No one came.
With no chrono in the room, Sarah had no idea how much time passed while she waited. It felt like a very long time, but she didn't start getting hungry and she didn't need to use the bathroom, so it must not have been as long as it seemed. As time passed by and nothing happened, her fear slowly began to fade into anger. How dare they leave her here! What kind of incompetent morons were in charge of this clinic? Didn't they know how many patients they had? And where was that spineless wretch, Linton? How dare he leave his wife to die in the middle of a combat zone.
Sarah rolled over and sat up. "You'd better come get me, Linton," she said out loud.
No answer came.
Sarah gazed at the door. Maybe it wasn't as bad out there as it seemed. Maybe what she'd taken for fog was really smoke, and all she'd have to do was run through a few meters of it before she'd be safe.
Smoke! Her eyes widened. What if the building was on fire? Maybe no one had come because they couldn't get through the flames! Maybe the fire was, even now, creeping closer and closer to her room --
Sarah let out a small whimper of terror and ran to the door, then paused. What if there were flames on the other side? She touched the door nervously, jerking her hand back and checking her flesh to see if it was seared. It wasn't. She put her hand back against the door. Like everything else in the room, it was slightly warm. Comfortable.
I've got to get out of here. I can't stay. It isn't safe, and it's starting to look like no one is going to help me.
Sarah wanted to curl up into a little ball and cry in fear. Yet somehow, despite her terror, she found that it felt a little bit ... good? ... to know that she was going to have to make it out of here on her own. For so many years, she had relied on other people to tell her what to do and when to do it. Her life was a steady routine of work and scheduled entertainment. If anything ever did go wrong, Linton and the local Peacekeepers would protect her. There was nothing to worry about.
Now, a long-dormant part of her began to awaken--the young girl who had dreamed of becoming a space pirate or a brave explorer, before she woke to the realization that Class IV's couldn't do those things.
Right now, she had to focus on getting out of the room. She'd seen a holovid once, long ago, where a woman was trapped in a burning house and had soaked down a sheet and covered her head with it. Sarah pulled the top sheet off the bed. She had no water, but maybe the dry sheet would help a little bit.
If I give myself any time to think about it, I won't be able to do this. "One," Sarah said aloud. "Two. Three."
She took a deep breath, filling her lungs, and hit the door-open button. As it began to slide open, Sarah covered her head with the sheet and blundered out into the gray fog beyond.
One step. Two. Three four five. The floor felt rough underfoot, gritty. Maybe that was dust from the explosions. Ten steps, eleven. Or was that twelve? Sarah's lungs were starting to ache. With the sheet over her head, she couldn't see a thing. She'd expected to run into a wall already. Maybe the walls were gone? Maybe she was about to step into a hole in the floor and plunge down, down, sixty stories to her death. Sarah froze in her tracks. No, she had to keep moving--she needed air. Frustrated, she whipped off the sheet. At least now she'd be able to see where she was.
But she couldn't. The fog, or smoke or whatever it was, hung so thickly around her that she couldn't see anything. It wasn't dark--there was definitely light, but an odd, ambient, omnidirectional light that provided no help. She thought she should be able to see the light from the door of her room (had she really come that far already?) but she couldn't; there was nothing around her but gray fog.
And her lungs--the pain in her lungs had grown to blazing agony. She couldn't stand it. She couldn't hold her breath any more. The air whistled out between her teeth, despite her best efforts to stop it, and she gasped involuntarily, panting for oxygen.
She didn't drop dead. Her lungs didn't burn. The air seemed to be just ... air. She could not smell the slightest hint of smoke, though that faint metallic tang she'd noticed in her room was still present, a little more pronounced out here. The air was comfortably warm, not hot and not cold.
Sarah let out a small whimper. This is creepy. Maybe I should go back to my room. Maybe it would be better to just wait. Someone is bound to come along eventually.
She started groping her way through the fog, back in what she assumed was the direction she'd come from. She counted off ten steps ... twelve ... sixteen. Had she come this far? When she reached forty steps, she stopped in defeat. She was positive that she hadn't walked anywhere near that far. She must be going in the wrong direction. Turning, she started off in a new direction, but she'd gone only a few steps when she stopped in dismay and growing panic. She had no idea which way she was going or where she was. Every direction looked the same in the fog.
"Help!" Sarah shouted. "Help me! Somebody! Please!"
Her voice sounded thin and thready, leaving no echoes. She'd read somewhere that fog muffles sound; maybe that's what was causing the strange, echoless effect. She shouted a few more times, finally trailing off. Making noise, drawing attention to herself, seemed wrong--as if something lurked in the fog. Waiting for her. Hunting for her.
That's silly, Sarah thought, shivering despite the warm air. There's nothing here but you.
She wrapped the sheet around her shoulders, obscurely glad that she'd brought it--besides that, she had only her hospital gown, and nothing else. The thought occurred to her suddenly that perhaps she should tear some strips from the sheet and wrap them around her feet; if she encountered broken glass, she might cut herself. For that matter, what was she walking on, anyway? Something gritty. Sarah knelt down and touched the ground, ran her fingers across it. The floor. It must be. But it was too rough. It felt more like ... stone, maybe? Oddly enough, she couldn't quite seem to see it. All she managed to do was get an impression of vague grayness. In the dim light, the floor or ground or whatever it was blended with the fog, giving the weird impression that she was floating. Whatever direction she turned (up, left, right, down) all she could see was gray.
Sarah closed her eyes, fighting off a wave of dizziness. Then her eyes snapped open again, as sudden fear rushed over her--fear that something was going to come out of the fog and touch her. She turned around, trying to look every direction at once. Oh, how she hated not being able to see! Anything could be there ... just a few meters away. She wouldn't know.
There is nothing here but you, she told herself, but couldn't quite manage to convince herself, now that her imagination had taken hold.
What is this place, anyhow?
Am I ... ?
The thought had occurred to her earlier, but it was much easier to banish in the safe, familiar surroundings of the zone clinic room--or what had appeared to be a zone clinic room, at any rate. Out here, with nothing familiar to hold on to, Sarah felt her old certainties slipping away.
Maybe the suicide patch really did work. Maybe this is what happens to you after you die.
Grayness. Endless grayness.
March 19, 2476. Wasn't that the date she'd ...?
Sarah clenched her hands, feeling her fingernails crease her palms. The tiny stabs of pain grounded her and drew her back to herself. She felt her panic start to recede. If I was dead, I wouldn't still feel so alive. There is some other explanation. There is something beyond this fog--I just have to keep walking, and I'll find it.
Galvanized, she started walking in a random direction. It didn't really matter--one way looked the same as another way. She realized that she'd forgotten about her feet, and tried to rip a strip from the sheet, but the fabric was tearproof and she made no progress. With a sigh, Sarah rolled up the sheet and tucked it under her arm. It was warm enough out here that she didn't need to use it to cover herself, but it might come in handy later on.
She started walking again. At first, she tried counting steps, but she lost count somewhere around two hundred, and so she just walked. She tried to go in a straight line, but couldn't tell in the fog. She might be walking in circles for all she knew. The timeless feeling she'd experienced in the zone clinic room was worse out here--she could have walked for five minutes, or five hours. Her legs did not feel particularly fatigued. Well, she'd worked out regularly in her zone's exercise lounge for the last thirty years; maybe it was finally coming in handy.
Sarah began to hum softly to herself as she walked. The timeless, unchanging nature of the fog made her feel as if she was drifting. It would be easy to lose track of time completely, to just fall asleep, even on her feet ...
Suddenly she froze, falling silent. The feeling that she'd had before, that she wasn't alone in the fog, had returned, stronger than before. Fear swept over her, leaving her shaky and nauseous. She couldn't explain how she knew. She just knew it, as her primitive ancestors must have known when a predator was watching them.
Imagination, Sarah told herself, shaking and trying to quiet her harsh breathing. It's your imagination. There's nothing there.
But she couldn't know that, could she? She couldn't see a thing in any direction.
Sarah stood as still as possible, trembling. What should she do? Stand still? Run? If she did run, she might just draw attention to herself. But she couldn't just stand here, waiting for ... for ... for what? She couldn't hear anything, or smell anything other than that slight metallic tinge to the air, and she certainly couldn't see anything.
There's nothing there. It's your imagination.
Yet she couldn't bring herself to start walking again. For a long time--she had no idea how long--Sarah stood very still, shivering, waiting, not sure what to do. Occasionally she would spin around--she hated having her back exposed, because she couldn't shake the irrational fear that something was sneaking up from behind her.
