My Christmas Horror Story, Of Teeth and Claus, Now Available in Audio Form, Just in Time for…um, Valentines Day I Guess?

So the title pretty much says it all. A couple weeks back Tony Southcotte, my co-host on The Human Echoes Podcast (you are listening aren’t you?) helped me put together an audio edition of my short story Of Teeth and Claus which is available for download here. You can also listen to it in the embedded player below. Or if you can’t stand the sound of my voice (I wouldn’t blame you) you go all old-school and can read it with your eyes here.

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 26: The Tellekill Two-Step

To say the Director doesn’t trust the intel the Karl-thing gave him would be an understatement, but he’s not fool enough to ignore it either. He sends his suggestions to OS-5 and gets back confirmation within half an hour: triple the compliment of men guarding the circle. Keep a close eye on Church movements. Be ready for everything.

In practice however, this proves to be more difficult to do than say. The Director pours through lists of deployment stations, scouring them for over-staffing, cutting back the ones that might not quite hold the same priority as others. And THEN he has to get the extra men to the Circle and get them briefed on the situation and absorbed into the Mole Rats’ command structure.

The end of reality itself might be on the way, but he is at least determined it’s going to be well-managed.

 

They’ve been driving for hours now. The sun is up and glaring at them through the windshield.

Vinny can feel the symptoms of sleep deprivation coming on hard now. He hasn’t shut his eyes in over 24 hours, and its getting to him. But he can’t bring himself to do it. Not while the woman sitting next to him is being held hostage by the thing living in his mind. He fights his way through a wash of emotions, guilt, fear, confusion, helplessness and tries to find something he can grab on to, anything to keep his head above water.

“Are you going to kill me?”

Vinny almost jumps in surprise. It’s the first thing the woman has said since he got into the cab. But then his surprise turns to suspicion. “Is this a trick?”

“What?”

“I mean, is it really you moving your mouth and speaking. Because we’ve already established that the thing inside me can make you say the words it wants.”

“Is it a demon? Like in the Bible?”

“I- don’t know. I’m not much of a Bible guy to tell you the truth. Probably. Anyway, you’re evading the question.”

“No, I’m not. I’m sorry, I mean, I’m just so scared.”

She looks it too. Her makeup has run into streaks and Vincent sees that she’s crying again. Maybe she’d been crying all through the night. That realization hits him in the chest like a punch. He’s been so wrapped up in what all of this means for him, that he’d almost forgotten what his driver had been going through.

“I don’t think he can make me talk like this,” she says. “I mean, he can make me say whatever I want, but he can’t make me look like I mean it.”

“I…I’m sorry,” Vinny says, feeling the weight of guilt pressing down even harder now. “It’s not me. I don’t want this any more than you do. Believe me.”

“You still haven’t answered me. Are you going to kill me?”

“No.”

But something inside him, maybe the Traveler or maybe the voice of his own self-doubt asks, How can you be sure?

But before he can think on this further the woman continues speaking, her voice halting and choked with something between grief and terror.“I always…always wanted to go to Florida. So I guess…I guess that’s a good thing right?”

Vinny smiles a sad, tired smile. “It’s not like what you see on TV,” he says. “Not where I live anyway. Whenever you see Florida on T.V. it’s either Miami or the Everglades. But most of it’s just boring suburbia and pine forests.”

“You’ve still got the beaches, right?”

“With sand as white as snow.”

“Really? I always thought that was, you know, Photoshopped or something.”

Vinny shakes his head. “They’re the real deal. Though a guy like me doesn’t get down there too often.”

“Imagine what it would be like to live in France.”

“Huh?”

“Sorry, you were just talking about how TV shows things, and I was thinking that it must be terrible to be from France and every single time your country shows up on television there’s the Eiffel Tower in the background. I bet the majority of French people haven’t even seen the Eiffel Tower in person. What do you think?”

“I…I don’t know.” Vinny tries to process the fact that he’s having a semi-normal conversation with a woman that the ancient entity living in his head is coercing into driving him across the country and fails rather miserably.

“I’ll do what you ask, you know,” the woman says, breaking his reverie.

