Contrived Destiny: Prophecies in Storytelling

So lately, I’ve been thinking about prophecies.  And I’m not talking about prophecies as in biblical prophecies or any of that Nostradamus stuff.  That’s a story for another time.  What I’m talking about are prophecies in fiction.  You know what I mean: in a story a prophecy will say this or that, and then the characters end up stressing about the prophecy instead of doing anything about it even though they have adequate time to take care of things and then their laziness actually makes the prophecy come true and MY GOD WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE DOING ANYTHING?!

No?  Just me?

When I was younger, I didn’t really have an issue with prophecies when it came to fiction.  To me, it was just a thing, especially in fantasy.  You know, some great evil would return to the world and only the chosen hero or heroes could defeat it, that sort of thing.  But more and more, I’ve come to the realization that prophecies can be really lazy.  And indeed it seems like some stories rely on them heavily, like a sort of crutch.

This is kind of an oblique example, but here goes:

You’ve probably heard of the reboot Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams.  Now, I don’t really have an issue with them.  They’re mindless, action movies that kind of miss the point of what Star Trek was about, but they’re still fun to watch.  However, once I had this particular thing pointed out to me, I couldn’t un-see it.

In the first reboot movie, time is re-written when the villain is sucked through a black hole type thing and ends up in the past.  He attacks a Federation ship and destroys it, which kills Kirk’s father.  Fast-forward into the future, and Kirk is an edgy, dark young man who gets into bar fights and has a problem with authority.  Later on in the movie, he ends up marooned on an ice planet after he pisses off Spock.  Being chased by what might as well be a Yeti, Kirk finds himself in an ice cave.  And there he meets…Old Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy (rest in peace).  Old Spock tells him that in the timeline he comes from, Spock and Kirk are best friends.  Therefore, because of that, they are sort of destined to work together.  With that knowledge, Kirk and Spock inevitably put aside their differences and work together.

But that’s kind of lazy storytelling when you think about it, isn’t it?

Instead of Kirk and Spock naturally becoming friends, they end up as friends because they’re supposed to to be friends.  History has been changed.  Events occurred differently, shaping Kirk and Spock into different people than they would have been originally.  But instead of figuring out a clever way to use Kirk’s brashness and Spock’s logical thinking to save the day, they just force the two together because Old Spock said it was meant to be.

Their characters don’t really develop.  They’re just fated to be together…apparently.

 

Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy)

 

And this is something you can see in a lot of stories with prophecies in them.  Why does the hero become the hero?  Does he work hard?  Is he of admirable character?  Does he train and get stronger over time?  Or does he become the hero because some obscure, ancient writing said he was going to be the hero?

Now, prophecies can be used in interesting ways.  Take the video game “Final Fantasy X” for example.  In the game, there is this giant monster that returns to devastate the world and only a summoner can defeat it.  But to do so, they must sacrifice themselves to summon a being powerful enough to defeat it.  Later on, the main characters come to the realization that this is all a bunch of nonsense, because the monster will just keep coming back over and over again.  It’s at that point where the heroes basically say “screw prophecies” and forge their own path.  In that way, it uses prophecy to expose the flawed nature of the religion that the game’s world is based on.

So you see, you could do that.  Or you could do what “Snow White and the Huntsman” did: kill off Kristen Stewart, only to have her magically come back to life and suddenly be a badass warrior.

Why?  Because prophecy baby!

By insisting that a character be a hero according to prophecy, a writer can get past all sorts of pesky things like character growth, development, training, and so on.  The hero can just have god damn magical powers if they want.  And why not?  It’s a prophecy!  Anything goes!  Even “The Matrix” pulled something like that, although in that case it actually worked because it served to highlight the movie’s theme of rebirth.

 

Wait…Neo is an anagram for “one”? My god it’s ALL COMING TOGETHER!

 

Like I said, prophecy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just too easy to use as a lazy crutch.  Why bother coming up with experiences for the character to justify their growth into a hero when you can just predestine that from the very beginning?  No one’s going to question it, because it has to be so if the prophecy said it.

The problem with prophecies is that they often become too binding.  They force things to play out in a certain way, whether it fits in line with the prophecy or not.  There are two basic outcomes to a prophecy in fiction:

  1. The prophecy comes true.  Heroes deal with the fallout and try to fix things.
  2. The prophecy doesn’t come true.  Cue preachy message about the future not being written in stone.

As you can see, there’s not a lot of wiggle room between these two outcomes.  At best, prophecies are usually a convenient way to foreshadow a major, future event.

At worst, they’re just lazy writing.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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Alien Emotions

Welcome to the fifth of twelve.  For my New Year’s resolution I decided to write twelve short stories this year (one per month) and post them to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  This month’s story is called “Alien Emotions”.  Enjoy!

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 1

Ship experienced a catastrophic engine malfunction. I was forced to set down on an uncharted planet.

Landing was rough, so I had the ship perform a scan of my body. Everything seems to be in order. No bones have been broken and my antennae are undamaged. My wings and back are experiencing some soreness, but that should pass.

The climate here is humid and hot. While it is not what my kind are used to, I do not imagine I will have to adapt to it. Repairs should only take a matter of a few cycles.

It is just as well. Orbital scans told me there is nothing of interest here.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 2

It appears my conclusions on this planet’s value may have been made in haste.

As I was conducting my repairs this cycle, I heard a distant rumbling noise. The star had nearly fallen below the horizon, but I decided to go investigate.

I stepped through the trees past my ship and came to a large beach. And there, a little ways offshore, was a series of islands floating in the air. Even from a distance it was clear they were not a natural phenomenon.

I do not know what the rumbling was. It ceased before I was able to determine its location.

Further research is warranted.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 3

Repairs to the shuttle are progressing as expected. The ship should be fully functional within a couple of cycles.

The floating islands, however, are a perplexing enigma. I set the ship to run geological scans while I worked. They appear to have small ecosystems of their own, with cave systems and plant life. There are six different landmasses in total, five smaller ones surrounding one large, central island. And it appears that they are connected by small, metallic walkways.

But there is something far more interesting about them, something I already suspected.

The ship’s scans have revealed a strong energy signature coming from the central landmass. I imagine it powers some type of anti-gravity well that holds the islands aloft. However, the geological scans were unable to penetrate the rock of the central island, leaving me with no clear idea of what the device looks like or what its power source is.

A thought occurred to me during meditation: my orbital scans prior to the ship’s engine failure revealed nothing of this nature. This leads me to conclude that the device is shielded in some way.

Perhaps it was hidden to deter investigation. I should proceed with caution…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 4

The islands are inhabited.

With the ship’s geological scans proving fruitless, I decided that perhaps it would be best to inspect the central island myself. My theory was that whatever shielding surrounds the device grows weaker as one gets closer to it, which would explain its invisibility when scanning from orbit.

The water around the beach and the islands was shallow, not even making it up to my knees.

I ran my hands along the rock and used the machines embedded in my fingertips to commence a close-range scan. It would appear that the device has a cylindrical shape, and I have detected the unmistakable presence of an anti-matter power source.

It was not long before I noticed I was being watched.

There were only a couple of them: tiny, blue creatures that wore brown cloth around their waists. They stood on two legs and were barely larger than my finger. I paid them little attention as I worked.

Still, I observed that they seemed to show no fear. Curious…but irrelevant all the same.

 

Log Addendum

I have uncovered the source of the rumbling: periodic earthquakes that rack the floating islands. I cannot be certain of the cause, but the ship’s scans have determined that during the quakes the energy signature within the central island fluctuates. My theory is that the device powering the anti-gravity well is starting to fail.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 5

I have had to halt ship repairs for the time being. Evidently one of the native animals took interest in my vessel as I slept and began clawing at the panel where I was working. It managed to remove a power cell and ran off with it. I will have to create a substitute.

My scans of the islands have proven to be more revealing. Near the large cylindrical device there is a rectangular recess with some type of device behind it. I have theorized that it is an access point or panel, but could not find a way to reveal it.

I can only imagine it requires some sort of code.

More of the little blue creatures showed up. There were six of them this time, and it is clear that they are indeed sentient beings. However, clearly they are not the ones who created the device, as they are far too primitive. They seem to inhabit one of the smaller islands, living in small straw huts bound together with some kind of strong, green fiber.

I took more notice of them this time. As I observed before, they stand on two legs. Each foot has three toes, compared to my two, and their hands have six fingers compared to my three. Their eyes are a combination of green and orange, and are considerably large for their body size.

They are unimportant to my work. Still, they should be cataloged.

Perhaps I will collect one of them for examination during the next cycle.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 6

Even now, as I write this, I am unable to explain what happened.

I was continuing my examination of the central floating island when I spotted one of the little island beings. He appeared to be by himself…a perfect opportunity to obtain a specimen for research. I waited until the right moment then grabbed him before he could get away. I turned around, meaning to carry the little creature back to my ship.

Then I realized that was exactly what I intended to do. And I stopped.

There was nothing wrong with my body. My feet were, without doubt, capable of movement and my legs were undamaged. There was no physical explanation for what happened to me. But regardless, as I stared at the wriggling creature trapped between my fingers, I found myself unable to carry him away. It was only when I set him back down that I was able to return to my ship.

I meditated, but even with clarity of mind I could still not explain my sudden inability to act. Even as I emerged from the meditation machine, I found myself in a troubled state of mind. I am concerned that my time on this planet may be affecting my brain somehow.

 

Log Addendum

The ship’s scanner revealed no problems in my cranial structure.

 

Log Addendum #2

I saw something while I slept.

Bolts of electricity shot across the sky and water drowned the world. There was a terrible, thunderous roar. A pair of blazing orange orbs appeared high above me in the gloom.

Then, a colossal hand of gray reached down from above.

I woke up, feeling a tightness in my stomach and a desire to get as far away from some unseen danger as I could.

Was it a dream? Why was I having a dream? Our species have no time for such things. They are useless flights of fancy that stand in the way of logical thinking. We are taught to push them out of our minds from a very early age.

But still…I dreamed.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 7

In between working on repairs to the ship, I meditated on the recent incident.

I still cannot explain what happened, why I was suddenly overcome with the compulsion to let the little island creature go. The logic of the situation dictated that I would take him back to my ship and catalog his species for the database.

But I just could not do it.

And then I realized…it was not that I could not do it, but that I did not want to do it. In that moment as I held the creature in my fingers, I felt something. It was like pain, but not actual pain. It did not have any discernible, physical origin.

The word “emotion” floated into my mind, which makes my body involuntarily shudder.

But maybe that is the only explanation for what happened. Maybe I was afflicted by an emotion.

I should delete this log. If the High Council ever sees it, that will be the end of me.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 8

I decided to forgo my work and called up the ship’s database entry on The Outcasts.

We, the Faloss, rejected emotions as trivial and primitive many revolutions ago. They were detrimental to logical progress and held us back. Even as youth, we are separated from our birthers before too long to prevent us from becoming attached to them.

This is what we believe. The Outcasts do not.

They rejected tradition and left our home planet behind long ago. It is unknown where they went, but it is presumed that they have created their own colony planet where they would be free to pursue their interest in the blasphemy of emotions. Numerous attempts to track them down have all ended in failure.

This is not something I have ever written about in this log before, but a long time ago when I was scanning a dead planet, I came across a ruined Faloss ship. There were no survivors, but I did discover a data cube left behind by the crew. I retrieved it and took it aboard my ship, connecting it to the main database. I immediately recognized the mark of The Outcasts and quarantined the cube, placing it in a container that cut off all remote access going in or out.

But I ask myself something now: why did I never report it to the High Council?

That is the procedure. “Anything you find on an Outcast vessel must be turned in to the Council for examination.” And yet, I never did this. Did I forget about it? Or was there another reason?

When darkness fell this cycle, I pulled the cube out of quarantine storage and set it down next to the database access terminal. It was almost as though it was taunting me, corrupting me with its mere presence. I could almost see a pure aura of blackness emanating from the hideous thing.

No…I must not get lost in falsehoods. I am an observer and a recorder, not a dreamer…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 9

Repairs to the ship have been completed. I managed to create a substitute power cell to replace the one that was lost. I entertained the idea of searching for it, but even if I found the cell it would likely be too damaged to be of any use.

After I completed the repairs, I found I still had time for more research on the floating islands. I carried a scanning device out to the central island and placed it on top of the spot I determined to be the access point. Despite it being an advanced device, it appeared to have no more luck than I did determining how to trigger the panel.

None of the little creatures showed up this time. I imagine they are rather wary of me now…

But I digress. As I was waiting for my scanner to give me results, I examined the central island and saw something I had not seen before.

A bronze statue, depicting a kind of being I have never encountered.

The creature is shown as being rather muscular, with four fingers on each hand. Instead of toes, its legs (of which it has two) each end in one large appendage, almost like a set of tree stumps. On its head, there are two glittering blue jewels that likely represent the being’s eyes. The statue is painted a deep black, giving it an imposing visage.

But the most curious thing was not the creature himself, but what he was holding.

A representation of the floating islands sat in the statue’s hands. As I took a closer look, I was impressed by the accuracy of the rendering. The shape of the islands, down to the little peaks and valleys, were recreated in surprising detail. I could even see the railings on the metal paths that connected each island. The statue itself was depicted as staring down at the islands, examining them with care.

I can only surmise that the being shown was credited with the creation of the islands, although for what purpose I have no theories as of yet.

But something about the statue troubles me as well. According to the scale, the islands fit easily in the being’s palms, which would make him as tall as a mountain. I cannot comprehend a being that massive in size. It seems like an impossibility.

Perhaps the statue is merely figurative, offering thanks to a deity of some kind.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 10

The little creatures showed themselves again.

It is clear they are not as trusting as before. The three that appeared kept a good distance away from the cliff. I also noticed that they kept themselves within quick reach of a cave entrance on the central island, an obvious avenue of escape should they need it.

My research has been without luck. The scanner fed all manner of data and numbers to the panel, but received no discernible reaction.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 14

I have decided to name the planet Vitellius, after the ancient water god of the Faloss. It seemed fitting, considering the planet is roughly eighty-five percent water.

I have alternated my days between exploring the continent I landed on and studying the islands. The periodic earthquakes appear to have gotten more frequent since I began my observations. And every time, it coincides with a dip in the energy signature. I am now certain that the two are linked.

The anti-gravity mechanism is failing, which means that eventually the islands will fall back into the ocean, taking the creatures that dwell there with them.

But why does this trouble me so? The state of the islands has no impact on me. And yet, I am affected by this knowledge. Is it simply because of the potential scientific information that could be lost?

No. There is more to it. I must meditate.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 15

My terminal tells me that empathy is a forbidden word which is defined as “a false assumption that one can share and even understand the feelings of other beings, even lesser ones.”

I think I am beginning to understand what happened to me that cycle…

Nevertheless, I went to work on the access panel again. This time, only two of the little creatures were watching me. However, they appeared to be less afraid than before, as they had returned to their former spot on the cliff.

This time I brought a powerful laser to try and drill into the rock, to see if I could unearth the panel through more forceful means. I set it up on its three legs, aimed it in the direction of the access panel, and switched it on. For a brief time, it seemed like the laser was having some effect on the rocks. But then, another earthquake struck the island, this one more powerful than any I had yet experienced. My ship later confirmed that it was indeed the strongest one it had recorded thus far.

I cannot help but wonder if my laser was somehow the cause.

The earthquake only lasted a few seconds, but I lost my footing and fell to my knees. As I was getting back to my feet, I saw something that gave me pause.

The quake had caused one of the two little creatures watching to fall over the edge. The being managed to grab a small handhold and was hanging on, but it was clear he was going to lose his grip. The other one was trying to help, but could not reach far enough.

He was terrified, furiously scrabbling at the rocky cliff to find another handhold, but to no avail. The creature kept slipping lower and lower down the cliff. Eventually, he was going to fall.

I cannot say what compelled me to do it. But I did it all the same.

I stepped toward the two of them and, as gently as I could, placed my finger under the struggling creature. Using it as leverage, he managed to push himself back up onto solid ground. After a moment he got back to his feet, turned around, and stared at me.

But I did not pay him any attention, as I saw that my laser had fallen off its tripod and was damaged. I picked it up and made my way back to the ship.

It was only later that it started to trouble me. I meditated until the planet’s star had sunk below the horizon, but I still had no answer for it. Why did I bother helping the creature? What possessed me to do so? They are of little to no consequence.

And yet, I felt some kind of…connection with the little thing. I understood his fear.

These logs are dangerous. Perhaps I should start encrypting them.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 18

More of the creatures have been showing up each time I go over to the islands. It appears that their curiosity has grown since I helped one of them.

No progress on the access point yet. It appears to be as stubborn as I am.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 22

I have been writing in my log less and less. I tell myself it is because of my work, but I know that is not the only reason…

I have finally made some progress with the access point, although entirely by accident. I was removing the scanner from the rock wall when it slipped from my hand. I let out a short gasp of surprise and managed to catch it before it fell into the water. When I looked back up, I saw that a rectangular portion of the rock wall was sliding away, and a red and gray panel was emerging. A green hologram spat out of it, displaying a blue symbol.

However, a moment later, the symbol flashed red and vanished.

It took me a little time to connect my utterance to the reveal of the access panel. I had initially concluded that my scanner had managed to find the correct sequence to reveal it. But when I reattached it, nothing else happened.

Then I understood. The mechanism isn’t activated by numbers or data, but by vocalizations.

This presents another problem: I have no idea the pattern, frequency, or period of these vocalizations. It could be multiple separate tones or one extended, oscillating frequency that I need. Nevertheless, the prospect of making progress is a good one.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 26

Normally, when we Faloss meditate, we do so with the aid of a sensory deprivation machine, which blocks out all unnecessary distractions. But lately, I have been attempting to do so by simply sitting down on the beach near my ship.

I enjoy the feel of the wind on my skin and the sound of the water hitting the shore.

But…why? Why do I enjoy these things? Are they inextricably linked to emotions? Do emotions make these things feel good? I am frustrated because I cannot come up with an answer due to my conditioning as a youth.

Conditioning? I have never called it that before…it sounds terrible and wrong…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 29

During my meditation, I heard a splashing noise. I opened my eyes and saw that one of the sea creatures had poked its head above the surface a little ways off the beach. It was an ugly fish, with sickly brown-yellow skin and hideous eyes of yellow and black. Its mouth held razor-sharp teeth that it likely used to gorge on prey larger than itself.

But it had its eyes fixed on the islands, as if waiting for something.

Moments later another quake struck, shaking the islands and creating a distant rumble. The fish seemed to grow excited at the prospect of the earthquake, swimming closer to the islands until it was almost under them. The earthquake ended moments later and the fish swam around for a little while. But eventually, its head dipped back below the surface, evidently disappointed.

I had a revelation moments later: it was looking for food.

The fish considered the little blue creatures living on those islands to be prey. It was waiting to see if one of them would fall off. No wonder the creature holding on to the cliff had looked so utterly terrified.

I began to wonder: the statue…the being that I assume created the floating landmasses…did he do it specifically for them? Did he feel some desire to help the little creatures, to safeguard them from their predators? It is the most likely conclusion, because otherwise they would likely never have survived as long as they have, existing in a world where so many things consider them to be prey.

Sympathy…empathy…these words hang on my mind.

As I write this, the Outcast data cube sits next to my terminal. I once again pulled it out of the quarantine storage area.

What does it have to tell me? Should I listen?

Or should I just toss it into the nearest star and forget it ever existed?

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 31

Work is slow. I cannot focus with everything that is on my mind.

I have spent the last two cycles wandering the island. I have found that it helps to ease my troubled mind. It has been fruitful too. During my walk I came across a massive crater in the ground. I can only assume that this was either the result of a meteorite impact (which I doubt, due to the lack of surrounding damage) or it was a chunk of land removed for the creation of the floating islands.

For some odd reason my mind conjured up the image of a gargantuan black hand reaching down and scooping the land out from under itself…

Thoughts like that have been a constant for some cycles now.

That reminds me. Against my better judgment, I installed the Outcast data cube and began reading it.

“We are the Outcasts,” it began. “This is our text, our story, our history.

After the purging of emotions so long ago, much of the Faloss race have reached the conclusion they were nothing but a detriment. We represent the few who do not believe this. We have experienced the power of these emotions…how they can drive us and inform our actions.

When we travel the stars and happen to look down at the worlds in our path, a decision must be made. Do we ignore them and continue on our way? Or do we expend time to learn about them?

Some of these worlds may also be inhabited, populated by creatures that might be less advanced than us. How we act toward them can have serious repercussions on their development. Many of us have read distressing accounts of Faloss scientists who, without hesitation, drastically altered a planet’s climate in a simple attempt to gather data or resources.”

I stopped reading there. There was a pain in my chest I could not explain.

My mind was drawn back to one of my last expeditions…I encountered a planet rich in minerals that were essential to our ship drives. So I landed, set up equipment, and began mining. I took far more than I needed, but I figured the abundance would please the High Council.

The planet was inhabited as well…some type of primitive reptilian people. But, as protocol dictated, I did not pay them any attention or interact with them in any way.

It is only now, looking back, that I realize what I had done. The process of retrieving those minerals had a detrimental effect on the world, drastically altering the climate. The cycle I left, I noticed some extreme weather on the horizon. I did not think much of it at the time, but it was more severe than anything I had seen since I landed there.

Did I devastate that planet simply to get what I wanted?

Did I doom an entire species to extinction for my own selfish reasons?

It is impossible to say…but I must cease writing here. I have no desire to continue…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 32

I killed a fish. I crushed its skull.

I found myself sitting on a rocky outcrop with my feet dangling over the water, meditating on what I had read on the Outcast’s cube. My eyes were wandering near the floating islands when I spotted something: a brownish fin circling the same spot over and over again.

I squinted, unsure of what was happening at first. But then I saw it.

It was difficult to discern, but one of the little creatures from the islands had fallen into the ocean, likely due a recent earthquake. I remembered how I had seen the sea creature poke its head up, its eyes watching the floating land to see if any food was going to fall down for it.

This time, it got what it wanted.

It is difficult for me to describe what happened next. It was as if I had become consumed by something…a powerful sensation that flooded my entire body. I felt like I was burning up inside, even though my body temperature was well within its normal range.

My hands started to twitch. My mind was filled with the image of the fish gorging itself on the little blue creature.

And then, I acted.

