The Hunt is a stand-alone novella by Lloyd Earickson, made freely available here on IGC Publishing. For more information on this story, please follow this link. To contact Lloyd or IGC Publishing, please use our contact form.
Part I: The Hilltop
I’m blinking, and it’s light outside, light with the golden quality of a hot, early morning, filtered through tree leaves. It’s a light that I know well, from my youthful days in Scouts, and the air smells familiar, too. None of it should be there. For one thing, I knew it was supposed to be dark outside. I’d been tossing and turning for much of the night, too hot to sleep. With no air conditioning and temperatures barely getting to the seventies at night, there was little respite, and the usual escape of sleep was often elusive. Just a moment ago, I had checked the clock on the bedside table, careful not to wake my wife when I did so, and it had read 00:07, just after midnight, on September 4th. I know that time can be distorted by sleep, but I’m certain that I didn’t sleep straight through into this midmorning sunlight.
Plus, I’m standing up, wearing clothes that feel foreign against my skin. The most logical explanation, I think, is that I’m dreaming. I’ve had dreams before that feel incredibly realistic, with nearly all the substance of reality, so it’s not a bad answer. It would hardly be the first time that hot, humid, and generally uncomfortable sleeping conditions would foster particularly strange, imaginative, and vivid dreams for me. I’ve even written a few particularly notable ones down before, keeping the notes on my phone. This one, if it is a dream, puts all the rest to shame for realism. Opening my eyes fully, I take in my surroundings.
As I gathered from the quality of the air and sunlight, I’m in a youthful forest. The trees are mostly maples, with a few oaks and willows thrown into the mix, and the occasional pine tree looking for a place to hide. This is the sort of forest that would have been at home anywhere in the upper Midwest; I’ve been in dozens of them, though that was years ago. Where I’m standing even looks a little like a Scout camp I once attended; I’m atop a grassy hill, which slopes down in all directions towards the woods. There is some brush, but it’s mostly clear. All around me, there are other people, all wearing some kind of sage green uniform. Looking down, I find that I’m attired in the same style of fatigues.
Everyone seems to be scattered about the hilltop in clumps of four, and as I take in more detail, I notice that the gear belonging to each person in the groups is slightly different. All of us have tactical vests, whose contents I have yet to explore, although I can tell that it is weighty, and we’re all carrying some kind of gun. It’s a compact rifle of some kind, although it’s not a style with which I’m familiar. The main gun is only a little longer than a foot, and thick, with a wire stock that can fold out for better accuracy. The clip is just a little ahead of the grip, which is pistol-style. Out of old habit, I double-check that the safety is flipped on; it is, and I notice two other dials. One has three settings: single, burst, and full. The other seems to switch over the chambering mechanism, and is completely unfamiliar to me.
Beyond the basic kit, each group appears to be composed of specialists. One member in each group has a larger pack, and is carrying a kind of machine gun – I suspect they represent heavy weapons specialists. Another member seems to be a scout/communications expert, with a slimmer vest and a multi-channel, two-way radio. The combination of the two doesn’t make much sense to me, from a tactical perspective, but then again, this is a dream. It’s under no obligation to make sense according to the logic of the real world. The final two members of each team have the same gear, but one of them has an additional pistol, and from what I can gather of the symbology on the uniforms, is supposed to be the leader. A quick examination of myself shows that I am the generic member of each team, and I suppress my disappointment.
Realizing that I have likely spent too long in my third person analysis, I turn my attention to my more immediate surroundings. My team of four is just beginning to look around and take stock of each other. Our heavy weapons specialist certainly looks the part: he’s well over six feet tall, muscular, and apparently came with the sleeves of his fatigues ripped away in advance, revealing thick arms that bulged with muscle. Even out of context, he looks like a football player. The role of our scout is less well-placed: the fellow is scrawny, rather than lean, and he seems beyond disturbed to find himself holding a gun, dropping it as if it were red-hot, though it just swings on its strap from around his shoulders.
Our ostensible team leader, if my interpretation is correct, looks like she perfectly fits a box that I had built during my days in military training. There were a handful of women trainers who walked around everywhere they went with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, like they had to compensate for something, even though in their continual efforts to prove they were “just as good as the boys,” they had long since become better than them in most measurable ways. That they kept trying to find ways to prove themselves only made them seem smaller than they otherwise could have been. At about five and a half feet, lean and muscular, with her hair pulled severely back into an impeccable bun, this woman looks the part. I hope her personality will prove more original.
That left me. Normally – that is, in the real world – I am an adequately healthy, middle aged man. Not as strong and fit as I used to be, but still trim, with a few wrinkles, and a certain ruggedness that is mostly a holdover from my younger days. In this dream, though, if that is what it is, I am younger. I look like I did in my early twenties, maybe even a little stronger – I look like I could have looked in my early twenties, if I had been a little more apt to sacrifice pouring over another book in favor of an extra run or two. As I consider that, I realize that none of us, even the scout, have the look of people who spend much time in contemplation. I wonder what that says about my subconscious mind.
Part of me wonders if I ought to stick out my hand and introduce myself to my team, but I hesitate. I’ve never been one to initiate in these kinds of situations, and it seems like it might be safer to take my cues from the dream’s inhabitants. This is not the first time that I’ve gone through a dream and been aware of the fact that I’m dreaming, but they usually feel more intimate than this. As totally immersive and realistic and convincing as this dream feels, at least right now I don’t feel caught up in my character. In fact, it feels more like I’m simply a brain inhabiting a body that does not belong to me, a little like a video game. Does that make this a dream about being in an immersive video game? I’m still not entirely convinced that this is simply a dream.
A low murmur of conversation is beginning to rise from the surrounding teams, and my team turns inward, likely for introductions, but before we can speak, a voice booms over the hilltop, and everyone goes quiet to face the front. There is a brown, wooden building there, I notice for the first time, with a collection of flagpoles flying banners I don’t recognize. My team shares a look as we all turn to face the same way as the other teams. In any situation that involves uniforms, it’s usually best not to stand out until you at least know where you stand.
A man has walked to stand in front of the crowd of teams – how many teams are there, maybe a few dozen? – and I think he has been chosen for the part he looks. He has the kind of picture-perfect face that conveys compassion in every line and crease and expression, without it ever going deeper than his face. Even so, there is a measure of distaste to the twist of his lips as he surveys us, flanked by faceless, burly guards in black armor that obscures their forms and renders them utterly anonymous. I wonder what we represent to this man, that he should be so disturbed simply to look upon us. His guards look a little like stormtroopers, and I am immediately inclined to see this man negatively; I fight that urge.
After a long pause, which I recognize as being for the benefit of an audience that we cannot see, the man speaks. “There have been some, in the past few days, who have questioned whether what we are doing is truly justice, or if it is merely vengeance,” he says. His voice rises and falls in the cadence of a trained orator. “What is justice, really? After the horrors of the Great War, our hearts, all of our hearts, and our minds too, demand justice for the atrocities that we have seen committed. Nor are we blameless in the horrors that took place, but what we did, we did in the name of progress, of a better world, a future for everyone. Through our efforts, we have made the world safe from those who would hold us back, who would keep us from creating a world where all are free to live in peace and equality.” His voice had risen throughout his whole statement, becoming strident, but now he lowers it again, until we must strain to hear him. I notice that most of the teams simply have their heads down, seeming uninterested in what this man has to say.
“I do not know if this is justice,” the man admits, his voice quiet now, familiar, like he is speaking conspiratorially to a close confidant. “But I do know that it is necessary, that it is right, that our future not be blighted by the darkness of our past.” The man straightens, and speaks as an orator again. “I ask you all to join me in a moment of mourning for all those lives that were lost to enable us to be here today.”
The moment of silence seems to stretch for minute upon minute upon minute, and I have to resist the urge to shift uncomfortably. I am nervous, although I cannot put my finger on precisely why. Perhaps it is simply the way this speech is being presented. The intended audience, clearly not for our benefit, is being manipulated by whoever wrote this speech, and I wonder if they are even aware of it. Then I remember that this whole setup is nothing but a dream, and I force myself to hold onto that thought. It would not do to become too immersed in this experience, as if it were real.
“Thank you.” The man straightens. “Those you see gathered before you today are the last of them, the last who fought against peace, against equality, against the future. After so many years of strife, of war, of conflict, at last this dark period will be put to rest, that we might continue.” He lowers his hands, and now, though the shift in his weight is slight, I am convinced that he is no longer seen by his remote audience, and this his words are now for us. “You have seen what happened to your fellow soldiers,” he says. “You have seen how they have died, but that they have died with the freedom to fight for their lives. We give you today the same chance we gave them.” The compassionate face grows ugly, and he snarls his next words. “It is more than you deserve.”
