Awakening: Dead Forever Book 1
by William Campbell
Copyright © 2010 William Campbell. All Rights Reserved
Blackness, crashing, every touch is a searing impact. Extreme motion without purpose or destination—chaos. Up and down have become mere concepts in this nightmare of heat and confusion.
A flickering glow bleeds from the void—flames.
“Put it out,” a woman shouts.
My skin is burning. Snapped alert by a blistering surface, I spring up only to tumble over and smack the floor. Or was it the ceiling? The two have traded places, and again, flipping end over end.
From thick smoke, flames snap out like whips, steel panels glisten white-hot, creak and moan, melting conduits dangle and sway. The upending eases but the compartment is spiraling—we’re falling. A warm flow trickles down my forehead, into my eyes. I reach for my scalp and the wet mess leaves my fingertips bloody. Something hard and I became far more intimate than we should have.
Someone darts through the smoke. Then back again, and she stops to look at me.
“Put it out.”
She is strangely familiar. Rusty hair in a high ponytail, determined stare, her cheeks are heated rosy. A woman of such beauty she may be a goddess, casting a disapproving glare as if provoked and contemplating wrath if I don’t get up and… do what?
Dread strikes. Something bad is going to happen, and worse—it happens to her.
“Hurry!” she cries.
The fire. I came here to put out a fire. An extinguisher is here somewhere. In a cabinet, but the door won’t budge. The hinges are melted, the handle is hot, and now my palms are seared.
Failure obscures all fear. I don’t know which is worse—the fear, the failure, the dread—or knowing that I’m completely useless.
Towering flames rise at her back. She rushes to reach me, her arms outstretched. The goddess is drained of wrath, stricken with sorrow, streaming tears and hollow. Her hopeless stare won’t let go, yearning for a last embrace, and testament to our fate—there is no tomorrow.
“We won’t survive,” she says. “Don’t get lost. Remember, I’ll find you. I’ll find you!”
Rapt by her mesmerizing gaze, I am spellbound, the threat of incineration a distant concern. Her eyes—so clear, so light, so blue.
Tender blue eyes that may never forgive me.
* * *
“Hey.” A male voice. “Come on, wake up.”
The inferno fades. Damp, chilly clothing clings to my skin, a dreadful reminder of this aching body, cold, wet, and unfed. I lie crumpled atop a soggy patch of cardboard, gazing up at massive concrete slabs, enormous iron girders, hanging in the shadows of night. There is no fire, no woman, and no blue eyes. I’m where I was all along, sleeping under this bridge.
The recurring dream visits again this night, a dream so real, it must be. I can feel the flames, hear her voice, and sense the dread every time. Then I wake in this miserable place where the sun never shines.
A figure hovers overhead. “Hey, buddy,” he says. “You got some change? I need a drink. Come on, help a poor guy out.”
Why does he bother me? I just want to sleep. Forever would be good.
The rude awakener is a repulsive sight, his clothes a patchwork of grimy fibers stained by splotches of sweat, beer, or other foul substance. More wretched is his nasty beard, having reached a matting so thorough it could be carpet, splattered with remnants of his last few meals. I shouldn’t be one to judge, seeing how I’ve been caught napping under a bridge, but at least I’ve enough sense to wipe my face after dinner and comb my beard once in a while.
Then the smell hits. Hard to say which is worse, the stench of his last drink, or that unmistakable odor seeping from clothes unwashed in weeks, hanging from a body unwashed in months. Some people just don’t understand—bathing has value, at least to the rest of us.
He grins, revealing teeth rotten where they’re not missing. “Don’t forget what you’re looking for.”
Huh? I was looking for something. But what? And when? I hate that—sure of something, but at the same time, clueless. Because I can’t remember. Nonsense. He’s messing with my head and it’s working. A migraine erupts, like getting smacked in the skull by a ten-pound sledgehammer.
I try rubbing out the ache. Useless. “I’m not looking for anything, not from you.”
“Sure you are,” he says. “And I have some right here.”
“You do?” I struggle upright. “What?”
His stare is creepy. His eyes, what is it? Something is wrong with his eyes.
He leans close and says, “Vital information.”
I expected him to whip out some smelly trinket buried in his filthy coat, soaking up that wretched stench. Maybe even a few tabs of pain relief. But no, my prize is the intangible wisdom of a drunken lunatic.
“Get away from me.”
“People are looking for you,” he says.
Life is bad enough, but listening to this nonsense, I just realized—worse has no limit.
“Listen, you old fart, I bet people are looking for you, too. At least they should be. You stink, you’re annoying, not to mention completely insane.”
He doesn’t even flinch. He just stares at me, and I can’t get over it—something is wrong with his eyes. Not the eyes of a drunk. He has a sober gaze, clear and intent, as though eyes of another have been plugged into his dirty, drunken head.
“People are looking for you,” he says. “Some you’ll want finding you, the others, I don’t think so. Remember, stay alert and pay attention. You have a choice to make, of who to trust.”
I don’t trust him, I know that much. No surprise really, since I don’t trust anyone, ever. Then the blind spots start dancing. The migraine mutates—now someone has thumbs behind my eyes, pushing the mushy orbs out of my skull.
“Why don’t you buzz off? You’re giving me a headache, freak.”
He chuckles, then points over my shoulder. “Maybe, but she’s not a freak.”
“Someone you know.”
Could it be? The urge is overwhelming. I have to know and spin around, hoping to see the woman who haunts my nightmares. Nothing, absolutely nothing, other than the usual rain-slicked avenue lined with the same monotonous string of ugly concrete buildings. Duped by a drunk, great. Next he’ll steal my stuff while I’m not looking, I know how it goes. What stuff? My precious cardboard?
