Shadows of the Mind
I want to thank everyone that has supported me and have continued to read the stories that I've put out, whether they be colleagues or friends. With the world rapidly changing, it's been hard to stop and make sense of everything. Hopefully, with the vaccine, we'll see a return to normalcy but it won't mean much of anything until we we can immunise everyone. Stay safe everyone.
Red-rimmed eyes stared back at me. Disgusted to see how low I had fallen, I splashed cold water onto my face – hoping against hope that it would also wash away my addiction. No such luck.
Studying my reflection, I ran a tired hand over the stubble that I should have shaved off yesterday morning…or had it been the day before last? Time blurred when sleep was taken out of the equation. And it had been a long while since I had rested my head on a pillow.
Yet though I craved the comforts of a warm bed, the only beating thought in my head was the same refrain I had heard a million times before: just one more. After all, what could it hurt? I was already late. Even if they didn't fire me today, I would not be long for the chopping block when the next review came up.
A better man would have done more when his wife and their two children had threatened to leave because of the nights spent in the casino. A better man would probably have talked it out and made steps for self-improvement. When the accident happened, a better man might have used the opportunity to finally turn over a new leaf. Or, perhaps, a better man would have poured all their energy into digging into the truth of the situation.
But I was not a better man.
When I could not afford to continue gambling away my money at the slot machines, I turned to drink to drown out the pain. Kicked out of the house that had cost me two decades of labour and bleeding money from the debts that had gone unpaid, I was at the end of my rope.
The yellow eye in the centre of my left palm looked up at me. Judgement writ clear.
I blinked and the image disappeared. My hand was pink flesh once again. No sign of an eye anywhere. Had I just dreamed it? Or was there something more sinister? Linked, perhaps, to the work I was doing? How else could I explain the cadavers that were brought in with ridges of scales and webbed toes.
It should not have come as a surprise. There had always been rumours of a curse being laid on the small seaside town since time immemorial. Folk tales, mostly, to scare kids into behaving.
But what if it was all true? It would explain the accident. There was no way that Morgan would have missed the turn. She had always been a careful driver, particularly when there was heavy fog. And the kids were in the back…
The police had stopped by the house and had asked plenty of questions. Did I have any suspicions that she might have had suicidal thoughts or that she was not coping in any way? The idea was ludicrous. I told the officers as such. 'Morgan would never have done it on purpose. Our kids meant the world to her. Hell, she had been heading to her parents – nowhere near the promontory…'
A sharp slap to the face brought me out of my spiralling thoughts. God. I was losing my mind and there was nothing I could do about it. One of the side effects, probably, from the antidepressants and anxiety tablets I had been prescribed.
I reached for the bottle. Twisted the lid. Two small capsules popped out into my cupped hand. Within seconds, I had swallowed them dry.
As I felt them slide down my throat, I risked one more glance at the mirror. My clothes were crinkled, dark bags rested under my eyes and the tuft of hair I still had would do little to cover my encroaching baldness. In one word I looked like shit.
Still, I had seen worse. And I found that I didn't much care whether I lost my job today or in the near future.
I was tired of fighting. Easier to submit to the inevitable once it came. Whether that was the drugs I had taken, I couldn't say. The fog that descended over my mind made it hard to think about it too much. Maybe that was good. At the very least I would not have to combat the crippling anxiety that would have come with it.
Gambling had taken away my family. It had taken away the roof over my head and the food to line my stomach. Soon, it would take my life. One way or another.
Within minutes I left the small cramped flat and took the rickety lift down to the rundown carpark. A tan overcoat was tastefully slung over my right arm in the hope that it would give me a modicum of respectability. I only prayed that no-one looked too closely at the frayed sleeves and the weathered scuff marks. In my other hand, I carried a battered leather briefcase that I had dug out of the closet. As I reached in for the keys to the bucket of bolts that I called a car, I realised that I had forgotten my security pass.
Cursing under my breath, I dumped most of my belongings into the passenger side seat and raced up the stairs rather than wait for the lift. Legs burning and puffing hard, I stopped at the second floor to catch my breath. Just as an errant chastisement was once again about to regale me with all my failures up to that absolute second, I mustered up what remained of my strength and staggered up the remaining flight of stairs to my two-bedroom unit.
It was then a simple matter of busting open the door and nabbing the pass sat on what could not reasonably be considered a proper dining table – an elevated plastic chair with three stools around it. Oh, how far the mighty had fallen. If only my old friends could see me now…
But I had lost most anyone that would have cared to offer any sort of aid for my self-inflicted plight.
By the time I pulled up at the security gate, I was ten minutes late. The guard took his time checking my pass and confirming my name in the system. He reminded me of a raven with his sharp beak-like nose and the shifty glint in his small beady black eyes as he looked at my face and then the computer screen with needless scrutiny.
'Everything appears to be in order, Mister Hinds,' he said. His voice was unusually nasally, almost high-pitched, for a man of his size and girth. 'Be sure to clock in on time tomorrow. I've had journalists sniffing up here the last few days, trying to sneak in. You know how it is when it comes to the work that goes on. Probably know it better than I do.'
I nodded and made to retrieve my security pass. 'No need to tell me twice. I'll be doubly sure to set the alarm to a quarter to seven,' I replied with a polite smile. 'Thank you for your exemplary work, Horace. Doing us all proud.'
Once the gate was up, I pushed my car into gear. It trundled through, picking up speed as soon as I reached the main building and the carpark resting underneath. Built forty years ago, it was an impressive creation of concrete. Passing under the awning as I entered the carpark, I could barely make out any windows on the exterior. Appropriate, considering the secrets that we kept hidden away from prying eyes.
When I finally arrived at the laboratory, after changing into my white lab coat in one of the only sterile areas of the facility, it was ten minutes to eleven. Already a migraine had formed behind my eyes, throbbing with each beat of my heart. All I wanted to do was to take a sip of smooth whiskey to ease away the pain. Except, of course, I didn't even have enough money to buy a pint at the local pub, let alone anything stronger.
Before I could entertain my fantasy further, Gladstone strode in from the far door. "Good to see you actually make it out of bed, Hinds,' he said, barely looking up from his notes on the clipboard. 'We need you downstairs. One of the,' he hesitated slightly as he looked for a word to describe the subjects that were kept in less than humane holding cells, 'creatures had a little incident last night. Look into it.'
Just like that, I was dismissed.
Orders given, Gladstone sat at a free desk, his eyes never leaving whatever was on his clipboard as he tapped his pen arrhythmically against it. Maybe it was my overactive imagination or perhaps it was my sleep deprived brain, but I could not help but compare Gladstone to a big cat, just waiting to pounce upon the unwary. Surely, the elongated teeth and sharp curling fingernails were due to the fact that I had been awake for the last thirty-six hours.
