Let’s Talk About the Power of Isolation

We’ve all had one of those moments: you’re alone at night.  Everything’s quiet.  Everything’s still.  Maybe you’re reading a good book or watching television or something when an unexpected noise causes you to jump, alarm bells ringing in your head.  There’s usually a reasonable explanation for it, such as the cat knocking something over (or, in my case, deciding to run a marathon through the house in the middle of the night), or just the creaks and groans of an old house.  You’ll look back on it a few minutes later and laugh at how foolish you looked.  You’ll be glad no one was around to see it.  But that moment of panic, that moment when you weren’t sure what you heard and your adrenaline started kicking in?

That, my friends, is the power of isolation.

 

Isolation is one of the most powerful tools in a storyteller’s arsenal.  It’s an effective way to immerse your audience in a setting.  Isolating a character means that, in the absence of another person to talk to, their surroundings come to the forefront.  In this way, the setting itself can become a character.

One of the most apparent examples of this comes from Stephen King’s “The Shining”.  The Overlook Hotel is shrouded in menace and mystery all throughout the book, especially room 217 which is implied to be one of the most haunted in the hotel.  Throughout the majority of the book very little actually happens until the last two hundred pages or so, but the raw tension and the sense that something is wrong with the hotel permeates the entirety of the story.

This “wrongness” pervades the film adaptation as well.  The layout of the hotel is purposefully surreal and the impossibility of it factors into the tense atmosphere throughout the film.  That, combined with the quick cuts and jarring camera angles, makes for a very unsettling watch, even if nothing truly makes you jump out of your skin.

Isolation as a tool to enhance horror doesn’t just extend itself to movies and books.  Video games have put that idea to great effect as well, and I would even argue in greater ways than either.  For the longest time, horror video game fans wanted a game set in the “Alien” franchise that mimicked the first movie more than the second one.  And they finally got it back in 2014 when “Alien: Isolation” (hey, isolation is even in the name!) released.  Unlike previous game adaptations (which focused more on the sequel “Aliens” with its more action-heavy tone), “Isolation” puts you on a broken down space station with a singular alien lurking throughout the game.

The sense that you’re being hunted is present throughout the game.  And that’s because…well…you are.

“Isolation” also takes after the first movie in the sense that all the technology is retro ’70s style, right down to the CRT computer monitors.  It creates a strangely believable science-fiction setting.

I remember back when I took a class on science-fiction and fantasy back in college, we talked about isolation as one of the cornerstones of science-fiction.  But isolation isn’t just locked into the sci-fi and horror genres.  You can find it at play in many things, including “Myst”, a game I have talked about many times.  From the moment you start playing, you’re hit with the sensation of being alone.  Nothing pushes you forward aside from your own curiosity.

 

That feeling of solitude is one of the reasons people so fondly remember “Myst”. Very few games at the time really nailed that sense of being alone, of being on your own personal journey.

 

The idea of being left to your own devices is why “Myst” and other point and click adventure games appealed to me so much.  I liked being forced to wander and figure things out at my own pace, rather than have the game point me in a direction and say “go”.  This open-ended style is something that has only just recently crept back into gaming consciousness, particularly with the advent of survival crafting games such as “Minecraft”.  But regardless, isolation is a very powerful that can pull people into your fictional world.

And hey, sometimes a little solitude isn’t a bad thing.  Everyone needs to be left to their own whims every once in a while.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post.  Have a wonderful January folks!

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

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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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Can’t Remember: The Amnesia Trope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

You wake up in a dark room, lying face down on a cold stone floor.  You groan, your head feeling like it weighs ten times what it should.  Taking stock of your surroundings, you find that you can’t see much in the dim lighting of the candles lining the walls.  There’s a rickety looking wooden table in the middle, and what appears to be an old antique dresser with a mirror on top just across from it.  Pushing yourself up off the floor, you wince.  Your body aches more than it should.  With shaky steps, you make your way over to the mirror.  Even in the dim lighting, you can tell you’ve had better days.  Your eyes look tired and your face is covered in dirt.  Turning around, you spot an old wooden door just outside the reach of the candles’ light.  You walk over and push it open, the door making a loud creaking that echoes into the hallway beyond.  You can tell you’re in some kind of ancient castle.  One of the windows has broken, the wind of the storm rushing in and blowing the worn red curtains all about.  You take a step into the hallway.

