He awoke screaming and naked in a darkened corridor. Thick rivulets of blood trickled from his arms and legs, pooling about his knees and trailing gradually through the jagged maze of broken glass that littered the grated floor. He frantically plucked the shards from his limbs, his pathetic, shrill screams echoing down the corridor.
Sleek cylindrical pods lined the walls for as far as the eye could see, stretching vertically from ceiling to floor, fading into distant darkness. Each was carved with an oval window revealing the dimly illuminated body of a man or woman within. They were all bald, and their bodies were completely hairless. They were young and flawless in both looks and physique. Their eyes were open, mouths slightly parted, but they appeared unburdened by consciousness.
The windows of several pods had been shattered, and blood streaked bodies dangled limply out of them. The man glanced over his shoulder and saw exactly what he had expected to see: the shattered, empty pod from which he had emerged.
The corridor shook violently with the mournful groans of buckling metal. The walls twisted sharply and the man tumbled toward a nearby pod. The oval window cracked as he slammed against it. Beyond the spidery web of glass, the face of the woman within had lost none of its peaceful complacency. She seemed to be smiling at him, but when he shifted away from her gaze, her eyes remained fixed, staring blankly into space.
The corridor rumbled and the man slid down the pod, clutching a steel rod that ran alongside it and bracing himself for the next tremor. The walls warped and moaned. Several more pods shattered, gooey sapphire liquid and bodies spilling out of them like fish slipping from a dropped bucket. One of them, a man, crashed unceremoniously onto the floor next to him, his mouth gaping open, eyes staring dumbly at the ceiling.
The man had forgotten the pain in his wounded limbs and thought only of what would come next. He had no idea where he was or who he was or who these other naked people were. He was only certain that he would die before he ever found out. A brief, confused existence, cut short without answers, with only a few fleeting questions to distract his mind from the pain. He supposed he should be grateful for that, if nothing else.
A dark, blurry globe fell slowly into his line of sight and hung before him. He struggled to focus. Two points of red light slowly grew within the globe. When it spoke, the man gasped.
“Follow me,” the orb said in the perky voice of a prepubescent boy. It was nothing more than a glossy black sphere the size of a man’s head with two red eyes that fluctuated in sync with each syllable. Eight strange glyphs were engraved below the eyes where a mouth should have been, arcing upward to resemble a smile. It was suspended impossibly in midair, bobbing calmly in spite of the perilous surroundings.
“What are you?” the man said between gasps.
“Survival is priority one,” the orb replied. “Answers will be provided during less precarious circumstances. Follow me, please.”
The pod the man had been clinging to suddenly folded as the ceiling bowed inward. The rod he was clutching fell away and the man fell with it as the pod swung open. The woman collapsed onto him, and shards of glass ground into his back as he was splayed flat beneath her. He cried out, flailing his limbs in a mad panic until the body slid off of him. He scrambled to his feet, bumping into the floating orb. It crashed against a wall and swung around dizzily for a moment before regaining its composure.
“Survival is priority one,” the orb repeated. “Follow me, please.”
“What about them?” the man asked, indicating the pods.
“Insufficient time,” the orb replied. “This corridor will flood in approximately five minutes.”
“Flood?” The man arched his neck, listening to the low rumble above. He saw water dripping steadily from a breach in one of the bulkheads above.
“Survival is priority one,” the orb insisted in that annoyingly upbeat voice. It had started to float up the corridor. It slowed and turned, eyes dimming. “Follow me, please.”
The man pushed himself forward, limping after the orb. Pain blossomed in his legs with every step, but he decided pain was preferable to drowning, or spending another second with these eerie, lifeless people.
He moved along the corridor for what felt like an hour. He glanced down at his body, which was painted with intersecting crimson streams from chest to feet. He felt suddenly lightheaded, and his stomach twisted viciously. He hunched over, placing a hand against one of the still intact pods for support, and retched luminescent green liquid all over the floor.
“Who am I?” he asked the orb as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I can’t remember anything.”
“Priority one. Yeah, I got that.” He stumbled after the robot. The pain was fading into a dull ache now, and his legs were starting to feel pleasantly numb. He wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to walk, but he welcomed the change.
