The hub of the ship was the social space. It was a kitchen, a dining room, a conference room, and an entertainment center. The bridge was one short corridor away, and the crew quarters branched off in four directions – four above, four below. Right now they were well understaffed, which seemed to suit everyone fine, since the group they’d put together was already well-versed in getting on each other’s nerves.
Mara sat next to Arlen, who was tapping through pages he’d stored in his tablet. Knowing him, it was probably news, as up to date as he could get it. She never quite understood his constant need to know what was going on all the time. Marco had to, he was the captain, but everyone else could just hang out and collect and let the system sort itself out on its own.
Leane had joined them from the cargo hold. She was filthy and looked exhausted, but her eyes jumped from person to person as Mara laid out what she had seen on the Osiris, and she knew that Leane wouldn’t miss a thing.
Ken kept looking from Marco to his computer and back again, and every time he looked at his files, his brow furrowed. The fact that he was nervous was bad enough, but he seemed to be making Marco nervous, and that wouldn’t do at all. You didn’t captain a crew like theirs for as long as he had by being nervous, and it seemed an alien look on him.
“The problem we have,” Marco said when she’d finished her story, “is that one of the passengers on the ship is – or most likely was – the daughter of none other than Donovan Starling.”
That got Arlen’s attention. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “She’s been missing for months!”
Marco nodded. “And there’s a reward for her return, alive or dead. But it seems like there’s going to be a hitch. Ken?”
He spun the computer around to face the group. Mara instantly recognized the face on the screen – Carter Artega, captain of the Osiris The dead man, and probably the one who’d murdered every other living soul on the ship. “This is one of the files that was on the chip Mara bought over,” he said. “Among the others was a cute little executable that probably would have set off the Osiris‘ self-destruct, so good call there.”
Mara tipped the hat she wasn’t wearing, and then let him continue.
“There’s also a copy of the manifests – crew, cargo, and passengers. Starling’s daughter is listed there by name, and she’s tied to those crates of miscellany they have in their hold.”
“Which contain what?” Leane asked.
Ken held up a hand. “Don’t get ahead of me,” he said. “Terra Starling boarded about a week before this video was recorded.” He gestured at the screen. “The video itself was recorded about three months ago.” He reached over, clicked play, and they watched Captain Artega speak.
It… is vital that I say this, he said from the screen. His face looked drawn and haggard, unshaven. His eyes kept moving from one place to another. Even if no one ever hears it, I have to say it. I think that if I say it out loud, then maybe… maybe it’ll sound as crazy out loud as it does in my head. And if I can just get a second opinion, then I can put all this behind me. He looked down at something below the camera’s field of view. But probably not.
He took a deep breath. There are ghosts on my ship. He let the breath out and looked from left to right and back again. His shoulders slumped, but he went on. They’re not… It’s not like I’m seeing my grandfather or my dead wife or anything, you understand. It’s just… He leaned in a little closer. I know they’re there. Things. Spirits. Entities, something. They started about a week ago, right after we left Laraea colony. Mara looked over at Ken, and he nodded.
I have no idea what they are, but I know where they are. The captain’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. They’re always just out of sight. Shadows. Malingerers in the corners, hiding in that spot right where your eyes don’t go and doing… He ran a hand down his face, and the hand was blood red. It left streaks across his skin. Around the table, Mara and the crew didn’t look at each other, or say anything. They kept their eyes on the screen, but Mara knew. Even veterans of the spaceways would look at this and get a little uneasy.
On-screen, Artega looked at his hand as though he hadn’t seen it before. Then he looked up at the camera and grinned. A skewed grin that made him look like he used to be a troublemaking teenager. I think I may have gone a little off the rails, he said. He blinked his eyes clear and tried to compose himself. There are things on this ship, and I don’t know who or what they are. He held up a bloodied hand. I’ve already begun my investigations, but so far – no luck. And I suspect that if there’s no one on the ship anymore, the ghosts won’t have anyone to haunt. So there’s a few more people to take care of, and then I’ve got a full bottle of painkillers from the infirmary waiting for me.
His expression shifted a bit, a flash of guilt. If you’re watching this, then I’m sorry. I can’t let you go, or the ghosts will just follow you, and I will have done… I will have done all this for nothing. As soon as this message ends, the Osiris will self-destruct. He looked like he was about to cry. I’m so sorry. He reached out, and the screen went blank.
Arlen stood up slowly. “Um,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Ken said. “I’ve got the video unhooked from the executable, and even if I didn’t, the ess-dee codes from the Osiris wouldn’t work here.” He glanced over at Marco. “Right?”
Marco nodded. “Right. Goqui doesn’t even have it set up.”
“Okay,” Arlen said. He sat back down. Leane smirked at him, and he returned the favor.
“Assuming the captain’s got his timeline right,” Marco began.
“A big assumption,” Mara said. “The guy was nuts.”
Marco nodded. “True, he was, but if he had his time right, then we know that the ‘ghosts’ started to show up right after he picked up Terra Starling and her miscellany.” He took the computer from Ken and tabbed over to the manifest. “No idea what’s in these crates,” he said, “but they should at least be treated as suspicious.”
“What?” Leane said. “What could be in those boxes that’d make him murder everyone on the ship?”
“Magnetic pulse generators,” Arlen said. Everyone looked over at him, and he seemed surprised that they were waiting for him to finish his thought. “What?” he said. “It’s well known that a focused magnetic pulse can create hallucinations. Maybe she brought a bunch over, switched them on and…”
“And they only affected the captain?” Mara said. “How would that even work?”
Arlen shrugged. “Maybe there’s something in his genetics…”
“And where would a girl like Terra Starling even get magnetic pulse generators?” Ken asked. “You’ve seen her in the news, Arlen, she’s an idiot. She wouldn’t know how to get off a planet unless you strapped a pair of shoes to a rocket.” That got a chuckle.
“Maybe she didn’t know what was in them either,” Arlen said. “Maybe someone gave them to her? Told her they were vintage handbags?”
Leane snorted. “Very nice,” she said. “Shoes and handbags. Original, Arlen.”
“What, haven’t you seen her?” He grabbed his tabled and started poking at the screen. “The girl is a complete flake, look at this…”
They were cut off when Marco slapped the tabletop. The silence was complete. Leana sat back down. Arlen put his tablet on the table carefully.