Then another.

You blink.

And that’s when it hits you, you don’t remember anything.  Why you’re here, where this is, and even who you are…it’s all missing, as if someone reached inside your head and pulled them out one by one…

 

The amnesia trope is a very common staple in fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  People often malign the trope, saying it’s cheap or lazy.  And while I’ll agree that often the amnesia trope can be a sign of a writer who’s run out of ideas, there’s also a very simple reason the trope exists in the first place.

Because it’s an effective way to set up a mystery or driving goal for a character.

When someone in a television show, movie, video game, or what have you wakes up in a strange location without any recollection of why they’re there or even who they are, our innate curiosity is like “hmm this is interesting…I wonder what’s going on?”  Call it manipulative if you want, but it works.  It immediately draws us in because we can’t help ourselves.  We want to know more, we have to know more.  And amnesiacs in fiction tend to have far more interesting lives than their real-life counterparts.

Take The Bourne Identity for example.  In the beginning of the movie, the crew of a fishing ship fishes Matt Damon’s character out of the water during a harsh storm.  He’s been shot in the back multiple times.  There’s no identification on him aside from a strange device featuring the address of a bank in Zurich.  And it becomes quickly evident that he has combat training, as he manages to ambush one of the crew members and grab him by the throat.  It’s then that we learn that Damon’s character has no memory and has no idea who he is or where he is.  It’s a very effective opening that gives us a clear reason to get invested in the plot.

But the real reason Bourne Identity succeeds at gaining our interest is because they give us key interesting details about the character: the strange laser pointer device pointing to the Zurich bank, the gunshot wounds on his back, and his apparent combat prowess.  It’s not enough to just give a character amnesia.  The amnesia might draw in people initially, but unless they’re given some more details, that interest will wane very quickly.  This is especially true in modern fiction, because people have seen the amnesia trope used so often that a writer will have to do extra work to keep them invested.

While the amnesia trope is very common in thrillers and mysteries, I think more recently it has found a home in video games, particularly those of the horror variety.  Like before, amnesia is a good way to get people interested, but in video games it serves another important purpose.  In a game it’s crucial that the player identifies with the character they are playing as in some way.  Amnesia is a very useful tool in this sense, because it allows the player to jump in at a point where they have about as much information on their situation as the character in the story.  In this way, they are experiencing the mystery right along with the character.  If the main character suddenly got amnesia halfway through the game, it would just create this weird disconnect for the player and they would likely lose interest.

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example.  Our journey begins as the main character, Daniel, is stumbling through the halls of a castle struggling to maintain his memory.  The scene fades in and out of blackness as he makes his way through the stone corridors.  He recites off details about himself, but by the end of the intro he can barely manage to say his name.  He wakes up later on in the middle of a hallway, with nothing aside from a trail of pinkish fluid to follow.  As we go through the game, we slowly learn more about his predicament and how he ended up in this strange, haunting castle.  Because, like I said, the amnesia trope can be effective as long as a writer handles it with care.

In the end I think the amnesia trope has a bit of a unfair reputation.  Like anything, it can be overused, but just looking at the memory tropes page at TV Tropes shows you just how versatile it can be.  It pays to recognize that everything, even the most cliche of tropes, have their place in fiction.  And yes, that even includes demons, which I have very loudly complained about many times before.  But it’s a tricky balancing process.  You can give a character amnesia, but if you don’t give the character a compelling reason to have amnesia then the effect is lost on people.  I’m of the opinion that originality in stories is a little overrated.  As long as you can put a unique and interesting spin on a story, and do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter if your story is heavily inspired by one thing or another.  EVERYTHING is inspired by one thing or another.  All of fiction can have its roots traced back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling.  True originality simply doesn’t exist.

A writer needs to be able to make use of all the tools in their toolbox, so to speak.

5 Statements About Video Games I Disagree With

Anybody who’s followed my blog probably knows that I’m a big fan of video games, with them being one of the primary ways I spend my free time.  Now, there’s a lot of different thoughts and ideas floating around out there about video games and how they relate to us.

Here are five of those thoughts that I disagree with.

