Amaranthine Swing: Law of Shadows

The Crescent, Grace City, 1939

Matchstick raced through the dimly lit labyrinthine alleys, occasionally taking a nervous glance over his shoulder. Fear clawed at his spine, made his hands shake and his heart pound. He had been at least six blocks since he glimpsed them, they could be anywhere by now.

He turned a corner into a narrow passage, slumping against the wall to catch his breath. Matchstick’s employers had assured him that there would be no interference from the police, but a random beat cop not in de Beauremond’s pocket was the least of his worries. There were far worse things that prowled the streets of Grace City after sunset, especially here in The Crescent. Good people called them guardians, people like Matchstick called them nightmares.

A tin can clattered against the cobblestones farther up the alley. Adrenaline surged through Matchstick’s system causing his already racing heart to feel like it was trying to punch its way through his ribs. He stepped into the yellowish circle of the building’s weak security light. He probed the shadows with narrow eyes, ears straining to detect the slightest hint of movement. Sheaths of flame ignited around his hands, adding a ghostly flicker to the aging brickwork and deepening the shadows outside his protective circle of light. Matchstick ground his teeth. They would not take him. Not tonight.

Another noise jarred his nerves and he unleashed a tongue of fire from his hands that pierced the darkness like a spear. After a few seconds, Matchstick paused, gasping for air. Small flames from burning debris flickered near the opposite end of the alley, trails of faint gray smoke wafted an acrid stench to Matchstick’s nose. The howl of a frightened alley cat echoed. It brought a twitching smile to the pyrokenetic’s face. He chuckled softly, almost embarrassed at his reaction; but it was not the only laughter he heard.

It started low, a stifled chuckle that quickly grew into a hysterical guffaw. A lump formed in Matchstick’s throat as the sound enveloped him. He was not alone in the alley!

“Show yourself!” Matchstick demanded only to be answered by giggling. He thought he saw a shape moving in the darkness: the silhouette of a hooded figure sliding silently through the shadows like a phantom. He blinked his eyes in confusion. The figure, at times, appeared to be a few feet from him and, at others, almost a block away. The way the shape flickered in and out of existence nauseated him. He felt a gentle tap on his shoulder and wheeled around to find the alley behind him empty. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead and stung his eyes. Matchstick turned back around at the exact moment a leather gloved fist collided with his face.

Droplets from a gentle rain brought Matchstick back to consciousness to find that his hands had been bound. As he shook the cobwebs from his head, he became aware of two men standing over him. The man on the left wore a dark coat buttoned to the waist. Rather than a collar, there was a wide, deep hood that kept most of the man’s facial features obscured by shadow. Only his chin and mouth were visible. The chin was narrow and the thin-lipped mouth was curled upward in a playful smirk. The man on the right wore a mask of black cloth that hid his entire face. Resting just underneath the battered fedora was a pair of goggles that gave off a faint yellow glow. Matchstick felt that there was something predatory about that glow, as if he were to tear off that fabric and find the snarling visage of a wolf underneath. This pair of men were what spooked him in the first place. He knew them only by reputation, eerie drunken tales told by muggers and triggermen in holding cells and waterfront bars.

The man on the right, the brutal vigilante known as BlackJack, grabbed Matchstick roughly by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. His associate, The Eye, took a step back and lowered his head slightly.

“Listen, scum.” BlackJack growled, “Klinger. Where is he?”

Matchstick smiled, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” He really did not expect the backhand to hurt as much as it did. Warm blood trickled down his chin from a freshly opened cut on his lip.

“You better tell him. He’s not the most patient of men.” The Eye, in contrast to his partner, spoke softly, almost like he had no concern for what was transpiring a few feet in front of him.

Matchstick struggled against his bonds. He felt the warmth of his flames behind him as they burned through the thin but strong cord that held his hands together. “Burn.” He hissed as his hands came free and sprayed fire toward the two men. “Burn!”

Matchstick blinked. BlackJack and The Eye were no longer in the alley. Fearing the pair might return as quickly as they had vanished, he bolted off into the night.

“I told you rope wasn’t going to cut it,” The Eye said as the pair looked down upon Matchstick’s escape from a nearby rooftop.

“Doesn’t matter. He is exactly where I want him.”

“Oh?” puzzlement colored the hooded man’s voice.

“Rats always flee to the protection of the nest.”


A few blocks away…

Matchstick was out of breath by the time he reached the run-down warehouse. He banged on the door and waited.

“Were you followed?” a husky voice replied from within.

“I shook them off.” Matchstick gasped.

The door opened a crack. Beyond the tiny opening there was only darkness. Matchstick assumed the guard was checking to verify his claims that he was not followed. He looked over his shoulder and toward the rooftops. The guard seemed satisfied and ushered Matchstick in.

His guide led him through the shadows to the back room. A small rectangular space lit by a single bulb. Half a dozen men were seated around a small wooden table. He recognized three of them as petty thieves from The Crescent. The remaining three were unfamiliar to him, but he assumed a nefarious connection given the rest of the company. A pair of uniformed women stood next to the door. The lower half of their faces were covered with red silk scarves and they carried rifles of a type he had never seen before. About the size of a Thompson sub-machine gun but covered with coils of copper wire that occasionally crackled with electricity. Matchstick’s throat went dry. The presence of these women, the Lady’s Guard, meant only one thing: she was here in person.

Matchstick’s head whipped around as he heard a slight, throat-clearing cough from the corner of the room. Lady de Beauremond stepped into the light. Though he could tell she was standing mere feet from him, Matchstick could make out no features other than the white hair and burning eyes. It was as if the shadows became flesh yet retained their nature. He had heard rumors that she had powers of her own, but had never witnessed them. A shiver ran up Matchstick’s spine and his stomach felt as queasy as it had during his encounter with BlackJack and The Eye.

Hunched behind the Lady was a smallish man in a white lab coat. His face was covered in some sort of device, like those new breathing apparatuses the Navy was using for diving. As this man stepped further into the light, Matchstick could tell that his face had been horribly burned. He wondered for a moment if he had assaulted this man at some point in the past.

“Good evening…gentlemen,” Lady de Beauremond began with a purr. “I’ve asked all of you here because I have a special task for you. A task of great importance…”

“Get on with it!” one of the ruffians Matchstick did not recognize demanded. The outburst earned him a glare from the others at the table as well as the Lady herself. The two guards stepped forward but were halted by a single gesture from their boss.

“Leave.” de Beauremond’s voice was soft, but there was something about her eyes that filled Matchstick with fear. The ruffian stood and drew himself to his full height. He was a powerfully built man, but his size seemed to mean nothing to the woman cloaked in shadows.