Eventually she started walking again. The fear, the sense of being watched, had receded somewhat--whether because whatever it was had moved along, or because her imagination had finally given over to common sense, she wasn't sure. She did not hum now, though, and she walked as quietly as possible. Twice more, she froze, struck again by the instinctive sense that if she kept walking, something horrible would happen to her. Each time, she'd wait until she was no longer as afraid, and then, still not certain if it was the right thing to do but unable to think of anything else, she'd start walking again.
After what seemed to be a long, long time, but might not have been, Sarah realized that she could actually see something through the fog, off to her left. She froze, but it didn't seem to be moving. A wall? A building? Oh, please, please let it be a building, she prayed silently, padding towards it on her bare feet.
It was quite close. She hadn't gone more than twenty or thirty steps before she nearly banged into it. With nothing out here to give a sense of scale, size and distance were very deceptive.
The object was some sort of black obelisk, about as tall as Sarah's waist. It was five-sided and as big around as her leg, with a flat top. Sarah touched it nervously, and when nothing happened, ran her hands up and down it. It had no markings, no buttons, nothing to indicate what it was for. It vanished seamlessly into the gray stone or cement that made up the floor.
"Well," Sarah said quietly to herself, and then looking ahead, she could just make out another one, at the very edge of her ability to see through the fog. Looking over her shoulder, there was another one, some distance behind her.
"How odd," she said under her breath. "Is it a road?"
The ground did not seem to be any different here; there was nothing to distinguish this from any other part of the fog except for those pillars. But out here, Sarah was willing to try anything that would lead her towards something different. "Which way to go, which way to go." Finally, she started walking in the direction that she'd labeled "forward", the direction she was currently facing. Either way was equally likely (or unlikely) to lead her to some sort of destination. If she hit a dead end, then she could just start walking in the other direction.
The thought occurred to her to worry that she'd seen no sign of food or water, but then she realized that she wasn't hungry or thirsty, either. And while she wasn't sure how long she'd been out here, it had definitely been long enough that she should be starting to experience both.
That settles it, then. I really am dead. Either that, or I'm stuck in some kind of virtual-reality system. Or maybe it's a dream, though I've never had a dream this intense before. But this isn't real. It isn't happening.
It certainly felt real. She wasn't tired yet, but her feet were starting to feel a bit raw from walking on the gray stone, and the calves of her legs twinged occasionally. But she kept walking; what else could she do? Sit down in the fog and wait for that disturbing awareness of another presence to come back? Shivering, she kept moving.
She followed the pillars, one after another, a never-ending row of them stretching into the gray eternity of nothingness. At least it gave her something to focus on, to keep her consciousness from spinning out into the endless grayness.
After a time, Sarah became aware of something new up ahead of her, in the direction she was walking: a brighter spot in the fog, a pale glow like the watery light of a lamp underwater. A house? An end to the fog? Sarah found her steps quickening.
It turned out to be anti-climactic, but odd: a streetlamp, of the sort that Sarah had seen in historical vids, with a pale globe of light atop a wrought-iron pole taller than her head. Still, after the unchanging sameness of the fog, Sarah found the pool of light cast by the streetlamp to be oddly homey and warm. The place seemed to be a crossroads of sorts; besides the row of pillars that she had followed to get here, two more rows marched off and vanished rapidly in the fog.
It never ends! Sarah thought in despair, sinking down at the base of the streetlamp. Was that all the pillars led to--streetlamps and crossroads and more pillars? What kind of twisted mind came up with a place like this? Her own? Was this just some kind of weird dream, some kind of delusion?
Something scraped the rock behind her.
It had been so long since she'd heard anything but the sound of her own footsteps that it took a moment for awareness of the sound to penetrate her consciousness. Sarah gasped, her heart leaping into her throat, and scrambled to her feet, whirling around. What can I do? Hide?
The sound did not come again. She couldn't tell how close it had been; the fog was as deceptive about sound as it was about distance. Sarah crept backwards and flattened herself against the lamppost. How can I hide if I don't know what I'm hiding from?
She pressed against the pillar, her heart pounding wildly. Something was moving in the fog. Something large. She couldn't quite see it--that was the horrible part. But she was aware of it, a ripple in the fog. Near? Far? She couldn't tell. Terror turned her blood to ice, her mouth to sand. She wanted to pull the sheet over her head and hide, like a small child trembling in her bed at night. If you can't see the monsters, they can't see you ... But this monster, whatever it was, could see her. Would see her.
"Become invisible," a voice whispered, near her ear.
Sarah jumped. She would have screamed, but fear so constricted her chest that nothing emerged from her throat but a tiny squeak, like a mouse trodden underfoot.
It was enough. It was too much. Like a searchlight through the fog, she felt a consciousness turning towards her. Eyes, unseen, searched her out. The large thing was moving again, purposeful, hunting.
"Become invisible," the voice whispered again, and as Sarah started to turn her head, it whispered urgently, "No. Don't look at me. Don't think about me. Don't even look at yourself, or at anything. Close your eyes, empty your mind and think of nothing but ceasing to exist. You are not here. Convince yourself and you can convince it, too."
What is IT? Sarah wanted to ask, but then she heard that sound again, that scraping, and she suddenly knew, beyond all doubt, that she did not want to see what made that sound. Trusting in the unknown source of the voice, as she had always trusted others to tell her what to do, she shut her eyes and tried to clear her mind of thought. It was hard--so hard.
I am not here. I am invisible. I am invisible. I am ...
And then she bit back on another scream, because something was standing right in front of her. She knew it. She could feel it, deep inside--a presence, another entity mere inches from her. If she reached out her hand, she would touch it. And she did not want to touch it, not for anything in the world.
I have no hands. I am invisible. I am intangible. I am not here not here notherenotherenothere ...
She was weeping softly, soundlessly, with fear. Tears slid down her cheeks, and when something touched her shoulder she flinched violently, and her quiet weeping gave way to choking sobs that she tried desperately to hold back.
"It's okay," said the same voice that had spoken before. "You did very well. It's gone now."
Sarah opened her eyes and looked up at a stranger, a heavy-set, dark-haired young man. She had never seen him before in her life, nor did she recognize the uniform that he was wearing: black, with crimson piping down the sleeves and legs. It was not a Tertian uniform or any that she could remember seeing in books or holovids.
The stranger took his hand from her shoulder. "It's okay," he said again.
Sarah wiped her eyes, sniffling. Embarrassing to be caught like this, but she'd been so frightened. "What was that?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," the stranger said. "I've never seen it. I think it would be ... bad ... to see it. You'll feel it coming before it can feel you, and then you have to do what you just did--pretend to be invisible, and it always goes away."
"Do you think it knows?" Sarah asked, shakily climbing to her feet. It was a seemingly stupid question, but what in this place made sense? "Do you think it's not fooled at all, and it's only playing with us?"
The young man opened his mouth, and closed it again. "I don't know," he said finally. "I never wondered. It goes away, that's all I know."
Sarah leaned against the lamppost and closed her eyes, still trembling with the aftereffects of her fear. "Does it come around often?"
"I don't know," the young man admitted. Sarah opened her eyes to see him spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. "I don't even know how long I've been here. There doesn't seem to be any time here."
"Are we ...?" She didn't know how to ask the question, and she felt silly for even asking it, but she had been wondering for some time, and maybe he would know. "Are we dead?"
The young man pondered that. "I think so," he said at last. "I mean ... I think I am. I don't know about you. The last thing I remember was getting shot. But I don't remember anything very clearly. Do you notice that?"
Sarah thought about it. "I see what you mean," she said at last. Her early memories were fairly clear, but as they got closer to the present day, they were hazier and hazier. She knew that she'd put on the suicide patch, but that was about the only thing that she remembered clearly from the last few ... years? Could her life have been so empty that she had no clear memories of those years, none at all?
The young man smiled, and leaned his hip against the nearest pillar. "Well, they say misery loves company," he said at last. "So it's nice to finally have some company. Pretty company, too."
Sarah blushed. How many years had it been since anyone, including her husband, had complimented her appearance? Her husband ... damn. "I'm married," she said quickly.
"So am I," the young man reassured her, holding up his hand. One finger bore a simple gold band. Sarah had heard of such a custom, though Tertians did not practice it. He wasn't Tertian, then.
"I'm Sarah," she said.
"Zack. Zack Westline Boundary." He held out his other hand; Sarah hesitated, then realized that she was supposed to shake it. On Tertia, women did not shake hands and men only shook hands with social equals, which made the custom rare. Perhaps it was different elsewhere, or perhaps he was extending a gesture of great respect, since they were both stuck in the same mess together.
