Read crossfades epub format

Authors: William Todd Rose

crossfades

Crossfades
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Hydra eBook Original

Copyright © 2015 by William Todd Rose

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Hydra, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

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YDRA
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YDRA
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eBook ISBN 9781101883686

Cover art and design: Scott Biel

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Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Prologue: The Secret Life of Chuck Grainger

Chapter 1: Alone in the Dark

Chapter 2: Into the Beyond

Chapter 3: The Room at the End of the Hall

Chapter 4: The Sleeper Screams

Chapter 5: Crawling

Chapter 6: The String of Theseus

Chapter 7: Chinese Finger Puzzles

Chapter 8: One Good Eye

Chapter 9: Fallout

Chapter 10: The Mercy Seat

Chapter 11: Unchained

Chapter 12: March of the Automatons

Chapter 13: Transformation

Epilogue: Where Even Moths Can Never Go

By William Todd Rose

About the Author

Prologue
The Secret Life of Chuck Grainger

The first warning in the handbook stated, in no uncertain terms, that there was some malevolent shit out there. Chuck Grainger knew this and took a certain amount of satisfaction in that fact. His job wasn't for the timid or weak. To work in his field, a man needed to be carved from stone; he had to continually face his own mortality and somehow not go insane when out in the Crossfades. The handbook, of course, also had a thing or two to say about those. The official description of Crossfades described them as being like that moment in movies where Acts One and Two briefly coexist; they meld into a composite for a moment—both scenes visible, yet
semitransparent—but
eventually one asserts its dominion over the other and the plot moves on. Chuck knew that this was technically a term from audio engineering, not film…but he also knew the boys in the lab weren't exactly the types to let facts get in the way of snazzy jargon.

He had to admit, though, that the analogy was pretty accurate since the same thing happened with what people tended to think of as Life and Death. There were borderlands, little pockets of stasis dimpling the surface of eternity, and most departing souls passed through them so effortlessly they didn't even notice. But some specifically looked for these warrens. They refused to let go of the physical realm and fought against the transition with everything they had, sometimes creating new Crossfades by sheer willpower alone. Others, however, simply became trapped.

For reasons the research scientists hadn't quite figured out, a portion of these snared spirits came to be linked with moths. Randolph Johnson, the department head of Theoretical Positioning, had told Chuck once that he suspected these creatures had the ability to flutter through both dimensions
simultaneously.
He compared them to bees in a field, picking up pollen along the way, but openly admitted that the math to prove his hypothesis dangled frustratingly out of reach. Jewel—who should have been a poetess instead of his research
assistant—insisted
this was why moths continually batted themselves against bulbs; these quantum hitchhikers, she claimed, knew their paths had been diverted and tried time and time again to cross into The Light.

Chuck, being a more practical man, recognized the elegance of Jewel's notion but didn't waste much time considering whether or not it might be true. It wasn't that he thought it was silly; it was simply the way he was wired. When he'd been a freshman in college, he'd signed up for one of the psychological research studies posted on the bulletin board in the student union. At the time, it had seemed like easy money. All he'd had to do was spend a couple hours one Saturday morning answering multiple choice questions on a personality questionnaire. Some of the questions had certainly seemed odd, but he knew enough about basic psychology to suspect that the real goal of the study was buried somewhere among the more inane questions. It was only several months later that the truth of the matter became known; he'd been approached by a man in a gray suit and fifty-dollar haircut, handed a business card, and advised that his results fit the profile for a very specific job. This opportunity, he was told, would prove more lucrative than any career his eventual degree could ever hope to net; and the best part was that he would be able to begin immediately.

There were stipulations, of course; with an offer like that, there always are. He'd have to drop out of school, would be required to move halfway across the country, and would never be able to tell anyone what he actually did for a living. But if he accepted, the rewards would far outweigh the things he'd be giving up; these rewards, he was assured, would go far beyond mere wealth and physical comfort. His entire view of reality would change. He would find the transcendence his test results suggested he secretly yearned for, would be exposed to secrets only a handful of people throughout history had been privy to, and would be able to live out the rest of his days knowing exactly what was to come once he'd closed his eyes that final time.

The recruiter hadn't told him everything, of course. The man hadn't mentioned the loneliness or the strain that such secrecy would place upon interpersonal relationships. He hadn't explained how this job would come to be Chuck's entire world or how he'd define himself almost exclusively by how well he performed in it. There was no doubt the man had known these things, just as there was no doubt that they were considered desirable in a candidate. The questionnaire had been specifically designed to give the man a complete understanding of a potential candidate's psyche, revealing things the recruit may not have even known about himself. Coupled with a background check so exhaustive that even his preschool teacher had been questioned under false pretenses, The Institute had known exactly what made Chuck tick; they'd played upon these motivators, tailoring the pitch to match his profile, and almost ensuring that he would say yes.

It was true that their methods had been manipulative, but Chuck was enough of a realist that he couldn't fault them for it. If they hadn't been so thorough, he never would have lasted in this job; he would have ended up in some padded cell, rocking back and forth as drool glistened on his chin, babbling incoherently about Crossfades and Cutscenes. In that sense, matching the personality profile had been a blessing.