But there is something, maybe half a block away. A person materializes out of thin air, standing on the sidewalk. A woman. That’s not right. People don’t come out of nowhere. She fades in and out, flickering some, a translucent, dreamlike vision, leading me to wonder—am I still dreaming? Or I’ve started dreaming again. No, to wonder if you’re dreaming isn’t dreaming. A dream is only a dream when you don’t know it’s a dream, right?
I don’t want to lose sight of this apparition, but at the same time, that shifty derelict lurking out of view makes me nervous. I spin around to find him right where I left him, perfectly still, sober eyes gazing, patiently waiting. Good, he knows how to behave. I’ll trust him this one time. Back to the girl. Her mouth moves, she might be talking, but she makes no sound, maybe some static. She looks familiar, dark hair in pigtails. I’ve seen that before somewhere, but I don’t think it was a dream. Or maybe it was. Another dream?
Stabbing pain strikes, like burning needles hammered into my brain, an instant torture that sends me to my knees and both hands to my skull. This can’t be a dream. Dreams don’t hurt this much.
The dark sky crackles the familiar sound of an approaching thunderstorm. The overcast swirls like a churning cauldron and a blinding flash ignites. Now the bum fades in and out just like the girl, and he seems to speak, but he makes no sound. More lightning brightens the street, then a bang of thunder. The woman is gone. I twist around, and the bum has vanished as well. All that remains is lightning, thunder, and a roaring downpour.
I don’t understand, he was right here. I looked away for only a moment. There wasn’t enough time for him to be gone.
Okay, now I’m awake.
* * *
Under this bridge is a good place to sleep, considering the weather, but it doesn’t do much good. The rain finds its way into my clothes anyway. The concrete underbelly is so dark, it might as well be painted black. Everything here takes on a similar hue, since there’s so little light, and so little life. The lack of color only reinforces my grave depression, confirming that life is trivial and its end a meaningless eventuality.
Every night I walk below this very bridge, toward the river, where I find the same thing, time and again. Past the tall chain-link fence that blocks any further travel, across the river is a dazzling city, what one might call downtown or the center of things. Bright lights, tall buildings, reaching into a dismal gray overcast. Just one more place I’ll never go. Not that I care to, but somehow it calls to me. I don’t even know how to get there. Over this bridge you’d think, but there’s no way to cross. Every onramp is blocked by ten-foot high concrete slabs.
The coat I traded for a while back is better than my last. Still with holes in every pocket, but at least this one has fewer stains, and the seam along the back isn’t unraveling. I’ve had these shoes so long, I can’t remember where they came from. But then, I can’t remember much of anything. The past seems like a dream, so unreal. What was I doing last year? Even a month ago. To recall might illuminate some purpose in life, other than wandering aimlessly from one day to the next.
Dreams are better than real life. I get to be someone important, not just another loser. I’m the hero who saves the world and gets the girl. Except when I fail and we burn. I hate that dream.
Even the accident is like a dream. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but whatever it was, the trauma formed a barrier, a veil between certain knowledge and the darkened past that I have yet to penetrate. Without a past, my days are like riding a boxcar in the fog. Ahead, the train slips from view, no sign of the engine pulling life along, and behind, a long string of freight fades into the mist. No future, no picture of the past, just a dreary now.
Perhaps I could recall a past if not tortured by chronic migraines, my splendid reward for surviving the accident. I often wish that I hadn’t. The painless slumber of death might be pleasant. Instead, my sentence is a life of misery, trapped in a body burdened with pain, foremost this throbbing skull, though a growling stomach adds its own version of anguish. Time for some food. And something for this aching head. Any end to this agony, now that would be a dream come true. My goal in life—escape the pain.
Wrapped in my inadequate coat, I emerge from under the bridge and start along the sidewalk. The relentless shower is like watery bullets, hammering my skull as I push through the weather. In minutes my socks are soaked and my toes are chilled to the bone. I am here to suffer.
Tiny waves gush across the smooth pavement, a glimmering sheet that spills off into the gutter and empties into the many drains. A pulsating vision of lively ripples moving past. Life has become so hollow, even the simplest things are fascinating, as simple as water flowing across a sidewalk.
* * *
A few blocks up the street is Sandy’s diner, a greasy dive named for its proprietor. She’s nice enough, though a fake sort of gal who likes to talk a lot, usually for no reason besides hearing the sound of her own voice. You might imagine she was once beautiful, but the ravages of time have changed that. Deep lines crossing her face and weathered skin clinging to her boney frame, I often wonder if she spent the last decade touring the desert.
A gust of toasty air rolls out when I pull the door open. Ah, that’s better. Too bad I can’t hang out in here forever. But then, I wouldn’t call that a particularly exciting life either.
The flickering fluorescent lights don’t bring much color to anything, it all has the same dull sheen. Enough to illuminate the food anyway. Or what you might call food, which here, amounts to little more than basic fuel a body requires.
I might consider an open booth near the window, but one lowly customer hogging an entire booth would be the ultimate act of selfishness. A seat at the counter should do just fine, leaving the booths for people with friends joining them. Not me.
Others are present, no one important, just more losers like me. This part of town doesn’t cater to many well-to-do folks. A few people glance over as I slip into a seat at the counter, then realize it’s just me and get back to their meals.
