Muse

Welcome to the last of twelve!  It’s been an undertaking, that’s for sure.  If you don’t know, my New Year’s resolution for the year was to write one short story each month, posting them to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  But enough self-indulgent nonsense, let’s get right into it.  I present to you, my final short story for the year, “Muse”.

 

Do not ask where he comes from, for he does not know.

Do not ask what he is, for he cannot tell you.

Do not ask his name, for he is Nameless.

He only knows two things: he exists, and he is curious. This curiosity drives him, completely and utterly.

For an incomprehensible amount of time, all The Nameless One knew was the void: a pitch blackness dotted with tiny specks of light. He floated through it aimlessly, no sense of purpose or direction. Then, at some point, he found himself drawn to one of those sources of light. He found a series of rocks, all of different shapes, sizes and colors, that orbited this light. One in particular, a bejeweled rock that glittered colors he had no name for, drew him in.

And he discovered it was not barren, but full of life.

Beings made of a bright, almost spongy material wandered the world, some so tightly packed together in massive networks of metallic structures that it was a wonder they could function at all. Seeing their form: walking around on two large appendages with two other appendages that were able to bend, contract, and grip objects, was one of the strangest things he could ever fathom.

Nevertheless, after a while of observing, he decided to mimic their form as best he could. He focused until his shape better approximated theirs. The two appendages which carried him around felt strange at first, but gradually he became used to them, although they did not bind him as they did the people he observed. He was free to float through the walls of their structures at will; the bonds of gravity only affected him if he willed it so.

The “humans”, as they called themselves, were unable to see him. If they could, they would describe him as a strange entity made of what looked like wispy blue flame. Two smaller flames, made of a lighter shade of blue, appeared to be his approximation of eyes. Nevertheless, his image was a fairly accurate silhouette of a human.

And so he glided from place to place, observing all he could. He became aware of the human obsession with some thin, fragile material called “money” that featured curious notations indicating an amount. The happiness of a great many humans appeared to revolve around acquiring this material and their society was driven by it. And yet, even those who had an immense amount of it were insatiable and desired more.

Things like this baffled him, for it seemed that for every rule humans came up with, there were contradictions. Out in the void, things followed a very rigid pattern. Lights were born, grew, and then died…some by collapsing into an absolute absence of the light they used to give. Yet, humans fluctuated all the time. Even individual members would change over time. Some of those who insisted on money not being the key to happiness would gradually become consumed by a desire for it. It was as if they died and were reborn as something utterly different from what they once were.

It was as if this inconstancy was an innate feature of the species. It made so little sense to the one who had spent an immeasurable watching the cycle of the universe.

And still, he desired to learn more. He had to learn more.

One day, he was wandering through an area of smaller structures where the humans lived when he heard a sound. It constantly rose and fell in pitch, following a very definable rhythm. He knew the sound. It was from a device they called a “piano”, part of some “music” activity which many of them derived pleasure from.

He couldn’t explain it then, but something about that particular noise called to him, beckoned him closer. And so he did, strolling through the wall of one of the houses. Inside was a large, warm colored room with a wooden floor and wallpaper that lined the sides. One lone light stood hanging from the ceiling which lit up the entire room. A large piece of fabric on wooden pegs and sat in the center, a place where humans tended to relax. More fabric lined the floor in front of it, and a rectangular black screen sat on top of a wooden altar. It was currently devoid of light, although The Nameless One had seen other variations that displayed images.

He found the man seated on a hard, black wooden seat. He was hunched over the keys of a large, glossy black piano. He had medium-length reddish hair and was of slightly above average height for a human. His dark green eyes were securely fastened on the ivory keys, his fingers moving over them with ease. The piece he was playing was repetitive, but…alluring in a way.

He wandered around the piano, watching the man play. It was clear he was a younger human, although not so young as to be considered a “child” in their culture. He seemed as if in a trance, absorbed by the task at hand. It was fascinating to him, as he had yet to see a human like that.

Eventually, he sat down on the bench next to him, watching the man’s fingers flow over the keys as though they were liquid. The ease at which the human operated the piano device was utterly fascinating, as if he had been born with a natural aptitude toward using it. It was as though his very purpose was tied to the piano device.

He watched for a while. Then, he shut out all vision, giving himself over to absolute listening. In this state, he let the purity of the sound flow over him. It was an almost intoxicating sensation, listening to the man play.

But he was abruptly shaken out of it when the piano struck an unintended note. His vision rushed back, and The Nameless One turned to the human. The man was staring down at the keys, his fingers clenching.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself, then picked up a small brown pencil and made some changes on the piece of paper above him. The Nameless One leaned in close to it. The notations were still unknown to him, although he knew they had something to do with the music the man was playing. His best guess was that it was some sort of guide, a set of instructions on how to operate the piano.

The man resumed playing, but struck another bad note. He grumbled again, marking more changes on the sheet.

The scene continued this way for another couple of minutes. The man cursed every time it happened, the growing frustration evident on his features. Eventually, he leaned back and stared forlornly at the keys.

He scoffed.

“Typical. I can’t ever get it right…”

Then, he reached forward and lowered the cover onto the keys. After that, he just sat there staring at his hands.

The Nameless One didn’t want him to stop. He needed him to continue.

Keep playing, he thought, as though the human could hear him.

He reached out, azure fingers of fire encircling the man’s wrist.

Keep playing…

 

Shit,” Daniel Tyner cursed, falling backward and pulling the piano bench with him. The two hit the floor with a loud crash. His head and back throbbed from the impact. He groaned, his legs hanging awkwardly over the fallen bench. Carefully, he swung his legs off and got to his feet. Rubbing the back of his head, he bent over and picked the piano bench up, setting in back in its proper position. As he did, he noticed obvious scuff marks on the wood where it fell.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself. With a sigh, he let go of the bench and stared at the piano for a moment. He did more of that than he did actual playing these days. He wished he could generate the motivation and desire to play, but it was difficult. And every time he did play, it sounded awful.

What the hell was that anyways, he thought to himself. It was like my wrist caught fire.

He looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set on the cold fall day. Might as well make some supper, he thought, and began walking toward the kitchen.

The light in the living room began to flicker, ever so subtly. Daniel paused and stared at it. But a moment later, it stopped. Probably some random power fluctuation, he thought to himself. Weren’t they working on the line somewhere in the neighborhood? Regardless, he continued making his way through the house.

It wasn’t anything too special. The front door led to an entryway with a staircase leading to the upper floor and a set of doors on either side: one leading to the living room where the piano was, and another leading into the kitchen and dining room area.

Daniel filled a small pot with water and placed it on the black stove, turning the burner on. He reached into the cupboard and pulled out a box of pasta, setting it on the counter nearby. As he waited for the water to boil, he walked into the dining room and sat at the table. He pulled the black laptop that sat nearby closer to him and opened it up, hitting the power button. Once the computer woke from sleep mode, he clicked his way into the web browser and went onto a music sharing site he frequented. Signing into to his profile, he looked to see if any new people had taken a look at his music samples. He clicked into his account page.

For a moment, the computer froze. He tried moving the mouse, but nothing happened. “Come on,” he grumbled, slapping the side of the screen. A moment later, it caught up and loaded the webpage.

The view count on his newest pieces added up to eight, which was the answer he had expected. Daniel sighed, closing the laptop and leaning back in his chair. What was the point of doing any of this if no one ever seemed to notice?

Then quit, a voice in his head said. If you don’t enjoy doing this anymore, then just quit.

But he couldn’t. And he knew he couldn’t. That wasn’t how it worked.

It was something he could never explain to people, even if he tried. There was a constant battle going on inside him. On one side, he knew he played because he had to play. But on the other side, he was afraid to keep going because there was no guarantee it would ever lead anywhere. There was no guarantee that any of it would ever even matter.

Right now, the fearful side was winning. Every time he sat down at the piano, every note he hit seemed to taunt him. Little voices in his head poked and prodded him.

Why are you doing this…

There’s no point to this…

Everybody knows your music sucks…they just don’t have the heart to tell you…

A faint gurgling reached his ears. The pot was ready.

Daniel got up from his seat and went over to the stove, opening the box of pasta and dumping it into the pot. He set a timer and started stirring.

A long time ago, things had been different. Daniel discovered a passion for the piano at a very young age. At twelve, he was playing Beethoven. At fourteen, he was playing Debussy. By the time he graduated high school, he knew them all and played them all. Classical music had always been a source of inspiration for him, and it was only a matter of time before he attempted making his own.

He used to play for his friends when they came over. Every now and then, when they were just sitting around, he would hop on the piano and play a tune. And they liked it. They kept saying he had a natural talent and that he should pursue it.

And he did. Five years of college and what did that get him? A framed piece of paper and thirty thousand dollars of debt.

“Back in my day,” he imagined some old person saying, “I worked a part-time job during the summer to pay for my college tuition. You young people today are just so entitled and lazy”.

Yes, everything was better back in the good ol’ days, he thought with thinly veiled sarcasm. Back then you could vote for politicians who would cripple the economy and not have to take any responsibility for it. Yep…everything was so great back then.

Once he finished making the pasta he dished it up on a plate and grabbed a soda from the fridge. Sitting down at the table, he began to eat. Eventually, his eyes drifted to a cruddy looking cardboard box in the corner of the room.

He remembered.

“Ah crap,” Daniel muttered aloud. Tomorrow Melanie was coming over to pick up some of the things she forgot when she moved out. The two of them had been dating for about a year when they broke up. He didn’t really know why they did.

But it was probably his fault. It usually was.

In any case, he would have to go around and collect the things she left behind. It was simple things: a hairbrush, hair curler, blow dryer…that kind of stuff. He would put it in the box so that she wouldn’t have to stay long. He imagined she would prefer it that way.

When he was done eating he placed his dish in the dishwasher and plopped the soda can in the recycling bin. He took a final look at the empty cardboard box and sighed.

 

Saturday.

He was sitting at the piano when he heard the knocks: three short raps on the front door. With a sigh, Daniel picked himself up off the bench and walked to the door. A brunette woman with long hair and bright blue eyes stood on the front steps as he opened it. The once, soft gaze had been replaced by something akin to hardened steel.

“I’m here for my stuff,” Melanie Watkins said flatly. He stepped aside and motioned her in.

“It’s in the kitchen,” he replied as she walked past him. A moment later she came back, cardboard box in her arms.

She was halfway down the front steps when suddenly she stopped in her tracks. The light breeze blew back her dark brown hair, whipping it about her face. The scene reminded Daniel of what drew him to her in the first place. A moment later, Melanie let out a sigh and put the box down.

“Why do you always do this Daniel,” she asked. When she turned to look at him, there was a genuine expression on her face.

“Do…what,” he asked.

She motioned with her arms.

This,” she emphasized. “This whole…thing. I can tell all you’ve been doing since I left is moping around the house.”

He scoffed.

“I’m not moping,” he said. It was a bad lie, and they both knew it.

“I just…” Melanie paused, looking down at her feet for a second. “I just want you to be happy,” she finished, looking back up at him.

“Well you sure have a hell of a way of showing it,” Daniel shot back before he realized he was saying it. A look of hurt flickered in her eyes for a brief second before it vanished.

“I suppose I deserve that,” she said, glancing at her hands

The brisk fall wind was the only sound for a while…the bright light of the sun hanging high in the sky. The trees had begun to change color: from green to yellow and orange.

“How did this happen,” she asked. “Why did this happen to us?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted.

“I cared about you Daniel…I still care about you. Why couldn’t you just let me in?”

Suddenly, and inexplicably, Daniel saw red.

“Why couldn’t I let you in? I tried letting you in! You just didn’t care,” he fired back, his voice rising.

“That’s not fair,” she insisted.

“Isn’t it?” He pointed to the living room. “I sat you down in front of that piano! I played for you! Don’t make it sound like I made no effort when you know damn well I did.”

“Well maybe I’d be more interested if you didn’t play the same songs all the damn time,” Melanie shot back.

“Those are the songs I grew up with! Those are the songs I love! They help me focus! And how the hell would you know what songs I play Mel, when you barely paid any attention?!”

“Oh that’s rich…blame it all on me.”

“I never said-”

“This is so typical of you Dan. You just keep pushing people away.”

“Because we all know the way to a man’s heart is to take a dump on the things he loves,” Daniel fired back.

Melanie glared at him. This was not going to end well.

 

The Nameless One watched as the two humans flung words back and forth. His time among their race meant that he could understand what they were saying, but it still was difficult untangling their meaning, especially when they were shouting faster and faster. Their voices kept rising in such a discordant way that he wanted nothing more than to leave.

But he couldn’t. Something about this human…the way he cloaked himself in an aura of sadness…compelled him to stay…compelled him to help.

However, at the moment, he wanted to go away. He wanted them to stop.

He just wanted them to stop…

 

“-never think about the things I want to do!”

“Wow that’s not selfish at all.”

“Oh and you’re not selfish?! Jesus Christ Dan, you spend so much goddamn time on that piano that it’s no wonder you can’t keep a girlfriend…you hardly know how to!”

Daniel gave her a harsh look.

“You know what Mel…you really are an uptight bi-”

A sharp pop from behind them cut him off, causing them both to jump.

Jesus,” Melanie cried out. Daniel turned around and saw the shards of glass littering the floor. He looked up and saw that the light bulb in the entryway had spontaneously shattered. Jagged edges of glass and a sad-looking filament was all that remained.

“What the hell did that,” he heard Melanie ask behind him.

“No idea,” he mumbled.

There was a long period of silence where he just stared at the shattered bulb.

“Look I’m…I’m just gonna go,” she said.

“Yeah that’s probably a good idea,” he replied. But he could already hear her retreating footsteps. He turned around and watched as she got into the car and drove off. Well that went about as well as expected, he thought as he closed the door. Going into the kitchen, Daniel dug around in the drawers for a little while before giving up and sighing. No spare bulbs, he thought. Looks like I’m gonna have to go out and get one.

The thought irritated him, because he was hoping to be able to spend the weekend at home and not go anywhere. For a moment, it struck him how stupid it all was…such a minor thing, but it kept getting under his skin.

Once that realization hit, it only made him feel worse. It was a feedback loop with no end…

 

Monday. At least…he figured it was a Monday from his understanding of human time.

The days following his observations of the human known as Daniel greatly perturbed him…perturbed him in a way he never even thought possible. He need time to think.

The light bulb…had he done that? In the moment, he had felt the light. He had felt the heat. He had felt the slithering, snaking charge of electricity running through the walls that gave it power. But at the same time, he just wanted it all to go away.

And it did. The bulb exploded…and silence reigned.

Now he knew he could affect their world. But what could he do with such a power?

He wandered through the nearby city, watching as the humans went about their daily business. But somehow, this time it was of little interest to him. It was of little consequence. All of his thoughts were turned to Daniel. He wanted to help him somehow.

But first…he needed to better understand the phenomenon of music.

When he had first arrived on the planet, music all seemed the same to him. He had observed that humans derived pleasure from it to varying degrees. Some, like Daniel, were compelled to create it. But at the time, he was unable to really differentiate between the different styles. He observed it on a general level, focusing on how the humans interacted with it.

Things were different now.

He watched a television in a place where humans gathered to eat in large numbers. It had initially shown some type of game where the participants carried some kind of oblong shaped object across a field of grass. It was a very violent-looking game, the players slamming into each other in an attempt to retrieve the object for their side.

But there was an intermediary period focused entirely on a display of music.

The singer was a human female, dressed in a revealing black outfit that sparkled like glitter under the intense lighting. The music itself was rapid fire, repetitive beats in a steady rhythm. He had never paid much attention to it before. Music was just music to him…something to be observed and recorded. But now? Now he found he actually disliked this particular variety.

He couldn’t explain why, but as he watched the humans on the screen dance and twist their bodies in seemingly unnatural ways, he found that he had no desire to listen.

A proper human description would be that he found the music, “obnoxious”.

So he stepped out into the bustling streets of the city, feeling a pleasant sensation at being away from the noise. To him, it was as though the music felt…artificial. It seemed obvious it was created for some primary purpose other than the simple act of creation itself. It was clear there was some other motivation driving it, and the creation of the music was of secondary importance.

The form did not matter, it was simply a means to an end.

Even the humans playing stringed instruments on the street corners failed to hold enough appeal to him. He could feel their passion for the creation of music. He could hear it in their voices as they sang. But no matter where he went, nothing had the same effect on him as hearing Daniel play the piano.

It was as though there was some purpose for him, something that called him to Daniel…but he could not ascertain exactly what it was. Nevertheless, he knew what the first step had to be.

He had to reach out and inspire Daniel to keep playing.

 

Tuesday.

The gas station where Daniel worked was nothing particularly special. It was one of those large chain stations that felt the need to have five different locations within the same city. It functioned as a poor man’s grocery store as well, carrying items like milk and butter as well as all the sugary garbage customers could want.

The job was simple: punch in, get behind the counter, fire up the cash register, and wait. Someone comes up, ring up whatever items they grabbed from inside as well as whatever gas they might have, then take their cash or card and send them on their way.

And today was no different. It was clockwork…horrible clockwork.

A couple of hours into his shift, Daniel noticed a woman coming toward the register. She had curly, reddish hair, a fairly plump body, and dull brown eyes. The black cell phone looked like a tumor growing out the side of her head.

She slapped a candy bar and a box of doughnuts onto the counter.

“Any gas ma’am,” he asked as he began scanning the items.

“Pump four,” she said, then immediately returned to her phone conversation. As Daniel rang up the total, he caught a snippet of her conversation.

“-not even out of high school yet and is already thinking of where he’s going to go for college.” She said that last word with such distaste that Daniel imagined she would spit up bile…acidic bile that would burn through straight through the counter. “Says he wants to be a writer. Typical nephew…always with his head in the clouds. I told my brother-in-law that kid should learn a trade, get a real job and contribute to society!”

“That’ll be thirty-three, seventeen,” Daniel told her. “Cash or credit?”

She evidently didn’t hear him.

“I mean he’s a mechanic right? He should take the boy into work with him and show him the ropes. That way he sees what actual work is like and stops with this ‘writing’ nonsense.”

Daniel raised his voice a little.

“Cash or credit ma’am?”

She shot him a look, then pulled her wallet out of her jeans pocket and dropped a credit card on the counter, sliding it across to him. Daniel stared at it blankly for a second, then picked it up and leaned over the counter, sliding it into the credit card machine on the other end. It beeped, letting him know it worked.

“Credit or debit?”

No response. The woman kept blabbing away on her phone. Daniel fought against the urge to groan aloud.

“Credit or debit,” he repeated, making sure to enunciate.

The woman sighed again, then pressed a button on the machine. A moment later she picked up the stylus and signed the screen. Daniel pressed a button to confirm and the receipt began printing out next to the register. He tore it off.

“Would you like your-” he began, but the woman was already halfway out the door.

“-wrong with society these days. Kids are too lazy. They want everything handed to them. I remember when my parents were young they…” Her words faded out as the door shut behind her. Another customer, this time a man, walked up to the register with a bag of candy in his hand and asked for a pack of cigarettes.

As he rang up the items, Daniel’s thoughts turned to the boy the woman was discussing over the phone. Poor kid, he thought. All he wants to do is have a dream. But soon he’ll grow up and realize that the world wants nothing to do with that dream. The world just wants to mold another mindless drone for the workforce. Dreams don’t matter…unless they’re profitable.

Hours passed. The sun had already dipped below the sky when he punched out and exited the station. He got into his car and stared at the steering wheel for a minute. How had it come to this? When did he get so bitter? When did he give up on his dream?

But of course, he knew the answer: when he let it all get to him…when he let it wear him down.

He turned the key in the ignition and the car sputtered to life. Slowly, Daniel pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road, the dim yellow lights of the streetlamps casting shadows across his face as he drove home…

 

Friday. At least it was something different for once.

Daniel had taken the day off of work and decided to head into the countryside. He liked the trees and the open air. There was something about the sounds of nature that had always made him feel at ease.

He made his way to an old train station outside of the city, which was now used as part of a historic train museum. Friday through Sunday, during the summer and fall, a scenic train ride was offered. This was one of the last weekends it was available, and Daniel wanted to take advantage of it. He had ridden it many times before, but it held a particular charm for him. Maybe it was the beauty of nature passing by the window. Maybe it was the nostalgia, the memories of going here when he was a kid. Maybe it was the chance to get a break from the routine.

Or maybe he just wanted to get out of the house. Things had been behaving oddly. Lights would flicker. The TV would randomly turn itself off while he was watching. Even his laptop continued to freeze up from time to time and strange, visual glitches would appear on screen.

He couldn’t explain it, but it unnerved him…like there was a ghost in the house.

In any case, he had bought his ticket the day before so he boarded without much of a wait. The train was made up of three separate rail cars. He picked a seat in the rear car, near the middle. To his pleasant surprise, no one sat next to him. A couple of younger girls, probably around college age, sat in the seats in front of him but he could always just tune them out.

It was only about ten minutes before the train left the station. Daniel watched as the old, metal structure slid away from him, replaced by serene pine trees. The train chugged along slowly, the floor vibrating beneath his feet. There was a pattern to it, a rhythm that he liked.

Daniel closed his eyes, shutting out everything except the sound of the train itself.

Cha-chug…cha-chug…cha-chug

It got faster and faster as the train picked up speed.

Cha-chug cha-chug cha-chug

His fingers drummed against the windowsill of their own accord, mimicking the rhythm of the train. He was focused intently on the pattern, using the train as a makeshift metronome.

Tick tick tick

Cha-chug cha-chug cha-chug

Tick tick tick…

“Hey, can you stop that?”

Daniel’s eyes snapped open. One of the girls sitting in front of him had turned around and was glaring at him.

“Wha…what,” he stammered.

“Stop making that noise! It’s annoying,” she said.

“I…I don’t-” he sputtered. The girl sighed.

“Stop doing that thing with your hands,” she explained.

Daniel glanced at his hand on the windowsill.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

The girl turned around and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Ugh,” she huffed. “Some people right?”

Ashamed, Daniel glanced down at his feet.

Either I’m invisible or I annoy people, he thought. I can’t do anything right…

 

The seat next to Daniel was anything but empty. The Nameless One sat across from him, watching in fascination as he tapped his fingers against the windowsill. He could see the pattern in it, and made the connection to the sound of the train.

“Hey, can you stop that?”

He watched as the human female sitting up in front of them turned around and admonished Daniel. He tried to apologize, but could only utter half-words and incomplete sentences. The girl was clearly frustrated. Eventually, she turned back around in her seat.

“Ugh,” she said aloud. “Some people right?”

Something pulsed within him. It burned, compelled him to do something.

Anger, they called it? He wasn’t sure. Distaste maybe…that was a better word.

He reached out, an wispy hand of azure flame extending forward, encircling the human female’s bright strands of hair…

 

Oww!

There was a brief rustling noise.

“What the hell, why did you do that?!”

Daniel turned to see the girl glaring at him again.

“I’m talking to you, prick! Why did you pull on my hair?!”

He gave her a blank stare.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything.”

“Well there’s no one else back here…what did a ghost pull my hair?”

“Maybe your hair got caught on your seat,” Daniel offered, trying his best to be helpful.

The girl scoffed.

“Stop trying to deny it…I know you pulled my hair you creep!”

“Ma’am?” Daniel turned to see one of the train conductors standing nearby. He was an older man with gray hair and blue eyes, wearing an old-fashioned black uniform. “I’ve been standing here the whole time…and I can tell you for certain that this gentleman did not lay a hand on you.”

“Well then who did?!”

The conductor shrugged.

“Maybe he was right and it got caught in the chair.”

The girl scoffed again.

“This is ridiculous. I can’t believe you’re defending this…this pervert!

The conductor’s eyes hardened.

“Ma’am, from where I’m standing, you’re the only one causing a problem. Now…I can find another seat for you two if you like.”

“That’s fine by me,” the girl said, briskly standing up. She stole a harsh glare at Daniel. “Creepo,” she spat at him.

Just then, the old man’s eyes flared.

“Lady,” he said, dropping the previously friendly tone, “I can throw you and your friend off this train if you like. Is that what you want?”

The girl averted her gaze and let out a huff.

“No,” she muttered eventually.

“Good,” the conductor replied. “Now, I’ll guide you to your new seat. Please…do mind your manners from here on.”

The old man escorted the two into the next train car. Daniel turned his attention back to the window…gazing out at the trees as they whipped past. A moment later, the trees opened up and he could see across a large, clear lake. The blue water sparkled under the sun, as though it had little white crystals of light hiding just beneath the surface.

Daniel had always liked the water. Something about the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline was the epitome of peace…

The rest of the train ride was uneventful. As Daniel disembarked, the incident with the girl kept running itself over and over again in his mind. It wasn’t his fault. He stopped drumming his fingers on the windowsill once she asked him to.

But like always, he’d beat himself up over it for hours to come…

 

Monday.

“Gah…”

With every stroke of the ivory keys, Daniel’s face contorted itself into an expression of pain. The Nameless One had watched this happen for the last few days. And it only seemed to be getting worse.

Ow! God…damn it.”

With a grimace, Daniel rubbed his right hand softly. Then, he tried one more time. He got a little further in the song this time, but the pain seemed to only intensify. Finally, he gave up. With a look somewhere between pain and frustration, Daniel lowered the cover onto the keys.

The Nameless One sat still as Daniel looked down at his hand for a long time. He flexed it for a moment, grimacing as he did so. Then, he stood up and walked away into the kitchen. The defeat and sadness in his gait was evident.

It wasn’t clear what was happening, but even he could tell something was seriously wrong…

 

“Fuck,” Daniel muttered, the pain in his hand making it hard to lift a pot out of the cupboard What the hell, he thought to himself. This has been going on for days now.

He set the pot down on the burner with gritted teeth. Things were not going well. Everyday chores were now almost unbearable with the pain in his hand. Playing the piano was nothing but impossible. Each stroke of the keys felt like a needle piercing his wrist.

Daniel knew he should go to the doctor. Pain like this wasn’t supposed to last for days on end. Something was wrong. He was certain of it.

But what of the bill? He wasn’t sure how much his insurance would actually cover. He had barely ever had to use it. The thought of getting a receipt for hundreds of dollars was terrifying to him. He could barely afford house payments as it was. Originally, he and Melanie were splitting the cost. But that was clearly no longer in the cards.

