Last Call: Complete

© Ruslan1117 | Dreamstime.com – Two shots of tequila with lime and salt on a wooden table bar on the background of bright lights of the bar

By Christopher Opyr




Author’s Note:

I will now be using Tuesdays, when I don’t have a new blog entry, to post completed versions of my stories for easier reading. We begin this week with the complete version of Last Call.



          Thick strips of bacon crisped and bubbled, popping in an ocean of grease, their smoky aroma mixing with that of the scrambled eggs and glazing the kitchen in the scents of breakfast. Teagan breathed deep, the strength of the smell forcing itself past her clogged sinuses, and sliding inside. It felt warm and comforting, then suddenly it didn’t.

          Her stomach lurched, the taste of the previous night’s pad thai and whiskey surging up, along with what tasted like tequila, though Teagan could not remember having any. She burp-vomited in her mouth, wobbled, and lost her balance as her nausea took center stage. Attempting to right herself she flailed out at last catching onto the corner of the stove.

          “Son of a whore!”

          She yanked her hand back, her index finger throbbing from the sudden heat of the gaslit burner. The room spun, a whirling kaleidoscope of sensory overload. The sizzle of the bacon. Elder meowing incessantly, planted beside the cabinet with his treats. The window fan sucking in thin wisps of cigarette smoke from the ashtray. A metal band blaring over the surround sound, mingling with the raised voices of the television.

          Teagan winced fighting back the remainder of her pad thai and struggling with the throbbing migraine playing the drums in her brainpan. How many shots did I have last night, she wondered for not the first time that morning.

          After they had left Toi she and the rest of the gang had pinged a Lyft and caught a ride to the Whiskey a Go Go. The house had been packed and they had pushed their way past the reserved tables to the back bar under the balcony, ordering the first round of shots. They began with decent standards, ordering up an 18-year Glenlivet Single Malt, followed by a round of Johnny Walker Blue. After that they had hit the floor, and explored further options between sets, gradually regressing until they were down to the house whiskey. From there the night got fuzzy.

          Usually after a night of hard drinking Milly checked in with Teagan in the morning. They had been friends since childhood and had moved out to Los Angeles together eight years prior. Now they each had their own lives, but they were still close as sisters. When things got blackout crazy, they watched out for each other.

          Teagan checked her phone. No missed calls. It was only 11 am, but Milly always rose at the ass crack of dawn. She should have called or at least texted by now. Something didn’t feel right. Teagan considered calling and reached to dial.

          Before she could, an alarm rang out! Teagan refocused, pocketing her phone. The bacon grease bubbled black, the strips shriveled and burnt. She dialed off the heat and scooted the pan onto a stack of dirty plates covering the back burner. As she scraped at the charred mess, she shouted into the living room over the cacophony of the peeling alarm, music, and TV.

          “You like your bacon charred, right?”

          Teagan received no response. She turned, but couldn’t get a good look into the living room. Her world swiveled some as she shifted for a better vantage. Sinuses, my splitting head, and a case of the dizzies, she thought. This is going to be a fun hangover.

          “Henry?” she called again. The least he could do was respond. Instead she received still more nothing beyond the hideous racket drilling into her frontal lobe – not even a single acknowledgment that she had spoken.

          “Hey, a little help here, damn it!” Her head pounded as she screamed, but Henry was starting to piss her off. When he still didn’t answer, Teagan finally dropped the spatula into the pan and charged into the living room, dizziness and spinning rooms be damned.

          “Hey, cock hat, you could at least get the smoke detector?”

          Henry shot her a pained glance from the couch, where he lay with a beer in one hand and his tablet in the other. He looked about as grisly as she felt. He tilted his headphones back to hear.

          “What was that?”

          “You dick!” She braced herself against the wall, fighting the pain of the headache, and screaming through it. Bad move, bad move, bad move, she thought, but continued anyway. “You can’t possibly be paying attention to all these screens.”

          Teagan clicked off the television.

          “Hey,” Henry shouted, then stopped and jammed his palm into his eye socket. Good, at least if she had to suffer so did he. “Not cool,” he continued more softly.

          “Get off your lazy ass and do something about the smoke detector.”

          “Why don’t you do it?”

          “Because I’m busy cooking your breakfast and trying not to die from this hangover. Where the hell did we end up last night?”

          Henry casually glanced about the apartment, his eyes squinting together with concentration, as if truly considering Teagan’s question. His scan complete, he shrugged. “Here, I guess.”

          “No shit. Before that.”

          “I don’t know.” He winced again, covering his ears, as the detector continued its warning shriek.

          “What about Milly or Aaron? Have you heard from either?”

          “Milly or Aaron?”

          “That’s what I said.”

          Henry shifted, blinking and wincing at the light as he tried to wake from his deadened state. As he did, he shifted, and his hair flopped into his face. He flicked it aside, and flashed a questioning, half-asleep look at Teagan.

          “Why would I have heard from them?”

          “Never mind.” Teagan turned to leave. “Just do something about that smoke detector.”

          Finally, Henry sat up, downing the last of his PBR as he did. “Wait… what? Did you burn the bacon?” The PBR done he slouched back into the couch.

          “Oh, I’m so done.”

          Teagan left and grabbed the broom, which was leaning against the kitchen table from the last time she had used it. Properly equipped she stormed down the hall and inspected her adversary. It continued its shrill ring, its red light flashing mockingly at her.

          She tapped at it with the broom handle, trying to find a stop button. No luck. She shouted back down the hall. She knew it would hurt, but it couldn’t be as bad as this stupid ringing alarm.

          “Where’s the off on this thing?”

          Oh hell, it was worse. Much worse. Don’t scream. Gotta stop doing that. She held her head. It hurt so bad she could almost cry. What’s more, Henry had gone back to not answering her, most likely having finished that slouch taking it to its natural conclusion and shifting back down for a nap. Faintly, she could hear voices from the TV, again, which had been turned back on. She shook her head.

          Another bark sounded from the smoke detector and another ripple of pain shot through Teagan’s skull. She tried to focus, but between the headache and the rest of the hangover, the whole world had gone muddled, soft and linty, like a worn blanket had been laid down over it. Well, soft other than the relentless din turning the apartment into a sonic hellscape. Unable to focus, Teagan decided to go with her gut.

          Whack!

          She smacked the smoke detector with the broom stick, and smiled as she heard the plastic crack. She took another go, slamming the handle once more into the interminable offender. Caught in the moment, propelled by an irresistible drive to kill that ringing before it did her in, she swung again and again, a child with a piñata, only her candy was silence.

          “What the hell, Teagan!” At last Henry had come stumbling drunkenly and bleary-eyed down the hall.

          “I couldn’t reach it.”

          The smoke detector dangled lifelessly from the ceiling as Teagan, smiling victoriously, supported herself with the broom.

          “You’re buying me a new one,” Henry said, then covered his mouth and ran to the bathroom.

          “Whatevs.”

          The alarm let off one last defiant squawk, and Teagan bashed it in retaliation, snapping it from the wire tendons that held it to the ceiling like a poorly severed limb. It clattered against the wood floor and settled at last to a silent stop.

          Teagan breathed a sigh of relief. As she did, Elder rubbed against her leg.

          “What do you want?”

          He meowed back at her, his eyes set angrily.

          “Fine, I’ll get your damn treats.” She tapped on the half-open bathroom door before heading to the kitchen. “Henry,” she said softly (she had learned her lesson on screaming). “Your cat’s a jackass.”

          “I know,” he muttered, then waved for her to walk away as he kneeled by the toilet.


***


          Elder fed, Teagan plopped into a chair in the kitchen, gulped down a glass of water, and shoveled her breakfast down, burnt bacon and all. The breakfast helped settle her roiling stomach, but did little to dissipate her headache or her worries about Milly and the night before. It nagged her, something begging for her attention, but simultaneously forgotten. She had to get rid of this hangover and focus. It had been years since she felt this terrible after a night of drinking. Well… weeks, anyway.

          Try as she might, she could only recall flashes after the last shot at the Whiskey a Go Go. After the final band had finished its set she, Henry, Milly, Aaron, Erika, and, and… oh hell, who else had been there?

          Focus.

          Whoever it was, the lot of them had hit the street. She remembered another Lyft. She could picture the signature pink mustache on the dash lit up as it had pulled to the curb, but she couldn’t picture the driver or getting in. Then another flash. She could see her, Erika, and some dude in the backseat. Those last two were doing some heavy petting and she could remember pressing herself tight against the passenger side trying to get away from the makeout session. Then a heavyset bouncer. A jukebox. Dancing. Shots. Nothing clear, just snippets.

          Teagan fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her cell, tapping over to Milly. She waited, her phone held just far enough away that she could hear it without it wailing in her ear. It rang again and again, then clicked over to voicemail. She hung up and tapped over to Aaron. She wanted to talk to Milly, and where one went the other always followed. She also figured it was best to talk to one of them before calling Erika. She didn’t know who that guy was that Erika had been groping, but she felt fairly positive it wasn’t her boyfriend.

          Aaron’s line rang unanswered as well. Teagan tapped out a quick text asking where they’d gone after the Whiskey, then slumped deep into her chair.

          “Our friends are useless,” she yelled, slipping right back into the same mistake again. She sat her head in her hands, massaging her temples. This time she cried.

          Her phone rang, Henry’s picture flashing onto the screen. In the photo he had one arm draped over a plastic statue of Scooby-Doo, while he leaned forward, mid full-rocker headbang, hair whipping every which way.

          She tapped it to speaker.

          “Yep,” Henry said, his voice soft and weak. “Completely useless. Can you grab me some water?”

          “Seriously?”

          “It hurts to yell.”

          She couldn’t say he was wrong.

          “Sure. Anything else?”

          A long pause, then Henry chimed in his voice half question, half serious.

          “A beer?”

          “You’re going to die of liver failure, you know that?”

          “Yeah, but I’ll take you with me.”

          “Well, that’s sweet.”

          “So can I get that beer?”

          Teagan clicked off the phone and reluctantly hauled herself up and over to the sink. She pushed a few discarded dishes aside, turned on the tap, and filled up a glass. Done, she drank that one, then filled it back up, grabbed a PBR from the refrigerator, and made her way down the hall past the remains of the smoke detector.

          The things I do for love.

          Teagan sniffed, trying to breathe through her clogged sinuses. It didn’t go so well, snot rolling back down into her throat. She gagged, the feeling of bile on the rise returning, and paused to resist the also returned urge to vomit.

          Finally, reaching the bathroom, she toed the door open and held out both drinks to Henry. He was hugging the toilet. The water was clear so she figured he hadn’t vomited yet, though the porcelain was covered in muck. We should probably clean that, she thought absently, then thrust the idea to the bottom of her discarded mental to-do list.

          Henry reached for the beer. That done Teagan set the water glass on the sink and perched on the edge of the tub.

          “Your allergies acting up? Mine are wreaking havoc right now.”

          “Eh…” Henry grunted.

          “Is that a yes?”

          “They ain’t great. Probably the weather change. It always does this crap.”

          Every time they shifted out of a hot spell in LA the allergens killed the both of them. Sometimes Teagan thought it was enough to drive her back to the east coast, but those were always idle daydreams. She liked the music scene here. Though New York could be fun, too. Come to think of it though, it was hot as balls out.

          Teagan squinted into her phone and opened up the weather app.

          “It’s supposed to be 94 today.”

          “I don’t know. I’m not a weatherman.” Henry shrank his head back into his neck, holding something in. “Oh God. Can I get some privacy?”

          “Yeah, no one wants to see that. Yell if you need anything.”

          She shut the door on her way out, Henry mumbling behind her.

          “I’ll call. Thanks.”

          Dumbass.

          She sniffed again. She needed some meds – something to kill the pain, and something to fix her allergies. A glass of water wouldn’t hurt either.

          She stumbled back into the cramped kitchen, almost tripping over Elder. He scattered, then assured she wasn’t going to step on him, returned and meowed pleadingly.