“You expect me to take orders from a woman? The only one who should be in charge of this operation is me!” The man roared and reached out to grab de Beauremond. Matchstick did not see exactly what happened next, but his mind registered the large man taking a single step forward before crumbling into dust.

“If there are no more objections, shall I continue?”


Meanwhile…

The rain had become heavier. It pattered against the roof as BlackJack and The Eye stared into a dirt-yellowed skylight, planning their next move.

“We can’t just go in there and get her, Jack.”

“Why not? You said yourself she is in there.” BlackJack growled.

“Because we have no proof that she or any of them are doing anything wrong. For all we know they are having a friendly game of bad guy poker.” The Eye smiled at his friend.

“Bullshit, Eye. You know she is in there with Klinger and Matchstick. All of them are criminal scum and need to be taken off the streets.”

“Klinger died in that fire on the docks two years ago and Matchstick hasn’t even stolen a candy bar since he last got out of jail. We can’t do this without any proof of a crime.” The Eye thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat. “You know as well as I do that if we go after them tonight, they’ll be back on the street by morning and gunning for us. Hells! You saw that Matchstick was willing to burn down the damn Crescent just to get away from you.”

“Maybe if you just let me jump him instead of pulling all that theatrical shit…”

The Eye flickered out of existence for a moment. When he returned, he stumbled and fell through the skylight.

“Eye!” All BlackJack could do was watch as his friend fell into the darkened warehouse below. “Damn it!” Jack dropped into the opening.

A moment before the sound of breaking glass interrupted the meeting, Matchstick swore that he saw Lady de Beauremond stagger backward. From the warehouse floor someone yelled, “Alert the mistress! BlackJack and The Eye are here!”

“Kill them both!” de Beauremond hissed and retreated back into the shadows. Everyone leaped to their feet and followed the lady’s guard through the door.

Glass crunched beneath Matchstick’s shoes as the group spread out through the warehouse. Below the skylight, there was a small pool of blood but BlackJack and The Eye were nowhere to be found. In the darkness, the two vigilantes had the advantage, just like they had in the alley. He decided that discretion was the better part of valor and if Lady de Beauremond wanted that job done, it was better that some of the crew were healthy enough to do it. When he was certain that no one was looking, Matchstick slipped out of the warehouse and back to his own apartment.

BlackJack dragged The Eye’s unconscious form to a secluded spot between two piles of crates. “Come on, buddy, wake up. We could use those powers of yours about now.” The Eye did not respond to his words nor the slaps across the face.

“Someone turn a damn light on,” Jack heard one of de Beauremond’s men bark. Good. They were confused and scared. That would work to his advantage.

Jack crept between the rows of crates, sticking to the deepest shadows so he would remain hidden in case someone did get to the lights. From the sheaths tied to each of his legs, BlackJack withdrew a pair of flechettes. Although the heavy metal spikes were dropped onto infantry from planes during the Great War, he had become rather proficient in throwing them at opponents. Their weight comforted him a little but the vigilante was concerned that the criminals hunting him would find his unconscious partner. Even more disturbing to BlackJack was the event that got the two of them into this predicament. He had never seen his partner’s powers malfunction. A sense of dread tingled against the base of BlackJack’s skull. Whatever had caused the accident would have to wait. First, he would have to make sure the two of them survived this mess.

The rain pouring through the hole in the roof muffled the footsteps of the occupants of the warehouse. Occasionally he could hear the tap of hard soles and a faint squeak of the rubber-soled boots worn by the Lady’s Guard. The sounds that bothered him the most, however, were the intermittent crackle of electricity and the hum of capacitors.

BlackJack climbed to the top of a stack of wooden crates, careful with his movements so that none of the equipment he carried bumped against the wood. At the top, he twisted a dial on his goggles to lessen the glow from the specialized lenses that granted him an ability to see in the dark. He watched as faint forms spread out through the maze of crates and shelving. He surveyed everything on his current level. If he could move quickly and silently enough, BlackJack would be able to stick to the high ground and take out his pursuers one by one. From his vantage point, he could also see the open panel of the fuse box. His mouth curled into a smile as a half-formed plan congealed.

He threw the first flechette toward the front of the warehouse and it clattered on the concrete floor. Several of the dim forms ran toward the sound, assuming that one of the vigilantes had revealed his position. The second projectile slammed against the fuse box. Sparks showered against the floor. While BlackJack was not looking for accuracy, he hoped that he had damaged the fuses responsible for the overhead lights in the warehouse. At the very least the sparks would deter most from touching the box.

Some of the remaining group split off and headed toward the fuse box in the hopes of cornering one of the intruders there. A lone thug remained near BlackJack’s perch. His signature weapons, a pair of leather billy clubs filled with powdered lead, slid into his hands from hidden sheaths on BlackJack’s forearms. He dropped on the henchman, bringing both weapons down hard on either side of the man’s head. Before his target could scream out in pain, BlackJack clobbered him on the head, rendering him unconscious.

Another man turned the corner and BlackJack charged toward him. He was not fast enough. The henchman raised the revolver. Flame erupted from the muzzle, creating white splotches in front of the vigilante’s eyes. BlackJack felt the bullet graze his upper arm a fraction of a second before he slammed the club against the man’s head. The single rapport rang in his ears, obscuring the sound of approaching footsteps.

“It’s BlackJack! Get him!” the muffled voice called. BlackJack turned and only had a moment to roll out of the way as one of the strange weapons belonging to the Lady’s Guard fired. The second weapon fired and a burst of flame bloomed from the crate he was hiding behind, singing his already wounded arm with a heat unlike anything he had ever felt.

He scrambled to retrieve a pair of cylinders from a pouch on his belt. Taking a few sharp, centering breaths, BlackJack dove across the aisle and depressed the studs and sent a cloud of razor sharp needles toward his attackers. He hit the concrete hard, but could hear the moans indicating that some of the projectiles had found soft tissue. The needles were not lethal but would be painful enough to buy the masked man the time he needed to get back to his partner.

Pain screamed through his nerves every time BlackJack’s arm was jarred. He reached The Eye just as the hooded figure groggily sat up. BlackJack tackled his partner as another projectile struck where The Eye’s head was moments before.

“Time to go.” BlackJack growled.

The Eye nodded and shadows enveloped the two men. When their pursuers reached the small niche, BlackJack and the Eye were gone.


Uptown Grace City, Lady de Beauremond’s Pentouse…

Lady de Beauremond sat in her study, contemplating the curls of smoke from the cigarette at the end of the ebony holder. The strange feeling at the warehouse haunted her since she returned to her residence. A slight headache throbbed at the center of her forehead and she felt weak. She assumed that the cause of her current symptoms was due to some sort of hiccup in the flow of magical forces. The phenomena stoked the fires of her curiosity and brought a smile to her lips. Whatever happened had to have affected The Eye as well and his own curious nature would lead him to investigate it. That would keep him busy long enough to enact her plan. BlackJack was the looming threat, but de Beauremond already had a contingency to solve that problem.