There was another warning in the handbook—one that warned against attaching emotion to the things he saw and did. He was expected to balance the stoicism of a scientist with the resolve of a soldier. Romantic notions like Jewel's were bad enough in the lab, but they could get your ass into serious trouble in the field. The slightest hint of emotion was like striking a match in the darkness: All things previously hidden were brought to light. With a mind of pure reason, Chuck was able to see the things that existed within The Divide…but illuminated by the passions of the living, they would also be able to see him as well.

His official title was Recon and Enforcement Technician, Level II. When he was being wooed, The Institute had made it sound as though he'd be some sort of cosmic cop, patrolling a metaphysical beat and extending mankind's reach into the kingdom of the dead. After six months of mentoring, however, he'd gone solo and discovered the truth of the matter: He was nothing more than a glorified janitor, sweeping cobwebs from the corners of infinity. Which is why—despite the handbook's
recommendations
to the
contrary—people
like him were internally referred to as
Whisks
.

Six years after signing up for that psychological study, Chuck's life had become routine, just as it would with any other job. He woke up at 6:00 a.m. and had orange juice and whole wheat toast, put some time in on the translocation equation as he ate, and then zipped green coveralls over his street clothes. He grabbed a toolbox from the closet beside his apartment door and left his home no later than 7:00. Letting himself into a rusty gate with a key that dangled around his neck, he caught an unscheduled subway at an abandoned station, acting bored and disinterested as he unclasped the lock.

To other commuters on the sidewalk, he was just an average laborer, on his way to repair a faulty junction box or inspect the rails. No one gave him a second look. They went about their business, strolling along sidewalks with briefcases and overpriced lattes, too wrapped up in their own little worlds to realize that despite his disguise, Chuck didn't really look like a maintenance worker.

The hands were where it was most obvious. His palms were soft and smooth, the only callus being where hours of holding a pencil had chaffed the inside of his middle finger. Chuck's mother had wanted him to be a surgeon for as long as he could remember, and he'd been conditioned at a very young age to pamper his hands and keep them safe at all costs. Sports had definitely been out of the question, as the risk far outweighed any perceived payoff in Mrs. Grainger's opinion. But there had been other activities that had been banned as well. Learning to play the piano was one of them, since Chuck's mother believed her son's knuckles might be rapped if he happened to strike a sour note. His free time was expected to be spent studying and he was only allowed to read fiction as an occasional treat.

The indoctrination had been so complete that more than twenty years later, Chuck still hadn't been able to shake it. He still felt twinges of fear when wielding a hammer and instinctively glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one was watching before cracking his knuckles. His nails were manicured on a regular basis and were buffed until they gleamed like chips of polished glass, and their edges were
never
darkened by embedded grit or allowed to become jagged. These were definitely not the hands of a man who worked with machinery eight hours a day. But it was okay because, as the handbook informed him, people in a city never really looked that closely.

Once he'd locked the gate behind him, Chuck descended into the tunnels, shuffling down a wide stairway littered with dried leaves and discarded candy bar wrappers. The station itself was so dimly lit that he could barely make out the loops and swirls of the faded graffiti that covered the curved walls; traffic overhead was nothing more than a faint rumble with only the heaviest of trucks causing dust to rain down from the ceiling, adding yet another layer to the musty-smelling patina that had settled upon the rows of plastic chairs. The scent permeated the entire station, seeming to exude from the dank air itself. A person more prone to flights of fancy may have imagined he was in some ancient tomb or forgotten catacomb, a place that hadn't known natural light or fresh air for ages. Only the tracks themselves dispelled this notion; worn by the secret train that rumbled over them every day, they glimmered bright silver in the gloom, dissolving entirely as the shadows of the tunnel eventually overtook them.

Chuck had just enough time to stow his toolbox and coveralls within the bank of lockers lining one wall and return to the platform, knowing from experience that the subway would be neither late nor early. During the entire time he'd worked for The Institute, the train had never been anything other than punctual.

The interior of the car was cleaner than the ones that serviced the general population and smelled of pine-scented disinfectant. He sat on an upholstered seat that was surprisingly plush and read a complimentary newspaper as the car shimmied and rocked. He recognized the faces of his fellow passengers and had even devised secret nicknames for some of them: Cozy Mystery Lady, Black Tie/Yellow Glasses, and Mr. Ed, to name a few. As a general rule, however, Chuck kept to himself, choosing to shun conversation and camaraderie all the way to the end of the line.

Once the train shuddered to a halt and the doors hissed open, he filed into a service elevator that was almost as large as the living room in his apartment and waited to descend. His office was fifteen stories underground and was the hub in a tangle of wires and conduits that siphoned energy from the structures of the surface world. It was a vast network of relays, switches, and buzzing transformers that most people would never see…or even knew existed, for that matter. Distributed between thousands of buildings and housing complexes, The Institute stole enough electricity to power a small town, without so much as a bill.