I watch as the man withdraws. The picture I have drawn in my head is not a pretty one, and it draws into focus when the black armored guards do not withdraw with the speaker, instead remaining, watching us from beneath those ominous helmets. It is clear that there was a war here, from the sounds of it a nasty one, and that the teams gathered on the hilltop represent the losing side. This is to be some kind of execution, and the weapons we have been given are there simply to assuage the consciences of whoever or whatever forces are perpetrating this final punishment. I am reminded of a short story I was forced to read over and over again in school: The Most Dangerous Game, wherein man hunts man. This is that story, writ larger.
Around me, I see that the other teams have knelt on the ground, laying down their weapons and bowing their heads. I think that a few of them are praying. My team’s scout has done the same, but he cracks an eye at us when we continue to stand there, looking around in some measure of confusion. I am reassured that the other two members of the team appear just as confused as I do.
“What are you doing?” our scout hisses. “Kneel, like we talked about. You saw how they hunted those who tried to fight in the other rounds. Don’t give them the pleasure!”
The other two team members and I exchange glances. Our heavy weapons specialist seems to be looking at the leader, and I look towards her, too. She seems clearly torn, her eyes darting to where the guards are advancing on the nearest kneeling teams. I find that I do not want to die in this dream, if it really is a dream. From before, when it felt like I was only partially in it, I now feel that it is very real indeed, as real as my own life. I cannot shake the conviction that real people are going to die on this hilltop.
Our scout is nearly hysterical. “Do you want to be entertainment to them? Is that how you want to die?” he demands. “There’s no honor in that! To look death in the eye, those cursed Scons, knowing that it is inevitable, is far more honorable. That’s what we said. We promised,” he insists again.
Further up the hill, the first of the guards has come to stand in front of the first team of four. They all four look directly up at the guard – a Scon, I guess? – and stare at him. The Scon’s machine gun, built into his armor, fires, and the bright flashes are searing and visible despite the bright, midmorning sunlight. None of the four in that first team cry out as they are hit, collapsing on the grass. I think their blood seems an especially vivid red against the green grass, and I sense more than see a ripple of irrepressible fear moving through the other teams gathered in that place. More and more, I am having a hard time convincing myself that this is really just a dream, and that it does not matter what happens, for it will mean nothing when I awaken.
“Furies!” our team’s leader curses. It is a quiet curse, but it attracts the attention of the teams around us, who look askance at her. “I can’t do it.” She is whispering, but no less intense for her lack of volume. “Wal, Prec, Rewn, I can’t do it. I can’t just sit here and wait to be mowed down like grass on a fairway.” She unfolds the stock on her gun, and flips the safety off, putting her setting on burst. She looks at each of us in turn: me, the heavy weapons specialist Wal, and the scout Prec. “If I’m going to die, I’d rather die fighting for my freedom. Are you with me?”
Prec’s face crumples, and he just shakes his head, unable to look our team leader in the eyes. Wal fiddles with his big machine gun, and nods. “I’m with you, Ma’am. To whatever end.” His voice is a quiet, intense rumble that is somehow reassuring.
“And you, Rewn?” our leader asks, turning to me. “I won’t think less of you, either way. But will you fight with me, one last time?”
I hesitate. There is so much I don’t know about this situation, or what has led up to it. I knew, somehow, even before she addressed me, that my name is Rewn, although that is not my real name. If this really is a dream, then what I decide doesn’t matter, save for how the dream will progress, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is something more to it than merely a dream. Regardless, there is little time for me to contemplate; the Scons are systematically moving through the kneeling teams, getting closer and closer to ours. Whatever initial compunctions they may have had about this becoming a slaughter instead of their sport of justice had evidently been dispelled. Almost without committing to the choice in my head, I find myself nodding. “I’m with you, Allia.” Where had that name come from?
Allia breathes a sigh of relief. “Alright,” she says, her tone now brusque, professional. This is the voice of someone giving an order who is accustomed to having those orders obeyed, and to the necessity of making quick decisions under immense pressure. “The fence that we saw in the video feeds has to be the goal. If we can get out of the compound, we stand a chance. But as soon as the Scons see us making a break for it, they’ll swarm us.” She kneels beside Prec, and Wal and I kneel with her. We keep our heads down, making us look just like everyone else. “We’ll crawl our into the tree line. If they haven’t seen us by then, keep crawling. If and when they see us, we run. Either way, may for the fence.” She looks from face to face, and Wal and I both nod. We’re ready, or at least as ready as we’re going to be.
There is no word, no dramatic call to begin our escape; Allia simply drops down to her belly, her rifle cradled in her elbow, and begins to crawl. Wal is immediately beside her, moving far faster, despite his bulk and the extra weight in gear he carries. His gun looks especially awkward in this position, but he will reach the tree line before either of us do. I follow Allia as best I can, cradling my rifle the same way she is. I learned how to low crawl during my time in the military, but I was never very good at it; I inevitably would tear my elbows to shreds in the process and be twice as slow as anyone else. This body, though, is stronger than mine was, and I am able to keep up with Allia without too much difficulty. It is no more pleasant than it ever was, though, and the torment of grit up my sleeves, up my blouse, on my face, is so real that I again hesitate in my conviction that this is a dream. This feels every bit as real as when I went through basic training. Except this time, the guns don’t hold blanks.
Murmurs follow us as we crawl along, and a few muttered curses, but no one tries to stop us. I make eye contact with one soldier, who cracked an eye from praying as I passed; he mostly just looks sad for me. It is clear there was a pact among these men and women that they would stay and die, rather than be hunted, and I feel guilty abandoning them in their solidarity. My choice was already made, though, and if the dirt grinding my elbows raw feels this real and painful, I prefer not to consider how real a bullet wound might feel. Though I like to consider myself a brave man, my courage has always been more moral than physical.
We have almost reached the tree line when a shout goes up. Wal has just scrambled through the initial underbrush, and has almost vanished, but Allia and I are still completely exposed in the hill’s short grass. I hear the plasticky clicking of the Scons’ armor getting louder, and know the hunt is on. Filing that distinctive sound away for later analysis – I had been expecting the clacking of a material like Kevlar, from the appearance – I glance at Allia beside me, who is cursing. She crawls faster, lifting herself higher than true low crawling permits, and I follow suit, scrabbling along beside her, tearing up the grass and making dirt into mud as I go. A few scattered gunshots, given away by their staccato call and the small geysers of dirt that burst up on impact, land nearby, but Allia and I are moving erratically now, so we remain unscathed for the moment. I keep expecting her to stand up and make a dash for it, but her discipline holds, and we make it to the tree line without resorting to making ourselves such obvious targets.
In the forest, the going becomes significantly slower, despite the relative sparseness of the brush; we’ve barely made it a dozen yards in when we hear armored Scons crashing through the branches behind us. Allia and I are on hands and knees now, scrabbling around as adroitly as we are able. We vault over a fallen log that absorbs fifty bullets met for us, their owners mere yards behind us, when Wal rears up and sprays them with fire from his heavy machine gun. Though Allia and I keep moving, I risk the time to glance behind as two Scons continue to stagger forward for another two paces before they collapse. That armor of theirs can apparently take a beating.
Woodcraft was always a source of pride for me from my Scouting days, but in the chaos of our flight and the surging adrenaline of being shot at, I’ve gotten quite turned around, and I have to fight a rising panic. Fortunately, Allia keeps a cooler head than I, and before the Scons have hit the ground she’s pointing us in the right direction. Now, we’re running, subterfuge and reduced targets sacrificed in exchange for raw speed. Besides, there is little point in trying to hide Wal moving through a forest of any sort. Behind us, I can hear more Scons crashing through the woods in close pursuit, and I wonder what this fence looks like through which we will have to break if we want a chance at freedom.
I lose sight of Allia for a moment, but then I’ve hurdled over a boulder and I find her crouching in a hollow that butts up against the fence. It’s obviously electrified, and topped with razor wire. A pole that looks newer than the rest indicates where another team must have attempted, and presumably failed, to break through.
“Rewn, get the fence,” Allia orders. “We’ll cover you.” Wal is already taking up a position on the other side of the hollow, and Allia has her rifle trained on the rim for anything or anyone that might try to come over the top towards us.
