Copyright 2016 by D.L. Gabriel
Published by Pen’s Delight Publishing
Cover design by Daniela Llanos
All Rights Reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is purely coincidental.
Shakespir Edition, Licence Notes
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To my family
Demons come in different forms. Mine looked like a swarm of bats, beating into my mind like a screeching wave from Hell. As a child, I had nightmares about those bats, night after night, forcing their way into my head. I always woke up screaming.
Those dreams stopped, sometime around my seventh birthday. As I grew older, the memory of my demons faded like shadows dissolving into the morning sunlight.
In my seventeenth year, my parents sent me to RAE Academy to fulfil their goal of having a daughter in the Futures Mission. The RAE (Reclutamiento Agencia Espacial), or Space Agency Recruitment, was the training ground for the AEM (Agencia Espacial Mundial), the World Space Agency. There were no guarantees, but getting into the Academy was a huge first step.
“You’ll love it, Abby!” my mother said, fluffing my hair. I patted at it briefly, groaning when it popped back into place. Even my hair listened to mom. The usual furrow between her brows did nothing to dim the bright-eyed look she gave me. Despite my apprehension about being sent away part of me wanted to smile. My mom was proud of me.
“I dunno…” I said, picking at my elbow. It took all my effort not to rip off the scab that had formed over the spots where previous anxiety had left a mark.
“Stop that,” said mom, swatting my hand away from its comfort spot. I sighed and let my hand drop as tension washed over me.
The Argentine sun glistened on the damp concrete path as I took my first step into uncertainty. The waiting taxi hovered, daring me to turn away, to flee to the safety of my childhood dwelling. The door hissed its mockery as it eased shut, and I coughed to clear the heaviness that settled on my chest.
“El Reclu-” I started.
“Reclutamiento, si,” interrupted the driver, smiling at me in the mirror.
I turned away, forcing a half smile. I had eleven hours of this stranger’s company to look forward to.
My mother’s grin glowed at me through the hover-taxi’s window. She had had one brief cry the night before. The Futures Mission was a permanent goodbye. If I made it, I’d be on a ship going close to the speed of light. By the time we stop, thousands of years would have passed on earth. I’d see the future but my family would be gone. It was prestige at a price.
The academy was my parents’ dream, not mine. My dreams were filled with shadows too dark to decipher.
“You can have some Suenato,” said the driver. “We have a long journey ahead.”
“No!” I snapped.
He raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
“No gracias,” I said. “No sleep aid for me.” Especially the kind that took you places…
The journey was a blur. Fields of maize and wheat lined the road, stretches of green serenity contrasting with my internal mayhem.
The hover-car driver barely managed an adios before I grabbed my baggage and raced past the mulling students along the white staircase at the main dormitory’s entrance. Room 612 was all mine, a sanctuary, and I fumbled through the crowded hallways, trying hard to ignore the hopeful, light-hearted blather filling the air.
I collapsed into my bunk and stared at the leaves stirring outside the window, wishing for life to be carefree again. Thirty-six hours had passed since I slept and the tree seemed to taunt me with its peaceful revelry. I closed my eyes and for the first time in years, I dreamed.
I’m standing in a darkened room, surrounded by boxes and old furniture. Everything is blurry, fading to a mute brown when I look at it. Except for one thing.
An armoire sits at the far end of the room, and despite the fifteen feet distance, I can see my reflection clearly. Muslin curtains rustle to my right, the only movement in the room. It feels like twilight, and I worry that the day has passed without my knowledge.
Frozen, I stare at my reflection. I am wearing a white linen gown, something out of history. My hair is loose and flowing, almost to my waist. This feels familiar and I walk towards the armoire. The curtains cease their whispering motions as my bare feet pad across the wooden floor.
The armoire retreats as I walk towards it, matching movements with my every step.
“Stop,” a voice whispers.
I jump and try to turn towards the murmur. My head feels stiff and remains fixed on the armoire. I suddenly notice the erratic thumping of my heart filling the room.
I’ve been here before.
“No!” I try to scream, but the sound sticks in my throat.
My reflection in the armoire mirror ripples and disappears. Then the armoire shatters into a million bats. My silent scream is overpowered by the flapping of their dark wings as they seek me out. I turn to run but something tightens around my ankles.