When the elevator doors opened again, he navigated a maze of cubicles and offices, smiling at people as he passed nondescript doors and glass-fronted laboratories. This part of the complex always smelled of coffee, and the heady aroma made his shoulders slump without fail. As a Whisk, he was required to adhere to a strict dietary regime that left no room for stimulants such as caffeine—and that morning cup of java, as dark and bitter as his stepfather's heart, was one of the things he missed most about his former life.

Eventually, Chuck came to a door that looked like all the others: windowless, blond wood grain with a silver handle attached and a retinal scanner embedded in the adjacent wall. A soft click announced that his identity had been verified as an LED changed from red to green and the door swung open easily, permitting Chuck entrance to his office.

It was a fairly small room painted in soothing pastels with cameras perched in each corner. Water gurgled over a fountain shaped like the Buddha and sitting atop simple end tables were ferns that Chuck never needed to water, their needs being tended to by the overnight maintenance crew. Instead of a desk, he had an overstuffed couch with a variety of throw pillows strategically placed so that it looked as though they'd been tossed onto the sofa with little thought. Behind the couch was a bank of monitors and leads, all the electronics that tracked his vitals when out in the Crossfades, but he'd become so accustomed to their presence that he barely gave them a glance.

“Morning, Nodens.”

Nodens was the nickname he'd given to his partner. Chuck had been working with the man for more than a year and had never known his name; he knew it didn't really matter if he greeted the man or not, but somehow it felt wrong not to. The man's body was frail and shriveled and the hiss of the respirator keeping him alive was a rhythmic constant in the room. An IV dripped a mix of drugs and nutrients into Nodens's withered arm, ensuring he'd never awaken from his chemically induced coma. As the handbook pointed out, being under wasn't like sleeping, though most people assumed it was. There were no dreams, no REM, nor any of the brainwaves that would be witnessed in a functioning mind. Anesthesia was the little death people plunged into daily without realizing exactly what lurked within those murky depths; and this was a fact of which The Institute took full advantage.

This much Chuck knew about his partner: The man was terminally ill. They all were when first approached. With medical bills mounting, the scouts painted a picture of financial ruin for those left behind. Wives, children, husbands, and life partners: In addition to overwhelming grief, they'd be forced to muddle through a nightmare of insurance claims, struggling to understand the difference between experimental procedures and
investigational
ones, what needed
preauthorization
and what required
precertification.
When the patient finally passed away, the estate would be stuck with the bills. The bereaved would be hounded by debt collectors and the family home might even be seized if Medicaid reclamation was involved. Staying alive would be akin to the most calloused act of selfishness, but it could all go away with the signing of a simple contract.

One signature and the patient “died” peacefully in the night; after a bogus funeral, the volunteer was whisked away to the labs and the mourners were surprised in days to come by a settlement from a life insurance policy they never knew existed. An extremely generous payout ensured their continued comfort while coming to terms with their loss and no one was any wiser.

These Sleepers, as they were called, were the most important part of The Institute's operations. When their brains were tuned to the proper frequencies, their bodies acted as conduits. Chapped lips moved so slightly that it almost looked like a trick of light and shadow; the thin wheeze from their throats could pass for the body desperately trying to breathe on its own again. But in reality, the dead spoke through them. Once, these people had loved and laughed and lived. But now, so close to the finish line, they'd become nothing more than biological eavesdropping devices. The snippets of captured conversation were dutifully recorded, noise reduction applied, and the gain adjusted until voices from the other side emerged.

Position could be triangulated, in part, by the strength of the voices. The more clear and distinct the words, the closer the Crossfade was to physical space. Algorithms Chuck didn't fully understand yet calculated a set of coordinates from the collected data, cross-referencing it with heart rate and brain activity. This, in turn, created the equivalent of a pushpin in the topography of Space-Time, and that pushpin was both his focus and destination.

As a Whisk, Chuck had been trained in the art of meditation. He wasn't the fastest by far, but he could guide himself into Theta in the same amount of time it took most people to mumble their bedtime prayers. At that level, visualizing the silver cord was easy. He let it out like a guide rope tethered to his mortal body, a little at a time, taking tentative steps into the unknown until the feeling of claustrophobic suffocation passed. After that, he was able to travel freely. Laymen called this practice astral projection, but to a Whisk, it was simply called The Walk.

Chuck's walks corresponded to the messages his partner broadcasted; most were simply routine assignments since that was all he had clearance for. These were the spirits who longed to cross The Divide; they sensed the mystery and knew the trappings of the flesh were no longer of concern. They'd just got sidetracked on their journey into the unknown and needed a little help finding their way.

The casual listener, though, wouldn't have detected anything out of the ordinary. Nearly drowned by the rhythmic hiss of the ventilator filling and deflating Nodens's lungs, the voices that spoke through the comatose man were so faint that it almost sounded as if the breathing tube had sprung a leak somewhere deep within his trachea. A microphone embedded in the man's throat lining dutifully recorded the words, but even then the messages had to be amplified, filtered, and digitally finessed before meaning could be extracted. Forty hours a week in the company of Sleepers, however, had acclimated Chuck to the slightest of changes in his partners' respiration. He could tell when the Med Techs would need to suction sputum before the airways had even begun gurgling; he knew when the water in the humidifier's reservoir was running low or when a valve in the tubing was
malfunctioning.

