Featured Review on this writing by Fahad Ali

When everything is part of the plan, we have to ask who makes that plan, and if it's really something we want...

“What if every night you go to sleep you wake up as someone else?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” she replied with a smirk, before taking a sip of her gin.

“I mean, how do you know you didn’t, like… die? And maybe the only reason you think you’re the same person is because you inherit all these memories. Like the ones that come with your brain.”

“But if I’m dead, what memories?”

“No, okay, like… Okay, so imagine that this morning when you woke up. That was the start of your existence. You just think you’re however old you are—”

“Twenty-six.”

“Huh?”

“That’s my age. Twenty-six.” She gave him a wink as she took another sip, before resting her head back down on her fist. Her arm wobbled a bit, as she belched silently.

“Uh…” he replied and gave her an awkward chuckle. Her mature features and subtle crow’s feet betrayed a woman somewhere in her mid 30’s, and they both knew her profile read 36. “Right, right, heh. Well, anyways… So, the reason you remember this whole life before today is because of this brain you have now. Your consciousness inherits your memories, your personality, and everything else about you from your body—your brain mostly. But in reality, you—your consciousness—didn’t come into being until this morning. And when you go to sleep tonight, you’re going to die, and someone else’s consciousness takes over your body. And that person will just think that they’re you, and so on.”

“Okay, so…?”

“So… I mean, that’s like the hard problem of consciousness right there. We can’t ever really know if qualia remains consistent over time or if it exists in others. I mean, we certainly seem to think we exist. Cogito ergo sum and all that. But, I mean… have you ever heard about the ship of Theseus?”

“Look, I gotta be honest here, Phil. I have had way too many drinks for all this Latin and… conscious… whatever.”

“Theseus was Greek, actually.”

She rolled her eyes. “I was talking about—hic—that quote from, uh… what’s his—Dali? No! Des Cartes! Des Cartes.”

“Ah, so you have some familiarity with existentialism.”

Another eye roll. “Basic shit, Phil. High Sch—hic—High School Social Studies. You’re gonna have to try harder, Mr. Smarty Pants.”

“Heh…” he replied, before quickly changing the subject. “Did I mention I like your outfit? Great costume.”

She looked down to her skin tight black suit and caressed herself with her clawed fingers, before reaching up and fondling the little black cat ears attached to her headband. “So you like pussy after all, eh?”

They both exchanged lecherous laughter and a knowing gaze. He liked a woman who knew how to tease, and she certainly enjoyed doing it.

“Feel like taking off?” he said with a smile, gesturing to the door with his thumb.

“I thought you’d never ask…”

 

 

She awoke with some measure of regret. She remembered snatches of the night prior. Leaving the Halloween party with Phil. Summoning a ride on her phone and taking it back to her place. Sloppy drunk sex with a man she hardly knew. It was enjoyable enough, but now came the awkward morning. She was sure she would have a headache, and she would want to just get him out of her apartment as quickly as possible.

As she slowly opened her eyes, however, she found something that she did not expect. Darkness. Even if her blackout curtains had been closed, she would expect it to be brighter than this. Instead of the faint glow of a sunny Los Angeles morning in her apartment, she was confronted with a black space, accompanied by only the dimmest of distant orange light. Not the golden hue of the sun, but rather some eerie orange glow like a harvest moon. But even moonlight would be preferable to what she saw. It was actually more like a dim candle shining through some foul fluid like sewage or formaldehyde.

The latter correlation was all the more disturbing, considering her vision was being clouded by something. A thick film that was not only over her eyes, but all around her. She was immersed in some kind of suffocating goo. Literally suffocating, in fact.

Panic washed over her and she struggled to swim. It took her a moment to realize she could simply stand up. After some violent confused flailing, she rose to her feet and struggled to breathe. Sticky, warm, gooey globs of viscous liquid slowly dripped from her naked body as she gasped and coughed.