“We blow it up,” Marco said.
Everybody looked at him, and it was a full ten seconds before Ken said, “What?”
“We blow it up,” Marco said again. “I don’t know what happened on that ship, and I don’t think I want to know. We go in, copy over all the logs and computer files, and then we scatter Osiris to the stars.” He looked over at Leane. “Cargo and all.” She took a quick breath that hissed through her teeth. But she didn’t disagree with him.
After a few moments, Mara said, “We can use the file on the chip to set off the self-destruct.” She looked across at Ken. “Can you re-jigger it to give us time to get out?” He nodded. “Okay then,” she said. “Let me know what you want off that ship. Me and Leane can go get it.”
Leane raised an eyebrow. “Me?” she said. “Why me?”
“Because you’re organized and efficient,” Mara said. “And I think the guys’ll probably pass out when they see the blood.” There was another chuckle around the table. Leane reached out for a fist bump.
“Okay,” Marco said. “We’ll start putting together what we need. Then we sleep.” He looked at the blank screen of Ken’s computer. “Tomorrow we bid farewell to the Osiris.”
To Be Continued… but I need to do some planning first. Hang in there.
Mara wasn’t an expert on communications or computers, at least not beyond what everybody had to know to operate the ship. Her job was security and threat assessment, a job that seemed a little ridiculous on a salvage ship with a crew of five. The biggest threat she had to deal with on any given day was Ken trying to cheat Arlen at cards, which he did with such regularity that no one really knew why Arlen kept playing. She wanted to ask, but the mystery seemed more interesting. As long as they didn’t kill each other, it wasn’t really her business.
The only time she was really called upon to act in her official capacity was moments like this – dealing with derelict ships, investigating distress calls and emergency beacons. What with all the illegal mining ships, passenger scows, and homebrew space tubs out there, they did surprisingly brisk business. Marco had brought them together to make some money and enjoy the wide-open, and that’s what they did.
This ship, however, was a whole other story.
She didn’t have the leverage to pull the axe out of the comm console, so she just left it there. “Marco, are you seeing?”
“I’m seeing,” he said. “Ken’s here too. Ken?”
A moment’s pause, and then Ken’s familiar reedy tones. “Hey Mara,” he said. “What’ve you gone and done now?”
“Not in the mood, Ken. This place is creeping me out.” She brought herself closer to the console and the axe. “What do you make of this? And tell me quick – there’s a dead guy floating behind me, and if the fics are any indication he should be grabbing my ankle any moment now.”
Ken chuckled into the mic. “C’mon, Mara. Space zombies almost never happen. Now let’s see…”
There was a brief silence. What she’d told Ken was no lie – she could feel the dead man behind her. He was floating, he was naked, and he was covered in blood. She wanted to turn around, to look at him and make sure he was still there, still unmoving. But she had to keep the helmet-cam centered on the console. She wondered where he could grab her – leg? Shoulder? And when she spun around to scream, what would she see? The bloody maw of a mouth, ravaged by some terrible exovirus? The dead black eyes of a predator that would devour her whole? Something utterly unfathomable and alien that entranced her while it unmade her? Every moment that she stared at that stupid console with that stupid axe was a moment that he could take to reach over from where he was -
“Looks like the axe missed the best parts,” Ken said, and Mara jumped. She wasn’t sure if she made noise in that tiny white space of terror, but if she did, Ken didn’t mention it. “Say again?” she said.
Ken cleared his throat. “That console looks like government standard, and the axe pretty much just went through the monitor and the speaker. The actual processing equipment is about two feet down in the cabinet, so it should probably be fine.”
“So… it’s nothing?” Mara asked.
“Well, it’s an axe where an axe shouldn’t be,” Ken said, and she could hear his smirk. “I’d say that’s something.”
“Fine,” Mara said. “We’ll add that to the mystery board. I’m gonna check out the dead man.”
She wasn’t sure if it would be better to turn around with her eyes open and have that bloody monster lurch into her field of vision – or worse, to turn and see that it had disappeared – or to close her eyes and find out that way. But when she turned around, and let out the breath she’d been holding, the dead man was still there. Still floating. Still, as far as she could tell, dead.
“Wow,” Ken said. “That’s a mess.”
“You didn’t see the rest of it,” she said. “I’m going to take a closer look.” A light tap on the floor and she drifted upwards and forward towards the dead man. When she got close, she touched the low ceiling of the bridge and stopped herself.
There was no sign of injury on him, but lots of blood. “I’m gonna guess that he did it,” she said.
“Good guess.” Marco was back online.
She looked him over, head to toe. There was a tattoo on his shoulder – an eagle with a dagger in its mouth – and she made sure to get a good picture of it. Around his wrist was a thin blue band, from which dangled a small memory chip in a plastic case. She reached out, bringing her gloved fingers within inches of him.
Did his hand twitch?
She took his wrist gently, and it moved as she moved it. A thin utility blade popped out of the other glove’s thumb-tip and she sliced through the plastic band with ease. The chip floated free. She snatched it out of the air. “This might tell us something,” she said.
“Bring it aboard,” Marco said. “Ken can take a look and make sure there’s nothing malicious on it.”
“Good idea,” Mara said. “I’m still waiting for the horror movie to start, and a booby-trapped chip would be a good way to start it.” She pushed away towards the other door leading off the bridge. The schematic map said that it should be the captain’s office.
It was small and narrow, but neat. There were glass-fronted cabinets with small knickknacks in them, all of which were floating in disarray. The desk was bolted to the floor. Inside one of the drawers was the ship’s commission papers and a printed-out crew manifest. “Got it,” she said. She thumbed through the commission papers. “The ship is the Osiris, captained by Carter Artega. You know him, Marco?”
“Never heard of him,” Marco said. “But space is big. I’m sure we can find something.”
The manifest listed only twenty-five passengers and crew, which was something of a relief. It was still a bloodbath, but not quite the bloodbath it could have been. And there was cargo in the hold. Food and water, of course. Passengers’ personal goods, crates of replacement machine parts, computer consoles, some clothing… And four crates of “miscellaneous.”
“Huh,” she said.
