Hazy

It was on days like this, when the sun shone bright and yet the rain would fall in a heavy drizzle, angled by the strong summer winds, that I would find my center and a sense of wellness and unbridled hope for the future. It had been a long time since I had felt that way.

Rainy summer days with skies hanging rainbows had come by the dozens, but it was my core that was somehow rotten, infected with some sickness that would not abate. Rather, whatever had invaded my innermost being had cast its roots deeper, pervading my being.

The year had grown cold, uncharacteristically so, in the early months and with it had come a grayness that permeated the general atmosphere. Constant rain that would vary between incessant drizzles to full-on deluges provided a constant backdrop of nature’s white noise, which made me feel like the world just wanted me to go to sleep, force me into some sort of hibernation.

I had lost my job the year prior but had managed to remain optimistic about my prospects. I kept sending out resumés to places I had always wanted to work at and even more to those I never considered or rather hoped I wouldn’t have to. Sheer volume should have guaranteed that at least some of the prospective places of employ would eventually get back to me with a positive.

The months accrued and lapsed into the following year and I had heard nothing back of any import. Always a reason not to hire me at the time; overstaffed, no openings in my specific area of expertise, overqualified, you name it. I had been doing some freelance work just to keep myself earning, producing, so as not to starve, but that, too, was a stream that was drying out. It was a little ironic, the imagery of water just pouring down from the heavens without respite, but where I needed things to flow a drought had overtaken the ecology.

The strange things didn’t quite start when my mood had already dropped to below zero, no. In hindsight, I can identify hints and insinuations of the otherness even when I was most busy toiling and networking and fighting to keep my head above water. It had been with me all that time, and likely even before.

There was something familiar about it and about my depression, something warm like the womb despite the biting cold. My house had become a fortress of solitude, like Superman’s, but unlike him and his super-powered outlook on life, I had become the king of winter, lost in a progressively darkening mood. There was, nevertheless, a sense of belonging, like I had always been meant to be alone like this.

I had plenty of friends, some more genuine than others, of course, but most of them at least passably good-natured. I’d had, until recently, a relationship of sorts with a woman, but the demands of the romantic ideals society and the media have conditioned people to subscribe to, and that she firmly held as ideals, did not meet well with my often taciturn ways and stark regard for the ritualistic indoctrination that was supposed by the institution of love. Romance, after all, can only be upheld for so long in the heart of the poet, burning like the sun, before it becomes steady warmth like that of a bonfire.

As a product of my inability to maintain the intensity of early courtship, things grew cold and distant with her. As well it should, I had no desire to share myself in the ways demanded by most in matters romantic. We spoke now and again, asked how the other was doing, friendly but guarded, though, I sensed, her concern was genuine like mine.

On most days, now, I would wake slowly, as if dragged away from a better place than the waking world. My eyes would take long minutes to adjust to the brightness of this world’s light, subdued and dark though it was under the layer of cloud that covered the sky.

The humidity of the season had brought with it a cold that would hurt to the bone, but after some time I grew somewhat accustomed to it. Rather than wear clothes to keep myself warm, I began to wear less and less clothes all together. It is a strangely welcome feeling, the burn of the cold seeping into my flesh, until a feeling of numbness comes over me and I am no longer afflicted by the cold but rather lulled by it. It also makes me impervious to the Other’s caresses.

I began to notice its presence in small ways. I would find my perception of the world around me faulty, catching glimpses of movement out of the corner of my eye, seeing objects move on their own one moment but they would stop just as my mind focused on them consciously, after it had registered that this was abnormal. I blamed it on my scatterbrained absentmindedness; I had been quite forlorn and lost in thoughts, fugues of intellectual wandering without any purpose or North. The rising incidence of these phenomena robbed me of any such notion, however. It was clear that I was not alone in my fortress.

It is hard to say exactly how it began to take a hold of me. What I can say with some degree of accuracy is that it has been nine days since it established its dominance over my body, and thus my interaction with the world at large.

Today’s rain and sunshine, the rainbows and gusts, they do nothing to alter my mood, my emotions perfectly balanced into a state of bland bleakness. Voices over the phone have increasingly become more distant, as if from a plane entirely different to mine, the connection and signal having to pass through so many layers of the universe that what finally arrives is a sound tinny and faint, a wisp of sound, really. Even today, as my mother called to ask about my health, I could hardly focus on her voice, let alone understand what the words she said meant, like there was nothing there to be conveyed. After a minute or two of ineffectual attempts at communication I simply hung up the phone. Who had paid the bill? It was truly a miracle that I still had working electricity. Perhaps there was an angel, somewhere, in human guise, who had seen to my basic needs, though my soul was clearly now beyond saving. It belonged to the Other.

