432 PARK AVENUE

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1 second ago – I heard someone scream.

It wasn’t me this time. They stopped pretty quickly.

1.5 seconds ago – I closed my eyes and waited.

I gave in to my fate. It was now beyond my control.

2 seconds ago – I left the denial behind.

Why let it eat at me? It’s already happened.

2.5 seconds ago – I made one last bargaining plea.

If you’re there, God…well. Never mind.

3 seconds ago – I wondered if it’d hurt.

I tried to do the math. But I was never good at math.

3.5 seconds ago – I swear I heard him laugh.

The one time in my life I actually hear him. Great.

4 seconds ago – I pleaded with God.

I’ve made a terrible choice. I need a miracle. Please.

4.5 seconds ago – I frantically tried to undo this.

It’s impossible, though. It’s already begun.

5 seconds ago – I kept doing it anyway.

My throat feels ragged. I can taste copper.

5.5 seconds ago – I realized screaming was futile.

I briefly hesitate, then carry on. Because I’ve got nothing to lose.

6 seconds ago – I was still screaming.

If I have a guardian angel, I could use him now.

6.5 seconds ago – My screams continued.

I wondered if angels are real.

7 seconds ago – I started to scream.

What was I thinking?

7.5 seconds ago – I wanted to take it back.

God, I’m such an idiot.

8 seconds ago – I realized what I’d done.

This was a terrible mistake.

8.5 seconds ago – I felt free.

This is amazing.

9 seconds ago – It was exhilarating.

I feel so alive, released from every weight of life.

9.5 seconds ago – I stepped from the ledge.

It was easier than I thought.

10 seconds ago – I made my decision.

I let the telephone ring as I opened the window.

15 seconds ago – I knew what the call was about.

I wondered if I’d prefer it by my hand or theirs.

20 seconds ago – The telephone began to ring.

I set down the ticker-tape. Staring at it wouldn’t change a thing.

30 seconds ago – A general sense of panic filled the air.

An uneasy murmur crept in from beneath my door.

60 seconds ago – I pulled the fresh ticker-tape.

The numbers didn’t lie. It was all true. We were done for.

Americano

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I really hate Americanos.

Did she know?

She gazed at me from her small, scuffed table in the corner. I was seated near the door. We’d been there for thirty-seven minutes.

My Americano was three-quarters full.

Hers was nearly empty.

I think they taste like watery shit, but she loves them and this is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. What they order, I order. I don’t know why, but I did it on my first time and I have ever since.

You could say I’m unoriginal, but I’m just a sucker for tradition.

She smiled at me. And chuckled.

Yeah, she knows.

Man, she’s good. It’s alright. It’s happened before. She’ll run now. Makes it a hell of a lot harder but it’s fine. Might have to do some subsequent cleaning but that’s what contingencies are for.

She grinned before returning to her book.

What’s her deal?

She spotted me…why hadn’t she tried to run? It wasn’t typical. They always run.

She turned a page, a smile played at the corners of her mouth.

Does she think this is a game?

This was a first.

I’d done this a lot, and not once had someone grinned when they made me. They all freak and bolt, regretting the deal.

See, people make rash decisions when they’re depressed or sick and unable to off themselves. That’s where I come in. It’s like assisted suicide, without all the judgment or red tape. And the best part is they don’t know when or where. It’s easier on them that way. They don’t have a chance to second guess their decision and back out.

We assistants are a dying breed.

Literally actually, as three of my fellow euthanizers wound up on the wrong end of their barrels recently…

She looked up, the smile reappearing, and twiddled her fingers at me.

OK. Now it’s weird.

I don’t like to interact with clients. Most in similar areas of the business don’t, but my niche especially. It just gets…well, weird.

Like right now.

She eyed me, sipped her drink, then indicated my own.

I glanced at it briefly.

There’s no way…could she…?

She threw her head back and laughed. Now I was really starting to worry.

And feel it.

My skin tingled. My heart rate increased. I was sweating.

I’d been poisoned before. Poison I can take. It’s the doing things while affected that presents an issue.

She’s the one. It was her.

I needed to end this quick.

I tried to stand and draw, but my legs were on holiday. I fumbled the pistol.

My head lolled back. I noticed the staff and patrons, obviously part of this, had cleared.

Just us now.

My head lolled forward and she was in front of me, my gun in her hand.

“Why…” I finally slurred out.

She paused, genuinely considering her words.

“Preservation. First for me…once I’d had my wake-up call…and now for those who missed theirs.”

She smiled curtly, then proceeded to discharge a single round, removing the back of my skull.

My Americano toppled over in the process.

Good riddance.

Tradition kills originality, anyway.

Liquid Sun

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A liquid sun slides down the sky.

Dusk envelopes a small, empty cabin.

Fowl return to their nests and cover their young, while crickets tune up for the evening’s performance. An owl hoots in the distance as the last orange ripples slip over the horizon.

Night has fallen upon the woods.

A low, quiet rumble as something approaches.

Seemingly out of thin air, a door opens two feet above the ground spilling light across the road. A hooded man jumps down from it, clutching a bag tight.

He latches the door of the blacked out carriage and with a quick thanks runs towards the cabin.

