The klaxons sound at exactly 1:37 am, just like Dr. Jenkins had said they would. Vinny is laying in his bed, eyes open in the dark, thinking about nothing and everything. He doesn’t want to do this. He wants to tell Dr. Jenkins that he’s not worth this. He wants to plead with her to change her mind. Too many people have suffered because of him.
Only it’s too late. He had his chance, there in the room, looking down at the ID badge. He could have left it there, walked away, let Dr. Jenkins keep whatever shreds of life she had left.
But he didn’t. Instead he listened to that nagging voice inside, telling him he would never get another chance like this, that this was exactly what he had been waiting for all these months, even if he hadn’t known it.
But before she’d left she had asked a question. One simple question. “How did you know my password Vinny?”
He told her he’d guessed it. From something she’d said. Something about one of her daughter’s names.
“I never told you that name Vincent. I know because even if I was to let down my guard and talk about my family with you, it wouldn’t have given you that. Because neither of my daughters is named Celia. At least none of the daughters I have today. But a few years back I miscarried, about halfway through the pregnancy. A little thing no bigger than the palm of my hand. A girl. We named her Celia. And I know for a fact NEVER told you about her.”
And now the voice tells him to get up and go, to not waste another minute, to run and run and not look back. And still Vinny hesitates. He looks up at the camera and thinks about Norman. “Norman,” he thinks. “That is your name isn’t it? How do I know that? You’re going to get in trouble Norman. You’re going to get demoted, possibly fired. They’re going to pour Drano into your brain, melt away all your memories of this place and dump you in a dead-end job behind a cash register somewhere. You’ll spend your life wondering what could have been, thinking there should have been something more, and not quite knowing why. And all because you were unlucky enough to end up in the same complex as a loser named Vincent Price. Sorry man.”
And then he walks. He wants to run, but something tells him not to, warns him to look calm, unhurried. He swipes Dr. Jenkins card at the sensor on the door, and wonder of wonders, it opens. A couple of men with guns run past, paying no attention to him. Vincent hangs a left heading down the hallway in the opposite direction of the men with the guns. Faintly from behind him he hears a low keening roar that seems to shake him to his bones. Then the rattle of gunfire, muffled by distance, but still harsh and grating in the close space of the hallway.
Then a left, a flight of stairs that Vinny takes two at a time, stepping aside to avoid two men in lab coats, rushing past. The past months’ exercise makes sense now as his legs work to propel him up the stairs, burning with the exertion, his heart beating faster than it has in a long time.
Then he sees it, a small gray hatch set in the wall low to the floor. He hears Jenkins telling him, “You’re going to need to use the maintenance access passage to get past the retinal scanners on level three. It’s a tight fit, but you should be able to fit through.” She’d looked at him then with something like accusation in her eyes and said, “It’s a good thing you lost all that weight.”
He’s in now, and crawling. Even now in his near-emaciated state it’s a tight squeeze. He thinks about his days of hunger, considers the question unasked behind Dr. Jenkins eyes and is terrified to find he does not know the answer.
Then he’s out and up again. Four more flights of stairs, countless running men and women, soldiers screaming into radios, screams of pain and confusion answering them back. There are people dying here tonight. “A distraction” Dr. Jenkins had said. And it meant the lives of men he had never met. He wants to stop, to break down, to tell someone it’s all been a mistake. But he can’t. Something inside him drives him forward, whispers warnings in his ears.
Left, right, another right, stairs, left again. Vinny’s lost track of where he is, and yet somehow understands where he’s supposed to be going. Up ahead an elevator sits, doors open, waiting, for him. By all rights there should be someone standing in his way, some final wrench in the works to make all of this pointless. But there isn’t. He’s home free.
He gets in, pushes the button for ground level. He turns, just as the doors begin to close and sees a man watching him from across the hall with burning eyes. Vinny knows the face. The Director. His picture hangs in the library, and everyone who says his name lowers their voice.