I think about my situation and it seems to be quite fitting. It pleases me, in a strange way. I am no more than I expected myself to be, despite having so many ambitions and dreams, once. I have fallen by the wayside while the world moved on, unable and, perhaps, unwilling to exert the effort necessary to cling to the train, to snatch away some of its momentum, harness it, and propel myself to a new place, a new height, a new self… It really is quite fitting.

I take one final gaze at the outside world, feeling in my soul that I am soon to expire from this mortal coil. Where will I go? I do not know, but wherever that is, I hope I am left alone to sleep a dreamless dream. No music, no feeling, no scents, no sights… no warmth, just nothing.

I can feel the Other’s pleasure as my own. For a moment here and there I might question whether my sense of calm and acceptance is truly mine or just a projection of the Other’s will, a subjugation of my own. The thoughts are fleeting, though; ephemeral like human existence may seem to a greater being.

I glimpse images, as I have for days now, of people who seem important for a moment, poignant. I catch memories and feelings that scream at me about life and moments joyous… but they slip always, like dreams that fade the more you try to recall them.

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Awkward Crossroads

He sat in the toilet stall, the third from the deep wall. Always the third stall, wherever he went.

He sat there, when he should have been at his cubicle, pounding away at the keys, pretending to care about the frivolous issues of first-world strangers, crying foul about abstract afflictions that should have no room in a practical man’s world. But they did.

He sat and used his excretory excuse as a scapegoat for dodging responsibility.

He thought over and over about running from it all. Quitting the job, leaving his children – products of a failed marriage – and making for the strangest place he could think of.

The stupid timed lights in the bathroom turned off. If nobody moves outside the stalls for three minutes, the lights go off. It made wiping properly a veritable feat. He was not worried, though, as he didn’t intend to move from the stall for a few minutes yet. The darkness was reassuring, comforting.

For some reason, though, the darkness was different that night. If felt pregnant with presence. A tingle of fear – a sliver, really – ran up his spine and up to his nape.

He thought himself silly. What could possibly be there? Nothing, of course, but then, he was sure there was something odd. Not logically, though. No.

“Hello”, a voice soft as silk yet deep like ocean depths.

He sat there, startled into motionless apprehension.

“No need to fear me at this junction, Nick”, the voice went on.

Nick had not heard anyone come in after he walked into the bathroom. He also did not hear any flushing from the neighboring stalls or any of the sounds that accompany the labor that habitually transpires therein.

“I believe you will intuitively glean my identity soon enough”, it continued in mellifluous, grandfatherly manner. “But that, as well, is of little import here.”

The voice was coming from the other side of his stall’s door. Nick thought it might be someone playing a prank oh him, though he really couldn’t place its owner. He decided to open the door quickly and found that he could not. The door appeared glued to its frame.

“No need for that, Nick,” the voice went on. “Strike any silly notions from your mind. They will not benefit either one of us, I assure you.”

Nick sat there. Puzzled and trying to come to grips with the surreal situation.

After a moment, the voice spoke again.

“My purpose here is to make you an offer. Listening to the proposal will cost you nothing. You may very well decline at no cost, as well. However, understand that, should you agree to a contract, the seriousness and finality thereof will be iron-bound and unalterable in any form.”

After a moment, the voice went on.

“I see that you are now ready to listen”

******************************

“Brothers and Sisters, we are gathered here today to mourn the loss of our beloved brother Nick De Bar.” A catholic priest spoke to a large crowd of mourners gathered around a large, opulently decorated wooden casket and the rectangular, 6-feet-deep hole where it would soon be deposited.

“He spent his life fulfilling his many dreams and helping others in fulfilling theirs.” The priest continued. “Although he left us under unclear circumstances, his true whereabouts unknown, it is in keeping with the grand design that he is no longer among the living. May his soul find its way to your merciful embrace, oh Lord.”

As the empty casket was lowered into the ground, its intended occupant missing, his whereabouts unknown, a light drizzle of rain began to fall. The mourners began to quickly make their way to the shelter of their automobiles, having paid their respects by their mere presence.

A fitting end to the somewhat informal funeral service the missing-and-presumed-departed had wished to have.

Nick’s epitaph on his tombstone read, as he had instructed in his will:

I would choose the same path gladly if given the choice anew.

