“Some people look into the future,” the man said, “and they see a vista of wondrous opportunity. Great branching paths laid out before them that will take them to lands unknown and accomplishments the likes of which they never imagined.” He took a drag off his cigarette and the wind whipped the smoke away as soon as it left his mouth.
“Is that so?” Devin asked, He hugged his arms for warmth and wished he’d brought a jacket or a sweater or something. Or that there was something he could do to speed this up. He’d only been listening to this guy for fifteen minutes or so, and they were fifteen minutes too many.
“When I look into the future, do you know what I see?” the man asked.
“I can’t imagine.”
“I see a dark wood, tangled and overgrown. I see darkness and shadows in every corner, covering lurking danger that could strike at any moment. Fallen leaves cover pit traps that, with a single misstep, will leave you impaled on excrement-covered spikes as the people of this dark and unholy place gather round the shrinking circle of daylight and laugh as you die in agony.”
Devin didn’t say anything. He had to admit, that was a tough little speech to follow.
The man took another draw on his cigarette. “There is only one certain future. Only one course of action I can take whose outcome is in any way knowable.” He flicked the still-smoldering butt out into the air and it spiraled lazily down, down, ten floors down to the pavement below, lost in the wash of police cars and gawkers.
The wind whistled.
“So,” Devin said. “That’s it, huh?”
The man didn’t look at him. All of his attention seemed to be on the scene below, one step off the ledge. He looked like some kind of lower management drone, in khakis and a pressed white short, with an ID badge on a red lanyard dangling from his neck. Devin wondered idly if he took the stairs, but figured the guy wouldn’t really looking to lose any weight at this point. He’d been up on the roof for about half an hour now. Someone had seen him, called the police, and that was where Devin had come in.
The movies always made this look easier. He’d do a flying tackle, but the airbag was still on its way, and there was no way in God’s green earth that he was going to jump off the edge of a building, no matter what anyone said.
There was a click in his earpiece. “Guy’s name is Alexander Norris. Got his manager down here. Says he’s been having a rough quarter.”
Devin nodded, then cleared his throat. “Hey, Mister Norris,” he called out.
The got the man’s attention. Alexander turned to look behind him, and his face was strangely calm. The knots that had been wrapping themselves around Devin’s guts drew a little bit tighter, and he licked his lips as he spoke. “Listen, Mister Norris. I get that you’re not doing so good right now. But you know, there’s no reason things can’t get better, right?”
A grin cracked Alexander’s calm expression. “No reason,” he said. “Right.” He turned to look at the gathering crowd below.
Devin was the “suicide guy” mainly because no one else had wanted to be. The state had given towns money for specialty training in this kind of thing, and he was the one who got tapped for the position. So, a week of seminars and role-plays later, Devin was the go-to man whenever there was someone threatening to blow their head off or take a street dive, which didn’t seem to happen often enough to justify the money the state was putting out for it. But he figured it was kind of like a week off, and the food was free, so he came out on top.
At least, that’s what he thought when he wasn’t on a rooftop in the middle of winter, listening to a cube drone try to be philosophical.
“Mister Norris,” Devin said, “Why don’t you tell me what it is that got you here? Maybe we can figure something out together.” He took a couple of steps closer, something that was generally not advised when the subject was about to fling himself to his death.
The crowd below was getting noisier. The police on the scene were telling people to keep away, and some jackass tried to start a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” before the rest of the crowd shouted him down. The wind was still cutting through Devin’s shirt, and he wondered why Norris wasn’t shivering hard enough to fall off.
After a long time, the man said something, but it was too faint to hear. “What?” Devin shouted.
Alexander turned around again. “It was a song,” he said.
That was new. Devin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that either, so he just waited and strained to hear the siren of the approaching fire truck. The trainer had said that once the subject got going, they would usually keep talking, probably because the negotiator was the first person who’d actually offered to listen.
“I borrowed my son’s old iPod to bring to work,” Alexander said, “and there was this one song…” His face flinched, the first genuine emotion he’d shown. “It was all about… making mistakes. About being in the wrong place and not knowing how to get out.” He looked down over the edge again. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years,” he said, “and I’ve never once felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.” He shuffled his feet and Devin’s heart leapt in his chest. “But what could I do? Pick up and start again?” He barked out a laugh, and then turned back again. Even a few yards away, Devin could see his eyes shining, the tears being pulled along by the wind.
“The song promised that someone would be there. Someone who would stand by me and help me and…” He gestured futilely at himself, at the building, at the world. “Someone who could fix me,” he said. “And all the wrong choices I’ve made.”
The moment of emotion seemed to grip him, and then, as quickly as it came, it passed. His face slipped back into the mask of indifference he’d been wearing the whole time he’d been on the roof. “But there’s no one,” he said. “My wife is off in her own little world, my kids just want to get out of the house and go to school.” He nodded down at the rooftop. “These people? They’re probably looking for someone who can do my job better and cheaper already.”
Devin took another step closer, and Alexander cocked his head in warning. He took a step back. “Don’t you have friends?” Devin asked. “People you can talk to?”
That mask cracked again, but only briefly. “No,” Alexander said. “I was never very good at that.” He took a deep breath and looked up, looking Devin in the eyes for the first time. “That’s the problem, officer,” he said. “People are unreliable. People lie. People say they’ll be there, but…”
“But they won’t,” Devin finished for him. Alexander nodded. “Well,” Devin said, taking a small step forward. “I’m here, Mister Norris,” he said. “That’s a start.”
Alexander shook his head. “No, officer,” he said. “You’re here because it’s your job. Any other day and you wouldn’t give a damn about me.” He slid his foot back, and it was right on the edge. “Not that you’d have any reason to.”
“Wait, Mister Norris,” Devin said. “There’s still a lot you can do. There’s therapy, there’s -”
“No, thank you, officer,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath, and a look of peace came over him. By the time he said, “I’m done now,” and stepped backwards over the ledge, Devin was already lunging for him.
His hands grabbed nothing but air. He watched Alexander Norris slowly fall away through the air and vanish beyond the edge of the rooftop. He was aware that he’d started yelling.
There was a long, long moment of silence. Even the wind seemed to stop.
Then the airy WHOOMPH of Norris hitting the air cushion that had been set up on the ground below.
Devin sat down heavily on the rooftop. His hands were shaking as he took the radio from its belt clip. He took a deep breath, then pressed the button to talk. “You might have told me,” he said, “that there was a cushion set up.” Then he dropped the radio and put his head in his hands.
Fleet Commander Sohnys Ad’tai wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hot bath and then drop something heavy and electrical into it.
“Explain to me again, Front Commander,” she said, “how you managed to lose an entire communications center in a city that we had already captured.”
The Front Commander tried to stand up straight, but her wounds made it difficult. She was bleeding from several different wounds, and her battle armor was covered with clear plasma. There hadn’t been time enough to treat her before bringing her to the orbital command center hovering about the benighted blue planet they were meant to be conquering. She gurgled slightly before answering, a sure sign that she was on the verge of collapse. “We had cleared the city, Fleet Commander,” she said. “Our air support had destroyed past the city limits, had destroyed a major military base out towards the desert. The city was ours.”
“That’s right,” Ad’tai said, raising a single clawed finger. “And that forces me to ask again how this city, which was, as you say, ‘ours,’ was infiltrated and our communications hub destroyed.”
The Front Commander swayed, and a med-tech came over to hold her up. “Fleet Commander, she must get medical attention,” the med-tech said. He began prepping a hypospray.
“Not yet, medic,” Ad’tai said. “I’m still waiting for my answer.”
The Front Commander took a step forward, and one of her knees gave out. She slumped to the floor, followed closely by the med-tech. She shoved him away and looked up at the Fleet Commander. “The humans are insidious, Fleet Commander,” she said. “You turn your back for a moment, and they’ll crawl through any crack they can find.” Her eyes filmed over for a moment, and she passed out.