With a great shake of my head, I picked up my belongings and made for the far door from whence Gladstone had come through.
As I made my way down, my footsteps on the metal steps echoed through the concrete well. There was naught in this passageway to dampen sound. Austere and spartan had been the design choices when it came to top-secret laboratories nestled a few miles away from town.
Deeper and deeper and deeper I went. It was as if I was descending into the bowels of the Earth.
My only companion was a small wispish ball of bluish light, shaped into an amalgamation of an eyeball and wings. I knew I should have been disturbed by the sudden evolution in my hallucinations. Yet, I could not find the strength inside me to care. After all, what were a few demons and devils from myths and legends, when I had seen men who had sprouted bat wings and women with large bulbous eyes with gills beginning to form on their necks?
Besides, it seemed harmless anyways. Staying always three feet behind me. For a brief moment, I came to a stop at a landing and eyed it for a few seconds, daring it to attack, before shrugging my shoulders when it remained docile, impossibly hovering in place.
How exceedingly odd.
Knowing that it was not real, I did not reach for it. Even as I tried to rationally explain the phenomena floating beside me with science. In the end, I simply chalked it up to the drugs and thought no more on the matter.
Something strange was happening and it was my job to find the answers. It mattered not that I was wracked with guilt and grief. Gladstone, for one, couldn't care less. All that mattered was that I did what I was paid for. Nothing more. Nothing less.
As I stepped through the pressurised doors and into the decontamination unit, I turned my addled mind to the task at hand. With great effort, I managed to rouse it from its stupor. By the time I emerged into the top-secret containment area, I was as focused and sharp as I was ever going to be with soporific drugs pumping through my veins. Which, to be fair, wasn't much. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open as I stumbled forward, one hand blindly reaching for a wall to steady myself as I adjusted to the change in temperature and lighting.
'Hinds! Thank God you're here. I've tried my best to stabilise it but this is beyond my skills.' Pritchard rushed towards me, her hands covered in a deep shade of blue and a frantic look in her eyes. 'You know what'll happen if we were to lose it. And I'd rather not have my head on a pike.'
We headed deeper, passing by huge containment units filled with all manner of strange creatures and monsters. Many had been found washed up on the beaches dotted along the western coast. Some had been hostile, attacking anyone or anything nearby. Others had been positively docile, more curious than dangerous.
Even their appearances varied. I had seen several that looked like they had stepped out from my worst nightmare. There was no word to describe the monstrosities. Videos I had glimpsed showed unspeakable terrors – a mix of tentacles and shapeless horrors. Bringing them back to the facility was never an option. The casualty numbers had been astronomical. We were fortunate when the retrieval team returned with footage.
Should the retrieval team manage to subdue one of these creatures, which they did on a rare occasion, they were almost always dead upon delivery. And utterly useless for our research.
Imagine what we could learn if we actually had a living breathing monster before us! The knowledge that we would have at our fingertips!
Most of what my team and I had been able to study were specimens that were mostly humanoid in appearance. One had stood out in my memory had looked like a man that I had seen on a Missing Persons poster that had been hanging outside one of the telegraph poles near my flat. The only difference had been the ridges of scales that had lined his jaw and knuckles as well as the yellowish tint to his eyes.
It had been clear that he had been in the midst of metamorphosis. How or why had remained a mystery. We had kept him in isolation, unsure how best to classify him.
Unfortunately, he had not survived long in captivity. I had been the one to discover his body one rare morning when I was actually sober a few days before Morgan's ill-fated attempt to leave me. Suffice it to say, there was naught we could do to revive the man. The autopsy, too, had failed to pinpoint the exact cause of death. Those thoughts had consumed me prior to my gambling binge. And all I had wanted was a distraction to escape the realities of my job.
Pritchard led me to a small enclosed room. It was filled with a variety of medical equipment. At the centre of the room was a cot. Two nurses were crowded around it, their eyes fixed on the heart monitor as it beeped erratically. They looked up as we entered.
'How's it looking?' said Pritchard.
'Not good, Laura,' answered Lopez as he rose to his feet and made some space. He was a tall burly fellow and sported long hair that was tied into a neat ponytail. If I did not know him, I would have said he looked out of place, dressed in green scrubs and a white lab coat. Despite his appearance (which would better fit a wrestling ring), he was one of the best nurses I had worked with. Professional and exacting, I could always count on Lopez on following my instructions to the letter.
'Do you know what happened?'
Lopez shook his head. 'Escape gone wrong? The security team found it in the early hours of the morning. It was already bleeding. Then it tried to attack one of the men. In a panic, one of the junior officers shot it. The rest is what you can see.'
Head pounding with the onset of a hangover, I pressed my thumbs into my temples. Things were rapidly going wrong and I needed to make a decision. Time was of the essence. I could not afford to second guess myself or watch as a life slipped from my fingers just because the only thing I could think about, given the emergency, was how good whisky on the rocks would taste on my parched tongue.
Time passed. I could not say how long we worked until we managed to stabilise the creature until I glanced at my wristwatch and saw the time. Over the course of minutes that had seemed like hours, and hours that had seemed like days, we struggled to keep it alive. It fought us tooth and nail. I suffered two scratches on my right arm and Pritchard was sporting a cut lip. It was as if it would rather death than another moment in captivity in a holding cell. A part of my sympathised with it. What was a life confined to four walls and where strange men dressed all in white came to poke and prod you?
Sweat dotting my brow, I managed to inject tranquiliser into the creature, as the rest of the team – Pritchard and the two nurses held it down. Once it took effect, we all exchanged exhausted smiles. Standing back up, I glanced at the machines recording its vitals.
'Keep it sedated. The sutures should hold but better not risk it,' I said to Pritchard as I dabbed at my forehead with the back of my sleeve.
'Hinds, you're a lifesaver.'
I shook my head. 'We aren't out of the woods yet. Keep an eye on the equipment. Message me if anything changes.' Pulling off my gloves, I added, 'I'm going to grab something to eat. Oh, and Pritchard, tell Gladstone that I can't keep doing this. I'm a scientist. Not a bloody surgeon.'
With that, I stepped out of the cramped tiny room that we had been in for the four hours. As I did so, my stomach grumbled. A reminder that I had not eaten anything substantial for a good long while. It was a torturous trek back up the stairs. By the time I reached the top, my knees were aching and it hurt to breathe.
Why didn't anyone think to build a bloody lift? What if an incident happened down in containment and we needed to flee for our lives? The monsters would get us all before we even made it up one flight. Except, maybe, Lopez. He looked like someone that ran marathons on the weekends. Working as a nurse in a top-secret facility was wasted on him.
Once I was able to inhale without an accompanying twinge of pain, I gingerly passed into the main laboratory. Gladstone was still seated at his desk. His eyes barely flickered as I walked by. 'Would it be a safe assumption that the situation has been rectified, Hinds?'