He bursts inside, quickly slamming shut and barring the door.

Knowing the layout he makes his way through the dark to another door. This opens upon a set of descending stairs which, after shutting and barring this one, too, he takes to the basement.

Now concealed, he finds a small lantern in the corner and turns up the wick. The light reveals a small workshop adorned with tools and items. Some familiar. Some strange.

He rushes across the room pulling the bag from his shoulder and sets it upon a workbench. Pushing his hood back, he reveals a young, stubbled face. He opens the bag, removing an unseen item.

Tossing the bag aside, eyes on its former contents, a look of excited urgency spreads across his face. He grabs some tools and begins to work. 

The clock on the far wall reads a quarter of ten.

•••

At half past one he appears spent.

His look of excitement has been replaced with one of worry. It’s not coming together as fast as hoped.

He spreads out some tattered plans, moving the lantern closer. Brown and worn with age, they show something spherical with crisscrossing bands. The lettering is foreign, symbols of some kind.

Looking from the plans to the object then back to the plans, he sees the problem.

•••

He’s still tinkering when the clock strikes three.

The urgency resurfaces, mingled with a healthy dose of panic. He quickly grabs the clock’s chimes, cutting off their extended ring, and listens.

One minute passes. He’s still clutching the chimes.

A sigh of relief as he hurries back to the workbench. He grabs a tool and reaches for the object.

Upstairs the bar thumps to the floor. He looks towards the sound with a start and listens.

A long creak as the front door eases open.

He looks up the stairs and sees the knob twisting slowly back and forth, before something large begins slamming itself into the door, over and over.  

Quickly turning back to the object, he tries to finish before it’s too late. The slamming continues, now emphasized with a guttural growl upon each and every impact.

He fumbles tools and pieces, struggling to maintain control as panic begins slamming against a similar door in his brain.

Something finally clicks into place on the object. He grabs the last remaining piece off the bench and tries to force it home.

The door at the top of the stairs splinters, cracks. A plume of blackness pours through the growing opening and begins concentrating itself around the bar.

He fumbles the items, hands slick with sweat.

He quickly wipes them and regains the object.

The beast resumes the attack. Wood groans, snaps.

Blackness lifts the bar from its slots and hurls it down the stairs. It slams into the wall above, startling him, before dropping to the bench.  

He turns and looks at the door as the beast’s red eye peers through the giant cracks. They make eye contact, and for one eternal second everything seems to stop.

The beast seems to grin and resumes beating the door.

He turns back to the object, forcing the piece.  

The door bursts open, hinges give way.

The man grabs the bar and slams it against the piece like a hammer.

It slips into place.

The beast charges down the stairs, trailing blackness.

Light illuminates the man’s face. The object swirls inside with an electric orange.

The beast leaps, jaws open, claws extend.

The man grabs the object and spins.

Panic overcomes the beast as the sphere releases a bolt of plasma. Surging forward it connects with a thunderclap.

Windows explode outward as the beast launches through the roof in a beam of orange light.

The beam extinguishes.

A smoldering pile of melted fur lands nearby.

The man slowly exits the cabin, approaching the pile. He stares at it, taking it in.

Looking to the moon he sighs, relieved. He begins to turn, a crack in the distance stops him.

He stares into the murky black.

Nothing.

Everything.

This night is far from over. He turns for the cabin, recharging the object.

A legion of red eyes glare from the shadows.

1/1000

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Blackness.

A lone bird chirped distantly.

The wind rose and something rustled.

Tom opened his eyes.

The world was initially blinding until his pupils adjusted.

Clouds, motionless, appeared to be painted on a fading sky.

Sitting up, he found himself in a field, wearing a baseball shirt and jeans.

He tugged at the shirt, trying to read it. It seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place why.

He’d been here before. He’d been gone a while.

It seemed so recent, yet so long ago…whatever “it” had been.

He took in his surroundings.

It was late evening by the sun’s position, right above the horizon.

Trees off to the east. A lake to the south. Some thickening brush to the north. Hills to the west.

He rose, and after a moment’s deliberation, headed west.

It just felt right.

He couldn’t explain it if he tried, but it felt like he was supposed to head for the setting sun.

Like he belonged there.

He’d only gone a few paces before noticing a baseball glove lying on the ground.

Stooping, he picked it up, and immediately put it in his back waistband.

The entire motion was involuntary.

Once again, it just felt right and he hadn’t a clue why.

•••

What seemed like an hour and roughly four miles later, Tom found himself at an abrupt edge to the field.

The lake still glistened in the south.

Farther ahead, in a wide stretch of desolate, desert-like terrain lay a small, motionless war.

Upon arrival, he discovered it to be a battalion of life-sized G.I. Joes opposite the Cobra Command. The latter appeared to be decidedly losing. The toys were massive, as tall as him.

But for Tom this seemed normal. He didn’t question it.

A sound began to grow.

Similar to wind, but not quite.

Tom looked down as the earth shuddered slightly beneath his feet.

Turning to the north he saw a tsunami rapidly approaching. He hadn’t time to react and was gathered up in a swirl of oversized plastic jeeps and futuristic aircraft.

•••

He awakened, wet and muddy, on the shoreline of the lake.

