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Proximate Publishing Books by Matt Dymerski
The Portal in the Forest Series
The Portal in the Forest
The Desolate Guardians
The Moon Aflame
The Empty Earth (coming soon)
The Final Cycle Series
World of Glass
The dream had always existed.
It was everything else – everything we made -
that vanished in the cold light of dawn.
I know this might be an odd question to ask on a mental health forum, but does anybody else see that the Moon is on fire? I’m not joking. I’ll run through this for a second. I know I’m not the most reliable person, but I don’t think I could imagine something like this.
Hell, I remember the entire lead-up to what happened. People were freaking out. It was the end of the world by all anybody knew. What did they call it? An ‘unidentified object traveling at near-luminous speed…’ That’s what the media said, over and over, for like the day and a half we had until it hit. I guessed that meant it was going really fast… fast enough to destroy all life on the planet, anyway. That was the part nobody misunderstood.
They also said somebody had to have created this object and aimed it at us. It was unlike anything natural they’d ever seen. They said somebody had probably shot this thing at us billions of years ago, perhaps aiming to wipe out the competition before it evolved… aiming to wipe us out before we were anything more than barely living goo.
But, apparently, it had to have been sent out – hold on, let me check my scribblings about what they said – between 4.54 and 4.527 billion years ago. Whoever had shot it at us hadn’t taken the Moon into account. They couldn’t have – because it hadn’t existed then.
It was nothing short of a miracle that it hit the Moon instead of the Earth.
I remember the noise and the flash. How could I forget? Absolutely everyone was outside watching and listening, thinking the world was about to end. It was daytime here, and the Moon was on the other side of the planet, so we only saw the edges of the blast spraying up past the horizon.
A sprawling cloud of flame and glowing dust erupted across the sky as I stood on the street among dozens of neighbors I didn’t know. Well, I knew Crazy Donald, a homeless guy who I sat with sometimes outside Wendy’s – he was there, muttering to himself and holding a plastic bag filled with other plastic bags, but I don’t think he knew anything was going on. He was just going around asking people for change, even before we found out that we were going to live for another day.
I like Crazy Donald, because he and I get along in a quiet and lonely sort of way. I followed him around and made sure he was safe as the crowd grew confused, excited, and loud. All that scared him.
The radios said we should probably stay inside for the next few days. We didn’t need to be told twice. I urged Donald to move along to somewhere safe, and then I hid in my apartment.
From what I could hear through the walls, the parties were absolutely insane. I imagined that people were amazed at being alive, and I knew they had nowhere to go until the all-clear. For them, that meant it was party time.
Me? I keep to myself, mostly.
See, that’s why I’m asking. I remember all this very vividly. I could have sworn it was real. Thing is, even despite the pills, I have a tough time with reality. I can feel the rippling waters of dreaming while I’m awake. Often, I can’t distinguish between the cold hard lines of the real world and the half-formed concepts of waking imagination. I don’t want to have my dosage upped again, because the pills make my brain feel like cement, so I… pretend.
I’m not crazy. I don’t mutter to myself or attack people. My thoughts are all still there – my ‘faculties,’ as my brother Will calls them. I force myself to behave normally when I see something I don’t understand, and I use logic to control what I do.
I like music. Songs keep me grounded, because they float through the air like mathematical chains. The songs that I know, I know by heart, and I’m solid as long as the notes keep making sense. I’m listening to Man on the Silver Mountain right now and trying to keep coherent, but that strategy doesn’t help these hallucinatory memories.
Are they hallucinations, though? I ask because media coverage of the molten Moon has dropped off pretty quickly over the last week. I mean, there’s a massive cloud of glowing dust and flaming gasses spread out across the sky like somebody thrust a burning spear straight through the Moon – because that’s what happened – and nobody seems to care.
Today, I can’t even find any mention of it. All the videos and pictures are gone. The articles fail to load. It’s been too cloudy here to see it myself, and I don’t have any windows in my basement apartment, but I’ve ventured out a few times to look up. I still see that orange glow, like a smeared second sun behind the clouds, and I have to wonder: why the hell isn’t anyone talking about this anymore? Has our attention span really gotten that short? Are we right back to the next reality-television drama and celebrity gossip already?
A weird thing happened when I ran into my next-door neighbor, Dean. I normally avoid him – like I avoid everyone – but this time was different.
“Hey Alek,” he said, smiling at me in the hall.
Why would anyone smile at me? Grubby, unshaven, wearing a Megadeth t-shirt, I was the epitome of that guy you ignore who is fine with being ignored. I would have said hello back and moved on quickly, but I had a question myself this time. “How about that sky?”
“Yeah?” he asked, studying my face. Tall, blonde, and good-looking in that annoying Abercrombie sort of way, he had no reason to so much as look at me. I wondered why he was even talking to me. “What about it?”
I remember frowning slightly. Something seemed off about his interest. That, and I wasn’t about to make a huge social blunder and mention that the sky was on fire if I was just hallucinating the whole thing. “Crappy weather’s blocking the view.”
He smiled at that. “Yes. It’s quite unfortunate.”
I nodded, laughed sheepishly, and hurried down the stairwell. I think he stood there watching me until I closed the door…
The more I think about it, the more I’m sure that he didn’t remember that the Moon was on fire. If I were a normal person, that’s the first and only thing that would be on my mind. Hey, remember that time the Moon freaking exploded?! Yeah, me too, since it was like last week! And because half the goddamn sky is still on fire!
Every couple hours for several days, I’d go outside, but I kept missing the sight due to the cloudy winter weather. From the pictures I remembered seeing, the Moon was a molten coin burning in between two jutting clouds – almost like a fiery eye – and I wanted to see it for myself. If I could just see it, and if I could just stare at it for a time, I could finally convince myself one way or the other. I was becoming pretty certain that the Moon would just be the same old silver dollar it had always been.
Thing is, I thought I’d gotten a pretty good handle on my issues. If I’ve just imagined the entire thing, then I’m in serious mental trouble.
I left a few messages for my brother, but he hasn’t called me back yet.
I even texted my younger sister, Laura, on the excuse that I just wanted to see how she was doing. She didn’t respond, either, but that’s no surprise. Dad’s probably passed out drunk right about now. I might call Tracy if I get any worse, although I wouldn’t really know what to say to her. She’s probably busy taking care of Dad’s mess.
I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll get over this. I just don’t want to have to go to my doctor. She’ll up my meds again, and then I’ll be a zombie.
Thanks for the responses, although now I’m just more confused. Some of you say the Moon isn’t on fire and to go look for myself, and some of you are just trolling and say the Moon is on fire? Hope the mods ban you. This isn’t a place to make fun of people.
Some of you have asked about Will before. Yeah, he listens to me. He’s the only family I have that takes me seriously at all. I think that he considers it his duty as an older brother. He takes care of Laura, too, although she’s got a good head on her shoulders, mostly. I don’t think Will would have to do nearly as much if Dad got a job or stopped drinking. Tracy’s nice and all, but we’re not her kids and not her responsibility.
But even Will isn’t returning my calls anymore, not after that incident I posted about last month. He got mad that I woke him up in the middle of the night for a dream I had while I was sleeping. Waking hallucinations were one thing, he said, but dreams while I was asleep were perfectly normal and I had to deal with them on my own.
He didn’t seem to care how traumatic or horrifying the dream was. I mean, I can’t blame him. I’m sure, on balance, he’s done a ton for me and I’ve done very little for him, but I’ve had a terrible sense of impending doom ever since that night. I think about the kinetic terror I felt and I still can’t shake it.
The tough part for me is that my dreams seep into my real life. Right now at this very moment, I feel like I’m being watched. I’m looking up, and there’s a small mirror to the right of my laptop. I can’t look away, even as I type – or am I looking away and just believing that I’m looking at the mirror? I keep looking deeper and deeper, seeing further into the apartment behind me, and a sense of tension pulls at me, a building scream-to-come that keeps rising to higher and higher intensity. I already see it, I already sense it, but I’m not consciously aware of what it is – not yet.
A grenade goes off inside me, throwing terror and adrenaline in a thousand conflicting directions within the confines of my chest and limbs. He’s there. He’s standing there, in the shadows, watching me with hatred and intent. He sees me – he sees that I see him – and he stalks forward, approaching me from behind.
But he’s not there. He can’t possibly be there. Why would Dean be in my apartment?
I just have to sit still, breathe deep, and -
For the sake of God, I don’t know what to do. I think I killed Dean.
But I had to.
I had to.
I have to make sense of this… I have to figure this out… ok, step by step…
I wasn’t listening to music, or I would have known that he was really there. Or was he? Is he? Is he really on my floor, bleeding from his head? Secure in the matrix of basic logic I usually keep myself in, I was certain he wasn’t really there. I kept believing that even as the fear surged up right behind me – and he grabbed me around the neck!
All I could tell was that he was trying to drag me toward the door. He didn’t say a word. I don’t know how I got out of his grip, except by going limp and flopping down at a lucky moment. He lunged at me again, but I scrambled away, pulled a lamp down, and threw it at his face.
A couple bits of shattered light bulb stuck out from his cheek, but he kept coming, furious. He tried to tackle me, but I slipped and fell out of the way, and he smashed sideways into my table. I used his moment of disorientation to lift my printer and bring it down on his head.
He fell, and hasn’t moved since.
What do I do? My condition, my pills, would make me out to be a lunatic. Would they lock me up for this? It was in my own apartment, sure, but they’d just say that I invited him inside.
Did I ask him to come look at something? Did I then attack him?
If I’m hallucinating things again, how can I know what’s real? I’ve always hated him, and hated his niceness. I’ve always thought there was a smug arrogance behind it, even if he never showed it.
I couldn’t call the police, could I?
But I did. I had to. This wasn’t some movie. I couldn’t hide the body or any such nonsense. Besides, that would just look worse.
So, I called.
The first thing the cop on the other end asked me was my location. He was very insistent on knowing where I was – even before I’d mentioned what I’d done. Something about his energy spooked me, and I hung up before giving any identifying information.
Goddamnit, Will, where are you?
He’s moving! Dean’s moving!
Thanks for all the replies. Yes, Dean was alive, just unconscious. He woke up, staggered to his feet, and mumbled an apology. It was the weirdest thing ever.
No, he didn’t explain what the hell he’d been doing. He seemed confused more than anything. He did say: “That was really stupid of me. I’m sorry.”
About twenty minutes after he stumbled out, I thought I heard somebody berating him in his apartment.
Now I’m more confused than ever. I don’t understand what he was trying to do. It’s satisfying, though, hearing a girl shout at him for being an asshole and an idiot. Yeah, I know, right? If I didn’t have my own issues, I’d call the police on him myself for breaking and entering.
Sometimes, mental problems make you feel like an outcast. You don’t get to call the police. You don’t get to ask for help. If there’s a problem, you’re the one in trouble. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t leave my apartment much.
You guys ever feel like that?
I just had the oddest experience. A girl came by – Dean’s girlfriend – and asked if I wanted to take a walk. She wanted to apologize and explain what happened so that I wouldn’t ‘press charges.’ I guess she had no idea I was terrified of interacting with the cops.
She was like Dean. Thin, blonde, perky like a fashion magazine model – I hated her immediately, even though she sort of reminded me of my sister. “Fine,” I said, and locked my apartment behind me.
The first thing that hit me, aside from the cold night air, was the blazing orange that cast everything in eerie burnt colors. The weather had cleared up! Immediately, I could sense the molten Moon and blazing veil above, but I avoided looking at it. It wasn’t real, and I wasn’t going to give in to my waking dreams.
“Nice night out, isn’t it?” she said, oblivious to the burning sky. She walked beside me as we circled the neighborhood. “Look, I’ll be honest with you. Dean’s kind of a controlling asshole. He’s never been violent before, but I think he got the idea that something’s going on between you and me.”
“What?” I laughed, the last note rising awkwardly high. “I don’t think we’ve ever even spoken.”
“No, we haven’t,” she agreed. “But I saw you in the hall last week and mentioned that I used to date dirty grunge types. You know, metal.”
I suddenly felt very warm, and I’m sure my face was red to someone who saw silver moonlight instead of orange. “You did?”
“Yep. He’s not really my type. Crazy, right? Since we both look like we belong in an Old Navy ad.”
“You said it, not me,” I replied. Had I actually just teased her? I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that many seconds into a conversation with a pretty girl.
And she actually laughed out loud. "I know, I know. When I dress and act like this, I know what I’m doing. Call it an experiment. If we're being honest, I had to get away from the drugs. I love me some Megadeth and Dio, but the scene -"
“Wait, what?” I asked, surprised. “Those are my two favorite bands right now.”
She blinked. “Really? I didn’t think anyone our age liked the classic stuff still.”
I opened my jacket and showed her my t-shirt.
"No friggin' way," she said with a smile. "Well it's nice to meet you, -" She held out her hand.
“Alek,” I said, shaking her hand and marveling at my own ability to actually hold a human conversation. I didn’t feel numb or terrified. I just felt, for once, normal. The fact that she reminded me of my sister had made it easier to deal with her. “Short for Alexander.”
“Alexander,” she said, smiling. “I’m Ashley.” She looked up at the sky for a moment, but I did not follow her gaze. “Beautiful night out,” she said.
I still didn’t look. I didn’t want to face the flaming hallucination that was insistently trying to ruin my first real connection with someone else in a long time.
“How about this,” she continued after a moment, finally looking back at me. “I’m done with Dean either way. He’s such an asshole… but I honestly believe it’s a one-time thing from him. If you don’t press charges, I’ll go on a date with you.”
That part finally broke my scant coolness and made me clam up, but I’d seen that moment enough times on television that I knew to force myself to say one word: “Sure.”
I think she mistook my terseness for aloof confidence. A genuine and warm smile crossed her face, and then she took my cellphone and put her number in it.
Ten minutes later, I’m back in my apartment, and more shocked than when I thought I’d killed Dean.
Now here’s the part where I need some help from you guys. I know I’m posting a ton tonight, and I’m sorry, I just… it’s so hard to tell what’s real. I keep thinking back on it and obsessing over our little walk. I can’t help feeling she was trying to get me to look at the sky. Little details, like her choice to talk to me outside, and her long pauses to look over at the Moon – and Dean had been trying to drag me to the door.
Had her whole thing been a trick? Had our whole connection been fake? Am I just being paranoid? How would they even know about my hallucination? God, what if it’s a cruel trick? What if they read my posts on here and are messing with me?
What do you guys think? Am I just psyching myself out for no reason? I hate this so much… I hate my brain, hate my affliction, hate myself… why can’t I just be normal?
Thanks for the support. I am kind of freaking out, and you guys make me feel much better. Still a ton of trolls here, though, please STFU.
Although I don’t agree with the popular sentiment here that going out and looking at the Moon to ‘face my fear’ will help. I’m not going to do that. Ignoring my hallucinations has always worked for me.
Hold on one second. Another knock at the door.
What the hell?
I just got a visit from Crazy Donald. Guess what, though?
He seems lucid.