So when a sound that was no more than the softest of sighs passed Nodens's vocal cords, Chuck looked up from his paperwork with a smile. His eyes twinkled as he pressed his palms together and bowed his head. Someone, somewhere, was coming through.

“All right,” he said aloud, “time to get to work.”

The assignment, of course, would be what Level I Whisks dismissively referred to as a
Show 'n Go
. The soul would be freed from the Crossfade with only minimal guidance and The Walk would be over far too soon. Even such mundane tasks, however, were preferable to the reports Chuck was required to file; his heart always beat a little more quickly when the voices of the dead bled into the physical realm and tingles tickled the thin hairs on the back of his neck.
This
was what it was all about; this was the moment he lived for.

The first warning in the handbook stated, in no uncertain terms, that there was some malevolent shit out there. Chuck Grainger knew this. But the routine nature of Level II assignments sometimes caused him to forget that occasionally things could go very,
very
wrong…

Chapter 1
Alone in the Dark

The darkness devoured everything. Though her palm was so close that it brushed the tip of her nose, the woman couldn't detect even the hint of a silhouette. Deprived of sight, she relied solely on her other senses instead. She knew she was naked because the cold dimpled her flesh and her scalp tingled as shivers raced through her body; stretching her arms into the darkness, her hands encountered the gritty texture of stone. She trailed her hands over the rough contours, her fingertips numbing as they passed through icy streams of condensation. The cold and gooey strands fanning down the stone were most likely some sort of algae and as her fingers continued their exploration, the edge of the rock dipped sharply before rising up from a channel separating it from the next stone. The material filling this gap was just as coarse, but its surface was more uniform than the rocks surrounding it. It lacked the pits and crags of stone, and when she raked her fingernail across it, the material crumbled into powdery nuggets, confirming her suspicion: It was mortar.

She wasn't standing within a cave at all, but rather a room with stone walls. Of course, she'd never
really
believed she was in a cavern to begin with. The woman's imagination had only toyed with the idea, exploring it as a possibility before moving on to a more probable explanation. Her initial guess, however, had not lacked potential evidence. The air was so damp she felt the moisture on the tip of her tongue and the musty scent of age tickled her nostrils like a sneeze that refused to come; somewhere in the darkness, water plinked and echoed while all else remained perfectly still. Combined with the complete lack of light, these things had indeed suggested a subterranean underworld far from the life-giving warmth of the sun. However, when the woman grazed her bare foot over the material beneath it, her toes detected the pattern of a floor cobbled with stonework…not hard-packed earth riddled with pebbles and a veneer of dust.

Dungeon
.

The word assaulted her mind like a mugger, jumping from the shadows that had previously cloaked it. Her body jolted with the vehemence of the word, almost as though she'd been physically grabbed.

A dungeon?
She considered the idea as she chewed on her bottom lip.
But why? And how?

There were no answers. She'd been wandering through the passages for what felt like hours, yet still had no idea of how she'd come to be in this place, regardless of exactly what it was. It was as if she'd been born fully grown into the lightless void, possessing no memories or experiences that didn't involve dank air and walls hidden by the gloom. No one had been present to give her a name or hold her close as the first of many tears warmed her cheeks. She was received only by the darkness and left to piece the mystery together on her own.

What disturbed the woman more than her complete lack of memory, however, was the ease with which she accepted it. Part of her mind insisted that her stomach should flip-flop with panic, that she should scream for help until her throat was bloodied and raw, until someone—
anyone
—answered her calls. But that part was no more than a whisper, easily pushed aside by the calm and methodical detachment with which she explored her surroundings.

There was a reason she couldn't remember, the woman thought; and if that reason were bad enough to obliterate every shred of who she'd been, perhaps she was better off not knowing. For she knew this was not simple amnesia triggered by head trauma. If that were the case, she'd have been in a hospital. Doctors and nurses would tend to her needs and psychologists would help her untangle the truth. But to have her mind wiped clean only to find herself in what, for all intents and purposes, certainly
felt
like a dungeon? No, that couldn't be good at all. So she shuffled through the darkness with outstretched hands guiding the way, inching along only because it was preferable to standing still. At least movement kept blood flowing through her veins and provided a modicum of warmth. For that, if nothing else, she was grateful.

The woman counted one hundred steps before stopping. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called out in a voice that sounded alien to her own ears.

“Hello?” Her greeting echoed in the blackness, each repetition sounding as though it were spoken by a slightly different voice. The tone seemed to change as well; hopeful questioning slowly morphed to the point that the faintest echoes seemed to sneer and mock before diminishing completely. “Is anyone down here?”

As had become her habit, she waited for a reply. Holding her breath, she strained to hear even the slightest sound as she counted fifty beats of her heart. But, as always, there was no reply. Another hundred steps and she'd try again. The woman was determined to repeat this process until someone answered. Or, barring that, until she actually ended up somewhere other than these darkened tunnels.