“You know,” Marco said, “it’s never good when you say that.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “There’s some mystery cargo in the hold. I want to take a look.”
“Umm…” That got her attention. Marco wasn’t a man known for indecision. “Come on in first,” he said. “I want a look at whatever was on that chip. If there’s a message from the captain that says, ‘For the love of god, don’t look in those crates,’ I’d really like to see it first.”
Mara shrugged. “You’re the boss,” she said. And it did make sense. Clearly something horrible had happened, and while there was no guarantee those crates of miscellaneous had anything good, there was also no guarantee they were dangerous. Besides, the Osiris wasn’t going anywhere. “On my way,” Mara said. She’d have to go through those blood-soaked corridors again. Maybe if she went faster, it would’t be so bad.
It wasn’t, though she nearly broke her arm trying to go too fast in zero-g. When she got back on the ship, back in the familiar embrace of artificial gravity, Arlen was at the airlock to receive her. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked, taking parts of the spacesuit as she shed them. “Ken and Marco are gossiping like girls up there and won’t let us know what’s going on.”
“Like girls?” Mara said, arching an eyebrow. “Better not let Leane hear you say that.”
Arlen smirked. “Like you two have anything to gossip about.”
She took the chip from the pocket of her glove and handed the glove to Arlen, who turned it over in his hands. “What’s all this brown dust?” he asked. “Something rusting in there?”
“Something like that,” she said. “Excuse me.” She shouldered past him and pulled herself up the ladder to the bridge deck The crew area of the ship was small, with the much larger part being given over to cargo and storage. Anything they could haul away from a salvage claim was theirs to profit from, and if Mara knew him as well as she thought she did, Marco already had his claim registered. He was right – the Osiris was theirs, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
When she reached the bridge, Marco and Ken were waiting for her. The two men could have looked more different, but they’d have to try. Marco’s deep olive complexion and short black hair contrasted with Ken’s paleness in hair and skin. Marco was whip-thin, and if she hadn’t seen him eat she would have sworn he was starving. Ken looked like he’d been a boxer before he got deep into computers and spacefaring technology. They sat easily next to each other, as if they were each a part of some greater person that hadn’t shown up yet.
“Welcome back, Mara,” Marco said. Ken nodded at her by way of greeting.
Mara dropped into the copilot’s chair and held the chip out to Ken. “Here you are,” she said, draping a leg over the armrest. “Do your magic.”
Ken looked at it carefully, then reached behind him for his ever-present black bag. No one knew what he really had in there – he carried it with him at all times, and never let anyone look inside. The most anyone could figure was that it was full of black-market tech that he thought they would disapprove of. No one knew why.
He pulled out a small computer and a card reader. Once everything was attached, he slid the chip into the reader and began tapping keys. His face had that blank look that he got when he was totally absorbed in something, and he didn’t blink for what seemed like way too long.
A few moments later, he looked up, from Marco to Mara and back again. “I think we’re in trouble,” he said.
To Be Continued! (Seriously? Really? Okay…)
Mara hated how her breathing sounded inside the spacesuit. Her helmet amplified everything – the slow draw of the inhale, with that ever-so-faint squeak at the end. A leftover from the asthma she’d had as a child. The exhale that whooshed out and echoed in her ears, a hollow, close sound that made her feel like she’d been buried alive. It would have been worse if the visor had fogged up, but the thermal plastic kept that from happening. A small blessing. With her own hollow breath in her ears, she turned on her helmet camera and keyed in the override for the airlock.
The interior of the derelict ship wasn’t what she’d expected. Darkness, dust, broken things – that was what every fiction she’d seen since childhood had prepared her for. It was a well-worn plot, after all: distress call, motionless ship, no answer. Followed by a throwaway character going in to explore and being devoured by something the filmmakers could barely afford to pay for.
Of course, no one had ever run into a horrible, carnivorous Monster from Beyond the Stars before, so Mara assured herself that she was perfectly safe. Right on the heels of that thought was the quiet whisper in the back of her mind that said, “But there’s always a first time.”
She wasn’t sure what bothered her more, that she might get eaten alive or that she might be a throwaway character. Neither was very appealing to think about.
The helmet radio crackled in her ear. “Mara, we’re seeing the airlock open. How does everything look?”
She gave herself a light push off the wall and drifted through the hatch. “All looks good, Marco,” she said. “The lights are on.” She checked the readout on her helmet display. “Atmosphere seems intact.” She reached out to the wall and let the ridged fingertips of her gloves drag her to a halt. “Gravity’s off, but otherwise…”
Otherwise it looked like someone should come around the corner any minute and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. “Marco, what’s the stats on this ship?”
“Hold,” he said. A few loud breaths later, he was back. “Huh,” he said. “Looks like a Hermes-class, small diplomatic vessel. Uploading schematics now.” An orange icon blinked into life on her helmet screen, in the lower left. Mara held her gaze on it, and a detailed 3-D map of the ship blossomed before her eyes.
“Did the S.O.S. say anything about it being a diplomatic mission?” she asked.
“Not a thing,” Marco said. “And you’d think that might be the kind of information that’d be useful. But it was just a distress call, and nothing else. Automated, sent out to Any and All.”
“Nope. If I can get the ship’s ID code, Ken might able to dig something up. He said he did a database backup at our last station visit. Try the bridge, see what you can find.”
“Gotcha.” She glanced around the schematic until she found the bridge – three decks up and at the farthest point from where she was now. “Marco. Grab my helmet feed. Tell me if I’m missing anything.”
“Already done,” he said. “Off with you.” The persistent hiss of the open channel clicked off.
There was a lift about ten meters down the corridor. She thought about it, and then called up the schematics again to look for an access vent. Someplace where she would be slightly less trapped. She pulled a vent cover off and stuck her head inside. It would be close, but she could fit.
The trip along the vent was short and uneventful. She braced her back against the wall and pushed with her feet, popping the vent cover off and sending it bouncing off the opposite wall. When she looked out into the corridor, the first thing she did was curse. Loudly and well.
“Mara?” Marco’s voice cut through the mix of rage and fear that she found herself overwhelmed by. “Mara, is everything okay?”