Somehow, I had assumed that Wal would have some kind of explosive with which to blow the fence, but I realize now that our captors would never have armed us with such effective weaponry. In fact, the weapons we have probably aren’t even strong enough to pierce the Scons’ armor; the two that Wal had sought to down were probably stunned, rather than killed. I have to fight my gorge as I contemplate the fence; Allia and Wal are counting on me, which means this must be a skillset I, or rather Rewn, have. They don’t know that I’m no longer Rewn, and am now me. What I know about breaking through reinforced electric fences topped with razor wire as a whole lot less than I know about designing computers.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do know quite a lot about electricity, and surely some of that knowledge must be pertinent to electric fences. All I have to do is either find a sufficiently powerful insulator to interrupt the flow of current, or find a conductor that will send the current through an alternate path, instead of our bodies. Something akin to a Faraday Cage would work, although we’d still have to get through the fence itself. I begin rummaging through the pockets of my tactical vest, looking for something I can use. I have to force myself not to rush so much that my jittery fingers fumble things and make me slower than I would be if I hadn’t hurried at all.
I finally find what I’m looking for in the form of a multitool. It looks much like a Leatherman or a Swiss Army Knife. I also find rubber surgical tubing, and a small roll of duct tape. The surgical tubing is a welcome surprise, although I can already think of a half dozen different uses on the battlefield. I wrap the surgical tubing around the handles of the multitool, hoping that it will provide enough insulation, unfold the pliers, and touch the tip to the fence. There’s a spark, but I don’t feel more than a tingling in my fingers. Good enough, but I will need to be quick. I pull a roll of snare wire out of my vest, and carefully connect it to the nearest fence post, and then roll it down to the ground. I repeat it again on another fence post, and bring the two free ends until they are close, but not touching.
With the pliers, I bend and pry and tug at the bottom edge of the fence, working pieces of the chain links loose one at a time. It feels like I’m going terribly slowly, but I know that I’ve actually made a lot of progress. It won’t matter if I’m not faster, though; I can hear gun shots behind me, and Allia yelling for me to hurry. Once I have a gap in the fence that I think is large enough for us to crawl through, I got to the two free ends of snare wire.
“We’re only going to have a few seconds, so we need to be fast!” I yell.
“Allia first,” Wal grunts. She hesitates, but the ducks aware from her position, sprinting for the gap I’ve made in the fence. I wait until she is nearly there before I connect the two free ends of snare wire, creating an alternate path for the current to flow through; now that there’s a gap in the fence, it prefers this route. Almost immediately the snare wire begins to glow red, the white hot. I know it will not hold for long. I dive through after Allia, and we both turn.
“Now, Wal!” Allia screams. He fires another spray of bullets at an unseen Scon charging towards our hollow, and turns, charging for the gap I made I the fence. He’s halfway through it when the snare wire snaps. I smell cooking meat, and Wal screams, writhing against the fence. Allia charges forward to try to drag him, but I catch her hand, yanking her back. All I can do is shake my head, and though she struggles, I can tell she knows that I’m telling the truth.
The renewed sound of gunfire yanks us back into reality from our split-second escape, and we both duck. Allia fires a quick shot back in the direction we came, and I’m impressed when a Scon jerks back and tumbles down the hill to smack against the fence. I’m not sure if his armor protects him from the current or not. Cursing, Allia turns her back on Wal, and we sprint away.
We’re running through a cornfield, which means a distressing lack of cover, but for the moment we are free from pursuit. None of the Scons have breached the fence, and the nearest gate must be some distance. I know our advantage won’t last for long, especially not on foot, but for now, it means we need to make as much distance as we can. Allia is crying as she runs, and I feel horribly guilty. But what else could I have done? I did everything I could think of to get us through the fence. If Wal had been just a little faster, or if the wire had lasted just a second longer…
“Don’t blame yourself,” Allia says between heavy breaths as we push our way through the tall corn. I must look surprised, because she adds, “I know you, Rewn. You did everything you could.”
I am too tired and out of breath to come up with anything adequate to say in return, so I merely nod. This seems to satisfy Allia, who turns back to concentrating on her own breathing. Through the agony in my lungs and limbs, my mind is whirling. Who is Rewn, really? Is Rewn who I am? Is Rewn some kind of parallel version of myself? If this is a dream, I suppose this is all just overthinking it, but if it is a dream, I have a more graphic and vivid imagination than I ever credited. I’ve seen and experiences a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never seen, or smelled, a man fried by an electric fence. Yet the details of that experience are so real that they are burnt into my mind. I realize that is a poor mental word choice, and have to fight the urge to retch as I run.
We hit a gravel road after what seems like an eternity of running, although my – Rewn’s – body is in as good of running shape as I used to be at my peak. Without hesitating, Allia turns down it and continues to run, and I follow, though I question the wisdom of following an established road. All of the technology I have seen so far in this dream, or this world, is comparable to, or perhaps slightly ahead of, the technology in my waking world, which means that our enemies can reasonably be assumed to have satellites that can read a license plate on a car, or detect our heat signatures from orbit. For that matter, the gear we were issued for what I’ve taken to calling a justice hunt in my head probably contains some kind of tracker.
“Should we,” I heave a breath, “be worried about,” I heave another breath, “some kind of,” and again, “remote tracking system?”
Allia frowns beside me, and then shakes her head. “I doubt they’ve gotten those systems online,” she heaves a breath, “since we knocked them out during the war.” Then she hesitates. “Why? Do you think,” she heaves another breath, “that they could be tracking us so quickly?”
I wish that I had a good answer for that, but there is too much I still do not know about my situation. For that matter, I don’t even know where I am, and I hope that Allia doesn’t decide that Rewn was the map expert, too. Just because I was able to pull something off with the fence does not assure that I can do everything that Rewn could do. Except that maybe I am Rewn? This line of reasoning is unproductive. “I don’t know. We should try to ditch our gear or walk through a strong magnetic field or something,” I say.
“For now, we just need to keep moving,” Allia decides. Somehow, she increases her pace further, and I match her as best I can.
This road we are on rolls in gentle hills, up and down and up and down. Although it’s gravel, it’s not terribly dusty, and it feels somewhat familiar, like it’s a road that I’ve run before. When I was younger, I used to run on roads like this outside my grandma’s house. This is not specifically that road, but it has the same feel, the same climate, and I have to fight the urge to characterize this as rural, southern Wisconsin, or maybe northwestern Illinois. Of course, if this is a dream, then maybe it really is midwestern farm country.
We crest a hill, and have to throw ourselves into the ditches to either side of the road to avoid being shot. Ahead of us is a paved surface crossing our gravel strip, probably a county road of some description, but more pertinently there is a barricade ahead of us manned by Scons. We’re out of their view where we’ve dived into the ditches, but it won’t be long before they realize they’ve pinned us and can advance with impunity. I’m reminded of working entry control point exercises during my military training. Then, I was always the one manning the ECP, not the one trying to breach it.
Something is crashing through the corn behind us, and I turn to see a blackened tank surge onto the gravel road, treads churning up a huge cloud of dust as it rotates to face us; I wonder if this, too, is being televised the way the events within the fence apparently were. Regardless, I have no interest in Allia and I becoming a pair of Tiananmen Square tank men.
“Furies! What I wouldn’t give for a tank killer round,” Allia laments. “If we could just get to a cache…”
I glance down at my rifle, examining more closely the third dial I had not recognized before; I realize that there are several symbols that might represent alternative ammunition types that this weapon could chamber, if only we had them. There is a symbol of a tank, a lightning bolt, a stylized suit of armor, a dart, and what might be a poison cloud symbol. Our vests have none of the rounds that would make these settings useful, although I notice that there are corresponding symbols on several empty pouches.
The tank is bearing down on us, eliminating even the need for the armored Scons at the barricade to marginally expose themselves to gun us down. From the grim look on Allia’s face, I can see that she has no more ideas than I do for how to get out of this. We can dodge back into the corn, which might buy us a few minutes, but the tank would catch us before we were able to improve our tactical position that way. I eye the barricade over the crest of the hill.
“We have to charge to barricade!” I call to Allia.
She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind, peeks a glance at the barricade, a nods, her face a mask. “We’ll come in from opposite sides. Move as fast as we can, and hope we get lucky.” She locks eyes with me, and I see her Adam’s apple bob as she swallows her nervousness and washes it down with determination. “On my mark.” Her fingers show three, then two, then one. “Mark.” I can’t hear the word, but I see her mouth it, and I see her surge into a dead sprint from fully prone.
In almost the same instant, I do the same, exploding into a low sprint, trying to strike a compromise between staying close to the ground to minimize the target I present, and moving as fast as I can. The sharp staccato of the Scons’ double-barreled automatic weapons starts up almost immediately, and I begin to zigzag erratically. Normally, my ankles would be protesting such treatment, but Rewn’s ankles seem accustomed to this kind of movement. I pop up my head long enough to squeeze off two quick shots; I can’t tell if I hit anyone, but the Scons duck down as the shots ring out, despite their armor. These are men who have faced these weapons before under more equal conditions. I wish that I could tell if Allia is still moving. Behind me, I hear the lower thumping of the tank’s small guns begin to crack through the air, shaking the barricade, before it cuts off abruptly; they won’t risk killing their own. That’s useful to know.