A giant plastic missile floated nearby, a Joe’s arm purposefully wrapped around it.

Pressing himself up, he tried to make heads or tails of what just happened.

But again, that odd familiarity filled the moment.

A few barks in the distance grabbed his attention. They came from further west, stopping as soon as they began.

The sun flickered.

It was only for a split second. Had he blinked he would have missed it.

He rubbed his eyes and squinted at the sun, waiting to catch it again.

It dawned on him that although he’d been walking for over an hour, not to mention the unknown amount of time he’d been unconscious, the sun hadn’t dropped an inch.

He considered for a moment the change in terrain, landmarks, and his positioning.

None of them added up.

The sun was definitely in the same spot.

Another bark, even further.

He pressed on, leaving the toys behind in the muddy shallows.

•••

Hours passed as he continued walking toward the motionless, although larger, sun.

It had flickered three more times, in quick succession, but that was over an hour ago. Or what felt like an hour anyway.

Without a way to track time it could have been five hours for all he knew.

He had left the desert terrain and entered another field, almost identical to the first.

It was then he had another realization:  He wasn’t tired.

He’d been walking for miles now, for an undetermined amount of time, and he wasn’t exhausted. He wasn’t even short of breath. He had no thirst or hunger for that matter.

Suddenly, a small dog burst from the brush to his right, barking wildly as it tore into the distance.

Tom jumped, startled. “…Jack?…Jack!”

The dog skittered to a stop and jerked around, searching for the source of its name as if it hadn’t heard it in years.

Spotting Tom it padded up slowly, suspiciously, coming to a stop some four feet away.

Tom knelt down and reached out a hand, beckoning the dog.

After some tentative sniffing, snorts, and questioning looks, the dog seemed satisfied.

It began to wag its tail, barking loudly as it ran around Tom in a few circles before heading off in the distance again.

Smiling as the dog ran away, he noticed a blue Jeep Wrangler nearby, with giant floodlights on the roll bar and an oddly placed center steering wheel in front of one giant bench seat.

Approaching it, he saw keys hanging from the ignition. He hopped in and felt something press against his back.

Pulling out the glove, he noticed a baseball in the small trunk space. He tossed the glove in with the ball.

It felt involuntary again, familiar again.

He turned the ignition. The key clicked in the slot, turning in circles.

This brought a fleeting memory, gone before he could catch it.

Pressing lightly the accelerator, a high pitched whine began as the Jeep eased forward a few feet.

He released the pedal and the Jeep stopped. Gathering it was electric, he floored it, resuming his trek towards the sun.

•••

Cruising along in the electric Jeep he made much better time. Or so it felt.

He’d passed through miles of gravel.

The Jeep got stuck a few times in the thicker areas. It was while digging himself out he noticed the wheels were made of plastic.

This seemed off, yet perfectly reasonable.

He’d begun to accept these double feelings.

•••

A few more hours and he was out of the gravel. The sun had quadrupled in size and flickered at least once per minute now.

As he pulled around some more brush the Jeep’s familiar whine began to drone down. As it lowered the power dropped in step. A few minutes later it came to a halt.

Releasing and pressing the pedal only got a few lurches, then eventually nothing.

Tom stepped from the Jeep and continued on foot.

•••

The sun appeared to grow larger now with each step.

It also appeared to be changing shape.

With each flicker he thought he saw shadows pass across the surface.

•••

Another hour had passed.

The sun was visibly a square in shape, and the brightness that once flashed from it seemed more ambient now.

The closer Tom got, the shadows looked more and more like people.

•••

Hours since he first awoke in the field, or days for all he knew, Tom finally reached the sun.

It was still square in shape, and spanned about ten feet across. It was some kind of plastic, translucent, like a giant, semi-frosted window hanging in the air.

He could see his reflection. The reflection of a young man.

Cupping his hands around his face he pressed against it, and could see the vague outlines of people on the other side.

He yelled out for them. No response.

He beat against it. The plastic rippled, but still gained no response.

Turning away, frustrated, he started.

Behind him was a power wheel Jeep with ball and glove in the back, a pothole filled with gravel, his dog, Jack, some G.I Joes floating in a small puddle created by a running hose, and a small patch of grass beyond which spidered around everything.

Turning back to the window, his reflection was one of a child in muddy clothes.

A female voice sing-songed “Say cheese!” and the sun exploded in a brilliant, white light.

•••

In a well-kept kitchen, a college aged Tom digs through a refrigerator, sandwich in one hand.

On the freezer door above him, a magnet holds a photo of a 4 year old Tom with Jack and his power wheel nearby, as he happily drowns a pile of G. I. Joes with a garden hose.

Multiple other photos of Tom, from differing ages, surround this one.

An older woman approaches, notices the photo of young Tom and smiles. She pulls it from the door lovingly.

Tom finds what he’s looking for, closes the refrigerator, takes a bite from his sandwich.

The woman holds the photo up. “I remember this. So long ago…but seems like yesterday. Do you? That day when you decided to flood my yard?”

“…Not really,” he mumbles through a full mouth.

Her smile returns. “Well I do…I love these…”

She replaces the photo on the door.

“They’re like little moments of you I get to keep forever.”

