Midnight Highway (What I’ve got so far…)


“It isn’t what you think,” he said.

“No? What is it then?” she said. He looked over at her but she kept her eyes on the highway. Beyond the glow of the headlights she could see the curve of the road line with trees, mostly pines. Trees were everywhere, flying past the truck in great sweeping hordes. They hadn’t seen another car since they had driven through some little place called Greensmith half an hour ago.

“There’s no point trying to convince you when you get like this,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She still did not look at him.

The truck was cruising at seventy-five miles per hour and she felt as if the soft whirring of wind alongside the windows and beneath the chassis would put her to sleep before too long. She wondered if falling asleep wouldn’t be some spell of his.

“You put up your wall and that’s the end of it,” he said. “Like you’re doing now. There’s nothing I can say that will make you understand.”

“I understand perfectly,” she said. “Why does anything else need to be said?” She moved a strand of hair from her face and then studied her fingernails.

“I suppose you’re right,” he said.

She laughed softly. “About what?”

“There’s nothing more to talk about.”

She looked through the window, watching the movement of space-time and wondering whether she moved through it or if it moved in spite of her. She was in awe of the swift blur of dark trees beneath a moon that neither wavered nor changed pace.

“Space and time move through us,” she said under her breath. “They move and we wake up in another place far from home. But when the point arrives at us, will we ask, ‘How came we here?’”

She felt him looking at her but she didn’t turn around. As long as she didn’t look at him, she felt alone. The feeling soothed her anger.

“You write your best poetry when you’re angry with me,” he said.

She smiled but didn’t let him see it. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said.

He laughed and she found herself both hating and loving him for it—for the sound of his laughter alone.

 

* * *

 

An hour later they stopped for gas at a little station just off the main highway. She looked about the place as soon as they pulled up, taking a quick assessment of everything from the gas-pumps to the rusted dumpster behind the building. She found herself wanting to believe that the place might be closed, but the lights were on everywhere and the sign in the window buzzed a neon OPEN. She wanted to suggest finding some other place to stop—she kept quiet because she knew what he would say.

An old Volvo was parked on the side of the building and a newer-looking Jeep idled in front of the convenient store with its lights on. There were two people inside the store, the cashier and a customer shuffling around the area where they kept the cold drinks. Their truck pulled up alongside the pump and the engine faded as Martin turned the key. When the headlights went out, she noticed the nauseating flicker of a dying fluorescent bulb in the awning overhead. God, what a place.

“I’ll wait here,” she said, shielding her eyes.

“All right,” he said. “I’m going in while the tank fills up. Do you want anything?”

“Just water I guess,” she said.

“No snacks or anything. Just water?”

She nodded. “Just water. Thank you.”

He got out of the truck and shut the door. She watched him place the nozzle into the tank, and then watched the numbers climb beside the digital dollar sign. She followed him with her eyes as he went inside and walked back toward the men’s room. The cashier glanced up at him as he entered, nodded. He nodded back. She saw him go into the men’s room and close the door behind him.

She wondered if it would be over by the time he got back. Yes, she knew it would be. He would get back in the truck and then she would tell him what he must already know and what only she was brave enough to speak. The night’s drive home would be long enough without either of them saying what they felt—so she must say it for both of them.

The fluorescent bulb sputtered, popped and hissed. Darkness spread over the truck like a thin but more than welcome blanket. She exhaled a deep breath, relieved at the absence of artificial light. She heard the nozzle click, wondered if she should get out and finish it. No, she thought. It was his truck after all. She didn’t owe him any favors. She sank into her seat and stared vacantly through the passenger window.

Two men wearing dark, heavy coats emerged from the black highway and strode toward the convenient store. They were tall, broadly built, and moved with a sense of purpose unfitting for both the time and the place—but then, people always looked suspicious at these kinds of places after dark. She looked around to see where they may have parked a car, and by then the first of them had swung open the glass door and stepped inside.

She sat frozen to her seatback as he drew a pistol and leveled it at the cashier—a burst of bright red spattered the multicolored canvas of cigarette cartons and lotto tickets. The cashier’s head kicked back, chin skyward, as he collapsed. She watched the second man level a shotgun toward the far corner aisle where the lonely shopper had ducked in terror. Her heart skipped at the sudden explosion of canned goods, cardboard and glass. A second blast followed. The man with the shotgun moved toward the refrigerated section and then peered over the debris, looking first with the barrel of his instrument. She saw him turn to the other gunman and nod—like it was that simple.

