An email landed in Blake Myers’s inbox, triggering a notification that popped up on the bottom right of his screen. His eyes scanned the pop-up more by habit than anything else, and his annoyance at the arrival of another in a long line of distractions and interruptions that made his job so much more difficult morphed into disgruntled apprehension. Normally, the sender and the subject were all it took for him to get an idea of how long he could put off a reply. This time, however, the entire email fit into the notification:
Subject: My office
Blake held back a sigh and rubbed his temples. He didn’t exactly know what this was in reference to, but he had a strong hunch that it involved Jared. The prep school daddy’s boy had been weeping and moaning in Andy’s office earlier like the wet sack of shit that he was. The only real question was how much of Blake’s valuable time was about to disappear forever.
Locking his computer, he stood up with an exasperated grunt. He made his way to his boss’s office his own way at his own speed, taking a detour to the bathroom, followed by the water cooler outside the lunchroom, before finally heading toward his final destination. Andy could wait a few extra minutes as Blake built up his mental tolerance for whiny bullshit. When finally ready, he opened the door and stepped inside.
Andy sat in his large office chair behind his thick, wooden, “I’m the boss” desk, the light from the LED light strips overhead shining down on his shaved head and thin, angular glasses. He looked like one of those guys in their forties who got really into fitness after a mid-life crisis, mostly because he had. Obnoxious preaching about the benefits of low-carb diets aside, Blake had always found Andy to be a fairly decent manager, one who didn’t micromanage too much or waste his time with constant meetings. He wondered if that evaluation would hold true by the end of the day.
“Sit down,” Andy said without even looking up from his laptop, his voice icy and foreboding.
Blake didn’t need to be told. Plodding over to a waiting office chair, he plopped down and waited for the oncoming storm to pass through.
That storm didn’t come immediately. No, Andy continued to read something on his laptop for over a minute, leaving Blake to wait in silence. Blake was sure this was some sort of tactic his boss had read about on some stupid “Ten tips to better assert your authority” list posted on “boss-advice.com” or something. Andy would have been better served following the advice “know your employee”, as all he was managing to do was annoy Blake more and more with each passing moment.
“Alright, this has been fun and all, but the ACN deliverable deadline isn’t going to push itself back just so you can waste my time,” Blake grumbled, standing up to leave.
“I said sit,” Andy growled.
Begrudgingly, Blake lowered himself back down. For the moment, at least.
“I was just reading the latest email in a long chain I’ve had with Preston since this morning. You fucked up big this time, Blake.”
The mention of Kale Preston, the company owner, crystallized the issue at hand in Blake’s mind. Now he knew exactly what this was all about.
“I fucked up how? By telling that walking prep-school compilation error the truth? It’s not my fault he’s been pampered all his life to the point where he can’t handle objective reality.”
Andy rubbed his face with his hands and let out a long-suffering sigh. “So you did not, as several people have quoted to me, tell him that his work could be done better by thirteen drunken monkeys with a single copy of Visual Studio?”
“Like I said, I told him the truth.”
“God-fucking-dammit, Blake. There’s only so much damage control I can do for you! If you verbally assault the son of the owner’s best friend, I can’t keep you from the heat that’s going to come your way!”
“I was just saying what needed to be said,” Blake shot back. “Listen, Andy. His code is shit—so shit that it’s fucked us all over. It’s buggy as hell, doesn’t cover most edge cases, will eventually leak enough memory to crash the whole system, and doesn’t even cover every specification the client needs! A virus would be more helpful! And what’s more, he was working on a critical feature that we fucking promised in the update tomorrow, so I couldn’t even roll it back and have somebody competent do it! But now, it’s too late! You are aware that whole modules need to be fixed and retested before the deployment, right? Now everybody has to fucking crunch tonight and tomorrow when we otherwise wouldn’t have needed to!”
“Yes, Blake, I am well aware of what we’re dealing with right now. That doesn’t excuse your behavior. Jared’s been here for a little more than a month. He’s going to make mistakes.”
