I’ve been slacking a bit in 2013 with my blogging duties, seeing as how this is the first story I’ve posted this new year. Oh well, I know you’ll all forgive me. I’ve written a ton of new material in the past few weeks, and look forward to sharing all the new stories I’m writing with you guys. I’m planning on submitting a couple of them for various contests, so some of them will have to wait to be shared until I hear back. In the mean time I wanted to give you guys something to keep you interested, so I wrote up this short little story and hope you enjoy. As always I welcome any and all feedback, but I hope you bare in mind that I haven’t done any proofreading, or editing, though I certainly welcome any comments on my tendency to splice comma’s or inadvertently switch character names, both of which I do quite often. Thanks to everybody that commented on the End of Year Goals post, I really enjoyed hearing about all the goals that were met in the past year. Also, I got some fantastic new books to read, thanks to your recommendations.
“Is there anything the accused would like to say in their defense?”
Would it matter? No.
Billions of minds jacked straight into mine for the trial circled like vultures around my consciousness with a single focused purpose; justice. The thin barrier of the neural combiner was the only thing protecting me from the seething mob. I could tell the results were already in. It didn’t matter whether I got five years or a hundred, I’m a dead man. I scanned the thoughts of my peers, and wonder if anybody else sees what a farce this trial is. This jury has noting but contempt in their sardonic smiles and hate in their hearts. Can’t say I blame them, though. What I did was pretty horrible. Don’t suppose it matters that I did it for all the right reasons.
Is there ever a right reason to kill a man? In my book it seems there’s only one; Love.
Though the government has never struggled to come up with innumerable ways to justify the act. It’s different when a body of elected officials do it, right?
“I repeat, does the accused have anything to say in their defense?” the Judge said, sitting atop his desk of Justice as if here had been elected by divine authority.
Is this justice? No, justice would have been for that scum sucker Rance Mard to die before he had the chance to ruin so many lives. Regular justice is too slow for his crime. I guess vigilante justice was, too.
I stood up and could almost feel a breeze blow through my hair from the collective intake of air from the hordes of consciousnesses crowding my own. Here it was. The moment they had been waiting for. The moment where I atone for what I did, throw myself on the mercy of the court, and beg for pity. My legal representative looked up at me from behind bionic eyes that see far more than God ever intended. He gives me a reassuring nod of the head, trying to calm my nerves before I recite the speech he gave me earlier while I cowered for warmth in the rat infested straw of my holding cell.
The holding cell is an exposed platform that hovers thousands of feet above the Citadel. It gives the soon-to-be-no-longer-of-this-world one spectacular view of the drop into oblivion that beckons from all sides. I gotta admit it’s tempting to give up and let the pull of the planet drag you down into its embrace. You get a new perspective on things when you stand on the edge of your own little world, staring down at the monolithic buildings jutting up into the sky so far below as if they were nothing more than blades of grass to a giant.
Jumping is the easy way out. It’s a cowards end, for those who can’t handle the magnitude of their indiscretions. That’s not me.
I hold up the sheet of paper with my prepared statement written in fluid silver symbols and I can feel the words in my mind. They don’t feel right.
“I don’t regret what I did.” I toss the paper to the side, and it catches the resistance of air, careening back and forth like a leaf on a breeze. The collective gasp of the billions in attendance of my mind wasn’t enough to keep the poor leaf afloat. I watched the paper come to a rest on the floor and said, “I only regret that I didn’t do it sooner.”
An insult about my mother penetrated the firewall restraining the mob, but I didn’t catch it over the general roar of indignation that Somebody yelled something about my spread through the courtroom of my mind like a wildfire. The Judge pounded his gavel against the desk as if it might have any effect in staunching the wound.
“Order!” The Judge said pounding his gavel against his desk as if it might have any effect in staunching the wound. “There will be order, or I will have the room cleared!”
One by one the yelling died down leaving in the wake of the outbreak the soft ambient babbling of a brook as neighbors whispered their shock between one another. They sure did like, Rance. Can’t blame them, by all accounts he seemed like a great guy. That’s probably why they elected him to be President of the Colony. To bad public opinion didn’t seem to have any bearing on his private behavior.
“Jarek, you’re not listening. I’m telling you he is up to something.”
“He’s a politician, it’s their job to be up to something. The more nefarious, the better.” I said, sliding a finger across the wall. Colors swirled into place to create the image of a Soul Reaper speaking before an auditorium of students.
“Pay attention,” Valynn said, stamping her foot against the floor. “I’m supposed to know everything he does, everywhere he goes, and I know better than anyone else that he isn’t going where he says he is.”
“You think he’s having another affair?”
“No, I know about all those, they aren’t exactly the best kept secret.”
Ain’t that the truth. It was less than a month ago that his latest scandalize escapade surfaced. To anybody else it would have been the end of their political career, but for Rance Mard it was a boon. His approval ratings had actually jumped, if such a thing were possible.
I took a bite of an apple and must have been chewing it loud enough to hear across the room cause Valynn rolled her eyes in disgust. “Then where do you think he’s going?” I said, deciding it was best to keep her negative attention focused on her boss, rather than my eating habits.
“I’m going to find out.”
That caused my eyebrow to raise a few inches. “Oh?How you going to do that?”