          “I already fed you.”

          He meowed again, unphased.

          “Damn it, Elder.” She hadn’t meant to raise her voice, but when she did the world flickered and it felt as if a searing hot poker had just stabbed through her eye.

          “Holy shit, mother, cock, ass!” She fell to her knees grabbing at her head, tears streaming and let out every obscenity she could think of, which was a long litany. She had learned from her grandfather and he’d been a swearing pro.

          She continued, muttering through a second and third verse and rocking back and forth on her knees until the pain subsided. When she opened her eyes, Elder had bristled up, tail straight and back arched. She reached out to calm him.

          “I’m sorry, buddy,” she started. “I didn’t mean to –”

          He hissed and swiped at her face. She heard the skin pop first, then felt the flesh tear and flare as he caught her upside the cheek.

          She shot back banging against the washer. Her head hit first, as she had fallen as she went back, and as it jolted into the wash the jenga set of dishes clattered to the floor. Elder dashed off down the hall.

          Holy hell, this is a shitty morning, she thought, then fumbled to her feet, avoiding the broken plates and glasses. Still rocking to a stop from the fall, she spotted the bottle of aspirin. At least she could do something about that headache. She tapped out two pills, paused, then tapped out three more.

          Carefully tiptoeing around the disaster that was now the kitchen, Teagan made her way to the sink and filled up another glass of water. She gulped it down, and the pills with it, then tried to sneak a look at the scratches on her cheek off the glass of the window. She couldn’t see herself. The daylight streaming in whited out everything else. It hurt her eyes, so she made her way back into the darkness of the living room.

          The TV and music were still blaring. That had to be fixed. Teagan shut both off and melted down into the couch. Half dead and her cheek now stinging in addition to her headache, she poked her hand over the end of the couch, casting about the floor until she gripped a discarded shirt. Satisfied, she pulled it up and pressed it to her bloody cheek.

          The sounds diminished, her headache eased off ever so slightly and she shut her eyes. At first a comforting blackness met her behind her closed lids, then pops of light, and finally more snippets from the previous night.

          Henry had his arm flung over her neck and was trying to cop a feel. She brushed him aside. Stupid drunk Henry was a pain.

          “But…” he muttered pathetically and motioned to their friends across the table. Erika and the mystery guest were buried in each other’s faces with way too much PDA for even the most desperate of couples, let alone two perfect strangers.

          Time lurched forward.

          People laughing. People leaving.

          Just the four of them now, Teagan and Henry, and Erika and what’s his face. More laughter. Then Milly and Aaron slam into the booth beside them, Aaron missing his seat entirely and taking a few beers down with him.

          A bartender shouting. Telling them they were cut off.

          That stranger, finally unlocked from Erika, trying to calm the man down. That pale, weird stranger. Dapper clothes and effeminate features, but something so charming. At last the bartender relented.

          “Fine. It’s last call anyway.”

          The stranger nodded to the others.

          “Take a seat. I got this round.” His voice rang with a lyrical quality and a tinge of reverb. His face skipped forward, then back, like the flicker of a film reel, or another jump of time. They really needed to stop drinking.

          Teagan opened her eyes. Last call. The words stuck with her. She tried to picture that mystery man, to get a firm grasp on his face, but it would never lock in. Just something evocative and pale, and fueled by nightmares. It didn’t make sense, and her thoughts seemed to worm around him, sloshing about in either direction unable to hold. Somewhere deep down her mind connected him to an abstraction, an idea more than a physical thing, but that had to be the alcohol talking. His face flashed one more time, a stretched and distorted nightmare pulled from the fuzzy edges of her vision.

          Last call, she thought again. She needed to reach Milly, and she needed to reach her right now.

          She checked her phone. Nothing back from Milly or Aaron. She rang again, but still they didn’t answer. At last she tapped over to Erika. As the call rang through, she snorted again, swallowing back more snot. Her head was so stuffed.

          She pulled the shirt back from her cheek revealing three small lines of blood. Not bad. She’d had worse scratches from cats before, though never like this from Elder. It wasn’t like him. The way he had puffed up —

          Erika’s voice broke through Teagan’s thoughts. “Hello?”

          “Hey, Erika. You sound like hell.”

          “Sure. The same could be said…You know.”

          “Yeah. We might should lay off for a while.”

          “Good by me.”

          “Have you heard from Milly?”

          “Not since, like, last night.”

          Damn it. One line of questioning closed. Next up…

          Teagan strained to push on. The effort of speaking, and more of listening, did her and her obvious migraine no favors. “And your mystery bae?”

          “Oh God.” Erika’s voice dripped with regret. “Don’t even go there. Like, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was so mad at Mike and then this guy, he just like…he was so there… and can we just forget he ever existed?”

          “I almost got you covered there. I can’t remember jack. All flashes after the Whiskey, then him grabbing the last round.”

          “Oh, hot hell. The tequila.”

          Teagan shut her eyes, ready to drift off, but another flash lit up. The stranger coming back with a tray of shots – tequila shots. She had had tequila. Lime chasers by each. Something else. Something pulsing. His hand so pale.

          “You get Goth boy’s number?”

          “Jerk ditched me after those last shots. All hot and, like, heavy all night, like he could just play me. I don’t even let Mike do half of… I just couldn’t… he was so… I can’t even put words to it, you know?”

          “Yeah, I do.” Every time Teagan tried to picture him his face still shifted. That thought of an abstraction returned. All she could capture were those snapshots, that smooth, icy skin. A fair image, but always blurred or jerking in and out of focus. And a sense of something primal. He had oozed with an irresistible charm. And his eyes…

          “Oh, hell.” Her head shrieked, another stab of pain slicing back through the cornea, right through the soft tissue and back to gray matter. “I can’t.”

          “Yeah,” Erika said. “We so outdid ourselves last night. It’s never been, like, this bad.” As she finished she sniffed, then sneezed.

          Alarm bells went off.

          “You don’t have allergies, Erika. Right?”

          “No. I’m just coming down with something I guess. There’s just so much pressure. It’s like it’s all swelling up behind my eyes and my nose. Just this constant pressure, you know?”

          Teagan panicked. Her heart went racing and she could feel the sweat already beading on her forehead. What exactly had happened last night? The thought held a new level of urgency.

          “Teague, are you there?” Erika’s voice drew Teagan back to the phone. “You’re cutting out.”

          Caller ID showed Henry’s headbanging profile beeping in.

          “Hold that. My lazy ass boyfriend’s calling from the bathroom.”

          “He’s what?”

          Teagan tapped over to the other call. “More water, love?”

          No response, just a sort of a throaty murmur.

          “Henry?”

          A loud pop sounded and then something sloshing in water.

          Oh hell. Here we go.

          “Henry, did you just throw up? I’ll get you some water. I’ll be right there.”

          With effort, Teagan rose, grabbed what was left of her water glass and made her way down the hall to the bathroom. She tapped back to Erika briefly.

          “Hey, Erika. I’ll have to call you back. Henry’s pretty bad off.”

          “Join the club.”

          “You good?”

          “Yeah, yeah. Call me back.”

          Teagan pocketed her phone once more, and approached the shut door.

          “Love, are you okay?”

          She toed it open, again, then everything stopped. Time. Her heart. Her breathing. She died. Everything died, and her hands loosed, the glass falling to the tile. Then everything snapped back into focus. Her breath came out in a huff, and her heart pounded and skipped like a broken record.

          Henry was dead. He lay, his head hanging into the toilet, only you couldn’t rightly call it a head anymore. The skull, his skull had cracked right open, his scalp and face scattered, and hanging, and torn, and floating like chunks of viscera in the bloody water, now not so clear. And there were things floating there, things, bits of brain, and bone, and ….

          “FUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” She screamed, dragging the word out, and living it, and feeling it in a way she never had before, but completely lost in it – in the hurt of it, the pain and the frustration, and every emotion roiling together and bubbling like the grease in the pan.

          “What the holy hell!”

          And the tears flowed now, they streamed an epic river, dripped and splattered mixing with the snot now oozing from her nose, and all mingling in a slime-salt cocktail that she sucked down as every emotion tore for attention.

          She couldn’t believe he was dead, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see what had happened. As if…

          Elder hissed and yowled from the bedroom, giving her something, anything other than this sick shitshow on which to focus. Teagan fumbled back and peered into the room, holding onto the doorframe lest her legs give out. There stood Elder puffed up as before, hissing and panicked on the top of the headboard.

          “Hey, buddy…” She attempted a calming voice, but she lost it mid-way through. Her body spasmed with a wracking sob.

          Henry’s dead. He’s so fucking dead.

          They had been together for four years. They were supposed to be together. Always together. Henry and Teagan, just like Milly and Aaron. The names were one, they didn’t exist without the other. She was strong, and she had never needed him – it wasn’t that urgent I can’t breathe without you love – but the concept, the idea… they belonged together. Like milk and cereal. Rock and roll. Fucking chutes and ladders. None of it made sense.

          Try as she did, Teagan couldn’t hold her thoughts together. They sped off in every direction, bounced out and snapped back. And then Elder yowled again, and she zeroed back in on the cat.

          His ears were pressed back and his head pointed down, following something on the floor – something between the bed and the nightstand. As Teagan tried to catch a glimpse of what had cornered Elder, she noticed a wet trail on the bedroom carpet. Blood, and water, and muck, tracked in, leading all the way back — Teagan turned — to the bathroom.

          “Oh no. No, no, no.”

          Teagan backed out of the room, as Elder hissed and yowled some more, angry and desperate for help.

          I can’t.

          She continued to back up, bracing against the wall as her head began to throb. Oh, it hurt so bad. Her hand slipped into open air as she reached the hallway, and she fell with a resounding thwack against the wood floor, but she didn’t notice the pain of it. No all of the pain surged from her head, from her sinuses and her stupid, drumming, wailing brainpan.

          She slid back then, spider-walking down the hall, unable to turn her gaze from the direction of that room and moreover from that thing, whatever it was, that had dragged itself across the floor and currently had Elder in a panic. Focused back as she was, she didn’t notice how far down the hall she had fled until her right hand brushed against the broken plastic of the smoke detector.

          Oh, hadn’t that been a better time, smacking her silence piñata? Those were the days, right? She and Henry had been happy then. Him ignoring her and running off to vomit, and her reveling in her victory over the evil beeping detector of doom. She missed those days.

          Elder yowled once more and Teagan stopped. Elder belonged to Henry. Henry’s cat. Teagan and Henry’s cat. He was a part of them, and whatever that thing was, it had killed Henry. It had splattered his head open and it had gone after Elder, and she’d be damned if she was going to lose that bastard of a cat, too.

          Her hand gripped on the broken plastic and one of those light bulb moments went off like a bomb. Oh it was no grand plan, not even a fraction of one, but she knew what she had to do. Teagan reached out and found the broom still leaning against the wall. She gripped it and she stood, and she headed right back to that bedroom.

          As she passed the bathroom she averted her eyes. She couldn’t stand to see Henry that way again. Her migraine pounded, but she plowed on, wielding that broomstick in front of her like a knight’s sword. Her Excaliber. Hell, her Gibson Les Paul and nothing would stop her from crashing it down on that obscenity.

          She turned the corner into the bedroom. Elder had backed to the far edge of the headboard, but on the other end, it waited. IT. That thing.

          Teagan vomited, blood and pad thai, and way too much liquor finally flooding out of her. She wiped her mouth, vomited again, then forced herself upright. She would see IT, look at IT and know IT – that thing that had killed her Henry.

          IT slithered up the bedpost, a wet mass of tumorous lopsided nightmares, with protuberances jutting from every which spot wriggling and gripping, as if a knot of a thousand tiny legs tied and glued together and bound by some viscous muck. Jaws snapped out at random, from that mass, between legs and on legs and as legs, teeth clacking together, in some macabre unfathomable design that had no right to exist.

