Better known as the Fantasy Game by most of Battle-School's teachers and students, a mysterious computer program that is so complicated that even its creators don't fully understand what it's doing. Or even why it's doing it. And most importantly, and this is key, how it's doing it.
The Mind Game can be better understood as simply another plane, or dimension of existence, inhabited by both native-programmed beings, as well as representations of outside users. It is not uncommon for these outside users, once they find themselves within this strangely encompassing world, to find themselves different than they may have remembered themselves being when they had entered the Mind Game. These differences can range from physical form, to gained or lost knowledge and or abilities. Once again, the reasons for this phenomenon are not easily understood, though it can be said that the Mind Game has a plan and a purpose for everything it does.
What is understood about the Mind Game, is that when people are "playing" it, they can often find themselves completely entrenched in the game, so much so that they can even forget that it's a game in the first place.
Lije heard the cheerful tones of a morning songbird, unbeknownst to him serenading the three great suns as they rose, in thanks for the warming rays. The sweet smell of flowers, and the pungent aroma of incense filled Lije's nose. His head felt like it had been cloven in two and he was becoming ever more aware of the piercing migraine that he was experiencing. His mouth felt dry, and he thought he could taste something on the back of his tongue that reminded him of milk. Then he opened his eyes.
Slowly, at first, his pupils contracting automatically as they reflexively responded to blinding shafts of sunlight pouring in from a small, triangular doorway, about ten feet away. The rest of the room was completely dark.
He blinked. He blinked again, in the desperate hope that upon blinking once more he might finally realize and understand what exactly he was seeing. Three suns, of differing sizes and colors, rising over an enormous, snow-capped mountain range that seemed to contain an endless forest of peaks.
As he continued to stare in wonder at the scene afforded to him by the rather small, triangular doorway, he became aware of the chilling sensation that crept up his spine with icy, spider-like legs, telling them that he was not alone.
"Ah, so you've noticed me then. I was beginning to think that you were never going to wake up, Lije."
Lije bolted upright into a sitting position, finding himself facing the owner of the voice. It was a woman. He could barely make her out in the dimness of what could be called the hut. As his eyes adjusted, her form seemed to materialize out of the darkness. Lije was surprised when he saw her snowy, white hair. She was much older than he had anticipated, though her face was still fair, and he could tell that she had once been beautiful. Her watery, blue eyes peered sharply at him from the shadows she was seated in.
"By the way, darlin'" her surprisingly silky voice called out at him, "I can sense your thoughts, so do me a favor and try not to think of me as some old lady who was "once very beautiful!" she said, saying that last part in a comically low voice.
Lije blinked again, and then opened his mouth to say something--
"And before you ask," she cut him off, "Yes, that is why I know your name. Though I must confess that beyond that fact, I know little else about you."
Lije closed his mouth, disappointed that he hadn't even gotten a chance to start shaping the first word of his question before he'd been answered. But then again, he had to admit he was impressed. As he wondered to what extent this mysterious woman could read his mind, she sat forward into the light. He could see that she was wearing a plain, brown habit, of some seemingly thick and scratchy material. Her snowy hair wreathed her face and caught the colored light of the trio of sunrises.
"Lije, I have a question I'd like to ask you," she started, fixing her watery gaze on him.
"A question for me?" he replied, puzzled, glancing out the door again and basking in the warmth.
"Yes, of course you clod, you don't think I take in and nurse back to health just any half-dead stranger I find lying in a ditch, do you?"
At this she chuckled dryly to herself before continuing, "I couldn't ever get anything done if that were the case. No, Lije, the reason I saved you, nearly eight sunrises ago I might add, has to do with what I found when I skimmed your thoughts when you were unconscious."
He looked at her questioningly, with a strange, sort of abashed look on his face.
"Yes, yes, I know, how terribly intrusive of me. Call it a bad habit," she drawled dismissively.
Lije took the bait. "And what did you find?"
She gave him a queer sort of half-smile at his words and looked him in the eyes.
Lije sat on the edge of the bed, hunched over, swinging his legs back and forth in a despondent fashion. He seemed to be looking out the door again, but he wasn't actually looking at anything. He was simply letting as much of the brilliant sunlight into his eyes as possible. Not because he wished to blind himself, or because his eyes were cold, but rather a different reason altogether. He was trying to lose himself in the dazzle of the blinding suns.
"C'mon honey, trust me, I'm just as shocked as you are," the woman said assuringly, "You've been staring at the suns like that long enough to boil your brains."
Lije laughed hollowly, a dry, mournful sound. "No big loss there," he observed.
The woman sat silently, only the sound of her breathing, and the birds chirping outside could be heard.
"I just don't understand it," he finally said. "How can you just forget everything about who you are?" He continued to gaze out the doorway.
"Not everything, Lije. You know your own name," the woman offered.
Lije turned away from the morning rays and looked at the woman sharply, a glimmer in his eyes. "That's true, but that's barely anything!"
The woman sighed, bringing a slender, wrinkled hand to her brow to pull back several rogue wisps of flaxen hair behind her ear. She cocked her head to look out the triangular door that was beginning to fill the room with a wondrous, amber light. Illuminated, floating through the air, she could make out every single grain of the thousands of dust particles that swirled about the hut in lazy ripples and patterns.
"The three, great suns of our world provide enough light to grow an endless expanse and infinite variety of flowering and growing plants. The warmth afforded by our suns has enabled life itself to coalesce into existence with a myriad of equally complicated forms. The observation of the movements of our suns makes it possible to measure and quantify time accurately, as well as determine directions and distances relative to other points in space. The suns do, and are responsible for all these amazing things, and even then, they still do not even know their own names."
The defiant look on Lije's face softened. "Hmph," he grunted noncommittally.
"And...", she prodded, "You do not know my name."
Lije nodded to himself in realization. She hadn't told him her name yet. He sat there awkwardly, growing increasingly impatient as the birds continued to chirp and sing happily outside, interrupted by no other sound. Finally he could take it no longer.
"Well!" he blurted expectantly, glaring at her wizened form in the shadows to his left.'
"Well what!?" she clucked, indignantly. idly smoothing her habit over her knees.
"You sounded like you were going to tell me your name! That's what!" Lije shouted, brimming with exasperation. "I don't know who I am, or how I got here, or where here is, and you're making me wait and prance like a dog begging for a treat. Just tell me already! I just want to know something! Someone!
She waited patiently for him to finish, smiling benignly the whole time. When he'd had his say, she looked up and seemed to be tossing a thought back and forth inside her head. After a moment's reflection, she seemed to make up her mind and looked back at him again.
"No, I don't think I will, atleast for now."
Lije fumed inwardly. He consciously set about to putting out the fires that she was stoking so brazenly. He knew that it would do him no good to berate his apparent savior, and more importantly was loathe to drive away the only person he knew who had seemed to take an interest in him. He didn't want to admit it or show it, but Lije was lonely. Isolated. A stranger, trespassing in his own mind every time he had a thought.
"Enough of such dreary thoughts, take heart Lije! In tragic and mysterious circumstances you have found yourself, but a better host you couldn't have come by certainly! If ever you needed someone with my...talents, then it is now. And let me assure you, I do plan to help you as best I can."
He could read her orchestrated smile easily, she was just trying to cheer him up.
"Correct," she added. "But is that something to hold against someone?"
Lije narrowed his eyes, "Yeah, it could be."
"Oh, I see," she cocked her head in sudden realization, "You think I'm not telling you something."
"Correct", Lije parroted, "other than your name, that is."
"Well, how about this then? I'll answer one of those questions for you, but only one. That's all you get."
"Okay, that's easy..."
She waited for the answer she knew he would pick.
"...then I want to know your name."
She was stunned. As a rule, she was never surprised by anything that anyone had to say. This was a first. Perhaps he wasn't as shallow and self-centered as she had initially thought he was. Not that he had really given that impression in the first place, but rather she tended to believe such things of everyone she encountered.
"Any day n-"
"My name," she interjected, "is Yusa."
"I am also known as Yusa, the Dreamslayer," she added, regally.
"Oh?" she hissed indignantly.
He shrugged, a movement so subtle and composed of such small effort that it was almost imperceptible.
"Do you even know what it means to be given a title?"
"Uh, Hello! My name's Lije and...yep that's pretty much all I know."
"It was a rhetorical question!"
"Well, all I know is that you couldn't pay me to be called the dreamslayer. It sounds like a fluffy sword made of clouds that shoots out rainbows."
It was Yusa's turn to fume inwardly, "I assure you, it is a most revered honor to be given a title. And don't think I don't realize what you're doing."
Lije grinned, obviously satisfied with himself. "What am I doing?"
Yusa ignored him. "Anyways, if you want my help, that is, more help in addition to the aid I have already granted you, then I am willing to walk you through a session, for a nominal fee ofcourse."
"Nothing in life is free, Lije, you don't need me to remind you of that. I'm well aware of the fact that you don't possess any form of payment, but I'm willing to hire you on to do...odd jobs for me in return."
He didn't like the way she hesitated slightly before saying "odd jobs".
Yusa didn't wait for him to say anything. "Do you want me to see what I can find out about you or not?"
Lije looked down like a kid being scolded by his parent. "Yes, of course. I'll do whatever you need me to. Just tell me something about myself, something real."
Fenridas Woke in a cold sweat, his night’s sleep was all but a shattered fragment of memory. It was still 2 hours his alarm would go off and Halikar took this as an opportunity to reflect on what had happened.
But that was the problem; all he remembered was 3 suns setting and a relentless heat. He guessed his dream was in a desert but where? He had never known anywhere but his childhood so this gave him a new opportunity to grasp something that was different – new.
He decided to try to see what happened again and within a few moments he was asleep. ------------------------- Decole awoke lying in the sand with shattered memories of somewhere inside but he just accepted them as his subconscious wanting to be inside a house – or even someplace cool – Even after the suns went down the sand was burning hot hurting the soles of his feet as he walked.
The barren landscape of the desert was relentless making it impossible to travel for long amounts of time. Decole was forced to make a shelter in the sand every night to avoid the blazing heat. It was never really much of a shelter more of a hole dug deep enough that the sand is still cool; it provided the little amount of protection that Decole needed to keep from frying to a crisp.
Decole reached into his backpack as he could start seeing the sun’s rays as they reached up over the land, wanting to come over and burn all that was caught in their blazing heat. He had to dig quickly because his little nap took up a lot of time. Soon his hole was finished the work of the day done he dropped to his knees and crawled in. The hole was barely big enough to fit him and Decole had to tightly tuck himself tightly to fit. The cool sand felt good on his hot feet and he buried his toes as he let out a long deep sigh.
School was tough for Fenridas now, the blazing suns always in his mind never letting up even for a moment for him to collect his thoughts. It was a terrible burden for Fenridas to bear; he was never in a position where he was slow in his intellect, ever. It took Fenridas a longer time to gather his wits after a question was asked and many people stopped asking him for help on their assignments.
Fenridas tried to make out what had happened the night before but all he could remember was heat and the suns; it drove him crazy not being able to know something. He never spoke a word of this to anyone, not that he had any friends to tell it to anyways. He kept it to himself even when people noticed it bothered him, others tried to pry at what he was thinking but he was relentless refusing to cooperate. Most gave up and let him be stubborn but others persisted.
Fenridas thought these people might have seen the same kinds of things but he refrained from asking because he would probably have looked like a loon. Not to mention he did not want any unnecessary attention drawn to him at the moment he just wanted to lay low.
When he got home he went to the game room and for the first time he looked at the fantasy game, it was over in a corner. His parents must have put it there to find out what went on in his mind. Everybody knew that the fantasy game was a psychological test that was disguised as a game. He looked at it; it had a barren landscape with no life whatsoever projected on the screen. But that was not what intrigued him, what really caught his eye were the three suns just coming up over the horizon. He did not know if it had any connection to his dream but he just walked away calmly making sure not to give anything away, especially to his parents.
Fenridas walked out of the game room, Fenridas had played enough games for that day and going by his daily routine he quietly walked up the stairs humming a silent tune. The bathroom upstairs was small room with white drywall, tiled floors and marbled countertops. The sink a round basin of porcelain and a stainless steel tap that had two handles; Hot and cold. Fenridas started the water cold and slowly warmed it up until it the running water was a little cooler then the temperature on the room. He thrust a small cloth into the flow of the water; he took the cloth and rubbed it all over his face expelling all the dirt from the day’s activities.
Fenridas strode out of the bathroom into his bedroom along the way he stopped and watched the chandelier hanging over the stairs. It’s every movement reflecting dazzling light into his eyes it was mesmerizing, the light seemed to never go away until the sun went down and the whole house went dark. Fenridas quickly rushed to his bedroom and collapsed on the bed many things were flashing through his mind racing until it all stopped his breathing slowed and he drifted off into a deep sleep.
Decole awoke when the sun was just falling, he had to run quickly to get to the forested area within a few days. So he went off sprinting using the last of his energy reserves to travel quickly. Halikar had only three days food and water left and he hoped to get out of the blasted desert before that happened. With the moonlight at its brightest Decole ran as fast as he could but he was only a shadow in the great darkness it would require a lot of light to unveil him.