“Follow him.” She said it so matter of fact as if it had been obvious. “I’m going to put a tracker on him, and we’ll see where he actually goes when he is supposed to be meeting with Arch-Bishop Armast.”
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea? Bugging the most powerful man on the planet doesn’t seem like smart career move.”
“Why? What’s he got to hide?”
I shrugged, but in my head I rattled off a laundry list of things I wouldn’t mind doing without the watchful eye of the population trained upon me day and night. Not that I had any such intrusion of privacy issues. I turned away from the animated wall, crossed the room in half a dozen steps, and wrapped my arms around Valynn. I felt the thin chorded muscles of her back tense against my embrace before she slumped forward, resting her weight against my chest. The smell of a field after a light rain crept into my nostrils as I rested my head against hers.
“Just be careful.” I said, pressing my lips against her auburn hair.
I knew there was nothing I could say to Valynn to talk her out of what she had planned. That was one of the things I loved so much about her. All I could do was stand behind her and pray she didn’t get into too much trouble.
Motes of dust danced like faeries in the rays of sunlight that poured through the open windows to illuminate the arcane halls of the library. I was tucked between narrow racks of books in a post lunch haze, trailing a finger across the feathered papered edges of an ancient tome. Sure, every word of every book in this great library was available on the network for immediate retrieval, but something was lost in the transfer of information when tactile familiarity of the book was replaced with the convenience of electronic screen. Stories of people both real and imagined lived and breathed between these pages in a way they never could as mere codes of data.
The comm’s device in my pocket chirped and vibrated. I ignored it until the third wave of alarms led me to believe the device would not cease its attention seeking behavior. Not wanting to be a source of disturbance for the libraries only other patron, I dug the device from my pocket and scrolled through the incoming message.
Martizan Station. Locker 23A. Go now. Don’t return home, not safe. -Valynn
If the words had been printed in a book, on paper, I might have understood their meaning immediately. As it were, it took a half dozen more read-throughs before I understood what was required of me. I checked the time and then leapt to my feet, throwing off the mound of books that had entombed me, as the importance of the situation dawned on me.
Valynn must have figured out where the President had been disappearing too. If returning home wasn’t an option, it seemed a safe bet President Rance Mard had lived up to his political obligation as a nay-do-well.
The interplanetary shuttle station was a bustle of mid-day activity as commuters returned from their long journeys to work on their off-world sites. I weaved between the sea of bodies that pressed their way towards the exits. It felt like I was swimming upstream until I came to a pause in the flow of traffic and took shelter behind one of the large pillars holding the roof in place. The yellow-red blurs of an engine propelling a shuttle towards escape velocity caught my eye overhead. I leaned against the cool marble of the column, staring up at vehicle and imagining the forces being transferred through the bodies of the ships passengers. I could imagine the sudden acceleration pressing me back into my seat as the roar of the engines drowned out any thought of the world passing by below. When the space craft was nothing more than a silver dot in the sky, I turned my attention back to more earthly matters. The throng of commuters had thinned making my journey across the large foyer towards the locker an infinitely easier task.
The rows of lockers were stacked twelve feet high and ran the length of the terminal. I made my way to locker 23a, and then turned to lean against the lockers in my best feigned show of nonchalance I could muster. Through the stream of faces passing by I did not detect anybody taking more than a passing interest in me, but it was better safe than sorry, so I stood there for a couple of minutes until I was reasonably satisfied nobody was following me. Some of Valynn’s paranoia must have rubbed off on me, but she wasn’t one for theatrics, so whatever was going on was important.
Valynn had secured Locker 23A so only my biometric scan could open it.These lockers were maintained by the independent third party, Jensen Security, who had a reputation for the most impenetrable systems in the known universe, meaning if you didn’t have my eyeball or hand, you’d be tough out of luck getting into this locker. It’s interesting that Valynn didn’t leave herself access to the locker, but those were mysteries for another time.
I placed my hand against the locker’s biometric scanner and I felt the inaudible vibrations of locks shifting out of place inside the box. The door became a translucent barrier that protected the lockers hermetic seal. There was a little resistance and then with the sensation of popping a bubble, my hand slid inside the locker and grabbed the small video recorder. A flash of motion behind me reflected in the shiny silver panel of the lockers. It grabbed my attention just long enough to divert my hand from removing the device from the locker. Through the reflection in the metal I saw two men approaching with an ill intent marked in their stride.
Wasn’t careful enough, somebody found me. No time to worry about that, I had to make a decision. Staying put and hoping they might tell me what was going on seemed a long shot, so I took the only option left to me; I ran.
A woman screamed from somewhere behind me and I heard a man in a low gruff voice yell, “Watch it!” I didn’t need too look back to know they were following me. The world whizzed by me with every lung burning step I took. I hadn’t run anywhere in years, and found myself woefully regretting that fact. The blood blasting through my body caused my veins to ache, my eyes to water, and my legs to melt away into lactic acid drenched oblivion. At the end of the long row of lockers I took a left, hoping to separate myself from view of my pursuers just long enough to disappear into the throng of commuters freshly arriving from Vega Seven.