As she took his hand, she saw his eyes widen in surprise. "What?" Sarah said, as he turned over her hand, looking at her wrist.
"You have one too," Zack said.
She had almost forgotten about the date tattooed on her skin, and she tried to pull her hand back, embarrassed. Then his words penetrated. "Do you have one of these, too?"
Zack nodded. "It's not on my wrist, though." He unbuttoned the collar of his shirt and pulled it away from his chest. Sarah looked in surprise at the letters and numbers, like an irregular bruise over his heart.
March 19, 2476.
"Yours is on the wrist, though," Zack added.
"I ..." Sarah wet her dry lips with the tip of an equally dry tongue. "You said that you were shot?"
"I think so. I don't remember very clearly."
"In the heart?"
"In several places, I think."
Sarah turned over her wrist and stared at the traceries on her skin. "The last thing I remember was peeling off a suicide patch and sticking it to my wrist ... right here. They say you're supposed to put them over an artery."
There was a silence from Zack. At length, he said, "I've thought and thought around it, for however long I've been in this place, but I don't have any memories past March. I don't know for sure, but I've been tossing around the idea that this is the date I died. When did you put on your suicide patch?"
"Maybe it was March." Staring at her hand, Sarah saw it begin to tremble. "I don't know."
"That tears it," Zack said. "We're dead."
"You don't know that." But she knew that he did. So did she, for that matter.
They both stared around them at the impenetrable fog, an endless sea of gray with ... something ... lurking in it.
"I refuse to believe this is all there is," Sarah said finally, curling her hands into fists to stop their shaking. "I refuse. I refuse!"
"You're a suicide, right? In Christian theology, aren't suicides supposed to end up in some kind of limbo?"
"Are they?" She wasn't familiar with any religion's mythology, beyond some books on Greek gods from her early childhood. "But you aren't a suicide ... or are you?"
Zack chuckled. "No. I guess that blows that theory. I wouldn't say I led an exemplary life, though. Maybe this is some kind of waiting place."
"Waiting for what?"
"I don't know. For the great afterlife computer to file us into our appropriate spot. For someone or something to judge us. For whatever happens next."
"Judging ..." Sarah said. "Do you think that thing ... whatever it--"
"Don't talk about it," Zack interrupted.
Sarah shut her mouth, looking at him in surprise. It was the first time she'd heard him raise his voice.
"Don't talk about it when it's not here," he said in more neutral tones. "Most of all, don't think about it. I don't know if it's just coincidence or not, but it seems like whenever I start dwelling on it ... it shows up. It might be able to read our thoughts; maybe that's why blanking our minds works."
Sarah shivered, though she wasn't cold, and drew a little closer to him. "Then it could be some kind of afterlife judge, couldn't it?"
"I don't know. I don't want to find out. If that's what I have to face to move on, then I'll just stay here, I think."
Sarah looked around again, at the shifting gray fog, and for a despairing instant the sheer awfulness nearly closed about her, suffocated her. An eternity of this ...
There had to be more. There had to be. She'd go mad.
"It's interesting we died on the same day, don't you think?" she babbled, just to say something, anything, to take her mind off the gray fog.
"Sure," Zack said. "Us and forty million other people in the galaxy. Not that much of a coincidence, if you think about it."
"Oh." Sarah sat down on the gritty ground, wrapping her blanket around her shoulders.
"Although the thought did cross my mind that this might be some sort of signpost," Zack added, looking up at the streetlamp over his head. "A crossroads, a way station of some sort. Maybe these ..." He waved his hand at the rows of pillars, disappearing into the fog in three directions, equidistant from each other. "Maybe they're some kind of markers to help us find our way to wherever we're supposed to go. You and I died on the same day, so we were relatively close together."
"Maybe," Sarah said.
"You came from ... that way, I think," Zack said, pointing. "And I came from that way. It's a three-way intersection, so that leaves just one way we haven't tried."
"How do you know which way is which?" Sarah asked. "It all looks the same to me."
Zack grinned down at her. "Because when I first got here, I marked 'em. First rule for finding your way around in a strange place."
"How? I don't see any markings."
He pointed at the base of the nearest pillar, and Sarah, squinting, saw a small pile of something dark.
"Hair," Zack said. "It took me a while to figure out something to mark it with; there's nothing in my pockets, and the stone, or whatever those things are made out of, doesn't seem to scratch. I didn't want to take off a shoe, because I might have to leave in a hurry, and my uniform is tearproof. So I ripped out some of my hair and left some tufts. There's no wind here, so it stays. One tuft is the way I came from. You, I think, came from the pillar with three tufts. So that leaves ... that one."
A thought occurred to Sarah then ... a thought she wished she'd had before. She stood up quickly and walked a few paces toward the fog, then turned around, confused and afraid.
"What's wrong?" Zack asked.
He took a step toward her. She took a step back.
"Sarah, what? Did I frighten you somehow?"
"I ... I don't know."
"Tell me what's wrong."
Sarah swallowed. Her throat was dry again; God, she wished she had some water. "When I first came here ... I didn't see you."
"No ... where did you come from? You said you'd been here for a while, Zack, but where were you?" Her heart beat faster; the fingers of her clenched hands were slippery with cold sweat. "I walked right up to that lamp there, and I looked all around, and there was nobody here. You couldn't have hidden; there's nowhere to hide. And that's when I heard ... I mean I felt ... I mean I smelled ..." Yes; how had she known there was something there, in the fog? She tried to remember. "I heard a noise," she said. "Some kind of noise. And ... that's when you spoke to me. I didn't see any monster, just you."
"Wait a minute," Zack said. "Calm down."
"It's not a hard question!" She struggled to keep her voice calm, her heart from jumping out of her mouth. "Where were you?"
"I was hiding, Sarah."
"There's nowhere to hide!"
"Yes, there is." He tapped his temple. "In here. Just like I showed you to hide from ... the thing we won't mention. When I heard you coming, I wasn't sure what would come out of the fog, so I made myself invisible, just like I had been doing to hide from it."
"You're lying," Sarah insisted, backing up another step. "There's no way a human being can turn invisible just by imagining it. If it was possible, I would've been permanently invisible years ago. It might work on monsters, but it doesn't work on other people."
"Who knows?" Zack spread his hands wide. "If we are dead, maybe all we are now is energy, or imagination, or willpower, or ... who knows. Maybe we can do things we couldn't before."
"That's ridiculous. You're just trying to avoid answering my questions. I heard a noise; was it you?"
"Could have been," Zack said. "I saw you look right at me, and that's when I realized that you couldn't see me. But then, the ... thing we won't talk about was already here."
"That's what I thought the noise was," Sarah said, lowering her head, glaring at him. "But it was just you, all along. In fact, I don't have any proof that there ever was anything else."
"You felt it, Sarah. I know you did."
Sarah tried to brush away the memory of the rush of horror, the certainty that her own demise (or, if she was already dead, then some kind of ending more final even than that) lurked out in the changeless fog. "Kind of a weird coincidence, isn't it, that the two of you show up at the same time?"
"Not weird at all," Zack said, his face strained. "You were thinking about it, Sarah, as soon as you heard me make a sound. I saw how you reacted--you were terrified. And then it came, as it always does--and it's going to come again, if you don't stop thinking about it."
"It did come," Sarah insisted. "It's been here all along. It's you."
"It is not me, Sarah ..." Suddenly he froze. "Damn it!" he whispered. "You can feel that, can't you?"
Yes, she could. A hot prickling on her body, as if a million eyes were watching her.
Zack covered the distance between them in three quick steps and seized her arm. His hand was as cold and clammy as her own. "Listen," he hissed. "I'm not going to bother arguing with you. Trust me or don't. But do as I do." He closed his eyes.
Sarah stared at him, even in her panic half-expecting him to vanish in front of her. He did not. He was still there. And so was ... something else.
Please go away, Sarah thought, her stomach lurching in terror, and then she realized that that was the worst possible thing she could have done. Acknowledging its existence was like screaming and waving a giant sign: Here I am! Come get me! Sarah cast a terrified glance at Zack and saw him standing still, entirely visible, his eyes closed and his face serene. Like a child, she thought, convinced that closing his eyes and drawing the covers over his head will shut out the monsters--the very real monsters--
Be invisible, Sarah. How can I do that? I don't believe in magic, in wishes ...
... or in monsters, but here's one ...
Could magic work too, in this place? Could believe make an impossibility happen? She turned her eyes back on the fog and what she saw made her lose reason for a moment. A light--a baleful red light, swinging toward her through the murk. Without landmarks for reference, she had no idea how close it was. It could be a mile away; it could be ten feet from where she was standing.