After the light rays were visible Decole kept walking he knew it was going to burn his skin badly but he had to get to the edge of the desert before the third set of sunrises. Decole ran until he collapsed from exhaustion just as the sun was setting he was planning to get a few hours of sleep then dig his hideout.
Fenridas woke up in the middle of the night again; his awakenings were more frequent nowadays. He quickly got to his feet and by the time he was standing his routine started to kick in. He tried very hard not to wake his parents; he quickly grabbed his rowel and went for a shower. He ran his hand along the wall in a wavelike pattern; it was a habit that he had to correct because it was starting to wear out the walls. The steam of the shower felt good, a little too good in his case…
Decole woke up strangely earlier than he normally did with a fractured memory of water flowing over him but he just blamed it on his subconscious and moved on to dig his hole. After that was done he tried to fall asleep but couldn’t and in order to spend the next few hours he did some drawing in the cool sand with his finger. At first he thought it was a square but then he kept going and it formed a shape he had never seen before, it was a cube inside a cube and all the corners were connected. Suddenly the cube came out of the sand moving in a way Decole never thought possible, the smaller cube started to move towards an edge and as it reached the edge one side got bigger and became the outer cube. It completely took Decole by surprise it move so smoothly and the edges were passing through each other as if the others weren’t there.
The shape began to move faster and faster soon it was racing so fast that Decole couldn’t keep track of it all everything became a burr. He looked out of the hole and everything melded away. His own hands blurred as if they were smudges on paper. Everything was whirling so fast that Decole did not know what was and was not real.
Soon everything stabilized and Decole could see that he was no longer in his hole. Decole was standing is a green field of flowers and grass – oh grass! Decole hadn’t see that for months – Off in the distance Decole spied a building with a large dome doorway, only then did he see the object still floating there as if it was ignoring gravity itself. Decole stared at the object for a long time and decided to pluck it out of the air and put it in his bag. After that little brush in the desert he was sure a miracle had just been performed and that the house in the distance could have people there to help him.
As Decole started to walk the ground rushed towards him and he put his arms out to brace himself for the impact. His last thought was his arm breaking.
Fenridas awoke on the floor of the shower and jumped to his feet, he looked outside and he was glad the hallways were still dark. He grabbed his towel and dried himself off. He then rushed back to his dorm he slumped on the bed and looked at the towel, it had blood on it. Halikar started to panic and went straight to his parents and they immediately rushed him to the hospital. The doctors stitched it up and said he would be fine as long as he skipped school tomorrow and get some sleep.
“Great more sleep, like I need that.” Thought Halikar quite annoyed. It was a five minute walk back to his house from the hospital but to Fenridas it was an eternity. The sun was rising creating an explosion of colors along the horizon. Fenridas had a burst of memory come from the depths of his mind; A dreamlike memory of him frying to a crisp under 3 suns. Fenridas panicked and fell to the ground. He lied there for a long time, almost half an hour it seemed, but eventually he was able to stand up and walk back home.
Jake walked through the plain, his hands running over the top of the grain as it swayed round and about in the wind. It was like a sea. The wheat blew in waves over the endless landscape, desperately searching for a tree, or rock, or anything really to break upon. The suns above played havoc with the shadows under the stalks, little crystals always moving with the wheat, like walking on a kaleidoscope.
In a field
I need to get out of here.
Some people may not realize just how frustrating it is to walk hours in one direction with absolutely nothing in sight but more of the same field. Some people may also not realize it is extremely creepy.
Though at this point any kind of creepy encounter would be a welcome one, if only to break the thundering monotony of this place.
Jake stopped walking and looked around.
"Well! Anything!?" he yelled.
There was nothing.
"Did I really expect the field to answer me? Good grief I'm lonely."
Yes, you are. And yes, you did.
"Shut up inner monologue."
I heard that.
Nothing. Even the voice in his head had left him to the crushing emptiness.
It wasn't just the lack of someone to talk to. And it wasn't just the perpetual sea of tan. And it certainly wasn't that his inner monologue had decided to give him the finger and run off on him.
It was that he had no idea how he got here. The last thing he remembered was launching his small fishing boat, aiming for the middle of the lake, and setting his line.
So maybe you're just dreaming it?"
"We. We are just dreaming this. And any minute I am going to wake up and go back to fishing. And I am going to toss the wine overboard."
I bet it was the cheese that did it.
You wouldn't say that if I told you I knew what it was that got you here.
"And do you?"
"So what was it all-knowing monologue?"
I can't tell you. She said so.
I don't know. There's just a very clear message in your head telling me not to tell you. Sorry bud.
"Wonderful. Guess we continue walking then."
Not two steps forward, the fields ended. They were replaced with nothing, followed by pain, followed by a cold black floor. What had really happened was that Jake had taken those two steps forward, and fallen down an hole about two stories, and landed on a hard concrete floor. The light from the hole in the ceiling cast a dim glow over the room, it was still possible to see the wheat, forever waving about, unaware of Jake's plight.
Getting up to look around, Jake noticed that the room was not very big, neither was the hole he fell through. It was maybe eight feet to the wall in any direction, and it didn't really seem as if the room had a purpose. But there was one thing about the room that had intrigued him. It was the doors.
There were eight doors around the room, each a different size, each a different shape, and each a different distance from each other. The one immediately to his left was purple, round, and ornately carved as if someone had stolen the door from Versailles and thrown paint onto it. At two o'clock from his current position, the door was gold, and it had what, upon further inspection were revealed to be, small fur covered tentacles, no more than an inch long. The door in front of him, was staring at him. It didn't just seem to be staring at him through some flaw or plan of design, there were actually several eyes, each yellow with long black eyelashes, staring very obviously at the strange thing that had just dropped from the ceiling. Deciding not to open some of the freakier doors, especially that one with the eyes, he walked over to a plain white door, complete with doggy door flap and looking like it had been torn off of a suburban home.
"I wouldn't touch that one. The family behind it has...changed somewhat since the last time I visited. Very nasty dog. All 5 of him."
Jake recoiled and quickly spun around. Where just a moment before the room had been empty save himself and the doors for company, a man had appeared.
"What was that?" said Jake.
"The door. It's one of the nastier ones down here. You'd be much safer with the one into the Janitor's Closet at South James Elementary. Hardly and gremlins left in that one. It's the one that's wearing a toque."
Sure enough, behind the man was a door, wearing a blue and red toque with a fluffy yarn ball on top of it. It appeared to be snoring as well.
"I wouldn't trust him you know." said the same man. "The tentacled one has always been my personal favorite."
Jake had to rub his eyes. He was certain he had just seen that man talk without opening his mouth. He had heard about ventriloquists, men who could throw their voices to other parts of the room, talk without moving their lips. They could all shove it. This man was something different. His clothes for one thing, were made of crushed velvet. The coat, the shirt, the pants, everything. And they were purple, like the door. He wore one black glove and one white, his shoes looked like they had been stolen from the court jester. But then...the man turned sideways, and suddenly his apparel seemed perfectly appropriate.
He had two faces.
Now normally, at least in Jake's experience, one face was the norm. This guy, did not get the memo apparently. The one that had led him away from the suburban door had curly brown hair, and it went down past his shoulders. He decided to call this one "Weird Al." The other face, the one that had just called the other a liar, had flaming red hair and it was styled in what a mullet would look like if only he had had a full head to work with. The sideburns were there, so was the front, but the back was conspicuously absent. This face ha had decided to call, "Tex".
"So...you guys...uh...know this place?"
"Why yes, it is mine." said Tex.
"Yes, mine." said Al.
"So...which one of you..."
"There are only two of us here. You, and I."
"So you are...ummm..."
"Janus. Keeper of doors, gates, choices, beginnings and endings."
"And I am here..."
"Because this is your beginning. Our beginning, of a wonderful journey, if you choose correctly anyways. And I know you will."
I'd tell you to run, but there seems to be nowhere to go other than through the crazy doors.
"You really are useless you know that?" said Jake.
"Pardon?" said Janus-Al.
"Nothing." said Jake. "So you have, what a quest for me? Isn't that how this works?"
"If you choose it to it does. And if not, then not." said Janus-Tex.
Jake had already started to pine for wheat fields and crushing loneliness.
"You're going to need to lie down for this," Yusa instructed.
Lije smirked, "But we've only just met, I'm not that kind of girl."
"Just shut up and lie down."
Lije detected an edge to Yusa's voice and complied obediently. "Lying down, aye aye."
"No, not like that."
Lije rolled his eyes. "How d'ya want me to lie down?"
He balked. "You cannot be serious."
Yusa blinked imperiously at him, her watery blue eyes boring holes into him.
"Okay, fine, ya don't have to give me the death-look, I'm rolling over, see?"
The acrid smell of sweat and grime flooded his senses. "By the way, when was the last time you changed these sheets?"
Yusa crouched over his supine form and placed her right index and middle finger at the base of Lije's skull.
"This is going to feel...different, so prepare yourself. And to answer your question, never."
Before Lije had a chance to voice his disgust, a tremor of unbridled energy shocked through his spine. The sensation was something akin to fireworks going off, inside your body. His limbs involuntarily flailed in signal overload, his eyes rolled around in their sockets, and his teeth clamped down hard on the smelly material he had just been criticizing.
"Ahhhggggfkmmmhhhhnnn", he grunted, in too much pain to form actual words.
"That means it's working, Lije. It'll be over before you know it, just bea-"
He didn't hear what she said next. His entire world slipped into a fuzzy darkness that engulfed him entirely. He felt like he was falling, spiraling deeper and deeper. And then, nothingness.
He was standing in a corridor. He didn't how how he had gotten there, or how long had had been standing there, but it was a corridor that seemed to go infinitely without ending, accompanied by a seemingly endless amount of tunnels on both sides. Even stranger, the ground seemed to be submerged beneath several inches of some kind of liquid, and on this liquid a thin layer of milky white fog floated.
"Very interesting," a voice observed with interest. An eerily familiar voice. It didn't seem to coming from any direction in particular, but rather from all around him.
"Who else would it be?" she replied, annoyed.
"Where are we?"
"In your head."
"Oh." It seemed like a fitting answer, somehow.
"If you choose it to it does. And if not, then not." said Janus-Tex.
"Not." said Jake.
"Excuse me?" said Janus-Tex. Both faces seemed somewhat bewildered that 'Not' had even been a conceivable option.
"I said 'Not'. Now if you wouldn't mind returning me to my endless field of wheat and loneliness I'll be on my way."
Janus-Al and Janus-Tex looked like a cat that had just been presented with a mouse full of catnip. The kind that makes them go ape like a human on speed. They'd just found a new toy.
"So what you're saying is..." said Janus-Tex.
"You'd like to go back..." said Janus-Al.
"And not on my quest." the two spoke in concert now.
Geniuses these two.
"Yes, that is exactly what I want."
"Very well." said Janus.
Wait...even I wasn't expecting it to be that easy.
"You keep talking to yourself." said Janus-Al.
"Perhaps he is mad." said Janus-Tex.
"I'm still working on that one myself." said Jake.
"A noble attempt to be certain, but one most likely fruitless. For if you are mad, the study has simply been a way for a mad man to discover he is mad." said Janus-Tex.
"And if not, then you may forever wonder whether you really are mad, and whether or not your conclusion of sanity is one that is truly..." said Janus-Al.
"...based on the observations of one that is unequivocally..." said Janus-Tex.
"Mad." They said in unison, as the one they claimed to be.
Wheat fields, wheat fields, my kingdom for the lonely monotonous wheat fields...
"You said you had no problems letting me go." said Jake. "So how do I get back up there?"
"Through a door of course."
"The one at half past seven to be precise. If of course you are facing the right direction. If you are not then perhaps the door will be and quarter to four, or even should you so decide at ten past three. A very good time to choose indeed." said Janus one and Janus two.
"So right now the door is at..."
"Twenty-seven past twelve. A fine choice of times indeed."
"Well...thanks." Jake turned to twenty-seven past twelve, which was slightly more than behind Janus and next to the snoring toque door. This one was seventeen shades of green, and may or may not have had grass growing out of it. "I'll just be on my way then?"
"If you so choose it to be." said Janus-Al.
"Then goodbye, lovely to have talked with you lost traveler. I do hope you manage to get out of the fields. They are so dull, so doorless."
"Indeed." Jake opened the door, which really only had fourteen shades of green on it, and stepped through into the harsh light of three suns, and the endless expanse of wheat. He turned around to see the door had disappeared, leaving only the frame behind. But the door no longer went backward into the crazy door chamber with crazy velvet Janus. It simply sat there, the wheat waving at him from the other side.
But he had to smile all the same. Beyond the door frame, and beyond even the wheat, a field of mountains rose from beyond the horizon. It seemed as though this doorway was located in a different part of the field, one infinitely closer to the edge, and hopefully, sanity.
Well that was nice of them.
"Him." said Jake.