The roar of the bats grows louder and louder. I can do nothing but watch as they descend upon me, feeding my terror, my helplessness.
The demons are back.
“I’ll protect you,” whispers the voice. This time, I can see him. A man standing next to me, a towering figure. He smiles and my terror wavers. The din of the bats fades as the man moves to shield me from the descending blackness. He turns his back to the bats and their shrieks surround us. Panic surges in me but subsides when I look up into his eyes. They are turquoise, their depths moving like ocean currents. His warm hands on my icy cheeks fill me with calm as the room disappears around us, taking its demons with it.
“You’re safe now,” he says, before he fades into the morning light.
I stared at the ceiling for what felt like an hour before getting out of bed the next day. Enough time for my cold sweat to dry and my thoughts to slow down. My nightmare was back, but with a different ending. I had always thought there was something too real about the bats to be simply a dream. Now, I felt that there was someone real who could keep them away.
“Rubbish,” I muttered, throwing back the covers. Nevertheless, warmth filled me that had never been there. Despite the ridiculousness of it all, I held onto that warmth as I prepared for my first day of training.
For a week, I endured what would normally be considered torture. On day one, I spent two hours underwater in a suit. No potty breaks, either. By day three, it was five hours straight. In between that time, I was subjected to test after test, challenge after challenge. The mind trials were the most painful, like migraines being planted into my brain day after day. I never remembered any of it, besides the throbbing pain.
Despite this, the worst part of it all was the loneliness. Despite being in groups of ten or more, no one said a word to anyone else. We were, at best, competitors. More accurately, we were enemies. My first night’s dream saviour had not reappeared, nor had my nightmare. For the latter, I was grateful. By day seven, exhaustion and despair had overwhelmed me and I fell into bed, sobbing. It wasn’t long before I fell asleep.
Leaves are rustling around me. Ahead of me, a forest stretches into a shroud of fog and darkened bark. My feet crunch twigs and dead leaves as I move through the tangle of trees. I see a clearing and light in the distance.
A farmhouse, I think.
Then I hear it. The distant beating of wings. At first, the sound seems to come from miles away. A few wings. I turn to face the pale moon and freeze as a cloud passes across it. A cloud moving like a thousand thrashing wings on a mission.
This time, the terror pushes me as I turn and run through the trees, stumbling to find a path and shelter. The beating wings grow closer and a swirl of panic surrounds me, tightening its grip until I can barely breathe.
“Run, Abby,” says a voice next to me.
Immediately, I hear footsteps. I turn and a man is running alongside me. He smiles briefly and races ahead, clearing a path to the light in the clearing. I don’t have to turn around to know what’s after me.
“This way,” the man says, as we approach the cabin. He waves his hand and a door opens just in time for us to enter. I stumble to a halt as the door shuts behind us. There are no windows, but I hear the thump, thump, thumping of the creatures as they hit the cabin walls. In here, I am safe.
A small fireplace to one side gives the cabin a warm wooden glow. A couch rests to one side and next to it, an expansive bed. The kitchen area is just right for camping out and I feel a sadness sweep over me as I remember distant childhood summers with my parents. The thumping stops suddenly and I turn to the stranger standing in the middle of the room.
“We don’t have much time,” he says, walking towards me.
“Much time for what?” I say. “Who are you?”
“You have to leave this place.”
“Who are you?” I repeat.
“My name is Laars.”
“They’re coming down the chimney,” he says.
“Who-” I say, before the sound reaches me. Beating wings.
I freeze as Laars wraps his arms around me. His embrace warms me and despite the oncoming horror, I want to stay.
“Wake up, Abby,” he says. “You have to leave right now.”
I woke up in complete darkness. Tossing and turning, I tried to will myself back to sleep. I felt like a fool, wanting to see him again. I was even willing to face the demons again, just so I could have another moment in his presence. To feel his warmth. When I did finally drift to sleep, the sun was already peeking through the blinds.
Two more weeks of torture followed. Getting out of bed became a battle that cemented my original reluctance to be there. Then it got worse…
I had been barely making it to my sessions on time, just keeping me under my group leader’s radar. One morning, I missed my first session, reaching the tank room three minutes after training started.
