This detached calm that suspended Jess from her body gave way to pulsating images that fell through her vision with the crash of her every footfall and fevered beat of her heart. It was the dreams that had driven her here, the increasing clarity of the nightly visions sending her into paroxysms of waking hyperventilation in the damp blackness of the mine. Visions of Erik and Louis at her feet, their eyes blank and lifeless; the raw edges of their smashed ribs white on meat red and the steam from their swollen viscera spiralling into the sky.
These dreams, but more significantly Jess’ sleeping habits had become disturbingly regular. It seemed that every hour spent underground had given way to an unrelenting and aggressive weariness that forced her eyelids closed and the hideous stream of deathly images to begin floating into her consciousness.
Still floating from somewhere above, Jess saw herself stop the tangled charge through the trees and crash to her knees; she felt brief, frozen pain as she surrendered to the forest floor, but stronger than this; a vicious miasma of memories began to whirl through her mind.
Childhood; she must have been around eight years old; wintery sunlight flickering through trees, a forest similar to the one in which she now lay. Daytime, new years’ day; crisp frost in the air and a girlish wonder in her heart as Jess rushed between the rope-like fir branches and into the endless green tunnels of foliage. Mum and dad would be hand in hand on the path, their cheeks blushed and tight with the cold but a smile in their eyes. They would meet no one, the wild fells of sighing grasses and reaching bracken all their own for this still day, the day before the darkness.
As a light breeze trickled between leaves and the forest shushed, the young jess stood, rooted to the spot, her eyes aflame as gazed down upon the object that had caught her eye.
Buried between the green spines and flaxen petals of a gorse bush lay a curious, purple cube; its corner poking out invitingly from a crisp topping of snow. Jess had almost walked past it as she sped up a short hill between the trees, she was Fiver, she was Tarka, this was Redwall, this was deep in Farthing Wood. A strange excitement flickered in her stomach as she saw the purple crystal glinting in the winter sunlight and she had turned and run toward it with an excited yelp, reaching hungrily through the bush’s thorns. On her knees, just like now, she reached for the cube, noticing, at the final second before her fingers closed around its edge, the strange inscriptions that had been carved minutely into its flat side.
A freezing, empty warmth enveloped Jess and she was plunging, falling or flying, neither up nor down, nor from side to side; any sense of distance and direction looming out of her consciousness. She held the cube for what felt sometimes like seconds, sometimes like aeons. Images lurched at breakneck speed through her mind; great blighted plains of rock; flames that burned in a ghastly sepia kaleidoscope; watched silently by a mass of pulsating, metameric coils that held spindly antennae to a glowing sphere that burned bright in a bleak sky. Jess heard sounds, screams that were far removed from anything of planet earth, but held in their lament the unmistakable tenor of pure agony. Jess’ eight year old mind was probably what saved her, the very fact her brain had not yet developed enough to even begin to comprehend the sights and sounds she saw and heard as she held that cube-like crystal in shaking hands.
“Wake up...quickly.” Jess was suddenly freezing, a dull ache had infected her legs and lower back and her feet were almost numb with a biting chill.
“Come on, move, come with me...” Clammy hands were pulling Jess to her feet; where her sodden clothes touched her skin, flashed freezing pain.
Her whole body felt weary and this tiredness filled her movements with uncomfortable weight. She struggled from her crumpled posture on the sodden forest floor to her feet, the darkness and rain rising around her and cloaking her vision into a blurry tunnel. There was a dissipating thrumming and the air felt charged with some terrible, chaotic energy.
Jess stumbled again through the forest, her right hand held tight, moving on auto-pilot, her eyes cast to the ground, allowing herself to be dragged over the spongy forest floor. It was Cal, it had to be; somewhere inside her, a flame of recognition had registered his voice but she could not seem to wake from the horror of the memory she had suppressed for so long. As they crashed through the trees, the visions that had returned after so long were simmering dangerously in the forefront of her mind.
What seemed like several hours passed as Cal led Jess through the trees, the darkness and the rain increased, but the static that charged the air around them gradually began to wane. With great clouds of condensation spilling from their lungs, they splashed through a few feet of icy water, smooth slabs of a rocky riverbed biting at the soles of their feet and tumbled into the mouth of a slime-encrusted cave that was concealed by coiling tongues of fern at its entrance.
The cave’s inside reeked with the manure-like tang of river-mud. The water that traversed its stone floor was a damp trickle of about six inches of depth. The walls were wet and hung with slimy roots that stroked exposed skin with lazy, freezing feelers. Panting, Cal reached into the depths of his army jacket that hung wetly around his slim frame. With shaking hands, he pulled from his pocket, a battered touch, pulling it tight on either end to change its shape to a rudimentary electric lamp. His wiry dreadlocks spilling over his face, Cal wound a small handle on the torch’s head, the light inside it getting vaguely stronger in the gloom of the cave.
Jess could feel her teeth chattering and the sound of it echoed ghoulishly alongside the sound of the water; she was curled into the wall of the cave, knees tucked up beneath her chin. In the half-light, Jess’ eyes were wide and bright, rabbit-like. Cal took a deep, rattling breath, his usually composed manner having undergone a quake; his voice cracking as he spoke between breaths.
“What happened Jess? Tell me.” The rain outside sounded very loud and very close. Jess’s voice was barely above a whisper as she stammered out her words.
“C-c-cigars..” she managed, “the others panicked...they ran...they...”
“Shit!” Cal spat, running his hands through his hair in frustration.