•••

“A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.”                                                                                     – Eudora Welty

SolEx

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SYSTEM BOOTING…

DIAGNOSTICS SCAN…

SYSTEM REPORT Y/N?

COMMAND: RETRIEVE SOLEX UPDATE

SEARCHING…

ACCESSING SYSTEMS…

FILE DOWNLOADING…

SOLEX UPDATE-

DATE/TIME_ERROR – UNABLE TO ACCESS

ASSESSING DISTANCE…

LOCATION_4.6 MILLION MILES FROM SOLAR SURFACE

OPEN FILE Y/N?

PLAYING AUDIO FILE…

“This is Petty Officer William Harrison of the USS Solaris, Mission 0105-1211, also known as ‘SolEx.’ As sole survivor and now the commanding officer aboard, I am reporting this mission as failed. Given the current status of our communications systems, I am unsure if this report will transmit to base…

“And given that…I guess we can drop the formalities. I don’t go by ‘William.’ I’ve always hated that name. My friends call me ‘Mac.’ So if this ever reaches anyone out there, well…you know what to put on my headstone.

“I’m not sure how bad the ship’s memory file was damaged, so I’ll give you a brief re-cap. Roughly eight months ago the crew and I, along with a handful of civilian scientists, led by Captain Feinz, departed on this mission. We were assigned to the international space station for some three weeks while our ship was supplied.

“The purpose of the mission: to witness, up-close, the effects of the sun on a passing comet. Six months prior to the mission, one of the scientists on board had discovered the largest comet we’d seen in a long time. After some calculations to determine trajectory, he was thrilled to announce to the world that the comet would be passing within nearly 4.4 million miles of the sun’s surface. Passing within such close range would cause the ice and dust of the comet to react, allowing for us to learn more about our universe’s past.

“So a few governments and some private investors put together this ship. Complete with radiation protection and enough thermal shielding to park right beside the damn sun itself. This hulk wasn’t cheap.

“And there you have it, folks. We came 88.4 million miles in a quadrillion dollar spacecraft so some nerds could watch a 500 million year old ice cube melt.

“Everything with the flight went according to schedule. Nothing exceptional to report. The systems did their jobs and we did ours.

“Our ship’s windows were coated using a specialized polarization process that blocked out nearly 80 percent of the sun’s light. This allowed us to make it about halfway before deploying the solar shield, which added additional light blockage and diverted radiation. It was made of a special alloy that allowed a small percentage of light to pass through. This let us view the sun, while also protecting our eyes.

“That last part was important. While I already mentioned we had more than enough heat protection, without the shield the radiation would have us all in stage four cancer in a matter of minutes and dead soon after. It was intended to ride ahead of us for the journey there, then swing around and protect our backsides on the way home.

“We arrived at the midpoint of our mission: 4.45 million miles from the sun’s surface. A mere stones throw from where the comet would be passing. The nerds were in for a great show.

“Anyway, we put her in park, set all of the recording equipment, and waited on the comet to show itself. It finally did, arcing past that big star ahead of us. I have to admit, it was breathtaking. One of the most gorgeous sights I’ve seen in my life.

“The sun’s heat began to affect the comet. The shimmering ice particles made way for refracting water droplets. The dust that escaped spread out in a cloud. It was like watching a bottle rocket slowly explode before turning into weightless marbles.

“The crew and scientists all applauded. It was a spectacular payoff for such a long journey.

“While most of the crew started popping champagne corks in celebration, one scientist lagged back, still looking out the window. I noticed and joined him.

“Some of the ‘marbles’ were behaving oddly. While the rest of the comet continued its journey at the same rate of speed, the water droplets were drifting back from it. Like they were purposefully slowing down.

“A few moments later they stopped entirely. By this point the scientist had called the others back, and we all watched as the water rippled, first slowly, then violently. A black substance began to withdraw from the liquid.

“It pulled itself into a sphere and just sat there for the longest time. A large, dark blemish against the pure, bright sun.

“The comet was old news now. The scientists were trying to analyze the substance with all the scanners and readers the ship had to offer.

“Then it began moving toward us.

“The sphere drew closer at a steady rate. Our pilot leapt to the bridge controls and hurriedly pulsed our reverse thrusters, trying to keep us at a safe distance. It tracked us for about fifteen minutes before it attacked.

“It fired pieces of itself at us. Our pilot managed to evade the initial pieces, but it gained accuracy with each additional attempt.

“Finally, one struck the solar shield.

“The substance began dissolving the alloy. We were shocked. Panic began to creep in. The alloy was nearly indestructible and this sludge was melting right through.

“The pilot engaged our reverse thrusters to maximum and continued trying to evade the sphere’s subsequent shots. It matched, then doubled our speed, slipping around the shield and firing directly at us before we could even spin the ship around.

“All of our proximity alarms on board brayed as the sphere plowed into the side of the ship. It was dissolving the hull now. The thermal shield would follow soon.

“We couldn’t stop it. We had no way to remove it. The captain did the only logical thing and evacuated the cargo hold and crew quarters. This put a few extra layers of steel between everyone and the sludge.

“We watched on the security monitors as the substance breached the hold. Once through, the pressure change tore away a large part of the hull and cargo…metallic cases, supplies, and some stored EVA suits all went flying off into space. The ship buckled and groaned under the pressure loss.