She was about to take the first step when she thought she heard something. She froze with her foot suspended several inches off the floor and cocked her head to the side so she could better listen. Dripping condensation; slight puffs as she exhaled through her nose but nothing more.

It must have been her imagination then. Surely she couldn't be subjected to hours of complete blindness without her mind eventually playing tricks on her. The human brain craved stimulation after all. For example, even if the passage had been completely silent, her ears would have insisted they heard a high-pitched ringing. So that had to be it then. Nothing more than an auditory hallucination.

She lowered her foot upon the cool cobbles and prepared to take another step when she froze.

There it was again.

A sound like the softest of sighs, thin and wheezy. Faint, to be certain…but definitely not imagined.

Something about the noise quickened the woman's pulse. She felt the vein in her neck throb and heard the whoosh and swish of blood in her eardrums as her heart thudded harder. This change wasn't brought about by the possibility that she wasn't alone down here, however. It wasn't excitement…it was fear.

She stood perfectly still and within minutes heard the sigh again. Was it closer this time? She couldn't tell. But she thought so. It would have certainly had to have been louder to be heard over the sound of her own heartbeat. Wouldn't it?

Despite the chill in the air, the woman suddenly felt flushed and warm. Rather than just beating hard, her heart was galloping now, squishing out surges of adrenaline that tensed her muscles. Her throat felt pinched and she couldn't seem to get enough oxygen, no matter how quickly her lungs insisted on breathing.

But why was she so afraid? It was nothing more than a noise in the darkness, after all. Not even a particularly threatening one. Most likely the source of the sound, given her environment, was a rat.

That's no motherfuckin' rat!

The woman felt as though a terrified child hid somewhere within the recesses of her fractured psyche. The little girl cried and blubbered, repeatedly insisting that they should go, that they should go
now
. Begging. Pleading. Yet the woman held her ground. Not because of courage mustered in the face of danger. Not because of heroism. No, she stood motionless in the dark simply because she was incapable of doing anything else.

She wanted to listen to her inner child.

She wanted her legs to move.

She wanted to
run
.

But the instructions got lost somewhere between thought and execution.

She merely stood. And listened.

A new noise reached her ears, this one coming from somewhere overhead. It was close enough that she could hear it distinctly, but far enough away that she never could have reached whatever made the sound, even if she stood on tiptoe and stretched. It was like the fluttering of a thousand delicate wings, each one beating faster than it ever had before as the swarm fled from something…
monstrous
.

That was the right word. She was sure of it.

Within the span of a second, the flurry had passed, leaving her to face whatever they'd retreated from. Alone. And naked. In the dark.

“Lydia…” The whispered voice caused chills to creep across the woman's flesh. The three syllables had been drawn out slowly, each one burdened with menace. And that tone told her all she needed to know. Whoever had spoken wasn't there to give her a welcoming hug and a fresh-baked apple pie. And it wasn't the same entity that had made the previous noises. She was as sure of this as she was that the whispered name was her own.

Her imaginary child was throwing a full-blown tantrum now. The terrified girl pounded on the walls of her skull with balled fists, shrieking, wordlessly wailing as panic robbed her of all reason.

But still the woman's legs wouldn't cooperate. The muscles in her calves twitched with spasms and her knees shook as though they were too frail to support her.

“Would you like to play, Lydia? Would you like to play with my pet?”

In the darkness, something moved. Multiple feet pattered against the floor as it scrambled forward, startling the woman into a gasp. She hadn't realized that the thing had been so close. How had it managed to sneak up on her?

The creature paused, sniffed the air in rapid succession as if trying to detect a scent, and scuttled forward again.

“Run, Lydia!” The voice boomed like the command of a dark god and gales of mocking laughter encircled her on all side. “
Run!

And suddenly she did. Her legs broke through their paralysis and she bolted blindly into the darkness. Within five steps, she slammed into a wall, the stone scraping skin from her forehead and radiating pain as she staggered backward.

The creature sniffed the air, snorted, and sniffed again before scampering a few more steps forward.

By then Lydia had recovered from the unexpected jolt and she darted back into the inky darkness, her legs scissoring as she bounced off walls she simply couldn't see. Through sheer luck, she somehow found an opening, a ninety-degree turn that had the feeling of a doorway, and a mental image formed in her mind with such clarity that it seemed to flash in the darkness.

It wasn't a dungeon. It was a
maze
.

Stretching out her right hand, Lydia ran with her fingertips in constant contact with the wall. The rough stone was like sandpaper, and her skin was rapidly rubbed raw. The exposed nerves flared with each scrape and bump, burned fiery hot as flesh curled back, lubricated by sticky blood. But when her hand met no resistance, the woman knew she could safely turn and she ground her teeth together to keep from screaming as she abraded her wounds even more deeply in a new corridor.

And still the creature closed in.

Stop. Sniff. Scurry. Repeat.