 

5. Violent games are corrupting our youth

This is something I heard a lot when I was growing up.  Violent video games were desensitizing kids and making them more prone to commit violent acts.  And considering the brutal nature of games like Mortal Kombat (which made a name for itself solely on how gory and violent it was), the idea made a certain kind of sense.  So why do I disagree with it?  Two main reasons:

  1. Television shows and movies have plenty of violence, yet they don’t get nearly as much criticism.
  2. There is no scientific study or literature that conclusively shows that playing violent games leads to a higher chance of committing violent acts.

In regards to the first one, I understand that one of the primary concerns with video games is the interactive nature of it.  Instead of passively watching the main character shoot a few dozen dudes, you are actively participating.  But like I said with point number two, no study has ever proven anything beyond the fact that playing video games may lead to increased aggression.

The other main issue with scientific studies into violent games is that many of them are flawed.  I remember reading about a study that took place while I was in high school (around 2005 or so I believe).  Basically they had two groups of people, one playing Wolfenstein 3D and another playing Myst.  After about an hour or so of playtime, they brought these two groups together and gave them air horns.  What they found was that the group that played Wolfenstein 3D would honk the air horn for longer periods of time than the people who played Myst would.

I think you can already spot some of the flaws here.  This study took place in roughly 2005, which means that at that time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had already been released the year before.  And even if the study took place before it, there were other Grand Theft Auto games they could have used.  So then, why did they choose two games that were released a decade earlier in the 1990’s?

The other issue is the air horns.  Using an air horn does not translate to intent to commit violent acts.  Now, you can’t take a group of people and hand them guns (because that would be really REALLY bad), but air horns do not strike me as a good metaphor for increased aggression.

And this is the problem with most studies into the subject.  They don’t have a good way of interpreting the effects of games because they usually study subjects in a one-off manner, having them play a game and then seeing how they act immediately after.  It doesn’t take into account other factors that could contribute to this alleged aggression increase.

Besides, the juvenile crime rate in the 1990’s was on the decline, which is the same decade that video games began their rise to prominence.  So there’s no solid evidence to support the idea that violent games cause more real life violence.

 

4. Video games are mindless entertainment

This is another one I heard when I was growing up.  And while it is true for certain games (the Call of Duty franchise comes to mind), there are plenty of games out there that are more than just “mindless”.

Myst is one of the games I had growing up that was anything but mindless.  There were no enemies to fight.  All you had were your wits to solve the many puzzles laid around the island and uncover more of its secrets.  In fact, I remember my brother actually had a notebook journal dedicated to writing down clues for the game.  But Myst is not the only game that serves as a counter to the mindless argument.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I have yet to play, but one that I want to get around to at some point.  It’s a game about a soldier who goes to a far off country to deal with what seems like a normal mission.  But when he gets there, things start going Apocalypse Now, with the main character’s sanity slowly degrading throughout the story.  The game is supposed to feature some of the most interesting and complex moral choices of any game ever.  For example, there’s one scene where you’re tasked with shooting someone who’s running away.  Now the two choices are clear: shoot him or don’t.  But apparently, there’s a third choice to be made in there.  You can shoot at the person but miss on purpose, making it look like you were fulfilling your orders but allowing the man to live.  And the game doesn’t tell you that this exists.  You just find that out on your own.

There’s also Journey, a game where you play as a nameless, faceless figure wandering a surreal desert landscape.  But it’s more than just that.  Journey is also a bit of a social experiment in that as you wander through the game, occasionally another player will be inserted into your game.  You can’t talk to each other or communicate (aside from gestures I believe), and you can’t identify each other either.  You can only make the decision to work together or ignore each other.

 

Journey

Journey

 

There’s also Papa & Yo, a game about a boy and his monster friend which was an allegory for the creator’s experience with an alcoholic, abusive father.  There’s Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game in which the creator drew upon his own personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to replicate a sense of bleakness in the game similar to what he felt in real life.  And there’s Gone Home, a game about a girl returning home and discovering all that has happened with her family in the year she’s been studying abroad.

So no, games are not just mindless entertainment.  They have plenty of potential to talk about complex and difficult subjects.