Everything was most certainly not okay. The walls were covered with old, dried blood. There were splashes on the floor and ceiling alike, bloody handprints, and long, smeared drag marks. It was all a dark, iron brown, and there were tiny flecks of dried blood floating in the air like motes of dust in an abandoned house.
“Holy shit,” Marco said.
Mara swallowed hard. “My thoughts exactly.”
“What do you think happened?”
Mara was pretty sure she knew what happened. She figured Marco knew too, but the question still had to be asked. “Looks like we’re gonna have to find out,” she said. The blood trail led off to her right, which the schematics said was in the direction of the bridge. “I’ll follow this,” she said. She pulled herself out of the access vent and started floating along the corridor, following the blood.
There was more blood as she went along, and the bloody dust in the air seemed to be getting thicker. When she turned the first corner, it just got worse.
There was a head resting where the floor and wall met, and it was facing away from her. It was a small blessing, but the rest of the corridor looked like a slaughterhouse. The blood was now mixed with what was unmistakably flesh, and it caked the walls where it wasn’t floating through the air. “Marco,” she said. “How many people does a Hermes usually carry?”
There as a pause. When he spoke, Marco’s voice was quiet and hoarse. “Around fifty,” he said. “Maybe more, depending on the mission.”
“Jesus,” she said.
She checked the map. The bridge was just up the corridor, but she really, really didn’t want to find it. Whoever – and she couldn’t stop amending that to Whatever – had either come from or gone to the bridge. In a ship this size, there were plenty of places to hide, but everything pointed to Mara walking into a horror house.
The bridge door was covered with bloody handprints. Mara took a deep breath and thought about how lucky she was that she couldn’t smell anything. Her stomach lurched anyway, and she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. The suit had ways of handling puke in the helmet, but it was still horrible, and she’d never live it down.
The door opened at her approach.
Except for the floating naked corpse in the middle of the bridge, it all looked perfectly normal. the man was thin and very clearly dead. His throat had been cut, and he was hovering in a thick cloud of dried blood. The main screen was dark, as we’re most of the other consoles on the bridge. Mara moved from point to point, trying to get an idea of who this ship was.
There was an axe buried in the communications console.
To Be Continued… (I keep using that phrase… I do not think it means what I think it means…)
A man of inhuman proportions stepped around the corner into the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, stopped at the vegetables, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Waiting.
Even sitting down, he was tall, taller than most of the men and women who had come to do their shopping. His leather greatcoat fanned out behind him on the floor, and he creaked and jingled when he moved, as though there were still more layers of metal and leather underneath. His face looked like it had been carved from volcanic rock, with a single livid scar that slashed across his nose from one cheek to the other. He had long, silver hair that was bound with a red leather cord, and looked like someone who had stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel.
The other Sunday shoppers didn’t seem to notice him at all. One middle-aged woman with two kids in a shopping cart stopped next to him, reached past his face, and took out a package of peas. Her littlest started at the man, and made to say something, but the child was soon distracted by its older brother, who smacked it with a package of snack cakes.
The man sat there, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours as the shoppers went by. They guided their carts around him, never really noticing that he was there. Perhaps some of them wondered why it was they should suddenly want to veer left and look at the frozen pizzas. Some of the more sensitive of them may have noticed the faintest smell of woodsmoke curl up into the deep recesses of their brain, but they would have dismissed it as soon as they walked by. Only a few very young children seemed to see him, and none of their parents were interested in following up on the strange fantasies of their toddlers.
The day wore on. More people came in to shop for dinner or to get their groceries for the week. As the night came in, the tide of shoppers slowed, and by midnight the store was populated mostly by the skeleton crew of employees and college students looking to meet their immediate snack and soda needs. The supermarket was quiet, except for the constant hum of compressors and the quiet melodies of the overhead music.
At about one in the morning, the man opened his eyes. They were a deep, terra-cotta red set in black, and they seemed to be following the movements of something outside his own vision. A moment later, a girl walked around the corner. She looked like she had pulled her outfit together from the first items she’d laid hands on in a thrift shop, with oversized combat boots on her feet and a fez on her head. She stopped in front of the man on the floor and flashed a grin that was brilliant under the fluorescents. “Been here long?” she said. She planted her feet and crossed her arms, and somehow managed to look more solid than the giant in front of her.
The man leveled his gaze at her. “All day,” he said. “Where have you been?”
She shrugged and twirled a finger. “You know. Out. About. Doing things and stuff and things.”
He unfolded himself from where he’d been sitting and sighed as he stood. “I should have set the bargain for a dusk limit instead of dawn.” He looked down at her. “I was told that you were more reliable.”
That grin again. “You were told wrong, big man.”
The man sighed, and it was a rumble in his chest. “Shall we begin?” he asked.
“Yup. Let’s get this over with.”
The man reached into a pocket of the greatcoat and pulled out a small cloth bag. He held it up to his lips and whispered to it, words too quick and too soft for anyone to hear. Then he gestured to the girl, for her to move closer. She did. “In this place,” the man said, “this sanctuary, we have come here to make a bargain. In honesty and good faith.” He poured red sand out of the bag, making a half-circle around them. “Siorad of the Western Hills does so swear.” He took the bag in both hands and presented it to the girl with all the solemnity of ancient ritual.
She swiped it from his hands, rolling her eyes. “We’re here to make a deal,” she said. “Nobody tries anything, nobody gets hurt.” She poured the rest of the sand from the bag, but now it was blue. When she completed the circle, she stood up straight. “I’m Liryl of the Underground, and I approve this message.” She tossed the bag to Siorad, who caught it with a look of disapproval. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they glowed the dull orange of old coals. He spoke a word, and the supermarket around him seemed to ripple and change. For a moment, it wasn’t a supermarket at all. It was a great meeting-hall, ancient and dangerous. A place where even blood enemies could meet and parley without fear of betrayal. It was the place it had always been, even when it had changed beyond all recognition.
The strange waves subsided, and Siorad looked a little more relaxed. Liryl, on the other hand, was shuffling her feet and never letting her gaze settle. She kept away from the sand circle.
“Very well,” Siorad rumbled. “Let’s begin.”
To Be Continued… at some point.