He doesn’t shout out for Vinny to stop, doesn’t run for the open elevator doors. He doesn’t even look surprised. He just stands there, watching. The doors slide shut. And just before they close, Vinny thinks he sees a hint of a smile playing across the Director’s face.
And then…freedom. The elevator doors slide open and he’s facing an alley thick with grime, mired in trash. He steps out and looks behind him. Somehow he isn’t surprised to see that there’s nothing there but a brick wall. He doesn’t try to touch it, because some part of him knows he’d feel rough brick, dirty with dirt and grime. Some part of him. The part that says, You need to get moving, Vincent. Get some food in you, get you thinking straight. There’s still a great deal of work to do.
And then, only then, does Vincent ask the question he should have asked a long time ago.
“Who are you,” he says, his eyes narrowing his jaw clenching, “And what are you doing in my head?”
Talos is in the Super Walmart that seems to be the heart of this town. Everything revolves around it. The roads are arteries, things which exist purely to carry customers from their homes to here. The fluorescent lights burn in his eyes as he walks through the door. An elderly man standing near the entrance nods his way, and says, “Good morning.”
Talos forces a smile back at the man, and takes the shopping cart offered, but does not say anything. This…this is alien to him. He’s spent all the time he can remember fighting unimaginable monsters from beyond the folds of reality, and now…now he finds himself least comfortable in what must be the safest place he has been in years.
He glances back over his shoulder at the old man greeting the customers as they walk in. There’s an air to his carriage that says, “military”. Nothing definite. Maybe the way he stands. Maybe something more elemental, something that only the men who have known true violence can recognize.
Talos wonders if the man is happy.
There is an allure to the idea of laying down his gun, of one day sitting back with a fat pension and going in to a gravy job to keep himself occupied. But there is something terrifying in it as well.
Because here, in this place of normalcy, Talos can feel the memories clawing at the walls of his mind trying to get in. Some perverse part of him wants to stay, wants to dwell on the darkness he knows exists just beyond the bounds of his memory.
He pushes the thought away, and in so doing realizes he has walked without knowing into the infant department. A young pregnant woman looking at baby clothes gives him a strange look. He wants to smile at her. He wants to talk to her. “Do you know how many times I’ve saved you?” he’ll say. “I didn’t know it was you I was saving, but it was. It was you all along. Always, only you.” And she’ll smile back and say, “I knew you’d come for me.”
Only she doesn’t. She’s gone. And then Talos isn’t quite sure she was ever really there.
He catches the eye of a plump woman straightening the diapers, and she says “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” he replies. “I’m looking for spray paint.”
She points down the aisle and says, “Paint counter’s down that way on your right. Can’t miss it.”
A little later he’s checking out, his buggy full to the brim with spray cans and the skinny kid checking him out says, “Looks like you’re gonna go on the mother of all graffiti binges, dude.”
Talos smiles and says, “Something like that.”
And as he’s driving away, it occurs to him that the Commander could have sent anyone in to get this stuff; probably he could have filled out a requisition form and had it air-dropped in. But he’d sent Talos. He’d sent him into a world he’d nearly forgotten, and it had stirred up the memories he’d been working so hard to forget. And for the first time in a long time, Talos wonders why.
The voice inside says, Don’t be crazy, Vincent. I’m you.
“I’m far beyond the point of being crazy,” Vinny replies. “But I’m certain of one thing. You’re something else. Something…other. You know things I couldn’t possibly know. You urge me to do things I’d never do on my own. I know it. And what’s more I know you know it.”
A bit of a callback?
“Whatever. Just stop lying to me.”
I’ve never lied to you Vincent. Not one time.
“Even then you told me you were me? My memory may be bad, but I’m good enough to remember five seconds ago.”
Even there, I was telling the truth. Or part of it anyway. I AM a part of you. And you of me. We are inextricably linked, you and I.
“You’re one of them,” Vinny says. “The demons, or whatever they are. You’ve been hiding out in my brain this whole time. And I was too dumb to notice.”
Dumb? No Vincent, not at all. And you’re right and wrong at the same time. I am of the same fabric as the creatures you met, but I am not like them. Any more than you are like Jeffery Daumer.