Something really was out there.
Invisible, she thought, her shift clinging to her in the cold stinking sweat of fear. I am invisible. It cannot see me ...
"Don't look at it," Zack whispered, so low she could barely hear him. "Don't think about it. That's our only defense."
What else *could* she think about? How could you avoid thinking about a monster in the fog, a monster bearing down toward you with a glaring red light? Almost crying with fear, she tried to focus on something, anything, to take her mind away. Something from her past. Something nice.
She couldn't think of anything.
The realization stunned her. Nothing. There was nothing about her life that she could seize upon as a good memory. Nothing in her entire life.
Is that even possible? she thought, too amazed to even remember that she was supposed to be afraid. How can a person have nothing, not one thing? No good memories? Not even one? No one to go back to?
Linton maybe? She conjured her husband's face in front of her, tired and somewhat ... absent. Yes, that was the thing about Linton: he was absent, even when he was right in front of you. Something about him just wasn't there. Like me, hiding from a monster in the dark, she thought, wanting to laugh. And the thought hit her, a blow of surprise: that's the reason, she thought. He's spent his whole life trying to be invisible. And it works; people don't see him, even when he's right in front of them.
Have I spent my life doing the same thing?
Something touched her shoulder, snapping her out of her reverie with a squeak and flinch. She opened her eyes expecting to see a slavering red-eyed monster standing over her, and instead saw Zack.
"It's gone," he said. "I've been saying your name. Whatever you did to blank your mind, it must have worked very well. *I* almost couldn't see you and I knew you were there."
"I ... was just thinking about being invisible, like you said," Sarah said faintly.
"You're good at it."
Yes, she thought, I guess I am. A lifetime's practice will do that to you. Looking back at Zack, she saw him still watching her searchingly, and felt a slight blush rise up her cheeks.
"I was wrong, I guess," she said. "I'm sorry."
Zack shook his head with a little smile. "I can see why you'd think the way you did. And who knows how things work around here?"
Sarah looked around at the fog. It was just fog now, strange but devoid of menace. That terrifying presence was gone, and she realized that she didn't feel so claustrophobic any more. Strange as it seemed, she was actually getting used to this place.
"What should we do?" she asked. "We can't just stand here, waiting for it to come back."
Zack pointed in the one direction they hadn't been. "We walk, I guess. It's our only option other than staying here."
Sarah nodded and knotted her blanket over her shoulder and around her waist in a crude toga to keep it from dragging on the ground. They began to walk.
"I guess we don't really need another thing to worry about," Sarah said after they'd been walking for a timeless time ... it only felt like a few minutes, but it was very difficult to tell. "I'm starting to wonder when we're going to find food, though. Or water. I haven't really gotten thirsty yet, aside from being a little dry-mouthed when I'm scared, but we're bound to eventually."
Zack shrugged, plodding along beside her. "I don't know about that. I know it's hard to tell how much time has gone by, but I'm pretty sure I've been here for quite a few hours. Maybe even days. And I'm not thirsty yet. I haven't had to use the bathroom, either."
"It hasn't been that long, has it?" She tried to think back. How long had she been walking through the fog? She was disconcerted to realize that she had no idea. Without clocks or holovid, without the body's normal rhythms of hunger, thirst and fatigue, how did one tell time? She remembered times in the fog when she'd drift out, her awareness fading, only to return to herself and find she was still trudging across the barren plain. How long had she been sleepwalking, those times? Maybe she really had been walking for days.
Sarah stretched her legs, looking for soreness or fatigue. Surely she should be picking up a lovely case of blisters; the only exercise she'd had in the last thirty years had been her twice-weekly sessions in the zone exercise lounge, the minimum required of all citizens to keep their bodies fit and serviceable. Aside from a little bit of stiffness, as if she'd just stood up, and traces of soreness in her feet, she felt nothing.
Zack voiced the thought that Sarah hadn't wanted to speak aloud. "Maybe we don't need to eat or drink because we're dead."
"Don't be silly," Sarah snapped, louder than she'd intended.
"Come on, Sarah. We both know we're dead. I thought we'd agreed on that."
"I know that," she retorted. "I just don't see why it has to mean ..."
"That anything would be different?" Zack finished for her, with a slight grin.
"I guess that is a little silly," Sarah admitted.
"Shhh!" Zack stopped her with a hand on her arm.
Sarah froze. After a moment she asked, "What?"
"Thought I heard something."
Her heart lurched. "What sort of a something?"
"Something ..." he said, unhelpfully. Sarah was about to snap at him when she realized she could hear it too. And Zack was right; she couldn't tell what it was, either. It rose and fell, just at the edge of hearing, sometimes stopping and then starting again.
"Can you tell where it's coming from?" she whispered.
Zack shook his head. "This damn fog distorts sound."
"Should ... should we keep walking?"
"What choice do we have?" he said, sounding disgusted. "It could just as easily be behind us as in front of us."
They began walking again. After only a few paces, the sound began to resolve into something familiar. Sarah had never had children or younger siblings, so Zack recognized it first.
"Someone's crying," he said. "Sounds like a kid."
"Do you think so?" But she was fairly sure he was right.
Both of them jumped when a voice said clearly, "Hush. It'll be all right."
The voice was a woman's, and it sounded so close that the person must be mere feet away from them. Squinting through the fog, Sarah realized that the slim dark shape of the next pillar was distorted, as if it had melted and expanded at the bottom. Someone or something, crouched at its base? Sarah wondered.
"Hello?" Zack called.
You're braver than I am, Sarah thought, hugging her toga around herself.
The dark shape moved, undulated, distorted. As they came closer, it began to resolve itself into a bipedal figure in the act of standing up. "Hello?" the woman's voice said. "Who is there?"
"Is someone out there?" said another voice, a man's.
The fog really did muffle sound, Sarah realized, and shape as well. By now they were near enough to see about a half-dozen people sitting around the pillar, except for one woman who was standing. She was young and pretty, wearing a simple one-piece jumper; long, straight hair fell to her waist. The only thing that marred the smoothness of her complexion was a very familiar sequence of letters standing out against her dark forehead:
March 19, 2476.
Sarah tried to look away, tried not to stare.
"Oh, you're human," the woman breathed. "Thank God. We were starting to think we were all alone here, except for ..." She trailed off, then began speaking quickly, as if eager to change the subject. "Do you live here? Can you tell us where we are?"
"I'm ... not sure myself," Zack said carefully.
They introduced themselves. The woman's name was Rajee Muhammed and the last thing she remembered was stepping into a coordinate transfer pod at one of the Fion transfer stations to visit her son and daughter-in-law on Greenglass. Her great-granddaughter Serena had been with her.
"Great-granddaughter?" Sarah said, glancing down at the child clinging to the woman's leg.
Rajee Muhammed laughed awkwardly. "Yes ... I know this is hard to believe, but I celebrated my hundred and fifth birthday this past month." She looked down at her own hands in wonder. Sarah knew that look; it must have been the look on her own face when she caught sight of her younger body for the first time.
Zack glanced over the other people clustered around the pillar, three other women and a man. All of them, Sarah saw, bore the same forehead tattoo as Rajee Muhammed ... the same as she herself bore on her arm. She absently rubbed her thumb against the skin of her wrist, telling herself the slight burning was only in her imagination.
"And the rest of you ...?" Zack asked.
"They were in the pod with Serena and myself," Rajee Muhammed explained. "Fellow passengers. We all entered together. We think that perhaps the controls went wrong and the pod sent us to the wrong destination, which is why we were glad to see you, in the hopes that you'd be able to tell us what planet this is."
Sarah looked at the woman's earnest, hopeful face, trying to keep her eyes from jumping to the tattoo. She knows where she is; she just can't admit it to herself, Sarah thought. Coordinate transfer pods could not be sent or received anywhere near a gravitational field of significant size. However, CT accidents were not uncommon, resulting in the deaths of all in the pod. This woman's pod must have suffered a similar fate.
Zack reached out a hand and put it awkwardly on Rajee Muhammed's shoulder. "There's something I have to tell you. All of you."
Sarah was glad he'd taken the lead, that she had not been the one to watch that trusting gaze shatter. She went and sat down some distance away from the group, staring out into the fog. Behind her, she heard the murmur of Zack's voice, and other voices raised in surprise or anger. Cowardice, she thought; she shouldn't leave it all up to Zack, but she was having enough trouble dealing with her own death without having it compounded with other people's shock and grief. Zack's resilience surprised her. He's made of different stuff than me, she thought, and balled her fists against her knees, feeling weak and inadequate.
"Are you all right?"