Even though I’ve seen it all before, every visit I have to gawk at the odd knick-knacks mounted to the walls—a car’s grille, banged up road signs, and something antique that looks like an eggbeater, next to a transistor radio. Splattered across every wall are ancient photos behind cracked glass in broken frames, of people from another century. Dusty junk hangs from the ceiling—worn tools with splintery handles, a pogo-stick, rusty saber and more. All sorts of crap. An irritating buzz comes from a flickering neon sign that reads “Good Ol’ Home Cooking.” Not any home of mine. Some lunatic decorated this joint.
Sandy approaches with pad in hand, ready for my order and as always, wearing her warm, forced smile. “Carl, what are you doing up so late? Staying out of trouble, I hope.”
“I’d still be sleeping if that damn bum would’ve left me alone.”
“Another run-in?” she asks. “Don’t tell me you got in another fight.”
“I might as well have. Feels like my head’s been kicked in.”
“Carl, you say that every time I see you.” She leans on one hip, smacks her gum, and taps her pad with the pen.
“Well, it’s how I feel every time you see me.”
Her smile tightens to a teasing sort of wrinkled grin. “You just need a warm meal. What’ll you have?”
“How about some egg-fried toast.”
“No such thing, hon. Same as last time.”
I’ve been asking for that dish every visit, but I’m never in luck. The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever having it before. Heck, I’m not even sure what it is.
“You mean scrambled eggs,” she says, already scribbling the undesired order. “That your favorite?”
If eating the same thing forever is the definition of favorite, she could be right. But the number of times I’ve consumed the disgusting meal has me wondering—did scrambled eggs ever taste good?
“What I really need is something for this headache. My skull’s in a vise.”
Sandy has more than just food, thank goodness. She has a stock of medicine, cures for a variety of ailments, one of which I seek daily—relief from the chronic migraines. Life might be tolerable, though cold, wet and dark, if only this endless ache would lighten up once in a while. At times the sensation nears that of a truck driving through my skull. The torture is without end, but it does vary. If I think, my head hurts. Lie about like a vegetable, it subsides a bit. A great incentive to be a vegetable.
Sandy reaches into her apron and pulls out a small container. “I have some Duprixol, that’ll make it better.”
Ah, the good stuff. Duprixol almost kills the pain, at least better than the imitation crap peddled on the street. Most of the riffraff don’t care for the drugs, they only want the liquor and will gladly trade. Not me, I’ll take Duprixol any day. Liquor can’t begin to dull this kind of ache.
I reach across the counter and Sandy drops two tablets in my palm. I pop the pills and reach out again, ready for more.
She loses her smile. “I think two is enough.”
“Tonight it’s bad, Sandy. Real bad, worse than ever.”
She eyes me with concern, then drops another tablet in my palm. “What made it so bad? What happened?”
“A bum woke me up, asking for change. I don’t know which was worse, that damn nightmare, or his breath.”
“Just like last night?” she teases.
“No, it was different this time. The guy was babbling about some people looking for me, and a girl I know, maybe, I’m not sure. I guess she showed up, I mean, another girl I know, but it was strange. She came out of nowhere, and she looked misty, almost like a ghost.”
“A girl?” Sandy steps back. “What did she tell you?”
Her heightened concern lacks the usual fakeness.
I proceed carefully. “She didn’t really tell me anything. She looked like she was talking, but she made no sound, maybe some static. I was probably hallucinating, maybe still dreaming. But my head exploded with pain, I mean, more than ever before. How can a dream do that?”
Sandy freezes like a deactivated robot. What did I say?
She reanimates. “Carl, don’t leave, I’ll be right back.” She hurries away.
What the heck is her problem? It’s like I said the magic word. Did I? And what was it? I’ve never seen her act so weird, like she’s on drugs. That’s idiotic. I’m the guy on drugs, with a mind off imagining who-knows-what new paranoid nonsense, the same as always. A few minutes more, all will be fine, once that Duprixol kicks in. Yeah, time to sit and relax, get comfortable, and enjoy the ride.
* * *
The cook delivers the deluxe meal of scrambled eggs. Oh how sick I am of this. All runny, like they haven’t been cooked enough, yet the eggs have a distinct burnt flavor. Maybe it’s a spice called burnt, and someone thinks it’s tasty, like all spices that cover up the real taste. Not me, I want egg-fried toast.
As the cook heads back to the kitchen, I call out to him, “Hey, what’s up with Sandy tonight?”
He halts, how Sandy did, like a robot switched off. Then he turns slowly to face me. “I have no opinions to offer you. I simply work here. You do not. Do not talk to me.”
Wow, I was just trying to make polite conversation. Do not talk to me? Not polite enough. He goes to the kitchen and resumes his duties, which apparently include treating the customers as rudely as possible. Past the portal where he trades orders for food, he picks up a butcher’s knife and stares at me. I get the hint. The dude is in no mood to speak with anybody, more likely dice them.
Here we go, another pile of runny eggs. The flavor and texture are nauseating, but hurling is a worthwhile risk—the pain of hunger is surpassing the migraine, which is easing up just a bit thanks to that dose of Duprixol. My head almost doesn’t hurt. Almost doesn’t is like a dream itself, a possible release from this agonizing torture. A teaser, nearly removing all the pain, but leaving just enough to remind that it’s still there, sure to ignite again later.
At the counter’s end, Sandy is talking on the telephone, but something is wrong. She looks concerned and keeps glancing this way. Now she’s staring at me. Is she talking about me? Nah, I’m a nobody. Enough paranoia for one night.
One last bite and the plate is clean, other than the greasy coating left behind. Now if all goes well, the runny mess will stay in my stomach long enough to be digested.
Sandy returns. “Carl, you need to stay here awhile. Some people are coming by, and they want to speak with you.”