…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
I needed a new hobby. I tried music, but I couldn’t sing worth a damn, and the noises I made on the guitar were just freaking everybody out. I tried to study some languages, and that was kind of cool up until I realized that I didn’t know anyone else who spoke Arabic or Japanese or Russian. I mean, it’s all well and good to be able to rattle off a nice お手洗いはどこですか? whenever you want, but your friends are just gonna look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
Woodworking sent me to the hospital, and every time I tried to cook something, I would end up with a result that was almost, but not completely, unlike whatever it was the cookbook claimed I was supposed to get. The goldfish died, oil paints gave me a headache, I lost count every time I tried to knit, and the sunburn I got when I tried gardening doesn’t bear talking about.
So. Magick. Yes – with a k.
When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm who said he could do it. Wore black a lot, liked candles, had this big, ostentatious pentagram pendant he liked to wear. He’d stalk around the campus like some kind of hunting crow, looking for something that only he cared about. He’d perch on the back of chairs, with his fingers steepled, talking about the “occult forces that govern the world” as if he knew half of what he was talking about. When you called him on his bullshit, he’d just glare at you until you went away. Then he’d go back to shuffling his tarot cards or playing with the cheap crystal pendulum he’d bought at the rock shop.
I never believed him, of course. He said he could talk to spirits with this homemade Ouija board he kept in his closet, but when I said I wanted to try it he told me that I was surrounded by “disruptive energies” and that he couldn’t risk my getting involved.
Last I heard he was working in some secondhand bookshop in Corsair. Grapevine has it that he drives a minivan.
Still and all, he really seemed to be into it, and there were enough weird stories around the guy that eventually I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least look into it. At the very least, it would keep me busy, which was all I really needed from a hobby. It’s not like my job requires a whole lot of creative thinking, anyway. The mailroom isn’t the kind of place that cultivates the creative types.
I got on the internet and looked around for a while on what magick was and how it worked. Turns out that half the places I looked at contradicted the other half, and the ones that didn’t seem outright crazy just had that kind of bland, new-age tofu-ness that made me wonder if it was worth getting into at all. Experiencing a oneness with the earth is all well and good, but I was hoping for something a little more concrete. Maybe a new job, a girlfriend or something. Better luck all around, if I could swing it.
I ended up ordering a “Beginniner’s Magician Kit,” which I carefully made sure did not include a rubber thumb and a fake wand. This one had a few candles of Approved Occult Colors – black, white, and red – some cords, a few sticks of incense, and a little bag of rock salt. With it came a nice, concise booklet explaining the basics of magick and how to make the Occult Forces that Govern the World do your bidding.
It seemed a little silly, really. The booklet said I should have a ceremonial robe, but never really explained why. I wasn’t about to sew one, and they don’t do a lot of ceremonial robes at Wal-Mart, so I just tied on my flannel bathrobe and hoped for the best. It said I needed a ceremonial knife – by old bread knife would have to do – and an altar, which was the top of a rolling file cabinet that I kept my tax stuff in.
The hard part was keeping a straight face, honestly.
I lit the candles, keeping the black one on the left, the white one on the right, just like the booklet said. I wrote down my wish on a piece of paper and tied it with a red thread. That went on the altar, too. The booklet said I needed to light the red candle at the far end of the altar and then do the ceremony every day, moving it a little closer to my tied-up wish every day. I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of fortitude, so I just started with the candle in the middle and hoped for the best.
A few taps of the bread knife against the altar, a cone of incense, and I started with the Words. They were loosely based on what was in the booklet, which stressed that the words themselves were less important than the intention behind them. Good thing, too, because of all the things I don’t have much talent with, poetry ranks pretty high.
O night above and day below,
Where the winds and breezes blow,
Here is what you need to know:
My boss, Frank Spry, has got to go!
Every day I live in fear
That Frank is always coming near.
So kick that guy out on his ear
And I will buy you all a beer!
I held the knife in both hands and closed my eyes, visualizing what I wanted. I saw my boss leaving the building, cardboard box in his hands and security at his side. I saw him walk to the bus stop and look back at the office building. His face is wistful and full of regret, knowing that he has ruined the one good thing in his life. As the bus approaches, he wipes a single tear from his eye and nods, as though he has come to an important decision. While I never take the fantasy quite this far, I’m pretty sure he’s going to hang himself.
When I opened my eyes, I leaned over and blew out the red candle. For a moment, I thought it might actually work. I felt a kind of energy pass out of me, or through me, and exit with my breath. In fact, I could almost see it – a silvery puff of air that wrapped itself around the flame and then flew off to take my ill wishes to Frank, wherever he was.
But it was only a moment, really. I know better than most what buyer’s remorse feels like, and I was feeling it already. If you looked at the path my life had taken, you would see it littered with the rubble of a hundred abandoned lifetime passions, and I could already feel that magick was going to join them pretty quickly.
I stared at the smoke rising from the wick and then shrugged. “Oh well,” I said. I blew out the other two candles and thought about cleaning up the altar. It could wait. There was leftover pizza in the fridge, and at least that would make me feel better.
When I turned around, I nearly dropped the knife on my foot. There was a woman sitting on my sofa, and she was like no woman I’d ever seen before. She looked like some kind of international super-spy, with an expensive black suit and reflective sunglasses. Her long, blue-black hair was done up in a complicated braid that she’d pulled over her shoulder and she wore black leather gloves. Her skin seemed to shine from within, and she made all those women in magazines look like trolls. I tried to speak, but nothing came out but incoherent noise.
“I prefer Uware,” she said.
It took me a moment to come up with the cogent, suave reply of: “Buh?”
She smiled, and my heart broke. “Uware,” she said again. “It’s a Japanese beer, and it’s probably the best thing mankind has ever made.” She stood up in a smooth, liquid motion and was about a head taller than I was. “Russell Deloria?” she said, holding out a hand.
I looked at her hand for a moment, and then at her. It took another long, humiliating moment before I could say, “Yes.” And I swear, my voice cracked. Because it hates me.
“Good,” she said. “My name is Iaxiel, and I’m here to fix your little boss problem.”
Malcolm carefully unwrapped the long, thin box he had been given by the JobFair organizers when he signed in at the crack of dawn. There were half a hundred people assembled in the cold parking lot outside a mall that had gone bust a few years ago, and everyone had one of these boxes. They varied in size and shape, but they all had the distinctive red logo of the National JobFair printed all over them.