“A word Abby,” rumbled my group leader, Thomas Evans. He was about a foot taller than me, with an ageless face that kept me guessing. He could have been thirty as easily as fifty.
My stomach tightened. “Yessir,” I mumbled, following him. We walked down a corridor I had never seen and I had to squint against the bright white walls. Thomas stopped suddenly and my sneakers squeaked as I tried to avoid bumping into his broad back.
“Here,” he grunted as a door slid open to our left. I hesitated and Thomas frowned, motioning impatiently for me to enter.
“Coming sir…” I scampered into the dark room and a swish told me the door had closed behind us.
A green light glowed faintly in the room. It intensified and became bright white, burning into my corneas. I tried lifting my hands to block my watering eyes but large hands gripped them, holding them together at my chest.
“Hey,” I said.
“Fear training,” said Thomas, as my eyes adjusted to the light. I opened them slowly and swallowed. “Sit,” he said.
At the centre of the room, a chair sat bolted to the floor. Wires wrapped around its base, connecting the chair to a series of seven-foot tall screens lining one wall. These screens filled the room with the brightness of the sun.
“We’re ready sir,” said a blond man standing at what looked like a control panel.
Thomas turned to me. “Sit!”
I scrambled to the chair, feeling like a six-year-old at a dentist’s office.
“W-what’s this about?” I asked.
“We feel you’re ready for this.”
“This isn’t because I was late this morning…?”
Thomas’ mouth twisted into a half smile. “No,” he said, “Your test results show potential. But something’s holding you back. Fear training will take care of it.”
“Fear training.” I repeated with an internal shudder.
“You have to learn to control fear in space. Otherwise you and your entire team could die if things go… Awry. The goal of this session is to get you to face your greatest fear… Your worst nightmares… then suppress that fear so you can complete the mission. Today your mission is simple… Find your way out of our dreamscape maze alive.”
Panic spread to my toes as I leaned back into the green leather and let Thomas fasten my hands and feet to the chair. I knew what was coming and I could sense them hanging from the roof of some dark cave in the recesses of my mind… Waiting…
“Don’t move,” said Thomas, placing a glass helmet over my head. A small hiss accompanied a tightening sensation as the helmet closed around my neck. In an instant, solid black replaced the blurred whiteness as the glass darkened.
Swarming and flapping.
It’s dark and I’m in a garden surrounded by hedges, their leaves rustling in the night wind. The bats are somewhere near and I look up. Inky sky looks back. The hedges are about fifteen feet tall on either side of me. I have to get out. The flapping gets louder as I start moving. At first I am twisting through a labyrinth, jogging. I stop at each turn and my heart pounds harder and harder, dimming the sound of the impending attack.
For a moment, I think, “I can do this.”
Then I see them.
A sliver of moonlight illuminates the maze in front of me and I freeze. The leaves surrounding me aren’t leaves. They’re thousands and thousands of beating wings.
I am paralyzed as the wings flap faster and faster, accelerating to match my thumping heart.
“Move it, Abby,” a voice echoes in my head.
Wave after wave of bats rise off the hedges, swarming around me, building up to a crescendo of throbbing darkness. For a moment, I am paralyzed with the sound of my own panic filling the air.
Zigzagging through the maze, without looking back, I feel a rush of air… of something… push me forward.
“Not that way,” says a voice from the bushes.
I scamper to avoid the left turn I’m about to take, skidding to a halt. I know the voice and almost immediately, my terror diminishes.
“Laars,” I call out as he steps from the shadows.
He smiles and I run to him, burying my face in his chest. His arms are strong, and the sound of flapping wings all but disappears.
“What the-?” snaps another voice in my head. “Who’s that?” I jump and look up at Laars. I can’t see his face and he vanishes as the bats swarm around me, their bony fingers scraping against my arms, tangling my hair. I crouch into a ball, wrapping my arms around my head, unable to move as they suffocate me.
“Wake up, princess,” said Thomas. I groaned and tried to ignore the incessant throbbing in my head that kept my eyes shut.
“Abby!” His sharp tone snapped me out of my fog.
“Yessir,” I said.
“What just happened in there?”