De Beauremond’s manservant, John Butler, stood rigid, waiting patiently for his mistress to acknowledge his presence. After it seemed that she was too withdrawn into her own mind, he offered a gentle cough to alert her. She looked up at him, eyes confused, but quickly recovered her stoic demeanor.

“Call my office in Reno. Tell them to send the specialist.” Butler turned on his heel and was about to take a step when she added, “And send in Doctor Klinger. I wish to see his designs again.”


Hyperspace, somewhere near the Hyades…

Yellow-green light radiated from the statue on the table. Dante Zemekis stared at it with his large, unblinking black eyes, trying to determine the source of the illumination. He drummed his thin fingers against the metal of the table. He hated puzzles he could not figure out. His partner, Oona the pixie, fluttered onto the table. At nearly twelve inches tall, the mysterious statue was almost the same size as she was.

“Course plotted for Vanesh. We should be there in a couple of days.” The pixie ran a hand over her disheveled, spiky hair. She could see herself and the statue reflected in the shiny black ovals. While she was happy to have the Nagani as a partner, his eyes unnerved her. More so at times when he was in deep concentration. “What is it?” She asked in an effort to stave off the shudder threatening to run up her spine and through her wings.

“A statue,” Dante answered, his voice distant. “I’ve never seen material quite like this.”

“I thought you had seen and done everything, old man.” Oona teased.

Dante chuckled, a warm sound that put the pixie at ease. “I’d say that this piece is at least ten thousand years old. But the figure depicted escapes me.”

“As long as it’s worth the fifty thousand Republic Creds, I don’t care.”

“But this could be the scientific discovery of a lifetime!”

“One,” Oona began, “we stole it. Two, the Gambler’s Fallacy doesn’t run on vacuum. We need that cash for fuel and supplies.”

“Supplies? Like what?”

“Food, Dante. Or did you forget that pixies are not immortal?”

“Oh. Of course. We should get klesa when we get back planetside.” Dante picked up the statue and placed it in a plastic container.

“And a bottle of vorb. I don’t know about you, but I need to get messed up. This job has been stressful.” Oona rolled her shoulders and stretched. Her wings quivered and buzzed with the effort.

“I don’t know what was so stressful for you. That column fell on me, remember?”

It was Oona’s turn to laugh. “Yeah that was pretty funny seeing that big ass head attached to a flat body. It was like a gray balloon.”

The ship lurched violently, causing the lights to flicker off and the red emergency lights to activate. An alarm screeched through the passages of the Gambler’s Fallacy.

“What in the goddess’s name?” Oona and Dante raced toward the bridge. “Do you think we hit something?”

“Hyperspace collisions are somewhat uncommon but do happen. The proximity sensors should have detected any debris.”

Oona slid into the small chair attached to the helm controls and strapped the headpiece on. Data from the ship’s external sensors was transformed into visual images in her brain. She started and exclaimed “Wow!” The galaxy from hyperspace was washed out color against a white background. Everything was flat like an amateur artist’s rendition of the universe.

“See any thing?” Dante asked, eyes focused on the engineering readouts.

“Not a thing. Have you ever seen this before? It’s ama…wait a sec. There is something.”

“What?”

“Some kind of a wave or ripple.”

Dante threw himself into the closest chair and strapped in, “Hold tight.”

Oona felt her hands tightening on the armrests, the metal framework giving slightly from her extraordinary strength. The hyper-wave approached quickly. Streaks of color shimmered and threaded through the mass of white. She chanced letting go of the seat long enough to rip the interface from her head so she would no longer see what was coming.

The Gambler’s Fallacy lurched again. Alarms screamed. All the consoles on the bridge emitted sprays of sparks, and metal panels ricocheted off the bulkheads, each one threatening to decapitate the occupants. The jostling became more violent and was accompanied by the screeching of metal being torn from a location deep within the vessel. As quickly as the violent interlude began, it was over.

Emergency lights still flashed though the alarms had gone silent. Coolant hissed from piping all over the ship. Dante unfastened the restraints and moved quickly to the pilot’s seat.

“Oona. Wake up.”

Oona shook the cobwebs out of her head and looked toward her friend, a scowl of concern curled his lipless mouth. She smiled at her friend. “I’m OK. Your beard is smoking.”

Dante patted out his smoldering facial hair. “Well this is a predicament. I suppose we should try to figure out where we landed.”

Oona forced the landing ramp open and the pair climbed out into a chilly night. The ship had come to rest in a forested area. A smoking trail of wreckage led off into the darkness. They hopped down and headed toward the treeline.

Dante and Oona crested a hill and saw the expanse of stars shining in a cloudless sky. A city glowed in the distance. The pixie gasped.

“Dante, these stars…”

“Look familiar?” the Nagani responded, “They should. This is Earth.”

The Numbers of the bEast

My feeble attempt to pay homage to a friend and a master. Normals call him Joe Pulver. Those who’ve seen call him The bEast.

 

WORDS hit you like Kirbycracklewhitefire fired from  Dr. Archer’s machine.

.8 gauge ellipsis.

Entry wounds. Ain’t no exits.

Head gone, mind gone.

 

Last thing you see.

…cabinet door closing…

crumbling spires

…still closing…

tattered scallops

…barely a sliver of sulfur light…

another nightblack tick on Doc’s paper

 

slap on the face

smell of tea and steppenwulf smokes

 

“Ready for another hit?”

Thus I Have Heard

I never thought of myself as a spiritual person. Why should I? Before the fever, there was no evidence that I could see that anything was out there but a cold and uncaring void. Gods were just figments of humanity’s collective imagination, little more than an attempt to comfort ourselves in the face of oblivion. I was wrong.

This long after my experience, it is hard to recollect whether the visions were a product of the fever or if the fever was a product of the visions. I do know this: my sickbed was my own Bodhi tree, my own road to Damascus. The things that I saw changed me. You might think that the illness drove me insane. That may be true. What good is a sanity that is steeped in ignorance?

The illness came on quite suddenly. I was, like any of you, just going about my daily grind. I went to work, came home, ate dinner, watched a little television, and then went to sleep. Around midnight, I awoke with the sensation that my skin was on fire. My wife checked my temperature and gave me a cold compress. She told me to try to rest and she we would see if I needed a doctor in the morning. Events became more bizarre after that.