My legs wobbled a bit as I stopped running and melded into the anonymity of the crowd. I was sure the pounding of my heart could be heard over the dull roar of footsteps, but nobody seemed to notice, and I pressed on clutching the recorder in my hand. I rode the wave of people out of the building, into the freedom of the exposed afternoon sky, down a couple random city blocks until I was certain I had lost the men. I slipped into a quiet shop without looking at the name of the store.
I slipped into the first quiet shop I saw without looking at the name of the store. An android worker fitted with too white of skin to be human approached me. “Welcome to Mr. Everly’s Exotic Emporium, how may I assist you today?”
“Thank you, but I’ll be fine on my own.” I said.
Miniature hand carved statues on a shelf to my right called out and danced for me. They appeared too be made of an old wood that had been given new life with a layer of gloss and sheen that caught the light and gave their presence the illusion of being much grander than they were.Nothing but a children’s toy tarted up and sold to adults under the guise of antique. I ignored them, ducked into a quieter aisle of masks made of metal, and pulled the recorder from my pocket.
Now that I had a moment to study it I recognized it at once as the same recorder I had given Valynn for her birthday three years prior. I pulled a thin wire from the side of the device, inserted it into the open jack in my left forearm, and pressed a button to initiate the transfer of data. The exchange of information caused a rush of blood to my head that caused little black dots to form in the periphery of my vision. I braced myself against a life sized statue of a man with a cats head and waited until the transfer was complete.
When it was done I shoved the recorder back in my pocket, and brushed past the android servant on my way to the door.
“Thanks for coming, we hope to see you again soon.”
The androids words were heard in the way a sleeper might hear an alarm, but I was already playing back the video left on the recorder, and Valynn’s breathless words became my entire world.
“It’s worse than I thought, Jarek.” Valynn said in the video, over her shoulder I saw the highly decorated walls that could only be from the Soul Vault. “Much worse.”
Main street was a hive of activity that I navigated like a zombie in a trance. I had listened to the recording three times, and was no closer to a plan than I had been the first time I heard the electronic version of Valynn tell me President Rance Mard was siphoning years from the Soul Vault. It didn’t make any sense to me. Why would a man willingly sacrifice the guarantee of eternal after-life to remain mortal and bound to this world.
Had Rance Mard done something so terrible that he felt he wouldn’t pass the final judgment? Surely that couldn’t be the case. It might take thousands of years, but even murderers were able to atone for their sins by serving time in prison. There was no crime so heinous that it couldn’t be forgiven. Except, maybe, stealing life from the Soul Vault.
I could think of no worse crime than stealing from the souls already passed on to the second life. Without a soul those beings would be disconnected from both the physical and spiritual world. They would suffer a fate worse than death, they would just cease to be. It seemed impossible that somebody would do something so terrible. In the long history of my people I could not think of a single time such a monstrous act had been committed. Part of me wanted to deny Valynn’s words, but the video did not lie.
These were the thoughts that filled my head when I caught a foot against a curb and fell to the ground. Sprawled out on the hard pavement, I stared up at the high arches of the Citadel of Souls. I had seen the building thousands of times on my daily commute through the window of an air skimmer, but that view translated the full grandeur of the building very poorly in comparison to the mountain of stone walls and metal pillars that jutted through the low hanging clouds from my vantage point on the sidewalk. I sat up and brushed dirt from my pants, never letting my eyes drift from the foundation of spiritual well-being.
“Are you alright?” A man said.
I turned towards the voice and looked up at the man extending a hand. His skin was pulled tight over gnarled knuckles, and it felt like course leather against mine as I allowed him to help me up. The man was dressed in a crimson robe, tied at the waist with a black sash, and I was taken aback by the subdued strength that rippled beneath the clothing as he hoisted me to my feet.
“Thank you.” I said, angling my eyes down a couple inches to meet his.
“My pleasure. It happens more often than you might think. It is easy to be pulled in by the magnificence of the Citadel, only to lose track of ones footing.”
A rush of blood to my cheeks made my face feel warm, and I wondered if the embarrassment I felt would be noticeable to the old man. “I’m sure.” I said. “It’s quite the sight. Never seen it so close up before.”
“Most haven’t. Incredible isn’t it? Such a marvelous construction in the center of the city, and the world just passes right by.” He said tapping a finger against the side of the age worn cane he leaned against. Suddenly I realized who I was talking to.
“You’re Arch-Bishop Armast.” I said, not sure if I was asking or telling him that fact.
“Yes, and you are?”
Fate, or at least my sub-conscious, had conspired to bring me to the Citadel, and now I was standing in front of the highest ranked member of the entire Soul Reaver church. Surely this was divine intervention, if there were such a thing.
“Jarek Munzel.” I said, holding out the recorder to the old man. “I think you need to see something.”
I never imagined I would sit inside the Arch-Bishop’s office, not in this lifetime at least. Arch-Bishop Armast sat in a high backed chair that would more aptly be described as a throne behind a desk made from an imposing block of gold. Though treasures of priceless variety littered the room, it was the wall to my right that held my attention. Innumerable books lined the shelves that ran from the floor straight up to the ceiling some thirty feet above.