I stopped at the exit, my stomach twisting itself into a knot as it sought any type of sustenance. 'For the time being. Sir, if I may, how long must we continue to prolong their torment? These experiments are not humane. And who's to say when the next incident may occur. Lives will be lost.'
'You grow bold, Hinds. However, it is not your place to question the orders you are given. You need money, yes? What would your wife and children think if you came back home with no job to support their ever-growing needs? The solution here is simple. You do as you're told.'
'Sir, they're—' I closed my mouth, thinking better of it. Of course, Gladstone had forgotten the funeral. He was a man focused on results, never mind the means. The people he worked with were not colleagues or humans with lives that varied from the complex to the very simple. They were tools. Nothing more. Even now he was still intently reading through the data that had been collated over several months. On occasion, he would stop and make a brief annotation.
Were it not for the drugs, I might have strangled the indifferent bastard. As it was, I could barely summon the energy to remain on my feet. My entire body seemed to shake terribly and I desperately hoped Gladstone would not notice. God forbid what would happen if he, for once in his life, was actually aware of those around him.
'Is there a reason that you are still here, Hinds?' The dismissal was clear in his voice. And I gladly welcomed it with both arms.
'No, sir. Apologies, sir.' I left quickly, hardly daring to look over my shoulder as I made my exit.
The corridors of the facility were a dull grey. Given the nature of the research conducted within its walls, there had been no need for bombastic decorations. No potted plants lined the atrium. No colour broke up the endless shades of concrete. If there was one word I would use to describe my place of employment it would be utilitarian.
Though it was past the normal lunch hour, the cafeteria was still bustling with staff. Grabbing up a tray, I joined the queue, grabbed the first thing that would fill my stomach and headed to a table near the back of the hall where I could remain, hopefully unobserved, for as long as I desired. After all, I had told Pritchard to message me if anything changed. Beyond that, I needed time for myself.
Perhaps it was the fact that this was the first time that I had a full stomach in days, or that I was thoroughly exhausted after a sleepless night, or that the afternoon sun shining through the frosted glass made the spot I had claimed my own so warm and cosy. My eyes closed. Before I knew it, I was adrift on the seas of sleep and darkness consumed me.
At first, I did not realise that I was dreaming. Once more, I was back in the house that we had first bought when we moved to the town. It was not a mansion I had promised the kids, but it did have an excellent view of the sea. One that I usually tended to enjoy on the rare Sunday afternoons that I was actually at home. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast and from my vantage point, I could see the waves crashing onto the beach with a vicious ferocity.
'Tom, you're going to catch a cold standing out there in this weather. Why don't you come in?'
I turned around. Standing near the glass sliding door was Morgan, a concerned look on her face. She was all rugged up, a shawl draped over her shoulders. In her hands, she cradled a mug of hot steaming coffee. I joined her. With a smile on my lips as I leaned down to kiss her on the cheek as I took the offered mug.
'Thank you for always looking out for me, darling,' I whispered into her ear before cheekily nibbling on her lower lobe and trailed a finger down her neck.
'Stop that, Tom,' said Morgan, though her body language belied her words as she pressed up against my chest. 'Not in front of the June and Jasper.'
'And why ever not? They're old enough to know about these things.'
She twirled around in my arms and lightly pressed her lips against mine. Before I could deepen it, Morgan pulled away, and flashed me an enigmatic smile. 'That may be true, but there are some things, Tom, that are better left in the bedroom.'
I chased after her. Morgan had always been such a tease, even back when we had first dated in university. She squealed when I picked her up by her legs just before she managed to slip inside. The impulse to ravish her there and then thrummed through me. Grinning from ear to ear, I marched across the threshold. My destination: the bedroom.
As I stepped through, the scene before me changed. Morgan vanished from my arms. Blinking, it took me several moments to realise that I was now in the kitchen. The lights were off. Tableware had been smashed to a thousand tiny pieces and crockery was strewn across the floor.
Somewhere in the distance, I could hear crying. Immediately, I recognised the memory for what it was. And though I wanted to find Morgan and comfort her for all the pain I had caused her, I found myself rooted to the spot, breathing heavily as if I had just run a marathon. My hands were clenched tight into fists and I resisted the urge to punch the marble countertop.
It was then that I realised that I was still holding onto a bottle of whiskey. Carefully, I placed it back on the kitchen countertop. There was no point in wasting good alcohol. Even in anger.
What I really needed was space and time to clear my head.
Glancing down at the mess that Morgan and I had made, I made a mental note to clean it all up when I came back. Then, once tempers had cooled, we would sit down and hash things out. I dared not think about the inevitable fight we would have once she learned that I had left to gamble away more money on the slot machines in the local pub. What she did not know would not hurt her.
Besides, I deserved it. What did it matter if I spent a few hundred dollars? This was the money I earned from my labours up at the lab. How it was used was up to me.
I grabbed the keys from where they hung on hooks next to the door. It would only be a short drive down into the town centre. Then, it would be only a few hours of watching the slots spin. In my bones, I knew that luck would be on my side. Today would be when I won the jackpot. Lucky 7s all the way through. And then I could leave my job and everything that it entailed.
With a resounding slam, the front door shut behind me.
As it did, the world once more swirled around me. It took several moments to realise that I was facing the front door rather than the street. A sudden feeling of dread filled my stomach. At that moment, I knew what memory had been pulled to the fore.
Despite my attempts to fight the course of destiny, my body was not my own. My hands fumbled for the house keys. In the pre-dawn light, I struggled to identify the right key. Each one I used never quite seemed to fit. Why was it so hard to open my own goddamn front door? There were only two locks for fuck's sake.
Had I really drunk that much? Frustrated, I gave the door a kick, expecting that I'd break a toe for my efforts.
The door crashed open. It had been unlocked. Surprised, I chanced a glance inside. Everything was a mess. Clothes and books and papers lay on the ground. I knew what had happened and I wanted desperately to leave. To turn tail and get back into my car that was parked on the street rather than the garage. Or to chase after them, praying that, somehow, I'd be able to save them before they met their inevitable demise at the bottom of a cliff.
But the inexorable march of fate would not allow me to make the smart choice. It was like I was in a horror film and trapped in the body of the characters. How many times had I screamed at the screen, telling the blonde cheerleader to run instead of investigating further?
Just like those that came before, I cautiously entered the house. 'Hello?'
My first stop was the living room. Turning the corner, I spotted upended furniture and streaks of red along the walls. There was not a soul to be seen. No sign that anyone was in the house that we had lived in for the last three years. What terrified me the most was the fact that neither the kids nor Morgan answered my entreaties.