 

3. Games aren’t stories

This is one I ran into fairly recently, and is what inspired me to write this post.  It comes from a Cracked.com article entitled “4 Things Gamers Think Are Important (But Aren’t)”.  In the article, the writer talks about people who play games have come to expect movie-quality stories from their games.

From the article:

“The reason video games don’t have great stories is that they’re games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes — whole chunks of the game in which instead of “playing,” we’re watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.”

Now, I get what he’s saying here.  Often the gameplay and the story of a video game can feel like they’re in separate worlds.  When the story world appears, control is usually taken away from the player as they watch a small movie within the game.  It creates this disconnect that sometimes hampers the experience of the game overall.  But while the author complains that calling the stories of games “stories” is simplistic, reductive thinking, I would argue that his reasoning is simplistic as well.

It is certainly true that many games with quote unquote “deep stories” tend to have their story sections get in the way of playing the game, but there are plenty of other ways games can tell a story.  For example, when two people who play games talk to each other, you’ll sometimes get these stories that start with “well this one time I was playing (insert game here) and this totally crazy thing happened”.  This is something fundamentally unique to the video game medium.  You don’t read a book and have some totally unexpected thing happen that didn’t happen to anyone else reading the book.  But in a video game, there is the potential to create events and stories that even the people making the game might not see coming.

I talked about a game called Salt in a recent post, and I think that serves as a good example of this.  Salt is all about the player’s journey.  There’s very little overarching story created by the developers (although that could change as it is still in development).  In the post I made a joke about how you could use the game’s journal feature to write a diary of a man going slowly insane.  But isn’t it cool that you are even allowed to do that?  You can literally tell your own story within the game, because it’s all about the things you discover and experience.  And considering that the world is procedurally generated, no two player’s experiences will be exactly the same.  They won’t discover the exact same island as each other (well, until they add multiplayer that is).

In short, games have story possibilities that no other medium has to date.

 

2. PC/Console gaming is superior

Oh boy, haven’t I heard this one more times than I can count.  In much the same way as rival sports teams have fans that will incessantly fight each other  over which team is better, video games have fans of formats that will fight each other over which is superior.

Let me get something out of the way.  For most of my life, I have been a console gamer (meaning that I played on things like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and so on).  It’s what I grew up with, not to mention the fact that I prefer sitting back with a controller to being hunched over a keyboard and mouse.  Yes, I understand that keyboard and mouse is more precise.  Yes, I understand that PC games have better graphics than console games.  I just don’t care.

Now, I will admit that for the last few years I have used my desktop computer to play games far more often than I have consoles.  I bought an Xbox One a couple of years ago, but I barely use it these days.  There just aren’t enough interesting games coming out for it, not to mention that I can get more games for cheaper prices on my computer.  But in the end, I will always prefer the feel of a controller over the feel of a keyboard and mouse.  It’s just more relaxing to me.

Besides, isn’t personal preference what it all comes down to in the end?  Why are we gamers constantly fighting over this nonsense?  Just play what you want to play and be happy with that.  Arguing over which format is better just sounds pretentious.

And speaking of pretentious…

 

1. Games are/aren’t art

If you ask Google to define art, this is what you get:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Do you see what the issue with this definition is?  It’s too nebulous.  It doesn’t have a clear definition for what can and can’t be considered art.

And that’s exactly the point.

Look, this might sound funny coming from someone who wants to write books, but I don’t care if video games are art or not.  It doesn’t matter to me.  Because regardless of everything else, I consider games to be a form of expression, art or not.  And besides, hasn’t it always been said that art is in the eye of the beholder?

Do you consider games to be art?  Good for you.

Do you consider games to not be art?  That’s fine too.  In a way, you’re both right.

To me, art has always been a matter of perspective.  The definition from Google talks about how art is appreciated for its beauty and emotional power, but these two things are incredibly subjective.  I can’t hold up a painting and say “this painting has emotional power” because for some people it might not have that power.  To some people it might seem boring or uninspired.  To others, it might even be deemed offensive or insulting.  The fact of the matter is that whenever I look at something I am seeing it through my own eyes, through my own experience.  And while I play Gone Home and see it as a touching, emotional experience, others play the game and see it as boring and stupid.