"So. Anything in that message in my brain about Janus, or about these mountains?"
Not a thing. Though truth be told I haven't really taken the time to read the fine print.
Jake started off towards the mountains at a brisk walk, eager for the change in scenery. "You really are the worst subconscious ever, you know that right?"
Inner monologue. The subconscious, me and her don't find much time to talk, what with me only being the waking part of your mind and all.
"Whatever. You still suck at what you do."
Fair enough. I suppose you'll want me to finish that memo?
"That would be excellent."
Well I can't promise any new information. You're mind really is a mess. You should think about meditating sometimes. Apparently you once heard it was a wonderful way to clear the mind.
"Apparently, Janus was right and I am slowly going mad."
At least you have someone to talk to.
"Trust me, I'm thanking my lucky stars." As the mountains slowly drew closer, Jake could only hope around one of them was his boat, still waiting for him to chuck the wine and cheese into the lake.
"So this is that session you were referring to, then?" Lije wondered out loud.
"Either that or you're insane."
"Nice. Anyways, how exactly are you supposed to walk me through this when all you are is a disembodied voice?"
"Like this," Yusa answered simply, instantaneously materializing before him in a puff of bluish smoke.
Lije snickered. "Really? Appearing in a puff of smoke?"
"You don't mess with the classics, kid. You're still too young and naive to realize that."
He scoffed, "Oh, and how old am I? Because I haven't the foggiest."
"How am I supposed to know? I mean, look at this place!" She indicated the dark, foreboding expanse that stretched on around them in all its labyrinthine glory.
Lije glanced around, not wanting to admit that even he was perplexed, and a little intimidated by the surroundings that he had been informed were supposed to be his mind.
"Good point. So what, this isn't normal?"
"Isn't normal is one way to describe it," Yusa said, bending down to examine the surface of the murky waters she was wading in. "In fact, I could easily say you have the strangest mind I have ever encountered."
Lije tried to play it off like he didn't know what she was referring to. "What's so weird about it? I bet your mind is ten times freakier than mine."
She glowered at him. "You and I both know that's bull. I can still sense your thoughts, you know, especially in here. And for your information, my mind is delightful. But enough of the idle banter, Lije, I can't sustain this session for very long. The strain it puts on my mind is nothing short of excruciating. We must make haste."
"Wait," he said, confused, "where are we going?"
Yusa flashed a sinister grin, "To the edge of your sanity."
He paused in his stride, his face contorted with apprehension and fear for a brief, few moments. "I don't like the sound of that."
“So…” said Jake. He had been walking in silence for nearly half an hour; and the mountains had barely gotten any larger.
“Don’t you think it was just a little strange how they…he let us go so easily? Not even a word of protest?”
Yes I do. And then just happily letting us go on our way, and putting us within sight of the end of the field. I chalked it up to madness.
“I’m not so sure. They’ll…he’ll…be back soon most likely.” Jake was still having problems dealing with a two-faced man. He was a farmer, not used to dealing with these things. These were things better left to the pages of his favorite stories; the tales of the brave Kalinas and of cunning Faranor. It was in the world of literature that he found his adventure, not in the real world. In the real world his excitement came from the week after the harvest was complete, and he was free to fish before it became too cold and the lake froze. And when it became too cold, he would sit by the fire with a pint of ale, and partake in the newest adventures of Kalinas and Faranor; two renegade elves whose adventures took them from the far seas of the fabled land of Sabrica to the ruinous deserts of Tralkna and the rock dwellers therein.
We are not the adventuring type.
“No, we are not.” The mountains looked a little closer, but looks could be deceiving. They could be hours away only to rolling hills covered with more crops. Or they could be days away yet, and mountains as high as the heavens themselves. Not wanting to linger on the prospect of Janus being able to lure him back into the room of doors or whatever other strange world he was a part of; he decided to rest his mind on a topic that was only slightly less disturbing.
I’ve finished that memo, and a little mental sweep of the cluster of thoughts and debris you call a mind.
“You have wonderful timing. Anything useful?”
Not much. I can’t tell you why you’re here. And it doesn’t mention Janus or any other strange room of doors. Though I did manage to find out who it was from, and how they got it to me.
Again with the classifications of us and me and we. You know nothing of this memo except that I have it. Therefore, you were not an intended recipient. It was sent to me, and me alone. Deal with it.
“Fine then. Who wanted to send a message to a single part of my brain and not to me directly? Is it some mind-shattering secret that if I knew all at once I would go crazy from and somehow destroy the world and myself while I was at it?”
“Then what? Who is it from at least?”
It makes sense if you think about it like Janus would.
“I hope I never come anywhere even near approaching the same city block where Janus’ train of thought stops.”
And yet here you are talking to yourself.
“This is still all a dream remember?”
Of course it is. Now think, who would have reason to communicate with a singular part of a human brain, bypassing the human entirely.
“Somehow, I’m happy knowing me not having a clue keeps me at least one step separated from thinking like Janus.”
I’d give you a hint but you still wouldn’t get it. The memo was from your own subconscious. “What!? Then shouldn’t I have had a dream about what got me here or something? I fell asleep and woke up here, nothing in between at all.”
It explains you’re apparent blackout. While you were out, subconscious was busy working on this note. And getting you here for that matter. But that’s really all I can tell you. Subconscious wanted you here, and wanted me to guide you, and by guiding you us, through wherever we are now.
“I think I liked it better when we were clueless.”
We still are. Do you have any idea where we are going, why, and what we are going to do when we get there?
“None. As far as I’ve thought ahead the plan is to get to those mountains and find some sort of human or intelligent being that can help us get back to the boat, or my farm.”
So there really is no plan.
“Not even the beginnings of one.”
I had a bad feeling you’d say that.
“Oh come one. This is adventure. We should be having fu---“
The rest of that sentence was left in the wheat field. For the second time that day Jake fell through a hole in the ground, and landed again on hard concrete, and looked up at the room around him in pain and bewilderment. More doors, more pale light, and more Janus.
The string of foul language that fell from Jake’s mouth would have put a fleet of sailors to shame.
They had been trudging, without saying a word, through the foggy murk for nearly an hour. Lije finally pierced the stillness, his voice cracking the serene atmosphere like a heavy spoon against creme brulee.
"Are you sure you know where we're going?" His question hung in the air, echoing back at them from further down the corridor and reverberating for a whole minute before subsiding.
Yusa continued walking, seemingly oblivious to the comment made by her reluctant pursuer. The sound of their splashing steps was all Lije got in response.
"Oh, right, you told me never to question you."
Again, silence. Like a pirate's pet parrot, if it were made of ice, she was giving him the cold shoulder.
"Could I drown in this? I mean, is it possible to drown to death in one's own mind?"
"I wonder what it tastes like."
"COULD YOU keep your thoughts to yourself? I have to sense them already, don't make me listen to them too."
"Sorry, I'm bored, and you're no fun."
"You try navigating a maze you've never seen before with a migraine that feels like someone is trying to claw their way out from behind your eyes, while somehow keeping a sunny disposition and moving the conversation forward at the same time! I'd love to see you give it your best shot!"
"Sheesh! Fine, sorry I asked. I didn't know the Dream Slayer was such a grumpy old bag."
Yusa actually snorted at that and laughed a little. "Well, now you know. Also, we're here."
As they rounded a bend in the corridor, Lije was floored by the sight of what lay around the corner. Only a couple feet from where they were now standing, the floor of the corridor dropped off and the room gave way to an enormous chamber. The liquid flowing around their knees cascaded over the ledge of tunnel and down into the chamber in an elegant, black waterfall. The spray of the fluid hitting the lake at the floor of the chamber rose into the air with the milky fog that seemed to ooze out of the corridor to form a grey, pervading haze. The haze was so thick that Lije couldn't actually see the bottom of the chamber that stretched out before them, nor could he see farther than a few feet in front of him in any direction.
"Where is here?" Lije finally asked, hesitantly.
"I've already told you the answer to that question. This is the Edge," Yusa stated cryptically. "This is a place where you can find answers."
"Can, or will?"
"That is entirely up to you, Lije. You are the master of this domain, and over the Edge I cannot follow. This path is for you to tread, alone."
Lije walked forward to the ledge, looked down and gulped. He had heard of the phrase butterflies in your stomach, but now it felt to him like he had the entire insect kingdom in there. "If I don't do this, I'll never know the truth about myself, and I can't live with the regret of turning back now. But how will I know what to do without you?"
Yusa wordlessly snuck behind him, the roar of the waterfall drowning out the noise of her wading through the fluid to him, and without so much as a second thought, suddenly shoved him forward with all her weight. He lost his footing and stumbled forward for a few horrible and awkward seconds before being carried over the Edge by the fast flowing liquid.
"Don't be such a baby! And don't die, I'll be waiting for you on the other side!" Her words followed him over the edge of the falls, just barely finding his ears before he was once again engulfed in darkness.
"You b*****!" he screamed ruefully as he tumbled down into the watery abyss.
Taking a private jet to the capital of Kuwait was hardly the way he imagined beginning his day. What he imagined was more like basking in the hot Florida’s sun, sipping on a martini, contemplating suicide and the different ways one can go about doing it. Instead, he received a discreet text message from a “D. Frankenson’ informing him of the location and what time he was to meet the pilot. The sender told him at the end of the message to think of it as a vacation. To him, that particular statement savored highly of irony. He was on vacation, but from his life. It was sort of like an outer body experience in search of contentment. Florida wasn’t the greatest place to do it, but to him it sufficed.
After going through a disastrous divorce, Florida seemed to replace his wife in bed somewhat, and his .357 Magnum was a shoulder to cry on. The choices one made in life seemed to carve lines and paint a portrait of depression upon one’s face, ridding that human being of the innocence he or she once possessed. The sad part was that he did not expect his life to betray him. With a smile on it’s face, it stabbed him in his back and took his wife, leaving him to clean up the mess it had made. He couldn’t do that. No. He would not be able to wipe the sorrow from the floor and wash the depression from the walls. Therefore, suicide was the best way to go.
His dad had said, “Why leave a monstrous life, just to end up in a hell in the hereafter?”
He responded, “If you could bear the load on my back, old man, until I die, then we can have this discussion in paradise.”
That day, his father had no solution to his pain, but he did, and the bullets in his .357 Magnum agreed.
After drinking some of the bitter apple juice that the flight attendant provided for him, he reached into his right pocket and produced his Blackberry Bold, which displayed a black screen. As he pressed down hard on the power button, the screen lit up and a small tune chimed. A woman’s voice softly cooed, “Welcome, Daniel Harding.”
Daniel searched through his messages and opened the one labeled ‘D. Frankenson’. He wanted to know whether he had missed something, a word, or even a sentence, that would satisfy this savage hunger of suspense he had growing inside, but to his dismay, there was nothing. Not a single thing that indicated much of anything, only a name and a location. He thought to himself that the message should have been the definition of anonymous, but unfortunately, Webster chose different words.
“Poor bloke, never received an anonymous text message.”
The sound of another presence in the jet’s compartment startled him. Daniel’s phone slipped from his hands and collided with the floor, and the apple juice splashed all over his brand new white shirt.
“I am sorry, Sir, but I wanted to inform you that we will be landing in a few minutes.”
The flight attendant paused, and looked on apologetically as Daniel wiped his shirt with a napkin.
“Would you like more of what you were drinking?”
“No thank you, Mr. Welling, I think it is better here than where it was going.”
“Excuse me, Sir?”
“Nothing, it was a bad joke...Erm, what did you want to tell me?”
“We’ll be landing soon.”
Mr. Welling turned to leave, but was interrupted by a low inaudible sound by Daniel.
“Uh...Do you by any chance know where I’m goin’. I mean I know I sound crazy and all. ‘A man not knowing where he is headed’, but...y’know...yeah. I mean, um, I know I’m going to Kuwait, right?” he asked stumbling and stuttering over his words.
With a small chuckle, Mr. Welling replied, “Yes I understand, but no, your guess is as good as mine. Have a safe trip, Mr. Harding.”
And with a smile and a nod, Daniel was left alone once again with suspense creeping stealthily upon his slouching shoulders.
The jet arrived safely at it’s location, apart from the turbulence, it landed smoothly. Daniel walked carefully down the steep steps onto the runway’s black asphalt. Kuwait’s air was extremely dry, and the sun was like a glittering disc of fire suspended in the morning’s sky.
Mr. Welling stalked up behind and took his position by Daniel’s side. They were waiting, but he did not have a clue for what.
“Pardon me for asking, Mr. Harding, but why would you take such a long flight and not know where?”
Daniel sighed, and looked Mr. Welling in his gray eyes. They were young and innocent, like that of a child’s.
“Well, when you get my age, thirty-one to be exact, life doesn’t treat you all to well. It’s not about the next girl you’ll meet on a Friday night with the boys, or what hotel room you’ll wake up in this time. It’s about sacrifice...watching doors you wanted to walk through close on you and the others unlockin’. Making sacrifices that..that you never wanted to make...and decisions...”