I had never seen so many books before, not even at the library. The amount of history contained in row after row off leather backed books was astounding, and I was so absorbed in trailing a finger across the spines, that for an instant I forgot about Valynn and my task at hand. I shook my head, and chided myself for being drawn in by something so superficial when there was real danger out there. There was nothing I could do for Valynn during my excursion through the city, but now that I had the Arch-Bishop’s ear, I had to focus my attention and do whatever I could to find Valynn and keep her safe.
Arch-Bishop Armast finally broke the long silence with a sigh. He placed the recorder on the table and said, “This is quite the document you have here. If I may ask, where is the woman from the video now?”
“I’m not sure.” I scratched my head, and took a seat in one of the red velvet chairs across from the golden desk. “I seen or spoken to her since she left for work this morning.”
“I see, and did you have any reason to suspect that something was wrong this morning?”
“She thought the President was lying about where he was going during one of his meetings, and told me she was going to tail him. Next thing I know, I’m getting a message to pick that up from some locker at the space station. Two thugs chased me through the terminal, but I managed to get away.”
Armast rested his nose against his steepled fingers. “What brought you to the Citadel, if I may ask?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure. I didn’t really know what I was doing, just walking, and then next thing I know I’m looking up at the Citadel, and an old man is offering to help me up, no offense.”
Armast smiled, “None taken.”
“When I saw you, I figured who better to tell about a Soul Theft crime than the Arch-Bishop, himself? Can you help?”
“I assure you I will do all that is in my power to hold the parties involved in this crime accountable for their actions.” The Arch-Bishop wiped a tendril of sweat from his forehead that stretched to the back of his head, cutting a path through the closely cropped gray hairs on either side of his temples. “But I’m afraid you’re going to need considerably more than a video recording if you hope to lodge such an accusation against the President of the Colonies.”
I frowned. “Surely you must have your own security cameras in the Soul Vaults? To protect from something like this from happening?”
“There has never been a necessity.” The Arch-Bishop held his hands palms up towards the ceiling and shook his head. “I’m still finding it difficult to believe that somebod would do such a thing.”
“You think the video is a fake? Valynn would never do something like that.”
“No, of course not, Jarek. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend your wifes honor. My intention is to point out that there are many people out there who would profit greatly from this video being made public.”
“There are ways to test the validity of the video, we could prove it’s not a fake.”
Armast tapped the bridge of his nose with a finger. “Have you shown this video to anybody else?”
I paused for a long moment, shifting my weight in the chair as I studied the wizened face of the Arch-Bishop. Long rays of light trickled through the stained glass windows behind Armast in red orange tentacles that cut through flecks of dust floating in the still air. The light refracted off the golden surface of the desk, illuminating the Arch-Bishop’s prayer worn face from below in an ambient glow of fire. It felt like I was looking into the face of a soul reborn. A strong desire to pray to this deity in human form gripped me until it dawned on me that the design of the window and desk could not have been random. With that knowledge, the scene took on a different meaning entirely. The twisting feeling in my gut, accompanied by rhythmic chills that shot through my body in pulses, made me question my decision to seek help from the Arch-Bishop.
In the glow of this manufactured light show, Armast didn’t seem so wizened, or so beneficent. Instead, he seemed like a cheap trickster relying on illusions to hypnotize his marks into submission.
“Jarek?” The Arch-Bishop said, “I asked if you have shown this video to anybody else?”
“Uh…” I said biting his lower lip. “No, only you.”
“Good, that’ll make this all much easier.” Armast rose from his chair, but the throne he sat in was so tall, that he appeared to be shorter now that he was standing. The majority of the old man’s body disappeared behind the desk until he came around the corner, and then my insides froze.
“What is this?” I said, not turning my eyes away from the stun blaster held in the Arch-Bishop’s right hand
Armast responded with a slight flick of the finger that sent yellow rays arcing from the barrel of the weapon. I lunged from the chair but was caught in mid-air by the streak of energy that burrowed like a beetle into my flesh. The bolt struck in my ribs where the pain focused itself before splicing into shards, sending bolts of lightning riding through veins of boiling blood that caused the hairs on my arm to stand on end. The hairs seemed to scream and rip against the prison of my skin.
I writhed on the floor in a stupor long after the pain had subsided. Sensitive nerve endings continued firing, causing violent contractions that ripped already torn muscles even further. I felt a line of droop trail from the corner of my mouth as my mind struggled to put together the broken pieces of a puzzle that could no longer be assembled. From a distance I heard voices and tried to open my eyes, but violent rays of light ravaged my already raw optic nerve.
“Sorry to interrupt, I didn’t realize you had a guest.” A man said. The voice was familiar, but it was beyond my ability at the moment to analyze and compare against other voices I might have heard throughout my lifetime.
“This is your mess, Mard. Clean it up.” Through the veil of pain surrounding my mind, I recognized the voice of the Arch-Bishop.
“Bring him with.” The familiar voice said.
A hand grabbed my ankle with surprising strength and dragged me across the floor. I kept my eyes firmly clasped shut with my arms tucked to my chest; staying in the fetal position was all I could do to maintain consciousness.
As I was pulled across the smooth floor, time became a non-entity. There was no means, nor desire, of keeping track of it. The screech of metal against metal pierced the silence causing vibrations to tunnel through the narrow passageways of my ear until reaching the sensitive nerve endings of my jaw bone. I clenched my teeth against the grating sound, praying it would either stop or allow me to die in peace. For surely by this point death was better than the alternative of life.