Blake shook his head. “No, no, no. That twerp is not some innocent newbie who just needs some time because he’s still figuring out the system. He’s a fucking hacker wannabe who probably slept through every single compsci class in his life—if he even bothered to attend them at all—and probably paid somebody else with Daddy’s money to do all his assignments. I opposed his hiring from the start for a reason, Andy. I can smell a failson from miles away. He’s the absolute worst kind of person, the kind with that special breed of ignorance-”
“Now, hold on a minute-”
“-where they think they have all the answers in the world but actually have none and are too stupid and stubborn to realize it! Those sorts of people don’t just end up hurting themselves; they take down everybody around them while they’re at it. He shouldn’t have been allowed within three timezones of this building. But instead, he got the position over any of the actually qualified applicants, because, like always, connections matter more than talent or experience.”
He leaned in, pointing a finger accusingly towards his manager. “Don’t try to butt in and don’t give me that fucking look! You know full well that the only thing I care about with the people in our teams is that the person can do the job well enough to carry their own weight. If Jared was the same person he is now but could code worth a damn, then we wouldn’t be here having this ‘talk’.
“Hell, if he showed the drive to fix his problems and improve, then that alone might have been enough for me to cut him some slack. But he hasn’t. All he had to do was ask and I would have gladly taken the time to help him. The same goes with Brenda, Mike… you know our team, Andy. You know that pretty much every programmer here would have helped him. And believe me, I checked with the others before I said anything, and they all told me he didn't ask any of them.
“It’s not just that he’s ignorant, Andy, it’s that he’s fine with it, and there’s nothing I hate more than people who treat their ignorance as some kind of badge of honor. He can’t code for shit, he’s not going to get better, and he should never have been hired. If you really feel the need to hire dead weight, there’s this thing called ‘internships’. Look it up sometime.”
“Damn it, Blake! You’re always like this! What the hell is your problem?!” Andy snapped. “Do you have some condition where if you own up to a single mistake, you’ll die of a heart attack or something?!”
“Oh, are we making fat jokes now? Real classy,” Blake replied, looking down at his body that could be described, at best, as ‘excessively pudgy’.
“Enough with the deflecting! Rationalize your own words to yourself all you want, but it doesn’t change the situation! You should be counting your lucky stars that I was able to talk Preston down from just firing you by email this morning!”
“Yeah? Talked him down to what?”
“A written apology to Jared, an essay about how to create and maintain a positive workplace environment between coworkers, and anger management classes.”
Blake felt his blood go from hot to boiling. “Absolutely not.”
Andy’s face went back into his hands and he inhaled a long, drawn-out breath.
“Anger fucking management?! I didn’t beat the loser, no matter how much he wants to act like I did! And an essay?! What do you people think I am, a fifth-grader? I don’t care who Preston thinks he is, he can’t make me do that shit.” He crossed his arms, defiant.
“He can if you want to keep your fucking job, Blake. He’s the owner of the company. That’s just reality.”
“Yeah? How about the reality that the only reason this place has been profitable the last five years is because I’m here?! I put this place on the fucking map! You think anybody would bother to even notice a place named fucking ‘PerforMax Automated Solutions’ without my work?! Seriously, ‘PerforMax’? What do we make, robots or male enhancement supplements?! Give me a fucking break!
“Who was the main architect of every single product we sell? Me! Who is the primary designer of the bots? Me! Who programs the servers that keep everything from turning into a massive flaming wreck? ME!”
Blake stood up, placed his hand on Andy’s desk, and leaned in, giving his boss a glare that communicated the full extent of his outrage.
“You want to talk about reality?” he growled. “How about the fucking reality that, if I fucking walk in front of a moving bus tomorrow, all of this would collapse within a year? Oh, Preston’s threatening to fire me? Let him fucking try! I’ll have another job within a week and he’ll have a company going down the tubes!”
Blake turned and stormed out of the office. “I’m taking an early lunch,” he called back as he left. To his credit, Andy didn’t try to stop him.
Blake buckled his seat belt and turned on his new car with a grumble. The sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival—a band he’d had no choice but to learn to love as a child, given the amount of playtime it received in his father’s car—began blasting from his speakers as the electric motor powered up. Not in the mood for music at the moment, he turned the song off before it could make it past a few bars. He wasn’t in the mood for much of anything, if he had to be honest.
