Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hypnagogic Jerk

            Isabelle leaned over and placed the book she had been reading on her bedside table. It was a dull story – something she had been recommended by a friend, but it was flat and had a kind of self-righteous conservatism that she found grating. She meant to read at least a quarter of the way into the book, to give it a proper chance, but she expected that when she had, she would abandon the attempt and simply return it.
            It was late at night, which was unfortunate as she had school in the morning. But her sleep was constantly interrupted by odd dreams. Not really dreams, exactly, but rather sounds. She felt as if she could hear a horribly loud crash, but when she was brought back to full consciousness, she found that her room was quiet.
            She had hoped the book would put her to sleep, but sleep seemed to flee from her, so instead she came downstairs to sit in the study, where it was a little warmer than her room and she could sit in her favorite chair.
            When she came to the room, Richard was sitting in the chair, his head propped up with a hand. He noticed her arrival and raised his eyebrows slightly, which to her signified that he was quite startled.
            “Isabelle, you’re still awake?”
            “I’ve been having trouble sleeping, dad.”
            “Yes, that seems to be going around.” Richard broke his gaze with her and took a deep breath.
            “Dad, what’s wrong?”
            “Nothing. Nothing that should concern you… just…”
            “Is it Jim?”
            Richard opened his mouth to speak, but it took him a few seconds before words came. “What makes you say that?”
            “Well, I haven’t seen him around. I know you keep him in the vault most of the time, but there hasn’t been much coming and going there.”
            “He’s a demon, Isabelle. It’s important that you remember that he is not some innocent prisoner. He is a tool to be used, and one that has the potential to be extremely dangerous.”
            Isabelle nodded. She knew to be wary of Jim. Still, evil or no, she was undecided on the ethics of using a demon as her father did. “So he is down there?”
            Richard chuckled, but in a perfunctory manner that betrayed its artifice. “I think that’s enough demon talk tonight. You’ll sleep past school at this rate.”
            “I’ve been trying to sleep. It won’t come. I keep waking up as soon as I think sleep is about to come.”
            “Like a hypnagogic jerk?”
            “Sort of, but I hear sounds instead. Like some terrible crashing sound.”
            Richard considered this. “I don’t know if I have an explanation.” He looked up to the doorway that led to the kitchen. “Would you like some chamomile or mackgrin root tea? I’ll put the kettle on.”
            He got up and walked to the kitchen, setting the stove to heat the kettle.
            “Have you ever been to Sarona, dad?”
            “Once. When I was about twenty. I went on holiday in Damana. I should like to return at some point. Perhaps when we’ve got you into the rhythms of college life next year we could go during the winter break.”
            “Did you get to go out into the desert?”
            “Get to? I suppose I had the opportunity, but you know I’ve always been somewhat more enamored of urban locales.”
            “I think I’d like to go into the desert. Far enough to see the Path of Aeoes, at least.”
            “Well, you know, you can see the Path of Aeoes from Retrein, if you have the right telescope.”
            “No, I mean with the naked eye. I’ve seen photographs where it looks almost solid.”
            “Yes, well, I think that such a thing would be something more of a production than a quick day-trip out of Damana. You’d probably need to go a few thousand miles, which is not particularly easy out in uninhabited desert.”
            Isabelle sighed. “I suppose it’s not particularly practical.”
            “Well,” said Richard. “I’m sure you could find some people who would like to join you in your expedition, but I think I’d be ill-suited to such a sojourn.”
            Isabelle was quiet for a moment. The kettle began to whistle, and Richard stood up and poured each of them a cup of chamomile. The water was still quite hot, so Isabelle accepted the cup but waited before she drank.
            “Was there something about an observatory in Arizradna? I seem to recall something about that. Perhaps it was on the news.”
            “An observatory?”
            “Something like the Long Field… Deep Field? No… anyway… I thought there was some catastrophe, and they hadn’t been able to find the people stationed there.”
            “I hadn’t heard about it,” said Richard.
            “I think that might be what the sounds I’m hearing are. That is to say, I think that in my mind, I am subconsciously imagining what it sounded like when the telescope fell.”
            “The telescope fell?” said Richard. “Was it one of those great suspended things, miles up in the air? Dear lord, what a mess.”
            “Yes, I think so.”
            “Well, as I’m sure you know, there is no enormous telescope suspended above our house, so you should be safe to sleep tonight.” Richard smirked, and Isabelle returned this with her own pleasant smile.
            She drank the tea and began to relax. “All right, I think I’m going to attempt sleep once more,” she said. And with that, she returned up to her room.