Somebody grabbed me between the armpits and from the darkness of my mind, the world shifted in orientation causing a wave of nausea that sent floods of bile and acid rising into my throat. It burned and with pure force of will I managed to choke it back down before trying to open my eyes again. Just a sliver at first, until I was sure the light would not send me into shock. The room was dark which gave me courage to open both eyes all the way. My brain was slow reconstituting the images of the room into one cohesive image, and for a moment I could not make sense of the pinprick of light that hovered thousands of feet above, or the chill air that buffeted me from the bottomless pit that gaped a couple of feet in front of me. I stared down into the gaping abyss and thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I saw hundreds of faint green wisps of light dancing around one another in a pattern to complex for my mind to register.
Fifty feet away, on the other side of the pit I saw a darkened figure slouching in a chair and for a moment thought I was looking into a mirror, until the figure moved and spoke into the darkness.
The recognition of the voice was the missing piece that allowed the rest of the puzzle to fall into place. “Valynn!” I said.
I put a foot forward to stand, but as I weighted the leg my muscles seemed to shatter like glass sending needle pointed shards of pain that caused me to lurch forward. Desperately I flung my arms forward hoping to find something to arrest my fall, but there was nothing. The ground rushed at me and I had just enough time to brace for impact before colliding with the ground with the smacking sound of flesh against stone. A moan escaped my lips, but even that caused my chapped throat to ache. I still couldn’t believe the Arch-Bishop had used a stun blaster on me. Based on how my limbs refused to respond to my commands, and how the taste of metal was still so fresh in my mouth, I assumed the blaster had been set at full strength.
The sound of feet scuffling across the stone floor caused me to reflexively roll into the fetal position and cover my head with my arms for protection. Like a hand shy dog I braced myself, prepared for the inevitable strike. When the strike did come, it was nothing like I had imagined. It was soft and gentle. And then I realized I had not been hit, and opening my eyes I saw the hand lightly touching my shoulder. Even the slight contact caused agony, but as I looked up at the person touching me, I accepted the pain as a sweet agony.
“Valynn? Did my brain get fried or is that really you?” I forced the words through my cracked throat.
“Yes, it’s me. But what are you doing here? I never thought I’d see you again.” Valynn said, burrowing her face against my chest. I squawked in pain but did not pull away from her embrace. Tears rolled from her cheek and blazed a path across the tender skin on my neck. The pain was a welcomed friend now, for it brought comfort with it. “I’m so glad you’re here, now.”
“It’s alright.” I said, running fingers through her hair. “You could have warned me about the Arch-Bishop, though.”
Valynn pulled away and looked at me. Though her eyes were waterlogged with tears, I could see beyond that to the layer of confusion that swirled in the background.
“Of course, that was my mistake.” She said. “I should have told you. I just assumed it would be obvious they were working together.”
It was my turn to act surprised. “Why would that be obvious? I’m still not sure why anybody would want to steal from the Vault of Souls.”
“Immortality.” She said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“But we already have immortality in the spiritual plane. Why would Mard and Armast risk all that for immortality in the this world?”
“There’s an evil spreading through the spiritual world. It’s tearing through the souls of our ancestors, feeding off of them for strength. With enough power, it will be able to bridge the gap and make the jump here.”
“That’s impossible.” I said, putting a tingling hand on Valynn’s shoulder. “The Old Ones would be able to stop whatever is causing this plague.”
“No, Jarek. The Old One’s are responsible for the slaughtering of souls.” Valynn placed an icy hand on mine, and helped me to my feet. There was still a burning in my legs, but the muscles were regaining their control and with a great effort I remained standing. “They’ve reached the limit of the spiritual world, and are no longer satisfied. It’s been so long since they were in physical form that they forget what it’s like. Their memories are distorted, and they misremember everything. Living forever has caused them to go insane.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Mard told me, but I didn’t believe him, so he sent me to the spiritual world to see for myself.” The lines in Valynn’s face slackened making her appear much older. “It’s horrible, Jarek. You can’t imagine the suffering the souls are being subjected to in there. It’s worse than non-existence.”
“I can’t imagine anything worse than non-existence, Val.”
“I’ve seen it. If the Old Ones manage to make the jump back to the physical plane, we are all in danger. They have to be stopped before it’s too late.”
“How do you propose doing that?” I said, feeling clarity returning to my thoughts with every second. I could barely see Valynn’s face in the dim glow of light despite it being only inches away from mine. Her breath heated the skin on my face, but there was a dryness to it that felt foreign. Through the darkness I traced her cheekbone with a finger. The face was the same I had known for years, but the muscles underneath felt unfamiliar in the way they pulled and stretched into a frown.
“There is only one way to stop the Old Ones, we have to put the remaining souls into non-existence before they can be used against us.”
My face dropped in a look of horror that could not be communicated in the darkness, and my hand shook uncontrollably despite having regained control of my muscles. “You can’t be serious, Val. Think about what your saying for a second. We have loved ones in there waiting for us to join them. Your parents, your sister Caroline. You’ll never see them again. It’ll be as if they never existed.”
“You don’t think I don’t know that?” she said, pulling away from the weak embrace of my hand. “I don’t want this anymore than you do.”