          Yet IT did, and IT hauled itself up that bedpost, an eyeless, shapeless, abomination trying to kill their cat. She tottered forward, weakly. Her foot pressed down onto the muck IT had dragged into their room. Her bare foot. On that trail. That IT trail. That Henry trail. That mix of blood and gore and whatever IT was.

          That’s when Teagan snapped. She could feel Henry’s blood on her skin, soaking into her foot, and that burning ooze that IT had left behind, mixed with the toilet water, and something spongy and organic, something she could not stop to think about. She snapped and she charged. The broomstick smashed down repeatedly, hitting into that soft tissue and IT fell to the floor between the bed and the nightstand.

          Still Teagan hammered home whacking at that thing. ITs teeth clattered and those mouths let forth a screeching, vile, hurt yowl, and IT dragged itself under the bed.

          “No.”

          Teagan dropped down and reached under and yanked IT out. Those teeth, those many-mouthed teeth – or many-teethed mouths, or was it both – bit down, as ITs stubby legs-things wriggled against her and she flung IT across the room, as her skin bubbled and blistered around each bite. IT screeched again as IT hit the wall with a wet smack.

          Then, sensing some innate fight or flight necessity, IT hurled itself at Teagan. She barely had time to think. She just reacted. She pulled back and cleaved that thing in two, the broom handle meeting with IT and pinning the monstrosity to the wall as her momentum continued to carry through and that tumor burst and split.

          The cleaved halves fell to the floor, and even inside IT existed a further tangle of teeth and mouths and wriggling, now dying protuberances. No logic could explain IT, as if IT was inside and out, wholly this mass looping in on itself in some Escher-like insanity.

          Teagan vomited again, then forced herself to look one last time upon the dead thing. One last protuberance danced then went still.

          Teagan shut her eyes, and a final vision of the previous night burst into being like pyrotechnics bursting above a stage.

          The stranger held out the tray of tequila shots.

          “Go on,” he said in that lilting, melodic oddly reverbing voice, and they all did. All except for him. Five shot glasses and they each grabbed one: Aaron and Milly, Erika, and Henry and Teagan. Two each to the pairs. Erika eyed it oddly. They all did. Something wriggled in the bottom of the shot, something pale, and knotted. A tiny fleck twisting in the alcohol. Whatever it was, it was abhorrent, and Teagan had gagged, reaching to set the glass back.

          “It’s only a tequila worm,” the stranger said.

          You don’t drink the worm, Teagan thought. And isn’t that for mezcal, not tequila? That’s not something one actually does, right? Yet even as she questioned him, she found herself irresistibly raising the glass to her lips. They all did. She couldn’t understand how or why this man was making them do this, but she knew that he was.

          She looked at him, and his face did its usual lurch, a flash of pale skin, a gleam of an eye, his smooth features. Never all at once. Just a face. Faces? Mouths? An idea? An abstraction… His face solidified – like a Picasso, or some GWAR nightmare, everything at impossible angles, duplicates where they shouldn’t be and absences where something should be. Then he blurred once more and his face was once again that of the beautiful, mysterious stranger.

          “Down the hatch,” he said, and they all downed their shots.

          Teagan opened her eyes. She wanted to scream again. To yell more obscenities, but it didn’t matter now. She sniffed, and winced, and reached out to pet Elder. He shrank back from her. She would not be allowed that kindness.

          She thought about who she should call or what she should say, but she couldn’t imagine the words. Nothing she might say would explain it, nor would it provide her or anyone else any closure. It would just be torture.

          She tiptoed to the bathroom, stepping over Henry’s body, and looked in the mirror. Her face had reddened. She could see trace amounts of swelling around her eyes and her nose. Her cheek had puffed up around the claw marks from Elder. The cuts jiggled a little and another stabbing pain bore through her skull.

          Teagan didn’t have long now. She could feel her throat constricting as another mass grew inside her sinuses, some strange protuberance beginning to encroach on her airway. Milly and Aaron were already gone. That was clear now. Only she and Erika remained. She wanted to call and warn her, but in the end it was better if Erika didn’t know. Maybe she’d lie down and take a nap. Maybe she wouldn’t feel it happening.

          IT slithered now, those protuberances encompassing her throat. She couldn’t breathe, and she couldn’t speak even if she had anything to say. This must have been what it felt like for Henry, when he made that last call. He had tried to tell her, but IT didn’t let him.

          Teagan closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see anymore. She felt the pressure building in her head as that mass expanded and knew she had only seconds. She pictured Henry, smiling and headbanging, hanging off that cartoon statue. She pictured him lying on the couch, listening to his tablet, the cacophony of so many screens blaring around him. She pictured Elder meowing at her feet. She wanted all of them, so she focused further back. The three of them lying in bed, smiling and watching cartoons. Elder had curled up between them. Henry was scritching his head, and Elder purred. A small sliver of sunshine warmed the blanket and Teagan nuzzled up to her family, happy and safe in their embrace. Henry and Teagan. And even that ass, Elder.

          She smiled and the pressure burst.

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 3

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

3 – Divergent Paths

          There had been no communication between Lacroix and the Galactic Coalition for over a year. No messages could be received nor transmitted by the research post. As such, Dr. Jiya Kapoor had not spoken with anyone off-base since her father had first communicated that her mother had contracted Huang Gao’s disease. By best estimates her mother maybe had a month left now, if she wasn’t already dead, and Jiya had no way to speak with her, let alone reach her.

          As such, Jiya had been in a miserable state for some time. She attempted to focus on her studies as best as she could, researching the biology of the bentari and other potentially related pseudo-fauna, but as time dragged on it became harder and harder for her to focus on the task at hand. Of course she’d be a liar if she didn’t admit that it wasn’t just the crisis with her family that had disrupted her focus. The state of the research colony had been in rapid disintegration for months even before communication had been lost.

          Something was amiss on Alium, and whether it was a natural migratory shift, or the sign of something far more catastrophic, Jiya could not say with any level of certainty. The Coalition’s research into the planet was too new, with barely a decade and a half of data collected and only by the marginal population of less than a hundred inhabitants, themselves a mix of researchers and necessary station crew with less scientific backgrounds. There just wasn’t enough historical or long-term studies to provide conclusive answers.

          Nonetheless, Jiya feared for the worst.

          Like many mornings over the preceding weeks, she found herself cresting over a hillock just south of Lacroix, well within the quarantine perimeter, and approaching upon Haruka Lake. She enjoyed the walk and it eased the tensions that usually plagued her. A few purple pinwheels twirled their helicopter-like wings and rose up over the thin layer of fog that drifted across the placid surface of the water. A garon mating call rasped from within a small patch of sapphire bentai, or fictusherba sapphyrus, a potential link between the evolutionary trees of the bentari, fictusherba primus, and the squid trees, fictus abora. This potential link was a major hypothesis of one of her three primary research projects, in which Jiya postulated a common ancestor between these three pseudo-fauna, and their own branch on the evolutionary tree above the split with, and separated from, the other primary pseudo-fauna of the Hiawatha savanna.

          This morning, however, she pushed her research aside to simply enjoy the moment at hand, and to take solace in the peace that Haruka Lake provided her. The reed-like bodies of the bentai swayed with a light wind, their blades still spooled tight shielding against the morning dew. The scene reminded her of the bamboo plants piercing the waters of Lake Armstrong by her childhood home, and of early spring mornings as her mother and she waded up to the ankles along the shore collecting Freyan freshwater sand crabs, giggling as the crabs’ legs tickled against their palms. Often, as they bent down to scoop up their prize from beneath the soil of the shore, they had braced themselves against the shoots of bamboo.

          Jiya ran the tips of her fingers up along the spooled blade of the closest bentai. The stalk-like appendage felt feathery to the touch, but also pulsing with life. The bentai jolted, then spooled its blade tighter to protect itself from any potential predators. The tighter it wound and the denser its blade became, the greater threat it posed, it’s reed-like blade honing to a deadly point.

          Jiya let her fingertips fall aside, then toed away a thick clump of Hiawatha moss. It was the closest life form to an earth plant on the planet, and one of the only photosynthesizing life-forms that had a permanent rooted structure, lacking any form of mobility. The soft, blue pseudo-fauna offered a comfortable cushion, but it was also highly toxic to humans, so the fewer spores she picked up on her clothes, the better. She set upon the loose dirt revealed beneath the moss, and stared out across the lake, thinking of home and of her mother.

          Only a moment passed as she sat level with the surface fog, condensation clinging to her hair, before a thunderclap sounded above. Another, and another, and another rung out in rapid succession. The precision of the sound was distinct; man-made. Multiple flying objects had broken the sound barrier. That could mean only one thing; the Coalition had sent a crew to investigate the silence of Alium.

          Jiya looked up. The camouflage of the holographic dome worked in both directions, so at first she saw nothing but a lightly clouded sky. Then the first descent capsule burst into existence, popping through the dome. Immediately, the largest swarm of pinwheels she had ever seen rose up from the northern campus and flocked to the capsule, drawn by its heat. The swarm pushed in upon it crowding into every potential entry, and as the pinwheels landed she knew they would be sinking in their tiny rhizora siphoning heat from the vehicle. With enough force, they would obliterate the capsule.

          A second capsule glided through the dome, and the scene repeated itself. Now smoke billowed from the first, and Jiya could see small fires breaking out as the pinwheels wound themselves between the aft heat shield and the capsule itself, piercing through the seal interface gap. As a third capsule broke through the dome, two smoke trails billowed up from the damaged landers that had preceded it. Only this time as the swarm approached a billow of ash, water vapor, and smoke released while the capsule jettisoned its heat shield. The burnt metal alloy arced away, crashing like a meteor onto a distant stretch of plain, and the retrorockets that had hidden beneath its shielding roared to life, slowing the trajectory of the capsule.

          The swarm had fled from the conglomerate cloud momentarily, not yet clasping to the outer shell of the capsule. Then as the fires flared to life from the rockets, the swarm had charged forward again, only this time drawn to the heat of the flames. Hundreds of burnt pinwheels fluttered and fell from the sky consumed by the heat they so desired. Yet a new problem threatened the third capsule. As its descent slowed its parachute slackened threatening to fall upon the capsule, likely catching itself on fire as the cloth tangled against the rockets. Before this could happen, the retrorockets ceased firing and the capsule dropped like a stone, until the parachute fully expanded again sending the whole configuration into a wild spin.

          The third capsule fought back to some semblance of equilibrium, steadying out, and Jiya watched it shift back into a gentle arc. It descended, its chute billowing above, and for a minute she thought it just might land safely. Just as she let out a sigh of relief, convinced the worst had been averted, an explosion sounded and the first of the capsules disintegrated into slivers of shrapnel scattering destruction across the grasslands. The force of the blast blew the remaining two capsules off course, propelling them in opposite directions, the second of the capsules arcing in giant ball of fire, a man-made meteor hurtling towards the surface of Alium.

          The remnants of the three swarms fluttered in the open skies, then merged into one massive swarm and descended upon a new target as the fourth capsule crashed through the camouflaged dome. The pinwheels were hungrier and in greater numbers than Jiya had ever observed, and the chances of any of the Coalition crews surviving were rapidly diminishing. Jiya had to get help.

          As she ran back to Lacroix in search of aid, Jiya just caught sight of a safety tether snapping on the third capsule’s parachute. Yes, they’re going to need help, she thought. If they survive the impact.

Back to Chapter 1

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 2

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

Author’s Note:

My schedule remains off and for that I apologize. In lieu of the finale to The Dark Beneath, I will be posting the second chapter of the Silence of Alium. This work has taken a lot of my focus lately as I plan out the long game for the novel / novelette (still up in the air)


2 – Trajectories

          Sergeant Robles held fast to the grip above his head. He’d tightened his safety harness as tight as he could manage, and though he couldn’t be certain, he felt fairly confident he’d cut the circulation to his left leg. Well, maybe not quite, but close enough. The strap bit in against his upper thigh like a tourniquet. It felt painful and numb at the same time, and though his rational mind begged him to loosen the strap, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

          He didn’t know how he’d ever made Sergeant. Born Rafael Roberto Robles, Rafael had always had an anxious temperament. He’d inherited it from his father, a relapsing alcoholic that had committed suicide when Rafael was only eleven. His mother always told Rafael that his father had been haunted by personal demons that he could not conquer and that he had died from an illness, no different than pneumonia or Huang Gao’s Disease. Rafael understood, but much like his current predicament with the straps, he’d been unable to reconcile his rational understanding with his emotional turmoil.