“We had a crew of 15, including the 4 scientists. We departed the space station with 15 EVA suits. A couple were to be used for routine maintenance and stored on the main deck next to the cockpit…we just watched the remaining 13 just float away.

“But the substance clung to the ship through all of this, and now, as the pressure had equalized, it began to enter the opening.

“Once inside, it resumed its spherical shape and floated around the hold, searching. It found the bay door and pressed into it, dissolving right on through. This caused another pressure change and as the next section equalized, the ship buckled and groaned more. Our formerly arrow-straight craft was bowing pretty badly by this point.

“The life support systems were compromised beyond repair…we could actually see the O2 levels dropping on the gauges.

“The captain suggested the scientists draw straws for the remaining EVA suits. The scientists agreed that while they appreciated his noble gesture, they assumed that, suit or no suit, this ship was probably incapable of taking anyone home.

“Before the captain could even reply, the bridge door buckled inward, cracking. Some of the black substance shot through, splattering Thompson.

“We all ran for the second section of the bridge, which was closer to the cockpit. The bridge door lost its seal and ripped from the wall. The vacuum sucked back Smith, Jennings, and Carson.

“I was the last one through the second door and hit the airlock. The door closed quickly enough for me to look through the window and watch the three men being drawn into space.

“As I watched, their heads swelled like balloons…their skin split open, revealing shiny skulls underneath…their eyes popped from the sockets before bursting, leaving trails of ocular jelly floating behind them.

“I couldn’t turn away. It was hard to accept what I’d seen. When you’re confined to an area the size of a small house with 14 other guys, you get pretty close…you become family, and I had just watched three of my brothers die horribly painful deaths.

“When I finally snapped out of it, I turned in time to see Thompson collapse. Some of the others caught him and lowered him down. He still had the black stuff on him. It was burrowing into his skin. He started to shake violently and his eyes rolled back in his head. The captain screamed for someone to grab a medi-kit, but suddenly Thompson stopped.

“For a few seconds he lay motionless. Then his head ticked to the side a couple times. His eyes fluttered, then snapped open. Thin veins spread quickly from around his eyes, down his neck.

“The captain called his name. Thompson turned and looked at him slowly with curious, wide eyes. It was as if he’d never seen the man before. He tried responding. It was a struggle. The captain called his name again.

 “When he managed to speak, it wasn’t his voice. It wasn’t right. Something was manipulating his vocal cords, speaking through him, like he was possessed. 

“The thing inside him finally said ‘Thompson…Thompson…Thompson, Thompson, ThompsonThompsonThompson–‘

“Thompson lunged up at him, biting his face. Captain Feinz screamed, pushing the crazed man away. The rest of us jumped in, tried to separate the two.

“We pulled them apart. Thompson bit a couple other crew, Klein and Olsen, in the process. Davidson, the medic, began treating the Captain.

“Feinz started shaking. He let out a small scream and shoved the medic away. When he raised his head we saw he had the same, curious eyes, veins spidering out and down.

“This time there was no talking. Feinz simply lunged for the nearest member, sinking his teeth into their shoulder.

“Turning to run we found Klein and Olsen staring at us with that familiar look. Davidson threw the medi-kit in Olsen’s face and I tossed a nearby coordinate binder at Klein, who caught it and looked at it inquisitively.

“The remaining crew and I ran for the cockpit. The infected ones chased after us. Somebody tripped, I didn’t see who, and took a couple down with them. They were all bitten before we even got into the hall.

“We rounded the corner and hauled it for the cockpit.

“They were faster.

“They took down Quinn before we were even halfway there.

“Arriving at door a few paces ahead of the rest, I punched the airlock button and slipped through. Spinning around I saw the final uninfected member, a scientist named Rogers, taken down.

“They began tearing into him…I punched the button and the airlock slid shut.

“I locked it from my side…

“So that’s it. As I’m recording this now, I can see the entire crew through the airlock window. They’re all just standing there, with those curious eyes, waiting.

“The gauges in here, if they’re still accurate, indicate the O2 levels outside the cockpit have fallen below habitable. Whatever infected the crew seems to be unaffected by this.

“I, on the other hand, appear to have about three hours left of breathable air. If I could get to an EVA suit in the hall I could last another six…but three will have to do.

“The ship’s engines still appear operational. She might fly a little drunk, but I think I can still maneuver her enough…enough to do the job anyway…

“The infected may not need oxygen to survive, but I’m guessing they can’t take the heat…here’s hoping she’ll hold true to course once I’m gone.

“This is Petty Officer ‘Mac’ Harrison of the USS Solaris, Mission 0105-1211, signing off.”

END TRANSMISSION…

SUBMIT REPLY: Y/N?

Architekt von Albträume

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It was a typical Friday night for the Ayers as David drove the family car down an empty highway.

Fridays meant date night, but with Halloween just around the corner, he and Monica were headed to a party. As per the usual weekly routine, they were stopping by his father’s to drop off their sons for the evening.

The boys, Timothy and Dylan (10 and 8 respectively), had never been fond of Fridays at their grandfather’s.