Sarah glanced up at Zack, standing behind her. "I'm fine," she said shortly, scrambling to her feet.
The two of them rejoined the group--a very subdued, quiet group. One of the women was sobbing softly.
Zack spoke, their attention. "Now listen, all of you. We think we know where we are ..." He trailed off briefly, then started again, speaking with more authority. "But I refuse to believe there's nothing more than fog here. Sarah and I are following these strange stone posts, hoping to come to something else."
"Like what?" Rajee Muhammed asked. She was sitting on the ground with the child in her lap.
"I don't know," Zack admitted. "But isn't anything better than here?"
Seen through the wisps of fog, he created a thin sharp profile, like one of the pillars himself. A cotterpin holding together the tattered shreds of the hope, the optimism, of the frightened group of people around him. He's good at this, Sarah thought. In his past life he'd been a leader of some kind, she was sure. And she wasn't surprised when the group mobilized itself, falling in behind Zack.
It was a little different walking along with more people than just herself and Zack; it felt safer somehow, more congenial. At first they walked in silence, but soon small conversations started up, the sort of casual chatter that happens among strangers getting to know each other. And Sarah thought of something she'd meant to ask Zack earlier, but between one thing and another, she'd never got a chance.
He looked down at her, slowing his long stride to match her pace. "Yeh?"
"I have a question, about earlier."
He smiled lopsidedly. "Sure, shoot."
"When the, when the you-know-what ..." Her eyes flicked out to the fog, and Zack nodded for her to continue. "Well, I was looking right at you, Zack, and you didn't disappear."
The lopsided smile widened a bit. "Well, I dunno if this is really how it works, but I always just figured it was a matter of believing. And you knew I was there, so of course it wouldn't work on you. That's why I was so surprised when you almost disappeared yourself. I knew you were there, and yet I had to keep focused on you, or I'd almost forget."
Sarah stared at him, unable to believe that he could say such impossible things with a straight face. And yet ... and yet, she'd felt that baleful presence. She knew that she'd been walking for--well, surely it must be days now, or at least it felt like days, and yet she wasn't hungry or thirsty or tired.
"It's like a holovid," she said at last, softly. "Like a fairy tale or a ... a ghost story. Things like this shouldn't exist in real life."
"Maybe not," Zack said, and his eyes held her briefly before looking away. "But in death ...?"
"Look." Rajee Muhammed's soft voice broke into their conversation.
They were approaching another nexus, the soft glow of the streetlamp visible through the fog before the pillars began to resolve. As the pillars took shape, Sarah could see a dark figure huddled at the base of one of them.
"Hello?" Zack called.
They came closer, but the figure did not react to their presence, except by rocking back and forth slightly. It was a middle-aged man, Sarah saw, wearing some kind of casual business attire, his hands clutched around his knees. Though his shirt was intact and undamaged, she suspected that somewhere on his body, over some vital spot, would be that indelible tattoo: March 19, 2476. Or some other date, but whatever the number, the meaning would be the same.
Date of death.
"Hey, buddy?" Zack knelt down next to him, touched his shoulder, shook him gently.
The man made no response. He only continued to rock. None of them could move him, not with entreaties or gentle touches, not with pleas or threats.
"What's wrong with him?" Sarah asked, sitting back on her heels.
Zack snapped his fingers in front of the man's eyes several times. This had no more effect than anything else they'd tried.
"Some kind of battle fatigue?" Sarah added. Even though she'd never been within a million kilometers of actual fighting, you didn't live all your life on a world at war without learning a few things, if only from holovids. "Shell shock or something?"
Zack nodded slowly. "I guess this place had to have that effect on somebody."
A shiver worked its way up Sarah's spine and prickled the hairs at the base of her neck. Don't think about it. Don't. The power of suggestion ... But she couldn't help raising her eyes to the fog, the never-ending fog. If you spent too much time here, could you truly go mad?
Another thought occurred to her, perhaps a worse one. "Zack ... could it be the ... you know what? Could it have done this to him?"
"I don't know." Zack looked down at the man, shuddered and straightened. "I don't know everything, Sarah!"
"I know," she mumbled, following him back to the group.
"Is he coming with us?" Rajee Muhammed asked.
Zack shrugged, shook his head. "He won't respond. He's catatonic or something."
"Well, we can't leave him here."
"We'd have to carry him," Zack said.
In the end, they merely walked on, cast uncomfortable backward glances. The nexus and its lone occupant vanished quickly in the fog, but from the awkward silence that had settled across their formerly amiable group, he did not vanish from their minds so quickly.
Their line of pillars marched on into the endless fog, and so did they. From time to time, the line converged with others. Sometimes the nexuses would be as empty as the rest of this strange land, but at other times, more refugees waited. And sometimes they'd meet others between nexuses, singly or in groups, traveling in their own attempt to find an exit or a goal or something more than the infinite shifting fog. Sometimes these joined them, and sometimes they went on.
In time, their small group grew to number some fifty or sixty individuals, of all ages, from all planets and walks of life. All of them had one thing in common: a tattoo reading March 19, 2476.
Days, Sarah thought, plodding along dully. Days and days and days. She'd given up trying to keep track of time. There was no way to do so. Maybe this place didn't have time at all. What was time but entropy, the slow tick of the universe's atomic clock, the daily decay of the body towards death. If nothing ever changed, could time be said to exist?
But we change, she thought, looking around her at Rajee Muhammed shepherding a small group of children, at Zack comforting a terrified woman who had just joined their group. These people look up to us, to Zack and myself, to we who have been here ... longer? And we respond to it, grow to fill those roles. I'm not afraid like I was when I first stepped out into the fog. I've changed, grown ... it's as if I'm a stronger person now. Even if the changes in a human mind are the only thing to change, it still means that time has not stopped ...
Her head snapped up. Something ... had changed just now. She looked around and saw that some of the others had felt it as well; several members of the group were looking up and about, including Zack. Sarah couldn't quite decide what was different. A waiting hush, she thought, like the extreme quiet that follows a shuttlecraft accident, like a silence in a waiting room while family members await their loved one's fate.
She opened her mouth to say Zack's name and then felt dread growing slowly upon her. Fear.
It's ... here.
But magnified, magnified as if a thousand times. Her mouth went dry; she was paralyzed. Dimly she heard Zack shouting orders, trying to get them to understand what they must do. During their travels, she and Zack had described to the group the possible danger that they faced--a few of them had experienced that dread thing in the fog, though none had seen it, but most could not imagine it. And none of them had ever tried Zack's mind-blanking technique.
Zack, she thought, afraid. But she couldn't listen, she didn't dare. Didn't dare think. Sarah closed her eyes and tried to make herself vanish.
It was easier this time. Easier with practice. Into the void inside her head the strangest image slowly began to clarify: herself, seen from the outside, shimmering and transparent. The roiling fog drifted and curled around her body ... through her body. As she watched, bits of her body began to spiral off, gently eddying on the fog. She knew that this should frighten her, but in the emotionless calm that she had found, there was no place for fear, only a gentle curiosity. She could barely see her own face anymore, her own head. The only part of her body that still seemed solid and real was the hand with the tattoo. Sarah found herself trying to stretch her fingers, just to see if they would move ...
... and her knees almost buckled; she regained her balance before she fell and stood trembling, staring at her hand. For a dizzy instant, she almost thought she could see roiling wisps of fog through her fingers ... but surely that was only an illusion?
She felt weak and sick, chilled to her core. It was the first time since waking up in this place that she'd felt any change in her physical condition, she realized.
"Zack," she said aloud, hearing the tremble in her voice. She looked around. The group were somewhat scattered, some people sitting with their heads in their hands, others standing and looking confused. Was it only her imagination, or were there fewer than there had been before? Paranoia, she thought. Gotta be. But, no. Even without doing a head-count, she was sure of it, and when she began counting quickly, she realized that ten or twenty people were missing. Zack, she saw with relief, was not one of them. He had an arm around someone that Sarah recognized, as she approached, as Rajee Muhammed.
"But Serena ... she must be here somewhere ..." Rajee sobbed brokenly.
Sarah covered her mouth with her hands. Rajee's granddaughter was nowhere in sight.
She was so little, Sarah thought. Maybe she couldn't understand about playing make-believe to make the monster go away.
Zack offered Rajee a shoulder, but she pushed him away and stumbled into the fog. "Hey!" he snapped, starting after her. "You'll get lost if you go out there! Rajee--"
"I have to find Serena ..." The voice trailed back to them. Already the distraught woman was almost gone, an indistinct shape in the mist.