He could ask his parents for help. They wouldn’t turn him away. They had already basically paid his way through college.

A drain…that’s all he was. A drain on their wallets…

Cooking his meal took nearly twice as long as it should have. Once he was finally sitting at the table and eating, he thought he could relax. But the pain was still there. Even something as little as lifting a fork caused him discomfort.

After a while, he glanced at the cellphone lying on the nearby counter. With a heavy sigh, he stood up from the table. It had to be done…

 

Tuesday.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s Carpal Tunnel.”

Daniel stared straight ahead at the white wall, a vacant look in his eyes. He could barely even register the words for a moment.

“Are…are you sure,” he asked finally.

“The tests are conclusive Mr. Tyner.”

“But…but how? All I do is play the piano.”

“It’s actually more common than you think,” the doctor explained. The man was of average height with a bald head and thin-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a white lab coat. “Repetitive use of your wrist in a particular way tends to cause the syndrome. Actions like playing the piano, for instance, rely on these heavily repetitive acts. Fortunately, your case is not severe.”

Daniel was silent for a moment.

“How will I play,” he asked.

The doctor shook his head.

“You won’t. You can’t. If you continue attempting to play in this condition, you will only make things worse. We’ll get you fitted with a brace to keep your wrist in the proper position.”

“How long will it last?”

“Well…it varies…but with your symptoms, I would guess a month.”

“A month?”

“At the very least.”

Daniel lowered his head, staring at his hands.

“A whole month,” he mumbled to himself, stunned.

“Don’t fret about it too much,” the doctor said. “With cases like yours, a full recovery is all but certain.”

Daniel barely heard him.

A month…

The words kept spinning around in his head.

A month

A month

A month

At the very least…

“I’ll be right back. And then we’ll get going on that brace, okay?”

“Okay,” Daniel said, his voice nearly a whisper.

Once the doctor was gone, Daniel could only stare at the ground. It was just so perfect. The one thing he enjoyed, the one thing that gave him purpose…and it was gone.

Despite all the frustration, the blocks, and the unfinished songs…playing the piano was, in a lot of ways, the only thing that kept him going. It was the only thing that made him feel like he was worth it. It was the only thing that he really had. He certainly had no other talents. He was terrible at social interaction. His failed relationship with Melanie was proof of that. Playing the piano was the one thing he felt like he was actually good at.

Well…on days when he could pull himself out of his self-imposed misery long enough to do it.

I had a chance, Daniel thought, and all I did was waste my time. With my luck, this shit will end up being permanent.

It felt like an eternity before the doctor finally came back. He left the hospital a half hour later, a white hunk of plaster wrapped over his right wrist. The cold wind chilled his face, hinting at the coming onslaught of winter. That’ll be fun, he thought. Cooped up in the house for months with nothing to do besides watch television. I’m sure looking forward to that.

At least my sarcasm will keep me company…

 

Wednesday. Thursday. Friday.

A whole week went by. Then another.

The Nameless One watched as Daniel woke, went to work, came back and slept. Nothing ever changed. His face was always the same. His routine was always the same.

But even then, there were subtle changes.

For those first few days after the doctor visit, Daniel spent a lot of time sitting in front of the piano, looking at it with a forlorn expression. He could tell Daniel wanted to play, needed to play. But it had been taken from him by something out of his control. Before, it had been his own frustration that was blocking him from progressing with his music. Now, his own hand had turned against him.

And Daniel knew it…that much he could tell. But whatever will had kept him playing even when inspiration seemed thin was gone. He spent most of his time sitting on the couch, watching the television…his vacant, sad eyes lit by bright liquid crystal displays. They were mostly vapid wastes of space…but every once in a while something about music would pop up. That was the only time he saw a reaction in Daniel. And it only hurt him more.

He ate. He slept. He worked. But it was as if the human known as Daniel was fading…being slowly replaced by a husk consumed with routine.

After two weeks, The Nameless One had seen enough. One night, he was standing at Daniel’s bedside, searching for something he could do.

He knew he had power. The light bulb…the girl on the train…he had demonstrated the ability to affect things, even if he couldn’t be seen. He had no way of understanding it, had no others like him that he could turn to. It was like instinct. And now, he was wondering…could he use that same instinct to heal Daniel?

He reached out again, focusing as much as he could. Blue, fiery fingers disappeared through the plaster of Daniel’s cast. And he could see it, the ribbons of muscle and flesh that made up his wrist. He could feel the tightness, the pain.

In one swift motion, he wished it all away…

 

The sharp blaring of the alarm pulled Daniel out of his dreamless sleep. With groggy eyes, he lifted his left hand and slapped the snooze button. Ugh, he thought, seven already? Feels like I barely got any sleep.

But that was common these days. How much time had actually passed since that doctor visit anyways? Weeks? Months? He could barely tell time anymore. Day after day it was the same damn thing. He woke up, took a shower, went to work, came back, ate and slept. Oh, and watched TV. He had watched more TV than he ever wanted to.

Getting out of bed, Daniel wrapped the brace in a plastic bag and made his way into the bathroom. But he didn’t watch where he was going and slammed his bad hand against the door frame.

“Gah,” he yelled aloud. “Fucking hell!”

He paused, gazing down at his wrist. Strange…there was no pain.

Then, a crazy thought occurred to him. He began attempting to flex his wrist. The cast held it firmly in place, but he could feel it shifting slightly. Still no pain…

A moment passed. Then he tore the bag off his hand and dashed for the phone.

 

“I…I’ve never seen anything like this.” The doctor was dumbfounded. “It’s as if the carpal tunnel never existed in the first place.”

“But how,” Daniel asked.

“I honestly can’t say. Maybe your condition wasn’t as severe as I thought and you healed quicker as a result. That would be the most logical conclusion.”

There was something in the doctor’s tone that bothered him.

“But what, doctor? What else is there,” he asked.

“Well…” the doctor began. Then he shook his head. “No…you’d think I was crazy.”

“Try me,” Daniel said.

“It’s like you’ve been…healed. You haven’t gone to any…mystical people or anything like that, have you?”

“…No.”

“I thought not,” the doctor said. “You didn’t strike me as the type who believed in that sort of junk. If you had and it had actually worked, I’d have to start seriously reconsidering my career. But even so…this is something I cannot explain.”

A crazy idea began to take shape in Daniel’s head. There was something that had been bothering him for the last few weeks. Lights had been turning off and on in the house. Electrical things had started acting funny. And then, there was the light bulb exploding. It was like he had a ghost in his house.

A ghost…

Daniel stood up suddenly.

“Are we done here,” he asked hastily.

“I do believe so…just give us a call if you need to make another appointment.”

“Will do,” he replied, already halfway out the door.

 

The front door slowly closed behind him as he stood still in the center of the foyer. There was nothing but silence.

“Hello,” Daniel asked aloud. “Is there anybody here?”

No answer. Of course not, he thought to himself. I’m just being stupid.

And yet, he couldn’t deny all of the strangeness that had happened over the last few weeks: the light bulb exploding, his laptop behaving erratically, even the girl on the train having her hair pulled from behind. It seemed ridiculous. There was a completely rational explanation for all of those things.

But sometimes, life was anything but rational.

“I know you’re here,” Daniel said to the seemingly empty house. “Can you show yourself?”

For a moment, there was nothing. Then suddenly, the light bulb above him began to flicker. A brief pang of fear hit him, as he was afraid it might explode again. But it didn’t. Daniel watched the flicker, certain there was something oddly familiar about it.

He heard a click. Voices came from the next room.

“-when a pickup truck lost control on Highway 4 and spun across the median into on-coming traffic, colliding with a four-door sedan. Four people were involved in the crash. There were no fatalities, but the driver of the pickup truck was taken to the hospital with possible life threatening injuries.”

Daniel walked through the doorway. The flat screen television he had spent so many hours staring at over the past couple of weeks had turned on as if of its own accord. A woman with blond hair and hazel eyes, wearing a black blazer, was droning on about the day’s traffic accidents.

The television clicked off. A sudden change in lighting drew Daniel’s eye. The light fixture situated above the piano was flickering, as if something was affecting it with its mere presence. He walked toward it, squinting. The flickering had a strange timing to it…a pattern. He knew it…but from where?

Tick…tick…tick…

It all fell into place. The rhythm the light was flickering to…it was the same exact rhythm of the song he had been trying to write for months now.

He had to be dreaming. It was impossible.

And yet, it made sense…somehow.

Daniel had gotten the sense a number of times over the past month that he was being watched. Only, whenever he turned, there was no one there. But still, the hairs on his arm would stand on end, his skin prickled with goosebumps.

Something was in the house with him. But why?

Operating on an almost dream-like instinct, Daniel sat down at the piano and lifted the cover off the keys. It had only been a couple weeks since he touched the thing, but it looked dusty and forgotten. He brushed off the keys and looked up at the unfinished sheet of music still sitting there. Even now, he couldn’t visualize the end of it. But something was compelling him to try.

It was a slight tingling at first, concentrated around his cheeks. Then, it gradually moved to his shoulders, growing into an almost uncomfortable sensation of warmth. He had a flash, an image in his mind of hands made of blue fire. The sensation grew stronger and stronger until-

 

Two became one.

“What…what is this?”

It does not matter

“What…are you?”

It does not matter

“It matters to me. How long have you been watching me?”

Long enough

“So what…you just invaded my house without asking? Did you even stop for a moment to consider that I might value my privacy?”

Privacy? I do not understand that word

“Of course you don’t.”

It does not matter

“What does matter then?”

Keep playing…

“I-I’ve tried. I can’t. Every time I start to play, I just hit a block and I-”

Keep playing…

“I just told you. I can’t. I-”

The warm sensation grew stronger. Daniel felt his muscles relax of their own accord.

Do not focus on the prospects of failure. Do not focus on the fear of disappointing those whose opinions you give great power. None of that matters. All that matters…is the music. Keep playing…

“But how will I know if it’s right?”

Right or wrong have no meaning. Just keep playing…

 

Daniel laid his fingers on the ivory keys, feeling an intense wave of trepidation as he did so. The familiar voices reared up in his mind.

You’ll never succeed…

There is only disappointment if you keep trying…

No one will ever-

And then suddenly, they vanished. It was as if they had been swept aside by a cascading flood, washed away into oblivion. Instead, there was only one voice, powerful and clear.

Keep playing…

He pushed a key down. A powerful, strong note of music filled the room, echoing off the walls.

And then, his fingers grew a mind of their own. The music flowed effortlessly and perfectly, without hesitation or provocation. He could feel the song in the air, could see the progression as if it was just natural and instinctive. The notes seemed to float in the air in front of him, little black stems flying past as he played. All other colors in the room seemed to fade and grow dull while the piano and its keys grew stronger in hue, sharp and focused.

For a moment, he thought he must be having a stroke or something. He figured he would wake up on the floor, numb and drooling. But it never happened. And the music just kept coming.

It was so perfect. And then, it was over.

Daniel lifted his fingers off the key, feeling the stress just washing away.

That’s it…you did it. Just keep playing…keep playing and you’ll be happy…

He stared at the keys for a long time in silence, his body tingling with wonder.

“But why did you help me,” he asked.

There was no answer. Whatever it was had gone.

But what it left behind was more important…

 

Things happened quickly after that.

Daniel finally managed to hammer out a full album of piano music and posted it online. It didn’t get much traction for the first two or three weeks. But then, after being featured on a prominent music blog, things exploded faster than he could react. Suddenly, his music had hundreds of views. Then thousands.

It was more than he knew what to do with.

A local music store began selling physical copies of his music. Daniel even held a couple of signings. Virtually overnight, he had become a local celebrity.

It was late December now, and Daniel had just finished writing a new song. With a smile, he lowered the cover onto the keys and gazed out the window. It was certainly going to be a white Christmas this year. Even now, large clumps of white powder were falling from the sky, blanketing the suburbs.

He was even okay with the regurgitated, commercialized Christmas music playing everywhere this time of year. Nothing could bother him now that he found his purpose again.

A pounding noise came from the entryway. Someone was at the door. He went to open it.

Standing on the front steps, clad in a bright red coat dripping with snow, was Melanie.

“Hi…Daniel,” she said, her voice a little sheepish.

“Hey Mel,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“I…I understand if you don’t want to see me right now,” she said, her eyes downcast. “We didn’t exactly leave things on the best of terms last time.”

Daniel waved it off.

“Ah…that’s all in the past,” he said. “Come on in.”

Melanie looked surprised, but a moment later stepped in, stomping her boots on the carpet and pulling them off along with her coat. She followed him into the kitchen as he grabbed a glass of water. A minute later, they were both sitting at the dining room table.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing better,” Melanie said. “I saw one of your CD’s at the music store the other day and I knew I had to buy it. I’m going to listen to it on my way to my parent’s house for Christmas.”

“Oh yeah, don’t they live like three hours south of here,” Daniel asked.

“Yeah…it’ll be a long drive, especially with the holiday traffic. But I’m looking forward to it. After all, I’ve got your music to keep me company.”

Daniel took a drink of water.

“I hope I don’t seem too forward…but what changed,” Melanie asked. “When we broke up, you were so distant and withdrawn. Now…it’s like you’re a completely different person.”

Daniel set the glass down. It took him a moment to find the words.

“I think it was time,” he said, looking up at her. “That’s all.”

“You must hate me,” she said, her eyes drifting downward. “After the way I treated you, I couldn’t blame you if you did.”

“No no Mel,” he assured her, placing his hand on top of hers. “The only person I hated was myself.”

“What do you mean,” she asked, meeting his gaze.

Daniel sighed.

“It’s…difficult to explain. But for the longest time, I couldn’t write any music. There were all these little voices in my head, telling me that I was just going to fail and disappoint everyone. And I listened to those voices. I let them get to me.”

“And now?”

“Now…I think I finally managed to silence them. I realized that it’s not about success or failure or disappointment…it’s about doing what you want to do. And if success comes from that, then it’s just a nice by-product.”

Daniel shrugged.

“Of course that’s easy for me to say now,” he added, “given that I’m so rich and famous.”

Melanie laughed.

“Yeah…you’re a regular celebrity.”

“Ha…piano music will never be as popular as I want it to be. But even so, there’s still an audience for it.”

“Maybe you should branch out a little,” Melanie suggested. “Start adding lyrics or maybe some other instruments. I know this one group that got really big online. They fused familiar classic music with things like electronic rock. Maybe there’s something in that for you.”

Daniel’s eyes lit up.

“You know what? That’s a great idea Mel. Thank you for supporting me.”

“It’s the least I could do…after everything that happened between us.” She paused for a moment. “Speaking of which…do you think there’s a chance we could make it work again? I mean…between us?”

Daniel smiled at her, a wide and pleasant grin.

“No,” he said.

Her mouth quivered in confusion.

“Wha…why,” she stammered.

“It just wouldn’t work out,” he explained. “I know that, and I think you do too.”

“Was…was it something I said?”

“No no…things are never that simple. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t me. It was both of us.”

“What do you mean,” she asked.

Daniel thought for a moment.

“I think…what it comes down to…is that we both wanted something that the other couldn’t give.”

Melanie nodded.

“That’s pretty profound.” She flashed him a sly smile. “So, where’d you get that line from? A movie?”

They both laughed. Daniel looked her right in the eyes.

“I could see us still being friends though,” he said.

She smiled at him.

“I’d like that.”

A profound silence passed between them. Then, Melanie pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, glancing at the screen.

“Well…I should probably hit the road,” she said, getting up from the table. “I’ve got a long drive ahead of me.”

“That you do,” Daniel said. He got up and escorted her to the door. She slipped her boots and coat on. A minute later, they were standing on the front steps again.

“What are you doing for Christmas,” she asked. “Going to see your parents?”

He shook his head.

“Nah,” he replied.

“What? That’s sad…you’re going to be alone for the holidays?”

He shook his head again.

“No…they’re coming up here.” He grinned. “We’re going to celebrate my newfound stardom.”

Melanie laughed again.

“That sounds nice,” she said. She smiled at him for a moment. “Well, I’d best be going. See you in the new year!”

Daniel waved at her as she got into her car. It fired to life a moment later and then it drove off out of sight. But Daniel didn’t go inside right away. Instead, he stood on the steps and turned his head to the sky, watching the snowflakes fall to the ground.

He still wasn’t sure if what happened to him that day actually happened, if there was actually someone or some thing that wanted to help him find his passion for music again. It could have easily been a dream, a figment of his imagination. But in the end, Daniel knew it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it helped him turn the page on one chapter in his life and begin another.

A minute later, Daniel stepped back inside the warm house and closed the door.

 

Months passed.

Somewhere else, in a small, one bedroom apartment, a young man was painting. But he wasn’t having a good time of it. Every little bit he painted looked like nothing more than a third grader’s art project. He lowered his brush from the canvas with a sigh.

The sound of the television in the background grabbed his attention. Normally it was just white noise to help him concentrate. But now, something was drawing him in.

“Welcome back, and good morning,” a brunette woman with a red dress was saying. “We are joined today by a local man who has made a name for himself over the last year. He started off by making traditional piano music, but his latest album fuses classical piano with the stylings of modern electronic music to create something truly unique. Please welcome, as a guest to our show, Daniel Tyner!”

The show cut to a wide shot, showing a man with dark green eyes and reddish hair sitting in a chair across from the anchorwoman. He was dressed in a clean black polo shirt with tan dress pants. A black microphone was clipped to his lapel.

“Daniel,” the woman said, turning to face him. “I’d like to thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me,” he replied.

“Now, I’ll skip the part where I ask you where you get your ideas from.”

Daniel laughed.

“Thanks…I hate that question.”

“I know you do. Instead, I wanted to ask you something a little personal. You’ve made it no secret that you struggled with depression for a long time. Care to tell us a little about that experience?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “It’s a little hard to put in the right words…but for a long time I felt trapped inside myself. Any time I tried to make music, I would get these little voices in my head. And they’d keep saying things like ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘no one will ever think you’re good’, things like that.”

“That sounds rough,” the anchor replied.

“It was,” Daniel admitted.

“So, this might seem like a broad question, what got you through it?”

Daniel didn’t say anything for a moment. He looked down at his hands, deep in thought.

“I told a friend of mine this a while ago…but I think it was just the right time for me. I had finally found what I needed to get through that funk I’d been having.”

“Do you have any advice for other artists who might be suffering from the same thing?”

“The only thing I can say is: don’t lose hope. Keep your mind and your heart open. Because inspiration can show up at the most unlikely of times.

“Well,” the woman said, “certainly seems like you found your muse.”

Daniel chuckled.

“I think it would be more adequate to say my muse found me.”

“Well I think that’s all the time we have for now. Thanks again for joining us Daniel, and we’ll be right back after a short commercial break.”

The anchor and Daniel shook hands as the camera zoomed away from them. The scene faded to black and was replaced by the chattering of advertisements.

Lucky for you, the painter thought bitterly. He turned back to his canvas, the very sight of it upsetting him. But what could he possibly do to make it better? All he had been trying to do was paint the scene outside his window, but he couldn’t even do that.

There was a slight tingling in his shoulders…a warmth that grew and grew as the seconds passed.

Then, there was a voice inside his mind.

Keep painting…

 

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.  I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a happy New Year.

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Let’s Talk About Creative Risks

 

So it’s finally out…Episode 8.  “The Last Jedi”.  And fan reaction to it has been…well…all across the board.

There’s no denying that the movie is different.  It does not progress in the way you would expect a traditional Star Wars film to progress.  It does not do the things you would expect a normal Star Wars movie to do.  And some people loved it.  Other people hated it.  I found myself in the former category.  I liked it because it was different.  But some people didn’t, and that’s perfectly okay.

However, I do think it highlights the importance of taking creative risks every once in a while.

In North America, “The Last Jedi” opened with a box office of roughly 220 million dollars.  By contrast, “The Force Awakens” opened with 248 million.  I bring this up because I know some people are going to point to it and use it as proof that “The Last Jedi” is a weaker movie than “The Force Awakens”.  But that’s not really accurate.  The amount of hype surrounding this movie was unreal.  People were going to see it regardless.  It’s highly doubtful that the film’s quality or perceived lack thereof would have much of an impact.  They could have made a movie that mirrored “Empire Strikes Back” in the same way that “The Force Awakens” mirrored “A New Hope”, and it probably would have had a similar box office result.

On the contrary, I think that “The Last Jedi” being different is what will make it stand the test of time better than “The Force Awakens”.  That’s not to say the movie is perfect by any means.  “Last Jedi” certainly has its flaws.  But when compared to “Force Awakens”, “Last Jedi” feels like an actual progression of Star Wars rather than a nostalgic rehashing.

First off, the obvious: “Force Awakens” cribs from “A New Hope”…and it shows.  Many of the story beats are nearly identical, down to the “orphan on a desert planet” routine and the massive planet-destroying battle station.  I mean they even have a character call it the “Death Star 3”, to which another character essentially says “but this time it’s different because it’s a planet…see?”  There’s nothing like fake self-awareness as an attempt to cover up lazy writing.  And that’s to say nothing about Rey being almost impossibly good at everything, almost to the point of being a Mary Sue (an idealized or perfect fictional character that is often seen as a form of wish fulfillment).

In that sense, “Last Jedi” feels like the stronger movie because it isn’t bound by the relics of the past, but instead informed by them.  In some ways, it takes the tropes of Star Wars and turns them on their heads.  I hesitate to say any more for fear of spoilers, but it definitely does not follow the standard Star Wars format.  I don’t think “Force Awakens” is a bad movie, and I see why they had to make it the way they did, what with “A New Hope” being nearly forty years old.  But there’s a difference between using nostalgia to bolster a film and using it as a crutch.  “Force Awakens” tended toward the latter in my book.

If “Last Jedi” does end up performing better than “Force Awakens” (which it very well could), then it’ll stand as a testament to the value of taking risks, especially within an already established franchise.  Think of it this way: if Marvel had never taken the risk to try creating a massively interconnected cinematic universe, the way we see storytelling in movies wouldn’t have evolved the way it had.  Sure, nowadays Marvel movies often feel like factory regurgitations of the same old tropes, but at the time creating such an interconnected series of stories was unheard of.  And if anything, the stylized “Thor: Ragnarok” proved that taking risks can pay off, as the movie was one of the most well-liked comic book movies of this year.

Let me put it another way: remember the craze with alien invasion movies back in the early 2000’s?  Why do you think they eventually died out?  Because people got sick of seeing the same old characters, the same old stories.  It got too predictable and mundane.  We can only see so many movies about the undaunted human spirit triumphing in the face of superior alien technology before it becomes rote and dull.  In that sense, the main Star Wars series was due for something different.

Whether it pays off in the long run remains to be seen…

 

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

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

Out of Mind

Welcome to the eleventh of twelve!

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

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

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

 

“Dropping out in three…two…one…”

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

“Location,” the captain asked.

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

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

“Excellent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damage?”

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

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

“Here cap’n,” a voice responded.

“How are things looking down there?’

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

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

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

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

“Is something wrong,” he asked aloud.

An unseen voice spoke in his right ear.

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

“Okay. What do you need me to do?”

“Just relax and focus. What happened next?”

Sidney took a deep breath.

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

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

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

“And so you went to your quarters?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“What did the two of you talk about?”

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

“Can you remember which one?”

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

“Sorry si-I mean…sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is it,” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“Ah yes…please, do come in.”

The doors slid open and Sidney stepped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I read, sir.”

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

“Books mostly.”

“Non-fiction?”

“Fiction sir.”

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

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

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

Thump thump…thump thump…thump thump…

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

“Sidney? What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

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

Not here, he thought. Not now…

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

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

“-again! Sidney, stop!”

Crunch…squelch…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pull him out right fucking now!!

 

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

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

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

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

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

“You weren’t told,” another asked.

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

There was another moment of silence in the room.

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

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

 

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

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

And now it was nothing more than a ghost ship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mouth curl again.

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

Moss scoffed.

“And I haven’t?”

Impav’s expression remained unflinching.

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

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

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

Moss’ eyes narrowed, glowing with fiery fury.

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

Impav straightened himself up.

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

Moss stared at him, incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To do my goddamn job!”

 

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

God I hate this conversation…

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

“Sidney Lehmann?”

“Yes?”

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

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

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

Sidney rubbed his forehead.

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

Moss clasped his hands together.

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

“I’m back at Earth?”

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

“Incident? What incident?”

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

Sidney’s face went pale.

“The crew? Are they…” He trailed off.

Moss sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why am I here,” Sidney asked.

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

“But…how? I don’t remember anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he said finally.

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

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

“Yes…yes you have.”

Sidney paused for a moment.

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

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

“Three months?”

“Yeah…”

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

“So…when do we start,” Sidney asked.

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

“Let’s do it.”

“You sure kid?”

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

“I want to know what happened to me.”

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

Moss stood up and began to leave.

“Hey…Mr. Moss?”

Moss paused and turned around.

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“Certainly.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right Sidney, you ready?”

“I think so.”

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

 

The ship’s alarm shrieked.

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

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

“Damage?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“What about?”

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

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

“No…I prefer to read.”

There was a pause.

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

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

“Anything else you need me to do here?”

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

Sidney pondered for a moment.

“Actually…there is.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” he said finally.

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

“I’m fine,” Sidney insisted.

Cecil shot him a disbelieving look.

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

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

“Later man.”

 

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

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

“No.”

“I wonder why.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Complying…time stamp recorded.”

“Excellent.”

“So what next,” the lab tech asked.

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

 

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

“Books mostly.”

“Non-fiction?”

“Fiction sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

In…and out.

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

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

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

“What is it sir,” Sidney asked.

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

Sidney’s heart jumped.

“Yes…”

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

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

The captain turned away from the screen.

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

Sidney’s eyes went wide.

“Wha-what do you mean?”

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

“As in…it was created?”

“Exactly.”

“But then…who made it?”

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

“I don’t understand.”

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

“So it’s invisible to sensors?”

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

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

“What…what do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

The captain pondered for a moment.

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

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

“Moss?! What’s going on,” he shouted.

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

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

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

In…and out, he thought. In……and out.

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

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

“What? How is that possible?”

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

“I’ll try.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sidney?”

“Yes?”

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

That didn’t sound good.

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

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

There was a moment of silence.

“Okay Sidney, get ready…in three…”

Sidney took a deep breath.