When I’m almost to the barricade, I feint towards the outside edge, drawing a stream of fire from the nearest Scon, then instead jerk towards the inside, treating the barricade like a hurdle and clearing it in a flying leap; I crash right into a Scon and both of us tumble to the ground in a heap. I plant a bullet through the man’s helmet at point-blank range, and then snap my rifle up to take a shot at the Scon to my left, catching him in the neck joint, which crunches, and he collapses. I dive feeling a bullet shave my scalp, and come up facing the other direction, letting loose a spray of bullets just as Allia clears her side of the barrier. The remaining Scons are caught in our crossfire. Before they’ve fallen, Allia is scrabbling at one of the bodies, yanking on pockets; the roar of the tank’s engine has risen to blot out all sound as it accelerates towards the barricade.
“Take this, bastards,” Allia whispers. In the focus of my adrenaline, I can see that she’s switched her rifle to the tank setting; I watch as she rears up from behind the barricade, takes aim, and squeezes the trigger. A rocket the diameter of a penny explodes from the rifle. I feel the shockwave as it breaks the sound barrier in the short space between us and the approaching tank, and then Allia tackles me to the ground as the missile drives into the tank, precipitating a massive fireball that flips the tank over onto its top, so that the treads whir wildly, futilely, off their guides and in the air.
Coldly, Allia switches her rifle to the armor setting. Armed with the ammunition she scavenged from a Scon, she systematically shoots each Scon we managed to stun or wound in the head. She hesitates when she comes to the Scon I got at point-blank, and nods at me approvingly. I hope that she assumes my pallor is the result of our brush with death, and not from my horror at the scene of destruction. I have never seen a man killed until now, much less killed one myself.
Her grisly work done, Allia turns to scavenging the bodies for what useful implements they might have. Fighting down my gorge, I join her, and we work in grim, grisly silence to stock our tactical vests full of ammunition for our rifles, along with provisions, grenades, and some other odds and ends. It could not be more clear that the Scons blundered as much as we got lucky; their tank was rendered all but useless for fear of hitting their own men, and their men at the barricade had been lax, thinking the tank would take care of us. I doubt that we will be so lucky again.
“Reinforcements will already be on their way,” I remark to Allia. I have no way of knowing this for certain, but it stands to reason. Besides, we need to be doing something, so that I can stop replaying how close I came to dying, and how much closer the Scons came to dying, over and over again in my head. “We need to get away from here, and we need a plan.” Recalling the way that Allia dispatched the stunned Scons, I worry that perhaps I have chosen the wrong side, but I’m not exactly in a position to change my mind. I want to ask why the Scons’ ammunition fits our rifles, but I do not dare do so, for fear of revealing that I am not truly Rewn. Or am I? Besides, this is a dream. Or at least, I need to continue believing it is a dream, for the sake of my own sanity. Any other explanation would be…
Allia nods. “There should be a safehouse hidden away in a park about twenty miles from here. I think we should head there.” I can tell she is rattled by how near we came to dying, and the risks we took. They paid off, this time, but between that, and Wal’s horrible death, she is probably holding together only a little better than I am. She certainly looks fierce, though, fully armed now and her face grim with recent victory.
Twenty miles is a long way to run, under the best of circumstances; it becomes far longer when carrying twenty pounds of gear, wearing full combat fatigues, and dodging through uneven cornfields. I insisted that we wear space blankets around our shoulders to help mask our heat signatures, which makes for hot, awkward movement. Neither of us speaks much as we run, intent on making as good of speed as we can manage. My muscles are trembling by the time we’ve made it five miles; between the adrenaline of our escape from the hilltop, the strain of our flight from there, and the surging tension of our brief skirmish with the Scons and their tank, I would happily curl up on the ground and sleep for a day. Yet I know we have no choice but to keep pressing on, so I keep up as best I can. Allia does not seem to be doing much better, which is both reassuring and concerning.
Although we both know that the Scons must be attempting to track us, we see know one as the hours and mile stretch on. The safehouse may only have been twenty miles from where we started, but we cannot follow the roads, so it is slow, indirect going through cornfields and thin forests, all the time worrying about pursuit, unwilling to stop for more than a few minutes at a time. We take to five-minute rest beaks every twenty minutes, which slows our progress but keeps us from collapsing completely. The actual distance we’re covering is probably something like seven and a half minutes a mile, but the linear distance is much less; after three hours, we’re only ten miles closer to where Allia thinks the safehouse is. We can only hope that it is still safe.
While we run, I want to be contemplating my situation, trying to make sense of this crazy dream-that-may-not-be-a-dream. If it’s not a dream, what is it? A parallel universe? I’ve often flirted with the idea of consciousness jumping into parallel versions of myself within the confines of parallel universe theory, but the concept doesn’t make any sense in practice. So maybe this is a simulation? I’ve been uploaded into some kind of a video game, ala cultural icons like The Matrix and Jumanji? None of it makes any sense. The only explanation that fits Occam’s Razor is that this is a very realistic dream. I cannot shake the thought that it might not be, and so I push on, but I do not have the mental energy to spare to think on the topic further. I have to focus on keeping my legs moving for the fourth hour of running for my life.
It is early evening when we finally reach a fence on the edge of a bluff; I find it difficult to stop my legs from running, and the scenery seems to continue moving around me as I come to a halt beside Allia. This is just a barbed wire fence, designed more to mark a boundary than to prevent passage; Allia and I slip through it without disturbing it, and begin making our way at a light jog along the bluff, the motion somehow even more difficult than the running we were doing before. Under other circumstances, it might be pretty, but I am too hot, have been running for too long, and have not had more than a sip or two of water in all that time. It feels like August or September, from the heat of the sun and the length of the day.
We make our way down the bluff to a gravel bank leading to a river; we cross there, intentionally staying in the water and obscuring our path to make it harder for the Scons to track us by our scent, if they decide to use dogs. When we emerge on the other side, I am pleased to find that my boots have kept most of the water out; they are more waterproof than any combat boot I’ve worn before. Once we’ve dried enough to not leave obvious tracks on the gravel and grass on the other side, we begin walking through a forest just a little older, a little wilder, than the one we left behind on that hilltop. The sun is beginning to sink low in the sky, staining the landscape pink and red, and I cannot but think it is beautiful here, for all the terror of my present situation. It reminds me of a place I once camped.
Between our exhaustion, the darkness, and the lack of visible pursuit over the past hours, silence is not our priority as we move through the forest. It takes a great deal of effort to move quietly, especially through a wild region of woods, so we settle for merely minimizing our impact when we can. As important as it is that the Scons not trace us to the safehouse, I doubt if they would attempt to do so by purely visual means. Tracking technology, satellite imagery, and surveillance flights are the more realistic danger than someone coming across a few bent branches and deducing our trail from that evidence. The imminent prospect of food, water, and a place to rest perhaps plays a role in that thinking.
Pushing aside some fallen leaves and concealing branches, Allia reveals a round, metal door apparently leading directly into the forest floor, hidden beneath a covering of fake grass and plants. She spins a combination lock, there is a pneumatic hiss, and she is able to open the hatch, revealing a dimly lit, concrete tunnel with a plain, metal ladder leading down into the depths.
“After you,” she whispers, gesturing. I nod, swing my legs down, and begin to descend. The light becomes even dimmer when Allia follows behind me and locks the hatch above herself. We climb down perhaps a hundred feet before alighting on a plane, concrete pad in a small, triangular chamber. There is another door, with another combination lock. “Once we’re inside, we can rest, for at least a few days,” Allia assures me as she spins the combination lock. “After that…I haven’t really thought that far ahead.” The lock clicks, and the massive door, which reminds me of the ones meant to seal nuclear command modules, swings open in eerie silence. We both step back.
As the door opens, I notice a shadow cast in the light now coming from around the enormous door; it is vague at first, but as the door opens further I am increasingly convinced that it is the shadow of a large man. I try to attract Allia’s attention, but she is already advancing, moving around the door as it opens. She gasps. “Wal!?” she exclaims. My hackles are up, I am charging forward even as I flick off the safety on my rifle and bring it up to my shoulder. The door finishes swinging open, and I see Wal, his face completely devoid of expression, silhouetted by the bright lights beyond. He is raising his huge machine gun as Allia is panicking, trying to bring her rifle to bear, her instincts thrown off by her shock and confusion. I sight on Wal and pull my trigger just as he pulls his. The sounds of gunfire are horribly loud, thunderous explosions in that tight, echoey space, and I hear under that rumbling the sound of bullets whining and pinging off of the metal and concrete surfaces; I throw myself to the ground in an effort to avoid the ricochets.