Then, the man with the pistol turned and moved toward the restrooms.

What had happened was now part of the unchangeable, she knew. But the little that remained—what might yet be done—struck her into a sudden burst of mobility like spurs in a horse’s rear.

That they hadn’t noticed her in the truck she attributed to grace or luck or a mingling of both. She opened the glove compartment and found the Ruger LCP compact pistol; it was supposed to be loaded but she double-checked to be sure. Sliding the clip into her palm, she felt the familiar weight: a column of hollow-points stacked and ready.

She reinserted the clip, racking the slide. She slipped off her sandals and then shoved open the passenger door. Planting her feet, she raised the pistol with both hands and aimed at the man carrying the shotgun. His back was to her. She squeezed the trigger.

To her relief, the glass wasn’t bulletproof. A needle of a hole marked the bullet’s entry and she saw her target reel from the shock, tumbling into a shelf lined with bags of potato chips.

That was all she needed to see.

Wheeling on her toes, she sprinted barefoot toward the dark highway. Crossing, a glance both ways told her the road was desolate. She knew they were coming for her; she hoped they would. They might forget about checking the bathrooms long enough for Martin to escape. She ran without stopping for a straight thirty seconds, blindly into the dark, toward a black wall of towering pines.

 

* * *

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Deadland: Awakening


Chapter One

“And then I wake up,” I said.

My half-clothed body hung in the suspension cylinder, my arms outstretched toward its curved walls like a crucified man. I could feel my heart-rate decelerating, and my breaths were longer and deeper. The cylinder was doing its job well.

“Does the dream ever change?” A soft feminine voice asked me. I knew this session was being recorded, possibly even being viewed by an unseen live audience.

“No,” I said. “It’s the same every time.”

My voice lacked inflection, a result of the cylinder’s vocal modulator. The monotonous tone was designed to produce a calming effect on the speaker. When my time came to be placed in the cylinder, I was surprised by the modulator’s immediate effectiveness in regards to myself… it made me feel like I could say anything without fear of consequence. A dangerous feeling.

“That concludes this session, Lieutenant Allon,” the female voice said. “Would you like to remain in the cylinder for a while longer?”

“No,” I said. Too much of a good thing was never a good thing.

The holding field within the cylinder slowly dissipated, lowering me gently to the ground. I stepped through the door as it was opened and retrieved my clothes from the table in front of me. I said nothing to Gwen as I put on my pants. I watched her without appearing to watch, and I could sense that she watched me with the same acuteness—a glance showed me that her eyes were on her note tablet… then another and her eyes met mine. It had been a careless exchange on both our parts.

At the same time we both looked away, hoping that the people monitoring the room hadn’t noticed. I quickly put on my shirt and left. We would not attempt to meet again that night as we had on previous nights. It was too close to the hour of departure; no need to risk our one ticket off this cold, rotating derelict of a city.

She was the psychiatric officer enlisted for the voyage; her responsibility was to analyze all crewmembers prior to the launch, excluding Captain Dominic, who was analyzed by a separate committee. But the rest of us were approved or denied based on her professional assessment.

If anyone knew that we were seeing each other…

Captain Dominic was her father, an honorable man for whom I held the greatest admiration. He respected and trusted me. Like everyone else, he had no knowledge of my relationship with his beloved daughter.

As I walked the transparent floor of the ultra-glass corridor, I looked out over the city, upon the long rows of metallic towers varying in height and structure—they glowed with a blue radiance under the light of Geira’s gray star. There were no trees or plants above the surface on this world because they could not survive in such lifeless light. Instead, we kept them in underground greenhouses, where they thrived in artificial survival conditions. I’m not entirely certain as to how the greenhouses functioned but I know that the oxygen was harvested from the plants, where it was then ejected into our shielded atmosphere and continually recycled. The elementary basics of offworld civilization.

I had never seen Earth—I’d been told for most of my life that it was a place far worse than Geira. But now, for the first time in my twenty-four years of living, I was going to find out for myself.

When I was young, I remember asking my mother about it. She said it was nothing like the paradise it had been at one time, said it was a place to rob men of their souls, where the once glistening blue oceans had now become saturated with the blood of her own children. At the time it had sounded like an exaggeration.

I think she hated it, Earth I mean. My father died there… there in some cold, sunless desert or in some cavern outpost at the hands of the Unseen Enemy. Little news had come to us of his death. Little news ever came from that place many had come to know as Deadland. Now, I often wondered if there was perhaps more truth to my mother’s words than I had originally suspected.