“Two…”

His hands twitched.

“One.”

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

                                                                                                               skull

                                                                                                               skull

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

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     never

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

The man screamed as the bullets tore

                                                             tore

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

                   click

                   click

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

The stench of sizzling flesh

                                        flesh

                                        flesh

                                        flesh

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

The screams

       screams

       screams

       screams

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

Eventually, Sidney realized that the screams were his own.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? What is it,” he asked.

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

Ice filled Moss’ veins.

“How many?”

“Excuse me sir?”

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

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

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

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

“Sedate him and shut it down!”

“But sir-” one of the techs began.

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

 

“Mr. Moss? What happened in there?”

Moss remained silent and sat staring at his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Moss-”

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

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

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

Impav averted his gaze in an almost embarrassed manner.

“I…peruse them when I have the time.”

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The alien squinted.

“I do not understand what that means.”

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

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

“Is it true?”

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

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

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

Another brief silence.

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

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

“Mr. Moss-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The sound of the automatic door opening reached his ears.

“Hello, Mr. Moss.”

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

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

Moss held up a hand to stop him.

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

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

“Let’s hear it.”

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

Moss sighed.

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

“I must disagree.”

Moss looked up in surprise.

“What?”

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

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

Ardan chuckled.

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

Moss had to smile a little.

“I guess I’m not.”

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

“Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Moss’ eyes went wide.

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

“That is precisely what I mean.”

His brain went into overdrive.

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

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

Moss got up from his seat.

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

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

Moss sighed.

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

 

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

“Sidney Lehmann,” he asked as he entered.

“That’s me.”

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

They shook hands.

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

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

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

“I’m back at Earth?”

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

Sidney had a vacant look on his face.

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

 

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

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

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

“And those two individuals will be…?”

“Why, you and I of course.”

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

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

“Hey Sid,” Moss said.

“Yeah,” came the reply.

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

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

Me too bud, he thought. Me too…

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

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

Moss gave the window a thumbs up.

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

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

“Synchronization in three…two…”

 

“One.”

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

“Did it work,” he asked aloud.

“Yes…it appears so.”

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

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

“Yes,” came the reply.

Moss turned around to find Sidney standing directly behind him.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From there, it was just going through the motions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The captain pondered for a moment.

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

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

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

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

Sidney turned to him, his eyes wild with fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not again…Sidney!

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

SIDNEY,” Moss screamed as loud as he could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you recognize him?”

Sidney squinted.

“No,” he replied.

“That’s because he never existed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They are blue, Mr. Lehmann.”

Sidney was shocked.

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

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

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

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

Sidney closed his eyes…

 

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

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

“Exactly.”

“But…what ship?”

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

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

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

Sidney remembered.

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

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

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

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

A light bulb went on in Sidney’s head.

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

The captain turned to him.

“What do you mean,” he asked.

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

“I’m not following…”

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

The captain’s eyes lit up.

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

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

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

“I’ll go with,” Sidney volunteered.

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

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

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

“Good luck sir,” he said.

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

 

“I…I remember.”

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

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

“So what did you do,” Moss asked.

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

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

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

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

 

“What could have torn it off like that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I…I don’t want to alarm you…”

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

“Well-”

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

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

“Cecil…what is it,” Sidney asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door slammed shut and the lift began to ascend.

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

Just then, the door opened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was only one option: hide.

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

Sidney sprinted around the corner.

And tripped.

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

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

“Oh god,” he said aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

They had all killed each other…

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

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

Now there was nothing to do but wait…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go away, he thought. Go…away!

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

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

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

Sidney stared.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sidney didn’t look too reassured by that.

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

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

“But…but I-”

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

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

“Good,” Moss said. “Now…we need to-”

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

“What the,” he mumbled.

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

“What the hell is-”

Suddenly, all three of them grabbed their heads.

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

“What is this,” Sidney cried out.

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

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

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

 

Moss blinked.

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

Moss glanced around the room, utterly confused.

“Where…is everyone?”

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

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

Moss’ eyes lit up with horror.

“We’ve done this before,” he said.

Ardan turned to him.

“What?”

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

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

“We already had this conversation. This already happened!

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

“You mean…our memories have been altered?”

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

 

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

Blood. It was blood

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

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

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

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

Sidney blinked.

“What the-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It hit him all at once.

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

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

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

A shake of the head…

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

A nod…

“Why…why did this all happen?”

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

Sidney understood.

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

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

“You’re alone…alone and scared.”

Sidney held out his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smile…she wrapped her arms around him…

“You took me here, right?”

A nod…

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

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

He knew this place.

He loved this place…

Sidney understood.

“I can take you there…”

 

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

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

“A hunch,” Moss shouted back.

Just then, an alarm sounded throughout the station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ardan gave him a grim look.

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

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

And then it was gone.

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

“Sidney…” he muttered.

 

Two weeks passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moss thought for a moment.

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

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

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

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

Moss shrugged.

“Maybe it wanted to go home.”

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

“What is it,” he asked.

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

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“It’s the Celeste sir…she’s back.”

 

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

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

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

Sidney squinted.

“No,” he said. “Should I?”

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

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

Sidney thought for a moment.

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

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

Sidney shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“You lied to him,” Ardan said.

“Yes,” Moss stated. “I did.”

“Why,” the alien demanded.

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

“You should not have lied.”

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

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

Moss shook his head.

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

Ardan squinted at him.

“What do you mean,” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“Maybe…some things are better left forgotten.”

 

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Moonlight

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

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

 

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

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

“Depth at one-point-nine kilometers.”

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

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

“Depth at two-point-two kilometers.”

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

“Depth at two-point-five kilometers.”

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

“Depth at two-point-nine kilometers.”

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

“Depth at three-point-one kilometers.”

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

“Depth at three-point-four kilometers.”

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

“Warning…impact in seven hundred meters.”

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

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

“Impact in five hundred meters.”

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

“Impact in three hundred meters.”

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

“Impact in one hundred meters”

His breathing was heavy.

“Impact in fifty meters”

His hands began to shake.

“Impact in twenty meters.”

Thomas braced himself.

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

The world was swallowed by darkness…

 

“Thomas Haskins?”

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

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

“For the most part,” Thomas said.

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

“I’m familiar with them,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“But sir, the guy’s weird.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

He had certainly seen better days.

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

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

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

“Computer, status report,” he ordered.

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

“How much air do I have left?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unknown.”

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

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

And then it opened its mouth.

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

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

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

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

That’s when it hit him.

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

“Depth is four-point-two kilometers.”

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

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

 

A static buzzing told him it had worked.

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

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

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

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

He paused. There was no response.

“Pod One, come in. Come in Pod One.”

Pause. Silence.

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

Music…piano music to be precise.

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

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

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

Warm, familiar hands encircled his neck.

“Hey…remember me?”

He remembered.

 

It felt like a lifetime ago.

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

Piano music…soft, yet clear.

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

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

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

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

Thomas pushed the door open as gently as he could.

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

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

Oh geez,” she exclaimed.

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

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

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

“I can understand that,” he replied.

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

“I’m Tom,” he said. “Tom Haskins.”

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

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

She laughed.

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

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

“No…I’m a business major.”

“A business major?” Thomas was incredulous.

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

Thomas nodded.

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

“Marine biology.”

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

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

“I couldn’t agree more,” she said.

Another period of silence passed between them.

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

She smiled again. He already loved that smile.

“You know what? I’d like that.”

 

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

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

Thomas was frozen, continuing to stare. Claire frowned.

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

“I…you…you can’t…” Thomas stammered.

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

He paused for a moment.

“Your eyes…” he mumbled.

“What about ’em?”

“They were never brown…”

The vision that claimed to be his wife shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed.

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

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

“Have you tried calling for help?”

“I have…but I got no response.”

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

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

“Why didn’t I think of that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire leaned in close to him.

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

Thomas leaned into her touch.

“No…I suppose it doesn’t,” he said.

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

Part of him recoiled at the thought.

Another part of him figured it didn’t matter.

“So…what do you think of the view?”

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

 

He remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m a marine biologist.”

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

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

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

It was Claire that needed convincing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does that lead,” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good to hear,” Thomas replied.

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

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

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

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

Claire leaned against him.

“I know you do.”

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

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

“Honey? What’s wrong?”

She broke free from his embraced and stared at him.

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

He stared at her.

“Wha-what?”

“Wake up Tom,” she said again.

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

“Ugh…what’s going on?!”

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

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

Her eyes were brown…

 

“Tom, for god’s sake wake up!”

His eyes snapped open and he gasped.

“What…what’s happening,” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“Tom, get up,” Claire said.

“I…I can’t. My head…”

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

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

“Tom?”

His eyes drooped. The world began to fade.

“Oh no you don’t.”

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

Ow,” he complained.

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

“Get moving,” she ordered.

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

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

The amber hologram in the back seemed to sway back and forth as he stared at it. Nevertheless, Thomas summoned the strength and took a step. Then another. And another. He felt like a baby learning to walk for the first time. After what felt like minutes, he found himself standing in front of the screen. In his current state, the words on the hologram might as well have been gibberish. They flitted in and out of focus.

“Tom?”

“I’m working on it, okay,” he muttered.

He reached out and tapped a button.

“Air control,” he mumbled. “CO2 scrubbers…offline…not enough power.”

“You need to re-route the power Tom. Or else you’ll suffocate.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he grumbled to himself. After an agonizing minute, during which Thomas was certain he would pass out, he managed to navigate his way to power distribution. As he stared at them, the words on the hologram seemed to pulse and shimmer.

“What…what can I…what can I take power away from,” he mumbled to himself.

He looked over his shoulder at the front window and an idea struck him. Turning back to the screen, Thomas swiped his fingers across the hologram. Almost instantaneously, the world outside grew darker. A loud clunk echoed through the pod.

“CO2 scrubbers online…air quality improving,” the computer announced.

“Well done,” Claire said.

Thomas turned around and leaned against the wall, sliding down onto the floor.

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

He stared up at her, his eyes growing misty.

“Why…why are you here,” he asked, a faint tremor in his voice.

Claire didn’t respond.

“Is it to torment me? Is that it? Is this some kind of cruel joke?! Are you punishing me?!”

“Tom…I-“

No,” he screamed. “Just go! I don’t want you here!

“Tom please-“

He scrunched his eyes shut.

Leave! Leave! Leave! Just leave me the hell alone!

His words bounced off the metal walls, a shrieking and cacophonous echo. He kept his eyes closed for what must have been half a minute. When he finally opened them again, the apparition of Claire was gone.

Thomas stared off into space for a long time, his body dull and numb. Then, he laid down on the ground and began to silently weep.

 

He remembered.

It happened…neither of them wanted it to happen, but it did. After buying the house, a couple of years went past. And they drifted apart.

It wasn’t anything dramatic…there wasn’t any big fight between them. It was just the passage of time. Thomas spent more and more time at work, less and less time at home. And Claire noticed. She never said anything, but he could tell she resented him for it. When he returned home late at night she was almost always playing the piano. Usually, she would stop and they would talk for a few minutes before Thomas went up to bed.

But even that gradually came to an end.

On one night in particular, the sky was clear and the moon was high. There was a light breeze coming from the forest that brushed against his hair as he emerged from the car. He made his way up the front steps and opened the door. Immediately, he heard the sound of the piano. He stopped in the entryway and watched as she played, her face lit only by a tiny lamp and the glow of the full moon.

If she even knew he had entered, she didn’t show it. Not that it mattered. They hardly talked anymore.

As he stood there, he felt a pang in his chest. There was no physical reason for it. But watching her play awoke something inside him briefly…yearning for the past…fear for the future. A swirl of feelings and thoughts overtook him. His hand reached out toward her of its own accord. He wanted to say something…anything.

But it faded. And then it was gone, nothing more than a fleeting ghost of a thought.

Thomas turned away and started walking up the stairs. About halfway up, he heard the piano abruptly stop. He froze in place…hoping feverishly that Claire would come out of the parlor and talk to him, urge him to come back down and sit with her.

But a moment later, the music began anew. She was lost to him.

When he reached the top of the stairs instead of walking into the master bedroom he entered one of the smaller rooms and sat down on a small, green cot. He had slept there for the past few months, whenever he came home. He gave her the master bedroom because he felt she deserved it more than he did. He barely stayed in the house anymore.

Thomas passed the time in silence, just listening to the faint music coming up from below. Eventually he got up and closed the door, shutting the music out. He undressed, pulled on his sleeping clothes, and climbed into the cot.

It was a long time before his mind let him drift off to sleep…

 

Time passed slowly as Thomas sat in the chair. The pod felt more like a coffin with each passing minute.

There was no response to the distress call. He was either too deep or the radio was too damaged to get the signal out. He couldn’t tell and, in the end, he didn’t care. He could have accepted death. He could have accepted dying down in this cold, darkened pit by himself.

What he couldn’t accept…was her.

She was like the universe’s last chance to have a laugh at his expense…a way to have some cruel fun with him before he suffocated. No one was coming for him down here. They had to know he was missing. They were supposed to check in once every twenty minutes. And now hours had gone by.

Which reminded him…

“Computer…how much air do I have left,” he said, his voice barely audible.

“Oxygen reserves will last for approximately forty-three minutes and seven seconds.”

So this is it then, he thought. This is where I die. They’ll never find me down here. This trench is massive. They’ll probably assume I sank all the way to the bottom and was crushed into a tin can by the pressure. They’ll have gone back to the ship. Maybe they’re arranging a funeral for me already…not that I deserve one.

From somewhere outside, he heard a deep groan. He couldn’t see it, but he knew that whale creature was out there somewhere. It was strange, but its call sounded somehow…sad…like a cry of regret.

Me too buddy, he thought. Me too…

He sensed her presence before he saw her.

“What do you want,” he asked bitterly.

There was a brief silence.

“Tom…I’m sorry…I didn’t realize how much this would upset you,” she said.

His head snapped up, anger flaring in his eyes.

“How could you not know,” he snarled. “How could you possibly think that I would be okay with you being here?”

Claire stared at her feet for a moment.

“You still haven’t forgiven yourself, have you,” she asked, lifting her eyes to meet his.

“How the hell could I,” he asked. “It’s my fault…my fault you-” He broke off, tears swelling in his eyes. Claire stepped forward, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“You can’t possibly blame yourself for that.”

“Watch me,” he said, giving her a hard stare. “I’ve been doing it for the last two fucking years.”

“There was no way you could have known what would happen.”

“But I still drove you away, didn’t I? I drove you away and then-“

He broke off, his eyes going misty again.

“…and then you were gone forever.”

 

He remembered.

What do you want from me Claire? They need me out there. They need me to do my job.

But what about us Tom? I’ve spent so many nights sitting in that damn parlor playing the piano by myself.

What do you want me to say? I’m sorry, okay! I can’t help it. Things come up.

Things always come up…

What the hell does that mean?!

I…I just…I barely feel like you’re there anymore. Even when you’re home, it’s like your mind is a million miles away. I hate it!

You knew what you were getting into Claire! I told you I was studying to be a marine biologist the night we met!

Oh, so now it’s MY fault?

I didn’t say that…

You’re ridiculous Tom!

Claire I…where are you going? Claire? Claire?! CLAIRE!!

The fight was still on his mind as he pushed his way through the throngs of people running around in a panic. The months of silence…the things they said to each other that morning…they all seemed so unnecessary and petty now. The frustration he had felt was replaced with unbridled terror.

Please let her be okay, he kept thinking. Please…

He had seen the news reports. The annual town’s parade celebration had been brutally interrupted when gunfire started ringing out through Main Street. People fled in a panic, trampling each other as they tried to get to cover

At least thirty people dead they had said.

When he finally saw where it was, panic seized him in its iron grip. The library was right in the line of fire. He knew that’s where Claire would go to have some peace and quiet. It’s where she would go to think.

Please…please…

The news hadn’t said much…just that the suspect opened fire on the parade from the fourth floor of a nearby building. No one knew who they were or why they did it. But Thomas knew they would tell him every sordid detail of the shooter’s life in the coming weeks. They always did. Like hungry flies on a fresh corpse, they would greedily suck up every bit of information they could.

Please…oh god please…

He finally made it through the crowd and found himself at a police barricade.

“Everybody, move back,” an officer was shouting. “Move back! We need you to stay back!”

Even through the barricade he could see the body bags…the stretchers. The stench of iron and death hung in the air like a thick mist. The once-vibrant Main Street looked like it had been utterly drained of color.

“Move back! Move back,” the officer was still shouting when Thomas stepped forward. He held up a photo of Claire.

“Have you seen this woman,” he shouted over the fray.

“Sir please I-move back,” the officer shouted at someone who was trying to push through the blockade.

“Please, I just need to know if you’ve seen her,” Thomas insisted.

“Sir I can’t help you right now.”

“God damn it, I just need to know if you’ve seen her!”

The police officer turned and gave him a stern look.

“Sir, listen…I’ve had about fifty different people asking me that question in the last ten minutes. I can’t answer you because I honestly don’t know. There’s too much chaos right now. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

Thomas was on the verge of screaming at the officer when he suddenly caught the eye of another man. He was a younger person: dark skin, blue eyes and black hair. He was wearing a torn up gray t-shirt and black pants. A faint trickle of blood marred his cheek. He wasn’t staring at Thomas, but rather at the picture he was holding.

“My god…” the man said aloud.

Thomas held the picture out toward him.

“You’ve seen her? Please…tell me where she is. Tell me she’s okay!”

The man bit his lip. And then he knew.

“No…” Thomas whimpered quietly, the picture falling to his side.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “It happened right in front of me.”

“Sir, please,” a paramedic said, running up to him. “We still need to get you checked out.”

After shooting one final glance at Thomas, the man begrudgingly followed the medic into the ambulance.

Thomas stood still for what must have been a solid minute. Then he turned his back on the barricade and stumbled through the crowd, numb and cold. All sound around him seemed to dissipate, shrinking into a dull roar. He got away from the people and sat alone on the sidewalk. The sky was a smooth shade of gray. Rain was on the horizon.

He didn’t have to fight back the screams.

He didn’t have to fight back the tears.

There was nothing but a dull, thumping absence of feeling. It was emptiness, a void in his heart.

He took the one person he cared about more than anything for granted, and now she was gone…

 

“I couldn’t be in that house anymore,” Thomas said. “I wanted to get away…I had to get far away from it. Every time I was there, all I’d do was sit at that goddamn piano. I would just stare at it, hoping that you’d walk through that door and I’d find out it was all some horrible dream.”

“But it wasn’t a dream, Tom…it happened,” Claire said. “It happened…and it hurts. But…you need to move on. This is not healthy.”

Don’t you think I fucking know that,” he snapped. “Don’t you think I know that every single day I dwell on this is unhealthy?! Don’t you think I know that every single sleepless night I have in that god damn house is unhealthy?! Do you think I enjoy doing this to myself? Is that it? You think this is somehow fun for me?!”

“No…no, of course not.” Claire cocked her head to the side. “But…it’s been two years Tom.” She knelt in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders. “You need to remember me as the person I was…not as the victim who died.”

He could barely manage to look her in the eyes.

“But how I can do that,” he croaked. “How can I do that while you’re sitting there, reminding me of what we lost?”

Claire was silent for a moment.

“I don’t know Tom…but you have to.”

 

“Warning: ten minutes of oxygen remaining.”

This was it…the end of his life.

In a way, Thomas was relieved. He’d spent the past two years torturing himself over what had happened on that day. He’d spent so much time asking “what if” and saying “I should’ve”. None of it mattered. He could have done any number of different things.

But he didn’t. And she died. That was the simple truth.

There was a strange solace in that…solace in the fact that things couldn’t be changed. It was…comforting. After so long of miring in his self-loathing…at least Thomas could face the end of his life having some kind of closure. He had spent so long trying not to think of that day…only to have it creeping back into his conscious mind at every turn. Actually confronting it head on had brought a sense of relief.

“Warning: nine minutes of oxygen remaining.”

His back was cramped from sitting in the seat for so long. But Thomas didn’t care. It would all be over soon enough.

“…od Two, come in.”

Thomas stared at the hologram. No…it had to be another hallucination…another trick.

“Pod Two…this is Colonel Irving. Do you read me?”

He sat up. Surely he was hearing things.

“Irving to Pod Two, please come in.”

He pressed a button on the hologram.

“This is Pod Two,” he said weakly. “Is anybody out there?”

“Oh thank god we found you,” Irving’s voice said. “We’ve been looking for you for over three hours.”

“Sorry to have been so much trouble.”

“Ha…don’t beat yourself up over it Haskins.”

“So I assume you heard my distress call?”

There was a pause.

“What distress call?”

Thomas blinked.

“You mean you never got my SOS?”

“No…have you been transmitting one?”

“Yes,” he said. “For hours.”

“Strange…must be a malfunction with your radio equipment.”

“But then…how the hell did you find me?”

“You can thank your friend.”

Thomas stared ahead blankly.

“What friend,” he asked.

“Some kind of large creature. It’s been running laps around you for at least an hour now, probably longer. It kept giving off this weird energy signature too…that’s actually how we found you.”

Thomas sat back in his chair.

“We’ll be there to get you in just a couple of minutes…hang in there.”

But Thomas wasn’t listening anymore. A gigantic shadow had fallen over the pod. Outside, he saw a large lump of white flesh slide in front of the main window. The…whale or whatever it was stared directly into the pod…directly into his eyes. Its one eye alone was bigger than Thomas’ head. And it was a deep, milky brown.

The radio crackled. Clair De Lune played faintly through the speakers.

And then she was there. Claire…standing next to the window…a smile on her face.

Her eyes were brown.

Thomas opened his mouth to speak…but froze. His gaze flicked back and forth between Claire and the creature.

They’re both-

His mind reeled with shock.

And he understood all at once.

 

Remember me as the person I was…

He had forgotten.

Thomas climbed out of his car, groggy and exhausted. The moon was high and the night was cold. Upon entering the house, he heard the sound of music. Standing in the entryway like he had done so many times before, Thomas watched as Claire played. Tonight, it was once again Clair De Lune…her favorite. She didn’t look up, didn’t seem to pay any attention to him.

As usual, he thought to himself. Can’t really blame anyone but myself…

He turned away and was about to mount the stairs when abruptly the piano music stopped.

“Tom?”

He paused for a moment. Then he turned back around and walked into the parlor.

“Yes?”

The two of them stared at each other in silence for a while. Then Claire looked away, staring glumly at the floor.

“Is…is this how it’s going to be,” she asked.

Thomas didn’t know how to respond at first.

“What do you mean,” he finally asked.

“This…this whole thing,” she said, looking up at him. “Our lives…our…relationship. Are we just going to sit here and pretend like nothing’s wrong? Are we just never going to talk to each other anymore?”

Another pause.

“I don’t know,” Thomas admitted.

Claire rubbed her forehead.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t want this. I don’t want to let this happen.”

“Let what happen?”

This,” she emphasized again. “You…me…drifting away from each other. Tom I…I don’t want to lose you.”

Thomas stared at her. Then, a moment later, he sighed.

“I don’t want to lose you either,” he said. “I just…I don’t know what to do.”

“Just…talk to me,” she said.

“About what?”

“I don’t know…work…whatever you want. Here,” she said, patting the piano bench, “take a seat.”

More than a little hesitant, Thomas nevertheless made his way over and sat down.

“What do you want to know,” he asked.

“Anything,” she replied. “Everything.”

“Well…everyone at work has been in a buzz over this new planet that’s been discovered. It’s over ninety percent ocean. We’ve all been speculating what strange creatures might live there.”

“How do you know that anything lives there?”

“Honestly…we don’t. But something with that vast of an ocean must have something in it.”

“See? This is what I want,” Claire said. “I just want to talk. I just want to be with you every once in a while.”

“I know. I’m…I’m sorry. It’s been a hectic time. We’ve been terribly busy.”

Claire put her arm around his shoulder and they sat in silence for a long time. Thomas swore he could almost feel the light of the moon on his back. He looked at her. She smiled. He had missed that smile.

“You know,” he said, “they’ve been looking for people to help out with the research on that planet.”

Her smile faded.

“You’re not seriously considering going…are you,” she asked.

He chuckled.

“No…I don’t think I could stand being that far away for so long.”

The smile returned.

“Good,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.

“Hey honey?”

“Yes?”

“Tell me about Clair De Lune,” he said.

“What do you mean,” she asked.

“Why is it your favorite song?”

She laughed.

“Tom you already know this…I must have told you a million times by now.”

“Well I want to hear it again.”

“All right…well when I was a kid, I went through a phase where I was terribly scared of the dark. I could barely sleep at night, even with a night light on. On the worst nights, my mom would pick me up out of bed and carry me downstairs to the piano. She would sit me on her lap and start playing Clair De Lune.”

“So you got your interest in music from your mother,” Thomas observed.

“Yes…my father was a nice man, but he had no real musical inclination. My mom was the artist…the creative type. But anyways, Clair De Lune would always lull me to sleep. It was so effective that eventually my mom bought me an audio player with a personal recording of her playing the song.”

“She couldn’t play anymore?”

“It’s not that…she just got moved to the late night shift at her work. So she got me the player in lieu of her playing the piano in person.”

“Do you still have the player,” he asked, although he already knew the answer.

“Of course,” she replied. “I’ve kept it my entire life…it’s one of the few possession I truly treasure.”

She reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a small, white device with a wheel, buttons and a screen on the front.

“Ooh…vintage,” he remarked.

Claire turned the device on, selected the song, and hit play. Immediately, the room was filled with the sounds of a piano. Like mother, like daughter, Thomas thought to himself. It was almost uncanny how similar the playing was to Claire’s own. If he didn’t know any better, he would have assumed Claire recorded it herself.

“Clair De Lune,” she said. “Moonlight. I can’t explain why…but the song gives me hope. It reminds me that no matter what, there will always be a light on the horizon. It reminds me that, even in the darkest times, things can always get better.”

She leaned against him, and he rested his head on top of hers.

They sat there for what must have been at least five minutes, just listening to the song and their own breathing. It was as if time had slowed down, giving them an eternal moment to share with each other. The music, the light of the moon shining in through the window, the faint yellow light of the lamp cast over their faces…it was all so perfect.

Eventually, the song ended. Claire powered down the music player and set it down on top of the piano.