Then there is silence, and I raise my head slowly into the light, not wanting to see what has been wrought, but knowing that I must. I force myself to keep my eyes open, but I cannot stop myself from looking away from the horror with which I am confronted. Allia is dead, cut nearly into ragged halves by Wal’s terrible weapon, her face still distorted by shock and consternation. My one shot must have been accurate, but a moment too late to make a difference for Allia; Wal has a hole through his face, but he is somehow still breathing, choking on his own blood and moaning on the floor. I cannot tell if his look of horror is for his own wounds, or for the realization of what he has done. He must have been brainwashed somehow by the Scons, after he was fried by my failure at the fence. Forcing myself to look back at him, I check my weapon, take careful aim, and put a bullet through his head, killing him. As grisly as it is, it is the only mercy I can think to offer.
I kneel against the wall, then, gasping, and I can no longer keep myself from vomiting. Wiping my mouth, I have barely recovered when I heave again, though there is little enough in my to throw up. Usually, in these kinds of dreams, in which I am at least somewhat aware of the fact that I am dreaming, I can appreciate the adventure of it, the story that is being told, but this is too intimate, too really. All I want now is to wake up, and I consider just continuing to kneel there. If Wal is here, after being brainwashed or reprogrammed by the Scons, then the Scons know where this place is, and it will not be long until they arrive. They will find me, and end me, and if this is like any other dream, I will then wake up. I will wake up, distressed and trembling and sweaty, but alive, and in my right body, living my right life, and I will be able to cuddle up with my wife and try to press the images out of my mind.
Instead, I lever myself up to my feet. I know that I should go into the safehouse, find additional provisions, at least take the time to clean up a little and drink some water. I should also take what resources I can from the bodies, especially the ammunition and other weapons, but I cannot bring myself to do any of that. Instead, my body functions almost without the benefit of my mind; I scramble up the ladder, clamor out through the hatch, and run aimlessly into the night, knowing only that I must place as much distance between myself and that horrible place as I can.
Part II: The Crawlspace
It is raining now, the kind of late summer storm that pours down buckets on thirsty ground but lacks the roar and punch of the midnight storms that sweep the Great Plaines in June and July. I am soaked through, wet, and shivering with cold and exhaustion, though the air is still fairly warm and I am still running, after a fashion. In truth, it is more of a shuffle, and I wonder if perhaps I would actually cover ground more quickly were I simply to walk. Yet I do not think, at this point, that I could convince my legs to change their motion. Even stopping sounds like it might be beyond my present capacity. Since leaving the safehouse and its horrors behind, I have seen no Scons in pursuit, and I am now nearing seven hours of running.
I stayed in the forest for a time, careening from tree to tree, jumping at shadows and shooting at branches that reached out to touch my shoulder. Now, I am running along silent, county roads, my rifle tucked away but accessible beneath the poncho I found in my cargo vest. These roads seem to go on for miles, uninterrupted, and under other circumstances I would find them peaceful and tranquil, with the rain a gentle, comforting, moist embrace. It is the perfect night to be camped out, listening to the rain pattering on a well-erected tent, secure in a lightweight sleeping bag. On the run, I feel that I am surrounded by enemies crouching and ready to spring from the darkness, with nowhere safe to hide myself.
While I run, I have time to think; too much time to think, perhaps. With the images of Allia’s and Wal’s mangled bodies seared into my mind, I search for evidence that this is nothing but a dream, but it feels so real. I’ve had realistic dreams before, even hyper-realistic dreams. There have been times where I feel like I’m going through an entire day, and when I wake up, I must check my phone or my computer to see that the day really did not happen. And then, I’ll go through the day in reality, and it will have echoes of the dream day, snippets of conversation and fragments of events, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, that happen in real life exactly as I dreamt that they happened – before the day had even occurred. Yet no matter how realistic my dreams have been, I’ve always had a vague feeling, as I go through them, that at some point I will wake up, that I’m not really stuck in whatever mess the dream has displayed. That sense is gone in this dream.
Sometimes, I’ve wondered if my whole life is just a dream, if one day I will wake up as a seven year old and realize that none of my experiences were real, that I still have my whole life ahead of me and almost nothing behind me. The prospect has been enough to terrify me sometimes, in my more vulnerable moments. When life has looked particularly dark, I’ve hoped that I could lie down and go to sleep, and that when I wake up I would find that whatever horrible thing had happened to me the day before was nothing but a dream. Or when my life is going particularly well, I carry around with me a latent fear that one day I will wake up and be back in one of the times of my life that were far, far less pleasant. What is the dream, and what is the reality? If someone lived out an entire life in a single dream, time being so often distorted while asleep, and then awoke as a child, remembering everything that happened to them throughout that life they never lived, who is to say that it was not reality? I think that child would have all the wisdom and knowledge gained through the experiences of that dreamt lifetime, provided he or she could hold onto them, and not let them slip away the way memories of dreams are wont to do.
There are many cultures that believe in various forms of reincarnation, and this idea does not seem much different from that, these half-remembered glimpses of someone else’s experiences. The mind is a powerful thing, and will go to great lengths to fit foreign inputs into something that makes sense with what we know to be true about ourselves and our lives and our universe. As far as I understand, there is no way to scientifically prove that everything we experience is not a dream, or that there are not parallel universes, or that dreaming is not a form of trans-universal travel, or that we are living in an advanced simulation, or any of the seemingly outlandish theories about reality. After all, proving a negative is notoriously hard, and with theories like these, even proving the positive is likely impossible. I feel every jolt of every step I take in this wet, dream world, and I can only hope it is truly a dream. I hurt in ways I have never hurt before, for all the challenges I have faced.
My single-minded focus on fleeing has to give way to a plan at some point, but my brain does not seem to want to focus. It whirrs around and around on the same track, wearing patterns in my neurons of escape and fear and suspicions about the nature of reality itself. If I am going to treat this dream as a dream, I should stop running and let the dream end with whatever happens to my dream-self: if it’s only a dream, my fate, Rewn’s fate, is of no consequence. If I am not going to treat this dream as a dream, and instead treat it as if what I am experiencing is real, and has consequences, then I should make a plan, because running forever will not save me from the Scons who are surely already working to track me down.
Desperately, I want to choose the former option. I want to slow to a walk, and when my legs have been convinced to slow sufficiently, to sit down on the side of the wet road. Eventually, I will wake up, or some Scon will find me, and shoot me, and then I will wake up. Whatever happens, if this is a dream, I will eventually awaken, and none of what has happened, none of what I have experienced, will have mattered. Yet I don’t stop, I don’t sit down. I cannot convince myself that this is a dream, and that nothing I do matters. That is not how I have lived my real life, and I cannot quite bring myself to live any life, even one that is likely nothing but a bad dream, in such a futile manner. No matter what happens, I have to try.
So, while my legs continue to move mindlessly beneath me, carrying me along endless backcountry roads, I begin trying to formulate a plan. Short term, I need to evade the Scons, find some place safe where I can hole up for at least a day or two, and hopefully gain a better understanding of my situation and the world in which I’ve found myself. It is clearly not so terribly different from the world I’m used to living in; the weapons are based on similar principles, the people act in similar ways, and these roads and cornfields and farmhouses are just like the ones I would see when visiting my grandma. Plus, I know that we’re all speaking the same language, and that our gear is familiar, right down to some of the branded products, like space blankets. This similarity does not feel like much to go on, but at least it’s a start.
I wish that I knew what the Scons represent. Whatever side Rewn is on, he and the others who were on that hilltop clearly fought a terrible war with the Scons, apparently an ideological one. Though Rewn’s side apparently lost, that most likely means there are still plenty of people sympathetic to the losing cause, if only I can find them. Given the similarities to my real world, I can infer where people sympathetic to certain ideologies might be, but that helps me little; I don’t know what my own ideology is supposed to be. Whether I find I agree with the cause for which Rewn was fighting or not, I am wearing his uniform, carrying his gear, and pursued by Scons. At least for the moment, I can turn only to his allies. Long term…well, I still hope that I won’t be here for a long term.
A light is shining in the darkness ahead, and I leave the road to disappear into the corn; I do not know if this is a Scon patrol vehicle, but even if it’s merely a civilian driving at this late hour, it is best if I not be seen. So I hide, moving slowly and low to the ground, but I notice that the light is not coming any nearer. I had assumed it belonged to some manner of vehicle, but perhaps it is instead an outpost. Have the Scons set up another barricade? I would think that they would not use such a resource-heavy effort to catch a single man. Unless they are tracking me more closely than I realize…
I push down my surging paranoia – where is it coming from, anyway? I’m not this paranoid in my real life – and slink slowly closer to the light beaming out into the rainy darkness. At least the rain has slowed now, becoming little more than a fine mist. There is steam rolling up from the dark road in waves, and as wet and uncomfortable as I am, I am thankful for this weather that renders it so easy for me to become invisible in the darkness. Yet it also hampers my visibility, and I nearly stumble over a low, wooden fence before I realize that the light belongs not to a Scon barricade or outpost, but to a large farmhouse.