"Sarah, help me!" They ran after her, but stopped after a few steps. Rajee could no longer be seen, and the pillars behind them were blurred nearly to the vanishing point. Sarah could still hear Rajee's sobbing, but the fog distorted sound, making it impossible to tell where it was coming from.
"Rajee!" Zack shouted. His voice did not echo, damped down by the fog. Sarah strained her ears. She could still hear sobbing, but now she couldn't tell if it was coming from somewhere in front of them, or from the people behind them, lost and afraid and confused.
Zack's fingers clamped down hard on her arm. "Back," he said harshly, and led her a few steps backward, until the pillars could be clearly seen once again.
"Rajee ..." Sarah whispered. Her eyes met Zack's; his were dark, shadowed. "She ... she'll come back, won't she?"
"She'd damn well better!" Zack snarled, kicking at the rough ground underfoot--or floor, or whatever it was. "Goddammit, Sarah ..." He ran his hands through his hair, setting the short dark strands on end. "What is this place? What's the point of it? Are we just supposed to wander around here forever, while that thing picks us off one by one? While we go lose our minds and wander off to our ..."
His voice trailed off into silence, and when he spoke again, his tone was almost more frightening in its grim self-control. "I was going to say 'to our death'," he said, and laughed softly. "Isn't that a lark. To our death. We're already dead, Sarah. No matter what happens to you while you're alive, you always know the worst. Death. And no matter how bad it gets, there's always death, waiting for you."
Sarah rubbed her arm where the suicide patch had been, unable to respond.
"But what's at the end of this place, Sarah? Can the dead die again? What is left when even death is no escape?" He looked around at the fog, at the huddled and frightened people. "Is this how it ends, in fog and fear and misery? Where's the heaven or hell or nirvana or whatever we're supposed to get?"
Sarah put a hesitant hand on his shoulder. Her fingers were still stiff with cold, but she could feel the muscles bunched into hard knots. "Come on," she said quietly. "We have to calm everybody down."
Separating, they went from person to person, offering words of comfort and encouragement that they did not feel. Yet the others responded, drawing some kind of strength from the belief that someone, at least, knew what to do--that someone was not afraid.
Is this courage? Sarah wondered, stroking a teenage girl's hair. Is this leadership? A merciful lie, a false hope.
They all started walking again, those who were left, trudging forward because there was nothing else to do. Sarah found herself in the lead, this time. She looked back down the line of lost souls and wondered when she'd started thinking of them as refugees. That's what we are, she thought. Refugees from a world that has rejected us, refugees in a new world of fog and monsters.
The bleakness of that idea terrified her. Sarah looked down at her hands and remembered the sight of her own flesh as transparent as glass, spinning off into the mists in small tendrils. A part of her had been afraid, but another part, the part that embraced the suicide patch, had not.
Maybe there is a way out, another kind of death for the dead, she thought, and shivered. An eternity in the endless fog. Or ... was that the nature of the fog itself? Lost and discorporate souls in limbo? The wave of trembling that passed through her was so violent she nearly retched. She'd almost become accustomed to the fog in its never-changing grayness, but now she whipped her head around as if it was an enemy. Was it her imagination, or was the fog watching her, watching with the hopelessness of abandonment? Was Rajee Muhammed even now losing cohesion, becoming part of that limbo?
Imagination, she told herself firmly, and dropped back to see what Zack thought of her theory.
Zack, however, didn't even look up as she fell in step beside him. He plodded along in the same hopeless state as the rest of the refugees.
"Zack." When she had his attention, Sarah told him of what she'd seen the last time she tried to turn invisible, and her wild theory about the fog.
"I don't know, Sarah." The apathy in his voice frightened her, as did his eyes--flat and dark, devoid of the bright curiosity that she'd once seen there. "I'm not the guy with all the answers, y'know? I'm just a working slob from the Kismet Port Authority. I work my shift, have a few beers with my buddies and go home to my wife. I'm not a hero or a savior."
He swept his hand down the line. "Look at 'em, Sarah. Looking to me to know what to do. Looking to me to get them out of this somehow. I couldn't save Rajee or her granddaughter. I can't save the rest of them either. I know where we're all marching: straight into the belly of the Beast, one at a time."
His dry, sardonic chuckle sent the same shiver down Sarah's spine as her fear of the mists. Was that a slight flicker of the fog through Zack's chest? No, only an optical illusion, brought on by fear and worry. She hoped. "Listen to me," Sarah said, putting her hand on his shoulder, telling herself that there wasn't a little more give than there should have been. "We know that somehow, this place seems to work on belief. Maybe we're only here because we didn't believe that consciousness stops after death--because some part of us hoped to go on."
"If that's so, then the joke's on us, isn't it?" Zack retorted, casting a glance at the fog. His voice had a bit of animation, however; at least with something to argue, he wasn't sitting around discorporating. Sarah pressed on.
"We know that we can hide from the monster by believing that we can. Maybe we're just wandering in circles because we believe that there's nowhere to go. Maybe if we start looking for something specific, we'll find it."
Zack's eyes had slowly come to focus on her face, and though she could see skepticism in their depths, she could also see a glimmer of the curious spark that had once made him seem so alive even in this dark place. "Isn't that what we're doing?"
"Are we? I think we're just walking without a destination, seeing where this goes. Well, maybe it doesn't go anywhere unless you expect it to."
Zack stared at her. "That's ... just insane," he said at last.
"So is making yourself invisible by wishing for it," Sarah said. "But we know we can do that."
He continued to stare at her, and then he turned around and hurried to the head of the line. "Hey, people! Everybody stop!"
Sarah waited at the back of the line while he explained to them. She'd expected snorts of derision and arguments, but no one interrupted. They're all in a kind of battle fatigue, she thought. If we don't get out of here, we'll all end up like that guy we saw by the pillar ... clutching our knees and rocking, hiding inside our own heads.
"Let's do it!" she heard Zack shout, and despite the damping effect of the fog, his voice seemed to echo from the nearby pillars. "We're looking for a way out because we know there is one. And we know it's close. Believe in it, and we'll find it."
Now there were a few giggles or mutters from the group, but not many. Right now they were desperate enough to grasp at anything, no matter how unlikely or insane. And they trusted Zack, trusted him enough to believe him when he said he'd do the impossible.
What about me? Sarah thought, reaching inside herself for that same belief but unable to fully grasp hold of it. Why can't I believe in my own theories? It seems so ... well, nuts. What if I have to believe, too, to get us out? What if I can't?
"Come on!" Zack called out. "Let's go home, people."
The line began moving again, and Sarah was caught up in it. The steps were brisker, she noticed: not the aimless wandering of refugees, but the confident stride of people with a destination, people going home.
My God, they really do believe him, she thought.
She did not know who had shouted, but the wave of whispers swept back down the line. Sarah squinted; it seemed she could see the people at the head of the line much more clearly than she should be able to. And ... was it brighter?
Could the fog be thinning?
"Look!" This time she recognized Zack's voice, rising up over the growing babble from the crowd. And, raising her eyes, she squinted, blinked. One patch of the fog looked darker than the rest. More solid. Tears welled in her eyes, blurring the fog and running everything together like watercolors blended to gray. It wasn't her imagination. There really was something there.
They stumbled out of the fog into blessedly clear air. After so much time in the fog, Sarah's eyes seemed to have forgotten how to focus. As she blinked her vision clear, she saw that the gritty pavement, or floor, or whatever, stretched before them toward a great structure, a massive square building apparently made of the same gray stone or concrete as the floor. The pillars ended at the edge of the fog. With no way to judge scale and nothing around but the fog to all sides and above, Sarah had no idea how big the building was, or how far away. All that mattered was that it was there. They'd come through it.
She looked for Zack and found him, standing bemused and aloof in the crowd of cheering, weeping people. His eyes raised to meet hers, and he grinned, and she returned it. We made it, that look said.
But ... Sarah wondered, as the niggling voice of doubt returned to plague her. Made it to what?
And as that voice of doubt spoke into a small corner of her brain, she felt it. That waiting calm, that hush before the storm.
It was coming for them, the creature in the fog. Again.
One by one, the refugees felt it, and one by one they looked to Zack and Sarah for direction, courage, hope.
"Zack, should we--" Sarah began.
But then the first of the refugees broke and ran for the building. Panic swept the crowd and their aimless milling turned into an all-out, panicked stampede toward dubious safety. Caught up in the surge, Sarah found herself running too--running with a growing dread, a terror. She kept looking behind her as she ran, horribly afraid to turn her back on whatever was out there, whatever was coming.
"Zack!" She caught up to him. Other bodies jostled theirs. "Zack, it'll see us ... can we outrun it?"