I shook my head as the room came back into focus. My helmet was gone and I inhaled the sharp clean smell of the lab, lifting the fog from my mind.
“You failed your mission, Abby,” he said, standing straight.
“Failed?” I asked, wanting nothing more than to bury myself under a thick comforter for a week.
“Laars?” I squeaked. A vision? An illusion? A figment of my imagination? “I dunno.”
Thomas grunted and unfastened my hands and feet. I had forgotten about my restraints. Now looking at the pink welts they left, I felt like a prisoner more than a trainee.
That night, I swallowed three Esa capsules, powerful stimulants that could keep me up for days. I’d had enough nightmares to last a lifetime. The lights went out at ten and I lit a candle, its lumens just less than anything the light sensors could pick up. Staying up after lights out was a no-no for students of the Reclutamiento. Then again, so was stimulant use.
I was briefly tempted to turn on a lamp and deal with the consequences, but the thought of my mother’s disappointment stopped me. Instead, I curled up on the bed against my better judgement and closed my eyes. Colours danced behind my eyelids and I enjoyed the show, knowing that sleep would not come.
“Laars?” The sky is filled with lights, like a cross between aurora borealis and fireworks. I am on top a small hill, with a full view of the light show. “This isn’t real… is it?”
“It is,” says Laars, stepping closer. I gasp as I get my first real look at him since the bat dreams started. His face is otherworldly but warm. The light show around us suddenly seems to come from him.
“You’re n-not real,” I stammer.
Laars is silent as he reaches over to tuck a lock of loose hair behind my ear. Tiny pulses of electricity flow through my skin where his fingers brush lightly. “I am real, Abby,” he says. “You know that.”
I swallow and nod, struggling to keep my breathing steady. Above us, the lights shimmer and sparkle. “Where are we?”
“A special dreamscape I created for you.”
“That’s what humans call it.”
“You say that as if you’re not…”
“Human?” says Laars smiling.
I step back, just out of his reach. My lips feel tight and my hands tremble. “Not real,” I mutter.
“What about your demons?” Laars asks. “Are they real?”
“That’s different…” My own voice sounds hollow as it trails off.
“You are more than just a physical being.”
“What are you?” I ask, forcing myself to meet his steady gaze. His eyes are navy blue, swirling around some unknown depths.
“I can’t tell you that yet,” he says, “but if you conquer your demons, we’ll meet… In the physical world.”
My mind flutters into chaos at his words. Fear? Longing?
“What if I don’t want to meet you?” I say.
He raises an eyebrow. “It’s your decision. I know I want to meet you…” His voice trails off as he turns to face the light show. I suddenly realise the patterns match his swirling eyes.
Before I could speak, he grips my hand. Warmth spreads to my toes.
“I can’t protect you forever,” he says. “It’s in your hands now.”
The following night, Thomas summoned me to his office. My heavy boots thumped and echoed in the pale halls, matching my heartbeat. I stopped in front his beige wooden door. Under a hologram of his face were the words: “Thomas Evans, Líder de Formación”.
“Please enter,” said the smooth female voice of the building’s A.I. I picked at my elbow as the door slid open.
“Well don’t just stand there like a lost cat,” grumbled Thomas from behind his oak desk. He was fiddling with what looked like a pencil, scribbling something on a sheet of paper, two antiquated items from a distant pass. Thomas’ pencil scratching along paper sounded like music from a long-lost civilisation. In a way, I suppose it was.
I scrambled in and forced myself to steady my breath.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered, my arms stiff at my side as I fought the urge to pick my elbow.
“I spoke with the director yesterday,” he said, “about you…”
His eyes met mine but I remained silent.
Thomas continued, “He thinks you’re not suited for this team… and I agree.”
A knot of despair mixed with disappointment gathered in my chest. I could almost feel my mother’s warm tears fill my heart. At the same time, relief flowed through me. The demons had come after me in this place. Perhaps leaving would free me from their hold. Still I stood wordless as the silence stretched on, afraid of where my next words would lead me.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” grunted Thomas.
“What would you have me say, sir?”
“Your future is at stake here and there’s nothing you want to say?”
“It seems you’ve already made up your mind, sir,” I said, disappointment quickly turning to irritation.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what are you saying?” I snapped.