I dropped off the cliff into the water and made my way toward the spot where the fish was circling. It did not take long for the fish to notice my approach. It attempted to swim away, but I was too fast, snatching the creature out of the water and holding it aloft by its tail. It wriggled and squirmed, swinging its head around in an attempt to escape my clutch. When that failed, it switched tactics and attempted to sink its fangs into my thigh.

I took my other hand and clamped its mouth shut as hard as I could. It was not until I heard the cracking of bone that I realized what I had done.

As impossible as it was, time itself seemed to slow down. The fish had ceased moving and hung limply from my hand. I could not help but stare at it, acutely aware of what I had done. The burning sensation gave away to a thick heaviness that weighed me down.

I cannot say how long I stood there, but it felt like eternity.

My eyes drifted away from the dead thing in my hand and down to the water. I could see the little island creature swimming toward me. I doubted he had any idea what I was going through at that moment. Rather, I think he was just in awe of me.

I tossed the fish aside, letting it fall into the water and float away. Then, I bent over and scooped the little being up into the palm of my hand.

It was clear the creature was terrified. He was shivering and wet.

I carried him back to the islands. Time had scarcely passed after I set him down before he took off, running as fast as he could back to his village.

I pitied the creature. That was a certainty. But that was not the only thing that drove me to act.

That burning feeling…I had never felt anything like that in all my existence. I was starting to understand sympathy and empathy. I had learned long ago that fear was something all creatures experience. But this…this was the strongest thing I had felt yet. It had stripped me of all control.

I must meditate some more. There is an answer somewhere…I just need to find it.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 33

Anger. They called it anger.

Once again, despite all the reasons I should not, I read more of the Outcast’s scripture. Much of it was of little interest to me, just a treatise on the Faloss’ history with emotions. Growing weary of it, I started to skim through the text at random. There is an impressive amount of written work stored on the cube, so much so that I would have to spend many cycles just to read through all of it.

However, one particular part caught my eye. It was essentially a catalog of common emotions.

And there was the entry on anger.

“Anger”, it said, “a feeling of displeasure or hostility. Anger is usually directed towards a particular target. This target can be an idea or a location, but is more commonly focused on an individual entity like a living creature (such as another Faloss).”

That was what I felt. I felt a sense of hostility toward the fish because it was trying to harm a creature that could not defend itself against it.

Anger is powerful.

But anger is dangerous as well…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 34

“Nature does not make mistakes. Nature selects. Nature breeds the qualities that are necessary for survival.

The Faloss lived with emotions for most of their existence. So why do we now believe that they are dangerous? How did we come to the conclusion that they were useless trinkets to be cast off and forgotten?

Nature is variable. Nature is always changing. Nature is cruel.

But nature does not make mistakes.”

This passage from the Outcast text was on my mind as I wandered the continent, the wind blowing through the trees and prickling my flesh. For my entire life, I had believed as all other Faloss believed: that emotions were unnecessary. I still thought this, even as I left my home world to explore the stars.

But now? Now I am not certain. Is it not possible that we made a mistake? Is it not possible that we suffered a lapse in judgment? These “emotions”…they do not feel wrong to me. They feel natural…like they were meant to be a part of my being.

I have decided to name the tiny island beings “Tekkets”, a word from the old Faloss language that roughly translates to “little dweller”.

I have not been back to the islands yet. I feel like they would be too afraid of me now.

Or maybe I am too afraid of myself…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 35

In an attempt to further my understanding of empathy, I tried to imagine myself in the mind of a Tekket as I meditated. This brought me back to the dream I had after I nearly walked off with one of them between my fingers. I remembered the monstrous, cruel hand that came down for me, a distorted reflection of myself.

Was that how they saw me then, as a monster? Was I some hideous alien tormenting them for my own gain?

But now…what do they think of me now? Surely the circumstances have changed?

There is only one way to find out…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 36

I finally returned to the islands this cycle. As I approached, my eyes caught sight of a single, lone Tekket standing near the cliff. He spotted me approaching and reacted with what I can only describe as excitement. He began to run toward me.

In fact, he almost ran right off the cliff. Instinctively, I found myself reaching out with my hand to stop him.

But what happened next amazed me. The little creature grabbed my finger without fear and started nuzzling it. So I picked him up. He was unfazed, his curious eyes watching me as he rested his head against my thumb.

He only became nervous when I brought my other hand closer and the micro-sensors embedded in my fingertips began to shoot out tiny blue lights that swept across his body. He started to quiver and closed his eyes. And, out of some kind of compulsion, I whispered to him. I told him not to be afraid. I assured him that I would never hurt him.

There was no way for him to understand what I was saying. But…it worked. He calmed down and stopped shaking.

After my scan was complete I set the little creature back down and went to check on the progress with the central island’s access panel. My sensor device had made some decent headway in the last few cycles. I now know that to unlock the power source, the panel needs five distinct vocalizations. The device has discovered two of them so far, both in a low-frequency range.

I could attempt another way of accessing the panel again, but the risk seems too high. I still cannot be certain if my laser triggered an earthquake or if it was just ill timing on my part, but discovering the access code seems the safest way to proceed.

And I do not want to even think about what would happen to the islands, much less the Tekkets who live on them, if another method failed catastrophically.

The little one watched me all day, sitting cross-legged on the cliff. I cannot understand why he has taken such a fancy to me. The others who came to watch were almost impassive by comparison.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 38

The little one has met me every cycle and I have continued to scan him. I am interested to know more about their development.

It is clear that he is a child in their species, as the data indicates he is undergoing rapid growth and change. My scans have also revealed an interesting facet of their bodies as well: a pair of vestigial gills. It would seem that Tekkets were an amphibious species at one point in their evolution and that aspect of them gradually atrophied as they spent their lives on the islands.

I am beginning to think that the little one is the same Tekket I saved from the fish. It is impossible to say for certain, but it would explain his implicit trust in me.

No more progress on the vocalizations yet. But I suspect it is just a matter of time…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 39

I carried him on my shoulder.

After I finished my scans of the little one, I had another moment of indecision. There was a pain in my chest. It was as if my past self was rearing up before me, reminding me that these creatures were only to be used for data gathering purposes.

But I was determined that I would never be that same Faloss again. And, almost as if to prove it to myself, I set the little one down on my shoulder.

There was no reason to stay with the scanner, as it would work on its own accord. Therefore, I took another walk around the continent. The little one was clearly pleased to come along. He curled up close to my neck and stayed there for much of the time. I have to admit…I am filled with pleasant sensations just reminiscing about it. The closest emotion I can find to it in the Outcast scripture is “happiness”. Is that what we have been missing for so long? Yes, anger was powerful and terrifying…but happiness? Happiness is nothing of the sort.

This feeling led me to a profound, yet obvious, realization: I saved his life. He would not be here if I had not interfered. He would not be here if I had not heeded the call of my emotions.

Then, a more chilling thought struck me…if I had been the same person on that day as I was when I landed…what would I have done? I ask myself: would I have acted? Of course, I already knew the answer to that.

I would have watched.

I would have observed.

I would have sat there and gathered data while the little one was eaten…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 43

I am starting to slip in my work. I need to regain focus.

I had forgotten to check on my scanner for the past few cycles and when I returned I found that it had lost all power. After setting the little one down on my shoulder I grabbed the scanner and returned to the ship to charge.

I wonder what he thinks of all these things…my ship, the scanner…this world he lives in. I wonder what he thinks of me…the gray-skinned giant who looks down at him with solid, orange eyes. The little one’s gaze constantly wanders. He reaches out and touches things whenever he can. Just this previous cycle, I found him fiddling with my wings, running his fingers over them. But it does not bother me. I let him do these things, because I understand being curious. Curiosity was what kept me here. Curiosity stopped me from leaving the moment I had completed the repairs on my ship.

Is curiosity an emotion? If it is…then that means I was always broken, even before my “awakening”, as I’ve come to call it.

No…I am not broken. What nonsense is that? I am me.

Water is falling from the sky. I can hear it pelting the outside of my ship. I hope the little one is safe and warm. I had to end our expedition early today because of the arrival of the dark clouds. I did not want him to be caught out in the open when the storm began. I could have sheltered him in my ship, but I believed he would prefer to be among his own people.

I am me…what a strange choice of words.

We Faloss are not a hive mind species. But the concept of being an individual is not often talked about. Everything we have done, will do, and will continue to do is always thought of in terms of what is best for the species as a whole. When Faloss like me go out and observe planets and cosmic phenomenon, we do so with the intent of furthering our collective knowledge.

But this…what I have done here on Vitellius…that was for me. That was for me alone.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 45

It appears that the little one has things to teach me, even if he does not realize it.

I moved my ship over to the beach this cycle, as a way to consolidate my efforts. When I brought the little one over, I set him down as I worked. I tuned the ship in to the sensor device’s frequency so I could observe the results it found in real-time, as well as how much power it had.

After that was done, I began reading more of the Outcasts scripture. It had not seemed like much time had passed, but when I looked in the little one’s direction, I saw something that amazed me. He was picking up clumps of sand from the beach and sticking them together. Fascinated by this almost ritualistic act, I left what I was doing behind and sat on the beach watching him.

He was creating a representation of some rectangular structure with high towers. He shaped it so that it appeared like it sat on top of a high cliff. It did not take him long to notice me watching, which seemed only to encourage him to work even harder.

I wondered why he was doing this. Was it out of some kind of longing? Did he hear tales of the old cities the Tekkets used to live in? Was that what he was doing, creating a remembrance of history? After a moment of thought, I did not believe this to be so. He did not appear forlorn while creating it. Rather, he was enjoying himself. It was a pleasurable activity for him.

There is a word for this…but I cannot remember it at present. I will have to consult the Outcast scripture once again.

It was not long before I felt compelled to imitate his action. I picked up clumps of wet sand and started to create. It was a strange feeling, as though I was being totally consumed by the task. I took more and more sand, building my construct higher and higher still. I felt immense pleasure, almost as though this simple act of sticking wet sand together was enough to trigger the emotion of happiness.

The star was falling below the horizon, signaling the approach of darkness, when I finally finished.

The structure I created was a model of the Faloss Council Tower, an immensely tall structure that stands in the center of our capital city. It is an imposing building, ending in a sharp spire at the very top. In reality, the tower dwarfs the height of an average Faloss by many dozens of times, although the one I had created only reached up to about my waist. I reached out and ran my finger along the spire at the top. The real tower would feel cold and metallic, but the one I had created was soft and malleable, specks of sand tumbling off and falling to the ground as I rubbed it.

The little Tekket was impressed with my work as well. I reached down and scooped him up into the palm of my hand. I brought him close to the side of the tower and he reached out to touch it. His eyes lit up, like little green and orange jewels. He pointed at the top of the tower, then looked at me.

I lifted him up between my fingers and set him down on top of the tower, next to the spire.

The two of us spent the remainder of the cycle watching Vitellius’ star slide below the horizon. I stood on the beach while the little one leaned back against the sandy spire. His little size meant that he could walk around on top without fear of the tower breaking away underneath him.

He looked at me. I looked at him. We were happy.

The sky was nearly black, the white dots of the stars shining down, when I finally carried him back to the islands.

 

Log Addendum

The scripture called it “fun”. The word was an adjective describing something that is pleasurable or entertaining.

It’s like there are pieces of me missing that I am trying to put back into place…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 47

Four of five vocalizations now. I believe the scanner will finish its task within the next few cycles.

I must go. The little one is waiting for me.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 48

I was not watching. I made a mistake and…he almost died.

I was distracted by my own creation. The sand model of the Council tower managed to withstand the weather of the last few cycles. I was reshaping it, adding little recesses in the side to represent the windows the Council would use to look out over the city.

After a while I wondered what the little one thought of my work. But when I turned around he was not there.

In that moment I felt a sense of panic and fear. My eyes went back and forth across the beach in a frantic fashion, but I could not see him. I turned my gaze to the ground, hoping to see some trace of where he had gone.

I had scarcely began looking when I heard a loud roar.

I raised my head and turned in its direction. And there, barely visible, was the little Tekket. He was sprinting out of the forest beyond the beach, terrified by something. Loud, crashing steps followed along behind him. Soon enough, the creature they belonged to emerged from the trees.

It was some big, quadrupedal thing with an elongated mouth. It had dark, grayish skin and was nearly as tall as me. A long tail swished back and forth as it walked, eyeing the tiny creature attempting to run away. It did not seem at all concerned that its prey would escape, as its head was bent over, sniffing the little Tekket with its flat snout. The creature rose up and licked its mouth, savoring the moment. Rows of gnashing teeth opened up as it went it for the kill.

I snatched up a rock as fast as I could and threw it directly at the creature’s eye. Fortunately my aim was true and the rock dazed it just long enough for me to close the gap. I tackled it to the ground and held it there. It thrashed back and forth, its tail tossing up sprays of sand.

I grabbed another nearby rock and raised it above my head, intent on bashing the creature’s skull in.

But as I watched its reptilian eyes dart back and forth in fear, I hesitated.

This creature was not any more evil than the fish was. It was a simple-minded being looking for food. It was not its fault that the little Tekket looked so appetizing. It was born that way, conditioned by nature to regard the tiny creature as sustenance.

Much like I had been conditioned to regard emotions as useless. Only in my case, there was nothing natural about it…

So I dropped the rock and stood back up, letting the creature roll back onto its feet. But before it could do anything else, I gave it a swift kick to the chest, sending the creature scurrying back into the forest.

I spent the rest of the cycle sitting on the beach, holding the Tekket between my fingers. He kept shivering, his eyes darting back and forth like he was afraid the monstrous creature would show itself again it any moment. I nuzzled him in an attempt to calm him down. but it did not work. His body continued to quiver with fear.

When I finally returned him to the islands, he ran off without even looking behind him…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 49

I feel…empty…like I have been drained of all feeling.

I realize now that I was a fool. I was being selfish. The little Tekket made me happy, so I kept him with me because I wanted to continue being happy.

I knew how dangerous this world was for them. But I ignored it.

Maybe this is why our people cast off emotions long ago, because they knew that it led to bad decisions. Maybe I should never have interfered with them.

Maybe I just made things worse…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 50

Fifty cycles. I have been here for fifty cycles.

It is hard for me to fathom that right now. The planet clearly has nothing more of interest for me aside from the device that powers the floating island. And yet, I am still here.

I have calculated that this planet’s revolution around its star lasts roughly two hundred of its cycles. Interesting, considering that my home planet’s cycles are longer and it takes nearly four hundred of them before a revolution is complete.

It is not an important distinction, but it distracts me.

It keeps away the dark thoughts that otherwise plague my mind…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 51

My carelessness could doom their entire species.

Even with real-time monitoring, I slipped and allowed the scanner to run out of power again. It has been without power since the cycle my little friend was nearly eaten. I am charging it even now.

The earthquakes are worse now, more frequent and more powerful.

I have to get back to work. I have already interfered, so I might as well finish my task.

I owe the Tekkets that much at least…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 52

The scanner is back in place, doing its job.

The little one hasn’t shown up ever since that incident. I cannot blame him. He must be terrified of stepping foot outside his home now.

And it is my fault. I failed in my responsibility to keep him safe.

This is the most potent sadness I have felt yet. It weighs on me cycle after cycle. It is strong and pervasive. And it never seems to end.

Is this how I am going to feel for the rest of my existence?

I cannot deal with this.

I cannot live like this.

Perhaps I should forget these emotions while I still can.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 53

I was meditating on the beach when it finally happened.

The scanner found the last frequency for the access panel and the device revealed itself. The first indication of something happening was a distant rumbling. At first, I believed it was just another earthquake. But when I opened my eyes I saw that the central island was splitting open like an egg, revealing a bizarre orange and gray contraption shaped like a massive drill.

And in the center was a clear cylinder full of glowing light.

I was correct. The device was indeed powered by anti-matter. This was good news, as it should be easy for me to replicate another power cell for it. The bad news is that I have no idea how to switch them out without the device losing power completely and sending the islands crashing into the ocean.

But I am tired and I must sleep. I will work on this issue in the coming cycle.

 

Log Addendum

I am shaken by the dream I just had. In the dream there was a loud rumble and a thunderous crash. I ran out of my ship and found that the islands were gone. They had fallen into the ocean and were swallowed whole by the hungry water.

In their place stood a mountainous creature.

The one who created the islands.

The one the Tekkets venerated with their statue. He had smooth, obsidian skin and eyes of blazing blue fire. He gazed down at me with intense authority.

He was judging me.

He was judging me because I had failed.

I woke then, in the fit of fear, shaking and cold with the rain drumming against the metal hull of my ship.

Failure is not an option. I must succeed, even if just for the sake of my own mind.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 54

They were…waiting for me.

I went back to the islands today to investigate the device and determine how I could re-fuel it without powering down the entire mechanism. The Tekkets were standing on the cliff. There were at least a couple dozen of them. They waved as I approached. They were happy to see me.

But that was not the most stunning development.

As I was examining the device, my attention was drawn back toward the statue. And it was there that I saw it:

Another statue…but of me.

Just like the other statue, their depiction was very accurate. They had large orange jewels for my eyes. They gave me three fingers for each hand and two toes for each foot. They even captured the pattern on my wings, veins like those you find on tree leaves. It was not fully complete, as it still had the metallic brown color of bronze. I imagine they are going to begin painting it soon enough.

But, like before, the most fascinating thing about the statue wasn’t its accuracy.

In one of my hands, I was holding a fish by its head and my eyes were turned toward it. And, kneeling at my feet, was a representation of the quadrupedal beast that had nearly devoured the little one. Its reptilian eyes were turned up toward me in a gesture of submission.

They were venerating me with this statue, just as they did the island creator. I did not know if I was comfortable being thought of as a deity.

But maybe that was not the case. In all my observations, I have never noticed the Tekkets treating the statues like objects of worship. Maybe it signifies a kind of respect. Maybe they are thanking me for the things I have done.

However, the fact remains that my work is not yet finished.

My investigations revealed no backup power source for the device. This means that I will have to rig up some kind of secondary power supply and patch it in to the device to keep it powered while I work.

If I had not arrived here when I did…I do not want to think what might have happened to them.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 55

I have created a second cell. I siphoned some of the anti-matter from my ship. As it turns out, I did not need as much of it as I had originally thought. The anti-gravity device is very efficient. One cell should be enough to power it for several hundred revolutions.

This makes me wonder…is the island creator still alive? Does he know what I am doing? Or did he pass long ago, never knowing what became of the little ones he had saved?

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 56

I now have a backup power source. I created one using my sensor device and the laser that had once attempted to cut through the rocks. However, I am concerned, as it is an unwieldy combination and could be highly unstable.

The next cycle will be the moment of truth. Will I succeed in my aims? Or will I just make things worse? My hands twitch and my breath is shaky whenever I think about it.

But regardless, I must continue. This is not a time for hesitation.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 57

I did it…by the stars, I did it.

I was afraid I would not succeed at first. Having an audience of Tekkets only made matters worse. They showed up in far greater numbers than they had the cycle previous.

They knew something big was happening.

The moment I hooked up the backup power source it emitted a horrible droning sound. I knew it wouldn’t last long so I immediately removed the anti-matter power source from the device. The moment I did, the islands began to quake, worse than they ever had before.

It was as if everything was falling apart around me, like I had failed before I had even begun.

But gradually, things calmed down. The backup power source worked. I could not help but sigh with relief.

I retrieved the new anti-matter cell from my ship and placed it inside the device. Initially, it refused to work. I tried activating it several times, but to no avail. I could feel my heart beating fast. My hands twitched and I found it hard to focus. I had believed that anger was by far the most powerful emotion…but it seems I still have a lot to learn.

After attempting to re-insert the cell several times over I had an idea. I went to my scanner that was still attached to the rocks and had it replay the sequence of sounds that revealed the device.

There was a moment of silence after it had finished.

Then…it started to work.

The anti-matter cell began to glow brightly, and a loud clicking told me it was now locked into place. There was a loud pulsing drone that indicated the device was fully functional again. I disconnected the backup power source just as the rocks began to slide back together. As I did so, a strange sound reached me. It was a whole chorus of little voices.

They were cheering. They were cheering for me.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 60

Everything appears to be well with my re-infusion of anti-matter into the device. There have been no more signs of degradation or earthquakes. Nevertheless, I must stay here for a little while longer to ensure that everything is fine.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 62

My ship has not recorded a single earthquake. It is done. They are safe.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 64

I am leaving soon.

I spent the last couple of cycles with my little friend. He seems to have recovered from his encounter with the predator and is once again happy.

It rained. We sat together in my ship and watched the water fall on the beach. He was on my shoulder, once again curled up against my neck. For the first time since I came here, I felt truly at peace.

I have made my decision. When I leave this planet, I am going to seek out the Outcasts. I want to learn more about the history we have lost.

But before I leave, I am going to place a device on the center island that will enable me to monitor the power of the anti-gravity device, even when I am light-years away from here. I do not know if the island creator will ever return. But in the event that he does not, I will keep a watchful eye on the Tekkets for him.

And if I pass on…someone else will have to take my place.

Saying goodbye to Vitellius is going to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am certain I will return from time to time, simply to pay the Tekkets a visit. But I can never return to my home world. If they discover what I am now…they will surely execute me.

Maybe time will change their minds. Maybe it will not. I am strangely indifferent about it.

When the star rises…it will be the last I see of it for quite some time…

 

Log Addendum

As I slept, I saw the island creator again. He was happy.

 

Thanks for reading.  Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

As always, check back next Wednesday for another post, and have a wonderful week!

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Story Re-Analysis: Returning to the World of “Dark Fall: Lights Out”

Human beings love to look back.  They long for past days, past events…times when they were younger.  But other times, they look back on the past with regret, wishing they could change things…

A little over three years ago I started writing this blog, posting every Wednesday.  And I’m proud to say that I’ve never missed a week.  But there are other things I am not so proud of, things that I wish I could have done better.  The biggest regret I have were the “story analysis” pieces I did.  I think I did around four of them total before I gave up on it entirely.  They were just proving too difficult to write and took more time than I thought they were worth.

And nowhere did I feel this more than the story analysis for a little video game called “Dark Fall: Lights Out”.

It just wasn’t a good post.  It was boring, and it was long (it totaled at almost five thousand words).  I have trouble reading through the entire thing and I was the one who wrote it!  So in the spirit of looking back I decided “what the heck…I’ll give it another shot!”  Here’s to second chances!