“You’re living in my head,” Vinny argues. No matter how you spin that, it’s pretty damning.”
You really should eat you know. We can continue this conversation at a-
“No. Now. Tell me. Who are you? What are you?”
Very well, said the voice inside. I will do as you ask. The truth. The whole truth.
“And nothing but the truth,” Vinny finished.
Indeed. Though I must warn you this is a story many, many years in the making. Certain…abridgments are unavoidable. So, to start at the beginning…ah, but who can say where the beginning lies? No doubt you’re wondering where a race such as mine might have come from. And you’re right to wonder. But on that subject I can speak no more definitively than you can on your origins. Did you spring into being by chance? Did some greater force guide your creation? Or perhaps things are even more complicated than that. Perhaps reality as you imagine it is a thin shell created by your minds to distract you from the terrible truths of the universe. The answer to these questions, though fascinating to contemplate, is largely irrelevant. You are. That is enough.
My people have existed on this earth alongside your kind for many, many years. There was a time when it was common for our spirits and yours to be bonded from birth. We imparted to you are wisdom, and you imparted to us your bodies, vessels that allowed us to experience the world in a way we could not in our natural state. Some of our historians claim we were responsible from lifting you from your animal nature into something more, your minds growing to accommodate our form. It is interesting speculation, but as I mentioned before it is ONLY speculation.
What is certain is this: for many years my kind and your kind lived in harmony. But over time things began to change. A new sect sprang up in the ranks of my people, a reckless and dangerous group that saw their human hosts as nothing more than vehicles to be driven about at will. They rejected the right of human free will, and rejoiced in driving their hosts to reckless and deadly lengths. Many of your people died.
Those of us who still held to the old ways became concerned. The tribes we inhabited looked out into a world that was tearing itself apart with terror, and the growing fear that the madness would spread to them. We tried to reason with our wayward brethren, make them see the error of their ways, but they would not listen.
The supply of human bodies to possess dwindled at an alarming rate, so much so that our brethren demanded that we give up our hosts to their capricious whims. At this point, the war that had been simmering between the two factions finally came to a boiling point. We fought our brethren wherever we found them, cutting down their hosts, and imprisoning their spirits. They did the same to us. So great was the conflict that our hosts died by the millions until the members of my race left alive began to believe that all human life had been extinguished completely. Darkness fell in those days…it’s impossibly to even describe how the earth was shaken. Some said it was a judgement for our folly. Others…well they didn’t know what to think.
With no bodies left to fight in those of us who were left roamed through the wasteland of our own destruction. I don’t know how much time passed. I only know that eventually the ruin began to fade, the marks of our war absorbed by the earth.
Then, a miracle. One of our kind stumbled upon a group of humans that had somehow survived the war and the ravages that followed unmolested and unscathed. The faction of my people dedicated to living in harmony with your race found the last handful of settlers first. We endeavored to keep their presence hidden from our more violent brethren who had at that point devolved into taking possession of beasts in order to satisfy their lust for power.
“Didn’t they get it?” Vincent asked. “I mean weren’t they smart enough to figure out that they needed to be more careful?”
This might be a good place to point out that your species has not always been so wise with the limited resources allocated to them. But such comparisons are crude, and perhaps miss the point. No doubt they should have realized the folly of their ways, but for one reason and another they did not.
Those of us dedicated to preserving harmony and balance knew something had to be done. The remaining group of humans were a fragile society and there was no way to be completely certain that out more reckless brethren would not stumble upon them in time as we had.
The details of what followed would not be comprehensible to someone who does not see the world as we see it. To make a very complicated concept very simple we devised a plan to imprison the remaining members of our species.
“Couldn’t you just kill them?”
Death does not work the same way for us as it does for you. This is not to say that we are immortal, but…again, the concepts here are beyond the ideas I can use in your mind. Suffice it to say life and death are somewhat harder to define from our perspective.