They continued on, and the man wondered if the corridor would ever end. When it got too far ahead, the orb would slow and turn to make sure he was still following. Its eyes dimmed contemplatively until the man caught up to it.
“I can’t remember anything,” the man said.
“There is nothing to remember,” the orb replied cheerfully. “You have no memories because there are no memories. You are new.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
The orb let out a woeful, electronic noise that might have been a sigh. “I’ll never understand why base programming includes profanity.”
“If I’m ‘new’ then how is it I think and speak?”
A bulkhead rattled, a bolt shot away like a bullet, and a thick stream of water sprayed the corridor. The man quickened his pace as pellets of water stung his legs.
“Answers will be provided during less precarious circumstances,” the orb said. “Survival is priority one.”
Finally, they came to the end. It was a large door with a small, circular screen and a complicated red menu with symbols that resembled the glyphs of the orb’s mouth. The orb hovered before the screen and the menu came to life, as though invisible fingers were interacting with it.
The man felt an icy tingling between his toes. He looked down and was horrified to see that an inch of water had accumulated around him. He hazarded a glance back down the corridor. Water was streaming from several breaches now. Whatever structure he was inside of, it was not level; the water level seemed to rise further down the corridor, in the direction he had come from. If he had remained there, he would be wading through waist-high water right now. More pods had opened and bodies were floating aimlessly. None of the occupants had come to life as he had, which perplexed him. He made a mental note to ask the orb about this later as well. The thought of these people waking from their strange slumber and barraging him with the very same questions that were presently swarming through his head did not comfort him. Part of him was happy they were inexplicably lifeless.
The screen flashed red and the door hissed open, sliding into the ceiling. The man rushed through it, brushing past the orb, eager to get out of this corridor for good. The orb passed through the door and lingered for a moment. The door closed behind him.
The new room was pitch back and smelled of metal and oil. The man wondered why he knew what oil was when he couldn’t even recall his own name. Did he have amnesia? Had he hit his head falling out of that pod? He felt his skull for a bump. The skin was smooth and hairless, like a baby’s head. “How do I know what a baby’s head feels like?” he wondered aloud.
“Answers will be provided during less precarious circumstances,” the orb answered, in that infuriatingly perky tone. The man’s face flushed and he had a sudden urge to seize the little bastard and bash it repeatedly against a bulkhead. The orb bobbed in front of him with its maddening smile made of bizarre symbols and said, “Follow me, please.” The man grunted and followed the light of the orb’s eyes.
The numbness in his legs had given to an uncomfortable throbbing, and he trembled at the thought of the pain returning in full. He wasn’t sure he would be able to walk if that happened. Would the orb leave him here to drown? Would drowning be even more painful than glass? What would he find beyond death? Would he find anything at all?
His heart had started to race, his breath had shortened, and the throbbing was getting worse.
He wrenched his mind from such thoughts and focused on the echoes of his footsteps, which were spread much further apart in this room. Clearly he was in a much larger space than the slim corridor.
A thin vertical line of white light split the darkness. A doorway opened, and the little orb was silhouetted like a drifting moon eclipsed before an impossibly massive sun.
The details of the room came into view as the light flooded in. They were in a very large hangar with hulking vehicles scattered about, fading into the distance beyond the light’s reach. The majority of these vehicles had toppled, each one leaning into the next like a column of fallen dominoes. The wheels were taller than a man, with rutted tires designed for rough terrain. Their wheels were taller than a man, with rutted tires designed for rough terrain. The tires dwarfed a green, windowed canopy, which looked barely large enough to hold two men. Behind that was a flatbed for carrying supplies.
A tremor rocked the hangar, growing steadily in force, until one of the upturned vehicles rolled onto its roof and slid into another vehicle. Windows shattered and metal screeched. Each subsequent tremor gradually became less violent than the last, until the hangar was still again.
“Can we take one of these?” the man asked.
“Useless in water,” the orb said. “Follow me, please.”
“Water?” the man murmured. Exactly how much water were they under? He pushed the unsettling thought out of his mind and hurried after the orb.