He felt a certain twinge of trepidation as he opened the box – they said that the items would be totally random, and that their usefulness would often depend on the applicant’s imagination and creativity. That worried Malcolm a little bit. He was what his high school guidance counselor had called “a straight-line thinker.” Give him a task to do, and he’d do it. Let him know what steps were required and what the expected outcome was, and you would get exactly what you wanted from him, with no complaints or problems. The job was there, and Malcolm got it done – get the numbers, put them in order and make them make sense. There was no glamour to it, but it worked.
Then came all the new management gurus, these kids with their MBA degrees who would waltz into a company, turn it upside down and then leave with giant checks in their pockets with no thought as to the damage they’d done. Suddenly, after more than a decade of just coming to work and doing his job – and doing it well – Malcolm was expected to excel, to think outside the box and to innovate. There were meetings and retreats and countless hours of managers writing things on giant pads of paper and making Malcolm and his co-workers do role-plays and brainstorming sessions.
All Malcolm wanted to do was his job. In the end, they wouldn’t let him do it. Along with a bunch of other “old dogs,” he was given what they called “mandatory early retirement.” A pat on the back and a kick in the ass and a check every month that was more of an insult than a pension. Not even a gold watch and a chance to get drunk and rip the boss a new one in public.
He’d been sent home to the wife he’d promised to take care of and the kids he hoped to put through college. He explained to them what had happened, and they were all understanding and supportive and it ate away at him inside. He wanted them to be upset, to tell him that he needed to be stronger. Not to pray or to commiserate or to understand.
He was supposed to support them, not the other way around. And he’d failed.
Now he needed work, but it looked like the work didn’t need him. Jobs were thin on the ground, and getting thinner. The unemployment rate was grinding higher and higher while politicians bickered and all the rich businesses moved themselves where the labor laws were less existent. No matter how often the talking heads on TV said that brighter days were around the corner, there were more and more people hunting for fewer and fewer jobs. Of the companies that remained, nobody wanted to waste time and resources retraining a man in his early fifties to sell computers or flip burgers unless they knew that he really wanted the job.
Thus, the contest. They still called it a Job Fair, out of a sense of tradition, but everyone knew what it was, and “fair” had nothing to do with it.
The box held an aluminum baseball bat, shiny and new. It was nestled in bright white styrofoam peanuts and glinted in the half-light of the morning. He took it out of the box and hefted it. It had been a long time since he’d held a bat – probably not since his little league games as a kid. He glanced around, aware that people were staring at him. One guy had a length of pipe. Another had a frying pan. One guy by the coffee truck was cradling what looked like an old Army service pistol. Everyone had something, and not all of them seemed happy with what they’d gotten.
The big screen that had been mounted above the doors flickered to life, and the familiar face of the CEO of JobFair, Stephan Stokely, grinned out at all of them. He clearly had no problem covering his dental work.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to the fifth annual regional Job Fair!” He paused, grinning madly, as though he were waiting for applause. There was none. The guy with the gun shot off a round at the screen, but the high-strength plastic just absorbed the impact and the bullet fell to the ground. Stupid, Malcolm thought. One less bullet to use inside. He cringed inwardly at the thought, and wondered if his wife would let him home even if he passed. She hated the whole thing, wouldn’t even watch it on TV like everyone else.
“In a moment,” Stokely boomed, “the doors will open and the job fair will begin!” His face was replaced with a map of the mall. It was a standard model of the twentieth century: two anchor stores, three floors, with a food court and hundreds of shops that had been shuttered long ago. “All you have to do is make it from here -” A bright blue dot appeared on the screen, right at the doors of Finamore’s, where they were all watching him. “To here!” A bright red dot appeared at the other end of the mall, at the far end of the Denton Department Store.
“Now it sure looks easy, but we’ve made it quite the challenge!” Little cartoon exclamation points popped up and danced about the map. “You all have your own personal tools to help you get past some of the obstacles we’ve put in, and we hope to see some vigorous competition!” Malcolm tried not to look at anyone else, and was pretty sure they were trying the same thing. Nonetheless, he could see them staring at the weapons they’d been given, trying to imagine how they would use them.
He felt sick as he realized what he was about to do, and wondered if anyone else felt the same way.
“You have one hour,” Stokely said. Now there was a giant stopwatch on the screen. “Anyone who makes it to the end of the course before the whistle blows will have a fantastic opportunity ahead of them!”
The JobFair employees moved to the doors. These men were large and dangerous-looking, carrying what looked like cattle prods and wearing bright red armor emblazoned with the JobFair logo. Each man took hold of a door handle, and the crowd started to move in. One of the JobFair guards brandished his prod, and everyone moved back a step. The man grinned, and it was nasty.
“Ready?” Stokely’s voice sounded far too excited.
“Set?” Malcolm dropped the box on the ground and took a solid grip on the bat. He was at the back of the crowd, and could feel the energy that was building up around everyone. There’d probably be a few losses right at the start just from trampling.
The crowd surged forward, and the collective howl that came out of that group was horrifying. There were yells and screams and the quick popping of gunfire, and Malcolm watched as the crowd poured into the mall like ants on a raid. He followed, trying to look everywhere at once while at the same time trying to be as inconspicuous as he could. He hopped over a few people on the ground who were moaning and crying, and a few more who weren’t moving at all. They guy who’d had the gun was bleeding from the head and the gun was lying on the asphalt. Malcolm picked it up gingerly and then dropped it again. What did he know about guns? Probably shoot himself in the foot…
There were more screams and shots coming from inside, and Malcolm paused at the doorway. One of the guards lifted his prod, and Malcolm saw himself reflected in the man’s visor: thin and old and scared, and holding a bat that he didn’t want to use. The guard’s grin was positively malicious. “In or out, man,” he said. He gestured with the prod and started to close the doors.
Malcolm jumped through them, into the fluorescent half-light of the mall. He couldn’t see anyone else, but he could still hear them.
The doors closed behind him.
He adjusted his grip on the bat and took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “Get to the other side.” He swallowed hard. “Let’s go.”