            Richard sipped his tea. He only wished his concerns were so minor. Jim had not returned from Sweet Clara’s house. Two scenarios presented themselves, neither of which was an appealing possibility. In one, Jim had somehow gotten himself unleashed, allowing him to visit actual profound violence against Clara or any bystanders in Ravenfort, for that matter. The other possibility was that Jim had somehow been caught, which seemed unlikely, but perfectly within the realm of possibility given that Henry Thall was involved.
            It had been petty. He had justified himself, thinking that if he could exploit Clara’s fear that Jim had seen, he might manipulate her to his advantage. Yet now his most valuable asset was missing, and Richard could see soberly that it was a momentary flare of anger at the perceived threat to his daughter that had led him to this misstep. Control must be maintained. That Henry had laid a trap for him Richard had no doubt. All the killings were meant to accomplish something, but their ultimate purpose remained elusive. Richard had not lost himself to Henry’s trap just yet, but if he could not get Jim back, he would be vulnerable. Jim’s use as a bodyguard had been proved, but it was his innate ability to see into people and sense their thoughts and dreams that made him indispensible.
            He would not be able to move immediately to get Jim back, for that was certain to be a trap of some sort. Richard even worried about calling Jim back – his binding was expertly done, but again, Henry was an expert as well.
            These thoughts circled each other in Richard’s head until the morning twilight began to illuminate the world around him. He felt stale and sweaty. His clothes were somehow both too warm and too cold. A half hour after the sun began to show, the newspaper landed on the Airbrights’ front walk.
            Richard opened his door and gathered the paper up. There was little of particular interest until he spotted a small headline on the bottom half of the front page. “Astronomical Observatory in Arizradna Collapses.”
            He read on through the article. The Deep Field Observatory, which had been generously funded by the Sinret Project based in the Redlands, suffered some sort of malfunction that caused the suspended telescope to fall down and crush the observatory. The scientists stationed at the observatory had not been confirmed to be located, but some bodies had been found in the wreckage.

            It had happened during the night, just when Isabelle had come downstairs. Richard looked up to Isabelle’s window. The light was still on.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