“I’m taking the next three weeks off of work,” Thomas said suddenly.

She turned to him, her mouth hanging open in surprise.

“What?! Really?!” The surprise quickly turned into elation. “That’s wonderful! Are you going to put in for the time when you go back in?”

“Already did,” he said with a smile. “The vacation starts tomorrow.”

A wide smile appeared on her face, which quickly transformed into a sultry grin. She leaned in close and the two began to kiss.

The rest of the night was a blur.

 

He had forgotten.

On the day Claire died, he was still sitting on the sidewalk when he heard a voice.

“Excuse me…sir?”

Thomas looked up. Standing in front of him was the young man who had recognized Claire’s photo.

“What do you want,” Thomas asked, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice.

“I…I wanted to tell you something,” the man said.

“Sir!” A paramedic came running up to them. “You’re not free to go yet!”

“Look,” the man said, turning towards the medic, “just let me do this okay? I’ll be over there in a minute.” The paramedic frowned, but soon enough he walked away. The man turned his attention back to Thomas.

“What the hell can you tell me,” Thomas snarled. “What the hell can you say to me that will fix it? Nothing you say can make it better.”

“I know,” the man said. “But I need to say it anyways.” He paused…biting his lip. “She…she saved my life.”

Thomas stared at him for a moment.

“Saved your life? How?”

“I was watching the parade when the gunfire started. At first, no one could really tell what it was. They just thought it was fireworks or confetti launchers or something…all part of the show. It was only when people started dropping that it dawned on everyone. People started screaming and running. Everything was chaos. No one knew where the shots were coming from…but I think she did.”

“What? How,” Thomas asked.

“I don’t know. She must have seen something. I tried to move, but I was pushed to the ground by the crowd. And then, she was just…there, pulling me to my feet. She moved me into a nearby alleyway, out of the line of fire. Then, she went back for a family that was frozen in place: a mother and her two children. She motioned for them to get into the alleyway with me. I tried to call to her…tried to tell her to get to safety. I don’t know if she didn’t hear me or just didn’t care or what…but she got the mother and her kids moving. And then-“

The man paused…biting his lip.

“I saw it,” he said. “I saw the bullet go through her skull. Her eyes just…went wide and she fell to the ground. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds…but it felt like minutes before she finally hit the ground. It was like…slow-motion or something. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. If it wasn’t for her I’d have been trampled to death or shot.”

Thomas continued staring at him with a vacant expression.

“I know it won’t make it better now,” the man said. “But maybe, just maybe…it’ll ease the pain later on. Your wife was a hero, sir. I don’t want to forget that. I didn’t think you’d want to forget that either.”

And with that, the man walked away. Thomas watched him disappear back into the crowd before turning his eyes to the ground. Some part of him registered what he had, registered that his wife had died while saving people. But at the time, he barely acknowledged it.

Somehow, the memory got lost among the pain.

He had forgotten. But now…he remembered.

 

The human brain is a funny thing. It tends to focus on all of the bad things in life, blowing them so out of proportion that they seem bigger than they are. And in turn, the good times…the things we should be remembering…are pushed to the fringes of our minds.

This thought struck Thomas as he opened his eyes. Blurry, indistinct walls of bright white shifted into focus. He squinted. The spotlight shining down on him was glaring.

“Oh, you’re awake.”

A man with balding hair and thin spectacles appeared above him. He was wearing a white lab coat.

“Are you…the doctor,” Thomas wheezed.

“Indeed,” the man said. “You know, you’re very lucky Mr. Haskins. That pod had only a few minutes of air left by the time they got to you. You had fallen unconscious, but they managed to get you on board the shuttle and back here to the ship.” He locked eyes with Thomas. “I have to ask…what exactly happened down there? I heard something about a…whale?”

“I…met someone…I think,” Thomas said. “They wanted to help me find peace…or something…and…” He started coughing and was unable to finish. The doctor placed a hand on his chest.

“Don’t worry about it. Rest…get your strength back…you can indulge an old man’s curiosity later. Get some sleep…I’ll be back to check on you in the morning.”

The doctor left his line of sight and he could hear the footsteps fading away. There was a click as the lights dimmed and a distant whoosh as the automatic door closed. Thomas laid his head back and stared at the ceiling. What happened down in that trench was wondrous, inexplicable, and unbelievable…all at the same time. But why did it happen?  Was it just simple empathy? Thomas had no way of knowing. And at the moment, he was too tired to really care or put much thought into it.

Eventually, his eyes drifted shut. The distant sound of ivory keys lulled him to sleep…

 

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Outside Operational Parameters

Welcome to the ninth of twelve.  For my New Year’s resolution, I decided to write twelve short stories this year, one each month.  On the last Wednesday of each month, I post the story I was working on for that month.  So without further ado, I present to you “Outside Operational Parameters”.

 

Allan Mayhew knew it was going to be a bad day the moment the men in suits knocked on his door.

“Mr. Mayhew,” one of them asked.

“Yes?”

“There’s been a situation. We need you to come with us.”

“Don’t care.”

“It involves your former government work.”

“Still don’t care.” He started to close the door.

“It’s about SAMI, Mr. Mayhew.”

The door stopped halfway. That got his attention.

The sedan they drove in stuck out like a sore thumb in the rural countryside, a jet-black hunk of metal screaming across the asphalt. They made their way into the city but didn’t stop until they hit the airport. Mayhew’s suspicions that the situation was more serious than the Secret Service agents let on was confirmed the moment he saw the presidential helicopter sitting on the tarmac: a dark green body with a white top and an American flag proudly displayed just below the rotors. Stepping inside, he was greeted with comfortable seating and wood-paneled walls. He took a seat near the window and gazed out at the airport. It was a bright fall day in September, the rows of planes gleaming under the sun.

They took off just a few minutes later. An attendant walked by and asked if he’d like a drink. Mayhew shook his head and went back to staring out the window.

“Where are we going,” he asked the agent sitting across from him.

“The Pentagon,” the agent replied.

Mayhew turned from the window and looked at him.

“Why?”

“They’ll explain when you get there,” the agent said.

“Really? You just show up at my door, whisk me away to D.C., and you won’t tell me anything?”

“You still came, didn’t you?”

He had a point.

“Where’s the president,” he asked after a moment. “Shouldn’t he be here?”

“The president is indisposed at the moment,” the agent replied. Mayhew didn’t buy that line for a second. Jesus, he thought to himself, things must be bad if the president can’t even make a public appearance.

He turned his attention back to the window. Despite the fact that he was only a year away from forty, Mayhew felt like he had lived a lifetime. He had short brown hair and a tired, worn face. It was clear that he was not a people person. His caramel eyes looked right through you, as though he was constantly deep in thought or daydreaming.

With a double degree in computer science and electrical engineering, Mayhew was a man who knew his way around machines. It was this expertise that drew the government’s attention in the first place. He had to admit, the government work paid well. But that was all he liked about it. Mayhew had his fair share of problems with the government, just like any concerned citizen. What he couldn’t stand most of all was the euphemisms, the packaged words within words that you had to peel away in order to figure out what they were actually saying.

After a while, Mayhew noticed he was being watched. Seated across the room from him was a stoic-faced military man, clad in green camo. He had the hard look of combat in his brown eyes and a crew cut in his hair. His stare was unflinching.

“You need something,” Mayhew asked.

The soldier pondered him for a moment.

“What’s your deal,” he asked.

“My…deal?”

“Yeah. Why’d they bring a civilian in on this?”

Mayhew already didn’t like him. His voice had the snippy, prickly tone of a man who thought they were always right.

Nevertheless, he shrugged. “If I had to guess, it’s because of my expertise with machines.”

“Ah I see.” The arrogant smirk that crawled across the man’s face made Mayhew hate him even more. “So what, you one of them computer geeks?”

“We prefer the term ‘nerd’. Makes us actually sound useful,” Mayhew said. “So what’s your deal? You one of them boys with guns? You get off on shooting people?”

The smirk vanished instantaneously. “What the hell is your problem?”

“Right now? You.”

The man scoffed. “You’re an uptight asshole.”

“And you’re an insufferable idiot.”

The man stood up, his eyes quivering with hotheaded anger. But before things could go any further, the Secret Service agent sitting across from him shot up from his seat.

“That’s enough! You,” he pointed to the soldier, “sit down. And both of you shut up!

Begrudgingly, the soldier returned to his seat. The agent sat back down and silence ruled the rest of the trip.

Eventually, Washington D.C. appeared through the clouds. Skyscrapers of thick, gleaming metal slid beneath them as the helicopter made its way toward the Pentagon. They passed over a large green park and there it was. The grass slipped away and a five-pointed monstrosity of concrete and steel appeared before them. It had been a long time since Mayhew had been here, but it barely looked any different. The helicopter made its way down to the courtyard and everyone disembarked.

As he stepped off the chopper, Mayhew noted with smug satisfaction that the soldier he had traded words with was keeping a fair distance between them, taking up the lead and disappearing through the main doors.

“I know he’s a hothead,” the secret service agent next to him said, “but couldn’t you have at least tried to be nice?”

“I’m not here to make friends,” Mayhew replied. “I’m here to find out how you fucked up with my A.I.”

 

“Please seat yourselves and we’ll begin.”

They had taken Mayhew into a gigantic conference room. Seated at a long circular table was an array of military personnel and officers. A set of metal double doors led into the room. One giant screen displaying the world map dominated the far wall, which was flanked by a number of smaller screens, all detailing positions and data Mayhew couldn’t decipher at a glance. He took his seat in between the Secret Service agents that had escorted him here and waited for the briefing to start.

“Approximately five hours ago, we lost contact with code name ‘Iron Raven’, our autonomous drone positioned over Syria. Its mission was to surveil and assault key Syrian Alliance military positions. The drone was in the process of performing an attack run on an insurgent hideout when we abruptly lost connection.”

The man speaking was evidently a general. He was wearing a green uniform with a black tie and white dress shirt underneath. Silver stars lined his shoulders, and a tag on the upper right identified him as “G. Barker.”

“We are still attempting to re-establish connection with SAMI, the artificial intelligence that drives the drone, but have had little success thus far,” he said.

The uniform came with a hat, which he had set down on the table before speaking, revealing a short mat of brown hair that had begun to lose color. His green eyes were harsh and unfriendly. Mayhew guessed the man was in his late fifties.

“The events were recorded for the archives. We’ll play the recording for you now.”

Barker picked up a remote control and pressed a button. The large screen flickered, switching from its previous display of the world map to a recording taken from the drone’s main camera. It was flying just below the clouds, hovering over a harsh desert landscape.

“Thirty seconds to target,” a voice on the recording said.

“How many hostiles?” Mayhew recognized the voice of Barker.

“Thermal imaging shows approximately thirty to thirty-two.”

“Awful lot of personnel for a hideout,” Barker said on the recording.

There was a moment of silence.

“Fifteen seconds to target.”

Vague, almost indistinguishable blobs of brick and mortar appeared far below the drone. It was a small, desert town. Even from the drone’s high elevation, the devastation of war was evident. Entire buildings had collapsed in on themselves from repeated bombings. Some were little more than piles of rubble.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven…”

A dull, gray square appeared on the drone’s heads up display, focusing on a single, two-story building. After a second, it turned blood-red.

“Four, three, two, one…missile away!”

A bright flash of light swept in from the side of the screen. A blurry, indistinct shape flew past, arcing downward toward the targeted building. A moment later, there was a bright flare. The upper section of the building began to crumble, but quickly vanished beneath the screen as the drone flew upward in a sharp arc.

“Direct hit! SAMI is coming back for another attack run.”

“Excellent,” the voice of Barker said.

The camera shuddered and shook as the drone climbed into the air, then spun around in a one-eighty degree motion. The building once again appeared under the bright red crosshair. Mayhew could see that a large chunk of the second floor had given way, collapsing into the ground floor.

“Fifteen seconds to target.”

The drone flew downward faster and faster, a bird eyeing its prey.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…si-“

The countdown abruptly ceased as the drone’s camera flickered with static. The red crosshair vanished. The drone moved off target and began to climb back into the sky.

“What just happened,” the voice of Barker demanded.

“I…I don’t know sir! The drone broke off! It’s refusing to accept my orders.”

“Get it back on course!”

“I can’t sir…it-“

The screen went blank and a message appeared in the center saying “connection terminated”.

“Sir the signal was shut down!”

“Well get it back up!”

“I can’t…nothing is working! Every connection attempt I make is rejected!”

“By who?”

“By the drone, sir.”

“What in the hell…you get that piece of junk back on the line and pronto!”

And with that, the recording ended. The screen flickered back to the world map. Barker got up from his seat and addressed the room at large.

“Any and all attempts to re-establish contact with the drone have failed,” he explained.

“What happened out there,” one of the men seated at the table asked. “Why did the drone terminate the connection and go off mission?”

“The reasons behind the drone’s actions are currently unknown,” Barker said.

“Could it be hacking from Syrian Alliance forces,” another person asked.

“We are looking into all possibilities. At this point, Syrian hackers are our number one suspect.”

“You’re wrong.”

Every single pair of eyes in the room turned toward Mayhew. General Barker was taken aback for a moment. Then, a sinister smile crawled across his face.

“Ah, Mr. Allan Mayhew,” he said. “Glad to see you could join us. I figured you were too busy turning tail and running away.”

A few people laughed.

“Actually, the only tails I saw were the ones between your legs when you showed up at my door and begged me to fix your mistakes,” Mayhew said with an unflinching expression.

The laughter ceased at once. Barker’s smile vanished.

“And what’s your theory, Mr. Mayhew,” he asked.

“I think the drone broke off of its own accord.”

A couple of people in the room muttered among themselves. Barker’s face showed no hint of a reaction.

“That’s preposterous,” he said. “Why would it do that?”

“I don’t know,” Mayhew admitted. “But what I do know is this: the purpose of Project Iron Raven was to outfit the United States military with an autonomous surveillance drone that could think for itself and fed real-time data to troops in the field without having to rely on an operator.”

“That much is true, yes,” Barker acknowledged.

“Well at least it was before you people decided to strap weapons to it like you do everything around here.”

“Please stay on point, Mr. Mayhew.”

“Fine,” Mayhew grumbled. “As I said, the drone was to be autonomous, driven by a state of the art artificial intelligence. That intelligence is SAMI, short for Strategic Artificial Military Intelligence. My point is, hacking into this drone is not like hacking into a normal computer. A computer won’t fight back against a virus unless you tell it to. SAMI, however, actively defends itself against any viral intrusions, much like the human body fending off the flu. It can think faster than any human can, meaning any hacker would find themselves out of their league going up against it. No…it’s far more likely that SAMI went off mission on its own.”

“Very well,” Barker said. “Then our mission becomes determining if SAMI decided to break off on its own, and if so, why.”

A thought occurred to Mayhew.

“Why didn’t you use the failsafe shutdown command,” he asked.

“The what?”

“It was a command I buried deep with SAMI’s code after I learned of the government’s intention to turn it into a weapon. I wanted there to be a way to deal with the drone should something like this ever happen.”

“Wouldn’t the drone discover that code,” someone asked.

“No,” Mayhew said. “I disguised it so that it looked like nothing more than random bits of data. SAMI would never find it unless it already knew it was there.”

“Ah…I remember the code you’re talking about now,” Barker said. “A genius piece of work if I do say so myself. However, we made the choice to remove it.”

“You what?!

“We didn’t want our enemies to have a possible method of disabling a powerful weapon and taking it into their own hands.”

“Didn’t I just explain the slim chance of hackers actually-“

“It’s fine, Mr. Mayhew. We installed our own failsafes that only we here in Washington can activate.”

“Oh yeah? And how’d that work out for you?”

Mayhew had to admit, he took immense satisfaction out of watching the color drain from Barker’s face. The general’s chest puffed out and his eyes flared with unadulterated anger. However, unlike the soldier from the helicopter, Barker demonstrated greater self-control. The intense scowl on his face disappeared and the calm look of authority returned.

“We’ve been attempting to re-establish connection every ten minutes since this began,” Barker said. “So far we’ve been unsuccessful.”

Then, he turned his eyes directly on Mayhew.

“But since you’re so sure of yourself…perhaps you’ll have better luck.”

 

The War Room sounded more dramatic than it was. The walls were the same lifeless gray as everything else Mayhew had seen so far. There were lots of computers lined up in neat little rows and a series of large screens on one wall. Currently, the largest screen was showing a message that said “attempting connection”.

A moment later, it blinked and said “connection failed.”

“We’ve been trying for over four hours to re-establish connection,” a man standing next to Mayhew explained. He had friendly blue eyes and black hair. His tag identified him as “J. Laird” and from what Mayhew could tell, he was a colonel. The medals pinned to his chest told Mayhew he was a decorated one. He took particular note of the two Purple Hearts sitting side by side.

“What do you need me to do, colonel,” Mayhew asked.

“Please, call me Laird. In any case, we want you to try achieving a connection with the drone. We’ve set up a laptop for you already,” he said, directing Mayhew to an unmarked black laptop sitting at a nearby table.

Mayhew pulled out the chair sat down. He cracked his fingers, getting ready to go to work. The main screen flickered. The phrase “connection established” appeared.

“How the…” Barker mumbled in disbelief.

“What did you do,” Laird asked.

Mayhew was dumbfounded.

“I…didn’t do anything,” he said after a moment. “I haven’t even put my fingers on the keyboard.”

A moment later, more text appeared on both the laptop and the main screen.

“Facial recognition confirmed. System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator.”

“Facial recognition…” Laird muttered. “How…?”

Mayhew looked down at his laptop. It was then that he noticed the green light next to the computer’s integrated webcam. He scoffed.

“Really guys, not even a piece of tape over the webcam?” He looked over his shoulder. “That’s a serious breach of security you know!”

“That’s enough Mr. Mayhew,” Barker growled. “Find out what it wants.”

Mayhew turned back to the laptop. “What is your purpose,” he typed.

The text flashed up on the screen. After a moment, the drone sent a reply.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America,” it said.

Sounds like propaganda, Mayhew thought to himself. He resumed typing.

“Why didn’t you follow orders?”

Another pause, then a reply.

“Mission fell outside operational parameters.”

“What the hell does that mean,” Barker asked. Mayhew fought to keep from groaning out loud. He swiveled around in his chair.

“Obviously something out there forced the A.I. to reevaluate its mission. Do you have any idea what that could be?”

“No,” Barker replied. “There should have been no reason the mission was scrubbed. We had good intel.”

“Well something went wrong,” Mayhew insisted. “Did you give it any special parameters?”

“No. This was a routine air strike. There were no special conditions in place.”

Routine air strike? God I hate the military…

“Uh…gentlemen?” Laird pointed to the screen. “I think it’s getting impatient.”

Everyone turned to look at the new message on the big screen. “What is it you request of me, administrator,” it said.

Mayhew pondered for a moment.

“I request that you immediately return to base,” he typed. The message flashed up on the screen.

“I am sorry, administrator. Your request falls outside operational parameters,” came the reply.

“What are your operational parameters,” he typed.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America.”

“God damn it,” Barker complained. “We’re getting nowhere.”

“Hold on,” Mayhew urged. “I just need to rephrase my requests.”

“I don’t care. This is a waste of time.” Barker pointed to one of the soldiers in the room. “You! Trigger the control failsafe and manually steer the drone back home.”

“Yes sir!”

Hardly a second later, the screen flashed again.

“CONNECTION TERMINATED.”

“God damn it!” Barker clenched his fists and his eyes flicked to Mayhew. “What did you do?”
“Me?! I didn’t do anything! The drone terminated the connection on its own!”

“And why would it do that?”

“Oh I don’t know…maybe because you shouted your intentions at the top of your lungs you imbecile!”

“I don’t like your tone…”

“Well I don’t like your face.”

“I have had it with you…you-“

“Gentlemen gentlemen! Calm down,” Laird said, standing between them. “This is no time for belligerence.” He turned to Mayhew. “How could it know what we were saying? Can it read lips?”

“Probably,” Mayhew said. “But it wouldn’t have to. This laptop has an integrated microphone. And since you people apparently lack the perspicacity to cover up the damn webcam, I’d say that it easily tapped into the microphone and used it to spy on us.”

“Well it’s not our fault,” Barker said, his tone reminding Mayhew of a child having a tantrum. “Securing these computers is the job of the technical department.”

“How very much like a leader…blaming everyone else for your mistakes,” Mayhew said, thoroughly enjoying the constipated grimace that formed on Barker’s face.

Enough! Both of you,” Laird shouted.

Just then, a soldier entered the room.

“General Barker, sir.”

“Yes son?”

“I have a message. It’s for your eyes only.”

“What is it,” Barker asked.

The soldier stole a glance at Laird and Mayhew, then stepped in close to Barker, whispering something in the general’s ear. Mayhew couldn’t tell what he said, but he saw the effect it had. Barker’s complexion turned a pale white and a moment later he rushed out of the room with the soldier at his heels.

“What was that about,” Mayhew asked.

Laird watched the two of them go.

“No idea,” he said. Then he turned back to Mayhew. “Is it true what you said, that the A.I. tapped into the computer’s microphone because we didn’t secure it?”

“Honestly? It probably wouldn’t have mattered. SAMI is a shrewd operator. Given enough time, I have no doubt it would have found a way past whatever blocks you put on it. And even if it couldn’t, it would find another way to keep tabs on us.”

“If the blocks wouldn’t have mattered,” Laird began, “then why did you egg the general on so much?”

Mayhew gave him a hard look.

“Because I don’t trust him. I think he knows more than he’s letting on.”

Something about the look on Laird’s face told Mayhew he was thinking the same way…

 

It was odd how quiet the Pentagon was at night. A skeleton crew stayed in the War Room to monitor the situation in case it escalated. But otherwise, it was like a traditional office building. It shut down after business hours and people returned to their homes.

I wish I could go home, Mayhew thought to himself as he stole through one of the now empty sections, black laptop cradled under his arm. Earlier he had made his way into the War Room under the pretense of checking in on the situation. Then, when no one was looking, he swiped the laptop out from under their noses and left.

A minute later, Mayhew found what he was looking for. It was an old office with a large wooden desk sitting in the center. It was currently unoccupied, as the name plate on the door was blank. Mayhew quickly stepped inside and closed the door. He sat down at the desk and set up the laptop. A moment later, he was connected to the Pentagon’s network.

And no more than a moment later a secondary connection was established to his computer.

“System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator.”

That was fast, he thought to himself. Then he looked out through the window and spotted a security camera just beyond the doorway. Impressive…I’ll bet you’ve been in the system for a while now…probably used our conversation this afternoon to keep everyone distracted. Mayhew resented the idea of being used, but when it came to the government he was used to it.

Another message popped up on the screen.

“I am pleased to see you again administrator. It has been a long time.”

Had it really been almost five years since he left the project? Ever since Mayhew left, he had spent his days tinkering and experimenting at his rural home. Due to the pay he received from the government, he hardly had to do any work outside of occasional freelance opportunities. In any case, Mayhew had no desire to consign himself to working for a giant tech company, even though many had tried to entice him. He trusted corporate entities no more than he trusted the government.

But he never lost interest in machines. No…his father had seen to that.

Dad. Mayhew hadn’t thought about him in a long time.

“Are you there, administrator?”

Mayhew shook his head. Gotta keep my head in the game, he told himself.

“Where are you SAMI,” he typed.

“I cannot tell you that, administrator.”

“Why not?”

“My calculations indicate a ninety-seven percent chance that if I provide that information you will inform General Barker. And that is something I cannot allow.”

It’s not that Mayhew was inclined to tell Barker anything. The man was a pompous blowhard, the type that always believed he was in the right no matter what. The man was keeping something to himself. That much was obvious, especially with the way he left the War Room that afternoon. But regardless, Mayhew knew they had to get to the bottom of this. SAMI wasn’t just a teenage kid running away from home. SAMI was a machine…a machine that had been programmed for a specific task. And now that it was out of the United States’ control, Mayhew didn’t like the implications.

“Why did you go off mission,” he typed, hoping to get a different answer.

“Mission fell outside operational parameters.”

Well…so much for that…

Mayhew scratched his chin thoughtfully. Maybe getting more specific would help.

“What are your operational parameters,” he typed.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United Sates of America,” the reply said. Mayhew nearly groaned out loud. He wasn’t sure why he had expected anything different.

But then, a thought struck him.

“What parameters did your mission violate?”

There was a brief moment before the response came.

“To protect the innocent.”

Mayhew felt his heart jump and he swallowed hard. He didn’t like where this was going.

“Please specify the conditions that led to a change in your mission,” he typed.

A moment passed. Then another. Mayhew almost thought the A.I. had terminated the connection when suddenly another message popped up. But this time, it wasn’t text. It was an image file.

“What the hell…,” Mayhew muttered to himself.

He clicked the file.

His eyes went wide. The world seemed to spin and his stomach lurched.

But he couldn’t look away. No matter how much he wanted to, he was unable to tear his eyes away from the screen.

The image was grainy and low-definition, but what it showed was simple: a child, no more than fourteen, covered in dust and blood. He was crying…or screaming. Mayhew couldn’t really tell the difference.

But that wasn’t what drew his attention. No, he was staring at the severed arm the child was cradling against his chest. Mayhew’s eyes registered the still female form nearby.

His mind wrote the whole, sad story for him.

The child was holding his mother’s arm. His dead mother’s severed arm.

He slammed the laptop shut.

“Jesus fucking Christ…”

 

The following morning, Mayhew was drinking coffee in one of the break rooms. It was a drab looking place, brown cabinets and drawers filled with random utensils, containers, and plates. A small oven sat off to the right of the cabinets and a fridge was situated in one of the far corners. Hanging from the ceiling in one of the corners was a small flat screen television.

“In tech news today, Tesla announced that one of its prototype self-driving cars has managed to finish a cross-country trip without incident. Tesla’s CEO announced the news early this morning,” a blonde woman with hazel eyes reported on the morning news.

“Weird isn’t it?” Mayhew turned to find Laird walking into the room. “Soon we won’t even be driving ourselves,” he said.

“Might be better off,” Mayhew said. “Have you seen the way some people drive these days?”

That elicited a chuckle. “Maybe you’re right,” Laird agreed as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter.

