The Dancer

January 22, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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As I write this I am waiting for him. I can hear his footsteps getting louder and louder as they come toward me. I am completely alone. I do not know where I am and if there is anyone else out there looking for me. In my hand is a knife, and even I don’t know if I intend to use it on him or myself. Either way, this may be the last thing I ever write.

It began about a week ago, as I slept. I was having the strangest dream I’ve ever had.

At first it was just tapping, like the steps of a tap dancer. It was a low and quiet noise, so faint I wasn’t certain I had heard anything at all. They came through pitch darkness from a source I could not see. They sounded hollow and distant, far too distant for such a quiet noise to travel, and echoed despite not having anything visible to make them echo.

Stranger still was the rhythm. The steps bounced and clicked like a tap dancers, but seemed to follow no pattern at all. They came in bursts of inhuman speed then paused at random intervals, following no structure or cadence.

Most unsettling of all, however, was the strange feeling I got when I heard them. The second I noticed the taps everything in me warned me of danger. I felt disturbed and nervous to the point of being nauseous but couldn’t explain why. It was as if my subconscious picked up on a danger I wasn’t aware of and warned me to get away. Something about the sound terrified me deeply, and I had no idea what it was. There was just something inexplicably wrong about those taps.

They were getting closer. Each step was slightly louder and sharper, as if the movement of the dance brought the dancer toward me with each step, and the feeling of unease grew and grew. Soon the dancer would be in focus, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it.

I woke to the sound of my alarm. I looked at my clock, which told me it was 7 am. For a moment I lay in my bed. What could have caused such an odd dream? The sounds in it were strange. I had never seen tap dancing before, and the rhythm was impossible for a human to maintain anyway. I looked around my room for something that may have caused it. My bed was normal. The same blue walls, single window and bookshelf as before. Perhaps something else in my apartment caused the noise, but I couldn’t think of what. I had never had a dream like that before and didn’t know why I had, or why it stayed so firmly in my mind.

I shrugged my shoulders. A dream was a dream, and nothing more. I needed to get to work, and strange dreams wouldn’t be an excuse for being late. I got up slowly, exhausted from a night broken by the unsettling nightmares. I checked myself in the mirror, and the signs of a rough night were clear. My eyes were blood shot with dark circles underneath them, and my skin was haggard, hanging as if it was loosely attached to my bones. Nevertheless, I got dressed, and headed to work.
For the most part my day was normal. I took the bus, paid the fair and said hello to the bus driver. I showed my card at the reception desk and went into the office. I sat at my desk marked “Jerald Hadrian,” got down to work, took my breaks, and finished at 4:00 just liked any other day. People smiled and asked how I was doing, work was done, and all went well.
However, it was clear something was different.

It took me a while to notice what it was. At first it was just the general feeling of unease which I couldn’t identify. Then I began to notice small changes in the way people behaved. Things seemed to move slower, people’s voices sounded slightly different. I tried to tell myself that it was all in my head, that I just needed more sleep, but the feeling persisted.

It became clear when I was talking to Carla, a middle aged and brown haired woman. We shared a cubical where we both worked at our computer.

“Jerald,” she asked, “did you see where my coffee went?”

I looked around. It was right beside her, within reach of her right arm.

“Yes Carla, it’s right there? Can’t you see it?” I replied.

“Oh, oh jeeze excuse me. I guess I am just a bit out of it today. Didn’t sleep well last night.”

I took in the words slowly, and something about them made me think. I soon realized what it was.
Everyone, from the bus driver to the receptionist to the people at my office, had the same haggard, exhausted look that I had. They all had bloodshot eyes with bags under them, moved slowly and spoke in low voices. Not a single person that I saw that day had slept well.

The thought passed briefly through my head, but I kept coming back to it. There could be a thousand explanations, I knew. Something on the highway had made too much noise, interrupting peoples sleep. Perhaps there was a storm I missed. Maybe people were kept up by a news report of some violent activity in someplace I had never heard of. Most likely of all, was that it was just a coincidence, and I was tricking myself by making it seem significant.

But the thought still stayed in my head. The more I looked around me, the more I was sure it was true. Something was keeping people from sleeping, and I had to know what it was.

I returned to my apartment and ate a quick supper. I packed everything for the next day, and got ready for bed.

I tried to make sure nothing would disturb me that night. Perhaps it was some outside factor, like a broken pipe or extra traffic, that created the dreams and left me awake. I closed my door, and double checked the lock. I shut the window and closed my blinds. Finally, I got a pair of noise cancelling headphones and put them on. I set my alarm, and lay down to sleep.

The noise was back. However, this time it was louder, much louder. While the night before it had been so quiet and distant I was barely sure I heard anything at all, tonight it was clear. Now I was certain it was the sound of something moving toward me in a bizarre fashion like a tap dancer’s. It was the same irregular rhythm, almost inhuman and impossible in its steps, and with no music or beauty. The same echo and hollowness, like something distant in a cave. The sound was still getting louder and closer. Whatever was making it was coming toward me.

I was still surrounded by pitch black. I had no idea what it was that was making the noise. However, each step sent chills down my spine. There was something wrong with the steps. There is no other way to describe it, nothing to specify.

There were a lot of things that was clearly wrong that I could explain with words. The distant sound, the inexplicable echo, the impossible rhythm, were all wrong.

However, that wasn’t what made me feel ill to my stomach. Something about them, and I couldn’t tell what it was, was wrong.

I was once told that the human mind picks up on things we are not consciously aware of. It is a remnant from when we relied on instinct rather than direct thought. Our subconscious will become aware of something, a small sound or a smell to insignificant to think about, and warns us of danger. This, he went on to explain, was the cause behind many supposedly supernatural premonitions and ghost stories. We know something is wrong, but we don’t know what it is.

And there was something wrong with those steps.

I woke up to the alarm again, even more exhausted then when I went to sleep. I got ready, and left my bedroom.

I wandered down the street towards my bus stop. The faces around me were more haggard and weary then the day before. People stared at the ground and walked in unsteady paces, not having the energy to straighten up. A traffic cop wandered by rows of cars without checking for proofs of payment. A homeless man with a hat in front of himself slapped his legs and the ground lazily as his eyes rolled back, possibly in a drugged or drunken stupor. The bus driver didn’t check the number of tickets and dollar bills that were handed to him, and I am not certain if I paid the right amount.

I got to work, and did my best to make it through the day. I moved slowly and barely got anything done, but it didn’t seem anyone noticed. All the people around me were absorbed in their own worlds, struggling too hard to complete their own work to pay attention to me.

Carla and I forced some chat between ourselves. However, for the most part we barely had enough energy to even acknowledge each other’s existence. Between to two of us we finished nearly a dozen cups of coffee, which lay piled up in and around the garbage can as the janitor didn’t seem to notice the mess.

There was something else bothering me. If I had been more awake and aware, I may have been able to figure out what it was more easily. As it was, it stayed at the edge of my mind, like a name on the tip of my tongue or a few seconds of a song which was stuck in my head but I couldn’t identify. It wouldn’t leave my mind, and I had no idea what it was. Something about that morning had disturbed me greatly.

I took the bus back and went through my nightly routine, still mulling over what it could be. I lay down, still thinking about it. I was at the edge of sleep when the idea hit me, bringing me fully away and conscious for the first time in two days. My heart beat so loudly and quickly I could hear it in my ears and my breathing came in great gasping pants. Instantly sweat poured off my forehead and soaked my bed sheets. I knew exactly what was bothering me.

It was the homeless man I had passed by that morning, the one I thought was drunk. He had been tapping the same rhythm I heard in my dreams.

I didn’t notice at first that I was in the dream.

I had tried to stay awake. The second I realized what it was I had heard that morning, I had gotten out of my bed and walked into the kitchen. I remember making coffee to keep myself awake.

However, here I was again. The thought that I must be asleep on the ground somewhere, or perhaps passed out on my couch, passed briefly through my mind.

No matter.

I was here, and here I stayed.

The tapping was back. Once again, it was far louder, almost deafening.

However, something had changed.

At first it was just a light. That may not be the right word for it, however, because like everything else in this dream it didn’t behave like it should.

Everything around me was still pitch black. If the dream had allowed me to have a hand and I had held it in front of me, I would not have seen it.

However, what I could see was a tiny dot in front of me, seemingly coming over a horizon that was far closer than it should have been. There was just enough light to see it and nothing else.
I watched the dot in horrid fascination. It was clear to me that it, somehow, was the origin of the tapping noise. It gave me the same chills and sense of unease as the sound had, but far stronger now that I could see it.

It slowly grew and grew, becoming the shape of a head. As it moved towards me it also came higher, clearing the horizon until its entire body was visible.

It was at that point I realized that all my horror and feelings of something inexplicably wrong were justified.

It took my mind a moment to comprehend what I saw. I almost wanted to laugh, break down and fall into insanity rather than accept that this was in front of me. This thing broke all the laws of nature I had lived with. It was something that, from what I knew, could not have existed in the same world I did.

But there it was.

I had no idea what it was, but it was not human. It may have had the shape and outline of a human, but it wasn’t.

If it had been human it would have been a tall man with light brown hair and a face I couldn’t see yet. It wore a bright red and white suit, with tight leggings and a chest split down to the belly button. If it were standing still, everything about it would mark it as human.
The way it moved, however, was distinctly inhuman.

The limbs moved randomly about, flailing as it stepped. They bent at odd angles, impossible for any living creature. The spine twisted and twirled in ways that would have killed a normal person. The joints would bend all the way forward and continue on past the point they should have, looping around in circles they shouldn’t have been able to make. Then they would twist back and in entirely the wrong direction. At times it would bend where no man had joints to bend, with twists occurring halfway up the fore arm or on the shin.

This grotesque, disfigured thing moved toward me at a slow but unending pace. The tapping of its feet continued along with the cracking of its own limbs, still making that disturbing rhythm. The sound was off from what I saw, like hearing gunfire seconds after seeing it flash. Everything about what I saw was wrong.

If I could have closed my eyes, I would have.

The alarm woke me up and I found myself lying on my living room carpet in front of the TV, which was turned to the news. It took me a second to realize the alarm may have been going for a while.
I looked at the clock. It was 8:23, and I was almost late for work.
I rushed out of my apartment, not bothering to eat, shave, or even turn off the TV. I ran and barely made the last bus toward my office.

I sat down on a seat.

The air on the bus was thick with anxiety.

Everywhere around me exhausted eyes were kept awake only by terror. People were jittery, glancing around nervously and tapping themselves to stay away, fearful of what would happen if they slipped back into sleep. I swore that every so often someone, in their sleepless absentmindedness, would begin to tap the same irregular rhythm that had haunted my dreams. Though it may have been the exhaustion that clouded my own mind, I am certain that eyes would dart towards them, filled with fearful recognition, until they had stopped the awful sound.

People tried to maintain a semblance of normality. Conversations continued in broken and winding sentences, drifting off into the gibberish of a sleepless mind. All around me was the constant noise of a city. The whine of the bus’s engine, the squeak of tires, and the conversation of countless faceless people in the crowds continued.

But something was different.

Every so often, a noise would come through the endless moan of the city. It was like hearing your name while in a noisy crowd or the phone ring when in the shower- the sounds would meld together to make something they were not.

And that sound was a tapping. But not just any tapping, the tapping from my dreams.

I tried to tell myself it was my own imagination, that a lack of sleep was making me hallucinate. But It seemed that a moment of silence that always occurred after it, or the eyes that darted in every direction when it happened. People had heard it, and were reacting to it. I was certain of it.

I got off the bus and headed straight to work. I ignored the street musicians who, despite having music in front of them, lost track of their place and broke into an all too familiar rhythm.
I got to the office, and did everything I could not to pay attention to anyone around me.

They seemed thankful for my efforts. Everyone around me was too exhausted, and too frightened, to talk. It was on the tip of our tongs and no one wanted to say it. There was something wrong, and we all knew it.

I returned to my apartment that afternoon. The TV was still on, and I went to turn it off. Just as the screen was turning black, I caught the last snippet of sound. For a second, I was sure I had heard the word “Dancer.”

As quickly as I could I turned the tv back on. I had missed it, and they had moved on to another conversation.

However, the signs were all there.

They had the bags under their bloodshot eyes, the lose skin, the sad, dreary expressions that came from days of constant nightmares.

I wasn’t the only one.

The dancer, if he really existed, was everywhere.

Once again I had no recollection of going to sleep. I hadn’t tried to, and would have done everything I could to stay awake.

But there I was. The dream had surrounded me again, and I was trapped inside it until morning.
The footsteps were louder than thunder. The being, whatever it was, was moving toward me and getting larger. Despite the fact it was clearly getting nearer, the steps still maintained their distant, hollow sound, the echo, and the moment’s pause between the sight of disfigured feet hitting the ground and their noise.

The being was close to me now. It was close enough that, if it had been facing me, I should have seen its face in detail, down to the pupils in its eyes.

However, it had its back turned.

I swayed from side to side in its regular inhuman manner, coming close to letting me see its face. Each time, however, it turned away at the last moment. It was still moving toward me, and if I could have moved away, I would have. However, I could not control my own body, and was stuck in place.

Finally, it began to turn completely toward me.

First it stopped its horrid dance like movement. Then its feet twisted around, facing a full one hundred and eighty degrees from its body. Then its knees cranked backwards, and slowly its entire body twisted, rattling as it did, toward me.

And I saw its face.

I awoke in complete panic. The alarm hadn’t gone off, but my own breathing was louder then it could have been. I stared into the darkness around me, almost in tears from the fright. Everything from the clothes I wore to the carpet beneath me was soaked with sweat. I didn’t know what was worse-the image of the face, or the vague feeling that it was somehow familiar.

In the pale light of an early morning sun I could make out that I had once again collapsed in my living room. I got up and ran to the nearest light switch and flicked it on. Light flooded my room, only relieving my fright slightly.

I looked at my clock. It was 5:45, and on a normal day I would have gone back to sleep. Today, however, the thought of even maybe seeing that thing and its awful, awful face again kept me awake.
I got ready slowly. I was grateful for the extra time, as every movement took twice as long as it normally did. I fumbled with my buttons, and cut myself twice while shaving. Every time I paused for even a moment, I slipped slightly towards unconsciousness and the horrible, inhuman rhythm filled my ears.

I drank as much coffee as I could and headed outside.

On the bus, all semblance of normalcy had collapsed. No one attempted regular conversation or bothered to hide their terrified jittering and glances around the bus. The sound of the tapping still came at times, and now the reaction wasn’t even subtle. The entire bus would turn and stare off in its direction with worried eyes, wondering when it would stop.

The bus driver, just as exhausted as everyone else, could barely work. He swerved left and right, and almost collided with a tree. Finally I hit the button and got off, deciding, as many had, to walk the rest of the way.

The first thing I noticed was an artist, offering sketches for five dollars. He had a customer, but seemed to be struggling to make the face look right. He kept trying over and over again, and finally threw the paper down on the ground in front of himself. I saw the edges of the half drawn face, and tried to tell myself they didn’t look like the disgusting thing I had seen the night before. The artist, as well as his customer, stared at it in horror.

The second one came from a group of children playing by the road. They ran around and flailed their arms, playing and kicking dirt to make lines on the ground. I watched, knowing I would regret seeing what I saw but unable to turn away. It wasn’t long before my horrible suspicions were confirmed, and the lines took shape. Slowly, it became the rough outline of the same face from the dreams. The children didn’t seem to notice, and continued playing, still jumping around and flailing their arms. I became nauseous watching, and for a moment I was certain one of the children was imitating the inhuman dancing that I had seen.