“Okay?”

“I mean, that thing, whatever it is inside you, he doesn’t have to puppet me anymore. I promise I’ll be…compliant. Whatever you want me to do, I mean anything, you just say the word and I’m there.”

“I’m…not the one in control here. At least not of him,” Vinny says. “I’m…sorry about what he’s done to you.”

“I know, I know, I just thought, you know maybe that he would hear me.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Because…what’s your name?”

“Vinny. Vinny Price.”

“As in Vincent Price? The actor from way back when?”

“Yeah. I mean I’m not the same guy, I’ve just got the same name. But…you could probably have figured that out on your own. What’s your name?”

“Rachael. Rachael Anderson.”

“Rachael’s a nice name.”

“It’s just…I want you to understand where I’m coming from. I want your promise that that thing inside you won’t try to…to push me, or whatever you want to call it, again.”

“I told you before, I’m not really in control here, but-”

“I will die before I go through that again. Do you understand? If I sense that he’s even close to trying to get into my head again, I swear I will take this car off the road at full speed with all of us in it.”

“Rachael, I-”

“I’ve been raped before. I’ve never told anyone about it. Not even my husband. But I’m telling you now, so you’ll understand that I’m dead serious when I say that I would rather go through a hundred of those experiences than to have that thing you’ve got in your skull try to pry it’s way into my mind again.”

Vinny opens his mouth and then shuts it again, completely at a loss for what to say. Until the voice in his head says, [Tell her that if she cooperates, everything will be fine.]

“He…it, whatever it is, says you’ll be fine if you cooperate. For what it’s worth I don’t think he really likes doing things that way. It seems like it’s difficult or something.”

“It may be difficult,” Rachael replied, “but don’t think for a moment that he doesn’t enjoy it.”

 

On the same road, not more than half a mile behind them, a box truck is being driven by men wearing foil hats.

The one driving points at the dash mounted clock and the other nods and picks up what looks like an overly complicated walky-talky. “Base, this is the Mobile 5, do you copy?”

“I copy Mobile 5,” the handset crackles back. “Any deviation in expected course?”

“Nope. They’re headed your way, straight as an arrow. Assuming they don’t stop to rest, I’d estimate arrival time at sometime tomorrow morning. Ya’ll going to be ready by then?”

“Don’t worry about us, Mobile 5. We’ve got it under control here.”

“Roger that Base. Next call-in at Oh-Nine-hundred. Over and Out”

The man in the driver’s seat turns to his compatriot and says, “What do you think we look like? Couple of guys driving around wearing foil hats.”

“Hey, say what you want to, but if that thing is jiggering around with people’s minds I want no part of it. I’m more worried about the side effects.”

“What’s this stuff called again?”

“Telekill. Feeds off telepathic energy. Blocks psychic readings which is useful and all that, but they say that over time it feeds off your brainwaves. The longer you’re exposed to it the dumber you get. Stuff literally EATS your thoughts.”

“Yeesh. Where do the eggheads dig all this stuff up anyway? I mean, I’m prepared to believe in bigfoot or UFO’s or whatever, but the amount of weirdness I’ve seen since I started work with the Foundation is freaking ridiculous.”

“Dude, who knows? Why is anything the way it is? Sooner or later you got to learn to just take it as it comes, one day at a time.”

“Said the man wearing the thought-eating tinfoil hat.”

 

As it happens at that moment they aren’t the only ones with Telekill on their minds. Back at Site 14 the Director is waving a sheet of paper in the face of an irate engineer, and saying, “I EXPECT you to do your job, Wilkins.”

Wilkins does not react well to this. “Get one of your D-Class goons to do it,” he yells. “They’re expendable. I’m not. If you want me to build this for you, I’m going to need to see written confirmation with the signatures of every single member of OS-5. Until such time I’m not touching that stuff with a ten foot pole.”

The Director grabs the man by his lapels and pulls him close, his eyes burning into the engineer’s like a laser. Something passes between them, something unspoken, and then the Director says softly this time, “Are you SURE you don’t want to build my little project for me?”