I heard footsteps in the corridor behind me, but I didn’t look back to see who it was. I listened to the pattern of the footfalls, the rate of movement, the clicking of heels against the crystalline floor. I slowed down and waited for him to get closer.

“Hello, Tertius,” I said without looking at him.

“Good morning, sir,” he said in a voice that sounded remarkably human, more so than usual. “I sense that you are troubled. Do you wish to speak of it?”

“No, thank you,” I said calmly. “It’s nothing serious anyway… it’s just I haven’t been sleeping well the past few nights and I’m nervous about my first spaceflight. I spoke of it already to Gwen.”

“It is normal to experience apprehension prior to taking a deliberate life-altering course,” Tertius said.

“Life-altering?” I asked. Something in the way those two words had been forced together unsettled me. But then I guess it just meant I was normal.

“Yes,” the halfman said. “You have been here for the entirety of your life, brought up as a soldier but also kept within reach of your loved-ones, with whom you have fostered a safe attachment, an attachment that has served its purpose and now must be severed.”

I nodded but said nothing. No point in contending with a halfman on the matter of severing attachments.

We walked through the spiral glass doors and emerged onto a balcony overlooking the main lobby, where once it would have been normal to see over a hundred people going about their business. Since the Exodus, such a bustling community was not so common. The lobby was nearly empty but for two armed guards watching the entrance.

I would never openly say it, but I liked the city better now that half of its inhabitants had left to seek out other worlds, presumably never to return. Mankind had always been a divided species; it only made sense that we should break apart into distant factions.

“I find the quiet relaxing,” Tertius said, as if in tune with my inner thoughts.

“Yes,” I said. “So do I… whatever anybody else says.”

When we had descended a flight of stairs, we turned away from the main entrance and headed toward the elevator. I did not wonder that Tertius was with me. Likely he was due to report at the command center just as I was, and anyway I was glad of the company whether human or half. Turning down the central corridor, I saw a man at the end facing the elevator doors. His hands were in front of him, hidden from view. I then noticed that the elevator was not active. He could have entered at any time but he just stood there and waited.

“Tertius…” I spoke under my breath.

“Yes, sir?” He lowered his voice to match my own. I knew he could sense my feelings, but whether he grasped the reason for them I could not guess.

“What is this man doing?” I asked.

We were approaching more slowly now. The man was a little less than ten meters away from us, idling. I saw Tertius analyze the scene, watched his face grow solemn.

“It is odd,” was all that he said, but I could see that his guard was up.

Neither of us was armed, at least not in the external sense. We moved toward the man from behind, not attempting to hide our presence from him. He would’ve had to be deaf not to know we were there.

“Trying to decide on a level?” I said. We had stopped about six paces from him.

He stood motionless with his back to us. There came no reply. I glanced at Tertius, saw that his eyes were locked on the man like the crosshairs of a theron’s diamondpoint. I knew the halfman was analyzing the stranger’s every subtle movement, every minute gesture that I in my limited human ability could not detect.

I stepped two paces closer. “Turn around and face us,” I said. The time had come to put aside pleasantries. The man slowly turned, but in an abnormal fashion… it was as if his body was being unwound by a coil of thread.

When I saw his face, I became certain of my death. His mouth and chin were washed in blood, which had run down his neck onto his clothes. Where eyes should have been, there were two red sockets staring back at me. I could see that the blood around the eyes was still fresh. In that fleeting moment, I could feel the man looking through me, reaching into my mind and sifting through my thoughts in search of something I did not possess. But he found other things.

This child is like the other. A son of dissonance.

I could hear his voice—frail with a fluctuating pitch. I had been taught about this creature but never before had I encountered one. The Skoll they were called. Tertius was rushing forward at a speed which no living thing could counter, but I was not aware of his movement. My death was wrapped up in this moment… and so the moment lingered. No man abided long the presence of the Skoll.

The non-human will defeat us. Depart now. The voice thundered in my mind, paralyzing me. I watched as blood began to stream from the two sockets and the open mouth in vast quantities… the first and only sign of what the Skoll referred to as departure. Tertius stepped between me and the thing that held me immobile. His movements were beyond my ability to calculate. I felt the halfman’s irremovable grip on my ribs, his thumbs almost converging at my sternum.

He threw me back the full length of the corridor and in the same movement launched the Skoll with a heavy thrust of his left palm, battering him against the elevator doors.

On impact the creature detonated. The force of the explosion threw Tertius some twenty feet down the corridor. A rush of fire surged along the narrow channel of the hall and then dissipated in another breath.