Luckily, he knew how to make himself feel better, at least for a little while. Pulling out of his personal parking space, he coasted out of the PerforMax parking lot and turned onto the connecting road, beginning the multi-step process needed to navigate out of the maze-like industrial complex where his workplace had moved to the year prior.
He brooded as he left the industrial complex and merged with the busier road outside. Why did people always have to be like this? Save a man’s life with a frown and an insult and they’ll spit in your face; stab a man in the gut with a smile and a joke and they’ll worship the ground you walk on.
That was what was wrong with the world today. Everything was about talking the talk, when what mattered was walking the walk. The internal combustion engine hadn’t been invented through the power of politeness, nor had the first computers been built through the power of empty platitudes. No, the progress of mankind had been built on knowledge and hard work. But, did anybody value his knowledge and hard work? Of course not. They only cared about stroking their own pathetic egos. It was fucking high school all over again. Was it too much to be appreciated for one’s efforts, instead of how smooth or gracious you were?
Speaking of the march of progress, Blake turned his electric car off onto a side road to take a shortcut, the small automobile zipping through curves and around the plentiful potholes. By and large, Blake loved his new vehicle. He enjoyed the savings and efficiency that came with the electric engine, and the environmental benefits only further justified his purchase.
Truly, electric vehicles were the future, and Blake was more than ready to live at the forefront of modernity. It was a mighty shame that most others couldn’t see the truth. The hordes of lead-paint-eating Luddites out there clinging to their 8-cylinder gas guzzlers were fools, fools driving not only themselves but the rest of humanity towards an upcoming cliff. If Blake had his way, every fossil fuel combustion engine in the world would be turned into scrap metal within five years. He didn’t care what those morons had to say about it. As far as he was concerned, people didn’t have a right to be idiots if it meant dragging down everybody else in the process.
Speaking of gas-guzzling monstrosities, he spotted a large SUV parked on the right shoulder up ahead. Plumes of smoke billowed from the lifted front hood. As he approached, two armies formed inside his mind and went to war with each other. On the one hand, his lunch period was not unlimited and he was already feeling downright peckish. The driver of the SUV surely had things under control and a tow truck would be arriving shortly to take care of the problem. On the other hand, maybe things weren’t so simply resolved. Many people didn’t have roadside assistance. What’s more, he was uniquely positioned to help, far more than most other motorists. Not only did he have greater knowledge than the average driver, but he also had a large number of tools and materials stored in his trunk, just in case something happened to a friend’s car while he was around.
In the end, it was the driver’s appearance that swayed the battle in the latter army’s favor. An elderly woman who Blake judged to be in her late seventies or early eighties, she stood on the shoulder with an absolutely devastated look on her face, the sort you only saw when somebody’s dog died or something equally miserable occurred.
The woman looked up, confused and perhaps a tad bit frightened, as Blake pulled over ahead of the sidelined vehicle. Any fear vanished as he stepped out of the car and she got a full view of his wide, soft form, large paunch and all. Intimidating, Blake was most definitely not.
“Hey, you need help, ma'am?” he inquired.
“I’m alright,” she replied glumly. Blake noticed that she was not wearing what he would deem everyday clothing, but rather something much fancier, like one wore to special events. “A tow truck is coming.”
“You sure? You look like you have somewhere to be.”
The woman wilted a little. “I was driving to my granddaughter’s wedding, but it looks like I’ll miss at least the ceremony at this rate,” she glumly admitted. “Maybe even the whole thing.”
Blake grimaced. “Let me see if I can help you out with your engine troubles,” he offered.
The lady gave him the once over, noting the collared office shirt tucked into the khaki dress pants required by the company dress code. “Are you sure you’re up to it? You don’t exactly look the type.”
Old people. Blake bit back a particularly nasty remark about sags and wrinkles, choosing instead to take the high road and peer under the hood. The smoke or steam had petered out during their short conversation, giving him a clear view inside. The issue jumped out at him immediately.