It drew a little closer each time, no matter how quickly Lydia forced her body to move. Sweat now plastered her hair to her skull and tears stung her eyes. Gasping for breath, she struggled to coax a little more speed from her legs. Adrenaline partially anesthetized fingertips that had the texture of ground meat and a stitch in her side felt as though a knife was continually plunged between her ribs. Even so, she forced herself to go on, to go a little faster, a little farther into the darkness.

But at every twist or turn, the sounds reached her once again: stop, sniff, scurry, repeat…


Go away!
” Her voice was thick and coarse and snot bubbled from clogged nostrils as the woman shouted through tears. “
Leave me the fuck alone! Go away, go away, go AWAY!

Yet still the creature pursued her, never seeming to tire.

Stop. Sniff. Scurry. Repeat.

Closer.

Closer still.

“Lydia!”

This time the whispered voice sounded as if it originated in the center of her head, and with it came traces of memory. She was young. Very young. Someone—a grandfather perhaps—had taken her into the woods on a moonless night. Tree frogs croaked and chirped while a lone bird warbled in the distance. A paper bag was clutched in her hand and she was alone, standing at the base of a pine, trying her best to be brave but wishing upon the first star she saw that she was back at the cabin, back in the safety and warmth of her bed, not out here with the bears and the wolves and whatever other predators might make themselves known with glowing eyes.
Snipe hunt
. That was it. Granddaddy said he'd go into the forest and clack two blocks of wood together, flushing out the snipe and making them flee in her direction. Her job was to capture them in the paper bag as they bounded into the clearing. But it had been ages since she'd heard the clack of wood against wood and every rustle of underbrush made her feel as if she were about to throw up. Something was out there, she knew it was, and it was coming to get her and it would eat her and she'd never see Mommy or Daddy again, she'd just be dragged away into the night, kicking and screaming and she just wanted to go back to the cabin, oh God, where was the cabin even at, which direction, where should she run, where would she go if Granddaddy never came back at all?

The memory burst as quickly as it had formed, leaving Lydia to wonder if it had been a true recollection or simply something conjured by her overtaxed mind. It had felt real. But at the same time, there had been a dreamlike quality to it, more like the memory of a movie she once may have watched rather than anything that had actually happened to
her
.

The distraction caused Lydia to stumble over her own feet and her body pitched forward in the darkness. For a fraction of a second, it felt as if she were falling through an infinite void, as if she would continue to flail in the air forever. But then the floor slammed into her, mashing her breasts against the cobbles and expelling the air from her lungs in a whoosh. She tried to gasp another breath, but it was as if something had choked off her airway. Her hands flew to her throat as she struggled to breathe, the creature stalking her momentarily forgotten in the desperate struggle for air.

Breathe, can't breathe, oh God, oh dear God, I'm choking, dying, choking, breathe, damn it, BREATHE!

Floating just beneath her panicked thoughts, another hint of memory: This is what had happened to Granddaddy, down by the creek with the blocks of wood by his side, close enough to see the light of the cabin but unable to cry out as pain jolting through his left arm and his chest tightened. And it was her fault he was dead, all her fault. He'd mentioned the snipe hunt and she begged him to take her, bouncing from foot to foot as she tugged on his trousers and repeated
please
in the sweetest voice she could, forcing him to relent with a laugh.

Without warning, Lydia huffed in mouthfuls of air, her stinging lungs grateful for its cool reprieve. Laying her cheek against the floor, Lydia pulled her knees to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs as she cried. Partly for Granddaddy, partly for herself, partly because she still wasn't even sure if it was a true memory or not. Tears of frustration, guilt, and fear pooled under her cheek and her shoulders hitched with each new sob.

What was the point of getting back up? Why even bother running? The creature would get her in the end. She'd tire or trip again, the creature would pounce, and then she'd die, never knowing who she truly was.

There was no other possible way the scenario could play out. She was certain of this. So why prolong it? There was no shame in giving up. If she were to die, then at least it would be on her own terms.

So she laid on the floor with grit sticking to snot and tears. She braced herself for the inevitable and tried to manifest an image of Granddaddy in her imagination. Was he tall? Burly? Did he have spectacles and facial hair or was he bald? A hundred different combinations flipped through her mind, features and
characteristics
from one bleeding into the next. Anyone could have been her grandfather. Or none of them. Her memory was as dark as the corridor surrounding her, and no matter how thoroughly she probed it, details would not emerge.

She forced the ambiguous remembrance from her mind and simply listened to the sound of impending death, hoping it would be quick and painless, but doubtful.

Stop.

Sniff.

Scurry.

Repeat.

Chapter 2
Into the Beyond

The sky was a deep shade of lavender with puffy white clouds drifting lazily across its expanse; to the south, a lemon yellow sun blazed, its rays streaking the atmosphere around it, and a soft breeze carried the scent of lilacs as it rustled grass in a field that seemed to stretch into eternity. This grass was dotted with daisies of every color imaginable: pink, blue, and yellow petals mingling side by side with reds, aquas, and variegated pastels not normally found in nature. The foliage grew less dense as it approached a tree whose brown bark was as smooth as paper; the trunk was as wide as a large car and thick branches jutted out from either side, rising into a canopy of leaves so bright and vibrant that it almost seemed as though they'd been airbrushed. A rope was tied to one of these branches and it descended to a rubber tire that was suspended a foot or so above a patch of hard-packed earth.