And without further ado, I present to you the story of “Dark Fall: Lights Out” once again…

 

The Story

A man tosses back and forth in his sleep.  Ghostly visions of a lighthouse and disembodied voices swirl around in his dreams.  He wakes, brought out of his slumber by a brief knocking at his door.  But when he opens the door, no one is there…

 

Don’t you hate it when ghosts knock on your door? Stupid ghosts…some of us are trying to sleep!

 

Our main character for this journey is Benjamin Parker, a cartographer commissioned to map the coast around the small town of Trewarthan.  In his journal, Parker makes it clear that he doesn’t enjoy the job and considers it a waste of his time.  But it doesn’t take long before he becomes intrigued by a light offshore.  He believes it belongs to a lighthouse, which is strange because the maps show no such lighthouse nearby.

He also talks about a repeating dream he’s been having for a long time, one of a metallic object falling from the sky…

Parker was called to Trewarthan by a man named Robert Demarion.  According to Parker’s journal, while the two are having breakfast one morning, Parker asks Demarion about the lighthouse.  Demarion responds as if he’s ill and exits the cottage, leaving Parker alone.  Parker begins rummaging around, finding a log by Demarion.  The log mentions how Demarion found a cavern underneath the lighthouse out on Fetch Rock island, but when he went to explore it he felt a terrifying presence that forced him to run away.

The book also holds a curious black object he found that can bend but not break, yet can be easily scratched or cut…

 

My oh my, what could this mysterious object be?

 

(Side note: the name “Hadden” refers to a company that was in the first “Dark Fall” game).

Back in the present, Parker ventures outside.  It doesn’t take long before a voice beckons Parker to enter a doorway.  Inside, Parker finds Demarion, who explains that he didn’t tell him about the lighthouse because he didn’t want Parker to be caught up in the town’s superstition.  Demarion also tells him that a passing ship reported that the lighthouse lamp isn’t lit, something the keepers would never allow.  There are three men manning the lighthouse: Oliver Drake, Robert Shaw, and James Woolf, who is the youngest.  Demarion implores Parker to go out to the island and investigate.  Parker agrees and takes a small boat moored on the pier.

(Side note: during the transition to Fetch Rock, we are treated to a partial reading of the poem “Flannan Isle”, based on real life disappearances at a lighthouse.  This event and poem likely inspired the game’s story).

Trewarthan at night.

 

Upon arriving at Fetch Rock, Parker finds that it is indeed dark inside the lighthouse.  Once he gets the interior lights back on, he ventures further up the lighthouse to discover what happened.  Mysterious shadows dart through the corridors, and Parker has a run-in with a ghostly voice that identifies itself as Robert Shaw.  The ghost laments being unable to protect the younger keeper, James, and tells Parker that Drake has gone mad, as if possessed by a demon.

The ghost vanishes and Parker continues exploring.  He finds no signs of anyone, but does discover a unsent letter from Woolf to his beloved.  In it, Woolf describes how Drake had gone mad, moaning to himself in the bowels below the lighthouse.  He tells about how Drake came after them and seemed to transform into a colorful glow.  As he was transfixed by the impossible vision, Woolf heard a name in his mind: Malakai.

He later came to with Shaw in a barricaded room, but Drake came for them again soon after.  James’ last words are that he can see the light under the door…

Continuing upward, Parker makes his way into Drake’s room where he finds the man’s journal.  Drake mentions a dream eerily similar to the one Parker had, right down to the flaming comet of metal.  But in Drake’s, he sees the object falling into a bed of reeds, which reminds him of an etching somewhere in the lighthouse.  Drake complains of a headache one day shortly before the journal descends into maddened gibberish.  Drake starts rambling about a “master” and dotes on Parker as being instrumental to his plans.  He conspires against the other keepers, saying that his master needs them to “feed”.

The journal ends with a creepy “I see you, Parker” scrawled across the page.

 

Cute.

 

In Drake’s desk, Parker finds a drawing showing a path leading to a cavern.  He makes his way down to the ground floor and across the rickety wooden planks.  He enters the cavern, led on by ghostly whispers of “this way” and “over here”.  Upon reaching a caved-in tunnel, lines of color suddenly crawl across the rocks.  When Parker leaves the cave, he notices things are different.

And not just anything…everything.

 

 

The entire island has changed.  Parker enters a small building just a little ways away from the cavern and finds a machine projecting images on to a sheet, a radio, and a mystical, wondrous device full of such magical power that-

 

 

Okay, it’s just a laptop.  But come on!  Imagine how crazy that would be to someone from the beginning of the 20th century.

Anyways, it doesn’t take long before Parker discovers he’s in the year 2004.  Somehow, he was thrown through time almost a hundred years into the future.  The lighthouse is now a tourist attraction, but it appears to have closed down for the day.  And a storm looms on the horizon…

Making his way into the gift shop, Parker finds a plethora of books and music.  One book in particular catches his eye: Horror at Fetch Rock.

 

 

In the book, Parker discovers that after he disappeared off the face of the world along with the three lighthouse keepers, the resulting investigation concluded that Parker must have murdered the keepers.  Demarion covered everything up, denied any involvement with the proceedings, and placed the blame squarely on Parker (although it seems that, over the years, Demarion was suspected of being involved in some way).

Parker also finds letters and a journal written by a woman named Polly White.  It turns out Polly is a ghost hunter who believes the lighthouse is haunted.  She also believes that she is the reincarnation of James Woolf, the youngest lighthouse keeper.

(Side note: Polly White is actually a character from the first “Dark Fall” game.  Fortunately knowledge of the first game’s story is not essential here.)

In the journal, Polly describes how she was led to the lighthouse because of her dreams.  It didn’t take long for her to experience some unexplained activity, such as a chair throwing itself across the room.  Along with her journal is a creepy recording of a hypnotic regression session she went through, which is what led her to believe she is the reincarnation of Woolf.

Continuing through the lighthouse, Parker discovers that history has not been kind to him.  He is portrayed as a troubled soul who likely murdered the keepers in a fit of madness.  There are numerous signs with details about the duties of lighthouse keepers, how a lighthouse operates, and some bronze age relics.  As he makes his way up the stairs, Parker finds that the rooms have been dressed up for the guests, with the crewroom featuring a voice re-enactment of the keepers’ final night.

Suddenly, Parker hears someone dart out of sight farther up the stairs.  A dropped journal entry reveals that Polly saw Parker enter the gift shop and is trying to hide.  Continuing up the stairs, Parker finds that she has locked herself in what used to be Drake’s room, but is now a storage room of some sort.  She slides a piece of paper under the door for him, which leads him back to the little building outside with the laptop.

There he finds the “Radvision” goggles, which let him see ghostly phenomena.  But they also serve another purpose: by using them on certain objects, Parker can travel back to 1912.

 

I see a bad moon a-rising

 

After some sleuthing, Parker finds a section of wall behind the boiler in 1912 that transports him to another time period.  In this time, the lighthouse is no longer standing.  A foundation remains, but most of the structure is now gone.  Parker follows a hole in the wall and climbs down an elevator shaft, finding a futuristic tablet belonging to a man named Gerard Magnus who works for the D.E.O.S. organization.  Continuing through a metallic tunnel, Parker finds another tablet from someone named Maria Ortega, who complains because Magnus has begun acting weird ever since he started working in the elevator shaft.

As Parker makes his way deeper into the facility, things start to fall into place, and a narrative eerily familiar emerges…

 

 

D.E.O.S. stands for Deep Exploration of Space, and is a scientific organization that launches probes to study, you guessed it, cosmic bodies and phenomena.  But things haven’t been well since the disappearance of their most recent probe.  According to the log of one Mitsuyo Taku, someone has been skulking around her room.  She suspects Magnus because, like Ortega, she has noticed him acting weird.

She has also noticed someone on the cameras…someone who seems to glow with an unearthly light…

Taku hatches a plan.  She decides to use one of the crew’s birthday party as a ruse to gather fingerprints.  Everything seems to be going fine, although spirits are down because of the lost probe.  However, Taku writes about a brief confrontation between Magnus and Cobin Hart, the overseer of the probe project and the one blamed for the lost probe.  Hart is lamenting the loss when Magnus starts acting weird, muttering things like “he is calling to me”.  The party eventually breaks up, but soon after Taku returns to her quarters the lights go out and alarms start ringing.  Evidently, soon afterward everyone vanished, just like in 1912.

But more telling is the name of the lost probe: Malakai…the very name James Woolf heard in his mind.

Malakai was apparently the fourth probe D.E.O.S launched and featured an advanced AI system as well as something called Matter Manipulation Software.  This would, according to Hart, theoretically let Malakai generate power from anything it wanted.  The probe was launched into deep space and encountered some type of unknown matter.  When it tried to jump back, the probe vanished without a trace.

So now Parker knows: Malakai is behind all the mysterious events and disappearances.  But where is the probe itself?  The answer lies back in 1912 with Drake’s journal.

In the journal, Drake mentioned that his dream featured a bed of reeds, which reminded him of an etching.  In Drake’s closet, there is a secret compartment Parker was unable to open before.  But now, using clues he got in 2004, Parker solves the code and opens it.  Inside is the etching of reeds, and when Parker looks at it with the googles, he is transported through time yet again.

 

 

Finding himself in an abandoned bronze age village, Parker finds the cavern once again.  Only this time, he is able to continue down the tunnel.  And there, after all this time, lies the object that he’s been seeing in his dreams…Malakai.

 

 

Apparently, when Malakai attempted to jump back to Earth, the resulting incident catapulted the probe back in time to the bronze age.  It’s been lying there the entire time, desperately trying to find a way back home.  But for that to happen, it needed someone to enter the activation code, a code known only to Hart and Malakai itself.  Using clues he’s found throughout the times he’s visited, Parker manages to decipher the activation code and enter it.

Malakai then ascends into the sky before the scene shifts back to the lighthouse.  The lamp is lit once again, the swift beam of light cutting through the gloomy night…

 

Concluding Thoughts

It’s funny.  I still enjoy this game and its story.  But looking back on it, there are some things that could have been fleshed out more.

For instance, the history of Fetch Rock itself.  We know from Demarion at the beginning of the game that the island has a cursed reputation and that the building of the lighthouse was fraught with strange accidents.  But since the Malakai probe would have been there since around prehistoric times, there must have been other weird things going on throughout the island’s history.  Why not flesh it out some more, give it more of a history instead of just saying “hey this place is bad news…take our word for it.”

And for that matter, what about Polly White?  Her only purpose in the game is to feed Parker the location of the Radvision goggles.  And yet, she’s given a whole little bit about being a possible reincarnation of one of the lighthouse keepers.  But it’s never touched on again once you get the goggles.

And what about Malakai itself?  It’s vaguely hinted at that Malakai uses the Matter Manipulation Software to “feed” on people for energy, but why do Drake and Magnus suddenly start glowing?  What is the purpose of that?

I could go on about stuff like this, but I think it comes down to the fact that it is a video game first and foremost.  And to be honest, the atmosphere and exploration were why I was playing the game in the first place, not the story.  But in the end, the story was intriguing.  It just didn’t use its potential enough.  I love the idea of ghostly happenings turning out to be advanced technology that people from earlier times can’t even begin to fathom.  I like the idea of a ghost story with a science-fiction bent to it.  It would make for a fascinating novel.  That way the story could hammer home the technology theme by having Parker be the “man out of time” who encounters these strange devices.

I think the story’s biggest flaw is that it ends up being too complex for its own good.  There’s a lot at play here and it doesn’t all connect in a neat fashion.  Part of that is likely due to the game being very low-budget and indie.  But a lot of it has to do with the fact that a point and click game generally tells its story in a non-linear fashion, whereas I think this game’s story could have benefited from being told in a more structured manner.

In the end, I still love the game.  But I think I enjoyed the idea of the story more than the story itself.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story.

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

When the World Looked Up

Welcome to the fourth of twelve.  For those who don’t know, I’m writing twelve short stories this year, one each month.  On the last Wednesday of each month, instead of my regular blog post I will be posting the short story from that month.  Enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments!

 

“Wait…you’re saying it’s going out over the air?”

“Yes. I’ve been getting calls about it all morning…hang on there’s another one. Hello? Yes ma’am, we’re aware of the interference…yes we’re trying to fix it ma’am…I…wow. She hung up on me.”

“How is that possible?”

“I have no idea. Look I’m trying my best here, but I gotta get back to work. I barely have enough time in between all the phone calls. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

The producer leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes with a combination of tiredness and frustration. Working the morning shift was not an easy one. The hours were odd and sleep was a luxury most days. The strange interference wasn’t helping matters. It was a constant pulsing noise that came in through their headsets as well as the speakers. There were five people including her in the production booth and they could all hear it.

It started without any warning. She had been sitting back in the newsroom writing the script for the show when the master control operator, Keith, called the phone at her desk. He seemed hurried and didn’t say much…but she could tell he hadn’t dealt with anything like it before.

That was almost two hours ago.

“Didn’t sleep well?”

The producer turned her head and gave the director a smile.

“Yeah…just one of those nights I guess.”

“Gotta say, I don’t envy you. I have enough trouble trying to be here by five in the morning, much less one-thirty.”

The producer laughed.

“Well you haven’t missed a day yet Martin, so I’d say you’re doing fine.”

The two of them looked up at the giant clock. It read “5:45:23” in big red numbers. Fifteen minutes, she thought to herself. If we can’t get this problem fixed…do I call off the show?

“What do you think? Do we go on as usual,” the director asked, almost as if he could read her mind.

The producer shook her head.

“I don’t know…”

“I’ll say this…if the interference is already going out over the air I don’t really see any point to canceling the show. Might as well report on it.”

“But it’s been going on for almost two hours. How do we know it’ll stop?”

“We don’t,” the director said. He cracked his knuckles. “In the end it’s up to you Sarah. This is your show after all.”

The producer glanced at the clock again. Fourteen minutes to go…

“Hey Sarah,” a voice buzzed in her headset.

“Yeah Keith?”

“It’s not just our station.”

The producer sat up straight.

“What?”

“I just got off the phone with the local CBS affiliate. They’re getting the same interference. Apparently it’s affecting all of the local stations.”

“What…how?”

The master control operator opened his mouth to answer but was cut off by the phone ringing.

“Hang on a minute,” he said. Through the window she saw him set his headset down and grab the phone.

“You know I’ve been here about six or seven years…and I gotta say I’ve never seen anything like this,” the director said. “I mean there’s interference in our headsets every once in a while from the radio stations, but something that can actually transmit itself over the air? It would have to be one hell of a signal.”

“I don’t even understand how-”

“Hey Sarah?”

“What’s up Keith?”

“I’m on the phone with the main ABC station down south. They’re getting it too.”

The producer stared at him, incredulous. “Wait…are you saying that it’s affecting the entire state?”

“It might be…I don’t know. I need to-”

He wasn’t able to finish. Everyone looked up in shock as the droning noise suddenly stopped and was replaced by a new sound. It was no longer a hum, but a pattern of beeping noises that repeated itself every few seconds.

“What the hell…” the director muttered.

But the producer didn’t hear him. Her eyes narrowed as she listened to the pattern. “Dot dot dot…dash dash-” Then it hit her. “Oh my god, that’s an SOS signal!”

The director stared at her.

“What?! You’re kidding!”

“No I’m serious,” the producer insisted. “Three short, three long, three short,” she said. “It’s Morse Code!”

“But who the hell is sending it,” the director asked.

The producer lifted her eyes and stared at the speakers, a chill falling over the room.

“I have no idea…”

 

“Welcome to the Morning Show on channels five and ten! Now here’s your host, Olivia Redding!”

“Good morning, I’m Olivia Redding. Normally we would go right into weather with Devin, but this is not a normal morning. For just over two hours now, a signal has been going out over our airwaves. It started as a pulsating drone, but then about ten minutes before we went on the air it changed. You are hearing that signal now.”

The anchor paused to let the audience listen.

“It may be familiar to some of you…it is an SOS signal in Morse Code. Morse Code was first invented back in the 1830s and was used to send text information as a series of tones, lights, or clicks. The international Morse Code signal for an SOS or distress call is three short, three long, three short. At the moment we have no idea where the signal is coming from, but we do know it is affecting television stations all across the state.”

She paused, holding a hand to her ear.

“I’ve just been informed by our producer, Sarah, that we are turning you over to Good Morning America for a special report. We now go live to Christopher Emerson in New York.”

 

All across the nation, television screens were filled with the image of a man sitting behind a glass desk. He had dark black hair, brown eyes, and wore a black suit and tie. The expression on his face was one of utter seriousness.

“Good morning America, I’m Christopher Emerson with this special report. Approximately two hours ago, a signal was picked up going over television and radio airwaves, a signal you are hearing presently. It has been determined that it is a Morse Code SOS, a distress call first adopted by the German government over a hundred years ago. The signal has affected over two hundred different television and radio stations across the nation. And we have just recently learned that it is not isolated to our shores. Several major television networks over in Europe have confirmed that they are picking up the signal as well. We are expecting more confirmations to come in from our country and beyond as the morning continues.”

The television cut to a new camera shot, showing a balding, middle-aged man sitting across from Emerson. He was wearing a white lab coat and a gray laptop was sitting in front of him.

“We turn you now to Bradley Anderson, a scientist for the CERN institute in Switzerland. We were very lucky to have Bradley on site this morning, as he was originally scheduled to talk to us about an exciting new experiment CERN was undertaking. Brad, thank you for joining us,” Emerson said as he turned toward him.

“Thank you for having me Chris.”

“Now, tell us what we know so far.”

“As you said, a little over two hours ago the signal began interfering with television and radio transmissions all over the United States as well as other countries. At approximately six-fifty eastern time here in New York, the ‘pulsing’ ceased and was replaced by a series of tones which we have identified as the Morse Code SOS.”

“Now, some people on GMA’s social media pages have been speculating that this might be some kind of attack by Russia or North Korea…an attempt to disable our communications. Could there be any truth to this?”

“It’s extremely unlikely Chris. If this was really an attack, then it failed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if it was an attempt to disable our communications, then it didn’t work because we’re still talking to each other just fine.”

“Then where is the signal coming from,” Emerson asked.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out. I’ve been in contact with some of my colleagues at CERN and they’ve been in conference calls with scientists all over the world. They’re getting very close to determining the signal’s origin. It’s been difficult because of all the interference, but we should have an answer within the next few minutes.”

“Good to hear. Now, before we went live the two of us were discussing this phenomenon. You said that the pulsing was a…’data burst’ of some kind?”

“Precisely. The noise we heard before the SOS signal was a transmission of encoded data that repeated itself every couple of minutes. It’s incredibly complex and our people at CERN are trying to decipher that as well. But it might be days before we even have an idea of what we’re looking-”

The laptop in front of Anderson started beeping.

“Well it appears we have our answer,” he said.

Anderson clicked a button and it stopped. He opened his mouth to say something else, but stopped. His eyes went wide and his mouth hung open in shock.

“Brad? What is it,” Emerson asked. “What’s wrong?”

“The signal,” Anderson finally said, “it’s not from here.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned the computer around. And as viewers all over the nation watched, Emerson’s traditionally calm demeanor twitched. Something between awe and fear registered on his face. His eyes went wide and he was unable to speak.

“If this is correct,” Anderson explained, “the signal is coming from somewhere beyond the moon.”

The two of them were silent for a moment. On the computer screen was an image of Earth and a blinking green dot past the moon. Then, Emerson managed to collect himself. He turned away from Anderson and the television switched to a straight-on camera shot of him.

“That was Bradley Anderson, a scientist with the CERN institute. It is uncertain what this latest development will mean, not just for us here in the United States, but for the world at large. We are still waiting to hear an official statement from the White House. For that, we go live to our official White House Correspondent…Tricia, what do you have for us?”

“Not much Chris. The president still has not signaled when she plans to release a statement to the press. As we know, Congress was expected to vote on the president’s budget proposal this morning. They are currently in the second hour of a massive filibuster…”

 

President Amelia Garland ran a hand through her long red hair, her shiny green eyes staring out the Oval Office window. Her bright red blazer and black pants looked faded and dull in the gloomy reflection. It was a rainy day in Washington. The sun hadn’t shown its face since the early morning.

They always said you should be prepared for anything, she thought to herself. Well I doubt they had this in mind.

Tiring of the cloudy view, President Garland turned away from the window. Her eyes fell on a small flat screen television an aide had wheeled in for her. On screen was a shot of the Senate floor. An older man was speaking at a podium. He had wiry gray hair and brown eyes. The camera bore down from above on his thin rimmed glasses and stuffy gray suit.

“This budget proposal is a preposterous measure,” he was saying. The graphic underneath identified him as Senator Scott Connelly. “These massive cuts to defense spending will not stand,” he continued. “We must protect our own. Our enemies know that the best time to strike is when we are at our weakest.”

Garland sighed. Connelly had been a staple from back when she was a senator. She never cared for him. His face reminded her too much of a smug toad.

She heard a knock at the door.

“Come in.” she called.

In stepped John Hayes, her Secretary of State. He had blue eyes, black hair, and wore a traditional ensemble: gray suit, blue tie, and gray pants. He was the spitting image of a stuffy politician, but his heart was in the right place.

“You’re still watching this,” he asked, pointing to the TV. “Who’s on the floor now?”

“Our old friend.”

“Still? He’s been at it for over an hour.”

“One hour, fifteen minutes.”

Hayes gave her a look.

“I like to keep track,” she said with a shrug.

“And now,” Connelly said on the TV, “we have this new matter of the signal from outer space. We must be prepared for any and every contingency. To that end, we must continue to fund our military to ensure that they are able to protect us from any outside threats. I remember when I was a little boy in grade school…”

“I thought he hated filibusters,” Hayes said.

“When he’s not the minority leader he does,” Garland replied.

Hayes looked at the TV and shook his head. “What a piece of work.”

“Did you have something for me John,” Garland asked.

“Yes,” the Secretary of State replied, turning his attention back to the President. “I wanted to give you an update on decoding the data burst.”

“Didn’t CERN say it would take them days, maybe even weeks?”

“Not anymore.” Hayes stepped forward and handed her a sheet of paper. “Take a look at this.”

Garland ran her eyes over it. The writing made no sense to her, although she could tell it was some kind of repeating pattern of numbers and letters.

“What is it,” she asked.

“A decryption key, embedded at the beginning of the signal transmission. CERN informed us that with this key, they should be able to decode the data in a matter of hours, not days.”