          He’d joined the army still battling both anger and grief over his father. Anger, because his father had been too afraid to face living, and grief in that his father had been compelled by his anxieties and depression to believe that death was his only option. When he’d signed on, Rafael determined that he would face down death, and that he would not be defined by his father. Now, sweating as the descent capsule Cerebus tugged against its primary parachute and clutching the safety handle for dear life, he could only speculate that his promotions came down to nothing more than attrition. He’d survived his engagements where others had not, even if by blind luck. Courage had nothing to do with it.

          “Sergeant Robles!”

          Staff Sergeant Simmons, jaw set, locked eyes with Rafael. This was his third engagement with Simmons, but he still couldn’t look the man in the eye without freezing like a deer in headlights.

          “Yes, sir.”

          “I need you focused.”

          Great, focused. That’s nice. We’re in a free fall, our fate in the hands of 100 yards of fabric and a tiny web of rope, and not a damn piloted system to control, but I better stay focused. You know, in case there’s an emergency for me to gape at. All of this ran through his head, but Rafael didn’t dare speak it out loud. Simmons scared the Holy Bejesus out of him. It was his eyes. They were black as midnight, and he swore they didn’t shine with even a hint of life. Never had such a man existed with eyes deader than those of Staff Sergeant Simmons. He was a devil made flesh.

          “Yes, sir. I’m focused, sir.”

          “Good. Stay sharp.”

          Sharp. Yeah, I can do that. Rafael lessened his grip on the safety handle relaxing into the soft comfort of the crash couch. That’s when the good doctor burst in from the peanut gallery.

          “Was that the chute?”

          Sergeant Lance daned to open her eyes. “Relax, doctor. It’s nothing.”

          Nothing? Why was the man asking about the parachute? That didn’t sound like nothing.

          Rafael managed a glimpse up through one of the three upper portholes. He didn’t want to look. The very thought of what he might find petrified him. At the same time, he knew that he had to look. If death was coming today, he’d face it, scared shitless, but knowing its inevitability. Directly above the porthole he saw it – a rip in the primary shoot.

          “Well, hell, looks like today’s the day,” he muttered – just barely audible. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud. It just slipped out.

          “Don’t be such a fatalist, Tre.” Private Second Class Walcott. Walcott and Rafael had come up in basic together. She had called him Tre ever since she had spotted his triple R initials embroidered on one of his kerchiefs. Some of the others in basic had taken to calling him Snotrag due to that same kerchief, so Rafael had always felt it best to leave well enough alone and give Walcott Tre. If Rafael was honest with himself, she deserved the command more than he did, but bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and the politics of the moment placed him in charge of team Baker.

          “Don’t be a fatalist? The f’ing chute just ripped.”

          “Keep yourself in check, Sergeant Robles. You have a team to command.” Simmons again.

          “Yes, sir.”

          Rafael held his tongue on any further commentary. The chute had ripped and the winds and the descent sent Cerebus twisting and turning in an awful spin, even as the pull of gravity tugged ever harder, but he’d keep calm for his unit. Shit ton of good it’ll do them, he thought, when we crash into Alium and flatten like a pancake.

          Walcott continued, ignoring Staff Sergeant Simmons. “Today’s not the day. Don’t forget the backup.” Walcott may have been the only one that knew about Rafael’s obsession with death; he’d made the mistake of opening up after one too many drinks on the eve of his promotion to Sergeant. Ever since she had been there to walk him down.

          As if on queue, the backup chute deployed and the entire capsule snapped back yanked upwards from its rapid descent. Cerebus rocked and twisted, rolling in all directions from the abrupt deployment.

          Across the way, Dr. Offredi clung to his armrests for dear life. Private Park had closed his book and sat calmly through the whole affair. Lance, Ruegger, and Simmons did likewise. Karzai smirked, enjoying a private joke, or at least that is what it looked like to Rafael. That left Bills, Varma, and Walcott.

          To his left, Walcott, having succeeded in calming him, now grinned from ear to ear hooting and hollering with each swing of the capsule. Varma, that tank of a man, hollered right back, laughing and swearing and having the time of his life. Varma and Walcott always took an insane level of pleasure from atmospheric entry.

          Bills on the other hand, Bills was new. He had his face plastered into his barf bag, and appeared to be hyperventilating. Lance cocked him a one-eyed glance, muttered under her breath, then stirred to deal with it. Bills was part of Alpha team, and thus her responsibility.

          Rafael didn’t bother listening to their conversation. He closed his eyes and prayed. The backup chute had opened, but if it ripped as well, there were no further lifelines.

          He lowered his head, closed his eyes, and gestured the sign of the cross, as he began his prayer, soft and just barely audible.

          “In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” He finished the gesture, but remained bowed in prayer.

          “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

          Finished, Rafael signed the cross again, then eased against his crash couch, a calm slowly warming through him. The insane rocking of the capsule had eased and the rocky entry had at last abated, beginning the slow and gentle descent, buoyed by the backup chute.

          Walcott, no longer competing with Varma to out macho the other in riding out the frantic bucking of Cerebus, cast Rafael a concerned glance. She was up to something.

          “I’m fine. Really.”

          “Uh-huh.” Walcott didn’t buy it. She glanced about, grasping at the beginning of an idea. As she did, a gentle whir sounded, and two large sections of wall shifted, retracting on a track to reveal two curved windows running along the top of the crash couches, each opening upon an outstanding panoramic view of Alium.

          “I spy.”

          “Really, Walcott,” said Rafael. “I spy? We’re not twelve you know.”

          “It’s a long way down. Just shut up and humor me.” Walcott turned her attention towards the view outside the window. As she did, so to did Rafael.

          Below the Hiawatha Savannah stretched out from horizon to horizon, a sea of purples, dotted with copses of electric blue, all beneath thin wisps of cloud. Rafael knew it wasn’t really a savannah – not a grassland at all. There was no grass on Alium. Evolution had taken a different path here. Yet, the purple mass of the bentari swayed below in a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Earth broken in clusters by groves of aboras, known to most as squid trees or squidders. Much like the bentari were not actually grasses, the squid trees were not trees. Instead they existed somewhere between animal and plant, slow, massive beasts with tentacle-like trunks that rooted and uprooted at will, and blue, scale-like hairs that acted like leaves, generating energy from sunlight.

          Yet in the infinite stretch of falsehoods below, Rafael knew that even this image was in itself a lie, a camouflage of the world as it should be. Alium’s Lacroix outpost existed somewhere beneath that veil, named in honor of the first colonist to discover extraterrestrial life, the famous architect of Enhet Basen at the beginning of man’s conquest of the stars. Considering the troubled history of Enhet Basen, Rafael could not discern if the honorarium bode well or for ill, but his gut assured him that nothing good could come of it.

          Walcott pushed forward with her distraction. “I spy something blue.”

          “A fucking grove of squidders,” said Varma. “Come on, Walcott.”

          “Fine, you go.”

          “Nah, let’s give the new blood a try. Bills?”

          Bills wiped at his mouth securing his vomit bag. “What?”

          “Your turn.”

          “My turn for what?”

          Varma shook his head. “I can’t work with this.”

          Walcott nodded at Private Bills. “Just a game of I spy. It keeps your mind off the descent. What do you see?”

          “Fine, fine,” said Bills. “I spy with my little eye something white and fluffy.”

          Karzai jumped in, unable to sit by while a private on her team disgraced himself. “A cloud? That’s the best you got? You’re descending on an alien planet, an inhabited planet with one of the most unique ecosystems in the galaxy and you pick a damn cloud? You’ve got to give it more than that, Bills.”

          As the two continued to bicker, Rafael searched the skies for the other squads. The Hecate capsule should be somewhere above them, likely just opening its chute based upon the launch sequence, but Chimera and Ladon had to be well on their way.

          Meanwhile Private Bills, still barely holding to what remained of his lunch, gave in, waving off Karzai’s assault. “Fine,” he said. “I spy with my little eye something purple.”

          “The bentari? The f’ing bentari. This is just an embarrassment. You represent Able team, damn it. Hell, you represent Cerebus.”

There it was. Rafael caught site of Ladon, its orange and white parachute stretched out in its wake. “Gotcha,” he muttered just under his breath.

          As he watched it descend towards the vast sea of purple, the capsule blinked out of existence. It had vanished beneath Lacroix’s camouflaged dome, a holographic illusion generated along the perimeter of the base to hide its presence from the local fauna. The system functioned in an arc, requiring two points for each beam of the hologram, much like the old interlacing of televisions. A line of singular nodes ran in 180 degrees around Lacroix, before the second nodes began, each pairing with their opposite node 180 degrees away – the total effect of which was the complete concealment of the base, and anything passing within that barrier.

          Though Rafael could not find the Chimera capsule, he assumed that it too had already descended beyond visual confirmation. Still he searched, seeking any signs to the contrary, but before he could finish a complete scan, a raucous shout from Bills broke Rafael’s focus.

          “Well, I didn’t see one but I got a damn rhino right here.” Bills groped lewdly at himself, emphasizing his point. “But if you don’t want to see that, go ahead and take your own turn.”

          Karzai shook her head. “I spy with my little eye, something tiny struggling to compensate.”

          “Oooh, oooh!” Private Ruegger chimed in. “Private Bills. Am I right?”

          Rafael shook off the distraction and resumed his scan of the skies. The descent was routine, save for the reliance on the backup chute, but even so he was in charge of half of the squad. He owed it to them to be alert, for whatever good it might do. Death was not coming today. It had been forsworn.

          “Bingo.” Karzai waved in a mock display of showmanship. “Give the man a prize.”

          “Up yours, Ruegger.” Bills had decided the entire game was bullshit. “And you, too, Karzai.”

          “Not on your life.” Karzai smiled. She liked having the upper hand.

          Off to his right Rafael spotted it. Then again to his left just above where Ladon had vanished. Death was coming after all.

          “Everyone, shut up.”

          Simmons leaned in. “Sergeant Robles?”

          “My three and eight, sir.”

          Simmons scanned the horizon. Everyone did, and as they did a hush took over the capsule. Two pillars of smoke rose out of nothing, as if appearing in thin air. They billowed up from beneath the veil and that could mean only one thing – Ladon and Chimera were burning. With every passing second Cerebus sped closer to the holographic surface and closer to whatever fate had befallen the other squads.

          Simmons took command. “Sergeant Robles, call up Ladon and Chimera. Lance, Hecate.”

          “Yes, sir,” they responded in unison, Lance rousing into action for the first time.

          Rafael dialed in to Ladon’s frequency, even as he knew that he should be calling the platoon leader. Soon they would be within the camouflage boundary, suffering from whatever fate had befallen their comrades. Calling them was a waste. A warning needed to go through. Yet Simmons had never led them wrong, and the chain of command was the chain of command.

          “Ladon, this is Cerebus. Do you copy? Over.”

          Nothing. The line didn’t connect. Although he knew that if Ladon was gone, there was little chance of reaching Chimera, Rafael dialed over to their frequency.

          “Chimera, this is Cerebus. Do you copy? Over.”

          The same silence greeted him.

          Across the way Lance shouted directions to Hecate above, alerting them to the smoke trails.

          Simmons turned to Rafael.