“You have a split coolant hose over here, running into the radiator,” he informed the hapless lady as he ran a hand along the rubber hose. A large tear ran down to the end connecting to the radiator coolant intake. “Too much coolant leaked out and the engine overheated. Simple. I can fix this, no problem.”
The lady remained unconvinced. “Wouldn’t it be better to let a professional remedy it?”
“I am a professional, of sorts. Machines are what I do,” he asserted, turning back to face the old woman. “Look, for smaller holes, you could just top the levels off every so often and be just fine, but this hole is too big for that. That leaves two options. You could wait for the truck to arrive, cart this thing back to wherever, and eventually replace the hose. That might take hours and you’ll miss most, if not all, of the wedding. Or, I can patch it up with some of what I have with me-”
He pressed the trunk button on his car’s key fob and the back of his car opened to reveal his extensive tool kit resting to the left side of the compartment, along with several rolls of different diameter hose and bottles of oil, antifreeze, and coolant.
“-and in a few minutes you’ll be on your way and you won’t miss a thing. Then, you go get it fixed ‘properly’ when the opportunity arises. Worst case scenario: my fixes don’t hold and you end up calling a tow truck again half an hour for the same problem, no harm done, and you barely miss any more time than if you get towed now. So, what’ll it be?”
“Alright,” came the reply. The woman’s face hardened with determination. “I’m not missing this wedding if I can do anything about it.”
“Good choice,” he remarked as he set about gathering what he needed from his trunk.
The repair was a simple one for somebody of his talents and expertise. Some hose, two hose clamps, some more coolant to replace what had been lost... In less than ten minutes, the sound of a properly running internal combustion engine revving to life graced his ears.
“Thank you so much, young man,” the old lady said to him once the job was done. “You know, I happen to have another granddaughter who is single and could use a handy young man like you...”
Blake laughed at what he assumed was a joke. At least, he sure hoped so. “A tempting offer, I can assure you, but I must decline. Enjoy the wedding.”
Hopping back in his car, he activated the vehicle again and pulled back onto the road, a smile on his lips for the first time in a while. For a few moments, at least, his dark thoughts had been washed away by the woman’s words of thanks. That was all he needed: a thank you. A simple acknowledgment of the value of his deeds, and some well-earned respect.
Maybe this day wouldn’t be as bad as he’d thought.
Blake rolled down his window, leaned out of the newly created opening, and spoke into the speaker beside the standing menu. “I’ll take ten sliders, no pickles, extra onions, extra ketchup.”
The speaker flared to life with a burst of static, followed by a chilling pronouncement. “We’re out of ketchup right now.”
Blake’s mind went blank and he stared ahead numbly, unable to process the horrible news. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard that right,” he replied.
“We are currently out of ketchup. Would you like mustard instead?”
“Mustard?! Are you out of your mind?!” he cried. “How is that even possible?!”
“Sir, I just work here. Do you still want the ten sliders or not?”
Blake’s eyes flicked over to the car’s clock. After a moment of calculation, he determined that he’d lost too much time helping the old woman to be able to get to another place and still eat before he had to get back to work.
“...yeah,” he sighed.
The trip back to the office tasted like failure. Blake absentmindedly chewed on a slider, taking in the “flavor” of the soggy, mushy bun, the pile of barely grilled diced onions, and the low-quality sliver of beef. Even with ketchup, it could hardly be called “good eating”, and yet, for reasons he couldn’t fully explain, White Castle had become his guilty pleasure.
Blake only visited the local establishment four or five times a year, mostly when he needed an emotional pick-me-up or when he got the rare craving for that beef and onion synergy, largely because the food was not actually very good. That, and the fact that it usually gave him terrible diarrhea for the rest of the day.
And yet, these truths had failed to stop him from returning today, only several months after the last incident. Maybe he was just a glutton for punishment, or, maybe, witnessing firsthand the unique sort of misery that was working in a White Castle helped put his own problems into proper perspective.