A chill went down my spine as the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
Behind me, the creaking of floorboards warned me of someone's approach. Immediately, I whirled around, arms up. I didn't know if I could fight off my assailant. After all, I was a researcher. Ever since I was young, the best words to describe me were tall and gangly. I had never been much for sport, preferring to stay indoors than being out in the sun where I would be more likely to suffer injury.
The thing before me could hardly be described as human. As my gaze alighted on its hideous form, I recoiled – both mentally and physically. I knew then that my trip down memory lane was ended and the nightmare begun.
It looked like it had three misshapen heads. Three pairs of discoloured eyes blinked up at me. Instead of hands, it sported crooked claws, the nails of which were chipped and terrifyingly long.
'Tom,' it croaked in a broken chorus of voices. 'Tom. Tom. Tom. Tom!' Morgan. June. Jasper. Three melded into one.
I backed away. Until my back hit wall. It came closer, claws outstretched. No. No. No. No. This could not be happening. This wasn't real. It was a dream. A nightmare. I closed my eyes and willed myself to just wake up. All I needed to do was just wake up. WAKE THE BLOODY FUCK UP!
'Help me,' moaned the abomination. After all, that was what it was. Something so twisted that it ought not to exist in the waking world. 'Heeeeeelp us!'
Cracking open one eyelid, I discovered that nothing had changed. Only that the creature now had me pinned to the wall of the living room. It was so close, the smell of it so exceedingly rank that the urge to gag was overwhelming. I was trapped with nowhere to run.
It slunk ever closer on unsteady legs. One foot scraped along the floor. Or was it a tail? Scaly, twisted, I dared not risk another glance. Instead, I screwed my eyes up tight again, wishing and praying in equal measure that I would wake up.
Something slimy alighted on my cheek. I batted it away, choking back the scream that threatened to escape. None of it was real, I reminded myself. I only needed to wake up. Slowly, but surely, it became a mantra. My one lifeline in a world gone mad.
As something gripped my shoulder, I flinched from the touch.
Breathe, Tom, breathe. It's just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream…
'Hinds! Hinds! Wake up!'
It was the sting from the slap that finally tore apart the complex tapestry that my subconscious mind had woven. I blearily blinked up at Pritchard, confused and scared in equal measure. The last tendrils of the nightmare still clung to my thoughts. I couldn't tell what was real and what was not.
A moment passed. Then two. As I took in the empty cafeteria and the late afternoon sun fading into the horizon, I realised that I had been asleep for far too long. Unsteadily, I rose to my feet and mumbled an apology.
'Has something happened?' I asked, running a weary hand over my face. My eyes felt like they had been gummed together and my head was pounding. What was worse was the sudden dryness and stickiness that pervaded my mouth. It was as if I had eaten taffy. My tongue darted out to moisten my chapped lips but it little to soothe my discomfort.
What I wouldn't give for eight hours of undisturbed slumber.
Pritchard opened her mouth, then closed it. A few moments passed in silence. Unable to stifle it, I let out a particularly leonine yawn. When next she spoke, her gaze fixed a few inches above my shoulder, I knew it wasn't what she had initially intended to say. 'You don't look well, Hinds. P-perhaps I can go tell Gladstone? I'm sure he'll understand.'
'What do you mean?'
She wrung her hands and forced a smile to her face. 'It's really not much, Hinds. Gladstone was just looking for any and all volunteers for something. We are at the stage where we're on the cusp of discovering something new. And honestly, while your expertise would be welcome should things go awry, it's fine if you wish to decline. That's not to say, of course, that your presence wouldn't be appreciated. I know that this is something that you've been wanting to be witness to for a long time coming. I just thought that you looked tired and a little pale in the face, is all.'
Her remarks had hit far closer to the truth than I would have liked. It was as if Pritchard saw through the thin façade I had erected at work. I didn't like it. Nobody had cared before. Why now?
I realised too late that the quiet had stretched too long between us. 'I'm fine. Really,' I said, hoping to fill the void with idle chatter. 'You saw me. A little nap was all I needed. Now, where are we expected?'
The look Pritchard threw my way said that I had done little to persuade her. And though I could her innate curiosity wishing to dig further into my personal affairs, she had the wisdom to hold back. For that, I was thankful.
In silence, we headed back to the laboratory and the containment area. When we arrived, the presentation had already begun. Sneaking in, I felt the weight of Gladstone's gaze on the back of my head as it bored a hole right into my skull. Gladstone never much liked interruptions. Nor did he suffer individuals that were late to one of his meetings. It meant unnecessary repetition.
I kept my head low as I took my seat near the back and glanced at the whiteboard. On it was a picture that had been blown up almost a thousand times. It did not look like much – a mess of pixelated flesh. A new acquisition, perhaps?
'As I was saying, the next few days will be crucial. We will need to act fast if we wish to secure the specimen and bring it back here for observation and research. This may be our one chance to show the world that our work has not been in vain,' said Gladstone. He looked down at his palm cards and pushed his glasses further up his nose. 'Remember: this mission is top-secret. If we manage to pull this off, we will be making history. Now, are there any questions?'
My hand shot straight up. There were a thousand things I wanted to ask. Why weren't the retrieval team being sent out? What had I missed that the strict procedures that we were meant to follow were being tossed out the window?
A flash of frustration flitted across Gladstone's face as he spotted my waving hand before he managed to school his expression into one of disdain and disinterest. 'Yes, Hinds? What is it?'
'Why are you sending us? We're scientists. Don't we have trained men to handle situations like this?'
He pinched the bridge of his nose. 'If you had been here for the briefing earlier instead of who knows where, you would know that the situation is delicate. Timing is of the essence. Our current teams are unavailable. As such, the powers that be made the decision to have any willing staff join in this mission. Now, if there is nothing else, I must leave. There are preparations that I need to see to before departure.'
Gladstone straightened his lab coat and then stalked out of the room. I chased after him, a thousand different enquiries in mind. Before I had even rose halfway off my chair, I felt someone tug at my sleeves. I turned around, ready to snap the head off anyone stupid enough to stop me.
Couldn't they see that I was trying my very best to make sure that we weren't all walking into a death trap? That I was looking out for everyone involved? A sudden spear of pain shot through my head and my hands were clammy. In my chest, my heart felt like it was going to burst from my chest.
Shit. How long had it been since I last took my pills? Was it already time for another dose?
Pritchard had a look in her eyes as she mutely shook her head. Was it a sign not to aggravate Gladstone any further? I couldn't tell. Why couldn't humans just explicitly say what they wanted instead of dancing around the subject? If Morgan had—
No. Best not go there.
I lowered back on the chair. 'What?' My tone came out a little brisker than I had anticipated.
'There's no need to be like that, Hinds,' hissed Pritchard. 'I warned you, didn't I? Told you explicitly that you didn't need to come. But you, of course, being all macho, said that "you were fine."'