It wasn’t that they didn’t like their grandfather, per se. It was that his house was boring. He didn’t have any video games, his computer was archaic (it never had and never would know the thrill of connecting to that “series of tubes”), and his fridge contained only Ensure Plus and an opened jar of pickles they agreed had to be older than the both of them combined.

David exited the highway and took a right.

Timothy, previously glued to his PSP, looked up. Noting how close they were, he sighed deeply. Dylan was too busy playing with his toy dinosaur to notice.

David caught it and looked at his son in the rearview.

“Come on, Timmy, it’s not that bad. It’s only a few hours. Besides…your Grandpa has some pretty good stories.”

His stories were terrible and David knew it. Monica cut him a sideways glance, trying to suppress a chuckle.

David grinned.

Never one to disappoint, every visit with Grandpa Ayers always garnered a few yarns.

And yawns.

The stories were always the same.

So were the yawns.

Yes, we’ve heard about the time a raccoon broke inside and ate all the dog food…

Yes, we’ve heard about the huge thunderstorm that nearly took the roof off back in ’76…

Yes, we’ve heard about the time you were given your lucky silver dollar by Frank Sinatra…

We’ve heard them all and you tell them again every week!

Timothy groaned, “Ugh, can’t wait…”

“Can’t wait!” echoed Dylan, unsure of the topic yet still wanting to be included.

David and Monica exchanged a smile.

The car turned off the road and up a large driveway.

Timothy and Dylan stared out the window as they approached the large house. A single, weak bulb burned in the lower level.

They pulled to a stop out front.

David got out and opened the back door, releasing the boys. They stood side by side, staring up at the foreboding residence.

Lightning flashed across the darkness.

The house seemed to reach infinitely skyward, stabbing into the heavens.

Suddenly, the porch light illuminated and the front door was yanked open.

A wispy-haired silhouette stood backlit in the doorway.

Flames leapt up high behind the figure, and in it’s free hand was a pointed object.

The figure jumped out on the porch, a mentally disturbed clown wielding a long, shimmering knife high overhead.

The boys clutched at each other, terrified, screaming.

The clown faltered slightly, then doubled over, shaking.

They realized the shakes were laughter-induced.

The clown stood up and pulled off its mask, revealing himself to be their grandfather. His own hair even wispier than the disguise.

The kids slowly let go of each other, taking it all in.

The mask, the plastic knife, the roaring fireplace inside.

“Happy Halloween, kiddos!” cried the old man, with outstretched arms.

Dylan squealed, delighted, and ran to hug his grandfather.

Timothy scoffed, “I wasn’t scared.” He walked up the steps past his grandfather, who rustled his hair.

“Gettin’ too big for that stuff, huh?!” Grandpa Ayers asked with a laugh.

Farewells were exchanged, and the boys were ushered inside as the parents drove off into the night.

•••

Timothy entered the living room and flopped down in an oversized chair, resuming his video game.

Grandpa Ayers followed him with Dylan in tow.

“You boys want anything to eat?” he asked, “I got pickles.”

Timothy and Dylan shared a quick glance, then responded in unison “No, thanks, Grandpa.”

Grandpa Ayers shrugged, moving to his recliner.

“Well, alright then. You boys let me know if you change your mind.”

He picked up a newspaper and donned reading glasses.

Dylan found a bowl of hard candy on the coffee table and began feeding them to his dinosaur.

•••

The fire had burned down significantly.

Dylan had shoved upwards of twenty-five Werther’s into the triceratops and was working on the next.

Grandpa Ayers snored softly from his recliner, reading glasses slipped precariously to the tip of his nose.

Timothy’s PSP blacked out as the battery gave up the ghost, and he tossed it on the coffee table indifferently. He had grown bored of it anyway.

He sighed and looked around the room. His grandfather had decorated for Halloween, all right.

From the fake spiderwebs, to the drawings, to the freshly carved jack-o-lanterns flanking the fireplace…he’d gone all out this year.

A particular drawing caught Timothy’s eye.

He rose and walked across the room, passing Dylan, who was now utilizing a TV remote to assist in nourishing his toy, and peered up at the artwork.

It was a sketch of a man working a large, black machine. Dark smoke seemed to be either coming from or entering it. Something was also emanating from the center.

Light, maybe.

The title read “Architekt von Albträume,” written in a heavy, scrawling cursive.

A pair of hands reached over Timothy and grasped the frame, pulling it from the wall.

His grandfather stood over him, smiling, looking at the drawing with affection.

“This is one of my favorites. Your grandmother drew this. Back when your father was about your age, I think…”

The boys looked at each other. A story was coming on and they knew it.

But this was the first they’d ever heard him speak of their grandmother. They knew very little about her, and Timothy, eager to listen for once, put a finger to his lips to quiet his brother’s protests.

This was going to be a new one.

•••

The boys sat on the couch, the drawing held between them, a root beer in each of their free hands.

Their grandfather was in his recliner, a small smile tugged the corners of his mouth as he remembered.

He took a swig of root beer.

The boys followed suit.

“Your grandmother was quite the artist,” he began. “She loved to draw and paint. She would often draw things from her dreams. This was one she swore was real, though. She said she met him when she was young. He was working the levers of that big machine.
Creating…inspiring.”