“I believe in second chances,” said Thomas, smiling. It was a grotesque thing, his smile. Perfect white teeth on a ruggedly handsome face… Yet dark like my bats.
“Second chances?” I said, conscious of my heart thudding as I tried to slow my shallow breathing.
“I told the director about some interference at your fear training. Since you were doing well before… I convinced him to let you have another go.” Thomas’s smile widened and I shuddered inwardly.
“Fear training again,” I said.
“Yes,” said Thomas, “so follow me.” He rose and before I could squeak a reply, he was standing at the open door beckoning me to follow.
I scurried to keep up with his long strides. Soon, we reached the familiar white-walled corridor. I swallowed the terror that threatened to paralyse me and stepped through the open door.
“Straps on,” muttered the assistant, buckling my hands in place. It was the same blond technician from my previous visit.
I tried to distract myself from the twists in my stomach. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
He avoided my gaze and continued as if I hadn’t spoken. For a moment I wondered if he was even human. His movements were mechanical and his face was too perfect. No smile crinkles at the corners of his eyes, no blemishes, no shadows. He seemed almost plastic. Android?
“Ready, sir,” said the technician, straightening up. Thomas walked over with a helmet in hand. This one was larger than the last, silver on the outside with what looked like velvet lining.
“Deep breaths, girlie,” said Thomas. I grimaced as the black enclosure covered my head.
Sunshine. Golden, warming my core. The sky is larger than my sight can comprehend. To my left, wheat fields stretch to the edge of the earth. To my right, corn.
I am on a dusty road facing an eternal journey. Here to do something but I can’t remember what. The sun’s warmth soothes all thoughts from my mind and I let it fill my soul. I close my eyes and inhale the sweet corn scent blowing over me. I am alone yet not.
The sun’s intensity grows and I squeeze my eyes shut tighter. My eyelids burn as the brightness seeks to filter through them. My inner calm flees at the sound of raging winds suddenly swirling around me.
Then everything goes black.
I gasp with my eyes still closed. Afraid to open them to see the darkness and its inhabiting creatures.
The wind stops dead and silence takes its place. My thumping heart throbs in my chest but I cannot hear it through the thickened air. Breathing is suddenly a desperate struggle and I clench my fists.
“Open your eyes,” says a voice. My voice, I think.
Slowly, I force my eyes open. The sun is long gone as if it were only an illusion. I am standing in the middle of a cornfield ready for harvest, my breath foggy in the now-chilly air. In the distance, screeching breaks the silence.
I start running; my feet are soundless as I stumble through the vegetation. Leaves press against my skin, as if attempting to aid in my capture. The screeching gets closer but I hear another sound: the flapping of a winged army, closing in on its target.
I want to scream but I need all my energy to run. My legs are getting heavy as muscles tighten and stretch.
For the first time since entering this world, I fear that it will claim me. The darkness ahead of me deepens like a shadow crossing the night. I look up and tremble.
Bats fill my view, spreading against the blackened sky. Despite the absence of moonlight or starlight, I can make out the shape of each winged demon. Their darkness is deeper than the depths of space. They stand against the sky like portals into another world. Screeching for me to enter.
I can run no farther as the bats merge into one being. My screams seem to fill this new creature with frenzied power as it looks down at me. Into me. Its wings beat faster than I can see, stirring the night air into a new storm.
My fear has a form and I am helpless before it. My body thrums with terror while I stand frozen. My lungs tighten as the bat descends, like an albatross after its prey.
Before I can budge, it throws me flat on my back. With my last breath, I scream Laars’ name before the creature’s weight presses me into the earth, settling on my chest. Suffocating me with an explosion of pain and horror.
The creature’s eyes are pits of hatred burning into me. Its hot breath fills my face with the stench of burning flesh.
Despair closes in as darkness surrounds the bat. Soon I can see nothing but its hideous visage, delighting in my helplessness.
“Laars is no more.” I hear its voice in my head, a rumbling ancient voice.
“Over here!” another voice interrupts, “come get me!”
The demon starts and looks away. Its weight shifts and I am able to take a gasping breath. It looks back at me then to its left. For a moment, it seems confused.
The voice is that of a child. “Come get me, you bully,” shouts the child again.