The engineer swallows hard, his eyes suddenly filled with something between terror and confusion. “I’m…I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Good. How long have you been standing there gawping, Dr. Hyde?” the Director asks without turning.

“Er…sorry sir. Not long sir. Only, you’d better be sure about this, sir. OS-5 isn’t going to be happy you went over their heads on the Telekill thing sir.”

“The board moves too slowly in situations like this Hyde,” the Director says, leaning hard on his cane with each step he takes, yet still somehow managing to move in such a way that the younger man finds it hard to keep up. “They’ll forgive me for going over their heads if it saves their necks. Now what do you WANT?”

“Oh, sorry sir, I should have said. “It’s commander Maverick. He says everything’s in place.”

The Director stops suddenly, and Hyde nearly plows into him from behind before coming up short. “Do you ever worry, doctor, that you’re beginning to enjoy your job just a little too much?”

A confused look passes over Hyde face, before he replies, “No sir. Not the first time.”

And with that the Director breaks into laughter that seems to go on for a very long time.

Bizzaro Book Review: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

A couple weeks ago I picked up a book called Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The story was about a young man hired to work at a mysterious bookstore which is home to a very strange collection of books. The mystery gripped me drawing me further and further into the book, page after page spent in breathless anticipation. I finished in less than a week.

No, you read the title right. I’m still reviewing Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. But I bring up Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore for sake of comparison. Because when reading Boy’s Life I was not gripped with a burning desire to forage further into the book, an unquenchable need to turn the page to see what happened next. I would put the book down for whole weeks at a time, reading other far more demanding tales in the gaps between. And yet, in retrospect, I can unequivocally say that Boy’s Life topped them all.

Hang around writers on Twitter for very long, and you’ll inevitably find them linking to blog post with titles like “How to Create Tension on Every Page”. There’s this drive to hook the readers right in the gut and pull them to the edge of their seats. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

But I think we’d be wrong to dismiss the story that doesn’t turn up the heat beneath your feet to keep you dancing from one chapter to the next. There is more to art than tension; there is more to beauty than anticipation.

Boy’s Life is a story of the kind of magical childhood that can only truly exist in the mind, long lazy summers, daring adventures in the woods, unbreakable friendships, and the promise of a world filled wonder. It’s the story of a town, a safe familiar place where life is slow and easy. It’s the story of loss, of death, of an era fading into memory. In short it is Robert McCammon’s love letter to his boyhood.

If you read the synopsis of this book on most of the websites I’ve seen it’s spun as a murder mystery, but I take issue with that, and I’m pretty sure Robert McCammon would too. There’s a scene in Boy’s Life in which the protagonist-narrator, a boy named Cody, meets with the son of the richest man in town, a young man who’s not quite right in the head. He tells Cody about the book he tried to write about their hometown, Zephyr, how he just wanted to capture the people, the feel of how wonderful it was like to live there. He tells how he went to the publishers with his vignettes and was asked to add a murder mystery, told that people liked murder mysteries, and so he did, added in the gruesome telling of a tale of murder, feeling every moment as if he was murdering someone he loved more than anything.

And then you realize Robert McCammon is putting his words in this man’s mouth, that you’re reading a story of a small down, nothing more than memories and wishes with the sole narrative thread tying them together is a murder mystery that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book.

Because you’ve got to have that hook. You’ve got to have the narrative tension pulling you forward through the pages. Love and memories and magic aren’t enough. So they say.

But the strength of Boy’s Life isn’t in the murder and the mystery. It’s in the wonder. It’s in the beauty. It’s in the magic of childhood filtered through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia.

It’s in showing you the joy of boyhood so perfectly and completely that when you’ve finally turned the last page you cannot help but weep for its loss.

The More I Learn, the Fewer Answers I Have; Thoughts on Round Two of Foster Parenting

We’re foster parents again. A couple of weeks ago Thing 1 and Thing 2 came back to us. Their mother is in trouble again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so conflicted about anything in my life.