Daniel stopped, looked away from the innocence in his eyes, and stared off into the distance reflecting upon his life that passed him by all to quickly.
“Thirty-one is not old, Sir, you still have a lot of years to go.”
“Ha. I wish you were right kid...I wish you were right.”
“Oh, here it comes.”
Daniel turned around to see the sun reflecting off the hood of a white limousine, which was drawing closer and closer toward them. It came to a stop when the passenger door was in front of him and Mr. Welling. The door opened, and two copper-tone legs of a woman, accented by black pumps and a knee-length pin-skirt, stepped on to the pavement. As she stood up from the car, Daniel saw a woman of about 5'6" in height, protecting her eyes from the sun with shades, and her brown hair nesting gently upon her shoulders. She was the epitome of elegance and power, hidden behind a slender physique and a Gucci hand bag.
She walked sultrily toward Daniel and the flight attendant, while the young boy was drooling at the mouth. Daniel would have been to, but with age came tact, and it only intensified the game of capture.
“Thank you, Mr. Welling, the taxi to your left will escort to your hotel,” she said with a warm smile.,
Mr. Welling did not move. How could he? So, he stood there, eyes far off in the distance of imagination and lust.
“Mr. Welling.” Daniel firmly said, turning toward him, scratching his head. While trying to hide his face from the woman, he silently mouthed, “Go”.
“Oh yes! Yes, thank you, Ms. Frankenson.”
He leaned in closer to Daniel and whispered, “So much for not havin’ Friday nights with the boys.”
“Get outta here,” Daniel shooed the youngster away.
The flight attendant took off his hat and gave a small bow, then went inside of the taxi. The engine revved and the yellow cab took off.
“Ms. Frankenson, did I hear right?”
She gave a small smile, and replied, “Yes, and yes to your next question. I am the anonymous person behind the text message.”
“Well, I didn’t know such a...um...figure was behind it. A woman of status of course.”
“Yes...Please, Mr. Daniel, your appointment is waiting.”
She gestured toward the car door and Daniel walked over smoothly.
It was a long, silent drive from the airstrip to the company’s building. Ms. Frankenson did not speak about anything, not even the place where Daniel was headed. She just sat there with her legs crossed, fiddling with her phone. Every now and then she would glance at him, but when he caught her eye, she would quickly turn away and stare out of the window as if something more enthralling piqued her interest. He didn’t respond with a clever remark or start up the usual flirtatious banter. Rather, he watched the sites of Kuwait anxiously and afraid. Afraid that perhaps he made the wrong decision by leaving Florida, or that this new environment would not provide the comfort he needed to stay sane and content. The worst of all was the unknown. He knew nothing, and the feline across from him would not give him the answers he wanted. He was truly a blind man in a carnival.
The limousine passed by tall buildings erected upon a desert land, which amazed him. When one thinks of the desert, they think of buildings made of rocks, sand dunes, and cactus, but this place had company buildings, apartments, beautiful cement houses that reminded him of the old days in America. There were trees, palm trees, outstretching their leaves towards the heavens, and imported grass on top of sand. It was beautiful, it was different, and after seeing such sites he believed that different was what he needed. A place where people did not know his name, nor did they know of the incident in his past. No, they were clueless, and he liked it that way.
The limo came to a stop in a narrow alleyway in front of a red door. On it, was small metallic letters that read: LOTH Co.
Daniel’s heart began to race. It was as if it leaped into his throat from fear of the acids in his stomach.
LOTH, what does that mean? Another mystery...
“After you, Mr. Harding.”
Daniel jerked his head in the direction of her voice. He had totally forgotten that she was there. He nodded his head with a deep sigh, and stepped out of the vehicle. Ms. Frankenson followed behind him.
She smoothed down her skirt with her hand, then walked to the door. After pressing a button on the intercom, a small clicking sound could be heard and she opened the door. Daniel went inside after her. They were in a long corridor that seemed to have no end, or so that is what his mind conjured up out of fear.
“Do I have a choice?”
He followed her like a child in Astroland’s Dante’s Inferno Scary House. What was strange was that there were no doors on the sides of the hall, only old paintings and a sign that indicated that the elevators were near. They walked and walked and finally went through an opening at the end of the corridor where the elevator doors stood open. Waiting for them, as if it were alive. Waiting to be fed. Daniel stepped into the elevator apprehensively and the doors closed behind him. That was it, he was being transferred to the belly, and there was no going back.
“So, Mr. Harding would you like to know where you are,” she said with a slight smirk on her face.
“That would be a start. And please, call me Daniel, my father is Mr. Harding. When you say that you remind of this short pudgy maid who was obsessed with him, and judging by the length of your legs, I would say that you’re far from being her,” he remarked sizing up her glossy, slender legs.
“With comments like that, I think I will keep the info to myself.”
“The punishment is fitting. I’m rotten goods milady. Oh and by the way what’s the ‘D’ stand for?”
“Diedre, Dr. Diedre Frankenson.”
“Ah, a doctor. Wow, what am I getting myself into? Can I call you Dr. Dre?”
She chuckled softly.
“Oh, she laughs.”
The elevator doors hissed open.
“Well, this is it, Mr. Harding. The door to your left will lead you to your destination. Good luck.”
Daniel stepped out of the elevator and watched as Diedre’s beautiful face disappeared behind them. He turned and walked to his left. His heart banged on his throat, reminding him that it was still there, but he could not stop now. He was a doorknob away. A threshold away. A heartbeat away. Daniel gently twisted the knob and walked inside.
The wind blew hard rushing past his face, giving him an unexpected chill. The trees swayed with each passing of the wind and one by one the leaves would fall off. The wind would normally be welcomed, if it weren’t for the already mountain chilled air that surrounded him. He looked up towards the sky to see the all too familiar setting of the three suns. The cold snow sifted around his shoes as he watched.
It had been what seemed like a couple days now that he was in the mountains, he had been able to find places to sleep comfortably and barely able to find food. He was lost and had no idea where he was, what he did know was how un-real things had been since he got here. Despite having three suns, there was still snow on theses mountains, and despite being cold enough to be winter, these trees still had leaves. Things just weren’t making sense and it didn’t settle well in his stomach.
He looked around, he believed that he was alone. He had not seen people around for the past couple of days and no signs of animals. He liked it that way though, it gave him the chance to think freely. The ability to think without some one screaming, instead the only noises he had were the wind rushing past his ears.
Suddenly he felt dizzy and sick, he closed his eyes at the pain in his stomach. Perhaps he was hungry? Then he started to hear a faint mumble and what began to sound like foot steps. He shot up quickly, the pain in his stomach had seemingly disappeared. To his amazement there were a circle of eight people, only two or three of them seemed to actually be moving around. A man in armor whom from what he could tell was about an average build, and he couldn’t get a good look at his face because of his helmet. The man seemed to be angry pacing back and forth. The man across from him, whom was shirtless and also an average build had long black hair and leather leggings and a circlet on his head. He appeared to be a native or a tribal leader of some sort. The man had a scowl on his face with his arms crossed in front of his chest. The third man was a thin man who did not have much muscle. He had extremely attractive facial features and long black hair, he wore a yellow robe and sandals with a staff at his side.
Suddenly he was addressed by the thin man,
“Silence you two, we have company. Perhaps this man can solve our problems. You young man, please tell us your name.”
The young man looked at them, even more confused then he was a few minutes ago.
“I am Order, a young soldier who holds his standards and pride up high.”
The man in armor let out a laugh and quickly walked over to him and slapped him on the back.
“Aye! I am Arthur, a knight who holds his morals and pride up high as well! I can see that we will get along just fine.”
The thin man looked over and shook his head.
“I am Adam, and I believe that peace is the ultimate virtue.”
The Native man grunted unfolded his arms and then stepped toward Order.
“I am Archani, and I enjoy seeing panic and worry in the hearts of men.”
Order looked at the three of them, confused as to why they were here and what they had to do with him and how they got here. He took another look at the three and shook his head. Suddenly they were gone, everyone, all eight of them. Order took a quick look around, no tracks, not even a trace to show that they were actually there.
He walked up to the edge of the mountain to get a good look at the distance, but his mind kept wandering back to the mysterious group of eight. He kind of liked the company, the sound of voices other then his own. His mind went back to what was in sight. The view was to kill for, to the left a dense forest and to the right it looked like a clearing to a lake, straight ahead was another mountain only a little shorter then the one he was on.
Suddenly his feet sunk into the snow, it seemed to rush around his feet and he couldn’t feel enough solid ground to maintain his balance. The snow quickly broke off from the side of the mountain and with it fell Order.
“Master of observation you are.” said Jake, leaning against a wall and rubbing his backside; making sure to maintain a safe distance from the nearest door.
“Thank you.” said Janus-Tex. “I am sorry for the abruptness of your entrances but in the time that you’ve left, someone else has had time to visit.”
“Someone who is very anxious to speak with you.” said Janus-Al.
“Who in this wide world of weird wants to speak to me?” said Jake.
Other than the psychopath
Yes, other than him. It was an odd sensation. Thinking something to yourself while actually not to yourself but to a small part of your brain just seemed…odd.
I’m siding with Janus. You are going mad.
Fine. Besides you don’t want me around anyways. What with that beautiful woman to talk to. You know, the one that also thinks you’re mad now since she’s been talking to you for awhile and you are just staring into space like a lunatic.
“Son of a…!” Jake yelled out loud.
Janus’ two faces stared at him in surprise before settling back to the knowing smile he…they always seemed to wear. Almost as if his outburst hadn’t happened, or as if Janus understood it wasn’t easy being a crazy person.
But this time, Janus wasn’t the only person in the room. He was standing next to a young woman, brunette, beautiful, and her smile was one of entertainment.
“Nice to meet you Jake. Are you alright?”
“Umm…fine. Just fine.” Other than the whole losing my sanity thing of course.
“Good. Very good.” Her smile radiated warmth, her rosy cheeks made her look like a mother. “Jake, it seems Janus and I have a small bit of a problem. And we were thinking that you might be able to help us.”
Jake was in. There was no way he felt he could say no to this woman. It wasn’t a physical attraction, though this woman was in fact stunning. The warmth of her presence and the ease and understanding in her gaze projected the aura of a mother, of someone who could be trusted.
“What do you need?” Jake managed to squeak out.
Now while it is generally accepted that We need to talk, Good grief it burns, and No that isn’t jerky are some of the most frightening four word phrases in the history of spoken language; as far as Jake would eventually learn his careless What do you need would be the most infamous four word phrase in the history of…wherever he was.
For the second time that day, Lije woke up feeling like his head was in a vice. He would have sworn, but he couldn't recollect any familiar curses. One seemed to be on the tip of his tongue, something about a dam.
"Beavers!" he shouted experimentally. It didn't feel like he was swearing, but it still felt good on some level.
Lije was distantly cognizant of the fact that he was inside his head, so to speak, but that still didn't explain what he saw when he painfully unscrewed his eyes and winced as he attempted to focus on the scene that was laid before him.
The landscape had changed dramatically. The sewer had been replaced by a barren wasteland. A dry, arid desert with howling winds and cracked earth. The expanse surrounded him indefinitely from every direction, and the sky was the color of dried blood. There wasn't any actual sun in sight, but it was still obviously day, wherever he was. There were no signs of life in any form, plant or animal, and even stranger, no signs of death. After all, what was a wasteland without several bleached skeletons lying about, or the dark shapes of birds on the horizon, circling over a corpse? It looked like a bomb had gone off there, only there wasn't any crater.
"Hello! Anyone?" Lije called out, cupping his hands around his mouth. The wind snatched the words away from him as he spoke and obliterated them entirely. His voice didn't reach even his own ears.
"Well that's just peachy", he muttered desolately.
"What's just peachy?" a voice inquired.
Lije froze. He looked around desperately while trying to remain still. He couldn't see anyone, that could only mean one thing. They were behind him.
Without a second thought, he sprang into action, pitching his body forward and rolling, while twisting to face the other direction.
Lije's maneuver had landed him on his hands and knees, which allowed him to be on eye level with his addressee.
It was a snake. A hooded cobra to be exact. One with a glossy, white body and a red diamond pattern adorning the entirety of its impressive length.
"Hello Lije", it said.
Lije's heart sank with fear. He was currently staring into a pair of sinister eyes, emerald in color and glowing. He found himself staring deeply into them, transfixed by their hypnotic luminescence. The creature's black, forked tongue darted in and out of its mouth, between a set of deadly fangs.
"..hello," he managed. Why did the snake know his name?
"I imagine you're probably confused, and even a little afraid of me right now. I'm a friend. Yusa woke me up and sent me to help you."
"Okay, snake, so if you're a friend, then whose friend are you? Mine, or Yusa's?"
The snake wriggled from side to side, weaving a delicate ballet in the air with his undulating coils.
"Strange, because I don't remember you at all," he replied, "though then again, I don't remember a lot of things."
The snake nodded its head knowingly. "Of course we've never physically met before, but you know me all too well, nonetheless. I'm your conscience."
"Haha, that's a good one, snake. But really though, tell me the truth."