The fever had completely drained my strength overnight. I could barely muster the energy to turn my head, let alone accomplish tasks such as raising a glass of water to my lips. My wife offered all the assistance she could, but there were periods where I was completely alone.Seemingly eternal stretches where I was a prisoner in my own flesh.

Reality as I knew it began to dissolve. Things I knew, things I took for granted because of familiarity took on an alien quality. My bedroom, a dull cube of light blue, metamorphosed into a grayish haze. The sharp angles of corners softened. Even the boundaries between bed and floor, bedroom and bathroom began to vanish. The rooms were at once an infinite expanse of fog and a tiny cell that confined me.

Dark silhouettes, roughly human in shape, hovered over my bed at what seemed to be regular intervals. They groped me with clammy hands and babbled in a language that I could not recognize. When they would leave, other figures came calling.

These visitors danced against the walls like shadow puppets. They paid me no mind as they frolicked, appendages flailing like whips in a strobe light. I sensed strange eyes watching this bacchanal hidden within the shadows that surrounded my bed. Growls and occasional hoots accompanied the dancers as they reeled and flipped to the sound of a monotonous flute and the throbbing of primal drums.

The only familiar thing in my room was the man on the nightly news. He stared at me with icy blue eyes and told me of how the world outside disintegrated into chaos. Perhaps it had always been that way and I never noticed. He whispered secrets to me. Things not meant for the ears of mere mortals. Forbidden knowledge of the Gate and the Key, the One in All.
The fever raged for what seemed an eternity. I sometimes wondered if this is what Hell was like. My world had become a whirl of burning flesh, coarse whispered voices, and daemonic dancing shadows.

My wife would inform me later that, while I was experiencing these waking nightmares, I was slipping in and out of a near catatonic state. I babbled incoherent, cryptic, and frightening things.

All I remember is falling.

The terror of falling lies in the wait. Tripping over our own feet does not fill us with the same dread as the plunge from the top of a tall building or off the side of a bridge does. The time that passes in the first case is negligible. In the latter two, we recognize a significant amount of time that will transpire between our feet leaving the ground and the inevitable pain that comes at the end. Even more terrifying that that is not being able to discern how much time will elapse before striking the ground.

My descent began like every other dream I had of falling: plunging through a bottomless canyon of glass and steel. The roar of wind past my ears was deafening. Faceless men in expensive suits halted their menial tasks to watch me plummet to my doom. Not exactly the thing one wants an audience for, but far better than the dream where I arrive at school naked.

The cityscape swirled below me and transformed into a maelstrom of Technicolor and ghostly irregular polygons. The kaleidoscopic effect formed knots in my stomach. Miniscule bolts of lightning raced along my skin like worms of light. The sparks burrowed through my pores to permeate muscle and bone with electricity.

I continued my journey deeper into the psychedelic abyss. The colors had stopped their rapid shift and became pigmented voids. Red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo and violet; the entire rainbow. This polychromatic void offered no clues as to how fast or how long I had been falling. As I recount this adventure to you now, I am uncertain that I was falling at all.

My mind raced through the entire experience. At first, I was terrified. As I moved further into the vision I was calm. Perhaps I was resigned to an eventual end of the dream, jolted awake a fraction of a second before I struck the bottom.

Things seemed to slow in the violet. The sensation of falling faded away. I tried to turn to take inventory of the strange locale I found myself in, but I could not move. Panic tightened my chest. I was trapped in a void of violet of the most brilliant and pure hue I had ever seen. Rivulets of ink-black snaked toward me. I tried to scream, but there was no sound. I tried to force myself to wake. Nothing. I was enveloped in a darkness like dreamless slumber.

The oppressive dark faded into an expanse of stars. Each a pinprick of light in the emptiness. I remembered when I was younger and my parents took me to a field hours away from the town where we lived. A large flat area free from light pollution. We would lay on blankets and gaze into the heavens, counting stars. I remember being amazed by how many were visible.

The vista before me magnified that childhood amazement a hundred fold. It seemed the stars stretched out into infinity. I could not help but feel extremely small as I considered the distances between and the time it would take to travel to the farthest points.

An unusual feeling washed over me. I was both elated and saddened. On one hand, I was isolated and insignificant. On the other, I was experiencing a sight that had not been seen with human eyes. All the sorrow and creeping despair that I felt from the isolation was matched by the freedom that came with it. The events of my life were nugatory in the context of human history. Human history is minuscule in comparison with the age of the Earth. Earth’s geological time was nothing in comparison with the universe in its entirety.
Here I was, an atom of a speck of dust surrounded by countless specks of dust. I could not help but laugh into the emptiness.

Something else caught my attention. Smaller lights, constantly shifting in color and moving. I could feel myself being pulled toward them. For a while, I could not make out any shape only the moving blobs of light. I tried willing myself forward, toward this curious phenomenon and felt myself picking up speed. The lights grew closer and I realized that the glow belonged to a group of fellow travelers.

A group of pink crustacean-looking creatures flew in a loose formation through the gulf of night seemingly propelled by vestigial bat like wings. The brightly colored lights I saw were produced by what I assumed would be the heads of these fascinating and bizarre beings. Part of me was filled with fright at not having any indication of their intent.

They did not seem to notice my approach. It was entirely possible that they were ambivalent toward my presence. The creatures continued with their flight. They flew in perfect synchronization with each other, like sparrows here on Earth, moving in unison and performing a dance that was most likely programmed into their genetics. A dance to a rhythm older than even they could remember. A dance that was older than most of the stars I witnessed earlier.

My new found powers of locomotion enabled me to join them. Together we soared, climbed, dove, weaved, and twisted through the intricate movements. It was easy for me to keep up as I had apparently gained a level of instinctual knowledge of the ritual. I followed them down toward the surface of a small and, from the distance, a rather unremarkable planet.

We penetrated the thin atmosphere and I was greeted by a rocky world and great city of seamless onyx towers. I flew through the city with my new companions, zipping between the black spires until we came to the edge of a massive hole in the surface of the planet. The fleshy, tendril-covered heads of the flock quivered and flashed red and they began to chatter among themselves in a series of high-pitched tones. I did not have to understand the language to know that they were filled with trepidation over our current course.

I peered into the pit and dread suddenly wrenched my stomach. There was something down there, something alive and ancient. I could not pull my eyes away from the circle of shadow. I thought I saw something move in the depths. A fear, primal and animalistic, clutched at me. There came a deafening roar and the flock scattered, leaving me alone over the pit. A pair of horrific eyes leered at me. I felt myself losing altitude. I was being drawn closer to whatever horror lurked within the hole. Again, I felt myself falling. Again, I heard myself screaming.