"I don't know," he panted. "I don't think we have a choice now. We can't stop them, and you and I ... I don't know if we can hide here, where it's clear, not with all these people running. It'll chase them ..."
... and run right into us. She had an awful vision of standing in the open, unprotected, as the mob drew farther and farther away, leaving the two of them all alone in the path of the unseen evil bearing down on them. It would take far more courage than she possessed to close her eyes against that.
Her breath burned in her throat and her bare feet sent jarring shocks up her legs as they slapped the pavement in a one-two beat. Her hair whipped in her face. Sarah squinted ahead of them and saw with despair that the building looked no closer.
There is no scale here. It could be miles away.
Already some of the runners were starting to flag and drop behind. The group had been bunched together at the start of their run, but now they were strung out with Zack and Sarah near the front. Sarah glanced back over her shoulder to see how the backmost members of the group were doing, and what she saw choked her throat like a hand made of ice.
Eyes. Eyes in the fog. Red eyes ... huge ... maybe there was no scale here, but they were fare above the level of the nearest pillar. Red eyes, shining like beacons through the fog.
"Zack--" she tried to scream, but it only emerged as a hoarse whisper, a rasp that he could not possibly have heard over the sound of his own breathing and the slap of feet, the ragged runner's panting of everyone around them. But something made him look over his shoulder. She saw his eyes widen, his face blanch white.
"Run, Sarah, for the love of ... Run!"
And she ran, ran like a rabbit must run from a fox--pouring every ounce of blood and willpower into her pounding legs, her straining lungs. Dark spots danced in front of her vision. And yet ... she raised despairing eyes to the building, and saw that it was no closer.
Why? Why? But the answer came to her, came from her desperation and terror. Because of your fear. Because you believe that you won't make it.
And she was there, smacking facefirst into a blessedly solid wall, and recoiling and stumbling and catching herself, the skin ripping off her palms on the rough surface of the stone. Sobbing, gasping for air, she groped her way along the wall like a drowning man scrabbling at a life raft, until her fingers met the shocking cold of iron. Hinges. She looked up at a pair of enormous wooden doors bound in iron, like something from a Gothic holovid.
"Push, Sarah!" Zack was at her side. He, too, must have found the way through his own fear to the calm and understanding at the other side. They both flung their bodies against the doors, and slowly, smoothly, the doors rotated inward without even a protest from the oiled hinges. When the crack was wide enough to admit their bodies, the two of them stumbled into the darkness within.
Panting heavily, Sarah gripped at the wood of the door for support and forced herself to look back, to see if any of the other refugees had made it. Far out across the gray stone plain, the dark specks of fleeing human bodies were scattered like ants, still running but in all directions now, without purpose, knowing nothing but terror. And bearing down upon them, out of the fog, came the red eyes, and something else, something Sarah's mind could not focus on; it skittered away each time she tried to look, retreating for her own sanity. But it was malevolent, and intelligent, and she could feel that intelligence coming to bear on herself and Zack.
"Close the doors!" Zack gasped. "There's nothing we can do for them ... we couldn't even try ..."
They pushed on the great doors and the portal slammed home with a very final sound. The echoes died away slowly in the space around them. Sarah realized that she was weeping without a sound, tears running helplessly down her face.
"We have to lock the doors somehow," she heard Zack say. His voice, too, echoed around them, a disturbing change from the muffled nature of sound in the fog. Sarah sniffled and wiped her nose and eyes with the edge of the blanket that was somehow still wrapped around her body toga-style. Looking down at her feet, she noticed for the first time what was under her bare toes: not gritty cement, but some kind of smooth stone cut into squares. Flagstones, Sarah thought, dredging up a memory from some old romance tale. They're called flagstones.
She tilted her head back, looking around. The scale of this place staggered her, especially after spending so much time in the fog, where there was no sense of distance. Stone walls soared up into shadow above her, lit by shafts of gray light slanting through high, narrow windows. The place was at least three stories high. A balcony ran all the way around the inside of the wall at the level of the windows, and following the sound of Zack's quick footsteps, Sarah located him on one of two steep staircases allowing access to the balcony on either side of the great hall.
"What are you doing?" she called to him. The echoes died into silence around her.
"Look there!" was his only reply, pointing to the doors. Sarah looked up and saw two great iron hooks on the inner surface of the doors, welded or bolted to the bands of iron reinforcing and holding together the great slabs of wood. Above them, a beam was suspended by a chain, and following the chain with her eyes, Sarah saw that it went all the way up to a pulley system on the underside of the ceiling. Another chain, or the other end of the same one, ran down to the balcony and a lever that Zack was now leaning against and thrusting forward with all his weight. The chain began to loosen with a series of echoing clanks, and the beam crashed down into the iron hooks.
"It's a lock!" Sarah exclaimed, staring up at the barred doors in amazement. "With no electricity! How clever!"
"It is, isn't it?" Zack agreed, head tilted back to look up at the mechanism. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Do you think it'll be enough to stop ... you know what?"
"I don't know, Sarah. How would I know?" Zack approached one of the windows; now that she could use him for scale, Sarah saw that the windows were astonishingly tall, almost twice as tall as Zack himself. This building might be higher than she'd thought. Sarah watched Zack peer out the window and then flinch violently backward.
"What's wrong?" she asked, running to stand at the bottom of the stairs. "Is it still out there?"
Zack nodded and came to the top of the stairs to speak without shouting. "Yeah, but no one else is."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there's no one out there but that ... thing, Sarah. No bodies. No blood. Just nothing."
"You mean it got them all?" Sarah whispered. Her legs folded under her and she sat down abruptly on the bare stone floor.
"Looks like it." He descended the stairs slowly, with many glances over his shoulder. "And there's more. Those windows ... they're actual holes in the side of the building, like in ancient times."
Sarah stared up at him. "This building has holes in it?"
He nodded grimly. "There's not even anything covering them, like glass or plastic or anything. Just holes."
"Maybe it can't climb up to them," Sarah said.
Zack sighed and sat down on the lowest step, running a hand over his face. "Maybe. We don't know if it can climb. We don't know if it can fly. I don't suppose you saw what kind of body it has?"
"I couldn't look at it," Sarah admitted, dropping her eyes.
"Yeah. Neither could I." Zack stood up and offered her a hand. "Well, let's look around. Now that we're here, there's got to be some way out of here."
But there wasn't. The entire building seemed to consist solely of this one giant room. There was no furniture, no ornamentation, not so much as a potted plant or a picture on the wall. Zack and Sarah walked around the inner perimeter of the walls, at ground floor as well as on the balcony, touching and tapping the walls in search of hidden passageways. They crisscrossed the floor doing the same thing. Nothing turned up.
And there was still no sense of time's passage. Sarah had no idea how long it had been since that panicked flight across the barren plain. Once her breathing and heartbeat had returned to normal, she'd felt as before--no lingering stiffness, no aching lungs. She still wasn't hungry or thirsty, except for slight twinges when she started worrying about it, but those vanished as soon as she found something else to do.
Any doubts she'd had about being dead had vanished. This was either death or some sort of bizarre drug-induced hallucination, and she couldn't imagine her mind conjuring something so solid and real. It was happening, all right.
And still, outside, the creature waited. It didn't come any closer or make any threatening moves; it just waited, crouched just inside the clear area with the fogbank roiling at its back. Crouched, or whatever. Sarah still couldn't quite focus on it when she'd nerve herself enough to peek out the window. The feeling of horror was less overriding this far away, but it was almost as if there was some kind of interference that prevented the Beast's body from making contact with her retinas. Besides, she didn't want to try too hard for fear of actually getting its attention.
"It's probably got eternity to wait," Zack said. They were sitting on the stairs, he near the top and she near the bottom. Neither of them had to rest, but they'd searched the room more times than they could count, and their minds still fatigued if their bodies didn't.
"So do we, apparently," Sarah pointed out.
Zack laughed. "True."
"Do you think it knows we're in here?"
"It must, or else it would have gone away, don't you think?" Zack said.
Sarah shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe it lives here."
Zack sighed and leaned back on the stairs. "If it does, I'm almost tempted to open the door and invite it in."
"Don't say that!" Sarah exclaimed in horror.
"Why not? Maybe it would be better to get it over with. Eternity in a stone box with nothing to do but look for a way out and try to keep from getting eaten ... that's not my idea of a fun time."
"We've got to be overlooking something obvious," Sarah said. "I just can't believe that this is the only thing that happens after you die. There has to be something else."
"It could be different for everybody." Zack stretched out on the stairs, eyes closed. "Was it you who suggested that this might be Limbo? Or was that me? Whichever, it certainly fits the bill, doesn't it?"