I rubbed a finger against my stubbled chin and considered what she was saying. In a lot of ways it made sense. With eternity at your finger tips, I could imagine boredom and eventual insanity becoming an issue, but something about this felt wrong. Maybe it was my selfish desire to be one of the immortals that made me resist having it snatched away from me like this. I would like to think it was born from my altruistic desire not to see my loved ones discorporate into oblivion, but even that had self-serving undertones. That the system I had been raised to believe in could be manipulated and perverted in this way made me question everything I thought I knew.
“Why don’t Mard and Armast make an announcement and hold a public vote? Legally speaking that’s the only way a decision can be upheld on something like this.”
“President Mard says there’s no time for that. It would be weeks before the general public was prepared to make a vote on something so important, and even then there’s no guarantee they’ll do what is necessary. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that they wont. That’s why only a few strong willed individuals must do what is necessary, for the good of all.”
“Val, I don’t think I can be one of those people.”
“You will be if you go to the spiritual plane and see.” She said, gesturing towards the circular pit descending into the bowels of the earth. “They can show you how. They hook you up to this little gadget that separates your soul from your body so you can enter the spirit world. It doesn’t hurt, but it feels weird at first, a little disorienting now having a body to hold you down anymore. You’ll get used to it fast enough, though. Come with me, I’ll show you.”
I put my arm around Valynn’s shoulder and let her support my weight as she lead me around the pit. With every step the tingling of sleep in my limbs lifted a bit more until I was nearly able to walk normally again by the time we reached a recess in the wall on the opposite side of the room. A man sat lifeless in a chair propped against the wall, and in the faint light I barely caught a glint of the thin silver wire running from the wall into the man’s forearm. Even with my eyes adapting to night-vision I could not identify the man until my nose was inches from his.
“President Mard?” I said, following the line from his forearm back to the wall where it disappeared into a matrix of circuitry. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing, he’s in the spiritual realm right now.” She grabbed the head of a jack input from the wall and as she pulled it stretched into another silver wire that she held out to me. “Plug in and you’ll see what I’m saying is true.”
I recoiled from the wire as if it was a snake she wanted me to kiss.
“Please, Jarek, do it for me.”
In the gloom of the cavern I could see the yearning in her eye. It was unlike anything I had ever seen there before, but there was nothing about it that I could identify as being out of the ordinary. Her eyes came together to form the familiar wrinkles in the crevice between her eyebrows, and there were the dimples in her cheeks that were present even when she was afraid. It felt like I was looking at a paint by numbers portrait of my wife where the colors and lines were where they were supposed to be, but they lacked the artists personal flair. I took the chord from her and twisted it between my fingers, mulling between the limited options available to me.
“What if I don’t?” I said.
“They’ll kill you, Jarek. They can’t take the chance of you getting out of here and telling the world what you’ve seen unless they are guaranteed you’re on their side. Please, babe, you have to do this. I promise you wont regret it.”
Turns out my options were more limited than I thought. Like a cornered rat I took the lifeline offered me. “Fine.” I said, thrusting the jack into the input slot on my forearm. A burst of cold heartless data shot into my vein and spread like a liquid ice, freezing everything in its path until finally reaching my brain. My brain lost control of my muscles and I felt my body slump down into a chair. I blinked, trying to steady my breathing against the icy tendril that crept into my brain, spreading its numbing touch as one by one my senses shut down and drifted off to sleep.
One word penetrated the sands of sleep that swept across my consciousnesses, “Fool.” In that final instant I thrashed against my bonds, but it was too late, I was in the spiritual plane.
I floated above my lifeless body and watched in mute horror. Valynn unplugged my chord from the machine, and inserted the jack into her own arm, so that the wire ran directly from me to her. She lurched forward with a violent contraction before her muscles relaxed and she crumpled to the floor like a piece of tissue paper. I had no body with which to feel cold, or pain, but those sensations were still raw in my ethereal memory and I relived them in that instant when I watched a spasm ripple through my discorporated body and then stand up.
A scream threw itself against the inner barrier of my mind, but I had no mouth with which to release the sound. I remained tethered to the physical plane watching what use to be my body parading around the now empty cavern like a puppet whose strings remained invisible. My former body was jerky in its movements, but quickly enough the new occupant gained control of the body’s muscles.
There came a tingling in the back of my mind that pulled my attention towards the pit in the center of the room that I now understood to be the Vault of Souls. A wisp of green light oozed out from the abyss, and there was an indescribable warmth that spread through my spirit. The green light hovered in front of me, and I wondered if that was how I appeared in this plane.
“I shouldn’t be here, somebodies stolen my body.” I thought the words and hoped I could find a way to deliver their message to the flickering light in front of me.
A response came that echoed in my mind like the ripples formed by a stone being dropped in a pool of water. “That is Mardok, the Elder. He escaped from the spiritual plane centuries ago, and we have been unable to return him. Living off the power of the Souls he steals from the Vault, he remains tethered to the physical plane in immortality.”
“Can he be stopped?”
“By destroying the body he has claimed in the physical plane, he can be returned to our world.”
“That’s my body you’re talking about destroying.”
“It is not yours any longer, it is his.”
I would have felt a sense of loss if such a thing were possible in the spiritual world. “How can we destroy his body from here?”
