, a massive room filled with red storage containers and drab, metal walls came into view. Sidney’s eyes roamed the room until they landed on a figure standing near a small, gray crate. The man caught Sidney’s gaze and waved. He had short black hair, blue eyes, and dirt under his eyes.

“That’s Cecil,” Sidney explained. “We’ve known each other for a long time. By chance, we wound up on the Celeste together.”

“What did the two of you talk about?”

“Nothing much. He was trying to get me to watch a movie.”

“Can you remember which one?”

“No…it was some ancient science-fiction film. He was gushing about it most of the time we were talking.”

“I take it you’re not a movie person,” the voice asked.

“No sir…I prefer to read books,” Sidney replied.

There was a pause.

“You don’t need to call me ‘sir’ all the time you know…it’s not like I outrank you.”

“Sorry si-I mean…sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. So after your conversation with Cecil, where did you go next?”

“To my quarters. I pretty much went straight to sleep after I got there.”

The room warbled around him, shifting from an expansive cargo bay to a dimly lit bedroom. Now dressed in sleeping clothes, Sidney climbed into his bed and pulled the gray blankets over him. After laying his head down on the pillow, he closed his eyes.

“I can’t say for sure how long I slept…but I remember being awoken by a chirping noise.”

Sidney’s eyes snapped open. He lifted his head and noticed a panel in the wall with a flashing green light. He got up out of bed, walked over and pushed a button.

“Who is it,” he asked.

“Hey Sidney,” the captain’s voice said. “Sorry to wake you, but can you meet me in my quarters? There’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Sidney replied, then released the button. The scene flickered and changed. Sidney was now walking down a brightly lit hallway. Gray walls lined each side, with small signs every now and then that pointed to important destinations on the deck. A short time later, Sidney found himself outside a set of gray doors. He reached over and pushed a button on a nearby panel.

“Who is it,” the captain’s voice asked.

“It’s Sidney sir. You wanted to see me?”

“Ah yes…please, do come in.”

The doors slid open and Sidney stepped inside.

The captain’s quarters always struck him as more refined than most. An elegant carpet lined the floor between the door and the gray desk the captain sat at. A framed picture of the captain and a woman Sidney assumed was his wife sat on the corner of the desk. The captain himself was seated in his chair, hunched over a homemade model of an ancient naval galleon with a brush in his hands. Upon Sidney’s entrance, he looked up.

“Good to see you Sid. Once again, I apologize for waking you up,” he said.

“Oh it’s no trouble sir,” Sidney replied.

The captain was an older man, with dark blue eyes and wispy, graying hair. At first glance, he seemed like the type of man who would be all business and no pleasure. An old scar marred his cheek, traces of an ancient battle he fought when he was in the military. And yet, despite his looks, he was a friendly and easygoing person.

The captain set his brush down, leaned back, and admired his handiwork with a smile.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Sidney nodded. “If you ask me,” the captain continued, “everyone needs a hobby. What’s yours?”

“I read, sir.”

“No need to be so formal,” he said with a laugh. “What do you read?”

“Books mostly.”

“Non-fiction?”

“Fiction sir.”

“Ah…very good…nothing gets the mind going like a little imagination,” the captain said…his smile growing wider and wider.

Sidney stared. The smile never faltered, never wavered. It was frozen, wide and full…

“Hmm…your adrenaline is spiking. Sidney, are you okay,” the voice asked.

Thump thump…thump thump…thump thump…

His heart pounded in his ears. His hands shook. His eyes began to quake and his whole body was quivering like a leaf. Meanwhile, the captain stared straight at him, eyes never blinking, smile never fading.

“Sidney? What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

Sidney closed his eyes and tried to focus…tried to wish it away. But it wasn’t working.

Not here, he thought. Not now…

The sweat drizzled down his forehead, dripping into his eyes. His breathing was heavy and quick. His hands began to shake, and he clenched them into fists as his heart beat faster and faster. His entire body felt like it was on the verge of-

The hardened base of the model ship made a sickening squelch as it connected with the captain’s skull. The man’s eyes stared straight ahead, dull and lifeless. Crimson blood caked the desk, dripping down onto the floor. Sidney’s expression never wavered, and he brought the base of the model crashing down again. A small chunk of bone splintered off and fell to the floor, skidding into a darkened corner.

“-again! Sidney, stop!”

Crunch…squelch…

The sound of splintering bone and squishing brain matter reached his ears from an impossible distance. Sidney raised the model ship above his head once more, varnished wood stained with the blood of its creator. Everything seemed to move in slow-motion as he brought it down, smashing it against the captain’s head once aga-

He pleaded for his life as Sidney gazed down the sight of the gun. The fear was obvious in the man’s twitching eyes. He pulled the trigger. The rifle kicked back against his shoulder like a roaring beast as bullets met flesh. Fountains of blood sprayed out of the man’s chest, splattering the walls like a piece of demented art.

Some of the spray caught Sidney in the eyes. He didn’t blink.

The gun clicked empty, but Sidney never released the trigger. He watched the life drain out of the man’s eyes…all with the rifle click click clicking in his-

Rivers of red streamed down the man’s kneecaps as he howled in pain. Sidney set the pistol down on a nearby crate and snatched up a plasma torch, a nasty looking cylindrical wand. He approached the man and grabbed his head, holding it back. One click later, and a fierce blue flame came flaring out at the end. Slowly, he brought the fire closer and closer to the man’s eye as he struggled and screamed. It wasn’t long before the stench of burning flesh filled the air.

“Pull him out,” the voice in his ear shouted. But it was distant…an echo bouncing off the walls of a long, dark tunnel…

Sidney buried the wand deeper and deeper into the eye socket, the man’s anguished howls filling his ears. The eye had turned into a sickening mush of scorching black and red flesh, but Sidney’s face was plastered into a stoic expression.

“Are you even listening to me?! Pull. Him. Out.”

He brought the torch out, a caked mass of burnt flesh and blood where the eye used to be. He calmly shifted it over toward the other eye and began anew. The tip of the wand disappeared as Sidney pushed it deep into the soft pupil.

The screaming…it kept going. It wouldn’t stop…

Pull him out right fucking now!!

 

A low, descending whine filled the room as Russell Moss stormed in.

“What the hell happened,” he asked, his emerald eyes twitching with frustration and anger. “Why did it take you people so goddamn long to shut it down?!”

Tense silence filled the air. The three lab techs: two male, one female…all exchanged glances.

“We were ordered to keep going, no matter what,” one of them spoke up.

“I didn’t give you those orders. Who did?” But before the tech could reply, Moss’ eyes lit up with understanding. “It was Impav, wasn’t it?” One of the techs nodded sheepishly.

“You weren’t told,” another asked.

“No…of course I wasn’t,” Moss replied. “Goddamn blue bastard thinks he knows better than everyone else.”

There was another moment of silence in the room.

“Get him out of that thing and begin regression,” Moss ordered. “We’ll have to try again in a couple days time. Computer?” A brief chirp was his response. “Mark this down…session thirty-seven was another failure!”

“Complying,” a computerized female voice responded. But Moss was already gone from the room.

 

He brushed the medium-length reddish hair of out his eyes as he leaned against the railing and let out a sigh.

Out through the window of the space station, Moss could see the forlorn gray husk of the Celeste. At over two kilometers in length and nearly half a kilometer in height, it was the largest cargo ship ever built.

And now it was nothing more than a ghost ship.

When the Celeste had unexpectedly returned to orbit without warning and numerous hails went unanswered, a military reconnaissance team was dispatched. Upon boarding the ship, they were confronted with something straight out of a horror movie. The crew was all dead, murdered in various ways. Some had been shot, others bludgeoned to death, and others looked like they had their guts ripped straight out of their chests.

There was only one survivor: Sidney Lehmann. They found him curled up in the corner of his quarters, gibbering nonsense and rocking back and forth. He was covered in blood. Later analysis would conclude that it belonged to numerous members of his fellow crew.

The story practically wrote itself: Sidney had been in space too long and snapped, going on a vicious killing spree. But after reading Sidney’s file and going over the forensic evidence collected, Moss had some serious doubts. Sidney Lehmann didn’t strike him as the type of person who could murder that many people. He didn’t even strike him as someone who could overpower them physically. He was a scrawny, shy fellow.

And then there was the lack of any defensive wounds on his body. If he really murdered the crew in that brutal of a fashion, there should have been at least some sign that they fought back.

But in the end, the only one who knew the real truth…was Sidney. Knowing he had a deep background in neurological technology, the government recruited Moss in an attempt to recover Sidney’s memories and uncover the truth behind what happened on that ship.

Moss shook his head. Or rather, he thought to himself, they wanted evidence that he killed them. They’ve already drawn their conclusion. They just want things neat and tidy for the file.

He let out a long yawn. It was late…and he was tired. Moss turned away from the window and began walking down the hallway toward his temporary quarters.

Tomorrow would bring another meeting with Impav. Moss was not looking forward to that…

 

The next morning, Moss found Impav standing alone in the Commons Area of the station. He looked as he always did: tall, blue, wearing a diluted white outfit with golden fringes similar to a robe. The Commons Area was a large open space with rows of tables and chairs. It was used as a greeting area for new arrivals and guests. Not that the station got any these days.

The blue alien turned as Moss approached, fixing him in his large, pupil-less black eyes. Even his wide mouth seemed to exude arrogance.

“Ah, Mr. Moss…it is a pleasure to see-“

“What in the goddamn hell do you think you’re doing?”

The alien’s mouth curled upward, making Moss hate him all the more.

“I do not believe I know of what you are speaking,” he said.

Moss had never been a fan of the Eon. Despite being a peaceful, advanced race, the Eon always seemed to hold an air of superiority about them. They reminded him of pseudo-intellectuals who rattled off meaningless facts as a way to prove how smart they were.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” he shot back. “You went behind my back and gave my team orders.”

“Your task has taken too much time,” Impav responded. “Steps must be taken to expedite the process.”

“By turning our only witness into a vegetable?!”

“There is no evidence that such an outcome is inevitable.”

“Oh I’m sorry…did you become an expert in human neurology when I wasn’t looking?”

The mouth curl again.

“Need I remind you that I have studied the intricacies of memory extensively,” Impav asked.

Moss scoffed.

“And I haven’t?”

Impav’s expression remained unflinching.

“I did not intend to question your expertise, Mr. Moss.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Moss replied, barely attempting to hide his sarcasm.

“However, I question your ability to achieve the desired result.”

Moss’ eyes narrowed, glowing with fiery fury.

“Excuse me?”

“We have undertaken thirty-seven individual memory recovery sessions, and we are still no closer to finding answers.”

“Oh I see…and uh…what are your thoughts what occurred during our last session.” Impav’s mouth began to open but Moss cut him off. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I forgot…you weren’t there. They tell me you’re here to oversee the investigation, but you barely ever bother to show your damn face! So do not sit there and tell me my ability to do the job is flawed when you hardly even do yours.”

Moss often wondered why Impav didn’t just use his species natural ability to calm people down. The Eon were capable of releasing chemicals into the air that would instantaneously lull all nearby into a peaceful trance. Maybe he figures it’s beneath him, Moss thought to himself.

Impav straightened himself up.

“Mr. Moss…I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the United Earth Government is anxious for answers as to what happened on board that vessel. They are growing more and more impatient with the lack of results. If you do not provide them with a satisfactory outcome, then they will find someone who will. With that in mind, you are to begin a new session today.”

Moss stared at him, incredulous.

What? We’ve barely just completed memory regression. We need to give him a couple of days to rest before we try again.”

“What we need are answers, Mr. Moss. That is what you are being paid for.”

Moss took a step forward, glaring straight into Impav’s face. The alien stood over two meters tall, meaning Moss only came up to about his neck. And yet, he wasn’t intimidated in the slightest.

“You know what,” he said, his voice low. “You go tell those jackoffs to put down their wine glasses, crawl out of their mansions, and fly up here to see for themselves. And if they still question my ability to produce results, then they can fire me all they want. But until then? This is still my show. The…intricacies of the human brain are my area of expertise. Understood?”

And with that, he turned and stormed out the door.

“Where are you going, Mr. Moss,” Impav called after him.

“To do my goddamn job!”

 

Through the slim windows of the sliding doors, Moss could see the young man was sitting awake in his hospital bed. He sighed quietly.

God I hate this conversation…

Steeling himself and taking a deep breath, Moss stepped inside the room.

“Sidney Lehmann?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Russell Moss. It’s nice to meet you.”

The two shook hands. Sidney looked altogether fragile in his blue hospital gown.

“Sidney,” Moss began, “I know this whole thing seems strange to you, but I need to ask you a question: what’s the last thing you remember?”

Sidney rubbed his forehead.

“Not much,” he replied. “I remember being on the Celeste. We got diverted to an asteroid field to mine some resources. But after that it’s all just…blank. The next thing I know, I’m sitting in this hospital bed.”

Moss clasped his hands together.

“Okay, let’s start small: you’re on the space station Orion, in orbit around Earth.”

“I’m back at Earth?”

“Yes. There was an incident aboard the Celeste…and you were brought here afterwards.”

“Incident? What incident?”

“We don’t exactly know. All we know is that the ship returned to Earth under autopilot.”

Sidney’s face went pale.

“The crew? Are they…” He trailed off.

Moss sighed.

“You were the only survivor kid…I’m sorry.”

There was a long period of silence as the news sunk in for Sidney. He looked down at his hands and twiddled his thumbs sadly. Moss waited patiently.

“What…what happened to me,” Sidney finally asked, looking back up.

“We don’t know for sure. You were discovered in your quarters, sitting in the corner. You were out of sorts, muttering to yourself.”

No point in mentioning the blood, Moss thought to himself. It wouldn’t do much good anyways…

“Why am I here,” Sidney asked.

“We think you can tell us what happened on board that ship,” Moss explained.

“But…how? I don’t remember anything.”

“That’s the thing: you actually do. The memories are still there. They’re just…locked away. Our best guess is that you repressed them due to the experience being traumatic. Have you ever heard of a Limbic Stimulator?”

“I think so…it was built to help people with memory problems…those with dementia, Alzheimer’s, that sort of thing.”

“Very good. Well…that’s what we’re planning on using for you. Hopefully we can guide you through the memories and you’ll be able to tell us exactly what happened.”

Sidney gazed down at his hands again for a moment. When he looked back up, he had a strangely vacant look in his eyes.

“We’ve had this conversation before…haven’t we?”

Moss averted his eyes. Unable to help himself, he sigh aloud. Every time…

“Yes,” he said finally.

Sidney turned to him, distant look still in his eyes.

“I’ve asked that question before, haven’t I?”

“Yes…yes you have.”

Sidney paused for a moment.

“How…long have I been here,” he asked.

“Well,” Moss began, “if I have my days correct, it’ll be three months tomorrow.”

“Three months?”

“Yeah…”

In the silence that followed, the only sound was the natural hum of the space station. Moss felt bad for Sidney. He seemed like a nice kid. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He didn’t deserve to be held here like a lab rat or a prisoner. But the government wanted answers, and they were going to get them by any means possible.

“So…when do we start,” Sidney asked.

“Well…we can start in the next couple of hours. But that’s entirely up to you. If you want to rest, that’s fine. There’s no need to push yourself too-“

“Let’s do it.”

“You sure kid?”

The two locked eyes. The seriousness in Sidney’s gaze was obvious.

“I want to know what happened to me.”

“Well all right then…I’ll go inform the others and we can get everything set up. I’ll be back for you in a couple of hours.”

Moss stood up and began to leave.

“Hey…Mr. Moss?”

Moss paused and turned around.

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“Certainly.”

“After all this time…you must be really tired of having this conversation huh?”

And, for the first time in what felt like ages, Moss laughed.

 

“Systems powering up…connections stable…” The female lab tech turned to him. “You may proceed when ready.”

“Excellent.” Moss pressed a button that activated his microphone. “How are you feeling Sidney?”

“I’m okay I guess,” came the response. “This feels weird.”

“You’ll get used to it, trust me. Computer?” There was a brief chirp. “Begin audio and video recording. Note the date and time. File name ‘Session thirty-eight’.”

“Complying,” a computerized female voice replied. “Audio and video recording initiated.”

Moss gazed through the glass window into the hospital room, eyes focused on the still form of Sidney. A dark gray metal device was in place over his eyes, a series of three green lights on top blinking in rhythmic succession. Sidney himself seemed calm, lying nearly motionless in his white hospital bed. But Moss knew appearances could be deceiving.

Thirty-eighth time’s the charm, Moss told himself. He just wished he actually believed that.

“All right Sidney, you ready?”

“I think so.”

“Okay…we’re going to put you under now. Just let the Stimulator do its job. It’ll feel like you’re peacefully falling asleep.”

 

The ship’s alarm shrieked.