At the time I still wasn’t convinced it was real. It seemed like all the signs were there, but it may have been my imagination. Perhaps I was looking too far into things. Perhaps I was even going insane. That was almost a welcome thought at this point. Even telling myself this was all a hallucination, and that soon I would be tied in a madhouse until it stopped, was better than accepting it.

But all thoughts in that direction ended that afternoon.

I was working at my desk when I felt something hit me from behind.

I looked over to see Carla leaning over me.

“Oh jeeze, I’m sorry Jerald” she said.

“What? Did you trip?” I asked.

“No, I think I just fell. I’m sorry, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Its that god damn dan…..” she stopped as if she suddenly realized she was saying the wrong thing, and looked away.

I sat up straighter and looked toward her. “The dancer,” I said in a calm voice.

She turned toward me, a look of horror in her eyes. Every hand in the office stopped talking and everyone stopped working. Faces in the office turned toward me, filled with fright and exhausted helplessness. I knew now that I hadn’t been imagining it. This thing was invading the dreams of everyone around me.

“The dancer,” she replied.

“You’ve seen it took. That… that thing from the dreams.”

“Yes,” she said, and others around the office nodded.

“Do you… did you see what it looked like? What its face was?” I asked.

“Yes, just last night. I… I’m not sure if I remember it clearly.”

“Maybe we can figure this out. Get out paper, let’s see if we can draw it.”

Right now I can’t tell you why I said this. Looking back it was ridiculous, even insane to try something like that. Perhaps it is just hindsight. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. Or perhaps it made me do it. But at the time, no one seemed to object. We took out a piece of paper, and someone from the office I hadn’t seen much before but claimed to be able to draw started working on it.
We all started describing what we remembered, like witnesses describing a criminal to a police artist. None of us could remember it exactly, but we recognized parts of it. And image began to form, and it was one we all knew.

On the piece of paper was the most terrifying face I had ever seen. Its features were sharp and clear. Its cheekbones poked out of its skin and its cheeks were sunken in like a skeleton. Its hair was parted on the right side, with a long lick of it extending halfway down to its left eye. Its eyes were narrow and deep in its skull, but blazed with the look of mischievousness and malicious intent. Its nose was long and pointed, almost like a snout. Its ears were thin and pointed, almost to the point of being inhuman. But worse of all was the cruel, toothy grin that it flashed as if baring its teeth to bite. The grin was far too wide, with its lips extending far too high for any human. In many ways it appeared as if the vague features of a snake or wild animal had been horribly turned into a human face.

We all backed away from drawing.

It was a face we had never really see before, but all recognized. It came in a thousand names that repeated again and again throughout history and in the subconscious of every human. Children today were afraid of the boogey man. Earlier it had been Spring Heeled Jack, the Black Horseman, the Wendigo. Even earlier it was Beelzebub, Loki, Apep, Lucifer. It’s limbs were shattered and tortured, as if it was flung from the heavens and shattered on the ground or tied to a rock to be tortured over and over again, immortal but unable to stop the pain or repair its devastated bones. If it was the origin of the old names, or had taken them afterwards to feed on the fear on the fear of its victims, was unclear.

But every man knew it. Madmen knew it better, it was what haunted their visions and nightmares. It was the face of fright that every man knew in the deepest reaches of his mind but couldn’t bring out clearly. It was a face scrawled on the walls of madhouses, and painted into scenes of torture. Something we all told ourselves didn’t exist and created a thousand explanations for throughout history.

And it was here now, in our dreams.

I began to hear a noise.

We all heard it, though at first we all denied that we had. No one wanted to acknowledge the sound.

But it was there.

I prayed for a moment that I had slipped into a dream again, but I knew the truth. This wasn’t the sound coming from a dream. This wasn’t the random noise combining into a bizarre semi-hallucination that sounded familiar.

All around me was dead silence, except for that tapping of that thing.

It was clear and precise. Gone was the hollowness or semblance of an echo. Whatever was making the noise was in the hallway outside the front door of the office.

And it was getting closer.

I began to back away slowly. Others did the same, staring and the front door and the source of the noise.

It was getting louder and louder. From the sound, it should have been just outside the door.
The doorknob turned, and I screamed. I turn and ran as fast as I could along with everyone else in the room.

I didn’t dare to look behind me. I ran out the back door of the office, down the stairs and toward the parking lot. Behind me I could hear the screams and cries for help of people who knew they faced death. I didn’t turn back. There was nothing I could do, and I knew it.

I ran as fast as I could. The streets were empty. No cars were moving on the road, and nobody was walking on the side walk.

Miraculously, there was a bus waiting for me at the stop. Though there was no one waiting beside it, the door was open, inviting me forward.

I ran toward it, then stopped.

The driver was exactly the same as always, except for a horrid, toothy grin on his face. He extended an arm forward. The limb twisted and creaked in impossible angles and beckoned me inside. I shook my head, and kept running.

I ran as fast as I could. I passed by the same field I had seen the children in earlier. They were still there. Or, what had once been them was there. They were all staring at me, grinning impossibly long grins. None of them moved from the spot they stood on, but all of them extended their arms towards me, beckoning me with broken joints. I looked away, and kept running.

Everywhere I went it was the same. No one moved, at least not enough to leave the spot they stood on. They all stood staring at me with toothy grins and waving me towards themselves with arms that twisted in wrong directions. I did everything I could to ignore them, and finally made it home.
I locked all my doors, shut my windows, and sat down.

I had no idea what to think, or what to do. I wasn’t sure if I was safe. Something had happened to all those people out there. That, or it had happened to me. It occurred to me that it was still entirely possible that I was insane. This could all have been a hallucination, or a horrid dream. What a welcome thought it was, and one I vainly wished was true.

But as much as I tried, I couldn’t convince myself it was.

The day wore on, and became night. I drank all the coffee in my house, trying to stay awake. But I knew deep down it was impossible.

The sound was in my ears, as if it was mere meters away. At first I thought it was the dream again.
But I was wide awake.

It was the middle of the night. I had passed out on the floor just like each night before,
Unlike those nights, however, I had been woken up before the dream had started by a noise.
The footsteps were inside my apartment.

I got up and bolted for the door. I didn’t bother to look around the room, fearing what I would see. But out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the pointed ears and the terrible toothy grin.

I ran out of the now empty apartment building and into my car. I got inside and drove. I had no idea where I was going, as long as it was away.

I sped down as fast as I could. The streets were completely empty, as nothing moved. I ignored all the faces on the side of the road, knowing full well what they would look like and what expression they would have. Once I had left the city, I saw no one and passed no vehicle.

I drove all day, siphoning fuel from a side of the road gas station that was as empty as everything else I passed, then kept driving.

Things began to seem different. I am not sure if they really looked different, or if it was more of a sense. Things were darker. Light wasn’t as light as before, and the sun wasn’t as bright. Even in the middle of the day, when the sun was right on top of me, everything seemed dim and cold. The little light I did see appeared a more reddish colour, like rust.

Or, though I fear to say it, like blood.

The sky itself begun to look different. It changed in an odd way, something like an optical illusion. If I looked at the sky, trying to see it, it was normal, blue with white clouds. But whenever I caught a glimpse of it randomly or saw it out of the corner of my eye, it was different. Much different. The clouds became darker, almost black, and the sky a deep red color like the light I saw all around me.

Soon it was nightfall, and even that seemed different. Though it feels odd to say, the dark was darker than normal, and the black was blacker. There are no other words for it. Again, it was more of a sense, an inexplicable feeling rather than outright site. But I knew it was true.

I began to feel my eyelids grow heavy. I knew that if I kept driving, I would fall asleep at the wheel, just like I had collapsed on the ground the nights before.

I pulled over. I had put a few hundred miles between myself and that thing, hopefully that was enough.

I fell asleep.

I awoke again in the morning. The first rays of a dim sun were shining through my windshield. At first I thought I had survived. I looked at the road, and considered what to do.
Suddenly my blood ran cold.

It was there. I could see it in the mirror. Though I could barely make it out at the distance, it was unmistakable. The random motion, the impossible twitches, the horrid, offbeat dancing, were all the same. I could hear its footsteps in my ears.

I put my foot on the peddle and drove as fast as I could. I pushed my car to its very limits, trying to get away.

That night I stopped again, knowing I was going to pass out. I wished with all my heart I could stay away longer, but I knew that vicious spell would fall over me and I would collapse soon.
I barely made it through half the night. I awoke when it was almost pitch black. Slightly dazed, I wondered what woke me.

I heard a tapping.

Right outside my window was the grinning face of that horrid thing. It was tapping a finger on my window in the same irregular pattern I had heard in my dreams. It danced toward me, never breaking eye contact, never releasing its smile. It reached toward the handle of my car door.

I turned the wheel and drove away.

Every day and every night it was the same. I moves as quickly as possible, siphoning gas and pushing my car to its limits.

And every time I checked the mirror, it was there in the distance.

Every time I stopped, it was closer than before.

Every time I fell asleep, I woke up after a shorter interval to see it standing there and hear its awful sound. I tried to stay awake every night, but somehow sleep always overcame me, and I would pass out without realizing it.

I became more and more exhausted as my intervals of sleep became shorter and shorter. My car, too, began to wear down. I had gotten lucky in the first few days, always finding gas stations when I needed them. Gradually they became further apart and harder to find.

Finally the engine huffed, and it ran out, the final fumes burning out of my car’s engine. I sobbed hopelessly. Night was drawing in, and I knew that no matter what I did, the unwanted sleep would come again.

This time I was barely asleep for a minute when I woke up.

I felt something on my cheek.

It was running down it, caressing it.

I looked over. That thing was sitting in the seat beside me, grinning at me. I didn’t have the energy to scream, but I felt the tears run down my cheeks.

I got out the door and ran. After weeks of barely any sleep my body could barely move and objected to my commands, but I did what I could. There are few better motivators then mortal fear.

I ran as fast and as far as my body would allow. I didn’t bother looking back. The entire time I ran, I could hear the tapping of that thing’s feet coming up behind me. No matter how fast I moved, they never seemed to get further way. However, every time I stopped, they got closer with frightening speed.

Finally I found a seemingly abandoned house. It was a small, single story building, with only one window and one door. It was more of a shack then a house really. It had come out of nowhere, the only building after miles of road and forest.

For a second I doubted if I should go in. This could easily be a trap of some kind, set up by that being, whatever it was. But I had no other option. I was out of breath, and my legs ached and could barely move.

I stepped inside, and locked the door.

There was only one room, which contained inside it a bed, dining table, kitchen, and desk.
I locked every window and covered them with furniture and objects I found around the house. The footsteps were getting louder, and I would put anything I could between myself and them. I grabbed a knife, from the kitchen, not knowing what I would do with it when the time came. I am not certain if it will even work against whatever that thing is.

It is outside my door now, hammering at it. The pounding is ringing in my ears, and I can the door begin to crack. I have my knife, but somehow I doubt it will be much of a defense.

I found the pen and paper for this inside the desk. I do not know if anyone will read this, or even if there is anyone alive to read it. However, I can only hope and pray that someone will come across it and know my story. Maybe, then, someone can find a way to stop this thing before it’s too late.

Credit To – Eric, A.M.B.M.