“Incredible…”

“What’s our next move,” Hayes asked.

“We don’t have one.” Garland looked back up at the Secretary. “Not yet at least. We can only wait and see what they come up with. Then we decide how to proceed from there.”

“What about Congress? Hell, what about Connelly,” Hayes ask, nodding at the screen. “He’ll never go for anything you put forth. He’s consistent about that at the very least.”

Garland laid her eyes on the television.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

 

Deep in an industrial laboratory heads were scratched over and over again as minds tried to wrap themselves around massive amounts of data. The discovery of the decryption key was a great boon, as it sped up the process. But even so, the decoding was tedious at best.

No one could deny that the scientists at CERN were hard at work. Suddenly, one of them burst into the large conference room, having just made the breakthrough they needed.

“I did it,” the scientist exclaimed. “I know what it’s for!”

The other scientists gathered around him as he slapped a printout onto the white board.

“It’s anti-matter,” he said. “It’s a formula for creating anti-matter!”

“But…that’s insane,” one of them exclaimed. “How could synthesizing anti-matter be this easy?”

“Their grasp of science far outclasses ours,” the first scientist explained. “It stands to reason that at some point during their technological advancement they would figure out some shortcuts.”

“But why would they send this to us? Unless…”

The speaker trailed off and the room was silent. It hit them all at once.

“They lost power,” someone said.

“And now they have no way of getting home,” said another.

“Forget getting home,” the first scientist said. “If they’re running out of power, then a more crucial concern for them would be life-support. The air they breathe, if it even is air, is probably running out.”

They looked over the fantastical blueprints taped to the board in front of them. When they first decrypted a large segment of the data they found instructions for building some kind of containment device. It was clear that they would have to substitute materials for its creation, as the specifications called for things humanity had never heard of. But they got it done.

It was decoding what the device was supposed to contain that took some time. The translations offered by the alien signal were only partial, indicating that some words were impossible to replicate in human language. One of those turned out to be the alien name for “anti-matter”.

“How long do you think they have,” someone asked.

“I have no idea…we can’t even say for certain that they need air or that there’s even a crew aboard that ship. For all we know, it’s an automated vessel.”

The scientist responsible for the recent discovery turned his eyes away from the whiteboard. He walked over to the large wooden conference table and ran his hands along it.

“What are you thinking?”

“We can create the device and synthesize the anti-matter in a matter of a few days,” he explained. “With these blueprints it’ll be surprisingly easy. But getting it out to them is another matter. The only space shuttle scheduled to leave Earth in the near future is the Atlas, and that wasn’t supposed to happen for another four weeks.”

“Then we’ll get President Garland to move up the schedule.”

“There’s another problem,” the scientist said, still tracing the patterns on the table with his finger.

“What’s that?”

“This information…we can’t keep it a secret. If we deliver it to the United States and the United States alone…it’ll cause a massive international incident.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting we broadcast it worldwide?”

“What other choice do we have? Right now we do not need to be fighting with each other.”

“But how do we know the information will be used wisely? Someone could take it for themselves and try to build a weapon.”

The scientist stood up straight and turned his eyes on his colleagues.

“We don’t. But the alternative is a mass outrage the world can’t afford.”

“Well someone needs to relay this information. Who’s it going to be?”

“I’ll do it,” the first scientist volunteered. His eyes wandered to the printout he had taped to the board. “It was my idea after all.”

 

Hours passed. Back in Washington, President Garland still had her eyes glued on the television.

“You don’t hand a child a potential weapon,” Connelly said. “Whoever these creatures are, they have handed us something that could easily be turned into a tool of mass destruction. It doesn’t make sense…unless they have some kind of ulterior motive…unless they want us to destroy ourselves.”

“Yeah he’s been going on like that since the news broke,” Hayes said as he walked in.

“Hardly surprising,” she responded.

“We should not devote our time and energy to the creation of such a device,” Connelly continued. “It would play right into their hands.”

Hayes clicked the TV off.

“I think that’s enough of that,” he said.

The phone rang. Garland put it on speaker.

“Yes?”

“Madam President, Zachary Ross is here.”

“Send him in,” she said, then hung up.

“You invited the head of NASA?”

“I did.”

“Even with Congress blocking your every move?”

“There are ways around them,” Garland replied in a cryptic manner.

The door opened. An African-American man in his mid-thirties entered the Oval Office. He had blue eyes and short brown. His face was clean-shaven and youthful in appearance. He was wearing a black dress shirt with dark gray pants, noticeably less formal than Garland or her Secretary of State.

There was a twinkle in Ross’ eyes when he spotted Garland.

“Madam President,” he said with a smile.

“Please Zach, just call me Amy. We’ve known each other for far too long.”

Garland took her seat and motioned for the other two to sit as well.

“What’s our situation,” Garland asked.

“Moving the Atlas’ launch date up shouldn’t be a problem,” Ross said as he took his seat. “But there are other complications.”

“Go on,” Hayes said.

“The problem is fuel efficiency. Atlas‘ mission was to rendezvous with the International Space Station on a simple supply run. We can add more fuel to the shuttle and help it get past the moon, but the engine we’re using is out of date. That means we could get the shuttle out there, but it wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back.”

“I see…” Garland said. Hayes gave her a sharp look.

“Tell me you’re not considering this,” he said.

“Of course not,” she replied. “It would be a suicide mission. I could never authorize that in good conscience.”

“There are other options,” Ross continued. “We’ve tossed around the idea of adding miniature rocket boosters to the Atlas life pod which could be used when the main engines run out of fuel. But such a process is delicate. If the boosters aren’t secured in the right way, the resulting heat could leak into the cabin and kill the astronauts, not to mention all the logistical issues with-”

The phone ringing cut him off. Garland picked it up.

“This is the President.”

“Ma’am,” an aide said over the phone, “I have a…General Garrett from the eastern seaboard on the line. He says it’s important.”

“Patch him through…hello? General?”

“Madam President, we have a situation,” a gruff voice said. “A Chinese cargo plane is about to violate U.S. airspace.”

“What?!”

“We estimate they will enter our airspace in less than a minute…hold on a second ma’am…yes? What is it…what? Can you confirm that? Hmm…all right…madam President?”

“Yes General?”

“We just received a message from the plane. Ma’am…they say they’re carrying a new type of rocket booster on board…a gift for the Atlas that should boost its fuel efficiency.”

“Is there any way to confirm they’re telling the truth?”

“Our initial scans show no suspicious heat signatures, but without visually inspecting the cargo it’s impossible to be certain. They’ve relayed a message from the Chinese president, but the plane will be within our airspace long before we can confirm its authenticity. We need a plan of action ma’am.”

Time never moved as slow for Amelia Garland as it did during the next twenty seconds. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temple with her free hand. These were the decisions that could make or break a president. She had no way of knowing is this was some kind of trick…an attempt at sabotage.

But if it was true…if they were really willing to collaborate…it would be just what they needed. Any help from other countries was more than welcome.

Garland felt the eyes of Ross and her Secretary of State on her. But they had no idea about the dilemma she was facing. If she let them in and something went wrong, people like Connelly would hold it over her for the rest of her term in office. Hell…she’d hold it over herself for the rest of her life.

But if she didn’t do it…

Garland sat up straight. Her decision was made.

“Bring them in,” she ordered.

“Yes ma’am,” the General replied.

“But have them land at an isolated airfield. At the very least, if it is some kind of ploy, they’ll be isolated. Bring them in, quarantine the situation until you can verify the cargo, then report back to me. And General? Take every precaution you need.”

“Affirmative ma’am.” Then he was gone.

“What was that all about,” Hayes asked.

“Apparently the Chinese have a gift for us,” Garland said as she hung up the phone. “Some new type of rocket booster for the Atlas that would boost our fuel efficiency.”

“No…it couldn’t be,” Ross said, more to himself than anyone.

“What is it Zach?”

“Have you ever heard of the Divine Hammer?”

“No,” Garland said. “What is it?”

“Supposedly it’s the most advanced rocket booster ever constructed, one that exponentially increases fuel efficiency. If that’s what they’re willing to give us…”

“It would break all sorts of precedents, that’s for sure,” Garland replied. “If it all checks out, would you be willing to allow them access to the Atlas?”

“I don’t see much choice in the matter. It’s either that or we go it alone.”

“What are we going to do about Congress,” Hayes asked. “That filibuster will stop anything we try and do.”

Garland stared into the black void of the television screen for a moment.

“Then we go over their heads,” she said. “Hayes, grab an aide and begin drafting an executive order.”

“Connelly and his friends aren’t going to like this,” Hayes said as he got up from his chair.

“They’ve made a point of disliking everything I do,” Garland replied. “Just get it done.”

“Yes madam president.”

 

There were six of them on board the plane: four engineers, one astronaut, and the pilot. They were quickly escorted off when it landed and men in green uniforms armed with assault rifles moved onto the plane. They swept their rifle-mounted flashlights all over the interior, dots of white light crawling across the walls like lightning bugs.

They paused before a massive blue tarp.

“Sir, we found something underneath a tarp,” reported one of the men. “Should we wait?”

“Pull it off immediately,” came the order. “We need to be certain what we’re dealing with.”

“Yes General. Help me with this,” he ordered his comrades.

Four of them removed the bungee straps and pulled the tarp off. When they saw the giant hunk of black metal, they knew. It hadn’t been a lie. It hadn’t been a trick. It was real. They had been telling the truth.

Standing before them was the Divine Hammer, the most powerful rocket booster ever created…

 

“Yes. Thank you General. Please, see to it that they arrive at the Atlas launch site in good time.”

With that. Garland hung up the phone. Not long ago she had been on the line with the Chinese president. He had one condition: if the U.S. was to use the Divine Hammer, one of their astronauts would be sent up into space with it. Garland saw no reason to argue. The possible implications of what was happening were too great. This was no time for artificial lines in the sand.

And yet, it wasn’t all in the spirit of their common humanity. The Chinese president knew that the Atlas was the only shuttle that could get out there in time. He also knew that whatever technology might be on board that ship would be centuries beyond anything humanity had as of yet. Whoever had access to such technology would have a great advantage. In the end, Garland knew he was being pragmatic.

The phone rang again. It was one of her aides.

“Ma’am, I have the Russian government on the line. Apparently they’ve found out about the Chinese cargo plane and are demanding a place at the table.”

Garland’s mouth curled into a half smile.

“Tell them to pull up a chair.”

 

It was the fastest the world governments had moved in recent history.

Connelly and his allies, predictably, railed against Garland’s executive order. They called it a “flagrant abuse of power”. They said it showed “terrible decision making”. They condemned it in as many ways as they could. In the end, it didn’t matter. The mission moved forward despite their objections.

A little over a week later, the Atlas was ready for launch. It had only taken a few days to get the new booster installed, thanks to the help of the Chinese engineers. The Russians didn’t come empty handed either. They provided extra fuel, so much so that the Atlas could make the trip twice over.

But still, Zachary Ross had qualms about the mission.

They were certain the shuttle would make it off the ground, but after that things were less clear. Would the shuttle make it there in one piece? Would the new booster function as advertised? No one could say.

And yet, they all knew how important this was.

“Five minutes to launch”, a voice said over the intercom.

After the first couple of days, the alien signal ceased. He wondered if they knew what humanity was doing, if they knew help was on the way. It was a crucial moment in history. What happened here could determine all of mankind’s future interactions with extra-terrestrial beings.

If we ignore this cry for help, what kind of message does that send, he asked himself.

Ross was standing square in the middle of the mission’s command center. All around him were computers and control panels manned by NASA personnel. Dominating the room was a gigantic, green-tinted screen that would show the progress of the Atlas.

“Four minutes to launch.”

Ross turned his attention to the main screen. He couldn’t help but feel anxious about the situation. The lack of proper safety checks…the rushed schedule…it was asking for trouble. But there was no choice. The aliens had sent their signal over a week ago. They could be dead by now for all they knew.

But they had to try. Contact was so close…

 

“Two minutes to launch.”

Three astronauts were sitting inside the Atlas. One was an American, one was Chinese, and the other was Russian. It was part of an international accord between the countries, so that none of them could gain a technological foothold over the others by using what they might find.

“We should get going already,” said the Russian.

“Would you rather we blow up on the landing pad,” asked the American.

“Beats just sitting here.”

The Chinese astronaut, on the other hand, sat still in his seat without a word. The other two had to admit that they found his silence a little disconcerting. Nevertheless, they knew they had to trust each other.

“One minute to launch.”

Out through the main window, the sky was bright and blue without a cloud in sight. The launch conditions had been perfect. No wind or other weather to hamper the landing pad. It was an auspicious start.

“Thirty seconds.”

The three of them adjusted their straps, ensuring they were in good condition.

“Twenty.”

“Here we go boys,” the Russian shouted with excitement.

The other two said nothing. They stared straight ahead and braced themselves.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…”

 

“Five…four…three…two…one…we have ignition!”

Zachary Ross watched as clouds of thick smoke and fire enveloped the Atlas on the main screen. Soon enough, it was soaring off into the sky.

“Everything looks good,” a man sitting at a nearby control panel informed him. He nodded and continued watching. The blinking green dot that represented the shuttle climbed higher and higher, ascending through the clouds and breaking the bonds of gravity. It took only a matter of minutes before they hit the atmosphere.

“And…they’re through! Detaching Stage 2 rockets.”

So far…so good, Ross thought to himself.

 

The launch had been a little rougher than the astronauts anticipated. But when they passed through the atmosphere, things smoothed out. Once the rockets had detached and the Divine Hammer started its work, the three of them were able to relax. As the minutes ticked by the American found his eyes drifting from the instruments to the endless void outside. He stared into it for a long time, unable to fight the crippling sensation of smallness he felt.

“Amazing…isn’t it?”

The American turned to find the Russian staring off into the blackness as well.

“For all we know about space,” the Russian mused, “our minds still can’t comprehend how vast it is. We’re so focused on our different countries, but the distance between us is nothing compared to the distance between planets.”

“You know, I never would have pegged you as a philosophical type,” the American admitted.

“Would it be better if I had a bottle of vodka in my hand?”

“Well no, I wasn’t saying-” But the Russian laughed, cutting him off.

“Lighten up my friend. We’re hurtling through a vacuum in a hunk of metal that’s been stitched together by fire. The only thing between us and certain death is mere inches,” he said, reaching out and running his hand along the wall.

“Well, when you put it that way, I feel so much better.”

The Russian laughed again.

“I think you and I will get along just fine.”

 

For Zachary Ross, life slowed to a crawl. Hour after hour passed with agonizing slowness. It took over half a day, but eventually Atlas left the moon in its rear-view mirror.

He spent most of the time sitting in the break room, watching the news. Ross couldn’t help but shake his head any time Senator Connelly or his cohorts were brought up. They had spent the entire week criticizing the president for her decision to approve the mission.

That’s how it always is isn’t it, he asked himself. They talk and talk, but nothing gets done.

Ross had never been a big fan of politics. There was too much money tied up in it. How could you count on an elected official to actually represent you when a corporation could essentially buy their opinion?

After a while he got up and made his way back to the command center.

“Report,” he said as he walked in.

“Everything’s going smoothly sir. All systems check out.”

Ross watched as the small blinking dot crept farther and farther away from Earth. No one had any idea what the three astronauts would find out there. Preliminary sensor scans had revealed that the ship most likely had a pentagonal shape. An odd choice to be sure, but maybe it had some kind of religious significance to them.

Then he wondered. Do they even have religion? Or did they cast it off centuries ago?

It didn’t matter in the end. Religion or no religion, spirituality or no spirituality, living beings had called out for help. That wasn’t something he could ignore. That wasn’t something anyone should ignore.

What will they look like? Will we recognize them as life? Or will they be so far beyond us that we can’t even comprehend them?

He was jolted out of his thoughts by a sudden, shrieking alarm…

 

A loud bang echoed through the shuttle, followed by spinning red lights and a wailing siren.

B’lyad,” cursed the Russian. “What was that?!”

“I don’t know! Our instruments just went haywire! I-”

The American trailed off. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something outside the window. It was some kind of viscous, dark liquid oozing out into space…

The realization hit him like a freight train.

“Oh shit,” he shouted. “We’re leaking fuel!”

“How?!”

“Some kind of fault we didn’t detect, some damage we took maybe…I have no idea! But if we don’t stop it soon, we’re screwed!

“I’ll take care of it,” the Chinese astronaut said. He clicked off his harness, grabbed a handle above him, and pulled himself toward the rear of the shuttle with the grace of a dancer. The Russian and the American watched him go. Once he had disappeared, the two stared at each other.

“Did you know he spoke English,” the Russian asked.

“No. I hadn’t heard a word out of him since he arrived.”

The American turned around and gazed at his instruments. Fuel was leaking at a rapid rate, and the alarm was constantly assaulting his ears. It felt like minutes had gone by, but in reality it hadn’t even been thirty seconds.

“Come on,” he muttered. “Come on…come on…” He banged his fist against the controls. “Come on you son of a bitch!

Almost like an answer to a prayer, the alarm stopped and the spinning lights turned off. Both of the astronauts let out a sigh of relief. A moment later, the radio crackled in their ears.

“I managed to clamp down the fuel valves,” the Chinese astronaut reported. “We should now have time to find and patch the leak.”

“That’s good,” the American said, “but it’s too late.”

“How much did we lose,” the Russian asked.

“Well…if these readings are correct, we no longer have enough fuel for the return trip home. Which means…once we get out there…”

“We’re stuck,” the Russian finished.

“Exactly.”

The two of them stared each other in the eyes. Nothing needed to be said. They could tell they were both thinking the same thing.

“We’ve come this far haven’t we,” the Russian asked.

“Yes we have,” the American replied.

“Might as well finish the job.”

“Might as well.”

The Chinese astronaut appeared from the rear of the shuttle, pulling himself along by the handles on the ceiling.

“What about you?” The American turned to him. “If you don’t want to do this, I understand.”

The Chinese astronaut turned and locked eyes with the American.

“I volunteered for this mission sir,” he said. “I will see it through to the end.”

 

“You’re going to what?!”

“We’ve patched the leak and we’re going to continue the mission.”

“But…you don’t have enough fuel to get back! You’ll die out there!”

“We’re all in agreement on this end mission control.”

“Yeah. What kind of hosts would we be if we bailed on the party now,” a heavily accented voice chimed in.

Zachary Ross leaned back in his chair. The headset he was wearing was like a vice threatening to squeeze his brains right out of his skull. He looked up at the main screen, at the blinking green dot that represented the Atlas. Over four hundred thousand kilometers separated them from their home…their friends…their families.

And I sent them out there, he thought.

That wasn’t completely true. All three of the men had voluntarily signed on to one of the most dangerous missions mankind had ever undertaken. They knew what they were getting themselves into, how unprecedented it was. But Ross blamed himself anyways. He couldn’t help it.

“Godspeed men…godspeed,” he said. Then he terminated the transmission and stared up at the cold, gray ceiling.

“Godspeed,” he mumbled.

 

That night, President Amelia Garland found herself staring out the Oval Office window, this time with a glass of wine in one hand and a bottle in the other. It had rained well into the evening. Even now she could hear the soft pattering of the rain drops as they hit the glass.

The news hit Earth hard. Vigils were held all over the world. News coverage of the events ran well into the night as any updates on the astronauts got eaten up by the public. Within the first hour of the news breaking, Senator Connelly issued a statement to the press. In it, he called the situation evidence of the new administration’s “lack of real leadership”.

He doesn’t actually care about them, she thought. They’re just an opportunity…a stepping stone…

Garland turned away from the window and stumbled. She looked at the bottle and her now-empty glass. Had she really drank that much? She couldn’t remember.

With an unsteady hand, she gripped her chair and pulled it out from behind the desk, taking a seat. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights, so the room was dark. The only illumination was a soft, yellow glow from the street lamps outside.

Garland set the bottle and the glass down on the desk. A moment later, she buried her head in her hands.

No one ever knew about the tears that fell from her eyes that night…

 

It was early morning in Washington when the astronauts finally made contact.

The scans had been correct. The ship was shaped like a pentagon. They almost didn’t even see it until they were right on top of it due to its dark color. There were no apparent windows on the vessel. It was just a solid shade of blue eerily floating through space.

There was no need to look for a docking point. The moment they got close enough, it was as if an invisible hand had taken hold and carried them in. A loud clunking sound indicated they had docked.

“Here we are,” the Russian said.

“Here we are,” the American agreed.

The three of them made their way to the airlock. As the depressurization sequence commenced, the three of them wondered what lay on the other side of the airlock door. What would they find in a vessel from beyond their solar system?

“Hopefully they appreciate us coming out all this way huh,” the Russian said with an awkward laugh. But the other two knew he was afraid. They knew because they all were.

In front of them sat the anti-matter containment device on a construction dolly. It was a large contraption, almost twice the height of a normal man. Cold, gray metal covered the exterior while an ethereal blue glow shined from inside.

Eventually, the airlock seal hissed and the door slid open. The room they stepped into had a hexagonal shape. And it was tall, at least five times their height. The floor was slick and their steps made a sloshing sound wherever they walked. The walls were a mottled blue, clear liquid dripping down the sides.

“Where should I put this,” the Chinese astronaut asked, wheeling in the anti-matter container.

“Just leave it in the middle I guess,” the American said, hardly paying attention. He was running his hand along the wall. “Feel this,” he told the others. “It’s soft. How is that possible?”

The three of them were silent for a long time, their eyes wandering around the room. A distant humming sound reached their ears, presumably the ship’s power system at work. As the American walked around he almost lost his footing on the slick floor, but managed to stay upright. Minutes passed by without incident.

“Is this it,” the Russian asked. He stepped up to the far wall and rapped his hand against it, the sound echoing through the cavernous room. “What a joke,” he shouted, ramming his fist into the wall. “We come all the way out here and-”

“Wait!” The American held up his hand. “Do you hear that?”

The Russian turned toward him and was about to speak when he froze. The sound was coming from beyond the wall. It was distant, but moving closer: a deep moan…like a whale in the depths of the ocean.

“What is-”

The Russian didn’t get to finish his question. There was a thunderous clunk and the wall behind him suddenly became transparent. The man flinched and jumped back, retreating away from the wall. The three astronauts stood next to each other and stared straight ahead.

The world beyond the wall was murky, dark, and distorted. It quivered and seemed to shimmer ever so slightly. It took the three of them a moment to realize what they were looking at.