He looked at me with a clear and direct gaze that I’ve never seen from him before. He knew my name, too. I opened the door, and he stared at me for a moment before saying, “Alek – you’re alright!”
“Yeah,” I replied, confused. “Donald, are you like – actually there?”
He nodded. “I’m feeling… better. Father Abruzzo has stopped shouting at me.” He tapped his head. “I think he’s finally forgiven me after all these years.”
“Father Abruzzo?” I asked, concerned.
Donald smiled and nodded. “My mother’s stopped scolding me, too.” He breathed deep. “I’m feeling good, man. And I don’t know anyone else.”
I stared at him. “No family?”
He shook his head. “Somewhere. Detroit, last I can remember, before I, uh… before the screaming got so loud I couldn’t think.”
“When was that?”
“I dunno, man. Black Sabbath is the last big thing I can remember. Uh, Glenne Hughes was on vocals that time.”
I knew my metal trivia. “Their 1986 tour? Shit, I think they played Detroit that year. You’ve been out of it for thirty years?”
“Thirty years? What year is it now?”
I frowned. “2014. It’s October, 2014.”
“Damn,” he replied, gruff and sad. “Can I look in a mirror?”
“Sure,” I told him.
He’s in the bathroom crying right now.
I know how to handle this less than I knew how to handle talking to Ashley. I’ve always sort of gotten along with Crazy Donald – well, just Donald, now, I suppose – but I never suspected that he was aware of me through the fog of his mania. I can’t just kick him out, either. Do I have to let him live here? The thought of someone in my space, even if it’s just for a bit, makes me nervous.
This has been one hell of a night. I don’t think I can take much more emotional stress. I’m already fragile in the best of circumstances, but tonight has been a trip. What do you guys suggest? How should I handle a fellow crazy person?
I didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t even mention it to him. I’m terrified beyond all logic right now.
I stood outside the door and tried to calm him down the way some of you suggested. And you know what he said, as he cried?
“It’s that damn burning Moon,” he complained. “I’d rather go back to the screaming than find out I’ve lost so much of my life.”
I didn’t say anything to him. I never told him about the molten Moon. He said it, unprompted, and I nearly had a panic attack.
It wasn’t just my imagination – or, we’d had the same hallucination.
“Donald,” I remember saying very weakly. “Do you remember having bad dreams recently?”
He immediately quieted. “I always have bad dreams. My whole life has been a bad dream.”
“I’m serious, Donald. In the last month – have you had any particularly horrible nightmares?”
He breathed for a time, in between pathetic sobs, and I heard him move a little on the bathroom floor. “Yeah. Even with Father Abruzzo shouting at me and my mother hurting me, I saw Him standing there on the outside, trying to get in.”
“Him,” he said cryptically. “The Sleeper… the Dreamer On High. He’s on the outside, looking in. He’s always looking in.”
I felt a terrible chill at those words. I didn’t have a name for the shadow of impending doom I’d felt ever since that singularly haunting nightmare, but I did have a feeling: the sensation of being watched.
It was just like the way Dean’s presence had felt, like someone was standing in the shadows at the back of the room and watching me with fury and hunger. “Donald… what did you mean when you said it was the Moon?”
“I looked, man. I looked up at it… and it looked down, into me.”
That was all he would say. I left him to his sobbing, figuring I could get more out of him after his first good night’s sleep in thirty years. I gave him a blanket, too.
And, now, I’m left with a terrible foreboding. There’s a small pool of blood on my floor from my encounter with Dean, and nobody seems to share my hallucination that the Moon is on fire except another crazy person. Still, I called my brother one last time.
“Will,” I said to his voicemail. “Don’t look at the Moon. I don’t know if you’ve looked – but don’t! It’s important!”
I don’t know what else to do. How can I know? How does anyone know what’s real? If something’s happening… who would I even turn to? If it’s not, how do I shake this waking nightmare?
And why do so many of you keep insisting I go outside and look at the Moon? I’m not finding this funny anymore.
I have a text from Ashley. She wants to go on our date now, which is way sooner than I expected, I guess, but who knows? I gotta go. I’ll be back with more updates when I can manage. Wish me luck, guys!
I’m not gonna let this get to me. I’m not gonna let my issues get in the way of my life. Not this time.
As I was getting ready, I saw some of the replies. Many of you advised that I should secretly record my date, if I could, and… well, I gave in to the paranoia.
For the first time in my life, I’m glad I did.
It was already getting late by the time I managed to shave, shower, and fix my hair up the best I knew how.
She drove, and I tried to make small talk. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. She didn’t seem to mind my awkwardness, and she took us to a nearby bar that she said was a favorite of hers.
I don’t drink. Ever. My doctor had mentioned once that alcohol might interfere with my antipsychotic medications, and I’ve been fearful ever since.
Still, I was determined not to let my issues dominate my life. I ordered a beer and pretended that it was something I did all the time. I wasn’t sure if she noticed my shaking hands, but I clenched my fingers together and put on a calm face.
I said stuff, and she laughed. I didn’t get it. Nobody had ever thought my sarcastic and bitter comments were funny before. I had always just been that weird guy on the fringe. Why was this girl even talking to me? It just didn’t make sense.
And that’s when your comments started getting to me. I just couldn’t believe that I was interesting or attractive to anyone. So, I left my phone at the bar, set it to record audio, and I said I was going to the bathroom.
I did stay in there quite a bit longer than I wanted to, but I was afraid to come back out. What if she noticed that I’d set my phone to record? What if… I shook my head, messed with my hair a little in the mirror, and then finally went back out.
Everything seemed normal. She sat at the bar while texting on her cell. I used that opportunity to pick up my phone and pretend to do the same.
“Oh, a voicemail,” I said. “One second.”
Instead, I actually listened to the recording.
I heard myself making a small excuse and walking away. A moment later, I heard her ask someone: “How are you liking the weather?”
A voice I recognized as the bartender’s followed: “It’s fine…”
Their reactions were odd. It sounded as if there was some sort of hidden meaning to the exchange, but that the two were unsure of one another. I looked over and noticed the bartender watching me. I hurriedly glanced away.
The recording wasn’t much, but something about it felt off. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong, but I was on a date, and I was still determined not to let my paranoia get the best of me.
Even as I began to put the phone down, the last of the recording captured one more muttered sentence: “He’s never going to look, damnit…”
Had I really just heard that? Was my mind playing tricks on me again? Feeling heady, I lowered the phone.
“Everything alright?” she asked.
“Yeah, just forgot about something I have to give back to a friend,” I lied. I put on a happy face and pretended like I hadn’t heard anything.
And had I, really? I could feel ripples in my awareness, as if I was half-dreaming, but I knew that I was awake. It was a familiar and typically disconcerting sensation, and I hated that it was happening now of all times.
Telling her that I needed some air for a second, I stepped outside. Thankful that nobody was out front smoking at the moment, I clutched my head and tried to breathe in some sense. The sidewalk beneath my feet still seemed cast in burnt orange. God, why did I have to be like this? Why did I have to suspect everything? Why did I have to see and hear things that weren’t there?
Feeling a rather strong bout of paranoia, an idea occurred to me.
Going back inside, I sat down and put on a neutral face. “I just looked at the Moon. It’s gorgeous tonight.”
She hesitated in the middle of a sip of her drink, and lowered it slowly. She watched me intently, her eyes and expression carefully balanced. “Is it now?”
I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t sure whether to believe me. Why would that matter, if I was just talking about the Moon?”
“What’s it like?” she asked. I imagined I heard a subtext of interrogation beneath her nonchalant question.
I hadn’t thought the idea through this far, but what if everything was fine? I’d sound like a weird asshole if I said what I really knew was up there. “Full, very bright. Silver.”
She locked gazes with me for a very long moment, but I’d had years of practice faking that I was fine. At long last, she sighed. “I thought you’d never look.”
A blast of panic tore through me, but my practiced fake calm kept me in place. I wanted to scream what did you just say? Instead, I nodded, gave a weak laugh, and picked up my drink. “So… what now?”
“I guess we wait,” she replied, leaning against the bar. “It’s tough, you know? Can’t be certain about anyone these days.”
I nodded again and took a long gulp of beer, trying to understand what was happening. I couldn’t be hallucinating this entire conversation, could I? And I couldn’t ask questions without exposing the fact that I was… what? That I was myself, or that I hadn’t actually looked at the Moon?
The bartender came over and slid me another drink as I nervously finished mine. I went to offer him some cash, but he shook his head. “I couldn’t help but overhear. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected – now I know. First one’s on me. Welcome to the club. Here’s one for the lady, too.” He slid a second drink over.
Ashley smiled at him. “Thanks!”
I took a moment to text my brother my location, and a message: Please help me, I feel like I’m losing my mind. I don’t know what’s going on. There are people here acting strangely. I don’t know if they’re messing with me or what.
“Don’t you know it’s rude to text during a date?” Ashley teased, and I sheepishly dropped the phone. I could do nothing but act normal.
Past the initial weirdness, nothing else strange seemed to be happening. Waffling back and forth between terror and self-doubt, I did my best to keep up our prior level of conversation. After an hour or two of drinking and hanging out, I started to doubt I’d ever seen or heard anything strange. In fact, I was glad I’d ignored the few odd sentences I’d thought I’d heard from Ashley and the bartender.
Alcohol did, indeed, make me feel weird. Was it interfering with my medication, or did alcohol just naturally make people red-faced, loud, and stupid? I knew I was starting to behave oddly, and I actively tried to reel myself in. Still, she noticed.
“Ok, time to get you home,” she laughed. “You don’t drink much, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Good. I’m glad. Dean’s an asshole when he drinks.”
She helped me up and led us outside. This time, three guys and a girl stood outside smoking. We crossed the street, heading for her car, and she looked up as we got to the opposite corner. She sighed and smiled. “Isn’t He beautiful?”
I froze. Had she meant the Moon?
There was no helping it. It only took a moment. She knew I was purposely avoiding looking.
She backed away a step. “You lied!”
She looked across the street at the smokers, and I guessed that she was judging whether she could trust them. She half-shouted something, but then changed her mind mid-sentence – if there were other people in the know with whatever she was doing, was it possible that she didn’t know who they were? She couldn’t scream for help in that regard, so, instead, she shouted something much worse.
“Help! This creep is attacking me!”
“What?” I screamed back. It was my worst nightmare – having my awkward interactions interpreted as threatening – but, wait, that wasn’t what was happening here. “No – no I’m not!”
Immediately, the three guys across the street frowned, assessed her fear, and then charged in my direction. I ran, but they were faster than me, and one took me down from behind with wide gripping arms. I hit the sidewalk roughly, barely keeping my face from slamming into concrete, and they rolled me over.
I remember holding up my arms, feebly trying to keep the punches from landing somewhere critical, but one did manage to leave a horrible pain in my eye socket. I was certain I’d have a black eye if they didn’t just kill me.
But someone tore them off, shouting at the top of his lungs. Pushing and shoving them away, he kneeled next to me and helped me sit up.
I’m not proud of it, but I did cry. There was blood and bruising all over me, and my ‘date’ had turned horrible in all the ways I feared most. What if I’d really attacked her? I couldn’t believe anything – not with the alcohol messing with my head.
“Alek, christ,” came the savior voice from above. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Will?” I couldn’t believe it – he’d actually come! “I’m really confused. And she made me drink. But don’t look at the Moon. Something’s going on.” He sighed and went to lift his head, but I covered his face with my hand. “Don’t look, Will. This isn’t a joke. Remember how you said I had three promises I could ask you, as a brother?”
“Well, I’ve got two left, and I want to use one for this. Don’t look at the Moon. I can’t explain why, because it would sound crazy, even for me.”
“If it’s that important to you, fine. It’d probably hurt to look at, anyway, since it’s still burning so brightly.”
“It’s what?” I asked, stunned out of my pained daze. “The Moon’s on fire?”
“Of course it is,” he replied, confused. “Did you somehow miss all the craziness?”
I couldn’t talk anymore after that. I was too overcome by relief, as if I’d been plucked right out of a nightmare and saved. The Moon was on fire – at least in the memories of myself, Donald, and my brother. It wasn’t just me.
As long as it wasn’t just me, I was happy. I knew what to think.
I did have to show him, though, online. I had to show him how all the articles, videos, and pictures had been scrubbed. There wasn’t a trace online.
He’d met Crazy Donald once before, too, and it shocked him to see the old man lucid and calm. Well, mostly lucid and calm. Donald still sat in the corner, stunned by the loss of thirty years of his life.
And now I’m trying to figure out what to do next. My date went horribly, but I’m not convinced that something isn’t really going on. Guys, is anyone acting strangely around you?
Sorry for the delay in posting again, but I gather a bunch of you are feeling the same way. These people don’t seem to know each other, but they’re starting to talk and figure out who’s who. I keep feeling like I’m being stared at in the grocery store, which is weird, because normally I feel invisible.
Will is staying for the time being. He’s concerned for a lot of reasons, but mainly I think he wants to make sure I’m okay. Donald is sleeping on our couch, and we have been keeping mostly to ourselves for the past few days. Every time we go out, conversations with other people feel strange and suspicious, like everyone suspects everyone else of either being in on it or not in on it, and nobody knows for sure…
But what is it? What’s going on out there? Donald keeps having dreams about a hateful presence watching us from a great distance. I can’t help but think back on what Ashley said – isn’t He beautiful? Who? Who did she mean?
Did that object that hit the Moon bring something terrible to our doorstep? What would have happened to us if it had landed here instead? We thought we’d been saved, but were we really safe at all?
All of these thoughts push the boundaries of the logic I usually use to keep myself sane. Will isn’t talking much about this, but I can tell he’s worried. He knows something’s going on, but nobody can say for sure what it is.
He did mention that he thinks ideas can be very powerful. The right kind of rumor could spread all over, making people fear each other. Maybe that was what we were feeling when we went out: people afraid of each other, suspicious of each other, on the basis of rumor – not on the basis of some spreading secret agenda.
Funny thing is, whatever’s going on isn’t affecting life as usual. I still see people driving and going to work. People are still shopping at the grocery store. I’ve been watching horror movies for ideas. That’s usually ill-advised, given my condition, but it feels like research, even though I’m not finding situations in the movies that are similar to what’s happening.
These people aren’t crazy, and they’re not fanatics, and they’re not mind-controlled. They’re something else entirely. They’re completely themselves, but -
Hold on, it seems like something’s going on outside.
We barely got away.
A mob of people – maybe eight or ten guys – came looking for me. They said it was because of ‘what I did to Ashley…’ or, at least, that’s what they shouted as we ran. We heard them coming and went out the back basement door. Will gripped my arm hard the whole way, and I’m sure he was wondering whether I’d really hurt somebody. With nowhere else to go, Donald followed us, trembling.
“That’s not why they’re after us,” I insisted. “They know I’m not one of them. They want us to look at the Moon.”
“I’ve had enough of that talk,” Will replied as we hid in the bushes outside my building. “I’m not gonna look, because I promised, but how can looking at the Moon change people?”
It was Donald who finally got through to him. “I don’t know you, man, but you need to wake up. You’re a nice, strong lad, and I’m sure life has got along rather well for you. You need to believe in the society that empowers you.”