“From here it is impossible, but if we move quickly we may yet return you to the physical plane where you might stop Mardok.”
“I don’t understand how I can return, he has my body.”
“There is an empty vessel you may fill that has not been separated long from its soul. The transition is still possible for you.”
The darkness of the cavern was no longer relevant to my vision and I saw the lifeless body of which the spirit spoke. Valynn’s face was calm in its sleeping perfection. Even in death she retained her former beauty. “Is my wifes soul here? Can I speak to her before I go?”
“There is no time, the window for transition is closing. You must go now or not at all.” The spirit said, before disengaging with me.
Turning, I felt myself propelled towards the body on the floor against my will. It rushed towards me like an irresistible magnet pulling me down before sucking me in through Valynn’s porcelain nostril. Everything went black before a burst of white light exploded behind my eyelids. My brain issued commands and nerve endings responded by firing in unison. A great convulsion tore through my body, muscles quivered and joints ached as they bounced off the cold unforgiving stone floor. When the spasms ceased and I had regained control of my ragged breathing, I opened my eyes and looked out on the world through a new perspective.
Valynn’s memories still echoed in the halls of her mind, and those thoughts came crashing against mine. I now remembered the events of Valynn’s life as if they had happened to me. Through her eyes I compared the memory of our wedding day against my own memories. Nausea balled in my stomach from the disorientation that buffeted me from all directions. In attempting too unscramble and reorganize the memories I came across the final moments of Valynn’s physical existence.
Through her eyes I watched her resisting the restraints that held her tied to the chair. President Mard stood facing the computer in the wall with his back to me. When he turned around, he held held the thin silver wire that he forced into Valynn’s input jack. I relived her last seconds of thought before the cold surge of data separated her mind from her body, and in that final conscious moment I saw an image of myself conjured in her fading mind.
A tear streaked down my cheek. I dabbed it away with a finger and studied the droplet against the pale skin of a hand that was not my own. One body, one flesh. The words rung in my ear, and they seemed prophetic if not for the one soul trapped against its will in the body he had sworn to protect.
Across the room something moved in the shadow. Silently I rose to my feet with a hand braced against the stone wall for support. My legs were sturdy, if not shorter than I was accustomed. A man spoke, and his voice reverberated off the walls making it difficult to tell from which direction it came. There was something familiar and yet alien about that voice. Another man replied and despite the echoes, I recognized this voice to be the Arch-Bishop. From the distance that divided us I could not discern what the men were saying. Using the darkness as my protection, I crept forward, trailing a hand against the rough texture of the wall.
I stopped, fifteen feet shy of the men who stood staring down into the Vault of Souls. Faint green tendrils of light danced on their persons. The robed figure of the Arch-Bishop stood a few inches lower to the man beside him.Despite having seen the Mardok steal my body while I was in spirit form, I had difficulty accepting that I was looking at my former body. Moving and speaking with its familiar and yet alien tones.
The Mardok turned, and through the dark and gloom I saw the outlines of my face being worn like a mask. Tendons tightened to curl fingers into fists as I rushed forward from the shadows. This monster took my wife from me. Took my life. Took my everything.
Mardok turned towards the sound of my feet slapping against the stone floor, and tried to step out of my path, but it was too late. Valynn’s body was so small, but the force of anger that drove me forward compensated for the lack of weight. I lowered my shoulder and buried myself deep in the Mardok’s ribs as he tried to spin away. The silence of the cavern was broken by the cracking of bone and desperate gasping for air from the Mardok who thrust an arm into the empty air for support. With arms wheeling he struggled for balance with feet that poised on the edge of the black abyss at his back. I looked into the eyes that had once been mine, and felt no remorse. A green specter of light emerged from the pit and swirled around the Mardok causing a rush of air and fury of light that sucked the Mardok down. I watched the body disappear into the murky depths of the Vault of Souls, and wondered if perhaps I should join him. Take the plunge and be reunited with Valynn in the spirit world.
The sound of heavy breathing beside me pulled me from my depressed thoughts and I found myself looking into the tired blue eyes of the Arch-Bishop.
“You’ve killed the President.” He said, shaking his head from side to side with just enough smugness to make my hair prickle. The old man leaned heavily against the cane in his left hand, while loosely aiming the stun blaster in his right. I opened my mouth to speak but the blue arc of lightning that leapt from the barrel of the pistol froze the words to my tongue.
I dropped like a rag and remained motionless on the ground as the darkness closed in around me. In the fading moments of consciousness I heard an anguished cry reverberate through the cavern. I ceased struggling against the oblivion of sleep, realizing the voice screaming into the darkness was no longer Valynn’s, but my own.
They returned me to my platform above the city while the jury deliberated my fate. There was nothing left to be said. Both defense and prosecutor had presented their story, and now my life hung in the hands of my peers. The prosecutor had the Arch-Bishop and a video to testify against me. For my defense, I had only my word.