The man plunged into the searing white light of the next room. He squinted, shielding his eyes with his hands. He heard the door to the hangar hiss closed behind him. His eyes gradually adapted to the light and he cautiously lowered his hands. The orb was hovering before him, its shiny black surface a stark contrast to the white room. It was studying the man intently with those crimson eyes. Irritated, the man nudged the orb out of his way with the back of his hand. In the center of the room was a thin bed surrounded by assorted silver instruments that jutted from somewhere beneath, curling upward like the fingers of a metallic hand.
The surrounding room was a perfect square, no more than thirty feet across. The walls were embedded with several circular red screens similar to the one the orb had interacted with in order to gain access to the hangar. The light was emanating from the surface of the walls, equally dispersed with no dim or overly bright patches.
The man glanced down and saw that he had tracked large droplets of blood from the entrance. A red cross was painted on the door. Something about this symbol calmed him. But this brief tranquility vanished as he looked at his arms and legs. The color of his skin was ghostly white beneath thick tendrils of blood.
“Lie on the bed, please,” the orb instructed.
The man swung around sluggishly, the red screens a swirling blur. His feet felt suddenly heavy and impossible to lift, as though his heels were taking root with every step. His right leg turned to jelly and he collapsed onto his knee. Pain exploded throughout his leg, spiking into his crotch. He clutched himself and screamed. Nausea rose like a bubble from the pit of his stomach. Darkness flanked his vision. He blinked rapidly, struggling to stay awake.
The orb moved to his side, hovering near his ear. “You must get to the bed,” it insisted. “If you lose consciousness, I will not be able to carry you and you will die.”
The man clenched his teeth and shook his head, fighting the sweet desire to close his eyes and go to sleep. Soon enough, he told himself. Soon enough. He placed both hands flat against the floor and shoved himself upward, pain flowing through his muscles against the diminished current of blood retreating from his veins. He needed only three long strides, and on the third he collapsed against the bed, which was thankfully firmly rooted in place by a cylindrical base. His legs were done; his arms were all he needed now. He pulled himself onto the bed, smearing it with sweat and blood, and rolled onto his back.
Metallic braces emerged from thin seams barely discernable in the fabric, sliding over his arms and legs and locking him in place. One of the silver instruments started to move toward him, gears gyrating smoothly within its three joints. A needle jutted from the tip, and the man’s heart started to flutter. “What is that?” he demanded, struggling in his firm restraints.
“Relax,” the orb said, its normally perky voice taking on a soothing quality that complemented its perpetual smile. “This will help you sleep while I fix you.”
The needle punctured his arm. His throbbing, numb limbs gave to a pleasant, tingling sensation. His eyelids started to close of their own accord.
Seconds passed. Or so he thought. When he opened his eyes again, the room was unrecognizable. A huge fissure coursed the ceiling, with colored wires spilling out like intestines from a ruptured belly.
He sat up sharply. The metallic braces had retracted back into the bed. His limbs were still covered in blood, but they no longer ached. In fact, he felt no pain whatsoever. He inspected his arms, wiping away the blood in one spot, but could find no wounds.
The room rumbled, the bed rocking up and down. He was thrown into the air and came crashing back down onto the bed. He nearly tumbled off, but secured himself and glanced about. The walls were bent and cracked. The few screens that still functioned were blinking on and off. The instruments surrounding the bed had fallen to the floor, which was now completely flooded.
And there, in the water, amid debris that had crumbled from the ceiling, he saw the black orb floating. A large gash was carved into the top of its dome and its red eyes flickered dimly. The man leapt from the bed, his feet splashing in nearly two feet of water. He scooped up the orb and looked into its eyes. A faint stream of smoke wafted from a small breach at the center of the gash. The strange glyphs were still smiling.
“We have very little time,” said the orb, its perky voice contradicting its diminished condition. “Do exactly as I say.”
The man followed the orb’s instructions without question. He had no reason not to trust this strange device, which thus far had led him from certain death and magically repaired his wounds. In a way, the annoying little orb had become his only friend. And now his friend was dying.
He carried the orb to the door with the red cross on it, which opened as he neared and closed after he passed through. The orb guided him through the darkened hangar, the dull light of its eyes illuminating each of the overturned vehicles in crimson as they passed by. He walked for a long time, with the orb constantly reassuring him that he was going the right way. He would have been annoyed, but his legs felt wonderful now, and he seemed to be going downhill rather than up.