We both stared at him, surprised.
“Alek and I,” he continued. “We’re metalheads. Outcasts. Anti-establishment, lad. We don’t have the same need to believe that everything is fine, and we’re probably still free because of who we are. We fell through the cracks, like we always do.” He gazed up at the Moon. “I had a priest and a bitter old woman screaming in my head for thirty years. I looked up for thirty seconds, and it all went away. There’s a whispering in my brain that pushes back against the screaming. In between, I’m free.”
Will took a moment to stare him down. “Then how do we know you’re not one of them? That the Moon didn’t change you?”
I hadn’t thought of that. Why hadn’t I thought of that?!
“I guess you don’t,” Donald answered, grim. “But I’ve got nowhere to go, so I’ve got to side with them. I’m sorry.” He turned and shouted towards the building. “They’re over here!”
I remember screaming something in anger, but Will punched Donald quickly, knocking him senseless.
It didn’t matter. The mob had heard. They came storming out of the building in a flash.
“They’ll find us,” Will breathed, grabbing my arm. “We have to run.”
We fled again, diving between bushes, climbing fences, and slinking through back yards.
“Did you hurt that girl?” he asked as we began to slow.
“No!” I whispered angrily. “I didn’t hurt anyone!”
He said nothing further, his expression focused. We seemed to be making a large circle, and, after two hours of exhausting sneaking, we found his car. I climbed into the passenger seat with a sigh. Cloud cover had come and hidden the Moon, and I felt strangely more secure for it. “Where are we going?” I panted.
“We’re going to make sure Laura’s alright,” he responded. “Dad and Tracy, too.”
We’re in a coffee shop right now. I thought to bring my laptop when we ran, and I’m glad I did. It’s our only lifeline to the world at large. News pages, forums, comics – they’re all going on as normal. How much of the world is affected? Do the affected people even know something is different? The people in the coffee shop here aren’t looking around suspiciously. Do they have any idea what’s going on? Have they narrowly avoided looking at the Moon somehow? It has been rather cloudy.
Or is all this going on in my head?
How do you guys cope with feelings like this? I just can’t trust myself…
The tone of the conversations on this forum has definitely changed. I think they’re reading our posts and changing their behavior accordingly. If you’re not affected, don’t trust anybody. It’s not just you. You’re not crazy.
I made it to my family’s house. Dad’s passed out drunk, and Tracy is making some coffee. Will is talking to them quietly in the other room. I wish I could hear what they were saying. I have this strange feeling that Will might be making the case to lock me up. If most of this is in my head, I must look totally insane to him.
Or… what if he’s been compromised? What if he’s already looked at the Moon?
Guys, I don’t know what to do. I panicked. I’ve only got like thirty in cash on me. I ran.
I ran away. I took my stuff and I bolted. I couldn’t risk getting locked up.
I’ve been hiding out in an abandoned house down the street for two days and using the neighbor’s unprotected wireless.
I used to listen to music with the kid who lived in this abandoned house. He’s gone, but the house is still in good shape. I don’t think anybody will be looking for me indoors, or so close.
This’ll work, because it has to. I’ll figure out how to live.
Other people were using this house as a hideout. I’m cramped in a basement closet, and I’ve been here for hours. They’re weird. Cultish, in a way. They’re all dressed in plain brown clothes that look like someone’s piss-poor attempt to be inconspicuous. That just makes it blatantly obvious they’re not normal.
They talk funny, too, but they seem just as wary of what’s going on. I saw them peering out windows and hiding when a car drove by.
Those people found me somehow, like they knew where I was hiding. But that little showdown was two weeks ago. They keep to themselves, and I still find them very strange, but they’re just trying to figure out what’s going on, too.
I’m still not sure this isn’t all just in my head.
I’ve been trying to get a read on these people. They seem like foreigners, but they speak perfect English. If they’re a cult, I can’t figure out what they’re called. They seem to be worried about another half of their group that got changed by the Moon.
I’m almost out of pills. I’m nervous, and I feel surreal all the time. I have a strong feeling I’m hallucinating these people entirely.
I sneak out and get food at night. At first, I used cash, but I didn’t like the suspicious looks I got from the people at the store. How much of the world is affected, now? It seems like society is going on just fine without me, and I’m the Crazy Donald on the fringes.
Am I standing around muttering to myself on a corner somewhere? Maybe not, but I’m still living in a basement and hallucinating a bunch of brown-clothed cultish strangers.
It’s getting cold, too, now that it’s November. I notice people are replying less and less on this forum. I appreciate your offers to have pizza delivered, but I’m too scared to give out my address. I’ve gotta steal food.
For the sake of God… I don’t understand. I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.
They found me.
A dozen men and women – and my dad, Tracy, and Laura – found me.
They stood outside the house and shouted for me to come out.
“Come on out, son,” my dad yelled, his face a little red from drinking.
I peered out the window.
Behind me, the brown-clothed people prepared to fight with makeshift weapons. I thought it hilarious that my hallucinations were preparing for battle – like they could do anything.
“Look,” Tracy yelled. “We know you’re scared because of what you did to that poor girl. Don’t worry. We convinced her not to press charges. Come on out, and everything will be fine.”
What were they waiting for? Why didn’t they just storm the house? They had more than enough people… and the molten Moon cast everything outside in lurid orange, making me terrified of even touching the sickly light streaming in the window.
Outside, they muttered among themselves, and then Laura took a turn. “Alek, we’re all really worried about you. You need to come out of your own free will. It’ll show us you’re not violent.”
“Don’t do it,” a voice said beside me.
I turned and looked in surprise. “Will?!”
“Yeah, we’re not going out for anything. They can rot in hell.”
I stared. “When did you get here?”
“What?” he asked, frowning. “I’ve been here the whole time, hiding out with you. We’re not gonna get caught and turned into one of them.”
Was I losing my mind? Or had he just snuck in the back and said all this to confuse me? How could I have forgotten that he was here the whole time? I wished I had time to go back and read what I’d written down. Had I mentioned Will at all recently?
“Ah, the hell with it,” my dad yelled. “We don’t have time for the cat-and-mouse game anymore. We need to be ready for His coming. Come outside right now!”
“No!” I shouted back.
He lifted a gun – not at me, but at Tracy. She shouted next. “Alek and Will, you both better come out, or you’re going to start paying the price for resisting.”
“Don’t do it,” Will told me gruffly.
“I’m gonna count to three, boy,” my dad yelled. “Three…two…one…”
I didn’t move.
The gunshot rang out with a surprising auditory punch, and I felt my awareness go numb. Had he really just…?
Tracy fell to the ground, bleeding from the side of her head.
He lifted the gun and pointed it at Laura. “Do you understand? I’m gonna count to three…”
I stared, horrified.
Beside me, Will was crying.
Behind me, the strange brown-clothed people had used the opportunity to slip out the back door and escape – if they’d even existed at all.
“No!” I insisted, trying to hold him – but he tore free and moved for the front door.
“Don’t do it!” he yelled, going out with his hands up. “Don’t kill her!”
My dad smiled. “That’s one. Alek, come out now.”
Will faced the house, his expression resigned. “Come on, Alek. We don’t have a choice.”
He was right, in a way. I had no money, no allies, and no idea what was really going on. Hesitantly, I stepped outside.
Will grinned, and the dozen men and women snatched me.
But he didn’t look at the Moon.
He didn’t look.
He didn’t need to… he’d already been changed.
I’d been tricked.
I’d been tricked because I was easy and vulnerable.
They held my head and forced me to stare up, and some even held my eyelids open.
As I watched, the blazing cloud of fire around the molten Moon seemed to condense, swirl, and disappear into me, leaving behind a silver crescent.
They let me go after thirty seconds. They didn’t need to hold me anymore.
I was myself, still, but… no longer.
It was like having access to another room in my mind. In one room, I was me. In the other, I was also me, but a me that eagerly awaited the coming of the Dreamer On High. I hated the fact that some people did not believe in Him, and I wanted to seek them out and make them see. They had to see his glory. They all had to see his glory…
But a temple of self remained within. They didn’t know. The slightest resistance kept the believer in me from mentioning that I was out of pills.
I was utterly His for a week or two… but somewhere around the first or second of December, the lack of pills began setting in.
I write this to you now, friends, because we are all on this forum for a reason. We’ve all got our issues – and those issues can free us. I write to you now, completely free, and… they don’t know. They don’t know that I’m myself once more. There’s talk of His coming in one more cycle of the Moon, which I think means something big is happening in the next month. December 2014 is not going to be a good month for humanity… but I’m going to do my best to get close to whatever is going to happen.
And I’m going to make sure it crashes and burns.
If you’re out there, and you’re still reading any of this, you have to do the same. Don’t let them know that you know. When they were few, they spread through deception, but they’re not afraid to be violent now. If anyone else is left, lay low, and wait for the right moment.
I’ll write again when I can.
I never knew how hard it would be to set up a resistance movement. You can’t trust anyone at all.
I wished I’d had more time to watch spy movies. We had to come up with tactics on our own, especially because we didn’t have the same test that the Changed had. Eight is four.
They could force someone to look up at the Moon, and then assume that person had become theirs. They didn’t know that they could be wrong, and that those of us with mental issues were instead made whole by the conflicting energies in our skulls, but rumors were beginning to circulate to that effect. And, for us, even if a person was free and sound of mind, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t defect out of self-interest like Donald had. I’d resented him at first, but he’d taught me a valuable lesson.
I’ve never met my co-conspirators. We can’t meet. I can’t be sure they’re on my side, and they can’t be sure I’m on their side. Even this writing is part of the ongoing game of confusion; I know they’ll read this, and they know I know. The game is in the details – both true and false.
I don’t even know how many of us there are. All I know is that we’ve been passing messages through ridiculously elaborate methods, or anonymously online, and I’m getting some sense of what’s happening in the world at large.
That’s the weird part: life is going on as normal. Farmers are farming, cabbies are driving, office employees are lounging around talking and taking smoke breaks every hour. The only difference is that any talk of religion has been replaced by praises of the Dreamer On High.
The world waits with bated breath for the coming event. Some believe it will be a Rapture, and some believe the Dreamer will simply come in person and rule over us for all time.
Me? I’m using my newfound clarity and solid sense of reality to work my way up the ranks of trust. I feel smart and capable in a way I’ve never been before. Is this what normal people feel like all the time?
I understand now that individual motivations have not changed. Will still thinks he’s helping me, in his own way. He thought tricking me out of the house and forcing me to accept Him was saving me from the life of a homeless and mentally deficient outcast.
He wasn’t wrong, I suppose.
He continues to pursue relationships with higher-ups, and he continues to try to get us deeper into the organization and more trusted.
“We’re going to be His prime disciples,” Will says often, excited and determined. “Brother, I always said I’d take care of you. You and Laura… and Dad, too… we’re gonna be at the top of the food chain when the new order comes. We’ll be taken care of.”
I would nod and smile, but secretly think: tell that to our step-mom. Minutes are hours. It’s funny that we all started out paranoid and suspicious of the Changed, and now the Changed are paranoid and suspicious of us. Or is it sad, rather than funny, that the free human race is now the fringe?
They had a funeral and buried Tracy in the cemetery. Dad stayed sober for two whole days and cried publicly at the reception.
You killed her, you psychopath, I remember thinking to myself. But he didn’t feel guilty about it, since it had to be done, son.
The doublethink the Change engenders brings hypocrisy. You want what you want for your own life, but service to the Dreamer On High takes precedent over all of your desires, no matter how strong. That’s why I know that I can’t trust anyone, not even my own family. They wouldn’t hesitate to murder me, and passersby would cheer the silencing of another heretic.
That’s the crazy thing: I remember people acting this way before. This isn’t new to humanity. Suspected heretics are the new second-class citizens, the new victims of the witch-hunt. Different race? Different ideology? Different religion? Now it was down to simply having a different mind. It’s insane how scared they are of anyone who might not share their fanaticism.
I got a look at what their plan is. Yellow is blue. I understand, now, why their plan will actually work. They have, among them, members of the cult that I’d thought I’d imagined. They’re called brownshirts, now, because of their distinctively plain manner of dress, and they’re among the top priests of the Order. They’ve got abilities that I can’t explain. They can sense electromagnetic waves of all sorts, and they hate computers and robotics of any kind. I don’t know who they are, but I get the strangest sense that they’re not human. They look completely human, and they eat, breathe, and walk around, but the way they talk and move and peer at things is just… wrong somehow, like somebody who never learned to be a person.
Which is unfortunate, because I need to get into contact with at least one of them. If anyone out there knows a brownshirt that hasn’t been Changed, I need to meet them.
Leave a note at Location Yellow in eight minutes from the time of this post.
The meeting went well. There are two Free brownshirts still alive and present. From what they said, the rest of the Free fled southeast, over the mountains, and… to another universe, if you can believe that. They’re so strange, I kind of accept it when they say it so calmly. I also accept it because of what I’ve seen the Changed building in the center of the city.
Why Columbus, Ohio? This, I wondered often. The answer turned out to be very simple: they’re building the altar here because this is where the brownshirts were, and are. My hunch had been right.
The two said they’d remained behind to try to save what members of their kind they could. They claimed to be from elsewhere, and that they were on an exodus to a place of safety – a place where they hoped old alliances were still in place. They would not elaborate.
But they did say that they would help. We have our first real allies now.
They swore their assistance when I told them what I’d seen: a gigantic altar being built in front of the city capitol building. The base was mostly in place, but the rest seemed to involve strange biomechanical artifice, and, worse, a row of brownshirts that had been chained and integrated to the machine. They were aware and happy to be of service, save one. One remained Free, perhaps due to the same effect that kept me so, and his face and arms were battered and bloody from torture.
It’s a week until Christmas, and, somehow, I feel like it will be humanity’s Last Day. The irony is not lost on me: a holiday tale about the birth of a religious savior will, in some twisted sense, be made true.
Get ready, everyone. If the plan we’ve built together doesn’t work, it’s going to get bloody.
They caught somebody skulking about the high rises downtown. They know for certain that we exist now, and they know why we exist, because he was an escaped mental patient. I’ve come under intense scrutiny, but Will has been protecting me.
I fear that they will force me to undertake some act of loyalty to prove I’m not a heretic. They’ve been keeping Laura close. I have a feeling they’re going to ask me to kill her.
She and I haven’t been close since my illness started, but that’s just one more reason I don’t think I can bring myself to do it. She’s still my sister.
But the entire world’s on the line…
I’ve been watched and followed recently. Updates and communication are going to get sparse. Stick to the plan, everyone. Two days remain. The altar construction seems right on schedule.
God, it’s not going to work! I don’t think even half of you will get this message in time, but it’s not going to work! My brownshirt allies sensed it first, and, then, an observatory contact of mine confirmed it – not that the holy news isn’t spreading among the Changed like wildfire.
There are five more objects on the way, coming in at near-light-speed. They’ll be in here in a day and a half, roughly, same as the first took from detection to arrival. God, we’ve nearly lost it all to just one. It sits up there, mocking us, brainwashing us, and now five more are coming?