          “Robles, platoon leader.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          He dialed in, but it was too late. Cerebus descended beneath the barrier and all communication lines went down. Rafael dropped the dialing mechanism and turned his attention out to the panorama below. Swarms of violet engulfed both Ladon and Chimera as flocks of pinwheels, distant cousins of the bentari, enveloped themselves around the capsules as tongues of flame and plumes of smoke trailed behind. Could that many pinwheels feed off the heat of one capsule? Was it even possible? Something unnatural was happening and there were only seconds to respond.

          As that thought flashed through Rafael’s mind, Chimera’s parachute shredded beneath another swarm.

          Simmons shouted at Robles in the background but his voice had muted. Rafael tuned out all distractions. He had a mission.

          “Well, hell,” he said as he unbuckled his safety harness. “Looks like today’s the day.”

          As the last buckle unclasped, he shot from the security of the crash couch and leapt towards the retro rocket panel, tucked between the two panoramic windows. He slammed his hand against the jettison button, just as a swarm of madly twirling pinwheels, part of Alium’s unique flora-fauna hybrids, crashed against the windows. On its own, a singular pinwheel was nothing to worry about – merely a leafy, bug-like flier no bigger than a dragon fly. In swarms pinwheels could wreak havoc on machinery, feeding off heat, clogging electrical systems, and if gathered in enough numbers they could tear a parachute to pieces. Of course until today, that had all been hypothetical. Pinwheels existed in the roots of the food chain, their population tightly limited by predators. Obviously those constraints had lifted.

          The heat shield ejected from Cerebus, plummeting to Alium, and sending forth a great cloud of steam and smoke. The pitter patter of the pinwheels leaf forms’ battering into the windows rose to a cacophonous din and Rafael could feel the seconds stretch for hours, every movement slow beyond measure. As the smoke of the jettison procedure wrapped around Cerebus he could see the pinwheels retreat, but soon that vapor would wisp away and the flock would return. Today Rafael would face death, but he would not join her.

          The shield gone, landing procedures could be initiated. Of course Cerebus was nowhere near ready to land, but one problem at a time. Rafael hit the ignition on the retro rockets, their engines sparking to life. A great upward force exerted on the capsule slowing Cerebus’ descent. More importantly, the pinwheels turned mid-flight shifting and reorienting – descending like moths to flame and burning in the fires of the rockets.

          So far, so good. Rafael signed the cross then looked above through the upper portholes as a great shadow descended upon the capsule. They hadn’t detached from the parachute and with the rockets going full blast, a collision was imminent. Rafael slammed a full stop on the rockets as the chute tangled with the capsule. With the sudden loss of upward momentum, the capsule dropped, yanking at the ropes of the parachute and sending Cerebus into an uncontrolled spin.

          With no belt securing him, Rafael continued along the trajectory of the previous upward momentum even as the capsule rapidly descended. He didn’t even have time to shield himself. He thought of his father and what it would be like to meet him, then Rafael crashed headfirst into the ceiling of Cerebus, his world exploded, and then there was nothing.

Back to Chapter 1

August 2017 Status Update

August has arrived and here is where I stand.

 

  • Horror Stories Underway: I began The Dark Beneath with the intent of keeping it to 2 parts. In fact the story is now looking to conclude in its fifth installment this Friday. My second story underway is looking to be 5 parts (~10,000 words) and has been delayed while I work on a few additional story ideas.
  • New Sci-Fi Story Underway: I began The Silence of Alium with a five-part short story in mind. Upon delving into a writing community and thinking about my sci-fi work I am considering changing course to a novel or at the very least a novelette. The second chapter is underway now.
  • Delving into Wattpad: Story submissions continue to Wattpad, where you can engage directly with my stories paragraph by paragraph.
  • Arcas nearing completion: Art is nearly done and I’m working on a few revisions, polishing the script.
  • Novelette by late 2017: Calling Mr. Nelson Pugh, still has final edits underway. My hope is to have it published by late 2017 and available as an e-book, though I will be soon submitting it to a new group of Beta readers for additional feedback.
  • Short Story Horror Anthology: I am still planning to publish an anthology of horror shorts. This would include material from this site (but having been vetted through additional edits), and previously unpublished material, with close to a 50/50 new to reprinted ratio. I have passed my 70,000 word minimum goal. Edits will likely take six months to a year depending on availability of editors, and some additional connective tissue is being drafted. With that being the case, I expect a late 2018 publication.
  • Horror Novel underway: I am about 35,000 words into my first full length horror novel. It is too early to predict a completion date, but I am considering posting chapters to this site as I get further along. I would love to know if there is interest in reading it chapter by chapter as I push through the first draft. Feel free to sound off in the comments.
  • Co-written Sci-fi Comic: Finally I am also collaborating as a co-writer and creator for an additional science-fiction comic. My writing partner and I are in the early stages of this project, but I hope to have more updates soon.

There is probably a little I missed, but that’s enough for now. If anything in there strikes your interest, chime in. I’d be happy to discuss. Bye for now.

Happy Writing, All!

The Dark Beneath – Part Four

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Sitting around pondering her next step wouldn’t do her any good. Maybe that thing had broken into her room, maybe it was still right outside that door. Either way, Lori had to be quick.

          She chewed at her lip, drumming up her courage and listening for any sound of that abomination. The room had fallen silent.

          Beverly? The thought struck Lori with a sudden wave of panic. Her eyes darted to the dark beneath the bed.

          Her fear slammed to a halt, her emotions shifting from one extreme to the next almost instantly. Lori could almost taste the adrenaline pulsing through her system, colliding with that heart-stopping relief as she saw Beverly staring up at her.

          Then Beverly began to bark once more.

          CRACK!

          That man-thing thrust itself back through the rupture in the door. It must have eased itself out when she was in the closet, but much of the splintered wood had also given away with its retreat. Now it managed to fit both arms and its head through. It would be able to climb right in.

          It gnashed its hideous, blood-stained teeth at her, the ripped flesh of its lips crusting over in another basaltic cooling, that ooze secreting, dripping, and steaming off of it. A thin stream of blood hung from the torn flesh, a drip of blood-spittle. As it bit the air, thrashing to reach her, that dog-like saliva sprayed across the wood paneling.

          Lori dashed for Beverly, thrusting her hand beneath the bed and gripping the Pomeranian by the scruff of her neck. She hauled her out and thrust her into the dog carrier, flung it over her shoulders and bolted for the window.

          Time slowed and the soft sounds of the room amplified, while the yowling of that man-thing fell away to a distorted muted scream in the background noise of Lori’s panic. Above all things, loudest of all, she heard a pin drop. No. A screw. As it bounced, another soft echo of metal against wood sounded. The sideplate. It seemed to clang against the floor for minutes that stretched into eons. Then came that final horror. The sound of the wood rending apart as the door collapsed in.

          Already swiveling her legs down to the ledge, Lori looked back to find that monstrosity bounding towards her, the door biting into its midsection, transformed from the widening maw to some hideous splintered tutu of jagged wood encircling burnt flesh. The image struck her as both hideous and absurd, and a laugh bubbled up unbidden.

          And it stopped.

          That man-thing stopped and it tilted its head at Lori as if considering her laughter. The thing’s eyes still hid away beneath the drooping flesh fusion of its forehead and cheeks, but just that askew tilt alone signaled its puzzlement with perfect clarity.

          Lori had no clue what to make of it, but she also had no time to stop to consider it. Beverly barked at the thing in the door waking Lori from her reverie. Instantly she flew into action, slipping the rest of the way out onto the ledge, nine stories up. She had planned to sidle over away from the window, but as she slipped into the cold night air outside her bedroom window she heard that thing snap back into action itself. She could feel the breeze on her back as it charged, and praying for luck, she pivoted on her right heel, swinging herself out over the nine-story gap, until she had turned a full 180 degrees, her face now pressed against the rough Art Deco exterior.

          Beverly slipped in the carrier, sliding into the side and dragging the bag off Lori’s shoulder with her weight. Quickly, Lori hooked her elbow, catching the bag and her dog before they fell to the pavement below. As she did, a blackened hand pounded into the concrete where her head had been. The exterior pebbled, spider-webbing from the impact.

          Her head knotted from the tension, Lori sidled three feet to the left, her arm still hooked around the carrier’s shoulder strap. That thing groped out with its sickening arm, searching for her, but as she lay still it could not find her. Next, it thrust its head through the opening and cast its gaze about in every which direction and still it was unable to spot her.

          Lori didn’t even dare sigh her relief. She pressed as tightly as possible to the wall and thanked everything that was holy, whether she believed in it or not, that the near drop of the carrier had startled Beverly into silence.

          Then it happened.

          That thing reached a hand to its face – a gray hand, so much char having flaked away that the skin had lightened – seized upon the melted flesh before it eyes, and yanked back tearing a bloody hunk away and casting it down towards the street. Blood oozed from the open wound in a heavy stream, but behind that crimson waterfall a cold eye stared out and spotted her.

          The thing’s motions slowed, taking on a more considered countenance. It gripped at the casing as if to to ease itself onto the ledge.

          Panic surged in a fresh wave through Lori. This had to end. She sidled as far away as she could, never removing her gaze from the intruder at the window, then stopped, unable to continue further with the carrier swinging from its tenuous grip in the crook of her elbow and pulling her off balance.

          She tried to right it, lifting her left arm, leveling it out, then raising it, all the while gripping as best she could to the concrete wall. As her arm passed level and the bag began to slide down to her shoulder, she felt her entire sense of balance spiraling.

          She lowered her arm, grabbing at a protruding lip of cement before an indented panel, and recovered her balance. She couldn’t shift the bag one-handed, and she couldn’t reach the bag with her right arm without pushing herself back from the wall, risking the nine-story drop.

          She froze.

          That blood-curtained eye remained locked on her, and the man-thing began to lift its leg out onto the ledge. This was it. Lori was dead.

          Below a siren blared to life, an emergency vehicle racing through the LA streets. Oh the music of Los Angeles. As the sirens wailed the man-thing watching her scrambled back into the apartment, its hands clawing at its ear nubs trying to rip out the loud sounds of the city.

          Lori let out a sigh of relief. Now she simply had to traverse an eight inch ledge around the bend and another twenty feet to her balcony. No problem.

          She sidled closer to the indented paneling, tightening her grip. Thank goodness for Art Deco. One hand clutching to the paneling, the other holding on precariously close to the window casing, she inched her left arm up, slowly sliding the carrier down towards her shoulder. Her legs quivered and she could feel the tremors rattling her knees as she desperately battled to maintain her footing. Bit by bit, the carrier slid down her arm, constantly shifting Lori’s center of balance. At last she could raise her arm no further without losing her grip. The carrier still had inches to go.

          Lori glanced to her right arm, still pressed so close to that open window. How long until that thing returned for her? She eased her hand closer and closer, until it tucked in right by her side. Now she just had to reach between herself and the wall so she could get a grip on the bag and right it. She slid her hand forward squeezing between her and the cement.

          As she crept her hand closer and closer to her shoulder, Lori had to press back, making room for her to gain leverage. She could sense the emptiness behind her – the open air and the long fall down. That void called for her, taunting her, and she froze. The tremors tore at her knees once more, her balance shifted, and Lori screamed. Her right foot gave, slipping into nothingness.

          She clung to the paneling with her left arm, and hurriedly reached back out with her right, pressing it back towards the casement. Her left leg struggled, the knee buckling as she threatened to fall. And with this sudden shift in weight the carrier strap slipped over her shoulder and slammed against her neck.

          Lori lost her balance.

          Still gripping the paneling, her right knee came down hard on the ledge, and her right hand slipped from the casing, down beside her knee. Pain burst in another flare clouding her vision. Her other leg shifted to the left, compensating for the quick drop and change in balance. Only her left arm remained in place, still gripping for dear life.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. The words rang out like an internal mantra, repeating on an infinite loop. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

          Her breath came in panicked gasps, and her lungs hurt. She wasn’t getting enough air; she was hyperventilating.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit – calm!

          Lori had to calm down. She had to calm down now. That thing was still inside, still waiting for her, but she couldn’t even worry about that now. One death-defying panic at a time. First she had to make sure she didn’t plummet to the street.