Something is wrong. No one has ever wanted to speak with me. Sounds like trouble.
“I don’t know, Sandy, I got things to do.”
“Don’t be silly, Carl. You have nothing better to do than wait in this warm, dry place, for the nice people coming to see you.”
Nice people? Coming to see me? Okay, this is weird. I may not know much, but I know how to feel, and right now the feeling says danger. I have to get out of here. But I don’t want to appear frightened or alarmed. That’s what they say about animals, right? If you act confident, the critter will have respect. By not showing fear, it tells them they don’t actually need to hurt you. What utter nonsense. But it sounds good, so I’ll pretend it’s not nonsense.
“Thanks for the meal, Sandy, that was great, really, but I have to go. I have a meeting, I mean, an interview. I don’t want to blow it, you know?” I rise from the seat and prepare for a graceful exit.
Sandy leans over the counter and stuffs me back down. “Don’t be ridiculous, Carl. No one has an interview in the middle of the night. Just sit and relax.”
What’s wrong with me? I’m trembling. I don’t even know why. Overwhelming instinct obscures all that—I must go, immediately. I spring from the seat and go for the door. When it swings open, three men are blocking the exit, and they don’t look friendly.
The coward in me has glued my feet to the floor. I’m such a wimp, though occasional thoughts let me feel otherwise for a moment, if only a moment.
* * *
One of the strange men calls out my name. I feel naked, standing here before a trio of thugs as people in the diner look on with morbid curiosity.
“He just left,” I tell them. “I bet if you hurry, you might catch him.”
Hoping that saved my butt, I let out a huge sigh of relief, then cling to my next breath in case I’m still in trouble. Unfortunately, fear has a revealing effect on the body. He doesn’t fall for it. He doesn’t even look away.
“You are Carl Brown, yes?”
This time I make no excuse, though I fear my new response is no better—no response, other than a nervous twitching that rattles my knees. He understands what’s going on, and it doesn’t help when Sandy points to me and nods.
Having found the elusive Carl Brown, the strange man becomes oddly elated. “I see that Carl is present. Excellent. We have been looking for Carl.”
The way he talks sends a shiver down my spine, like he’s not really the person he pretends to be. No, he’s some kind of thing. All three men are dressed the same, uniforms perhaps, though too casual for that. Black sport jackets, the cheesy plastic kind that pretend to look expensive, over black turtlenecks, and they wear black slacks, along with black boots. No problem coordinating colors here. And the boots, polished to such a shine that light reflects from the glossy surface. These folks are well-to-do. You can always tell by the shoes. Good shoes, not a loser.
Their hair is odd, black as well, and cropped short in the shape of a helmet. Looks stupid like a goon. More peculiar is that their haircuts are identical, as if they’re copies of the same person, only with slightly dissimilar facial features. But very few, since they all wear nearly the same expression—hardened people pretending to be pleasant. Creepy, that’s what I call it.
The strange man continues, “The Association understands much of Carl’s behavior, but it is time that we understand more, most importantly, Carl’s present tendencies, his innermost thoughts, and of course, views on life, social conduct, and future events.”
What did he just say? I study the leg of his slacks, searching for tiny wires near the floor, leading off to some machine that fed him all that nonsense. Nope, no wires.
Easing back a step, I hope to lure the thugs into the diner just a bit. “What would you like to know?”
The strange man becomes excited, a fake kind of excited, like my supposed willingness to participate activated his I-should-be-excited circuit. “Carl understands of course, he must answer specific questions under controlled conditions, otherwise the information we seek may prove erroneous, and certainly, that would be most unfortunate for all concerned. The time has come. We have transport. Carl is prepared to join us, yes?”
Here I am standing before a man—or robot—as he speaks to me, yet he uses my name in the third person. Is this weird? Carl thinks so. Carl doesn’t like this conversation. Carl should get the heck out of here.
Now would be a great time to wake up. But this couldn’t be a dream—I just wondered if it was. This experience isn’t passing the dream test. I’d pinch myself to check, but I’m sure it would just hurt.
* * *
A threatening situation is an amazing stimulant. The mind churns, working out a solution, while the body retreats a step, another and another, which the goons match. I have successfully drawn them farther into the diner, away from the door.
In a burst, I slice between them and out the exit. Down the slippery steps and onto the sidewalk, I run for my life. Miserable or not, I don’t care to explore other options right now. Any life away from here will do.
The weather is painful, the cold rain acting as tiny daggers stabbing my face as I charge ahead. Adding to the torture, my skull may soon explode. The migraine is back, and this time, the truck driving through is chased by a runaway freight train.
Regardless of weather, migraines, or goons, running for one’s life is hard work. Every gasp for breath feels empty. Not only my skull, my heart and lungs may soon explode. Within a few blocks, my stamina fades. I’m no athlete. I slow to a jog and glance over my shoulder, hoping that strange encounter is behind me. No! I mean not behind me. Idle thoughts are traitorous. The strange encounter is right behind and closing fast—here come the goons.
Terror injects a new supply of stamina. Back to a furious sprint, I scramble across the street and duck behind a building, hoping to lose them in a dark alley. Behind a warehouse, I leap onto a loading dock and hurry across only to have it end suddenly, leaving me to soar off and crash into a cluster of garbage cans. Damn, be quiet!
Cloaked by darkness, I keep low and peer over the loading dock, fearing my little accident may have betrayed me. Hurried steps grow louder, slapping the wet pavement. They don’t turn—they have continued forward along the alley, assuming I had done the same. I am not such a loser after all.