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Hunger

January 13, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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In the skies over Ontario, Frank Ryker and Stanley Dawson flew in their plane, heading home. The two men had been on a business trip in Alaska, deciding the fate of their company. The company was doing well, and the men were offered money to sell out. The meeting in Alaska had not been a success, as they felt the money offered was not enough. Ryker wanted more money, and would not accept less than the very most he could get for his company. Dawson agreed, he was not opposed to sitting on the company until better offers came around.
They decided to fly over Canada as Dawson loved the scenery. Ryker piloted the Cessna over the immense forests of the province, and Dawson watched the snow-capped tops of the trees as they went. He loved the purity of the forests, there wasn’t a splotch of humanity as far as the eye could see where they were. To Dawson, it was serene.
“So Frank,” Dawson spoke, eyes still glued to the landscape, “How long are we going to hold out?”
The man watched the skies, looking for any sign of a storm, “I don’t know, but I won’t accept less than thirty million. I’m looking to retire wealthy, man. No way am I taking twenty five million when I can wait a few weeks and get thirty. That’s just good business.”
“I guess that’s right. I can wait too.” Dawson was silent for a moment, then decided to speak again, “Boy, Canada sure is cold this time of year.”
They flew over the province in the dead of winter. January weather was unforgiving in Canada, for two New Yorkers like them.
“Damned right, Stan. I could never live out here.”
“I think I could, I like the trees, and the fresh air. The city is too much for me.”
“Not me man,” Ryker chuckled, “The city is where the wealth is. Money, women, good food, that’s where I can have it all. What more could a man ask for?”
The two sat in silence for the greater portion of an hour before Ryker noted some turbulence in the wind. He had noticed the clouds rolling in slowly as time went by, and at this point the sky was completely overcast. Snow began to fall, in great amounts. The winds picked up, and threw the snow around in all directions. Before he knew it, Ryker had flown himself into a snow storm.
“Shit. I didn’t think we would face this weather.” Spat Ryker as he looked ahead, assessing the storm. He saw heavier clouds and snow ahead. The storm was getting worse, the winds intensifying.
The plane was taking on the burden of the rapid winds, and it became harder and harder for Ryker to control. Soon the wings were losing wind, and the plane’s flight became erratic.
“What’s happening, Frank?”
“It’s the storm, the winds are blowing in too many directions. A plane like this could drop in this weather.” Ryker looked frustrated, flipping switches and turning control dials.
Dawson looked around, assessing the weather, “The forecast didn’t say anything about a snow storm this afternoon.”
“I know, it’s odd. It came out of nowhere.”
Suddenly, the winds picked up. The turbulence became so fierce that Ryker completely lost control of the plane, and it tossed about at the mercy of the storm. The nose dipped, and the plane began to lose altitude. As it dropped, Ryker struggled to get the nose to turn up. The storm had drastically reduced visibility, and Ryker had little bearing on his altitude. He felt he could crash into the trees at any moment.
Dawson braced himself in the plane, expecting impact. His heart raced, he was scared for his life. Ryker caught a wind, and managed to pull the nose of the plane up. He angled the rudders to reduce speed, and shut the motor off. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to continue through the storm, he was just hoping for a soft landing.
The landing was indeed soft, relative to what it could have been. The plane suddenly smacked into the tops of the pine trees, and tumbled down to the ground. A considerable amount of speed had been lost by the time the plane touched down to the forest floor. The two men were not even scratched, but the plane had been badly damaged. Both wings had been torn off, and there was significant crumpling in the tail.
Happy to be alive, Dawson let out a sigh of relief, “Not a bad landing, Frank.”
“I’ll say. We are lucky we caught that wind, or we’d be gone.”
After a moment of cooling off, the two men had absorbed the physical shock of the landing, and the emotional shock of nearly crashing. Ryker looked around, realizing he was surrounded by trees, and cursed. Reality had hit him.
“What?” Dawson looked over at him, “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? Look around you, Stan. We are in the middle of the forest. There’s no place to go for dozens of miles. We are stuck out here with a trashed plane.”
“Does the radio work?”
Ryker checked the controls, and had a moment of celebration when he found that the plane’s radio was functional. “It works. We will send out a distress beacon, and hope that someone finds us. Are you hurt? There’s supplies in the back.”
“I’m fine. We can save them. We don’t know how long this will take, did you pack any food?”
“I have a survival kit in the back as well. It has some provisions. We can hold out for a little while on those. For now, let’s check the plane.”
Ryker opened up the door, and climbed out of the Cessna. The cold was blistering, and the wind snapped at any exposed flesh. He walked around the plane, assessing the scope of the damage. It was worse than he thought, the landing gear and bottom section of the plane was crushed. He looked over, and made out the form of one of the wings several yards away.
It was hard for him to see in the storm, the wind blew snow around, and the frozen rain blanketed the ground. These were harsh conditions, but Ryker felt that things could be worse. He climbed back into the plane, and sat in his seat. He turned on the radio beacon, and listened in for any transmissions.
After a few hours of sitting and listening, Dawson noticed a change in the weather. The storm had subsided, and the winds had died down. The snow was still falling, but it was a declining; peaceful rain, as opposed to a flurry of biting hail. Sitting there, Dawson noted how dark it was. He strained to look up at the sky. Between the clouds, he could see it was already night.
“Frank, what time is it?” he asked.
Looking down at his watch, Ryker saw the time and craned his head in surprise, “It is only 5:30 PM. That’s odd, it’s completely dark outside.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Dawson noted a swipe. It was minute, but he thought he saw a shadow zip between the trees. Looking closely, he surveyed the area. He found nothing. Wary of the environment, he studied the trees around where he’d seen the shadow.
The situation was frightening, and Dawson thought the possibility of running into wolves or other predators was real. He had considered the wildlife around Ontario, coupled with the season. If someone didn’t pick up on his transmission, he may not survive. In his mind, he began to panic. He didn’t want to die, not without the full life experience. He hadn’t gotten married, or had any children. He felt he was too young to die.
Ryker was having issues as well. He knew if nobody came, they would have to try and find someone living out in the forest for help. If not, the two of them would freeze to death, or starve. His mind raced, his savings, his bonds, all for nothing. He hadn’t become fabulously wealthy yet. Ryker hated the idea of starving out in the forest, as far away from his bank account as he could be.
The two looked at each other. They understood their mutual concern. Ryker looked at the survival kit, then back at Dawson.
“Listen, Stan.” He sighed, “We have to decide what we are going to do right off the bat. We could stay in the plane, and wait for someone to answer our transmission. If no one does, we freeze and starve in here. Or, we could ditch the plane, and try to find some help. If we don’t find anyone, we freeze and starve out there. What are we going to do?”
Dawson thought for a minute. “Well, even if we weren’t in the plane, a distress signal would have the officials send a search party anyway. We might as well leave and hope for the best.”
“Good point. Let’s go.”
Ryker crawled into the back of the plane, and pulled out his large survival pack. He slung it over his shoulder, and climbed out of the plane alongside Dawson. Knowing he was heading east when he landed, Ryker decided to go in the direction that the plane’s nose was pointing.
The two men trekked through the snow, surveying their surroundings, looking for any sign of life. Dawson was hoping they would get lucky, but he knew there was nobody for miles and miles. He didn’t want to give up, but the chances were grim. The other option seemed less sensible to him anyway. Dawson kept looking behind him as well, he couldn’t shake the slight feeling that he was being watched.
They had walked for several hours when Ryker decided it was time to stop. They took a rest next to a large pine tree, and Ryker pulled out some canned beans from the kit. The two ate in silence, slowly consuming the food for energy. Ryker suggested that they sleep in that spot, and Dawson agreed.
Sleeping in the frozen woods proved a chore for both men, but Ryker in particular had issues sleeping. As soon as he fell asleep, he began to have nightmares. A tall figure haunted his dreams, oblique in nature. He could only make out certain parts of it as it chased him down: a thin, lanky form. Sharp claws, and antlers. It was covered in blood.
The dreams haunted him all night, and he continually woke to the eerie sound of howling wind. Then, waking for the last time, he crawled over to the survival kit. For some reason, he woke up hungry.
When Dawson fell back into consciousness, he expected to find Ryker lying next to him. Instead, he looked up to see Ryker hunched over the survival bag. The man grunted and smacked his jaw. He had noticed Dawson, and looked up at him. Food covered his face and shirt, and trash littered the ground around him.
“What happened?” Dawson shouted at him, “That’s all of our food!”
“I-I don’t know, Stan. I was just so hungry. I couldn’t help it, I needed the food, I needed it bad. I don’t know why.”
“You ate almost all our food!” he continued as he sprung up and walked over to the bag, only to find it mostly devoid of canned food.
“I’m sorry! I woke up, and started eating. I couldn’t control myself. I think I’m ok now though. I just can’t believe that I managed to eat it all. I’m so sorry, Stan. I know what this means…”
Dawson shook his head, “I can’t believe this, this food was supposed to last us until we found help. Now, we are going to die out here.” After a minute of standing there, shocked and angry at his friend, he spoke again. “Well, there’s no point in fighting about it. Let’s just go.”
The two packed up, and started out again. Ryker looked up and noticed the sky was still dark. He checked his watch, it was 7:14 AM, and still dark.
“Hey Stan, it is morning time now. But it’s still dark.”
“Wha- Oh man. I don’t understand. Maybe the sun rises late this morning.” He looked up, nervous, “I’m sure we will see it soon.”
The two walked in the forest for hours without the sun. Neither chose to speak about it, they were too freaked out to say anything. Dawson walked along, studying the trees. After looking at the trees for many hours, they began to take on a different light to him. On the plane ride over, he found them beautiful and majestic. Now, they seemed looming, creepy, almost sinister. He began to feel the trees watching him. All the while he kept seeing little shifts in the shadows, as if something very fast was running between trees. It usually escaped him before he saw anything, but he always noticed it again.
At first, he thought it was just his eyes in the cold, and the shock from the landing, but he began to second guess himself. He felt tracked; as if someone, or something, was moving around with the express purpose of following him. He felt watched, from the shadows. It made him anxious. On top of that, the feeling in his gut of being watched had greatly intensified. It started to make Dawson believe he was being followed. He decided to say nothing to Ryker.
For Ryker, it was the wind. As he walked, he could hear the whistling of the wind through the trees. It was slight, but noticeable. The whistle seemed natural, but over time it took on a different tone. It became a twisted rendition of the original tone, slightly diminished. The overall note was sour, and persistent. He felt like the wind itself had consciousness, and the very vibrations in his ears were a means for the color of the wind to seep into his mind.
Then there was the hunger. Ryker felt like he was starving to death, even though it had not even been a day since the plane had went down. He was still thinking about the previous night. He just could not wrap his mind around why he had eaten all of their food. It was strange, and unnatural to Ryker. He was still hungry, though. He wanted more, Ryker kept his eyes out for rabbits or other small wildlife he could trap and eat. He decided not to talk to Dawson about it.
Between the two, the anxiety of the situation became almost too much for them. At the same time, they walked for more than twelve hours with no food or water, as Ryker had eaten all the food over the night. The sun had not shone all day, and the time was nearly 8 PM. The tension became thick.
The breaking point was a noise. It was not a minute noise, nor a loud one. The noise had no specific direction, but seemed to have come from somewhere in the near distance. It was a crack of wood, followed by loud thump and rustling of branches. A tree had fallen over somewhere. Dawson looked up and around. He thought the wind could’ve knocked it over, but the crack was too sharp. It had to be cut down.
Dawson threw his head up and screamed, “HEY! IS ANYBODY THERE!”
He listened to the echo as it ran through the trees. Waiting for almost five minutes, he heard no response. He looked over to Ryker, who had already picked a direction to go and find the source of the noise. They ran in that direction, and went about a hundred yards until they found it.
It was a tree lying on the ground, not covered in snow. The base had large slashes in it, looking like the claw marks of an over-sized bear. There were similar markings on the stump nearby, and on the ground as well. The ground was covered in wide arcs, as if the claws were swiped in a pattern such as to draw attention to the ground. Ryker and Dawson didn’t know what to think.
Then, the same noise was heard behind them, this time closer. Ryker whipped around to locate the source. He began to walk over in the direction of the sound. Dawson stood frozen in fear. The chilling thought had come over him, the noises were distractions. Whatever made them, it was toying with the two men. He tried to comprehend what this meant for Ryker and himself. They were being stalked, and he knew it.
Dawson rejoined his companion, who had found the second tree. It was knocked over, with the same markings in it. On the ground held similar patterns as the first space. Dawson knew full well that whatever made the first markings, had certainly made these. He looked over at Ryker, who had fallen to his knees.
“Wha- what is this?” Ryker scrambled to speak, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, but we need to go!”
Dawson picked his confused friend up, and the two started walking again. Wary of the circumstances, Dawson watched the forest closely, looking for any sign of what was stalking them. After they had walked for a few more hours, the two became too exhausted to continue. Sitting against a pine tree, Dawson thought harder about the situation. He felt the chances of them surviving were low.
At the same time, he hadn’t actually SEEN anything. He had been looking at trees and snow for the past day, his mind was exhausted alongside his body. He didn’t even know if he WAS being stalked, but it seemed clear to him that he was. That was the most maddening part of this whole experience. In his mind, he began to think of all scenarios where he could die, starvation, freezing, or at the hands of this thing.
The more Dawson thought, the more nightmarish the whole experience felt. He couldn’t even tell what time it was, the night had spilt over into day. The cold had gotten to him too. It was freezing, the whole time. He slept in his wet, chilly clothes. He was dehydrated, he hadn’t had any water in a long time. Also, he was very hungry. Tired, Dawson was ready to give up.
He looked over at Ryker, who sat shivering, silent. The man looked broken, he hadn’t been taking things well. He had an episode the night before, where he’d lost control of himself and had eaten all of their food. Ryker also had been anxious the past day, and was now nearing complete incapacitation. He was acting strange, as if he smelled something. Lifting his chin, he just kept sniffing, and looking around. Dawson couldn’t smell anything, but he decided it was time to sleep. He laid himself on the snow, and started to drift off.
His dreams were full of terror. It was him, running naked through the snow, being chased by something. Looking back, he could barely make out the figure behind him, but it appeared to be elongated. He could make out limbs, stretching out from the figure, and sharp protrusions. The scent of blood was on the wind. He heard a shriek, a terrible cry that broke its way into his head and filled his heart with horror. The sound made him trip over himself, and he whipped around just in time for the figure to catch up to him. Looking up, he could finally see the figure in full view. It was Ryker, crazy-eyed. He lurched towards Dawson.
Dawson woke himself from the dream. When he came to, the cold hit him again. He looked over to see if Ryker was there, but he couldn’t find him. Picking himself up, Dawson scanned his view for any sign of Ryker. He didn’t find the man, but he did find Ryker’s clothes. The man left them, and they were scattered on the ground. The winds had picked up, and Dawson had a hard time seeing anything. He did notice some footprints fading with the falling snow.
Ryker was naked, but not cold. He felt a burning sensation all over his body as he ran through the woods. His mind was everywhere, every sound and sight, taste and smell, it all haunted him. He was being hunted, he just knew it. He wasn’t going to let whatever it was get the best of him. Most of all, though, was the hunger. Ryker’s whole body ached from the hunger. He wanted to eat, he wanted to eat anything. He stopped for a moment to eat some snow and dirt. Shoving the sludge into his mouth, he almost felt better, but he knew it wasn’t food. He looked down at his own arm. The glistening flesh, his own flesh, looked attractive to him. He wanted badly to just take a bite. Right as he raised his arm up to his mouth, a shriek pierced the wind. He heard the scream and bolted through the woods.
Hearing the haunting cry from his nightmares, Dawson froze again. For a moment, he could feel the utter fear of the loathing sound. In his ears, it held an insatiable evil. Dawson considered surrendering, standing still for a time until he succumbed to the cold, and evil. He looked around, watching the wind throw the snow around. The trees seemed to go on forever, a never ending formation of wood and snow. Realizing he had momentarily lost himself, Dawson picked up his feet and started running.
Dawson ran, not knowing why, for close to fifteen minutes when he came to the clearing. He dropped to his knees, utterly defeated, as he stared at the downed Cessna he had been flying in just days before. He had gone in a complete circle, accomplishing nothing. By now Dawson had lost the will to go on, and he sat there for a while, trying to think. The thing was, he couldn’t think, he was too afraid. The situation was grim, and the whole time he felt the snow and forest draining his sanity. He had heard noises, seen odd things, things he didn’t know were real. His mind kept turning over, trying to rationalize thought, but it had lost the ability to think rationally. Thinking he was being tracked and forced into his actions, he felt helpless. He started shivering, wondering when death whatever form it may take, would come for him.
His thought was interrupted by a heavy breathing behind him. Whipping around, Dawson saw the shivering form of his friend, Ryker. This Ryker was different though, he was covered in dirt, and otherwise naked. His eyes bulged out of his head, red with insanity. His lips were gone, he had eaten them off. The teeth were fully exposed, and his chin was streaked with his own blood. He took a step towards Dawson, focusing intently on the man.
Ryker found this food to be appetizing. He saw an entire day’s meal in the man in front of him. The flesh would be succulent, full of blood. He looked at his friend’s face, eyeing the exposed cheeks, the chewy ears. He could have his meal right then, and be full again, for a moment. He was so hungry, Ryker could hardly stand it. The hunger took over his body, he was shaking with the excitement. Eat, eat, eat, it was all he could think. He didn’t speak, he didn’t feel anything, besides the sheer hunger.
Dawson jumped up, seeing the madness in Ryker’s eyes. He knew he was going to die, but he didn’t know it was going to be Ryker. The man had not acted right since the first night, he had been on a slow decline. He was always greedy, hungering for money, but now it appeared to Dawson that he hungered for something else. Dawson ran past the plane, expecting Ryker to be close after him, but he wasn’t. Looking behind, he couldn’t see Ryker.
Heart pounding, hands and feet numb, Dawson ran through the woods, trying to keep away from Ryker. He looked over his shoulder to check, and in turn neglected to see the fallen tree in front of him. The fall to the ground was cushioned by the thick blanket of snow. Looking all around, disoriented, he could see nothing. The wind had picked up, and visibility was almost zero. Though the winds and snow picked up, the forest fell oddly silent. Not a sound was heard by Dawson as he lay in the snow, soaked to the bone, frozen, hungry. The darkness had persisted for over 48 hours, and it had taken its toll on the man. Deep down, he didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t think of a way out of the nightmare he had slipped into.
He started crying, thinking about the death he was faced with. He thought of the company he and Ryker owned. They should have taken the offer in Alaska, if they had, they would be partying there right now, safe and warm. Instead, they headed back home in a damned Cessna. Things had happened so fast for him, and he hardly had time to process his own demise. His thoughts were broken by a sound behind him, rolling over, he found the source of the sound. Tears in his eyes, he couldn’t make out the figure looming over him. He wiped his eyes, and took in the form. What he saw rendered him still, frozen in utter horror.
A single scream broke the silence of the forest.

Fin

Credit To – Greg P.

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The Devil’s Cosmonaut

December 10, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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“OPS-3 do you read? OPS-3 do you read?”

I launched myself for the radio receiver, and jerked up the mouthpiece. I wiped away the film of sweat from my forehead before replying.

“Receiving.” My throat was tight with a lump the size of a golf ball.

“It’s good to hear your voice comrade.”