This can’t be a coincidence. The timing is too neat. A day and a half to Christmas; a day and a half to the ritual; a day and a half to the arrival of five more apocalyptic near-luminous objects. Will they hit Earth? If so, we’ll never know, because we’ll all be dead. Perhaps the Moon saved us the first time… but if these five also land on the Moon, the threat of the Dreamer On High will grow sixfold. What are these godforsaken things? Seeds? Embryos? Brain matrices, portals, what? I can only imagine, and theorizing is pointless. If we don’t stop this before they arrive, we lose.
We lose everything.
We have to move up the plan. We have to strike now. But it won’t work unless everyone’s on board… we’re in a serious bind here.
Spread the word: we have to strike at the alternate time we discussed from the beginning.
It’s hard for me to think back on it all. Quite a few of you have asked me to detail exactly what happened on that day. Now that January is over and a month has passed, I think I can face it. News and understanding has been fragmented, obviously, but I do think I can paint a clear picture.
As you know, our plan didn’t work. It was a really good try, but we were amateurs, and half of us were spies and defectors. It did help that absolute chaos broke out at the proper time.
I went there on Christmas morning, to the city center. Tens of thousands had gathered to see the Coming of the Dreamer On High. They danced under the burning light of the Moon, their minds aflame with rapturous love. To them, the Moon was silver, and all was right with the world. They could not see the flames.
My two brownshirt allies stood with me, wearing the normal clothes I’d found for them. I’d trained them on how to act, and we’d worked together to mask our feel, because they said their kin could sense them otherwise. Will thought they were just two acquaintances of mine, and he was thrilled to see me making friends.
Will was the High Priest’s assistant by then, but that old man didn’t trust me very much. I had to stand a bit away from the altar, in the dense crowd, while the High Priest began giving a speech to thunderous cheers and applause.
The weird thing is – weird in many ways, as it turned out – was that the altar was already active. They’d built it and completed the first parts of the ritual the night before. A gigantic oval lay torn in space in the middle of it, kept open by the row of chained brownshirts. It was a portal; an honest-to-God portal in space. That’s not the weird part, though: my two allies whispered that it shouldn’t be able to do what it was doing.
It wasn’t just a portal in space. Among the random flitting locations on Earth it displayed, I recognized some as very ancient, but bustling with life. It was showing other times, too. I saw a tribe of cavemen. I saw the Colossus of Rhodes. I saw the crowd, our crowd, then and there, from behind. Many of the sea of people waved at themselves for a few moments, laughing and cheering.
That should have been impossible, my allies told me. The configuration of the altar was not just augmenting and focusing the abilities of the brownshirts, it was fracturing spacetime, too. Whatever might have intended to use that portal, they said, it was something extraordinarily dangerous. They couldn’t emphasize it enough: there was dangerous, like a gun; really dangerous, like a nuclear bomb; extremely dangerous, like a universe-eating swarm of machines, and then… whatever this was.
The force behind this creation was worse, somehow, than all that. They couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what it might be.
But it didn’t make sense to me. The Dreamer On High was on the Moon. That much had to be true. The object had hit, the Moon had gone molten – and remained molten, so massive as it was, casting lurid orange over my Free senses and the crowds and high rises around me – and then, the Dreamer On High had begun His insidious work from afar.
He was already here. He didn’t need a portal strong enough to fracture spacetime. He was already here, but stuck on the Moon. And now, five more somethings were coming to reinforce his power.
So what was this portal for?
I understood the gravity of our errors the moment I saw Him. A black-robed figure moved through the crowd, parting disciples like waves. A hood covered his face, but I knew who it was the moment I saw him. He walked slowly up to the altar and faced his High Priest. My brother Will stood to the side among many helpers and assistants, each dressed in flowing purple and gold. Next to them, and in many strategic places, stood brutish men with guns.
We’d had provisions in our plan to handle the men with guns, but that plan was on thin ice now. The Dreamer On High was already here. They’d summoned him the night before. They’d brought him to Earth somehow the night before our estimations.
We’d been tricked. We’d been outsmarted. They hadn’t cared about the holiday at all. They’d just used it to subtly dupe us!
He moved past me, almost close enough to touch. I thought, in my mind, that I should pull my knife, leap forward, and slice His throat – but chill waves kept me frozen in place.
My two brownshirt allies looked away lest he sense them.
Had that been my chance? I began feeling my limbs again as he stepped up onto the altar. At that moment, the crowd murmured, and I turned to look with the rest of humanity.
A single man ran down the empty wake left by the Dreamer’s passing. He looked wild and half-homeless, but desperate. The men with guns hefted their weapons and began to aim, but they were too late to stop his simple attempt.
He hurled a book at the portal.
That was all.
With twenty thousand other pairs of eyes, I watched it sail through the air. It wasn’t a fiction book, as it had no image on the cover. It must have been a journal.
It looked like it was about to fall short, but the effect was an optical illusion. It curved up a bit in the roiling air and sailed into the vast portal.
The moment it passed through, the portal flashed into a dozen fractured images of other, similar books sailing through the air. Behind them, we could all plainly see other individual men and women in other crowds completing throws in the midst of vast crowds. In each alternate version of our own scene, a Dreamer stood, black-robed, calm, and unmoving.
Instead of shooting him outright, the armed thugs grabbed the lone man and brought him to the ground. Whoever he was, the lone man screamed for help, half in gibberish. No one helped him. How could they? To do so would mean death.
“That’s what it’s for,” one of my brownshirt allies whispered. “He’s accessing a different vector than we expected. He’s not trying to access alternate Earths in the parallel reality sense. He’s trying to access different quantum choice trees of this universe.”
“What?” I asked fiercely, sort of grasping what he was talking about.
He moved a little closer to speak without being heard by the crowd pressed against us. “This could have happened a thousand different ways. We could have come to other cities. A different man or woman could have thrown that book. The Dreamer On High could have presented itself in any number of ways. That’s what you’re seeing: all the other presents and futures of these events.”
I kept my expression positive despite my intense worry about what he was describing. We hadn’t understood or planned for any of this. “Why?”
A blasting tidal wave of utter quiet tore across the city center. As one, humanity froze. The Dreamer turned to face us.
A vast darkness comes.
A cheer began swelling.
The chill voice, as if someone were whispering directly into our minds, brought absolute stillness.
I can sense that not all of you love me. I can feel your minds. I can feel your hatred.
I gulped, and kept my thoughts positive. Each of my two allies clutched one of my arms and helped hide us from the probing energies roving through the air.
I speak to you now, non-believers. A great darkness is coming. I have always been here, watching you from just outside the walls. Security is illusion. Safety is a self-imposed tomb.
I reeled under the icy cold of his words in my thoughts, until something occurred to me: why was he speaking to us at all? He would only address us in this manner if we were threats, and if we actually stood a chance.
The portal’s destinations were starting to slow down, going from rapid randomness to slowing coherence, almost as if a spinning wheel was losing momentum as someone applied the brakes. I could see the chained brownshirts focusing. A thug near the one Free brownshirt applied a shocking prod to him to force him to comply, too.
If the Dreamer was addressing us at all, then we actually stood a chance. I lifted the flare gun I’d hidden under my shirt, wondering if it might be the last act I ever took. I pulled the trigger, and an orange flare shot up, burning the color of the molten sky.
As I said, absolute chaos did break out at the proper time.
It turned out that two of the armed men were with us. They rotated in place and immediately shot several of their fellows in the back.
The crowd around us surged intensely, and fighting broke out all around. Nobody knew who the enemy was; Changed or Free, everyone suspected everyone else. It was as we’d expected, but I hadn’t anticipated the sheer violence. Blood sprayed through the air as friend murdered friend; as family murdered family.
A concerted push aimed for the altar plateau – our plan, actually taking shape.
A knot of men, women, and even teenagers that I’d never seen before surrounded us, and we punched, sliced, and kicked our way to the staging area while five blue stars grew brighter in the sky – the approaching objects, blueshifted by their sheer speed.
The goal wasn’t to get me to the portal – it was to get our two allies close. Together, the two Free brownshirts stared at the portal, and the space around it trembled from the interference. Somehow, though, it was me that the Dreamer turned to face.
The command was inviolable, and I froze as ordinary men and women massacred each other in a circle around the two of us.
Order them to stop.
I’d never felt pain like that, and I can still remember it vividly: the two rooms in my mind began cracking as if their very foundations were being assaulted. I remember shaking, and seeing my vision brim red. Blood began welling out of my eyes.
Behind the Dreamer, Will pushed his way through the fighting and reached me. “Stop hurting him!” At that, the black-robed figure turned his attention on my brother instead.
That freed me, and I stumbled forward through misty red, lurid orange, and growing blue to feebly try to tackle the Dreamer On High.
I fell right through him. He was an illusion.
“The portal,” I breathed, writhing on flat metal. “How can you use it if you’re not here?”
It’s not for me. It’s for you – all of you. I am your savior. There is a chain of events in which the human race survives the coming darkness. There is one future in which you escape the crushing forces that approach. You will come to that land of plenty and be safe there… under me.
The Dreamer stood in place and looked up at the molten orange sphere hanging low above us. He lowered his hooded face as five streaks of vivid blue rapidly sliced across the sky.
I turned my head away as blinding white and orange exploded above. Four successive impacts followed, and the sea of people fighting one another fell in waves against the sheer brightness. The ground trembled beneath us, and incredible winds began pouring through the channels between the high rises.
Many began running without prompting, and the rest organized an evacuation. I helped unchain the brownshirts, who were all now Free. We ran.
The Dreamer was gone, the portal was gone, and, as you all know, so was the Moon. A ring of molten rock arcs through the sky now, lighting each day and each night in sick orange until it cools.
The remains of the Dreamer On High are up there, too; titanic gobs of unidentifiable organic mass that many say looks like brain matter. I believe it.
Thing is, we never understood what we were facing: the Dreamer hadn’t come with that first object. It had always been there. It had, in all likelihood, formed the Moon by its arrival. That’s why we have – well, had – two Moons, and why one has always been so different from the other. The other Moon lurks still beyond the molten ring, glimmering with reflected orange. I don’t like that sight at all. Not one bit. I still feel watched.
Our natural Moon will go back to staying beneath my horizon for three months soon, like it was from October to December, and I can’t wait for that reprieve. Let the southern hemisphere take a turn feeling creeped out.
Some unknown power shot those objects at us eons ago – some power unrelated to the Dreamer. That’s what we figure, now, and I’m sure you’ve all heard the theories. The first object was a calibration test, possibly, and failed to kill the Dreamer On High. The next five were right on target and completely obliterated its entire silvery sphere just to make sure.
Whoever had fired those objects hadn’t been trying to kill us. They’d been trying to save us. Had they suffered at the hands of the Dreamer On High, or something like it? Had this incredible gift been their final act? Scientists turned their telescopes toward the origin point, but there was nothing left there now. That star had gone nova when Earth was in its infancy.
Whoever they’d been, they’d saved us without a word and without a single thank you. Still, we thanked them the world over.
But I can’t help feeling like we’re not safe. The words the Dreamer spoke to me – and to nobody else – linger with me. Was it actually, in its own twisted way, trying to save us from something worse?
The brownshirts have moved on, but they left me and the other members of the resistance they trusted with a few concerns.
First, if they can find the rest of their people – the ones that moved on – and if they can find the old allies they spoke of, they’ll come back for us to make sure we’re alright.
Second, they left us with a small metallic chip, one of several they had, that will show us the way to some sort of safe haven if they never manage to return. The chip is very old, and I’m not sure how to use it, but I’m certain we’ll figure it out if the coming darkness turns out to be real.
And, finally – now this was the oddest one – they warned that someone or something was hunting them. They didn’t know who or what it was, only that they sensed it on their trail, and that it had already passed through here following the rest of their kind. There was no guarantee the hunter or hunters would not return. They requested: if anyone came through here asking about them, lie.
Gladly, I told them. That is why I give no specific descriptions in my tale here. I don’t want the hunter to know what they look like. As far as anyone else is concerned, they’re just slightly odd humans.
Me, I’m procrastinating. I have to go visit Will’s grave with Laura today. Dad can’t go, of course, because he drinks even more than before this all happened; than before he killed Tracy, the only woman who ever put up with him.
It’s just me and my sister now, and I’m left in Will’s place to take care of the tattered remains of our family. On the bright side, I don’t need pills anymore. The Dreamer permanently gave me wholeness of mind even as it took away my older brother. He died there on that altar while taking the Dreamer’s attack in my place. He died there a hero, along with the thousands of others who didn’t survive Christmas day.
And the human race recovers from their shared hangover together, with me as a new member. I’ve got a strong handle on myself now, and a new confidence born of everything I went through. I’m even going on a second date with Ashley in a few days, and, this time, I think I won’t screw it up.
Silver linings, I suppose.
Yeah, I’m finally a functioning member of the human race, alright. Only, I’m not sure I like this club. I can’t help but dwell on the statistics that came out last week. According to the surveys and studies done after the fact, only eighteen percent of the population truly came under the Dreamer’s control.
Eighteen percent. That’s how many people were one hundred percent brainwashed. That’s how many human beings have completely whole minds. It was like a grand social experiment, the lead scientist said on TV.
Only eighteen percent. The rest were partially controlled, or totally free. The rest simply fell in line out of fear, self-preservation, and paranoia. That’s the thing: like so many eras in human history, nobody knew who was who. Nobody knew who to trust. Lines of communication were controlled by key members of the Changed, and neighbors were turned against one another in classic fashion. I can’t shake the dark despair that such news leaves in me. The Dreamer had no power – except what we gave it.
Darkness always fades.
Dawn always follows.
Nightmares never last – but neither do dreams.
I’ve been asked to write this down in a more formal manner. I’ve included my past online posts in the first half to give context to those who are reading this. I need you to understand why you must fight alongside us.
Somebody out there saved us. We’ll never know who. We’ll never know why. I’d like to think it was an amazing act of compassion, done without thanks for a world that those unknown saviors would never know or see. Some people think it was just an accident, due to the lack of an accompanying message or explanation, but I can’t believe that. Maybe they did send a signal, but we didn’t have the technology to hear it. Maybe it faded over the ages. In any case, I’m afraid they might have done it for nothing.
A complete upheaval of the world’s political structure might have come at the hands of the Dreamer On High, but it was human beings that were in the way of putting things back together. Those who committed the worst atrocities had their actions obsessively scrutinized. Had they been completely under the influence? Or had they been they faking a brainwashed state to fit in and survive? Either answer was likely to get a person dragged out into the streets and hung for all to see.
There was the fear, too, that some had remained converted; that some were still working against humanity. Neighbor turned against neighbor, and entire suburbs broke out in violence.
A knot of us former resistance members ended up clustered in one empty neighborhood, living together communally as the national infrastructure started to fall apart. Everyone thought it was going to be temporary, but I started to wake up in an anxious sweat once the first of the month passed and I realized none of us had paid rent. It was such a small, strange thing, but my life had always had that regular interruption. Before the crisis era, I’d spent most of my days avoiding human contact, but the first of the month had always involved an uncomfortable little trip to the landlord’s place to drop off a check.