Trying to nail art down to a concrete, scientific definition ignores one of the fundamentally great things about being human: we are all different in our own unique ways.  We all have our own perspectives, our own experiences.  And we use these things to shape our own unique path through life, our own unique story.

 

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

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Into a New World: How Different Media Immerse Their Audience

We’ve all heard the word dropped at some point.  “This game is so immersive!”  “The movie does a great job of immersing you in its world.”  “Immerse yourself in a good book!”  Immersion is a very powerful tool and something a lot of people praise.  And different forms of media have to go about it in different ways.

Today we will be looking at three forms of media: books, movies, and video games.

 

Books

Immersing someone in a book is a tricky task.  Unlike movies and video games, books don’t have a visual style to play around with.  But don’t discount the power of words.

Authors have an entire language as their tool in order to describe the world they are creating.  Descriptive language is key in a book, especially since there’s rarely (if ever) pictures to go along with the story.  For example, say an author has a red can they want to draw the reader’s attention to.  They wouldn’t just say “the can is red” or “He gazes at the red can”.  They would talk about how the sunlight gleams off the metal of the can as it streams in through a nearby window.  They would talk about the size of the can.  Maybe they would even talk about the can’s logo, anything in an effort to get their readers to visualize the can.  The author would want them to see the can in their mind, to feel like they could reach out and pick it up themselves.

Word choice is key in novels, and what words an author chooses can often depend on the genre they are writing in.  If it’s a science-fiction novel set on an alien planet, perhaps they’ll use language to show how strange this new world is compared to our own.  If it’s a horror novel, they might spend much of their time describing the lighting or the setting itself (a great example of this is the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining).

“Show, don’t tell” is the motto most authors abide by.  And it’s a good one to live by.

 

Movies

I was originally going to place television on this list as well, but then I realized that television and movies use the same techniques.  And since movies use more of the visual language than a lot of television shows, I figured I would talk about them instead.

Movies aren’t going to use text to get their audiences immersed.  That would be silly.  People go to “watch” a movie, not “read” a movie.  Instead, movies use their cinematography, their visuals as a way to immerse the audience.  Going back to The Shining, in the movie they used a lot of large interior shots to show off how big and empty the hotel was.  This helped to create tension with the audience.  Scenes were often dimly lit to accentuate the isolation and the mood.  Since the story takes place at a hotel in Colorado during a harsh winter, the movie shows this with establishing shots outside the hotel showing the raging snowstorm that takes up most of the film’s climactic act.

The use of visual language isn’t restricted to horror movies either.  Science-fiction movies take advantage of it as well.  Interstellar uses a lot of outer space shots that demonstrate the massive scale of things.  For example, one shot of the spaceship is pulled far back to show how small it is compared to the planet Saturn.  Next to the massive gas giant, the ship is just a tiny white speck, and the movie shows that off.  Plenty of science-fiction movies set in space play with the size perspective, but some of them also play with sound.  Take Gravity for example.  Since in space there’s no sound (no crash bang boom explosions for you) they had to find a way to highlight impacts.  And they did this through the music.  I talked about the soundtrack of Gravity before (as well as Interstellar) but I’ll briefly go over it again.  Basically the soundtrack used the sound of distorted horns to give the audience a sense of movement, and the music was timed so that they would “feel” the impacts of something or someone colliding with another object.  It was a very unique way to deal with the fact that there would be no sound in space, something some movies choose to ignore.

 

Video Games

Movies and books are actually like two sides of the same coin if you think about it.  Books spend their time describing an object in a certain way, and movies will just show that object in that particular way.  If a book describes the light gleaming off a red can, the movie can show the light gleaming off the red can.  But it’s when we get into video games that things change drastically.

The one thing that books and movies have that games don’t is the power of direction.  What I mean by this is that in a book and a movie, the audience is bound by the whims of the writer/director, only able to see what they want them to see.  In a game, that flies out the window.  A lot has been said about the interactive nature of the medium (including some less than savory remarks about the effects of violence on the player), and that’s why they are so different when it comes to immersion.  A player can move around and look at whatever they want to look at, so game developers have to use a different bag of tricks to draw them into the world.