“What the hell happened,” the captain asked, bolting up out of his chair.

“Sir we’ve detected an impact on the ship’s hull,” another officer reported.

“Damage?”

“Checking…there doesn’t appear to be any discernible impact to the hull’s integrity.”

“Then shut that alarm off,” the captain ordered. A moment later, the shrieking ceased. “Damn thing’s too sensitive,” he muttered. He began reaching for a button on his armrest, but abruptly froze in place.

“All right Sidney,” the voice of Moss said in his ear, “we’re going to speed things along here.”

“You’ve seen all this before,” he asked.

“Yes,” Moss’ voice replied. “As far as we can tell, there’s nothing of value in this memory. So please, continue.”

 

“First, I went down to the cargo bay,” Sidney recalled.

“Why?”

“I have a friend who works the night shift down there. I went to meet up with him, just to have a quick chat.”

The walls of the lift faded away and were replaced by a massive gray-walled room filled with red storage containers. A man with short black hair, blue eyes, and dirt on his face looked over from his position behind a small, gray storage crate. He smiled and waved.

“That’s Cecil. We talked for a little while.”

“What about?”

“Some science-fiction movie he wanted me to watch. I didn’t really pay much attention to it.”

“I take it you’re not a movie person?”

“No…I prefer to read.”

There was a pause.

“I’ve told you all this before…haven’t I,” Sidney asked.

“Yes…but don’t worry about it,” Moss’ voice said. “We need you to take us through this linearly. It’s the best approach we have to reawakening your repressed memories.”

“Anything else you need me to do here?”

“Not really…your conversation with Cecil seems to have little impact on future events.” Another pause. “Unless…there’s something new you remember.”

Sidney pondered for a moment.

“Actually…there is.”

 

“-really great old movie,” Cecil was saying. “It’s about this crew of a cargo ship. They come out of stasis because the ship picks up this distress call coming from a nearby planet. When they go down there they find this crashed alien vessel that’s been there for god knows how long.”

“I see,” Sidney said, barely paying attention.

“It’s really good,” Cecil continued. “It was revolutionary for the time because of its strong, female protagonist. You should give it a watch sometime.”

“Eh,” Sidney replied. “You know me Cecil…I’m not much into movies.”

“Come on man…you never know until you-“

He was cut off by a sudden, distant bang that echoed through the cargo bay. Sidney jumped at the noise and Cecil whirled around in its direction. The echo faded away and all was silent again. There was a short period where nothing was said. Then, Cecil chuckled.

“Ah…it was nothing,” he said, turning around. His expression grew concerned. “Sid…you okay?”

Sidney was hyperventilating, his fingers twitching and his face clammy. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Gradually, the oppressive feeling of panic floated away.

“I’m fine,” he said finally.

“You sure about that bud,” Cecil asked. “You didn’t look fine.”

“I’m fine,” Sidney insisted.

Cecil shot him a disbelieving look.

“Okay then…look just get some rest at least. For me?”

“Sure,” Sidney said. “I’ll see you later.”

“Later man.”

 

“Hmmm,” the voice of Moss mumbled in his ear.

“I never told you that before,” Sidney asked.

“No.”

“I wonder why.”

“You probably just forgot. Memory is a tricky thing after all. Let’s continue.”

Sidney had lied. He didn’t wonder why he never mentioned it. He knew exactly why. His…condition…the propensity for panic attacks…it made him feel weak. It made him feel like a burden to everyone around him. How are people supposed to trust him when, in the most crucial of moments, he could end up frozen with fear?

It had been that way since he was a child. Every now and then, something would trigger it. He had felt lucky that he could bring it under control so easily that time.

The walls of the cargo bay slipped away and Sidney found himself in his quarters, staring at his bed.

 

“What do you make of that sir,” the female lab tech was asking.

“His panic attack? I’m not sure,” Moss said. “Initially we thought that his condition might have been a factor in whatever happened, but never uncovered any proof of it. In fact, I doubt it’s related at all to whatever happened on the Celeste. But…I suppose every little bit helps. Computer?” Chirp “Make a note on the recording and time stamp the moment of Sidney’s panic attack in the cargo bay.”

“Complying…time stamp recorded.”

“Excellent.”

“So what next,” the lab tech asked.

“We keep going,” Moss replied. “Simple as that.”

 

“No need to be so formal,” the captain said with a laugh. “What do you read?”

“Books mostly.”

“Non-fiction?”

“Fiction sir.”

“Ah good…nothing gets the mind going like a little imagination,” the captain said…his smile growing wider and wider.

The smile refused to waver. Sidney could hear each palpitation of his heart. His hands began to sweat, and his breathing grew shallow and rapid.

“Sir…his adrenaline is spiking,” a voice said in the distance

“Damn it…okay…Sidney? Listen to me,” the voice of Moss said. “Take a deep breath…just like you did in the cargo bay. You can do this Sid…I believe in you.”

Sidney closed his eyes, trying not to be overwhelmed by the darkness behind them. He breathed in…and out.

In…and out.

Miraculously, it worked. His heart no longer sounded like it was lodged in his ear and his body stopped shaking in short order. He opened his eyes.

The captain was moving again, typing away on his keyboard.

“In fact…I could use someone with a little imagination right now,” he said.

“What is it sir,” Sidney asked.

“You remember that piece of debris that struck the ship when we dropped out of FTL?”

Sidney’s heart jumped.

“Yes…”

“Well apparently it or some piece of it still remains lodged in our hull.”

“How did a piece of rock get stuck on our hull?”

The captain turned away from the screen.

“That’s the thing Sidney…it’s not a rock.”

Sidney’s eyes went wide.

“Wha-what do you mean?”

“What I mean is that the object is metallic and most likely artificial in nature.”

“As in…it was created?”

“Exactly.”

“But then…who made it?”

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” He turned, pressed a button, and brought something up on the holographic projection. “Take a look at this.”

Sidney leaned in close and squinted. After a moment, he stood back up and shrugged.

“I don’t get it sir,” he said. “I can tell it’s sensor data…but there’s nothing there.”

“Exactly.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. But apparently, whenever we scan that section of the hull…it’s as if the object isn’t there at all.”

“So it’s invisible to sensors?”

“Well not so much invisible as our sensors register…nothing. Like it’s just a void of…nonexistence. But it gets even stranger than that. I got a call from maintenance shortly after I left the bridge earlier this evening. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about until I got down there and saw it for myself.” The captain paused, struggling for words. “It’s as if…you can hardly see it with the naked eye.”

Sidney gave the captain a vacant stare. He was dumbfounded.

“What…what do you mean?”

“Well it’s like…ugh I can’t explain it very well…but when you’re looking at it…it’s like your eyes can’t see it…or rather, they don’t want to see it. Every time I look away from the thing I can’t recall any particulars about it at all…just the vaguest sense of an egg-like shape and metallic construction. I think it’s black in color…but who really knows.”

“H-how would something like that affect our minds? It’s just a hunk of metal,” Sidney stammered.

“I don’t know. I was hoping you might have an idea.”

“Sorry captain…I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anything like it.”

“Don’t worry about it Sidney. I don’t think anyone has.”

The captain pondered for a moment.

“Here’s the thing though: the small size and shape of the thing got me thinking: maybe it’ssssssssssss aaaaaaaaaaaan escaaaaaaaaaa-“

The captain’s voice abruptly stop as he froze in place. The scene before Sidney shimmered, faint white trails of code streaming out of everything: the walls, the desk, the captain, all of it. He backed away and raised his head toward the ceiling.

“Moss?! What’s going on,” he shouted.

There was no response. The world began to quake, the walls of the captain’s office bending and shimmering like ocean waves. Sidney could feel the sweat on his brow, the cold dampness that chilled his entire being.

“Is anybody there,” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

“I’m here Sidney,” Moss’ voice said. “Take a deep breath. Calm yourself.”

In…and out, he thought. In……and out.

“What happened,” Sidney managed to ask. “Why did everything stop?”

“We don’t know,” Moss admitted. “It’s strange…but it’s almost like your memories are fighting us.”

“What? How is that possible?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never seen anything like this before Sidney. I wish I had answers for you. Can you focus and push past it like before?”

“I’ll try.”

Sidney closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. He could feel the world pulsing around him, beating to the tune of his heart. He visualized it as best as he could. The captain’s mouth moving again…the walls retaking their former, solid shape…

But a moment later, he opened his eyes and let out a sigh.

“Nothing,” he said aloud. “I…I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault Sidney,” Moss’ voice assured him. “You can’t help it.”

Sidney turned his eyes on the frozen image of the captain. He was hunched over the keyboard, his fingers frozen in mid-stroke. What were you going to show me, he wondered. What happened to you…what happened to the rest of the crew?

“Sidney?”

“Yes?”

“We’re going to try something,” Moss explained. “It’s a little dangerous, but as far as we can tell there’s no other option.”

That didn’t sound good.

“What’s your plan,” he asked hesitantly.

“Direct electrical stimulation of your brain. We know the memories are still there. They’re just dormant. Hopefully, the stimulation will release the block on those memories and allow you to continue forward.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Okay Sidney, get ready…in three…”

Sidney took a deep breath.

“Two…”

His hands twitched.

“One.”

He brought the base of the model ship down on the captain’s skull

                                                                                                               skull

                                                                                                               skull

                                                                                                                         sending chunks of flesh and brain matter raining down onto the desk. His expression never

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     never

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                wavered. Blood splattered into his eyes, but Sidney never blinked. He raised the model high above his head and-

The man screamed as the bullets tore

                                                             tore

                                                                     through his flesh. The assault rifle kicked back against Sidney’s shoulder. His eyes never left their target, his fingers firmly holding down the trigger until the rifle went click

                   click

                   click

                             telling him the gun was empty. He thumbed a button, letting the ammo magazine fall to the ground and calmly loaded in another, taking aim and-

The stench of sizzling flesh

                                        flesh

                                        flesh

                                        flesh

                                                  filled his nostrils as the torch burned a hole in his victim’s eye socket. A swirling mass of blood and charred skin fused together as the man screamed in anguish. Sidney pushed the torch deeper and deeper, feeling the burning flesh dripping onto his wrist.

The screams

       screams

       screams

       screams

                      and the smell of charred flesh echoed endlessly through his mind, a swirling nightmare that never ceased assaulting him. Images of murder and torture flashed by faster and faster, as if someone had their finger jammed down on fast-forward.

Eventually, Sidney realized that the screams were his own.

 

“The hell is going on,” Moss shouted, shooting up from his chair.

“I don’t know sir,” the female tech said. “We just finished stimulating his brain and-” She trailed off, staring through the glass into the hospital room.

Sidney was screaming, his voice a terrifying shriek and his body thrashing back and forth. The two technicians in the room were trying to hold him down, but to no avail. The bed rocked back and forth under his spastic convulsions. Moss was surprised it hadn’t broken yet.

“What do we do sir,” the female tech asked.

Moss didn’t have an answer. He looked down at the video playback screen. This was worse than anything they had seen before. The ghastly images swirled around over and over again, sometimes so fast that he could barely comprehend them.

“It’s like he’s stuck in a loop,” he said. “I keep seeing the same few things over and over again.”

Suddenly, he noticed the technician standing next to him was staring at her own hologram.

“What? What is it,” he asked.

“You’re right sir…you are seeing the same images over and over again. And according to my readings, he is experiencing multiple sets of memories at once.”

Ice filled Moss’ veins.

“How many?”

“Excuse me sir?”

“How many sets of memories is he experiencing,” Moss asked.

The technician hit a few buttons, stopped, and turned to him with a face drained of color.

“If my calculations are correct…thirty-eight individual sets.”

The two of them stared at each other for a moment. Then Moss slammed his hand down on the intercom button.

“Sedate him and shut it down!”

“But sir-” one of the techs began.

“Shut the goddamn thing down now and put him under! That’s an order!”

 

“Mr. Moss? What happened in there?”

Moss remained silent and sat staring at his hands.

“Mr. Moss…I must insist that you be forthcoming with me.”

“I think,” Moss began, “we released the block on his memories.”

“Would that not be considered a success,” Impav asked.

“No you don’t understand,” he said, looking up. “We released the block on all of them. He was remembering every single one of his previous sessions. Instead of being flooded with one set of deranged nightmares he had over three dozen of them playing out at in his head at the same time. If we hadn’t stopped when we did…I don’t think there would have been anything left of Sidney.”

During the silence that followed, Moss glanced across the Commons Area at a new arrival, another white-robed alien seated at a table across from them. In reality, he wasn’t actually new…Moss had seen him at some of their previous exchanges. The alien never said anything. He just…observed. It made Moss uncomfortable, but he saw it as just another thing he had to put up with.

“Another failure,” Impav said with a sigh. He turned away and gazed out the window into space. “Thirty-eight sessions…and no results. Sounds like things are going to have to-”

“You do realize this is probably your fault, right,” Moss blurted out.

Impav turned back around, a look of what could be construed as hostility on his face.

“I regret the turn events have taken with this recent endeavor,” he said after a moment. “But it is not I that chose to stimulate Mr. Lehmann’s dormant brain matter. If I remember correctly, it was you who made that decision.”

“Oh cut the shit already,” Moss shot back. “You forced my hand. If you hadn’t insisted we undertake another session so quickly, Sidney would have had time to rest and the memory block we put on him would have been stronger. It’s you and the rest of those politicians down on Earth who think they can just push things to get what they want.”

“Mr. Moss-”

“No…I’m done listening to you. You never take part in the sessions. You only watch them afterwards.”

Moss saw the look on Impav’s face and his jaw dropped.

“My god,” he said, standing up slowly. “You don’t even watch the recordings, do you?”

Impav averted his gaze in an almost embarrassed manner.

“I…peruse them when I have the time.”

“You…peruse them? What the hell does that even mean?”

The look of shame on the alien’s face vanished quickly, replaced by his familiar expression of haughty indignation.

“Mr. Moss, I am far too occupied with other tasks to be constantly focused on you and your team.”

“That’s a load of shit if I’ve ever heard one.”

“Excuse me?”

“The only thing you seem occupied with is giving orders behind my back!”

In the midst of everything, Moss noticed that his words got the attention of the other Eon. The alien sat up with a look of intense contemplation.

“Mr. Moss,” Impav said, standing up as straight as he could, “I am growing weary of your constant petulance.”

“If you’re trying to intimidate me, it won’t work,” Moss replied.

“I am not using intimidation. Such tactics are-”

“Beneath you? You really are a prick, you know that?”

The alien squinted.

“I do not understand what that means.”

“It means ‘fuck you’, that’s what it means.”

In all his life, Moss couldn’t say he had ever seen an Eon get mad. But Impav’s expression in that moment was the closest he figured any of them could get. The alien’s mouth curled into a grimace so sour that Moss almost believed he would resort to violence right then and there.

“Is it true?”

Both of their gazes turned to the still-seated Eon. The alien lifted his head and gazed directly into Impav’s eyes.

“Is…what true,” Impav asked, taken off guard by the sudden interruption.

“Is it true what he said,” the Eon asked, pointing toward Moss. “Did you give orders without consulting him?”

Another brief silence.

“If you are referring to my order to allow Mr. Lehmann’s dormant memories to surface…then yes.”

“We don’t even know for sure that they’re his real memories,” Moss spoke up.

“Mr. Moss-”

“Enough,” the second Eon interrupted. “Both of you.” He stood up from the table he was seated at. Moss noted that he was a little taller than Impav. He felt like a child watching adults fighting.

“However…Mr. Moss is correct,” the Eon said. “There is no reliable evidence that those…visions Mr. Lehmann experiences are representative of what actually transpired.”

“This is preposterous,” Impav objected. “I have studied the intricacies-”

“-of memory extensively,” the Eon finished. “Yes yes…we have all heard your speech before.”

Moss couldn’t believe it, but he was actually enjoying himself. All he was missing was a bucket of popcorn.

“And what business is it of yours,” Impav was saying. “You are here as an observer and a recorder. You have no power over this investigation.”

The other Eon said nothing. He simply rolled up the sleeve on his robe, revealing a symbol branded onto the back of his right hand in thick black ink. It looked like a pair of parentheses enclosing a small black dot in the center. Moss had no idea what it meant, but he could see the impact it had on Impav.

“You are-” Impav froze for a moment, clearly in shock. “You are a member of the Council?”

Then, in what had to be the most satisfying moment of the whole thing, Moss saw an honest-to-god smile crawl across the other Eon’s face.

“I am Ardan,” he announced, “arbitrator, observer, and member of the Eon High Council of Science. You are relieved of your duties here Impav. A shuttle will be along to collect you during the next Earth day.”

“But…but I-” Impav began to object, but Ardan held up a hand to stop him.

“The Council has spoken,” Ardan said. Then he turned and walked through a nearby entryway, leaving Impav and Moss alone. Impav turned to him, his expression one of utter disbelief. Moss flashed him a smile.