For a long time I could not hear anything. I lay for several moments, struggling to regain my breath. Slowly, sounds were becoming more and more distinguishable. I could hear the flames crackling near the elevator. I finally found the strength to roll onto my stomach. One of the guards was standing over me, saying something. I know I heard him but I never registered the words.

I saw Tertius lying a short distance from me, his form almost hidden in smoke. Another of the guards had seen him and had rushed over to him, obstructing my view of his motionless body. I wondered if he were dead or merely unconscious.

I felt my body being lifted into a suspensor field. The time passed quickly, and there were moments when I didn’t know where or even who I was. The next moment, I opened my eyes and saw Gwen hovering over me, taking me somewhere.

“Tertius,” I heard myself say. “Is he… alive?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“He saved me,” I said. I felt my mind slipping. I wasn’t sure if they had drugged me or if I was suffering the aftereffects of my encounter with the Skoll.

“Yes,” Gwen said. She and another medic led me into the rehabilitation room and began performing a number of tests. I lost track of their movements—lost track of time altogether. I awoke several times during the course of the day. Sometimes Gwen was there, but then sometimes I was alone. Finally, late in the evening I suppose, I fell asleep and did not wake until the following morning.

I dreamed something but I don’t remember what it was… I only remember that Tertius was there, in the dream.

Midnight Star (or The Vigil)


I sat by the window in the dark, hunched down so that my eyes could see just above the sill, and looked out over the moonlit field. The house so quiet you could hear the oak floors groaning in the outer hall; not the groaning of footsteps. I had not heard footsteps in a long time but I knew well enough what they sounded like at times like these. Sometimes I thought I heard the soft tread of her footfalls coming from the bathroom and I had to remind myself it wasn’t her—wasn’t anybody.

Still, I knew she was out there somewhere. Not in the field. Out there with Polaris and the others. So I sat every night, just like this, and waited for my chance to go after her. I knew it would come as long as I remained patient, watchful. Didn’t matter how many nights I had to sit up; I would be ready when the chance came.

She and I had been the last. When they took her that left just me and the house. Not even my house, but an old friend’s from before the Great Unraveling of time and space. He was the one who had told me to come here, said he would meet us. That was five weeks ago, or maybe six. Hell, I can’t remember. He had gone with the rest of them too. The proof of it was in the knowing.

Every time they took someone, you’d know it somewhere inside—because they wanted you to know it. I saw it like a game of musical chairs in my head: with each pause of the song, someone new would get taken out of the game. That’s how I knew I was the last. Somehow, I had managed to win the game.

 

Author’s Note: This is all I’ve got so far… just a concept, without form and void at this moment. I hope to continue work on this (and several other ideas) in the near future.

Tertius – A Character Profile


I am both man and machine, and therefore incapable of God-knowledge: the knowledge of spirit and supernal entities. I am a being dependent on the limited capacity of a mind, superior to most but limited nonetheless. I am the third to survive that unholy bionic transformation with the awareness of my old self yet intact and so they named me Tertius, meaning “third”. They wondered how a mind like mine continued to function in the aftermath of those inhuman and mortifying experiences which no man or woman should ever be forced to endure as I was forced to endure them even as a child.

They said if I had been older that I would not have survived—the conversion would have done to me what it has done to every living halfman, each of whom is only aware of his beating heart in terms of its necessity while ever I am aware of mine in terms of its capacity to keep me alive—me and my soul.

There is a difference there that many fail to perceive; it is one that separates the synthetic nothingness of every tick-tocking halfman from this one… this one who regards himself as human but who must function at the caliber of artificiality in order to maintain his existence amid this collapsing universe in which he has chosen to reside. I say “chosen” because, if I had wanted it, I could have died in the conversion chamber as a boy, which would not have been an undesirable destiny. I could have failed as all halfmen fail if I hadn’t been fool enough to think it might be worth my while to remain in this… this abominable form.

Abominable: a machine cannot possess God-knowledge but the man at my core remembers something of what it meant to believe in or disbelieve in God. That paradoxical concept does not frighten me because my conditioning has taught me the worthlessness and the impedimentary nature of fear. I have not felt fear since the conversion and as time has passed I have become more detached from any form of it. To believe in a god, one must fear it, and yet I feel as if I could believe without fearing…

And so I fear there must have been some error in my conditioning, though I use the word “fear” now only as it is used among humans to indicate belief in some negative or undesirable future variable.