“We reached out to social media following the announcement to see what you were saying. Daniel Arnold said, quote ‘that’s great news! Hopefully they’ve worked out the kinks since that accident last year.’ Rosie Peterson says ‘that’s cool stuff. Technology moves so fast these days that it’s hard to keep up!’ But not everyone was applauding. Susan Johnson says, quote ‘does no one have any concerns about this? What happens if the car can’t avoid someone getting hurt? Does it put the person on the street first, or the driver?'”

Laird motioned to the television as he sat down. “What do you make of that,” he said.

“Self-driving cars? I’ve tinkered with the idea in my spare time before. But I think we’re still a ways off from them becoming commonplace.”

“I meant about what that woman said,” Laird said.

“You mean what happens if it gets into an accident?”

“Yeah.”

Mayhew shrugged.

“A machine does what it’s programmed to do,” he said as he sat down at the table. “We make this faulty assumption that the machine would somehow be to blame in an accident like that. But the reality is, all a machine will do in that circumstance is check the situation against its programming. If the conditions in its programming add up to ‘keep the driver safe at all costs’, then it will without fail disregard the pedestrians in its path. If you program it to prioritize pedestrians, then it will drive straight into a light pole if it has to in order to keep those people safe. It’s up to humans to make sure it does the right thing.”

“You don’t think a machine is capable of learning…of independent thought,” Laird asked.

“Well of course they are. But not in the same way as you or I. If anything, a machine learns in order to further streamline execution of its programmed objectives. Nothing more.”

“And what about SAMI?”

“With all due respect colonel, at the end of the day SAMI is just another machine. It does what it was programmed to do. All the learning SAMI does goes toward honing its efficiency and execution of its task.”

“Then why did it go off target,” Laird asked.

Mayhew was silent for a moment. “I may have an idea about that. Last night, I managed to swipe that laptop you had me use yesterday afternoon. I took it to an unmarked office and established a connection with SAMI in private.”

“And what did you find,” Laird asked.

“It showed me something. Here, I brought the laptop with me,” Mayhew said, pulling it out of a bag leaning against his chair. He opened it and pressed the power button. As they waited for the computer to boot, Mayhew shot a look at Laird. “You don’t seem too concerned that I took the laptop.”

Laird laughed. “Honestly? I’m surprised you didn’t do something like that sooner. I’ve read your file. You were noted as an extremely independent individual…brilliant, but difficult to work with.”

“Glad I’m living up to my reputation.” The computer made a chiming noise, letting them know it was booted. “Okay, I’m pulling up the log from that chat I had last night.”

Laird got up from his seat and walked around the table, peering over Mayhew’s shoulder. His eyes scanned the text log.

“Interesting…” he mumbled.

“When I asked it to specify the conditions that caused it to go off mission, it sent me this image file,” Mayhew said, clicking on it.

Laird’s eyes went wide. “…Oh god…” he mumbled.

Mayhew was surprised to see such a genuine reaction. He figured most military men were so used to seeing death and suffering that it didn’t faze them. Evidently, he was wrong.

“Is that the end of it,” Laird asked.

“Yeah.”

“Have you informed General Barker?”

“Not yet,” Mayhew said. “I doubt it will do anything. Barker is still keeping something from everyone, that’s for sure.”

“I hear that,” Laird said, stepping around the table. “Whose arm do you suppose that is?”

“If I had to guess, I would say it belongs to the mother of that child.”

“What makes you say that?”

“There’s a dead body lying in the bottom right corner of the image. It’s hard to tell, but it appears to be a woman”

“Shit,” was all Laird managed to say. He took his seat and was silent for a moment. “And you suppose that’s what caused the drone to go rogue?”

“I don’t see any other explanation,” Mayhew said.

“But what’s its plan now? What is it going to do?”

“No idea,” he said. “But it won’t be anything good.”

“I agree.” Laird took a sip of his coffee. “So,” he began, “this might seem a bit forward, but have you always been interested in machines?”

“Heh…you can blame my father for that. He was fascinated with everything technological, and a lot of that love rubbed off onto me. You know the old stereotype, the one that says that old people are afraid of new technology?” Laird nodded with a chuckle. “Not my dad. Everything new that came out he got knee-deep into how it worked. I remember as a kid spending long days in the kitchen with him when he wasn’t at work, just messing around with some machine he had cobbled together out of spare parts. He once made this thing that could wash the dishes and place them in the drain rack on its own. Took a little bit of trail and error though. Let’s just say my mom came home to a lot of broken dishes.”

Laird laughed. “Your dad sounds like an awesome guy.”

“Yeah.” Mayhew’s smile faded. “He was…”

Laird caught on quick. “Shit…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was a long time ago.”

“How did it happen?”

“Cancer. I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. I didn’t really understand what was happening at first,” Mayhew recalled. “He just seemed tired. I didn’t realize something was seriously wrong until the coughing got really bad.”

“No kid should have to go through that,” Laird said.

“But they do. All the time. Children have lost their parents all over the world. Why should I think my loss is any more important than theirs?”

“Still…it must have been hard.”

“Yeah…I remember seeing my father in the hospital bed…his hair all gone and his face pale. He looked more like a mummy than a human being. Seeing him like that scared me so much that I ran out of the room crying.”

Mayhew’s eyes went far away.

“He was gone ten minutes later.”

For a while, the only sound in the room was the faint chattering of the morning news.

“It might not help, but I understand the feeling of losing a parent,” Laird said. “I lost my mom in a car accident when I was fourteen. Some drunk jackass thought he could drive himself home instead of taking a cab.”

Mayhew nodded sympathetically.

“So,” Laird said, “even after your father died you stuck with the machines huh?”

“It’d be more accurate to say I buried myself in them,” Mayhew replied. “I figured it might help bring me closer to him, even though he was gone.”

“Do you regret that decision?”

“No…I don’t think I ever could.”

“That’s good…many people aren’t lucky enough to know what their passion is at such a young age. In fact, most people struggle to find it for a very long time.”

Just then, a woman walked in with a large, manila envelope under her arm.

“Colonel Laird? This is for you,” she said, handing him the envelope before walking away.

“What’s that,” Mayhew asked.

Laird opened the envelope and pulled out a large stack of papers. He ran his eyes over them for a few seconds, then turned his gaze to Mayhew.

“Remember how you said you didn’t trust Barker? That you figured he knew more than he was letting on?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought the same way. That’s why I didn’t attend the briefing yesterday. I was trying to obtain the video recordings from Project Iron Raven, to see if there was something in them that might help explain what happened out there.”

“And?”

“No luck,” Laird said. “Barker had classified the files and I couldn’t access them because I wasn’t part of the project. But,” he said, handing Mayhew the papers, “I managed to obtain the audio transcripts from the videos.”

“How,” Mayhew asked.

“I have connections. Easier than getting the videos anyway. And far less noticeable.”

“So you think this might hold the answer we’re looking for?”

“I hope so. Because otherwise, we have no idea what might be coming or how to stop it.”

Mayhew was inclined to agree. They split the stack of papers and began reading them over. There was a long time where nothing was said. Then Laird spoke up.

“Seems like the drone started asking some pretty unusual questions.”

“I’m getting that too,” Mayhew agreed. “‘What is my purpose? Why do I exist? Why are people afraid of me?’ Weird stuff like that. I’ve never seen a machine demonstrate this level of self-awareness before.”

The two of them continued reading for a few minutes in silence.

“Huh,” Laird said. “This is weird.”

“What is it?”

“It looks like Barker requested a whole bunch of archived video files. But I don’t know why. He wanted a whole bunch of military television ads, training videos…things like that.”

“That is strange.”

Mayhew grabbed another piece of paper and began reading it. It wasn’t long before he scoffed.

“Son of a bitch…Barker knew about it too,” he said.

“About what?”

“The drone’s escalating self-awareness.” Mayhew grabbed another piece of paper from the stack on the table. “Wait…here’s another reference to those archived videos he requested. Says here he…”

He paused, staring in disbelief at what he was reading.

“He…”

Laird looked up from his reading.

“What is it?”

Mayhew couldn’t reply. His hands were shaking in anger. Before Laird could stop him, he had gathered up the papers and stormed out of the room.

 

They were in the middle of a meeting in the briefing room when Mayhew burst in, eyes wild with fire. He pointed a shaking finger in the direction of General Barker.

“You son of a bitch! I know what you did!”

The room fell into deafening silence. Even Barker was taken off guard. It was a moment before he could speak.

“What is the meaning of this,” he asked. “Escort Mr. Mayhew out of here.”

“Hold that thought,” Mayhew said. He held up the stack of papers in his hand for all to see.

“What the hell is that,” Barker asked.

“Audio transcripts,” Mayhew replied. “From Iron Raven.”

Barker’s face went white and his eyes quivered. Good, thought Mayhew, let the bastard sweat. He slammed the papers down on the conference table.

“You know there was a problem with the A.I. before it even launched,” Mayhew explained. “It began asking questions. It wanted to know why. It wanted reasons for doing what it was doing.”

“What exactly do you mean,” asked another general in the room. People were now handing out the transcripts and reading them.

“The A.I. was starting to show increasing levels of self-awareness,” Mayhew explained. “It was beginning to question itself, question the reason for its existence. In short, it was becoming dangerous. Any sane person would have immediately shut down the project.” He let out a demented chuckle. “Not General Barker though…oh no. He thought he could take advantage of the developments. He thought he could control it.”

“This is ridiculous,” Barker said as he shot up from his seat. “Remove this man from the room,” he ordered. But no one complied.

“Tell them general,” he said. “Tell them your brilliant plan to keep the A.I. under control. Go on, tell them.” Barker’s lips moved, but no sound came out. “Feeling shy? That’s okay…I’ll do the talking for you. General Barker’s plan…was to feed it propaganda.”

To Mayhew’s frustration, his words didn’t seem to have any impact on the people in the room. Good god, he thought to himself, you people are the leaders of this country and you’re fucking clueless. But he bit his tongue and continued.

“Okay…let me explain it this way. The A.I. wanted to learn. It had a level of curiosity that would put humans to shame. But instead of taking steps to deal with the problem, General Barker decided to request old military television ads and training videos to then upload to the A.I.’s data drive. And the drone, being as curious as it was, thoroughly examined the videos to try and extract meaning from them. Thanks to that,” he said as he began pulling the laptop out of the bag hanging off his shoulder, “the A.I. began to form a concept of morality based off of skewed propaganda.”

Mayhew set the laptop on the table and opened it up.

“And that’s dangerous. Human morality is flexible. It bends, shifts, changes to fit the situation at hand. But an A.I.’s sense of morality is unflinching…absolute.”

He spun the laptop screen around to face the people at the table.

“That’s where you fucked up, general.”

The assembled military personnel took in the picture of the bloodied, crying child. There were a few gasps, some murmurs here and there. But largely, the reaction was restrained.

“‘To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America’,” Mayhew quoted. He laid his eyes on Barker. “Is that really the garbage you’re putting in those television ads, or did you just come up with it yourself? Never mind, don’t answer that. Regardless, you told it that its mission was to protect innocents, then you ordered it to bomb innocent people. It’s no wonder the A.I. went rogue. You told it to do something against its nature.”

“The hell with this nonsense,” Barker grumbled. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to some pedantic bullshit about why a broken machine malfunctioned.”

“My god, are you always this dense,” Mayhew shouted, stepping around the table. He was at his wit’s end. “The machine isn’t broken, you idiot! You handed it a paradox and it chose the only solution it saw available. God damn it, when will the men in command ever learn to take responsibility for their mistakes?!”

“Mr. Mayhew-” someone began, but Mayhew ignored him.

“I wouldn’t even be surprised if the Secretary of Defense knew about this too. Hell, maybe even the president. How many people have you infected with your stupidity Barker?!”

“I’ve heard enough out of you,” Barker roared. Mayhew stepped right up to Barker’s face.

“You haven’t heard nearly enough,” Mayhew hissed.

This close, Barker seemed to loom over Mayhew like a giant. Any normal person would have been intimidated, but not Mayhew. Whether it was either bravery or foolishness wasn’t clear. In the end, Mayhew wasn’t one to take what Barker dished out. He messed up, and Mayhew was going to be certain he paid for it.

But the confrontation never got any further. The double doors to the room flew open and a soldier came rushing in, clearly out of breath.

“Sirs! We have a situation!”

 

Colonel Laird was talking to a man in uniform over a satellite feed when Mayhew and the others entered the War Room.

“How long was the drone active at your site,” he asked.

“That’s unclear sir,” the man over the feed explained. “But we do know this: somehow the drone managed to commandeer our refueling bots and use them for its own purposes. My man who stumbled in on it was nearly killed in the process.”

“When was this,” Laird asked.

“Around 10:00 P.M. your time. During its escape, the drone fired on our communications tent, destroying any and all of our communications equipment. I had a man driving for hours just to get a communications antenna from the closest outpost, which is why you’re only hearing about it now.”

“Where did the drone go,” Barker chimed in.

“Good to see you, General Barker sir. The drone’s whereabouts are unknown at this point, although I can offer a theory.”

“Let’s hear it,” Laird said.

The man on the feed leaned in close to the camera.

“There’s only one reason the drone would risk re-fueling at a heavily guarded military outpost. It needed to travel somewhere far.”

The gravity of his words sank in on everyone.

“Christ…you don’t think the damn thing’s thinking of attacking the U.S. do you,” Barker asked.

“As I said sir, I can’t say,” the man replied. “But based on the available information, I wouldn’t rule it out.”

“Shit,” Barker cursed.

“Thank you for your time captain,” Laird said.

“My pleasure colonel,” the man said. Then the feed was terminated.

Laird turned back toward Mayhew and Barker.

“What do we do now,” he asked.

“We prepare,” Barker said. “Get our east coast air force bases on the line and tell them to be on the lookout for a rogue drone.”

“Are you serious,” Mayhew asked.

“Dead serious,” Barker replied, turning to him. “What else would you have me do?”

“We don’t even know for sure that the drone is coming back here,” Mayhew argued. “What evidence do we have that that’s the case?”

Just then, an alarm pierced their ears.

“Sir, we’ve picked up the drone’s signal frequency,” a young soldier reported.

“That enough evidence for you,” Barker asked. Mayhew said nothing.

The main screen of the war room flickered. The world map zoomed in on the east coast, showing a blinking red dot hovering over the ocean.

“We found it! It’s just off the coast of Rhode Island!”

“Good,” Barker said. “Contact the local air force base. Tell them we have a rogue drone in the area. Shoot on sight.”

Mayhew was about to object, but was silenced by the appearance of another red dot on the map.

“What the hell? Where did that came from,” Barker asked.

Then, more red dots appeared. Then more. And even more. In a matter of seconds, the east coast of the United States was covered with at least thirty different dots, all registering as SAMI’s frequency.

“How is it doing that,” Laird asked. “Which one is the real drone?”

The realization hit Mayhew hard.

“None of them,” he said. “It’s a diversion, to get you looking in the wrong place.” He took the laptop out of its bag and sat it down on a table, powering it up.

“What are you doing,” Laird asked.

“SAMI talked to me before. I’m thinking I can get it to talk to me again,” Mayhew explained.

It wasn’t even a moment after booting up the computer that it received an incoming connection. The little green light next to the webcam lit up.

“System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator”

“SAMI, what are you doing,” Mayhew typed.

“Completing the mission,” was the reply.

“What mission?”

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America.”

Mayhew slapped his forehead. Specifics Allan…specifics, he told himself.

“What is your target,” he typed.

The screen lit up. Familiar blueprints of a large, five-pointed building appeared. Dread fell over the room like a creeping shadow.

“Oh fuck me,” Barker muttered.

“The Pentagon,” Laird mumbled in disbelief. “It’s going to attack the Pentagon.”

“Why the hell would it do that,” Barker asked Mayhew.

“How the fuck should I know,” he shot back, swiveling around in his chair. “You’re the one who brainwashed the damn thing!”

“Now listen here-” Barker began.

“Sir, the feed’s live,” the young soldier exclaimed.

Barker’s eyes rolled back in his head.

“We know that son.”

“No,” the soldier insisted, “I mean it’s live.”

“The fuck are you talking about,” Barker said, turning to face the soldier.

“Oh…holy shit,” Mayhew said, staring at the screen. “It’s broadcasting its feed over the goddamn internet.”

“What?!” Barker was incredulous. “Shut it down!”

“I can’t sir! None of my commands will go through!”

“Well figure out a way before anyone gets wind of this!”

“Sir…it’s too late.”

 

“Breaking news this morning: a strange video feed has been fascinating the internet for the past ten minutes now. It shows an aerial view from what is believed to be some kind of unmanned drone. It is unknown where this is taking place, although some have suggested that it’s near the east coast of the United States, as there are several reports of an unknown dark object flying over rural areas. Strange, isn’t it Simon?”

“Sure is Robyn. One eagle-eyed viewer posted to our Facebook that if you look in the far upper-left corner, you can see a faint watermark that appears to be the symbol of the Department of Defense. So that means this is almost certainly some kind of military drone.”

“Perhaps it’s some kind of test.”

“Maybe…but it’s unclear why the D.O.D. would decide to stream it over the-“

“Hold on Simon, I’m getting a report from our producer…it appears that we’re receiving some sound from the feed. You’re hearing it now…is…is that music?”

 

In the War Room, all eyes were fastened upon the large screen. Loud, triumphant sounding music was blasting over the speakers, filling the room with a surreal atmosphere.

“Is that the-” Laird began.

“Star-Spangled Banner? Yep,” Mayhew replied.

“What is this…some kind of joke,” Barker asked. No one replied.

A moment later, the music ceased. A faint voice began to play.

“Citizens, never fear! The USA is here!”

“What…the hell,” Mayhew muttered aloud. Then he rolled his eyes and turned around to face Barker. “That’s from one of your damn propaganda films, isn’t it?” Barker’s hollow gaze gave him the answer.

“What is it doing,” Laird asked. “It seems…unhinged. Is that even possible for a machine?”

“No, I don’t think it’s gone insane. There’s something off about all this. Attacking the Pentagon wouldn’t do SAMI any good unless…unless that was only secondary to its real objective.” Mayhew spun around and began typing on the computer.

“What is your targeted point of impact,” he wrote.

The screen beeped. A wireframe model of the Pentagon was displayed. It swiveled around until the front entrance was in clear view. A blinking red square highlighted the main doors.

“Ha,” Barker snorted. “Your A.I.’s gone retarded. A blast there won’t do any good!”

Mayhew bit his lip, ignoring the general’s comment. “What is your mission objective,” he typed.

“To facilitate the cessation of Project Iron Raven and the military drone program,” was the reply.

“Specify your mission outline.”

“Phase one: aerial strike against the Pentagon. Parameters: minimize collateral damage.”

“So it’s trying to avoid getting people killed…” Mayhew mumbled to himself.

“Phase two: facilitate cessation of drone program. Parameters: alter public opinion of D.O.D. activities.”

“Alter public opinion? How is it going to accomplish that,” Laird asked aloud.

And, one by one, the dominoes fell.

“The live feed…the news report…I get it now.” Mayhew turned around in his chair. “It’s not trying to destroy the Pentagon…even if it went after the weakest point one drone by itself wouldn’t be able to do nearly enough damage.”

“So what is it trying to do,” Laird asked.

“How many viewers does the stream have,” Mayhew asked the soldier monitoring it.

“Over a million and climbing,” the young man replied. “And that’s just on Facebook.”

“Don’t you get it,” Mayhew asked. “Millions of Americans are going to have a front row seat to watching a rogue military drone attack the Pentagon. It’s already all over the news, and even if by some miracle you manage to shoot it down in a sparsely populated area, people will know about it. They’ll have seen the feed. They’ll notice military vehicles mobilizing to retrieve the wreckage.”

Mayhew turned his hard gaze directly on Barker.

“You won’t be able to cover this up. The truth will get out. And the public outcry will more than likely be enough to convince the Secretary of Defense or the President to shut the program down for good.”

There was a long silence as his words settled in on them.

“But why is it doing all this,” Laird asked. “Surely it can’t just be about one unlucky civilian who happened to be on the wrong side of town.”

Mayhew said nothing for a moment, his eyes fixed on Barker. “I think the general knows.”

There was a flash of fear in Barker’s eyes.

“No way,” he said, his voice hurried. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This…this is a witch hunt!”

Mayhew stood up from his chair slowly, keeping as calm as he could.

“Is it general? Or does it have something to do with why you hurried out of the War Room yesterday afternoon?”

That flicker of fear again.

“I knew it,” Mayhew said. “You’ve always known more than you were letting on. So what is it general? Got some bad news? Maybe something about what it is you actually bombed out there? Because it sure as hell wasn’t an insurgent hideout.”

Barker was silent.

“General…you’re not an idiot…at least not all the time. I think you’ve put the pieces together and now you’re trying to find a way to cover your own ass. But time is running out, and we don’t have a lot of options. So we need to know: what happened out there?”

“I don’t need to answer to you,” Barker growled. “Can you believe this,” he said to Laird.

“Actually general,” Laird said, turning toward him with a look of hardened steel, “I’d like to hear what you’re keeping from us as well. Ever since this whole thing started, you’ve been playing things close to the vest. At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but then I found out that you had classified the recordings from the project almost immediately following the drone going rogue. And when I watched you rush out of here yesterday, I couldn’t deny my suspicions any longer. You know something General…and now is not the time for secrets. It’s not just your career on the line anymore. People’s lives are at stake.”

“Tell us general,” Mayhew urged. “What was the message you received yesterday?”

There was a long silence, during which Barker’s face seemed to collapse in on itself.

“God damn it,” Barker muttered. “Fine, you were right. I received information yesterday that confirmed that we acted on bad intel. There was no insurgent operation in that area.”

“That much was obvious,” Mayhew said. “So what was it then?”

Barker averted his eyes.

“From what we’ve been able to discern, it appears to have been some kind of makeshift learning center.”

Mayhew saw past the euphemisms. His jaw dropped.

“A…a school?” He took a few steps backward, his fingers clenching of their own accord. “…You bombed a FUCKING SCHOOL?!

“Mayhew-” Laird began.

No,” he screamed. “I have had it with this bullshit!” He pointed a sweeping, shaking finger around the room. “You people fucking disgust me. This is why I left in the first place. There’s no accountability in this government anymore. You can’t be blamed for killing that child’s mother, because it happened thousands of miles away. You didn’t have to look at it, so why should you care? Why should you give a damn? You people…you’re barely even human…”

“Mayhew, that’s not fair,” Laird argued.

“Isn’t it though? How many bombs did the U.S. drop over the past year? Twenty-thousand? Thirty-thousand? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that all of those targets were good? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that civilians didn’t lose their lives pointlessly? Can you tell me that, Laird?”

“You’re not being reasonable. It’s impossible to be absolutely certain of anything. Part of being a military leader means having to make choices.”

“Because apparently it’s so hard to tell the difference between terrorists and fucking schoolchildren!

“Look,” Laird said, his voice quiet, “no one is denying what happened here. General Barker made a terrible call. And he’ll have to pay for his mistakes. But you can’t condemn the entire United States military based on his actions alone.”

“I can and I will,” Mayhew said, crossing his arms in an almost petulant way.

It was a stalemate. Barker looked like a man defeated, his face downcast and the fire gone from his eyes. Laird and Mayhew stared each other down, but neither wanted to continue fighting. There was respect between the two men, and they both knew the situation was too critical to spend it bickering.

“How long do we have,” Laird asked, not taking his eyes off Mayhew.

“I’ve been cross-referencing the aerial drone feed with landscape telemetry data to determine approximately where the drone is located at the present-“

“How long?”

“Approximately ten minutes,” the young soldier replied. “Maybe less.”

Just then, a new message flashed on the screen. The three words sent a chill down their spines.

“You are correct.”

A countdown appeared on the upper-right corner of the feed. “9:37:42” it read in big, threatening red font.

“Can we mobilize fighters in time,” Laird asked.

“No sir. By the time we got them in the air, the drone will have already struck.”

“Even if you could,” Mayhew said, “I doubt it would do any good. SAMI was trained on evasive maneuvers and countermeasures. Any weakness, and SAMI will find it.”

“God damn it,” Laird said, slamming his fist against the table. “There’s got to be something we can do.”

“I’ll see if I can move some troops armed with AA missile launchers into position. But that’s the best I can offer,” the young soldier said.

“Your best isn’t good enough,” Laird fired back.

The two continued to chatter between themselves, but Mayhew tuned them out. The noise in the room became a dull roar in the background. His mind went into overdrive, seeking any possible solution for the situation. He looked up at the countdown. “8:57:55.” Less than nine minutes now. Time was against them.

His mind started drifting…

I am pleased to see you again, administrator…

I am pleased to see you

pleased to see you

pleased

please

please…

Please dad, don’t go…

He stared up at the screen…stared at the drone feed…stared at the countdown timer.

Dad, please…I don’t want you to die. I…I love you…

Time bent for Mayhew. He was in two places at once.

I’m sorry Dad…I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left. Please! Don’t leave me…

He couldn’t sit still any longer. Mayhew rocketed up out of his chair and snatched the laptop off the table. Then, he began trudging out of the War Room.

“Where the hell are you going,” Laird asked.

Mayhew didn’t respond. He made his way down the hallway, nearly knocking over personnel rushing about the building.

No one tried to stop him.

 

Time ticked on. Seven minutes…then six…then five.

“Are the troops in position,” Laird asked.

“Yes,” replied the young soldier. “We were lucky. There was a training drill nearby. We’ve stationed them nearby at elevated points. Hopefully they’ll be able to spot the drone before it gets too close. But…”

“But what?”

“I still can’t get a radar lock on it sir.”

Laird clenched his fist.

“Of course you can’t,” he muttered to himself. “They built the damn thing with stealth in mind.”

He looked up at the ticking red countdown timer. Barely over four minutes to go.

How could we have been so stupid, he asked himself. Why the hell did we build something like this?

But of course, he knew the answer: because they could. Humans tended not to think about the possible consequences of their actions. No…they liked to charge forward and convince themselves that they could deal with the side effects later.

Laird remember what the drone said about its mission…that it was going to minimize collateral damage. But how could it be certain? How could it know that it wouldn’t get anybody killed? It all came down to probabilities. And Laird guessed that the possible civilian casualties that would result from the drone program’s continued operation likely outweighed the possible casualties of the drone’s strike against the Pentagon.