The Shore, Part I

Working as a Shoresman was a dodgy proposition at best. This close to the shore, it was easy to feel the unease that was almost a biological excrescence of the Days of the Rise. It was as if reality simply wasn’t right and the world changed into a dormant-yet-hostile entity the closer one got to the ocean.

Theregus had been going close to shore for nearly a decade and he still couldn’t stand being there for more than a few hours. There simply was no way he could conceive of a human being becoming accustomed to the alien-ness that had made its home in the world’s oceans.

Shoremanship required daily incursions into shore territory. Litoral areas had been uninhabited by humans for over a century and the wilderness had reclaimed all artificial structures rather quickly, so each such venture had the potential for very real dangers which had nothing to do with the creatures that had risen and humanity still feared. As a matter of fact, no sightings of the creatures had been reported in many decades. Nowadays most Shoreman casualties were caused by feral animals and simple carelessness, human error. That’s not to say there aren’t some cases of strange deaths and disappearances which, though hurriedly explained away by officials, suggest that humanity’s oceanic foes may still come aground to hunt.

Many precautions were taken by Shoremen to ensure that, should the creatures be on the hunt, no discernable pattern would be left for them to follow. Surveys were determined with mathematical chaos, randomly generated by an individual semi-sentient A.I. personality – called AB-EGO – which was carried in a small network of neural wiring that was implanted into the Shoreman’s brain and interacted directly with it, picked up all the information the Shoreman received via the human senses, though raw and unprocessed, to calculate the best course of action at the time as well as the upcoming surveys.

The result of this technology and methodology was a high survival rate for the Shoremen and a greater understanding of the nature of the seaside territories humanity had lost. It was, after all, their primary purpose to provide data that may one day allow humanity to mount a counterattack and reclaim the oceans. The secondary, though clearly more prevalent, purpose was to maintain surveillance so that, should the creatures rise again and come further inland, humanity would have enough time to prepare and react.

Theregus wondered if such a thing would ever come to pass, a new Days of the Rise. His grandfather, when Theregus was just a child, would tell his older brothers and him of the time when the tentacled, gigantic creatures had come out of the depths, rising to obliterate all vessels of human make, and then advanced on the shores of all the continents. How millions had fallen prey to the nightmarish things that stood stories-high – where they had the physiognomy to stand – or slithered and bounded, dwarfing houses and small buildings. How humanity’s weapons had had no noticeable effect whatsoever on them, be they nuclear or otherwise.

Those stories were the reason Theregus and his brothers had chosen to become a Shoreman in the first place, back when there was still a manner of mystical romanticism attached to the job. It had since fallen out of favor, what with the long period of relative peace… The creatures had become stories for children and, he had to admit, most adults scarcely gave them any serious thought any more. Theregus’ grandfather had said that the devil’s best trick had been convincing the world he didn’t exist, and that this was same with every terror in our species’ history. He himself only knew they had to be real because of the unshakable dread and the confirmation of disturbances when he sifted through the data after his AB-EGO had processed it and formatted it into something intelligible to the human brain. There were always signs of many somethings having passed through the territories. There were still scars of the Days of the Rise visible to those who knew how to look, and one didn’t need to look very hard, after all, since even nature seemed to avoid reclaiming the scars. If the creatures that had risen had been wild, natural, and native biological life forms, then they were of a nature even Nature itself seemed reluctant to acknowledge as its own. A mother denying her abominable children.

He had seen the old flicks and documentaries – which had now been replaced by a renaissance of Reality Television, which he thoroughly despised – and had been fascinated by the footage where the creatures had been captured by the camera lenses. Their anatomy was always hidden by some strange absorption of the light so that they always appeared as strange shapes that morphed and melted the light around it and infused it with shadows, an absence of light. There had been artist renderings and such, the only viable reproductions of the creatures’ likenesses, but these never fascinated Theregus quite like the images where the creatures’ light-distorting shapes could be seen wreaking havoc upon humanity.

Shoremen are required to return to the nearest headquarters of the brigade every seven days to be debriefed and get some down time for their psychological well-being before heading back out to the shores. Theregus had not seen headquarters in months and did not intend to see HQ again until he knew exactly what had happened with his two brothers, who had been in a joint excursion with three other Shoremen on some manner of official business. It was quite rare for Shoremen to band together, usually pairing if at all, as smaller numbers drew far less attention from whatever may still lurk near the shores. Something big, classified, had to have been going on for such a group to be ordered on an expedition, five Shoremen. None had returned.