The little girl sitting within the tire swing looked to be around seven or eight years old and her blond pigtails brushed against her shoulders as she swung back and forth. She was wearing a floral sundress and blue eyes looked out from behind thick glasses, watching the man approach with an expression that could only be described as neutral. Only her mouth betrayed hints of nervousness; she chewed on her bottom lip as she studied the newcomer, rubbing bucked teeth over the chapped flesh as if she could scrape the flakes of skin away.

Squatting beside the girl, Chuck Grainger smiled, making sure to keep his palms flat against his thighs. He didn't want to come across as threatening, but he also had to ensure he wasn't closing himself off. Something as simple as crossing his arms over his chest or balling his hands into fists could dictate the entire course of the interview; experience had taught him it was best to maintain a distance close enough that he could be heard while talking softly but not so close that the girl felt as though her personal space was being infringed upon. This was true for all souls, but with children body language became even more important.

“Hi, sweetheart.” His voice was low and soothing, as though he'd just tucked her in and was reading the opening lines of a bedtime story. “My name's Chuck. What's yours?”

The girl leaned backward slightly and eyed him in silence as she allowed the swing to slow. He could sense the uncertainty in her, the tension of encountering a stranger who may or may not be dangerous fighting against the loneliness that had undoubtedly plagued her in this place.

“Sure is a nice swing you've got there.” He continued once it became apparent she wasn't ready to talk yet. “My uncle built me one like this when I was a kid. I only had it for around a week, though. We ended up getting these really bad storms, you know? Thunder and rain for days. Anyhow, lightning struck the tree my swing was on and burnt it so badly that the branch split right away from the trunk. I don't figure you have to worry about that, though. I suspect it doesn't ever rain here, does it? That the sky is always bright and sunny, even when you know it should be night.”

The little girl shifted in the swing, but Chuck noticed that she'd stopped chewing on her lip.

“You ever think about having birds in the tree? There was a nest in the tree my swing was on. I remember sitting there and listening to them sing. It sounded pretty, but between you and me I was a little scared that one of them might poop on my head.”

The girl giggled as she covered her mouth with a hand and Chuck's smile widened, knowing he'd made a bit of headway. At the same time, a rustling of wings came from overhead and he glanced up to see a robin perched atop the coil of rope that attached the swing to the branch. The bird's red breast swelled as it chirped and warbled, its song sounding light and cheerful in the otherwise stillness of the eternal afternoon.

“Hey, I guess you thought a bird wasn't such a bad idea, huh? But I tell you what…you better not let that thing poop on me.” The little girl giggled again, and Chuck took this as his cue to duckwalk a few steps closer to her. “You ever notice how that happens, sweetheart? How you think about something you want and
poof
…there it is. Maybe it's a different dress. Or a ribbon for that pretty hair of yours. Or even a bird.”

The girl gasped as she nodded, her startled eyes seeming all that much more wide through the magnification of her lenses.

“I…I wanted watermelon real bad. And then I had it. Right here in my lap.” The girl's whisper was so soft that Chuck had to cock his head to the side to hear the words. “And I thought it would be funny if there were puppies everywhere, but there was so many that I got scared when they all started runnin' at me. So I closed my eyes real tight and when I opened them again all the puppies were gone. I think I…I think maybe I…
killed
them.”

The girl's eyes shimmered behind a well of tears and she seemed to pull into herself, as though shrinking away from the memory. Her lip quivered, and Chuck wanted nothing more than to pull the girl into his arms and hold her tightly, to stroke her hair and tell her that everything was going to be okay; but he knew he had to keep those emotions in check. There was a fine line between letting enough out to actually interact with the little girl and allowing himself to get carried away. So he forced another smile instead as he shook his head slowly.

“You didn't kill them, princess. They just went back to the same place they were before they came here. Do you remember where you were before you were here?”

“I think I was in a car. I remember hearin' Mommy and Daddy's talkin' and the radio, too, but they sounded real far away. I was sleepy and I was tryin' to watch the moon out my window and then…and then…I dunno. I was just here.”

“Do you know where your Mommy and Daddy are now?” The little girl shook her head as her eyes welled with tears again. Her grip on the tire tightened to the point that the rubber creaked beneath her grip and her nostrils flared as she drew a quick breath through her nose. “Well, I do, sweetie. And I can help you get to them. Would you like that? To be with your Mommy and Daddy again?”

The girl nodded so rapidly that Chuck was reminded of the bobble-headed figurines some of the cubicle workers kept on their desks.

“Okay, then. I can help you, honey. But you're going to have to trust me, okay? And part of trusting me is to tell me your name. Can you do that for me?”

The girl pulled herself from a slumped position to her full height, throwing her shoulders back as if mustering the courage to answer Chuck's question.

“Abigail. Abigail Louise Peterson. But all my friends call me Bug 'cause they say I bug them all the time and also 'cause my glasses make me look like one.”