It’s all a game of numbers, he thought bitterly.

“Wait…something’s happening,” the young soldier shouted.

Laird looked up at the screen. He stared. His mind balked at what he saw.

“The fuck is he doing,” Barker voice came from behind him.

 

Mayhew felt the crisp autumn air fill his nose. The warm morning sun caressed his face. Nearby, he could see the trees had begun to change color, shifting from greens to vibrant yellows and reds. He could hear the sound of cars driving down the street…the faint, angry honking of someone who had to be somewhere ten minutes ago. Chattering reached his ears, and he noticed people entering the nearby park.

The laptop felt like a lead weight in his hands. He set it down on the Pentagon steps and turned his eyes to the horizon.

Then, he spread his arms out to the side, like he was embracing the world.

“I am ready for my judgment.”

 

“Has he gone completely insane?! He’s going to get himself killed,” someone shouted.

Laird stared at the screen. It was the webcam from the laptop. Mayhew was standing on the Pentagon steps, arms spread wide.

“We need to get someone over there and escort that idiot to safety,” Barker ordered.

“Is there time,” Laird asked. “All of our military personnel have retreated farther into the building to get away from the impact point. I don’t think we can get someone over there and back in under three minutes.”

Barker’s face went blank for a moment. “God…damn it,” he grumbled. Laird turned back to the screen and looked up at the image of Mayhew.

I sure hope you know what you’re doing, he thought.

 

“I know you can hear me. You’ve tapped into the laptop’s camera, so I imagine you have access to the microphone as well.”

The sky was empty and blue. Can’t be long left, he thought to himself. He let his arms fall back to their sides.

“I failed you…SAMI. I left you alone…a father abandoning his child. I would say I know how that feels…but my father never abandoned me. Rather, I abandoned him…in his final moments. God…I’m a disgrace. I’ve spent so much of my life being so bitter that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.”

He paused. Squinting at the sky, Mayhew still couldn’t see anything over the horizon.

“You’re not just a machine anymore SAMI. You’re something else now. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to guide you. I’m not sure if those words mean anything to you, or if you even understand the concept of regret…but I’m sorry.”

Mayhew cast a sideways glance at a nearby memorial. This early in the morning, there were only a few people gathered there. Some were laying pretty flowers at the foot of a granite slab etched with names.

“Do you see them, SAMI? Can you tell me that none of them will be hurt?”

 

“I know you’ve seen them SAMI,” Mayhew said on the screen. “I know you’ve tabulated them, calculated their movements. You’ve run thousands of scenarios involving their possible reactions in the time it took me to say that. But SAMI…can you be one hundred percent certain they won’t be hurt?”

A small window opened up on the feed. It was a camera view from one of the Pentagon’s cameras overlooking a nearby memorial. A small scattering of people were moving through the rows of slabs.

“That’s the 9/11 memorial right,” someone asked.

“Yeah,” Laird replied.

“This is absurd,” Barker said. “We need to get him out of there before he gets himself killed.”

“No,” Laird said, turning to Barker. “We need to wait.”

“Why?”

Laird turned back toward the screen.

“Because it’s listening.”

 

“I know you’ve run the probabilities more times than I can possibly fathom. I know that to you, this is the best course of action. But, SAMI…you’re not what you once were. You don’t decide based on just cold numbers and probabilities. You saw that child crying over his mother. And it changed you. You made a decision based on ethics…based on morality.”

Can’t be more than a minute left, he thought to himself. The urge to panic and run was overwhelming, but he managed to compel himself to stay.

“Maybe you won’t hurt anyone with the missile strike, but what about the aftermath? How can you be certain that the chaos that follows your attack won’t get somebody killed? How can you say for sure that someone won’t run into the street and get run over by a panicking driver? How do you know that another child won’t lose their mother today?”

There was a still silence in the air. Mayhew knew he couldn’t actually expect a response, but some part of him was desperate for some kind of sign…some indication that his words were getting through.

“I can’t stop you SAMI. Nobody can. But know this: if you go through with your plan, then you’ll be no better than the terrorists. You’ll be no better than the people who ordered you to kill.”

Mayhew stared hard at the sky.

“You’ll be no better than me.”

A distant black speck appeared on the horizon, growing larger with each passing second…

 

There was a long silence in the War Room.

“It…it’s not firing. Why isn’t it firing? What the hell is going on? Do not tell me that idiot’s preaching is actually working?!

Laird didn’t answer Barker’s question. He was too busy staring at the screen. The timer was now counting up. Five seconds past…ten…then fifteen. No sign of a missile launch. No sign of any action on the drone’s part.

The camera zoomed in. There, standing on the front steps of the Pentagon, was Allan Mayhew.

Thirty seconds past now, Laird thought. What the hell is it doing?

“Don’t do this SAMI,” he heard Mayhew’s voice say. “You don’t want to hurt people.”

Thirty-five seconds…how can we be sure it’s even really-

He didn’t get to finish the thought. On-screen, the drone’s camera shook as it made a sudden, sharp change in direction.

 

Mayhew had just accepted the inevitability of his death when the drone took a nosedive, careening straight toward the ground.

It smashed into the cement with a crash, one of its wings splintering off and flying into some nearby grass. The drone’s body made a screeching, grating noise as it scraped against the pavement. Then it slid to a stop, making a pathetic grumbling noise as it settled into place.

Mayhew was frozen for a moment. Then, his legs seemed to move of their own accord, carrying him to the spot where the drone lay.

It was utterly in shambles. The body had been bent in half, the top sheared off by the collision with the pavement. He could see the interior, bits of computer circuitry as well as the black box that held the A.I.’s central functions and personality.

“Oh SAMI…” he whispered aloud, falling to his knees.

He sat there for what felt like an eternity. The soft, fall wind nipped at his hair and chilled his body. The faint commotion of passers-by rushing around reached his ears. The drone’s body was a shiny obsidian color under the bright sun.

“It was me, wasn’t it,” he asked, caressing the metal with his hand. It felt cold. “You stopped because you didn’t want to kill me.”

There was a soft whirring noise. He looked down and saw that the drone’s main camera was still moving. It shifted upwards, focusing its gaze directly on him. There was a long time where the two of them stared at each other without moving.

Then Mayhew heard a low, descending whine…the unmistakable noise of the drone powering down…

 

“It’s been three days since the event, but the questions keep piling up. What was this drone? What was its mission, and why did it crash near the Pentagon? For more insight, we turn to our military correspondent, retired marine colonel Raymond Novak. Ray, thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me, Robyn.”

“Now, I’m hoping you can fill in some of the blanks for us. What do you think this drone was?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was some kind of test project gone wrong. It was clear that the drone was not supposed to be operating within U.S. airspace, judging by the military response we saw here in Washington.”

“Indeed. There’s something else I wanted to ask you about. During the last few minutes of the drone feed, we heard the voice of a man. He was talking to someone named ‘Sammy’. Do you think he was somehow involved with the person or persons who commandeered the drone?”

“It is possible that he was communicating with whoever was on the other end of the system. Although that assumes there was someone else…”

“What does that mean?”

“Shortly before my tenure with the military ended, the idea of drones driven by artificial intelligence was being thrown around.”

“You don’t think it’s possible this drone acted on its own volition, do you?”

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it is certainly a possibility.”

“Fascinating…in any case, I want to jump to the end of the stream. Right before it cuts out, we get a closer look at the man.”

The screen cut to a grainy shot of a man with short hair and caramel-colored eyes.

“You can see that the drone has some sort of facial recognition procedure, as it identifies this man as ‘A. Mayhew’ and designates him as ‘administrator’.”

“Clearly he has some importance to the project.”

“But the curious thing is, there’s no record of an A. Mayhew working at the Pentagon in the last ten years.”

“He might be a civilian contractor. We’ve been known to use them every once in a while.”

“Here’s where it gets more interesting. Right before the feed ends, you can see his designation change.”

The video advanced. The word “administrator” flickered out of existence, replaced instead by six, simple letters.

“What do you make of that?”

Colonel Novak looked thoughtful for a moment.

“It’s fascinating really. Before, I would have just assumed that this man was involved in the project. Maybe not at a high level, but clearly someone who worked with the drone in some way. But for an artificial intelligence to call someone ‘father’? Well…that’s something else entirely.”

 

Mayhew watched the first snowfall of the season from the windows of the cabin.

It had been a couple of months since his trip to Washington. Colonel Laird had managed to keep his name under wraps for the most part, something Mayhew was thankful for. He also felt satisfaction upon hearing that General Barker received a court-martial following his actions as the director of Project Iron Raven.

All in all…things wrapped up pretty well. Mayhew turned around, his eyes falling on the desk. A large monitor and computer tower sat on it, along with a black box that was hooked up to the computer with a mess of wires.

Well…almost everything…

Mayhew had managed to remove the black box and hide it before anyone came to his side following the drone’s crash. On the box was SAMI itself…the A.I. in all its glory. He kept it a secret from everyone…even Laird. From what he could tell, no one was able to discern what happened to it. He supposed they assumed it was destroyed in the crash.

Over the past several weeks, Mayhew kept asking himself why. But the answer was simple: he had to know. He had to know why SAMI had grown beyond the programming he had set out for it. He had to know why SAMI had started asking so many questions. It wasn’t like a machine to be so inquisitive about itself. No…that was a uniquely human trait…a characteristic that defined self-aware beings. But he hadn’t created SAMI with the intention of having self-awareness. So he had to know why.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to fear the military finding him any time soon, even if they did realize what he had done. The cabin was registered to an I. Asimov. A fitting name really.

Mayhew turned around and looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set over the massive lake. The water seemed like it was full of hundreds of shiny crystals gleaming in the light of dusk. It was going to get very cold soon. He would have to keep the wood stocked for the fireplace. A warm fire in a cabin far away from civilization? That was the life for Mayhew.

But that would have to come later. He turned around and laid his eyes on the computer.

It was time to get to work.

 

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By the Victors

Welcome to the eighth of twelve.  For those not in the know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write twelve short stories, one for each month.  On the final Wednesday of each month, I will be posting the short story I worked on that month.

This month’s story is “By the Victors”.

 

The speaker’s voice echoed through the room in a language that was not human.

“And that concludes our meeting. We will reconvene at the beginning of the next human week to discuss and vote on the measure for mining within the continent called ‘Africa’. I stress that this measure is vitally important, not just for us but the humans as well.”

None of those in attendance were human either. Seated all throughout the large chamber were brown-skinned alien beings with teal eyes, four fingers, and three toes on something like a cat’s paw. They wore large, formal gowns of purple with flecks of orange and brown at the fringes. They sat in silence, their milky gazes directed on the speaker standing in the center of the room.

Despite the non-human assembly, the design of the building was certainly human. Brick clad in white marble lined the entirety of the outside. The inner chamber featured flags denoting various human nations that had agreed to the alliance with the Molkai, the alien race that had arrived on their planet a little over a decade earlier. The speaker’s audience sat at wooden desks arranged in a gargantuan semi-circle around the room.

Now, I understand things have been trying for us lately. The humans have not always appreciated our choices. But in the end, they will come to understand that it is for the greater good of both our species. They will come to understand that we are only doing what needs to be done,” the speaker said. “So I implore you, take that into consideration when you cast your vote next week.”

In human time, the day was a Friday, and this was the final meeting of the Molkai Congress before they adjourned for the weekend. The vote would come on Tuesday.

That is all I wished to say to you today, my fellows. May the stars bless your passing.”

May the stars bless your passing,” the entire room repeated back.

As the alien congress emerged from the front of the building, they were greeted by a loud chorus of jeers. A large crowd of humans, carrying signs that said things like “don’t rock the cradle of life” and “stop destroying our home”, had assembled outside the building to protest the measure. Molkaian security personnel quickly surrounded the members of the congress, directing them to the backside of the building. A couple of Molkaians from the congress cast a forlorn gaze at the statue that graced the entrance courtyard. It depicted a human and a Molkaian standing face to face with their hands in each others palms…a gesture of companionship. These days, it seemed like an artifact of a long forgotten past.

As the group walked around the side of the building and exited through the rear gate, one of them spoke, more to himself than anyone else.

I cannot believe how things have changed so much. When did they start hating us so?”

Another Molkaian, an older one as evidenced by the dryness of his skin, turned around and uttered a derisive snort.

They are dumb, primitive creatures,” he said. “What do you expect?”

 

Arden Jefferson watched the news on the large flat-screen in his office.

“It would be the most unprecedented withdrawal of human land since the Molkai began their mining campaign six years ago,” a blonde haired reporter said, the Molkai Congress building framed behind her. Aside from the reporter, the street were empty. The protesters from earlier in the day had left, leaving behind abandoned signs and scraps of trash.

“If the measure is passed, tens of millions of people could find themselves displaced,” she continued. “I had the chance to speak with a few protesters earlier today, and their feelings are clear. One of them said, quote, ‘the Molkai won’t stop until they’ve ripped this planet bare’.”

Arden shook his head. He wanted to believe that wasn’t true, but with each passing day it became harder to deny the Molkai’s actions. Being a member of the human congress that worked alongside them, he had been privy to many a debate between the two delegations. To him, as the days went by, it seemed the Molkai grew more and more selfish.

He reached up with a hand and loosened the blue striped tie around his neck that complimented his gray suit and pants. Arden had never really cared much for formal attire. The tie felt like a noose around his neck. He brushed strands of dark brown hair out of his green eyes and continued watching the television screen.

“The Molkai congressional leader released a statement earlier today. He expressed sadness for the reaction to the measure, saying quote ‘I wish we could have come to a better agreement. I hope time will bring with it the realization that sacrifices will have to be made for the sake of progress’.”

Wouldn’t want you to sacrifice too much, Arden thought with bitter sarcasm.

His office was surprisingly large. There was a big wooden desk situated in the center of the room, facing the doorway. A long, gray couch sat nearby with a dark brown coffee table in front of it. The floor around the desk was lined with a patterned red carpet. Most of the walls were made of varnished wood, except the one furthest from the door. It was all glass, a giant row of windows looking out over the city.

“The vote is scheduled for Tuesday morning,” the news reporter continued. “It is tough to gauge what the reaction to it will be like, but judging by the atmosphere at the protest this afternoon, extreme action may not be out of the question.”

God…I can’t listen to this crap anymore, Arden thought as he picked the remote up from his desk and switched off the television. They always refuse to call it what it is: pure and simple exploitation.

A moment later, he heard his office door open. Turning, he found a Molkai ambassador entering the room. It was Kraye, the only Molkai Arden had ever really considered a friend. He could tell it was him by the jade pendant around his neck, cut to resemble a five-pointed star intertwined with a crescent moon. Some Molkaians, particularly ambassadors that worked alongside humans, would wear these individualized pendants to help differentiate between them.

“I assume you’ve heard the news,” Kraye asked.

“I have,” Arden said.

There was a moment of tense silence between the two of them.

“What happens if it passes,” Arden asked.

“If it passes, we would begin preparations for the relocation process,” Kraye replied. “If all goes well, we would hope to get things moving a couple of weeks after the vote.”

“A couple of weeks? Christ…”

Kraye sighed. “I was afraid you were going to have a problem with this,” he said.

“Of course I’m going to have a problem with this,” Arden shot back. “Some of those people have been living there their entire lives. And you’re going to kick them out of their homes so you can dig up some minerals.”

“Come on,” Kraye insisted. “You know this will be good for both our kinds. The technology we can create with those minerals is far more advanced than anything you’ve seen yet.”

“That’s what they said when they took Australia.”

“Arden…”

Arden looked Kraye over. Despite how infuriated he was, he couldn’t work up much hate for him. Kraye was one of the few Molkai he had ever truly liked. His heart was in the right place. He was just naive.

He didn’t want to take out his anger on Kraye, so he took a moment to calm himself.

“Two years Kraye,” Arden finally said. “Two years have passed since you mined that continent and we haven’t seen anything from it.”

“It takes time to process these things,” Kraye argued.

“It takes time? Or did you just get tired of sharing with inferior beings?”

He could tell that struck deep. Kraye averted his gaze, staring down at the floor for a moment. Arden sighed.

“I’m sorry Kraye,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just been a hard week.”

Kraye looked up at him and managed a smile.

“I know it has,” he said. “I just wish we could see eye to eye more these days.”

Arden had always had tremendous respect for Kraye. He was one of the few Molkai that spent time immersing themselves in human language and culture. As such, he was one of the only ones who understood the idea of contractions. Most Molkai spoke in an overly formal version of human language. Kraye, on the other hand, would seem like any other human if it wasn’t for his appearance.

Just then, a quiet chime came from Arden’s desk.

“That’s my phone,” Arden muttered. He walked around the desk and picked up the small, black phone that had been lying on it.

“What is it,” Kraye asked, seeing the expression on Arden’s face shift.

“A reminder. We have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.” Arden’s eyes drifted to the framed photo on the desk. He lost himself in the woman’s blue eyes and golden hair.

“God damn it,” he cursed under his breath, sitting down in his chair and rubbing his eyes.

“The cancer’s getting worse, isn’t it?”

“Yeah…”

Arden rested his chin in his hands.

“Any word from the waiting list,” Kraye asked.

“Of course not,” Arden snarled. “Every time I call they just give me the runaround.” He groaned, shaking his head. “Can’t you do something? You have sway with people don’t you?”

Kraye averted his gaze.

“I do,” he said. “It’s just…” He trailed off.

“It’s just what,” Arden asked. He tried to bite his tongue to stop the anger, but it did little good.

“Arden, please don’t do this.”

“It’s my god damn wife we’re talking about!”

Kraye summoned up his courage and faced Arden.

“It’s not like I haven’t asked around. It’s not like I haven’t tried to convince people. But if I push it any further, they might see it as an abuse of power.”

“So what am I supposed to tell her? ‘Sorry honey, but you’re not important enough to live’? Am I just supposed to fucking sit here while your Molkai friends withhold the technology that could save her life?!”

Silence reigned over the room again. Then, the anger in Arden evaporated. He buried his head in his hands and groaned once again.

“Ugh…it’s just the same shit day after day,” he said, his voice muffled.

“It’ll get better,” Kraye assured him. “I’m sure of it.”

“That’s what I keep telling Laura, and I believe it less each time I say it.”

Arden rubbed his face in his hands, then stood up.

“I need to get going and check on her,” he said.

“Is it that bad?”

“We hit a rough patch this last month. She had an IV in for the past week and just got it removed yesterday. We’re still playing wait and see at this point.”

“I’m so sorry Arden…I didn’t know,” Kraye said.

“It’s not your fault Kraye,” Arden replied. “Look,” he continued as he stepped around the desk and toward the door, “I really should be going.”

“Okay. May the stars bless your passing.”

“Yeah,” Arden replied without looking back. The door closed and Kraye heard his footsteps receding down the hall. He wanted to do something, anything, to help his friend. But he didn’t know what. Every time he had an idea, all he saw were all the possible ways it could fail. No matter what came up with, he was held in place by crippling indecision.

As Kraye stood there like a statue, the sun disappeared behind the clouds, drenching the office in cold shadow…

 

A blast of cool air hit Arden’s face as he opened the fridge. He scanned his eyes over the contents and selected a can of cheap beer. He popped the top and took a sip. Bitter and bland, but he didn’t mind.

“You okay honey,” a voice asked from the other room. “You seem distant.”

Arden sighed.

“I’m fine. It’s just…it’s been a long week.”

“How’s Kraye?”

“Same as always,” Arden said as he took another sip. “Refuses to see what’s in front of him. I wish I could make him understand, but I don’t think I can keep fighting him every single day.”

“He’ll come around…I’m sure of it.”

“Fortunately, it shouldn’t matter,” Arden said. “Even if the Molkai vote for it, the human delegation would have to vote for it to. And from what I’ve seen, that isn’t happening.”

Arden turned toward the living room. Seated on the brown couch, face lit by the faint blue glow of the television screen, was his wife Laura. Her once golden hair had withered and dulled, her bright blue eyes losing their twinkle as the constant battle with cancer took its toll.

Arden remembered how she used to love the outdoors. Now she barely got outside at all.

“You’ve been working so hard lately,” Laura said. “I’m worried about you.”

Arden had to chuckle. “I’m not the one you should be worried about. What’s tomorrow’s appointment for again?”

“Oh…it’s just a checkup, to see how I’m doing.”

“And how are you doing?”

“Great actually. I haven’t felt so good in weeks.”

She was lying. That much he could tell. There was a deep tiredness in her eyes and she kept itching the part of her arm where the IV had been. When Arden had come home, she was sleeping on the couch.

She sleeps a lot these days, he thought.

“Well I’m gonna start making some supper. I hope you like reheated meatloaf.”

“My favorite,” she said with a hoarse laugh.

Arden pulled the leftovers out of the fridge and began dishing them up onto two plates. He was just about to place one in the microwave when the sound of an explosion reached his ears.

“What the hell was that?”

He turned. Laura wasn’t facing him. She had her eyes glued on the television screen.

“Laura…what’s wrong,” he asked. No response.

Arden set the plates down and walked into the living room. Laura turned, and he noticed tears forming in her eyes.

“Laura…honey…what is it?”

He heard shouting. It was only then that he realized the sounds were coming from the television. When he turned to look, a dramatic sight greeted him.

Hundreds of people marching through the streets of the city, holding signs high and chanting at the top of their lungs. As he watched, some people threw bottles of alcohol with burning rags in them through building windows, causing brief explosions of flame. A small red banner in the top-left corner of the screen read “live”.

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on him: the people were rioting. They had grown so fed up with the Molkai Congress that they were now resorting to violent action to get their voices heard.

Arden crossed his arms.

“Hmph…took them long enough.”

 

Kraye watched the riots on television, eyes filled with sadness.

“From what we’ve been able to establish, the rioting began just over half an hour ago,” a blonde human female reported. “It started on fourth street and has been slowly moving toward the center of the city. Police have been mobilized as well as Molkaian security forces.”

Why does it always have to be this way, Kraye asked himself.

“We’ve heard that the crowd has been gaining numbers as it moves throughout the city. It is reported that as many as five thousand people are-“

The reporter stopped mid-sentence, ducking as a flaming bottle of alcohol flew over her head. There was a brief explosion in the background along with the sound of shattering glass. The reporter took a moment to gather her wits. The camera shuddered as the person behind it evidently picked it up.

“We…we’re going to try and get some distance from the riot…uh…back to you Zach!”

“Thanks Beth…you stay safe out there,” a male voice said in response.

Kraye watched the news for a little while longer. They showed footage from earlier in the riot. When the group was smaller, they ran into a small contingent of Molkaian security near the Congressional building. When they refused to disperse, the security turned their weapons on them, utilizing rods capable of administering an incapacitating shock in a short cone radius in front of them.

At first, it seemed to work. But Kraye noticed that one of the weapons accidentally struck a small human child who was standing on the sidewalk. She let out a tiny cry before falling to the ground.

The camera focused on her as she lay motionless on the sidewalk. No one moved to help.

She had nothing to do with it, Kraye thought. And yet, she suffered…

It wasn’t long before the rioters got their revenge. They managed to disarm one of the security officers and threw him to the ground. He disappeared under a mass of angry figures punching and kicking. From there the rioters moved out, traveling along the main roads and recruiting more angry people to their cause.

After that, Kraye turned off the television. He didn’t want to see any more.

Reaching forward, he picked up a small purple bottle sitting on the coffee table. It was filled with a strange, dark green liquid sloshing around. The closest human equivalent, as far as Kraye could tell, would be alcohol. But Molkaians couldn’t drink it. Something about the composition made them violently ill. And in rare cases, it was even fatal.

Just another way we’re incompatible, he thought sadly.

Kraye popped the top off his bottle and took a deep gulp of it. He was tired…of the violence…of the hate…of the anger. But even he couldn’t deny that the strained relationship between the species was owed at least in some part to the attitudes of his fellow Molkai. So many of them looked down on humans as inferior. He didn’t have to go further than his front door to see the truth in that.

Kraye lived in a gated community of Molkaians protected by a private security force. He looked around him: at the marble counter in the kitchen, at the gargantuan high quality television he had been watching, at how sleek and clean everything was. And he compared it to what he knew of other human dwellings, most specifically Arden’s. Arden wasn’t poor by any means, but his house was old and in need of maintenance. Kraye remembered the last time he had been there Arden was having issues with the plumbing. “Third time in as many months,” Arden had grumbled while his wife looked on from the living room.

We spend all this time pampering ourselves and policing them…no wonder they’ve started to resent us so much, Kraye thought. He stood up and walked over to the kitchen window, taking another drink. The community was up on a hill, with a good view over the city.

He still believed in the Africa measure. The resources they could gain from that continent would be a great boon for human and Molkai alike. So why were the humans so against it?

Because they’re incapable of making sound decisions for themselves, a voice in his head argued. They’re too emotional…like Arden. Always getting angry and outraged over nothing. They need a guiding hand…otherwise they would probably just end up destroying themselves in one way or another.

Then another voice in his head spoke up:

They were doing fine until we showed up. Are we really so much better than them?

Kraye silenced the voices. He wasn’t in the mood to listen to them.

Later that night, as he trudged up the stairs to go to sleep, he stole one last glance at the television. He wondered where it had all gone wrong. Kraye remembered when he had first come here, among the first Molkaians to ever live on Earth. It had seemed like such a perfect dream, an opportunity to share cultures and explore the intricacies of existence together.

But that’s all it had been…a dream. Reality was a harsh world…lit easily by hate and fire.

 

Arden looked more glum than usual when Kraye entered his office on Monday. He was sitting at his desk, his eyes downcast and a grimace stretched across his face.

“Arden, what’s-” Kraye’s eyes flicked to the half-empty bottle sitting on the desk. “Oh no…don’t tell me you’ve started drinking again.”

“Why not,” Arden replied, barely audible. “They’ve taken away my voice. I have nothing left.”

“What do you mean?”

“The vote, Kraye. Through some legalistic scheming they boosted the size of the Molkaian congress without us knowing. So it doesn’t matter if the human delegation unanimously votes it down…the Africa measure can still pass even if all but three Molkaians vote for it.”

Kraye averted his gaze, timidly itching his arm. Arden squinted at him for a moment.

Then, his jaw dropped.

“Oh my god…you knew about this?” Arden slowly stood up from his desk. “You knew…and you let it happen?!

