XXXV

I’m running. There are others running too, but I don’t know who they are and I can’t see their faces. You’re there. Are we chasing or being chased. Darkness outside, the storm is closing in. There are people parked out front, I can see their headlights.

We race from one side of the abandoned shop to the other. I can’t recall how we got here. Scrambling for an exit, there is a side door that leads us to an alley. The chain link fence to the right blocks access to the street, a gate to the left is locked.

Through a door entering an office, currently unoccupied, just a maze of cubicles. A maze that eventually leads us to an exit. Opening the door, there is a flash of light.

I’m on a bus. Hurriedly drawing or making something. I don’t want others around me to see whatever it is as I’m constantly covering pieces of it up while I work. On the side I notice that I’m scribbling the floorplan of the abandoned store in the corner of a notebook. The bus hits a bump.

We’re back in the store. Just as before. Exactly the same. It’s ok, I’ve already done this. To the side door, across the alley, through the office. It goes quicker this time. Exiting the office, a flash of light.

The bus ride is getting increasingly rough, the driver appears to be in a hurry. Seems the store is a daydream – or nightmare. Is it a manifestation of the anxiety associated with this piece of work. People keep shuffling past my seat, and I keep hiding my work.

At this point I become aware that I’m watching myself in third-person. Is this also a dream? I can see that I’m still scribbling the floorplan off to the side, it’s more detailed now, it hasn’t reset like the dream-land progress through the store. A bump.

The store again. Everything says ‘do something different’ this time, but that’s clearly not how this works.

Store. Alley. Office. Flash.

The bus stops, it’s dark out, and whatever I’m been making is finished but still in a hundred parts. Everyone has scrambled off the bus, I can tell they’re waiting for me. In the rush I haven’t been able to pack everything up correctly, and as I step off the bus I stumble and everything spills onto the ground.

Everyone is glaring at me. It’s started raining. Collecting myself and gathering everything off the sidewalk, my notebook is snatched from my hand.

“Have you finished that floorplan, we’re here now.”

Off.A short story in 12 small parts.

XII

Charles, only five-nine, but built like a tree and dressed head-to-toe in black tactical gear.

Handguns holstered on each leg, a small knife strapped to one ankle, and two of the biggest machetes I’d ever seen – one hanging over each shoulder.

Honestly, given the stories I’d heard, I was expecting more guns, but I had a reasonably strong feeling that the machetes weren’t just for decoration.

We hadn’t been told her first name, and none of us were particularly eager – or game – to ask… so ’Charles’ it was, and Charles meant business.

V

Upon arrival they sat, impatiently, in the van as the gates to the compound slowly opened. The journey had been slow, in the same way a long afternoon at work is slow, although in reality it had only taken a little over an hour.

There was still an uncomfortable feeling lingering within the group, unsure if they had been successful. Sure, they heard – and felt – the blast, but the haste with which they had left meant that the charge hadn’t been set in the location that had originally been planned.

It would likely be a couple of days before they knew for certain if it had worked.

XV

We both know that you know where they are.

Tell me.

Where can I find Zenith?

XXXIV

Brief dreams of other places, other faces. The where and when I’d rather be. The things I’d be doing and how I’d be doing them. Routine, constants, the avoidance of change that I see no personal benefit in. The chasing of happiness and the fear of failure that prevents me. I’m asleep, but conscious that I’m letting my brain deep dive into complete nonsense. I force myself to wake up.

Awake again, the darkness, and the previously discovered calm returns. It returns just long enough that when I feel something grab my shoulder I spin around, reeling back in the process. Extremities tingling. The darkness drains away, and muffled sounds trickle in. I stare blankly at the face that’s suddenly appeared behind me.

“The bus route ends here. You need to get off.”

XI

They landed on April 7, just before dawn. There had been no warning, no hint at all that this was coming. We weren’t prepared, but they were. Coming in from the south-east was the last thing any of us were anticipating.

Since then they’ve moved swiftly along the coast as far west as Texas, and north towards Georgia. They’ve seized control of 5 states, with their efforts currently concentrated on making it to the makeshift capital in Chicago.

XXVII

Shuffling slowly towards the clock, the floor is smooth, consistent. Vinyl tiles maybe? Confirms one thing, I’m not at home – nothing but carpet and cold, hard tiles there. Oh how I wish I could feel my carpet underneath me right now.

The clock is sitting atop what feels like a small wooden chest of drawers, there are handles, but they either don’t open anything or they are locked. Locked seems most likely.

Reaching up towards the clock, I feel around for a power cord. Nothing. Must be batteries. I grab it and shake it in the hope that it will somehow magically become brighter. It doesn’t, obviously. Flickers a little but stays disappointingly dull.

II

You think you know someone. We had left dinner early, not even lingering long enough to consider dessert. Eve seemed in a particular rush but wouldn’t say why. Maybe it was something she ate.

We were headed towards the station when her phone rang. Barely removing it from her inner jacket pocket she glanced at it and dismissed the call. I couldn’t see who it was, but I do the same with work calls all the time so I wasn’t concerned.

As the lights of our train came into view Eve casually turned, looking half at me, half through me – just as she had done a thousand times before – and smiled.

“None of this is what it seems. Jasper will explain.” she said softly with an oddly apologetic tone. The words had stunned me, was that her intention? Turning further to face me, she took two quick steps backwards, my outstretched hands clutched at the air.

She was gone.

XXIII

There is no sound, almost pure nothingness, just a mild ringing in my ears. It has always been there, or at least I think it has, assuming it is there at all and not just a figment of my imagination.

Maybe what I believe is a ringing is actually what silence sounds like. Maybe I’m losing it. Entirely possible.

The lack of sound is one thing. However, wherever I am it’s extremely dark – can’t see the hand in front of my face, dark. The only exception being the dull red glow coming from a digital clock nearby.

It’s 10:47. Let’s assume pm based on the apparent lack of light…

XIV

When the first pod of whales beached themselves no one really thought much of it. When, two weeks later, a second pod beached themselves several hundred miles south, again, no one thought much of it.

That was 8 months ago. Now, not only are the beachings a daily – world-wide – occurrence, they aren’t limited just to whales.

There have been several reports of dolphins, sharks, and in some instances giant squid.

Initially scientists had suspected that it was the result of climate change or rising pollution. However, after months of testing and analysis on the deceased sea creatures they found no evidence supporting that theory.

They had come to one conclusion – they weren’t simply beaching themselves they were trying to escape from something…

XXII

EMBARGOED – DO NOT PUBLISH

For release 30 January, NOON

INFINITE HORIZONS MISSION PARAMETERS UPDATE

Command operations centre, Tx – A target system, LS25-8/6, containing viable destination planets has been confirmed. The system was initially detected 6 weeks ago during the systematic re-evaluation of existing data by the recently upgraded ‘Planetoid Identification Network’.

The news of the discovery has been transmitted to the crew, and will be received in time for the next routine system check on day 9,500.

In a change from the original mission plan, the full crew will remain in suspension until a yet to be determined time, and the minor course corrections will be left to Atkins while she undertakes the system checks.

We will not be fielding any additional questions at this time.

Ends.