“Water…” the American astronaut mumbled. “This entire ship must be underwater…”

A loud click caused them to flinch. The room around them was suddenly filled with glaring light.

The call again…this time much closer than before.

It was the American who spotted it first, a slinking shadow moving into view. Due to the intense light shining down on them it was impossible to get a clear look at the thing. His first impression of it was that it was some kind of giant squid. But then he noticed that it lacked any tentacles. Instead, it seemed to be one solid body, like a gigantic eel.

But it was the Chinese astronaut who described it best.

“Sea dragon,” he muttered.

From their estimation, it had to be at least ten meters long. Then, when it got close enough, the creature reared up before the window. The American squinted. He thought he caught a glimpse of fiery orange eyes staring back at him, but it was impossible to say for sure. The creature had four flipper-like appendages on each side of its body to help it move through the water. It also had what looked like a large fin on its head.

None of the astronauts could speak, spellbound by the figure before them.

Then, more shadows appeared in the murky depths beyond the wall. There were three. Then there were five. Then there were ten. By the time all of them had made their appearance, there were at least twenty of the creatures observing them.

“My god,” muttered the American.

The room around them started to quake. The light got brighter and brighter. A strange sense of weightlessness gripped the three of them as their feet left the ground. The world around them began to quiver and warp.

“What…what is happening,” the Russian shouted.

The light was blinding. None of them could see anything beyond the murky veil anymore. Before he blacked out, the American could have sworn he heard one of the creatures utter a soft call…one last goodbye…

 

“Anything?”

“They should have reached the ship by now. But their signal disappeared almost half an hour ago. There hasn’t been anything since.”

“Can’t you get a radio transmission out to them?”

“I’ve been trying sir. But there’s no response.”

Zachary Ross sighed. He turned his attention away from the main screen and leaned back against one of the control panels. Three men, he thought. We sent three men out there…never to return home.

“Wait! I’m picking up something.”

Ross was jolted out of his thoughts.

“What is it?”

“There’s a small object…approaching Earth fast…sir, the radio transponder confirms it. It’s the Atlas life pod!”

“What?! But that’s impossible! How did it get here so fast?”

“I don’t know. It just appeared and…I’m getting a transmission!”

“Patch it through. Atlas, this is ground control. Do you read?”

“Yes sir,” came the reply.

“What happened to you?”

“I don’t know. We delivered the device. We saw them and then-”

“Wait…you saw them?”

“Yes sir. We saw them and then…I don’t know. There was a blinding light and I felt my feet leaving the ground. I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew I was waking up in the life pod with Earth coming up fast.”

“Sir, we have a problem.”

“Hold on Atlas,” Ross said, then pressed a button to mute their side of the conversation. “What is it?”

“The trajectory they’re coming in at…it’s far too steep. The pod’s going to burn up on re-entry.”

“What?! No…there must be something we can do. Doesn’t the life pod have maneuvering thrusters?”

“Small ones yes…but they won’t be able to adjust course fast enough.”

“Well we have to try something!”

“Sir…it’s too late. They’ve already hit the atmosphere.”

“No…fuck! God damn it,” Ross cursed aloud, slamming his fist against the control panel. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. “They can’t have come this far just to die…I refuse to accept that!”

“Wait…no this…this is impossible,” the man at the control panel muttered. “Sir…take a look at this!”

Ross opened his eyes leaned over the man’s shoulder. At first, he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.

“What…how…how is that happening,” he stuttered.

“I don’t know sir. By my calculations, they should be burning up in there. But the temperature inside the cabin is…it’s at room temperature. It’s like something is shielding them from the heat.”

Ross was silent for a moment. Then, unable to help himself, he started laughing.

“What’s so funny sir,” the man asked.

“Of course,” Ross said. “Of course they’d be able to pull something like this off. We shouldn’t have doubted them. If they could send our life pod back here in record time, then they could protect them from atmospheric re-entry.”

“Ground control?” Atlas was calling. “Is there something we should know?”

Ross leaned forward and unmuted the call.

Atlas…you’re going to be just fine.”

 

They watched on televisions and computers. They listened on radios. They had their faces buried in smart phones, watching live streaming news coverage. In Times Square, thousands had their necks craned to the gigantic digital billboard with bated breath.

It was the day the world looked up.

Wishes were made, gods were appealed to, good thoughts pulsed out into the universe…all for the sake of three men. Three men from distant countries and different lives. Three men who came together and put aside politics when the world needed them most.

Seconds passed like minutes. Minutes felt like hours.

The international Coast Guard rushed to the spot where the life pod was projected to land. It slammed into the water like a missile, creating a large wave. The Coast Guard ships moved in slowly as the people watched, the water around the pod bubbling with the heat.

At first, nothing happened. Then the hatch slowly opened…

An American man in an astronaut suit stepped into view, followed closely by a Russian and a Chinese man. After a moment of expectant silence, the American raised his hand and waved.

The world erupted into cheers…

 

“You’re gonna be famous, you know,” the Russian whispered to the American, patting him on the shoulder.

“Yeah, maybe. What are you going to do after this,” the American asked him.

“Oh…I’ll probably return home, break open a bottle of celebratory vodka,” the Russian replied.

“I thought you didn’t drink vodka.”

“I never said I didn’t. You just assumed I didn’t,” the Russian said with a knowing smirk.

“Well in that case I’m going to make myself steak and french fries, then kick back on the couch and get caught up with the Kardashians.”

The Russian let out a hearty laugh.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” he said.

 

Unbeknownst to the earthlings a small white device, shaped like a spider, released its grip on the life pod. Its task done, it fell into the ocean with a slight sizzle and sank, never to be seen again by human eyes…

 

That night, President Garland shared celebratory champagne with Zachary Ross and her Secretary of State John Hayes.

“I have to hand it to you Zach, you really pulled through,” Garland said.

“I hardly did anything. Once Atlas left the launch pad, all we did was guide them to their target. No…we have them to thank for the safe return of our astronauts. I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand how they did what they did, but it hardly matters in the end.”

“To three men safe,” Garland said, raising her glass.

“To three men safe,” agreed Secretary Hayes as he raised his.

“Three men safe,” Ross chimed in. The three clinked their glasses together and took a drink.

“Well,” Hayes said, setting down his glass, “it appears Senator Connelly has yet to make a statement on the matter. In fact, I heard he outright refused to answer any questions on camera.”

“No doubt he’s searching for some way to spin this to his advantage,” Ross said.

“He’ll be hard-pressed to do that,” Garland chimed in.

“To sticking it to Connelly,” Ross said with a chuckle, raising his glass.

“Hell I’ll toast that,” Hayes said. The three of them laughed as they clinked their glasses together and took another drink. But then, one of Garland’s aides came running in carrying a radio.

“Madam President!” He was clearly out of breath. “We’re…we’re getting another signal!”

“What more could they want,” Hayes asked.

“I don’t think they’re asking for anything,” the aide said. “Just listen.” He set the radio down and turned it on.

Immediately the room was filled with the sound of music. And for a moment, Garland wasn’t in the Oval Office anymore. She was carried along by a wave of nostalgia, carried back in time. She saw the smiling faces of her mom and dad at the dinner table as they ate. She heard the smooth sound of classic rock pulsing through the speakers.

“Ooh you make me live,” crooned the male singer.

“What the…is that…Queen,” Hayes asked.

“Well…at least we know they have good taste,” Ross said with a chuckle

They fell silent again, letting the song fill the room.

“You’re my best friend…” the radio continued.

“So what, is this their idea of a joke,” Hayes asked.

But President Garland didn’t hear him. She was too busy laughing.

 

Once again, let me know what you think in the comments.  A regular post will be coming your way next Wednesday.

As always, you can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Through Enemy Eyes

Welcome to the third of twelve short stories.  For those who don’t know, this year my New Years resolution was to write twelve short stories, one each month, then post the story on my blog on the last Wednesday of the month.  So with that being said, enjoy!

 

 

The projectile hurtled toward him with fatal speed, filling the air with an eerie whistling.

A second later a scorching blast of heat sent him flying. The world rumbled and roared, shades of brown spinning around his head. He hit the floor hard, rolling end over end until he found himself flat on his back. With a groan, he managed to glance at the entrance. It was now blocked by fallen rock.

Fuck, Sherman Morris thought to himself.

After catching his breath he picked himself up off the rocky ground and dusted off his dark brown jacket. Taking stock of the situation, he knew it wasn’t good. Even just looking at the rubble told him he wouldn’t be able to clear it with his bare hands.

“Oh, you’re still alive,” a flat voice said.

Sherman turned in the direction of the voice. Leaning against one of the metal arches that held up the tunnel was an older man who looked to be in his forties. He was plainly dressed: a ragged brown jacket covered a old gray shirt and faded blue pants. He had bright green eyes, brown hair, and a thin beard coated in dust. His lips were dry and chapped. He held a hand against his chest, holding in the blood from where he’d been shot. An ugly scar marred the back of his wrist, traces of an ancient wound.

By contrast, Sherman was young, in his late twenties. He had dark brown eyes, reddish hair that had been combed back, and a round, clean-shaven face. Underneath his jacket was a military uniform, desert camouflage. On his back he carried a small black assault rifle and a green pack. He raised a hand to his neck and fidgeted with the silver cross that hung there at all times.

“You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna sit there and stare at me all day,” the older man asked.

Sherman didn’t reply. As he walked toward the man, his black military boots clicking against the ground, he took in their surroundings.

They had taken shelter in an old, abandoned mine. To their left, the tunnel ended in a solid rock wall that had been carved out and completely stripped of pyronium. To their right, the tunnel led to an old elevator shaft which took people deeper into the mine. From the looks of things, the elevator was no longer powered. But that didn’t matter. The only way in and out of the mine was now blocked.

After a moment he knelt down next to the man, laying his assault rifle and pack against the wall.

“I need to take a look at your wound,” he said.

The older man took his hand away with a grimace. The wound didn’t look that large but it was bleeding quite a bit, which meant that the bullet had probably nicked an artery.

“Let me look at your back,” Sherman said as he pulled the man forward. “Shit,” he muttered after a moment. “No exit wound.”

The man coughed as he leaned back against the metal arch. “Well that’s just great.”

“That means the bullet’s still inside you and we need to get it out as soon as possible,” Sherman explained.

“No fuckin’ shit,” the man replied. There was a brief silence. “Well? Are you gonna dig it out or just let it rattle around in there?”

Sherman looked around. He noticed the faint light glinting off of something near the old elevator. When he walked closer he found an old, rusted workbench with a gray toolbox sitting on top. Dust flew off the latch as Sherman popped the box open, making him cough. He didn’t see anything of use at first: just a plasma torch, a couple of screwdrivers, and some gel for making explosives. But then his eyes landed on a miniature, dusty pair of pliers. Sherman snatched them up and made his way back down the tunnel.

The man gazed at the pliers and gave him a doubtful look. Sherman grabbed the canteen hanging off the side of his pack, unscrewed the lid, and doused the end of the pliers with water.

“Really? You think that’s going to sanitize it?”

“Would you rather I stick a pair of dusty old pliers in your gut,” Sherman asked. The man fell silent, looking down at his chest and groaning. Sherman dried the pliers off on his jacket.

“This is gonna hurt,” he said, looking the man in the eyes.

“Just do it already.”

From the moment he dug the pliers in, the man’s pained howls rang in his ears. It was difficult finding the bullet. The pliers slid around, making sickening squelching noises as it went. An eternity passed before he managed to get a grip on the bullet. Once he did, Sherman pulled the pliers out as fast as he could. A hunk of crumpled brass, stained with crimson blood, glistened on the end. He pulled it off and tossed it aside. It clinked against the rocky floor as it rolled into the darkness.

“Argh…fuck,” the man cursed. “You couldn’t have made that a little less painful?”

“Would it kill you to have some gratitude,” Sherman asked, irritated.

“Ha! If only.”

Outside, the desert winds howled. Sherman cast his eyes up above and saw cracks in the rock where sunlight peered in. It was still around late morning from what he could tell. Although because of Otho’s orbit days were shorter than on Earth, which meant that nighttime was only a few hours away.

“Why were they shooting at you,” he asked.

“Why do you think?”

“I can’t believe Otho Prima would try to kill one of their own.”

The man turned his head toward Sherman, a stern look in his eyes.

“Are you really that goddamn naive? Of course Otho Prima would kill one of their own. They’ve been doing it since the beginning. Anyone who tries to defect?” He put his fingers to his head and mimed a gunshot. “Boom. Dead.”

“But you weren’t trying to defect. We captured you.”

“And how are they supposed to know I won’t give up information?”

He has a point, Sherman admitted to himself. The man had stabilized a little bit, although his face was still pallid and sweaty. His breathing was heavy and his hand was firmly clasped to his chest. After a moment, Sherman took off his jacket.

“Here,” he said, offering it to the man. “Use this to help stop the bleeding.”

The man hesitated, but eventually took the clothing and tucked it under his arm. He looked up at Sherman.

“Thanks kid,” he said.

With his jacket off, the silver cross around Sherman’s neck was on full display. The man’s eyes flicked to it and he nodded.

“You a believer?”

“Born and raised,” Sherman replied, feeling a swelling of pride.

“That’s good for you,” the man responded, his voice flat. He turned his attention away from the cross and stared at the cave-in. Sherman studied him for a moment.

“You used to believe, didn’t you?”

“I did,” the man replied. “Once upon a time.”

“And now?”

“Let’s just say that if God exists he’s an asshole and I want nothing to do with him.”

 

After a long time the wind died down. The sun sat high in the sky, shafts of light spilling in from the cracks in the rocks.

The man hadn’t said anything for over an hour. He leaned back against the wall in silence, applying pressure to his wound with the jacket. His green eyes never wandered. They stared straight ahead, dull and distant.

Sherman tried using his radio to call for help but got nothing aside from static. He figured it had either been damaged in the blast or the rocks were blocking the signal. The gel he found might be able to blow open a hole big enough to escape, but he lacked the other materials necessary to make an explosive.

No…they were stuck here for the time being.

“What’s your name,” Sherman asked.

The man didn’t move or reply.

“I’m Sherman. Sherman Morris.”

No response. He sighed.

“Look, we’re gonna be here for a while,” he said. “Might as well get to know each other. All I have is your code name: Ares.”

The man laughed.

“The Greek god of war,” he said. “The OP certainly have a flair for the dramatic.”

“How does someone like you end up with them,” Sherman asked. “You don’t seem like the type.”

“And what type would that be,” the man asked, turning and giving him a hard look.

“Well…you know…a-“

“Fanatic? Anarchist? Terrorist?”

Sherman didn’t reply. The man scoffed.

“Figures. I know your type: naive, full of ideas about duty and patriotism. Let me guess…you saw those holoboards every day you went to school, their screens chock full of glowing images of Earth and people in uniform. ‘Join today,’ they said. ‘Help protect humanity’. And then when you graduated you strolled into the recruitment office believing every word.”

“So you used to live on Earth then,” Sherman said, ignoring the man’s snide comments.

“Ha…well you’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”

The man turned and looked him over. For a moment, Sherman thought he saw a glimmer of respect in those old, hardened eyes.

“The name’s Weston…Weston Harper.”

“Nice to meet you Weston.”

“We’re sitting in an old, caved-in mine. I’ve been shot and I’m slowly bleeding out. There’s no rescue coming in the foreseeable future…I’d hardly call this ‘nice’.”

Sherman thought he heard a brief rustling outside and snapped his head up, military instinct going wild. But it was just the wind. During the silence that followed, his eyes were drawn to the scar on the back of Weston’s hand.

“How’d that happen,” he asked, pointing to it.

“What, this old thing,” Weston asked, lifting his hand up. “Factory accident…long time ago. Back on Earth I used to help make spaceship parts for military and commercial use. Or I guess I should say that I oversaw the robots that did most of the work. I only got my hands dirty if something went wrong.”

“From your scar, I’m guessing that something went wrong.”

“Nice work detective,” Weston remarked in a mocking tone. “But yes, one day one of the robots on the line malfunctioned and couldn’t shut off its plasma torch. So I went down there to take a look. But when I got close the robot suddenly whirled around toward me. I threw up my hands to shield my face and the torch caught the back of my wrist. I don’t know if you’ve ever been burned by a plasma torch, but it’s not pretty. It can tear right through your flesh and down to the bone. Fortunately it only lasted for a second or two before someone managed to pull the breaker and shut everything down.” He looked down at the scar. “But it was enough.”

“So…did you quit after that,” Sherman asked.

“Hell no. I loved that job,” he replied.

“Then how did you end up here?”

Weston sighed.

“Not by choice kid. I think it was about three or four years after the accident. There was this bunch of corporate shakeups…companies merging…acquiring each other…that kind of thing. Powerful people playing powerful games. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that when powerful people play games the people in the middle? Saps like you and me? We’re the ones that get screwed.”

“The factory closed down and you were laid off.”

“Bingo. Automation was getting better and better and they needed less and less people. Our factory was just one of the casualties that year.”

“Couldn’t you just find another job,” Sherman asked.

“You think I didn’t try? I scouted month after month for almost a year, but nothing permanent ever turned up. Thank god for temporary work.”

Weston sighed again.

“My wife, Sonja…she kept telling me it would be fine, that I would find something eventually. But even she had doubts. I could see it in her eyes…her lovely blue eyes…”

Weston’s eyes glazed over and he trailed off.

“How did you end up on Otho,” Sherman asked.

“I had been through so many help ads and other bullshit…I even tried writing my Statesman but you know how politicians are. They don’t even bother to send back a real letter…just some uniform shit thanking you for writing in. I heard about Otho shortly after the huge pyronium discovery.”

“When they broke into that massive, natural cavern?”

“That’s the one.”

“Man…that was over ten years ago. I remember hearing about it when I was still in high school. People were excited.”

“And why wouldn’t they be? More pyronium meant more jobs, more money, and more power for spaceships and other technology those rich, well-off schlubs depended on. It took some time to convince Sonja, but eventually she saw that it was in the best interest for both her and Benny.”

“Benny?”

“Yeah my son, Benny. Such a hyperactive boy, but then again who isn’t when they’re a kid?”

“Yeah,” Sherman agreed with a laugh.

“So we made our way out here,” Weston continued. “Bought a house in a small, developing town and I got to work in the mines. It was good money for a while.”

“Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming?”

“Because all good things must come to an end. It’s funny…I left Earth to get away from all the political bullshit.”

Weston’s eyes went dark.

“But eventually, I found myself drowning in it.”

 

The day was late. The sun had slunk down to the other side of the sky and shafts of light no longer streamed in to their underground prison. Sherman took his eyes away from the rocky ceiling and turned them back on Weston. It was obvious the fever was getting worse, but with no medical supplies there was little Sherman could do to alleviate the pain.

He tried the radio every half hour but it refused to work. They would just have to wait for someone to come looking.

“Do you remember when the revolts started,” Sherman asked.

“Of course I do. I was living here after all.”

“What happened? What started it?”

Weston let out a short laugh.

“Tryin’ to keep me talking, eh kid? Okay…I’ll play along,” he said with a groan as he shifted position. “It all started with the taxes.”

“The import taxes?”

“Yep. Earth started taxing anything the colonists tried to bring in. Which was a problem because they depended on those imports to survive. The massive surge of people moving in after that pyronium find meant that the planet’s food and water supply just couldn’t keep up.”

“Why did the government start taxing you?”

“They thought we were getting too rich off the pyronium mining. We weren’t, but who’s going to tell ’em any different? They saw an opportunity to make money, and the people of Earth were more than happy to gobble up the story about well-off Othians making the big bucks.”

“But I’ve heard there’s a lot of money in pyronium.”

“Oh there is, but we hardly got any of it. No…the corporations saw to that. They squeezed us out of every damn nickel and dime they possibly could. Before long most of us were barely making enough to get by. If it wasn’t for some enterprising Othians streamlining our insulated greenhouses with genetically modified crops, we’d all either be bankrupt or starving.”

Weston shifted position with a pained groan.

“But yeah, it started with the taxes. And they kept getting worse and worse. It was really only a matter of time before the pirates came about.”

“I’ve read about them,” Sherman said. “They would attack cargo ships and steal their contents, then sell it to the colonists at a reduced price.”

“Yeah it all sounded great…until you realized it was a scam. The prices the pirates were selling stuff at…it was the difference between paying ninety-five cents instead of a dollar. But it was all we had. And our collusion with the pirates made Earth angry.”

“So they sent in the military.”

“Oh yeah they did…and they swarmed the planet looking for the pirates. They assaulted people, stormed houses and businesses…anything to get the information they wanted. These were the kind of guys who could make children cry and not give a fuck.”

“But there are rules barring the mistreatment of children and non-combatants.”

“Were you here kid? No, you weren’t. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”

“But-“

“But nothing. All the way out here? Those rules mean very little. I remember those days…they came up to me at work several times demanding information. And every time, I had nothing to give them. But to the EM, we were all potential suspects. One of them actually rifle-butted me in the eye once. Stung for a week.”

“Did you file a complaint?”

“With who? The Earth government didn’t give a damn. In their eyes we were all in bed with terrorists. No…it was better to just keep your head down and stay out of the way. Eventually the military tracked the pirates to an old, abandoned asteroid mining facility they’d re-purposed.”

“I remember seeing the news reports. The pirates fired upon the military, forcing them to shoot back. Eventually the facility was destroyed by all the fighting,” Sherman said.

“Wow…people really swallowed the pill on that one didn’t they?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh the pirates fired on them all right. But that was only after the nuke was launched.”

“Wait…they nuked the place?” Sherman was in disbelief. “No way.”

“Oh they nuked it all right…blasted that fucker into stardust. Then they suppressed all knowledge of the incident and Earth was none the wiser. If anyone ever tried to pry into it, they cited security concerns and kept the information confidential. That’s the government for you…miles of red tape.”

“But what about the Liberation Party,” Sherman asked. “They helped with the pirates right?”

“That part was true,” Weston confirmed. “They were the ones that supplied the military with the location of the pirate base.”

“Who were they?”

“Just a band of determined colonists who believed that a free Otho, existing in peaceful cooperation with Earth, was the only way to go. In exchange for the information on the pirates’ location they were promised that Otho would be free to do as it wished. It was only later they found out it was all bullshit.”

“That was when they instituted martial law, wasn’t it?”