None of us had paid rent – and, worse, nobody had come around to the houses to ask for it.
I’d anonymously met most of our new community online as part of our desperate and ultimately unnecessary resistance movement. We were a gritty mix of outcasts and the deranged – one of the necessary prerequisites for joining in such a dangerous effort had been that one had to have had nothing to lose. The deranged had been cured of their mental ills by the Dreamer On High’s influence, but our lone-wolf personalities had remained. Our new life was tough going, but it got easier the more the rest of the world fell apart.
Laura did her best to contribute. Our father had disappeared, and I knew she missed him, but she spoke little on that topic – or any other. Her twenty-fourth birthday came and went in a world where parties didn’t exist and birthdays didn’t matter. She stopped speaking completely that day, and began spending most of her time tending to our makeshift gardens.
Ashley didn’t belong with us at all. I didn’t know why she stayed. In a sense, as society unraveled, the concept of dating itself had ceased to exist somewhere around our fourth or fifth date. I guessed that she remained near me purely because I was the only one left that she knew. I wasn’t sure what she thought of me, but I still considered myself that awkward and out-of-touch metalhead, and the only thing I could do was continue to be myself. We slept in the same bed, among… other things… but neither of us exchanged a single word about it. All the conversations and promises that usually went with relationships were absent; we simply existed.
Without jobs, our community spent much of its time online, trying to gather as much information as we could. Things did not look good. Humanity had become obsessed with the occult. Reports of all sorts of terrible creatures, entities, and threats kept popping up, and it sounded like those reporting actually believed their own tales. I was sitting outside on the porch of my unpaid-for house, idly studying the chip the brownshirts had given me, when the truth of those tales finally reached us.
She wandered on down the main road of our suburb, unsure of her direction. Despite lacking signs of age, her skin was ivory pale, and her braided hair ran stark white over her shoulder. Although her arms were bare, she wore what looked like dark green combat armor, complete down to her skin-conforming leg plates.
Across the street, and on his own porch, Redding stood up. He’d been a separatist subsistence farmer before, and he had continued growing food here in our community, but his quiet ways belied a deep caring. He was the first to run toward her.
Maybe he wasn’t looking hard enough, or maybe he didn’t think anything of it, but I caught a flash of her unnatural emerald eyes before he did. “Redding! Stop!” Behind me, I saw movement on several porches as other people came outside in a hurry.
Her gait was not stiff. That much I noticed. She wasn’t dead like a zombie might have been; it was her cold expression and uncaring approach that struck me as not alive. Her eyes fixated on Redding, and he finally noticed the glimmering emeralds therein – but it was too late. She raised her palm, opened her fingers, and angled her head ever so slightly in a manner I knew implied targeted violence.
Her palm had something inside it, some serrated maw; the many horror movies I’d seen told me some sort of lethal organ or device was about to leap from it. I ran as hard as I could, knowing there was no way I was going to reach him in time -
But she closed her fingers, lowered her hand, and tilted her head down and to the left with a concerned expression.
I grabbed Redding and began pulling him away. He was in shock, and hard to keep upright. She lifted her head back up and set those shining green eyes on me. “Wait.”
Starting to walk again, she moved forward along the street, only stopping once she reached a spot dead center between our porches. Her otherworldly gaze circled our makeshift neighborhood as she took stock of each of us.
I heard Ashley challenge her from our shared stoop. “What do you want?”
The ivory-skinned and white-haired newcomer gazed at her, emerald eyes narrowed. "I -" She paused at that word, as if it was unfamiliar. "I… do not know." She continued turning, keeping each of us in sight. "I… should not be capable of independent thought."
Redding had been putty in my arms, but he finally regained enough will to stand once he realized she was actually in trouble. “No thoughts? Why not?”
She turned her verdant sights on him. “I serve…” Her words faded as she seemed to grow distant. “No one, now. Her Glory is gone.”
It was my turn to speak. “Gone?”
Ashley came down from the porch to stand beside me. “And you are?”
“A murderer,” the strange woman replied in a flat tone. “I murdered in service of Her Glory for all time. Eternity, it would seem, has ended.”
All eyes – except hers – were on me. Why were people looking to me for answers? I was closest, and had been the first to act. My thoughts raced, but I knew one thing: the tales we’d seen online were real, and the dangers plaguing the world were lethal. We had to carefully withdraw from the situation. “Everyone go back inside. Lock your doors, close your blinds. Say nothing further.”
The others silently agreed with me, and we crept into our various houses, our wary gazes locked on the self-professed murderess the entire time. I watched her through gaps in the upstairs blinds for a time, and then Ashley took over. At some point, I snapped out of a doze and rejoined her. Night had fallen, and pools of dim orange light dotted the street.
“She’s still standing there,” Ashley whispered. “She hasn’t moved at all – and I mean at all.”
I sighed. “She’s not going to go away.”
Ashley shook her head.
It was clear something needed to be done, so I headed back downstairs. Scared out of my wits, but quite aware that none of our other shut-ins were going to do it, I scrounged up a garbage can lid for whatever scant protection it might offer and approached her again. I remember that moment vividly. The night air was cool on my face, but the heat of anxiety kept me sweating. “What are you doing?”
She turned her head, but did not rotate her body. “Standing.”
“Don’t you have somewhere to be? Somewhere to go?” I called over.
I should have expected her flat answer. “No.”
What else was there to say? “Please move on.”
She turned her head forward and began walking in the direction her feet had already been facing.
I frowned. “Wait, why are you doing that?”
“Because you asked me to,” she said, without stopping.
Overcome with a strange notion, I told her to stop.
She froze in place, with one of her feet still two inches above the ground.
“Stand,” I told her.
She lowered her foot and stood straight.
“You’re taking orders from me,” I realized aloud, inching closer to her. “Why?”
She turned and faced me, her blank expression somehow momentarily more serious. “I serve.”
It occurred to me that she was being literal. What else could a guy do? “Alright then. You take orders from me now, and nobody else. Is that acceptable?”
“I serve,” she replied.
Keeping my garbage can lid at the ready, I came right up near her and studied her by the dim orange emanating from the streetlight overhead. Her emerald eyes seemed brown under that color – almost normal – but her skin and hair were pure orange, their base white adding nothing. Shivering with unhappy anticipation, I reached out to poke her arm near her dark green plated chest armor. A large emerald shoulder plate crested that arm, and not the other. I thought I saw weird energies running through it. Avoiding whatever that device was, I let my finger make contact near her elbow.
She was cold to the touch.
I grimaced. “Are you dead?”
I should have expected that flat answer, too. “Yes.”
“Then how are you still walking around?”
“My cells have all been retrofitted with replacement biomechanical support systems.”
“Ah.” I decided I’d had enough for the night. “Go, uh… guard. Protect our neighborhood.”
Lowering her forehead in a very foreign sort of nod, she turned and began walking toward the entrance to the suburb.
The encounter had been odd, but not lethal. Had we been lucky? Many kept watch, but I slept. I had a weird confidence that she would follow my orders. There’d been a sort of uncaring decency inside her emptiness – I’d heard no malice or intent of any kind. She simply – as she’d put it – served.
Once morning came, I dragged myself up and got ready. I knew there would be a community meeting to discuss what to do about her, and to share concerns that the tales we’d heard online were actually true. The dawn-lit street was as good a place as any for it. Twenty-odd of us were already standing outside talking when I first joined them. Again, they looked to me for reasons I didn’t understand. Maybe it was because she was technically mine now.
“I don’t think she’s dangerous,” I told them.
“That’s not the point,” Hernandez shot back. He had a baby son to protect, so he was more cautious than most of us. “Her existence means all that other shit we’ve been hearing about is real. This whole world’s flooded with deadly.”
It seemed like they’d discussed some dire course of action already. “What do you want to do about that?”
Redding stepped forward. “I say we leave.”
A choir of agreement echoed his words.
“Where?” I asked. “Everywhere’s gonna be like this.”
“Not everywhere,” Hernandez said bluntly. “You got that chip the brownshirts said would lead us to a place of safety.”
I’d hidden it somewhere safe, but I still took an instinctive step back. “Yeah?”
“I agree with Redding. We should use that chip to guide us, and we should go.”
The thought immediately terrified me. “We have no idea if it actually functions, or where it’ll take us if it does.” I looked to the clear blue sky, and to the houses all around us. “The electricity still works, the water still runs. We haven’t been attacked. We can prepare, so that we can leave if we need to, but shouldn’t we stay until we see something more substantial? That chip could lead us anywhere. To Hell, or through it. We have no idea. You wanna take your son into the unknown like that?”
Begrudging murmurs circled the group as they listened. Tense, but suspecting I needed to end the conversation lest someone continue arguing, I headed back to my house.
Ashley stood captive in the dim living room, her head gripped by some sort of black sphere that had weird protrusions shooting out from it. Much of the furniture had been destroyed, and Laura – her face full of anger, and her arms scratched and bruised rather profusely – was attacking the thing with a pitchfork.
I stared, completely confused – until Ashley screamed.
I tried to hit the dark object with something heavy that I’d grabbed from the corner, but it shot out a black pole-like limb and knocked me aside. Even as I tried to recover, I saw a drill-like protrusion begin spinning as it headed down toward Ashley’s head. She closed her eyes hard, and I charged – only to be brought up short by a green flash.
The transmorphic sphere fell to the ground, cleaved in twain.
The jade sickle that had done the slicing now arced through the air and retracted, curling into a series of clicking bones that slid back into the ivory woman’s hand. She stepped forward, gripped Ashley’s head, and turned her face from side to side. “Undamaged.” Next, the woman leaned down and studied the sphere. “Lethal to the individual, but nothing in the face of an army by itself. It is unlikely that this device is the only one of its kind.” Her assessment done, she stood, and began walking toward the door to continue her patrols.
“Wait!” Ashley shouted after her, still trembling.
The jade-armored woman did not stop. Laura gave me an insistent glance.
“Wait,” I called out.
Ashley approached her, still breathing hard. “What’s your name?”
The pale woman’s green eyes went searching at random for nearly six seconds before she spoke. “I was once called Verene.”
“Thank you, then, Verene.”
The woman nodded and continued walking with that same constant intensity. In moments, she was out the door again.
I leaned over the remains of the black sphere. The insides seemed both biological and mechanical. Where had it come from? I grabbed Ashley to me and held her close, glad that it hadn’t managed to kill her. She clutched me back, but did not cry. She hadn’t done that since we’d found out what had happened to her family during the Dreamer crisis.
Later that day, it was my turn for a run into Columbus proper. The city was too expansive for walking, and bandits were a possibility, so I took our sole truck. I didn’t want to leave Ashley alone, and she didn’t want to remain at the house, so she came with me.
I’ll never forget that drive.
Before that day, the world as I’d known it had run on a very clear set of rules. Even when the Dreamer On High had launched its bid to control the human race, the threat had operated in a specific manner. This was completely different: society was still operational, and human beings still walked the streets, populated the bars, and worked their jobs – but the strict workings of life had taken on random static.
Near the outskirts of the city, we stopped to let a gigantic mirrored octopus cross the road.
Driving into the city limits proper, we watched several columns of smoke rise from unchecked fires beneath. Framed by those distant columns, a dozen smokers stood outside a bar, ignoring the weird ghost-like entities floating down the sidewalk opposite. Several police cars whizzed by, alarms blaring, in active pursuit of a beast that looked like a quadruple-tusked boar. We slowed again as some sort of giant plant stalk came down from above to slither across half of the street, and I was forced to turn.
Ashley didn’t say anything, but I could see the despair on her face. It wasn’t absolute chaos, but it was enough to know our world was not going to get better. This might have been the coming darkness the Dreamer had warned of, or it might have been the stampede fleeing before it. In either case, the signs were clear.
Once we reached the supermarket, I parked around back, and I stuck close to her as we ran through the half-looted aisles. Pushing two carts that towered with supplies, we approached the check-out registers, only to find very long lines at the two still open.
I wanted to stay. I did. Staying in that line would have meant supporting the continuation of society and validating the bravery of those two clerks that had chosen to continue doing their jobs – but a strange mist was rolling closer outside. I just couldn’t do it. Ashley’s life was more important to me than keeping society cohesive, so I had us turn our carts, and we headed for the back.
The others in line knew what we were about, because they’d been thinking the same thing. At once, the two lines dissolved and each shopper went his or her own way. Just like that, among those of us in that store, the concepts of money and society had come to an end.
Shaking with fear at the approaching mist, I helped pile supplies into the car. Once we’d grabbed enough, I shouted for her to get in. We pulled away just as the fog rolled over the parking lot where we’d been, and just as the supermarket disappeared into the grey.
Her knuckles were white. That’s all I could see out of the corner of my eye: Ashley gripping the door. Her stern face betrayed little of fear.
Turn after turn took me away from one strange entity and toward another. Most wandered harmlessly; a few chased terrified pedestrians. Police and fire sirens were audible on every block.
A great many concerned and scared people were out on the streets, and I was forced to slowly push through them with the car. Some hit the windows and shouted, and Ashley screamed bloody murder at them. Society hadn’t come apart completely; they moved off, a little embarrassed.
Just as we reached the edge of the city and things began to quiet down, something high-pitched, mechanical, and enormous shot by overhead. I didn’t look. I had to focus on the road. I knew what it was, though: a jumbo jet had just gone down two blocks away. Ashley’s white-knuckled grip switched from the door to my arm, mirroring the painful pit in my stomach. I’d never really liked society, but this wasn’t a fate I’d ever wished upon it.
By the time we reached our little suburb, the silent decision had been made between us. Ashley got out of the car while I carried supplies, and she told everyone that it was time to leave.
I sent out a message online to as many forums and locations as I could: we were leaving to seek a place of safety, and the journey might be dangerous, but anyone was welcome. We would leave signposts and indicators every step of the way, if possible, but we had to depart within the week, and we had no food or supplies for anyone but ourselves. I didn’t think many would see the message, let alone take it seriously.
That Friday morning, we arrived at the specified location to find eight football stadiums’ worth of men, women, and children waiting for us – eight hundred thousand people who had heard of our potential escape and come to join us in our harrowing exodus across the multiverse.
Twenty percent died in the first three days.
The chip acted like a compass, leading us to naturally existing secret pathways between realities and opening them if need be, but it could not warn us of the dangers lying in wait.
The very first misstep took us to an Earth covered in oceans of a substance that looked like blood but smelled like something far worse. We stood on beaches made of bone and stared up in horror at an ivory sky. That white sky began rotating rather rapidly as we stood there, and many of us ran back into the crack the chip had shown us. Those that did not run instead screamed in unison moments later – and never returned, even though we waited two hours for them on the other side of the rift.
Each new step was difficult. The paths between realities were harrowing. Interdimensional space didn’t make any sense, and looking up while between worlds could send a person into a spiral of madness. I wasn’t sure what the solid surface was under our shoes, but we each described it differently. Let alone the fact that I could walk from reality to reality, why did I see the steps between worlds as a blue floor tile pattern from my favorite video game while Ashley saw it as cherry oak hardwood floors?