Adam refilled his date’s wine and took a moment to notice how lovely she looked in the low lighting of the restaurant. She had curves to her, which he loved, and skin that seemed to glow in candlelight. Her eyes were as dark as her long, curling hair, and she always seemed to be waiting for the punchline to a joke that he didn’t know.
That wasn’t going to stop him from trying to tell them, though.
“Hope you like the wine,” he said.
“It’s lovely.” Carlana tapped her glass against his again before she took a sip.
“Glad to hear it,” he said. “But next time I should probably remember the antidote.”
Carlana grinned around the rim of the glass. “Ah.” She put it down and leaned forward. “But what you do not know is that I have spent years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”
Adam blinked and said, “Oh my god. Marry me.”
Their laughter drew attention from the other tables, but they didn’t notice. They were having too much fun. His brother had set them up together after Adam had gone through a long spell of being single. He hadn’t minded, really. Being single had its perks. The free schedule, the lack of a need to clean all the time or close the door when he peed. But after a while the quiet and the solitude had gotten to him, so he’d asked Marv if he knew anyone. The result was what was turning out to be the best first date he’d ever had.
Adam ignored the voice and went on flirting. “So how is it, working at Qualis? I hear gaming jobs are really tough.”
She shrugged. “No more than any other job, really. There are some tough days, and it can be a little much being The Girl sometimes…” He could hear the capital letters she put on it and could only imagine. He worked at a small bookstore, and was the only guy there. But other than being the one person who seemed to be able to get heavy things off of high shelves, he hadn’t really noticed any kind of strangeness to it. He knew some gamers, though, and he could easily picture how they’d devolve around a gorgeous woman like this.
It turned out she’d worked on one of his favorite games, Stonecracker Kingdom, and they spent some time talking about the puzzles that were the heart of the game. “Are you sure you can’t tell me how to get the key out of the cage?” he asked.
She just shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “Gotta figure it out.”
“Or look it up online.”
She put her glass down. “Oh, you’re not one of those, are you?” He almost thought she was serious for a moment. “Because if you are, then I think we’re done here.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “I assure you. I figure them all out on my own, bleeding from the eyes or no.”
“Good to hear,” she said. “Bleeding from the eyes is actually a beta feature.”
C’mon, man, kiss her!
He coughed slightly. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” he asked. “Call of nature and all that.”
She raised her glass and said, “Be careful in there.” He was grinning all the way to the toilets, but the grin dropped once he got into the stall and locked the door.
There was a small blue panda bear hovering about a foot above his head. He reached up and grabbed it by the neck, dragging it down in front of his face. “Shut up!” he whispered. “I am trying to have a date!”
The bear looked completely unimpressed. “Yeah,” it said. “I know that. And all I’m trying to do is my job.”
“I don’t need you to do your job,” Adam said. “I need you to leave me alone!”
“You need to get into that girl’s pants before the week is out, kid.”
Adam wanted to scream. “That’s the kind of advice I really don’t need right now!” He let the bear go, and it hovered just out of arm’s reach. “You do that, and there’s pressure on me. There’s pressure on me, and I start to get nervous and nobody’s getting anything!” He had to drop his voice back down to a hoarse whisper. “Got it?”
The bear shrugged and did a slow somersault in mid-air. “Suit yourself,” it said. “But she wants you to kiss her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Kid, I’m your spirit guide. I know everything you need to know, and I’m telling you – she’s ready to go.” The panda spun to face him and made little thrusting jabs with its hips. “You play it right and you can leave that porno folder closed for once.”
“Oh, for the love of god…”
Adam leaned his head against the tiles and counted his breaths. He’d had the panda for a few months now, and the fun of it was starting to wear thin. He had no idea where it came from, or why it chose him, but from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep – and as far as he knew, all night – this little blue panda was there. Telling him what he should do in all kinds of situations. Talking to his boss, buying furniture, walking around the city. The bear didn’t always talk – most of the time it just hung out, doing whatever it was spirit guides did when they weren’t guiding. When it did talk, though, it was pretty insistent on getting its way.
“Look,” he said after a few minutes. “You have to let me make my own decisions, okay?”
The bear shrugged. “Well, yeah. Fine. But it’s my job to offer advice, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” It tapped its wrist. “She’s probably wondering where you are, by the way. Every minute you spend arguing with me is a five percent decrease in your chances of doing the nasty anytime soon.”
“See? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about!” Adam’s words were coming out in a hoarse rush. “I’m gonna go out there, and have a nice time with a lovely girl, and if anything happens, then it happens and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t and I don’t need you or anyone else nagging me about it. Okay?” He jabbed the flush button for the toilet. “Now shut. The hell. Up!”
Adam yanked open the stall door. There was an older gentleman at the mirror, combing his hair and watching Adam from the corner of his eyes.
“Trouble, young man?” he said.
Adam took a deep breath and forced on a smile. “First date jitters,” he said. “Nothing to it.” He took his hands out of the sink and let the water shut off.
Ten percent and falling.
Adam winced and smiled again. “Gonna be fine.” He yanked a towel from the dispenser. “Juuuust fine.”
My husband and I bought a haunted house.
We got a great deal for it, too. Even in this day and age, people have a thing about buying a house where – allegedly – the dead still walk and unquiet spirits roam free to terrorize the living. A good haunting knocks at least ten percent off the list price. More if it was due to something particularly gruesome.
Our house was the one where Willie Heckle killed fourteen young boys over the course of ten years.
I certainly wouldn’t make light of it. That kind of crime is… well, it’s unthinkable. In this city, his name is pretty much the go-to name for parental horror. Fourteen kids. He buried thirteen of them in the basement floor. The story goes that after the police raided the house, killing Heckle in a shootout, one of the officers found boy number fourteen. It’s said that the cop was so horrified by what he saw that he put a bullet in the kid’s head right before he put one in his own.
So yeah, this house has a history, and our agent tried to steer us away from it good and hard. But let’s face facts here. Hardwood floors aren’t easy to come by, and for all his horror, Heckle kept the place in great condition. Even after all these years, it doesn’t need nearly as much work as some of the other places we looked at.
But here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as a permanent evil stain that resides in a place after the perpetrator is gone. Bloodstains, yes, but those were ripped out by one of the previous owners. But Ari and I were very firm on this when the broker brought it up, when the neighbors came around to welcome us to the neighborhood, when our parents called because they’d found out where we were living: there were no such thing as ghosts, and there was nothing there except the two of us.