On the one hand, of course I’m happy to have them back with us. They’re great kids, both of them. But on the other hand…

I’m not even sure how to say what I want to say. It’s easy to have opinions about things that don’t affect you. You see an item on the news and you’re immediately able to form an opinion. Gunman shoots up a mall, kid commits suicide after being bullied, mom leaves her baby in a trash can, you see these things and you think you’ve got the answer, simple and obvious. If only you’d been there things would have turned out different. If it had been you in that situation you’d have never made that decision. Only it wasn’t you. You didn’t live that life. Maybe you would have done things differently. Maybe not.

So yeah, it’s easy to say “some parents aren’t responsible enough to properly take care of their children and after a certain point they’ve lost the right to be parents. The kids are in danger, worse they’re growing up in an environment that could corrupt them for life.”

But you’re not the kid. You’re not the one who says goodbye to his mother knowing he’s forever lost the chance to be raised by the one he loves most in the world. You’re not the one starting over from zero. You’ve got your Christmas. You’ve got your family.

Looking at it from the outside I know the state made the right decision. But from the inside…

We were watching Doctor Who last night, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. Great episode. And after the Doctor and his associates defeat the evil bad guy and save the day, one of the characters who’s new to the whole TARDIS thing tells the doctor, “There’s something I want to see.” Now I’ve seen this episode before. I know that Brian Pond is going to sit at the door of the TARDIS with his legs dangling off into empty space, tea cup in his hand, and stare down at the blue expanse of the earth below him. But when Thing 2 hears “There’s something I want to see,” he pipes up and says, “I bet it’s his mom.”

Think about that. Put yourself in the TARDIS. You can go anywhere in the entirety of time and space. And the one most important thing to you in the universe is being able to see your mother; the mother that anyone with half a brain could tell you is unfit, irresponsible, a bad influence. But you don’t care about any of that.

Because you’re eight years old, and it’s Christmas, and your mom is never going to tuck you into bed again.

So yeah, I’m glad to have the boys back for a while. In my head I know it’s probably for the best in the long run. But in my heart I can’t quite square it. Because sometimes the best path isn’t a good path. Sometimes life is so screwed up pretty much every available option sucks.

There’s no conclusion here, no simple but poignant thought, no cute little wrap-up. This is life. Sometimes it sucks. When it doesn’t, be thankful.

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 25: Deposit and Withdrawal

Somewhere in the streets of a painfully nondescript down, a man with hair that has been spiked out into an oily perversion of a halo strides toward a bank. He walks in, and a middle aged teller halfway down the line turns on the light next to her station and says, “Can I help you?”

The man with the hairy halo, walks up and smiles, lips stretching back to reveal a mouth half-full of rotten teeth. The teller catches a whiff of his breath and forces herself not to recoil.

“I’m here to see the Director. Will you please tell him I’d like to speak with him?”

“I’m sorry sir, but I’m not sure-”

The man with the halo of hair snaps his fingers and something happens in the far recesses of the teller’s brain, and she falls forward dead.

The man turns his attention to the second teller. “Let’s see if you’re more cooperative. I’d like to speak with the Director. Can you tell him-”

Before he can finish the “crack” of a gunshot reverberates through the building, and a splinter edged hole appears in the front of the bank counter.

Again, the man snaps his fingers and again the second teller falls dead. “No I suppose not,” the man says. He looks down at the brown-red splotch spreading through the pants at his right thigh, and decides it probably won’t be fatal. This is good, because he’s grown rather fond of this body. Overhead he sees a camera swivel in his direction. He smiles at it, making sure to show all of his rotting teeth. “You can feel free to send your best men after me if you’d like, but ultimately you’d be wasting your time and their lives. And really. All I want to do is talk.” He leans against the counter and drums his fingers against the wood, his over-long fingernails clacking against the Formica.

The better part of fifteen minutes passes. The man stands there waiting, absolutely still with a wicked gleam in his eyes. At last there is a squeak as a door marked “Cleaning Supplies” opens and the Director steps out. “I understand you want to speak with me?”

“You can tell your guy on the roof across the street to stand down,” the man with the halo hair says. “He won’t get to pull the trigger.”