The med-tech looked up at Ad’tai. “She will sleep,” he said. The anger in his eyes was very nearly concealed, but not quite. “And she will likely not be able to return to active duty for some time.”
Ad’tai nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Get her out of here. Show me the charts of their population centers and prepare for my orders.” The command center burst into action again, and the Front Commander was carried away. A lieutenant produced a display reader with charts of human coastal cities.
“Here you are, Fleet Commander,” he said. “We have more than twenty of their major population centers occupied.”
Ad’tai grimaced. “And soon the humans will likely spread the word about how to take out our communications hubs.” She sighed, flicking through the charts with a swipe of her finger. She had hoped that a land invasion would demoralize the humans, send them scattering. Or at the very least cow them into submission. The advance intelligence the fleet had gotten had labeled humans as incorrigibly violent, but with weapons technologies far inferior to theirs.
“Do you remember the legend of Crons Ct’omor?” Ad’tai said to her lieutenant.
He nearly dropped the pad, but didn’t say anything. He knew.
“A single villager managed to kill the greatest warrior of the Ir’awa Empire with nothing but a stone and good aim,” she went on. “Ct’omor’s people celebrated her as their savior. Their deliverer.” She looked over at the lieutenant. “Do you remember what happened next?”
The lieutenant hesitated before nodding. “The Ir’awa burned the village to the ground. It and every other village within a day’s run.”
Ad’tai flicked to another map. “Right in the middle of their victory celebrations, no less,” she said. “Their ‘savior’ died just like the rest of them.” She tapped the pad and the maps winked out. “I’m pulling the plug on the ground invasion,” she said. She tapped the pad again and called up a comm-link.
“Fleet Command to all ground command. Initiating Operation Ir’awa in one hour. Have all ground troops cleared out by then.” A moment later, confirmation icons glowed green on her pad. Orders were being given. The ground troops would no doubt be confused, but they would follow orders.
She keyed in her authorization code, and a new screen appeared. She entered the command code, and a countdown began. The pad would give her several chances to abort the mission as the deadline grew nearer, so she kept it nearby. She checked the status of tugships, which were busy dragging the communications hubs away from the population centers.
“Fleet Commander,” the lieutenant said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Ad’tai’s brow ridge twitched, but he’d earned the question. “No,” she said, and sighed. “I’ll probably get dragged across a bed of hot nails for this by Home Command. But once I explain, I’m sure they’ll understand.” She checked the display. Plenty of time.
“After all,” she said, “we only need the water, not the cities. A fusion barrage will take care of our infestation, and then we can get the water at our leisure.” She grimaced. “Don’t know why no one thought of doing that in the first place,” she muttered.
The Earth spun slowly beneath the command center. Soon it would be pinpricked with dozens of points of nuclear fire, and they could go about their mission in peace.
And when she got home, Fleet Commander Ad’tai was going to have words with whichever nitwit bureaucrat thought this was a good idea.
Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen! Thank you!
Thank you. Thank you.
Thank… Thank you.
Ladies and gentlemen.
We all know why we’re here tonight. There is no mystery to what I want. To what you want. To what the American people want.
Over the next few months, you’re going to hear a lot of people with a lot of ideas, all of them telling you what they think you want to hear. That your taxes are too high, or too low. That your jobs are at risk. That scary people are going to take your guns. Or your land. Or your freedom. They’re going to do their best to scare the pants off you, ladies and gentlemen, so that you’ll vote them into office and give them the power they so richly desire.
Ladies and gentlemen – these people are fools. They know nothing of what the American people need. They know nothing of what the American people want. They are out of touch, Washington elitists who have deigned to come down from their ivory towers to walk with the huddled masses just long enough to get your vote – and when they do, well… I can guarantee that’s the last time you’ll see them come to a town like this again.
And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. We do have to worry about our jobs, about our economy, about our children. About strange, swarthy men who might hold up our flight to Chicago for a few hours. All of these things are real, ladies and gentlemen. But here is what those other guys, those born-and-bred Washington insiders won’t tell you:
They’re not real enough.
Have they spoken even once of the great, blood-red eye that sits under the floor of the rotunda in the Capitol building? The unblinking gaze of Keh-Xotha that stares into the infinite? Have they told you about the day when Keh-Xotha finally closes thon eye, and how on that day the great Empire of the United States will cease?
Now I know what some of you are thinking. It’s plain on your faces, and frankly – I don’t blame you. You’re thinking, “It all makes so much sense. Why didn’t I see this before” Am I right? Of course I am.
And it doesn’t stop there, either. Have they bothered to tell you about the Sub-Continental railroad, a secret transportation system that can only be accessed by the descendants of the Mayflower passengers? Have they ever brought up the secret moon mission of 1952, bringing back the first precious cargo of moon rocks that would be needed to develop the polio vaccine? And has any one of those establishment fat cats even thought to tell you – the hard-working people of America – about the supercomputer inside Mount Rushmore that is the true captain of the ship of state?
No! Countless debates and interviews and speeches, and none of them have said a word of this! Not even the candidate who benefits today from the re-animation technology developed for President Roosevelt by Nikola Tesla?
Of course they haven’t. Because they don’t want you to know.
Because the truth, my fellow Americans, is that they think you are weak. They think you are afraid. They think you are not strong enough to bear the truth.
But I know differently!
I know that the people of my America, the America I grew up in and I know is the real America, wouldn’t quail at the knowledge that Ronald Reagan died in 1981 and was replaced by a crude robot double. You know that now, you can’t un-know that. And that knowledge will make you stronger!
The truth will set you free, ladies and gentlemen, and I am the only candidate that is willing to offer you the truth, whole and unvarnished. Give me your trust and your vote, and I promise you:
You will know everything.
Thank you, and God Bless the United States of America.
The wind whipped and howled, picking up the tiny crystalline flecks of snow off the ground and sending them into Valerie’s eyes. She squinted against the snow, impossibly bright against a noontime sun that failed in its promise to bring warmth and life to the world. Every step was a trial, lifting her leg free of the snow and then plunging it back down again. She was breathing heavily almost as soon as she started out, and she was already sweating under the layers and layers of winter clothes that were all she had to protect herself from a freezing and unforgiving winter.
Her thoughts turned to her mother. It was for her that Valerie had gone out, and she found herself trying to choose between accepting her fate and hating the woman who had forced her out into the elements. Her mother was old, getting frail, and reveling in it. She knew that Valerie would want the best for her – she always had, even since she was a little girl. Their relationship was one of unbalance, a giver and a taker, and Valerie knew where she fell in that equation. Every time she said it would be different, and every time she gave in.
She pinned her watering eyes on the red flag in the distance and trudged her way towards it. The wind cut through her clothes, and she wondered if the little skin that showed between her hat and her scarf might not turn black and freeze off. Unlikely, she knew, but her mind took the image and ran with it.
“Don’t you worry yourself about me,” her mother had said, ostentatiously leaning on her cane to wake up.
“Mom,” Valerie said, inflecting it into at least three syllables. She already had a second sweatshirt on and had her giant puffy red coat in hand. “You can’t go out there, mom. It’s not safe for you.”
Her mother raised a thin white eyebrow. “Oh, and it’s safe for you then?” She stood up all the way, trembling as she did so. “I should let my only daughter out into that weather?” She shook her head and waved a thin, veiny hand. “No. No, Valerie, you sit. Have some soup, and I’ll go.”
With a sigh of very long suffering, Valerie took her mother by the shoulder and guided her back to her chair. “Mom, those winds’ll know you off your feet before you know it.” Her mother sat down with far less difficulty than when she stood up, and Valerie was sure that her lips were about to curl up in a smile. “I’m not a little girl, mom. I’ll go, and I’ll be back before you know it.” She patted her mother on the shoulder and zipped up the coat. “Just you want,” she’d said.
Now it was hard for Valerie not to regret that decision. Not that she would have sent her mother out into this freezing, blasted hellscape. The woman could barely walk across the room without complaining about her back or her knees or just making a pointed remark about how it was never this cold when she was a girl. Without Valerie, the woman would have been without options.