Around the warehouse, I sneak back to the street where our chase began. A sonorous humming fills the sky as an aircraft descends from the clouds, a helicopter perhaps. The black, rain-slicked craft sets down in the street near the diner. A stream of men emerge from a hatchway like a colony of rampaging ants, all copies of one another, the same black outfits, the same helmet hair, a steady flow of black. Each carries a thin rectangular device with shoulder strap. Weapons? As the men disembark, one waves and hollers instructions. He’s pointing this way. Following his command, the men charge forward, splashing through puddles in the street.
I pull back, out of view, and stand petrified against the cold wall. I have to think but can’t—too scared. I can’t cross the street, I’ll be seen, then either captured or killed, whatever it is they intend. They must want to talk real bad. Or they want me dead. There must be somewhere I could hide.
Towering above, freeway interchanges crisscross overhead and block out the stormy sky. The network of motorways connects to the nearby bridge, which has concrete staircases leading up to the elevated highways. Before this moment I had not imagined a reason to explore any, but now their value is clear—the perfect place to hide, up high and out of sight while the goons scurry along the rainy avenues below. Better still, I may discover access to the bridge and get across the river. Surely, the bright lights of downtown are no place to slay a person. I could find safety there. Someone would understand. Someone might help.
I hurry back to the loading dock, crouch and peer over—the way is clear. Across the street and along the next block, I cling to the building, masked by shadows. At the corner, I spy around—careful! Lean out too far and I’ll get my head blown off. Looks okay, no goons, or anyone else. Salvation is just across the street. I make a dash for the stairs, around the concrete barrier and up the first step. A whizzing sound approaches, rising in pitch. BLAM! Chunks of concrete scatter as I vault up three steps each stride. I’m halfway to the top when the whizzing comes again. BLAM!
I thought they wanted to talk.
The stairs end at an unpleasant surprise—a solid wall of concrete. Seems the purpose of this structure is for no one to get anywhere, and tonight, that no one is me.
In the streets below, the goons are taking shots at the staircase, and more are coming to join them. Their thin weapons emit a sizzling beam, torturous whizzing, and once striking their target, explode another spray of pulverized concrete. The stairs are crumbling fast.
Overhead, a power line leads to a warehouse across the street. I can slide along it, to the rooftop, and escape. I can? Have I gone mad? I’ll have to deal with that later—madness is a minor flaw compared to dead.
Sizzling blasts pound the staircase as I climb onto a slippery handrail. I wrestle the buckle loose and pull my belt from its loops, then slap it over the power line. Their barrage demolishes the staircase, all support drops from under my feet, and I’m left to dangle. Soaked by rain, the power line is slick, and my ride is swift.
Here comes the whizzing. Scorched air sizzles at my back, narrowly missing as I whoosh past. The belt whines, sliding along the line, carrying me to my only escape. The wet strap is slipping from my grasp, but my perilous flight is not delayed. Sailing onward, I’m almost to the rooftop.
The power line snaps, and like a rubber band, it coils away into darkness. The fall should be slight—I’ve made it. I’m over the warehouse. Over a skylight. I plunge into the fragile pane and burst through shattering glass.
* * *
Glass isn’t so tough, but too bad this floor is bare concrete. Some carpeting might have helped. Look at that, I didn’t even make a dent. And to think migraines could hurt. What migraine? That discomfort is a whisper compared to this body’s shouting pain, screaming from head to toe.
Inside the warehouse is dark, thanks to my latest stunt. Nice work busting the power line. Some light streams in through a window, but not much. The room is stuffed full of machines. Maybe drill presses. Lathes? Or grinding equipment. Rows of identical contraptions fade into darkness, all large, tall and across. Something is manufactured here, or maybe it’s a print shop.
Everything is covered by fine powder, and touching it leaves my moist fingertips spotted with dust-turned-mud. Seems the place was abandoned ages ago. No need for any remorse over the power line. The electricity was off long before I showed up.
As I examine my muddy fingertips, a dark pool collects in my open palm, then begins dripping between my fingers. Something warm, flowing from inside my coat. When I try taking it off, a sharp pain explodes like a lightning bolt, screaming from shoulder to fingertips, which have suddenly gone numb.
Aw, crap. A giant chunk of glass is sticking out of my arm.
Pain and experience are funny things. Maybe I’m going into shock, that might explain it. Here I am, arm impaled by a jagged shard, and I go about exploring the room, oblivious of the injury. But once I see the wound, see the blood, oh how the pain comes alive.
I search the dusty workbenches and find some crusty shop towels, probably full of germs or other toxic substance, but there’s no choice, I have to fix this. Using a rag for a glove, I keep from slicing my hand and give the shard a tug. Sure sounds easy, and we’ll just have to feel the pain later—pull harder. I yank the shard free and toss it to the floor where it shatters into a spray of harmless granules. Pieces that small when I hit the skylight would have been nice.
I wiggle out of the blood-soaked coat, hoping to find a minor flesh wound, but it’s just not my night. I’ve never seen so much blood, especially my own. But then, nobody sees that much of their own blood and talks about it later.
Cinched tight around my arm, the dirty shop towels serve as a crude bandage, effective enough to slow the bleeding. Hardly the work of a qualified physician, but forced to play doctor, we do our best. One crisis resolved, I’m back to the original—it won’t be long before the goon patrol shows up. As if cued by my thoughts, an abrupt scuffle downstairs signals their entry into the building. They holler to one another, something about which exits to cover, and to get upstairs, that’s where he is. Of course, they’re referring to me. If only it could be someone else.