“The Council has spoken,” he said. Then he too got up from his seat and exited the room, leaving Impav standing alone with a downcast expression on his face.

 

Moss spent a long time staring through the giant viewing window at the empty hospital bed. It felt like he had spent years in this room. But it had only been three months since he first arrived on the station.

Two days had passed since Impav was removed from his position. Moss wasn’t sorry to see him go, but wasn’t too keen on having a new master either. He hadn’t seen much of Ardan since he walked out of the Commons Area those couple of days ago, so he wasn’t sure what to think of him. Moss’ initial impression was that he seemed more levelheaded than Impav was, or at least less self-important. But even so, he wasn’t ready to trust him.

And now today was the start of another session. In just a few hours they would wake Sidney up and Moss would have to have the same conversation. He wasn’t looking forward to it, but he knew it had to be done. They had to get to the bottom of things. And to do that, they had to force Sidney to relive it all over again.

The sound of the automatic door opening reached his ears.

“Hello, Mr. Moss.”

Moss spun around in his chair to find the Eon Ardan standing in the doorway, holding a holographic computer tablet in his hands.

“I was wondering if you had a moment to discuss-”

Moss held up a hand to stop him.

“Look, I’m glad you sided with me over Impav, but let’s get something straight here: this is my team, this is my operation. If you think you’re going to just sit back and tell me what to do, you’re mistaken.”

“On the contrary Mr. Moss,” Ardan replied, “I have no intention of being lax in my duties the way my predecessor was. In fact, I had a theory about how best to bring forth Mr. Lehmann’s memories.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Well, in my review of the previous session recordings, it appears that your last one was the only one that showed any significant progress in quite some time.”

Moss sighed.

“We were so close…so close. But it all went to hell again. And then…” Moss paused for a second. “And then I made the worst decision I ever could have.”

“I must disagree.”

Moss looked up in surprise.

“What?”

“While the result was not at all what we wanted, your decision was the only logical one to make at the time. Since Mr. Lehmann appeared incapable of moving the memories forward of his own volition, you chose to take action. I must commend that.”

Moss was dumbfounded. “I…” he stuttered. “Thank you?”

Ardan chuckled.

“I see you are not used to such forthcoming discussion.”

Moss had to smile a little.

“I guess I’m not.”

“In any case, I believe it was you that helped Mr. Lehmann move forward, even if only for a brief time.”

“Me?”

“Precisely,” Ardan replied. “You used your words to calm him, to direct him away from his feelings of panic. Which is why I believe some changes in our next session will yield better results. But before we begin, I have something else I wish to discuss with you. I would like you to take a look at this.”

Ardan handed Moss the holographic tablet. Moss stared at the screen for a short time. It was clearly a graph of some kind. A sharp green line showed a downward trend. Notations on the side indicated an amount of some kind and notations on the bottom indicated time.

After a minute, Moss shrugged and handed the tablet back.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “What does it mean?”

“It is the inventory log for the Celeste‘s food stores over the last three months.”

Moss’ eyes went wide.

“Wait a minute…you mean the food has been disappearing? As in…being eaten?

“That is precisely what I mean.”

His brain went into overdrive.

“The strange object…the captain’s description of it being artificial…the banging in the cargo bay…oh my god.” He looked up at Ardan. “You think the Celeste had a stowaway, don’t you?”

“Has…Mr. Moss. I don’t believe whoever or whatever boarded that ship ever left.”

Moss got up from his seat.

“We need to send a team aboard that ship! Whatever is still on board might hold the key to understanding what happened!”

“Calm yourself Mr. Moss…we have already sent a team aboard the ship. However, they were unable to uncover the hiding place of any creature that may still be aboard the Celeste. To that end, Mr. Lehmann remains our best and only hope at finding the truth.”

Moss sighed.

“I’ll go get him up to speed,” he said, then walked out of the room.

 

I really hope this is the last time I have to do this, Moss thought to himself. He could see Sidney through the window, sitting up in his bed. For both our sakes…

“Sidney Lehmann,” he asked as he entered.

“That’s me.”

“I’m Russell Moss. It’s nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“Look Sidney,” Moss began, “I know this is all strange for you, but I need to ask you something: what’s the last thing you remember?”

“Not much,” Sidney admitted. “I remember being on the Celeste. We were diverted to an asteroid field to mine resources. But after that it’s just…blank. The next thing I know I’m sitting here in this hospital bed.”

“Okay…let’s start small: you’re on the space station Orion, in orbit around Earth.”

“I’m back at Earth?”

“Yes you are…there was an incident…and…Sidney? Are you okay?”

Sidney had a vacant look on his face.

“I’ve had this conversation before, haven’t I?”

 

When Moss and Ardan stepped into the Stimulator room, there were now three beds instead of just one.

“So run me through this again,” Moss said. “How is this going to work?”

“It is quite simple,” Ardan replied. “We use secondary connections to the Stimulator to allow two extra individuals to connect with and accompany Mr. Lehmann on his explorations of his memories.”

“And those two individuals will be…?”

“Why, you and I of course.”

“Sir.” Moss turned to see one of the lab technicians motioning him toward the bed. “Please lay down.”

Moss complied, sitting down on the bed and swinging his legs up. Sidney was already in his bed, the metal face plate of the Stimulator covering his eyes. Moss laid his head back and got comfortable. A technician appeared above him and began placing electrodes on his forehead. They chilled his skin.

“Hey Sid,” Moss said.

“Yeah,” came the reply.

“This is going to be a stressful ride. Are you ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, sir. I just want to find out what happened.”

Me too bud, he thought. Me too…

Several minutes later, the technicians finished their job. Moss heard the automatic door opening and closing. Then, the three of them were alone.

“Okay,” a voice said over the intercom a minute later. “Is everyone ready?”

Moss gave the window a thumbs up.

“Good. We’ll start synchronizing the connections in a moment.”

Moss took a deep breath. He had never done anything like this before. He had never even thought of doing something like this before. But it was too late to start having reservations now.

“Synchronization in three…two…”

 

“One.”

Moss gasped. He looked around. There was nothing but an endless sea of blackness.

“Did it work,” he asked aloud.

“Yes…it appears so.”

Out of the inky blackness a swirling figure formed. It shaped itself into Ardan, white robe and all.

“Mr. Lehmann,” Ardan asked. “Are you ready to begin?”

“Yes,” came the reply.

Moss turned around to find Sidney standing directly behind him.

“Very good,” Ardan said. “Let us get started.”

 

“I thought this area was supposed to be clear of debris?”

“It’s not his fault captain,” an officer chimed in. “What struck us was too small to be picked up on long-range scanners.”

The captain let out a small chuckle. “The hazards of space travel huh? Expect the unexpected.” He stood up and stretched. “Well it’s getting late. I’ll be down in my quarters if anyone needs me.” He made his way toward the lift.

Sidney watched him go and then stared straight ahead. His hands were shaking, his palms sweaty.

“Sidney,” a voice called to him. He turned to find Moss standing over him. “Don’t blame yourself for what happened. There’s no way you could have known.”

“I know,” Sidney said. “But it’s so hard not to.”

“I get it Sid,” Moss said. “I really do. When I was younger I had a friend who suffered from anxiety attacks. It’s not easy…I know. Just focus on your breathing and you’ll be fine.”

Sidney focused, taking several deep breaths. In…and out. In…and out. In……and out.

“Okay,” he said finally, turning to face Moss. “What next?”

 

From there, it was just going through the motions.

They went down to the cargo bay, watched Sidney have his conversation with Cecil, and then heard the unexplained clanging Sidney mentioned in a previous session. Ardan noted that the sound was definitely metallic in nature.

It was all familiar: Sidney going to bed, being woken up by the captain’s call, then making his way to the captain’s quarters.

As the three of them strolled in, Moss felt like there was a giant boulder in his stomach. After having seen the abominable images Sidney’s mind threw up every time they got to this point, he wasn’t really looking forward to experiencing it firsthand.

But they had to push through. They had to know.

“H-how would something like that affect our minds? It’s just a hunk of metal,” Sidney was saying.

“I don’t know. I was hoping you might have an idea.”

“Sorry captain…I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anything like it.”

“Don’t worry about it Sidney. I don’t think anyone has.”

The captain pondered for a moment.

“Here’s the thing though: the small size and shape of the thing got me thinking. Maybe it’ssssssssssss aaaaaaaaaaaan escaaaaaaaaaa-“

Just like last time, the captain slowed to a stop and the room began to flicker. Moss looked over at Sidney and saw his hands start to shake.

“Heart rate increasing…adrenaline spiking,” a voice said in his ear.

“Sidney,” Moss said gently, taking a step forward, “focus on me.”

Sidney turned to him, his eyes wild with fear.

“You can do this Sidney…you know you can.”

Moss wasn’t so sure…but hid his doubts as best he could. Sidney stared at him, his eyes twitching. Sweat began to drizzle down his brow.

“Mr. Lehmann,” Ardan said. “Listen to him. Focus. Clear your mind.”

“Sid…focus on breathing. Nothing else…just focus on-”

The world snapped. The next thing Moss knew, Sidney was pummeling the back of the captain’s head with the model ship.

“Oh god damn it,” he exclaimed aloud. “Sidney…stop!” He rushed forward to try and pry the ship from Sidney’s hand. But suddenly, everything rushed away from him into darkness. Gray walls shot in from all directions. Moss found himself standing in a hallway, watching as Sidney strolled past with an assault rifle in his hands. He raised the gun and pointed it at a nearby crew member. The man screamed as bullets went flying.

“Sidney! Listen to me,” Moss shouted. He made an effort to tear the gun from Sidney’s hands, but froze in shock after his fingers went right through Sidney, as if he was nothing more than a ghost.

The world changed again. This time, they were in a dimly lit room with crates strewn about. Moss watched as Sidney set down a pistol and grabbed a plasma torch. He advanced on a cowering crew member who had gaping holes in his knees.

“Sid!” But he showed no response. He grabbed the person’s hair and forced his head backward.

“Not again…Sidney!

A click. A flickering blue flame. Sidney’s expression remained impassive as he brought the flame closer to his victim’s eye.

SIDNEY,” Moss screamed as loud as he could.

Then suddenly, everything froze. Moss found himself overwhelmed by a comforting feeling of peace.

“Mr. Lehmann,” a voice said. “Look at me.”

Sidney dropped the plasma torch on the ground, a harsh clanging noise echoing through the chamber. He turned around, an expression of calm plastered on his face.

And suddenly Ardan was there, standing beside him. A strange, bright purple aura emanated from his eyes and his entire body. Moss wasn’t sure if it was real or just another hallucination. But he knew exactly what had happened: Ardan had used his species natural ability, and now their brains were being flooded by feel-good chemicals.

“Mr. Lehmann, are you okay,” Ardan asked.

“Yes,” Sidney replied calmly. “I’m good.”

“Excellent…now, I want you to look at this person.”

Sidney turned and locked his eyes on the man frozen in a state of terror.

“Do you recognize him?”

Sidney squinted.

“No,” he replied.

“That’s because he never existed.”

“What do you mean,” Moss chimed in. Ardan turned to him, his body still alight in a purple haze.

“You were correct in your assertion that these memories were false, Mr. Moss,” the alien said. “These…people were never people at all, but mere amalgamations of those on board the Celeste. They were…constructions which made it appear as though Sidney murdered them.”

“How do you know this,” Moss asked. His body was still tingling.

“I attempted to cross-reference the images of the people Sidney was seen murdering with those of the crew. It never resulted in a match.”

“But…I killed them,” Sidney insisted. “I know I did. I just saw it!”

“What you are seeing never happened, Mr. Lehmann. And I can prove it to you. Take us back to the captain.”

Sidney closed his eyes. In an instant, the walls of the cargo bay disappeared and the captain’s office rushed toward them.

“Look him over and tell me if something seems wrong,” Ardan said.

Sidney opened his eyes and walked back and forth in front of the captain for what felt like minutes. Suddenly, he leaned over and stared directly into the captain’s eyes. His mouth opened.

“His eyes,” Sidney muttered. “They’re…green. I thought they were blue.”

“They are blue, Mr. Lehmann.”

Sidney was shocked.

“You mean…this isn’t the captain at all? It’s just another…’construction’?”

“Yes…and his hair is not an exact match either. This version of the captain and the others you thought you saw yourself murder are nothing but falsehoods to blind you from seeing the truth.”

“But how do we get to the truth,” Sidney asked, standing back up.

“That is something only you can do. Focus, Mr. Lehmann. Focus…and show us what happened on board that ship.”

Sidney closed his eyes…

 

“Here’s the thing though: the small size and shape of the thing got me thinking. Maybe it’s an escape pod.”

“Escape pod? You mean like…from another ship?”

“Exactly.”

“But…what ship?”

“I have no idea Sidney,” the captain said. “But this thing was obviously built by intelligent hands. There’s just no way it’s a natural occurrence.”

“So…you think whoever…or whatever occupied this pod might be…on board?”

“No need to whisper Sidney. And yes…I do. But the question is how to find it? No one reported anything unusual.”

Sidney remembered.

“Actually sir, I did hear a strange clanging noise in the cargo bay earlier tonight.”

“Cargo bay?” The captain was confused. “Why were you down there?”

“Visiting a friend sir. I thought little of it at the time…but now…”

“Now you’re thinking it might indicate where our mysterious stowaway is hiding, if there is one. Good work Sid.” The captain got up from his desk. “But that still doesn’t solve the matter of how we actually find it. If the creature holds technology similar to what hides its escape pod, then we’ll just be stumbling around in the dark.”

A light bulb went on in Sidney’s head.

“Maybe you don’t search for it at all.”

The captain turned to him.

“What do you mean,” he asked.

“Maybe you search for what isn’t there.”

“I’m not following…”

“You showed me the sensor data right? It picked up an empty void where you knew the object was,” Sidney explained. “Well…maybe whatever was in that pod works in much the same way.”

The captain’s eyes lit up.

“Ah…you’re thinking it cloaks itself from detection by making it appear as if there is nothing there. So instead of searching for the creature…we search for the void. That’s…brilliant Sidney! Truly inspired thinking.”

“Thank you sir.” Sidney was afraid he would start blushing.

“We’ll have to modify some handheld scanners to search for that specifically. I’ll grab some of the crew and get to work.”

“I’ll go with,” Sidney volunteered.

“No that’s okay Sid,” the captain shook his head. “You’re young…you don’t have any combat experience. And if something goes terribly wrong…we may need someone to pilot the ship back home.”

Sidney wanted to argue, but the look on the captain’s face told him no good would come from it.

“Yes sir,” he said, then turned to walk away. When he was halfway out the door, he paused. He turned around to face the captain again.

“Good luck sir,” he said.

“Thanks Sid,” the captain replied. “I imagine we’re going to need it.”

 

“I…I remember.”

Ardan and Moss were standing in the hallway, watching as Sidney made his way toward the lift. A moment later, they were standing in the lift with him.

“After my conversation with the captain, I went back to my quarters and tried to sleep. But I kept tossing and turning in my bed. I couldn’t stop thinking about what the captain had said. And the idea of an unknown creature on board scared the hell out of me.”

“So what did you do,” Moss asked.

“I got up and went back down to the cargo bay. I wanted to see Cecil.”

The scene shifted. Cecil was standing next to a crate, frozen in the motion of talking.

“I convinced him to come with me and see if we could find the source of that strange noise from before,” Sidney’s voice said. The scene shifted again and they were standing over a twisted metal grate. “We found one of the covers to the air vents twisted and broken off,” Sidney explained. Then he paused…a look of intense fear in his eyes.

“Take us through this,” Moss urged. “We need to see it all.”

 

“What could have torn it off like that?”

“I don’t know Sid. I really don’t. God this is bizarre. I keep thinking of that movie…”

“This isn’t a movie Cecil…this is serious!”

“Calm down! There’s probably a good explanation for this.”

Cecil turned to Sidney. When he saw the fear in Sidney’s eyes, he gave him a look.

“Wait a second…you know something I don’t, don’t you? What is it?”

“I…I don’t want to alarm you…”

“Sid please…if something is amiss, I need to know.”

“Well-”

A loud scream abruptly cut them off. An unmistakable burst of gunfire followed. Then, the cargo bay was plunged into deafening silence.

“What the hell was that,” Cecil said. He ran off in the direction of the noise, Sidney at his heels. When they got around the corner, Cecil stopped so abruptly that Sidney almost ran into him.

“Cecil…what is it,” Sidney asked.

Cecil couldn’t respond. Instead, he pointed a shaky finger in the direction he was looking. Sidney followed his gaze. His eyes went wide.

“Ca…captain? Wha…what are you doing,” he stammered.