For an example, let’s look at the Grand Theft Auto series.  Politicians and activists have said much about the games, citing their violence as an “epidemic”.  And while the games are inherently violent, there’s a level of detail that goes into the world they create that these people tend to ignore.  Each game has a set of radio stations with hours of content, even going so far as to have fake radio talk shows.  But the detail doesn’t stop there.  Before each game, Rockstar (the game development company) goes out and actually researches the real-life city they’re basing the game off of.  So for example, with Grand Theft Auto 5 they went out and took thousands upon thousands of photos of Los Angeles to get the setting looking right.  Of course at some point they have to acknowledge that it’s not going to be 100% accurate (every single city in the series ends up being an island surrounded by water…I’m guessing it’s a simpler way of creating a boundary that just having an invisible wall in the middle of a road).

But what about a game not set in a real-life location (or approximation thereof)?  What does a developer do then?  Well, this is where aesthetics can come into play.  For our example, let’s look at one of the games I talk about way too much on this blog: Myst.

Before I go any further, here’s a screenshot of the first thing you see on the island:

 

 

It doesn’t look like much, but it really drew people in back in the day.  This was probably for several reasons, one of which was the vague nature of the story.  When the game begins you hear a brief monologue from an unknown figure talking about a book that he lost and how he’s afraid about whose hands it might end up in.  You are the one who finds this book, and upon opening it you find yourself transported to a surreal island.  And that’s all you get.  The rest of the story you have to uncover on your own.

But a big reason the game drew people in was just the way it looked.  Even though this game was released back in 1993, it had a lot of vibrant color to it.  The browns and greens really popped, showcasing the beauty of the island.  The game was a feast for the eyes, with some impressive artistic work for its time.  Remember, this is still about three years before the Nintendo 64 and roughly a year before the Playstation, so in a lot of ways three-dimensional games were still in their infancy.  The point and click genre had already been around for a while, but Myst was something different.  It placed an emphasis on isolation and exploration that no game really had done as of yet.  It’s credited with being the reason why the CD-ROM format was adapted as quickly as it was.

As I’ve said before, the game is a big part of the reason I’m such a big fan of adventure games and atmosphere in video games as a whole.  It may not always be the key thing in a game, but atmosphere can enhance the experience in ways that make it truly memorable.

 

Conclusion

I will not say that any of these forms of media are better than the other when it comes to immersing their audience because all that is subjective.  What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.  What I really wanted to highlight with this post was the different methods each form uses to enhance their immersion.  Whether through visuals, text, or even sound, each form has a specific “language” that it uses to draw the audience in, to create a believable world no matter how fantastical it might be.

After all, escapism is at the root of all entertainment, isn’t it?

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

Paid to Create: The Intersection of Money and Creativity

Here in the United States, we consider ourselves a capitalist society.  And what that means in the long run is that money makes the world go round.  In some ways, this can be a good thing.  It breeds competition, and the beauty of the human spirit is that competition can bring out the best in us.  To put it another way, we often do our best work under pressure.  I know that’s true.  I once wrote a seven-page paper in high school the night before it was due, and I received an A on it.  Not only that, but the teacher wanted to use it as an example for future classes.

Let’s just say I casually left out the part about writing it the night before…

But not everything is gumdrops and rainbows.  When it comes to any system, there are pros and cons.  While competition can inspire creativity, it can also breed a certain sort of staleness in the market.  Look at video games and movies, and you’ll often find trends.  A while back, it seemed like Hollywood was obsessed with making alien invasion movies.  Then it was dark re-imaginings of classic fairy tales.  And now it’s superheroes.  We can’t seem to go more than a couple of months without a new superhero movie hitting the market.  It’s not that superhero movies are a bad thing.  I happen to enjoy a few of them (although I am getting tired of them these days, especially after the disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron).  But with success comes imitation, and that’s where my problem with the whole thing lies.

With the way our economy is doing right now, and people’s reluctance to spend a lot of money, we tend to see the same types of movies making all the money.  People like to see what they know they will enjoy.  It’s hard for them to justify going to watch a movie that’s outside their normal comfort zone or that they haven’t heard great praise about.  This is part of the reason why I think Hollywood has fallen into a trend of remaking old movies or adapting stories from books or other sources.  If the old movie or book has a big enough audience, then they can bank on people at least going to see it out of curiosity.