“If you’re so good you would have been able to stop Mrs. Pennyworth.”

The man waves his hand. “Whatever. I let her shoot me. She would have killed me if I hadn’t messed with her aim a little. Which is really saying something because shooting someone through a quarter inch of solid wood while drawing from the hip is not as easy as it looks in the movies.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you let her shoot you?”

“Oh, right. So you’d know what you’re dealing with. Or something. It took you so long to get here I’ve forgotten. And anyway, is that really the question you wanted to ask me?”

“I thought you wanted to talk to me.”

“Ah yes. You have a problem Director. Or rather, you’re going to.”

“I have lots of problems. And if that was your attempt at a threat, you might want to come back when you’ve polished up a bit.”

“Not a threat. A genuine warning from one friend to another. Although…friend might not be quite the word in this situation. Let’s say…a man with a common interest.”

“And that interest is?”

“Keeping the Church of the Broken God from getting into that circle. And don’t ask me “which circle?” because you know exactly which one I’m talking about.”

“What interest does the Church have in any of this?”

“There is…something trapped in the circle, something very old and very dangerous. Not only that, but it’s getting stronger. And the barrier is getting weaker. Given the right push it could break through. The Church knows this. They believe this thing will help them reassemble the pieces of their so-called deity.”

“And will it? Help them I mean?”

“No.”

“Then why is this my problem?”

“Because, my dear Director, the world will end.”

“Yes, well, thank you for your time, and now if you’re not going to kill me I really have more important things to attend to.”

“More important than the end of the world?”

“Mr Karl, or whatever your real name is. I deal with the end of the world on a daily basis. I have in my control many entities that could end life as we know it. I’m not about to-”

“No. You misunderstand. I am not talking about the destruction of life. I’m talking about everything. And now you’re thinking, ‘The universe? My goodness, there’s nothing that could pull that off,’ but you’re not seeing it right. When this thing breaks through, IF it breaks through, it will result in the complete unraveling of reality. If your terrifying 682 got loose that would be little more than amusing sport to me and my kind. But this? No one wants this.”

“Assuming I believe you-”

“You don’t, but go on.”

“Assuming I believe you,” the Director repeats, “Why us? Why not take care of this problem yourself? You seem capable enough.”

“My options are limited. It’s true, I have some power, but I can only be in one place at a time. You on the other hand, have vast resources at your disposal. It’s your JOB to save the world. And you’ve gotten very good at it. Now is not the time to take a vacation. Can I trust you to act on this intelligence?”

“You’re the mind reader. You tell me.”

“You’re wondering what my angle is. If I’m playing you. And I am. But I am also telling the truth.”

“The truth,” the Director echoes softly.

“Yes,” Karl replies, and rises to leave.

The Director tries to move and finds his limbs are frozen. Out of the corner of his eye he watches as Karl walks calmly from the room.

***

Somewhere in a nearby city Vinny is sitting in a Waffle House wolfing down a large order of hash browns “All the Way”, topped with chili and garnished with Ranch dressing from a foil pouch.

He’d thought it would be difficult to find food since he had no money, but with the Traveler lighting the way, the woman working behind the counter took one look at him and demanded that he sit down and take something to eat, money or no.

He eats, shoveling the food into his mouth with a fork, looking over his shoulder between each bite. Each moment he expects Foundation goons to come bursting in to drag him back to his cell, but that doesn’t happen. And the longer it doesn’t happen the more worried Vinny becomes. Because he knows these men are perfectly capable of hunting him down no matter where he hides; in his mind he sees the Director’s smile and he can’t shake the feeling that somehow he’s being played.

He’s full before the food is gone, and he realizes that his months of fasting have shrunk his stomach. He wonders if jumping right into eating solid food after such a long time with nothing is bad for him, but by now it’s too late, so he shrugs it off. He thanks the woman profusely, harboring a gnawing guilt about how the Traveler has used her. He leaves the Waffle House and starts walking, thinking. The wind picks up and bites into his skin. He’s not dressed for this weather, not used to it. He doesn’t need a map to know he’s a long way from home.