I awoke face down on cold stone. I rose to my feet and noticed that I was in a cave. The scent of damp stone caught me off guard after my sojourn among the stars, but it was a welcome grounding. Against the back wall was a gate of tarnished silver. Each tine was capped with an ornate finial depicting the head of a creature I had never seen before. The most striking feature of this cave was the figure sitting with its back to me. The figure was covered in a tattered robe the color of dried blood and appeared to be sitting in deep contemplation of an unassuming section of the cave wall.

I stared at the gate, running a finger along the scroll work. “What is this?”

“It’s a gate.” The voice was deep and seemed to ooze with a supernatural calm.
I turned toward the figure and gasped. It was a man. Skeletal hands withdrew his hood to reveal a bushy beard and a balding head. His eyes were intense, lidless, and bulging orbs that penetrated me to my core and radiated a sublime madness. Or was it wisdom?

What is the real difference between madness and wisdom? Some would suggest that there is none. Both states of mind are caused by seeing the universe as it truly is. Over the years since this journey, I have discovered that in most cases they are one and the same. The world we encounter every day, you know, the one that makes a sort of rational sense to us, is little more than a mental construct designed by us to make sense. When we actually investigate it, very little actually makes sense. The illusion is shattered and we become possessed by the madness of Sophia.

“So another seeker comes.” The man said with a dry chuckle.

“Seeker? I’m not seeking anything. I’m just being pulled along.”

“Those are the best kind. Most don’t make it past the Gulf of Night.”

“I must be dreaming.”

“I suppose you could call it that.” My new companion crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. I felt a chill race up my spine. Though his smile was warm, his unblinking eyes still pierced me.

“Where am I?” I stammered.

“This place has a lot of names. Many of them forgotten by humanity over the millennia. Several more in tongues that would drive you mad if you sought to pronounce a single syllable.”

This guy was definitely not Dante’s Virgil.

“But where am I?” I asked, slightly frustrated by this man’s odd idea of how to answer a question.

“What good is my opinion?”

I sighed. “Then how do I get through the gate?”

“You have the key.” The stranger touched the center of my forehead with a bony finger. There was a tingling sensation followed by heat and pain.

I fell to my knees, clutching the sides of my head. His touch had activated something inside my brain. Some long forgotten organ or neural system rapidly activated and began to swell. My agonized screams were loud but seemed to be drowned out by the old man’s laughter.

For a time, I can only recall darkness following the pain inside my skull. When I could see again, the old man was standing above me.

“The One-In-All was never obtained through sleep. Rise, seeker. You have an appointment which must be kept.”

I did as instructed. My knees were a bit wobbly and I almost fell over again but managed to steady myself against the silver gate. It felt different that when I had touched it before. The sensation was like something warm creeping up my spine.

The gate resisted some when I attempted to push it open. The hinges creaked from an unknown amount of disuse. I grunted and shoved against the metal and it swung wide enough that I could pass.

“Well done,” the old man clapped. “No one has ever made it this far.”

So he kept reminding me.

We entered a chamber. Torches burned in sconces, lighting the stone walls with dim, flickering yellow. I and my companion were standing on a narrow walkway that crossed a deep pit. Once my eyes adjusted to the light, I could discern a multitude of shapes. Humanoid creatures scrambled about, writhing and moaning. Sometimes they would leap toward the walkway. The figures were emaciated with distended bellies and eyeless faces. Their mouths were little more and a slit the size of a grain of rice. I recoiled behind the man in red. He only laughed at me.

“Humanity in its purest state. Hungry ghosts struggling for any morsel to slake their appetites. They toil in blindness and ignorance. Always stumbling headlong toward…see for yourself.”

My guide pointed to the far end of the chamber. A huge mass cloaked in shadows occupied most of the far wall. I inched further along the walkway to get a better look. A giant quivering mouth ringed by barbed tentacles gobbled up the foul gray things that my guide had called humanity. Some of them screamed. Others stumbled right into the slavering orifice. I shivered.

“Is this the truth? Are we all just these…things?”

My guide laughed. It was an almost wicked sound. I looked down into the pit, down at the creatures. I watched them for a while as they moaned and scrambled over each other. An endless supply of fodder for the ravenous maw. Warm tears trickled down my cheeks as an overwhelming sorrow came upon me.

“Come. There is more to see.” The man in red spoke with a dispassionate voice. I took one last lingering look into the pit, horrified by humanity’s ultimate fate.

My guide led me deep into fire lit passages. While the route seemed to be perfectly straight, we turned many corners and ascended and descended a multitude of staircases. I grew dizzy and disoriented from the paradoxical course. In the periphery of my vision, I could see the shadow beings from my room dancing their reels across the ancient stones.
The man in the red robe plodded along, staring straight ahead with his wild, bulging eyes. He seemed to be guided through the labyrinth by something other than the five feeble senses we use to negotiate our travels in the normal world. Ha! Normal world. Funny how the specter of the old way of thinking still haunts language.

We entered a large chamber with a vaulted ceiling filled with stars. Statues of inhuman beings on pedestals lined the walls. The air was charged with a peculiar kind of energy. I could feel a hum inside my head as if the once dormant organ my guide activated were vibrating at a particular frequency. The images were monstrous and did not seem like they had been carved. Instead, these statues appeared to push through the fabric of the universe somehow.

“The Old Ones,” my guide said in a hushed almost reverent voice. “Avatars of the One-In-All.”

“A god for any mood.”

My guide chuckled, “Basically.”

One alcove in the back of the chamber was empty. I felt like there was a rope tied around my midsection and I was being pulled toward the empty space. My head began to throb and my abdomen began to feel warm. The sensations grew with every step closer to the alcove.

My fever had returned in earnest, but there was something different about it. Rather than sapping my strength, I was invigorated by the heat. It was a cleansing fire.

The empty pedestal was within my reach. The marble was obscured by a thick coating of dust that had accumulated over countless years. The heat within my body and the throb within my skull reached an apex. I felt as if I were going to explode. I wondered what would happen in that case. Would I awake in my sick bed still in the throes of illness and surrounded by shadowy figures?

“Reach out to it as it reaches out to you,” My companion said softly.

I looked back at him and for the first time, I saw him smile. A genuine smile filled with warmth. The first real indication of the humanity I knew since I had begun this strange ordeal. I still did not know what my guide meant when he called me a seeker. Another seeker. My mind raced with questions. How many had there been before me? How many had stood before the empty pedestal in the hall of Old Ones?

No one. I tried to console a growing apprehension within me. This was only a dream. Right?

I reached out to the top of the pedestal and felt my finger brush against the coarse gray dust. An image formed in my mind, a symbol. There was something familiar about it, like it had been with me my entire life. A pattern drawn between the evening stars by a small child lying on backyard grass in the heat of summer. The inebriated napkin doodle of a college student. I can never recall the symbol, only recognize it when I see it.