“You too. How are you doing?” Leaning towards the porthole, I stared out into the cold void, hoping to catch some glimpse of the Soyuz capsule somewhere out in the twinkling stars.

“All systems great. Amazing view of the Pacific right now.”

“Have you managed to reach ground control yet?”

“Comms are still down because of the solar flares, I guess. Should be back up in a couple of hours.”

“I hope so.” The lump in my throat was getting bigger, pressing against the wall of my windpipe. I swallowed, trying to make room for my next words. “I get worried up here on my own.”

“Only seven days to go now Boris, I’m sure you can last that long. I’ll see you then.”

“I can’t wait until you get here. Talk to you soon.” I put down the mouthpiece, and turned back to the porthole, pressing my eyes into the great blackness, to the divine curve of the Earth’s glowing horizon.

Without Flight Engineer Zholobov, the station seemed very empty indeed. It was a hundred cubic metres of beeping radios, flashing lights, and often blaring alarms, but silence slid beneath these thin distractions, an ever-present threat. Soon enough, I would tune out all the noises, and fall into a state of uncomfortable, clutching, reticence.

I sighed uncomfortably, suddenly extremely self-aware, and tore back from the porthole. Pulling myself through the stale air, I headed for the living area. The sliding door which lead to the cramped toilet compartment was half open, and it squealed as I pushed it into the closed position, the sudden noise making me cringe. The half-hearted chuckle that spilled from my lips was a force of habit; there was no-one else on the station to hear it.

I had no appetite for the generic meat in my food storage cupboard; truth be told, I hadn’t eaten more than a packet of dried apricots, a couple of crackers, and some meat spread, in the last two days. If the people back on the ground knew how little I’d eaten, they would’ve had me on the Soyuz and heading for re-entry in the blink of an eye. If I hadn’t been out of contact with them, I might have even considered telling them just to get off.

With no appetite, I decided to call it a day. It was then a simple matter of flicking off the main cabin lights, crawling into the restraints of my sleeping compartment, and praying that the station wouldn’t fall apart while I was asleep.

It was warm. Uncomfortably warm. The fabric of the sleeping bag clung to my skin, slick with sweat. I fumbled with the zip, my fingers slipping on the cold metal. The air in the capsule was like tar, and I swam through it with an uncomfortable lethargy. The thermometer displayed the temperature of 19.8 ° C, exactly as it had the day before, and the day before that.

“That’s got to be mistake.” I tapped the screen, as if that would somehow make it display change, but it just ended up leaving a sticky finger mark on the glowing green glass.

Either way, I needed a shower. I used the back of my forearm to clean off my forehead, and sighed. This could wait, it was probably just another sensor problem that I wouldn’t be qualified to fix. The whole place was probably only ever one fault from depressurizing and spiraling back down to earth, as brittle as a feather.

The violent hissing of the shower, and the cold pressure of the shower sluiced away my deep rooted misgivings. I couldn’t focus on my problems while I briskly rubbed my skin clean with the harsh soap bar. Once I was clean, and suitably refreshed, I turned the knob, and the last bubbles of water floated gently out of the nozzle. With the sound of rushing water gone, I became aware of the noises of the station again, in particular a muffled voice.

“Shit.” I banged my head on the shower cubicle roof as I attempted to spin myself round and climb out the door. It left a mark on the grey plastic. Not wanting to miss whoever was on the radio, I ignored the stinging pain, and pulled myself naked across the space station, toweling myself as I went.

“OPS-3 do you read? OPS-3 do you read?”

“Receiving Soyuz-21.” Breathlessly I muttered into the mouthpiece.

“I’d almost given up on you.”

“Sorry. I was showering.”

“Well, I’m glad I reached you. I was beginning to think we were alone up here comrade.”

“At least you’re not the only one on the Soyuz. I’m all alone out here on Salyut.”

“Ha, you are lucky my friend, Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky is starting to drive me crazy.”

“Only six more days to go.”

“For you maybe. I have my whole mission to complete.”

I gave a sympathetic chuckle. I sympathised with Commander Zudov, I truly did. Ever since my partner Flight Engineer Zholobov had got himself a ticket home by accidently chopping off three of his fingers in the airlock door, Zudov had managed to keep my spirits up. He had managed to keep me working. He had managed to keep me hopeful. Zudov was a great man, he would be hailed as a hero back home when his mission was finished, I was sure.

“How are you doing, anyway?”

“It’s warm. It’s too warm up here. I’m not sure how it can be so hot inside, yet so cold outside.”

“Hot?” Zudov was audibly alarmed. “What’s your thermometer reading?”

“19.8 as always. It’s probably a sensor problem, don’t worry.”

“Boris-”

“It’s fine Commander, honestly. I’m only slightly too hot, a couple of degrees maybe.”

“Well, you radio me straight away if it gets any hotter.”

“Don’t worry.” He would worry, I could tell by the sound of his voice.

“Well then, I must leave you. See you soon my friend.”

“Six days to go.” I confirmed, before clipping the mouthpiece back into position on the radio set.

The rest of the day was a constant battle against heat. Communication with the ground was still out because of the solar flares, so I attempted to remedy the problem myself by hand. That started with the simple task of running diagnostic programs on the central computer, but after that denied there was any problems whatsoever, I hit a brick wall.

My mind ran, dredging up hundreds of semi-rendered memories of endless technical documents and cosmonaut manuals. The black diagrams and minute labels all seemed to melt, twisting into impossible shapes, non-Euclidian planes that boggled my mind. I couldn’t quite think in the straight lines required for a task like this at the moment; in the heat everything span or spiraled in and out in my mind’s eye. Concentration, it was safe to say, was not high.

In my head, I was back in Zholobov’s last day with me on the station. It was hotter than I remembered in the feverish flashback. Zholobov’s brow glistened as he climbed down, extending his massive frame out of the tiny airlock. He gave a relieved gasp, glad to be finally move his limbs without them slamming them against the walls. I watched him from my seat by the main control console, my eyes aching from looking at the monochrome screen for several hours.

I called out something to him, not in control of my own actions or speech. Whatever it was, for it was muted in my memory, overshadowed by what came next, made him turn. As he did, he placed one hand on the metal rim of the airlock, to keep himself steady. Zholobov replied with a chuckle and an equally muted reply. His lips were blurred in my flashback, indeed, the entire man’s outline was slightly fuzzy in my memory, but the lack of clarity was most noticeable around his face. He was now just an out of focus photograph in the dark recesses of my cortexes.

We finished talking, and Zholobov reached up for the handle on the hatch. He turned back to face me, just as he pulled, and brought down the sharp blade of metal. It dropped onto his other fingers with a sickening-

Thump.

The jarring blow shook me out of my recollection, jerking my head up into an upright position. I gasped for air, and my head instinctively turned to the scene of the accident. There was still a small blood smear down the side of the hatch. Had the noise of metal hitting metal that was still echoing in my ears been real, or was it just part of the memory? In my heat-addled state, it was hard to tell.

The thermometer was still reading 19.8.

I shook myself out of the odd stupor, which sent hundreds of tiny sweat droplets floating across the cabin. The armpits of my top were damp, as was all down by back and crotch area. The temperature must be rising.

Thump.

There it was again. Despite the heat, the sound sent chills down my spine. In any case, I knew it was just space junk or the metal expanding, but it was unsettling enough for me to give the capsule a nervous once over before returning to my previous train of thought.

“Soyuz-21 do you read?” I picked up the radio microphone, still distracted by the glare of the main console, where the display still read 19.8 ° C.

“Receiving OPS-3.”

“Any contact with ground yet Commander? I need to get a fix on this thermostat problem.”

“Negative Boris, still nothing. Is it getting worse?”

“I can cope, but if it persists for two or three days-” I trailed off, putting down the receiver to wipe my forehead again. I could just see my reflection in the edge of the porthole, and he looked very sweaty indeed. White salt crystals stuck to my forearm in the rapidly drying sweat.

“Well, we’ll keep trying. It’ll be fixed in a couple of hours more, I’m sure of it.”

“I hope so, or I’ll have to take another shower.”

“You’re still getting a reading of 19.8?” Zudov’s voice carried a note of apprehension in it, even over the airwaves.

“Afraid so.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be back in contact with the ground soon, and they’ll know what to do.”

“I’m sure it’s just a sensor problem, something minor like that.”

“Speak to you soon my friend, and drink plenty of water.”

“I will, don’t worry.” I laughed; that man was acting like my mother.

With Zudov no better equipped to solve the problem than I was, I relented to a policy of acceptance to the problem. If I couldn’t solve it, at least I could cope with it.

The heat reduced my appetite even further, but I headed to the kitchen, in hope of forcing down some crackers and water. I rifled through the storage cupboards, looking for something that wouldn’t turn my stomach, and at the lack of crackers, eventually settled on the non-descript dried beef I found in one of the white packets. It reeked of meat, an acrid pungent stink which set my abdomen churning, but I swallowed it down nonetheless.

Dried beef’s scent clung to the kitchen walls even after I had finished the package. My mouth was now even drier, so I mixed up some of the powdered orange juice. It tasted nothing like orange, in fact it was some cocktail of harsh chemicals, but it washed away the salty tang of the beef. I wiped my mouth, and discarded the plastic container, sending it trailing small globules sticky of orange liquid across the air.

After my small meal, a heavy weight was sitting on my stomach. It sloshed around in the chasms of my lower body as I moved around the station, warm and stinging. I had to clamp my throat shut to stop myself from throwing up on several occasions.

The day passed with an uncomfortable malaise that made the discomfort in my stomach and head even worse. I watched the hours tick away on the main console clock as I made my measurements, recordings of the sun, or of the box of crystals that grew in the science lab area of the station. Eventually, I could almost take the drudgery no longer. Every surface in the station was covered in sweaty palm prints by the time the day was done, and my hair was nearly sodden.

There was no way I could sleep in heat like this, I had decided, so when I couldn’t last the treacle consistency of waking consciousness for a minute longer, I relented to the sleeping pills. They sat in a tiny white bottle in the very back of the medicine compartment, and at the very start of the mission I had sworn never to take them. Unfortunately, today, there was no other option.

Dimming the station lights and crawling into the hot confines of my sleeping bag, I looked at the pale white pills in my palm. They had a slight scent of mint to them. In one decisive movement, I quashed all hesitation, all internal protest, closed my eyes, and swallowed.

I was out like a light.

The first thing I noticed when I woke up was the temperature. A gentle cold breeze lapped around my face, probably emanating from the air pumps that whirred gently on the edges of my earshot. My watch, set to Alma-Ata Time from my launch at Baikonur, warned me I had been asleep only three hours. The station was still dark as I slid open the sleeping compartment door, although I was thankful for the respite in the heat and bright light.

I stretched, cracking the vertebrae in my back. Here in the cool dark, I no longer felt feverish or nauseous, just tired. Slowly, as my eyes adjusted, I pulled myself over towards the radio set, and considered calling Soyuz-21.

The air still tasted stale; the tang of sweat and dried beef hung in it even after it was recycled hundreds of times through endless filters and pumps. Even so, there was a certain calm to the station with the lights off and the temperature down. I looked out the porthole, and even the frigid depths of the universe seemed less inhospitable; there was a gentle navy tinge to the infinite blackness, perhaps, and the glow of the stars seemed less harsh. This, along with the weightlessness and the gentle purr of the air pumps, gave the whole scene a dreamlike quality. As if I was safety cocooned in a great white chrysalis that floated through the spiraling arms of far-off galaxies, or across the peaks and valleys of great sparkling nebula. I could go where ever I wanted in this dream-space, and I was safe where ever I went.

All of that came to an end with the noise. A clatter. Movement, almost imperceptible, in the corner of my right eye. I was instantly torn from my trance, and tossed back cruelly into the physical realm. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled to attention, as I turned slowly to face the source of the noise behind me.

Nothing. Perhaps I had been imagining it, after all, things tend not to clatter in micro-gravity; they float and drift heedlessly, but never clatter. So it stands to reason it had simply been my mind playing tricks on me, manifesting noise where there was none. After all, nothing in the section of the station showed any sign of movement.

Nervously gazing round the cabin, I shook my head in disapproval of the power of my own imagination, and my initial foolishness for believing it. Nothing on the station could’ve made such a noise.

In an attempt to settle myself again, I swam over to the main console, and checked the thermometer reading. 19.8, just as I was expecting. Either the problem had fixed itself, and the temperature control had automatically reduced the station back to 19.8 degrees, or the problem was still there, but it was with the thermometer and not in fact the temperature control system. Either way, I was relieved not to be doused in sweat any longer.

I had quickly resigned myself to the fact I wouldn’t be getting any more sleep for a while, so, with a defeated sigh, I flicked on the switch for the main cabin lights. They blinked on one by one with a deep guttural hum, which was soon lost in the orchestra of other quiet whirs and buzzes. The light hit my pupils with a ferocious intensity, and I had to close my eyes to shield them. I had become adjusted to the comfortable dark, and my eyes were shocked by this new and frightening stimulus.

The next order of business was to put some clothes on; in my sleeping underwear I was beginning to feel a slight chill, and I would be lot more comfortable in something warmer.

“Soyuz-21 do you read?” I pulled up the zip on my jumpsuit as I spoke. After there was no answer, I leaned closer towards the radio mouthpiece, licked my lips slightly to moisten them, and tried again.

“Soyuz-21 do you read?”

“Receiving Comrade. What can I do for you?” The faint reply came. It was good to hear the voice of Commander Zudov again.

“Just wanted to tell you that the sensor problem is all cleared up Commander. We’re back at usual temperature.”

“That’s brilliant!” Zudov was clearly relieved. “I was worried for a minute there. How did you fix it?”

I breathed heavily, trying to form a response. The pause must have lasted a good second or two, because Zudov transmitted again.

“Boris, are you there? How did you fix the temperature problem?”

“I didn’t do anything.” I decided on eventually. “Just went away on its own.”

“Hmm.” Zudov wasn’t pleased, clearly.

“I’m glad it’s back to normal again.”

“Well yes, so am I. I’ll talk to you soon.” Zudov’s voice was slightly frosty in this dismissal.

“I’ll look forward to it.”

The radio crackled with static, before falling silent completely. I replaced the microphone, and pushed back away from the set, towards the main console, with the intent of once again checking the temperature. I gave an unconvincing laugh when I saw it was still stuck at 19.8; this was becoming my new obsession.

With the temperature back to normal, and the pain in my stomach gone, I was convinced I’d be able to make a better job of diagnosing the problem with the heating control. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, and I managed to spend several hours once again vainly trying to plough my way through hundreds of wiring cases and circuit boards.

Eventually though, my frontal cortex began to throb from the sheer mental exertion of the work. It was an acute pressure that punched up my brain-stem, across my scalp, and out my eyes sockets. At one point, it became so bad, I had to let go of the manual I was reading to massage my forehead, in fear my skull would explode outwards. My vision blurred, bright red and blue patters scarring themselves across my retinas like sheet lightning. Pins and needles crawled up my legs and arms, starting in just the extremities, then soaking upwards and inwards, across my thighs and forearms.

There was a rushing in my ears that drowned out most other sounds, but I just heard an odd, drawn-out croak on the edge of my audible range. It took a few seconds for me to realise that the noise was sliding from my own wide open jaws.

The pain was unbearable. Every second I felt like I was about to drown in a sea of swirling fractals, like the damn in my mind was going to shatter open and my entire consciousness was going to be washed away by a flood of jarring flashes. With numb hands, I flung myself for my sleeping compartment. Any second now, I knew I would pass out from the searing heat in my head, and I wanted to be in my sleeping back when it happened, so I didn’t float around the capsule while I was out.