We were, of course, wrong. But I’ve always said that’s the hallmark of a true skeptical thinker: when presented with evidence that inescapably, undeniably disproves your position, you have to abandon it and take up another. It just took us a while to figure it out.
The first thing we noticed were the footprints.
Ari mentioned it to me over breakfast one morning, about a week after we moved in. “Savannah, you forgot to put down the bath mat when you took a shower this morning.”
I looked up from my paper and then ran a hand through pillow-tangled hair. “I haven’t taken a shower yet, hon,” I said.
He looked at me and then glanced up, towards where the upstairs bathroom was. “Really?” he asked.
“Ari, if this is what I look like after I shower, then I hate to think what I look like before.” I went back to the paper.
“Huh,” he said. “There were wet footprints all over the bathroom. I thought that maybe you…” He stopped in the middle of his thought and then shrugged. “Probably nothing,” he said.
By the end of the day, I had forgotten about it, and I figured he had as well. But that wasn’t the only weird thing that happened in the house.
It was pretty textbook, really. Doors would close that we had left opened. I’d come downstairs and all the drawers in the kitchen would be sticking out. The TV would turn on in the middle of the night. And we had logical, rational reasons for each and every one of those occurrences. If it wasn’t the house settling or warped wood or a short circuit, it was probably just our own faulty memory leading us down the garden path. To our credit, neither one of us even thought about blaming a ghost.
My mother, on the other hand, had no problem with it.
She was supposed to stay for a week while she visited some friends in the city. She lasted very nearly twenty-four hours. As she threw her things back into a suitcase the morning after she arrived, she said, “I will not stay in this house a moment longer than I have to.” She spun at me and pointed an accusing finger at me. “And neither should you!” Her eyes rolled from one corner of the room to the other. “There’s evil in this house, Savannah. I saw it with my own eyes.”
I sat on the bed. “Really, mom?” I asked. I tried very hard to keep a condescending tone out of my voice, but judging by her narrowed eyes I was pretty sure I failed.
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” she said. “I heard something that sounded like crying. So I got up, and right there -” She pointed to a space next to the bedroom door. “Right there, as clear as I see you, Savannah, I saw a little boy. He was curled up in a ball and crying.” Her eyes started to shine, and that’s when I started to get worried. My mother has always been a paragon of self-restraint, and for her to get emotional like this would take a lot. Ghost or no ghost, she thought she saw something, and it really disturbed her.
“Okay, mom,” I said. “I’ll book a hotel room for you downtown. How’s that sound?”
She went back to the suitcase and snapped it shut. “That sounds fine,” she said. “But I want you and Ari to get out of here. This is not a good place to raise a family, Savannah.”
I very nearly rose to that argument, which was an old one. I wanted to have kids, but I just didn’t think we were in a good enough position to raise any. Ari’s teaching salary was low enough, and I wasn’t making a whole lot as a copy editor for an ad company. We had decided to put off having children until we were sure we could take care of them, and that didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon. No matter what my mother wanted.
I saw her off in a taxi and told Ari when he came home that I was worried for her health.
Pretty soon, the strange became the normal. There were no bleeding walls or portals to hell in the closets. Just little things – a toothbrush out of place one morning, all my clothes off hangars the next. Nothing dangerous, but a lot of minor annoyances that we learned to deal with. And we never, not so much as once, blamed it on ghosts. We were enlightened people, after all.
That made it all the weirder when we saw the ghost for the first time.
It was during Thursday night TV. Ari and I were on the sofa, as usual. He was grading essays, I was watching a police drama when the TV snapped off, as did the lights. “Aw, hell,” he said. He handed me the essays, got up, and headed to the kitchen. He came back a few moments later with a couple of flashlights and his cell phone. “It’s always something,” he said. He called the power company, and they said they’d look into it, but they hadn’t gotten any other reports of a power outage. Indeed, when I looked outside, all the other houses seemed fine.
When I turned around, there was a boy standing behind behind the sofa, watching Ari, and there was no way I could describe this boy other than to say that he was a ghost.
He was naked and white and glowing. Dark hair nearly covered eyes that looked blankly out of a face that seemed to be observing Ari with curiosity as my husband graded essays by flashlight. I hate to say it, because it makes me sound like a character in a bad horror movie – I screamed.
Ari jumped up, dropping the essays on the floor, and when he saw me and looked where I was looking, he screamed too. We stood there, holding each other, yelling over and over again wordless syllables of horror and shock. This boy – this thing - was in our house. What was worse, if he was what we thought he was, then he was proof that all we thought we knew was a lie.
That’s not a problem that you can really get over without some screaming.
When we took a breath, the ghost looked up at us, crossed his arms and said, “Are you done?”
No. We weren’t done.
A few minutes later, the ghost was actually looking bored. He leaned up against the sofa, his chin in his hands and his blank eyes on us. We were terrified, unable to move. Nothing we had ever experienced had prepared us for something like this.
“Hey,” he said, and gave us a wave. Ari and I both flinched.
The boy sighed, and walked through the sofa, which made me feel sick to my stomach just to watched. Then, casually, he sat down. It was hard to tell, but he looked about eleven or twelve, but of course was probably much older, if such a concept applied to things like him.
“Look,” he said. “If you’re going to just stand there and freak out, this is going to be a long night. So why don’t you take a seat and we can talk.” He patted the sofa cushion next to him.
I wish I could say that I drew myself up and faced my fear. That I put reason over emotion and vowed to face this thing head-on, whether it was a ghost or something entirely different. I wish I could say that I was brave.
Actually, I ripped myself out of Ari’s arms, bolted upstairs to our bedroom and locked the door.
I leaned against it in the darkness, as if to hold it shut against whatever might come through. I was breathing heavily and might have been crying.
It was only a moment before a new voice said from behind me, “Lady, you really need to pull yourself together.”
The boy sitting on the edge of my bed was like the first one, only a little heavier. He was tapping his foot against the floor and had a look of impatience on his face. He stood up and came towards me, and I backed up against the bedroom door. A few feet away, he stopped, put his hands on his hips and said, “So. You gonna help us, or what?”
And that’s where I finally passed out.