It might be incorrect to refer to it as a farmhouse; I do not think it belongs to a farm. It is, in many ways, the sort of house in which my grandma lived after she retired to the country, although it is not precisely the same – more like the sort of house that I may have seen when going to visit her. If this is a dream, I wonder why my brain decided to use this particular set of scenery that I have tucked away in my memories. I’ve seen and been a lot of different places, and many of them would have made more sense than this for a military installation, and the other fixtures of this dream. Putting such Freudian introspection aside, I back slowly away from the fence; there is no sanctuary to be had here; it is best if I keep moving. I have begun to think that my best hope is to find a larger town, or even a city, where I can change my clothing and disappear into a mass of humanity. It will at least buy me time to understand more of what is happening in this dream world.
The creak of a farmhouse screen door shatters the still darkness, and I freeze in my retreat, hoping that there is enough foliage between myself and the farmhouse to disguise me in the darkness. Who could possibly be coming outside at – I glance down at my watch – at 0127? Even I don’t go for walks that early in the morning, and I’m known for my predawn meanderings. Thinking that perhaps they have a security system or other alarm that may have alerted them to my presence, I slowly swing my rifle off my shoulder and into my hands, readying it in case I need to fight. Yet it is not a gun-carrying vigilante who emerges, and I lower the rifle when I see the figure silhouetted by yellow light streaming from the foyer. The little girl turns back for a moment, apparently replying to a question, and then she skips down the steps, coming right for me.
She has seen me, she clearly knows precisely where I am. Rationally, I should drop down to my belly and crawl away, vanishing into the fields, but I do not. Something deep inside of my trusts this girl, something that is not quite an instinct. It feels more direct, more certain. Everything that I, or Rewn, is made of is telling me that I can trust this girl. Under ordinary circumstances, I would never trust such a feeling, much less act upon it, but these are hardly normal circumstances. Before I can make a firm decision, the girl has reached the fence, and is looking right at me, her pale, oval face cocked quizzically to one side.
“You look wet,” she remarks.
Running a hand through my soaked hair, earning myself a stream of cold water running down my already soaked back, I can do little more than nod in rueful agreement, and the girl laughs. “I’m so glad that you’ve finally come. I’ve been waiting for you.” She holds out her small hand. “Come.”
I stare at the outstretched hand, wondering if I should take it. What of the girl’s parents? What of the Scons? I do not know enough, yet I still have that feeling, as if every cell in me knows on some fundamental level, like it’s programmed into my DNA, that I should take this girl’s hand and let her lead me where she will. “How did you know I was here?” I ask.
This question seems to puzzle the girl. Not in the way of someone puzzled by a question to which they do not know the answer, but in the way of someone puzzled by a person who has asked a question to which they ought to already know the answer. “I’m your oracle, silly,” she tells me, and shakes her outstretched hand at me. “Now come on. I’ll show you a place you can hide.”
Not knowing how else to respond, I let the girl wrap her slender, pale hand around my larger, dirty one. She draws me to my feet, and still holding my hand, leads me through the finely trimmed grass of her neat yard and directly to the front door. Though I see know mechanism, nor anyone to open it, the door swings open for us, and after the girl twice tugs insistently at my hand, I follow her inside, stopping on the welcome mat so that I do not drip muddy water on the home’s polished oak floorboards, nor splash on the warm, peach-painted walls. Only when the door has closed does the girl drop my hand, and turn to face me, her arms folded across her thin chest. I find that my poncho is somehow dry, as are my clothes. I fold it up and tuck it back into my vest.
“You’re in trouble,” the girl declares flatly. “You’re not safe here. But I know a place you can hide.”
Though I think that I should say something, I do not come up with a response before the girl is darting away, running up the stares on fleet, bare, narrow feet. I watch as she climbs towards the darkened second floor. The darkness frightens me, and I do not know why.
“Follow me!” the girl insists, and I hesitantly plod up the stairs, my boots thumping too loudly on the clean boards. It feels like I’m being drawn inexorably onward, connected somehow to this girl who has claimed to be my oracle. I do not even know what that means. I mean, I know what an oracle is, but I do not understand how I could have an oracle. The rules of this dream have heretofore seemed much the same as those of my real world, which would not allow for seeing the future. Yet this girl knew precisely when and where I would be. If only I truly believed this were a dream, and could dismiss it as merely one of the many unexplained and unexplainable parts of dreams.
The second floor of the farmhouse feels too small for me; I am beset by the impression that the walls and ceiling are closing in, and that I ought to duck and squeeze myself smaller so that I won’t break the pictures hanging on the walls; I cannot make what images the pictures depict. Rationally, this cannot be true, but it has the unsettled appearance of one of those distorted mirror halls, and distance is itself is unstable. The only constant that remains is my fixed distance from the girl I am following, as she skips along ahead of me, singing a playful song quietly to herself, and occasionally looking back to urge me to come along faster. I realize that this place looks familiar because it is much like the second floor of the house in which I grew up, nearly identical, in fact. Yet the outside, and the foyer, were nothing like that place, and I do not think that the geometry would even line up.
I am led into the master bedroom, which is cold, vast, and empty. The white brick fireplace in one wall is dead, looming in the darkness like a black maw eating whatever warmth mistakenly enters this room. It has the feel of a forbidden place. Even my escort, the little oracular girl, has wrapped her arms around herself and is rubbing the bare, smooth skin of her upper arms. I catch up to her as we round the corner of the queen-sized bed with its pale green, flowery bedspread, and wrap my silvery space blanket around her skinny shoulders; she looks up and smiles gratefully at me, the look of deep, mysterious knowledge gone, and she now looks just like an ordinary eleven year old girl. Then we break eye contact, and she is as unknowable, aloof, and mythical as ever.
She leads me into the walk-in closet, and I am certain now that this is not merely like my parents’ bedroom in my childhood home; it is that bedroom. The bedspread, the layout, the décor, the clothes hanging in the closet and the shoes scattered on the floor near the back, even the smell of the old, thick, closet carpeting is familiar. Under other circumstances, those scents might have been comforting, but now they only make me nervous. I am terrified for some reason, and my heart hammers in my chest as the girl stops at the back of the closet, her face hidden in the hanging clothes that are just like the clothes my mother once kept there. I stop, but the girl beckons me closer. She is opening a panel, and somehow I know what awaits behind it.
“You will be safe in here,” the girl assures me, and I wish that I shared her confidence. In the unlit closet at night, with only the faint, reflected glow of a distant streetlamp – had I seen that when I had been approaching the house? I do not think it was there, before – I am no longer so certain that she is my ally. Yet I am also absolutely convinced that I must enter the crawlspace that the panel’s removal as revealed. It is familiar, but it is also dark, darker even than the maw of the fireplace in its sterile setting of white bricks.
The girl gestures into the darkness insistently, her hand, so pale it is nearly white, disappearing completely into the darkness as soon as it passes through the frame. It looks as if the hand has simply vanished, no longer existing, and I swallow at the prospect of putting my entire body through that frame. Then she pulls her hand back, and it is whole and unharmed. “Go,” she insists. “Go quickly, and don’t stop. Whatever you do, don’t come back. Don’t come back the way you came.”
This last admonishment shakes her, and tears well up in her eyes. I trust her completely again, and after fumbling in my vest for a moment, I find an LED headlamp and secure it on my forehead. I pat the girl’s shoulder in what I hope is a reassuring fashion, take a deep breath, and crawl into the crawlspace. When I look back, I catch the faintest hint of the girl, and then she has replaced the panel. As soon as the latch clicks into place, the panel and the frame dissolve into darkness that my lamp cannot pierce, and I am alone. I do not think I could go back, even if I wanted to.
There was a crawlspace, much like this, in my parents’ house. It existed between the edge of the house, and the inside wall, a factor of the design that made for convenient storage for things that we did not need to access very often. Uninsulated, it was almost like a shed in its nature. We kept a few things near the front in binds, Christmas decorations mostly, and it was usually my job to crawl in and pull them out when the season came. I would wear my headlamp, which I realize was the same headlamp that I am now wearing. It was never something that frightened me, though it was dark and chilly in the winter when I would enter its domain. Instead, I would mostly be curious about what lay deeper inside. There were a few more bins and boxes further back, containing things we were never quite willing to get rid of, and then, rationally, I knew that the crawlspace ended, for the house would then end.