It certainly worked this time. He wasn’t sixteen anymore, working the fryers as hot oil suffused the air, working its way into his pores and exacerbating his already-troublesome acne issues. No, now at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, he was a well-respected member of the industrial automation industry, well-noted for his achievements in the field. The sort that attended conventions because he was asked to be on panels, rather than as a run-of-the-mill attendee. The sort who trade magazines came to for quotes about the state of the industry. The sort that was, now, blessedly acne-free.
Blake swallowed the remnants of the woeful fourth slider as he pulled into his parking spot back at work. For a moment, he considered not going back inside; he really wasn’t in the mood at the moment to work for an ungrateful, egotistical, self-important douche like Preston. The way he acted like everything PerforMax ever created was due to his particular brand of genius had always rubbed Blake the wrong way. It was like buying a car and then claiming that you built it from scratch. PerforMax didn’t need Kale Preston, it just needed funds, and rich assholes with money to burn were a dime a dozen these days.
Maybe Blake had actually been on to something during his heat-of-the-moment pre-lunch diatribe. Maybe it was time he moved on and found some place where his talents were more appreciated. He didn’t relish leaving his team; with one notable exception, they were all smart, productive, and pleasant to work with. But perhaps he’d stuck around here too long. Perhaps it was time for a new chapter in his life.
He’d have to give it more thought later. But first, he had a new system to deliver. Climbing out of the car, he grabbed the bag of sliders and headed inside.
Maybe there was some ketchup in the company fridge.
The employee lunchroom at PerforMax Automated Solutions was not exactly awe-inspiring. In truth, it was little more than a normal, moderately-sized room containing a fridge, a microwave, and two tables that were one step above “folding”. The seats set up around them had been folding chairs until just the year before.
Blake had petitioned for additional devices to make the room less depressing—most specifically a toaster oven—only to have it shot down due to some bullshit the landlords had put in the lease so they could pay less for their insurance. Blake was tempted to bring one in anyway. It wasn’t like the landlords ever came to the office. No, they just sat on their asses, collecting rent for, as far as Blake could tell, doing absolutely nothing.
Blake arrived to find the chamber empty save Brenda, who sat in a seat in the back corner, munching away at a turkey sandwich. An employee at PerforMax for almost four years now, Brenda was the second-longest tenured engineer at the company, and in Blake’s mind, his best hire. She was competent, willing to fight for her ideas but flexible when she needed to be, and an all-around decent human being. Were anything to happen to him and his employment here, she would be the one who would have to clean up the mess he left behind.
“Is that White Castle?” she inquired with a bit of concern. “From the one near here?”
Blake slowed to a stop just in front of the fridge, his empty hand that was reaching out for the handle falling back down to his side. Something about her tone worried him. “Yeah, why?”
“You really went there after that?”
“The shutdown. You seriously didn’t hear about it?”
Brenda took another bite of her sandwich, leaving Blake to twist in the wind as she chewed slowly. Just when Blake began to suspect she was taking her time to mess with him, she swallowed and answered, “They got shut down recently for food contamination. Some sort of bacteria or parasite or something, I can’t remember. I think they just reopened a day or two ago.”
“That’s... ew...” was all Blake could manage.
“You really didn’t hear about it? It was all over the news. Twenty people ended up in the emergency room. Several almost died, I think. I’m surprised they even reopened. Nobody is going to trust their food again.”
“As if anybody trusted it before,” Blake snorted, pulling out one of the remaining sliders and taking a seat at the table Brenda was not seated at. He stared down at the uneaten slider in his hand. Did he really want to risk it?
“Fuck it,” he said, stuffing the slider down his gullet. He’d already eaten enough of them that it didn’t matter.
He paused for a moment after swallowing, realizing that he’d entered the lunchroom for a reason but drawing a blank on why. Eventually, the dry, bland flavor of the slider’s remnants jogged his memory. He stood up and opened the fridge. In the back, haloed in his vision like the holy grail itself, stood one squeeze bottle of ketchup.
It was empty.
Blake keyed in the passcode to his security system and opened the front door to his condo. Stepping over and around the mess of cords and doodads strewn across the floor, he made his way across his living room to his couch and flopped down upon it with a weary sigh. After such a trying day, he needed to unleash some of that built-up aggression. He unlocked his phone and sent a simple message to a friend who he knew was likely available.