AB-EGOs were never designed to be anything more than aides to the Shoremen, advanced as their A.I.’s were, yet most experienced Shoremen – any with at least three years of active service – would attest to AB-EGOs developing displays of personality and self-awareness. Some of the more outspoken veterans would at times, usually after a long night of drinks, state that their AB-EGO had a fully developed personality. Shoremen, given the grim nature of their job and the long stretches of time spent alone, were generally very reserved even amongst their peers.

Theregus’ AB-EGO had developed a personality of its own on the fourth year of his service as a member of the brigade and it had become a rather dissident and subversive intelligence, often pointing out the faulty logic of official statements on matters classified, how the governments clearly knew a lot more about what had taken place in the Days of the Rise and that, even now, they were keeping people in the dark about matters of obvious import. Theregus had named his AB-EGO Contagio, which was Latin for infection, because without it his own mind would not likely have found anything amiss with the system. It had infected him with the seeds of distrust and suspicions, for which he was very grateful. Contagio, in turn, embraced the name. They considered each other the best of friends. Theregus sometimes would go as far as to think to himself that, if such silly notions could be considered real, Contagio was his soulmate.

Together they had struck out on their own, gone rogue, deciding not to return until they knew the fate of Theregus’ brothers and the missing expedition. As it was, Theregus and Contagio were now far closer to shore than anyone had ever been in the past fifty years, officially speaking. They maintained no illusions about the veracity of such a notion.

They had been making their way down the shoreline to a positively ancient whaling station, where once the now-mythical whales had been hunted, there had been built a tourist attraction where people would spend hours whale-watching. The place had been known as Whistler’s Point and it was reputedly a haven for the legendary mammals even today, or so the boldest of the Shoremen would boast.

Whale cries could be heard even form the distance, confirming the boasts of their more reckless peers, but the closer they got to the whaling station, Theregus and Contagio could hear the noises less and less. They got to the pier, trying to stay well out of sight of anything that might be watching from the water, but it was a silly measure, futile; any of the creatures, had they been in the vicinity, would already likely be aware of their presence.

Sewage Salvage

“A sewer dragon… A freak-kin’ sewer dragon. A you fuckin’ kidding me?” I’d had enough with the vicissitudes of being a sewer-dweller. It was hard enough eking out a semblance of dignified living when you were what amounted to a human rat, but having what appeared to be a creature of urban myth cramping on your turf was too much for any man to take.

“I’m tellin’ ya, boss,” Rudder’s nasal voice was grating, annoying, as he continued to explain what he’d seen in the lower tunnels. “Dis ain’t no dire rat droppings or anything like…  Dis da bad stuff, clawf and teef marks and dat smell of fart-.“

“Enough, man. I believe you,” I really did, much to my own surprise and contrary to my hopes of it just being something else, something easy. “Leave me alone, will ya? I need to think.”

Rudder beat a hasty retreat. He knew better that to hang around when I got into a pensive mood. Most people, topside or bottom, learned quickly enough that life could get quite tough and unpleasant if you didn’t know how to read my moods. Not like I was some whimsical hissy, just that I’m very particular about my time and company.

The rumors, the legends, they had all become such exaggerations that no one with an ounce of sense thought of the Sewer Dragon myth as anything serious. An ancient cautionary tale about how to dispose of one’s expired pets lest the city’s sanitary installations become anything but. Flush a little exotic pet down the toilet, dead or otherwise, and said pet might find itself terrorizing the denizens of the Undercity.

No one, absolutely no one, had ever believed this story outside of grade school. And yet, here I was, faced with the nigh irrefutable evidence that the freaking mother of all urban legends, the proverbial Sewer Dragon, had mapped out its lair in my turf. My turf. I was going to have to get the unions to help; the Magi union, the Knights Errant union, the Thieves union –though that one technically didn’t exist, off the books, as a matter of fact – whopsmack and dungspittle, I was going to be in eeeeveryone’s pocket by the time this extermination was done. Shit. Maybe my turf wasn’t worth the trouble. I could just move out, pick another place and start over, murder another Sewer-head and take their claim… bah, who was I kidding. This was my turf and I was already too far in years to act like an upstart and take someone else’s domain.

Well, this is how we hunt the big lizards, I guess, and this sort of thing comes with the territory, I thought to myself. Boy, was I ever underestimating the lengths to which I would have to go to get this unwanted guest out of my claim. Barbed Danger is my name and this is how I became the Blorbex of the Seven Thargaxl, the most undignified and dehumanizing  of all the possible charges in the nine kingdoms.