“What Cal? What?” Jess’ freezing misery had broken forth into desperate frustration, “what is going on? You must tell me what you know! Tell me now!”
She could feel angry tears coursing down her clenched cheeks; the endless nights in the mine as they watched the skies for lights, the gnawing desperation as time crawled by with nothing but their unspoken memories of death as destruction reined upon the places where they had all walked free.
Cal flailed his arms, his face had lost its usual aloof composure and instead gained a child-like wideness, his eyes like a stuffed toy’s; glassy and lost. His scrawny frame made shadows dance demoniacally around the grimy interior of the cave and eventually he spoke, but with a lilting whisper, that felt ever in danger of cracking.
“I don’t know how to start...”
Jess got to her feet, stamping into the freezing water to stand an inch from Cal’s crestfallen face.
“Tell me why you left us Cal...” her voice held a strange clarity she had not anticipated, “we don’t know if we’re the only fucking people left in the world, Cal and you left us...why?”
Cal took a few steps back, his fingers in his hair, pulling his eyebrows high.
“I’ve been watching for them since I was a kid,” he intoned, dumbly, “I spent hours staring at the empty skies for a glimpse, a sign...anything...”
“Why did you leave us, Cal?”
“The brain’s a funny thing, Jess, the brain’s such a complex organ and for all we know about it, there is so much less we don’t....listen...the brain only lets us see what we know we can handle...it knows that if it shows us too much, it could rupture our sanity...”
Jess could no longer feel her feet, she was still, her neck bent in the gloom of the cave as Cal stood before her, tears streaming down his face.
“They’ve been examining us for years, Jess, centuries...millennia...working out the optimum and most effective way to destroy us...to eradicate human life completely. When the Call came, Jess, I thought I was ready...”
“But how do you know all this, Cal?”
“It’s what I’m saying about the brain...don’t ask me why or how, but before I met you three, mine began to open, began to show me things it had repressed.”
The rain outside increased and Cal’s wind-up lamp began to dim slightly; he paced back and forth through the water, his voice calm.
“I began to remember things, flashes, memories....” Cal trailed off, his head sinking and his voice dropping an octave.
“What did you see?”
“It wasn’t like seeing, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain...it was like I was knowing things...like, I know...”
Cal’s voice dropped to a dry croak.
“I know that they’re using me...as some sort of...weapon...”
Jess clasped her right hand across her mouth,
“Who are they?”
Cal flinched, a shiver through his whole body.
“I don’t know what they are Jess...my brain lets me see them sometimes....but it cant..I can’t conceive...Jess....we’re not talking little grey, bug-eyed humanoids here...”
A horrible familiarity shimmered somewhere in Jess’ mind; a burning orb in a plaid sky; ticking movement from the periphery of her sanity.
“Oh my god...” she whispered. She wanted to reach out to Cal, but instead shuddered with a chilling revulsion that began somewhere deep inside.
“Dreams...” Cal intoned, “that’s how I know...I lived alone, camped in the country, hoping they would go...”
“What dreams?” Jess whispered, trying to keep her voice level, trying not to let the shriek of hysteria that was building so definitely in her chest, escape.
“Death...so much death and so much joy I took from the death that I had caused,” Cal could not even look up to meet her eye, “I have no idea what they have done to me, but I know that at some point, these dreams will become real...I will be standing before the light that they appease...”
“And that’s why you left...”
“If I had stayed, you would all be dead...”
Cal was fumbling in his pocket; the rain was crashing down outside as a frantic emptiness was beginning to yawn inside Jess
“But why you?” she watched Cal, who was crouching on his haunches, still groping in the inner lining of his coat.
“It was something about something I found when I was a kid.” Cal’s face changed as his fingers closed around what he had been searching for, he rose slowly to full height.
A rushing, roaring horror began to throb in the base of Jess’ brain, she could barely speak, but managed to croak out a few words, her head spinning.
“What did you find, Cal?”
Cal shook his head slightly, a faint smile crossing his lips; his face was pale, his eyes blissful, dreamlike. His next words were so quiet, Jess strained to hear them, almost not noticing the dull twinkle of silver metal in Cal’s right hand.
“Some weird crystal cube thing....I found it on a beach on holiday...I don’t even remember how...I just remember holding it, staring into it...”
Jess could feel the colour drain from her face and her knees began to give way, she steadied herself desperately against the slime-encrusted wall of the wave. Cal lifted the small revolver he had pulled from his pocket and pointed the barrel slowly at his own temple.
“...and I saw what looked back....”
Her whole body throbbing with panic, Jess slipped, crashing to one knee, a pulsing revulsion-inducing memory flittering behind her eyes. Pale, pipe-like coiling life with a terrifying, arachnid silence. Cal was still crying, hair falling over his face, his elbow, a pointed angle as he pushed the gun’s barrel into the side of his head. He was still speaking.
“I saw what they wanted ...I saw how they were going to do it....”
Expressionless, armoured heads with plate-like eyes that reflected the light behind a mass of antennae; legs in their thousands that lined striped, invertebrate bodies of a hideous, nightmarish size. Jess was blinking back tears of her own and fought the sight of the memory that seemed burned into her brain. Cal’s eyes were hidden by his hair, but the gun was now no longer pointed at himself, it was pointed at Jess, its barrel like a blank eye that stared into her. Cal’s voice was barely a whisper.
...and you know what else I saw Jess? I saw all their other weapons, all across our world.”
Jess began to scream.