The bat turns to me and presses me even harder into the ground. “You’re still mine,” it says, before flying off towards the voice.
I lay in the darkness wheezing. It takes all my energy to roll to my side and push to my hands and knees. I look around, desperate for escape. The thought of my demon killing a child stands between me and a reckless dash through the fields.
“Get up, Abby.”
A shadow appears. Tall and lean but ebbing with power. Laars.
“Help me,” I groan.
“I can’t get in,” he says. “You have to do this on your own.”
“Please…” I croak, “help me. I can’t-”
A shriek of agony interrupts me. Laars’ shadow doubles over as if in pain.
“You have to save the child,” Laars gasps. “It’s me.”
I have questions. But Laars writhes as another scream echoes over the land.
“The demon is yours,” Laars wheezes.
Laars’ shadow curls into a ball before vanishing.
The screaming gets louder as I rise and lumber through the corn. With each step I grow stronger and soon I am running.
The chill gives way to a sudden intense heat and I reach a clearing.
A fire burns in the middle of the clearing, giving off no light. Its flames are black and filthy like the monster standing with its back to me. At first I can’t see anyone and the wails seem to come from the bat itself. The screaming stops suddenly and I tremble. I’m too late.
“Abby,” it growls. “You’re here.”
“Where’s the child?” I shout, shaking with forced bravado. My terror magnifies when the bat turns around and I see a small figure dangling from its mouth. Blood drips from the bat’s mouth, matting and darkening its fur.
“Laars,” I weep. The demon drops him and I wince at the thud his limp body makes on the dark earth.
“Your turn,” says the bat, growing even larger to match my horror and agony.
As I stare into the depths of my own demon’s hatred and evil, a roar escapes me. The sight of the child’s motionless body pushes past my fear. Terror becomes rage.
“No, demon,” I sneer. “Your turn.”
I take a step forward and uncertainty crosses its face. For a moment, the bat seems to shrink. As I take another step, the child moans softly. I take my eyes off the demon briefly and in the next instant, claws are tearing at my chest as it pushes me to the ground again.
All thoughts of escape flee my mind as the creature’s weight squeezes the breath out of my lungs. “Kill it,” Laars had said.
With the last ounce of my remaining strength, I grab hold of the bat’s legs and squeeze. Its laughter echoes cruel and hateful.
“Do you think you can hurt me?” the bat-demon says, bending over me, its face inches from mine, its breath thick with blood and death.
Without a word, I reach up and claw at its eyes, drawing blood. A screech escapes it, strengthening my will. With my nails pressed into the demon’s eyes, I push it off and inhale as the weight is lifted. It twists from side to side in an attempt to shake me off. I grip harder, feeling all my strength flow through my arms and into my fingers.
I smile for the first time in months.
The thrashing bat loosens my grip momentarily and I wrap my arms around its neck, twisting and squeezing.
One moment, I am on top of a raging, thrashing breast, feeling its life ebb. The next instant, I fall into a sea of confused bats, reduced to their mortal size. I grab at one, intending to finish them off one at a time. Instead, they vanish and I am left with dust in my hand. The remains of my life’s battle.
“Thank you,” says a small voice next to me.
“Laars,” I say. He is unscathed and smiling. Still a child, but really a man.
“I’ll see you soon,” he says, and disappears.
I stand up and watch the sun return to my lands.
“Training for your first mission begins next week,” said Thomas, shaking my hand. “You’ll be out in space within three years, I think. Well done, Abby.”
“Which mission?” I only knew of three: Mars, Titan and the coveted…
“Futures mission, of course.”
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Abbyâ€™s demons threaten to unravel her mind and destroy her future. In 22nd century Argentina, there is nothing more desirable than joining the ranks of the World Space Agency (WSA), the international offshoot of NASA. While training for WSA, sheâ€™s faced with a test to overcome fear - a test that she nearly fails numerous times. But every time she endures these tests, a saviour appears. Is he a man or some celestial being? Either way, Abbyâ€™s dreams evolve as emotions stir within. That is, until the final battle when she must save her saviourâ€¦ or risk descending into a pit of madness. Abbyâ€™s Darkness is a short story about one of the characters in the Dream Chamber series (to be released).