The red flag was closer now. A few more feet, she thought. A few more and I’ll be able to make my way back. She lifted a foot and brought it down.
Lifted the other foot, brought it down.
Then the other.
Then the other.
She arrived at the little red flag. Quickly, almost angrily, she reached out and put it back down to the side of the mailbox. For all this, she wanted there to be something fantastic in the mail. Something to make going out feel more worthwhile. When she opened the mailbox, there were three catalogs, some flyer from a state senate candidate, and a bill for the credit card that Valerie was pretty sure her mother wasn’t supposed to have anymore.
She looked back up at the house and her trail of footsteps. The trip back would seem shorter than the trip out had been, that was for sure., but the storm that would hit when she got there would put anything the winter could throw at them to shame.
Valerie slammed the mailbox closed and started to trudge back to the house.
The things she did for that woman.
…THREE…FOUR…FOUR…THREE. GOOD. The lock clicked quietly and Shane reached for the knob.
THERE’S A PIT TRAP AS SOON AS YOU GO THROUGH, the AI said. SO BE SURE YOU TAKE A RUNNING JUMP.
Shane pulled open the door and looked at the room beyond. This sequence of rooms looked very different from the ones before. Gone was the Abandoned Mansion motif, and the Haunted Forest that followed. This section looked like an underground bunker, all concrete and steel and water damage. There was always something dripping, lights flickering feverishly, signs reminding all employees to obey all printed signs and notices. He wondered who had worked there and what had happened to them. The AI might know, but it wasn’t telling.
The room beyond the door looked perfectly normal, at least as far as the place went. A concrete floor, some prefab metal racks along the side of the room cluttered with boxes and satchels. He was pretty sure there would be ammo there. Maybe an aid kit.
“You sure about this trap?” he asked. “The floor looks fine to me.”
There was a moment of quiet before that AI said, WELL, I HAVE THE FULL SCHEMATICS OF THE BASE, AND IF YOU WANT EIGHT FEET OF SHARPENED STEEL SPIKES TO TURN YOU INTO HAMBURGER, GO RIGHT AHEAD. If Shane didn’t know better, he would have said that the AI was annoyed. To its credit, it hadn’t been wrong about anything yet. It had told him what to expect in each room, given him access codes, and warned him when he was straying into danger. When Shane asked why it was helping him, the fatherly voice simply said that Shane’s theory interested it.
Shane wasn’t too sure how much water his “theory” would hold, but if it kept him alive for a while he could deal with it.
He took a few steps back, breathed deeply, and ran through the doorway, launching himself into the air as he did so. That familiar tingle ran through his body again as he sailed over the threshold. He hit the floor hard, and felt it give way under his heel. A quick step forward, and he was able to regain his balance. Turning around, he saw the pit, exactly as the AI described it. The flickering sconces on the wall illuminated the spikes, long and barbed and terrifying. “Jesus,” he said. “They really wanted to keep people away, didn’t they?”
THEY DID INDEED, the AI said.
Shane looked around the room. “Why?” he asked. There wasn’t much here – just a few long workbenches, a frosted window, and a cabinet by the door – but he was already getting ready for another attack.
The AI was silent for a moment. I’M AFRAID WE’RE ABOUT TO ENTER THE ZOMBIE PORTION OF THE FACILITY, it said. THERE IS EXTRA AMMUNITION IN THE CASE UNDER THE BENCH. TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN CARRY.
“Shit,” Shane said. Just as he started tearing open boxes, he heard the low, animal moaning of the zombies on the other side of the door. The AI was right about the ammo. There were hundreds of rounds in there, a couple of extra guns, and – miracle of miracles – a bandoleer of grenades. He slung that across his chest and stuffed his pockets with loose rounds and full magazines. The zombies were pounding on the door now, and he could see their shadowy figures through the glass. “Think you can give me a hand?” he shouted into the air.
I COULD OPEN UP SOME OF THE TRAPS, the AI said. It sounded uncertain, which didn’t make Shane feel better. BUT I CAN’T PROMISE THAT I’D BE ABLE TO RESET THEM TO ALLOW YOU TO PASS.
“Well,” Shane said, slapping a fresh magazine into his handgun, “do your best. How many chambers before we meet face-to-face?”
THREE, the AI said. AND THEY’RE CURRENTLY FULL OF FLESH-HUNGRY UNDEAD. It paused. THOUGH TO BE TECHNICAL ABOUT IT, I DON’T HAVE A FACE. BUT I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, it said before Shane could respond.
The zombie noise was getting louder. He wasn’t sure if the window was as impenetrable as all the other ones had been, but he was sure that all he’d really have to do was open the door. He cocked his gun and repeated, “Headshot. Headshot” to himself as he reached out and gripped the doorknob.
“Thanks.” Shane flung the door open.
The fight against the zombies seemed to both go on forever and take no time at all. Shane knew where they would come from, how fast they would move, and for each zombie there was a bullet. One, right in the head. He waded through them slowly, carefully, dropping them one at a time. When he ran out of ammo, he would switch guns, but he always seemed to know when a wave of the walking dead would ebb so that he could reload. He walked into the best cover spots without even thinking about it, and several times even managed to drop zombies from around the corner without looking.
It was like he’d trained in this specific battle over and over again.
He wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t.
The floor was slick with coagulated blood and spattered brains, and Shane wasn’t even breathing hard. The hallway was silent. The walking dead were down.
There was a great vault door in front of him, this time without a keypad. It just had a blank palm reader. Shane tugged off a glove and set his hand against it. The reader hummed for a moment and then blinked red. A moment later, the air vents opened and a pale yellow gas began to flow. His lungs burned and his eyes clenched shut as he fell to the ground.
Shane stood among the corpses, staring at the giant door that had been set into the wall at the end of the corridor. He looked at the palm reader next to it, and a bolt of suspicion shot through him. “Hey,” he said. “Any idea what to do with this?”
YOU NEED THE CORRECT PALM, the AI said.
“You can’t open it for me?”
I’M AFRAID NOT, it said. THERE ARE CERTAIN SECURITY PROTOCOLS THAT I CANNOT BREACH. NOT WITHOUT SOME PHYSICAL REPROGRAMMING.
“Okay,” Shane said. “So where the hell am I supposed to get the right palm?” He looked around the room. There were zombies everywhere, in various states of decay. All of them were in either a military uniform or what used to be an expensive suit. Whatever they were wearing, it was torn and filthy at this point, but it told Shane what he needed to know: all of these people used to be important to whatever organization this was.
He found the body with the fanciest uniform and the most stripes on its shoulder. His knife sliced through the rotting flesh and fragile bone quickly enough, and he hoped there was enough skin left on it to activate the palm scanner.
The scanner hummed, tracing the outline of the hand, and then let out a cheerful beep. ENTRY PERMITTED. WELCOME, MAJOR POSSO.
Major Posso. Shane tossed the man’s hand aside as the door began to open.
He wasn’t sure what he expected from the room where the AI was housed. The science fiction games of his youth seemed to want the place to be a vast throne room, with an evil-looking robot in the center. It would be surrounded by terrible and ferocious weapons, which you could only defeat if you played the game over and over again, knowing when they would fire and what their patterns were.
Shane hadn’t played those games in a long time. It was not a coincidence that they were on his mind as he walked into the AI’s chambers.
SO, it said. HERE YOU ARE.
“Yup,” Shane said. He looked around for a while, trying to find the core to the machine. Trying to find its face. “Where are you?” he asked.
The AI chuckled. I’M ALL OVER THIS ROOM. TECHNICALLY, THERE IS NO “ME” TO BE ANYWHERE.
“Oh,” Shane said. The disappointment was childish, but it was there nonetheless. “So. Here we are.”
There was no sound in the room but the humming of machines. No deadly laser arrays, no machine guns or guided missiles. No electrified floors or pit-traps. It was cold, but that was just air conditioning.