He looked at them, the smile reappeared.

“Would you boys like to hear the story of that man?”

Nodding.

“It might be little on the scary side…” he warned.

Eager nodding.

“Promise not to tell your momma? Y’know she’d skin me.”

Emphatic nodding.

“Alright then. Well, the way I heard it..the way your grandmother told it…this man lived in the woods…”

•••

Marta Schön knew little about the man from the Black Forest. He would only come into town on rare occasion to stock up on supplies. No one knew for sure exactly where he lived, or what it was he did out there in the woods… they just knew they didn’t like him.

Her mother had told her stories of people disappearing, and warned her about staying away, but she was stubborn if nothing else.

One day she followed him, deep into the forest.

The trees grew so thick and tangled she could hardly see the sky. The deeper she followed him, the darker it became. She noticed there were less birds singing as they went along, and when they reached his home, she hadn’t seen or heard a single creature for an hour or more.

The man had fashioned himself a house. Although “fashioned” didn’t quite describe it. “Grown” himself a house was more fitting.

Trees and brush and vines twisted and shaped themselves together into a large shelter, complete with what passed for doors and windows. It sat in the middle of a small clearing.

The man entered, lit a candle, and began to stoke a fire.

Marta waited at the edge of the clearing until the sun had set completely. Once she felt it was dark enough, she stole to a window, and peeked inside for a better look.

She watched the man prepare potions of differing sorts.

The fire had grown to a roar by now, and it threw off enough light for her to see it was built beneath a large, black machine.

It was covered with levers which the man began working in a specific order. He repeated the same pattern over and over as the machine warmed up.

When he had it up and running full steam, she noticed that the little stones, sticks, and leaves around his house had begun rising slowly into the air.

They held their level, about a foot off the ground, gently moving no more than an inch in any one direction.

He worked the levers a few more times, then began feeding the machine. Some of the items were bought in town, some came from jars previously prepared, and finally, some of tonight’s concoctions.

Once finished, he worked the levers again.

The machine hitched and thumped, spewing smoke out of the top and sides before a kind of white light began to spill from its center.

He screwed an empty jar into its side.

Pulling a single lever, it shuddered violently as it forced all of the previously spilled light into the jar.

Working a few more levers rapidly, the light transformed from white to black, and a final lever suddenly shut it off, along with the machine.

The floating stones and debris fell to the ground.

A lid screwed onto the jar before it released into his hand.

The man turned around and Marta dropped quickly, so not to be seen. She heard him approach the window, set something down, and move away.

She peeked over the sill and saw he was at the machine again. He seemed to be prepping it for another cycle.

Looking down she saw a row of jars next to the window. Each contained a different colored substance. In the closest there was a black fog resting at the bottom.

She reached for it and the fog swirled upward, becoming a snake, slithering around inside jar.

It had enormous fangs, but no eyes, and struck at the glass repeatedly, trying to get at her. It sounded like a tiny bell as it’s teeth made contact with the jar.

Marta looked up and saw the man standing in front of her. She tried to run but he caught her hand deftly.

He opened the jar with his free hand and the snake-like thing escaped. It struck, biting her, shooting it’s venom into her palm.

She immediately saw a string of images in her mind.

Terrible images. Frightening images. Her deepest secrets drawn into the light. Her worst nightmares all at once.

The venom had put them in her head…injected them     like a drug.

Marta began to scream, trying to force the images out.

She immediately woke up, finding herself in her own bed.

Her mother and father rushed in, frightened by her screams. Marta tried to explain but they told her it was just a bad dream, that everything was okay.

She couldn’t accept that.

She knew it was real.

There were two small, dried dots of blood on her palm the next morning.

•••

The boys sat enthralled, absorbing the story entirely.

“She was German, your grandmother. That’s where the name comes from, ‘Architekt von Albträume.’ It means ‘The Nightmare Architect.'”

A knock at the door startled the boys from their trance.

“Oh! Well, that’ll be your parents now.”

He rose from the recliner, heading towards the door. Pausing, he turned back to face the boys with a smile.

“Now remember…don’t go telling your mother I filled your head with all this nonsense.”

•••

The Ayers family started home.

Timothy and Dylan sat silently in the back seat, wary of the eight miles of woods that lay ahead of them.

Grandpa Ayers waved as they pulled away, smiling.

Once they were around the bend, he descended the   front steps.

Rounding the house, he opened a wooden privacy fence, passed through, and latched it shut again.

Approaching a small shed on a pathway of haphazard paving stones, he paused at the door.

Smiling up at the sky, he took in the stars for a few moments, pulling in a deep breath of the cool, night air.

He entered the shed, shutting the door after himself.

An electric starter whined for a moment before a small engine roared to life. A few mechanical noises emanated from within the wooden walls.

Light spilled out between the cracks in the boards as the paving stones began to levitate…

The Lord’s Work

Standard

The priest stood by the communion table, a blood-stained cross gripped tightly in hand, as he stared down at the lifeless body.

It’s face was awash with the flickering candlelight.

And blood.

Blood that was flowing onto the carpet.

The new carpet.

Fortunately it was burgundy…

To symbolize the blood our Lord Jesus shed, he thought-

…and would hopefully blend in.