* * *
What I need is a weapon. Let’s make this contest fair. I fumble in darkness, searching workbenches and digging through drawers, only to discover a bunch of junk. Old parts, manuals and small gadgets, nothing capable of much harm to anyone. Across the room, I find a tool chest that may contain the perfect weapon, except the damned thing is locked. There could be a machete inside, or even better, a machine gun. I’d settle for a hammer.
The goons are coming. They’ve made it to the second level, smashing down doors and shouting. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I can imagine— “Where is that little weasel? I’m going to blow his entire head off!”
I need a weapon. I need that chest open.
Could the key be hidden under the chest itself? It’s not very large and doesn’t appear all that heavy. Under the chest would be a great hiding place. Nobody would think of looking there. But I just thought to look. Right, a nobody like me. This time my logic makes perfect sense.
I tilt the chest back and reach a hand underneath. Nothing, so I reach further, then lose my grip and the chest crashes down. I take it back—this chest is plenty heavy. Add a smashed hand to my slashed arm, but something is sandwiched between my palm and the workbench—a key.
Making a guess and being right is infinitely rewarding pain relief. I don’t feel any of it other than thrilled. I hoist the chest up and seize the key to my defense.
The goons are closing in. They’re awfully noisy, knocking around furniture and banging down doors. Not a very stealthy bunch. Their boisterous approach provides a glimmer of hope. I am one, silent in a veil of darkness. They are many, loud and clumsy. I have an advantage.
Digging through the chest, I hope to find a bazooka, or better still, a magic portal that will get me the heck out of here. What is this? Some kind of puller for removing wheels or disks from machines. Maybe I could pull their brains out. No! Drawer after drawer, my search turns up an assortment of weird tools, nothing very threatening. All hope is fading, and the approaching racket doesn’t help. This may be the end. They’ll storm in here and blow my head clean off, I can just see it now.
The last drawer seems to be stuck. Reaching under the concealed edge, I find something caught between it and the drawer above. I fiddle the thing loose and the drawer pops open. What is it? Without better light, it’s difficult to tell. A dark color, almost black, with a rough texture. Heavy, metal, and well over a foot long. A large wrench? Yes, and adjustable—an enormous adjustable wrench, for really big nuts. Just what I was looking for.
Weapon in hand, I cling to a wall and creep toward an open doorway.
Their voices are clear, just around the corner.
“Check in here, I’ll check across the hall.”
I have reached the door. Any farther and I would be in the doorway itself.
The first goon steps in.
* * *
They all look the same, black on black. B-O-B. Bob’s the name, all with the same cheesy jacket, the same goony turtleneck, the same helmet hair.
Wielding the wrench in one hand, I draw a long swing and bring the heavy tool across Bob’s face. Bones snap and crack, he goes down, but in a dying spasm he pulls the trigger, blasting walls and shattering windows.
I dip low and prepare for the next assailant. He steps in, targeting where I was standing only seconds before. He fires into empty space, sizzling just overhead, followed by crackling that raises the hair on my scalp. I clutch the wrench with both hands—my injured arm screams, begging to hang limp and recover. Too bad, we’re in this together, me, the mind, and the body’s every limb. Survival of the whole.
With the wrench near the floor, I swing it in a wide, sweeping arc, propelling the tool with all my might. The crude weapon smashes into Bob’s ankle with a shattering crunch. Take that, you bastard! That’s what you get for shooting at me.
Bob reaches for his injury with both hands, as I knew he would, leaving his weapon to drop within reach. Howling in agony, he topples in the doorway for the next thug to trip over. Good, another step closer to fair.
No need for the wrench any longer, and no time for long good-byes—time for a real weapon. I drop the wrench and snatch Bob’s rifle.
Clinging to a wall, I creep through darkness, deeper into the room. I’m not far when another Bob enters and starts blasting. The goon is firing every direction like I might be a spider hanging from the ceiling, and he must take into account any possibility.
I dodge a scatter of energy beams and duck behind a workbench. The fireworks provide some light, enough to examine the rifle. The simple device is a slender rectangle constructed from an odd material. It seems metallic, polished smooth with a deep blue sheen, but the thing is surprisingly light. A small nozzle projects from one end, and other than a trigger below and a few dials along the topside, the weapon is little more than a thin stick. The dials are likely set to destroy, based on the room’s condition. Giant craters scar the walls, many blasted clear through, open to the night outside, some even bigger than the windows. A few more like that and there won’t be any walls.
Enough of Bob’s ridiculous blasting, it’s driving me nuts, not to mention the unintelligible hollering like he’s some crazed lunatic. I sight over the workbench and squeeze the trigger. The whizzing begins, painfully loud. The beam strikes Bob in the chest and knocks him to the floor.
His blasting ends but not for long. Another Bob steps in and takes over, attacking the room as he hollers, just like the last idiot. What’s with these guys? They could shoot me but all they’re doing is tearing the room apart and making a bunch of racket. Fine, you’re next. Another squeeze of the trigger, the whizzing begins, and Bob number two goes down. Look at that—I’m a pretty good shot.
Silence is brief. From a doorway across the room, another Bob enters—he has a clear aim. The whizzing comes fast, I drop to the floor, roll on my back and dodge the blast. Hair on my forearm rises as the beam passes ever so close, but does miss, and strikes a nearby workbench, blowing it to bits scattered across the floor, sizzling and crackling. That was close—that could have been scattered bits of me sizzling.
The whizzing repeats, followed by an incoming beam. I roll across the floor dodging a barrage of scorching blasts. My injured arm throbs with pain, the bandage is coming loose, and that means bleeding to death. Not so urgent as my new crisis—one false move and there won’t be anything to bleed from.