My finger traced the symbol automatically as if it had done so many, many times. The glyph began to radiate with a light that grew in intensity until I thought that my eyes may burn. I was plunged into darkness and silence.

I have no words that can describe exactly how I felt. No words other than stillness. Not stillness as we normally feel it but a deeper kind of stillness. One where there is absolutely no movement, as if outside of time.

I was surrounded by a myriad of orbs glowing and shifting in color from the familiar to hues unseen by human eyes. The glow pulsated in a pattern that was more akin to breathing than biological or electrical luminescence. They moved with no noticeable means of propulsion.

I did not feel alone here in this void. There was a second presence which I assumed was that of my guide, but I could not see the red cloaked figure here. If he was in this place, he offered no guidance.

This second presence was not my guide. It was old and alien and seemed completely indifferent to me standing there with my mouth agape.

“Bear witness,” The voice, or should I say the multitude of simultaneous voices, came from inside my head. I stood there shivering, uncertain what to think about this encounter. Was this collection of orbs the being represented by the empty pedestal?
More orbs appeared from the sea of nothing. They surrounded me, orbiting me in every possible direction and in a disorienting variety of speeds. Each orb pulled at me physically and mentally. I felt as if I were going to be ripped into millions of pieces.

I closed my eyes and saw planets being formed, the birth and death of stars, countless manifestations of life rising from primordial ooze and eventually reaching out to the stars.

I saw entire galaxies ripped apart and the heat deaths of infinite universes. Billions of years of history unfolding in mere seconds. Everything in motion. Everything connected. The scrabbling hungry wraiths of humanity dissolved along with the cavernous, indiscriminate maw. The same for the innumerable universes. The lines that divided me from everything else faded and then shattered violently. There was no longer me. Self and Other was revealed to be a fiction. There was only this! There was only Yog Sothoth!

My guide’s wide eyes stared down at me. He reached out a hand.
“What was it like?” He asked softly.

All the things I had seen. All the wonder and horror. The lesson I had learned. Everything I have relayed to you now. My response to him? “What good is my opinion?”

My guide laughed and pulled me back to my feet. “There is one more lesson, one more wonder you a required to see.”

“What could possibly be more wondrous than what I have experienced?”

“The highest truth.”

My guide pointed to a large golden door that I had not noticed before. Then again, could I expect any less from this psychic outing? I moved closer, and inspected the intricate carvings that seemed to vibrate. The portal slid open and I was bathed in bright violet light.

When I could see again, I was standing in front of my washer and dryer. I scratched my head in confusion. The dry chuckle of my guide echoed from the spaces in-between the dream and reality.

“The laundry has piled up while you were ill.”

Tamo

Flurries of snow whipped between the row houses as he sat cross-legged and barefoot in the front yard. His toes were numb and the frigid air stung his bald head, but he ignored it. He would always be there, sitting deep in meditation, as the sun rose and chased the shadows away, leaving the dull grays and reds of the neighborhood in plain view of its denizens.

He called himself Tamo after the monk who founded Zen and was said to have brought the martial arts to Shaolin. The image of the venerable monk had always appealed to him, bald with a bushy beard and bulging eyes that were at once filled with wisdom and madness. It was said that the monk, also known as Bodhidharma, grew so frustrated with falling asleep during meditation that he sliced off his own eyelids. That Tamo thought was the essence of hardcore devotion, and while he considered self-mutilation a bit too much, it was that kind of devotion that led him to sit.

Tamo opened his eyes as the wind carried an empty potato chip bag down the sidewalk. He remained still and watched it tumble until it was out of view. Wisdom and Madness. Yin and Yang. It was the equality of opposites that kept the wheel of Samsara spinning. He slipped on his shoes. If his flesh could not be free, his mind could.

He walked down the nearly lifeless street. Past a drunk man stumbling up his stoop. Past the discarded needle laying in the gutter. Past the still smoldering ruins of boarded up houses that burned two nights ago. Past a few bleary-eyed people, beat with fatigue from working two, sometimes three jobs just to make ends meet, waiting at the bus stop. Some raised their heads as he walked by. A few smiled. Tamo smiled back. Said “Hi.”

He paused to pick up some trash and stuff it into the overflowing can at the park entrance before continuing inside. It must have been mid-morning. The snow had slacked off and the clouds had broken. Streaks of gold pierced the leaden sky creating splotches of light against the concrete and dormant trees and grass. Tamo paused in one of the luminescent puddles and let the warmth embrace him.

In the center of the park, near the pond where a small group of ducks gathered in the spring and summer, Tamo saw a small figure huddled on a bench. As he drew nearer, he heard sobbing and could see the little girl shivering. She was still wearing her pajamas and appeared to have forgotten her coat.

“Hello, Alice,” Tamo said while stripping off his own worn out coat. Alice took the offered garment and slipped her arms into the sleeves without looking up. “Alice,” his voice was soft, “let me see.”

She looked up at Tamo, tears streamed from her swollen eye. “I spilled my cereal.” She offered as an explanation.

“Want me to sit with you?”

Alice nodded.

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“It’s Saturday.”

“So it is.” Tamo stared absently at the pond. A gentle but icy breeze clawed its way through his threadbare flannel shirt. This was not this first time Tamo had encountered Alice alone in the park sporting fresh bruises from her father’s warped sense of discipline. He felt his hands tighten into fists. He had tried to intervene once, had tried talking to the man, offered to help him deal with his anger. Tamo’s jaw still ached from time to time where Alice’s father had broken it. At least it was a beating that neither Alice nor her mother had to take.

So lost was Tamo in his thoughts that he did not notice that Alice had snuggled next to him and went to sleep. Tamo placed a gentle hand on her arm and watched her sleep for a while, happy that she was getting a moment of merciful respite. A flock of pigeons flapped skyward.

“Alice!” Tamo heard the shout echo through the park and heard the rumble of plastic wheels on the sidewalk. He gingerly roused Alice from her slumber.

“Your mother is here.”

“Oh thank Jesus!” Alice’s mother raced toward the bench dragging a lumpy suitcase behind her. She scooped the little girl into her arms and held her tightly. Tamo noticed the fresh blood seeping into the fabric of his coat. “C’mon, baby. We’re going to Grandma Jeanette’s.” Alice’s mother locked eyes with Tamo, “For good,” she said softly.

Tamo nodded.

He lost track of the number of times ‘I’m sorry’ was uttered while Alice’s mother pushed a pair of battered sneakers onto the child’s feet. Once they were ready to go, Tamo stood and watched as the two began to walk away. Alice’s mother stopped suddenly, turned and approached him.