“yo, I feel the urge to shoot people” he typed.
“Digitally, I hope,” came the reply seconds later.
“not if we let this fester,” he sent back.
“Give me 20, putting the kid to sleep.”
Blake booted up his high-spec gaming PC—that he’d built himself, of course—and decided to browse the web while he waited. This was the problem with friends: they had this annoying tendency to get married and procreate. At this point in his life, Blake was now the final remaining single person in his group of high school and college friends. More than half of them had a little cretin running around complicating their gaming time by now as well.
Blake, however, saw no need to complicate his life like that. He felt perfectly happy with his life the way it was, thank you very much, and no amount of badgering from his mother was going to change that any time soon. Maybe he would get married if he somehow found the right woman, but children? Hell no. He already didn’t have enough time to do what he wanted. He didn’t need some semi-sentient screaming sack of feces taking more of that away.
His friend had yet to show up when Blake reluctantly but urgently rose to his feet, not even bothering to stop the Youtube video he’d gotten halfway through. With reckless abandon, he sprinted towards the bathroom, unbuckling his pants as he went. Another friend had come calling, you see—a friend known as White Castle.
Twenty minutes later, he muttered curses at anything and everything he could come up with as he clenched, sweat, and groaned on his porcelain throne, his bowels delivering the harshest rebuke for his earlier decisions. Another wave built within him as his sore anus clenched reflexively, waiting for the acidic, watery remains that his body had yet to purge. He could hear angry text messages popping up on his phone back in the living room and he mentally apologized to his friend for suddenly ditching him, but it looked like he wasn’t going to be moving for a good while.
Finally, after more than half an hour of pain and misery, a refreshed and relieved Blake Myers flushed the toilet one final time and smiled. His tribulation had passed. Only blue skies, sunshine, and a night of headshotting randos with a buddy remained.
That was when it all went wrong.
He could not define the particular nature of the sensation that assaulted him. At best, he likened it to a powerful suction, except that there was no physical component involved. Something constantly yanked on a part of him that he didn’t previously know existed. That was about all he could grasp of the phenomenon before the world disappeared.
Time and space warped around him, breaking the natural laws of reality, establishing new ones, and then breaking those as well. Two equaled three, up was down, circles had corners. Blackness so dark that it seemed to absorb the very concept of color surrounded him, and yet its dazzling brightness threatened to render him blind. It was practically impossible to tell, but what little of his mind that could still function normally thought that maybe, just maybe, he could see something—or things—out there in the void. Things that defied his comprehension no less than everything else.
While that small remnant of his consciousness was trying to dismiss such a notion as simply a product of his maddening environment, the rest of it was doing all that it could to cope with that fact that he felt like he was burning alive. Every cell, every atom in his body seemed to burn with the heat of a thousand suns, birthing an unimaginable pain that dwarfed even the torture that he had been experiencing just moments before.
Then, there was the pressure. He didn’t know what it was or where it had come from, but it was building inside him and gaining power with each passing second. Everything inside him told him in no uncertain terms that, in just a few moments, he would no longer be able to contain it and he would be rendered into nothingness. He opened his mouth to scream, but found there was no air.
And then, suddenly, there was. Blake collapsed onto all fours and tried his best to keep what little nourishment that still remained inside of him from forcing its way out. Head buzzing and eyes unfocused, he gasped for oxygen and took a few deep, rattling breaths. The pressure had vanished, the pain leaving with it.
“What the fuck was that?” he croaked weakly, his voice echoing around the room. He’d heard of bad cases of food poisoning but a bizarre nightmare acid trip was taking things well past the bounds of believability. Then he froze. An echo? In his bathroom?
Shaking his head to clear away the haze in his mind and refocus his eyes, Blake found his hands resting on a large, dirty gray slab of... smooth stone? He closed his eyes, shook his head harder, and took another look. Nope, still not the slightly stained linoleum tile of his bathroom. More confused than afraid, he raised his head and gasped.