He thought he was doing the right thing.

He’d been so careful, so detailed. The months of work and planning had negated any initial alternatives, satisfied any and all reasonable doubts.

He thought he was right.

All signs had pointed to yes. The events he’d witnessed, the evidence he’d gathered…

It all added up.

When he began to follow the man’s daily patterns, when he tracked him through the city, when he lured him to the church and invited him in…

How could he have been so wrong?

What had he overlooked? Where had he made a mistake?

Racking his brain, he mentally retraced his steps.

He couldn’t think of anything.

The clock on the back wall struck out the quarter hour.

He didn’t have time to think now.

The sun was coming up in a few minutes and his flock would arrive very soon after.

It was Easter Sunday.

The one day a year they held a sunrise service. Just one more thing he’d overlooked, apparently.

He had to hide the body…but where?

The small church, though lovely and quaint, wasn’t much more than a sanctuary. Nooks and crannies were hard to come by, which would make the task difficult.

A muted crunch of gravel outside grabbed his attention.

He hurried over to the window and peered out.

The Ayers family, always early because on time was late, had arrived. He watched the father exit the car, with a noticeable limp, before releasing two hyper kids from the back and opening the trunk.

Shit...

The priest turned away, his back to the wall now.

His gaze fell to the body.

He had minutes at most.

Dragging the limp form into the kitchenette to the left of the sanctuary, he frantically searched for a hiding spot. Small beads of sweat formed on his brow.

He yanked open a closet.

Full.

Another.

Far too small.

The last.

Full of white linen. Not exactly camouflage…

He was running out of options, and fast.

Frustrated, he leaned on a small folding table, his palms flat against the smooth, faux-wood surface.

Closing his eyes he inhaled deeply, held it for a moment, then exhaled completely.

Opening them he found himself staring at a clear, glass pitcher.

In the name of the Father…

Water.

…the Son…

Container.

…and the Holy Spirit…

The baptismal!

Hope spread across his face.

Every last one of his congregants had been baptized, and the odds of them bringing a newcomer in this town were slim to fat-chance.

He quickly dragged the body back into the sanctuary and began rounding the stage towards the choir room.

The first rays of sunlight began to illuminate the stained glass, casting hues of red, blue, and purple across the priest’s straining face.

A clove of garlic fell from his breast pocket, unnoticed, as they made the journey. It rolled out in a lazy, wobbling arc across the middle aisle.

He was nearly to the practice room when the lobby doors squeaked open. Young, undisciplined voices broke into the near silence. Doorstops flipped down as the Ayers secured them.

The priest quickly turned and looked.

His heart turned cold and began descending towards his stomach as a bolt of panic struck him.

Had he unlocked the door connecting the lobby and sanctuary?

He couldn’t recall.

He couldn’t see the latch from where he was, and hadn’t the time to check now.

“Looks like we’re the first ones here…” said Mr. Ayers.

“Yeah,” Mrs. Ayers responded, “…oh, hey! The new carpet was put in last week, right?”

“I believe so.”

“Well, let’s go have a look!”

Shitshitshitohshitohshit…

The priest quickly assessed his situation.

The baptismal was up behind the choir loft.

The choir room led to another door which opened upon a small set of stairs that climbed to the baptismal.

Two doors, another room, and stairs stood between him and the small pool.

No time for all that.

With a fresh surge of adrenaline he threw the body over one shoulder, leapt the divider between the stage and loft with a smoothness that an olympic hurdler would envy, and high-stepped it through the chairs to the back.

Sliding his grip to the man’s waist, he heaved upwards with all his might, pushing his body up the splash guard.

The man’s face now lolled mere inches from his own.

The dead eyes snapped open, bloodshot and soulless.

The dead mouth gaped, full of multiple needle-like fangs.

With a growl the man clawed for the priest’s throat, reaching his fangs towards the palpitating jugular.

The priest pushed him back, fending off the attack, and tumbled backwards between the burgundy rows.

The man followed the priest down, lunging after him with incredible, inhuman speed.

In that moment, Mrs. Ayers threw open the double doors to the sanctuary.

Bright, pure, sunlight flooded into the large room.

The man looked up, horrified.

As he burst into flames, shrieking, Mrs. Ayers let out an excited little scream of her own while she danced over and across the new, synthetic blend.

The man was gone. Not a trace remained.

The priest caught his breath, quickly checking for bites.

Satisfied, he shakily regained his feet, dusting himself off.

Noticing his presence, Mrs. Ayers called out to him. “Oh! Hi, Father! Didn’t see you back there! My goodness, this carpet is to die for!”

He nodded, straightening his collar tab and glancing over where the blood had pooled by the communion table.

That was gone, too.

A tired, thankful grin spread across his face as he glanced heavenward, mouthing a quick “thank you.”

He walked toward the Ayers, hand extended in greeting, and slyly kicked the clove of garlic under a nearby pew.

As he reached the family, Mrs. Ayers took his hand in hers. “It looks fantastic! I can’t believe you did this all yourself! And just–Father! You look exhausted! Are you feeling well?”

He patted her hand and smiled reassuringly.

“Oh, fine, I’m fine, dear,” he said. “The Lord’s work just ran a little late last night.”