My cheeks flushed red and I looked away. Words sprang to the tip of my tongue but I choked them down. I knew when I had been properly chastised. Pritchard was right. It had been my own stubbornness not to ask further. And when Gladstone had sprung, I had been caught off-guard. Stupid, really. I should have known something was wrong from the start.
This had been no normal meeting amongst scientists. It had been a war council.
As I brooded over everything that I knew, silence filled the gap. 'You can't really be serious about participating in this madness, Pritchard,' I said finally. With some effort, I forced my gaze to meet hers.
She shrugged. 'I don't see any way out of this, Hinds. A lot of the others are in the same boat. If Gladstone says "jump" we respond with "how high?"'
I swore under my breath. 'We know nothing about this…thing. How can he be so sure that it'll be docile?" I asked, motioning to the picture that sat centre stage on the whiteboard. Looking at it, I could not repress the shudder that went through my entire body at the sight of the horror. This was no creature of the Earth. Neither human or part of the animal kingdom. It was an abomination, plain and simple – something wholly alien and terrible and unspeakable.
Years of research, completing my doctorate thesis on bioengineering and eugenics, and here I was chasing monsters. I was meant to find a way to elongate the human lifespan. This was not it.
True, the possibilities of the research had been enticing at first. I had been ecstatic when I first joined, believing that the sea creatures could be the key to unlocking the final mysteries of what I had sought for so long. But the more I saw and learned, the less it seemed my dream would come to fruition. Gladstone's goal had diverged. We were no longer pursuing science for the betterment of society. Instead, we were trying to unearth something that should have remained closed.
'We don't,' said Pritchard as she flashed me an ironic and sad smile before she rose to her feet.
As she made her way across the room with her fellow scientists, her hand lingered a while on my shoulder. I watched her round the corner and disappear from view. Another person I had failed to save. Glancing back at the whiteboard and the aberrant creature displayed on it, I made the only decision I could given the circumstances.
For hours I had tossed and turned, but sleep continued to elude me. The cot beneath me creaking with every movement. Frustrated, I finally settled on my back and stared up at the dimly lit steel roof of the truck I now found myself in. Around me, I heard the other volunteers shift in their sleep. Some were snoring, somehow falling asleep though the truck shook and rattled. But I knew a good number were probably lying awake just as I was.
Perhaps they were pondering their life choices, wondering where they had gone wrong and regretting their decision to volunteer. Or maybe they were fretting on what the future might bring.
Had I not volunteered, I would have been in my small cramped apartment and downing can after can of beer. Elsewise, I might have spent an evening at the pub, nursing one good drink until the early hours of the morning as I ruminated on why I had not gone with the others in my team. And if the bartender pitied me enough, they might have slipped me another.
It would have been another round of bad choices, culminating in me stumbling to my bed and falling into it head-first and still fully-clothed – unable to shake off the ghosts that haunted me still.
At least, by choosing this, I was doing something and making a difference. Whether it helped or not, I couldn't say.
The only kick I had got was seeing the shock on Pritchard's face when she saw me board with one of the tan duffel bags, that had been stuffed with amenities that had been handed out, slung over one shoulder for the overnight trip. I had flashed her a weary grin before I made my way over to the cot that I'd been assigned.
Tomorrow was an early start. If I wanted to be any help to the team, I needed rest.
But as soon as I closed my eyes, Morgan and June and Jasper appeared before me. Their faces as pale as the moon, their mouths open wide in a soundless scream as they beat against the windows of the car.
I jolted straight up, my breathing harsh and loud in my ears. One hand flew to my chest, hoping to calm my heart that was thundering a wild tattoo. Shit. Fucking goddammit. Where was a bottle of vodka when you needed it? Why hadn't he thought to return to his apartment to pick up his pills before coming here? Two angry fists thumped against the too-soft cot.
'Hinds?' The whispery voice was filled with concern. Had I woken her up? A mixture of guilt and frustration bubbled through me. I didn't dare turn towards her, knowing that my face was an open book.
'It's nothing,' I said tersely. 'Go back to sleep, Pritchard.'
'You can talk to me, you know,' she persisted. 'Like we used to. Back when Morgan was ali—'
'I said I'm fine.' In the silence that fell across the entirety of the truck, I hated how loud I sounded. God, why couldn't people just leave me alone?
Behind me, I heard Pritchard settle back into her cot. Minutes passed. Slowly, but surely, the snores resumed. I lay back down, the cot creaking as I adjusted my weight, and stared up at the roof. Finally, when exhaustion tugged at my bones, I closed my eyes and let the movement of the truck lull me into a fitful slumber, haunted by images of the restless dead.
As the six of us disembarked, we were greeted by a grey overcast sky on a grey pebble beach. Two tents had been set up on the sand. Not too far away were stacks of metal crates. Our supplies had been offloaded first – water, food and weapons. The thought of wielding a gun had my stomach doing somersaults and I hoped there would be something more substantial than cheese and crackers, though I didn't feel particularly hungry.
What I really wanted, more than anything else, was a can of something cool on my tongue. Preferably a pint of lager, but anything would do.
Something brusquely brushed against my arm. I whirled around, a harsh condescending reprimand on the tip of my tongue, when I caught sight of Pritchard. It was obvious from one glance that she had not slept well. Like mine, her eyes had dark bags underneath. And there was something jittery in the way she moved. She did not smile at me. Instead, she gave me an incidental nod of acknowledgement as a greeting.
A few moments passed before I had the foresight to close my mouth, lest anything fly in. Pritchard said nothing before she joined the rest of the team near the tents. It was like a huge pit yawned between us. One that was both shared history and the pain that we had endured. But I knew that the distance between us was mostly my own creation. Over the past year, it had seemed like she had been above it all. Unshakeable. Ever-loyal to Gladstone. Whereas I had been bitter about my loss and thrown myself into whatever self-destructive behaviours that I could.
But what if she had been just as hurt and in pain as I had been?
Pritchard and Morgan had been quite close, though they came from two different worlds. There had been family picnics and barbeques and a host of various activities that had slowly petered out when my addictions had taken hold. And though Pritchard did not know the exact nature of the rift between my family and I, she had been intuitive enough to know that something was wrong.
Maybe if she had intervened earlier, things would have been different. A part of me resented that she had never reached out. How much would have changed by just one act of kindness?
Stop it, Tom. There's no point in going over old ground. You've a job to do, I chided myself. Find the specimen. Take it in. Go home. Easy as pie.
Gladstone had only just begun his well-rehearsed spiel when I joined them. His eyes narrowed when they alighted on me. I flashed him a grin and gave him a jaunty wave, knowing that it would irk him. He pushed up his glasses and turned away, refusing to rise to the bait. It was a rare moment of wisdom from the man. Or perhaps Gladstone was more concerned about the success of the mission than exchanging petty barbs.