          Calm, calm, calm. A new mantra. A better mantra, offering sage advice rather than blind panic.

          Calm, calm, calm, she repeated, willing herself to regain control. Slowly, her breathing returned to normalcy. Her heart pounded and skipped. Skipped? Did it really skip? Calm, calm, calm.

          The racing in her breast eased. It didn’t go away – that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon – but yes it did ease. Lori let out a long, slow, exhale. She could do this.


          “Come on, Lori! You got this!”

          She could hear her softball team cheering her on as she stepped to bat. This was the moment of truth for the Badgers. She had to bring Joy home. No outs remained. She looked to Joy, and Joy waved and smiled with that perfect homecoming queen smile.

          “Go Lori! You got this!”

          But Joy had never cheered her on. None of them had. They had shunned her. They had called her a bitch and a slut and they had swooned after boys that all called her a feminazi, like wanting equality was some fascist, insane desire.

          This wasn’t how it had happened. This was how she had wished that it had happened, that they had liked her or more importantly respected and accepted her. That they had rooted for her rather than spat at her. This time she had to hit the ball home.


          Lori let out one final deep exhale and pulled herself to her feet. Her left knee strained as it took on her full weight, the veins on her wrist protruding with the effort of gripping the paneling. Her right arm scrambled for purchase, at last finding a slight crack in the cement. Her landlord would need to be notified about that. She chuckled at the thought, letting the tension wash away ever so slightly.

          A little higher now, a little more weight in that left foot… she could feel her knee threatening to pop. Just a little further. Sweat greased her palms, threatening her handhold on the indention. Just a little more.

          And…

          She was up. Her right foot found solid ground and she finally let out a sigh of relief. Beverly was properly shouldered after nearly dragging her down, Lori had her footing, and now she could begin the trek around the corner of the building. Things were looking up already.

          One step. Two steps. Three steps. Four steps.

          Not so bad. The window to her bedroom receded every so slowly, the distance between her and that thing widening.

          Six steps. Seven steps. Eight steps.

          The cool concrete felt rough against her cheek and the palms of her hands, but Lori didn’t dare push back. She had reached a relative calm, but that was the calm of someone pressed to a wall nine stories up – not a reassuring or strong calm. Definitely not one that instilled confidence.

          Ten steps. Eleven steps.

          The sweat poured from her palms. As Lori reached for another indented panel, her lead hand slipped rather than gripped. She could feel it fall into the empty space, and her heart didn’t so much sink as plummet. She slapped it back to the wall, the concrete scraping against her skin and the friction finally outweighing the sweatiness of her palms. Lori regained her handhold.

          Sweet Jesus, Lori.

          She caught her breath and chanted her internal mantra once more. Calm, calm, calm.

          Better. She only had a couple more steps to the corner. She could do this.

          Thirteen steps.

          She heard it before she saw it. The sound of the window being thrust up above the warp in the stile. It must have fallen when that thing had retreated inside. Suddenly, Beverly began to yap once more.

          “Damn it, girl, shut up!” That’d tell her.

          Her throat constricted and Lori could feel the imminent paralysis of fear threatening to take over. With deliberate and very careful attention, she turned her head.

          That burnt thing had lifted up the window and now sat there, perched just over the opening watching her. The aloe-like coating over its skin seemed to have vanished, and splotches of the dark burnt layer had flaked away revealing more gray skin beneath, this too seeming to crack like parched earth, but smoother than the previous char layer. The only large protrusions of char that remained still bubbling clung to a lump above its eyes, still drooping just down from the forehead, a scabbing around its lips, and a few tumorous protrusions encircling its waist.

          Fifteen steps.

          Lori made it to the corner, the ledge widening to accommodate a small statuary embellishment – a carving of a gargoyle. It wasn’t a full on landing, but at least here Lori could rest for a moment, resituate Beverly, and ease the tension in her shoulders and knees before traversing another twenty feet or so to her balcony.

          Standing there on the relative security of the widened corner ledge, Lori rolled her shoulders relishing with each stretch as her tension eased. All the while she stared at that man-thing. As it stared back, any release Lori had gained from the comfort of her increased footspace vanished. The shift in its appearance alone would have been enough to unnerve her, those bubbling char-scabs crusting over its most recent wounds – healing? – but her anxiety rooted less in the shift in its physical appearance and more in its change of demeanor.

          That thing hadn’t crashed through the glass of the window. It hadn’t clawed its way out to the ledge like a beast. It had opened the window. Opened it. More, as it stared at her, it didn’t thrash about hunting her with animalistic abandon. That thing watched. It was studying her, its eyes cold and calculating beneath that scabbed over brow.

          It was planning.

          Lori grabbed Beverly’s shoulder strap and lifted it from her left shoulder and over her neck to her right. Now she shouldn’t have to worry about her dog falling so easily. She leaned down and whispered to Beverly.

          “Shhh, girl. Shhh. It’s going to be okay.”

          She didn’t believe the words, but the calming tone was the trick. Beverly yapped a few more times as Lori continued to whisper in a smooth, dulcet tone. At last she cast Lori one confused glance, yapped a final time at the thing terrorizing them, then quieted in her carrier.

          Lori stood and readied herself for the final twenty feet. All the while, that thing had watched. As she took the first step around the bend she could see it still watching, its eyes locked on her – unwavering. A cold intelligence simmered in that gaze. As the char chipped away, so too did its animalistic inclinations. The rules of the hunt had changed.

Back to Part 1

Delay

          I won’t be pushing a traditional post today.

          Part Two of my Plodding, Perilous Quest for Readers blog will be updated soon. I have spent most of the past three weeks exploring a writing community, and have used my usual blogging time in delving deep into that platform. I hope to have strong enough an understanding of strategies within that service to soon add those details to the Periolous Quest blog post in a meaningful way. So, in what is a fairly long stretch now, I continue to delay this post to ensure it actually is drafted to my satisfaction. More soon.

          My Friday post, however, shall not be impacted. Part four of The Dark Beneath will post then.

          Happy Writing, All!

The Dark Beneath – Part Three

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          And she waited. The minutes passed, the hour changed, and no one came. No sirens approached, no knock at the door sounded, and no key turned the locks. No rescue arrived and neither did Dean.

          Lori glanced to the door. Was that thing still there? Had it left? She doubted she’d be that lucky, but she needed to know for sure. Waiting for help that might not come seemed just as likely to end horribly as any other option, and Lori would rather face whatever was coming with action than inaction. She would not die waiting for a white knight.

          Once more she tiptoed across the room, her slippers struggling for traction against the slick wood paneling. She tottered her arms out from her sides for balance, and assured of her footing continued towards the door.

          Wooden splinters pierced out from a crack down the center of the bottom panel, jutting out as if a grotesque underbite of some monstrous maw of needled teeth. Yet, fractured as it was that splintered door provided no glimpse into the hall beyond.

          Lori noted the bent sideplate at the top of the door with great trepidation. Her eyes flitting between that sideplate and the cracked maw of the wood, she lowered herself to the floor. Averting her gaze for as long as she dared, she stole a glance through the gap beneath the door.

          She made out no more than a dense patch within the darkness. If it was again that thing shadowed within the dark of the hall, or if it was nothing more than the normal black pitch of night, Lori could not say.

          She lay still and listened. The gentle whir of her central air buffeted her and she found a moment of comfort in the cool current raining down from the ceiling vent. Then the air abated and she heard it: a low rumbling, almost as if a deep and guttural snore. Was it sleeping out there, or was that merely the tembor of its breath?

          It didn’t matter. Her exit remained blocked.

          Or did it?

          She peered back over her shoulder to the window on which she had scrawled her message for help. Below that window ran a small ledge, no more than eight inches or so wide but running the length of the building. If she were careful, she should be able to make her way to her balcony, then into the living room and a straight shot to the front door. Or perhaps even all the way to the next apartment over, if the first option proved too risky.

          Dean was late, but he could arrive at any minute. Lori had to act quickly. Sure, if Dean stumbled in and that thing killed him, his death would not be her weight to bear, but her inaction would be. Would she be able to live with herself if she did not even try to do something?

          She really didn’t need to ask that question.

          Lori eased away from the door. Step after cautious step, she inched towards the window. The backwards muted rose letters confronted her, her haggard reflection mingling with the scrawled message. She stopped short upon seeing herself there, reflected against the cityscape. The knot on her head had grown, but it was the strain and the fear etched beneath her eyes that halted her. That thing out there had done this to her. It had changed her. It was trying trying to break her.

          It would fail.

          Carefully she closed the distance to the window and grasped the rail below the catch. It had been a long time since she opened her bedroom window, and it had never opened easily. The effort would likely be a loud one.

          Lori steeled herself, one solid breath in through the nose, gripped tight, then heaved. The window raised an inch, and with a great clamor as the warped stile caught against the casing.

          Immediately the thing behind her sounded. A loud din rose up and she could hear it frantically thrashing against the battered door. She spared a momentary glance over her shoulder.

          The door rattled in its frame, the upper sideplate bending and another screw working its way out. The hinge joint would not last. The splintered maw shook and stretched jutting further out into the room, now revealing a small gap through to the hall beyond. Flurried shadows danced as that thing flailed, its breathing now ragged and turbulent, the same guttural growl quaking beneath each roaring breath.

          Lori averted her gaze. She did not have time to watch fate approach; she needed to focus on making her own. She heaved once more upon the rail. The window stuck in the frame, resisting her. She strained, never slacking. Behind her the door cracked and she heard the soft clatter of metal tinging off the wood paneling. The damn sideplate. That would be the loosened crew, she supposed, but didn’t dare look to verify.

          She stopped, catching her breath, then stuck her fingers in the small opening beneath the bottom rail. A morbid thought struck unbidden and she envisioned the window snapping down crushing her fingers against the sill. Instinctually she wanted to withdraw her fingers from that gap, but she held back against the urge. The door would be coming down. She had to open that window.

          She bent her knees, locked her elbows at her side, and hauled up. Again the resistance of the warped stile mocked her, and she scrambled to come up with a new plan; then it gave. The window slammed up past the warp in the wood.

          Relief momentarily flooding in, she took a hurried look back to the door. The top sideplate held now by only one screw and the bottom plate had begun to give as well. A fresh pounding sounded as that thing struck against the wood, and the maw yawned open.

          A charred arm struck through, a blackened tongue scraping over the splinter-fangs. That aloe layer still clung to the cracked and blackened skin, but in places that basaltic black flaked away, like healed scabs ripping from raw skin.

          Lori pounded out the screen of the window, sending it falling. She hoped someone would notice, but as she heard it hit she heard no accompanied exclamations. The street below was empty. She swung one leg over scrambling for footing on the narrow ledge. It felt so soft and for a moment she blanked, puzzled by the unexpected sensation. Then she winced, furious with herself, but with no time to dwell on it. She kicked off her slippers and tried again.

          Eight inches wasn’t a lot of space, but her footing felt firm. She swung her second leg over and prepared for the ledge walk, her heart racing, and her her stomach lurching. Just as she gripped the bottom rail and prepared to duck all the way out, she heard it. Or her.

          Beverly began to bark.

          Fuck me!

          Lori cut her eyes to a bouncing Beverly yapping from beneath the bed. Why couldn’t she have just stayed asleep?

          At the door that thing had managed to squeeze a full arm and most of its head through the maw in the shattered wood, the door teetering as it pushed through the widening rupture. Lori could see that the thing appeared very much human, though so much stronger. Yet, there was no way it could actually be human. If so it would have to be dead.

          It’s skin, under all that pulsing aloe-like layer, flaked and peeled, crisp and burnt and raw. The thing’s lips seemed fused together, only parting slightly and just off center. And yet it snapped at her, showing glistening yellowed teeth hidden within that burnt carcass of its mouth. It’s breath whined through narrow slits in the equally fused nostrils of its nose, and its eyes…

          It looked for her, though a melted mass of charred flesh drooping down from its forehead and melding with its cheeks. Only its ears seemed unblocked, though it had only nubs rather than a full pair of ears, as if the rest had sloughed away.