The problem is that this mode of thinking stifles creativity, in that we hardly ever see original plots in movies (by which I mean that we see a plot written exclusively to be a movie, not adapted form another source).  Sure, you could consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be an original movie.  But there are two problems with that assertion.  One, The Force Awakens is already part of a large, established franchise that has been around for decades.  And two (possible minor spoilers follow), the movie is steeped in nostalgia.  It hits a lot of the same story beats as A New Hope, meaning that while it features a new story and new characters, a lot of the plot points feel readily familiar.

You can observe the same phenomena in the video game world, although in a different form.  Video games don’t tend to adapt stories from other sources.  Instead, they can suffer from an overflow of sequels.  A good example of this is the Call of Duty franchise, which has been around for a long time and has spawned over two dozen different games.  The general complaint around the series is that most of the games feel the same.  But at the same time, there must be an incentive for them to be so similar.  At the end of the day, they want to turn a profit.  So many franchises get caught in this delicate balance between changing enough of the game to justify a sequel in the mind of gamers, but also leaving enough of its core intact so that people feel at home with it.  This is something franchises like Grand Theft Auto have gotten so good at.  They change with the times, getting more and more advanced in look and feel, but they are loaded with nostalgia, giving the hardcore fans little hints and nods at the older games in the series.

You see this in movie sequels as well.  They have to up the ante with each successive movie, making things bigger (like the explosions…always bigger explosions), but also keeping the core feel of their fictional universe intact.  This line of thinking can end up creating a feedback loop where the same few stories get told over and over again.

But sometimes this drive of competition and money can lead to good ideas in the long run.  Let’s again look to the video game world, specifically at Bethesda Game Studios.  Bethesda, most known for their Elder Scrolls series of video games, isn’t just a game development company.  They are a publisher as well, and one of the better ones to work for from what I’ve heard.  The developers of the game Dishonored were basically told by Bethesda to take all the time they needed to make the game as good as they desired.  Bethesda wasn’t on a time crunch.  They didn’t need money immediately.  The Elder Scrolls games sell like crazy every time they come out.  They’re one of the most trusted game developers in the market, so they can allow themselves to take chances on nontraditional ideas or unproven intellectual properties.

The same thing is true of books.  Unlike movies and games, books aren’t constantly driven by this idea of success and money, although it still plays a role.  Take Stephen King for example.  He may be known for his horror stories, but King has also written a fantasy series known as the Dark Tower series, which is a blend of different genres including western, dark fantasy, science fantasy, and horror (of course).  When you have a stable reputation and income, you can feel free to experiment and try new things.  But this experimental mindset is still tempered by the idea of competition, in that you want to make your creation as good as possible so that people will enjoy it.

In the long run, money might be more of a detriment to creativity than anything, but like all things in the world it isn’t a simple black and white situation.  People won’t be inclined to try making something new when they can make something they know works.  But at the same time, trying new things can lead to unexpected success.

After all, trends have to start somewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

This blog just hit one hundred posts!  It’s an incredible milestone for me, one that I wish I had prepared for a little better.  I honestly didn’t realize I had hit it until I started writing this post.  It amazes me that I’ve come this far.  And I haven’t missed a single week since I began this blog.  Every week, on Wednesday, I have made a post.  They might not have all been good (I am particularly disappointed with my story analysis posts…I never did manage to shape those into something I was satisfied with), but consistency is one of the greatest habits you can get into.  You will only get better at something as long as you keep doing it.

So thank you all for following me this far and for reading my weekly ramblings.

Once again, have a wonderful week!  See you next Wednesday.

The Love of Reading: How Books Differ from Television and Movies

For so long, we’ve heard about the foretold “death of books”.  Books as a medium have indeed seen a decline in readership for a long time, but last year there was a strange rebound.  According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks the books that readers are buying, found that paper book sales went up by about 2.4% last year.  It’s not much, but it is a sign that books are not on the out.  I’ve been around for a little while, and I’ve noticed that plenty of people still like to read.  So why is that?  Why in this age of fast-moving television and movies would people take the time to read a novel?  Well let’s take a look at some ways books are different from movies and television.