It certainly seemed that way as he droned on in his officious voice, once again going over the extraction procedures and the likely dangers that might be encountered. Perhaps there was more going on behind closed doors if the sweat on his brow and the frantic patter to his words were anything to go by.
As I lowered my hand, I startled at the lidless reptilian eye that stared up at me. A spear of cold fear shot through my heart. Gingerly, I reached out and poked it with the index finger. It didn't even flinch at the touch. Yet, the moment I made contact, it seemed as if my finger went straight through. I poked it again, feeling only warm flesh as well as a light pain as I scraped skin. Another hallucination. And yet it looked so real.
The world seemed to spin around me.
I staggered over to one side, leaning against the metal crates for support. A moment to breathe. That was all that I needed.
Okay. I could do this. Just because I hadn't taken anything in the last twelve hours didn't feel I wouldn't feel any lingering side effects. Maybe it was a sign of withdrawal. What had the doctor said? I wracked my brain, trying to recall the conversation that we had shared nearly a month or two ago.
The memory was piecemeal. Nothing seemed connected.
Frustrated, I shook my head to clear my thoughts and cracked open an eye. This was going nowhere. And if Gladstone knew what was happening, he would see me as a liability. Not that I cared, of course, what the man thought. It was merely my pride on the line.
As I steadied myself for the day ahead, I saw movement at the periphery of my vision. I turned towards the tents and the supply crates. At first, I couldn't make out anything beyond the norm. And then, I saw them. On the boxes were translucent worm-like creatures. Hundreds. Everywhere. They stretched out towards me, as if sensing my warmth and the life pumping through my veins.
Something slimy and disgusting touched my leg. Then, before I could do anything, it seemed to slither up it.
I jumped, yelping at the top of my voice. It felt like they were all over me and I needed to get them off. I brushed at my arms and slapped at my trouser pants, panic overriding nearly everything.
Shit. Shit. Shit! Had I got them all? Were any still crawling on me?
Eyes turned towards me, taking in the spectacle that I represented. I barely noticed. Consumed by the immediate threat to my person. What would they do? Burrow into my skin? Destroy me from the inside out? I did not want to go out like that. No. My death should be my own choosing.
I did not hear the screams until it was too late.
By the time that I heard the warning, I had almost no time to react. Before I knew it, I found myself face-down in the dirt and there was a piercing pain in my head. For several heartbeats, I lay on the ground stunned as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Were we under attack? Who would fire upon us? And why?
That was when the sound of gunfire filled the air. A shrill screech answered in kind, filled with pain and fear. Head throbbing, I clasped my hands over my ears, unable to bear it. It seemed to go on for hours. Until finally, it stopped.
Blessed relief swept through my body. Slowly, I rose to my feet, dizzy and disorientated. I scanned the beach, my gaze alighting on the tents, somehow untouched, and the body that lay across the pebbles. Heart in my throat, I raced towards it. The short brown locks a familiar sight.
No. No. No. No.
Pritchard was still breathing, albeit shallowly when I reached her. Eyes closed, she looked like she was asleep. I shook her as gently as I could, hoping to awaken her. She did not stir. 'Come on, Pritchard. Wake up!'
No response. I brushed away her hair and caught a sight of iridescent scales along her brow. They had formed a ridge and were cold to the touch. I recoiled even as I tried to squash the disgust that welled up. The implications supported one of the many theories that had been floated around the laboratory. Had she always been one from the start or had this been a recent transformation?
Could it be contagious?
I dared not think too long on it. Pritchard was hurt. There weren't any obvious wounds but for what reason would she be lying here insensate when moments before she had been alert, fit and healthy. Unlike me, she had readily volunteered to be a part of Gladstone's mission.
It was then that I thought to stop and ponder. Where were the others? Glancing around the ruins of the makeshift camp, I could see no sign of the other scientists. Thankfully, I could not make out any immediate dangers either. Pritchard would be safe. For now.
With some effort, I scooped her into my arms. It would not do to have her out in the open and on the hard stones. I nearly tripped on one of the tent pegs when I finally put her down. She did not stir.
Nearby, one of the metal crates sat open, the lid askew. Inside were three or four rifles. I would have liked to have believed that Gladstone would not have provided live rounds. We were a motley crew of scientists and nurses – prone to sitting at desks and conducting experiments, not battlefields. If the 'specimen' we sought was not as docile as initially reported, it was entirely possible they would have provided tranquilisers.
But that was not what I had heard earlier. Nor did it seem that the creature that we were after would go quietly.
Behind me, I heard another round of gunfire. Without thinking, I grabbed the first gun I could reach. It almost slipped from my hands. Nothing felt right in my grip. The butt bit into my shoulder. The trigger seemed too far away for my finger. How did someone use these things? It felt unwieldy and far too heavy.
Still, if it meant that I could put a stop to whatever was happening, I would take the opportunity offered to me.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of colour and movement to my left. I hurried towards it, weapon up. Though I did not know squat about sight-lines, the basic concept of using a gun was simple. Point and shoot. It would have to do. After all, someone needed to bring this whole thing to a close. Once and for all. Whether that was putting down the specimen or cutting down Gladstone – I couldn't say. But the insanity that had gripped the laboratory – that had infiltrated my family and the town – needed to reach its final conclusion.
Up ahead, I caught a glimpse of one of the scientists. His name eluded me. It didn't matter. At the sound of my approach from behind, he whirled around, gun at the ready. There was a crazed look in his eyes, one that implied alarm or panic or both. His face was deathly pale. From just a casual glance, I could see that some injury had caused his nose to bleed.
'Name!' he demanded. 'Don't lie. I'll know. All the others…they lied because they weren't real. Please. I need someone to be real!' The desperation in his voice sent a chill down my spine. It niggled a part of my brain that said something wasn't quite right.
'Hinds! Tom Hinds. I'm one of you. Us. And I'm real. As real as can be,' I said, taking a cautious step forward and trying to appear as friendly as was possible. 'Can you tell me what's going on?'
It was as if he did not hear me. As if he were lost in his own world. That was when realisation struck me.
As soon as his finger twitched, I immediately fell prone on the ground. Bullets whizzed over my head. Fuck! I grappled to swing my gun around. Time seemed to slow. Every wasted movement seemed to bring my impending doom ever closer. The man stomped forward. He snarled at the air above me, his lips stretched over his teeth. It was animalistic and territorial.
'You can't run from me now. You're one of them, aren't you? Well, say something!'
I kept silent – unsure if any answer I provided would placate the man. It was as if he had taken some form of hallucinogenic. The symptoms were all there. He was talking and interacting with something that wasn't real. That he was carrying a weapon made it all the more complicated.