1. Off Route 27A

            Yael Tucker sits in her dusty blue truck. There is a black cardboard cup filled with lukewarm tea in the cup holder. The radio is tuned to 87.3 FM, and hisses with static of a silent airwave. In the passenger seat, there is a shotgun and a box of cartridges. The right side-mirror has been smashed, and only a few shards of glass remain on the mirror’s mount.
            Above, the sky is pale blue. It is hot within the cabin of the truck. The windows in the doors are still up, and the light shimmers in the distance over the desert floor.
            The truck is a half mile off of Route 27A. 27A is the highway that leads between Towatki and Bajada before becoming simply Route 27 as it continues north toward Damana. Yael cannot see any of those cities from here. She is in the desert.
            A mile away, a rough rock cliff rises, and a few scraggly plants grow in its shadow. The truck dings at her, indicating that she should fasten her seatbelt while the vehicle is on.
            Yael turns the key, and the motor powers down. Her face is covered in sweat. She wipes her forehead, only to smear dark red blood across it. She looks down and finds that her sleeve is positively dyed crimson. She takes the shirt off, leaving only her sleeveless undershirt on.
            She has no idea where she is, except that she is just off route 27A.
            She does not know how she got there. She does not know how long she has been there. The clock on the dashboard reads that it is three in the afternoon. Her clothes stick to her because of the sweat, and her right arm is still red with blood. The light hairs on her arm are slicked down with it.
            Hesitantly, Yael grips the door handle and pulls. The door swings, creaking. She is shaking as she lifts one sore leg up and over the threshold of the vehicle’s cabin, stepping down on the desert hardpan.
            She steadies herself on the side of her blue truck, but it is painful. The metal has grown extremely hot in the sun. The oven-like air from the truck blasts its way out behind her. The air outside is hot as well, but it is a relief from the sweltering sweatbox from which she has emerged.
            She feels shaken, as if she had just experienced nausea. She stumbles slightly, freeing her other leg from the truck, but steadies herself. Her legs are burning with a powerful ache. She is thirsty.
            She walks around to the back of the truck. She keeps water in the covered compartment underneath the flatbed. When she comes around to the back, she finds that the tailgate is open. Its surface is dark with blood. She peers beyond it, and there is a man propped up against the back of the truck’s cab. It is his blood.
            The man is of a medium build and heavy. He has close-cropped curly hair and a dark beard. His eyes are closed. There are flies buzzing around him. If he is breathing, his breaths are shallow. He wears an olive-grey uniform that is stained dark with blood.
            There is a name on the uniform. It reads “Welker.” Welker has a holster on his belt, but the gun has been removed. There is a rusted and dinged shovel next to him.
            She climbs up into the back of the truck. Cautiously, she approaches Welker. He does not react. She places a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. Welker falls over. She feels his neck for a pulse. She cannot find one.
            The bloody trail does not end at the tailgate. Someone must have dragged Welker through the desert and gotten him up into the truck. The trail leads onward, out into the desert and up to that rough cliff. The trail shrinks to a vanishing point, but the direction is clear.
            She returns to the cab and retrieves the shotgun. She checks it and finds that it is unloaded. She takes a box of cartridges and stuffs it into her back pocket. The gun is heavy and the metal of the barrel is hot. Her bloody right arm is sore as she hoists the gun onto her shoulder.
            Half a mile down the trail, she finds the remains of a chain-link fence. There is a sign on the fence that reads “Warning: Trespassing Forbidden. Hazardous Environment.”
            The sign is covered in dust. It is bent and the paint has cracked.
            She returns to the truck. She puts the shotgun back in the passenger seat. She sits once again in the driver’s seat and turns the truck’s motor on.
            The truck jostles and heaves as it makes its way over the rocky hardpan. The radio signal remains a low static hum. There is a path that is clearly apparent, where dust has been kicked up and the scraggly plants have been flattened. Yael follows this path.
            As she approaches the rough cliff of dark red stone, it becomes clearer to her that it is very large. There are spires of gleaming metal and charred trees at the top of the cliff. In the bright daylight, it is hard to see, but she notices that there are flames licking the metal – bright, purple flames.
            Before long, the trail leads her to a road. The road circles the rocky cliff and then begins to ascend it. When she reaches the top, she finds a mass of wreckage. Metal beams, and a large metallic cylinder that has been smashed and is charred lie across the top of the cliff. There is what appears to be some kind of ruined building beneath the wreckage, but there is so much debris that it is hard to be sure.
            Closer now, the vibrant purple flames are easier to see. The flames hover in midair, as if they are burning invisible objects. There is a body in the road before her.
            The body looks like a rag doll that had been tossed aside by a child at play. She stops the truck. She steps out and approaches the body. It is a man wearing dark blue camouflage. His face is painted in similar patterns. There is a dark fluid coming from his eyes. It is pungent and unpleasant and deep black. The body itself has shrunken. It has been out in the sun for a long time. Several days, at least.
            Yael returns to the truck. She opens up the compartment with the water. Alongside several gallon-sized jugs is a jacket. It is the same olive-grey color and style as Welker’s. She picks it up. The name on the jacket reads Tucker.
            Yael drinks some of the water. She then pours some over her arm. The blood was clearly not hers, and as far as she can tell, she is free of injury. She imagines it is Welker’s. She does not know who Welker is, or rather was.
            Yael looks out over the desert to the east. The Great Sarona stretches out for thousands of miles before her. Yael takes a deep breath. She sees a glimmer out in the desert. There is something there. Either it is reflecting the sun’s light or it is itself a light.
            “…tion… A-7-6-B. Release… Station…” the radio blurts. Yael returns to her truck and attempts to better tune the radio, but she cannot find a stronger signal than that on 87.3.
            She drives down the hill. There is a road here that leads back in the direction of Towatki. She drives off of it, instead heading east. The signal on the radio grows stronger.
            “Station A-7-6-B. Release Measures…”
            She drives for nearly an hour. The battery indicator on the dashboard drops from 75% to 65%. The radio signal grows clearer. The message, on repeat, goes thusly:
            “Station A-7-6-B. Release Measures Engaged. Breach Observed. This is not a drill. Breach Observed. Templar One has lost containment.”
            The blinking white light comes closer. Alone in the vast desert plain, there is a small building, not much larger than a freight container. The building is a half-cylinder of corrugated steel. Next to the building is a short radio tower. It is from the top of this tower that the brilliantly bright, flashing light emits.
            Yael gets out of the truck, once again taking the shotgun with her. She loads the gun, but keeps the safety on. She approaches the door of the building. It is slightly ajar.
            She opens it and steps inside. There is a desk with a microphone and radio equipment. In the back of the building is a computer console with several monitors. Some of the monitors read “Containment Failure.”
            Sand has blown in through the door and has collected in a small cone.
            Yael walks over to the computer console. The central monitor indicates that of the five containment facilities, two have been breached.
            “You’re back,” says the man behind her.
            Yael turns. The man is white, with short, thinning hair and dark sunglasses. He wears a black suit. He smiles, but she does not think it is a friendly smile.
            “I see you haven’t buried him yet. It’s been a while. I would worry about the smell. Bury him in just a foot or so of soil and that will do.”
            “Where am I?”
            “Just off Route 27A.”
            “What is this building?”
            “Your office.”
            “Who are you?”
            The man in the black suit shrugs.
            “You don’t remember either?” asks Yael.
            “No, I remember just fine,” says the man in the black suit. “You really should bury him. He deserves it.”
            The radio recording is playing out loud in the room. She hears that name again: Templar One.
            “What is Templar One?” asks Yael.

            “I was hoping that you could tell me,” says the Man in the Black Suit.