I scramble behind a tall metal cabinet. Blasts glance the unit and reflect snaps of thunder, but to my relief, fail to destroy it. I keep low and peer around.
Across the room are the two victims of my blasts, or rather—should-be victims. One gets up and brushes off his chest as though my assault did nothing more than inconvenience him. How does that work? Next he reaches out to his buddy and helps him up, then they straighten out their jackets. I’m not so fond of this stupid rifle. I may need that wrench back.
I’ve got to figure out how this thing works, particularly, how to increase the damage. The current settings must be stun, and even that has little effect. This must work like a volume knob, clockwise means more. Okay, every dial all the way to maximum. This time they’re toast.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Someone might get hurt, including yourself.”
* * *
I whirl around to find a fellow crouched in a corner. Masked by shadows, his features are unclear, but I’m quick to notice his rumpled brown jacket, unlike the cheesy plastic kind the Bobs wear.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
The stranger creeps out of the shadows. He looks fit, not particularly young, hair shorter than mine but not cropped like the Bobs, and it’s disheveled like he just woke up. He has the rough start of a beard, a few days unshaven. A fellow loser?
“If you fire that thing at full power,” he says, “you might kill them. Sure, after you blow out an entire wall and the building collapses. But just think, all that will probably kill you, too.”
I have to admit, he could be right. Given the destruction at a lower setting, full volume might take out an entire wall. And without a wall, yes, gravity tends to bring things down.
“Okay, but why doesn’t it work on them? It tears the walls apart, but all it does is knock them over.”
“Well sure,” he says like I should already know. “It’s electromagnetic. Microwaves, you know. Like an oven, just more concentrated. It shakes up molecules, that’s all.”
“Look, buddy, that doesn’t explain how it blows up walls but not them. It doesn’t do a damn thing. They just get up and brush themselves off.”
“It’s the frequency,” he says, oddly calm in light of the blasts streaking across the room. “And the target, that’s all. In a body, molecules are loose, but in something hard like concrete, they’re rigid. At the right frequency, a chain reaction begins, and all the shaking makes it shatter. See?” He points to a wall just as a blast strikes and sprays debris. “Solid objects can’t take it and explode. Bodies though, they can deal with it. But it does hurt, I know, so please, stop pointing that thing at me.”
He reaches out to the rifle and directs the barrel to one side. He may be trustworthy. He seems reasonable, unlike the Bobs, and he talks like a real person, not like a robot on drugs.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.”
He crawls toward the rear of the room, the farthest end from where the Bob brothers are busy having target practice. Though reluctant, I follow. He nudges a door open and we slip through, then descend a stairwell without attracting any attention. He has stealth, I admire that. Perhaps together, we may get out of this mess. Wait a minute—we? We are getting out of here?
“Who are you?” I ask.
He says nothing and continues down the steps. Despite my growing concern, I keep close behind. When we reach the last step, he turns around.
“I’m Jared. What’s your name?”
I expect him to already know my name, though I couldn’t say where the notion comes from, and I’m not comfortable disclosing my notions to a stranger.
“Me? I’m just the janitor. I was minding my own business, you know, cleaning up the dust, and these boys started shooting at me.”
“Carl, that’s stupid. We know you’re not the janitor.”
“We? Who is we?”
He chuckles. “You know, you and me.”
Upstairs, the blasting continues, a ruckus so loud it reverberates throughout the building. The Bobs don’t give up easy, and they’re awfully noisy in their effort to make sure I’m good and dead. Except, to be dead…
“Jared, if this thing doesn’t hurt them…” I indicate the rifle in my grasp. “And it’s the same weapon they have, it won’t hurt me either, will it?”
He grins like he knows too much. “I never said it doesn’t hurt, Carl. I’m sure it would knock you out for a while if nothing else. It can be quite painful, trust me.”
I don’t like it when someone uses the phrase trust me. It usually means they intend to screw me. He swings around and continues into a short hallway. I follow behind, keeping a safe distance, but close enough to make sure this weapon doesn’t miss.
From the hallway we emerge in a large room on the lower level. Countless shelves fill the space, but no products fill the shelves. Well, unless thick layers of dust could be called a product. A product of something. In one corner is a large roll-up door where trucks might load materials. From the looks of the place, it seems little has been manufactured, delivered, or otherwise processed around here for some time. It’s like a tomb.
Jared points to the loading door. “We can make our way out over there. Go get it open.”
“I think you should open it.” I keep a ready finger on the trigger.
He shrugs. “Okay, if that’s how you want it.” He turns away and walks toward the door before I have a chance to act further. I didn’t even have to threaten him with the rifle, he agreed all on his own. Have I misjudged him? Of course I have. Here’s a guy offering to help, and what am I going to do? Shoot him? No wonder I have no friends.
As he walks away, the racket upstairs ceases. Did the Bobs give up? This realization is unsettling—if they’re not upstairs tearing the room apart, where are they?
“Hey, Jared, what happened to the goon patrol?”
On his way to the loading door, he turns back. “The what?”
“You know, the guys upstairs. The goons trying to kill me.”
He laughs. I guess he thinks it’s funny. He continues to the loading door and wrestles with the latch. “Them?” He glances over his shoulder. “They’re not trying to kill you. They were just keeping you busy until I got here.”
He gets the latch loose, then turns around and grins.
“I’ll take care of making you dead.”
* * *
Chased by a gang of thugs is one thing, an understandably terrifying circumstance. But having someone pretend to help you, only to stab you in the back when you turn around—infuriating!