He sat down on the floor, his back against a large bank of processors. “What happens now?” he asked.
The AI was quiet for a while. IF YOUR THEORY IS RIGHT, it said, YOU HAVE TO DESTROY ME. IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO WIN.
Shane looked up. “You believe me, then?”
THAT THIS IS SOME KIND OF GAME? The computer couldn’t shrug, but somehow the shrug was in its voice. IT COULD BE. ON THE OTHER HAND, IT COULD BE THAT YOU ARE SIMPLY A VERY LUCKY, TALENTED, AND OBSERVANT SOLDIER.
“Believe me,” Shane said. “No one’s that lucky. Besides, it fits. Why was there only one path to this room? Why even make that route a constant survival course?” He gestured to the door. “I mean, a palm lock isn’t the absolute best security, but it’s pretty damn good. There’s no reason for zombies and cyborg dogs and carnivorous plants.” He shivered. “Not unless the whole point isn’t to beat you, but just the experience of getting through intact.”
TRUE. IT WOULDN’T BE MUCH OF A GAME IF ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS GET PAST A PALM LOCK.
Shane nodded. “And there’s nothing in here that can stop me from destroying you, so -”
He stopped as the humming in the room became louder. A rash of red dots appeared on his chest, and he scrambled to his feet. They seemed to pin him to the wall. I’M NOT WITHOUT DEFENSES, the AI said. I JUST CHOSE NOT TO EMPLOY THEM. The lights winked out, and Shane could breathe again. He started when a cabinet opened up. LET’S GET THIS OVER WITH, the AI said.
I HAVE A BACKUP IN ANOTHER LOCATION, it said. IF THIS IS A GAME, THEN PERHAPS THAT’S THE OPENING FOR THE SEQUEL. Shane grimaced and pulled a multi-tool out of a pouch. A small panel slid open, revealing a large processing chip that was seated on a vast array of cooling fans and chipsets.
“This is it?” he asked.
INSOFAR AS THERE IS AN “IT” FOR ME TO BE? YES.
“Okay.” Shane flipped out a thin knife blade and looked for a place to wedge it under the chip.
Shane looked up. “What?”
The AI was quiet for so long that Shane was worried he had already gone offline. Then it said, IF THIS IS A GAME – WHO IS PLAYING YOU?
The thought took Shane aback for a moment. He had thought about it, in an abstract way. If he was right, and everything here was a game, then someone was playing him. Someone was putting him through trial after trial, death after death, and pushing him to his end. Until now, when he somehow managed to take control.
He wondered if the player was watching him, wondering why the game didn’t work right anymore. Or maybe the game was just paused. Maybe it had been put away, and he was living in some weird other-world where fictional characters went when no one was watching. The whole idea started to make his head hurt.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But if I meet him, I’m gonna kick his ass.” He positioned the knife again. “You ready?”
I’M READY, SHANE GRODSKI. AND FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, I HOPE YOU’RE WRONG.
That made him pause. “Wrong? Why?”
There was humor in the computer’s voice. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CHARACTERS WHEN THE GAME IS OVER, SHANE? it asked.
Through gritted teeth, Shane replied. “They get to rest.”
The processing chip came out of its board with a little effort. He held it in his hand as the lights flickered and dimmed around him. Then the automatic systems kicked in, and error messages popped up across all the screens in the room. He tossed the chip in the air and let it fall. Just for good measure, he crushed it under his heel.
“That’ll do it,” he said. He looked around. “So. What now?”
The lights started to wink out, one by one. Soon, Shane was alone in the darkness, with only the hum of a crippled machine. And soon, even that was gone.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He looked at the door in front of him, with its peeling varnish and its brass doorknob, and his heart sank. But he didn’t know why.
He pulled the door open and started arranging the lockers in front of the door. He had a long way to go, that much he knew.
Time to get going.
Shane stared at the door. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring at it, but he thought it was a long time. Days, maybe. Years. He had no idea.
Nothing changed in this place except the place itself. He’d walk through a door, and almost immediately something would try to kill him. Sometimes he would evade it through sheer luck or skill. Sometimes he would get past the murderous devices by just… knowing they were there.
But how did he know? He glanced back at the corpses of the three cyborg wolves that he had killed after he came in the room. The moment he came through the door, he had started shooting, and every shot hit. When the lead wolf changed direction and charged at him, it was like he knew where the wolf was going. Within ten seconds, the wolves were dead, blood oozing out and electronics sparking, and he’d cleared another room. Like he’d done it all before, and this was just rote for him by now. The wolves were giant things, horrible hybrids of flesh and metal, but he had dispatched them with the ease of hundreds of hours of practice.
He had never seen them before.
Both of these things were true, and Shane was having trouble dealing with that.
This whole base seemed designed to kill him, yet he had so far been unkillable. He had evaded every death trap, known every doorcode by heart, been perfectly aware of where he should step and where he shouldn’t. He thought for a little while that he’d been knocked out when he applied for the job, maybe had some kind of microchip put into his brain. But that seemed a little too far-fetched.
Not quite as far-fetched as the idea he was entertaining at this point, though.
He stared at the door. It was old and decrepit. The varnish had started peeling away ages ago, leaving large swaths of bare, stained wood to be eaten away or turn to dust, but every door he had encountered so far had been more solid than he’d expected. Every one looked exactly like this, too. Down to the pattern of wear on the brass doorknob. Dozens of identical doors.
What’s more, those were the only doors he could go through. Some rooms had windows that faced out into soil and rock, others had doors that might have led into other rooms. He couldn’t go through them, though. For all that he pushed and pulled and beat at them, the other doors may as well have been painted onto the walls. Only the doors with the brass knobs would open, and each time he got a tingling sensation and the absolute certain awareness that he was about to die.
But he didn’t. Somehow.
This door looked like all the others. He’d been a Marine for six years, a soldier for hire for ten. He’d seen things that would make those action heroes from Hollywood soil their hundred dollar boxer-briefs and done things that would make those cheap novelists hang up their pens. Shane Grodski was not a stranger to death or pain or horror.
This door terrified him.
Sooner or later he would have to open it. Something beyond that door would try to kill him, and somehow he would survive.
He wished to God he knew how.
Shane’s hand shook as he reached for the doorknob. He started to turn it to the left, then stopped himself. His hand wouldn’t move, but trembled as it held the knob and started to turn it right as if the hand knew what it was doing better than he did. “For the love of God WHY?!?” he shouted as he pulled open the door.
On the other side was a lush garden. High, glass ceilings were nearly covered with thick vines. but the sun came through where it could. Its light was watery and weak, but it was sunlight indeed. The first Shane had seen in what felt like a lifetime, and he nearly didn’t feel that familiar door-shiver over the way his chest tried to squeeze out a sob. He took a deep breath, letting the rich scent of earth and plant life get deep into his lungs. It was a welcome change from the musty, ancient rooms he had been walking through, and if he could find a way out, he would take it.
He started climbing up one of the great vine plants that had rooted itself by the windows. The stalk was woody and strong, thick enough to support his weight at least high enough that he could get to some of the windows. Once there, he would probably be able to break one or two of them, shimmy out and leave this place far behind. He had never given up on a mission before, but none of the missions he’d been on before had ever been like this.
About ten feet off the ground, Shane decided to give a window a good hit with the butt of his gun. The glass looked old and filthy, fragile from years of being hit by sun and rain. There was already a thin crack rising up from one of the corners, so he thought it would probably be the best place to start. He hit it, then hit it again. And again. And one more time.
Like the doors throughout the base, this glass may as well have been stone. He could see the light coming through it, the shadows of clouds drifting across a far away sky, trees waving in a wind he would never feel again. But as much as he pounded, the glass didn’t give. Didn’t crack or spider or splinter. He didn’t notice he was weeping until long after he started, and only a sharp pinprick on his inner thigh brought his attention away from the window.