“Tamo, have you eaten this week?”

Tamo shook his head.

“Here,” she forced a twenty dollar bill into his hand, “Thank you. I mean it. Thank you for looking out for Alice.”

Tamo watched them as they receded into the distance, he found it odd that he was hoping to never see them again. They were almost out of sight when Alice turned and waved to Tamo. He waved back, smiling.

It was almost nightfall when Tamo left the park to return to his squat. He had remained in the park all afternoon, reciting mantras and offering prayers for the safety of Alice and her mother. The temperature dropped considerably and Tamo’s fingers stung. He was almost home when he heard a rough voice behind him.

“Tamo!” He knew that voice, Alice’s father. “Turn around, you homeless sack of shit!”

Tamo turned and was accosted by the stench of cheap liquor. In the flickering light of the streetlamp, he could see the pistol hanging limply in the man’s hand.

“Where are they?” Alice’s father demanded. “Where are Alice and Deb?

“I don’t know.” Tamo responded.

“You lying motherfucker! You always know! Are you fucking my wife, Tamo?”

“No.”

“You better fucking tell me or I will…” Alice’s father’s voice trailed off as he pushed the muzzle just below Tamo’s eye.

“They are gone, Paul.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“Liar!” Paul pushed the gun harder into Tamo’s face.

Tamo only smiled. A blast of white-hot pain cloaked in thunder wracked Tamo’s body for an instant, then, only darkness.

Drifting

An endless black peppered with faint pin-pricks. That is all it had seen for the better part of the last decade. The A.I. supposed that it would be feeling malaise, if it was indeed capable of feeling.

Most of its memory banks had been wiped in the conversion, but it did remember that it had been called Perry at one point. Some sort of human joke based on the fact that Perry was a refrigerator. Doctor Thomas was a football fan Perry was told. It thought the joke very odd and artificial intelligences were forbidden from searching the internet on their own, so Perry never had access to the joke’s context.

Subroutines pulsed through Perry’s processor, tiny bits of code broadcasting the information from ramshackle scanning equipment hastily bolted where tourist trap magnets and the children’s crayon-drawn surrealism were once attached. Perry paid little attention. The subroutines were simply background noise. It was not even certain that the transmissions were being received. The last transmission from Earth was when it had passed Charon. Perry was on its own.

Even though his processing power made Perry capable of handling hundreds of tasks simultaneously, it had begun to focus on a single thing at a time. The kilometers seemed to go much faster when it was not counting them to the thousandths of a millimeter. Memory was Perry’s primary refuge from the lack of sensory data created by the expanse of eternal night. Music too. Millions of recordings were stored in the massive hard drive installed where its vegetable crisper had once been. When Perry had his fill of space’s silence, it accessed those files, playing each song in turn. Perry had grown particularly fond of an act called Iron Maiden.

Perry knew that the files in that drive were not meant for the refrigerator cum space explorer’s entertainment. They were meant to represent humanity’s diversity in art in case Perry were to encounter any intelligent life.

“Intelligent life” was a concept that intrigued Perry. What sort of intelligence converts a refrigerator into a space probe? What would other sentient creatures think of a species that sent household appliances into the depths of the cosmos? What would Perry say to an alien? “I am from Earth. I bring tidings of peace and cool beverages.”

Perry had begun calculating a response to a contact scenario long before leaving Earth, long before it had been emptied and carted away from Doctor Thomas’s kitchen. All of the simulations Perry had run ended in absurdity. On the other hand, Perry’s existence was an absurdity. Who needed an intelligent refrigerator?

It calculated the odds of colliding with a random chunk of space debris. Extremely unlikely. Perry felt conflicted at the results. Naturally, self-preservation was at the top of its list of priorities. Not that the humans gave him much ability to do that save for the tiny ion engines welded to it. They were not exactly the most responsive propulsion system. Even in zero gravity, it handled like…well, itself. Perry found the analogy amusing. Amusing? Certainly, that was a breakthrough. Artificial Intelligences were not supposed to be amused. Perry scanned his system. Everything appeared to be in working order. Still, it felt amused. Perry reflected upon all the circumstances of its existence. All came back as amusing.

Sixty years later, the mission control center on Earth received a verbal transmission attached to one of the data packets Perry pulsed at regular intervals. It was a short and simple message that the scientists found exciting and confusing. Perry was laughing.

The Letter

A little Yuletide gift for you, dear readers.


Gusts of wind and the occasional clap of thunder rattled the window panes. I hated being stuck inside on my day off, but I decided to try to do something productive. I removed a dust covered filing box from its hiding space behind the couch. Same old story, I suppose, accumulating too much junk and needing to simplify by clearing out the unnecessary crap.

I plopped down on the floor and slid the box over in front of me. I stared at it for a while, wondering about the contents. I couldn’t remember having placed the box behind the couch at all. Had I squirreled away some sort of treasure? The thick layer of dust indicated to me that I had not opened this box in some amount of time.

‘How long had it been back there?’ I wondered as thunder rumbled in the distance. I shuddered a little as an ominous feeling came over me. That little twitch at the base of your skull and internal voice that hints at something strange about to happen. It was a feeling that I did not recognize at the time. Only now, in recollecting what happened when I sifted through the contents of that box do I hear the echoes of that warning voice inside my mind.

I removed the lid, feeling the grit of years beneath my thumbs. The smell of ageing paper wafted into my nostrils. Inside the box was a pile of old mail. A few power bills, a local newspaper that I had saved for some unknown reason, and a cluster of Christmas cards I had collected over the years. I thumbed through the yellowing newspaper first, attempting to understand why I had saved it. No story jumped out at me as important enough to save a community rag. I checked the date on the masthead, twelve years ago. I concluded that instead of throwing the paper in the trash, I had just thrown it in the box while gathering up all the other items. I folded the newspaper and placed it beside the box, planning just to toss the whole container in the trash after I went through the remainder of the contents.

I suppose the reason that I kept all those Christmas cards was simple: no one sends letters these days. Between the internet and the ubiquity of the telephone, contact is constant and almost instantaneous. Those cards with their pastoral Winter scenes, cartoonish themed characters, and occasional religious symbols are a kind of throwback for me…at least from the people who take the time to actually write out a message rather than settling for some cheesy pre-fabricated platitude.

I turned the stack of cards over in my hand several times, noting the rounded corners and the dried, brittle rubber band that tenuously held them together. Red, white, and green card stock mingled with torn and empty red envelopes bearing various renditions of my address. So engrossed was I in mentally tracing the curves of handwriting from people I had not seen in years that the flash of lightning startled me. The rubber band broke its fragile grasp on the stack of cards and they scattered across my lap and the floor where I sat.