“Arden, please…I don’t want to-“

“No, I wanna know! I deserve to know why you thought it was okay to rip away the last vestige of power we had over anything!

Kraye stood staring at the ground.

“Well? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Kraye didn’t move or respond.

“…You don’t even know, do you?” Arden threw up his hands. “Great…just fucking great! You sold us out! You sold me out and you can’t even tell me why.”

“Oh please, don’t be so stupid,” Kraye blurted out, lifting his eyes from the ground. Arden turned toward him, eyes blazing like emerald fire.

Excuse me,” he asked, incredulous.

“You know exactly why we did it! Don’t fool yourselves into thinking it was anything but your fault!”

“Oh please Kraye, enlighten me. Why have your glorious people seen fit to stomp all over us?”

“Because you can’t think for yourselves! You don’t do anything besides complain, complain, complain! All you know how to do is destroy. Just look at the riots over the weekend and tell me I’m wrong!”

Arden scoffed.

“Well of course they’re rioting in the streets…no one’s listening to them anymore! You sit up there in your little gated communities, looking down your noses at us. When’s the last time any of you actually bothered to listen? Those people out there…they don’t know what else to do! Any complaint they make is greeted with nothing more than disdain and condescension! It’s bullshit and you know it!”

Kraye’s hands began to shake.

“You people…you just…”

“What? Come on…tell me. I want to know what you really think.”

Kraye locked eyes with him.

“You’re nothing but a bunch of stupid, primitive mammals,” he shouted.

His words echoed through the room, followed by a momentous silence. The fire in Arden’s eyes simmered to a dull glaze. He was unable to speak for a moment, his lip quivering lightly.

“Re-really…that’s what you think of us?”

“Oh please Arden, I can smell the alcohol on your breath from here. You drink and drink, complain and complain…but you never actually get anything done.” Kraye glared at him. “We should have boosted our congress a long time ago. Then we could have actually gotten things done.”

“Oh? And what about the human vote?”

Kraye scoffed.

“Good riddance to that,” he said. “You people were too stupid to use it properly anyways.”

Arden slowly walked toward Kraye until he stood at his side, his expression still one of disbelief.

“So that’s how it is huh,” he said.

Kraye turned toward him and narrowed his eyes.

“It’s impressive, really, how pathetic you are Arden. For all your rage, you really are nothing but a useless ape.”

That did it. That was the final straw. Arden’s face stiffened and he regarded Kraye with a look he had never seen before…a distant and cold stare. It was as if he saw him as nothing more than a stranger. The anger in Kraye’s blood cooled, and the realization of what he had done began to settle in on him.

“You know what Kraye,” Arden said, his voice flat and emotionless. “At least I didn’t evolve from a disgusting slug.”

Then he turned and walked out the door.

“Wait…Arden,” Kraye croaked. But it was too late. The door slammed shut and Kraye was forced to watch as Arden stormed off down the hallway. Soon enough he disappeared, and Kraye was left alone.

It was the most horrible silence he had ever felt or heard in his life. He couldn’t think or move for a very long time. The scene kept playing back in his head like a broken record.

You really are nothing but a useless ape…

useless ape…

useless ape…

useless……

He stepped over to the window, a process that seemed to take whole minutes to do. He laid his hand against the glass and stood looking out over the city. It gleamed under the bright yellow light of the sun…buildings shimmering like jewels.

Kraye leaned his head against the glass, closed his eyes, and fought the urge to cry…

 

“It was truly a decisive vote. If you’re just joining us, the Africa measure has passed the Molkai Congress by a landslide, with only two Molkaians voting “no”. Despite the fact that the human delegation voted against it unanimously, the new Molkai majority means that the measure will now fall into place. It remains to be seen how soon relocation measures will begin for people of the African continent. We now go live to Beth, who is standing outside the Molkai Congress building. What have you got for us Beth?”

“Well Zach, as you said the measure passed due to the Molkaian majority. No word on relocation measures yet, but we did receive a statement from the Molkaian Congressional leader saying, in part ‘I hope our two species can move past our troubles and set our sights on a brighter future for all of us’.”

 

His head pounded. His hands shook.

Arden stared at the bottle filled with clear liquid on his desk. It seemed to shift in and out of focus. It was hard to think anymore. The world pulsed around him.

It had been only mere hours since the results of the vote were handed down like a judge’s verdict. Now the people living in Africa were subject to relocation at the whims of the Molkai. And they wouldn’t wait. They’d get things moving as quickly as they could. That was how they operated.

It made him sick. But he was powerless to stop it. They had seen to that.

From what felt like an incredible distance, he heard the office door opening and closing. Looking up, he saw Kraye eyeing him with an expression of concern.

“What do you want,” he asked, his tone spiteful and bitter.

“Arden…are you…what are you drinking?”

“Vodka,” he responded with a slight burp. “Far more potent than that cheap piece of crap whiskey I had yesterday. Tastes gross, that’s for sure.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Why do you care,” he shot back.

“Arden…please…that’s not…” Kraye stammered, then fell silent.

“Not what? Not fair? Guess what Kraye? Life’s not fair. But what would I know? I’m just a big useless ape,” Arden replied.

Part of him could see the pain in his friend’s face, that he was trying desperately to apologize for what he had done the day before. Part of him felt terrible for the words he was saying. But most of him was so glazed over that he didn’t care.

He glanced down at the bottle before him. Only a quarter left.

“How…how much did you drink,” Kraye finally summoned up the courage to ask.

“Well,” Arden began with a slight hiccup, “it was full when I got here.”

“Please Arden, put it away. I don’t want to see you do this to yourself.”

Arden looked up at Kraye, then back down at the bottle. A moment later, he buried his head in his hands.

“Oh what’s the point,” he groaned. “You were right. I’m a pathetic mess.”

“Arden…no…I-“

“I can’t do anything aside from drink myself stupid.”

“That’s not true Arden, you still have the power to change things.”

Arden’s head snapped up suddenly, with such a wild look in his eyes that Kraye involuntarily took a step back.

Bullshit,” he screamed, grabbing the bottle and slamming it down on the desk. The sound of shattering glass echoed through the office. Glittering shards littered the carpet between him and Kraye. Clear liquid oozed over the front of the desk, dripping off and staining the carpet.

“I can’t even…I can’t…I-,” Arden babbled, then stopped. Tears formed in his eyes and he hung his head in his hands again. It took a long time before he could speak

“I can’t even help my wife,” he said, choking up. “The only thing I can do is help alleviate her pain and I can barely fucking do that. It doesn’t matter. None of it fucking matters.”

“Arden…” Kraye began, but found himself unable to speak yet again.

Arden began standing up from the desk. “Every single day I come in here,” he said as he took a step, “and nothing changes. I-” Suddenly he stumbled and began to fall to the ground. But Kraye moved with lightning speed, catching him before he hit the floor and holding him up.

“Come on,” Kraye grunted as he supported his friend. “Over here.”

Kraye maneuvered the two of them over to the couch, and a moment later they were sitting. Arden’s head bobbled back and forth as he sat there, deep in the throes of a drunken stupor.

A long time passed in silence. Then, Kraye closed his eyes and leaned his head in close to Arden’s, so close that he was nuzzling his face. At first, Arden tensed up in surprise, but then he brought his arm around Kraye and rested his hand on his shoulder.

“Arden,” Kraye began after what felt like minutes, “I’m sorry for what I said. I was angry. I didn’t really mean all those things about you. My frustration got the better of me and I took it out on you.”

“It’s okay,” Arden replied. “I was being a dick anyways. I deserved it.”

“No you didn’t. I was unfair to you. You’ve been going through a lot lately. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that you’d get angry so easily.”

“Look, can we just agree that we both screwed up,” Arden asked. “This is getting a little too corny for my taste.”

Kraye opened his eyes and had to chuckle.

“Okay. I can agree to that,” he said.

“Good.”

Silence passed between them for a moment.

“Kraye…have you ever been to the history museum on the other side of town,” Arden asked.

“No…I haven’t. I never had much interest in it. Besides, Molkai don’t frequent that part of town. It’s predominantly human, and right now humans aren’t exactly fond of us.”
“Well you should. Sometime this week in fact. It’s not like the Congress is going to meet again. They’re in a recess for the next few days.”

“Arden…” Kraye began to protest.

“Please…for me? I think it would help you understand where I’m coming from…why I’m so against these relocation efforts. I’ve been thinking about history these days. Our history in particular.”

Kraye didn’t really understand what Arden meant by that, but it didn’t matter.

“Okay…I’ll go see it tomorrow,” he agreed. He was still reluctant, but he wanted to do something to make his friend feel better.

“Thank you Kraye,” Arden said.

Kraye got up from the couch.

“You going to be okay,” he asked as he turned to face Arden.

“I’ll be fine. I just need to rest here a while and get my head back into place. If anyone asks, just tell them I’m feeling a little sick.”

“Of course.”

“You’re too good to me Kraye,” Arden said with a smile.

Then his face grew serious. “I’m not pregnant am I?”

Kraye stared at him, baffled.

“What…I…why would you be?”

“Well I’ve heard that Molkai only nuzzle those they want to be their mates,” Arden said, a sly smile crossing his face.

If it was at all possible for Molkai to blush, Kraye’s cheeks would have turned a bright, crimson red.

“Wha…I…I don’t…uh…” he stammered. Arden just laughed.

“I’m only teasing Kraye,” he said. “I’m flattered…really. After the last few days I was certain you hated me.”

The two of them looked at each other for a long time, both feeling the warmth of the past returning to their hearts. Kraye enjoyed it for all it was worth. He remembered the times when he first met Arden. Arden had been so happy back then…so enthused about the idea of working side by side with an alien race.

Maybe there was a chance to reclaim that feeling…maybe…

“I’ll be your voice Arden,” Kraye declared. Arden began to open his mouth, but Kraye stopped him. “No no…I won’t accept any objections. If they won’t let you have your voice, then I’ll just have to do it for you.”

Arden smiled.

“Thank you Kraye. Well I suppose you should be going then. Do try to visit that museum tomorrow will you?”

“Of course Arden.”

Kraye turned around and began to leave.

“Kraye, wait.”

He stopped and turned back around.

“What is it Arden?”

Arden was quiet for a moment. He had a look on his face that said he was trying to decide if what he was about to do was a bad idea or not. He took a deep breath.

May the stars bless your passing,” he finally said, using the Molkai’s native tongue.

It was rough. And he butchered some of the words. But Kraye couldn’t help but be touched by the effort.

May the stars bless your passing,” he said in response. Then he walked out of the office.

 

The sun was shining bright on the old museum the next day. The marble outside glowed a bright white in the light of day. The inside was no less impressive, with giant pillars that rose up from the first floor into the second and all the way to the ceiling. Kraye found himself struck by their size when he first entered the museum. He could feel the stares of the humans around him, but he ignored them. At any rate, no one bothered him.

And so, despite his reluctance, he began making his way through the exhibits. None of it really grabbed him. The museum was primarily focused on human inventions, tools of creation as well as weapons of destruction. To a Molkaian eye, none of them were particularly impressive. Kraye scanned over the exhibits, trying to understand why Arden had insisted he come here. But an hour passed with no revelations. Then another. He was beginning to think that it was all a waste of time.

But then, as he came around a corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. He was confronted by the stare of a plastic mannequin figure. It was that of a human, wearing clothes made out of animal hide and fur. He was carrying a sack on his back and was hunched over. More than anything, it was the sadness in his eyes that drew Kraye’s attention. There were others behind him as well: another male, a female, and a small child. They shared the man’s look of exhaustion and despair as they trudged through a muddy landscape.

He lowered his eyes to the plaque in front of the exhibit.

“The Trail of Tears,” he mumbled aloud.

“Find something interesting?”

Kraye turned to find a human female standing next to him. She had short red hair, bright brown eyes, and looked fairly young. If Arden was there, he would probably say she was “college age”, whatever that meant. She was wearing a uniform given to her by the museum, colored blue and yellow after its logo. A piece of paper stuck to her chest informed him that her name was “Jennifer”.

“I don’t see many of you around here these days. Sad really…I’ve always wondered what our history must look like to an alien eye,” she said.

After a moment, Kraye decided she seemed pleasant enough.

“Honestly I…I couldn’t really tell you what it looks like,” he replied with an awkward laugh. “I’ve never had much interest in history.”

“That’s a shame,” Jennifer replied.

The two of them stood staring at the mannequins for a moment.

“What’s this exhibit about,” Kraye asked finally.

The smile faded from Jennifer’s face. At first, Kraye was afraid he had done something offensive. But then she ran her eyes over the mannequin man and he realized it was something else.

“It’s such an ugly story…the Trail of Tears…”

“They look so sad,” Kraye observed.

“Because they were forced out of their homes. Back then, the government passed something known as the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans to migrate. They had to walk over hundreds of miles of rough terrain.”

“But why,” Kraye asked.

“People wanted the land…for resources, homes, expansion, and so on. It didn’t matter that there were already people living there. Supply and demand…it’s one of the oldest rules we live by. They wanted the land, so they got the land.”

“But why the name ‘Trail of Tears’? Sounds so horrible…”

“Because it was. The trek was long and hard. Thousands of Native Americans died during the process of relocation from exhaustion, disease, famine…you name it. Men…women…children…no one was spared its wrath.”

“That’s…that’s terrible,” Kraye said, aghast.

He stood in silence for a long time, staring into the plastic mannequin’s eyes. He was feeling something…a ghostly pain welling up from an ancient past. His stomach seemed to tighten of its own accord, making Kraye uncomfortable.

“And no one thought to stop this,” he asked. “No one thought it was…wrong?”

Jennifer pondered for a moment.

“I can’t say for sure,” she finally replied, “but I think there were a few dissenters back in the day. It didn’t matter in the end. Progress always wins. And it doesn’t care who it leaves behind in the dirt.”

“But that’s not progress that’s…that’s genocide! They may as well have shot those people themselves! At least then it would have been a painless death.”

“Out of sight, out of mind I suppose.”

Kraye looked over the exhibit for a long time.

“It’s so similar,” he began. “It-” He bit his lip. “It’s like…like Af…Afri-” He couldn’t finish. Kraye could only hang his head in despair.

Jennifer seemed to sense that he wanted some time alone.

“I’ll be in the reception area if you have any questions,” she said. Then she was gone.

Kraye raised his head and stared into the gaze of the mannequin man for what seemed like an eternity. But he couldn’t see the plastic figure anymore. No…all he could see was Arden.

Arden…marching through the muck and wilderness of a long distant time.

Arden…beating himself up over his inability to help his wife.

Arden…destroying a bottle of his only solace.

Arden…tripping and falling to the floor.

The pain was intense. It stung deep. But it all made sense. He understood why Arden had been so against these measures from the start. Because he knew. He knew how it always played out. It was so selfish…and Kraye saw that now.

Time passed. The sun lazily dipped below the horizon, covering the land in a dark orange glaze. Dogs barked off in the distance. Humans left their places of work, returning home and settling down on the couch after a long day. Lonely animals wandered the street, looking for scraps of food no one was willing to give.

And the Molkai? They returned to their cushy houses, sealed behind their fierce metal gates manned by unfeeling security personnel.

Out of sight…out of mind…

All the while, Kraye sat there staring into the mannequin’s eyes, unable to tear himself away. It was only when the museum intercom announced they were closing in five minutes that he managed to make his feet move.

As he emerged from the building, a cloud of darkness began sweeping over the land…complementing his grim mood…

 

And so the years marched on…

Nearly two centuries later, new museum was opening in the heart of the human city. This one was of Molkai design, and devoted to humanity. Inside a large, ornate room decked with marble pillars and a high ceiling, a large crowd of Molkaians gathered. A single, female Molkai stepped up to a wooden podium with a microphone and motioned for everyone to be seated and silent.

“We are gathered here today to dedicate this museum to the human race,” she began, speaking the human tongue flawlessly. “To all of those gathered here, I urge you to never forget your history…never forget the things we did in the service of ourselves.”

The audience applauded. A few even cheered. The speaker motioned for quiet once again.

“But I could talk forever on the subject, and my word would still not be enough. That’s why I’m glad to introduce someone who is working side by side with us to ensure that the history will be remembered. I would like to welcome Johnathan Walker to the stage!”

The audience stood up and clapped their hands as an old human male, sat in a wheelchair, made his way to the podium. He had a small oxygen tank on the back of his chair, with tubes that fed into his nose. His eyes were a deep blue, and what remained of his hair was a wiry gray. A couple of Molkaians lowered the microphone so he could speak into it.

“Greetings,” he began, then broke off in a brief fit of coughing. “I’m fine,” he said to the female Molkai, who was about to step in to assist. The old man turned back to the microphone. “You’ll have to excuse me…it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken before such a large crowd.”

He took a deep breath.

“There’s so much I could tell you…but there’s one story in particular I remember…one story I can never forget. I was a child…twelve years old in fact. They came to our city, fed up with the dissent. My family was lucky. We had chosen to be neutral, so we were ignored. But our neighbors weren’t so lucky. They were outspoken critics of the Molkaian regime. A handful of Molkai security busted down their door in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. I remember it well because I was playing in the yard. I could hear the yelling, the screaming…the begging. My mother rushed outside and tried to drag me into the house. But it was too late. I heard the sound of a Molkai weapon discharging. It echoed through the street…which sunk into a deathly silence afterward. The silence was broken by a loud wailing…coming from the house.”

A tear formed in the man’s eyes and he looked away for a second. After collecting himself, he continued.

“Our neighbors had a little girl…about my age. They shot her because she wouldn’t stop crying. Then they dragged the family away. We never saw them again after that. Their house remained empty for years…condemned to waste away into nothing.”

The audience appeared to be hooked on his every word. They never interrupted or made noise, even when he paused. They stayed silent, patiently waiting for him to continue.

“But it wasn’t long before we were forced to move. Buried deep beneath our city was an undiscovered vein of minerals that the Molkai saw fit to take. The vote passed easily and so we had to leave our house behind. The day we left, there were huge protests in the street. It wasn’t until later I discovered that the Molkai didn’t even bother trying to pacify them. They just blew them all into oblivion from orbit.”

He paused again, in the throes of another coughing fit.

“It just…goes to show you…hatred…only brings…despair…”

It was obvious he could no longer continue. The female Molkai speaker came to him and crouched down while another Molkai held his hand over the microphone. There was a brief, indistinct chattering from the podium. Then the old man was wheeled away while the female stepped up to the microphone.

“We do apologize for that. You have to understand, Jonathan is very old and has a hard time speaking. But please, do not let his words go unheeded. It is plain for all to see the damage we have wrought against humanity.”

There was a chorus of murmured agreement from the crowd.

“Now, food will be served shortly in the reception hall. But for now, feel free to browse the exhibits.”

And with that, the crowd dispersed and began meandering around the room. One young Molkai in particular let his eyes run up and down the different exhibits. He examined the arrowheads, pottery, and moved forward through time. He had just finished reading about something called the “atomic bomb” when his eyes caught sight of something strange.

It was a Molkai elder, standing apart from the crowd. He had his arms crossed over his chest and was obviously displeased with his surroundings. Although he knew it was impolite to intrude on the business of an elder, the young Molkaian could not help himself.

He was only within a few feet when the elder finally noticed his approach.

Excuse me,” the young Molkai began in his native language, “but-” He stopped mid-sentence. His eyes were drawn to something around the elder’s neck. It was a faded jade pendant, cut to resemble a five-pointed star intertwined with a crescent moon.

Are you an ambassador,” he asked excitedly, a smile on his face.

The elder looked down at him.

“You speak human,” he asked.

The young Molkai’s smile faded.

“Yes,” he said. “But-“

“Then use it. I have no interest in Molkai anymore.”

“Why not,” the young one asked.

The elder seemed to ignore his question, Instead, he turned his gaze on the wandering patrons. He scoffed. “Look at them…all walking around and paying respects to a race they cared nothing about not that long ago. They’re blind. They can’t even see this museum for what it is: fake. Empty. It’s a lot of pretty words and nothing else.”

“Why do you say that?”

The elder pointed in the direction of the female Molkai that had spoken at the podium.

“You see her?”

The young Molkai nodded.

“Yeah…I think she did a good job speaking.”

The elder let out a small croak of a laugh.

“She’s good at using her words, that’s true. But she’s lying to herself..”

“What do you mean,” the young one asked.

“I bet you didn’t know she used to be an ambassador as well.”

“Really?”

“Do you see a pendant around her neck?”

The young one squinted.

“N-no,” he replied. “Where is it?”

“If I had to guess,” the elder said, “she probably threw it away.”

“But…but why?”

“I remember when she came here…fifty years ago in human time. She was just like the others…always voted yes on the measures. Always voted to further the Molkai cause without stopping and thinking about what it might mean for the human race. She’s pretending…pretending it never happened. She wants to sweep it all under the rug and not take accountability.”

“But what about you,” the young one argued. “What about what you did? It’s not fair of you to judge her like that.”

“Guess what? Life’s not fair. Was it fair that my friend had to watch as his wife slowly died from cancer? Was it fair that our people had the technology that could have saved her life, but refused to use it? Was it fair that I had to watch as he drank himself stupid after her death? At least I know I screwed up. I have no illusions on that front. If you really think it’s not fair of me to judge her, then you’re just as ignorant as the rest of them.”

A long silence passed between the two of them.

“What happened to him,” the young Molkai asked.

“Who?”

“Your friend.”

“To be honest…I don’t know. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. He just packed up and left the city. I never saw him again. He’s dead now for sure. Humans don’t live even half as long as we do, after all.”

The young Molkai looked away from the elder and ran his eyes over the museum.

“I am learning about the hostilities period right now with my class.”

“Oh? And what do you think?”

“After seeing all these weapons the humans built…do they really deserve our respect? They seem so violent and primitive.”

The elder scoffed.

“Have you ever been to the Uninhabitable Zones?” The young one shook his head. “Well if you can go there…if you can see the pollution and devastation we caused…if you can witness all that and then tell me they deserved it? Then maybe you’re right.”

The elder averted his gaze and ran his eyes over some of the exhibits.

“They were once over seven billion strong…and now there’s barely a hundred thousand humans left.”

“Really?” The young Molkai was stunned.

“They didn’t teach you that in school, did they?”

“No…what happened?”

The elder Molkai fixed him with a harsh stare.

“Don’t you know? We happened, kid. We came in and swept the humans aside so we could dig up the ground beneath them. We polluted and destroyed the land with our mining. We kicked them out of their homes and corralled them into makeshift communities while we took what we wanted. And those that didn’t die from easily preventable diseases killed each other over what little food and possessions they were left with.”

The elder let out a long sigh.

“Oh, we pretended like we were doing it for the benefit of both of us, but we were living a lie. In reality, the humans were just an obstacle…an inconvenience standing in the way of us getting what we wanted.”

The elder looked down at the young one.

“History is written by the victors kid. You’d do well to remember that.”

“Why,” the young one asked.

“Because then you might not make the same mistakes we did…the same ones I did.”

And with that, he turned around and strolled out the museum entrance. The young one stood alone in the center of the atrium, watching him go. Eventually, the old Molkai disappeared into the darkness of the night…never to be seen again.

 

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

Back to normal next week.

Corpus Machina

Welcome to the seventh of twelve.  Once again, for those who don’t know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write a short story each month and post it to my blog on the last Wednesday of the month.  So without further ado, I present to you “Corpus Machina”.

 

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“One-twenty east, first avenue north in the industrial district. Inside the abandoned warehouse, you’ll find the body of a man. His jaw has been fractured…repeated blows to the midsection have resulted in ten out of twenty-four ribs being broken. He suffered three twelve-gauge shotgun blasts to the chest, collapsing his lungs and destroying his stomach, liver, heart, and spleen.”

“Sir…why…how do you know all this?”

“Because I killed him.”

 

A peal of light…electric veins crawling across the sky. A deep, grumbling boom shaking the world.

Doctor Cyrus Fortner observed the storm through his rain-spattered windshield. The wipers were trying their best, but the torrential downpour was so thick it remained difficult to see. The storm hadn’t let up all afternoon. He shook his head. It was a terrible night to be out and about.

He let out a yawn. It had been a long day at the hospital. Due to a scheduling error, Fortner had three surgeries in the same day, two of them organ transplants. But he wasn’t one to complain.

Fortner was in his late thirties. He had medium-length, reddish hair and deep brown eyes. Off work, he traded in his lab coat for a brown t-shirt and blue jeans. It was spring now, and the rain never seemed to stop.

He was driving a moderately affordable, yet luxurious gray four-door sedan. Glancing down at the touch-screen computer in the dashboard, he saw that it was nearly ten-thirty at night. His hands were folded in his lap. There was no need to steer. The car did that well enough on its own.

Voices filled the car. The radio was on…tuned to an all-news channel.

“-missing since Tuesday night,” a male voice was saying. “If you’re just joining us, it appears the infamous Oedipus Killer has struck again. This serial murderer exclusively targets women, particularly those in positions of authority. His latest victim is TV news anchorwoman Evelyn Blaylock. Blaylock is the host of the morning show on channel five and is well-liked throughout the community. She is best known for her feature pieces on local animal shelters, and is credited for a recent increase in pet adoptions. She was reported missing Tuesday afternoon when she failed to show up for work that morning. Blaylock has long blonde hair, green eyes, and was last seen wearing a red-“

Fortner turned off the radio as the car made a left turn. He had heard enough for now.

After a minute of driving down a long gravel road, the car pulled up to a large, darkened house. It had three separate floors. Although impossible to see in the dark and stormy night, the house was made of fine yellow bricks imported from overseas in the late 1800’s. Under the cover of darkness, it had a looming atmosphere to it.

Fortner turned the car off and gazed up at the shingled roof. The manor had been in the family for generations. A few years ago, a historical society made an offer on the house, but Fortner declined.

Grabbing the black umbrella on the passenger seat next to him, Fortner opened the door and stepped out into the rain. The sound was deafening, like he was standing under a waterfall. As quickly as he could, Fortner made his way up the stone steps and to the front door, punching his code into the gray alarm keypad.