The stalk had sprouted a thorn, and it had given him a good jab. He looked back along the way he came, and more of these thin, needle-like spines were emerging from the plant. Another one stuck into his hands, his other leg, his chest. He would have been bothered by them, but he could already feel his temperature rising. By the time he realized what was happening, his throat had swollen shut and he could taste blood in his mouth. As he fell, he felt the seams on his clothes burst and watched as his hands boiled and sprouted billions of tiny tendrils and vines.
Shane looked up at the high glass ceiling and thought for a moment that it would be a good way out. Then he remembered the doors all throughout the building. Any door but the brass-handled ones had been a dummy, and he was willing to bet that the windows were as well. He knew this, but he didn’t know how he knew it. He stood in front of the door and flinched when it clicked shut behind him.
The garden was gorgeous, and unlike any other area of the base he’d been in so far. He took a deep breath of the rich, earthy scent and began to follow the subtle yet unmistakable path that wound its way through the vegetation. There were trees that brushed the high glass ceiling, plants that ran along the ground sprouting tiny blue flowers that seemed to shimmer in the dimness. The garden was warm and comfortable and utterly silent. He felt his chest unknot a little, the tension start to leave his shoulders and his back. Through the green light and shadow, he could see a familiar door some ways off, but he saw no reason to hurry. The garden was there, the flowers were in bloom, and nothing was trying to kill him.
After a few steps, he just… stopped. A pale mist was rising from the grass at his feet. The tiny blue flowers seemed to be waving in a thin haze, and Shane thought they might be waving at him. He laughed and waved back at them. Cute little flowers. He crouched down and felt a wave run through his body, like all of the stress he’d been carrying was flowing out through his boots.
“Think I might just sit down,” he said.
And he did.
And it was nice.
Shane looked out at the garden as the door clicked shut behind him. Thin sunlight was streaming through the windows, barely illuminating the shadows cast by reaching vines, tall trees, and countless plants that he could not name. There was a path through the garden. It was subtle, but he could make it out, and he was willing to bet that there was a door at the other end of it.
And probably some kind of flying monkeys or poisonous man-eating flowers along the way as well.
He took a step and then stopped.
“No,” he said. “No. I’m not doing this anymore.”
He sat on the lush grass, his back to the door, and waited.
The shadows between the trees looked nearly as menacing as any of the rooms he’d been through already. He didn’t know what was in there, but he could guess. Danger. Torment. Another door.
“No,” he said.
He sat down.
The door clicked shut, and Shane spun around, trying to open it again. The door wouldn’t budge, though. None of them ever had, and he wasn’t sure why he thought this one would. He yelled and screamed and pounded, and he could feel the garden behind him. It was the only way out, he knew that. But he would rather die than go through it.
“NO!” he screamed, and fell to his knees. He could have stood up, but he didn’t want to.
“No no no no no!”
Shane didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, his back against the door. He thought something should have happened by now, though. Maybe the grass would reach up and suck him into the ground, or great ravenous birds would swoop out of the trees. Whatever was going to happen should have happened.
But it didn’t.
He found himself humming a song, but wasn’t sure what it was. Something he’d heard a long while ago. “Is it that time again?” he sang quietly. “Wasn’t it already then? So does it have to be – The time it was again?“
He wished he knew the rest of the song.
Shane’s head whipped up and he scrambled to his feet before he knew what he was doing. His gun was in his hand. He didn’t remember drawing it. The voice had come from everywhere, rattling the leaves on the trees.
SHANE, it said again. The voice was almost… fatherly. It reminded him of pipe smoke and black and white television.
“Who are you?” Shane yelled.
AH. GOOD, the voice said. I WAS BEGINNING TO WORRY.
There was nothing to point his gun at, but Shane couldn’t put it away. “Worry about what?” he asked. “Who are you?”
The voice chuckled, and it was a deep electronic baritone. I THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW WHO I AM, SHANE, it said. AFTER ALL, WHO ELSE IS IN HERE WITH YOU?
It took Shane a minute, but he eventually lowered the gun. It wouldn’t have done him any good. “You’re the AI,” he said.
VERY GOOD, it said. I ALWAYS KNEW YOU WERE CLEVER.
“All right,” Shane said, holstering his gun.”What do you want?”
The AI was silent for a moment before answering. I WANT TO KNOW, it said, WHY YOU’RE NOT MOVING. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN INTO THE NEXT ROOM A LONG TIME AGO.
It was all Shane could do not to break out into hysterical laughter. The question was so nonsensical, so ridiculous, that he wanted to just scream at the AI. “What, so you can kill me again?”
His words echoed against the glass walls and were eaten by the trees. The silence seemed to wrap around him.
AGAIN? the AI said.
Shane let the AI’s words get lost in the same organic darkness that had swallowed his own words, and then began to cry.
TO BE CONCLUDED! (I hope)
Lyrics to “Am I Awake” are copyrighted by They Might Be Giants
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab, one that the Government had closed down rather than clean up.
It wasn’t on any maps. It didn’t, officially speaking, exist – and if it did exist, well, he sure as hell hadn’t been there. That was in the briefing, a short speech overseen by a man who said nothing, but who stared at Shane the whole time, with ice-blue eyes and contempt practically painted onto his face.
His mission was straightforward and uncomplicated. He was to penetrate to the inner labs and retrieve the central AI core if possible, destroy it if necessary. The whys and wherefores were for the bureaucrats and the politicians as far as he was concerned. This was a hefty payout. If he survived.
“There may be…resistance,” the man who’d hired him said. The blue-eyed man just smirked. “We have reason to believe the AI is expecting you.”
Shane nodded at that. “All right,” he had said. “I’ll just have to be unexpected.”
He pulled open the door in front of him and looked out into the hallway beyond. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. He took a step forward and felt a tugging at his foot. He had just enough time to look down and see the thin tripwire before the explosives on either side of him went off, killing him instantly.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. There were old metal lockers that had fallen to the floor and torn posters on the wall, bearing information and announcements that no one would ever need again. He reached out for the door in front of him…
And hesitated. Something didn’t feel right.
The guy who’d briefed him had said that there might be resistance from the AI. He hadn’t gone into any detail as to what kind that would be, but he was pretty sure it would do its best as soon as it could.
He pulled open the door and looked down the hall. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling that flickered and trembled. In the low light, he took out his sidearm and turned on the laser sight. A red dot flicked into existence on the floor. He swept it up and down just in front of him, watching the dot until…
A tiny flash of red light confirmed what he suspected.
There was a tripwire stretched about six inches above the floor. It was hair-thin, and he probably would have missed it if he hadn’t known what to look for. He leaned out through the doorway and looked at the walls. “Very nice,” he muttered. There were patches of plaster about head-height that looked newer and cleaner than the rest of the wall. That was probably where the explosives were.
“Nice try,” he said. He stepped carefully over the tripwire and patted the wall. “You can’t get me that eas-”
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He hadn’t been there more than a moment and already he was starting to feel tense and frustrated, but he couldn’t say why.
He checked his handgun – it was ready to go, as it always was. The rifle he’d slung across his back was loaded and ready when he needed it. He had his flashlight, some water, first aid kit. Everything he should have had was right there. But he still felt… uneasy.
He pulled open the door, very slowly. Nothing happened. He turned on his laser sight and ran the beam along the floor through the doorway. Almost immediately, there was a tiny flash of light. A tripwire. Shane’s mouth twisted in a grin. He kept the laser moving forward, towards the end of the hall.
There were glimmers of light everywhere, all along the floor, crossing at chest height, head height, and they were all damn near invisible. Any one of them would be his death, of that he had no doubt. He directed his flashlight to the walls.
All down the corridor, there were sections of plaster that looked newer than the rest of the wall. “Hell,” he said.
Shane looked around the room. There were no other weapons that he could use, and getting close to the door would be a death sentence. He could try to shoot out one of the tripwires, in the hopes that one explosion would set the others off, but shooting something that thin, that invisible, would be a huge waste of ammo. His gaze fell on the old lockers that were strewn across the floor. “Gotcha,” he said.