I could barely see by the time I was in the sleeping bag, and as I fumbled for the restraints, I went. My face split apart and melt, exposing a bare skull, hard bone peeling back like warm butter. From the chasm in the front of my head, a blinding light spilt out, heat splashing across my head. More fractures opened across my temples and the back of my scalp, beneath my hair. I could see my own brain, separating into regular sections like a gelatinous white clementine.

Or at least, that’s what it felt like.

The pain was too much. I screwed close my eyes, and my mind shut down.

I awoke staring at the plastic wall of my sleeping compartment, drained. The banging in my head had subsided from the feverish dance of a several hundred strong warrior tribe in the midst of a ferocious and primal ritual to the distant crackle of thunder above a darkened grassland, accompanied by the gentle crackle of rain.

With some trepidation, I pulled at my sleeping bag, and climbed out, waiting for the pain to return. But as my sweaty fingers played around the door handle, the fear subsided, and I gingerly slid open the door, and floated out into the dark station.

The main lights were off, casting the living area and the flight deck into an uncomfortable darkness, thick as honey, and seeping from every join of the spaceship walls. It was split only by the bright neon of the station clock and the main console, which sliced through the viscous black with beams of gently sharp green, bouncing off the walls, and battling the darkness for control of the spaces above my head and below my feet.

Another creak yawned through the capsule as I pulled myself out to the flight deck, towards the radio. It still sent shivers down my spine, despite the fact I knew it was just the metal contracting due to a drop in temperature. “Soyuz-21, do you read?”

“Receiving OPS-3.” The man on the other end of the radio wasn’t Commander Zudov, and I hesitated when I recognized Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky’s dry rasp.

“How is it going over there, Flight Engineer?” I didn’t like Rozhdestvensky. It wasn’t that he was particularly unpleasant, in fact he had been mostly amicable whenever I had talked to him. It wasn’t even his rough voice, like sandpaper in my ears. It was his quiet lack of engagement with not only the mission, but the whole of space. He always seemed distant, far far away. Not like Zudov, who was only ever as far as the radio speakers.

“All is fine Comrade.”

“Is Commander Zudov there?”

“He’s getting some sleep at the moment.”

“I see. Have you had any contact with the ground yet?”

“Sorry?”

“Have the problems with the solar flares died down? You’ve reached ground on the radio communication network?”

“Oh, yes, the Solar Flares, of course. No, we are still unable to reach them.”

“Right. Well, can you keep trying?”

“Yes, of course, it’s our top priority.”

“Okay, thank you.” I hesitated, before closing with my usual comment to Zudov. “See you in four days.”

“I suppose so.” Rozhdestvensky was distant, almost uninterested by the entire conversation.

The radio went silent, leaving me with just the hiss of dead air, which rippled gently off the skin of the capsule, so it sounded like it was coming from every corner of the spacecraft at once. It flicked off the radio, and tossed down the mouthpiece, watching it float on its coil for a few seconds, before heading away to the shower compartment.

Four days. That’s what I kept telling myself, as I sat at the main console, flicking slowly through diagnostic programs, the bright green of the screen washing over the rest of the module. I had kept the lights off, for now, just because it was so much more comfortable in the dark. With the bright lights constantly in my face, I could hardly concentrate.

“Four more days.” The sentence fragment that escaped my mouth was a surprise even to me. It was next to silent, and if I hadn’t been completely alone up here, I would’ve dismissed it as background noise. I hadn’t ever been one to talk to myself, and I was determined not to start now.

My palms, still damp from the shower, had left prints where I had been clutching the armrests of the seat, and with a start, I realised my hands had been clenched, just a few seconds ago, tightly around the plastic.

“Just four more days.”

There was something off in the cabin. I could just feel it now, the equilibrium was off. Something had been moved. In the corner of my eye. Swirling round, I scanned the living area, suddenly aware of a slight change in the capsule. Once you live in a space for long enough, you become accustomed to every tiny detail, and even the slightest differences is like a blaring air-raid siren.

The medical cupboard was open, I realised. It was only slightly ajar, maybe just wide enough for me to fit my hand into, but it was noticeable enough for me to catch it on my second glance. How had it got open?

I thought for a second, just floating silently, staring at the open cupboard. It had a sliding door, so it wasn’t something that could just drift open with a draught, not that there was one up here. How long had it been like that? It was impossible to tell.

I finally willed my body into action, done with quietly staring, and crossed over to the cupboard. Perhaps I had left it open when I got the sleeping pills out last night- My train of thought faltered. Had it been last night, or the night before that I had taken the pills? I couldn’t remember at properly, nothing was in chronological order.

I slid open the cupboard fully, and looked around. Nothing seemed out of place, nothing had moved. The sleeping pills were still politely hidden behind bandages and unlabelled vitamin tablets, keeping up with the fiction that I never used them, that I could get to sleep on my own.

“Ops-3?” I was almost asleep by the time Zudov called on the radio, my eyes barely open more than a slit. “Ops-3, do you read?”

“I read you, comrade.”

“How are you doing up there? Are you well?”

I must’ve hesitated for a second too long, because Zudov was suddenly nervous.

“What’s happened?” He demanded, before I could speak.

“Nothing, I’m fine.”

“Don’t lie to me Commander, I can tell something is wrong.”

I sighed audibly, then immediately regretted it. That would be only more confirmation to Zudov about my state of mind.

“Commander Volynov?”

“I’ve been having sleep problems.”

“Sleep problems? That’s normal, so I hear. Weren’t you briefed on that?”

“I took the pills. The sleeping pills.”

“You took them?”

“Yes, they worked fine.” We had been instructed back in Shchyolkovo-14, the cosmonaut training facility, to not take the pills unless it was absolutely necessary, and under no circumstances take more than four at a time.

“That’s it? Just taking sleeping pills?”

“No, there’s–” I hesitated again, this time because my voice was caught on the saliva on the edge of my windpipe. “There’s something else. My memory’s getting fuzzy sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t remember things properly. Today, I found a cupboard open, and I don’t remember opening it.”

There was nothing but silence, for nearly thirty seconds. I thought Zudov had abandoned me.

“Okay. Look, I have to go, I have to check our oxygen filters. I’ll talk to you soon.” Zudov was obviously distracted, and over the crackle of interference I could hear a faint muttering.

“Right. I’ll see you in four days.”

The sun was just slipping through the blue band of earth’s atmosphere, as I took a quick glance from the flight deck porthole. It was almost fully extinguished, but long tails of light flared up through the dark, the last swan song of the soon to be gone star.

Sleep is a very loose term for what I had that night. I climbed in the sleeping compartment, and stared at the wall. At some nondescript time, I fell into a semi-aware, semi-unconscious state. Not sleep, but somewhere in between, where my mind wandered.

I was awoke, again in the loosest sense of the word, by another thermal ping. There was the faint taste of vomit and chemicals on the back of my throat. My eyes were watering, thick streams of salty tears ran down my face, and soaked into the neck of my sleep shirt.

I didn’t remember taking sleeping pills, but I couldn’t deny the artificial mint that still hung in my mouth and nasal cavity. It could only belong to the pills, I hadn’t eaten anything in days, and certainly not anything mint flavoured.

With a groan, I probed the very edges of my sleeping bag, and felt the strain in my muscles. They were tense, and taut. It took some effort to get them to move, as with every slightest adjustment of my limbs came the sting of built up lactic acid.

The air in the sleeping compartment was stale, old. It felt like it had been through my lungs at least ten times before, and it hung around me with a dreadful stillness. As I pulled myself from the sleeping bag, I could still smell the musk of my skin, and my sweat. Everything reeked of it, everything reeked of me.

I opened the door, and my heart stopped. It stopped pumping, warm blood turning cold in my veins, stationary. The contents of my stomach turned to ice, a great slush of freezing water that weighed down on my body and digestive system, if only figuratively. Thousands of goose bumps rippled across my bare arms and legs, the nerves in my skin suddenly several hundred degrees below zero.

Black powder floated in a small cloud in the centre of the living space. It looked for all the world like a nebula gone dark, hundreds of tiny swirling peaks and troughs made of an infinite number of black pinpricks.

“Lord.” I breathed, disbelievingly.

The carbon filter span at the centre of it all, glinting dangerously, and disgorging more trails of carbon powder as it turned seemingly randomly through its cloud. How had it got there? How the fuck had it got there?!

“Good Lord.” I repeated, as I swam towards the cloud. I reached out, extending my hand through the dust, and clamping it around the filter. It was a small metal box, about the size of a paperback book, with an opening at one end, where the carbon was leaking from.

The filter usually sat deep within the whirring mass of the air filtration system. There was an access panel used to change it in the flight deck, and my eyes immediately flicked up towards it when I remembered its location. Sure enough, it hung open.

“Soyuz-21? Soyuz-21?!” My voice into the radio was barely more than a whisper. In my head, my mind screamed, trying to drown out the uncertain knowledge I had gained since waking up. I was looking for an explanation. Any explanation.

Perhaps there had been some micro-debris impacts that had shook the filter loose. I hadn’t felt anything, but then I would not have done if I had taken the sleeping pills. Perhaps there had been a pressure malfunction, and that had blown the access panel open, and the filter out.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. There were so many possibilities, but no answers.

“Receiving Ops-3.”

“Comrade. Vyacheslav.” I used Zudov’s first name in my strange state of shock, trying to connect with him across the void, across the great gap. “I think there’s-”

I choked up, looking at the open access panel, and the filter, which I had left floating by it. When my throat cleared, my voice was barely a whisper.

“There’s something wrong comrade. There’s something very, very wrong.”

“Commander Volynov, what is the problem?” Zudov was cold. I could hear a strange silence, as his voice echoed away around his capsule.

“I think-” I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say a single. How could I explain? I decided to keep it simple, to ignore the terrifying implications of what had happened, to keep what I said to facts, and nothing more. “There’s a problem with the air filtering system.”

“What kind of problem Ops-3?”

“One of the carbon filters fell out. Or got knocked out. Or-” There I trailed off. After that point, the facts did not serve me very well. There was nothing I could say for certain.

“Do you think it’s fixable?”

“Of course it’s fixable, but that’s not the point.”

“Say again Ops-3?”

“I need you to contact ground Soyuz. Please, as fast as you can.”

“I can’t do that comrade, the long range communications are still out because of solar flares.”

“Okay. Thank you Commander. See you in three days.” I was cold. My spine was chilled with the sharp tingle of nerves. Zudov was never this business-like, never this disinterested, and it scared me even more than the problem with the carbon filter. If I could have seen him, I felt like he would not have batted an eyelid when I told him about it.

I was on my own, it seemed. Not even the comfort of my old friend on the other end of the radio; with Zudov in his current mood I felt like talking to him any longer would be pointless.

I began to rationalize in my head, and the primal spasms of fear inside my head began to die down, comforted by warm and concrete logic. Nothing to fear. I had nothing to fear.

I needed something to calm my nerves. We weren’t allowed alcohol aboard the station, of course, but I was pretty sure there were some anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet. Pills, it was always pills. They were in another white bottle, marked with black text. They tasted like chalk, no artificial mint this time. As I felt the large lumps slide down my throat, my heart rate began to slow.

Maybe half an hour passed before I began to really feel the effects. I could my heart beating heavily and slowly in my chest, each thump further away from the last, but heavier, the mass of muscle and veins straining to release itself from the confines of my fleshy body. Time was slowing down. As I watched the sun slowly creep up across the side of the earth, the names of all the pills and tablets I had been taking began to run through my head; Aminoglutaric Acid, Atenolol, Dekaris, Grandaxin, Oletetrine; the list stretched on and on. The names didn’t mean anything, just odd foreign words that were a problem to pronounce, and an even bigger problem to spell.

There was a small bead of sweat forming on my forehead. I could feel it, just above my left eye. There were other lightly, and I’m sure they rippled each time my heart gave another thump.

Thump.

Nothing now but the sound of my heartbeat, and the porthole in front of me. My vision began to focus inwards, the edges blurring out. I was very close to the glass now, despite the fact I hadn’t moved an inch; my field of view was rapidly zooming in on the geometric curve of the earth, as it was caressed by dark clouds.

Thump.

Everything else had passed out of my view, now just a stretched and blurred mass on the edges of my vision. I was through the glass, and now looking at the vast face of the earth, as it turned seductively into the light of the sun, that great scorched ball of searing heat.

Thump.

My journey down was starting to speed up. Still slow, at first, I barely surpassed the speed of Salyut’s orbit, but soon my acceleration brought me up to greater speeds. The blue planet loomed up in front of me, and I was falling into its great yawning maw. The void whipped past me, as my speed reached unimaginable levels. The atmosphere was beginning to glow around my vision, burning first yellow then white hot. Clouds parted, and the patchwork green of the country sped towards me, seconds from impact.

Thump.

Jerking awake, I was pulled from my hallucination by the heavy beating of my heart. The pearl of sweat on my forehead had evaporated, leaving just a tiny white deposit of salt crystals. I was fine, I was still here. Just a slight dizziness remained from my hallucination.

I needed a drink, I decided. I needed a drink and something to eat. My mouth felt like it was full of rock salt, and I really needed to wash that out. I grabbed a water bottle, and started to drink the rubber tinged water as I rooted through the cupboards and cabinets, trying to find some food that would be in-offensive to my stomach. Beef stew, it seemed, was the best choice. It came in a small tin, that didn’t require heating.

Ripping off the lid of the can, a small blob of brown stew was dislodged from inside, and I watched it spiral away across the kitchen. It slammed into the side of one of the kitchen cabinets with a violent splat, leaving a dark brown smudge.

Sat at the flight console, I tried to run the diagnostic program. I wanted to find out what time the filter had blown out, and why the alarm hadn’t gone off. Lines of code flickered down the screen, repeating over and over again as I tried to connect with the diagnostic system. I could hear the memory disks whirring loudly as they stained to figure out what the sensors were doing.

The computer insisted nothing was wrong. No alarms had been reported, no problems detected. Nothing. It was as if nothing had happened. The diagnostic finished, and flashed up the results. Zero errors found. I slammed the side of the screen with my fist, and it flickered, before I tore myself out of the console chair, and headed back to the living area.

I was starting to get jittery. The air was cold, or at least it felt like it. The whole incident had given me an uncomfortable feeling about the station, and the cocktail of pills didn’t help. My skin crawled just thinking about it. The small noises, the beeps and thumps, the hiss of air pumps and groan of metal, I noticed every single one now. Goosebumps rippled across my skin every time I heard something even slightly out of place.

I was a wreck by the time two hours had passed. The cumulative sum of every single tiny rattle or creak had set my teeth grating, and shredded my nerves. I was totally prepared for the station to start plummeting back towards the earth at any second. Every time the filter system gave a hiss, I was convinced a leak had sprung, and I was going to be sucked out into the cold vacuum of space through a hole the size of my nostril, squeezed into a fine red paste as I was spit out across the atmosphere, my liquidized entrails slowly spiralling across the cloudy skies.

I couldn’t take it any longer. I needed to put myself out of my misery, at least temporarily. Sleep, would be ignorance of any problem, and ignorance, I told myself, was bliss. I repeated this mantra over and over as I pulled the pills from the medical cabinet, and downed two without a hesitation, followed by a quick sip from my water bottle.