“Yes sir,” Weston said. “The military took over running the government because supposedly we were too dangerous to rule ourselves.”

“That pissed a lot of people off I imagine,” Sherman said.

“Hell yeah it did. There were protests in the streets almost every day, some of them even escalating into riots.”

“Did you join them?”

“I thought about it. But then the Woodhurst Massacre happened.”

“Oh god.”

“Yeah. The military and protesters met in the town square of Woodhurst and traded words. Eventually someone threw a stone or fired a shot…no one knows for sure. But everything went to shit. Once the gunfire and smoke had cleared, over three dozen people were dead.”

“Jesus,” Sherman said, fiddling with the cross on his neck.

“You know, my wife made me something like that once.”

“Hmm? You mean this cross?”

“Yeah…one of her hobbies. Back on Earth she loved making jewelry. One day I came home from the factory and she presented me with this golden cross covered in tiny red gemstones…beautiful little thing. She told me she’d spent weeks perfecting it. Of course it wasn’t really gold but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.”

“Where is it now?”

“Oh…I lost it a long time ago,” he said, averting his eyes. Sherman could tell there was more to the story, but decided not to push it.

“Anyways…where was I,” Weston asked.

“You had just finished talking about Woodhurst.”

“Oh yeah yeah…well after Woodhurst the Liberation Party sent out a call for peace talks with the Earth government. From my understanding they demanded that Otho be a free colony. Otherwise, they argued, something like this was bound to happen again. And Earth, still reeling from the disaster, was forced to agree. So the Liberation Party was placed into power and they did their best to ensure that Otho was treated fairly and respectfully.”

“Sounds like a golden age,” Sherman said.

“It kinda was,” Weston agreed. “Things were good for a while. People had money in their pockets. We had food and water and all sorts of stuff. Everyone was happy.”

“So what happened? Where is the Liberation Party now?”

“Oh they’re still in power,” he said. “Although their name has changed along with their tactics.”

It took a moment to hit Sherman. But when it did, his mind reeled.

“No way,” he exclaimed. “No fucking way.”

“Yep,” Weston said, looking Sherman right in the eye. “The Liberation Party and Otho Prima? One and the same.”

“But why…how? How does a group of concerned citizens transform into a bunch of-“

“Crazed fanatics? Dictators?”

“Well I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Yeah you were,” Weston said. “And you’d be absolutely right. They’re a bunch of crazed totalitarian shitheads.”

“What changed?”

“You know that old saying, the one about the corruption of absolute power?” Sherman nodded. “Well that’s exactly what happened. They got a taste of it and liked it so much they kept going and going. And then one day they woke up, looked in the mirror, and realized it was too late to turn back.”

 

The sun fell below the horizon and darkness reigned supreme. The land was permeated by the shadow of night.

Sherman fired up two large, blue glow sticks, clipping one to his belt and setting the other one on the ground nearby. Even under the surreal blue light Sherman could tell Weston was still pallid and weak. Each breath came as a struggle, quivering and raw.

Digging into his pack, Sherman found a blanket and draped it over him as best he could. Weston took hold of the blanket and nodded.

“Why did you join,” Sherman asked.

“Join what?”

“Otho Prima.”

Weston didn’t reply. Instead he lifted his quaking eyes toward the ceiling, as if trying to find any trace of the stars. But the tiny cracks in the rock walls weren’t enough to allow a glimpse of the cosmos.

“Weston?” No answer. “Why did you join?”

“Being a parent is tough, you know?”

Sherman blinked.

“I know,” he admitted. “I have a wife and a two-year-old back home.”

“Let me tell you, it never gets easier…just different. But despite that, I could never do anything but love Benny. One year, for his birthday, we decided to surprise him with this new virtual reality video game thing he’d been wanting. It took six months of saving money from the mines, but it was worth it…just to see his face light up after he tore off the wrapping paper. And man…you should’ve seen him…he’s thanking me and Sonja and giving us kisses and just bouncin’ up and down right there in the kitchen…”

Weston paused and laughed, wiping away a tear.

“So anyways, he takes the thing and he’s running upstairs to play it. We expected him to come asking us for help setting it up, but no…does it all by himself. That’s the thing with kids, you know? They’re way more clever than you’ll ever give ’em credit for.”

Sherman had to chuckle. But then the smile faded from Weston’s face.

“About three hours later, there’s a knock at the door. Sonja goes to open it. And suddenly, there’s five armed soldiers storming into the house. One of them shoves Sonja aside so hard she falls to the floor. I jump up from my chair, ready to fight but another shoves his rifle into my gut, knocking the wind out of me.”

“They were Earth Military, weren’t they?”

“Yes sir, Earth’s proudest and finest,” Weston snarled, his voice full of sarcastic venom. “So while three of them are keeping me and Sonja under control, the other two are ransacking the place. The man in charge, some jackass named Griffin, explains that they heard we were housing spies for Otho Prima. We weren’t of course, but try telling them that.”

Weston paused. His eyes were far away…lost in time.

“I notice one of them heading up the stairs. Of course my first thought is of my son, who probably has no idea what’s going on because of that headset he’s wearing. I jump up from my seat, startling the three men around us. ‘Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him’, I start begging, practically tearing up in front of ’em. Griffin, the commander, just cocks his head and stares at me. By the time he realizes what’s going on, it’s too late. His man has entered my son’s room and the next thing we hear is yelling and a loud crash.”

“I knew before I even heard the crying,” Weston continued. “They had broken his new favorite toy. They had destroyed the birthday present we had given to him just hours before. All that toiling in the mines…wasted because of one moment and one jackass.”

Weston paused before he continued, taking a deep, shaky breath.

“They left after that. Griffin, for as much of an asshole as he was, actually reprimands the guy who broke my son’s video game. But when I tell him I’m going to file a complaint with the government he gives me this look that says ‘try me’. He and I both knew nothing would come of it, that no one would take my word over his. So they leave in their shuttle, probably to go back to their cushy little lives. Meanwhile Sonja trudges up to Benny’s room and sits there comforting him. Later, when she comes back down, she tells me he cried himself to sleep…poor kid. No twelve year-old deserves that.”

Sherman nodded in agreement. Suddenly, Weston’s voice dropped to a sinister monotone.

“Hour and a half later, someone else breaks down the door…Otho Prima. They demand to know what we told the EM. ‘Nothing you assholes,’ I yell at them. And it’s the truth. But they keep demanding answers. And when I keep refusing, the man in charge points to one of the soldiers and motions him upstairs.”

“Stop.”

“And this solider…oh he rushes up the stairs with this demented excitement in his eyes…”

“Stop.”

“He jogs down the hallway, right up to my son’s door. He’s about to enter when the commander orders him to stop. The commander turns, looks me right in the eye, and tells me it’s my last chance. And I’m sitting there, begging and pleading, screaming over and over again that we told them nothing…that we know nothing….”

Stop!

Why?!” Weston’s eyes snapped toward Sherman, full of fiery malice. “Why do you want me to stop?! Because you know exactly what happened don’t you kid?! Because you and that piece of shit fraternity you call a military know the lengths the OP go to curb resistance and you don’t do a fucking thing about it!

Sherman averted his eyes. He had nothing to say. How could he? Of course he knew about it. It was common knowledge. It was even part of the propaganda the military used to recruit people.

Weston scoffed. “You’re all so damn blind. It’s just black and white to you, good and evil. You don’t see the people caught in between, the people who suffer because you can’t see beyond your pointless ideology.”

Sherman summoned the courage to lift his head up. But Weston was no longer looking at him. Instead he was staring off into space…his eyes shaking and his lips quivering. He’s reliving the pain of that night, Sherman thought, over and over again like his own personal nightmare.

Weston took a deep breath and managed to calm himself.

“One tiny ‘POP’, and we know it’s done. He’s gone…Benny’s gone…forever.” He turned and looked at Sherman. “I didn’t get angry. I didn’t lash out. I just…sat there…my entire body numb. Have you ever felt anything like that?”

Sherman shook his head.

“It’s the craziest thing. Your arms and legs turn to jelly. Your body feels like it weighs ten times what it should. It’s like you’re…drained…like every bit of energy has been taken from you…”

Weston bit his lip before he continued.

“Sonja, on the other hand, gets fuckin’ pissed. She stands up and takes a swing at one of the soldiers, screaming ‘you killed my boy, you killed my boy!’ Two of them level their guns on her, ready to fire. And they would have. They would have shot her right there in cold blood. But I begged them to stop, told them I would do anything.”

Weston sighed.

“I promised I would fight for the OP. One week later, I was shipping off to an OP boot camp.”

Outside, the wind picked up for a brief moment, an eerie howl sweeping across the desert like distant crying.

“That’s why you joined,” Sherman said, his voice barely audible. “You’re fighting to keep your wife alive.”

“Sonja?” Weston chuckled. “No…they put a bullet in her head ten minutes after I shipped out.”

Sherman’s eyes went wide.

“But…but why?”

“They couldn’t take the chance that she would seek revenge. They saw how fired up she was, how willing she was to take them on. They saw the anger in her eyes, so they killed her. I found out from one of my squadmates three months later. He overhead a conversation between two commanding officers. And that was it. I had nothing left.”

Neither of them spoke for a long time. The only sound was the keening wind whirling through the landscape. Sherman felt like a stone had sunk in his chest. He stared at the ground, playing with the silver cross around his neck.

He heard Weston laugh.

“What’s so funny,” he asked, raising his head.

“Oh nothing…it’s just…you remind me of me back in the day, back when I still had that golden cross. I was always fidgeting with it…couldn’t keep my hands off the damn thing.”

“What really happened to it? You didn’t just lose it.”

“After Benny died I kept it in the front pocket of my jacket, right next to my heart. Then the night I learned about Sonja’s death, I hurled the damn thing as hard as I could into the desert.”

Weston’s voice grew somber.

“I bet it will still be rotting out there long after I’m dead…long after we’ve all turned to dust…”

 

It was the dead of night…no wind or light. The world was silent.

Weston grew worse and worse as time went on. His face was white and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Sherman could tell he was having trouble keeping his eyes open.

“Hey,” he said, shaking him. “You have to stay awake.”

“Urgh…I’ve been awake for so long. Isn’t it about time I got to sleep?”

“Why did you stay with Otho Prima,” Sherman asked. “After what they did to you it’s not like you owe them any favors. You could have gone to the Earth Military and fought back.”

“Oh wouldn’t that be grand,” Weston replied sarcastically. “Become the glorious hero of the Othians, beat back the tyranny of Otho Prima. Maybe I’d even get a medal.” He scoffed. “Then I’d be forgotten, left to wallow in misery, my wife and kid gone. It doesn’t matter. None of it fuckin’ matters.”

“So why did you stay?”

“I guess,” Weston said, “I figured it would be an easy way to die.”

Sherman felt a lump in his throat and averted his eyes.

“I was too much of a coward to do it myself so I figured that if I marched headlong into battle, eventually I’d catch a bullet or two,” Weston continued, not paying Sherman any notice. “But it never happened. Victory after victory passed and I kept getting promoted. Eventually I made it all the way up to commander. Funny, isn’t it? I was the same rank as the man who ordered my son’s death.”

“What happened to him,” Sherman asked.

“The OP commander? Heard he got caught in a grenade blast. Died choking on his own blood after hours of suffering.” Weston shrugged. “Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving prick.”

And in his heart, Sherman found that he couldn’t agree more.

“So I kept fighting and fighting, hoping somewhere deep inside that my next fight would be my last.”

“You were hoping to die so that you could rejoin your family,” Sherman mused.

Weston just laughed, a choking and sputtering sound.

“Don’t be ridiculous Sherman,” he said. “I’ve stopped believing in an afterlife. I just want everything to be done. I’m tired…so damn tired.”

And in the darkness, Sherman couldn’t help but smile.

“What are you so happy about,” Weston asked.

“You just called me ‘Sherman’.”

“Well, don’t get used to it kid,” he replied. But Sherman could tell he was smiling too.

 

Hours passed. Light began to rise, a faint pinprick of orange appearing through the rocky cracks.

“Weston, the sun is rising,” Sherman said.

“The sun always rises,” he grumbled.

“Someone will come soon. Hang in there. You can make it.”

“Why? Why would I want to? I’ve lost everything. The only person I have left is my mother, and she’s in a home riddled with dementia.”

Silence fell over them for a long time. Sherman watched as the sun kept rising, the light growing brighter. But it was hard for him to feel good about it. For as the sun rose higher and higher, Weston’s head sunk lower and lower into his chest. The color drained from his face as if the sun was leeching the life out of him.

Sherman shook him awake a few times, but his heart was no longer in it. He had come to Otho on a mission to capture and extract a high value target known only by the code name “Ares”. Ares…god of war…god of the violent and untamed. It seemed fitting for a man who had won victory after military victory by sheer force of will and blitz tactics. But underneath the ominous name was just a man…a sad, broken man.

“Weston, come on, stay awake. They’ll find us soon.”

Weston uttered a weak, coughing laugh.

“You’re an optimist kid…I like that.” Then he sighed. “Goddamn, you should be at home, taking care of your wife and kid…not trudging through the sand on this assfuck of a planet.”

His breathing was slow and erratic. Sherman knew he didn’t have long left.

“What about your mother,” he asked. “What is she going to do once you’re gone?”

“My mother usually thinks I’m her long dead husband, and that’s on a good day.”

“But don’t you want to visit her one last time?”

Weston managed a faint smile.

“And how would I do that kid?”

“I can take you there,” Sherman said. “I can bring you in and let you see her one last time.”

“That’s nice of you…but I’ll pass. The last message I received from the home said that the cancer was spreading faster than expected. They estimated she had at most two weeks left. No…I’d rather have my memories. She was a strong woman…my mother. She didn’t take shit from anybody. I’d rather remember her like that than as a skeleton wrapped up in a hospital blanket.”

They passed the time in silence. The sun continued its glorious ascension, warm light spilling in through the cracks. But Weston continued to fade.

Sherman started to think he was gone when suddenly he spoke up.

“Hey…Sherman?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a good kid. Never forget that. Never stop being good…”

And suddenly, the sunlight was shining on one half of Weston’s face, leaving the other wrapped in darkness. Sherman was transfixed, his eyes locked on the seemingly impossible balance of light and shadow.

The light of lights looks always on the motive, not the deed…

An old saying…Sherman couldn’t remember where he had heard it. Some old poet maybe, from more romantic times when life could be summed up in colorful prose. A distant time, when things were simpler.

But nothing was ever simple. Sherman understood that now.

Just as quickly as the light appeared, it faded. Weston’s eyes drooped shut.

He was gone shortly after. The light had taken him…

 

“We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up!”

The blast had come about an hour after Weston’s passing, blowing open a hole in the ceiling. Sherman snatched up his rifle and trained the sight on the opening. But no one stepped into view. No…they were too smart for that. A small rope was dropped down the hole from somewhere out of sight.

“You have three minutes! If you don’t come out, we will destroy the tunnel! You will die down there soldier. Be certain of that.”

A minute passed. Then another. Sherman was just about to grab his stuff and climb out of the hole when suddenly there was a new sound: an eerie, unnatural whining. It took Sherman a moment to recognize it. It was a military shuttle.

Seconds later the ground quaked with the sound of an explosion. A pillar of dust reached into the sky like a ghastly, diseased hand.

“Otho Prima, disperse immediately and you will not be fired upon,” an amplified voice announced. “If you resist, we will fire again. And we will not miss.”

There was no hesitation. Sherman heard a lot of rapid scuffling as the OP soldiers left the vicinity. A short time after they left he heard the shuttle land. Footsteps approached, then a new voice shouted into the hole.

“Corporal Morris! It’s safe now! You can climb up!”

Sherman slung the rifle and pack over his shoulder, then grabbed the rope and managed to climb into the sun. Two pairs of hands grabbed him and helped pull him up. He dusted himself off as a man approached him, dressed in a blue commander’s uniform.

The two shook hands. “You did a great job tracking down Ares,” the commander said. “Unfortunately, it seems Prima got to you before we could.”

“Yes sir.”

“What about the rest of your squad?”

“All dead sir…they were taken out in the ambush.”

“Son of a bitch…well thank god you’re still alive.”

Soldiers milled about, cleaning up the aftermath of the ambush from the day before. Sherman noticed one of them carrying an old rocket launcher, caked in dust. Then he saw another couple of men carrying something on a stretcher. When the pale hand flopped out from underneath the sheet, Sherman averted his eyes.

The commander pointed into the hole. “Who’s that,” he asked.

Sherman looked down into the old mine. Weston Harper’s body was still leaning against the metal arch, eyes closed. The light barely illuminated his face.

“Do you have a shovel,” he asked as he turned around.

“A shovel?” The commander was puzzled.

“Yes, a shovel. We should give that man a proper burial.”

“Why? Who exactly was he?”

Sherman took one last glance at Weston’s body.

“Human,” he replied. Then he walked off without so much as another word.

He paused just outside the shuttle, taking the silver cross off his neck and holding it in his hand. For so many years it hung there…a present given to him by his mother. It was an older piece of jewelry that had been handed down through generations. The silver gleamed so bright under Otho’s sun that it was nearly blinding.

 

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Ocean

Welcome to the second of twelve short stories I will be writing this year: one each month.  I hope you enjoy and feel free to leave comments below.

 

 

In my dreams, all that awaits is The Ocean.

That’s the only name I have for it. It’s a vast plain of water that extends as far as the eye can see. There are no landmarks, no terrain, nothing but blue forever. Far above, I can see shafts of light breaking through, but no surface.

But that isn’t even the strangest thing about it. During the dream, I feel peaceful and calm. I float without a care in the world. But when I wake up, I find myself drenched in a cold sweat, my heart pounding and my hands shaking. I’ve run into the bathroom so many times to find wild green eyes staring back at me, light brown hair damp with sweat. I grip the sink as hard as I can, usually so much so that my hands grow sore.

Then, it just stops. The terror fades and no trace lingers. I wipe myself off with a wet washcloth and return to bed, my wife Carrie still sound asleep.

Night after night this has happened for months now, the same dream over and over again. But it never impacted my daily life, just my sleep. I figured it would pass in time, that it wouldn’t be a problem.

I was wrong.

“Mr. Turner, the doctor will be with you in a moment.”

I raised my hand and nodded at the receptionist. But she had already gone back to her work, typing away at the computer. Her manner was blunt, unfriendly. She greeted people with about as much cheer as a rock. That being said, I couldn’t blame her. From the looks of things, she was about college age, which meant that she was probably working two separate jobs and going to school at the same time.

Anything to pay the bills.

Taking my eyes off the receptionist, I let them drift across the white plaster walls of the waiting room. Just a month ago I never would have thought I’d end up here, paying someone whose entire job was to listen to people whine about their problems.

Hubris, thy name is John Turner.

Looking back on things, it wasn’t even the dream that did me in. It was everything else…

 

The first time it happened I was on my way home.

I worked in the city and lived in a small suburban community just on the outskirts. Normally I could just drive on the main road into the city and get to work easily, but then they started construction and blocked off fourth avenue. So I was forced to take the freeway instead. It added about fifteen minutes to my drive, but I didn’t mind. The route took me through some countryside scenery that I didn’t get to see very often: green trees lining the side of the road, the sun streaming down from above…on days when it wasn’t cloudy.

In any case, I was on my way home from work. It had been a perfectly ordinary day where nothing interesting happened. I was ready to get back home, have dinner with Carrie, then sit down on the couch and watch some TV.

It started when I was fumbling with the radio. I was looking for a different station, adjusting the dial, when suddenly I could barely hear the radio. The music coming through the speakers sounded muffled and far away. Then the numbers on the clock and the radio dial began to shimmer and warp. They pulsed and waved like reflections in a pond. I would have considered it magical, if my heart hadn’t been beating at a hundred miles a minute.

The road grumbled beneath me. In a flurry of panic, I snapped my head up and jerked my car back into the lane.

That’s when I noticed. It wasn’t just the radio. It was the entire world.

The trees on the side of the road looked like quivering, amorphous snakes. Their branches and leaves were warping side to side. The lines on the road kept snaking left to right. A car passed me by. It might have been a dark green, but it was impossible for me to tell. All the colors in the world were dull, filtered through a strange blue haze.

Even in my impaired state I spotted a rest area off to the side of the highway. Without thinking I jerked the wheel hard to the right, streaking across the other lane of traffic. A distant beeping reached my ears, probably someone honking at me in anger after I cut them off. Speeding into the parking lot, I picked an empty spot just past the entrance. I jumped out of the car without even turning it off. As I ran down the grassy hill past the lot I tripped and fell flat on my face.

I rolled over onto my back and stared up at the sky. The clouds shimmered and shook. The world pulsed all around me and my stomach churned. I snapped my eyes shut, unable to shake the sensation that I was going to fall off the face of the planet.

And then it all stopped, just like that.

After a moment, I opened my eyes. The world had returned to normal, the sunlight now blinding and forcing me to squint. I got to my feet and brushed the grass off my pants and shirt. I slowly walked back up the hill and toward my car. With a grimace, I noticed the green stain on my leg. And on my good pants too, I thought to myself.

“Bro, are you okay?”

I stopped and turned in the direction of the voice. A little ways away, just a couple of spots from where I left my car running, was a young man kneeling by the side of his car. He looked like your typical dude-bro college guy: baseball cap, white t-shirt, baggy blue jeans. He was apparently in the process of changing a flat tire. His car was jacked up and he was holding a crossbar in his hand.

“Dude, do you need help or something,” he asked.

I was suddenly and acutely aware of everything I had done: cutting across lanes of traffic without signaling, parking haphazardly across two different parking spots, running and tripping down the hill in a frenzied panic. Embarrassment overwhelmed me and I was all but certain that my cheeks were bright red with shame.

I jumped into my car and drove off without saying a word.

 

I didn’t say anything to Carrie that night at dinner. She had been working overtime lately. The engineering firm was in the midst of a special project with power plants all around the state. Something about increasing efficiency I think. I can’t remember. In any case, I didn’t want to add more to her plate. She had enough on her mind.

I remember thinking she knew something was wrong, or at least suspected. Her deep blue eyes had scanned me from across the table, peeking out from under the bangs of her long, reddish hair. At work she keeps her hair tied up in a scrunchie, but at home she lets it hang loose around her shoulders.

I could feel her gaze probing me, searching for a hint, a clue as to what was wrong. She didn’t ask me outright. She’d never been one to pry. But I can tell she wanted to.