“Well, I'm your friend…but I'm just going to call you Abigail because a little girl as pretty as you deserves a pretty name. Anyhow, Abigail, I'm going to tell you a secret. And you're going to have to listen very closely to what I'm about to say. But—more than anything else—you're going to have to believe me. Okay?”

Something flickered in Chuck's peripheral vision and his eyes darted away, instinctively seeking the change in a world that was, for the most part, static. He knew it was a mistake, that the action could potentially be interpreted as a sign of deceit…but he was nonetheless powerless to stop it.

Whatever he'd seen had been dark, like a wave of blackness that had rolled across this false reality; but in the short amount of time it had taken for him to look away, it had disappeared. Still, something
felt
different. Almost as though the sun wasn't shining quite as brightly as it had moments earlier. And the colors in the plants and sky seemed a little more muted, as if a bit of vibrancy had been leeched from them.

But that was silly. He'd probably just imagined whatever it was that he thought he saw and was now looking for something,
anything
, to be different. That was the most logical explanation, the one that made the most sense; but at the same time, nervousness rippled through his stomach. His silver cord stretched out behind him, nebulous and ethereal in this seemingly solid world, and he traced it with his eyes, seeking its reassurance.

Luckily, he was able to get his emotions under control before they escalated to the point intervention would be required. Not that intervention was necessarily a bad thing, but it would be notated in the trip log…and logs with fewer incidences of intervention were the ones that helped further careers.

Returning his attention to the girl, he smiled again.

“Okay, I'm going to tell you a series of facts, Abigail. And you have to really and truly believe that each thing I tell you is true. You have to
trust
me. And if you do, you'll be with your parents, okay?”

Darkness shimmered on the edges of his field of vision again, squeezing his gut in a cold grip; this time, however, he managed to keep his gaze steady as he took a slow breath through his nose. Whatever was happening wasn't important. All that mattered was freeing this little girl and helping her move on to whatever lay on the other side of The Divide.

“Fact one: None of this is real. The grass and flowers, the tree and this swing, all of it is just…”

The air surrounding the field crackled and sparked as dark clouds devoured the sky, spreading so rapidly that within seconds the sun was nothing more than a hazy disk hidden behind their murky veil.
Simultaneously,
wind howled across the field, the gusts shredding daisies in its wake and scattering them in swirling vortexes of current. The multicolored petals burst into flames as they brushed against the flashes of electricity, disintegrating into ash as fine as dust but somehow releasing the stench of singed flesh.

“Are you doing this?” Chuck cupped his hands and shouted over the sound of the wind, but he didn't have to hear Abigail's reply to know the answer. All color had drained from the girl's face and her wide eyes were glazed with panic as shivers wracked her small body. Beads of sweat trickled from the child's forehead and she ducked behind the tire swing as though it was a shield that could protect her from whatever force had invaded her realm.

A shiver tingled Chuck's spine and thoughts scrambled for dominance as he tried to make sense of what was happening. Things like this simply weren't supposed to occur. Not on a routine assignment. This mission was so simple even a Level III Whisk should've been able to complete it. Children were easy. They were predisposed to believe in fantasy and magic, to accept the impossible as probable, to consider the possibility that things sometimes were more extraordinary than they first appeared…and yet this little girl's world was dying around him, the grass shriveling into blades so brittle that they were reduced to powder with the slightest rustle.

And through it all the wind continued howling, the sound like the roar of some dark and malevolent beast as it awakened from eons of slumber. Arcs of electricity jumped and sizzled and the tree the tire swing hung from contorted into a gnarled hand, the bark becoming strands of mummified muscle and the branches clawed fingers that raked at the sky.

Abigail's face glistened with tears and snot bubbled from her small nose as she covered her ears with her palms. Her eyes were clenched tightly shut, squeezing out even more tears, and her back and shoulders hitched with sobs.

“Control, we have a problem here.” Chuck's voice cracked with panic and he leapt to his feet as the ground rumbled with subterranean forces. “We have a
major
fucking problem!”

In this distance, something erupted from the earth in a cloud of dust and debris, setting off a chain reaction that rapidly spread across the once fertile field.

“Control, do you copy, damn it?”

Chuck gagged on the smell of burning flesh, the stink so thick that he could taste it, greasy and sickeningly sweet, like a maggot-riddle steak that had been charred on a grill.

At that moment, a scream filled his head, the coarse voice straining with agony so forcefully that it felt like a sudden burst of pressure exploding within his skull. The scream quivered his eardrums and drove him to his knees, his head splitting with its intensity as he pressed his hands against his temples, crying, yelling, wordlessly begging for release.

The entire world disappeared into darkness, everything flashing out of existence in a single instant.

The tree that had turned into a hand: gone.

The field: gone.

Abigail: gone.

There was only the darkness and the never-ending scream that had become his world. And Chuck knew with every fiber of his being that within seconds he, too, would share the little girl's fate.

He wouldn't follow his silver cord back to his physical body.

There would be no returning home.

No office or apartment.

There would be nothing.

Chuck Grainger.

Gone.