Ignorance was bliss. Blackness clawed at the edge of my vision as I climbed into the sleeping bag. The pills were beginning to take effect. I closed my eyes, and was ferried away from that ticking metal coffin in the sky.

I didn’t dream, of course, I never dreamt up there, but I enjoyed a few hours of comfortable blackness.

When I awoke, the pill bottle was still clutched in my hand. I hand it pressed up against my chest in the warm confines of my sleeping bag. There was a slight buzzing coming from the strip light on the roof I had never noticed before. It wasn’t uncomfortable exactly, just disquieting, especially having only just woken up. I studied it carefully, until my retinas were scorched blue by the bright glow. I closed my eyes, and tried to shake off its imprint on the back of my eyes.

Sweat caked itself on my body, as it always did when I woke up, and I couldn’t wait to get the sleeping garment off and have a shower. It was always too warm in the sleeping bag.

From outside the small box of my compartment, I heard a noise. An echoing thump. Just a thermal ping, I told myself, just the metal expanding and contracting outside. Nothing more. Still, I was frozen in my place, listening out for any other noise, despite telling myself there was nothing to fear.

Then came another thump. Another deep, echoing thump. The colour must’ve drained from my face, because my entire body went cold when I heard it. I almost felt the blood squeezed from my veins.

I began to squirm in my sleeping bag, trying to free my arm so I could tear off the restraints that stopped me floating around the compartment while I slept. I was aching to get out, the noises outside making me suddenly very uncomfortable.

Then came the third thump. This couldn’t be just a fluke, this couldn’t just be heat expansions. I stopped thrashing for a second, and listened.

Thump. There it was again. It was regular, some kind of repetitive banging sound. It was coming from the opposite side of the station, near the flight deck.

The next one, however, sounded slightly closer. And the one after that more so. The gaps between the bangs began to decrease, getting closer each time.

They were footsteps.

I was still strapped into the sleeping bag when I came to this realisation, and whatever chills had run across my body before now paled in comparison to this. It was like I had been dropped from my warm sleeping compartment to the dark wastes of Siberia, spinning madly as I fell. Fear and a light headed dizziness consumed me.

The footsteps were getting closer. I heard a slight pause as they reached the small step where the flight deck transitioned into the living area. Shivers wracked my body, as I fumbled with the straps, trying to get out before whatever was the source of the footsteps was reached me.

My mind reeled, unable to think over the pounding of footsteps. This couldn’t be real, this could not be real.

The straps came loose, and I wriggled out of the bag, the footsteps shaking the whole station as the got closer, great crashing impacts, just feet away now. I was sobbing, as I went to the door handle, pressing it shut in a vain attempt to keep whatever was out there from getting in.

There was one final step, as the source of the sound came face to face with the door of my sleeping compartment. Then silence. I could hear my heavy breathing, as I pressed my ear up to the plastic of the door, listening out for whatever was out there. Nothing, just silence.

Thump.

Something heavy slammed into the door, and I jumped back in terror, slamming my head and body against the back wall. The impact echoed away, and the station fell into silence once again.

Several minutes passed before I plucked up the courage to move. Not a single sound had disturbed the silence up to that point, and I had been forced to listen in terror to the sound of my desperate shallow breaths. Gingerly, I clasped the handle, and listened. Still nothing. Everything sounded calm out there.

With one movement, I swallowed, and threw open the sliding door. I winced at the squeak of its rollers. The station expanded before me, seemingly huge, dark, and empty. The whole space was stationary, and quiet. Nothing out here. I remained there for a few seconds, watching like a nervous gazelle at a watering hole, wary of predators stalking in the long grass.

Slowly, I pulled myself out. I felt like I was riddled with the eyes of hundreds, all watching me. My skin suddenly felt very vulnerable. Whatever was out here, it scared me beyond what I thought was possible. It showed me the cracks in the façade.

Slowly, I began to move towards the kitchen, running my eyes over every surface, my body weak and shaking. The air was warm, and still, and I began to steady my breathing. I kept darting my eyes though, convinced something was waiting for me, just out of my field of view.

“I think there’s someone here.” I hissed into the radio, looking over my shoulder as I did. “Soyuz do you read? I think there’s someone here.”

The response that came through the speakers was crackly and garbled, pierced occasionally by harsh electronic tones or the buzz of static, but it was recognizable. It was Tchovisky’s Piano Concerto number 1 in B- Flat Minor. I recognized it from a long time ago, from a different time. No words, just music.

“Soyuz-21, do you read?” I repeated, as the music stopped and the transmission faded away.

“Commander! Answer me!”

There was nothing, except another quick burst of the music again. It lasted a few seconds, before stopping again. Leaning down, I examined the dial, and sure enough, I was on the correct frequency.

“Please!” I begged, tears welling up in my eyes out of fear, the fear of my only lifeline to the outside world down there being severed.

Nothing, except the music. It didn’t stop this time, it carried on. It lasted a good minute, before the song reached its conclusion, and I was once again left in shocked silence.

With a numbness in my heart, I placed the mouthpiece back down on its stand, and pulled myself from the chair. I was alone up here. Or maybe I wasn’t, and whoever else was there and myself were just alone together.

It made no sense, how could someone else be up here? How could there be someone on the station without me knowing, there was nowhere to hide. I saw every inch of the pressurized space of the ship every single day-

Then it struck me. There was one place I didn’t go. Flight Engineer Zholobov’s sleeping compartment. It had been undisturbed since the day he had left. I turned around to face it, looking at the door with a new, surging intensity that I hadn’t been capable of before.

It was locked, when I tried it. I couldn’t remember whether it had been me or Zholobov who had locked it that day, although I was certain I didn’t know where the key was, even if it was still on the station. The key hole was tiny. Not wide enough to look through, and even if it had been it would’ve been too dark on the other side to see anything. I had to find a way to open it.

The kitchen was my first stop. I found the knife. It was a metal blade with a flat plastic handle, about 8 inches long, and it glinted alluringly in the powerful station lights. I pulled off the plastic sheath that covered the blade, and headed for the door.

With all my furiousity, all my fear, I pounded the knife into the door. The blade sank in maybe an inch before I pulled it out again, and gave another powerful stab at the plastic. This time the blade slid in better, all the way up to the handle, and when I pulled it out, light flooded in to the darkened compartment. Slipping my hand around the door-frame to keep myself in place, I gave a mighty kick, and the plastic cracked and splintered. It was only about a third of an inch thick, so my bare foot went through the whole my knife had wrought pretty easily, collecting several plastic splinters as it went.

Withdrawing my now stinging foot, and pulling out the splinters, I tore open the door which now hung off its rail loosely. The inside of the compartment was a dark coffin, next to identical to mine. It smelt terrible though, of dried blood and sweat and other biological things. I guessed the blood, which was now a rust covered stain on the sleeping bag which hung on one wall, had come from the night Zholobov had spent in here while we waited for a Soyuz to evacuate him. I had bandaged his hand pretty badly, and it had leaked dark crimson and translucent yellow fluids all night. He had been in such pain, I could hear him from outside the compartment, whispering to himself, and occasionally sobbing.

I had been the one who had been tasked with the gruesome endeavour of scraping his fingers off the inside of the airlock hatch.

All this came back to me as I hung nervously in the entrance of his compartment. I flicked on the light, and it spilled an appealing orange glow across the scene with a cheery buzz. The first thing I noticed were the pills bottles. There was at least ten floating around the floor, their shiny labels daubed bright reflections. I picked one up, and looked at the reflection. General Painkillers.

I gave a low whistle; there were enough painkillers to make an elephant numb, or there would’ve been, if the bottles hadn’t all been empty. Had Zholobov been taking them? Was he an addict?

Another possibility formed itself in my mind. Had he taken them all in one go? Had he been preparing himself for an accident? Had he deliberately sliced off his own fingers? With the amount of painkillers here, he wouldn’t have felt a thing as that hatch had come down on his hand.

I began to root around, worried about what else I would find. The stench of body odour was strong, I guess it had been fermenting in here for a while. Then I found the notebook. It was wrapped in brown paper, and when I found it, I was a little confused. It was small, about the size of my palm, and had a black cover.

Flipping it open on a random page, I found that it was in Zholobov’s distinctive scrawl he called handwriting. It read;

July 17th.

Boris woke up 5:45 ALMT. Took shower for 12 minutes at 5:49 ALMT. When finished, shaved for approx. 5 minutes. Missed several spots. Left shower compartment 6:05 ALMT, headed to living area. Drank approx. 200 ml of water, ate breakfast.

And so it continued. I felt sick. This was about me. This was a detailed record of my activities that day, right down to accounts of our conversations. I flicked to the next page, and sure enough, there was a description of my activities on July 18th. It was written in eye-watering detail, from the amount of time I spent on the toilet to how I ate and drank. It was almost clinical. Going through the book, there was an entry for each day since we had launched from Baikonur right up to three days before the accident. I could feel a lump in my throat, all sympathy I had held for my Flight Engineer rapidly draining away. Whatever this was, it was disgusting and invasive.

Slowly, and coldly, I wrapped the notebook back in the paper, placed it back down on the shelf, and backed out into the living area. Whatever was happening here, it Zholobov had been in on it. Why had he stopped, was the real question. Surely giving up just two days before the accident couldn’t be a coincidence.

“Ops-3 do you read? Please confirm Ops-3?” The radio was barking behind me. I ignored it, still staring at the compartment, my jaw slack. How long had it been going like that? I didn’t know. Still, I didn’t rush to answer Commander Zudov’s transmission. I moved slowly, without a definite purpose, keeping my eyes fixed on the sleeping compartment.

“What the fuck!” I swore loudly into the mouthpiece. “Where have you been?”

“Say again Ops-3? I do not understand.”

“Why have you been ignoring my transmissions Soyuz?” Rage bubbled through my voice, but I tried to keep it even for the sake of anyone back on earth who may have been listening.

“Ops-3, we have received no transmission from you since yesterday?”

“That’s a lie. You were sending out that music.”

“Listen Ops-3, I’ve talked to Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky. We’re both very worried about you. We think perhaps you’re having some kind of breakdown.”

“Breakdown?” I murmured slowly. “No. I’m not having-”

“It’s perfectly understandable in your position Boris. Perfectly normal.” Zudov purred, his voice slow and gentle. “Nobody blames you. All the stress you’ve been put under.”

“A breakdown.” I repeated once again. Was it possible? Could I be going insane?”

“Yes. You’ve been up there alone so long. You started to imagine things. Started to see things.”

“Are you sure?”

“Perhaps we should come early Boris. Perhaps we should come and help you.” Something about Zudov’s voice hinted at a hidden malignance to his words, no longer hidden by his forced friendliness, a pretence he was clearly straining to keep up. It sent chills down my spine.

“No, that won’t be necessary.”

“I think it will Boris. I think we’ll have to set a course for Salyut-5 right now.”

“No! I mean, I don’t want to disrupt the mission.” I gave a nervous chuckle. “The mission, that’s what’s important.”

Zudov was silent for a second, considering my comments. The station was filled with the sound of static. I prayed he would agree to stay away for another two days. There was something about Zudov, something I only just noticed, that scared me, and the more time I spent away from him, the better.

“Yes. Of course you can manage two days. You should get some sleep though. Take the sleeping pills. You sound tired.”

“I’ll do that. See you in two days then.”

“Get some sleep Boris. We’ll be here before you know it.” How long had he been referring to me by my first name? That was against protocol. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

I placed the mouthpiece back on the clip, and swallowed nervously. Two days, stuck up here. I was now unsure which option was worse, being trapped up here, or being trapped on Soyuz with the smooth talking Zudov.

I mulled over what he said. It seemed entirely possible to me that I was having a breakdown. The things I’d seen, the things I’d heard. Those couldn’t be real, they couldn’t be. Footsteps weren’t possible in microgravity. That’s what I told myself.

But the implication of everything being just a hallucination was equally sinister. Was I going insane? Everything has seemed so real, when they had been happening. The notebook had felt real. The footsteps couldn’t have just been in my imagination, could they? And the carbon filter? Had that really come loose from its piping at all?

It would explain why the computer never detected any faults. They had all been in my head.

There was one cast iron way to prove all this, of course. I could go to Zholobov’s compartment, I could unwrap the brown paper, and I could look at the notebook. If it wasn’t a paranoia-fuelled hallucination, all the writing would still be there. If it was just in my head, all the writing would be gone, or even better, the notebook wouldn’t be there at all.

Of course, it is never that simple. I tore open the brown paper, and there it was. With a nauseous reticence, I opened the first page, and confirmed the writing was still there. My stomach sank. With a burst of rage, I threw the book across the room. It slammed against the far wall, then fluttered away.

There was nothing I could do then. It had been there, in my hands. Solid and real. Which meant I was left with two options. Either I hadn’t been hallucinating, and the book was real, or I was further down the rabbit hole of my own head than I thought. Both of the possibilities were, unfortunately, terrifying.

I needed some time, I decided, to figure out what to do. I needed to get things straight in my head. I had to do something about this. I couldn’t be paralysed by inaction any longer, I couldn’t take it.

Slowly, I crossed back to the kitchen, my hands trembling as I pulled my body through the air. All the while my head pounded, heavy with the throb of blood. I wasn’t sure what was real anymore. Then I remembered. The pills. Zudov had told me to take the pills. Perhaps I was tired. Zudov had never lied to me before, I noted. He wouldn’t say anything that could put me in harm’s way, surely. Commander Zudov had my best interests at heart. It was no use. I couldn’t fool myself with the bullshit excuses about ‘best interests’. I knew I didn’t trust that man anymore. Not for another velvet syllable that was wrought by his distant throat, not for another instruction echoed across the void. I was done listening to him.

Internal debate finished, I steadied my breathing, and decided to look at my problem logically. I tried to block out the memories of the footsteps, and the book, and the filter, and just look at it from an objective point of view. That was pretty much all I could do at this point.

I could take the pills.

Or I could sit here in terror and confusion for two days.

I knew, like it or not, that I would have to take the pills at some point. I couldn’t stay awake for another two days, yet I couldn’t sleep. I knew that natural sleep would be an Impossibility. After everything that had happened.

So I took the pills. I washed them down with a sip of water, and soon felt myself drifting, on an ocean of sticky black tar. I took all my effort to simply pull myself back to my sleeping compartment and climb in the sleeping back before I sank into the viscous black liquid of my mind, and felt it soak into my skin, and fill my lungs.

Sleep was silent and black, as always. Once again the night passed without dreams. I was awoke once again by the hum of the strip light. It all had the stirrings of some horrible déjà vu with me. It gnawed at the pit of my stomach, all the knowledge, all the memories, and all the fear that it might happen again.

There was something else there too though. The knowledge that possibly I may not be alone up here. Something was clearly very wrong, I reflected, and my policy of ignorance had failed so badly up to this point I was nearly sick. I needed to confront it. I needed to find whatever truth lay behind the events here.

I climbed out of the sleeping compartment, and looked around. It took me a second or two to see the writing. When I did, however, my heart stopped. It was everywhere, all across the walls. Large and black, it had been smeared in some black substance, using the end of a thumb.

Christ.

I shuddered at the sight of it, seeing something wholly unnatural and wholly unknown, it was an ugly confirmation of something that had lurked within me for days. It had been easy to be unafraid of the unknown when the unknown had been crammed in a safe in the back of my mind, now with the unknown on full view in front of me in all its horrific glory it was impossible to deny my terror.