The events of the day had definitely taken their toll on me. I assumed that my strange incident was just a by-product of me not getting enough sleep, so from that night on I started going to bed an hour earlier than normal. The Ocean still haunted my dreams, but I felt a little more rested during the day.

Like a fool, I assumed that my incident was only a fluke…

 

The second episode happened while I was on my lunch break a week later.

My workplace was nothing special. It was your typical cubicle nightmare, rows as far as the eye could see. Everything was nearly identical: each cubicle had a small desk with drawers, a brown coffee mug, and a computer. I didn’t mind it. I was never much of a creative or artistic person growing up. But I was always good with numbers. So it made sense that I ended up at an accounting firm, working a nine to five job.

When our lunch break came, I was relieved. Staring at the computer screen all morning was making my eyes hurt and I hadn’t slept too well the night before. So I took leave of the cubicle and made my way to the break room. Like everything else at the office, the break room wasn’t special: white tables and chairs, some cupboards, a refrigerator, a counter with sink and microwave, and a dishwasher.

For my lunch, I grabbed a small brown bag I had left in the refrigerator and sat down at one of the tables. It didn’t take long before I spotted Paul walking into the room. I had met him in college and he was one of my best friends. He had light brown hair, brown eyes, and a youthful look about him. He wore a blue polo shirt with black dress pants.

You could tell he was different even before he said anything. His eyes roamed around the room like someone who could never sit still. Even his gait was unusually bouncy, almost like a kangaroo.

“Hey John,” he called when he spotted me.

“What’s up Paul,” I called back. He took a seat across the table from me.

“What you eatin’,” he asked. I held up my sandwich: plain lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise with some meat and cheese.

“Same old, same old,” I replied. “You?”

“Eh,” he shrugged, “I’m not having lunch today. I’m fasting.”

“Fasting?”

“Yeah, choosing not to eat food for a couple days, that kind of thing.”

“You do realize that fasting is dangerous right? Like it’s scientifically proven.”

“Ah…that’s just what all those government paid scientists want you to think.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?”

Paul was an avid conspiracy theorist, the kind of guy who never believed the official story.

“It’s all a product of the food industry,” he said. “They want you to think you need to eat more than you need to so that you’ll buy more. I mean, have you seen the food pyramid? How in the hell am I supposed to get six to eleven servings of bread and cereal in a day?”

“I suppose next you’ll be telling me that physical fitness is a sham as well,” I asked.

“Don’t mock what you don’t know John,” he said with a smile. I teased him about all the conspiracy stuff, but he understood it was all in good fun.

“In any case,” he continued, “that’s the least of it.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“You know that road closure on fourth?”

“Yeah. Almost made me late last month. What about it?”

“What if I told you the closure has nothing to do with road construction? What if I told you that there was never any road construction at all?”

“You gonna give me a choice between the red and the blue pill next?”

“Laugh all you want,” he said, “but tell me, have you ever actually seen the construction workers down there do any work?”

“Well no, but I’m not exactly driving by during peak work hours. And besides, isn’t that the cliché, that you never see them working?”

“That’s exactly what they’re counting on.”

“Oh? And what, pray tell, is actually going on down there?”

Paul gave me a knowing smirk.

“It all has to do with that construction site down on tenth street.”

“The new high-rise? I heard something about that on the news last week. There was some kind of industrial accident that halted construction…a machine malfunction that caused a small chemical leak or something.”

“Oldest story in the book,” Paul said, shrugging it off.

“So what’s the ‘real’ story then,” I asked.

“Okay, get ready for this,” Paul said, rubbing his hands together like he was a magician revealing his secrets. He paused a moment before his big reveal. “Aliens.”

“Aliens?”

“Aliens.”

I scoffed. “Seriously? Aliens? Hey, speaking of oldest story in the book…”

“I’m dead serious. There’s some really shady stuff going on down there.”

“Like what?”

“Moving in large amounts of equipment, more than should be required for a chemical spill. I mean you can see the place from the freeway. Haven’t you noticed anything odd about it?”

I had to admit, he did have a point. I took a glance at the area once while I was stuck in traffic. There were large black trailer trucks driving in to the lot, but I was never able to see what came out of them. They drove down into the pit and out of sight. Still, I was a long ways from believing that extraterrestrials were involved.

“You still don’t believe me, do you,” Paul asked.

“I mean next you’ll be telling me it’s the Illuminati collecting advanced technology to further their New World Order.”

“Oh please,” Paul scoffed. “Illuminati, Reptilians, New World Order…it’s all a bunch of nonsense invented by people who try too hard to be counter-culture.”

I guess some things are too crazy even for Paul, I thought to myself.

“So what do you think it is then,” I asked.

“Well, I think they did find something down there, some kind of alien technology or craft. That site has given off abnormal electromagnetic readings since…forever really.”

“You could get abnormal electromagnetic readings from a gas station in Toronto. Doesn’t mean there’s an alien ship parked in the garage.”

“You mock me, but do you have any better explanation for what’s going on there?”

“Oh I don’t know,” I said, “…a chemical spill maybe? An industrial accident?”

Now it was Paul’s turn to scoff.

“Real clever John.”

“Well fine then. Tell me your theory.”

“With pleasure,” Paul said, relishing the chance. “Due to the abundance of electromagnetic energy and the fact that strange, unidentified lights have been sighted over the area recently, I firmly believe that they found some kind of alien spaceship buried beneath the ground. I think it’s been buried there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, from a time before humans even walked the Earth. The government wants to study whatever is inside so that-“

Suddenly, I couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore. His mouth was clearly moving, but the words sounded like they were coming from miles away. My hands started to shake. Paul was too engrossed in explaining his theory to notice.

Then his mouth began to quiver.

Then his whole face.

Soon enough, his entire body was warping before my eyes. The white walls of the break room grew dull, covered by an invisible shroud of blue. I stared, unblinking, into the wavy chaos that had taken over the world.

Reflections, I thought. Reflections in a pond.

I gripped the table hard, trying to stop my hands from quivering. Then I saw a blurry, nightmarish figure slinking into sight behind Paul. I stared in alarm at this strange apparition as it approached, wondering if I should shout and warn Paul. Closer and closer it came, a menacing shadow that warped and shifted before my eyes.

A monster, come to devour our souls.

“John, you all right,” a voice said, clear as day.

And with that, everything snapped back into place. The monstrous shadow figure was revealed to be nothing more than another one of our co-workers named Adrian. Paul had stopped rambling. He glanced at Adrian for a second, then turned back toward me.

“John…what’s wrong,” Paul asked, squinting at me. “You’re sweating like crazy.”

I got up from my chair and looked at my hands. I flexed them for a moment as I tried to concentrate on my breathing.

“Sorry…I just…I have a bad headache,” I mumbled as I ran out of the room.

I stumbled into the single-person bathroom and locked the door behind me. My hands were still shaking and I couldn’t make them stop. I took a step and the floor swayed under my feet, causing me to crash into the sink and nearly bang my head against the faucet.

“This can’t be happening,” I muttered to myself.

The blue tint came back and permeated everything. My breathing was muffled and distant. The same sensation from the rest stop overtook me. It was like some unseen force was trying to carry me away into the ether.

“This can’t be happening…”

I collapsed to my knees, shaking and weak.

“This can’t be happening!”

An unearthly wind nipped at my heels. The world quaked. I gripped the white porcelain of the sink like my life depended on it. I was convinced that everything I ever knew and loved would fade away if I let go. My eyes closed.

“Stop…stop…stop,” I shouted.

Somehow, it worked. My ears cleared, the world stopped shaking, and the wind vanished. A moment later I opened my eyes again and got to my feet. Although it had subsided, I felt that something still wasn’t right. The lights were too dim and none of the familiar sounds of the office reached my ears.

“Hello,” I wanted to shout, but my voice came out as nothing but a faint croak.

I looked under the door and noticed there was no light spilling in from the bottom. The only thing beyond was an inky blackness, like a wall that prevented me from escaping. I turned back toward the mirror.

And I knew it was wrong. It was all wrong.

It wasn’t my reflection. I seemed fine aside from the traces of panic and sweat on my face. But the mirror itself seemed…off. The more and more I stared into it the more certain I was. I squinted as hard as I could, but I found nothing that would explain my irrational feeling.

I finally saw it when I leaned to the side.

At an angle, the inside of the mirror looked stretched, as if the surface now extended an impossible distance behind it. My mind had trouble grasping it all, but it didn’t appear solid anymore, like the glass had morphed into a thick liquid.

My heart beat in my ears.

My hands shook.

My breath was ragged and uneven.

An irrational compulsion took over, making me reach toward the mirror. My hand drew closer and closer to its surface. When my fingers were less than an inch away, I stopped and flinched. What the hell am I doing, I thought. This isn’t real. None of this is real. It can’t be…

But I forced myself to continue. After a moment my hand went through the surface and I gasped. It was cold…frigid even. I swished my fingers around, trying to get a sense for the world beyond. But a few seconds later something grabbed me and pulled with incredible strength. I screamed and tried to withdraw my hand from the mirror, but to no avail. I was being dragged into it.

NO NO NO,” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Somebody, anybody, for the love of god, help me!”

But I was alone, trapped in this nightmare world. There was no escape.

It wasn’t long before I was up to my elbows in the mirror. I fought it as hard as I possibly could, but it did nothing. Every time I struggled, I was only pulled in faster and faster. I forced my eyes shut, praying that it would all be over.

My face broke the surface, the icy world beyond now caressing my entire body. I opened my eyes-

 

-and found myself on the bathroom floor, looking up at the ceiling. I could hear hushed voices nearby.

“Hey, he’s awake!”

“Is he okay?”

“Why was he screaming?”

A moment later Paul’s face appeared above me with an expression of alarm. I turned my head and saw people crowded around the open doorway. The bathroom door was now laying in the middle of the hallway. Apparently they had to bust it down to get inside.

“John, are you all right? What happened,” Paul asked.

I had no answer for him. I had no answer for any of it.

My boss told me to take the next couple of days off, get some rest. I kept telling him I was fine, but even I knew that was a total lie.

I wasn’t fine.

I was terrified. I had no idea what was happening to me. And no matter how much I wanted things to return to normal, it just wasn’t happening.

Reluctantly, I took the offer. When I exited the building, the sun was shining bright and the birds were chirping in a nearby park. It was a peaceful day, but that did nothing to soothe my soul. I hopped into the car, turned the key into the ignition, and started my way home.

Normally the sights of the countryside were calming, but not today. The trees seemed to bend over my car with malice, greedily hiding the truth…

 

I arrived home half an hour later. Carrie and I were by no means rich, but we were able to secure a nice spot in a suburban neighborhood just outside the city. It was the spitting image of the American dream: two-story white house, white picket fence, flower garden, and a front porch with screens to keep the bugs out.

I pulled into the attached garage. As I turned off the car I looked over at the empty spot beside me. Carrie wouldn’t be back from work for at least a few hours.

Walking into the downstairs bathroom, I almost didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. He looked haggard and weak, dark circles underneath his eyes. I had kept telling myself that I could handle things. But the episode at work today was a clear indication that I was wrong.

I turned on the faucet and splashed some water on my face. Deep down inside I knew I should tell Carrie about what happened, but I kept coming up with reasons not to: she’ll leave me, she’ll call the police, she’ll commit me to a mental asylum. Scenario after scenario swarmed around my brain like a bunch of insects.

I’ll just take a couple days off and rest. Everything will be fine, I told myself.

The rest of my afternoon was spent on the couch watching daytime television. I had never thought about it before, but there was nothing worthwhile to watch during the afternoon. The vast majority was talk shows about cute animal videos or people mouthing off about the latest political hoopla. They talked and they talked, but said very little. It was like a massive echo chamber.

But as a proud American, I performed my duty by continuing to watch. Because…well what else was I going to do? Besides, it was a good way to take my mind off of everything.

And so I settled into the couch. At about a quarter to six I heard the familiar clunk of the garage door rising and the chugging of Carrie’s car as it eased into its spot. When she entered into the kitchen, she found me leaning against the living room doorway.

“Hey you,” I said with a smile.

“Hey,” she replied. “How was work today?”

“Oh…fine. Same old, same old.”

And for a fraction of a second, I saw her lips purse into a slight frown. As always, she saw right through me. She knew something was wrong, that something had happened. Perhaps she saw a flicker of shame in my eyes. Maybe something in my voice gave it away.

Or maybe it was the noise of the television in the background, which I never turned on until after we ate dinner.

Whatever the case was, the frown vanished almost immediately.

“Well that’s good to hear,” she said, trying her best to stay calm. But even I could hear the slight tremor in her voice.

For a brief moment, my mouth opened like I was ready to let the floodgates open and confess everything. I felt a powerful urge to tell her, to reveal the cracks that were forming within me. But my stupid pride won, as it always did. So my mouth shut as quickly as it had opened.

Carrie never noticed it. She was too busy emptying things from her purse.

“Hey, can you take care of the dishes,” she asked, pointing to the stack of plates next to the sink. “The dishwasher’s still on the fritz and the repairman can’t make it out until Friday.”

“Sure thing,” I said as I walked over to the sink, thankful for anything to occupy my mind.

“I’m gonna head outside and water the flowers. I’ll be back,” Carrie said. A moment later I heard the front porch door open and close.

I flipped on the faucet and got to work. For how monotonous it was, cleaning was a good way to clear the mind. And for a while, it worked. My mind was taken up by the slow swishing of the water and the dull circular motion I made with the sponge. I lost myself in the rush of water spilling out from the faucet.

The water…

I stopped. The plate and sponge hung from my hands as I stood like a statue, never moving. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I couldn’t even blink. And then…it was like time itself started to break down. I could actually see the individual droplets falling into the sink like rain drops. The air around me warbled, and my ears were filled with a distant ringing.

My heart thundered. My eyes quaked.

The sink, the plate, the faucet, even my hands became blurry, shifting figments of their former selves. Feeling the panic rise in my chest, I stepped backward and dropped everything from my hands. The plate made a muffled, distant clank as it fell into the sink.

My breathing was erratic. I felt like my chest was about to explode. I clenched my hands together, closed my eyes, and fought against the urge to scream.

It’s not real

It’s not real

It’s not real

But no matter how many times I told myself that, the nightmare wouldn’t fade. I could feel my entire body shaking and it wouldn’t stop. I knew I had to open my eyes, but every fiber in my being was telling me not to. The warbling grew louder and louder.

I had to do it.

I opened my eyes.

The world was a vast blue expanse as far as the eye could see-

 

-and then there was light. A blinding light. I had to shield my eyes as I sat up.

“What,” I mumbled, my vision still blurry.

I was on the living room couch. But how? My eyes whipped about the room…

…and settled on Carrie, who was slunk down in the armchair across the room. She was staring at me, a disconcerted look in her eyes. The TV had been turned off, so a long silence passed between the two of us.

“John,” she said finally as she sat up, “what in the hell was that?” Her cheeks were puffy and her eyes were red.

“Carrie, I-“

“No, you are not going to brush this one off,” she said, her voice rising to a near shout.

Her sudden burst of anger took me off guard and I was silent for a moment. Then she settled back into her seat and waited for me to speak.

“I…I don’t know what happened,” I began. “The last thing I remember is standing in front of the sink. I was cleaning the dishes when…when,” I paused, searching for the right words, “when suddenly the world…went away.”

Carrie’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“I can’t explain it very well,” I said. “Everything around me…was like an illusion that wasn’t really there. I closed my eyes and tried to tell myself it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t happening. When I opened them again, there was nothing but…water.”

“You don’t remember screaming?”

My eyes went wide. “What?”

“You were screaming John,” she said. “You were screaming and shaking and you fell to the floor and I didn’t know what to do and I-” She stopped, averting her gaze and trying not to cry.

I lowered my eyes to the floor. It was the office all over again.

Carrie took a few deep breaths, the expression on her face one of calm and determination.

“I knew something was going on with you. You’ve been waking up in the middle of the night a lot recently. And then there was that night last week at dinner where you were evasive whenever I asked you about your day. I knew the moment I came home that something else had happened. I should have pushed you, but I didn’t. I didn’t…and now this happened.”

I looked up into her eyes. And that’s what finally broke me.

“Oh god,” I moaned, burying my face in my hands. “Oh god, I need help.”

I heard Carrie get up and felt her sit down next to me. A second later her hands were on my shoulders, gently massaging them.

“John, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. I know someone who can help…”

 

Leaning back in my seat, I cast my eyes along the white plaster walls. A painting of a log cabin on the shore of a lake sat just opposite from me. To my left, a series of tall windows looked out over the city. We were on the thirtieth floor of a high-rise building. Most of the other floors were for accountants, business people, and the like. But some were for specialized professionals, like the psychiatrist I was going to see.

Carrie said the doctor’s name was Silas Lavoie. For some reason, the name “Silas” made me think of a snake. I had to push the image out of my head. I was never very trusting of psychiatrists. My stint with daytime television certainly hadn’t helped matters in that regard.

“Mr. Turner?” I turned toward the reception desk. “Head on in. The doctor will join you in just a moment.”

I entered the office. The moment the door closed behind me, all the noise of the reception area ceased to exist, as though I had walked through a portal into another world. The walls were made of a charming, varnished wood. Thick white blinds adorned the sides of a massive window looking out over the city. I could see the coastline in the distance.

In the middle of the room was a glass table. On one side of the table was the typical brown couch that you always see in the movies or on television. On the other side was the armchair I presumed the doctor sat in. Knowing my place, I sat down on the couch.

In the couple of minutes or so before the doctor entered, I imagined what he would look like: balding, glasses, stuffy suit and tie. He would speak with an overblown air of intellectualism, because he wanted to sound smart. But when the doctor finally entered with a clipboard in hand, I found that my assumptions were way off-base.

He wasn’t wearing a stuffy suit. He had on a pleasant red polo shirt and cargo slacks. Instead of balding, he had nicely cropped brown hair. When we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I noticed that he had a charming French Canadian accent.

But he was wearing glasses, so I got something right.

“All right John, let’s get started. I see you were referred to me by…” He flipped the paper on the clipboard over. “Ah! Your wife Carrie. I treated her sister you know.”

“Her sister?”

“Yes, Isabelle. She had serious postpartum depression after she gave birth to her twin boys…Carrie never mentioned that to you?”

“Oh uh…no she did. I guess it just slipped my mind.”

“These things happen,” he said as he began writing something on the clipboard.

“So…how much has Carrie told you,” I asked.

“Not a lot. Something about nightmares spilling over into real life.”

“Yes. I’ve been having the same dream for about four months or so now.”

“Then perhaps that’s the best place to start. Tell me about this dream.”

I described it as best as I could.

“And it’s endless? No landmarks? Nothing specific?”

“No just…blue. Like I said, I can see light coming from above but that’s about it.”

“How does this place make you feel?”

“Peaceful. Serene. Like I belong.”

“Interesting.”

“But when I wake up I…panic. I run into the bathroom and I find myself drenched with sweat. My hands are shaking and my heart is pounding. I can practically feel adrenaline coursing through my body. But then minutes later it’s all gone.”

“I see…” The doctor scribbled on his clipboard for a moment.

“Doc, how long is this going to take,” I asked.

Lavoie chuckled. “Oh if I had a nickel…I’m going to give you the same answer I give everyone. You won’t like it, but it is what it is. It’ll take as long as it takes. You can’t rush these things John, nor can you predict them. You could be done tomorrow or next week or two months from now. I really can’t say.”

“I understand…thanks for being honest.” Lavoie nodded, then wrote some more on his clipboard.

“Okay, next item: describe your workplace.”

“Not much to say really. Cubicles, computers, pens, and coffee mugs. Lunch break at 12:30. Just your typical nine to five job.”

“Run me through your daily routine.”

I spent the next five minutes going over it in as much detail as I could.

“Hmm,” the doctor mused once I had finished. “And it’s like that every single day?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “Every once in a while we get a special project, but most of the day yeah it’s just spreadsheets and numbers.”

“Hmm,” the doctor said again, jotting down some notes. “Well, my initial hypothesis would be that you feel trapped.”

“Trapped?”

“Yes, in your life, in your job. But more importantly, in your routine. You do the same thing every single day. When was your last vacation?”

“It was…god I can’t remember. Ten years ago maybe?”

“Well there you go. I would hypothesize that your dream of being in an ‘endless ocean’, as you describe it, hints at some desire to be free. That’s why you feel so at peace in the dream state. But when you wake up, you realize on a subconscious level that you’re trapped once again. So you panic.”

I shrugged. “Makes sense I guess. Sounds a little too Freudian to me though.”

“Don’t worry,” Lavoie said, “We’re not about to drag your mother into this.”

I had to admit, I laughed.

“Although it still doesn’t explain why you started slipping into that dream while you were awake,” Lavoie continued, his pen moving rapidly across the clipboard. “Maybe some kind of fugue state? Does your family have any history of psychiatric disorders?”

“Not that I know of,” I replied.

The doctor was silent for a moment as he continued writing. I shuffled in my seat, uncomfortable with the silence.

“I have another hypothesis,” Lavoie said after a moment. “Can you humor me for a bit?”

I shrugged again. “I suppose I could.”

“Good. Tell me about your childhood.”

And so I did. But I only got a minute or so in before a timer went off. Looking around, I spotted it sitting on top of a wooden dresser: a tiny, round white thing.

Funny, I thought. I hadn’t noticed that before.

“Oh well, looks like our time’s up,” Lavoie said.

“It’s been half an hour already?”

“Time flies when you don’t pay attention. Well I’ll see you next week John. Just keep patient,” he said as I stood up. “Keep at it, and you’ll get through this.”

 

The following session went by without much progress. I had no idea why Lavoie wanted me to go over my childhood again and again. Nevertheless, I entertained his request, playing along in the hopes that it would lead somewhere. But I started growing restless and irritated.

Fortunately, during our third session together, there was progress. I was in the middle of recounting my childhood when he raised his hand.

“There,” he said.

“There…what?”

“Right there.”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“John you have a meticulous memory. You are able to tell me your exact daily routine at work and the events of your childhood. But around age nine or ten, your memory is suddenly spotty, full of holes. There’s a strange lack of detail.”

“So? I was a kid.”

“Yes, but you’re able to tell me quite a bit about that time you got lost in the grocery store when you were eight. Or about the time you accidentally trampled the neighbor’s flower garden when you were twelve. In fact, you can tell me a lot about your entire life. That’s just how your memory works. But at age nine or ten, there’s almost nothing.”