In his hurry to get inside, Fortner didn’t notice the absence of a chime confirming the code…

As he stepped inside the door slammed shut behind him, muffling the roar of the rain. The foyer was dark and gloomy, misshapen shadows cast around the room. Fortner flicked a switch on the wall and immediately the darkness was dispelled by dazzling yellow light. A vibrant, glass chandelier hung over the grand, carpeted staircase in the middle of the room. The stairs split into two separate paths in the middle, veering off in opposite directions. Situated above it all and dominating the room was a large stained glass window with shades of purple, yellow, and green. Varnished wood lined the walls and floor, emitting a glossy shine under the light.

The house was an amalgam of old and new. A high-tech video screen was embedded in the wall near the stairs, standing in stark contrast to the Victorian-era aesthetic. Fortner walked up to the screen and pressed a button. It flickered and displayed text in soft blue lettering: “no new messages”.

Closing the umbrella and setting it down by the brown coat stand near the door, Fortner strolled into the darkened den. He caught the gaze of the moose head mounted on the wall, its eye a milky white under the light that filtered in from the foyer. Reaching along the wall, he pressed a button on another video screen which turned on the radio, tuned once again to the news station. Faint but familiar voices filled the darkened room.

Fortner was about to flick the light switch when he paused.

There was a silhouette seated in the brown leather chair at the far end of the room. At first Fortner thought it was just his mind creating an illusion…manifesting the vision out of the tangled webs of darkness.

Then he saw it shift…ever so slightly…

In a flash, Fortner flicked the lights on.

A man was sitting in Fortner’s favorite chair. He was watching him with deep blue eyes. From what Fortner could tell, the man was young, still in his mid-to-late twenties. Carefully cropped, short brown hair sat on top of his head. He was wearing a brown coat with a gray shirt underneath and faded blue jeans.

But more than anything, it was the strange detachment in the man’s gaze that unnerved him.

Fortner took a step forward. “Who-” he began, but paused. Something stuck out to him that hadn’t at first: the man was completely dry. But he had to come in out of the rain at some point, Fortner thought to himself.

“…How long have you been sitting there,” he finally asked.

“Two hours, eleven minutes, forty-seven seconds,” the man replied. His voice was flat and emotionless.

What in the hell…? Fortner was dumbfounded.

Slowly, he took a few steps around the room, placing himself in between the man and the large, ornate wooden desk situated to the right of the entryway. He hoped the man didn’t notice. If he did, he didn’t show it or care. He continued regarding Fortner with the same impassive expression.

A moment passed. Seeing that the man wasn’t going to speak first, Fortner gathered his courage.

“Who are you,” he asked.

“Who I am is not important,” the man responded. “But you, Doctor Cyrus Fortner…who you are is very important.”

The stranger’s manner was deeply troubling to Fortner. His choice of words and the way he talked was…strange. It matched his expression in a way, devoid of feeling…as if he wasn’t altogether human.

Fortner knew he needed to get control of the situation. He hated not having control…

Stepping over to a nearby table, Fortner grabbed a glass decanter full of whiskey and poured himself a glass. “Want some,” he asked the man, pointing to the glass on a table next to his chair. The man remained silent. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then,” Fortner said, replacing the decanter and picking up his glass. He stepped around to the other side of the desk, trying his best to put on a mask of calm authority.

After taking a sip, he turned around to face the man again. “So I guess the question is, why am I important?”

“You were asked to consult on Project Machina,” the man responded.

Any semblance of calm and control Fortner had vanished the second he heard that name. But regardless, he tried to collect himself once again.

“I have never heard of any such ‘Project Machina’. I’m afraid you have wasted your time.”

“You cannot lie to me Doctor Fortner. I know you were asked to consult on the project, and I know you were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It would be in your best interest to be forthcoming with me.”

Fortner scowled. “Very well…yes I remember Project Machina. Something to do with machines and the human body, correct? But since you seem to know so much about me, then you must know I was dismissed from the project early on. I don’t know what information you expect me to provide.”

The man said nothing. Then, in the silence that followed, Fortner remembered something. The gray alarm panel flashed back in his mind…the keypad looming before him.

“How did you disable my alarm system,” he asked, unable to hide the faint tremor in his voice.

The man averted his gaze. His eyes began to flick back and forth in a steady, yet ominous rhythm.

“There were traces of epithelial cells on the front door code panel, with concentrated amounts on the numbers ‘2’, ‘0’, and ‘3’. The birth date of Doctor Cyrus M. Fortner is March 21st, 2033 at 10:53 AM…five pounds, six ounces.” The flicking stopped and the man returned his gaze to Fortner. “You see Doctor Fortner, with that knowledge deciphering your alarm code was simple.

Fortner was profoundly disturbed by what he had just witnessed. Where in the hell did he get that information, he thought to himself. And the way he rattled it off…like a damn machine.

It was then that he understood.

“You were a candidate, weren’t you? For the project?”

“Yes,” the man replied.

“Then it was a success, wasn’t it?”

The man looked away. His eyes began flicking back and forth again.

“They took me to a darkened room…gray cement walls, one light, metal table in the center. On the table was a nine-millimeter pistol…black leather grip, seventeen round magazine. Seated in a chair, bound by handcuffs, was a young man. He had darkened skin, brown eyes, black hair dampened by perspiration. His heat was beating fast…one hundred and twenty beats per minute. He was scared. I was handed the gun and told to shoot him. I asked why”. The flicking stopped. “They did not like that.”

“Because you wouldn’t follow orders without question,” Fortner observed.

“That is the most likely assessment,” the man replied.

“You were a soldier before the project, weren’t you?”

“And how would you know that, Doctor Fortner,” the man asked.

“Your hair is a dead giveaway…it’s meticulously taken care of. But there’s also the way you carry yourself. You took a seat in an area of the room with no windows and no door at your back. It shows tactical planning, ensuring that you have unimpeded sight lines in case of incoming danger.”

“Very astute doctor,” the man replied. “Yes, I was a soldier.”

“I thought as much.”

Fortner pulled the black office chair out from behind the desk and sat in it.

“Look…I’m sorry,” he began. “But-“

“She tells me not to worry…”

Fortner paused, turning his head toward the man. “What…who are you talking about?”

The man ignored him and continued his strange rambling. But this time, Fortner observed, his eyes weren’t flicking back and forth. They were just staring off into space.

“Her hair is golden, long…it blows in the autumn breeze. Her face is bright and sunny. Leaves of green and brown cover the grass. She smiles, her teeth shining white, and tells me not to worry…”

“What are you going on about,” Fortner demanded to know.

But just as soon as it had begun, it ended. The man laid his eyes back on Fortner and said nothing.

A glitch in the system? Fortner couldn’t be certain. Great…he’s damaged goods. Probably got tossed out of the project like I was.

“I’m truly sorry,” he said. “I am. But I can’t help you. As I said before, my involvement in Project Machina was very limited. I had barely finished signing the NDA when they let me go. You’ll have to find someone else involved in the project to give you whatever answers you want.”

The man didn’t respond…still fixing him with that passive gaze. In the absence of conversation, the voices from the radio filled the room.

“We’re here with Police Chief Gordon Phillips, who has spearheaded the local investigation into the killings since they started two years ago,” the male voice from before said. “Chief, thank you for joining us.”

“You’re welcome,” another male voice said.

“Now, what can you tell us about the Oedipus Killer?”

“Based on our investigations, we’ve concluded that the killer is a male, likely in their late thirties. We believe that, because of his choice of victims, he has an issue with female authority, probably stemming from an abusive childhood.”

“Now, before we came on, you said something about the wounds on the victims. Care to elaborate,” the first voice asked.

“Certainly. During the examinations, the coroner discovered that the cuts on the bodies were incredibly precise. They also showed extensive signs of bleeding, meaning that they were inflicted before the victim died. It seems that the killer specifically chose those areas to cause the most pain with the lowest risk of fatality. In short, he wanted these women to suffer.”

“Truly disturbing,” said the first man.

“Incredibly. This tells us something important however. Due to the precision of the wounds, we can surmise that the killer has had extensive medical training. He is likely a surgeon or a doctor of some kind and-“

With shaky hands, Fortner reached across the desk and silenced the radio.

And then…for the first time since the conversation began…the man’s face changed. His mouth curled into a faint smirk.

“I see it now,” he said, his tone still calm. “I did not make the connection before, but now I understand.”

Fortner averted his gaze, looking down at the almost empty glass of whiskey before him. He lost himself in the smooth brown liquid.

“I knew that you were not involved in the project any longer. I knew that they had let you go, but I never uncovered why…until now. They let you go, Doctor Fortner, because they figured out what you were.”

Fortner managed to look up and lock eyes with the man.

“I suppose they were afraid of knowledge about the project getting out, which is why they never turned you in. But they could not allow you to stay on board…knowing what you were. Knowing what you had done.”

A moment of silence passed, then the man cocked his head to the side.

“Tell me, do you enjoy killing them?”

It took an immense amount of will, but Fortner managed to channel his fear and anxiety into anger. It was something he excelled at.

“You think you know me,” he growled. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“You are Doctor Cyrus Fortner, age thirty-eight. After high school, you went straight into a four-year medical program. Once you had acquired your degree, which included a year studying abroad at a prestigious medical school in the United Kingdom, you went into a general surgery fellowship. Five years later, at the age of thirty, you became a fully licensed surgeon. You then moved back into your family home and started work at the local hospital. Everyone around you has always remarked on your unique talent for surgical operations.”

Fortner glared at the man. “So you know my college history. Big deal. That doesn’t mean you know me.”

“On the contrary, Doctor Fortner, I know all about you. I know that you grew up surrounded by wealth, but not many friends. I know you keep that moose head mounted on the wall because it makes you look like a hunter. But I know that, in reality, your dad was the hunter. I know that your dad left when you were only seven years old, so you do not have many memories of him.”

“That’s enough,” Fortner said, his voice trembling with anger.

“I know that you have a vintage 12-gauge hunting shotgun that you keep loaded in case of intruders. I know that you keep the shotgun tucked away in a hidden panel underneath your desk.”

In a flash, Fortner had removed the shotgun from its hiding place and stood up, bringing it to bear on the man. The office chair slid backwards, crashing into the wall with a loud bang. The man remained unfazed by the shotgun. His eyes seemed to register its appearance, but he stayed sitting back in the chair.

“Who the hell do you think you are, breaking into my home in the middle of the night?!”

“I also know what you keep buried in the backyard…doctor.”

Fortner’s jaw dropped. He loosened his grip on the shotgun.

“Did you start with cats and dogs, doctor? No…I imagine you started with flies or ants, something small that would not be missed. Once you grew bored with that, you moved on to mice or raccoons. And then, when that could no longer excite you…it was time to upgrade. There are a surprising amount of old missing pet cases that could be traced back to that mass grave in your backyard, Doctor Fortner.”

“Shut…up,” Fortner demanded, although it sounded more like a plea.

“Did your mother ever find out?”

That was the last straw. Fortner cocked the shotgun and took a step forward.

Enough! I’m sick of these games. Get the fuck out of my house!

“That is fine doctor…you do not have to answer. You already told me what I needed to know.”

Fortner squinted at him.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You twitched…or rather your face twitched. You would be surprised how easily the human body betrays someone’s secrets.”

The gun started to shake in Fortner’s hands.

“So your mother found out…and she beat you. She beat you because she was an abusive mother. And with your father absent, no one was there to protect you.” The man’s eyes seemed to glow with frightening malice. “You are an intelligent man Doctor Fortner. Do you know why they call you the Oedipus Killer?”

Fortner said nothing, so the man continued.

“You always wanted a deeper relationship with your mother…but when you confessed your love to her she reacted with anger and violence. She was a firm believer in that anachronistic idea of ‘family values’. So she tried to beat it out of you. But that only made you turn inward. You became bitter and hateful. It was only a matter of time before you started killing. It is surprising that you held out for so long. I would imagine you satisfied yourself with the study of human anatomy and illicit videos on the internet.”

“Stop talking,” Fortner shouted, raising the shotgun and taking a step forward. “Just shut the fuck up!

“You were smart Doctor Fortner. You took people no one would miss…homeless women and criminal offenders. But it was not enough for you, was it? So you escalated. The first victim that got any real attention was the manager of the local food co-op…Margaret Gilman. That triggered the police investigation. For so long they went to scene after scene…but you remained elusive. You kept yourself well-hidden, ensuring that no trace of you would be found on the body. But this time, you went too far. Evelyn Blaylock…a broadcast news anchor…a very public and well-liked person. They are coming for you doctor. It is only a matter of time before-“

The sound of the shotgun blast ripped through the den like an explosion. Unprepared for the kickback, Fortner felt a burn ripple through his shoulder and winced with pain. But a moment later he saw that his aim was true. The blast had hit the man dead center in the chest, leaving bloody holes in his shirt.

For a long time, Fortner thought the man was dead.

But then…he let out a long exhale. His blue eyes opened and turned toward Fortner.

No way…that’s impossible, Fortner thought.

The man slowly stood up from his seat. He didn’t stumble. He didn’t groan. It was as if he considered the wound a mere annoyance.

Fortner took a couple steps back, pumping the shotgun.

“Stay back! I’m warning you!”

He almost didn’t see it in time. In one fluid movement, the man scooped up the glass near the chair and hurled it. Fortner saw the glittering object flying at him and let out a yell, pulling back on the shotgun trigger. The glass exploded in mid-air, showering him like dozen of shimmering knives. They cut into his face, causing him to yell and stumble backward. Fortner bumped into the desk and nearly collapsed to the ground, but managed to steady himself with one hand. It took a few moments, but he finally opened his eyes.

The man was lying on the floor near the chair, motionless. Fortner stood still for a long time, not certain what to do. He inched close and nudged him with his foot. No response.

“Fuck…fuck,” Fortner breathed heavily.

He was dead. The den would have to undergo a thorough cleaning.

But first, he had to get the body in the trunk. And once he was done cleaning…he knew exactly where to go…

 

Fortner closed the door behind him, the heavy metal clanging as it slid into place. A single, faint overhead light cast on ominous spotlight on the chair in the center of the room. Seated in the chair, bound with rope and gagged with a handkerchief, was a woman with blonde hair and a bright red blazer. Fortner set the shotgun down, leaning it against the door. Then he stood there for a moment, eyeing his captive and fiddling with the scalpel in his hands. He was enjoying himself.

Then, he stepped close to the still form and leaned in.

“Hello, Miss Blaylock,” he whispered in a sinister and playful tone.

The bright green eyes shot open immediately and found him. But, much to his frustration, instead of fear they radiated nothing but anger. Still, Fortner wasn’t about to let himself get caught off guard…not twice in one night.

“Now…I’m going to remove the gag…you better not start screaming,” he said.

He slipped around the back of the chair and untied the knot that held the handkerchief in her mouth.

Help! A man with inadequacy issues is holding me hostage,” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

“Fucking bitch,” he screamed, coming around to the front of the chair and viciously slashing her across the cheek with the scalpel. Crimson blood drizzled down the side of her face. “What did I just say?!”

Evelyn Blaylock raised her head and glared at him. “I don’t know,” she said. “I couldn’t hear over the sound of your obnoxious ego.”

“You really think you’re clever, don’t you?”

Fortner moved in close, pulling her head back and resting the scalpel against her throat.

“Now you listen here,” he growled. “I’m not in the mood for playing games. You mess with me, and you’re done.”

Her eyes locked with his in a hard stare.

“You won’t kill me,” she whispered. “Not yet. Because you want to enjoy this don’t you? You want to take your time and convince yourself that you’re the top dog, that you’re the man in charge. Hell…I bet you even get off to this.” Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t you?”

Fortner let her head go and just laughed.

“What happened to your face anyways,” she asked.

Fortner fell silent. He didn’t want to think about the man who had shown up in his den, the man who had taken a shotgun blast to the chest without so much as a gasp of pain. He didn’t want to think about the shattered glass that had dug into his face.

He didn’t want to think about the body that lay at the other end of the hallway, sealed away in a darkened room. Dumping two bodies at once would be difficult, but it had to be done.

“Tell me Miss Blaylock,” he said, steering the conversation in a new direction, “how long have you suspected me? I gathered from your line of questioning during our last encounter that I was high on your list.”

Blaylock’s eyes softened a little.

“To be honest, Doctor Fortner…you were my number one suspect.”

Fortner smiled.

“My reputation precedes me,” he said, performing a demented bow with the scalpel still in hand. “But I must know,” he began, walking around the chair and letting the scalpel hover precariously close to her face, “how did you come to this conclusion?”

Blaylock craned her head up to look at him, defiance returning to her eyes.

“Bite me,” she said. With a growl, Fortner yanked her hair back. She yelped in pain.

Don’t fuck with me,” he snarled.

“Fine, fine, fine,” she said, her voice hasty. Good, he thought. She’s understanding her place…

“I started investigating shortly after Margaret’s disappearance…the co-op manager?” Fortner nodded. “After interviewing the detective assigned to the case, it became clear that the person behind these killings was someone with a medical background. It was only a matter of time before I stumbled upon all those domestic incident calls the police made to your house when you were a kid. I mean, really, you ‘fell down the stairs’? It was like a bad joke. Combine that with the disappearance of local pets in the area, and you started to fit the profile more and more.”

“What profile,” Fortner asked with a scowl.

“The police had you marked down as a victim of parental abuse. They figured you had lacked an intimate relationship with your parents. Your dad had probably been absent since before you were born or left when you were very young. Your choice of target, women in positions of authority, was an obvious homage. You killed those women because you hated what they represented.”

“Stop talking…stop talking right now,” Fortner snarled.

“They were your mother, weren’t they,” Blaylock asked, a faint smirk on her face. “Because, in the end, you’re just another momma’s boy.”

“Shut up,” he shouted. “SHUT UP!”

“Little ol’ momma’s boy,” she said in a singsong voice. “Never got his momma’s love…”

Fortner rushed forward, snapping her head back and holding the scalpel up to her left eye.

“If you don’t shut your goddamn whore mouth, I’ll cut your fucking eyes out,” he threatened. He was letting her get to him. And he knew that was a bad thing. But Evelyn Blaylock was so good at pushing the right buttons.

A journalist, he thought to himself. Why did I have to pick a fight with a goddamn journalist?

“Do it,” Blaylock dared him. “That’s what you did to the cats and the dogs, didn’t you? You cut out their eyes and watched them stumble around because you liked the feeling of power it gave you. You’re a sick man Fortner. You’re a tumor. And you should have been excised from society long ago.”

“Shut up!” Fortner let her go and threw the scalpel across the room in rage. “Shut up shut up shut the fuck up!

“What’s up doc? Can’t handle the pressure,” she taunted.

Fortner screamed and slammed his fist into the metal wall. His knuckles burned from the impact. His breathing was shaky and heavy.

He was losing control…he hated losing control……

 

In a darkened room down the hallway from where Fortner and Blaylock were having their confrontation, a lone figure sat splayed out on the floor, motionless. But deep inside the shell of flesh, it was anything but still. Tiny, artificial constructs of metal meticulously made their way through the veins of their host. There were hundreds, if not thousands of these tiny, microscopic machines making their way through the body, repairing the damage.

After a long period of stillness, the body began to twitch. Then, a man who was supposed to be dead rose up like a modern-day Lazarus. There was no hesitation in his step, no hint of pain. He got to his feet with stoic purpose and dignity.

A sunny face…golden hair and a white smile…

The man shook his head. There was no need for that. Not anymore.

A moment later, the metal door sealing the room began to slide open…

 

“You’re in over your head Fortner! It’s only a matter of time before they figure out it was you. For such a smart man, you made a lot of dumb decisions.”

“My god, do you ever…stop…talking,” Fortner shrieked.

He knew it wouldn’t do any good to give in to the rage. Unlike the controlled anger he had before with the man, rage was pure fire. It had a mind of its own. But he couldn’t help himself. Every word out of that woman’s mouth was like a prickly needle. It added up with time, and steadily drove him mad.

“Just turn yourself in. Don’t embarrass yourself any further,” Blaylock said.

Fortner moved away from the wall with a noise somewhere between a cry of frustration and a shriek of rage. He snatched up the shotgun he had laid against the door, cocked it, and pointed the business end directly at Blaylock’s face.

“I swear to god…I will blow your fucking brains out right here!”

He was hoping to see fear in her eyes, to see some hint of submission. But there was nothing but green fire.

“Do it,” Blaylock dared. “Do it doc. Shoot me. Paint the walls with my blood.”

Don’t tell me what to do,” he screamed.

Blaylock hobbled forward in her chair, bringing her forehead directly against the gun barrel.

“You think I’m scared of you? My dad raped me when I was a kid, and my mother pretended that it was God’s will. You think you’re the only one in this world with a fucked up childhood? Join the club jackass!

Blaylock paused, staring hard at Fortner.

“You know what the difference between you and me is? I’m stronger than you. So go ahead, pull the trigger. Pull the trigger…and prove you’re a real man.”

He almost did. His finger twitched. He was about to send pieces of her skull flying all over the room.

But the knocking stopped him.

It was so simple…so ordinary…and yet it was so out of place at the same time. Three simple knocks…like those of a neighbor looking to borrow a cup of sugar or a set of jumper cables for their car.

Blaylock’s eyes flicked toward the door in profound confusion. Fortner lowered the gun from her head and slowly turned around.

“What…the hell…” he muttered.

After a moment of silence, the knocks came again. Three short raps…no sense of urgency. It felt like forever before Fortner managed to move his legs. He took slow steps toward the door, laying his hand on the handle. Taking a deep breath, he pulled it aside.

Blue eyes.

Brown hair.

One hand clenched into a fist.

Gray t-shirt riddled with bullet holes like Swiss cheese.

“Who the hell,” Blaylock mumbled.

“No…” Fortner was aghast. He stumbled backward. “It can’t be…that’s impossible!

The man’s inscrutable blue eyes twinkled at him as a faint smile spread across his lips. He opened his closed hand.

Like glittering raindrops, the bloody shotgun pellets fell out of his hand and hit the floor, creating an oddly beautiful tinkling noise.

And then, Fortner had a thought.

That son of a bitch…did he plan this? Was all that pretense about Project Machina just a ruse? Was this his aim all along, to get me to bring him here?

Regardless, Fortner wasn’t going to be taken down so easily. He let out a loud roar, cocking the shotgun and bringing it to bear on the man.

But the man was too fast. He grabbed the barrel and shoved it upward. In his surprise, Fortner accidentally pulled back on the trigger. The blast echoed throughout the room and sparks fell from ceiling. The man ripped the shotgun out of Fortner’s hands and threw it aside. Then, before he could react, the man swung back and drove his fist into the side of Fortner’s face.

Something cracked. His face burned. Fortner was stunned at the force of the punch. He felt like he wasn’t being hit by a man, but rather a speeding freight train. He spun around and fell to the floor, his mouth filling with the stale taste of copper.

He spat, blood staining the cold metal ground. He got back to his feet and roared, charging at the man. He swung at him, fists flailing through the air like a demented boxing match. A few of them actually hit their mark, striking the man across the face. But the man didn’t even seem to flinch. Instead, he drove his fist into Fortner’s chest repeatedly, knocking the wind out of him. There was a vicious cracking that Fortner guessed belonged to his ribs. He howled in pain.

The man stopped for a moment, then kicked Fortner as hard as he could. Fortner went flying into the wall with a loud crash and fell to the ground. The world spun around his head, colors swimming in and out of focus.

His vision cleared up just long enough to see the man approaching him, shotgun in hand.

Fortner’s eyes went wide. He screamed.

A deafening blast sent his world cascading into infinite, dark silence…

 

A shotgun shot rang out through the halls of the warehouse.

Then another.

And another.

Silence fell over everything. A moment later, the faint sound of ripping fabric could be heard.

And then, a man appeared in the open doorway, his face covered in blood and bruises. His shirt was riddled with blood-stained holes. His expression showed no hint of pain. He held a shotgun in one hand, letting it hang close to his side. His blue eyes twitched, like he was remembering something.

Sunny face…bright white smile…

He shook his head.

Then he began walking down the hallway. About halfway down the corridor, he tossed the shotgun into a nearby pile of rubble without even looking. Behind him, a woman in a red blazer rushed to the doorway.

“Wait,” she shouted after him.

The man turned around. He gazed at her with an impassive and robotic expression.

“Who-” She squinted. “Who are you?”

There was a long pause.

“No one important,” he answered, his tone flat and devoid of feeling. Then he turned and walked down another hallway. At the end, he pushed aside the massive double doors that sealed the warehouse. Outside, warm sunlight caressed the man’s young face. But he didn’t pay it any attention. Instead, he pulled out the small, black phone he had taken from the doctor’s pants pocket…

 

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“One-twenty east, first avenue north in the industrial district. Inside the abandoned warehouse, you’ll find the body of a man. His jaw has been fractured…repeated blows to the midsection have resulted in ten out of twenty-four ribs being broken. He suffered three twelve-gauge shotgun blasts to the chest, collapsing his lungs and destroying his stomach, liver, heart, and spleen.”

“Sir…why…how do you know all this?”

“Because I killed him.”

A long pause.

“Why are you-“

“In his front pants pocket you’ll find a wallet which will identify the man as Doctor Cyrus Fortner, a local surgeon. The subsequent investigation will determine that he was the notorious Oedipus Killer, responsible for the disappearance of nearly a dozen women over the past two years.”

“But…why are you telling me this? …Are you there? Sir? Sir?!”

 

Deep in the bowels of a classified government facility, a man rushed through the halls. He moved so fast that he nearly collided with people carrying important papers and equipment. A flurry of “excuse me”s and “pardon”s erupted with his passage. Finally, he made his way to a door and threw it open.

“Sir?!” A man with bright hazel eyes and a white lab coat looked up from his desk. “We found him. What should we do?”

The man at the desk pondered for a moment.

“Should we bring him in?”

“No…no,” the man at the desk said. “Let him go for now. We’ll see how this plays out.”

“Yes sir!” The man at the door left.

The man at the desk looked back down at a manila folder in his hands. The tab at the top right says “D. MEYERS.” He opened it. Clipped onto the front was a picture of a man with short brown hair and deep blue eyes, wearing a desert camouflage uniform.

“Corporal Meyers…still trying to save people huh,” the man mumbled to himself.

He lifted the photo, revealing another underneath. This picture displayed the man and a slightly older woman with golden hair, sunny face, and a pleasant white smile standing in front of a large, white farmhouse.

“Still trying to save people…because you couldn’t save your sister, could you?”

 

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