"I think it must have been you. I don't even know what Limbo is." Sarah folded her arms around her knees.
Zack cracked open one eye, twisting his head to the side to look down the stairs at her. "It's where suicides go. Sort of an in-between place, not quite Heaven or Hell. According to some stories, anyway."
"But you're not a suicide, Zack. You were shot."
He shrugged and closed his eyes again. "So? I don't make the rules. Maybe I qualify for some reason. I don't really remember the circumstances surrounding my death in much detail. In fact ... I don't remember a whole lot of my life at all."
"Me neither." Sarah shuddered to realize how true it was. She knew her name, her date and place of birth, but she couldn't remember her childhood anymore. Had she gone to school? Did she have brothers and sisters? Did it even matter? She knew she'd been married for many years to a man named Linton, but she could not remember his face.
It's all going away, bits of me curling off into the fog. Maybe death isn't one sudden ending. Maybe it's a lot of little losses, until you don't exist at all.
"Do you think if we really believe we can get out of here, we can?" Sarah asked, her voice shaky.
"I don't know. I've tried for all I'm worth. Believe is a tricky thing ... it's near impossible to make yourself believe something. Besides, I doubt that believe is the only factor in the structure of this place. It's certainly a factor, but I think there's more to it than that. I didn't really believe, deep down, that we'd ever find anything but more fog, but obviously we did."
"Sort of," Sarah said, lying back on the stairs as Zack had done, and looking up at the ceiling over her head. "I didn't believe in it either. Did you really not believe? You were so convincing."
"Had to be. To convince them." He made a soft, bitter chuckle. "For all the good it did."
"Maybe we're only here, stuck in this place, because we didn't really, truly believe," Sarah said. "In anything."
"Even if so, how does that help us?" Zack asked her. "You can't just make yourself believe something. I can't all of a sudden start believing in a Heaven with harps and angels, even if I wanted to."
Sarah smiled up at the ceiling. "Me with a harp. Funny thought."
A silence fell over the two of them, companionable, yet with a certain waiting edginess to it. This isn't an ending, Sarah thought. Eternity in a stone box? No thanks. But with a monster waiting for us out there ...
Zack's voice spoke softly in the silence, as if reading her thoughts. "Do you remember what you suggested earlier, much earlier, when we first met?"
He left it there, until finally Sarah said, "No."
"Maybe that thing in the fog ... maybe it's ..."
He trailed off again, and Sarah said finally, "What, Zack?"
"A gatekeeper," Zack said. "Or a judge, or something."
Sarah sat up and turned around, looking up at him. He, too, was sitting up on the stairs with his hands locked between his knees.
"What?" she said.
"I'm serious. Listen to me. It's obvious that there's no way to continue from here. Maybe ... maybe it's a test, Sarah. Or maybe just an ordinary device that we're too dumb to recognize."
"A ... what?"
"Maybe it's not the gatekeeper, but the gate. Who knows." He twisted his fingers together in silence for a moment, then said, "All those people who disappeared out there ... Maybe they're the ones who've really learned what happens after you die. Maybe we're the ignorant primitives huddling in the foyer because we think the elevator is going to eat us."
Sarah laughed weakly. "It's an awfully scary elevator."
Zack looked down the stairs at her. "Want to find out?"
She stared up at him. "You can't be serious."
Zack waved a hand around them, at the empty, cavernous interior of the single great room. "What's the alternative? Write haiku on the walls until we go nuts? Actually, I guess we don't have anything to write with but our own blood, and by the time we get to that point, we're probably halfway to insanity already."
Sarah shuddered. "Zack, don't." She raised her eyes to the windows far above, to the gray shafts of light slanting to the floor. "You can't actually be thinking about ... feeding yourself to that thing. Maybe if we wait around long enough, it'll go away."
Zack's hands fidgeted, rubbing at each other, though the rest of his body was still--as if hands and body no longer shared a common nerve center. "I wonder how long we've already been waiting. Days? Years? There's no way to know, Sarah, and I don't even want to. And it's still out there. Waiting."
"Don't think about it."
"I can't think about anything else." He stood up and started walking down the stairs toward her, one deliberate step at a time.
"What are you doing? Zack?" Sarah asked. He stepped over her without answering. "Zack!"
Zack turned around, offered her a hand. She glared at his outstretched fingers.
"What if you're wrong? What if it kills you?"
"Sarah ... we're already dead." Still his hand waited for her.
Through what madness she did not know, Sarah found her own hand reaching out to take his, gripping the dry and cool fingers.
"Zack ... it's not safe," was all she could say, lamely.
"No," he said, fixing her with his intent gaze. "Nothing is."
And so she found herself, moments later, standing side by side with Zack at the great wooden doors. Zack had raised the bar, and they stood with their hands braced against the doors.
"Ready?" Zack asked.
"No," Sarah said under her breath, leaning against the cool slab of wood. As Zack began to push on his door, so she pushed on hers. A sliver of gray daylight appeared and slowly widened as they thrust outward. Sarah closed her eyes against it, and against the swelling fear that the Beast crouched just outside the doors, waiting to spring on them as soon as the gap was wide enough.
But no jaws closed on her, and after a moment she opened her eyes again to see the gray plain, the roiling fog, and the Beast just as it had been, very far away. She was surprised to discover that her terror didn't increase upon the sight of it. Maybe when you were frightened enough, no additional fear could touch you.
"Come on," Zack said softly, and they began to walk toward it.
Sarah half-expected that dreamlike running-in-place effect that had happened when they'd first covered the ground they were now retracing; she remembered the distant building, seen through a haze of sweat and terror, growing no closer no matter how hard they ran. But perhaps it was only another function of belief and expectation, for the Beast grew steadily nearer, and each time she glanced over her shoulder, the building had dwindled a little in size. It was still difficult to tell how quickly they were moving, with no other landmarks or indications of distance.
"Are you afraid?" Zack asked her quietly.
"I guess so." But as she examined her feelings, she was surprised to find that she wasn't, not really. Trepidatious, perhaps a bit nervous, but not afraid. The paralyzing fear she'd expected did not come, not even as the creature she'd been thinking of as the Beast grew in her vision, seeming to blot out even the fog as they drew nearer to it. She still couldn't look directly at it, without quite being aware of what happened when her eyes tried to settle onto its amorphous form; one minute she'd almost be looking at it, and the next minute she would still be almost looking at it, but on the other side. The only thing she could see with any certainty was the pair of red eyes watching their approach without expression. And those eyes were not really red, she realized: they were every color she could name, and some she had no name for.
"At last, you come."
The voice wasn't Zack's, and it wasn't hers. It seemed to come from around them, from inside them, but just as clearly, from the thing in front of them. Like the body of the Beast, its voice was impossible to qualify. It was neither high nor low, loud nor soft, male nor female. It simply was.
The two humans halted and stood frozen in place.
"Are you ... God?" Sarah asked at last, her voice tiny and faint.
"I am not what you're thinking of," the voice said. "I am only a function of this place. You made me, you and those like me. I am what is primal and irrational in you."
Zack laughed quietly. "You're our fear of death."
"Perhaps that is part of what I am."
In some way Sarah couldn't understand, as it had no body in any sense she could recognize, the thing in the fog moved. Where it had been, she saw three doors. Two of them were ornate slabs of stone twice as tall as a man, with gilded letters entwined across their surface. The third was the size of an ordinary house-door, with a simple nameplate on it.
HEAVEN, read the ornate inscription on the first door, and on the second, HELL. The small nameplate on the third door read simply OTHER.
"Other?" Sarah said, and looked at Zack, confused. "What else is there, besides Heaven and Hell?"
He lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. "I don't know. Other options, maybe? Purgatory? Valhalla? Maybe we're only seeing what we expect to see, because of our religious background. Maybe a Buddhist would see doors reading Reincarnation and Nirvana."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "More belief."
Another shrug. "What else are you, after you die?"
"I hope there is something else," Sarah said quietly. "Another shot at all the nevers and might-have-dones. I'm not ready for endings yet."
"Should we try it?"
They looked up at the thing in the fog, but it offered no clues or help, merely stared at them with its great unblinking eyes.
"I guess this is a decision we have to make on our own," Sarah said finally.
"I always thought Heaven sounded like a lame kind of place," Zack said with a small laugh. "Sitting around playing a harp all day? Not my game."
Sarah reached out cautiously, and touched his hand. His fingers curled around hers. It was not a gesture of love, but merely of friendship, of human companionship.
Together, side by side, they reached out to the door marked OTHER, and opened it.