The way forward was rarely direct. I ordered Verene ahead often as a scout; few threats could harm one already dead, and her skill with the jade sickle took care of everything else. Our path became increasingly convoluted as we tried to avoid instantly lethal worlds in favor of places with less obvious dangers. In those first three days, we moved laterally far more often than I would have liked, and that eventually took us right to the edge of absolute nothingness.
The blue floor tiles simply stopped halfway down one interdimensional rift. I’d learned not to look up, but I had to dare a glance forward. It wasn’t a void the way space and stars might have been; it was actually and absolutely nothing. I wasn’t seeing it with light, but with my mind, and I perceived a tremendous canyon of pure absence filled with scattered glimmering dust. It was different than the inbetweens. It was as if something enormous had been there, but was no longer – a great many somethings now gone, leaving nothingness and dust in their wake on a scale unimaginable.
In that darkness, I began to sense distant slithering movement. Something was alive inside it, something that was crawling up from infinite lightless depths, and I could feel endless hunger radiating from that limitless ungodly pit.
We ran the other way, but some men and women went limp as they fled, felled by unseen predators. Those stalking invisible entities harassed us constantly, claiming many of us at random and without warning. We could feel them moving by, sometimes, through a chill or a whisper, but there was nothing we could do.
Random dangers, our pursuing invisible predators, and a lack of water claimed twenty percent of our initial group in that first three days.
Even so, thousands a day found us by following the signs we’d left on our path. Our group – and our trailing refugees – grew far faster than our losses.
Our primary need was water. Verene could consume a bit of each foreign source we found and report any toxins within, but the search was exhausting. Lacking any real rank or structure, I was forced to ask volunteers to spread out in unfamiliar worlds and look for water sources. Four times, they found none. After that, we were forced to stop and rest.
While the scouts went out, we set up camp in a wide bowl-shaped caldera populated with ancient trees. The lot of us spread across the miles of forest, but more people kept filtering in along our trail every few minutes. Ashley strung up a blanket from our supplies to form a crude shelter for the three of us, and Laura cooked the last of our jerky. Verene, our silent guardian, patrolled the impromptu campgrounds with vigilant emerald eyes.
It was the first time since we’d left home that I’d actually had a moment to sit and process what was happening. We were literally walking between realities, and heading for some unknown ancient place of safety whose continued existence was not guaranteed. There was no social structure to help us from back home: we could screw up and die, and that would be that.
But that was why so many people were following us, too. They had no choice. Home was falling apart, and the unknown offered a chance at survival.
Fighting exhaustion, I got up from our little shelter and decided to go for a walk. On the way, I noticed our multiple stadiums’ worth of people had formed natural little mazes with their shelters. I mentioned to Redding that we might build some wooden fences between the trees if we found water and stayed here long enough – thick fences that might really keep strange wildlife out. He shrugged, and I continued on.
I hadn’t seen much of the realities we’d passed through, as the danger had always been too high to stop and look around. This world, though, ran primordial and verdant, worthy of the name Earth the way we humans had known it. Climbing a steep slope, I found an overlook from which I could see our caldera and the forested horizon to the east and west.
Now that I was out from under the thick canopy of trees, I saw that the sky was a dark red even near noon, and I had to wonder what gasses or chemicals made it that color. We could breathe the atmosphere here, certainly, but it was always just below satisfying in oxygen content. If I exerted myself too much, I felt a bit smothered.
Sitting up there and watching the strangely off-color sun and clouds move in the sky, I tried to envision our path ahead. What exactly were we looking for? Would we even know if we found it? What if this was the safe world? Pulling out the chip, I toyed with it for hours, not really ready to head back to the crowded camp. Just before that orangish sunset, I saw something approaching from the horizon.
Some tremendous and wide force approached at speed. That was all I could discern. I ran down the slopes toward the camp, knowing I would never make it in time. As I ran, I began noticing how easy it was to progress. There were no little bushes or rocks, only high thick trees. Was the approaching phenomenon a regular occurrence? We’d camped in a deathtrap!
Through the forested evening gloom, I caught sight of the first few people as a thunderous roar overtook my shouts. They looked to me, and then started running alongside. I thought for sure that we were doomed, but I came upon hundreds huddled behind the beginnings of a crude thick fence. Blackish waters surged against that fence with incredible force, but did not spurt between its cracks. I stared for just a moment, comprehending the fact that the water beyond was no normal water – and that it was dark green under our flashlights. The red sky’s light had only made the water look black.
Running down the line, I found Redding and joined him in holding the fence up against the thunderous tide. I was certain nobody had any idea what was going on, but we were all doing the best we could. The strange water seemed to be self-cohesive; it refused to separate and pour through our barrier, instead rushing around the edges and sweeping away off into the distance.
As quickly as it had come, it was gone, peeling away up the slope behind us and disappearing among the trees.
I couldn’t believe it.
Redding, bless his work ethic, had begun putting up the fence that I’d mentioned. They’d only had the initial spearhead, but it had diverted the flow around the camp by virtue of its position.
We’d gotten insanely lucky.
All told, only a few dozen people of our five hundred thousand had died. Weirdly, they hadn’t been swept away – they’d drowned in place. The worse news, though, was that our scouts would never return. They’d found water, alright, but it had come upon them as a black tide out of the sunset.
“What should we do?” Redding asked me as we stood at the center of camp going over the damages. Everyone around him looked to me, strangers included. “You had the fence idea,” he elaborated. “You mastered the jade albino lady. You obviously have a good sense for these things. Clairvoyant, some would say.” He looked around. “These are just normal folk. We don’t know anything. Tell us what you think we should do.”
I’d spent all afternoon and evening thinking about it: the longer we took, the more resources we needed. We were all thirsty and hungry, and we had nothing but hostile landscapes to work with. Since nobody else seemed to have ideas, I gave them mine. “I think we should run for it. Headlong into and through all the dangers we find.”
They all remained silent, waiting.
I continued speaking, adding my reasoning. “The only thing we know for sure is that there might be a haven at the end of this compass we have. We’ve tried playing it safe, and now we’re out of time and water. What if we all starve here and it turns out the haven is only two realities away? And we’re not safe here, regardless. Every day, we lose more people to those shadow creatures hounding us. I say we run like hell and pray we make it. Once we find the haven, we set up camp and start doubling back for everyone still following.”
The faces around me showed only grim fear. Somewhere in back, I saw Ashley stand. She shouted loudly in agreement. Redding was visibly unsure, but he added his verbal support. Beside him, Laura gave a solemn and resigned nod.
Those small prompts turned uncomfortable public fear into meager shared hope, and men and women stood and began gathering up their things. I hadn’t exactly meant for us to leave at that specific moment, but they’d taken my suggestion that way, and I didn’t actually see any reason to wait.
It was startling how quickly everyone gathered. They all knew the deal, and they were all thirsty. A final desperate run really was our only hope. I ordered Verene to remain slightly ahead of me, and led what remained of my family and friends at the front. There could be no more dodging about: we had to take on every threat ahead. That meant we were the most at risk, but what could I do? The terrified average people behind us needed direction, and nobody else was stepping up to lead.
The compass led us to a natural crack in space on the slope near where I’d brooded all day.
I was terrified, too, but night was coming on, and I hoped that the darkness would somehow cover our flight. I almost couldn’t bring myself to do it, but Ashley took my hand, and we went together through the raving inbetweens.
The crack opened onto what could only be described as a latticed jungle. Vines grew in a grid above and all around us, and strange plants gestated in transparent purple and yellow pods between.
Someone or something was growing all manner of plant-based organisms, and I doubted they wanted us there. Through that verdant factory, we ran in absolute silence. Behind us, mothers covered their babies’ mouths, and fathers carried small children with haste. At intervals, our entire line froze and huddled down as a massive presence surged briefly through the area.
Perhaps we were too small to notice.
The next crack lay miles deep through that factory, and I wondered if that living structure went on forever. I certainly didn’t see any end. Did it cover the whole planet? There would be no time to investigate, though, as Ashley and I were already following Verene into the next world, with Laura just behind.
The next reality involved a sweaty trek between two enormous lava flows. After that, we pushed through waist-high snow on a world where the sky looked frozen solid. It was viciously cold – enough to give frostbite in minutes – but there was only a half-mile to the next crack, beyond which a perfectly flat red marble surface awaited us. It stretched to the horizon in every direction, offering no clue as to its purpose or manner of creation. The red marble ground was absolutely smooth and patterned chaotically, and that was all we knew.
Each new reality was rife with insane threats, but I was starting to understand that ours had not been different. We’d had a threat, just like all these worlds: the Dreamer On High, whose sleeping influence had probably kept us safe from other dangers. It had been the wolf, guarding and growing the herd for eventual consumption… would safety, then, be a matter of choosing an acceptable evil to live with?
I just couldn’t accept that idea. Though we were all tiring, I had us push on. Emerging from the next crack, we darted along a rocky grey slope – and came up short.
Below us on a bleak plain lay actual temporary buildings, tents, and fences. As I studied them under the deepening evening gloom, I saw figures in military gear patrolling the perimeter. They looked human! Had we reached the outskirts of safety?
Redding moved to get up, but I held him back. This was the first force with independent will and intent that we’d encountered. “Someone’s hunting the brownshirts, remember? And we’re going the same direction they went after their hunters moved on from our world. This could be them.”
“I’m inclined to be wary,” he whispered back. “But people are dying of thirst. We can’t wait.” He turned behind us. “Binoculars.” A pair were handed forward. He gazed through them for a moment, and then handed them to me.
I had to stare for nearly a minute to make sure: the figures on the darkening bleak plain had black eyes.
My heart sank.
Somewhere to my left, Verene calmly turned her head. “You have been noticed. I hear them speaking from behind that ridge.”
We should have expected patrolling scouts from a group with military organization. Silently, I motioned for everyone behind me to get ready for a potential fight. We couldn’t do much against guns, but there were hundreds of thousands of us rushing up from behind. Did this small force really want to tangle with us?
Evidently, they did not. As I watched through my binoculars, they swiftly and expertly disassembled their camp and hurried through a massive black sphere at the center that had previously been hidden by a command tent. In less than ten minutes, they were gone – along with any trace that they had been there.
“What the hell was that about?” Ashley murmured, taking her turn on the binoculars as true night finally descended.
I had no answer for her, but I was sure that these were the brownshirts’ hunters, and our potential enemies. Had we not stumbled upon them from another reality, we would never have seen even the slightest hint of their existence. That was disturbing.
But they’d set up a base here, which hinted at possible resources.
Running down the slope, we found a gushing spring waiting in the gravelly earth. Verene tested it and pronounced it safe to drink. I let a dozen others go first while I formed people into a line to prevent a riot, and then finally gulped some down myself. We had a pretty steady movement going, along with a few dedicated haulers pulling water out to fill canteens, and I almost thought we should stay the night and start again in the morning – until Redding fell, his mind blanked by one of our harassing shadow creatures.
I was out of empathy. I only had numbness.
I stared down at his lifeless body, and met his empty-eyed gaze without reaction.
We couldn’t stop.
No matter what we did, we would never be safe out in the wild multiverse – not ever.
We didn’t have time to give Redding a proper burial. We had to keep the line moving. The spring became a waystation, and we led those who had sipped and recovered onward into the chilly night. Miles out in that grey plain, by flashlight, we found two rifts maybe forty feet from each other – and the strange chip I’d been using as a compass sparked, flared, and went dark.
In that moment, I had the painful notion that we’d all just been sentenced to death. There was no way to hide my expression or what had happened, and the thick cluster of people around me began murmuring in fear and anguish. The news traveled back up the line, and I saw the quickly moving crowd begin to slow and scatter as they lost hope.
Looking between the two rifts – one of which led to a night-shrouded world, and one of which led to a world with a crazy multicolored sky that defied the time of day – I couldn’t help it. I knew that a loss of momentum meant death, so… I lied. “That means we’re here.”
Ashley frowned at me, and Laura perked up. Few of my original community remained, but the strangers surrounding me began to smile. “Which one do we enter?” someone asked.
Things hadn’t been going well for the human race. I wanted to break down crying, because I knew that we were probably doomed. Instead, I decided to march us on into that death with a smile on my face. I didn’t want Laura or Ashley to fear the end. “That one,” I said, pointing to the worse rift.
Everyone peered in at that multicolored sky and hesitated. A mother of two looked to me. “You sure?”
“Yes,” I lied. To shore up that lie, I gave an order. “Verene, we don’t need you anymore. Head back and help facilitate the line of refugees. Protect them as much as you can. If you can reach our original world, try to spread the news of where we’ve gone and how to follow.”
She nodded and stalked silently off into the night without hesitation.
The walking dead woman had been a source of strength and comfort for many, and those hundreds around me took hope from my dismissal of her. If we didn’t need her around, then it had to mean we were safe.
“Let’s go,” I said, heading into the multi-colored rift with a pained heart. Hand in hand with both Ashley and my sister, I prepared for the end.
Instead, we found more bleak and blasted gravel.
The sky was a horrendous quilt of nauseating colors – clearly night, yet still glowing – and an actual city lay on the horizon behind us, out of direct sight from the rift. Still tense, and refusing to believe we’d lucked out, I led the way toward it.
While still a few miles out, we noticed the damage. Skyscrapers stood rotting. A highway to our left had crumbled.
This world was dead.
Still carrying on, still holding the hands of my loved ones, I kept a brave face. I just wanted the end to come. I wanted something to slice out and kill us all with a whisper. No more pain, no more hard travel, no more starvation. We were all bruised, burned, chilled, hungry, thirsty, and tired to our very limits. Death, by then, would have been a relief.
Instead of death, we came upon a lengthy trench that curved from horizon to horizon, forming a possible ring around the destroyed city ahead.
I let go of the hands in mine when I saw him.
There in the trench, near a small concrete bunker, an armed soldier sat on his hands and knees, crying.
“Hello?” I called, hoping he would look up.
His eyes were not black.
“I’m not falling for this!” he screamed at me, before suddenly calming. “Wait… are you real?”
I stepped forward warily. “Yeah?” He stared at me, and I saw that one of his eyes was gruesomely bloodshot. There was no way he was seeing out of that mess. I tried not to stare. “My name’s Alek.”
“Jon,” he responded, standing quickly. He wiped his clothes free of grey dirt and fixed his hair after seeing all the people following me. He also carefully lifted his strapped gun off and placed it on the ground as a sign of peace. “Human?”
“Yes,” I told him, confused. “What the hell else would – well, I guess we’ve seen all sorts of horrible shit out here. Makes sense to ask.”
“How’d you get here?” he said, his eyes darting to Ashley and my sister, who stood behind me.
I gave him the truth. “Walked.”
“So you’re leaving? Are things that bad in there?”
He stared for a long moment. I could tell that he had not expected that answer at all. “How far did you walk to get here?”
“A couple dozen realities,” I said, studying his face for reactions. “Why?”
“You’re from out there?” He stepped back, astounded. “I knew there were some human worlds out there, but I’d heard bad things.”