The serpent stared back at him in silence.
Lije waited a beat. The snake continued to stare at him, idly swaying back and forth in the wind.
"Yes, really. Though perhaps, the bigger question you should be asking is where have I been this whole time."
Lije furrowed his brow in confusion. "What are you talking about? What whole time?"
The cobra's tongue flicked in and out at random intervals, dancing delicately in the air like a feather on the wind, before retreating swiftly back into its fearsome mouth.
"I'm referring to the past fifteen years."
"Fifteen years?" Lije puzzled.
The snake's head bobbed in affirmation. "Yes, I have been dormant for fifteen years now, ever since that day."
"Ever since what day?"
The snake cocked its hooded head to the side, as if it was wondering why Lije was acting like he was clueless.
He saw the ground getting closer and closer as he fell down the side of the mountain. He flailed his arms and legs wildly causing his body to flip. Finally he got control of his movement, he was facing the tip of the mountain now watching it go away from him fast and his back to the ground. He knew that this wasn’t the favorable position to be in when falling to the ground, he attempted to move his arms back to cause his body to rotate, when he felt a sharp sudden pain shoot all the way down his back. His arms and legs wrapped around the sharp object because of the sheer force behind his fall. The pain rushed to his head and instantly his vision blurred, he refused to completely pass out and felt the momentum of his fall pick him back up off the ground and back into the air. He simply bounced off of a rock on the mountain. His head felt dizzy, he couldn’t feel his back any more, and he didn’t even try to feel his hands or feet. He just tried to focus enough to regain his vision when again he collided with the ground head first. His vision shook and he lost all feeling and he was sure he could still make out what appeared to be the mountain side, constantly rolling. Finally one more hit completely wiped out his vision, nothing but darkness. In this darkness he could slowly make out a figure of a native man. It was Arcahni with his arms folded just looking down on Order.
“I could have helped you, I could have done something to ease the situation. But you ignored me, I don’t even think you heard me.”
Suddenly Arcahni was gone and Order felt a chill go all the way down his body. He still couldn’t see but his face felt really cold and his hands felt frozen. Slowly his eyes opened to see nothing but a white substance wrapped around his face. He pushed off the ground with his hands but felt excruciating pain when he did and it caused him to fall back into the snow. He managed to lift his head to look up, when he did he saw a short man with a long beard. Order had seen him before at the top of the mountain, but he hadn’t said anything then. The man seemed strong, really strong and wore green armor.
“C’mon lad, get up! are you really gonna let your self go to a little fall like that?”
Order shook his head, he pushed off the ground again, feeling the same pain as before, but fighting past it, he forced his knees up to his chest to help him up. He got a good look at himself, his legs were pretty messed up it didn’t seem broken but definitely swollen. His hands were bruised but seemed fine. He attempted to stand feeling all sorts of pain while he did, but he wasn’t about to admit defeat from falling. He stumbled a little but regained his posture and looked down on the man.
“So, who are you?”
Order managed to grunt out, and the stout man took off his helmet and dropped his axe.
“I am Yurthen, the sturdy. I can hold my ground through anything you throw at me, and thats how I’ll stay.”
Order rubbed his legs to relieve the pain, and started stretching his arms out. He leaned forward and backwards to pop his back.
“Come now lad, surely you can take a small beating like that and keep going!”
Order shook his head,
“Going where exactly?”
Suddenly Arthur came out of nowhere with his usual suit of armor, all colored purple.
“Well Thats the Problem Order, we don’t exactly know where were going, so we were hoping you would know.”
Order looked around, and there wasn’t much to look at. The snow on the ground seemed to be fading in a distance which means it got warmer in that direction. Order pointed, and then moved swiftly leaving the two behind to disappear in the snow.
"Fifteen years is a long time, Lije." His fangs glinted in the crimson light of the desert.
Lije waved his hands frantically, "I really have no idea what you're talking about. And also," he added matter-of-factly, "I don't believe for a second that you're my Conscience."
"That's okay," the cobra hissed menacingly, "You don't need to believe me. I'll prove it."
"Yeah, you do that," Lije responded. "I'd like to see you try to prove a thing like that."
The cobra was already raising himself to his full height as Lije was finishing his sentence. Its serpentine body stood straight like a pole that had been driven into the ground, allowing it to tower over his kneeling figure by nearly a meter.
Lije's precautionary sense of apprehension arrived woefully too late, that is, after the snake had already lunged forward in a blur of pale and scarlet scales and bit him on his right shoulder.
He was too shocked to say anything, atleast at first. Then he felt it.
"Ahhhhhhggghhhhhhhnnnnhhghhhhhhgh!" he yowled. The searing pain in his shoulder had kindled around the fang wounds, and then like a spark to a forest of dry brush it had erupted into a wildfire of tormenting agony that spread across his body in waves.
"I see you're enjoying my venom," the cobra taunted. "Don't worry, you're not going to die. Though you will probably end up wishing I had killed you. You still haven't experienced the side effects."
Lije fell to the ground, writhing like a worm on a hook. He clutched his shoulder tightly in a vain attempt to alleviate the unrelenting pain. His mind reeled. Had a giant cobra really just bitten him? He had trouble thinking straight, the poison was crackling across his nervous system like a current of electricity.
"...side effects?" he asked weakly.
The snake's hooded head bobbed. "Yes, I didn't just bite you for the fun of it, though I must confess it was rather cathartic. The substance secreted from my fangs is called Soul Venom."
Lije rolled to his back now, flopping on the ground like a fish out of water. His only response was a muffled whimper.
The snake ignored him and continued his lecture. "You may find it interesting to learn that the initial pain caused by the venom is proportional to the amount and severity of dark deeds a soul has perpetrated in their life. So, for instance, if I were to bite you and you felt little to no pain afterwards, then it could be deduced that you are a good and pure being."
"Gaaahhhhhhnnghhaahh!" Lije screamed, his body contorting so that his spine was arched backwards at a grotesque angle.
"However, for someone to respond the way you are, well, I'm sure you can do the math."
Lije sat up jerkily, struggling to fight through venom. "No, I can't do the math!" he shouted. "Explain it to me!"
The cobra fixed him with an icy stare from its glowing, slitted eyes. "It means you've done horrible things. You're a bad person, and your sins have gutted your soul."
For a second, he was unaware of the numbing torrential pain that was coarsing through his limbs, and all Lije could think of was what the snake had just said. Was he a bad person? He had never even considered the possibility of the idea.
"As for the poison's side effects", the serpent continued, "You can kiss your sweet dreams goodbye, though you might find that to be a blessing in disguise of sorts. Who knows? Only time will tell, and in time you will accept the fact that I was right all along, and that I am indeed your conscience."
Lije perceived the cobra to be slithering away from between the cracks of his interlaced fingers, He was comfortingly kneading his forehead with both hands, and though it was diffusing his pain by a nominal margin, the discomfort was so great that it convinced him to continue his cranial massage. He didn't know what to make of the snake's parting words, though he was sure they carried a dark undertone. He squatted there on the cracked mud, in the dry, stifling heat with his hands splayed over his face, willing himself to remember, and wondering, if the snake was right about him, if he had made himself forget.
The jungle was quiet that night. Still. The bayou reflected the silent sagging stars. Not a ripple moved on its surface. It was glass, revealing its hovering fish and the rolling eyes of its crocodiles. Cicadas held still their timbals. The growing dusk slowly crept into the awareness of the frolicking hares far faster than the waiting hyena who stalked them. It was as if some enchantment had gone forth in the forest to mute and warn.
The panther did not uncoil his tail; he lay indifferently on a bough. Elephants hid themselves in the dirt, appearing to be immobile mountains. The most dangerous creatures had the most discretion. The silence was as oppressive as the heat. Its humidity rolled off the swamp as thick, gray fog.
Somewhere under the palm leaves with feet tangled in white sand, sat a filthy creature. She was covered in dirt and stick, almost as bare and savage as the company she kept. Wild eyed and weary she scanned once more the perimeter she tried to maintain. Her attention faded, head nodding like a child. Maybe tonight would be different. Maybe the beast would not come.
The jungle floor creaked, shook, was still again. Her heart volleyed in rebuke. She shifted her weight, moving bonelessly on hurried feet across the tangled underbrush. Her footfalls were quieter than death. Wild animals, sensing her presence did not stir. For centuries they had had an ingrained fear of human beings, but somehow they knew that she was not one. Perhaps they also knew that running from her would do them no good.
She flitted past a herd of sleeping antelope who allowed her to step directly over them. They blanketed the hillside like small bales of hay in tall grass. Wading through them she pulled herself up on a branch, was met with a big cat and amended her path so that she could avoid the hammocks of predators.
A low roar disturbed the absolute stillness of the jungle. Low, because the creature rumbling knew its prey would hear. She did hear and crossed over a pit of snakes, coiling around one another, vicious live ribbons.
It was far off, she thought. It had to be. If she stopped now, if she hid herself, she could wait it out until daybreak. She ran through the trees in the forest, disturbing the bats. Each trunk was heavy with knotted wood that looked like the sagging faces of old men.
She hadn’t seen a person in so long.
She folded herself inside the hallow of a tree, pulling branches over the hole to barricade herself inside.
The monster’s growling drew father away. She closed her eyes as if shutting them tightly would choke away the terror. She slept badly, drowned in bitter dreams.
Sway woke up in the real world. It was all hard edges and glinting, clean things. Even the air she breathed was orderly, bottled and pure. She rolled off of her bed. It was night. Not that she could tell by the lazy shadows the sun cast, there were no windows. The lights in the ship had been dimmed to indicate that it was time to wind down. But that was only so that the crew would not completely lose their concept of time.
The clock read 22:00 in red-eyed numbers.
She had gotten out of her command class and fallen asleep like a stone. Normally she could not sleep at all. But the insomnia that had kept her race alive had been taking over her life lately. She did everything she could to goad sleep but it would not come. She read dry, Victorian literature from a time period where people talked with clenched teeth and clutched teacups. She dared sleep to defy her and it had not. Perhaps, it could not even endure that boredom. She had passed many nights sitting up writing, whittling, and secretly, knitting. Endless books, documents and videos streamed a pale blue light across her face as her eyes ran back and forth over the surface of her desk.
She wondered why they called it a desk. It was no such thing. Just a group of bars that she could pull apart, making a sleek rectangle the size of her two palms that projected everything the Internet had to offer. It could be smashed back closed to fit into a pocket neatly, are pulled apart far enough to project a full-length movie.
This she did now.
“Caspar,” she said in an alto raspy from over rest.
An animated voice came from the stretched screen. “Commander Clearmoon, good evening.”
Before it could clip on she interrupted. “What is my schedule for today?”
“Commander Clearmoon your schedule is as follows: 0400 hours, wake up. 0412 wake up reminder. 0416 wake up reminder. Repeat at that interval for two hours. 0618 prayers. 0620 shower. 0633 departure for first class. 0700—“
“Caspar!” Sway snapped. “Don’t prattle on. It’s already 22 hundred hours. What do I have to do now?”
The door slid open.
“Oh, Commander Clearmoon, you have a meeting with Commander Khama. Did I not mention?”
“Sarcastic jerk.” Sway muttered. Like the real Caspar.
Commander Khama entered and was totally blindsided. He was over six tall but seeing her turned him into a child. Maybe it was her commanding presence, her domineering personality, her self-assured arrogance. Or perhaps it was the fact that she was completely naked and looking him straight in the eye.
“Commander Khama, you wanted to see me.”
He paused. Was she joking? A frown appeared between her brows. No. “I uh… you were supposed to meet me an hour ago at the holodeck.” He said accusatorily.
“And I didn’t. Now what do you want?”
They had an adversarial relationship. But it had not always been that way. There was a time that he approached her but she had flatly rejected him in the most humiliating way a woman could: in front of everyone he knew.
Then she proceeded to demonstrate on a constant basis that she was his better in every way.
Since then he had selectively forgotten that first encounter and done all he could to best her but he could only compete with her marginally. Before she had been transferred to this ship he was the most prominent commander, standing head and shoulders above the rest. Now he had to work day and night trying to undo someone who spent most of her time playing videogames. But her desk had no display, so what had been her excuse?
She had clearly been asleep. There were three faint lines on her face and her hair had the upward crease that only comes from contact with a pillow. It hung down black and shining like oil, brushing against the top of her behind. He was explaining to her how her incompetence and lack of ability to keep a schedule was childish. She had a fluid sense of time and unless she was out on a mission, she was too late or too early for everything. He had seen her eating breakfast at nine o’clock at night once. She merely pretended to be listening to him, he noted, as she turned from him, reaching into her closet for a jumpsuit.
She was so unabashed. But why wouldn’t she be? She had spent her entire life on these ships, just as he had. If she showed any sense of modesty in a place where everything was routinely on display it would be translated as weakness. He would be weak for averting his gaze. But there was nothing weak about her. Her legs were a longer than a lightyear and coiled with muscle even when she did the most routine things. She had her back to him, on her tiptoes, yanking down a suit that was stuck on its shelf. She was a tall woman, but her spacious quarters were designed for a man and she wouldn’t think to ask him for help.