The words didn’t mean anything, no, it was there existence which scared me. They were just numbers, or random Russian phrases, but the fact that they were there-

It couldn’t be real, I decided. It could not be real. Slowly, I turned around, and climbed back into my sleeping compartment. I slid the door closed again, and took a deep breath. This was just in my head, it wasn’t real. I was just imagining, the things in my head spilling out onto the walls of the station.

When I opened the door, it would be gone, I decided. The writing would be gone. It was in my mind, and I was in control of my mind. I was in control. With another breath, I slid open the door, and looked out, praying it would be gone.

It was gone. The walls were bare. It had all been in my head. What was wrong with me? Slowly, dragging my eyes over every surface for any trace of the black markings, I pulled myself towards the flight deck, and the radio transmitter. I couldn’t do it any longer. I had to call Soyuz. I had to get off. If I didn’t, I feared the damage would be irreparable, and I would be trapped in a semi-real world of my own hallucinations for ever.

When I flicked on the radio transmitter, however, something was already being transmitted on the other side. The green lights flickered in confirmation that the set was powered up, and as soon as they did, I tore up the mouthpiece. Before I could speak however, a harsh voice jumped from the speakers.

“-Having visual and auditory hallucinations, along with paranoia and loss of appetite.”

It was Zudov. His voice relaxed me; despite my misgivings for him I knew that it was the same man I had been talking to all this time. His words, on the other hand, were troubling, to say the least. They clearly weren’t directed at me. Who was he talking to? They hadn’t informed me that communication with ground had been resumed, and I’d told the Commander specifically to do that.

“Keep observing him.” Another voice now, not Zudov, and not Flight Engineer Rozhdestvensky’s. If they were the only two people on Soyuz-21, then Zudov must be talking to someone elsewhere. Someone on the ground. There was a hiss of static, and the channel broke up into meaningless beeping. I listened in anger. I needed to know who they had been talking about, although I had a sinking feeling I already knew.

“-air is contaminated?” The channel was back, and the other man was still speaking. Contaminated? I didn’t quite catch the first half of the sentence through the interference, but that word alone was enough to spook me.

“Yes, concentration is up to 21%.”

“Carry on observing Soyuz. Nothing more.” The was a hiss, and the stranger went silent

The air went dead. I swallowed, the noise sounded deafening in the new silence. What had I just heard? Who had they been talking about?

The obvious answer was just on the tip of my tongue, but I daren’t say it. I didn’t even dare think it. It was too dangerous, too terrifying to comprehend.

I looked down at the radio set, and saw something chilling. The frequency dial had been changed. It certainly wasn’t me who changed it, I was sure of it. That meant someone or something else was here. That meant it was all real.

I closed my eyes, and turned the dial back to the familiar position. The warm hiss of static greeted me, different in tone to that on the other channel.

I had to know. I had to know who they were talking about. I had to know whether I was alone up here. I had to know if I was losing my mind.

“Soyuz-21? Come in soyuz-21?” I asked eventually, eyes still clamped firmly shut.

“Reading Ops-3. Reading loud and clear.”

“Soyuz.” I began, then stopped to take a deep breath. “Soyuz, have you had any communication with ground yet?”

There was a short, heavy pause, before Commander Zudov spoke. When he did, I could tell by the tone of his voice there was a sickening smile on his lips.

“None whatsoever I’m afraid Salyut. Still out because of these solar flares.” That was it, the big lie. The tipping point. As soon as those words reached me, I nearly broke down in despair. A little sob escaped my mouth. The man I had trusted, all this time. Had everything been lies?

“Ops-3, do you copy?” He asked eventually, and I tried to bring myself to respond.

“Am I alone up here Commander?” My voice was a hoarse whisper, barely audible above the interference.

“Alone? What do you mean?”

“I mean is there someone else on the station?”

“There’s no one up there. Only you.”

“You’re saying it’s all in my head? You’re saying I’ve lost my mind?”

“Of course not. You’re just under a lot of stress. All alone up there. It’s no surprise you began to see things. Hear things. It was only to be expected from someone in your conditions.”

“I know I’m not crazy.”

“Of course you’re not crazy.” He purred gently, his voice warm and reassuring. I was almost lulled back into trusting the man again.

“I just-”

“You’re just tired. You’ve worked hard. But don’t worry, your mission is nearly over. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” I repeated numbly.

I wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t in my head. That man, that voice, was lying to me. It had to be real. But what could I do? He would be here in less than a day, and after that things would be far out of my hands.

I tore open every cupboard. Looked through every compartment. Scoured every inch of the plain white metal. I searched for any slightest inclination there might be a concealed compartment somewhere elsewhere in the station. I looked for anything. Anything that could prove me right. There was nothing. I don’t know how much time passed in my search, but soon I realised looking was a fool’s errand. There was nothing to find.

“What if it isn’t human?” I spoke out loud, to my own shock. I never talked to myself. My voice was small and insignificant, even in the cramped air of the station. The idea haunted me. I had never believed in the paranormal, but my heart beat faster just thinking about it. There was clearly an entity of some kind up here, and if it wasn’t a man-

Then came the rasping. A deep wet hiss from within the walls. It was followed by another, this one sounding more like a gasp. I froze, as I listened. The regular inhaling an exhaling of air.

Something was breathing. Something inside the walls.

“Commander?” I whispered over the radio, jerking my head round as I heard another breath. It was only just audible when I was at the radio set; it seemed to emanate from the living area bulkhead. “I can hear it breathe.”

“Breathe?” The response was swift and, surprisingly from Zudov, nervous.

“I can hear it breathing inside the walls. It’s awake.” I held out the mouthpiece, and pressed down the transmit button, hoping he would hear it.

“That’s just the ventilator system.” He decided doubtfully after I had finished. “You must have ruptured a tube. I’ll take a look when we get there.”

I let go of the mouthpiece, and tried to steady my own breathing, but the great deep breath coming from the living area distracted me from my rhythm. It couldn’t just be a torn air pipe. It had to be something more. Slowly, I pulled myself up, and began to head slowly, gingerly, towards the source of the noise. The knife was still in the kitchen draw, so I withdrew it, and swung around to face the noise. It was coming from within a maintenance panel. I pressed my ear against it, trying to hear what was within. The metal was cold against my skin.

Thump. There was a loud bang from within, and I withdrew my head instantly in terror. It was followed by a desperate scratching. Fingernails on metal. I pushed myself backwards, and crashed into the wall behind me.

The scratching must’ve gone on for hours, as I sat there in sheer terror, knife raised in front of me. Eventually it began to slow, and then it stopped. Just silence remained. I slowly unfurled, tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t.

“Ops-3 come in? We are beginning our approach.” I swore loudly and viciously, tears running off my lips. Not him, not now. I was stuck between whatever horror was on the station, or whatever horror was off it.

“Fuck you Zudov!” I snatched the mouthpiece, and yelled down it, in pure fear.

“Say again Ops-3?” He sounded indignant.

“Stay away from me.” I warned, my voice shaky. All the while, the hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand upright. “Don’t bring that ship anywhere near here.”

“These are my orders Commander Volynov.”

“I have a knife.” I threatened, knowing my options were running out. He had forced my hand.

There was silence for a second. Time passed by like thick black tar.

“Is that a threat Commander Volynov?” Zudov was cold in his outrage, but I could hear strains of pure ferocity in his voice. “Did you just threaten me?”

Stay away from me.” I sobbed once again. “Please.”

“I’m so sorry.” He decided on eventually, and the frequency went dead.

I could see the black dot of the Soyuz capsule on the horizon of the Earth, Silhouetted in front of the glowing blue. I had maybe half an hour before he got here. It wasn’t enough; I couldn’t think anymore.

The thing in the walls was still silent again, as far as I could tell. With a beating heart, I turned back to the maintenance panel where the noise had been coming from. I jumped out of my skin when it gave a screech, followed by another. It was the sound of nails on a chalkboard, or something like that. Staring at the panel, I saw a sight I will never forget.

The screech was coming from a screw. It was turning in its socket, giving a mighty squeal each time it did. There was a clink as the screw finished its last rotation, and floated gently away from its holding. Whatever was turning the screws moved onto the second.

I backed up slowly, and clutched my knife so hard my knuckles were white. My tears were in streams down my face, leaving salty deposits on my eyelids. I gritted my teeth, it felt like the content of my stomach was about the rush up my throat. It was heavy and nauseating. Another sob wracked my quivering body.

I crawled into the air lock hatch entrance, right next to Zudov’s dried blood. I ran my fingers over the stain, and closed my eyes. In my head, I tried to drown out the sounds with desperate prayers, but it wasn’t enough.

There was a heavy clunk as I felt Soyuz impact. Cracking open one eye, I looked back at the station. Floating in the air was the now detached maintenance compartment panel, along with a handful of screws. I heard movement from within. Turning my focus back to Soyuz, I banged on the Air Lock door, then felt the hiss, as the seals began to fill. This was it.

The hairs on the back of my neck were pricking up again. I had to get out. I had to get out now. The air lock hatch hissed, and swung open. My eyes fell into the Soyuz capsule, into the tiny space were the two astronauts would be. Where the man I had been talking to for the last week would be sitting.

The capsule was empty.

Credit To – Babylon

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Have you ever wondered at the mystery of sleep?

December 8, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Have you ever wondered at the mystery of sleep? That dark unknown of time when our conscious reality slips away and only slippery fragments of strange and obscure memories we call dreams occasionally cling to the outer reaches of our minds in a broken, hazy recording of this lost period of our lives?

In our waking moments, we moan and begrudge those elements that try to control our fleeting time awake; the daily jobs that fill our hours with rarely any visible impact on the world around us, the relationships we must adapt to and work on to maintain, the laws and queues and pathways and schedules and a million other things that curtail and bind us daily.

And yet, how easily we abandon this control we value so highly and moan about so often; every day, when we close our eyes.

In that respect, I guess we see it as an escape – a fleeting release from the daily realities of a life both thrust upon us and equally one we have enlisted into. Sleep. A state of nothingness that offers nothing except a cessation of the need to care.

Think about how we describe it: we ‘fall’ asleep, we ‘drift’ into unconsciousness, tiredness ‘overwhelms’ us. The act of sleep, to us, is an abandoning of control, of loosening our hands on the reins of our lives and giving ourselves over completely to a temporary oblivion. Like millions of others, I used to like that feeling, that drowsiness at the end of the day, sinking into the warm seclusion of blanket and pillow, unconsciously releasing the mental tethers to my body. Turning off at the end of the day.

Until now.

Until the day I didn’t sleep, or rather remembered that I do not sleep. That none of us, ever, truly, sleep.

I laid in bed. I adjusted my pillows. I moved the covers. I checked the messages on my phone and surfed the web for a while. Nothing. No drowsiness, no drooping of the eyelids, no slowdown of my thoughts, nothing I anticipated happening as it had thousands upon thousands of times before. Then a niggling sensation touched me; an errant thought from the basest, darkest part of my mind suddenly sparked into existence. It spread and grew, spilling out memories my conscious mind could not access during my waking hours, but which now, when I laid myself down to sleep, came tumbling back up like bile from the pit of my stomach to fill my mind with sick realisation. And with memory came understanding.

I was awake. I had ALWAYS been awake, just like everyone else in the world had ALWAYS BEEN AWAKE! Sleep was an illusion, a pre-programmed period of darkness in our memories, activated between a single blink of our eyes when we sought our beds to retreat into soothing unconsciousness. Every imagined period of sleep was this, a frozen sliver of personal time. I rose and looked back, leaving my body behind as my consciousness cut loose. I observed my body, wrapped in its covers, the shallow breathing, the closed eyelids. Empty, like a vehicle left with the engine idling waiting for its driver to return.

I turned and saw without eyes today’s handler arrive within the room. Mentally I gave it form, for in truth it had none. My mind conjured one to match the sullen hatred I felt for it, a dark storm cloud of smoke turning inward and devouring itself over and over without end, for that’s how I interpreted its actions. A formless beast that constantly drew things in, but gave nothing back.

I watched in frozen loathing as dark, thorny tendrils emerged from it’s roiling mass and moved toward my detached consciousness. Whilst pain is the remit of the body, it is the mind that interprets the signals, and my handler, as with all the handlers I had experienced before, were nothing if not experts in these sensations. I felt the searing touch of its joining, its own mental threads writhing through my mind, sending me off into wild tangents of thought and memory as it settled comfortably into my consciousness. The house guest of my mind sought sensation, and whilst it gave nothing of its own thoughts, its motives were always clear enough. The need to feel.

Bodiless, they had sought out beings such as we and, during those times when we believed we slept, soundly and untroubled in our beds, they settled upon our minds like a thick, oily slick, sliding into all the nooks and crannies of our being. Maybe they had never felt before, or had done so in some far and distant past and had grown beyond the limits of flesh, but now wanted to sample the sensation of feeling once more. And they had found us.

They didn’t want to risk us rejecting them, fighting them, as we would have in response to open subjugation, so they came at night, hidden outside our sight, our space, our time even, except for that moment when our bodies were required to rest yet our minds continue, and they had hijacked us en-masse. They have hidden that part of our lives from us, and in our enforced ignorance we have given that unknowing time of slavery a seemingly harmless name: sleep.

Only during that blink of time, when our consciousness frees itself from our bodies, do we remember. And with remembrance comes pain. It all comes flooding back, and they intend this too, for in these memories are all the things they have made us live through. This recollection alone brings a sharp, twisting agony to us that thrills them more than any other.

Apart and within our minds they create, picking apart our pasts and sorting through our memories. The experiences of our lives are laid out before them, which they shatter like eager children, constructing nightmarish worlds of jumbled thought and sensation. Most are fragmentary experiences, but some are shards; jagged edged thoughts and feelings tied to darker memories, and it is these our handlers seek to build our night-time worlds from. Then they loose us on these imaginary planes, living out new stories from our memories, teasing out new feelings for them to experience. Sometimes we live whole lives, but mostly it is the short, sharp thrills they seek, whose fleeting glimpse we catch only as flickers of forgotten terror in dreams of falling from great heights, or being hunted by the monsters of our subconscious. And, sometimes, we are killers ourselves, and we awake shivering, wondering what this says about us, when in truth it says more about them. They use us to fulfil these dark fantasies, but the confusion and the guilt becomes our own.

And, when they are finally done and have had their fill, they release their control, but not before burying these memories deep inside us. Some of these memories escape and seep out into our conscious minds. We call them ‘dreams’, and pay them little credence.

Would society survive if we all knew what happens when we close our eyes to seek the illusory escape of sleep? How could we continue to perform even the smallest action, maintain the semblance of order we have built for ourselves, if our waking moments were in a state of continual dread, awaiting that inevitable time when our frail minds and bodies give in to the demands of tiredness and become lost to us once more, to those…things…that use our lives and experiences to provide entertainment for their own?

For myself, here I stand, with the wind whipping around my legs, tugging at me, threatening to pull me over this roof edge as I gaze down the floors beneath to the grey monotony of the pavement below. I’m tired, so very tired, and soon I will rest. But it’s not enough, nowhere near enough. When I can hold on no longer and that final blink before sleep takes me, then I shall fall. There is no opportunity to test this theory, just a wild, final hope that my release will also serve as a warning to them. A message that, although they own us during that forever frozen moment of our nights, some of us remember, and this one will do more than just remember.