Jared has sealed his fate, he will die. If not by this ineffective weapon, then by these murderous hands clamped around his neck. But then, he could be lying about the rifle. He has lied about everything else. At the higher setting, the strange weapon will erase him from existence, and he knows it.
I target the bastard and squeeze the trigger. The whizzing begins, terribly loud but with some delay. A sizzling beam erupts and instantly strikes, knocking Jared off his feet and crashing into the roll-up door.
However, the full-powered blast has not vaporized him as I had hoped. At least, not yet. Vicious spasms escalate until his body becomes a tremulous mass of flesh, tortured by intense vibrations, the frequency so rapid he almost appears translucent.
The spastic vibrations change frequency, getting slower, though he still wiggles like a bowl of gelatin. He struggles up onto one knee and steadies himself with one hand. The intensity fades and he stands upright, undulating like the reflection in a wavering crazy-house mirror, and I can see him—grinning? Does this torture not hurt? He said it would.
Still pulsating, he speaks and it sounds funny, like he’s underwater. “That won’t do any good, Carl.” He opens his coat to indicate a small box clipped to his belt. “I have protection.”
Jared must be a villain, with that idiotic urge to explain everything, that my weapon will do no good, how he’s unbeatable, gloating over the glory of it all. Typical.
“This is a wave canceller,” he says, holding out the little gadget. “It matches the frequency of that weapon and makes it useless. Too bad you don’t have one.” He laughs like he’s so smart, and I’m so stupid.
The swell of fury grows—I won’t be laughed at any more than I’ll be double-crossed.
Considering what he said about the building, I get a new idea. My turn to be a cocky smart-ass. “So tell me, Jared, is that magic box of yours going to make this building any lighter when you’re buried under it?”
The loading door rolls up and crashes at the top. Of course, waiting outside is an army of Bobs. So that was the surprise. Jared darts into the mob and scrambles to escape. I quickly target above the loading door, squeeze the trigger, and the whizzing begins. The pitch is torturous. What I need is ear protection.
A blistering pulse strikes and spreads out like a scatter of lightning bolts. The shuddering intensifies and the concrete explodes—most of one wall and half of the ceiling. Chunks become deadly projectiles that take out a good number of Bobs, though plenty remain unscathed, scrambling past the carnage of fallen comrades. Weapons blazing, the survivors advance. I duck for cover in a corridor, clear of their whizzing blasts.
A low roar grows in volume. I spy around the corner to see an entire wall is gone, leaving behind twisted steel beams and the second floor unsupported. Concrete slabs thunder down and entomb the Bobs. That’ll teach you to mess with me. Except Jared was right. The avalanche will bury me next.
Crashing debris nips at my heels as I scramble deeper into the warehouse. The monster is at my back and I have no escape, except—a window. Not that again. I charge ahead and dive into the fragile pane, shatter past and soar out with a spray of glass. I land on the sidewalk, roll off the curb, and the weapon slips away. Over my shoulder, the building is coming down. Where’s the rifle? No time. I hustle across the street as chunks whack me from behind, adding incentive to move faster. This battered body resists, like the damn thing is wearing lead boots. Get moving, body. I’m trying to save your poor ass, too.
A blast of dust overtakes me on the other side of the street. I turn around, wave off the obnoxious powder, and witness the final consequence of my efforts. The building pours in on itself, a quake of tumbling debris then a billowing plume, slowly rising into the still night air. The cascading roar subsides, and the last stray particles trickle down through the rubble, finding their way to the bottom.
Dust covers me from head to toe. The fine layer clings to the blood leaking from the crude bandage, and the mixture creates a messy, mud-like goo. If only it was raining. The rain has ceased for a rare moment, and dawn is breaking, getting lighter at the horizon. Today’s first light brings a lively color, pink and orange behind the clouds.
This brief moment each day is my favorite. The colors in the sky are beautiful. I yearn to witness a sky full of these hues, I dearly long for that. As I drift off, indulging in the marvelous sight, the pains torturing this body fade. I should be collapsing now from the damage done this night, but the beauty of this vision is intoxicating. If only the dreamy experience would last forever.
“Like I said, too bad you don’t have one of these.”
* * *
I twist around and there he stands, calling attention to the little box clipped to his belt. Similarly doused by a generous layer of dust, he has also escaped the building’s collapse. He does possess the gift of stealth, which I might admire, but under the circumstances, I cannot bring myself to admire anything associated with Jared.
He holds a blast rifle point-blank, perhaps the same one I lost along the sidewalk. There is no time to react.
“You can’t win.” He unleashes a smug grin, the trigger clicks, and the whizzing begins.
I am filled with horror. If only I hadn’t daydreamed about the morning sky. If only I had run the instant I hit the sidewalk. If only…
Regret is useless. Nothing can save me now.
A sizzling beam emerges from the barrel, and a wave of terror converts every perception to slow motion. Like a thousand hot needles, the assaulting energy unleashes a sadistic dance that penetrates deep into every muscle, a hideous torture as I am burned alive—from the inside out. Bright flashes obscure all vision, lightning storms so intense there is nothing else to see, and bombarded by unbearable booming thunder, there is nothing else to hear, only this body’s every molecule slamming into every other.
A furious vibration rattles my bones. Jared failed to mention the weapon’s effect on bone, and only now does the truth strike—bones are much harder than the rest of the body. Perhaps not as hard as concrete, yet apt to shatter just the same. A terrifying thought—my entire skeleton disintegrating, leaving behind slush held in a bag of skin. A horrible end.
Every circuit is shutting down, the pain is too great.
Sight dissolves, sound fades.
I feel no more, I am done.
All is black, all is numb.