It was like she was moving in slow motion. Or maybe his mind was doing that. He tried to control his thoughts. He loathed her and hated himself for thinking the things he thought. She was a tan brown, completely even, except for a strange tattoo that covered both shoulder blades. It looked like swirly feathery scales in a tribal pattern. There was also another more delicate tattoo, of which he was trying not to stare.
She was cursing at him. Telling him how simple and pathetic he was. They were of the same rank, yes, but he was clearly beneath her and had no business talking to her the way that he was. She knew about his stupid meeting and had not come because she also knew he did not have anything to tell her that she did not already know. His stomach coiled, she was right. The urgent message he had to tell her, there was a possibility she had known it as early as that morning.
Her curse words flowed in a hot streak like blood from a slit wrist. She was not skinny, built strong and graceful like the girls in his village. Everything an exaggeration. Long necked, long tan fingers, cello shaped. She had two dimples in the small of her back, he noticed. He imagined pressing his thumbs into them, wrapping his hands around her waist and laying her over a table. Her could wrap her hair around his arm up to his elbow, hook his free hand around her shoulders, punish her for her filthy mouth.
She was staring at him. Pulling up the suit. She had asked him something. He hadn’t been listening. She freed her hair from the collar in one motion and zipped it the rest of the way up going on about how clueless he was. He had never seen her with her hair unbraided. His own jumpsuit was starting to reveal the track of his thoughts. She had to notice. If he weren’t so dark, she could have also seen that his face was completely flushed with mortified embarrassment.
But did Clearmoon have time to register things like that? She had not even regarded him. She was busy cleaning her gun.
“Stop trying to argue with me!” He said finally, seating himself to conceal his secret. A table drew itself up out of the ground in front of him. There was a mug for a hot beverage; it had never been used.
“Then shut up.” She looked disgusted as she ran a fiber cloth over the laser eye of a gun she had dismantled with deadly deftness. If she engaged the trigger with it exposed that way, she would blow her hand cleanly off; there would be no blood. Even with that suit on he remembered how completely hairless she had been. Anger welled up in him again. She was glaring at him, leveling him with a gaze that had clamped shut many a man’s mouth mid sentence. “Stop staring at me.” She said with the S’s of asp. How had Khama singlehandedly made missing a simple meeting so epically awkward?
“At you? At what? I’m not interested in fat spider monkeys like you. I am from Gabon,” he said. His accent was African with a French undertone.
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“The girls in my hometown are so fine we literally had to build a wall to keep people out of our village.” He said making a gesture. She had seen pictures of this city and these people in her nightly ramblings. The Fang people were beautiful. Prided themselves on their beauty.
“And which side of the wall were you on?”
Khama’s nose turned. It was broad and straight. His smooth brown skin was the color of unground coffee. It was so clear it was almost reflective. His top lip was like Cupid’s bow, his bottom the fully drawn string. He had the almost Asian features characteristic of his village, a sharp chin, wide almond eyes, high cheekbones. He had wide, elegant eyebrows and long, dense lashes. He was handsome. He was magnificent. He was snarling. “You would only say that because you are a daft American.”
“Because you don’t know your own background.” He said evenly. Hot water bubbled up just in time for him to make his tea. Khama had the habit of making himself at home, even when he was not invited in. The bag splashed into the water, turning it inky. Tea was better in Gabon.
How Sway would like to tell him about the thousands of generations that led up to her lineage, not a single line or name forgotten. Her pedigree was equally filled with queens and maids, princes and farmers, spirit dancers and brawlers. But most dominant in all of these were warriors. She was full-blooded Pamuyan and so much magic ran through her that at times she could short out the flight controls in her ship by pressing buttons too hard.
They argued about Sway’s ambiguous genealogy. She was trying to convince him that “American” is an ethnicity, and he insisting that she was born from nowhere and had no culture. Some of it was true. She looked like someone had put every minority gene into a blender and synthesized her into being. Khama said so much, but more rudely. She insisted that he was completely inbred and called a Fang for his country’s high instance of snaggled teeth. The fight wore on until his tea was gone.
Sway could not stand Khama. He was just as arrogant as she was, but somehow worse. Women ship-wide were in love with him, would have lined up to drink his sweat. She had seen them crowing with each other about the man from Gabon. But she did not see the appeal. Not only was he empty-headed, she could have worked with that. Khama was almost always wrong whenever he opened his mouth and worst of all he was tedious. She stifled a yawn as he postulated aimlessly on.
Maybe it was the French accent. He did have a beautiful voice. He hardly put it to any good use.
He wore a leather necklace that had a single long, white ornament at the end. She thought it might be a bone, then thought rather that that thought was somehow racist. Then she realized that she should know. She had worn a talon around her neck for years. It was surely a carved bone. But whose bone and why?
She remembered her talon. Those days were over. She had not seen or heard from Kyle in many moons. They had had a series of fights and she had said some things that there was no coming back from. He forgave her for a while, but time wore on and so did his patience. After all, everyone had limits and Sway had routinely pushed Kyle to the brink.
He left her. There were no illusions about that.
At first she tried vigilantly to get him back, but there was no use. All her attempts pushed him further away.
Every time they met to make up she was so completely drunk that she could not sensibly convince him that she could mend her ways, let alone drive herself home. He would carry her home after she passed out and wish she would not do these things to herself.
Even sex had not made the situation better, it simply made things more complicated and frustrating. She had tried to block out a lot of the things she had done. She remembered calling him months later to apologize for her utterly ridiculous behavior. It was out of the blue; he had been in a meeting. She had not been equipped for the emotional overload of that conversation. She put him on hold to cry and when she clicked back over he found it hard to speak to her.
She wanted his affection, but they both knew she would only throw it away. He was right, she realized too late. There was a time when she could have fixed everything. All she had to do was stop fooling around and looked him straight in the eye and tell him that she would be normal.
That is all he really wanted from her. Stop blowing up on people, stop being so angry, stop being so aggressive.
But she couldn’t. Aggression was ingrained in her, her skin crackled with controversy. But she could have at least pretended to obey. Instead, she had been completely selfish. So utterly thoughtless. She had built so many walls between them.
Kyle terrified her. He made her feel so helpless. She loved him much more than she could allow herself to admit. She had ruined it out of fear.
How he had endured her this long? She did not know. At length, neither did he.
Especially after they were transferred to different wheels and he was able to meet other, more non-alien, less bloodthirsty, more non-threatening, less psychotic girls.
The last time they saw each other he made eyes at her in passing. It was at a station terminal. He had a new girlfriend then. She was thinner than Sway, and perhaps even more beautiful. Sway did not hate her. She could not blame her. What was not to love about Kyle?
But still—if she were in a dark alley, she would not hesitate to scratch her eyes out. She thought ruefully about pulling every blonde hair out of the girl’s head one by one and when that was done, starting on her teeth.
But then that would be excessive force. Just the kind of thing that had turned Kyle away.
She had not known at the time that it was possible to live without Kyle. It was like losing her arm. She was reminded of its disappearance every day, felt as if people were staring at her disfigurement, had phantom, unexplainable pain. She felt for the wound but the limb had gone.
In time she found that all hope was not lost. The things that Kyle found abhorrent were celebrated in the International Fleet. Her ruthless, sociopathic and relentless killing instinct had made her legendary. She did not have to boast, she was intimidating enough on her own. In equal portions men and women hated her, wanted to be her and wanted to be with her. She continued to fly and command missions with the genius and poise of a crazed virtuoso.
Since the breakup she had tried to re-evaluate her life but for a time it seemed as if she thought about Kyle every other moment.
I love Kyle. I wish Kyle were here. Kyle would love _____. Where is Kyle?
She finally understood the agonizing purpose of love songs: to convince others to drive off of cliffs.
She went to therapy, was diagnosed as OCD which explained her obsessive thoughts and obsessive cleanliness. But the medication clouded her. For an hour she had tried to decipher a foreign book before she figured out it was not in another language, it was upside down. “Cra-zay Sway-zay” They whispered, laughing. She quit the drugs immediately.
Sway identified the root of the problem. Something was wrong with her. She had to confront the fact that out of all the success in her life she had failed to maintain the most important and valuable relationship she had ever had with another person, Pamuyan or not.
It was not until a new relationship was born that she began her search and her life took on new focus.
She needed desperately to find one thing and the puzzle pieces of her life’s mystery would come together. But that piece had eluded her and clues to its whereabouts could only be found in the digital world. That was why the game was so important. She had met him there first. Maybe working backwards would help her find him again.
Khama listened lazily as she explained why they should spare the seasoned pilots on their mission tomorrow morning. The drones to be ambushed were not well equipped and the mission was so routine that there was no need to deprive the veterans of their weekend. They would thank him for his kindness and fly all the better next week after some time to rest. Besides, the rookies would get a chance to shine.
She was right, of course, but for that reason he had to contradict her.
He had drawn up the flight list, he countered. It could not be amended this late. The second tier pilots would go along with the top flyers. There was nothing she could do to change it now. He loved making her day more frustrating, if he could.
He would like it if there were a place that he could go where women weren’t allowed to be excellent. Where they were not allowed to do anything, really. To the point that men could be assured to be the stars of the show, the heroes, the care-takers, the best. There would be no one standing over his shoulder giving unnecessary advice. Women should not be educated. Nor should they be allowed to read, or think for themselves, and as he looked at Sway he thought, or be beautiful.
No, women should be controlled and if they were, he would no longer have to strain himself all day to demonstrate his superiority. It would come naturally. There should be some place like that, he thought. Some perfect place.
It was with that thought that he logged into the mind game after his chat with Sway.
Lije's serpentine conscience slithered away into the distance, leaving him to deal with the snake's unwanted parting gift of a healthy dose of soul venom. Lije had only a few brief moments of misery and confusion before he began to feel it. The same sensation of falling that he had initially experienced upon entry to his mind. The world around him seemed to lurch into motion, spinning slowly at first, but continuing to accelerate exponentially to a speed neither his eyes, or his mind could comprehend. That now all too familiar sense of falling had snuck up his spine and set up camp in his brain-stem.
Lije opened his mouth to scream, but as he began to yell his cries were muffled. Something soft had climbed into his mouth between his teeth somehow. Something that smelled and tasted an awful lot like a molded dish rag. That was when he realized that he was back. And not only was he back, but he still had Yusa's dirty bed linens clenched between his molars. He panicked for a second when he tried to spit it out and nothing happened, but in his flailing he ended up rolling completely off the edge of the bed and landing on the cold, packed dirt of Yusa's hut with an impressively loud thud.
A pair of watery, cerulean eyes peered over the bed at him where he was laying, still tangled in the sheets. "Stop fooling around, Lije, this isn't the time for games", Yusa scolded him.
Lije didn't know who he disliked more at this point, her or the cobra.
"Hphwaaaghh", he said in response as he gratefully spit out the wad of sheets he'd been chewing on for who knows how long.
Yusa's stern gaze temporarily flicked down to look at the wet clump of fabric that Lije had just deposited on her floor. Her look was one of both amusement and disgust. "I suppose I should have warned you that the technique I just used on you would be accompanied by distinct discomfort."
Lije's face looked as if it were chiseled out of stone, his brow had become a granite precipice. Several fleas could be seen climbing up the west ledge, with their tiny pitons and spiked boots.
"Distinct discomfort?", he emphasized the "T" sounds as he spoke the two words, his voice rising in both volume and pitch.
Yusa talked over him. "But don't you just love surprises? I know I do."
The snake and her had been neck and neck, but Yusa had just nosed into the lead. Yep, he hated her.
Lije's eyes had turned into daggers. "Everything is a surprise to me. And to answer your second question, do I like surprises? Now that I think about it, no, can't say I do."
Yusa, nonplussed by Lije's response, continued talking as if she hadn't even heard him. "Of course, so little comes as a surprise to me of all of people, I'm sure you can appreciate how much I do like a good surprise. Oh, by the way, speaking of surprises, did you happen to bump in to anyone while you were, you know, down there?" Her voice wavered comically as she said the last two words.
"By down there", Lije mimicked, "are you referring to that hole you pushed me into!?"
"Yes, that's the one. So then, did you?"
Lije was annoyed with the old woman, and didn't feel like conversing with her at the moment. He was still feeling sporadic tremors of pain, and he was also about to strangle her. Unfortunately, he had to talk to her about what had happened. There was no one else. He had so many questions, and if she had an answer to one of them, then it would have been worth the ordeal and more.
"Yeah, did meet someone. A cobra that said he was my conscience."
Yusa nodded casually in response, "So he found you then? Well then, that is most impressive on his part. Finding anything in that maze you call your mind is an achievement to be recognized."
"Congratulated?" Lije's voice rose several decibels, he was beginning to lose it. "He bit me!"
Yusa turned pale, whiter than her snowy hair, at Lije's words.
"He did WHAT!?", she intoned dramatically.
The next thing Lije knew, Yusa was flying over the bed in a ballistic trajectory accordant with his head.