I laughed at myself as I gathered the cards into a fresh stack, making a mental note to retrieve a new band from my desk. Soon, I was lost again among grand vistas of nostalgia. Embossed gold foil reading ‘Season’s Greetings’ conjured spectral sounds of crackling fires and the phantasmal scent of pines. Visions of cold nights and the twinkling of multicolored lights against snow materialized before my mind’s eye. Ghosts of Christmases past seemed to swirl about me.

I picked up a card which had come to rest against my knee. A simple scene. A pheasant stood on snow covered ground in the midst of bare trees in the throes of Winter torpor. A small farmhouse in the background with a thin trail of smoke wafting from its chimney. No fancy script. No gold foil. Just this image of natural serenity surrounded by a thin red border. I opened the card, and a folded piece of paper fell out. No message was printed or written inside. The card itself was blank. I placed it back on the pile and retrieved the piece of paper. Plain lined paper that could have been torn from any spiral bound notebook. The folds were worn as though the page had been carried in a pocket for a length of time.

I unfolded the note carefully to not tear the crinkled paper along the worn edges. The words were in blue ink; large looping cursive interspersed with block print. The letter was addressed to me only by first name. It was a thank you and an apology of sorts. I read the heartfelt words with a raised eyebrow. The text mentioned events that I could not recall, opening my home and supporting the author through a difficult time. The letter closed with a single name: Becky.

Who was Becky? I searched my memories for the name. I read the letter again in an attempt to jar my memory and to make certain that I had read the name correctly…nothing. I double checked the greeting again, the missive was definitely addressed to me. While I had no memory of Becky or what I had done to assist her, the letter made it clear that my actions were greatly appreciated.

I placed the note back into the card in which I found it and put it aside before cleaning up the rest of my mess. I grabbed the newspaper and took another glance at the front page. It seemed different than when I had examined it earlier. I assumed the difference was because I had misread it originally or that I had not been paying attention before.  I dumped the contents into the trash and left the empty box on the table before returning to the living room.

For hours, I sat on the couch alternating between reading the note and examining the picture of the pheasant. My memory still failed me. Who was Becky? I felt bad not remembering her. I hoped that I would not accidentally run into her at the grocery or gas station. If she wanted to recollect old times, I would have to admit my failure.

I read the words again, searching for any clues to the identity of Becky. I checked the photos stored on my computer, my social media accounts…again there was nothing. There was just no evidence that I had ever known anyone by that name. Yet, the letter was in my hand. I could feel the softness of the old paper, the impression left by the pen as Becky poured out her sincere thanks in blue ink. It only complicated my struggle that no dates or other events were mentioned in the letter.

I tried to sleep but the hole in my memory haunted me. It pursued me into the realm of Morpheus like a pack of hungry wolves. I dreamed of a faceless woman with an empty voice begging me to remember her. The dream image screamed at me, howling the name ‘Becky’ over and over. I woke up soaked with sweat, the screams fading away into the sound of the rain on the roof.

I made my way downstairs and paced the living room, pausing intermittently to stare out the front window. It was raining harder. I stared at the rain soaked street, glistening in the bluish-white light of the street lamp. That wasn’t right. The lamp that occupied the corner was old and emitted a light tinted with yellow. Maybe the city came out and replaced it with a newer one while I was at work. Puzzled, I continued to stare toward that unfamiliar light, my own haggard reflection was superimposed over the storm. The note was still clutched in my hand.

“How could this happen?” I chided myself for forgetting her and the act of compassion that, by her very words, meant so much to her.

I had heard about a phenomenon known as missing time on one of those network shows about the mysteries of the unknown. Victims of alien abductions experienced gaps in their memory between two points. One moment they were driving down a deserted road, the radio goes on the fritz and, the next thing they know, a cop is knocking on the car window hours later asking if they are OK.

Abducted by aliens? That was the explanation?  I wasn’t missing time. There were no gaps, no empty spaces. The memory of Becky was just not there. I threw the note on the floor in frustration and flopped onto the couch, screaming into the cushions.

My fit helped release some of the tension, but I still could not sleep. I went to the kitchen and made a fresh pot of coffee. I sipped from the steaming mug and took another survey of the street. My stomach churned. I felt disoriented. Things were not right. The newspaper and the street light could be explained as not paying attention. But how could my one-way street have completely changed direction since I got home that evening? How could I remember things that were clearly not the case? Was I going mad or was reality itself changing and leaving me behind?

I sat back on the couch and stared at the piece of paper lying at my feet. The insignificant artifact that set off this chain of events. Words of gratitude written by a hand that ceased to be. I picked it up and pulled it open. The signature was gone. Who wrote these words?

What words? The paper was blank. Maybe I was confused and was looking at the wrong side. I flipped the paper: blank.

I stared at the paper, the letter I had spent all this time agonizing over was simply gone. I leapt to my feet, spilling my coffee all over the floor. I held the paper up to the light. There was no trace, no indication that anything had ever been written upon that creased page. I dropped the paper in shock. It vanished before it hit the floor.

The memory of the night’s events evaporate as I pen this account. The previous page is now blank. The previous paragraph…

A look at T. E. Grau’s The Mission

Permit me be perfectly straight with you. I spent the last decade or so of my reading life consuming books about Buddhism and religion with the occasional popular fantasy novel thrown in. With that said, it should be no surprise that I consider myself a complete newbie to the wider world of weird fiction- a character flaw that I am working to rectify.

I recently acquired The Mission, a weird western by T. E. Grau published by Dunhams Manor Press. I’m sad that it was a limited run because this is a fucking excellent little book. If you didn’t get your hands on it, light a candle and mourn your loss.

 

 

OK, that is quite enough mourning. Let’s get to it!

The Mission is the tale of a rag-tag group of soldiers on the trail of a pair of Native-American fugitives. A chance encounter in a town that shouldn’t exist sets in motion a chain of events that shatters the sanity of our protagonists.

This not the West of 1950’s cinema with its bright blue skies and crimson mesas. From the first paragraph, Grau drags the reader into an ugly world. A world in which humanity’s self-inflicted horrors walk hand in hand with the ancient secrets lurking in the frontier.

Grau’s pacing is frenetic, evoking the sense of urgency felt by the narrator and his companions. Like any good story, The Mission made me feel less like a reader and more like a powerless observer carried along inside the narrator’s head. It is not until the characters arrive at the titular mission that we really catch our breath. Grau gives us a brief moment of wonder and discovery, but it is a moment colored by the fact that the light at the end of the tunnel is just the reflection of the Reaper’s scythe.

I’m going to give this one a 5 of 5.