I sat on the edge of my cell with my feet dangling into the nothingness that spiraled into the city below. A sliver of purpling sun remained on the horizon, and I basked in its fading rays without thought or worry about my pending conviction. The sun was my only friend. Only it realized the finality of my situation and seemed determined to send me off with one final spectacular sunset. Warm air swirled int he sky, whipping my long hair across my face. It tickled, but I did not move to wipe it away. I closed my eyes and imagined myself sitting on a hilltop of green. The musk of freshly cut grass warmed my senses and I could feel the weight of Valynn’s head pressed against my chest, the strands of her hair would flick across my face with every gust of soft wind that rustled through the field of dandelions like the rasping of a lovers breath. I breathed the moment in deeply, and knew Val was with me in spirit.
I was prepared to spend the rest of my existence frozen in that moment, when a golden door flashed into existence behind me with the buzz of released energy. The verdict was in.
Slowly I rose to my feet, and took one last breath of home before turning away from the edge of the platform. The golden door pulsed like living water. The door was a thing of legend, and until that moment I had never dreamed of seeing it. It was a portal to another world, another time. A place where I would live out my sentence. I wondered how long I would have to serve, but knew it was irrelevant. Once I stepped through that door everything would end. I wouldn’t remember myself, Valynn, or this world I called home. Those memories might linger, but they would quickly fade like a dream upon waking.
Now that the time had come I found myself hesitate. I did not want to part with the memories of Valynn, though I knew that was the point of the punishment. What would life be like with that un-fillable hole? Always searching, but never knowing what for,and all the time she would be there, waiting. Waiting for me to remember to and come home. The true weight of the punishment would be born by Valynn who would watch, helpless to guide me through.
I tear formed in the corner of the eye I had loved for so long. I brushed it aside, but let my finger linger against my cheek realizing this would be the closest I would ever come to holding Valynn. Closing my eyes, I took a step forward.
Tumbling. Head over heels, around and around, there is no sense of direction as I fall.
A world zips by less than an arms length away. I can feel it, but I don’t look. There is no fear, but my eyes remain shut. A blast of warmth rips to fat and tissue, painlessly tearing bone from muscle and tendon from flesh until I’m free.
Free of this body.
I’m weightless, floating free of hurt ad worry across galaxies on a journey I pray never ends, but knowing all the while that it must.
A cry breaks the silence, and I’m no longer moving. The warmth retreats and I’m cold, and afraid. I raise an arm, but feel so weak, so tired. With great difficulty I pry apart my eyelids but am blinded by the lights hovering overhead.
Another cry. It’s the sound of loss, and it wrenches at my heart.
Shadows move against the backdrop of the light. I squint, but cannot make out the shapes until they approach, and I feel myself lifted into the air.
I feel so small. So fragile. Features blur into focus and I recognize a nose, then a mouth, and finally the eyes. Somewhere in the recess of my memory the image of a woman appears, but it’s fleeting and vanishes as quickly as it appears. Images come into focus, but the clarity of thought retreats. I’m afraid. Confused.
Another cry. In a final moment of lucidity before I succumb to the terrible new world around me, I realize it is my own cry.
“I can’t leave him to suffer there alone. Please, send me with him.”
“Child, you are young, and his time will be served in the blink of an eye. Eighty years and he will return to us.”
“That’s too long. He doesn’t deserve this punishment for helping us. We would still be at the mercy of the Mardok if not for him. I beg you to let me join him.”
“What good would it do for you to join him? He will not remember you?”
“I will remember him.”
“But you wont, my dear.”
“Somewhere, I will. I’ll find him, and I’ll remember.”
“You are a hopeless romantic, and I’m afraid nothing awaits you but a broken heart.”
“My heart is already broken.”
“I see that.”
“So you’ll help me?”
“Valynn, I will do what I can, but I’m afraid you do not understand how vicious life is upon Earth. It is a world designed for punishment, to purify the soul before it can be returned to the spiritual plane. What you ask for is pain, and I wish there was something I could say to talk you away from this madness.”
“As long as he is made to suffer, I will suffer with him. I can’t abandon him now, Master.”
“Then go, be with him. Your Mother and I will await your return.”
“Thank you, Father.”
The spirits coalesced in a kaleidoscope of color and movement. Faster, and faster they spun, until the night sky erupted in a warm green glow. Igniting in a reddish fireball, a single soul was flung outward in an arc across the star riddled sky. Through countless galaxies she soared to the end of the universe until coming to the small blue green planet known as Earth. Slowly she descended through the atmosphere, a pin prickled map of lights rushed up to meet her, and all the while she wondered what being human would be like.
Jared walked into the coffee shop with a handful of books and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw an angel. DejaVu overwhelmed his sense as he stared dumbfounded at the girls dimpled cheeks and auburn hair. She moved gracefully behind the counter, manipulating the espresso machine and Jared’s heart in a way that seemed pure magic. His feet didn’t seem to touch the floor as he hovered to the front of the line. The girl looked up and it was over. Jared melted into her liquid brown eyes certain he had found the woman he would spend the rest of his life with.
“Order 22.” The girl said, placing a white cup with tendrils of steam rising out of it. “What can I get for you?”
Jared’s mind seized at the question, and he struggled to find the words. “Your name? What’s your name?”
“Valerie.” She said with a smile.
Jared’s heart pounded against his rib cage, and he knew he had found her.
The one he had been searching for without ever knowing why.
The girl that lived in his sub-conscious, and danced in his dreams before vanishing like a whisper in the morning.
The girl in his dreams.
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© 2013, Anthony Vicino