          As it strained to force its way in, the wooden shards of the door raked into the burnt flesh, more ashen char flaking away, and tiny trails gouging through the raw skin beneath, leaving thin streams of blood. The thing paid the pain no mind. The trails bubbled, and darkened, more of that aloe coating seeping out from the thing’s pores and the wounds knitted together, solidifying into that burnt flesh layer, as if lava cooling upon colliding with the sea.

          Lori clenched her jaw and swallowed back a lump of bile. She felt certain she was going to retch, and not so much because of the grotesque nightmare playing out before her, but more from the putrid rot that clung to it. The smell choked her, a tangible filth, almost like a thin layer of soot that stubbornly blanketed the room. Her eyes watered from the smell.

          All the while, Beverly jumped and barked from beneath the bed, and that thing, that burnt man continued to strain, squeezing through the broken door. It seemed a man, too, didn’t it? If it bore some kin to humanity, Lori had no doubt it was male.

          She knew she needed to go before it forced its way in or broke down the door completely, yet, Beverly would not quiet. Lori glared at her, and motioned for her to sit and shush, but the dog was in no mood for tricks. If that thing made it in, would it kill her?

          Lori cursed herself then hauled her legs back from the ledge and into her bedroom. She had to move fast. As she landed, the burnt thing, the man at the door, snarled and stretched open its mouth, the tiny split widening and ripping, as the fused flesh parted in a spray of spittle and blood. The crimson stained its yellowed teeth, a blood wash that clung to the gums, as if some hideous image of decay you might see tacked up in a sadistic dentist’s office.

          Lori darted for her closet, sliding across the wood floor, and crashing into the hanging clothes. She brushed them aside, rummaging through the junk cluttering the back of the closet, and yanked out a small tote dog carrier. As she turned back, heart pounding, she heard a rending noise, then a clatter from her bedroom. She sped to shut the door, only as she slid out reaching out for the handle she found a puzzling scene.

          Broken wooden shards lay strewn about the entryway to her room, but the torn maw lay open and shattered, and the door held. The thing, the burnt man, was gone.

          Where the fuck is he?

          In a frenzied hurry she scanned the room, but she did not see him. Shit, shit, shit.

          Don’t panic, she thought, only it was the perfect time to panic. In the history of the whole damn universe, this was the time to panic. Henceforth, if one were to look up panic, this would be listed as the epitome of the appropriate moment to go bat shit crazy with it. There was no doubt in Lori’s mind.

          Only if she panicked, she died.

          She threw back her head, in a silent, frustrated laugh. She couldn’t see that thing, and that was so much worse than seeing it. Especially, as she could still smell it. Its rot still hung over the room. It hadn’t left.

Back to Part 1

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 1

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

Author’s Note:

Yes, today is supposed to be a writing blog, but I have a story itching to get out and I couldn’t shut it up until I wrote it. So I hope you enjoy the beginning of The Silence of Alium. I will return to the blog soon.


1 – The Burning Sky

          The stars shined through the black of space, tiny pinpricks of light, distant beacons sending out messages from the past. How they shined! Their light did not twinkle, but rather, with no atmosphere to refract that light, shone true and steady. No matter how many times he witnessed their brilliance in the unimpeded vacuum of space, Dr. Carlo Offredi never ceased to be amazed by their majesty.

          How many of those distant systems had already blinked out of existence, he wondered as he stared out through one of three small porthole-like windows. They were positioned in a circle in the upper portion of the descent capsule, three skylights to the universe beyond. As the faintest tug of gravity settled him into his seat, the doctor continued to ponder the view.

          How many billions of Earth analogs had formed, their own ecosystems evolving and collapsing and their species never escaping their individual geocentric understanding of the heavens? Then again, how many of those systems spawned life at all, let alone life that freed itself from the constraints of its birth planet and fled out into the stars?

          He liked to think that the number was beyond measure, but Carlo had grown to doubt the probability of intelligent life. The numbers were in its favor, but centuries of interstellar exploration had turned up hundreds of habitable Earth analogs, a good five percent of which supported native life, but none of which showed signs of intelligence or civilization. Each such life-bearing planet had been quarantined, allowing only for the presence of a minimal research crew, which had to operate under the strictest of procedures. Abiding by the Centauri Mandates was a must, along with the ELP provisions of the Space Settlement Act of 2069 and all subsequent Amendments. Essentially where there was life there was bureaucracy to oversee it – and Dr. Carlo Offredi was part of that machine.

          “Doc, you secure?” Staff Sergeant Simmons locked his ever vigilant gaze on Dr. Offredi.

          “Yes, Simmons. Not my first rodeo.” Carlo gave his safety harness a firm tug, visual confirmation that he was secure.

          A safety light glinted off of Simmons’ bald pate providing a halo effect around him as he stared down the doctor. He cast a striking silhouette, his dark features lost in the resulting shadow. Carlo thought the man looked like an angel, a solid, immovable angel that he sure as hell didn’t want to cross.

          “Good.” Simmons nodded, then turned to his second-in-command.

          “Sergeant Robles, call platoon leader and confirm package Omega is secure.”

          “Yes, sir.” Robles, strapped in so tight it was a wonder the harness wasn’t cutting off circulation, tapped an earpiece and began barking up the chain of command. Carlo tuned him out.

          He tried to revert his gaze to the stars, but their uninterrupted brilliance had abated, the characteristic twinkle of atmospheric interference just beginning.

          Bang!

          The pop of the metal reverberated throughout the capsule.

          Bang!

          Bang!

          Directly across from Carlo, a young soldier, eighteen at most and baby-faced as they came, jumped in his seat. He rose balloon-like, floating and slowly drifting under the minimal gravity. At his apex he grabbed at his unfastened safety harness, pulling himself into his seat as the continued shaking of the descent capsule jostled him from side to side. The newest member of the squad, Private Bills worked clumsily at his harness attempting to secure the straps but fumbling his grip with each bang. The whole capsule shook.

          “It’s like a train wreck,” Private Bills said. “Nah, nah, it’s like a train wreck followed by a train wreck, followed by ten more train wrecks.” At last he buckled the first strap of the five-point harness, and smiled as if he had just won a marksmanship award, or whatever it was soldiers did. Dr. Offredi was along for the ride, but he wasn’t military.

          Private Second Class Varma chimed in. He looked old for a private, maybe just a few years shy of Carlo, but he also looked more seasoned than even the sergeants. Varma was a bulwark of a man, a literal human shield. He hadn’t even bothered to strap in but was standing aloft, or more accurately swaying as gravity slowly increased, and holding a safety handle above his seat as he rode through the turbulence. “You been in many train wrecks, Bills?”

          Bills grinned, a cocky smirk. He hadn’t learned the pecking order yet. “Does your mom count?”

          Before Varma could respond, Bills doubled over. “Oh holy balls, I’m going to throw up.”

          “First drop?” Carlo asked.

          Bills’ team sergeant spoke up, Sergeant Lance. She exuded calm. “Yeah. New blood,” she said, taking no notice of the loud fireworks popping and banging at the tin can protecting them from what would otherwise mean certain death. “We’re poppin’ his cherry.”

          “No,” Bills chimed in. “I thought I made it clear. Varma’s momma already took care of that.”

          “Stow it, Private.”

          Yet another private piped up. They had a full house. The squad was divided into two four-man teams, Able and Baker, each commanded by a Sergeant and both under the command of Staff Sergeant Simmons. With Dr. Offredi included, the capsule held ten passengers in close quarters. As the pull of gravity increased, Carlo could tell his sense of smell was returning. Based on the cramped conditions, and the adrenaline-fueled descent complete with macho posturing and rather rank body odors, he wished that his sinuses had stayed clogged.

          “Lock that in your V-containment or I’m going to pummel you when we land, Bills.” Private First Class Ruegger. Thin, spectacled, he looked the part of a young commissioned officer or a specialist. How he’d wound his way into the rank and file of the enlisted, Carlo couldn’t even hazard a guess.

          “Just say barf bag you pretentious fuck.” Private Second Class Waller, Walker. Ah hell, Carlo couldn’t keep track.

          “Say, again?”

          “You heard me.”

          The two continued to bicker. Across the way Bills clicked together the last buckle of his harness, while Varma continued to ride the turbulence. Sergeant Lance had shut her eyes and tuned everyone out, and Sergeant Robles was still barking into his ear piece. The last two privates were strapped in just to Carlo’s left. One, a young Korean man, leafed through the pages of a creased, dime store paperback. Carlo didn’t know his name, but he did know the woman sitting just beyond him. Private Karzai. She stared out at the stars, watching as Offredi had moments earlier, oblivious to the bickering. Catching his gaze she smiled at Carlo.

          “Enjoying the view, doctor?”

          Is she talking about the stars or something else? Carlo assumed it had been the stars. The good doctor knew his place in the colonial order. A military woman like Karzai would eat him alive.

          “Doctor?”

          “Yes, very much so.”

          Bills interrupted. “Come on, doc. You can’t be telling me this don’t feel like a shit ton of train wrecks to you, can ya?”

          Bang!

          Bang!

          Bang!

          The capsule continued to shake as it plunged into the atmosphere, the violence of the descent increasing exponentially.

          “As I said, not my first rodeo.” He was posturing, playing along with the enlisted. That wasn’t like Offredi. He feared he might be trying to impress Private Karzai.

          “Anyone else feel like they’re in a train wreck?” Lance. She didn’t even open her eyes as she spoke, her voice smooth and serene – at complete peace.

          “Hell no, sir,” Walker/Waller grunted. All officers were called sir, regardless of gender. “She rides like a beaut.”

          Varma, still riding out the bucking and popping of the descent, agreed. “Best damn roller coaster at the fair.”

          Karzai tapped Carlo on the shoulder, then pointed up to the windows. “You’re about to miss the best part.”

          Carlo gripped the sides of his seat, using every ounce of self control that he had to not white knuckle his chair as the capsule listed side to side while the atmosphere outside buffeted at its thin metal shell. “No. Not for the world.”

          With great control, and far less nonchalance than he had hoped, Dr. Offredi turned his head up to the three upper portholes. The sky beyond burned, flames licking at the windows, and the deep blue of Alium’s atmosphere tinting a cherry red, darkening to a burnt umber, and at last to black as the windows’ protective layer crisped in the fireball of atmospheric entry. As even the black began to flake away Carlo could see wisps of ablative shielding shriveled like burning paper, disintegrating into charred curly-cues before peeling completely away and being consumed in the flames.

          BANG!

          The entire capsule shook, slamming in every which direction as the atmospheric friction battered it on all sides. Varma held tight to the grip handle, but his muscles bulged and his veins distended under the strain as gravity slowly took greater and greater hold.

          “Buckle up, Private.” Sergeant Lance opened one drowsy eye as she spoke, watching to see that she was obeyed. The soldiers knew their place. Orders were not to be tested.

          “Yes, sir.” Varma waited until the capsule listed just right, then lurched into his chair using the momentum and the renewed gravity to propel himself into the safety of the crash couch.

          He deftly maneuvered his straps buckling and securing the five-point harness with practiced ease. “Tight as a bug in a rug, sir.”

          Carlo closed his eyes and settled his head back into the contours of his cushioned headrest. His skull sank into the soft security of its safety, minimizing the painful jolts of the violent entry, but the crash couch could do little to minimize the strain as gravity tugged him down towards Alium and returned weight to his atrophied limbs. He could feel the heaviness of his boots anchoring his feet to the aluminum-lithium alloy flooring, and even his hands felt like lead weights pinning down his arms.

          “Focus on your breathing, or the slow whistle of winds returning. Anything but your weight.”

          The voice came from his left. Carlo didn’t need to open his eyes to know it had been Private Karzai. His stomach tingled, a lightness erupting in it that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager. Hell, Carlo. Get a grip. You’re a grown man. A professional. Not some daft kid.