The captain was standing over the body of a maintenance worker, smoking assault rifle still in his hands. Sidney couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. But the evidence was too hard to deny.

The captain turned, bringing the assault rifle to bear on the two of them. The look in his eyes was empty…soulless…devoid of any feeling or emotion. A second later, the barrel of the gun was pointed directly at them. Sidney froze in place. He could only wait for the inevitable crack of gunfire…for the searing pain that would rip through his body.

“Sid, run!” Sidney felt a pair of hands shove him out of the line of fire. He bumped into a crate and began falling on his back.

Everything seemed to move in slow-motion. As he fell, he heard the gun go off. Cecil’s body jerked and twisted as it was peppered by bullets. A fine red mist sprayed out of his body as he stumbled backwards. A terrible silence followed, during which the figure of his friend rocked back and forth precariously

Then, Cecil began falling backward. When Sidney caught that dull, vacant look in his eyes, he knew Cecil was gone. He crumpled to the ground and lay there, forever still.

“No no no fuck fuck fuck,” he cursed under his breath.

Sidney found it hard to breathe. But he didn’t have long to think.

The sound of heavy boot steps reached his ears, full of determination and demented purpose.

Sidney scrambled to his feet and bolted for the lift. He had barely rounded the corner when he heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Bullets hit the wall above his head, sending sparks flying down. Instinctively, Sidney held his hands above his head with a yell as he continued to run. He made his way into the lift and mashed the button to go to another deck.

The moment before the door closed, he saw the captain stroll around the corner, that same empty look in his eyes. The gun turned in his direction, ready to fire.

The door slammed shut and the lift began to ascend.

Sidney was breathing heavily, his hands sweating. What the hell is going on, he thought to himself. Why would the captain kill one of the maintenance workers? Why would he kill Cecil? Why would he try to kill ME? None of it made any sense. This must be a dream, he thought. Any moment now, I’ll wake up in my bed to find that none of this ever happened.

Just then, the door opened.

Sidney only had a fraction of a second to glimpse the blurred gray outline of something coming at his face before he ducked out of the way. A loud clanging noise echoed through the lift. Sidney scrambled out into the hallway and spun back around.

He recognized the crew member that had tapped him on the shoulder and relieved him from the bridge earlier in the evening. He also recognized the look in the man’s eyes…that dark, empty look…

The crewman began to advance on him, swinging a large metal wrench menancingly.

“Look…it’s me, Sidney! I’m not your enemy.”

A second later, the man raised the wrench into the air and dove at him. Sidney barely managed to dodge out of the way, scrambling backward and falling to the ground. He quickly picked himself up just in time to see the crew member advancing again.

I have to do something…he’ll kill me if I don’t.

Thinking quickly, Sidney rushed forward before the man could react, tackling him back into the lift. He got to his feet as quick as he could, pressing one of the buttons and rushing out the door. The lift closed and began to ascend.

Sidney panted, out of breath. He didn’t have much time before the lift would most likely come back down. There was no way he could shut them off either. He needed command authorization to do that.

There was only one option: hide.

Sidney turned and darted down the hallway, making his way toward the crew quarters. It felt like he was running a marathon. His legs burned with the effort, but adrenaline kept him moving. In a situation like that, it was do or die. And despite his penchant for freezing up at the worst of times, he wasn’t inclined to just stand in place and for his death.

Sidney sprinted around the corner.

And tripped.

Ow,” he yelled out as he hit the ground. He groaned aloud. His hands were slimy and wet. He began to pick himself up and then froze. Dead eyes of hazel gazed back at him. He looked down at his hands and saw that they were covered in blood.

He stood up sharply, taking in the scene for the first time.

“Oh god,” he said aloud.

There must have been at least fifteen different crew members, all lying in various mangled positions along the hallway. Expressions of pain and agony were forever etched onto the faces, a glimpse into their final, dying moments. Sidney glanced down at his uniform. It was stained red with their blood.

“Oh god…oh my god…oh…god,” he mumbled to himself.

He took a step…and fell to the floor again, landing face first in another crimson pool. Sidney jerked his head up, coughing and sputtering. The urge to puke was overwhelming, but somehow he managed to force it back down. He tried to get to his feet and continue down the hallway, but kept slipping and falling on the bloody floor. It was like some kind of horrible slapstick comedy routine. By the time he managed to make it to the end of the hallway, he was covered head to toe in his crewmates’ blood.

Sidney turned around, his wide eyes quivering as he examined the hallway he had just trudged through. He couldn’t say how long he stood there. It could have been seconds. It could have been minutes. Time ceased to have any real meaning for him.

But while he was there, he noticed things. Some of the bodies had obvious signs of being beaten, probably with a large blunt object. A flash of blurred gray metal flickered into his mind, aimed directly for his face. Sidney shook his head, washing away the image. He ran his eyes over more of the bodies. While some had clearly suffered blunt force trauma, others were riddled with bullet holes. It wasn’t until his eyes landed on the gleaming black finish of a pistol clutched in one of their dead hands that the horrible truth revealed itself to him.

They had all killed each other…

With that knowledge, Sidney finally managed to command his legs move again and dashed around the corner, his hand leaving a bloody smear on the wall as he gripped it to steady himself. He kept running until he found himself at his quarters, the door sliding open upon his approach. It had barely closed before Sidney was at the nearby panel, setting it into lockdown mode. The only person that could open that door now…would be him.

Sidney backed away slowly, hitting the wall and sliding down onto the floor. He brought his knees up to his chin and curled into a ball, eyes fastened on the ominous gray door.

Now there was nothing to do but wait…

 

Gunshots rang out in the hallway some minutes after he got to his quarters. Someone screamed. He heard frantic thumps on the door to this room. But Sidney didn’t dare move.

Eventually it all fell silent. And then…he was alone.

Several times he thought about leaving his room…getting to an escape pod. But what good would that do him? He’d be left floating in space, an easy target if the murderous members of the crew decided to turn the ship’s meager weapons on him.

What the hell had happened to them? It was as if they had lost their minds..gone completely insane. There was no way the captain Sidney knew would so willingly turn against his crew and murder them all in cold blood. Was it an imposter? Some kind of visual trick? There was no way to know, and Sidney didn’t feel like leaving the room to find out.

There had to be a way out. There had to be an escape route he could take. Maybe one of the cargo shuttles…

Suddenly, his breath caught in his throat. He strained his ears. Slow, plodding steps made themselves known in the hallway. They didn’t belong to the captain. They didn’t belong to any member of the crew as far as Sidney could tell. They were far too soft for that.

Closer and closer they came as Sidney held his breath, praying that whatever it was would move on.

But it didn’t. The steps reached his door and abruptly stopped.

Sidney waited with bated breath…waited for the death blow to come. He waited for his life to reach its untimely end.

But it didn’t. Seconds ticked by…and nothing happened.

Then…very faintly, he heard something scratching on the other side of the doorway.

Go away, he thought. Go…away!

Suddenly, his vision blurred and his head pouned. He groaned, leaning forward with his hands pressed against his temple. He rocked back and forth, in the grips of some kind of pain he could barely describe. It felt like something was drilling into his skull.

“Make it stop…make it stop,” he screamed aloud.

Then, in one fluid motion, the door was forced open.

Sidney stared.

The last thing he knew was an inky blackness taking over his entire world…

 

“Really,” Moss asked. “That’s all you can remember? You didn’t catch a glimpse of the creature?”

“No I…I think I did…but I couldn’t tell you what it looked like. Not really anyways…” Sidney hung his head and sighed. “God…I’m such a coward.”

“Believe me Mr. Lehmann,” Ardan assured him, “that is far from the truth.”

“But I am, aren’t I? I just left everyone else to die.”

“You had no way of knowing which of your crew were in their right minds or not. For all you knew, everyone else had turned on each other.”

Sidney didn’t look too reassured by that.

“It’s true Sidney,” Moss said, stepping forward. “In the moment, all you can do is run.”

“Mr. Moss is correct,” Ardan agreed. “The natural inclination of an intelligent being is that of self-preservation. You did as your instincts commanded you to. There is no blame to be assigned for that.”

“But…but I-”

“Sid look,” Moss chimed in. “There’s no way you could have known what would happen.” He put a hand on Sidney’s shoulder. “What happened was a tragedy, but there’s no sense in burying yourself with regret.”

“I…” Sidney sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Good,” Moss said. “Now…we need to-”

A drop of blood appeared on Sidney’s shoulder. Moss stared at it for a second, perplexed. Then he reached up and wiped under his nose. His sleeve came back with a dark red smear.

“What the,” he mumbled.

Sidney groaned aloud. Moss looked over and saw blood dripping from his nose as well. He turned toward Ardan.

“What the hell is-”

Suddenly, all three of them grabbed their heads.

Oh god,” Moss screamed aloud. His head pounded like a jackhammer. His knees buckled under him and he fell to the ground.

“What is this,” Sidney cried out.

Neither Moss nor Ardan could answer. They were both on the ground, clutching their heads and groaning.

Make it stop make it stop make it stop,” Sidney started screaming.

Moss felt like something was sitting on his neck, making each breath a strained gasp. His head pulsated, as though it were swelling up to three times its normal size. The world began to tumble and swim away from him. The darkness grew so absolute that-

 

Moss blinked.

“It is quite simple,” Ardan was saying. “We use secondary connections to the Stimulator to allow two extra individuals to connect with and accompany Mr. Lehmann on his explorations of…Mr. Moss, what is it?”

Moss glanced around the room, utterly confused.

“Where…is everyone?”

Ardan’s large, black eyes flicked around the room.

“Hmmm,” he muttered. “Curious…I was certain there were technicians in this room just a moment ago.”

Moss’ eyes lit up with horror.

“We’ve done this before,” he said.

Ardan turned to him.

“What?”

“We’ve done this before…we’ve done this before,” Moss said, his voice growing frantic.

“What do you mean Mr. Moss,” Ardan asked.

“We already had this conversation. This already happened!

A flicker of understanding crossed the blue alien’s face.

“You mean…our memories have been altered?”

“Yes altered…erased…whatever. That thing? It was here. It was here and-” Moss finally noticed the empty bed in the center of the room. “Oh no…Sidney.” He spun around and bolted for the door.

 

Sidney groaned as he came to. The air was dank and musty. What is that, he thought to himself. Smells like…rusted iron. Finally managing to open his eyes, he found himself face first with a large gray chair. Squinting, he noticed there was a small red stain on the side…

Blood. It was blood

He gasped. Bolting to his feet, Sidney found himself standing on the darkened bridge of the Celeste.

“No,” he moaned. “Not here. Not again.”

He immediately dashed for the lift but skidded to a stop when he heard a low growl. Something was standing behind one of the control stations…hidden in the darkness. Or was it darkness? It was like a cloud of blackness that shimmered and moved toward-

He stood alone on the beach, sun shining high in the sky. The smell of the ocean filled his nostrils, and the sound of the waves crashing against the shoreline brought him peace…

Sidney blinked.

“What the-”

The forest was dark…a small campfire providing warmth and light. He was on his back, eyes focused on the sky. Then…the lights began to appear…tendrils of green color snaking their way across the horizon…

Then Sidney saw it…the thing that had haunted his memories. It approached him slowly, like a hunter eyeing its prey. Even now…he could barely grasp its form. It was like looking through a foggy window. He could tell it had three legs…or so he thought. It was also shorter than him…barely over half his height.

He caught its eyes…if it had any. They kept changing color…a kaleidoscope mirage of pupils.

Sidney backed away, his eyes darting around the bridge. There were two lifts, but they were in the back areas of the room. If he tried to run, it would catch him. There would be no escape this time. It had him cornered, and-

Crickets chirped. The cool breeze of the spring night ruffled his hair. He could see tiny blips of light hovering in the air as the fireflies danced the night away…

Sidney stopped and stared at the shifting shadowy creature that kept approaching him. He had been wrong. It wasn’t a hunter cornering its next meal. It was more like a timid child…unsure of itself.

It hit him all at once.

“These visions…is…is that your way of communicating,” he asked.

A woman. Her lips moved slowly…forming the words…

“It is…isn’t it? That’s how you communicate…through images…through……memory,” Sidney said, feeling a strange kind of excitement. “You didn’t want this to happen, did you?”

A shake of the head…

“You never wanted to hurt them. You never wanted to hurt me. But…when you tried to reach out…the captain and the crew, their minds couldn’t take it. Am I right?”

A nod…

“Why…why did this all happen?”

He dashed through a darkened hallway with no end. A presence nipped at his heels, growing closer and closer until it was certain to devour him…

Sidney understood.

“You were afraid…you were afraid and you didn’t understand what you were doing. You just wanted to tell them you meant no harm but…you had no idea how to control yourself. You just wanted someone to help you, but in your fear you destroyed their minds, drove them to insanity.”

He stood alone in the darkness…he tried screaming for somebody…anybody. But there was no response but his own echo in the inky blackness…

“You’re alone…alone and scared.”

Sidney held out his hand.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

The shadowy, ever-shifting creature approached…its eyes flitting between colors every passing second. An inky hand with what might have been claws reached out, tepidly at first, but eventually grasping his. Sidney gasped. Its…skin…if it even had any, felt cold to the touch.

They were face to face for what felt like an eternity. Sidney staring into the creature’s color-shifting eyes, and the creature staring back. Even this close, he could barely tell what it looked like. His mind had a vague impression of an over-sized, oblong head. But all that could have been an illusion…an illusion put forth by a creature that was terrified of itself.

Sidney saw something of himself in the creature. For so long, he had dealt with his anxiety, with his fear of failing himself and others. He had tried to control it, but sometimes it still rendered him helpless. Every day was filled with thinking about past wrongs, about slight missteps in conversations and actions, about little things he could have done differently. It was foolish, but Sidney had no way of helping it.

And now, as he and the creature locked eyes…he realized that he understood this alien being better than he understood those among his own kind.

“It’s okay,” he assured it. “It’s going to be okay.”

A smile…she wrapped her arms around him…

“You took me here, right?”

A nod…

“That must mean you want something from me. What is it?”

A large white house stood in the shade of giant trees. It had two stories. A screened porch looked out over the front lawn and driveway. Yellow and red leaves littered the ground, the signs of approaching winter.

He knew this place.

He loved this place…

Sidney understood.

“I can take you there…”

 

Moss sprinted down the hallways, heading toward the Celeste‘s docking point. Ardan was close on his heels.

“What makes you think Mr. Lehmann is there,” the alien shouted after him.

“A hunch,” Moss shouted back.

Just then, an alarm sounded throughout the station.

“Unscheduled docking separation. Please contact station administrator,” the station’s computer announced.

Moss picked up speed, sliding around the corner. He turned just in time to see the Celeste slipping away from the station.

“Stop that ship,” he shouted at a nearby military officer.

“I can’t,” the officer replied. “I’ve been locked out of the controls. Our only choice is to shoot it down.”

“I would not advise that,” Ardan said, finally catching up to them. “We believe Sidney Lehmann is on board. Any attempts to shoot the ship down would likely result in his death.”

“Then what do we do,” the officer asked.

Ardan gave him a grim look.

“I’m afraid there is nothing we can do.”

The three of them watched helplessly as the ship flew farther and farther away. Eventually, the engines gave a bright glare and the ship seemed to stretch out of proportion as it made the jump to faster-than-light speed.

And then it was gone.

There was a long moment of silence as they stared at the place where the Celeste used to be. Then Ardan and the officer walked away, leaving Moss alone. He stared out the window for a long time. Eventually, he laid his palm flat against the glass, leaned his head against it, and closed his eyes.

“Sidney…” he muttered.

 

Two weeks passed.

Moss was sitting in his quarters on the space station, working at his computer. He had gone over the recording of the last session every single day since the Celeste vanished, hoping to find some inkling of what the creature abducted Sidney for. But there was nothing he could find.

He remembered a conversation he had with Ardan just a few days after the ship vanished.

“I do not understand how you reached this conclusion, Mr. Moss.”

“Think about it…if the creature really wanted to kill the crew, it could have done so the moment it came aboard. Why did it wait for hours to do anything if that was its true intention?”

“I will admit that there is not a sufficient explanation for everything that happened, but it is impossible to surmise what the creature’s intentions may have been.”

“That is true,” Moss admitted. “But it left Sidney alive, didn’t it? It had the chance to kill him, but it didn’t.”

“If we assume that what you are saying is correct, then how do you explain the memories?”

Moss thought for a moment.

“Maybe that was never intentional either. You’ve read Sidney’s file. You know his propensity for self-guilt. What if, somehow, the creature touching his mind generated these images out of his own sense of failure?”

“You mean…his guilt over the crew’s death? But he had no part in it.”

“That doesn’t matter…someone like Sidney doesn’t need a logical reason to feel guilty. They just do. And so every time we tried to make him remember what happened, what he remembered was the guilt…and the guilt drove him to insanity.”