Finally he saw a red screen in the distance, and he knew that meant a doorway to another room. When he reached door, the orb said, “Place me in front of the screen.” He did as asked, and the orb’s invisible fingers flicked across the screen. The screen slid upward as the door disappeared into the ceiling.
A tremor rocked the hangar and the man heard the toppled vehicles colliding with one another behind him. He sprinted through the doorway and into a long corridor, the floor rolling like waves beneath his feet. The door hissed closed and something smashed into it. The door buckled outward but held steady.
“Good,” the orb said. “Keep running.” The light of its eyes was growing fainter.
The man glanced at the walls, which were littered with more strange glyphs. There were large red arrows pointing in the direction he was headed. He hoped that was a good sign.
The corridor pivoted suddenly, flinging the man carelessly against a wall. The orb slipped from his grasp and banged against the steel floor. It rolled down the corridor like a bowling ball, bouncing whenever it rolled onto its dented side. “Retrieve me!” the orb called in a warbled mockery of its perky voice. The man regained his footing and scrambled after his only friend. When he reached it, the orb slipped through his fingers a few times. It rolled onto its dent and bounced. The man snatched it in midair.
He quickened his pace, not looking back to investigate the sounds of grinding metal somewhere behind him. The walls were shaking, pieces tearing free. A huge panel of ceiling fell away and he rolled away, narrowly avoiding being crushed. Copper tubing, thick as a man’s waist, came crashing down.
He ran and ran. Whatever structure he was in, it was impossibly large. “How much further?”
“Much further for you,” the orb said. “Not far for me.”
“Your survival is priority one.”
He reached another door with a screen, and he held the orb before it without instruction. The door opened and he ran through, breathing a sigh of relief as the door hissed shut behind him.
The man’s breath caught in his throat.
He stood at the base of a large triangular room. A dozen chairs sat before red-screened consoles. Horizontal windows ran along either side of the triangle, leading to its point at the opposite end. Through the windows stretched an endless cerulean vista, with colorful creatures of various sizes gliding here and there on translucent wings.
“Fish,” was the first word that came to the man’s mind. “Those are fish.”
“Very good,” the orb said, its cheerful tone laced with sarcasm.
The man ran to the nearest window, moving around one of the chairs. A rather large fish swam by, its scales gleaming vibrantly as it sailed into a column of light. The man’s gaze followed the column upward to its origin. Far above, a bright sphere shimmered gently through a rippled canvas.
“Take me to the center console,” the orb said. “I am running out of time.”
The man bitterly suppressed his wonder and did as he was told. He carried the orb to the tip of the triangle, to the largest chair and screen. “Sit in the chair,” the orb said. He sat and placed the orb in his lap, so that it was facing the console. Invisible fingers flashed across the circular screen.
“What are you doing?” the man demanded, frustrated with not knowing.
“I am activating the airlock.”
“You must escape this vessel. All queries will be answered momentarily.”
“All of them?” the man chuckled. “I have a few.”
“Soon you will have answers to questions you haven’t even thought to ask, and you will no longer require my instruction.”
“That’s a relief,” the man said, and instantly felt an inexplicable pang of regret. His little friend wouldn’t be around much longer, and he had saved his life. But the orb didn’t seem bothered by the insult. It continued about its business, unseen digits flurrying madly across the screen.
“The airlock has been activated,” the orb said. “Turn me about.” The man tilted the orb to face him. Its muted red eyes almost looked melancholy. “This will not hurt, but it will be unpleasant.”
“What won’t hurt?”
The orb’s eyes exploded light, bathing the room in brilliant meridian hues. The man inhaled sharply and attempted to scream, but no sound emerged from his throat. In fact, all sound seemed to have faded. He desperately wanted to shut his eyes, but his eyelids stubbornly refused to cooperate, pried open by hazy red waves that pulsed cyclically from the orb’s eyes.