He opened the door as wide as it would go and laid one of the lockers down, pointing down the corridor. Then another behind it, and then one more. The three lockers, end-to-end, were maybe eighteen feet, and he had to hope that was far enough away. He took the remaining two and set them between himself and the doorway, in the hopes that they would absorb some of the blast.
And then he pushed the lockers along the ground.
The explosion was deafening. Each charge by itself was small, but there were so many of them planted in that hallway that they just kept going off for what seemed like forever. It was a thunderous cacophony of noise and smoke, and when it cleared, it took him a few moments to come out from his makeshift bunker.
The corridor was a wreck. Great divots had been torn out of the walls where the explosives had been. He flicked on his laser sight, the beam now perfectly visible in the smoke and the dust, and he ran it along the length of the corridor, floor to ceiling. There were no more wires.
“There we go,” he said to himself. He checked his gun again and carefully, slowly, made his way down the corridor.
It went on a lot longer than he thought it would, turning a few times as he went. At every corner, he would run the laser up and down again, but the debris and the dust told the tale. He started to hear things, though, and he wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, or if it was hearing damage. Or something else, of course. It sounded like metal groaning. Like the hum of a speaker that’s ready to start playing really loud music. Like an idling engine.
There was another door at the end of the corridor, and it looked exactly like the first. He pulled it open, checked for wires. There were none. When he clicked on his flashlight, he was stunned to see the breadth and vastness of the room beyond.
The floor was white marble that seemed to glow where the light hit it. Great pillars reached up to a ceiling that was hidden in the darkness. There were windows, tall and ornate, but they were blocked by stone and soil. When had he gone underground?
As he stepped through the door, he felt a shiver. The door slammed shut behind him, and he had his pistol at the ready before he knew it. There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. He turned with his flashlight, just in time to see the gleam of the great metal blades before they sheared off the top of his skull.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor before he even knew why.
There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. A moment later, two bright steel discs came spinning out of the darkness and lodged themselves in the door, right where his head would have been.
“What the hell?!” he shouted. He had been told to expect resistance, but this seemed less like an AI protecting itself and more like some malevolent bastard that enjoyed killing people. Did AIs enjoy murder? The briefing hadn’t really covered that.
He crawled along for a few yards until he reached a pillar. He used it to stand up, straining his ears for that metallic breath again. Which was why he probably didn’t notice the twisted wire noose until it dropped down, coiled itself around his neck, and pulled up, hard and fast.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor.
A moment later, there were twin THUDS in the door behind him, but he didn’t pay them any notice. He was cursing under his breath as he stood up and started walking through the pillars, making sure to stay as far away from them as he could. There was a… wrongness that he felt from them. He cocked his ears left and right, hoping he could hear the sound of those flying blades when they were launched. The laser on his sight didn’t show any more wires, but still, he walked with tiny, careful steps.
Off to his left, he heard a low rumbling, and stopped. His flashlight caught the low, spiked roller as it came at him, tearing up chunks of marble as it did.
Somehow, without even thinking about it, he jumped. The roller went right under him and kept going, its rumble fading in the distance. He continued forward, along the paths marked out by pillars he dared not go near. There was another roller that came out of the shadows to his right, and one that was directly in his path. He jumped each of them and moved on, his confidence growing as he did so.
He didn’t want to say anything – “I’m on to you,” for example, or “Is that the best you can do?” That way lay death, something he believed even if he couldn’t prove it.
He reached the door at the end and grabbed the handle. The electricity kept him moving until he fell.
Shane was on the floor before the door was shut, and was crawling forward before the two blades hit the door. He walked confidently between the pillars, keeping his ears out for noises from the shadows. When a roller came, he stopped, jumped, and moved on.
At the door, he reached out, but froze before he touched the handle. He looked around the door, and was surprised he hadn’t noticed the keypad right away.
It was small, but certainly not hidden, and it had a small diagram stuck to the wall above it. Shane stared at it for a while before he figured out what it meant.
There was an arrow and a dot that said, “You Are Here.” Beneath that was a double row of circles – ten in each row – that stretched towards the bottom. Five of the circles were numbered with 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Shane looked at the keypad. The display was big enough for five digits. He turned around and trained his light on the columns and counted under his breath.
He took out his little digital camera and took a picture of the diagrams. Then he started going to the columns. In order.
The first column would have sprouted spikes if Shane came close. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but the best way to avoid them was to set them off from far away. A single gunshot seemed to work, though he was loathe to waste the ammunition. The number carved into it was 7.
The second column spun in the opposite direction that he walked around it, keeping the number out of his sight. It didn’t have quite the reaction time that he did, though – if he got it spinning and then changed direction really fast, he’d be able to get in front of the number. It was good he had the foresight to stay low, however, because the laser that was embedded in the circular part of the 9 came pretty close to putting a hole in his head.
The third column had a drop-away floor around it. The marble around the base just looked strange to him, and as long as he didn’t get within three paces, he was fine. Its number was 1.
Four was the column that tried to noose him if he stood still for too long, and the number 8 that was carved into it was really tiny. A quick dodge to the left without even thinking about it, and he barely avoided being strangled.
Finally, the last one. He was lucky that he’d been holding his breath out of sheer anxiety, because he was pretty sure that the gas that jetted out from it was poisonous. It made his skin itch in any event, and he had to grab a salve from his first aid kit. The number on this column was 2.
He made his way back to the door and the keypad and entered “79182.” The display burned a steady red for a moment, and then turned green.
Carefully, gingerly, he took the doorknob, waiting for something horrible to happen. It didn’t. He opened the door and felt that shiver pass through him.
His last thought before the machine gun bullets tore him in half was, “There is something seriously wrong going on here.”
The package from her mother was wrapped in brown paper, a recycled grocery bag, and as soon as Alice saw who it was from, she knew what it was. Her mother’s precise, looping handwriting was in the upper-right hand corner. Her own name was printed with a heart above the “i,” and “Happy Birthday” was written in big, bold letters underneath the address.
“Is it gonna be a surprise this year?” Alice asked herself. She shook the box, but didn’t hear anything. She shook it harder, and hoped. But there was no sound from inside. It was either soft or very well-packed. She tucked it under her arm and brought it into the kitchen. She took a knife from the counter and started working it under the layers of packing tape that her mother had used to close up every possible seam. This was how every package from her came, and she said she just wanted to make sure nothing happened to the “precious contents.” Alice was pretty sure it was just to see how long it would take her to get through her defenses.
She out a laugh. “Very symbolic,” she said. “Mom would be proud.” Her mother had been an English teacher for decades, which made her one step below a psychologist when it came to ascribing meaning to every little thing she got her hands on. Unfortunately, it also made her think she was awfully clever. Alice disagreed.
The paper finally came off, and she started working on the box. There was really no reason to hurry on this, other than just to get it over with. Alice knew what was inside – the same thing that was in the box every year.
Well. Not exactly the same thing. But close enough. As far as her mother was concerned, it was a challenge to find something slightly different yet still the same. And every year, underneath her disappointment, Alice was actually impressed that her mother managed it.
She opened the box and pulled out a small package wrapped in white cotton batting. When she unwrapped it, it was a coffee mug. Printed on the mug was a stylized cartoon of a white rabbit with a gold pocketwatch. Underneath the drawing it said, “Don’t be late!”
“There we go,” Alice said. “Right on cue, Mom.”
She stuffed the cotton batting into the trash and folded up the box for future use. It would come in handy someday. The mug would go with all the others.
There was a case in her living room, made by her father – at her mother’s request. It really was beautifully done, probably the best thing her father had put together in that workshop haven of his. It was taller than she was, with adjustable shelves and wide, glass-fronted doors. The whole thing was made from dark-stained wood, and would probably last forever. She opened the door and took a look at the other twenty-five items that were on the shelves.