“It is an interesting hypothesis Mr. Moss, but it still leaves one thing unanswered: why did the creature return to kidnap Mr. Lehmann? What possible reason could it have?”

Moss shrugged.

“Maybe it wanted to go home.”

A brief chime from the panel on his desk brought Moss out of his reverie. He pressed a button.

“What is it,” he asked.

“Mr. Moss…sir…the Eon Ardan requests your presence,” the voice on the other end said.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“It’s the Celeste sir…she’s back.”

 

Sidney opened his eyes to find a throng of people standing around him. He tilted his head slowly from side to side, groggy and uncertain.

“What,” he mumbled. Then he noticed the hospital gown and the bed. “What am I doing here,” he asked. “What happened?”

“Sidney?” A man stepped forward. He was older, with bright-green eyes and a pleasant enough face. “Do you remember me?”

Sidney squinted.

“No,” he said. “Should I?”

The man and the others in the room exchanged glances for a moment.

“My name is Russell Moss,” the man explained. “I’m working here on the station. Tell me…what’s the last thing you remember?”

Sidney thought for a moment.

“I was on the Celeste…we had just picked up a cargo shipment. We…we were routed to an asteroid field to do some mining. And then…everything’s just blank.”

“Mr. Lehmann?” Sidney turned his head to find a tall blue alien in a white robe standing nearby. “My name is Ardan. I’m…I guess you could call me a sort of adviser here on board the station. Are you sure you can remember nothing at all?”

Sidney shrugged.

“I’m trying to sir…but it’s like there’s nothing there.”

There was a brief silence as the people around him once again exchanged looks. Sidney felt his heart jump.

“What happened? Where’s the rest of the crew,” he asked.

No one responded for a moment. Then, the blue alien known as Ardan spoke up.

“I am deeply sorry that I have to be the one to tell you this…but you are the only survivor, Mr. Lehmann.”

Sidney sat up and stared at his hands, utterly devastated. There were over sixty people on board that ship. How could they all be dead? Cecil…the captain…all of them. It was so surreal that he couldn’t believe it was true.

“How,” he finally asked. “How did it happen?”

No one said anything for a moment. Sidney saw the blue alien straighten up, as if he was going to provide an explanation.

“Contaminated cargo,” Moss suddenly blurted out. Sidney noticed the Eon cast a sideways glance at him. “Something the ship picked up from one of your stops. The crew came down with an infectious disease. We tried to save them…but it just didn’t work out. Luckily, you seemed to be able to beat it. Unfortunately, it would seem that the memory loss is one of the side effects.”

“Oh,” was all Sidney managed to say. In the brief silence that followed, a nurse walked next to Moss and whispered something in his ear. Sidney couldn’t hear what it was, but he saw a look of shock flicker across Moss’ face. But a moment later, it disappeared.

“Look,” Moss said, “I’m sure you’ll want to get some rest. We’ll let you have the room, and then we can talk more later.”

“Sure thing sir,” Sidney said. Moss left the room, followed closely by the blue alien. Moments later, the other attendants left the room as well. There was so much to take in…so much he wanted to know. But at the moment, Sidney was just too exhausted to care. All he wanted to do was go to sleep.

He lowered his head onto the pillow, closed his eyes, and drifted away…

 

Moss walked into the Commons Area, aware that Ardan was following him. After seeing that no one else was around, he turned to face the blue alien. He could tell Ardan was upset.

“You lied to him,” Ardan said.

“Yes,” Moss stated. “I did.”

“Why,” the alien demanded.

“What possible good could it do, letting him know exactly what happened on board that ship. What good could it do, letting him know that he’s basically been a prisoner here for the last three months? What good could it do, telling him that his memory was wiped again and again because he couldn’t remember the truth?”

“You should not have lied.”

“Why does it matter? That’s the story the government is going with anyways, isn’t it? Contaminated cargo?”

“What the Earth government decides as the official story is of no consequence here. You should have told him the truth. Mr. Lehmann deserves that.”

Moss shook his head.

“No…he deserves to finally have a bit of peace. Every time I told him that we had been through the same conversation, the same sessions over and over again, I saw the look on his face. I saw the guilt in his eyes. If you ask me, that thing did Sidney a favor. It’s a mercy he’ll never have to live through it again.”

Ardan squinted at him.

“What do you mean,” he asked.

“The nurse told me something just before we left. They couldn’t find any trace of the memories within his brain. They’ve been completely wiped away.”

“So Mr. Lehmann will never remember the events on board the Celeste. He’ll never remember where he was these past two weeks.”

“No…and I’m thinking that’s the best outcome we could have hoped for. Sidney has been through so much pain…so much sorrow over these past three months. Over and over again he had to relive the same damn thing. Even though we wiped his memory every time…it’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. So maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe we don’t need to know.”

Moss turned and stared out the window, stared at the black expanse of space that stretched out for an incomprehensible distance.

“Maybe…some things are better left forgotten.”

 

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment

Update: Since this post, four more women have come forward to accuse Al Franken of sexually inappropriate conduct.  On December 7th, 2017, Franken announced that he would be stepping down as a senator.

During the past week, you’ve probably seen this image at least once:

 

 

The image was taken during a 2006 U.S.O tour, which then-comedian Al Franken participated in.  The woman in the picture is Leeann Tweeden, who is now the anchor of a morning radio broadcast in Los Angeles.  According to her story, while they were rehearsing a skit which called for a kissing scene, Franken pushed her head against his and basically forced the kiss upon her.  She pushed him away and immediately told him never to do it again.  Later, she says that Franken treated her poorly the rest of the tour and then had this picture taken while she was sleeping.

Franken himself has issued an apology, saying that while he does not remember the skit the same way Leeann does, we should all listen to women’s stories.  He also expressed regret for the photo, saying that looking back on it now he sees it for what it is and is disgusted with himself.  You can read his full statement here.

This, of course, comes after the whirlwind of sexual harassment and assault claims that have been sweeping the nation ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal first broke out and the “#metoo” movement began trending on the internet.  Now, Franken has been accused by a second person of grabbing her butt during a photo at the state fair in 2010, when he was a first-term senator.  But for my part, I’m going to be focusing mostly on the first incident, as it is the one that has generated the most discussion.

First off, the obvious: no woman should have to feel uncomfortable in their body or uncomfortable telling their story.  Shaming a woman for either of these things is downright despicable.

But with that being said, I’ve noticed something in the past week.  It seems that people are far too willing to lump Senator Franken in with the likes of Roy Moore and Harvey Weinstein.  This strikes me as unfair, because the accusations of what each man did are so different.  Weinstein’s run the gamut from inappropriate touching to actual rape.  And one of Roy Moore’s accusers said that when she was sixteen he offered her a ride home from work, then drove her behind the restaurant where she was a waitress and started groping her.  He even tried to force her head into his crotch.

A lot more serious than kissing someone or touching their breasts or butt, wouldn’t you say?

My point with all this is that I’m worried that it has become too easy to condemn people following an accusation of sexual misconduct.  There was a time when women were blamed for being raped because of the clothes that they wore and the way they acted, which I think most of us can agree is utter bullshit.  But following the “#metoo” movement, it seems like people are all too willing to crucify someone when they’re accused of sexual misdeeds of any kind.

And as for the Franken case, I think it’s important to remember that back then, he was a comedian.  A lot of what comedians do is push the boundaries of what we as a culture consider acceptable.  Another good example of this can be seen in the allegations against actor George Takei, who most will remember as Sulu from the original “Star Trek” show.  Takei denied the allegations, but then people dug up comments he made on Howard Stern’s show where he joked about touching men.  And while it’s easy to look at something like this and immediately cry “he’s a sick pervert”, it’s important to note that Howard Stern is literally known as a “shock jock”, a term describing a radio broadcaster who intentionally uses humor that some people will find offensive.  In that sense, Takei’s comments shouldn’t be taken as indicative of his real personality, but as those of someone playing his part in a joke.

I feel like the Franken allegation is similar.  It’s far too easy to look at it like “he’s a total hypocrite…how dare he pretend to be a champion of women’s rights”.  Now, does it necessarily make what he did okay?  No…of course not.  Taking that picture was a tasteless and stupid thing to do, especially after Leeann made her feelings on the matter clear.  But context is important.  And in that sense, what Franken did was far less damning than what people like Roy Moore have been accused of.  I don’t think he deserves to have his career destroyed over this.  Tweeden herself even accepted Franken’s apology, saying that “people make mistakes”.  She also added that she didn’t necessarily think he needed to resign.  So while it appears she’s moved on from the incident, others are still using it to try and nail Franken to the wall, so to speak.

The best example I can find of this is President Trump himself, who felt compelled to let everyone know his thoughts.  In a tweet, he said “The Al Frankenstein picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words”.  And yet, he has said very little about the accusations against Roy Moore (although yesterday he finally broke his silence on it) or even the accusations against himself.  In fact, most of what he and the White House has said on the matter is comes down to “all the women are lying”.  And I’ve seen some people on Facebook sharing memes condemning Franken when they’ve so readily brushed off any of the allegations against Trump.

It goes both ways too.  I’m sure people who have readily condemned the actions of Republicans have remained strangely mum on accusations against their side of the aisle.  What it comes down to is that we need to take politics out of the equation.  It’s not about Republicans vs. Democrats, Liberals vs. Conservatives.  The real issue here is that people with power and authority have a tendency to abuse it.  And until we deal with the cultural ramifications of that, the situation isn’t going to get better.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Consistency in Fiction

Just the other day I watched the fall finale of “Star Trek: Discovery” season one.  I thought it was a good end for the mid-season and does a great job of bringing things to an epic climax while also teasing what’s to come.  And “Discovery” itself I feel is a great modern take on the “Star Trek” franchise: with more nuanced characters, a darker tone, and updated special effects.

 

I mean DAMN…that’s a nice view.

 

But not everyone on the internet is happy with the show.  A decent amount of long-time “Star Trek” fans (or “Trekkies”, if you will) have been complaining about the show since day one.  In all fairness, “Discovery” has a lot to live up to.  It’s the first “Star Trek” show since “Enterprise” wrapped up back in 2005.  But I noticed something about a lot of the complaints I saw: they seemed downright nitpicky.

After I watched the two-part pilot episode, I noticed a lot of people complaining about things like the technology the ship was using, the look of the Klingons in the show, and other things like that.  There was even someone who complained about the fact that the ship had a ready room (basically the captain’s office).  Apparently it was a problem because ready rooms weren’t introduced until “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (“Discovery” takes place roughly a decade before the original series).

All of this got me thinking about the idea of consistency in fiction.  My internal rule for this has been that a show or book or whatever should be consistent with itself.  It should follow its own rules that it sets or makes up.  I don’t really care about whether or not something is scientifically accurate (fiction is called “fiction” for a reason after all).  But it has to be within reason.   And this is where, in my opinion, the complaints about “Discovery” go too far.  I mean think about it…this is a franchise that has been around since the 1960’s.  Something had to change in all that time.  “Discovery” shouldn’t be bound by a sixty-year-old television show that was subsequently bound by the special effects of its day.  Sure, some things look different now, but do we really want to go back to the way things looked in the ’60s?

 

I mean this guy looks totally believable and not at all cheesy, right?

 

 

But if, for example, “Discovery” suddenly decided to say that the transporter can now beam people through time, I’d be crying foul with the rest of the Trekkies because that literally makes no sense and fundamentally changes the established rules of “Star Trek”.  A ship having a ready room or hologram communicators doesn’t really change the nature of the show.  It’s just a minor detail that got caught up in overzealous continuity policing.  It’s similar to when people complained about the film “Gravity” and how paper doesn’t float in space the way it did in the movie.

It’s like yeah great…thanks for pointing out that important detail.  You must be fun at parties.

I think what it comes down to is that, while consistency is nice, as time passes things eventually need to change.  Another big complaint I heard when “Discovery” first debuted had to do with the captain of the ship, Lorca.  People complained that he wasn’t like a regular Starfleet captain.  Most likely, they were comparing him to Kirk and Picard, the two fan favorites.  But much like the special effects, these characters were a product of their time.  Especially in the case of Kirk, who existed in a time when television was full of larger-than-life heroes who were impossibly good at everything they did.  Sure, those characters were great.  Kirk and Picard were great.  But in an era post “Game of Thrones”, “Breaking Bad”, and “House of Cards”…shows which were full of flawed, nuanced, and often downright evil characters…men like Kirk and Picard don’t fit in.  Lorca, with all his ambiguity, still manages to come across as a well-meaning guy.  But he does has his flaws, and I think that’s what “Star Trek” needs in a modern television landscape: flawed characters with occasionally ambiguous intentions.

Besides, I’m glad we’ve moved on from having a first officer who looks like he wants to sex everything that moves.

 

Yeah I’m looking at YOU, Riker.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Difficulty vs. Fun in Video Games

 

With the release of “Super Mario Odyssey” and the success of the Switch, Nintendo has once again proven itself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the video game industry.  I own a copy of “Odyssey” and I have to say it’s a great game.  It’s pure and simple fun to play, leaving you with a big smile on your face.

Ever since its release, “Odyssey” has been drawing rave reviews from all over.  However, there were a few who weren’t pleased with the game, and it often boiled down to one simple complaint:

The game was too easy.

This is a common criticism to hear from gamers.  “Games these days are too easy.  Where’s the challenge?”  Having played a decent amount of “Odyssey” over the last couple of weeks and reading this complaints online, it got me thinking about the intersection of difficulty and fun when it comes to video games.

What it came down to for me was two basic questions:

  • Why were older video games harder?
  • Should games be more difficult?

So with that being said, let’s get into it.

 

Why were older video games harder?

This isn’t just a matter of perception either.  It has been scientifically proven that older games were more difficult.  But the question remains…why?  Well the answer is actually quite simple.

I talked about this a couple of years back, but in the 1980’s arcade cabinets were king.  And it is well known these days that arcade games were specifically designed to DEVOUR ALL OF YOUR QUARTERS.  They were purposely difficult for the sole purpose of getting you to spend more money.  This meant that, when systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) were being designed, the audience for those systems were made up of the very same people who played arcade games.  So game developers had to make their games difficult enough to appeal to them.

 

 

So yes, older video games were harder, but because they had to be in order to be successful.  Today’s video games are easier because the audience has shifted.  When Nintendo released the Wii in 2006, it tapped into an audience of casual gamers and people who had never even played games before.  As time went on, video games became far more mainstream of a pastime.  Because of that, games were made to be easier to help ease newer players into the medium.

There are other factors in this as well, such as the shift to being three-dimensions.  This made games exponentially harder to design and program.  But for the most part it had to do with that change in audience.  Which leads me to my next question…

 

Should games be more difficult?

There are a series of games out there known as the “Dark Souls” games.  They are known for being punishingly difficult, and actually become harder if you die.  Now, I’ve never played any of these games, but a lot of people really enjoy them.

When I was playing “Mario Odyssey”, I recognized that the game was fairly easy.  Nothing came across as overtly difficult, and you unlock new levels very quickly.  There’s not a whole lot of challenge to the game, but something I realize after thinking about it is that I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter to me that the game isn’t that hard, because it’s just fun.  It’s a blast to say to yourself “hey…I wonder if there’s anything up on that platform”, make your way up there, and then be rewarded with a Power Moon (the game’s main objective is to collect these, as you need a certain amount to get to another level).  The game is designed to reward your curiosity.

Which is probably why there are over eight hundred Power Moons to collect in the game.  That’s no joke.

I think what it comes down to is that there shouldn’t be a set standard of difficulty that all games adhere to.  Games like “Dark Souls” can be fun as well as games like “Mario Odyssey”.  And I think most gamers would agree that those two games are at very different ends of the difficulty spectrum.

A game’s difficulty should be set in a way that enhances its overall design.  For example, if “Mario Odyssey” had the punishing difficulty of “Dark Souls”, it wouldn’t be fun because it would discourage people from exploring every nook and cranny they can find.  At the same time, a game like “Dark Souls” shouldn’t be made super easy because it would lessen the thrill of finally beating a boss you’ve been stuck on for days.

Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

Whenever someone says “games are too easy”, I feel like they’re over-simplifying things.  There are plenty of games out there that can offer the challenge some people seek.  Some games even grant you an ultra-difficult mode upon completing the game for the first time.  I think it’s not necessarily that games are too easy, but that games are more diverse.  There’s a wider range of people to appeal to now, so some games are naturally going to be easier than others.  Besides, I don’t always want a game that challenges me.  I don’t always want a game that pushes me to the limit and forces me to fight for every inch of progress I make.

Sometimes I just wanna have fun, you know?

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 2

 

Warning: minor spoilers for “Stranger Things” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Ain’t no hype train like the “Stranger Things” hype train.