But it was a place of unfinished boards and unexplored darkness. It did not even have a proper floor; there were a few pieces of plywood near the entrance, but after that I had to resort to balancing on the 2×6 beams that would have supported a real floor, had it existed. To my active imagination, it had always been a place of possibilities. It had been easy to imagine that it didn’t end, that the crawlspace went on and on into the chilly, bare darkness into magical worlds, my own personal passage into Narnia. This is precisely the sort of place in which I now find myself, except that now, that darkness just beyond where my headlamp can reach I know instinctively does not end where the house should end. Geometry and architecture mean little now, they do not constrain this place I have entered, this place to which my oracle led me, and I am afraid as I never before was at the possibility inherent in that darkness’s mystery.
Recalling the girl’s insistence that I move quickly, and not stop, I shake myself from my reflections, and force my hands and feet into motion. I must crawl, for it is certainly too low a ceiling to stand, and I must be careful to keep my head down, lest I cut myself on the roofing nails that poke down through the ceiling like manmade stalactites, or, more ominously, like fangs. Just as I expect, the plywood floor ends, and I position myself so that my hands are on adjacent boards, and my head is hovering over the gap between them. In the real crawlspace, with my headlamp on I could have seen the ceiling of the room below, but now the darkness is deeper than my light can penetrate. That is true in all directions – my light does not seem to reveal as far as it ought to, like the darkness is a physical presence that it cannot quite push back.
I’m past where the last of the boxes would have been, and through where the end of the house would have been. Looking back now offers the same view as looking ahead, so I keep crawling along as best I can, wishing that I had gloves to ward against both splinters and cold. Though it was summer outside when I found the farmhouse, I feel winter’s chill in this eternal crawlspace. I do not know how far I may have crawled when I begin to feel the muscles in my legs cramping painfully; I stop and try to stretch them out as best I can, but there is only so much stretching that I can do in a place with no real floor and a ceiling that is less than a handspan above my crawling back. There will be no substantial rest, I realize, until I am out of this crawlspace. But I do not know if it will ever end. I do not know where I am going, only that I must continue on. The girl’s final admonishment seems like a program written into the substance of my brain, driving my onward.
Maybe it is from thinking about the girl: I hear screams, as of someone being tortured, and gruff voices, all of it like a distant echo, like a half-remembered dream. My mind seems convinced that the girl is suffering horrors at the hands of the Scons at this very moment, and I hesitate, my heart breaking for the girl, though I hardly knew her. Still, I do not turn back, and the voices fade. Perhaps it is nothing more than a figment of my imagination, which seems determined to work overtime to make up for the lack of sensory input in this endless crawlspace. How I wish that I knew where I was going, how long I had to crawl, where I would end up, or even if I would eventually end up somewhere. It did not seem beyond the realm of possibility that this crawlspace would simply go on and on, and that I would crawl on and on until I wither away.
Some sense other than sight or sound informs me that something is moving ahead of me. I strain with my light to see into the darkness ahead, but there is nothing. Then a fleeting half-glimpse of shadow, and then again nothing. Awkwardly, I swing my rifle into a position from which I might be able to use it, and switch the safety off. The click is loud, and shatters the absolute silence that had heretofore permeated every nook and cranny of the crawlspace. Darkness descends on me in a rush, blotting out even the beam of my headlamp, and I panic, fumbling for my gun. I fire a single shot, and hear a hissing sound, like steam escaping from a kettle, and then I can feel a physical pressing, something oiling all against my skin and my body; I feel like I am suffocating. My hands are shaking on my gun, and I flip the dial from single shot to burst, and squeeze the trigger again and again and again, firing pops of three bullets into the blackness around me. There is more hissing, and the tightness around me slackens slightly; my lamp is shining at least a few inches into the oppressive darkness. I fumble the dial into fully automatic mode, and let loose a stream of bullets all around me.
Mostly, there is the tearing sound of bullets entering wood, but gradually the darkness retreats, the hissing sound fades away, and the crawlspace is as still and empty as it was before. I keep firing, my eyes shut tight, until I hear the weapon click on an empty chamber. Feeling slightly foolish, but trembling with very real adrenaline and fear, I look around, seeing where the bullets blasting through the wood of the crawlspace. Where they punched through the ceiling, I can still see only darkness. A few of the roofing nails are bright and bent, gleaming with newly exposed metal when the light from my lamp glints off of them. I am trembling as I release the empty clip from my weapon, and jam a new, full one in its place. The empty clip falls from the weapon and clatters into the darkness between the joists; I know I should reach down and put it in my vest, but I cannot bring myself to thrust my hand into that impenetrable darkness. I leave it behind, and continue crawling.
A noise rolls through the crawlspace, a sort of muffled thump, and I look back, though I know that I will not be able to see anything; whatever the noise is, it comes from far back in the crawlspace, near where I entered. The sound repeats itself, over and over again. I think the Scons are attempting to break into the crawlspace, and I imagine them placing explosives against the panel in the closet, the explosions sending dust and shrapnel all around. The door holds longer than it should, but it will not hold forever. I wonder what has become of the girl as I crawl faster, though I am exhausted, and my faster pace is hardly fast at all.
There is no way to know how far I have gone, and little way to know how fast I am traveling, save for the burning in my limbs and lungs. My throat feels full of dust, and I wonder if I am leaving a trail in it, but looking back I see nothing; it is as if I never crawled there. Neither can I know how long I have been crawling. I look at my watch, but for some reason I cannot see it. That is, I can see the watch, and I can see that it says a time, but as soon as I look away from it the knowledge of the time fades from my mind, water passing through my fingers. I realize that I am hungry, so I stop briefly to eat from my provisions. Then I am moving again, crawling on and on in that infinite darkness. Though I have seen nor heard no evidence, I know that I am being followed.
Awareness fades in and out, and I feel like I am struggling to the surface of a deep, dark lake. I am aware that I am crawling, but only vaguely; I am also aware of lying in my bed, the blankets tangled around my feet, the fan whirring above me. I am sweaty and sticky. The tantalizing knowledge of being so close to waking makes me strain towards that distant surface, but it is like elastic, and the harder I strain, the more I am dragged back into the dream. There is another brief flash of dual awareness, and then I snap back into myself, into Rewn, and I do not know how much time has passed. I do not know if I was crawling or still in that time, but I can now hear voices behind me, the soft clicking of the Scon armor. They are close.
Turning off my headlamp plunges me into total darkness, and I nearly lose my balance on the floor joists. Recovering, I crawl as quietly as I am able ahead in the pitch black, feeling and inching my way along. I consider taking off my boots so that I can better feel the boards with my feet, but I dare not stop long enough to do so, and I do not want to lose the boots if I somehow find myself in a different place. I hear heavy breathing behind me, and I turn, firing a shot. The flare from the muzzle of my rifle is a searing bright supernova in the complete darkness, though it illuminates nothing; I feel a hand grab my foot, and kick backward with all my strength. I don’t know if I connect, but the hand yanks down hard on my leg. I lose my balance, and fall between the floor joists. Though I open my mouth to scream, I fall in total silence.
I hit the wet, chilly, dirty, uneven ground on my stomach after a brief fall; it hurts, but not badly. There is a thump as someone else hits the ground beside me, and I am scrambling to my feet, tackling the Scon and keeping him down. There is a tiny bit of light here, from where, I’m not quite sure. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. Regardless, I can tell where my enemy is. I wrestle with him, keeping him from bringing his weapon to bear, and throw him against a rock face – I can tell from the way his armor crunches. My rifle comes up, and I squeeze three shots directly into the Scon’s chest; he jerks twice, the third shot penetrates, and he collapses. Looking above me, I can sense only the solid, rocky ceiling of a cave, with no evidence of the crawlspace, nor of pursuit.
Sense is the right word: I cannot see, but I do not need to turn on my headlamp again to know where I am. Somehow, I have a sort of tingly, mental map built of this place I have never been before; it is a cave, and I can tell where I should walk and where I should crawl. I remember visiting another cave once, where they turned out all of the lights, and explained how, in the absence of light, our other senses sharpen, including a subtle, electrical sense of approaching objects. In that pitch darkness, I could feel when I was approaching a wall, or another person. This mental map is like that, except that I can sense the tingling proximity of the entire cave system. I follow it towards the entrance, walking warily. Though I somehow know the way, I do not know what I might find.
As I approach what I know to be a large antechamber of sorts, just before the narrow passage to the cave’s entrance, I slow my steps. There is light ahead, and not the faint, imagined glow I had misperceived when I first tumbled into the cave. It could be coming from outside, but I know that the entrance is blocked with a wooden door that, though old and imperfect, would not allow so much light so deep into the cave. Flicking off the safety on my rifle with my other hand pressed over it to prevent the noise from echoing in the confined space, I pad cautiously forward with the weapon held at ready, coming around the final corner with the full expectation of meeting a team of Scons ready to open fire upon me.