Lije's eyes were the size of dinner plates, and reflected in their surface was Yusa's airborne figure pirrhouetting through the air at him.
"Hey, whatareyoudo-", he managed to stutter before he found himself pinned to the ground on his back, with Yusa crouched over him like a lioness going in for the kill.
"Where?", her voice was both desperate and demanding at the same time, "Where did he bite you?"
Lije was reeling. Why had his host turned into a springing banshee all of a sudden?
"He bit me on my shoulder! Okay? My right shoulder. Get off me, you're crushing my pelvis!"
Yusa ignored his protests and grabbed the collar of his shirt roughly before ripping it completely open. She looked down at his shoulder and discerned what appeared to marks of some kind, but she couldn't make it out in the light. Her heart was caught in her throat. She hoped that it was only something her rheumy eyes had misconstrewn in the dark.
"Hurry, follow me outside," she said breathlessly as she dismounted him as if she were getting down off of a horse.
Lije, puzzled, tried to look at his shoulder, but the angle was too awkward to see whatever it was that Yusa had seen. He stumbled to his feet in the pile of bedding that had followed him to the floor. He had to duck to exit the hut's rather diminutive door.
Yusa, who had been standing impatiently on the right side of the door until now grabbed Lije by the elbow and forced him to kneel so she could get her face close to his shoulder. The marks were much easier to see outside in the sunlight. A pair of tear-shaped indentations, each secreting a tiny amount of silvery, metallic fluid. It was uncanny. His soul had been poisoned.
Lije didn't like the look on Yusa's face. "What, what is it? Is it bad?"
She looked up at him, the look of disbelief on her face had been replaced with an unsmiling visage.
"What did you say to him? What did you do!" she said accusingly.
He faltered. "N-nothing! I just told him that I didn't believe he was my conscience."
Yusa's eyes grew wide. "What the he** did you do that for?! You idiot! All you had to do was ask him what you wanted to know and he would have simply told you! Of all the squid-brained, slack-wit things to do..."
"Hold on. How am I the bad guy in this? Am I missing something here?", Lije wondered out loud.
"What you're missing is the brains to realize the truth when it's staring you in the face. Do you know what a conscience is or not?"
"Of course I do. It's the little voice in your head that tells you not to do bad things."
"Wrong!" Yusa fumed, stamping her right foot loudly. "Your conscience is your beacon, your bright star to navigate by through the night. It leads you to where you belong. Since you have no idea what the word means, you may be more familiar with its other name. Destiny. Ring any bells?"
"Destiny? What, you mean like the future you're supposed to have?"
Yusa clapped patronizingly. "Yes, good. Although that is only a rough sketch of the concept. Your destiny is the path you must tread to reach fulfillment. Though the more enlightened tend to think of the path and fulfillment as being one in the same."
Lije interrupted, "But, that doesn't make sense. You can't choose your destiny, it's just what happens to you, your lot in life."
Yusa rolled her eyes impatiently. "You don't know anything about life, but just do me a favor, and take my word for it. Everyone has a destiny, I know this, because everyone has a conscience. But what few have realized is that their destiny, and their lot in life are not synonymous. That means the same."
"I know what it means!" Lije spit defiantly.
Yusa smiled, "Just checking to see if you're really listening to what I'm saying, because it's important. Destiny is not the path, it's a path. A possibility that remains accessible throughout our lives. Whether we choose to walk this path is not a single a decision, but a lifetime of decisions. The path has not one turn, but an unimaginable series of turns. That said, it is both easy to stray from one's destiny, and easy to find your way back."
"Okay, enough with the lesson, where are you going with this?"
"It is one thing to hear your conscience and recognize the path the you ought to take, even when you choose a different one, but it is another thing altogether to be completely devoid of your conscience, and unable to discern one path from another."
"Wait, so you're saying that I don't have a conscience?"
Yusa sighed. "I'm saying that you have no destiny."
Arnie Shultz was one year away from retirement. He had cleaned pretty much every kind of place you could ever imagine in the half century that he had been a janitor. He had polished the stone floors of the cathedral that he had been married in. He had mopped the corridors of the world's largest indoor aquarium. He had even, for a brief stint, vacuumed the royal carpets of the Hegemon's personal office. But that was all just a memory now. Faded and blurry in his mind, as if painted by watercolors.
He had been working this gig for the past five years, and as far as gigs go, it was pretty sweet. It paid fifty-thousand dollars a year, and none of that got taxed. They said it was because of the work they did for Fleet, although Arnie had rarely seen any IF officers in his five years. He didn't question the money. He had full benefits, and upon retirement would be given valuable stock in the company, whose dividends would allow him and his wife to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. There were only two floors to clean, one above ground and the other below, but despite that fact it still had elevators, which were a godsend for Arnie's back and knees. They didn't seem to work so good anymore. Then again, almost nothing seemed to work as good as it used to. The only healthy thing he had left was his appetite. And the best thing, the absolute gem of the whole gig, was that he got to wear whatever he wanted. Now, that may seem trivial compared to the job's other pluses, but it was the simple things in life that Arnie had come to appreciate and value in his twilight years. They told him that they didn't care what he wore, he could mop the place wearing a gorilla costume if he wanted to, since the only other living thing that would be there during his shift would be the rats and cockroaches that Arnie didn't manage to exterminate. There wasn't even a security guard. They had said that the building's automated security systems had been designed by the same guy that had done the system for Fleet HQ. Arnie had always wondered why they needed such an elaborate system, the place was no different than any of the other nondescript office buildings he had cleaned the past.
Except for one thing. Arnie had found it when he was cleaning his boss's office on a night like any other. He remembered it clearly, which stands to denote the importance of the event. He had been attempting to dust all the polished metal gadgets and doodads that were arranged on his boss's desk without messing anything up or breaking it, when he lost his balance as he was leaning over the swivel chair. His foot got caught under one of the chair's wheels and he stumbled forward, reaching out frantically to grab on to something to slow his fall. And in these flailing moments, his hand had slid aside a secret panel on the side of the desk facing the chair, and provided him just enough space to jam his hand in and prevent him from hitting the floor. He had examined the panel in detail after gracelessly returning to his feet with the aid of several creaks and groans. It was cunningly crafted so when it was slid shut the seam of the edges could not be picked out, though it easily opened if maneuvered in the correct manner. Inside lay a single black button, like the kind you would find on an arcade game, the kind that was meant to be pressed. But he hadn't pressed it. Not yet. He had been scared to. His initial thought was that it sent some kind of emergency signal and that if he pressed it only seconds later he would be surrounded by barking dogs and people in gas masks with riot shields. He had found the button his first year on the job and had dismissed it upon finding it. But over the years, his curiosity had been turning it over and over. And the more he had thought of it, the more he was convinced that it wasn't an emergency button, if they had the security they claimed to have. Furthermore, there was no need to hide such a button, simply placing it on the underside of the desk or inside a drawer would make it easier to press secretly than in the panel. No, the button was meant to be a secret itself, to hide a secret. A safe probably. Or maybe a bed flopped down from a wall. And even possibly a small hole on the floor in front of the desk opened, to reveal a tank of man-eating sharks. Arnie watched a lot of James Bond movies. A fact he was proud of. Exactly what the button did, Arnie had resolved to discover before he retired.
And so he found himself standing in his boss's office once again, four years older. Everything was still the same as it had been, except the pictures in the frames had been updated. Arnie had finished the rest of his work for the night, saving the office for last. Butterflies fluttered around in his stomach as he nervously approached the desk. He had some trouble finding the hidden panel, he hadn't anticipated that. But after several awkward moments of fondling the desk like a father would do to his wife's pregnant belly, he found it.
The panel slid open silently and the black button inside gleamed in the half-light filtering through the office windows from the hall. For a while Arnie just stood there and looked at it. His mind was whirring with possibilities. He almost got cold feet, but as he was teetering on the edge of professionalism and integrity, he was taken by a sudden urge like a rogue wave and leaped forward violently, stabbing the button down with delicious finality. At the same time that he pressed the button, he heard something move behind him. Arnie turned around, expecting to see a recess in the wall with a combination dial, but was surprised to see that the recess seemed to stretch from the floor to the ceiling. A dark staircase with parallel rows of tiny yellow lights on each side of the steps twinkled up at him, beckoning to him like a home-bound ship to a harbor lighthouse.
He descended the stairs slowly, and held his breath as he did so. His arthritic hand pained him because he was clutching the hand-rail so tightly. He seemed to climb down forever, in complete darkness save for the movie theateresque lights that dimly outlined each next step. Finally, Arnie noticed a change in the air, it seemed to get cooler and less stuffy. A few more steps and he was standing in a strange, circular room. There was a weird machine dominating the center of the room, it looked kind of like one of those spinning rides they have at the fair that goes up and down and tilts in all directions. Except that where there would be cars filled with smiling children hooting and jeering, there were strange metal cylinders, each with a single circular window. They stuck out from the machine like petals on a flower. At least twenty by his estimate.
Arnie glanced around the room surreptitiously before ambling up to the closest cylinder to the stairs. The more he looked at it, the more it resembled a coffin to him. It gave him the creeps. He looked closely at a piece of paper that was encased in plastic and mounted to the side of the cylinder. There was a name written there.
"Winter, Elijah", he said aloud. His voice echoed around the circular room. Arnie had a weird feeling, like he had waded too far out from the shallows. He glanced at the circular port on the top of the cylinder, it was made of glass. He had to stand on his top toes to lean far enough over to look down through the leaded window. His heart leapt into his throat when he realized he was peering down at a person's face.
"Arnie", a familiar male voice called from behind him.
The old janitor nearly had a heart attack from the surprise of seeing the person in the cylinder compounded with the shock of someone saying his name. He cursed his insipid curiousity and wondered as he turned around to face the voice what he had gotten himself into now.
That was the last thing that ever went through his head. Actually, the last thing that went through Arnie Schultz's head was a copper-jacketed lead round, fired from a silenced pistol.
His boss stepped out of the shadow at the bottom of the stairs, gun still held out high in his right hand. A thin wisp of smoke curled out from the tip of the barrel. He kneeled down beside the now-late janitor and searched around for a moment before lifting a shining bullet casing to the light, and then depositing it in his front shirt pocket.
"Da**it Arnie, you were one year away from retirement."
Decole woke in a cold black room. There was no light and no sign of anything else there with him. He was lonely but he was used to being alone. He had not talked to anyone for the past 37 days and he could start feeling madness seeping in along the way. He always thought about if he met any people he would not even know how to speak. Now that Decole thought of it he had not spoken a word of any language in the past 37 days.
Decole began to worry about whether or not he would ever be able to speak again so he quickly blurted out a fast, “Hello.” He was relieved he could still remember the words; he was never good at any memorizing back before he left. Decole was just starting to think about where he was when he heard a reply,
“Hello there, Decole.” The voice startled Decole and he searched the black room for where the voice came from. “Wwho are you?” He managed to stutter.
“I am your madness I am the thought that hides away in the back of your head. I am your rage and your sorrow and your misery! I am the evil in your heart! And I am the one who saved your life.” Decole could not find where the voice it seemed like it was coming out of thin air.
“So you’re the devil?” Questioned Decole.
“No I am not the devil.” The voice replied quite annoyed.
“You sound like the devil, but if you aren’t him then who are you?” Decole
“I told you already I’m the one who saved your life.” The voice seemed like it wanted something; like it was missing something.
“Then where the heck am I?” Questioned Decole.
“You are in the pit of your mind. This is the only save place for your conscious mind at the moment. Your body was nearly destroyed when you fell into that crack. You fell for a good 15 seconds before hitting the ground.” The voice chuckled as if it was funny.
“So then what happens to me now? I really can’t see anything.” Decole questioned his battery of questions seem endless.
“You have no physical form right now. The fall destroyed almost everything that made you you.”
“So I am nothing right now? But where is this? If I have no mind to actually be here what happened to my mind?”
“Fine you are not in the pit of your mind your in the pit of my mind.” He stressed the point that he still saved Decole’s life.
“So if I am in your mind what do I do now? It’s not like I can actually do anything here.”
“You are to be reincarnated, as soon as I have a new body for you.” Said the devil-voice-person-thing whatever it was.
It was so cold that his knuckles felt like they would snap like dry bones through his prickling, fingerless gloves. Though the chill swelled around him, embraced him like a mother cradles a newborn, he allowed himself to be swaddled and even leaned into the frosted touch. He let it take him, breathing in the air and breathing it out again, his breath, his life, turned to white vapor around his head.
He was a preening vulture atop a sable horse, slowly circling the jungle, looking for what he could devour. His orders were clear. He needed to bring at least one female into the camp of his soldiers. He must find one woman he could make an example out of or this entire operation was a cruel waste of time. Yet there were moments when he reflected, thought seriously about whether or not his life’s worth was worth the time it took. No, he could not afford such thoughts. It would only be so deathly cold until the sun woke, blinking its brilliant eye. But this was the weather that it was easiest to catch the beast he was hunting in. He had intelligence that indicated that she was slow in cold, that it sapped her. Like any true hunter he knew that there was no fair fight between predator and prey. He would take her when she could not hope to resist, surround her with more men than even he could best and claim that he single-handedly felled the beast.