If shows like “Daredevil” and “House of Cards” put Netflix on the map when it came to the push for original programming from streaming services, “Stranger Things” is the one that put them over the top, as if to say “dude…this is serious business”.  The stellar first season was a massive hit.  And ever since the teaser trailer for season two dropped during the Super Bowl, the hype train has been steadily chugging along.  So the question becomes, does the second season live up to the first?

 

Spoiler alert: bad things happen to Will this season.

 

The first thing many people will likely notice is the difference in pacing.  Compared to season one, season two does a lot more building up and creating tension before anything really happens.  In fact, it’s not until the third episode when things start to get moving.  And this was a common theme I noticed in reviews: the slower pacing.

There seems to be this weird assumption in critic-land that having slower pacing than before is somehow a bad thing.  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  In many ways, it’s a good thing for this season.  It gives us some room to breathe, especially when compared to the breakneck pace things moved at in season one.  It also allows us to view these characters when they’re not under constant threat.  We get to watch them live their lives.  And it’s refreshing to just see some of these characters on a normal day, before everything inevitably goes crazy once again.  This season definitely has a larger focus on inter-personal relationships and conflict.

 

It’s especially refreshing to see Joyce Byers under normal circumstances, as she spent pretty much the entire first season as a nervous wreck on the verge of collapse.

 

Now, this does mean that each episode doesn’t necessarily have that cliffhanger hook that makes you want to keep watching, but that’s fine.  This is the second season.  At this point, we should be tuning in because we’re invested in the characters themselves, not because we have to see what comes next.  That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in modern television, and is particularly evident in broadcast television (i.e. not cable or satellite).  Advertisements for new episodes often are built around teasing a “shocking twist” that you’ll “never see coming” and will “blow your mind”.  Cliffhangers aren’t bad by nature, but if they’re used as the primary hook for a show without any substance behind them (such as complex characters), it just feels cheap and soulless to me.

But I digress.  “Stranger Things” season two introduces us to some new characters as well.  First off, we have new kid Maxine (Max for short) and her step-brother Billy, who basically spends the entire season being a massive a-hole.  Because of her step-brother and her family situation, which we learn a bit about later in the season, Max is a more hard-edged character than the other kids, although she does eventually end up following along with them.  And this is one of my only real gripes with this season.  While I appreciate the injection of new blood into the dynamic of the kids, Max and her step-brother don’t really seem to serve much purpose aside from causing tension within the group (although Max does have a pretty badass moment at the end of the season).

 

Sean Astin also stars in this season as Joyce’s new boyfriend. You’ll likely remember him as Sam from “Lord of the Rings” or from “The Goonies”, one of the movies “Stranger Things” took inspiration from.

 

 

Speaking of gripes, the various plot lines in this season may become a point of contention for some, as certain plots end up more fleshed out than others.  There was one in particular for me that fel underdeveloped.  As season two opens, we’re treated to an action scene with an unknown group of people fleeing the police.  It turns out one of them has psychic powers and a connection with Eleven.  It’s a great opener that entices us in with a bit of action.  My problem comes from the fact that this thread isn’t explored until near the end of the season.  There’s only one episode that centers around these people, and its only purpose seems to be to push Eleven in the right direction.

Oh yeah…Eleven’s back.  Spoilers I guess…although if you saw any of the trailers you already knew that.

Despite the complaints I or others may have, no one can doubt that the magic that permeated “Stranger Things” season one is still here.  Even if the beginning’s slower pacing rubs some people the wrong way, the season ends on a very strong note with some great character moments.  I’m always impressed by just how well-written and acted this show is, especially when it comes to the kid characters.  It’s funny too, because apparently when the Duffer brothers were shopping the show around to different studios, the studios wanted to cut the kids characters out entirely.  And now it’s hard to imagine the show without them.  It’s hard to imagine the show without any of the characters we’ve come to know and love.

And that’s the key thing: characters.  The characters are why we’ll return to Hawkins for season three.

Well…that and the spooks.  Everybody loves the spooks.

 

SPOOOOOOOOOOOOKS

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Moonlight

Welcome to the tenth of twelve.  For those who don’t know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write one short story per month and post it to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  This month’s story is entitled “Moonlight”.  Enjoy!

Also, because it has central importance to the story, here is a recording of the song “Clair De Lune”.

 

“Depth at one-point-seven kilometers and increasing.”

Thomas Haskins flailed at the holographic controls, but to no avail. The malfunctioning thrusters had sent it flying headlong into an oceanic trench. No one was sure how deep it was, and Thomas wasn’t exactly keen on finding out.

“Depth at one-point-nine kilometers.”

Thinking quickly, he ripped the harness off his chest. He flew out of his seat and would have crashed against the main window of the pod if he hadn’t managed to grab hold of the armrest.. Thomas began pulling himself toward the back of the pod, using handles placed along the walls. He had to work fast…he had no idea how much time he had before he reached the bottom.

And it wouldn’t be the impact that killed him. No…the pressure would crush the pod long before that.

“Depth at two-point-two kilometers.”

He swiped his hand in front of a small circle in the far wall. Almost immediately, an amber-colored hologram spat out, detailing a whole list of systems for the pod.

“Depth at two-point-five kilometers.”

Shut up, shut up, he thought to himself as he swiped through the different menus. At last, he found “propulsion”. When the wireframe schematic of the submersible popped up, he spotted the issue. The switcher valve that was responsible for turning the thrusters on and off was broken, trapping the thrusters in an active state.

“Depth at two-point-nine kilometers.”

“Son of a bitch,” he grumbled out loud. The pod was still picking up speed, plunging faster and faster into the inky depths. He tapped a button marked “emergency override”. Nothing happened. He pressed it again. Still nothing.

“Depth at three-point-one kilometers.”

The override obviously wasn’t working, so Thomas had to come up with a new plan. He navigated the menus until he reached “power distribution”. From there, he began the process of siphoning away power from the thrusters until they shut down. A message popped up briefly, warning that diverting power while the thrusters were active could cause catastrophic damage. He ignored it and continued working.

“Depth at three-point-four kilometers.”

There was a loud bang from the rear of the pod. That didn’t sound good, he thought. But it worked. The thrusters shut down and the pod was no longer speeding up. Now he just had to-

“Warning…impact in seven hundred meters.”

Thomas snapped his head toward the front of the pod. A hologram flared into existence, flashing an alarming red. It showed a tiny representation of his pod diving straight for the ocean floor. A countdown timer appeared: twenty-eight…twenty-seven…twenty-six…

“Fuck fuck fuck,” he cursed aloud, turning his attention back to the systems hologram. His hands moved quickly, re-routing as much power as he could spare to the front thrusters of the pod.

“Impact in five hundred meters.”

Thomas navigated his way back to the “thrusters” menu, then clicked into the sub-menu for “reverse thrusters”.

“Impact in three hundred meters.”

He tapped a button. There was a loud clunk and hissing as the thrusters began to work. But would it be enough? Thomas turned his attention toward the front window.

“Impact in one hundred meters”

His breathing was heavy.

“Impact in fifty meters”

His hands began to shake.

“Impact in twenty meters.”

Thomas braced himself.

A moment later everything roared and rumbled as the pod sliced into the seabed. Thomas lost his grip on the handle and went flying toward the front of the pod, cracking his head against a metal pipe.

The world was swallowed by darkness…

 

“Thomas Haskins?”

“That’s me,” he replied, extending a hand. The two shook.

“It’s good to meet you. I’m Colonel Bryce Irving. This is Corporal Brandon Coleman.” Thomas shook hands with Coleman. “I assume you’ve been briefed on the mission?”

“For the most part,” Thomas said.

“Good. As you’ve likely been told, we will be disembarking in a large research shuttle. Attached to the shuttle are two research submersibles we call ‘pods’.”

“I’m familiar with them,” he replied.

“Very good,” Colonel Irving replied. “Then we won’t need to give you the tutorial. We’ll be leaving in a half hour’s time. The plan is to have you in one of the pods, exploring the area around what we call Verne’s Trench.”

“Sounds good.” Thomas’ eyes drifted to the large assault rifles on their backs. Seems unnecessary, he thought to himself, but said nothing out loud.

“Any last-minute questions,” Irving asked. “Specific concerns?”

“No,” Thomas replied. “I think I’m good.”

“So,” Coleman chimed in, “long way from home.” He motioned toward the ring on Thomas’ finger. “Couldn’t wait to get away from the missus huh?”

Thomas’ silent stare must have been unnerving, because Coleman shot a look at Irving.

“I need to get some things ready before we go,” Thomas said. And with that, he turned away and walked over to the table where his luggage was. Apparently, Coleman must have figured he was out of earshot.

“What the hell’s his problem,” Thomas heard him say after a moment.

“I could ask you the same question,” Colonel Irving replied.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is you’re lucky you’re a crack marksman, because your social skills aren’t worth shit.”

“But sir, the guy’s weird.”

“Everybody’s weird,” Thomas heard Irving reply.

“But he’s extra weird. I mean, did you see the way he stared at me? It’s like I wasn’t even there.”

“Look…just go down to the shuttle bay and prep for launch.” Then, Irving raised his voice. “See you at the shuttle Haskins!”

Thomas gave a half-hearted wave without bothering to turn around…

 

A dull creaking was the first sound that reached his ears. His eyes opened, revealing a world full of blurry shades of blue. As things came into focus, Thomas realized he was staring out the front window of the pod. With a groan, he pulled himself up into a sitting position. Thanks to the spotlights outside, he caught a faint glimpse of himself in the reflection.

He had certainly seen better days.

Thomas Haskins was nobody special. He had light blue eyes, brown hair, and stood at an average height for a human being. But the detachment in his gaze was noticeable, as if he was a man who barely noticed the world around him. Even in the faint reflection, it was possible to make out a small trickle of blood on his forehead.

Damn it…better not have a concussion, he thought to himself.

Getting to his feet, Thomas sat down in the pod’s chair and swiped his hand over one of the armrests. A slew of bright amber holograms materialized in front of him.

“Computer, status report,” he ordered.

“Hull integrity at forty percent. Thrusters non-operational. CO2 scrubbers functioning at nominal capacity. Oxygen system has sustained heavy damage,” a computerized female voice said.

“How much air do I have left?”

“At current reserves, Pod Two has approximately three hours and forty-four minutes of air left.”

“What?! The pod was supposed to have enough air to last two days!”

“Oxygen tanks one through four, six through nine, and twelve have all suffered critical damage and are no longer functioning.”

“God damn it!” Thomas slammed his fist against the armrest. No good getting worked up about it, he thought to himself, taking a deep breath. I need to get to work. “Computer,” he said aloud, “what is the status of the pod’s communications?”

“Long-range and short-range communications are currently offline,” the computer replied.

“Figures,” Haskins muttered aloud. “What is the source of the issue?”

“Unknown.”

“Great,” Thomas said. “Looks like I’ll have to figure it out myself.”

Thomas suddenly became aware of movement outside the pod. A small shadow was crawling across the ocean floor. The shape stopped for a moment, then slithered toward the window. Once it got close enough, Thomas was able to see it under the light. It was a bulbous looking fish, with small turquoise eyes and a large, gray belly. His first impression was that it was similar to a puffer fish back on Earth, a creature that had the ability to inflate itself in order to scare off predators. To Thomas, it seemed harmless…cute almost.

And then it opened its mouth.

His heart jumped. Inside were spiral rows of menacing, razor-sharp white teeth. They gleamed under the diluted beams of the pod’s spotlights. The fish moved backwards, as if it were getting ready to charge.

Are those sharp enough to break the glass? Thomas couldn’t say.

Fortunately, he never had to find out. A second later there was a deep, rumbling groan that echoed through the underwater landscape. The fish’s mouth snapped shut and it scrambled off into the darkness. Thomas got to his feet and moved closer to the window.

And then he saw it: a massive, shadowy figure swimming through the water. From his estimation, the thing had to be at least forty meters in length, larger than a blue whale. In fact, a whale was the best comparison he could make. What little he could see of the darkened figure told him it had a large tail that it used to move around in the water. Only this creature’s tail was forked, almost like a trident. He didn’t get to see much more, as it seemed to disappear beneath the ground.

That’s when it hit him.

“Computer, what is our depth reading,” he asked.

“Depth is four-point-two kilometers.”

This wasn’t the bottom of the trench. No…of course it wasn’t. He had managed to get caught on an outcropping on the way down. It was probably for the better. Their best estimation of the trench’s maximum depth was somewhere over twelve kilometers. It was the deepest trench they had ever recorded on any planet, including Earth.

Thomas was thankful he wasn’t going to be the first to reach the bottom. Because even if he miraculously survived the descent, there would have been no hope for a return trip.

 

A static buzzing told him it had worked.

“Yes,” he exclaimed aloud, pulling his head out from within an open panel in the wall. “Computer, what is the current status of our communications system?”

“Long-range communications offline. Short-range communications are functional, but limited.”

Good enough, he thought as he got to his feet. He sat down in the main chair and pulled up the holograms. He tapped a button and opened a radio transmission.

“This is Pod Two. Can anybody read me?”

He paused. There was no response.

“Pod One, come in. Come in Pod One.”

Pause. Silence.

“Pod One, Shuttle Nautilus…come in. Somebody…anybody! Do you read me?!”

Nothing.

“God damn it,” Thomas shouted. He took a moment to calm himself and think. If there was no way he could call out, then maybe he could at least listen in. He stared at the hologram for a moment before it hit him: he couldn’t remember the frequencies they were supposed to use. Apparently the crash hurt his head more than he thought.

So he began cycling through all of the available radio frequencies, hoping that he might chance upon the one used by the Nautilus. But minutes went by with nothing but static…static and silence. Thomas had never felt so alone in his life.

He began flicking faster and faster through the frequencies, feeling a tightness in his chest. Once again, he tried willing himself to calm down, taking deep breaths. But this time it didn’t work. The tightness in his chest wouldn’t go away. But then he let his mind drift. And from the recesses of memory came an intimately familiar sound.

Music…piano music to be precise.

It was a slow, melodic tune that he knew very well. In a way, it complimented the view outside the pod: the empty, yet serene landscape of rocky seabed…the faint, light blue glow everything had under the spotlights. He leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the sound of the piano keys lull him into a sense of calm.

Until he realized the music wasn’t in his head. It was coming from the radio.

His eyes opened and stared at the hologram, quivering. No, he thought, this is impossible. It can’t be…not here…not now.

Warm, familiar hands encircled his neck.

“Hey…remember me?”

He remembered.

 

It felt like a lifetime ago.

The moon was high in the sky and the streets outside the campus halls were lit by old streetlights. The dim yellow light glinted off the face of a young Thomas Haskins walking down the corridor, making his way across campus to his apartment building. He turned a corner and stopped. Something drifted down the hallway toward him.

Piano music…soft, yet clear.

It was coming from one of the music rooms. Normally, he wouldn’t have bothered to go check it out. Thomas had no desire to intrude on other people’s private business. But for some reason…he couldn’t help himself. With each stroke of the keys he could feel the passion of the person playing. With each note, he felt himself being pulled further down the hallway.

He knew the song of course. It was a classic: Clair De Lune by Debussy. One of those pieces that transcended its time and became part of a timeless culture. It had a melancholic, yet soothing air to it.

When Thomas finally reached the door, he paused. What the hell was he doing, walking in on someone like this? He should just leave, go back to his apartment before he embarrassed himself.

But he knew he couldn’t. The music had already cast its spell on him.

Thomas pushed the door open as gently as he could.

She was hunched over the piano, her back to him. Her white fingers seemed to glide over the keys with the ease of a master. Long, bright red hair drifted past her shoulders and down her back. She was wearing a dark red shirt and blue jeans. Thomas got the sense that he could have practically kicked open the door and it wouldn’t have disturbed her. She was absorbed in the piece, as if she and the piano had become one being.

He let the door close softly behind him and waited for her to finish. A few minutes later, her fingers lifted off the keys and folded in her lap. For a moment, Thomas thought she might vanish like a ghost, as if she never existed in the first place. But then she turned…and flinched when she spotted him.

Oh geez,” she exclaimed.

“Sorry,” he said with an awkward chuckle. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just walking down the hall when I heard you playing. I just had to…you know…come and see it for myself.” He paused. “That doesn’t make me sound any less creepy does it?”

She laughed at that. Her smile lit up the room. Her eyes were a brilliant green.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I practice here at night because hardly anyone else is around. It’s hard for me to play when people are constantly wandering through the halls.”

“I can understand that,” he replied.

The two of them looked at each other for a while.

“I’m Tom,” he said. “Tom Haskins.”

“Nice to meet you Tom. I’m Claire,” she said. “Claire O’Donovan.”

“Claire?” He chuckled. “Claire plays Clair De Lune,” he added with a singsong voice.

She laughed.