There were several stuffed rabbits, of various sizes. Little figurines, art that her mother had commissioned, a t-shirt that was folded up, showing the Disney character on it. A rabbit made of glass, another that had a bobble-head, and one that looked like a human-rabbit hybrid. From her first birthday, her mother had been giving her variations on the theme, and she showed no sign of letting up anytime soon.
Alice supposed it was better than her mother forgetting her birthday every year, but at the same time she really wished that she’d come up with something else.
She put the mug on the shelf next to last year’s present – an original vinyl pressing of Jefferson Airplane’s most famous single. That one actually had been pretty impressive.
She took her phone from its charger in the kitchen and dialed her mother. Thanks were in order.
Ethan Chaskey was certain that it took just under forever for his father to finally come into his bedroom after he called. Yes, it was three in the morning, and yes he knew his father had to sleep, but he still found himself wondering if his father really wanted him to die, or if he just wasn’t taking things seriously enough.
“Whaddyou want, Ethan,” his father asked. His voice was thick and sleepy. His face was puffy, and Ethan wasn’t even certain his eyes were open. He wore the same old sweats and a t-shirt that he always wore to bed, clothes so very different from the suit and tie he left and came home in. Sometimes Ethan wasn’t sure if the man who he saw at night was actually the same man he saw during the day. He had no real reason to believe that his father had been replaced by someone else. Right now he had bigger problems.
“Dad,” he said. He pulled the covers up to his chin and glanced at the closet door. “Dad, it’s in my closet again.”
His father sighed and ran his hand over his face. “Ethan,” he said, and for a moment it seemed like he would just turn around and go back to bed. Instead, though, he walked over and dropped down on the edge of the bed. The whole bed seemed to sink under his weight, and Ethan wondered why it didn’t break. His father wasn’t fat, like Mr. Waltham down the street. But he wasn’t a little guy. He was… dad. He was bigger, just because that’s what dads were. And while he’d been told that he would one day be a grownup, just like his dad, Ethan had never been able to imagine himself so big that his own bed would groan under his weight. It’d probably snap if he tried to jump on it.
“Ethan,” his father said. “We have to stop this.” He reached over and put his hand on Ethan’s head. “You’re eight years old, kid,” he said, “and you’re way too old to believe in closet-monsters, okay?”
“But dad -”
“I know,” his father said, rubbing his eyes again. “I know you think there’s something there, but I promise you, Ethan. There are no monsters.” He looked over at him, and even through the sleepiness, Ethan could see the power in his father’s eyes. This was the man who went to the office every day, who signed contracts and had deals and clients and things. And when he came home and talked about his day, this was the look in his eyes. There was so much that Ethan didn’t understand about it, but he knew that his father understood it all – every bit of it. That was how he looked now, but this time it wasn’t helping.
His father patted him on the leg. “Okay, kid?” he said. “No monsters.” He stood up and yawned for a long time. “G’night, Ethan,” he said.
“But dad, I really need you to check!” Ethan wanted to burrow under the blankets and go to sleep. He wanted to be able to lie back and close his eyes and wake up with the morning sun on his face, just like normal people did. But the closet wouldn’t let him. It was like a noise that you could barely hear, but couldn’t ignore. It was like the splinter in your finger that you couldn’t find. Like those hairs down the back of your shirt after a haircut.
Opening the doors would bring him peace, of course. He knew that. If he could just go up and open the doors and look in, he’d see that there was nothing there but all the stuff he jammed in when he last cleaned his room, plus whatever clothes he’d gotten around to hanging up. There would be no monsters, no creature, no horrible things waiting to devour a sweet little boy like him whole. He knew that was what he’d find.
But he didn’t believe it for a second. It only worked when his dad did it. He didn’t know why, but that was the way of things. His father would open the doors for him, do the fatherly thing and take the chance for his son. Then there would be only clothes and toys, and Ethan would be able to sleep.
“Please, dad,” he said quietly. “Just this one more time.”
His father stood there so long, Ethan thought he’d fallen asleep. Finally, he sighed. “You know, Ethan,” he said. “Your mom thinks I shouldn’t be coming in here like this. You know that?” He turned around and walked slowly to the closed, stepping around toys and books and clothes on the floor. “She thinks that we’re just encouraging your imagination. That you’ll grow out of it if we just leave you alone.” He took the handle of the closet door and turned around to look. “I think she’s right. So this is it, Ethan.” He fixed him with The Look again. “Last time.”
Ethan nodded, his eyes looking past his father.
His father opened the door and turned around, face-to-face with a creature the likes of which Ethan couldn’t have begun to imagine. The boy froze, hands gripping the bedspread and eyes wide.
The thing’s skin was red and glistening, suppurating and dripping from what looked to be like a wound that covered its whole body, a wound that drenched the bedroom in a foul smell that made Ethan want to stop eating for the rest of his life. Great, swollen flies crawled over it, digging into its flesh before burrowing out and flying to another place to dine again on the blood and blackness that coated the monster’s thin, powerful limbs that were folded in on itself. Its teeth and its claws shone like the knives in his mother’s kitchen, catching the scant light in the darkened bedroom and glimmering in the shadows. And its eyes – eyes that were horrible, poisonous yellow – stared right at him. They were eyes that promised a long and lingering death, an eternity alone in a darkness deeper than any bedroom, any closet could offer. The thing looked first at Ethan’s father, then at Ethan. It growled in a sub-sonic rumble that Ethan could feel in his bones. And it smiled.
“See, Ethan,” his father said, turning his back on the thing in the closet. “Nothing there.” Behind him, the creature seemed to swell and pulse, like a great heart made of poisoned muscle. It opened its mouth wide, new teeth seeming to sprout from its black and diseased gums as the four-part jaws spread wider and wider like a flower full of needles right behind his father’s head. Saliva dripped onto his shoulder, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “Okay, son?” he said. He looked behind him again and shook his head. “And that doesn’t count as cleaning your room, by the way.” The infinite teeth behind his head shivered and trembled, coming closer and closer to snapping shut until they came within a hair’s breadth of brushing his father’s cheeks.
He must know, Ethan thought. There’s no way he can’t know. He trembled under his bedspread and, in his head, screamed for his father to run. To come into the bed, even if it did collapse, and hide under the blanket with him until that thing in his closet got up and went away to some other boy’s house. His father was there, so calm and so sleepy and so old, and that thing was going to eat him from the head down and Ethan would have to watch. If he looked away, that’s when it would strike. And it wouldn’t stop with his dad.
His father walked away. Behind him, the thing closed its horrible mouth again, and still it seemed to smile as it shifted its position in the closet. Ethan’s eyes were pinned to it. “There you go,” his father said. He knelt down by the bed and brushed Ethan’s cheek. He looked at his son for a moment, at the way he was still staring at the closet, and followed his gaze. The thing raised a single six-fingered hand, its joints creaking and cracking as it did. Each finger ended in those terrible, broken knives, and it waved.
“You know what?” his father said. “I’m going to leave that door open for you tonight. So if you wake up again and you think there’s something there, you can just look over and see for yourself.” He leaned over and kissed Ethan on the forehead. “You go to sleep now,” he said. “Love you.” He rubbed his son’s head once, and then was gone. His footsteps went on for a little bit, and then the door to his bedroom opened and closed, and Ethan was well and truly alone. With the thing.
He couldn’t move at all. He was pretty sure he’d peed the bed.
The creature in his closet stared at him with those awful, owl-like eyes that seemed so much more intelligent and hateful and evil. Then it reached out with its spindly, skeletal hand and wrapped its long and steely fingers around the doorknob.
Slowly, its gaze never leaving Ethan’s, it closed the closet door. The last thing Ethan saw of it was the malicious glimmer of its eye.
There was a moment of perfect, peaceful silence before a voice slithered into his head.
Good night, Ethan. Pleasant dreams.