          The effort was futile. He couldn’t will the emotion aside. Even as he cursed himself for his crush and swore it off, he simultaneously felt mortified that Karzai had witnessed him in a moment of weakness.

          At last he did as she said, focusing on the in and out of his breath. Still gravity yanked him down, the growing awareness of weight a sucker punch to his gut. So much for that.

          He shifted his attention to the increasing cacophony that engulfed the capsule. The descent vehicle bucked against the external pressures, the metal continuing to pop.

          Bang.

          BANG!

          He had become accustomed to this sound, although Private Bills still appeared to be struggling to remain in his seat, his every instinct screaming for him to run. And why shouldn’t that be his instinct? What rational mind thought it was sane to hurtle towards a planet trapped in a tin can engulfed in flames relying on a couple parachutes and a few retro rockets to hopefully slow your momentum just enough that you weren’t obliterated on impact? In what universe did that qualify as an acceptable method of travel?

          His eyes still shut, Carlo focused as a high whistle joined the loud banging. Slowly the whistle eased off to an even keel of high winds howling just beyond the windows. He opened his eyes. The protective layer on the windows had all but burnt away and the blue of Alium’s atmosphere once more dominated Carlo’s line of sight. It rushed by the last of the flames dying off, and Carlo gave up all attempt at grandstanding. He white knuckled his chair, fully aware of what came next. There was was no manual override and the backup was subpar at best. The automated system would kick in or it wouldn’t. In the history of planetary colonization and manned atmospheric entries, this next stage was the critical phase – the one most likely to result in a catastrophic failure. If their descent were to fail this would be the point where it all fell apart.

          Private Bills faked a cool smile, as if his shaken grin could cover for the rivers of sweat drowning his uniform. “Hell, that wasn’t so bad.”

          He had no idea.

          The chute opened and the descent capsule yanked back with incredible ferocity. The world blurred as the capsule swayed in all directions. The sudden and violent shift made the popping of atmospheric entry seem like an evening stroll. The wind screamed, their descent rapidly slowing even as the capsule rocked back and forth with an increasingly erratic intensity.

          That’s when Carlo heard it. Amidst the howls of the wind came the unmistakable sound of ripping cloth. The parachute had torn.

The Dark Beneath – Part Two

© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Thirty minutes passed with Lori staring out the window, considering her options. She didn’t open it. She knew once she did she’d have to be prepared for anything. If It heard the window being forced open she might not have much time to react. So instead, she stared out through the dirty panes of glass into the grey of the Los Angeles night. Lights blinked to life in the nearby buildings and cars sped by below, but she had seen no one close enough for her to ask for help without being heard by that thing in the hallway.

          As she stared, hoping for some answer to miraculously appear, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass. A nesty welt rose just below her hairline, scrapes and minor cuts covered her arms, and bruises loomed everywhere. Every inch of her ached, her side and the fractured rib most of all.

          She hugged herself tight, that beast right outside her door, and let herself slip away.


***


          The Badgers were down by one in the bottom of the seventh to the Coyotes. They already had two outs and as she stepped to the plate, Lori was very aware that any chance at staying in the game rested on her turn at bat. Ready, her bat raised and her eye on the pitcher, Lori prayed she didn’t screw this up. The other girls on the team weren’t fond of her. She didn’t buy into their shit, and hadn’t bothered to try to endear herself to them. If the loss fell on her, she’d never hear the end of it. Lori glanced to Joy Stevens. The barbie doll blonde danced on third base. One decent hit from Lori and the Badgers could at the least tie up the match.

          Whack!

          The pitch came in hard and fast, right as Lori glanced to Joy, but it was off. Lori felt the pain burst in her eye as the ball connected right in her face. Her head whipped back and Joy fell into the dust behind home plate. As she winced and the fairy lights in the black that clouded her vision, she could hear Coach Edwards telling her not to move. She could feel his calloused hands on her neck and cheek as he examined her face.

          At the same time, she could feel the blood from her busted brow dripping down towards her. She could taste it as the blood trickled from her nose and back down her throat. She opened her good eye and she could see the pitcher smirk. That jerk had meant to hit her. She’d done it on purpose.

          “Lori, how many fingers?”

          The coach waved his hand stupidly in front of her, but she didn’t have time for this shit. She could feel a rage building up inside her and before she knew what she was doing she was on her feet, pushing past her coach and through her teammates. They had crowded to see the blood, surely, because not a one gave two craps what happened to her.

          “Lori!” Coach Edwards again. He said something else after, but Lori was already two thirds of the way to the pitcher’s mound and didn’t have time for his nonsense.

          “Hey, that looks like it hurt.” The Coyotes’ pitcher stood a good six inches taller than Lori and absolutely confident in her upper hand. “Maybe you should go put some ice on that.”

          Lori had thought about saying something witty – all the cool action stars did – but she was pretty certain she’d just screw it up. Best just to let her actions speak for her.

          She feinted for the pitcher’s face then sucker-punched her gut. As she doubled over she kneed her in the face.


***


          Lori smiled at the memory of it. She’d been kicked off the team for that stunt, but she’d never liked those girls anyway. Now, looking at her battered reflection, she realized she hadn’t had a broken bone since that ball fractured her eye-socket. It had hurt like nothing had since, not even the fracture in her rib, and she had stood her ground. She could do so again.

          Outside the door she could hear the gurgled breathing of that man-thing. In her final flight into the room it had been obvious it was almost human, like a walking corpse covered in third degree burns or even worse. It’s skin felt crisp beneath the wet of that outer layer, like aloe spread over a blackened char. The breathe continued slow and steady and wet. It was waiting.


***


          Lori hadn’t tamed with age, not really. She had perhaps grown less physical, but had become quite prone to focal confrontations. Much like with her fellow Badgers, this trait had done little to endear her with coworkers or employers. She’d held a slew of jobs since graduating summa cum laude, most well below her skill level.

          Currently she was on her third year as a project manager with an entertainment marketing firm, Spotlight 15. They were small time, mainly working in the digital space, though the firm had grabbed an Emmy campaign for a streaming startup last year. That had been their biggest campaign yet. Her employer hadn’t let her anywhere near it. Instead she’d been stuck on the marketing campaign for a direct to video sequel for some aged action star nearing his seventies. They were all the same to her, and though she’d felt the campaign was beneath her, she’d played her part.

          And when Teddy from accounts tried to steal her copywriter two days before deadline to help with that Emmy campaign, Lori had flipped her shit. There was no way in hell she was going to miss her deadline because Teddy wanted to start prep two months before the client needed copy approval. Hell with that.

          Teddy lit red when she refused to let him take her writer. He’d been ready to have her fired. Then this junior, this account manager in training, steps in trying to persuade Lori to calm down. He tries to tell her that they only need the copywriter for a day and that he can get back on her campaign before deadline. Yeah, right. Because accounts always got shit done on time. No, she lit in him, too.

          He’d fought right back. Dean had a much stronger backbone than Eddie. She had started dating him three months later. And he never did get that copywriter.


***


          Crap, she thought. Dean!

          Lori glanced to the clock on her nightstand. Dean was supposed to arrive in fifteen minutes. She had to act now.

          For not the first time, Lori cursed herself for having set her phone in the organizer in the foyer. She couldn’t call to warn Dean, and her computer was in her home office so she couldn’t login and message him either. Being nine floors up, she didn’t suspect anyone in the street would pay her any mind, and she couldn’t yell to them without drawing that thing’s attention. She could try to get someone a message though. All her paper was in her home office, along with her pens and markers, but there had to be something that she could do.

          She looked giving her room a once-over and at first saw nothing of use. Then, her gaze fixed on the master bath. She had an idea.

          Roughly ten feet stood between her and the bathroom, and its door was catty-corner to the bedroom entrance, and the thing on the other side of that threshold. She’d have to approach as quietly as possible.

          Sticking out from under the bed she could see the soft, fluffy heels of her bedroom slippers. She inched over as quietly as she could and slipped them on. As she did, she knelt and glanced under the bed. Beverly had crammed herself all the way back against the wall just beneath the headboard and buttressed by a nightstand. The dog was sound asleep. How long had she been trapped in the apartment with this thing? How exhausted did that dog have to be to have fallen asleep with It right outside the door?

          No matter the answer, Lori decided it was for the best. If Beverly stayed asleep, stayed quiet, she should be safe until Lori could get help.

          Lori rose and tip-toed in her slippered feet towards the master bath. The cushion of the slippers dulled the noise of her footsteps, and yet she thought she could make a change in the breathing beyond the bedroom door. Was she imagining it, or was it growing faster, almost as if it were anticipating her approach. She could still hear the wet gurgle caught in each breath, but even that had lessened, the exhalations now taking on a more raspy quality. She paused three feet from the door. There was something else besides the breathing, something fast, almost like running water. No, that wasn’t right – not running water, but boiling water.

          Lori lost traction beneath her slipper, tumbling to the floor with a loud thud. Immediately the bedroom door bulged, straining at its hinges as that thing outside slammed against again.

          Wham!

          The door bulged again. Lori fixated on the hinges, watching as they shifted. One of three screws on the top hinge seemed to be loosening and the side plate was prying loose from the frame.

          Wham!

          It hit again, and this time the door splintered. Lori didn’t dare move. She waited for the next battering, for that thing to break the door completely. As she waited, her gaze shifted between the loosening plate of the hinge and the ragged crack in the center of the door. Too many points of weakness.

          A minute passed and then another, yet it did not attack the door again. Slowly its breathing settled and she could hear its footfalls as it retreated elsewhere into the dark of the apartment. This was her moment.

          Careful to regain her balance, Lori rose to her feet and tiptoed the rest of the way to the master bath. Her overhead lights and the exhaust were connected so she didn’t flick the switch. If that thing came back, if any sound drew it, she doubted the door would last. As quietly as she could she slid open her makeup drawer, rummaged in, and pulled out a tube of lipstick. Muted rose. It would have to do.

          Two drawn out minutes later and she had returned to the bedroom window without alerting that thing, whatever it was. She opened the tube of lipstick and carefully scrawled a message on the window so that would be legible from outside.

Intruder. Call 911. Apt. 905

          That done, she examined her handiwork. The letters could have been larger and the color didn’t pop as much as she would have liked, but the message was direct and impossible to misinterpret. With the light on in her bedroom the message should be readable. She only had to hope that someone, anyone, would see it and call for help.

          With nothing left to be done, she settled to the floor, her back to the wall. On her nightstand the clock continued to while away the minutes. Dean was due in five. She hoped he’d be late, and though she didn’t believe in a higher power, she prayed nonetheless. She prayed that someone would call for help before Dean also stumbled in on this nightmare. She prayed and she waited.

Back to Part 1

Quick Update

          Just a quick update today.

          I am currently out of town for a conference and unfortunately time is not on my side. I have most of Part Two of my Plodding, Perilous Quest for Readers blog finished, but I want to be sure to give the piece the time, research, and dedication that it deserves. With that being the case, rather than scramble together a subpar end to the post, I am dedicating myself to one more week of research and revisions to ensure my best quality work.

          I apologize for the delay, but I can discuss at least one recent finding from this research: a site called Wattpad. The site is the platform for a pretty amazing online writing community, with an easy interface, a mobile friendly app, and an engagement model that seems to be of the highest quality. I’ve only begun my exploration of it, but you can find me there at @ChristopherOpyr. Please check it out. If you like to write it seems to be a great place to build an audience. You can vote on other stories, comment directly paragraph by paragraph to other author’s work, enter competitions, etc. I’m already finding myself gravitating to a small set of authors and a spirit of collaboration seems to be building. It’s a thriving community and well worth at least a look to see if it is for you.

          More next week. In the meantime I’ll have the second part of The Dark Beneath live on Friday.

          Happy Writing, All!

As opposed to the many other Chris Hutton's… including that other writer…