Bizarre images materialized before him, riding each wave. He saw a planet, its blue and green surface effervescent against the encompassing shades of red. He plummeted toward it at dizzying velocity, and he wanted nothing more than to scream. He fell past a single moon, white and pockmarked. He reached for it, hoping absurdly that he might grasp onto it before falling to his death, but it was gone in a flash. The planet filled his vision. He fell into a mist of clouds. He expected an icy wind to cut his naked body, but he felt nothing. The clouds parted and he fell toward a gnarled, narrow island that was bordered by water, connected to the surrounding landmass by shimmering metal bridges. His descent gradually started to slow. There were hundreds of silver structures below him that glinted in the light of the nearby sun. Details came into view. The structures were separated by streets, and thousands of metal objects moved between them at a leisurely pace. There were square patches of green here and there; one of these patches near the top was relatively large. He fell between two tall buildings, windows gleaming in his peripheral vision. His descent slowed considerably before he could be dashed against the street.
He was suspended above, watching vehicles–which he somehow knew were called “automobiles”–speed by below him. Crowds busied the sidewalks on either side of the street. Some of them were walking cute, furry little animals on leashes that he knew were called “dogs”.
He was distracted by an attractive woman with shimmering blonde hair. Her gray shirt was unbuttoned down to her ample cleavage, which bounced pleasingly as she walked. The shirt was tucked into a form-fitting black skirt that displayed her long legs for all to see. He wanted to float down and talk to her, but remembered he was stark naked. The blonde was carrying a large paper bag, with the same symbols he had seen on the console screens. Without knowing why or how, he suddenly knew each of these symbols to be letters, and he knew that these letters made up words. The words said, BIG BROWN BAG.
He was dimly aware that his hands were still grasping the edges of the chair. None of this was really happening. The orb, which he now knew was a robot fashioned by human beings, had implanted a vision in his mind.
He moved through the street, watching these people as they went about their daily lives. He picked out several more attractive women. They were the exception rather than the rule. He read every sign he could. He suddenly knew random and seemingly useless facts. He knew that the yellow cars, which were the majority here, were called “taxis”. He knew that the loudmouthed man standing beneath a red and yellow umbrella with a silver cart was a “hotdog vendor”. He knew that the billboard with a decadent, grinning pirate named “Captain Morgan” was an advertisement for an alcoholic beverage that real pirates used to enjoy, and that Captain Morgan had actually existed.
The street was gone. Had he blinked? He was hovering between two very tall white sheets that flapped in the wind. He looked down and saw the wood planking of a ship. The bustling pirates beneath him were much more authentic than the larger-than-life man advertising rum. These men were dirty, ugly, and frightening. They had divided into two sides, with their swords drawn threateningly. Each side was screaming incomprehensibly at the other. This persisted for a full minute, until, like slingshots, they flung themselves at one another.
The ship was gone. He must have blinked again. He saw a young boy in a field of grass, aiming a slingshot at a white rabbit. The boy fired, the rabbit’s white fur exploded red and it tumbled head over heels. The boy cheered for ten minutes, punching the sky with his fist, dancing triumphantly around the dead rabbit. Eventually he calmed down and departed, leaving the little white corpse to rot in the field.
The field was gone. He saw a coffin being lowered into the ground, surrounded by family members clothed all in black. They were crying profusely while a priest droned on and on about the dead man in the coffin, who was apparently very important. An attractive woman looked up at the sky from beneath a black veil, and the man shuddered, for she seemed to be staring right at him. Mascara ran down her face. Two very young children dressed in blue stood before her, and she was flanked by two handsome, strong-jawed men. She was cradling a folded blue flag littered with white stars.
The woman was gone, and now he was in some sort of dark building with many windows. There were boxes everywhere, stacked unceremoniously. A thin man was huddled by a window, holding a rifle with one eye closed. He squeezed the trigger and the resounding crack seemed to shake the building itself. There was screaming outside. The thin man grinned, but only for an instant before his face went ghostly pale.
The visions continued like this for what felt like an eternity, the man’s random thought process carrying him back and forth across centuries. Time stretched beyond meaning. By the time he was through, he had drifted above all mankind, experiencing the worst, best, and most trivial it had to offer.
When he awoke, the red glow of the robot’s eyes had almost completely dimmed. The man carefully picked the robot up with both hands and examined the symbols that resembled a smile. “Merlin 88?” the man said with a smirk. “Is that your name?”
“Not anymore,” the robot quietly replied as the light faded from its eyes.
Excerpt from ARCTURUS
by Matt Tomerlin.
Copyright © 2011 by Matt Tomerlin. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.