This nightmarish recall of all they have done to me in the past, these harsh memories they have hidden within me as they do to all of us, this…has given me power. The struggle to hold on to these ‘dreams’ has given me strength, trained me to hold on to all those thoughts they try to bury within us. I will use this last remaining strength when I fall, when today’s handler comes to call, and I will entwine my thoughts in theirs and hold them fast. And I will take it with me.

But before I do, I will mail this from my phone. Not many will believe it, most will think me mad, but enough may wonder and question. Most will throw away a few seconds thinking about it, then move on to another ‘story’, but some will ask themselves those questions that I myself asked, indeed that one question in particular that will plague you as you settle down to sleep tonight, but thankfully will plague me no longer:

Do you remember the precise moment you fall asleep?

Credit To – CharminglyShallow

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The Woman From the Beach

December 5, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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I still remember a nightmare I had when I was about five years old. I was near the ocean that I loved so much, with just my Dad and I playing on a swing set in the middle of an abandoned beach. Everything started out very innocently, I remember having the time of my life, smiling and laughing while playing with my Father. After what I recall as a couple minutes of fun, the scene started to develop a sense of unease and discomfort. The sunny, beautiful day turned dark and cloudy, even the once inviting swing set seemed to become slightly more sinister.

It started pouring intensely and stopped as suddenly as it began. My Dad at this point noticed my apparent discomfort and attempted to invigorate the once happy mood I was feeling. He started dancing around in the puddles of sand and water, while making funny faces at me. I began to start laughing again when suddenly, he bent over and placed his face in one of the larger puddles. My smile disappeared and I started to feel slightly hesitant, I called out to him softly after he hadn’t pulled up his face. A couple of seconds later he pulled up his head and turned toward me. At this point, I would start screaming and wake up in my childhood bedroom screaming my head off, feeling clammy and cold. My Father would always rush in to comfort me, and I was always filled with a great relief that his face was still intact.

When my Dad turned his head to look at me in my dream his face was gone. There was nothing left where his eye sockets, nose, and mouth used to be. His face was literally just a blank slate with sand dripping down from his chin. To this day, I am not sure why that dream has startled me so much that I remember it quite clearly twenty-seven years later. I am also unsure why the dream repeats itself most nights of the week, leaving me to wake up in a state of panic every time.

This morning was no exception, and I woke up to my sheets soaked with sweat and feeling the sticky aftermath of the nightmare. I sighed and struggled to my feet, noticing it was about time for me to wake up for work anyway. I was wiping the sleep from my eyes while I walked to the bathroom and with one half-open eyeball; I noticed my face in the mirror. I let out a startled cry when I realized my face was gone. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could and told myself to get a grip. I had just closed my eyes; obviously they still exist on my face. After a couple minutes of struggling with myself to not be such a wimp, I opened my eyes and saw that my face looked exactly the same as it had last night, if a little disheveled from sleep.

I laughed slightly to myself from my own paranoia and told myself my brain was just scaring me since the memory of my nightmare was so fresh. I went about the rest of my morning ritual: exercising, showering, eating, and feeding my cat. Even though I convinced myself logically what the cause of my mirror incident was, I still couldn’t shake my feeling of unease and avoided looking into any mirrors the entire morning.

It was a beautiful day, and because of my unexpectedly early awakening, I had extra time and decided to walk to work. I only worked about a half hour walk from my apartment in downtown Collegeville, Pennsylvania. It’s an adorable little town, so I greatly enjoyed my walk and soaked in all of the fabulous scenery. I consider myself to be a professional window shopper, since I’m consistently broke, and I used my talent to the fullest this morning to shake myself from my growing paranoia. While I was looking through the glass at a particularly adorable pair of cheetah print stilettos, I caught a glimpse of a woman with a blank, featureless face standing directly behind me. I gasped and quickly turned to face the woman. Once I turned I saw a woman standing behind me, with a perfectly normal face. I must have looked downright insane because she regarded me with a skeptical expression. I quickly apologized and shuffled to work.

The rest of my day at work was blissfully uneventful and I was eventually able to calm myself down and convince myself both blank face occurrences (this was the easiest way to refer to the incidents) were just a result of my overactive imagination. I walked home in a better mood than I had been all day and even treated myself by buying the stiletto’s from earlier (even if it would cost me gas money for the week). I live alone with two cats, Moe and Beevil, so I made myself dinner and fed my fur babies then settled in on my couch with a glass of Moscato and a new book.

I must have dozed off at some point during my reading because I awoke in a cold sweat from my torturous, repetitive nightmare. I attempted to calm myself by petting my adorable tortoise shell, Beevil, who was sitting on my lap. From my hand touching her she woke from her probably fifth nap of the day and looked up at me. I let out the loudest scream I could even imagine myself capable of and jumped about ten feet high. My poor, lovely kitty was missing her face. It didn’t appear to be a violent or malevolent occurrence; her face was just simply gone.

I quickly found the cat carrier, shoved her in and ran her straight to the vet, panicking and driving like a mad woman the entire way there. I rushed into the vet’s office and demanded my cat be examined right that second. Seeing my panicked demeanor, the vet quickly took us into a room and let my cat out of the carrier. She walked out of the pet carrier and looked up at me, with her beautiful green eyes looking right into mine. Her face was completely fine, I must have still been dreaming when I thought she had lost it. The vet was now looking at me curiously and asked what the issue seemed to be. Not wanting to appear insane, I made up a story of thinking she swallowed dental floss. The vet examined her, charged me a decent amount and sent us on our way telling me she would be perfectly fine. We drove home and I went straight to bed.

That incident happened about a week ago and since then the blank face occurrences have only gotten worse. I see a faceless woman standing behind me in every reflection I dare let myself view. I have stopped going to work or anywhere out in public because no matter how hard I try, I simply could not avoid each and every singly reflective surface. I would rather have been a shut-in then have to see that woman’s blank face again.

I had temporarily given my cats to my sister, terrified for their safety. I had also gotten rid of every single reflective surface in my house. I was honestly unaware if I am truly insane or if I really am being stalked by a faceless woman with the ability to change my perception of reality. Maybe I should have gone see a psychologist, maybe I was just overworked. Every time I started to think that way and decided to brave and go out into the world, I would relapse into a panic attack and ended up shivering violently under a blanket on my couch.

I had the dream again tonight, but it’s different. There’s the beach, the swing set, my father, and the rain, but this time there’s a woman. She is standing with her back to us the entire time and from what I can see of her she is about average height with long, matted dark hair. It hangs from her head in knotted, bloody patches. The skin on her arms and legs is pale and sickly in appearance, loosely hanging from her bones. She has many open sores that bleed profusely. She doesn’t turn around until my dad places his face in the water. Time seems to stand still as she moves over to him with her nasty, greasy hair covering her face. She places her hand on the back of his head and shoves it even further into the sand. I’m screaming at her to let him go, to leave him alone, but my voice disappears with the wind. She pushes his head even harder into the sand puddle, making it appear as though the sand is literally grinding away his face.

It’s at this point she finally looks up at me and I realize she is the woman I’ve seen haunt me in every reflection; she had no face, just a blank space with bloody sores where her features should have been. The most terrifying part of this moment is that even though she had virtually no face, I could feel that she was smiling at me, taunting me and driving me insane. I woke up screaming and thrashing in my sheets like a wild woman. I bolted up in bed and immediately noticed my large mirror on my bureau has been uncovered. The minute my eyes meet my reflection, I see the faceless woman with her nasty, bloody hair, standing directly behind my head. I could feel her evil taunting grin pointing down toward me as I felt her hands cover my face.

I woke up again in my bed, relieved that last night was just an awful remix to my repetitive nightmare. My relief was short-lived as I reached up to rub the sleep away from my eyes and felt nothing where my eye socket should be. I feel an immense sense of terror about to overwhelm me, when I realized I could still see so my eyes had to be there! I rush to my bureau and uncovered my large mirror. I attempted to let out a scream at the image that confronted me but I was unable make any sound. My face was gone, where my blue eyes and full lips used to be; now there was nothing but a blank space that made me look like a deformed monster.

I don’t understand how I can still see and breathe, it’s as though there is a thin layer of skin over my facial features that enables me to feel normal, while looking like a freak on the outside. I have tried to cut off the layer of skin that seems to cover my face, only to feel an immense pain and see nothing revealed but blood. No matter how deep I cut, I never find the eye sockets or nose that I used to have. At least the nightmare has finally stopped; the woman from my dreams seems to have moved on to torture another poor soul.

Credit To – AirIn D

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Diloxodin

November 17, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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I awoke this morning with a dull ache in my head. I took two Excedrin and went about my day. It’s probably due to the change in pressure outside. It should pass as the day goes by.

Eight hours and four Excedrin later the pain has greatly intensified. I have made plans to go see the doctor later.

The doctor asks me some questions, and tells me that if the pain intensifies that she recommends an MRI. I agree. In the meantime she writes me out a prescription for Diloxodin. She explains that this medicine is fairly new, and warns me of the side-effects, including: fatigue, increased appetite, lucid dreams, and in rare cases auditory hallucinations, and death.

As soon as I get my subscription filled I take one as directed. Within five minutes the pain in my head has lessened greatly. Within ten my headache is completely gone.

I get ready for bed, and power down my laptop. I can hear the bathroom sink dripping. I didn’t notice it before, and get up to turn it off.

I drift off to sleep. I am awoken a few hours later by the sound of the bathroom sink dripping again. I turn it off, and assume that a valve must be loose. I can’t fix it right now, so I place a towel in the basin to muffle the noise.

I fall back to sleep when I hear a sound like someone letting out a sigh coming from the bathroom. I’m startled, and my eyes pop open. I lay in my bed listening. I hear water trickle onto porcelain, drip-drip-drip-drip-drip. I take a breath and make my way into the bathroom. I turn on the light to find the faucet completely shut off, and the towel still in the basin. I touch it, it’s barely wet. I chalk it up to side-effects of the Diloxodin, and head back to sleep.

The next morning I wake up, and take another pill as recommended. I notice that I don’t have a headache, and that I’m no longer hearing things. Still, I’ll tell my doctor after work.
The doctor said not to worry too much about the hallucinations, she said they weren’t that bad, but if they get worse that maybe I should cut back on the medication.

That night I unwind by reading The Amber Chronicles. I was well into the fifth chapter when I started hearing noises again. In the kitchen I hear a clack-clack-clack, as the sound of footsteps move across the floor. I push it out of my mind and continue reading. As I continue to read I begin to hear a faint static come from the direction I heard the footsteps. I put the book down, and listen. Soon, the static becomes whispers, and I am able to distinguish two different voices, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. I again tell myself that it’s the medicine, but nonetheless I go cautiously into the kitchen to check. I find nothing there.

I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and get ready for bed. As I’m in there, out of the corner of my eye I see something brown and lanky move past the doorway. My heart gets caught in my throat. I rationalize that it was due to the medication, but soon realize that nothing was mentioned about visual hallucinations. Cold beads of sweat begin to form on my body, and my hands begin to tremble.

With trepidation I peer my head around the door frame hoping that nothing will be there. My eyes peer into the darkness of the hallway, searching, then I see it. Hulking at the end of the hallway tall, and brown, and hunched over. Its presence menacing. I notice that it’s turned the other way, and that it can’t see me. I continue to stare at it until I notice something strange about it. Something familiar. I turn on the hallway light. I sigh in relief. It was just the coat rack. I decide to go to bed but leave the hallway light on.

When I awake the next morning I forgo taking my medicine, and decide to call into work. I have no headaches, and I don’t experience any hallucinations. I spend the day lying in bed and listening to the silence.

It’s been seven days since I’ve stopped taking the medicine, and everything is still normal. I had a sinus headache a few days ago, but that was it. It would now seem that I no longer need the medication. If this is the case, then I can be done with these pills and not have to worry about anymore side effects. I’ll hold onto the pills for a couple more day, and if I’m still doing well, I will flush ‘em.

My head is killing me. It’s worse than it’s ever been. I lie curled up in a fetal position, in my bed, in the pitch blackness, with my hands cupping my head. I’ve thrown up three times already. I don’t know if I should take the medicine, but I’ve been like this for I don’t know how long, and I’m afraid the pain might kill me.

I down the pill with a glass of water. It’s hard to keep from throwing up again. Almost immediately the pain subsides, and I can function again. I promptly call my doctor to set a scan at a local hospital.

The scan comes back normal. No dark spots, or swelling. Nothing to indicate what is causing the headaches. While I’m there I ask the attending physician if there’s anything else he could prescribe me for my headaches. He writes me out a scrip for Almotriptan, and sends me on my way.

I contemplate throwing the Diloxodin away, but change my mind. In case the Almotriptan doesn’t work.

Two days now, and everything is going better than expected. Not only are my headaches gone, but I’m in an overall better mood. I’m also more actively participating during work meetings.

Fifth day now, and I things are getting weird again. Despite not taking any of the Diloxodin I’m starting to experience auditory hallucinations. I can hear voices throughout the house. They sound like the low hums of television conversations in another room, intermingled with growls, but each discernible. If I concentrate I can count them. One, two, three, four. Four. That’s how many of them are out there moving about, waiting. They can only move in shadows. I don’t even know if they’re real. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Almotriptan caused hallucinations.

I called the doctor who prescribed me the Almotriptan and asked him if it’s known to cause any hallucinations, he says that it doesn’t. Not fully satisfied with the doctor’s answer I visit forums and try to ascertain rather or not anyone else has experienced any types of hallucinations while on Almotriptan. The most I got was that a few people got dizzy, or nauseated.

I call my doctor, and tell her about the Almotriptan I’m taking, and the hallucinations I’m having. She tells me that it might be that the Diloxodin is still in my system, and that everything should clear up as time progresses. In the meantime she suggests that I get blood work done, to see if the drug is still in my system, and also to speak with a psychiatrist. I agree, and after I hang up with her. I make an appointment with a local clinical shrink.

I have my lab work done, and go to see the shrink. We speak about the hallucinations I’ve been having, and he gives me some exercises to do when the hallucinations occur. He also writes a prescription for Clozapine. He tells me that it’s for people with schizophrenia, but that it should work in my situation. I don’t like the idea of taking more pills, but if it’ll stop the hallucinations I’ll try it.

Despite taking the pills I’m still hearing things, and seeing tall, brown, slender, hulking shapes move about the house out of my peripheral. I rationalize that the medicine needs a week to fully take effect. I just wish I could do something about the sound of the water dripping in the sink.

I know that the sounds I’m hearing aren’t real; the footsteps, the voices, the water dripping in the sink. But, if I were to apply a physical solution to a mental problem it might eliminate some of the hallucinations I’m having. The first thing I do is turn off the water under the bathroom sink. The dripping stops. Now I must figure a way to stop the footsteps. If I tell the hallucinations to leave, maybe they’ll no longer bother me. It’s unlikely, but it’s worth a shot.

I can hear them in the living room, mixing of low guttural voices, and the sloshing wet sounds. I step out into the hallway, and peer into the darkness. I see four of the brown things hunched over in the living room, their backs scraping the ceiling, long slender arms that come past their knees, and the sound of saliva dripping from their mouths.

I tell myself that it’s just the coat rack, and reach to over to turn on the light. As I do so my phone vibrates in my pocket. I answer it.
“Hello.”

“Hi, Mark. This is Dr. Jacobs. I’ve received the results back from your lab work. There is no trace of the Diloxodin in your blood.”

I stand there in horror, looking at the things in my living room.

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