Desperately, I tried to crawl away. Something had happened to him. I couldn't say what. Minutes ago, he had been listening patiently to Gladstone, the next…
There was a pregnant pause and then the man cried out in alarm and something dropped to the ground. I risked a glance over my shoulder. He was cradling his arm. Blood dripped from a new gash. And then, before he could reach for his weapon, he was thrown thirty feet away. He landed with a crunch and remained still.
I scanned the deserted beach, trying to make sense of what I had witnessed. There was no sign of his assailant. A terrible idea gripped me. What if the—No. I quickly shoved the thought to the back of my mind as I scrambled up to my feet, a sudden pounding behind my eyes.
There was no sense in trying to make sense of the impossible. It would only serve to pull me down an endless spiral – straight into the abyss. I needed to find the 'specimen' and put a stop to all this madness.
As I scoured the beach for Gladstone, I stumbled upon two harrowing encounters. One was Lopez. Just like the nameless scientist before him, he seemed unaware of my presence. Lost in his own world, gun cast aside, it almost looked like he was trying to settle into a domesticated life atop the rocks even as the waves threatened to knock him down. When I tried to talk to him, he knocked me aside as if I as just the buzzing of a fly in his ear.
Stunned and confused, I watched as he continued to speak in Tagalog to people that were not there. From the distress on his face, it appeared as if he was embroiled in a domestic argument. It was uncanny and disturbing.
Yet, no matter how many times I tried, I could not wake him from the delusions that gripped him. It was on my last attempt that I was pushed aside that I saw the rogue wave building up. Too late, I shouted my warning. But it was as if he did not hear a word. I watched, in mute horror, as the wave crashed into him and dragged him out to sea.
Another soul I had failed to save.
The second person I met on that lonely beach was Patricia Hastings. Though we had not worked together in the past, I knew Patricia from the work she had done on genetic modification. Her reputation proceeded her in academic circles, mired though it was in controversy. In the last few years, the media had portrayed her as an overly ambitious woman driven only by the thirst of knowledge and what could be done, ethics be damned.
With her back facing me, I had, at first, thought that she had escaped whatever ailment that had afflicted the others. But as I cautiously approached, I realised that something was wrong. Patricia stood as still as a statue. Her eyes moved from left to right and back again as if she was tracking something. In fact, she barely seemed to blink. When I waved my arm in front of her face, she did not respond.
Just as I turned to leave, Patricia uttered a low guttural moan. She took one step forward before collapsing to the ground. When I reached her, her eyes were still open – endlessly tracking whatever it was she was seeing. A cursory examination revealed that her heartbeat was slower than average and she felt a tad bit colder.
For several terrifying minutes, I debated my next actions. I could not, in good conscience, leave her unattended. What if she was suffering from a stroke or a seizure? How could I leave her here?
The other part of my brain, however, whispered that the only way to solve the problem was to track down the 'specimen' and kill it. There had been numerous reports from the retrieval team that many of the men had experienced both auditory and visual hallucinations. Some had even killed themselves.
While the creatures that we had experimented on in the lab had demonstrated any such abilities, it was clear that we were facing a much greater threat than Gladstone had advised us in the briefings.
In the end, cold ruthless logic won through. There was naught I could do for Patricia. For all I knew, killing the monstrosity would free the others from whatever power had ensnared their senses.
What I dared not consider was why I had not been affected.
For twenty odd minutes, I searched high and low for where Gladstone might have disappeared to. But the beach was empty of all save a few of the volunteer task force.
As I rounded the headland, the sea roaring beside me, I spotted spatters of blue on the rocks. Some of it was still wet. Bending down, I touched it with a finger. Many of the creatures that we had experimented upon had blood rich in iron. Perhaps, because, many were still humanoid in appearance. The one Gladstone had sent us to chase, however, was different. It was possible that it might share more similarities with cephalopods or certain species of fish.
For the first time in a long while, excitement thrummed through me. If this was true, then we might have stumbled upon something ground-breaking. This discovery was sure to push our understanding of the human genome. Diseases might be cured. Cancer would just be a footnote in medical history! We would finally show the naysayers the power of science. Finally, we could refine what God had created and fix the flaws in our own design!
The possibilities were endless! Gladstone was too small in his focus. If we could only uncover the secrets behind these creatures, the secrets we could uncover…
At what cost, though? If these creatures were sentient, what right did I have to take experiment on them? At what point would it be okay to cross that line? The thought gave me pause and sobered me from the grandiose ideals that gripped me. Was it worth the lives of everyone dear to me? What about my ever-slipping sanity? I could not keep doing these things. Cutting into their bodies, trying to figure out their physiology…what had any of that accomplished over the last four years?
I took a deep breath and rose to my feet. Find Gladstone. Find the specimen.
The sun had begun to set, the chill wind biting into my bones, when I spotted the cave cut into the side of the cliff. Just outside the entrance, on the huge plateau, was a huge spray of blue. Mixed in was one set of boot prints. If I was right, that meant Gladstone had followed after the specimen. I hurried into the cave, gun at the ready. There was no telling what I would encounter inside. For all I knew, Gladstone might have killed the abomination. Or, perhaps, the reverse was true.
I told myself it didn't matter.
One way or another, this would end.
Gravel crunched beneath my feet as I stalked into the gloom. Far ahead, I heard the drip drop of water hitting rock. As for Gladstone or the monster, there was no sign.
I continued forward, my eyes adjusting to the dim light that filtered through. A part of me worried what would happen if I did not find Gladstone or the specimen before nightfall. Foremost in my thoughts were Patria Hasting and Laura Pritchard. With a concerted effort, I shook my head to clear it of my fears. I would cross that bridge when I got there.
Distracted, I did not see that the passageway sloped downwards. I stepped into air and felt my heart lurch as I tipped forward. A frightened cry left my lips, arms pinwheeling.
As the ground rushed up towards me, I managed to catch myself on the slippery rocks. The heels of my palm barked with pain, along with my knees. I took a shuddering breath in to steady myself. Felt it leave. And then took another breath even as I began to play a familiar refrain within the confines of my brain. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. God. I had been so stupid!
If that hadn't tipped Gladstone or the creature off…
I scrambled back to my feet and dusted myself off before taking a look at my new surroundings. The cavern was huge. Ahead, I saw the path branch into three separate openings. Centred above the crossroads a narrow shaft allowed the fading light of the afternoon in. It did little against the darkness.
Which way to go?
There was no sign or clue as to which way they had gone. But instead of trusting to luck, I waited. Closing my eyes, I strained my ears for the slightest sound. I'd look like a fool but it was my one recourse. If they had thought I had fallen, perhaps they would drop their guard and make a mistake that I could capitalise on.