 

Books allow you to set your own pace

A book can be read over a substantial period of time.  Some people take months to read just one book, and that’s perfectly fine.  Comparatively, movies and television are very tightly paced.  This is especially true of television shows, which are edited and modified to fit a rigid time slot.  I know this format very well since I work at a television station helping to produce the morning news broadcast.  We often have to deal with timing issues, taking out stories or adding them in, adjusting the times for the weather segments and so on, all in an effort to make things seamless and ensure that we end at the proper time.  Movies have a little more leeway in this regard, generally clocking in at around ninety minutes to three hours.  There will often be deleted scenes, but scenes are usually pulled out for creative reasons more than timing.

Books are not subject to that same strictness.  I’ve read books over a thousand pages long, and books that are barely over a hundred.  And that’s the beauty of it.  You can embark on a long journey and take your time.  Or, you can decide to speed read and get right through it.  You aren’t held back by a certain time frame, and it’s much easier to put a book down in the middle and come back to it than it is with a movie or television show.

 

Books are a more intimate experience

This is not to say that when you get invested in a character in a television show or movie it’s a superficial attachment.  I’ve seen people bawl their eyes out over fictional characters in television shows before (just ask anyone who’s watched Futurama about the dog episode and you’ll understand).  What I mean is that compared to television shows and movies, reading a book is more of an experience on the personal level.  In a book, it often feels like the author is speaking directly to you, setting things up directly for you.  Things are constructed so that your mind paints an image of the world the author is describing.

With movies and television, you don’t get that personal element.  The world is constructed for you through the lens of a camera.  The people in them are more like actors on a stage, having rehearsed the scenes plenty of times before filming.  You get one concrete image of things before you, whereas with a book people have many different interpretations of how a place or character looks, even though they’re all reading the same descriptions.

This is not to say that movies and television are artificial and therefore bad.  Everything is artificial when you get right down to it.  Books just require a great deal more personal investment on the part of the reader.  Television shows and movies can be absorbed simply through watching.  Another way to put it is that television and movies are a passive experience whereas reading is an active one.

 

Books are good for you

Some people might not like to hear it because they find reading boring, but yes reading is good for you.  It enhances your comprehension skills and oftentimes requires you to engage your brain on an intellectual level.  And I’m specifically talking about reading paper books, not e-books.  There have actually been studies into the differences between e-book reading (such as using a Kindle or so on) and physical book reading, and they found that with e-books the digital back-lit screen actually degrades the experience.  Reading text on an electronic screen affords far more opportunities for distraction and the reader doesn’t comprehend the text as well as they would with a physical book.  In one of the studies, eye tracking software showed that physical books are read line for line.

Television shows and movies don’t have those same benefits, which is probably part of the reason they’re often referred to as “hollow” entertainment.  They’re very enjoyable, sure, but like I said they don’t require a great deal of engagement from your brain most of the time.  In fact, the only other entertainment medium that has these kind of positive effects happens to be video games.  Playing video games tends to improve things like reflexes, memory, reasoning, hand-eye coordination, sight, and problem-solving among other things.  It’s sort of funny isn’t it?  Books are one of the most highly regarded forms of entertainment and video games are one of the lowest.  And yet, both of them have been proven to have positive effects on your general well-being.

 

Conclusion

By no means am I trying to discourage people from watching television or movies.  They’re both very entertaining and can be incredibly thoughtful as well.  But the fact of the matter is that compared to books, they are “hollow” entertainment.  They don’t improve your life in any significant way.  They’re just time wasters.

Reading books is a very special experience that I wish more people would put some time into.  I’ve heard a lot of people say “oh I don’t have the time to read a book”.  But that’s nonsense.  Books are actually far easier to fit time in for reading as compared to a television show or a movie.  Most people would never pause a movie or episode of a TV show halfway through and just come back to it a few days later.  They tend to go through the entire thing in one sitting.  And that’s what they’re designed for.  They’re specifically crafted to be viewed all in one sitting.  It’s better that way.  You get to fully comprehend the movie, whereas if you come back to it some days later chances are you will have forgotten certain details from your previous viewing.

Books however, are easier to remember details about because they require that personal engagement on your part.  It certainly takes more effort to read a book, but I would argue that it’s worth it.

 

But in the end it’s all for personal pleasure.  You just can’t beat a good story right?

 

Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.