Imprisonment was by far the better option. But even there there was a catch. The…lets call it “energy” required to make such an action permanent and encompass all of the remaining degenerates was very great. This is not energy as you might think of it, but a kind of spiritual energy. The only way to produce such energy is sacrifice.
“What, you killed a bull or something?”
All the bulls in the world wouldn’t have been enough. A large number of human souls released from their bodily bonds might have sufficed, but obviously that would have defeated our purpose. The only thing valuable enough to sacrifice was ourselves. It was not an easy choice to make. When the deed was done, there would be only one of us left, the single soul left behind to close the door into the prison we were creating, to lock it so that it could never be escaped.
“And that one person…that was you?”
“Only it didn’t work. Karl’s out there. And he’s got help. At least two others that I know of. So what happened?”
The thing inhabiting Karl…how do I describe this? Gender has very little meaning in our realm. Likewise family does not work in the same way as you would comprehend it. Nevertheless, the spirit inhabiting Karl and I had a…bond. He was on the wrong side of the conflict yes, but I believed he was capable of redemption. I believed he could be changed. And…truth be told, I didn’t relish the idea of being alone in the world, the last of my kind, unable to do anything but watch the people I had saved go on with their incredibly short lives.
“So you gave him the inside edge? SERIOUSLY?”
I don’t defend what I did. I can only confess that I did it. I am not perfect, any more than you are perfect Vincent.
“Yeah, but I didn’t help to destroy the world.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Nothing perhaps. In any case, my story is very nearly over. Much of it you can fill in for yourself. Suffice it to say that for a time things went very well for us. We collaborated together in little experiments with the race of men. But then our paths divided. Since then…since then I have heard very little of Karl directly. But I have seen his work. His hand is everywhere in your history shaping its path twisting its purpose.
“To what end?”
To create a civilization strong enough to support the demands of his myriad imprisoned brethren. He wishes to set them loose on your world, and if he succeeds there will be no way of stopping it.
“Wait, so he hasn’t done it yet? Then what about his helpers?”
Remember when I told you of the initial war? Many of his kind were imprisoned in smaller pockets of darkness. The bond would still be very difficult to break, but he has clearly managed to spring some of them in order to aid him in this purpose.
“One more question.”
Where do you fit in?
That is…somewhat more complicated. Suffice it to say that your friend Frog is no ordinary man.
“Tell me about it.”
You misunderstand. It is not that he is merely eccentric. He is not fully human. Even I don’t understand it fully. But the moment his presence was felt in this world things changed. Pinpointing him was difficult, but Karl can be a formidable force when he has his sights set on something. I attempted to hamper his progress by engineering the involvement of the Church of the Broken God, and to some extent I succeeded, but not well enough. I knew it would be a long shot, so I developed a backup plan.
Yes. You are the key to a great many things.
“Yeah, like what?”
Even I cannot see truth of things that clearly. I can only say that I perceived your destiny would be tangled in the destiny of the man you call Frog. I what that means exactly is unclear even to me, and what I do understand is far too complex to explain in a way you could understand.
“You keep saying that. I’m not stupid you know.”
Really? Then tell me: what did the “something” look like?
“You know I can’t-”
Exactly. This is the same.
“I still don’t trust you. You took over my body. You took over who I was. You didn’t even ASK.”
Would you have said yes?
“Of course not!”
Very well. But consider this for a moment. You say you do not trust me. Which is a fine feeling to have. Except…
“Except you’re living in my head. You might be making me feel this way to manipulate me further. I can’t trust…anything.” The realization hits like a blow to the stomach.
Like I said at the beginning Vincent, I’m YOU. I’m not just riding around up here pulling your strings like a puppet. I’ve become a part of who you are, integrated into your very psyche. If you don’t trust me, you don’t trust yourself. You can sit here all night thinking it over, but in the end you’ll always come back to the same conundrum: that your thoughts might be my thoughts, that I might be pushing you, manipulating you as I see fit. Believe me when I say you won’t find any easy answers. So please, do yourself a favor and get something to eat.
“One more question.”
What should you call me?
Names mean little to us. But if you like you may refer to me by my occupation. Call me the Traveler.