Seconds bled into minutes. It was as if the entire world was holdings its breath.
Somewhere in the darkness, I heard a strange scuffling sound. A feral grin stretched across my face as I dashed towards the opening on my right. Within moments, whoever was in front realised their mistake. They broke into a run, the pitter-patter of their footsteps echoing through the cavern.
I raced after them, lungs burning and legs threatening to buckle out from beneath me. Still, I pressed on. I could not afford to lose the opportunity before me.
Movement ahead lent a burst of speed and suddenly, we emerged into another open area. The last vestiges of sunlight filtered through, casting the large lake in a rainbow of colour. At the centre of the subterranean waterway was a small platform, on which sat a forgotten shrine made of driftwood and refuse.
Ensnared by the beauty of the scene before me, I forgot, for the briefest of moments, what had led me there. Until, an elbow flew straight for my nose. There was a loud crunch and a sudden intense pain. Blood spurted. The world seemed to shift in and out of focus as I tried to stem the flow.
And then Gladstone was running down towards the lake and the shrine at the centre. He looked over his shoulder, the expression on his face was a mixture of fear and spite. The thin strands of hair on his head were dull and greasy, plastered to his scalp. His clothes were tattered. In his hands, he held a strange box-like object.
Fuelled by rage, I grabbed hold of my rifle. I aimed down the sights. I pulled the trigger and a burst of gunfire exploded from the other end. The shots went wild, missing by a wide margin. Gladstone risked another glance over his shoulder, a smirk on his smarmy face. God. How I wanted to wipe it off. Pritchard did not deserve the hell he had put her through. Nor had any of the others.
Cursing under my breath, I gave chase.
I cornered him in front of the shrine, weapon at the ready. At this range, there was no way I would miss. A stitch was forming in my side but I refused to acknowledge it as I wheezed – desperately trying to get air in my lungs.
'It's over, Gladstone!' I panted, dying for a drink or a smoke or something that would take the edge off the pain. 'I don't know what you intended to do, but it ends now.'
Gladstone turned around. 'Hinds,' he sneered, slicking back his hair with one hand. 'Why am I not surprised? You've been a thorn in my side since the moment you joined the team.'
'This isn't a negotiation. I have the gun.' I made a show of tightening my finger on the trigger. 'Put down the box, Gladstone. Surrender. Once we put down the creature, everything can go back to normal and—'
It began as a chuckle. Before I knew it, Gladstone was doubled over with laughter. His free hand, slapping his knee.
'What's so funny?' I demanded. 'Stop fucking laughing!' God, I wanted to hurt him so bad. If only I could march up to him, hit him in the stomach with the butt of the rifle…
Gladstone straightened and wiped the tears from the corner of his eye. 'Ah, Hinds. Always dreaming too small.'
'Cut the cryptic shit, Gladstone. You were never a proper scientist. Instead, you were a small insignificant man with delusions of grandeur. A middle-management pencil pusher. That's what you've always been. And what you'll always be. The life of an academic too hard and difficult for you, eh?'
I watched as his face went red and his posture go rigid. 'You know nothing about me,' he snarled. 'All the years that I poured into my research and the price I've paid to keep my project…this project afloat. So, don't try and get up on that high horse of yours and preach to me.'
'Yeah, well, this project is being shut down.'
'You're too late. You can't stop what's already in motion. The Elder Gods are coming. When they step through the veil and into our world, I'll be waiting. Ever loyal. Along with the Herald. To be rewarded for my service and dedication to the cause.' Madness gleamed from his eyes as he let out a low chuckle. 'Even though you tried to pull me down, I rose. Triumphant.'
Before I could stop him, he turned and slammed the box-like object down onto a small pedestal in front of the shrine. A dark glow began to emanate from the shrine, pulsing with power and evil intent.
The air grew heavy. Oppressive. There was a sudden ringing in my ears. It was sharp and insistent, bringing me to my knees.
My finger tugged at the trigger. Before I could cut Gladstone down, the world around me warped and fell away. Suddenly, I was surrounded by four white padded walls. Orderlies banged against the sealed metal door. They wanted to get in. To stop me from what I had to do. My heart thudded in my chest. I couldn't let them stop me. To sedate me. To drug me.
I screwed my eyes up tight, grit my teeth and forced myself to calm. It was the same old nightmare that I had experienced again and again after Morgan, June and Jasper had taken that ill-fated drive up towards the cliff. I focused on the dirt beneath my boots, the weight of the rifle in my hands, the ebb and flow of the water…
Hesitantly, I cracked open one eye. I was back in the cavern. Good. Still standing a few metres away was Gladstone. He was crouched over the box, mumbling under his breath. The glow had faded and his body language screamed thwarted ambition. I caught only a few words. Something about ancient texts and a prophecy. I gave it no heed as I squeezed the trigger and felt the impact of the stock thumping into my shoulder.
For a single moment, it felt as if a weight was lifted from my shoulders and everything was right again with the world. But then the box began to throb once more. I watched in horror as it slowly began to float in the air and spin and spin and spin. A rip formed in the air just above the shrine. It was dark and cold and menacing. Something reached through and the mere sight of it sent a shiver down my spine.
I turned. And ran.
To stay would have only sealed my doom.
Breathless, I emerged from the cave and into a tempest. The winds raged and the sea roiled as if in answer to what Gladstone had unleashed.
There was nowhere to hide. No place that was safe from their wrath. I could not say how I knew that fact. Only that I did. Still, there was Hastings to think of. And Pritchard too. None of them had asked for this. If I could save them then perhaps there was still hope for me still.
Something struck me from behind and I was flung to the ground, the rifle flying into the water. Pain thrummed through every part of my body except for my right arm, which seemed to be non-responsive. I staggered to my feet and kept going. Death waited but I would not go into that sweet oblivion without a fight.
Each step sapped what little of my strength remained. The distance from where I was and the tents seemed to grow. I fell to my knees, exhaustion weighing down my limbs. Though I shouted at myself to move, my body refused to acknowledge my commands. I lay on the pebbles and stared up at the storm as lightning flashed and rain peppered my face.
I could not say how long I stayed there as oblivion tempted me with sweet release. It would be so easy to simply let go. After all, I had tried to do good in the world. My intentions had been for the noblest of reasons. Surely, whoever manned the pearly gates would see that and consider me worthy of entering Elysium.
A siren song pulled me from my thoughts. I craned my neck towards the rising waves and saw what must have been a final gift. Morgan, June and Jasper – whole and without blemish. With the last remaining ounce of strength that I had, I crawled towards them. It couldn't be. And yet, it was. Right before my very eyes.
The unshed tears that I had refused to let fall burned as I made my way into the surf.
Finally, I could be reunited with them. With that thought in mind, I allowed myself to sink into the soft embrace of the water and let it carry me away.