I hadn’t thought about it before, but he was right. I was stunned.

“What does it mean,” I asked, a little afraid of the answer.

“If I had to guess, I would say that some kind of tragic incident occurred when you were nine or ten. Your mind buried that memory because it was too troublesome for you. And now, I think that memory is trying to come to the surface.”

A snake slithered into my mind’s eye. I shook it off.

“So what can we do?”

“John,” Lavoie said, “I’d like to put you under hypnosis and try to recover that memory. Confronting it is the best way to deal with it. Do I have your permission to try?”

“Sure,” I said. “When can we begin?”

“Right now, in fact. That’s what the old pocket watch is for,” he said, proudly patting the golden watch sitting on the glass table.

“Has that always been there,” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, puzzled. “I always have it out during my sessions.”

“Huh,” I mumbled as I stared at it.

“Anyways, let’s get started. Lie down and put your head back. I’m going to start counting down from ten…”

 

Cold. Wet.

John can you hear me?

Can’t breathe. Can’t see.

John, where are you?

Blue. So cold. Can’t breathe. Light. Light from above.

John, calm down! You’re going to be okay!

Wet.

Blue.

Cold.

John? John!

Can’t breathe. CAN’T BREATHE.

It’s not working!

We can’t stop! We’ve come too far to give up now!

Something’s coming. Breaking the surface.

Reaching for me.

Coming for me.

When I count to three, you will awaken.

Shadow. Coming.

One…

So tired. Sleep.

Two…

Hands. Reaching.

I can’t-

 

“Three.”

And with that, I jolted awake. I was still in the psychiatrist’s office. My hands were shaking and my face was sweating.

“What,” I panted, “what happened?”

“I hypnotized you. Don’t you remember,” Lavoie asked.

“I don’t…I remember you saying to lie down but I don’t really remember much after that except-“

An image of blurry hands reaching flashed by my mind, making me flinch.

“After I put you under, I tried to bring you back to a time when you were ten years old,” Lavoie explained. “But the closer we got to whatever happened to you, the harder you started to push back. You started mumbling at first. Then later, you started screaming.”

“Screaming?”

“Yes. It was admittedly quite disconcerting.”

I rubbed my face with my hands and groaned aloud.

“In any case,” the doctor continued, “I think that will be it for our session today. It appears that hypnotism only made things worse.”

I stared ahead at the wall, a blank expression on my face.

“John? John are you okay,” Lavoie asked.

“I had a pool as a kid, didn’t I?”

“Yes you did. You’ve mentioned it to me each time we went over your childhood.”

“It was an outdoor pool set in the ground and surrounded by cement,” I continued, lost in thought.

“Yes. I don’t understand where you’re going-“

“There was a diving board. An old one. My parents were gonna get it replaced. But then it happened.”

“John…you never mentioned the diving board before. Why are you mentioning it now?”

I turned and looked at him.

“Because I remember.”

 

It had been one of the hottest summers on record. I was ten years old, playing in the backyard and I wanted to go for a swim. My dad told me to wait until he could be there to watch me. But I was impatient. I threw on my swim trunks and headed right over to the pool.

Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to, I hopped onto the diving board. For a moment, I remembered my dad saying something about it getting old and being unsafe. But I shook it off as I approached the edge. I stared into the water. It shimmered white under the bright sun. It looked cool and refreshing. All I wanted was to dive in.

But when I started to bounce the diving board didn’t bounce back like it should have. It bent at an awkward angle and snapped, a large crack appearing in its surface. I slipped, the back of my head slamming down against the board. My skull vibrated and my head burned. I hit the water like a ton of bricks and sank down toward the bottom of the deep end. I tried to swim, but the shock of what had happened made my whole body numb.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I was frantic, trying with all my might to force my muscles to work, to force myself to swim to the surface. But it was no use.

Then, it all started to fade. The fear vanished and a strange calm took its place. I felt tired. I just wanted to sleep. Everything seemed peaceful and right. I barely even noticed how the world started to fade away.

Something broke the surface. A pair of hands frantically reached for me. But they were so far away. So very, far away…

 

“The next thing I can remember is waking up on the grass, my father’s terrified, wet face looking down at me. Later, at the hospital, I asked him if he was mad at me. He just smiled and said he was glad I was okay,” I finished.

“A near-death experience like that as a child can be fairly traumatic. I imagine your brain suppressed the memory as a way of coping with it,” Lavoie explained.

“But then why now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why did the memory surface now,” I asked.

“With things like this it’s almost impossible to say. Maybe your monotonous work routine triggered it somehow. Maybe the sight of something knocked it loose in your brain. Or maybe…it was time.”

“So…is that it then,” I asked.

“I imagine so,” Lavoie said. “Your dream should no longer trouble you now that you’ve confronted the memory.”

“Oh thank god,” I said with relief. I stood up from the couch. “Well thanks doctor. For everything.”

“My pleasure John. It is my job after all.”

I had to admit, I was wrong about Lavoie.  He was a genuinely nice person who really cared. And to think, I was ready to brush him off as nothing more than-

Snake

Snake

Snake

Liar

The blood in my veins chilled. I stood rigid, my eyes fixed on Lavoie’s face.

“Carrie never had a sister, did she?”

Lavoie’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “John, I don’t understand. Of course Carrie has a sister. I’ve met her. I’ve treated her.”

“No, she doesn’t. She’s never mentioned her. I’ve never met her. She doesn’t exist.”

“John, I-“

Don’t you lie to me,” I suddenly screamed, growing angrier with each passing second.

“You’re obviously confused. Please, sit down for a moment. I’m afraid you might be having a relapse.”

“You’ve been lying this entire time,” I said, my voice low and sinister. “You never had any intention of helping me. Carrie never had a sister! I never had a pool as a kid and you never-“

With a snap, the world blurred. The blue shadow fell over everything. The ringing returned. This time, it was so loud that it caused me to cry out in pain and fall back onto the couch. I held my head in my hands as the noise assaulted my ears.

Make it stop! Make it stop,” I shouted. My voice was so far away.

Gradually, the ringing faded. I looked up and stared at Lavoie. All traces of friendliness had vanished from his face. Instead, he fixed me with the cold stare of someone who was a complete stranger. His demeanor had changed, like he had become callous and mean in the span of the last few seconds. He was an entirely different man.

I stood up. Lavoie glared back at me with the same, unflinching look.

Snake

Liar

Snake

Liar

I dove at him, hands outstretched. But Lavoie rolled out of his chair and my hand fumbled uselessly against the fabric. The doctor got to his feet and was running for the door, but I was too fast. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him backwards. He stumbled and fell into the glass table. It shattered with a crash, shards of glass littering the floor.

I approached Lavoie, ready to drag him to his feet. But he grabbed a piece of glass, got to his feet, and took a swing at me. I jumped back, but not quick enough. A jagged edge of glass caught the back of my hand, slicing it open. I gasped in pain and stumbled backwards.

Blood dripped down from my open wound, staining the floor.

I held my uninjured hand over the wound and turned my attention back to Lavoie. He had adopted a fighting stance, bouncing back and forth in front of me like some demented cartoon dancer. It was obvious he had no formal training in something like this and was winging it as he went along.

I glared at him. I wanted to kill him. My entire being seethed with hatred.

Lavoie stepped forward to deliver another swing. But I was ready this time. I ducked under his swing, the clear shard of glass singing just above my scalp. Moving quickly, I grabbed his arm and twisted as hard as I could. Lavoie’s demented howl of pain reached me from like miles away, a distorted bubbling that sounded inhuman and monstrous. He released his grip on the glass shard and it fell to the floor.

I grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him against the wall. Before he could recover I grabbed him the back of his head, and slammed him face-first against the wood. Then again. And again. He hit the wall so hard that it began to splinter and crack.

There was only darkness beyond: an endless, inky abyss.

I grabbed him by the shoulders and ran toward the large window overlooking the city. I threw the both of us against it, the hard glass exploding outward like confetti.

We emerged into a sunken world, an underwater metropolis.

The watery expanse from my nightmares had taken over. The pinpricks of light inside the skyscrapers looked like tiny, turquoise lanterns. Down below at street level, the people walked along the sidewalks as if nothing was different, their feet gliding over the twisting, warping shades of gray concrete. Distorted rays of light reached down from above, piercing the watery veil.

Lavoie wriggled in the water, trying to swim away. But I wasn’t going to let him. I grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him back down. My hands found his throat and began to squeeze. His eyeballs seemed to bulge out of his head and he struggled against me but to no avail.

I squeezed harder. Bubbles of air shot out of his mouth and nose.

Blood rushed to my face, making it swell with rage.

I squeezed and I squeezed. I wanted him dead. I wanted him to pay for what he’d done. He beat my arms with his fists, but I barely felt anything aside from blinding anger. I wanted to feel his throat collapse under the weight of my hands.

I wanted to see the last bits of life drain out of his body. I wanted to-

 

I snapped awake, a familiar clicking and ringing reaching my ears. The glare of the computer screen made my eyes hurt for a second before I realized where I was: back in my cubicle at the office.

“Hey John, get enough sleep there?”

I turned to find Paul standing nearby.

“Paul…how did I get here,” I asked.

“What do you mean,” he asked back with a laugh. “I mean, I would guess you drove your car, but for all I know maybe you flew here. The government’s been doing secret genetic experiments for a long time after all.”

“No seriously, how did I get here? I don’t remember coming in this morning.”

“Man…you must be more tired than you thought.”

My eyes darted back and forth around the office.

“Paul, you have to listen to me. The last thing I remember is being in the psychiatrist’s office,” I said.

“Psychiatrist’s office? A little on the nose, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what’s a dream and what isn’t anymore.”

“Okay, don’t get all philosophical on me there Socrates.”

Damn it Paul! I’m serious!” Several people looked over their cubicles at us.

“Okay okay!” Paul took a step toward me. “Just…calm down. We’ll figure this out. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Like I said, I was in the psychiatrist’s office. We were talking about my childhood. And then…” I paused, searching for the words, “…something happened. I can’t really explain what, but it was almost like reality itself broke down.”

“John,” Paul said, his voice reassuring, “you know as well as I do that dreams can feel like they take place over days or hours. You’re probably just groggy and confused.”

“I am not confused. Something is happening here,” I insisted.

“Look, let’s just get back to work and we can talk about it over lunch.” He turned to leave.

“Paul…what day is it?”

He froze mid-step.

“What?”

“Paul, what day is it today?”

He turned around to face me. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “John…I don’t understand what-“

“You don’t know, do you?”

“What?”

“You have no idea what day it is. And you never did.”

The warbling came from an incredible distance away. Paul’s expression sank into something familiar. It was the same vacant, hostile look that Lavoie had. Paul was no longer my friend. He was looking at me like a stranger.

The lighting flickered, becoming a dull shade of blue for a split second.

I stood up. I had to get out. I had to get away.

But Paul growled with anger and shoved me backwards. I fell back into my seat and stared at him in confusion. He moved toward me, but I reacted first. I reached out with my leg and kicked him in the chest, his entire body crumpling from the impact. I jumped up from my seat, grabbed him by the shoulders, and threw him against the desk. Before he could react, I grabbed the coffee mug and brought it down against his head. It shattered, pieces of brown ceramic exploding all over his face.

Then I ran. I dashed out of my cubicle and ran. All noise had disappeared: the ringing, the clicking, the talking. There was nothing but me, Paul, and the frantic hollow sound of my feet pounding across the aisle.

Get back here,” I heard Paul roar from behind me.

I didn’t dare look back. I just kept running. I thought about using the elevator, but something about being trapped in a little box made my stomach churn. No, I was going to use the stairs. I spotted the door and rammed my shoulder into it, shoving it open-

 

-and then I fell, the world spinning about my head. Swirls of brown and red crisscrossed my vision as I tumbled end over end. I hit the landing with a hard smack, landing on my back. I groaned, closing my eyes for a second and rubbing the back of my head. Then my eyes registered where I was.

What the fuck,” I said aloud.

It was the kitchen…the kitchen in my house.

“How in the hell…what is going on,” I shouted to no one in particular. I jumped to my feet and began running around the house in a panic.

“Carrie? Carrie!” She didn’t answer.

After checking all the rooms on the first floor I darted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. I kept calling for her, but received no answer. I checked the upstairs bedroom, the study, the bathroom, everywhere. I even pulled down the ladder to the attic and looked in there.

But there was nothing, and no one.

Mopey and defeated, I made my way back down the stairs. I had no control over anything anymore. It was as though I were subject to the whims of an invisible master, a callous child who was dragging me around just for the fun of it. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t win. Back down in the kitchen, I took a seat at the table and buried my face in my hands.

“I just want it to stop,” I moaned aloud.

I felt it before I saw it. A blue haze descended upon the world, dimming the bright yellow light of the sun. I stood up and looked out the kitchen windows. Shafts of light stretched down from above, casting a diluted glow upon the neighborhood. The houses drifted in and out of focus as I stared at them.

Then I looked up at the sky. My mind balked at what I saw.

I dashed out the front door, letting it slam shut behind me. There was no wind. Cars and houses lined the street, but there were no people. I stood next to Carrie’s flower garden, my head craned upward and my mind trying its best to comprehend what I was looking at.

The best comparison I could make was to a snow globe.

My house and the street beyond were normal, just empty. But all of it was surrounded by water, thick and blue and dark. It was everywhere, at the ends of the street, in the sky…all around me. The street seemed to carve out a small bubble of existence in this strange place. And an invisible force held the water back, kept it from consuming my little haven.

I walked out into the street, looking both directions. Empty and barren. I could hear the warbling of the water. I could see it moving, swirling around the invisible barrier keeping it from entering.

And then, the levee broke.

Water fell from above and water worked its way down the street toward me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I was terrified. But at the same time, I had to know. I had an inexplicable feeling that the answers I was looking for lay beyond that impenetrable ocean veil.

So I let it come.

The water snaked through the streets and reached down from above. When it finally hit me I wasn’t knocked off my feet like I thought I would be. It just surrounded me. My feet left the ground and I began to float higher and higher. The black asphalt of the street vanished beneath me: cars and all. The houses faded away, one by one, until only mine was left. It stayed there for a moment, almost like it was clawing at me, trying to prevent me from getting away. But then it too faded into the gloom, faded into nothingness.

And then here I was again, The Ocean.

It was just as I remembered it, endless and blue. I floated there for what felt like an eternity, enjoying the peace that came with it. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t frustrated and confused. I was content to just be.

But then, a new sound reached my ears. It was a kind of beeping, one I wasn’t familiar with. And slowly, voices came along with it.

“-not working…”

“-failing again…”

“Keep trying! We have to keep trying!”

A mysterious, curved object appeared in front of me. At first, I didn’t understand what it was, but then I realized I could see beyond it, like a window. I swam forward and peeked through.

Through the window, I could see into a room filled with pieces of computer equipment. People were running around in a panic, their eyes darting toward me every now and then. In the far back, next to some massive metal door, stood two people in black. They were wearing heavy Kevlar vests and held large assault rifles in their hands. Both of them had a stoic expression on their face, although I could tell they were afraid. I don’t know how I knew it, but they were gripping the rifles in their hands tightly. I could sense it.

Then I looked to the right. And what I saw only confused me more.

On a small computer screen there were rows of orange text, like bullet points. It was a list of ages: one to three, three to five, five to seven, seven to nine, and so on. I couldn’t grasp what it was all about, but then I saw the whiteboard next to it. It was a flowchart, with various branching bubbles.

And it all started with a large bubble in the center that read “pool accident”.

What the hell is this, I thought. Are they cataloging my whole life?

I scanned my eyes over some of the bubbles. One of them read “saved by” with two offshoots reading “mom” and “dad”. The one reading “dad” was circled three times over.

No, they weren’t cataloging my life. They were creating it.

It was only when I turned my attention back to the people that I finally noticed. I recognized them. Not just some of them. All of them. They were all people I knew from work, from my personal life, and so on. I even recognized the dude-bro college kid from the rest stop, although I realized he was much older than I had initially thought.

Then I saw Paul running around with a clipboard barking orders.

“I don’t care what it takes,” he was shouting. “Keep this under control! We cannot lose containment!”

I saw Carrie, a young-faced woman sitting at one of the computers. Whenever her eyes darted to me, I didn’t see any familiarity in them, although I may have recognized a trace of pity.

But why? Why were all these people here? What the hell was this?

“It keeps failing,” Carrie was explaining to Paul. “We don’t know why. No matter how far we get into the simulation, it keeps breaking down and we lose control. It’s only luck that we managed to regain stability the last few times.”

Paul slammed his clipboard down on the desk next to them, visibly frustrated.

“Why damn it,” he asked no one in particular. “Why does it keep failing? Why isn’t it working?!”

“You’re wrong. It is working,” a voice said.

And out of the darkness stepped Silas Lavoie, dressed in a sharp black suit. I couldn’t explain why but when he came into view, flanked by two armed guards, my heart jumped. His accent was sill there, but his voice held a trace of coldness I hadn’t expected. He carried himself with an almost tangible air of authority.

“Lavoie, what the hell are you talking about,” Paul asked.

“In fact, the simulation is working too well,” Lavoie said, almost like he was ignoring Paul completely. He stopped forward and squinted at me.

“It thinks it’s human.”

His words were like a shot through my brain. My mind raced, trying to come to terms with what he was saying. And then, from an impossible mental depth, a revelation started to surface. I felt like I could reach out and touch the closure I had been seeking for so long. I felt like I was on the verge of understanding not only who, but what I was.

But it didn’t matter. The window vanished into the gloom and my eyes were forced shut. The deep blue gave way to an impenetrable blackness. I sank into an endless oblivion, my mind going blank…

 

In my dreams, all that awaits is The Ocean.

 

As always, you can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Can’t Remember: The Amnesia Trope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

You wake up in a dark room, lying face down on a cold stone floor.  You groan, your head feeling like it weighs ten times what it should.  Taking stock of your surroundings, you find that you can’t see much in the dim lighting of the candles lining the walls.  There’s a rickety looking wooden table in the middle, and what appears to be an old antique dresser with a mirror on top just across from it.  Pushing yourself up off the floor, you wince.  Your body aches more than it should.  With shaky steps, you make your way over to the mirror.  Even in the dim lighting, you can tell you’ve had better days.  Your eyes look tired and your face is covered in dirt.  Turning around, you spot an old wooden door just outside the reach of the candles’ light.  You walk over and push it open, the door making a loud creaking that echoes into the hallway beyond.  You can tell you’re in some kind of ancient castle.  One of the windows has broken, the wind of the storm rushing in and blowing the worn red curtains all about.  You take a step into the hallway.

Then another.

You blink.

And that’s when it hits you, you don’t remember anything.  Why you’re here, where this is, and even who you are…it’s all missing, as if someone reached inside your head and pulled them out one by one…

 

The amnesia trope is a very common staple in fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  People often malign the trope, saying it’s cheap or lazy.  And while I’ll agree that often the amnesia trope can be a sign of a writer who’s run out of ideas, there’s also a very simple reason the trope exists in the first place.

Because it’s an effective way to set up a mystery or driving goal for a character.

When someone in a television show, movie, video game, or what have you wakes up in a strange location without any recollection of why they’re there or even who they are, our innate curiosity is like “hmm this is interesting…I wonder what’s going on?”  Call it manipulative if you want, but it works.  It immediately draws us in because we can’t help ourselves.  We want to know more, we have to know more.  And amnesiacs in fiction tend to have far more interesting lives than their real-life counterparts.

Take The Bourne Identity for example.  In the beginning of the movie, the crew of a fishing ship fishes Matt Damon’s character out of the water during a harsh storm.  He’s been shot in the back multiple times.  There’s no identification on him aside from a strange device featuring the address of a bank in Zurich.  And it becomes quickly evident that he has combat training, as he manages to ambush one of the crew members and grab him by the throat.  It’s then that we learn that Damon’s character has no memory and has no idea who he is or where he is.  It’s a very effective opening that gives us a clear reason to get invested in the plot.

But the real reason Bourne Identity succeeds at gaining our interest is because they give us key interesting details about the character: the strange laser pointer device pointing to the Zurich bank, the gunshot wounds on his back, and his apparent combat prowess.  It’s not enough to just give a character amnesia.  The amnesia might draw in people initially, but unless they’re given some more details, that interest will wane very quickly.  This is especially true in modern fiction, because people have seen the amnesia trope used so often that a writer will have to do extra work to keep them invested.

While the amnesia trope is very common in thrillers and mysteries, I think more recently it has found a home in video games, particularly those of the horror variety.  Like before, amnesia is a good way to get people interested, but in video games it serves another important purpose.  In a game it’s crucial that the player identifies with the character they are playing as in some way.  Amnesia is a very useful tool in this sense, because it allows the player to jump in at a point where they have about as much information on their situation as the character in the story.  In this way, they are experiencing the mystery right along with the character.  If the main character suddenly got amnesia halfway through the game, it would just create this weird disconnect for the player and they would likely lose interest.

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example.  Our journey begins as the main character, Daniel, is stumbling through the halls of a castle struggling to maintain his memory.  The scene fades in and out of blackness as he makes his way through the stone corridors.  He recites off details about himself, but by the end of the intro he can barely manage to say his name.  He wakes up later on in the middle of a hallway, with nothing aside from a trail of pinkish fluid to follow.  As we go through the game, we slowly learn more about his predicament and how he ended up in this strange, haunting castle.  Because, like I said, the amnesia trope can be effective as long as a writer handles it with care.

In the end I think the amnesia trope has a bit of a unfair reputation.  Like anything, it can be overused, but just looking at the memory tropes page at TV Tropes shows you just how versatile it can be.  It pays to recognize that everything, even the most cliche of tropes, have their place in fiction.  And yes, that even includes demons, which I have very loudly complained about many times before.  But it’s a tricky balancing process.  You can give a character amnesia, but if you don’t give the character a compelling reason to have amnesia then the effect is lost on people.  I’m of the opinion that originality in stories is a little overrated.  As long as you can put a unique and interesting spin on a story, and do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter if your story is heavily inspired by one thing or another.  EVERYTHING is inspired by one thing or another.  All of fiction can have its roots traced back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling.  True originality simply doesn’t exist.

A writer needs to be able to make use of all the tools in their toolbox, so to speak.