I moved forward several steps, my arm held out in friendship. “Bad things sounds right. For the sake of God, please tell me we’ve found sanctuary.”
He grinned then, and clasped my hand rather than my arm. It was strange, but the sentiment was the same. “Consider this the border of sanctuary. I’m so damn glad to see people, even foreigners – you have no idea. I could use reinforcements. I just sent out a protective pulse before you arrived, but shit’ll be back to insane in a few hours.”
He explained his situation, and we made arrangements for a large number of volunteers to stay and help stave off annihilation. It helped that we understood what the black was – I’d seen it firsthand – and that we hated those bastard predators that lurked within it. In turn, we told him of all that we had seen, and warned him of a black-eyed military force out there that seemed to have ill intent.
He nodded at that. “Some of those brownshirts you mentioned came through here. Thought they’d sneak past without me knowin’, but I saw them. Didn’t shoot at them. Unarmed. But if they’re good people, and hunted, I won’t say a word to anyone who comes asking about them. I suggest you tell anyone you pass to do the same.”
“You know the way inside this border of yours?” I asked, desperately hopeful.
“Of course. There’s holes all over, big enough for a person or so.”
Deciding we could trust Jon, Ashley came closer. “How come you haven’t left?”
He gave a depressed sigh at that. “The gate has to be held shut. Besides, I don’t think I can leave. Don’t know what I’d do with myself after so long living like this.”
There was nothing else we could do for him. Moving on before his daily threats began, a couple hundred thousand of us piled through the rifts and into another world that Jon had told us was one level deeper into the guarded area. I wasn’t sure if I could fully believe his tale of a vast sphere of protected worlds, but the random invisible deaths to shadow predators had stopped.
For a time, it seemed like our fortunes might actually have been rising.
In that next world, we emerged into a night-shadowed alley – and then around a corner into the lamp-lit downtown area of an actual living city.
We’d made it.
Many broke down crying. Many clasped arms and shouted with joy. Those locals passing on the streets at first stared, and then began filming us with their phones. As more and more of my people poured out from the rift in the alley, I knew a new danger had found us: these people didn’t seem to have any idea how we were arriving. That meant that, not only did they not know who we were, they might not believe the tale of our journey, either.
Strangely emblazoned cars showed up, and I recognized the uniformed men who got out as a kind of police force. They formed blockades and shouted at us over loudspeakers, but we couldn’t stop the terrified line of people behind us from seeking safety. We continued to stream in, and soon filled their downtown area despite police efforts. By then, helicopters were flying overhead in the night sky, and some friendly locals showed us news reports streaming on their phones.
The attention of their entire world had seized upon us.
Ashley, Laura, and I had been the first to arrive, and we’d seen the situation unfold better than anyone. Ashley found a quiet moment in the crowd to whisper in my ear. “They’re not going to respond well to us. Imagine what we would have done if a million hungry refugees had started pouring into the city center from thin air one night.”
She was right. We’d found human society once more, but that just meant that we were in more danger than ever. I scanned the stormy sea of people, scared. “We have to contact somebody in power. Explain ourselves. Negotiate or something. We can’t let this spiral out of control.”
But it was already spiraling. Somewhere nearby, an angry cop raised his weapon and began shouting. I froze. The policeman looked like my father, but without the weight of decades of drinking. He wasn’t the broken man I’d lost in the chaos back home. He was a doppelganger from this reality. I knew it instinctively, but it still shocked me into dangerous inaction.
My sister took control. Laura looked to the refugees next to her, motioned down with her hands, and then sat. Getting the idea, Ashley and I sat as well, and those near us plopped to the ground. In a massive wave, every single one of us sat down on the chilly pavement and sidewalks.
One of the angry cop’s superiors waved him off – the entire world was watching. It didn’t matter what social structure or political alignment ran this area; the wholesale slaughter of a half-million strange new visitors would have been a global debacle.
We sat in terrified silence as our people continued to stream in. Those of us near the rift spread out and informed the newcomers about our passive resistance. I estimated that we numbered over a million by the time someone official made it to the scene.
Hundreds of fingers pointed at me, and I found myself again thrust into the position of speaking for everyone in our tribe. In this case, it meant being grabbed by a knot of police and dragged off, along with a dozen others who valiantly tried to hang onto me – Ashley and Laura included.
They stuffed us in the backs of police vehicles and began driving away. I wondered if that was the last time I would ever see my people again. There’d been a chance for public discourse, but I knew how the structures of power worked. Some politician was going to have us delivered to a private meeting, and we would discuss things there in a way that would be private and beneficial solely for him and his country. And, once we were done -
The window shattered next to my head, and I ducked away. The metal latticework there kept most of the glass from spilling onto me, and I stared out.
A streaming crowd of angry locals poured across the street, shaking our vehicle. Some of them took crowbars to the door, and it came off with surprising quickness. Ashley saw an opportunity in this, rather than threat, and she urged Laura and I out. She’d been right: the locals hurried us away from the scene, protecting us.
Someone held a phone up to me as we ran, filming my face as we passed under blue streetlights. I understood the intent, and there was no time to back down.
“We’re from an Earth maybe twenty to forty realities away, by my estimation,” I said to the camera. I was sure my desperation and fear were visible on my face. “We walked here through all sorts of hell in search of sanctuary, or asylum. Something terrible happened to our world, and everything has gone to shit out there, but we just passed through a protective border one reality higher to get here. A large number of our people and one of your soldiers are stationed there and keeping you all safe – for the moment – but he said the cracks are getting worse, and the walls of reality are fracturing more every day. Your world is not going to be safe much longer.”
Those locals who had rescued us now stopped in place. The phone lowered, and the recording ended. Men and women both stared at us from behind the bandanas that covered their mouths. One woman grabbed my forearm. “Is that… is that true?”
“Of course it’s true,” I told her. “Look at us. Starving, exhausted, terrified. Where the hell do you think we all came from?”
Gunfire rang out a block or two away, and our rescuers hurried us on again. I tried to shout over the sounds of the erupting warzone that I guessed was about to consume their world. “Who’s going to see that video?”
The rebel woman’s response was flat and grim.
That answer, among all of the things that have been said to me in the past few months, I should have expected the most.
You do not know her, but you do know me. With her help, I am the face of the underground once more; for a third time, the voice that rings out online in an anonymous rallying call. The police and politicians are trying to keep all of us here and unaware while danger approaches.
Their positions of power, their thrones and hoards, rely on you staying where you are. The moment you turn away from that supermarket checkout line, the concept of money and employment disappears, and their bank accounts cease to be anything but random numbers.
This text is the story of my people, or what was once my people. We are now one human race, and you must fight alongside us for freedom. I’m sure you’ve heard the first reports of otherworldly dangers leaking in. I know you’re aware of what has been smeared by the media as just a crazy rebellion erupting over all corners of the planet. We didn’t want to bring strife to your world, but it has arrived nonetheless.
Time is short. Will you sit in denial while your home crumbles around you, or will you fight to survive? You’ve read our tale. You already know our answer.
I’m an author of science fiction and horror. I write a wide range; everything from short story anthologies to full-length novels. As an avid fan of both genres myself, I try to create engaging works that, above all else, make the reader think.
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Explore the true anatomy of horror through these thirteen tales of despair and terror, each written by the author of the original short story “Psychosis.”
The Fire of the Soul
Strangers in a Graveyard
The Lonely Grave
The Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse
What is the nature of insanity? Follow one doctor’s hunt for dark Truth through a series of patient accounts, each further from the light than the last…
Contains all six of the popular Asylum series of horror stories.
Five longer tales designed to creep and disturb.
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Thirteen creepy short stories designed to disturb even the most jaded horror fan.
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The Everest Corpses
An Overheard Conversation
Smoke and Mirrors
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World of Glass
In a total surveillance society where every moment of every life is publicly recorded, three newly graduated Scientists make a youthful pact to change things for the better. Their naïve promise will shape the future in ways subtle and vast, perhaps offering a sliver of hope against the coming darkness, for this world of glass has reached a breaking point. Under the most powerful tool of oppression ever built, work is life, and speaking out means unemployment and starvation – but someone has found a way to communicate in secret, and the implications will be explosive beyond measure.
Read this tale of survival and awakening in an industrial dystopian surveillance society disturbingly not too far from our own – World of Glass, Book One of the Final Cycle:
Humanity has blazed a legacy of destruction and rebirth across an endless history of violence, but Time and Earth have finally run out. There is nowhere left to begin again. A hopeful promise between three friends; the meeting of two very different civilizations; one last struggle to master the human spirit – whether harmony or extinction triumphs, there will be no more chances. This is the Final Cycle.
There’s something beautiful about raw nature. It existed before you did, and it’ll exist after you’re gone. It’s wide open space, with all the vastness of galactic clusters and long-dead stars that still shine, and it’s tangled closeness, rife with fractally expansive life of every sort that grows into and upon itself with ravenous earnest.
As I descended from the crest of a rough high hill clear of trees, where one half of that spirit was evident, and then pushed my way through the brush and tangle below, where the other half ruled, I wondered at the ability of nature to still exist here. With all the cities humanity has carved into the earth, with all the billions of us walking and driving and flying about, how could whole mountain ranges still sit out here largely untouched?
Ongoing patter dripped slowly around me; not rain, but a long-awaited melting above, below, and all around. Endemic white trails still clung to every bole and shadow, awaiting higher angles from the Sun. I felt at one with that anticipation – the month I’d just endured out in the wilderness had been spent trudging through snow, fighting biting breezy chills and the surging heat of exertion, and generally filling myself with calm acceptance to avoid shivering.
The Sun would be a very welcome sight and sensation, once it emerged from behind the gray clouds and once I emerged from the oppressive maze of Appalachian evergreens. Even as I worked my way down steep inclines, I began counting more deciduous oaks and less coniferous trees… it wouldn’t be long.
Northwest… ever northwest. Somewhere ahead, flat land… and then a river… and then more walking.
And then… people.
The very thought of returning to society suddenly reminded me that I had an appearance. I felt my rough face… I had a beard! A month wasn’t so long that I should have looked like a bedraggled nightmare, but I could feel the gears of atrophied social mechanisms churning slowly to action in my head. How should I behave? What should I say if I see someone? How do I explain where I’ve been for a month to people in my life?
I could never show them the hard-won contents of my backpack.
I probably couldn’t even hint at what I’d been doing, either. Who would believe that Noah Fulmer, a suburban author from Ohio, could simply head out into the wilderness one day without any skills and survive four entire weeks alone? Each day had been a terrible endeavor, and I’d have never chosen to take such a journey – but I hadn’t really had a choice.
On the other hand, I didn’t really regret it. I felt more in tune with my body and existence than ever before. The air was warming and full of energy, and I was alive.
It took the better part of the day to reach a road. By then, the sky was a blazing sea of drifting orange, and I was vitally tired. I sat on the curb for a time, and no cars passed… but that was not unusual for some backwoods road in northwestern West Virginia, or wherever I was.
The oncoming night brought a returning chill that refroze the wet ground. I resented the cold, but it did make the walking easier. Rather than slog through muck, I moved quickly across frozen earth, following the road. All I needed to do was find a building – any building, really – and charge my phone.
After that, a single power-button press would hook me back into civilization.
Gloom set in, replacing fiery orange with fuzzy blue, which itself faded ever so slowly into impenetrable black. Still, I walked.
I dwelled on my excuses. It had been a camping trip. People went camping sometimes, right? They didn’t need to know the details, or the gear I had or hadn’t brought… and, no, I hadn’t had WiFi out there to answer my emails…
The ground changed underneath my shoes, and the wind began slicing perpendicular to me – I’d come to a larger road. No lights shined in either direction, and no cars passed as I decided which direction I should take.
After a half-hour of stumbling progress, I realized that I was stuck for the night. The absolute lack of passing cars hadn’t escaped me, but it was too early to begin wildly speculating just yet.
After four weeks in rugged forest, the road’s edge felt like a luxurious hotel. I sat a few feet into the brush, hopefully close enough to be woken by a passing car, and far enough in to avoid being seen. The cloudy sky hid the stars and kept me blind, but the darkness didn’t bother me. There were terrible things out in the night sometimes, sure, but the open sky and quiet forest felt empty and calm. This was not one of those places where horrible fates lurked. This was simply… nowhere important.
I awoke to burgeoning grey light, and I knew, somehow, that no cars had passed in the night. The mind never truly relaxes when one is alone and exposed… a half-present sleeping awareness remains, and had remained for me. I was less rested than I might have been otherwise, but I felt safer for the subtle drain behind my eyes.
It was also time to start speculating.
Walking along the road in a drifting ocean of swirling dawn light, I began keeping a more active eye out for cars. Like the tide pulling out sand, each passing hour brought a slight sharpening to the heavy hole underneath my heart. Something was wrong, and not in the usual way. Having left society’s net so abruptly, and for so long, had I simply lost the connection entirely? Had everyone else always just been a dream?
I shook my head and soldiered on.
Warm hope welled up around my heart as I sighted – at long last – a gas station. It sat at a gravelly corner in the country road, quietly soaking up near-noon spring rays.
Worries dispelled, I marched right up to the decrepit once-white building, readying social phrases. The door opened easily, and a bell chirruped above me as I swept in.
There’s something about an unused building that immediately strikes one as deathlike and wrong. That something surrounded me instantly. Outside, it was nearly noon, and brightening… in here, it was dingy and quiet. The lights were off, if such a lonely gas station even had any, and there was nobody at the register.
The shelves sat undisturbed. They were stocked, and free of dust from what I could tell… no sign of where the clerk might have gone. Was this station closed today, and someone had forgotten to lock it? Or had the clerk gone out for a smoke? A subtle staleness in the air hinted that the abandonment had been longer than a few simple minutes.
Others might have called out. Others might have shouted.
I remained quiet, instead moving through the dim store with wary eyes.
I found no threat, no sign of struggle.
I found an outlet, and got my phone out of my backpack, taking care to avoid the carefully packaged contents at the bottom. Taking the cord out, I put one end in the outlet. Here was the true test of the dread eroding the hope beneath my heart: if the electricity worked, then that meant -
My phone lit up.
The electricity was working. I shook my head and laughed quietly to myself. I’d been out in the woods too long. Of course the world was still here! Civilization had carried on for ten thousand years without me. It certainly wouldn’t disappear during the scant month that I had opted out.
Of course. It would have been too easy to simply have my phone work, right? No, we’re going to put me through the gauntlet, here…
A curious screeching noise echoed outside, like a car engine straining against waking cold, and I leapt up.
Nope – I paused and grabbed my phone and charger. Not a chance in hell I was leaving my lifeline unattended in this abandoned station.
A moment later, I burst out into the noon sunlight… but if a car had been passing, it was long gone.
I ran across gravel until I reached the edge of the road, and looked in both directions – nothing.
Memories of myself as a child resurfaced, unbidden. I’d stood and waited for the school bus on a gravelly curb just like this one, many years ago. Life had been much different, then – simpler, in a way. Less technologically bound, for sure.