Instead, I come upon a scene frozen in time. Upon rounding the corner, the entire cave behind me vanishes, replaced by a smooth, seamless, stone wall. There is now only one entrance or exit from the chamber, and it is not how I came into it. It is brightly lit, although I can see no source for the light; the way the shadows are oriented makes it seem as if the light is coming from the bottom edges of the roughly circular chamber, but there is nothing there to emit the light. I am standing behind an altar-like stone formation on a larger platform of stone, with rough-hewn steps leading down to the rest of the chamber, which is level. A ring of stones at the center of the chamber surrounds a fire, but it is like no fire I have ever seen; the flames leaping from the logs are frozen in their act of licking up from the wood below. Completing this alien presentation, the oracular girl is standing with her back towards me and the altar, clad in an ephemeral, white, sleeveless dress that fades away as it reaches her bony knees. Her hair is golden and falls straight down around her narrow shoulders, and she seems as frozen as the fire.
“Hello?” I speak quietly into the chamber’s stillness. My voice is swallowed, seeming to disappear, and I wonder if the girl can even hear me. I don’t even know her name.
After an agonizing moment, the girl moves, as if someone had pressed play on a three-dimensional video. She takes a half a step forward, towards the fire, and then hesitates, turns, and looks towards me. Her face lights up, and she skips towards me, coming up around the altar to take my hand and lead me back down to her eerie, impossible fire. I am irrationally pleased and satisfied at her joy in seeing me. “I’m so glad you made it here!” she says, clapping her hands together. Unlike my voice and motions, hers echo loudly through the whole cave.
She had sat down cross-legged on the stone, facing the fire, and I do the same. Though I normally hate sitting cross-legged, I find it quite comfortable. “Where is here?” I ask. “And who are you?”
“I told you, I’m your oracle, silly,” she says. She pats my hand warmly, though her hands feel cool. “You’re here.”
“Yes, but where is here?” I insist. There is something calming about being in this girl’s presence, something warming. Being with her sends a thrill through me, and she seems completely familiar, like she is a part of me that I once knew, or perhaps that I will know, but have forgotten, or perhaps do not yet know.
The oracular girl laughs lightly, and I notice that the chamber’s lighting fluctuates in time with her breathing. “Here is where you need to be,” she explains, unhelpfully. “Where else would you be?”
“I don’t know!” I snap, and am immediately guilty for snapping at this brave, young girl who has done nothing but help me. “I’m sorry. This, it’s just…this whole experience has been so frustrating.”
My oracle sighs, takes my dirty, calloused hand in both of hers, and squeezes gently. I feel the splinters and sores of my hectic crawl, and my brutal brawls, fade away. The warmth flows from my hands through my whole form, and I feel like I have received a week’s rest and good food. “You are where you need to be,” the girl again assures me. There seems a deeper meaning to her words this time, and I look at her inquiringly – does she know that this is a dream for me, that I’m not really Rewn? I want to ask, but the words get caught somewhere before they reach my throat.
Instead, I choke out a different question. “Will it end soon?” I ask. It is not really directed at the girl, and I feel a tear trace down my cheek. Whether this is a dream, a simulation, or a parallel universe, I just want it to be finished, to return to what I perceive as my real life, where I am middle aged, have never killed a man, nor seen a man killed in front of me, have a stable life and family, and a relatively low-stress career. If I have to continue on much longer in this hectic place of unknowns, of strange places and juxtapositions, where I am beset by enemies, I don’t know how I will be able to handle it.
Looking sad, the girl pats my hand again. She seems a little faded around the edges, and I frown. “All is as it should be,” she reassured me, almost crooning, although she looks terribly sad. Suddenly, I have the distinct impression that I will not see her again from here, and I am devastated at the notion. I want this girl in my life, and I do not know why; there is nothing rational about it.
“Are you trying to tell me I’m here for a reason?” I ask, replacing the emptiness I am feeling with annoyance in my voice. “Because I have no idea what kind of meaning I’m supposed to be getting from this. Are you my brain, trying to tell me something?”
The girl is definitely fading now, and the light in the room is dimming with her. She opens her mouth to respond, but the words are indistinct; all I am able to hear is “…where you need to be…” Then my oracle is gone, and I am in darkness again, alone in the cave.
Except it is not quite dark, and it is definitely not silent. From the way I came, I can hear the sounds of gunfire, of men grunting and fighting, and there is the steady, whiteish glow of artificial lights coming from deeper into the cave. Though I look longingly towards where I know the door to be, I feel a tugging deep inside me, pulling me in the direction of the sounds of conflict. I could resist. Perhaps I should resist. Yet there is a part of me that wonders if this is what I am in this dream to do, if all of the events I have been through up to this point have been building up to a fight in this cave, right now. If it’s a parallel universe, maybe this is the event that pulled me over. If this is a simulation, it’s the final level. If it’s a dream, this is where the meaning lies. Flicking the safety off on my rifle, I check the stock, make sure the rounds are seated properly, and take a deep breath. Then I charge down the tunnel back the way I came.
When I round the first bend, I see a Scon standing guard. He looks bored, perhaps a rear guard of sorts, and he has not seen me yet. I switch the mode on my rifle to armor piercing, and pop out from behind the rockface to shoot the man in the chest. He drops, and I switch back to the standard mode. I can see debris and artifacts all around that were not there before; there are people living in this cave, people who seem to have left in a hurry when the Scons arrived. With a grunt, I haul myself up onto the rockface, and squirm forward on my belly, sandwiched up against the ceiling. With each movement, I am doubtless destroying thousands of years of geological evolution in the form of the miniature stalactites and stalagmites that are poking at me and tearing at my uniform, catching on my vest. Soon, I have a vantage on where the Scon have surrounded a group of survivors. They had to be called survivors, because they look too proud to be refugees. A few are holding knives, as if to fight off the armored Scon with daggers.
In my position, they have not yet seen my, which gives me the element of surprise, but I am not very mobile; once they determine where my fire is coming from, I could be trapped and pinned easily, and picked off at their leisure. I hesitate, and a young girl in amongst the survivors, her eyes wide, notices me. She smiles, and I think she looks a little like my oracle. So I take a deep breath, sight on the nearest Scon, and squeeze off a burst. The man jerks and falls, and the tight cavern explodes into action. The Scons are whirling around, searching for the source of the fire, but none have found me yet. I squeeze off another handful of bursts, dropping Scons on the far side of the chamber. The survivors are surging up, grappling with the Scons, and I bless them, for it gives me the time I need to drop down from my vulnerable perch.
Now crouching behind a few boulders, and much more mobile, I shoot the two Scons nearest me, and then charge into the fray, firing whenever I have a clear shot. Part of me, the part that remembers my old military training, as limited as it was, thinks that this is reckless, with so many of the unarmed survivors around, but I am careful, and the stakes are too high to not shoot. People are shouting, the Scons grunting from beneath their helmets as they blast with their machines guns into the survivors, trying to reach me. Bullets sing and spark off the rocks, ricocheting all around chaotically; the electric lights that had been casting their light in the chamber explode, plunging the whole cavern into darkness.
My other sense is still tingling, and I whirl, knocking aside a Scon’s gun with my own, and bearing him back into the nearest wall. He struggles, and I ram his own dagger beneath his helmet, dropping him; I try not to gag at the blood that spills over my hands. Leaving the man, I turn, searching with this other sense through the chaos: a few Scons have fled deeper into the cave, while the others are attempting an orderly retreat back towards the entrance. When they have left the cavern behind and are in the narrow tunnel that led me to the chamber with the altar-like rock where I met my oracle, I throw a grenade after them. Channeled by the tunnel, I can feel the wash of heat produced by the explosion all the way from the back of the survivors’ chamber.
Those I identify as survivors are swarming around me, patting me on the back, hugging me, thanking me, but the whole scene is becoming blurry, and starting to fade at the edges, blackness creeping inwards towards me. I am drowning again, deep within that thick, cold lake, struggling for the surface. The blackness is giving way to another scene, and it is the ceiling of my bedroom, the fan blades stirring the cool, early morning air in the bright sunlight that comes just after the dawn. So too are the sensations of the cave fading away, the scents and sounds and touches, replaced by the familiar sensory inputs of home. Just before I open my eyes, I see my oracle smiling at me from a green grove of weeping willows cast in late summer, evening sunlight. Then I am blinking myself awake, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I see where I am. I stretch, and I reach down to look at my phone. It reads 0650, September 6th.
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