“It is strangely fitting, isn’t it? My mom used to play it for me when I was little. I guess it just stuck.”

“So you’re studying to become a musician then,” he asked.

“No…I’m a business major.”

“A business major?” Thomas was incredulous.

“Yeah…I know it’s weird, but I don’t want to turn my music into a job. I prefer to keep it as a hobby…if that makes any sense.”

Thomas nodded.

“What about you,” she asked. “What are you going to school for?”

“Marine biology.”

“Well well…you’re a long way from the science classrooms, aren’t you?”

He chuckled. “Yeah…my apartment is on the opposite side of campus. Takes a while to walk…but I don’t mind. It’s beautiful this time of night…especially when there’s no wind and the sky is clear.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” she said.

Another period of silence passed between them.

“I know this seems fast,” he said, “but would you like to grab a bite to eat sometime? Like…off-campus?”

She smiled again. He already loved that smile.

“You know what? I’d like that.”

 

Past became present once more. Thomas looked up to find Claire leaning over his seat.

“Well…looks like you’ve gotten yourself into a hell of a situation this time, haven’t you,” she said with a smile.

Thomas was frozen, continuing to stare. Claire frowned.

“What’s wrong,” she asked. Her sly smile returned. “It’s like you’re seeing a ghost.”

“I…you…you can’t…” Thomas stammered.

“I can’t be here? Silly…of course I’m not here. That would be impossible. You know that.”

He paused for a moment.

“Your eyes…” he mumbled.

“What about ’em?”

“They were never brown…”

The vision that claimed to be his wife shrugged.

“Maybe you think it compliments my hair better,” she said, running a hand through her scalp.

“I don’t understand,” Thomas said. “Why are you here?”

“Maybe you need someone to give you a push…to motivate you. I know you Tom. You let things get to you way too easily. I bet I can tell what you’re thinking right now. ‘I’m never going to get out of here. I’m going to die down here. There’s nothing I can do.’ That sound about right?”

Thomas was silent for a moment. Then, a faint smile crawled across his face.

“Damn it…you always did know me too well,” he said.

She laughed.

“Why wouldn’t I? Now…you need to get moving.”

“I’m not going anywhere Claire. The thrusters are beyond repair.”

“Have you tried calling for help?”

“I have…but I got no response.”

“Well…have you tried an automated distress call?”

Thomas stared at her for a moment. Then he slapped his face with his hand.

“Why didn’t I think of that?”

He reached forward and accessed the radio controls again. He set it to broadcast an SOS distress call on a wide band, covering as many frequencies as he could. He had no way of knowing what its range was, or if it was even transmitting properly, but it was the best he had.

“Computer,” he said, “what is the status of the oxygen reserves?”

“Current oxygen reserves will last for approximately three hours and four minutes.”

“Hopefully that will be enough,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “Now all I can do is wait.” He looked at Claire. “I was always terrible at waiting.”

“You certainly were. We hadn’t even known each other for five minutes before you asked me out.”

“Yeah…social skills were never my strong suit.” He squinted at her. “Why did you accept anyways? You could have easily said no. For all you knew, I was just some creep looking to score some tail.”

Claire leaned in close to him.

“Maybe I could tell who you were on the inside. Maybe I knew just by looking at you that you couldn’t harm a fly.” She traced his cheek with her finger. Her touch was warm and delicate…just as he remembered. “Maybe I was feeling adventurous. Does it really matter?”

Thomas leaned into her touch.

“No…I suppose it doesn’t,” he said.

Thomas closed his eyes and relaxed, feeling at peace for the first time in years. But even so, he wondered if it was all just part of some dream…wondered if he had really hit his head hard when the pod crashed. Was he actually sitting there, seeing his wife…or was he really just lying motionless on the pod floor…slowly bleeding to death?

Part of him recoiled at the thought.

Another part of him figured it didn’t matter.

“So…what do you think of the view?”

No reply. Thomas opened his eyes and found that Claire had vanished into the night like the phantom she was.

 

He remembered.

It had been a cool spring day when they toured the house. It was a nice looking place: a big two-story house with an attic out in the remote countryside. It had an obvious air of antiquity to it: fine gray and red brickwork lining the outside and dark red shingles on the roof. It looked old…but Thomas knew better. In recent decades there had been a rising interest in older architecture. Many houses were constructed with designs similar to those you might find two to three centuries ago, although with modern materials that were merely made to look old.

Thomas didn’t mind. He found the old-fashioned design charming. But Claire seemed less impressed. From the moment they got out of the car, she had run her eyes up the building and frowned. This was the last house they had lined up. Thomas held on to the hope that she would find something to like here.

The front doors were made of ornate and glossy wood. They opened to reveal a woman in a red blazer with bright blonde hair. She waved to them with a cheery smile on her face.

“Hey you two,” she called. “Glad to see you again!”

They had visited six houses over the last few weeks. This was the seventh. The realtor had been at three other houses. She was upbeat and nice, although Thomas found her to be a little overbearing.

“Come on in,” she said, then disappeared back inside.

Thomas stepped into the house and was immediately in love. A large, carpeted staircase led into the upper floor of the house, and the entryway was flanked by a set of double doors on each side. One of them was open, and he could see directly into the kitchen. The real estate woman was waiting for them there. He thought her name was Raquel or Rachel or something…he honestly couldn’t remember.

“Come in…come in!” She motioned them into the kitchen. Thomas stole a glance at Claire, whose stone-faced expression betrayed nothing. He hoped she didn’t resent him for taking her here.

“To be honest,” the agent said, “I’m surprised you were asking about this place. It’s one of the more expensive ones on the market.”

“Money isn’t much of an issue,” Thomas said, running his eyes up and down the kitchen.

“Really? What was it that you do again,” she asked.

“I’m a marine biologist.”

“Wow…you must have spent quite some time at college.”

“Seven years to get my master’s,” he replied without making eye contact.

The kitchen had certainly been modernized: marble countertops, a stainless steel fridge, and newly varnished wooden cabinets and drawers. The pots and pans hung up on hooks in the center of the room. All in all, the kitchen was small and felt a little bit cramped. But Thomas could get used to that.

It was Claire that needed convincing.

“So this is the kitchen,” the agent began. “Not exactly spacious, I know…but if you’re interested in buying the house there is the possibility for further renovations. Now, this house was originally constructed around sixty years ago by a wealthy banker who had a wife and two kids. The house has passed between a couple different owners in the past twenty years…”

She went on like that as they walked through the house. Thomas only half-listened to her recitation of the house’s history. They looked at the living room, where Thomas noted the neat stone fireplace in the center. Next was the upstairs bedrooms. There were three of them…a large master bedroom with a master bathroom and two smaller rooms that he imagined were originally for the kids. Next was the attic, which was as dreary as Thomas expected. On their way back down, they stopped to look at the second, smaller bathroom on the second floor.

At the end of the tour, they found themselves standing in the entryway.

“Well…that about covers it,” the realtor said. “What do you think?”

“Personally? I love it,” Thomas said. “I’ve always liked older architecture.” He paused, feeling a twinge of selfish fear. He wanted Claire to love it as much as he did, but her reaction so far had been one of disinterest. “What do you think honey,” he asked, turning to her.

But she wasn’t looking at them. Instead, her emerald eyes were focused on the other set of double doors.

“Where does that lead,” she asked.

“Oh my gosh…I completely forgot,” the realtor said. “This is one of the more interesting pieces of the house,” she explained as she took out her ring of keys. “It was initially used as a kind of conversation parlor for guests.” She turned the key and pushed the doors open. “Please excuse the mess…we’re still going through some renovations at the moment.”

It was almost like walking into a different world. Thomas’ steps echoed off the rounded walls. The realtor had been right about the mess…the place was dusty and empty. Right now it was just plain wooden flooring and half-completed walls.

“Most of the subsequent owners turned the parlor into a second living room I think. I honestly can’t remember,” the realtor explained.

But Thomas wasn’t paying any attention. Instead, his eyes were locked on Claire. She was standing in the center of the room, her eyes alight with pleasure. She had her hands out to her sides and began spinning around in a circle like a child struck with wonder. He couldn’t help but smile.

“Someone likes it,” the realtor said with a chuckle.

“This is amazing,” Claire said with delight. She turned her gaze to Thomas. “You know what I could do with this room? I could turn it into my own personal piano parlor. I could play in here all night and with the doors closed it probably wouldn’t even bother you.”

Thomas’ smile grew wider. “I’m glad you like it,” he said.

“Oh I love it,” she said, raising her eyes to the ceiling once again.

“So what do you think,” the realtor asked. “Do we have a sale?”

Thomas watched Claire’s eyes roam around the room in delight. “I think we do.”

“Great! I’ll just go grab some paperwork out of the car and we can get you on the list. I do have a couple other visitations to the house in the following week, but I’d say your chances are good.”

“Good to hear,” Thomas replied.

“I’ll be right back.” Then the realtor was out the door, walking down the front steps. Thomas went over to Claire, who still had her eyes raised to the ceiling.

“You know,” Thomas said, “I was afraid you were going to hate the place.”

“It just seems a little extravagant,” she said, locking eyes with him. “But this parlor is so…perfect. I don’t think we’ll find anything else quite like this.”

He put his arms around her. “I just want you to be happy,” he said.

Claire leaned against him.

“I know you do.”

He looked down at her and ran a hand through her thick, red hair. He had known for a long time that he wouldn’t want to spend his life with anyone else. She was so delicate and beautiful, someone to be treasured. And this place would be perfect for them. It was a far deal bigger than the cramped one bedroom apartment they’d been living in for the past couple of years.

Thomas never wanted to the moment to end. But then, Claire suddenly stiffened in his arms.

“Honey? What’s wrong?”

She broke free from his embraced and stared at him.

“Tom…you need to wake up,” she said, her voice urgent.

He stared at her.

“Wha-what?”

“Wake up Tom,” she said again.

Thomas felt like his head was swollen. He held his hands against his forehead and doubled over, groaning.

“Ugh…what’s going on?!”

“Tom…wake up,” Claire said again, her voice laced with desperation.

He managed to lift his head up and looked at her, the world pulsing and swirling around him. That’s when he noticed.

Her eyes were brown…

 

“Tom, for god’s sake wake up!”

His eyes snapped open and he gasped.

“What…what’s happening,” he asked.

“You need to get moving,” Claire said, standing over him.

Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but the computer cut him off.

“Warning…CO2 scrubbers offline…carbon dioxide at critical levels.”

“Oh god,” Thomas mumbled aloud, pulling himself out of the chair. He tried to stand, but collapsed to the ground. Everything was hazy and far away. His head throbbed and vibrated.

“Tom, get up,” Claire said.

“I…I can’t. My head…”

“Get the hell up or you’re going to die!”

He put his hands out underneath him and managed to push himself into a sitting position. He leaned against the front of the chair and panted, his breathing quick and shallow. He could see Claire…but in his current state she looked like little more than a mush of pale red.

“Tom?”

His eyes drooped. The world began to fade.

“Oh no you don’t.”

He felt a sharp slap across his face. Everything snapped back into place.

Ow,” he complained.

“You need to stay awake. If you fall asleep again, that’s it. You’re done,” Claire said. Thomas sat still for a moment, his head bobbing back and forth.

“Get moving,” she ordered.

Groaning, Thomas pulled himself to his feet. He took a step toward the back of the pod and stumbled, slamming into the wall. A pained grimace crossed his face as he caressed his shoulder with his hand.

“There’s no time to waste. Get over there and fix the problem!”

The amber hologram in the back seemed to sway back and forth as he stared at it. Nevertheless, Thomas summoned the strength and took a step. Then another. And another. He felt like a baby learning to walk for the first time. After what felt like minutes, he found himself standing in front of the screen. In his current state, the words on the hologram might as well have been gibberish. They flitted in and out of focus.

“Tom?”

“I’m working on it, okay,” he muttered.

He reached out and tapped a button.

“Air control,” he mumbled. “CO2 scrubbers…offline…not enough power.”

“You need to re-route the power Tom. Or else you’ll suffocate.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he grumbled to himself. After an agonizing minute, during which Thomas was certain he would pass out, he managed to navigate his way to power distribution. As he stared at them, the words on the hologram seemed to pulse and shimmer.

“What…what can I…what can I take power away from,” he mumbled to himself.

He looked over his shoulder at the front window and an idea struck him. Turning back to the screen, Thomas swiped his fingers across the hologram. Almost instantaneously, the world outside grew darker. A loud clunk echoed through the pod.

“CO2 scrubbers online…air quality improving,” the computer announced.

“Well done,” Claire said.

Thomas turned around and leaned against the wall, sliding down onto the floor.

“What is it,” she asked. “What’s wrong?”

He stared up at her, his eyes growing misty.

“Why…why are you here,” he asked, a faint tremor in his voice.

Claire didn’t respond.

“Is it to torment me? Is that it? Is this some kind of cruel joke?! Are you punishing me?!”

“Tom…I-“

No,” he screamed. “Just go! I don’t want you here!

“Tom please-“

He scrunched his eyes shut.

Leave! Leave! Leave! Just leave me the hell alone!

His words bounced off the metal walls, a shrieking and cacophonous echo. He kept his eyes closed for what must have been half a minute. When he finally opened them again, the apparition of Claire was gone.

Thomas stared off into space for a long time, his body dull and numb. Then, he laid down on the ground and began to silently weep.

 

He remembered.

It happened…neither of them wanted it to happen, but it did. After buying the house, a couple of years went past. And they drifted apart.

It wasn’t anything dramatic…there wasn’t any big fight between them. It was just the passage of time. Thomas spent more and more time at work, less and less time at home. And Claire noticed. She never said anything, but he could tell she resented him for it. When he returned home late at night she was almost always playing the piano. Usually, she would stop and they would talk for a few minutes before Thomas went up to bed.

But even that gradually came to an end.

On one night in particular, the sky was clear and the moon was high. There was a light breeze coming from the forest that brushed against his hair as he emerged from the car. He made his way up the front steps and opened the door. Immediately, he heard the sound of the piano. He stopped in the entryway and watched as she played, her face lit only by a tiny lamp and the glow of the full moon.

If she even knew he had entered, she didn’t show it. Not that it mattered. They hardly talked anymore.

As he stood there, he felt a pang in his chest. There was no physical reason for it. But watching her play awoke something inside him briefly…yearning for the past…fear for the future. A swirl of feelings and thoughts overtook him. His hand reached out toward her of its own accord. He wanted to say something…anything.

But it faded. And then it was gone, nothing more than a fleeting ghost of a thought.

Thomas turned away and started walking up the stairs. About halfway up, he heard the piano abruptly stop. He froze in place…hoping feverishly that Claire would come out of the parlor and talk to him, urge him to come back down and sit with her.

But a moment later, the music began anew. She was lost to him.

When he reached the top of the stairs instead of walking into the master bedroom he entered one of the smaller rooms and sat down on a small, green cot. He had slept there for the past few months, whenever he came home. He gave her the master bedroom because he felt she deserved it more than he did. He barely stayed in the house anymore.

Thomas passed the time in silence, just listening to the faint music coming up from below. Eventually he got up and closed the door, shutting the music out. He undressed, pulled on his sleeping clothes, and climbed into the cot.

It was a long time before his mind let him drift off to sleep…

 

Time passed slowly as Thomas sat in the chair. The pod felt more like a coffin with each passing minute.

There was no response to the distress call. He was either too deep or the radio was too damaged to get the signal out. He couldn’t tell and, in the end, he didn’t care. He could have accepted death. He could have accepted dying down in this cold, darkened pit by himself.

What he couldn’t accept…was her.

She was like the universe’s last chance to have a laugh at his expense…a way to have some cruel fun with him before he suffocated. No one was coming for him down here. They had to know he was missing. They were supposed to check in once every twenty minutes. And now hours had gone by.

Which reminded him…

“Computer…how much air do I have left,” he said, his voice barely audible.

“Oxygen reserves will last for approximately forty-three minutes and seven seconds.”

So this is it then, he thought. This is where I die. They’ll never find me down here. This trench is massive. They’ll probably assume I sank all the way to the bottom and was crushed into a tin can by the pressure. They’ll have gone back to the ship. Maybe they’re arranging a funeral for me already…not that I deserve one.

From somewhere outside, he heard a deep groan. He couldn’t see it, but he knew that whale creature was out there somewhere. It was strange, but its call sounded somehow…sad…like a cry of regret.

Me too buddy, he thought. Me too…

He sensed her presence before he saw her.

“What do you want,” he asked bitterly.

There was a brief silence.

“Tom…I’m sorry…I didn’t realize how much this would upset you,” she said.

His head snapped up, anger flaring in his eyes.

“How could you not know,” he snarled. “How could you possibly think that I would be okay with you being here?”

Claire stared at her feet for a moment.