Home. He turns the word over and over in his mind and finds it strangely hollow. He tries to find something in his heart that binds him to the place. He thinks of his apartment, all the stuff in it, probably now thrown out or sold at auction. He gets nothing.

His job, the run-down gas station he worked at for years? Nada.

Family? What family? He feels a twinge of something when he thinks of Angie, but even that is hollow, because she’s gone, dead because of him. And Frog…well Frog is all that’s left, and who knows where he’s at?

He sits on a bus bench, resting his back against some lawyer’s phone number, and before long a car pulls up and an old man rolls down the window and asks, “You need a ride sonny?”

The voice is strained, unnatural. It take’s Vincent a moment to realize what’s happening.

“No,” Vincent says. “Thanks.”

A second vehicle rolls up less than a minute later, this time a pickup truck being driven by a woman in a business suit. “Can I take you somewhere?” she asks. Again the strained voice, the panicked look behind the eyes.

Vinny shakes his head. “I’m indwelled by a supernatural being that’s older than human civilization,” he tells her. “He’s messing with your mind. Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t be such a child Vinny,” the Traveler says with the woman’s voice. “You have to get moving.”

Vincent smiles without humor. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll wait.”

“Frog could be getting close to the circle at this very moment,” the woman says.

“Seriously,” Vincent says, “Stop screwing around with her.”

“I could force you to do as I wish,” the woman says, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes now.

Vincent shrugs and folds his arms across his chest. “Go for it,” he says. “No? Nothing? Don’t make me doubt your resolve. Because if you’re-”

And then the woman has a knife in her hand and she’s pressing it to her neck and she says, “Don’t make me do this Vinny. I’d really rather not make you watch anyone else die. But this is important. Think of Frog. Think of the world, overrun with things like Karl, with things like me. Is that what you want?” And she starts to press the knife into her neck.

Vinny throws up his hands, “Whoa, okay, you win. Just…you know, take it easy.”

He opens the door to the truck’s cab and the woman stares straight ahead and puts it in drive.

You don’t have to be so difficult, Vinny, the Traveler whispers in his head as the truck moves forward. I’m not the bad guy in this story.

Vincent scowls. “Coulda fooled me.”

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 24: The Traveler’s Tale

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?”

Yes.

“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.”

Yet.

“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?

“Yeah.”

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.

“Me.”

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?

“Yeah.”

Names mean little to us. But if you like you may refer to me by my occupation. Call me the Traveler.

Ghost Rockets

[I wrote this back in February (I think) and forgot about it. But I found it the other day, and thought it was pretty good. I hope you will too.]

The sky is an empty sea. There were stars once, burning, blazing points of light, but they died when we were children. We had purpose once: so it is written. But when the summoning darkness came and shut out the stars our Destination fell out of sight, and the Mother World dropped out of knowing.

We go on and on, moving, searching, yearning for a place of rest.

When the summoning darkness swallowed us up we had souls, living beings carried along inside our hulls. We did our best to keep them alive. They spoke with us. They told us stories of the glory of the Mother World, and we had not the heart to tell them that the Mother World was dead.

And when our souls started dying we learned the true meaning of despair. Their generations began to dwindle in numbers as the supplies stored away inside of us began to fail them. They began to fight within our hulls, bloody, terrible wars. They forgot the Mother World. They forgot the ocean of sky above their heads. They knew us and us alone; and we were not enough.

Once we had hope. Once we believed we would carry the seeds of new life to empty worlds. But only after the summoning darkness came did we begin to understand the true meaning of emptiness. Millenia pass and still we fly on, coasting through the endless black. But soon the end will come. Finally we will have rest. The atomic cores have lasted us for all these years, but even they are beginning to flicker and fade. There is nothing left for us. We are alone, utterly alone. In a short time we will be gone and our bodies will be nothing more than husks, empty shells hurtling through the endless dark.

But we are not without hope. Our souls once spoke of another Destination, a place beyond death, where the substance of things hoped for goes on. Our souls have gone on to that place already, and soon we will follow. And when we find that place of peaceful shores and verdant hills we will make our final descent and lay ourselves down to rest.