“General Pash,” his thoughts of grandeur were interrupted by a small mouthed, chinless page.
“What is it?” he snarled.
“We have found her, sir,” he said, shrinking.
Pash’s violet eyes yawned. They widened then slowly settled closed as he imagined himself carrying the monster through the streets. His curly hair was a crown of black light, his lips arched into a dark and beautiful grin. He was purposeful and spectacular as his horse fearlessly charged through the undergrowth. The frosted fingers of his right hand indicated the path that his men should take. He gestured as if his arm was the reaper’s sickle and his fingertips its bloodthirsty blade.
His boots clattered against the horse’s flanks, the spurs pinkish with his anticipation. She was close. His brown nostrils flared. She smelled of lavender, two suns and endless sand. In this frost it was intoxicating.
A pack of dogs ripped past him, all cropped tails and contracting, flattening bodies. They ran like hares, bouncing and slavering. Their ears were pent back with a savage anticipation that centuries of domestication could not wipe clean. Pash shared that enthusiasm. It was electric.
From his side, he pulled his axe. It was hefty, two-sided and as long as he was tall. The wood was hoary white and the blades were golden. They looked like flattened clam shells sharpened in deadly design.
Pash, in his revelry shouted, “Men, fall upon her and rip her to shreds!”
“Hah!” His half dozen consorts cried back in unison. Their azure capes blew back behind them. They were waves dashing to break and split the sandy barbarian they sought. The dogs turned suddenly south, perhaps a shortcut. But Pash sensed her. Could feel her heart beat as surely as he could feel his own. He pressed on. The jungle closed in around him like a winding sheet. A few minutes more and he realized that every tree he saw looked exactly like the one he had just passed. He cut a wide swath in a particularly sinister looking one and his suspicions were confirmed.
How embarrassing. To lead a cavalry charge to collect a savage slave and be the only one not to see it happen. He heard howling in the distance. The cries of his men embroiled in battle. He turned his horse in that direction. Surely, he could make it before her head was severed. Surely he could look into those eyes. Because it was those eyes, those terrifying eyes which had haunted and hunted him nights without end. If he could see them, see the life leave them, these fever dreams could end. Forward he charged. His horse followed his every command, he felt as if he were gliding on the back of some maniacal ghost. Just when he believed he saw the clearing where the fighting was taking place, he began to realize that everything was silent.
No dogs bayed. His consorts were without words. He realized why. As his horse sailed through the clearing in the distance he could see the tree he had marked. Its gash was now bright red. He approached it, and his fingertips grazed white-hot blood. He slowly closed his eyes. A drop spackled his nose, gave him red freckles across his face.
He looked up.
They were full of the limbs of his men, his dogs, their horses. Scorched. Faces contorted and unrecognizable. In one of the limbs was simply a one-armed torso. Another was fashioned with a pair of legs punctured with a hundred needle pin wounds. The dogs had set upon their own owners. His consorts had taken their axes and hacked each other into bits. His own hand trembled. An urge swept him over. He steadied himself.
“Who’s there?” someone growled.
Pash turned. Inhaled. He summoned up all the memories he had had of his life. Of his father teaching him how to hold his axe. Of his first battle. Of his first kill. Of that gnawing feeling he had felt even days after, as if the soul of that man had intertwined with his own. As if he would burst apart from the pressure of containing this man’s essence until he was spent with the effort and thrust into war and killing again. How he had been so weak and untested then? But now, how could he contain such a powerful opponent’s soul? How could he so easily take such a difficult life?
His hands laced around his weapon with renewed purpose.
“I am Pash.”
With that he leapt off of his horse. It went berserk as soon as his feet touched the gnarled ground. He realized his mistake. This place had been cursed, long been given over to darkness. His steed bashed its head against the tree in front of it. Turning it at an angle so that its nose would mark the same spot that Pash had until his legs seized and he fell in a pile onto the floor.
Pash leapt over his mount with his axe at the ready. Yet the stranger did not crouch to fight. Rather he stood upright, almost as if he were meditating. Pash launched himself at his foe, his shin guarded golden boots kicking up the undergrowth. If touching the ground caused insanity, then he would fly to his death and take his killer with him.
His axe high above his head he descended upon the lone shape. He sidestepped the first blow. Pash saw him take his hand from his cloak. Completely black. His skin was completely black. And not like Pash’s which was dark brown, but black in the sense that there was absolutely no color in it. He was as starry and sparkling as the night sky. His axe cut into the cloak, tearing it from the stranger’s shoulders. That was when he realized that his assailant was a woman. A cloying type of beauty surrounded her. She was so perfect that he quickly realized how truly terrifying she was. Her skin was like anti-matter, yet it all seemed so reflective. As if he were watching a gorgeous woman move gracefully from the other side of a darkly stained window. She took his wrists into her hands. Panic seized him. She was reading his memories, searching him as if he were a dossier; he could feel her in his mind. He stifled a shrill scream. His throat pinched around it. She leaned forward. His violet eyes widened. He could see his reflection in her. She leaned closer to him. Her full lips were parted slightly as if to invite a kiss. She was suddenly bigger than he was, or had he shrank? He realized belatedly that she was going to devour him.
He felt his feelings abandon him. He was numb. So numb and nothing mattered. Never would he love or find or seek again. Never would he kill or maim or laugh. He resigned to this. Accepted it. His head lolled back as if he were in a gallows. His feet dangled freely. She breathed deeply. This was what it was like to feel old and abandoned. This was his worst fear, and realized, he vaguely understood that there were more terrifying things he had never thought of.
He could hear the chanting. The song that is sung on the beaches of the summer isles where good men go when they die. The mermaids sang to him. He ran at full speed to their arms. And just as he reached one—it stopped. He was snapped out of his reverie and back into what was happening. The woman that was holding him, cradling him like a child was screaming. It was ear piercing and only after he got over the shock of it could he begin to appreciate the sheer and utter pain that he, himself, was in.
Coated. Coated in her blood. It was thick and glossy and yet stretched and stretched, to never be wiped clean. He cried out in fear the way that a child does when it is too scared to think of any other response. He opened his eyes and saw the wicked she-beast. His clothes were disintegrating. She was howling. There were three arrows piercing her abdomen. Before her stood a tall and beautiful man wearing a red cape he knew well. A soldier. One of his soldiers had come to save him. The man’s hair was mottled with blood and debris. In his hand was a short curved saber. He was coming in to finish the job. Pash tried to collect himself. He stood up on wobbly knees and steadied himself to finish the fight. The man nodded to him. They both charged the witch. She curled her fingers up like the claws of a tiger and batted them each down. But not before the red caped man sliced the woman’s stomach. Pash drove home and true with his axe, hacking the woman as if she were a stubborn tree trunk.
Her cry was loud and lit the forest around her in a white light. Both men, predators, knew instinctively to run. The creature leapt upon them, much larger than either, and opening her mouth revealed rows of teeth and a black abyss that went nowhere and everywhere at once. Pash reached for his lance and saw, to his dismay, that the man that had saved his life was wholly hypnotized by the creature. He lay completely unconscious on the ground beside him, slumbering to his death. Every ounce of strength Pash had left was summoned then. He reached for his axe and reaching back swung hard into… nothing.
The dawn had broken. The creature was gone. And he, a seasoned warrior, was left alone in a clearing with a wounded wanderer.
A plain, black van sat and waited patiently in the dappled light and shadows of a row of palm trees. The palms had been planted at intervals of every five feet, and ran along the entire street-side of a homely office building. The van had been parked along the curb near the northern part of the office building for sixteen hours. In that time, no one had exited or entered the van. It was now midnight, and the rot-iron street lamps that stood between each palm tree had been burning away for hours, drawing in an impressive array of nocturnal flying insects.
"You've gotta see this moth. It's freaking huge!"
"I swear, if you so much as begin to utter another word to me concerning large bugs, or cool-looking bugs, or bugs that remind you of something funny that happened to you when you were a kid, so help me, Riley. You know I'm certified for black ops, right?"
"Well excuse me, so sorry to bug you, sir."
"I'm not kidding, Riley. You're my fourth partner. Fourth! Ask me what happened to the previous three."
"Don't be such a stick in the mud, Cap'n, we've got to talk about something, we've been stuck in here for nearly a day!"
"Well, something doesn't always have to be bugs."
"But you know I'm an amateur entomologist, and with so many fine examples of lepidopterans..."
"I'm going to count to three, and then I'm going to kill you."
"No! Sir, the..."
"That's it, where's my killin' knife?"
"The phone-line indicator sir! It's blue!"
"What!? Punch it! We need to get all of this."
"Yes sir. I'm starting the recording now."
The pair stumbled to quickly don their over-sized headphones and listened with rapt attention that had been sharpened by hours upon hours of waiting.
--"...no, I told you not to call me on this line unless it was a life or death situation."
"That's why I called."
"There was a security breach."
"In which location?"
"I hope you have a good explanation if you're telling me this, the nursery is the property of our most important client."
"Yes, I know, I took care of it personally."
"Then why are you calling me?"
"Because, the infiltrator was our janitor, and it's going to be hard to explain to his wife a believable reason for his being shot in the head."
"For crissakes, Fassel! This line isn't secure, don't just spell it out like that."
"Sorry, sir, but what do we do?"
"I'm going to make a few calls, I'll get back to you on the secure line in an hour, understood?"
The two men in the van stared at each other in absolute silence, still wearing their headphones. They were both processing what they had just heard, and already beginning to form theories of their own. Sure, their target had not been selected randomly, but when they had initially been given their orders, an accompanying brief had stated that their target was suspected of tax evasion and fraud. White collar crimes. Nothing remotely similiar to the level of malice their target had only recently confessed to. And not only that, but their target was supposed to have been the highest man on the totem pole, but that idea was thrown out the window now. He was obviously reporting to a higher authority, and they weren't interested in catching the little fish. No, they wanted the big fish, they wanted the whale.
"So", Riley said finally, "who do you think it is?"
His captain shrugged and looked off into the distance speculatively, which was an impressive feat for a man sitting in the back of a van with no windows. He didn't need to elaborate, both men were professionals and had been working together for quite some time, they knew each other better than they knew themselves.
"Who knows, someone powerful though, that's for sure. I'm not quite as concerned about him as I am about this 'nursery' they're talking about. I don't know why, Riley, but it gives me the creeps. Whatever it is, it's important enough to kill a man for finding it."
Riley studied the look in the captain's turquoise eyes, it was a look he had seen before, many times. Always right before he was about to do something very stupid.
"Captain...", he started.
"We've stumbled onto something big, Riley. I can feel it in my bones. Whatever this is, it goes deep. You know what we have to do."
"Sir, may I respectfully remind you that you always say that we've stumbled onto something big, and you always think it goes deeper than it does. And may I also respectfully remind you that you're one paranoid mother******."
"Noted." The man fixed Riley with a defiant glare. "But you still know what we need to do."
"No, sir, I don't. I'm not playing this game with you. The last time you started talking like this we almost ended up getting hung for treason."
The captain dismissed the reference with an apathetic wave of his hand. "It's different this time, Riley, I'm sure of it."
"Sir!" Riley was beginning to lose his composure. "You said it's different this time, last time!"
"No I didn't. I said it's not the same as last time", his superior stated matter-of-factly.
Riley rolled his eyes, his frustration mounting to critical levels. "I'm not doing this, Cap'n. After we managed to get out of that last fiasco and you got promoted we made a deal, remember? A deal not to do it like we used to. We're professionals, we follow orders now."
"Riley, you know just as well as I do that if we sit on our hands and let Fassel contact his boss through that secure line, without planting a bug, that we're going to lose our only chance of breaking this thing wide open."
The captain sat quietly for a few seconds, before changing gears.
"Do you want the bad guys to win?"
"Oh no, you are NOT pulling that line on me."
"The bad guys are winning Riley, they're gonna win."
"Da** it! Stop it already! You're playing me like a banjo and you know it!"
The captain grinned, a mischievous grin that reminded Riley of the devil.
"I'm not playing you, I'm just appealing to your hyper-developed sense of personal justice."
"Call it what you will, it's not fair. You've read my file, and now you're using it against me."
Riley tried his best to look sullen and hurt, but he knew it wouldn't work. Once his captain got his mind set on something, he never let it go. He was like a bulldog that had clamped down on the throat of his adversary. It would take a heavy, blunt object to change his mind, and even that was not always successful. There were several moments of tense stillness inside the van, both men sat facing opposite each other, saying nothing, each one refusing to back down. His captain finally broke the silence.
"You aren't going to let them win, are you?"
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Riley exploded, balling his fists maddeningly and searching the interior of the van for something to vent his anger on. He settled for the back of the driver's seat, delivering a frighteningly strong series of blows to the upholstered molded rubber.
He turned to look back at his captain, he was wearing a grin almost as diabolical as his superior's.