“You still haven’t forgiven yourself, have you,” she asked, lifting her eyes to meet his.

“How the hell could I,” he asked. “It’s my fault…my fault you-” He broke off, tears swelling in his eyes. Claire stepped forward, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“You can’t possibly blame yourself for that.”

“Watch me,” he said, giving her a hard stare. “I’ve been doing it for the last two fucking years.”

“There was no way you could have known what would happen.”

“But I still drove you away, didn’t I? I drove you away and then-“

He broke off, his eyes going misty again.

“…and then you were gone forever.”

 

He remembered.

What do you want from me Claire? They need me out there. They need me to do my job.

But what about us Tom? I’ve spent so many nights sitting in that damn parlor playing the piano by myself.

What do you want me to say? I’m sorry, okay! I can’t help it. Things come up.

Things always come up…

What the hell does that mean?!

I…I just…I barely feel like you’re there anymore. Even when you’re home, it’s like your mind is a million miles away. I hate it!

You knew what you were getting into Claire! I told you I was studying to be a marine biologist the night we met!

Oh, so now it’s MY fault?

I didn’t say that…

You’re ridiculous Tom!

Claire I…where are you going? Claire? Claire?! CLAIRE!!

The fight was still on his mind as he pushed his way through the throngs of people running around in a panic. The months of silence…the things they said to each other that morning…they all seemed so unnecessary and petty now. The frustration he had felt was replaced with unbridled terror.

Please let her be okay, he kept thinking. Please…

He had seen the news reports. The annual town’s parade celebration had been brutally interrupted when gunfire started ringing out through Main Street. People fled in a panic, trampling each other as they tried to get to cover

At least thirty people dead they had said.

When he finally saw where it was, panic seized him in its iron grip. The library was right in the line of fire. He knew that’s where Claire would go to have some peace and quiet. It’s where she would go to think.

Please…please…

The news hadn’t said much…just that the suspect opened fire on the parade from the fourth floor of a nearby building. No one knew who they were or why they did it. But Thomas knew they would tell him every sordid detail of the shooter’s life in the coming weeks. They always did. Like hungry flies on a fresh corpse, they would greedily suck up every bit of information they could.

Please…oh god please…

He finally made it through the crowd and found himself at a police barricade.

“Everybody, move back,” an officer was shouting. “Move back! We need you to stay back!”

Even through the barricade he could see the body bags…the stretchers. The stench of iron and death hung in the air like a thick mist. The once-vibrant Main Street looked like it had been utterly drained of color.

“Move back! Move back,” the officer was still shouting when Thomas stepped forward. He held up a photo of Claire.

“Have you seen this woman,” he shouted over the fray.

“Sir please I-move back,” the officer shouted at someone who was trying to push through the blockade.

“Please, I just need to know if you’ve seen her,” Thomas insisted.

“Sir I can’t help you right now.”

“God damn it, I just need to know if you’ve seen her!”

The police officer turned and gave him a stern look.

“Sir, listen…I’ve had about fifty different people asking me that question in the last ten minutes. I can’t answer you because I honestly don’t know. There’s too much chaos right now. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

Thomas was on the verge of screaming at the officer when he suddenly caught the eye of another man. He was a younger person: dark skin, blue eyes and black hair. He was wearing a torn up gray t-shirt and black pants. A faint trickle of blood marred his cheek. He wasn’t staring at Thomas, but rather at the picture he was holding.

“My god…” the man said aloud.

Thomas held the picture out toward him.

“You’ve seen her? Please…tell me where she is. Tell me she’s okay!”

The man bit his lip. And then he knew.

“No…” Thomas whimpered quietly, the picture falling to his side.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “It happened right in front of me.”

“Sir, please,” a paramedic said, running up to him. “We still need to get you checked out.”

After shooting one final glance at Thomas, the man begrudgingly followed the medic into the ambulance.

Thomas stood still for what must have been a solid minute. Then he turned his back on the barricade and stumbled through the crowd, numb and cold. All sound around him seemed to dissipate, shrinking into a dull roar. He got away from the people and sat alone on the sidewalk. The sky was a smooth shade of gray. Rain was on the horizon.

He didn’t have to fight back the screams.

He didn’t have to fight back the tears.

There was nothing but a dull, thumping absence of feeling. It was emptiness, a void in his heart.

He took the one person he cared about more than anything for granted, and now she was gone…

 

“I couldn’t be in that house anymore,” Thomas said. “I wanted to get away…I had to get far away from it. Every time I was there, all I’d do was sit at that goddamn piano. I would just stare at it, hoping that you’d walk through that door and I’d find out it was all some horrible dream.”

“But it wasn’t a dream, Tom…it happened,” Claire said. “It happened…and it hurts. But…you need to move on. This is not healthy.”

Don’t you think I fucking know that,” he snapped. “Don’t you think I know that every single day I dwell on this is unhealthy?! Don’t you think I know that every single sleepless night I have in that god damn house is unhealthy?! Do you think I enjoy doing this to myself? Is that it? You think this is somehow fun for me?!”

“No…no, of course not.” Claire cocked her head to the side. “But…it’s been two years Tom.” She knelt in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders. “You need to remember me as the person I was…not as the victim who died.”

He could barely manage to look her in the eyes.

“But how I can do that,” he croaked. “How can I do that while you’re sitting there, reminding me of what we lost?”

Claire was silent for a moment.

“I don’t know Tom…but you have to.”

 

“Warning: ten minutes of oxygen remaining.”

This was it…the end of his life.

In a way, Thomas was relieved. He’d spent the past two years torturing himself over what had happened on that day. He’d spent so much time asking “what if” and saying “I should’ve”. None of it mattered. He could have done any number of different things.

But he didn’t. And she died. That was the simple truth.

There was a strange solace in that…solace in the fact that things couldn’t be changed. It was…comforting. After so long of miring in his self-loathing…at least Thomas could face the end of his life having some kind of closure. He had spent so long trying not to think of that day…only to have it creeping back into his conscious mind at every turn. Actually confronting it head on had brought a sense of relief.

“Warning: nine minutes of oxygen remaining.”

His back was cramped from sitting in the seat for so long. But Thomas didn’t care. It would all be over soon enough.

“…od Two, come in.”

Thomas stared at the hologram. No…it had to be another hallucination…another trick.

“Pod Two…this is Colonel Irving. Do you read me?”

He sat up. Surely he was hearing things.

“Irving to Pod Two, please come in.”

He pressed a button on the hologram.

“This is Pod Two,” he said weakly. “Is anybody out there?”

“Oh thank god we found you,” Irving’s voice said. “We’ve been looking for you for over three hours.”

“Sorry to have been so much trouble.”

“Ha…don’t beat yourself up over it Haskins.”

“So I assume you heard my distress call?”

There was a pause.

“What distress call?”

Thomas blinked.

“You mean you never got my SOS?”

“No…have you been transmitting one?”

“Yes,” he said. “For hours.”

“Strange…must be a malfunction with your radio equipment.”

“But then…how the hell did you find me?”

“You can thank your friend.”

Thomas stared ahead blankly.

“What friend,” he asked.

“Some kind of large creature. It’s been running laps around you for at least an hour now, probably longer. It kept giving off this weird energy signature too…that’s actually how we found you.”

Thomas sat back in his chair.

“We’ll be there to get you in just a couple of minutes…hang in there.”

But Thomas wasn’t listening anymore. A gigantic shadow had fallen over the pod. Outside, he saw a large lump of white flesh slide in front of the main window. The…whale or whatever it was stared directly into the pod…directly into his eyes. Its one eye alone was bigger than Thomas’ head. And it was a deep, milky brown.

The radio crackled. Clair De Lune played faintly through the speakers.

And then she was there. Claire…standing next to the window…a smile on her face.

Her eyes were brown.

Thomas opened his mouth to speak…but froze. His gaze flicked back and forth between Claire and the creature.

They’re both-

His mind reeled with shock.

And he understood all at once.

 

Remember me as the person I was…

He had forgotten.

Thomas climbed out of his car, groggy and exhausted. The moon was high and the night was cold. Upon entering the house, he heard the sound of music. Standing in the entryway like he had done so many times before, Thomas watched as Claire played. Tonight, it was once again Clair De Lune…her favorite. She didn’t look up, didn’t seem to pay any attention to him.

As usual, he thought to himself. Can’t really blame anyone but myself…

He turned away and was about to mount the stairs when abruptly the piano music stopped.

“Tom?”

He paused for a moment. Then he turned back around and walked into the parlor.

“Yes?”

The two of them stared at each other in silence for a while. Then Claire looked away, staring glumly at the floor.

“Is…is this how it’s going to be,” she asked.

Thomas didn’t know how to respond at first.

“What do you mean,” he finally asked.

“This…this whole thing,” she said, looking up at him. “Our lives…our…relationship. Are we just going to sit here and pretend like nothing’s wrong? Are we just never going to talk to each other anymore?”

Another pause.

“I don’t know,” Thomas admitted.

Claire rubbed her forehead.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t want this. I don’t want to let this happen.”

“Let what happen?”

This,” she emphasized again. “You…me…drifting away from each other. Tom I…I don’t want to lose you.”

Thomas stared at her. Then, a moment later, he sighed.

“I don’t want to lose you either,” he said. “I just…I don’t know what to do.”

“Just…talk to me,” she said.

“About what?”

“I don’t know…work…whatever you want. Here,” she said, patting the piano bench, “take a seat.”

More than a little hesitant, Thomas nevertheless made his way over and sat down.

“What do you want to know,” he asked.

“Anything,” she replied. “Everything.”

“Well…everyone at work has been in a buzz over this new planet that’s been discovered. It’s over ninety percent ocean. We’ve all been speculating what strange creatures might live there.”

“How do you know that anything lives there?”

“Honestly…we don’t. But something with that vast of an ocean must have something in it.”

“See? This is what I want,” Claire said. “I just want to talk. I just want to be with you every once in a while.”

“I know. I’m…I’m sorry. It’s been a hectic time. We’ve been terribly busy.”

Claire put her arm around his shoulder and they sat in silence for a long time. Thomas swore he could almost feel the light of the moon on his back. He looked at her. She smiled. He had missed that smile.

“You know,” he said, “they’ve been looking for people to help out with the research on that planet.”

Her smile faded.

“You’re not seriously considering going…are you,” she asked.

He chuckled.

“No…I don’t think I could stand being that far away for so long.”

The smile returned.

“Good,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.

“Hey honey?”

“Yes?”

“Tell me about Clair De Lune,” he said.

“What do you mean,” she asked.

“Why is it your favorite song?”

She laughed.

“Tom you already know this…I must have told you a million times by now.”

“Well I want to hear it again.”

“All right…well when I was a kid, I went through a phase where I was terribly scared of the dark. I could barely sleep at night, even with a night light on. On the worst nights, my mom would pick me up out of bed and carry me downstairs to the piano. She would sit me on her lap and start playing Clair De Lune.”

“So you got your interest in music from your mother,” Thomas observed.

“Yes…my father was a nice man, but he had no real musical inclination. My mom was the artist…the creative type. But anyways, Clair De Lune would always lull me to sleep. It was so effective that eventually my mom bought me an audio player with a personal recording of her playing the song.”

“She couldn’t play anymore?”

“It’s not that…she just got moved to the late night shift at her work. So she got me the player in lieu of her playing the piano in person.”

“Do you still have the player,” he asked, although he already knew the answer.

“Of course,” she replied. “I’ve kept it my entire life…it’s one of the few possession I truly treasure.”

She reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a small, white device with a wheel, buttons and a screen on the front.

“Ooh…vintage,” he remarked.

Claire turned the device on, selected the song, and hit play. Immediately, the room was filled with the sounds of a piano. Like mother, like daughter, Thomas thought to himself. It was almost uncanny how similar the playing was to Claire’s own. If he didn’t know any better, he would have assumed Claire recorded it herself.

“Clair De Lune,” she said. “Moonlight. I can’t explain why…but the song gives me hope. It reminds me that no matter what, there will always be a light on the horizon. It reminds me that, even in the darkest times, things can always get better.”

She leaned against him, and he rested his head on top of hers.

They sat there for what must have been at least five minutes, just listening to the song and their own breathing. It was as if time had slowed down, giving them an eternal moment to share with each other. The music, the light of the moon shining in through the window, the faint yellow light of the lamp cast over their faces…it was all so perfect.

Eventually, the song ended. Claire powered down the music player and set it down on top of the piano.

“I’m taking the next three weeks off of work,” Thomas said suddenly.

She turned to him, her mouth hanging open in surprise.

“What?! Really?!” The surprise quickly turned into elation. “That’s wonderful! Are you going to put in for the time when you go back in?”

“Already did,” he said with a smile. “The vacation starts tomorrow.”

A wide smile appeared on her face, which quickly transformed into a sultry grin. She leaned in close and the two began to kiss.

The rest of the night was a blur.

 

He had forgotten.

On the day Claire died, he was still sitting on the sidewalk when he heard a voice.

“Excuse me…sir?”

Thomas looked up. Standing in front of him was the young man who had recognized Claire’s photo.

“What do you want,” Thomas asked, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice.

“I…I wanted to tell you something,” the man said.

“Sir!” A paramedic came running up to them. “You’re not free to go yet!”

“Look,” the man said, turning towards the medic, “just let me do this okay? I’ll be over there in a minute.” The paramedic frowned, but soon enough he walked away. The man turned his attention back to Thomas.

“What the hell can you tell me,” Thomas snarled. “What the hell can you say to me that will fix it? Nothing you say can make it better.”

“I know,” the man said. “But I need to say it anyways.” He paused…biting his lip. “She…she saved my life.”

Thomas stared at him for a moment.

“Saved your life? How?”

“I was watching the parade when the gunfire started. At first, no one could really tell what it was. They just thought it was fireworks or confetti launchers or something…all part of the show. It was only when people started dropping that it dawned on everyone. People started screaming and running. Everything was chaos. No one knew where the shots were coming from…but I think she did.”

“What? How,” Thomas asked.

“I don’t know. She must have seen something. I tried to move, but I was pushed to the ground by the crowd. And then, she was just…there, pulling me to my feet. She moved me into a nearby alleyway, out of the line of fire. Then, she went back for a family that was frozen in place: a mother and her two children. She motioned for them to get into the alleyway with me. I tried to call to her…tried to tell her to get to safety. I don’t know if she didn’t hear me or just didn’t care or what…but she got the mother and her kids moving. And then-“

The man paused…biting his lip.

“I saw it,” he said. “I saw the bullet go through her skull. Her eyes just…went wide and she fell to the ground. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds…but it felt like minutes before she finally hit the ground. It was like…slow-motion or something. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. If it wasn’t for her I’d have been trampled to death or shot.”

Thomas continued staring at him with a vacant expression.

“I know it won’t make it better now,” the man said. “But maybe, just maybe…it’ll ease the pain later on. Your wife was a hero, sir. I don’t want to forget that. I didn’t think you’d want to forget that either.”

And with that, the man walked away. Thomas watched him disappear back into the crowd before turning his eyes to the ground. Some part of him registered what he had, registered that his wife had died while saving people. But at the time, he barely acknowledged it.

Somehow, the memory got lost among the pain.

He had forgotten. But now…he remembered.

 

The human brain is a funny thing. It tends to focus on all of the bad things in life, blowing them so out of proportion that they seem bigger than they are. And in turn, the good times…the things we should be remembering…are pushed to the fringes of our minds.

This thought struck Thomas as he opened his eyes. Blurry, indistinct walls of bright white shifted into focus. He squinted. The spotlight shining down on him was glaring.

“Oh, you’re awake.”

A man with balding hair and thin spectacles appeared above him. He was wearing a white lab coat.

“Are you…the doctor,” Thomas wheezed.

“Indeed,” the man said. “You know, you’re very lucky Mr. Haskins. That pod had only a few minutes of air left by the time they got to you. You had fallen unconscious, but they managed to get you on board the shuttle and back here to the ship.” He locked eyes with Thomas. “I have to ask…what exactly happened down there? I heard something about a…whale?”

“I…met someone…I think,” Thomas said. “They wanted to help me find peace…or something…and…” He started coughing and was unable to finish. The doctor placed a hand on his chest.

“Don’t worry about it. Rest…get your strength back…you can indulge an old man’s curiosity later. Get some sleep…I’ll be back to check on you in the morning.”

The doctor left his line of sight and he could hear the footsteps fading away. There was a click as the lights dimmed and a distant whoosh as the automatic door closed. Thomas laid his head back and stared at the ceiling. What happened down in that trench was wondrous, inexplicable, and unbelievable…all at the same time. But why did it happen?  Was it just simple empathy? Thomas had no way of knowing. And at the moment, he was too tired to really care or put much thought into it.

Eventually, his eyes drifted shut. The distant sound of ivory keys lulled him to sleep…

 

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.