The room was large, spacious, and rectangular, with solid stone walls lacking any apparent seams, as if the room had not been constructed but rather carved out of a larger stone. Softly glowing quartz emplacements lined the ceiling, lending the space a dim, shadow-strewn, almost horror movie atmosphere.
Wires and cables made out of dark gray metal grew around the walls like vines on a tree trunk. Some were connected to strange devices placed at various positions around the chamber, while others wound around what looked like more quartz crystals. Those particular crystals weren’t shining, for some reason.
Everything seemed so alien to him that Blake forgot all about his circumstances and instead stood up and took a step towards the nearest device – and promptly fell flat on his face. Oh, right. This whole insane experience had caught him with his pants down. Literally, in fact, given that he had been about to bend over and pull his cargo shorts back up past his ankles when the world had taken a trip on the Nightmare Express. It could have been worse, he supposed. He could be naked. Hiking his pant up now and tightening his belt, Blake approached the nearby device with hesitant, unsteady steps.
It didn’t look like anything he could identify, but rather an oddly-shaped lump of metal with colored grooves winding around it in patterns that he couldn’t understand. Were the grooves decoration, or did they have some impact on the function? He had no clue. He had half a mind to delve deeper into the mystery, but caution won out. Touching weird machines in a creepy chamber that may or may not be a psychotic breakdown he was hallucinating as he drooled on his bathroom floor was probably not the best idea right now. He’d come back to them later, if they were even real and he wasn’t having some sort of stroke.
The arrangement of the machines in two long rows, one on either side of him, didn’t leave Blake many options for where to go. The single path led across the room to a single opening lit by another glowing crystal. Without anywhere else to go, he cautiously made his way across the room to the doorway to find a short hallway that terminated in stairs heading upwards. Seeing nowhere else to go, he continued down the hall and climbed the stairs, his legs propelling him up with nervous energy two steps at a time.
More than a hundred steps later, just as he was beginning to wonder if the stairway went up forever, he came to the end. There, at the top, he found a small, empty room no bigger than a large closet. A large door stood on the far side of this closet, a proportionally large button set into a glowing square the size of a sticky note installed to the right of it. Several cables ran from the square to the door, as well as from the square down into the stone below.
Standing in front of the door, Blake studied it with a critical eye in the glow of the single crystal above. As doors went, this was easily the most imposing door he’d ever seen outside of movies and video games. The door itself was recessed more than six inches into the thick, boxy metal frame that housed it. Try as he might, Blake could see no hinges anywhere on the featureless slab. He couldn’t see much at all, really; the door had a seemingly airtight seal all the way around, with not even a mote of light squeezing through.
It looked like he was going to have to touch something, after all. His mind equally divided between trepidation and curiosity, he reached out and pressed the button with a finger. Immediately, the door began to move aside ever so slowly. Blake’s ears picked up the sound of metal grinding on metal from somewhere inside the wall, as if something was working against centuries of rust, grime, and corrosion, but the large metal slab continued to make progress, eventually managing to work itself far enough to the side that Blake could squeeze through the gap.
The smells hit him first. Gone were the stench of overflowing garbage bins, car exhaust, and other odors of civilization, instead replaced by something new, yet familiar. Memories of family camping trips bubbled up into his consciousness unbidden. Where had he ended up? Some weird bunker somewhere out in the wilderness?
Stepping out beyond the door into the open, the view that greeted him confirmed that, technically, he’d guessed correctly; he was in fact out in the wilderness. The big problem was, his guess of “the wilderness somewhere” had carried an unstated ending of “on Earth”. The last time he had checked, the Earth didn’t have three moons.
A dream. This had to be a dream, or maybe some kind of strange drug trip. Something like that. There was no other possible explanation. He most definitely wasn’t on another planet. Absolutely not. Occam’s Razor said it had to be a dream. Just a really, really, realistic dream.
The night breeze whispering gently in his ears, Blake Myers sat down on the soft ground below him, curled into the fetal position, and stared at the three foreboding circles hanging over him in the star-filled alien sky, waiting patiently for this hallucination to end. He would wake up any time now. It was the only possible explanation. He was sure of it.
Any time now.