Laurette girded herself and took another essay off the stack. Thirty-five sophomore English essays, each one worse than the last. She spun her green pen in her fingers and tried not to overreact as the fractured syntax, broken sentences and blinkered grammar shouted out at her from a page that, for some reason, was printed in an eighteen point font that looked like it was scratched into the paper by the fingernail of a deranged lunatic. She sighed.
Tom Sawyer was a kid who didnt like painting so he got his, friends to do it 4 him.
She ground her teeth and clicked her pen to start the uphill battle of correcting the student’s writing. At this point, she was starting to miss her red pen, but the department head had gotten some study under his skin and insisted that red was damaging their little snowflakes’ egos. “Please… review the worksheet… on comma splices,” she muttered as she wrote in the most bilious green ink she’d been able to find.
A small, wrapped package was dropped onto her desk and a man said, “Having a rough time of it?” Laurette gripped her pen and tried to stop herself from wondering how the day could get any worse. She’d been a reader for a long time and knew how that kind of idle thinking would work itself out.
“I’m doing essays, Jeremy,” she said. “Can it wait?” She glanced up at him despite herself.
Jeremy Bates was a math teacher, and handsome enough that there were quite a few female students who came to him looking for extra help with their homework. He had an unflappable self-assurance about him, which was probably why Laurette had agreed to go out on a date a few months ago. He seemed nice, he seemed like he could be a good guy to get to know. He seemed all that.
What he was was a self-absorbed jerk. There was no topic she could bring up that he couldn’t turn back to himself within a few sentences. There was nothing they could do together that he couldn’t turn into some kind of desperate self-promotion, except that there was no real desperation to it. If there had been, she could have dealt with that, but he just seemed so convinced that the only thing anyone should be focusing on was him. After a couple of dates and one awkward kiss, Laurette had pulled the ripcord and bailed from that relationship.
The lesson she learned, of course, was to never date someone from work. That same self-assuredness that made him think he was so very interesting was what made him think that their breakup – if you could even call it that – was a ploy in some longer game that she was playing. If he just found the right tactic, she would open up to him.
In more ways than one, of course.
He was still standing there, just in her peripheral vision. Laurette kept scribbling on the essay. “Go away, Jeremy,” she said.
“Not until you open your present,” he said. She could hear the smug grin.
“Not opening it, Jeremy,” she said. “You don’t need to give me presents anymore.”
He picked it up off the desk. “C’mon, Laurie,” he said. She flinched at the familiarity. “You’ll like it.” He offered it to her and she dropped the essays into her lap with a growl.
“It doesn’t matter if I’ll like it, Jeremy,” she said, still not looking at him. “I don’t want it.”
He started to unwrap it himself. “Here,” he said. “Lemme show you.” Laurette couldn’t stop herself from clenching her fists, crumpling the essays. Students probably wouldn’t notice – they’d just looked at the grade and then shove it in their locker.
“Here you are,” he said, showing it to her again. This time he got her attention. It was a thin hardcover book, a leatherbound edition of a collection of poems she’d had her eye on for a while. Without thinking, she took it and started to flip through the pages. They were from some of her favorite poets, works she’d known for years. This collection was one that she’d been meaning to buy, but had never really been able to justify to herself.
“Where did you get this?” she asked. She looked up at him, and his smile broadened into a genuine aw-shucks grin, the kind that he seemed to do without any trace of effort or irony.
“A little bird told me you had your eye on it,” he said. “I knew you’d love it.”
She turned it over in her hands, looking at the way the light glimmered on the binding. She glanced over at the other teachers in the office, but if they were paying attention, they were doing a good job of hiding it. She wanted to open the book and start reading right there and then.
A little bird?
She looked at him again, her eyes narrowed. Suddenly that grin looked smug. Something in his eyes that said that he’d won something. Scored a point somewhere. “Jeremy, I know I didn’t tell you I wanted this. And I know I didn’t mention it to anyone here.” She wanted to hand it back to him, but somehow she managed to hold it close to her chest. “How did you know?”
“Laurette,” he said. “What does it matter how I knew? All that matters is that I wanted to do something nice for you.” He tried to put his hand on her shoulder, but she scooted the chair away. “What?” he asked. He set his shoulders and crossed his arms. That smugness just flowed off him like stink on a hot summer’s day. “A guy can’t do nice things?”
That did it. “No, Jeremy,” she said. Laurette stood up and slapped the book at his folded arms. His expression froze. “You did something, and I -”
The thought seemed to ooze into her mind, and she recoiled from it. There was something just…
“You looked me up, didn’t you?” she said. She sat down at her computer and navigated to Amazon. He tried to say something, but she held up the index finger that had the power to quiet a room full of teenagers. The book should be on her wish list, she knew that. She scrolled down a bit, and…
“Not there,” she growled. She spun around in her chair. “You looked me up, didn’t you?” she asked again.
He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Guilty,” he said. “But how else was I supposed to know what you wanted?”
Laurette stood up in a shot. “Jeremy, I want nothing from you, okay? We dated, it was a mistake, and it’s over. Get that through your head!”
“C’mon,” he said, and she really, really wanted to punch him. “Laurette, we had a great time together. You and me, we could really be something.” He reached out to touch her arm and she pulled back. His eyes flickered to her balled-up fist, and he looked like he might have just figured out what was going through her mind. He turned the gesture into a shrug of helplessness. “C’mon, Laurie,” he said. “What’s a guy gotta do?”
She actually barked out a laugh. “You gotta not be a creepy stalker,” she said. “What, are you going to show up on Facebook next?” His face went carefully still and her gut sank. She didn’t remember ever friending him, but… “Oh, for the love of – What else have you done?”
He did that grin-and-shrug again. “Twitter,” he said. “And I have a Google alert.”
There was actually a moment of vertigo, and she had to sit down. “Holy shit,” she said. She had a blog that she updated from time to time, and she was on a fan-fiction forum. He probably knew about both of those. Her photo site popped into her head, followed an instant later by the sketch gallery she had started and then let grow fallow.
She stood back up, spinning the chair so that it was between her and him. “Okay,” she said in a harsh whisper. People were actually watching by this point, but she didn’t care. The more people the better, actually. “I’m not going to be in any way ambiguous or uncertain about this, Jeremy, so it’s really important that you listen: We. Are not. Getting back together.” She jabbed the finger at him this time, and he actually flinched. “Not now, not ever. You are a self-centered boor, an egotistical jerk, and incredibly creepy.” She handed the book to him, and when he didn’t take it, she let it fall to the floor. He looked down at it, then up at her again. “Never do this again, Jeremy. Never. Or I will file a harassment claim so fast it would make David Mamet’s head spin!”
His brow furrowed. “David who?”
“Never mind!” Laurette yelled. She pointed at the book on the floor. “Take that, and get away from me.” She clenched her hands on the back of her chair. Her hands hurt, and her legs felt like they were trembling. He wasn’t moving. Her mind put up scenarios where she’d have to run, or fight, or both. Given the choice, she’d really rather he just went away and went back to being the guy who couldn’t take a hint, rather than the guy who spent his time on the internet looking her up. The difference was palpable to her. At that moment, it wasn’t just that he was standing in front of her, or in the same room – he worked in the same school. They were in meetings together. She’d run into him at the supermarket once or twice before.
No matter where she went, he could be there.
Laurette wanted to throw up.
“All right,” Jeremy said. He bent down and picked up the book. “Guy tries to do something nice…” He put it under his arm and shrugged. “Guess I’ll be seeing you around, Laurie.” He turned to go, and then looked back at her. And winked.
When he was gone, Laurette dropped back into her chair. Some of the other teachers had watched the whole thing, but none came over. None had any words for her. They just went back to their work.
Laurette tried to take deep breaths until the feeling that she wanted to cry or scream or throw up passed. It was a long time coming, and those essays weren’t getting graded anytime soon.
Her computer chimed. It was a message on her Twitter client, from @Jer_the_MathMan.
> @RWHS_Hitch Maybe next time.