I suddenly felt like an idiot.
Outside my narrow daily life experiences, landline phones still existed.
Sighing, I headed back into the station, and found a phone by the register. It had a dial tone, though I wasn’t sure what I’d expected – weren’t landline phones reliable? Wouldn’t they work even if the power grid went down? I wasn’t sure. Why did I know so little about such a longstanding technology? I frowned, and tried to recall phone numbers for anyone I knew.
I didn’t know phone numbers, either. There simply hadn’t been a need to remember.
I did know my own, though… just to make sure, I dialed it.
Without a signal on my end, my cellphone didn’t ring, but I did get my voicemail.
So the phones still worked…
I called a number I thought might have been a friend of mine’s, but I got no answer, and the voicemail had no personalized message. I couldn’t be sure it was the right line.
Alright, what else?
The operator! Was that still a thing? How did I dial an operator? I reached for my cellphone to look it up, then groaned. It had to be something simple, like… right.
I hit zero.
The phone began ringing.
I waited, expectant, until that space underneath my heart began sinking again.
I gave it twenty rings, and then hung up.
There was no operator…
Time to get serious, I realized. My thoughts began pulling at information as I started doing what I did best: thinking.
There was no car parked outside the gas station. I should have known, immediately, that there’d be nobody inside.
The lack of an operator could just mean that this station didn’t have proper landline support. I didn’t know enough about how landlines worked to be certain.
The shelves were stocked… I went through them, checking expiration dates.
The food was older than it would have been in a functional store. Some expiration dates had passed. Others had not. I looked up, but saw no security cameras. Taking as many bottles of water as I could – and some peanut butter – I left a twenty in the empty register.
Okay, time to hit the road again… I needed more data.
Back in the noon light and warming breezes, I began walking and thinking. How many times had I watched this situation in a television show? How many times had I read stories about it? This was a classic case of confusing information and possibly missing people. What had those situations turned out to be?
I came to a crossroads and stopped. The crossing road seemed wider and more traveled than the one I’d been walking down.
More often than not – and, likely, this was the best of bad options – something was wrong with me, not the world. Everyone was still out there, and I was simply having perceptual issues… delusions, or worse. If that was the case, then…
I jumped back from the crossroads.
If I wasn’t in my right mind, then cars could be passing all the time. There could be cars rolling by even now, and I just wasn’t aware of them for some reason. If I couldn’t trust my perceptions…
I couldn’t cross the street.
If something was wrong with me, I’d step out onto that road, thinking I was the only man out here… and I’d get blindsided by a speeding car.
My pulse began racing as the gears of my logic started to grind. I stared up and down the long country highway. If my perceptions were flawed, what was I supposed to see to clue myself in? The mind believes what the brain perceives… if I thought I was looking at an empty road, then no amount of staring or concentration would compromise that evaluation. Hell, there could be people stopped right now, asking a crazy guy standing at the side of the road if he was alright…
…but all I heard was the wind, now colored with an imagined desolate sigh.
I couldn’t cross the street… any street… and what if there had been a clerk back at that gas station who had been out back for a smoke, and I’d just been oblivious?
My head did hurt a little bit… though I’d chalked it up to poor diet and travel fatigue.
What had I been doing out in the woods this last month? I knew what I thought I’d been doing… but, objectively, the idea did sound ridiculous. I only trusted it because I trusted myself, and the experiences I’d had.
If I couldn’t trust those… how did I even know I was me?
I guess some things you have to take for granted.
Bending down, I grabbed a dirty white shirt out of my backpack.
I had a marker, too, in a side pocket. I hadn’t brought it on purpose, but there it had been the entire last month. Now I had a use for it.
I quickly wrote out some words on my impromptu shirt-based sign, and I held it up.
I AM BLIND – CROSSING THE STREET THIRTY SECONDS. HELP
Staring out at the crossroads, I held the shirt up at each stop sign in turn, my eyes wide. I saw nothing – no cars, no drivers. I heard nothing – no engines, no confused shouts. But how could I know for sure?
I couldn’t stay here forever. I had to keep going.
Twenty-eight, twenty-nine… thirty.
Holding the shirt up like a desperate flag of surrender, I edged out onto the pavement, body steeled against a terrible invisible impact at any moment.
Unable to even breathe, I inched across the country road, heart rate spiking as I crossed each faded painted line.
Heady and feeling on the verge of passing out, I leapt the last two feet, and tumbled to the gravel on the other side.
Was anyone watching me? Had I looked insane and ridiculous? Were they going to try to help me?
I waited, but felt no unseen hands on my arms, and heard no distant concerned questions.
I had to believe that I was alone.
Standing slowly, I tucked the shirt-sign into my pocket, and started walking again, not at all comforted.
As the afternoon wore on, I debated my personal facts in an endless and painful cycle. Objectively, I had all the behaviors of a mentally ill homeless man. How did I know that wasn’t true?
No. I liked I who I was.
But wasn’t that one way people stayed trapped in mental illness? Their assumed beliefs were preferable to reality…
That internal discussion fell away as I found myself walking up an onramp to Route 79.
I actually knew where this highway was… it ran parallel to the mountains, at some distance. I’d actually driven on it to get close to where I needed to go. If I could find a mile marker, I would know where my car was…
…and this highway, too, was empty.
I almost couldn’t handle the feeling of walking down a major highway without seeing a single car… and I was darkly confident I would never forget those first few hours. Each passing moment lent weight to the insane idea that I was somehow the last man left alive.
It was then that I began delving into darker thoughts.
If I was the last man alive, where were the bodies? It was easy to think the rest of the world had died, but that would have necessitated disease, rot, and devastation on a scale that was unavoidable by someone on foot like myself.
I had to know something first.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and stepped out onto the highway.
I counted to thirty, my heart beating three times for each second. This was probably the end, I knew…
…except I remained.
Only wide breezes slammed into me.
Only warm sunshine shot across me.
…it wasn’t me.
It was the world.
Or at least this region of it.
And still the surrounding terrain felt calm and empty, free of threat. If the human race had died or disappeared, what had caused it? I should have felt something… but there was no lurking evil presence, no great air of sorrow, no dark misery on the wind.
As I began the long walk toward where I’d left my car, I had time to consider new worrying questions. Science fiction and horror had oft been obsessed with the end of the world for many decades. I’d read about this a hundred times. What would I do now? More often than not, the manner of the end was less important than what the survivors did afterwards. It was entirely possible I would never know what had happened. Perhaps everyone had simply vanished.
Had it been the Internet, somehow? Had everyone with a cellphone or near a computer been pulled into another dimension?
Had a terrible creature come through our televisions and monitors?
I laughed. Something about the idea just seemed too ridiculous to be scary. I’d been scared of the static-filled television in Poltergeist when I was a kid, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually seen such static. That movie was over thirty years old now… I sighed.
It was strangely peaceful out. Knowing where I was – and where my car sat ready – helped me remain calm. There was every chance something had gone wrong in West Virginia, and I’d get in my car, drive back to Columbus, and find the world churning along as usual.
I did start seeing cars, although they were all parked. I passed a few farmsteads, some of which I checked out – all were empty of people. None showed signs of struggle.
I did note that many houses lacked cars, as if their owners had all driven somewhere.
By the time the sun hit the horizon, just as I turned down the last vaguely familiar turn and approached the hidden pocket where I’d left my car, I was more curious than fearful. These people had to have gone somewhere in an orderly fashion. They hadn’t simply died or disappeared.
And there sat my beautiful old Hyundai. I’d never cared much about its appearance until that moment, when it seemed at once the most decrepit and most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Dark red, and rusted a bit about the wheel wells, it waited faithfully for my return.
I unlocked it and climbed inside with an exhausted sigh of relief.
This was civilization, signal or not. This was human ingenuity made subservient. This was a machine.
And this machine was mine. That gave me power over my situation once more.
The car roared to life with a guttural shout that matched my own. The silence and calm of nature ruptured instantly, replaced by the machine rumble of human design.
I checked my phone… still no signal. No matter. I knew vaguely where I was going.
Headlights bright to slice away the growing gloom, I pulled onto the pavement.
Just as I did so, I looked back in the rearview mirror – and almost hit a tree. For a heart-stopping split second, I thought I’d seen someone in the woods behind me. Swerving to return to the road, I spared a glance toward my side-view mirror… but saw nothing.
And I certainly wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
The terror of that moment faded as the drive deepened into a familiar and interminable journey. I did have the oddest sense, now, that someone or something was following me in the pitch blackness behind me on the highway… but I had to shake it off after three headlights-off attempts to perceive anything back there. Driving without light wasn’t smart, and I had to carry on.
Alright… alright… I had to distract myself. Stick to major highways, first… no back roads… up 77, then west on 70… that was the plan…
Alright, distract myself… who was I? I was me, I was driving, I was heading home. I hadn’t seen a single other person in days – or a month, really… had there been an emergency?
I turned on the radio.
It had to be done, but, at an emotional level, I immediately understood that I’d made a mistake.
The sounds on the air were spacious, breezy, and subtly twisted. It sounded like I was listening to a deep cavern, the depths of which hosted something terrible and unknown… a void. Nothing, save the occasional static.
That dark aural caress hammered home the reality that something was very wrong.
I flipped the channel.
I flipped it again.
I flipped it twice more.
Loud rock music blared through the car, and I clutched the wheel in momentary terror. For a brief moment, my spirits soared, spurred on by that touch of normalcy… until the song ended, and another began, with no voiceover in between. I listened for half an hour… and nobody ever spoke.
It was automated. Somebody had left their station running on autopilot.
I clicked off the radio, and glanced behind my car again. Nothing presented itself from the absolute darkness behind, but I still felt invisibly pursued…
Alright, I told myself, heart thundering in my chest… I’d been out in the woods, and something had happened, and I’d somehow been spared… which meant there had to have been others. I hadn’t been the only person on Earth in the woods in the last month. Somebody had to have survived.
And who are you? I knew I was going write it all down to make sense of it, as I always did. The written word is the best weapon against unclear realities. Who are you, then? Who would read this? I saw you, a vague possibility, someone reading this… online, perhaps, at a computer – probably. I could feel some number of readers hovering in the fog of the future, in the same way that I usually felt the beating hearts of those around me when we stumbled into living nightmares. That, more than anything, let me know something out there still existed…
If the electricity was still working out in the boonies, was the Internet still functional? I had to contact Heath. He could help. How long would the power grid remain operational without oversight?
Not long, I knew.
In that case… I did happen to know where a power plant was. I’d driven by the facility a few times over the years. If the power grid was still operational, that meant somebody had to have been maintaining it. If there were people left, that was where at least some would be.
I drove long into the night, reaching the outskirts of my home city only as dawn began cycling up ‘round the Earth yet again.
I was tired, but mightily fueled by adrenaline. I couldn’t see the city’s buildings this far out, but I was confident that I would find people this way more effectively than wandering around an abandoned downtown quadrant.
I pulled off the road some distance down, and walked the rest of the way. Fences surrounded the vast complex, and I circled until I found the entrance.
There didn’t seem to be any security. Then again, why bother locking things if there’s nobody around?
The complex didn’t have any windows, so I couldn’t tell if there were any lights on inside, but I began to hear the deep rumble of machinery.
I was wary, but desperate to see another human being.
I pushed open a side door.
Harsh light streamed out, forcing me to blink, and I stood there as a dozen men and women in hardhats froze and stared at me.
It suddenly occurred to me that my personal mental illness theory might have some weight. What did these people see? A disgustingly disheveled wilderness-man busting onto a power plant floor? They stood at various places around the vast space, each at their specific stations or frozen in place on the way somewhere. A few had clipboards in hand. It was 2015. Why were we still using clipboards? Come on!
Several awkward moments passed, but none of them said a thing.
I stepped closer, and they watched me warily. “Hello?” I asked, my unused voice cracking.
“Hello…” one man in slightly nicer clothes said, stepping forward. He waved at his subordinates, and they all went back to work without a word. “Can I help you, sir?”
I studied his stony but kind features. This was a normal middle manager type, like I’d seen in any number of offices. “Um…” I coughed twice. Should I really ask questions that now sounded insane…? “I’ve been, uh, camping for a month, and I couldn’t help but notice there are a great many people missing.”
The traces of kindness in the older man’s cheeks vanished.
I narrowed my eyes cautiously. “Did I… miss something important?”
He stared at me, his shoulders subtly tensing. “You should go.”
I took a step back. "I didn't mean anything by it, I just -"
He lowered his voice to a whisper, to the point that his subordinates wouldn’t overhear his words. “You should go now. And if you run into people out there, don’t ask stupid questions.”
Not one to take such seriously intentioned advice lightly, I nodded and slowly backed out, keeping my eyes on him the entire time. He made no move to stop me or follow me.
Once outside, I bolted through the rising dawn light. My sensation of being followed was sharper than ever, and I leapt into my car as fast as I could. Speeding off, I headed for the only other place I knew to go – home.
On the way there, I rose high above downtown on a soaring highway, and I was forced to take it all in.
The skyrises glittered in the morning sunlight… but that glitter was dark, and the city was silent. The lights still worked, and my cellphone began getting signal… but Columbus, Ohio was empty.
The city was empty, but there were still skeleton crews running the infrastructure, and they’d been terrified and confused to see me. It didn’t make sense.
I’m sitting in an empty Starbucks now, using the free WiFi. I worked in this store in my college years, and it’s intensely eerie to sit alone in it during what’s normally the afternoon rush. If this is an apocalypse, it’s the strangest one I’ve ever heard of. No death and destruction, some people are left that refuse to answer questions, readers whose existence I can’t pin down or understand… where are you?
…and something following me, out there in the quiet streets. I feel it waiting for me to make a move. I think it knows I’m going to go home, and that I have no choice but to try… but I’m going to make sure I’m prepared. I’m going to outsmart it. I have to, because I’m on my own.
Wherever Heath is, he’s not responding to my emails. That has me worried more than anything else I’ve seen.
I’ll keep my moves to myself until I get a chance to write again. Until I know what the thing pursuing me is, I can’t risk it knowing what I have planned…
The saga continues in The Empty Earth. Follow Noah’s tale, and others, at .
Both day and night are cast in lurid orange by the light of the molten moon. A cloud of glowing debris and heated gasses bloats the sky. The impact was the most tremendous celestial event of the era, and its aftermath absolutely cannot be missed - so why is nobody talking about it anymore? Alek, a semi-delusional loner, struggles to understand the sudden censure of all media relating to the event. He's never been good at discerning reality from dreams, but this feels like the worst he's ever had it. He avoids looking at the burning moon out of fear while those around him begin acting oddly. Family members tell him that nothing's wrong. Neighbors subtly probe his allegiances. Acquaintances insist that the Moon is not on fire, and won't you just look at it? Look how beautiful it is tonight. LOOK. Poor Alek is a fool that refuses to gaze up at His glory and accept the Change. Word of the coming miracle must be spread. Alek and the Free heretics must be rooted out and obliterated. Above all, the way must be paved for the coming of the Dreamer On High - humanity will dance under the Moon aflame as salvation descends from the sky.