She was standing in a small pool of this gunk, whatever it was. It was too dark to make out its color exactly. But the smell was inescapable. An entire pool of putrid swill. Had she perhaps fallen down a sewer or something? Yet, whatever was covering her skin almost had the consistency of syrup.

As that hot muck oozed off her in long sticky drips, the space she was in grew rather cold. Clouds of vapor rose up from the pool like a hot tub in winter. The rest of that dark interior—lit only by sickly orange light from some unseen source in the distance—was nearly freezing.

Shivering from head to toe, she slowly stepped out from the pool onto a cold spongy floor of some indeterminate material. In the dim light one could just barely make out ripples in that surface. An almost organic surface, but not in a comforting way. It was somewhere between the skinless sinews of a dead animal and wet bone. And its appearance was almost insect-like. Like the exoskeleton of some great beetle. A low droning rumble emanated from the walls, along with indistinct crackling sounds. Something like rubbery bellows expanding and contracting. And occasionally the light plopping noise of some unseen liquid dripping, drop by drop every few moments.

“Oh my god, oh my god…” she started to mutter, quickly growing louder as she frantically surveyed that nightmarish landscape. As she did, the scene grew only more disconcerting. In the distance, vapor clouds rose up from other pools. Glowing pools in the dark. And inside those pools…

“Shh…” a voice whispered from behind.

She turned around toward the voice. When she did, the sight made her eyes widen and her heart pound. She was on the verge of letting out a scream of absolute terror, when that frightful figure grabbed her and covered her mouth, thereby muffling her wail. The horrendously shocking figure that had sent her into such mad alarm was—unlike everything else in this cold alien interior—terrifying in its fierce familiarity. For the hand that covered her mouth and the intense eyes that peered into her own was none other than… herself.

“They can hear you,” her doppelganger whispered.

At those words, the room grew even colder as a chill ran down her spine. And in the midst of such cold, she froze. The other then held a finger up to her lips to gesture for quiet, before the woman silently moved to her side. The woman was wearing a thin white robe, and its silky fabric brushed against her cold wet sticky skin as the woman came up to her ear and whispered again.

“Christina,” she said, “we have to get out of here.”

Christina was already shivering at this point, but her trembling flesh quaked all the more, as she shuddered at the sound of her name. A name spoken with piercing acquaintance in a voice that sounded exactly like her own—at least her voice as heard in a recording. Christina slowly turned to the woman and stared, mouth agape, while still quivering from head to toe. The face was uncanny. Like looking in a mirror, but more immediate and real. Like the woman in the mirror had found a way to crawl out and take on a life of her own.

“Now!” the mirror-woman exclaimed in an aggravated whisper. That’s when Christina realized the other had been holding up a robe. She gave it an angry shook and Christina finally took the hint.

“Wh-where are we?” Christina whispered, as she pulled the robe down over her head.

“This way,” the woman said, ignoring Christina’s question while starting to march off into the dark.

“Wait!” Christina wheezed out in a pleading whisper. “Where are we going? Who are you? How did I get here?”

The woman stopped in her tracks and let out a sigh. “God, was I really this fucking annoying?” she muttered, mostly to herself. The woman then turned around, rolled her eyes, and pressed her face uncomfortably close to Christina’s. “Look, all you need to know right now is you aren’t safe here. Do you want to die? If you don’t, then come with me. You do? Too fucking bad. I came too far, and I will drag you out of here if I have to. Do you understand?”

Christina gulped and surveyed her surroundings, before quickly turning back and nodding in silence.

She struggled to keep up as the woman marched into the dark at a brisk pace. They passed pools of steaming goo, some empty, some… occupied. In the case of the latter, were women. Floating, as though dead or asleep. Silent, naked, motionless, and all looking exactly like herself.

“Here,” the gruff doppelganger said in her usual hushed tone, as she gestured to a depression in the wall. In that little recess was something like a grate. The woman quickly turned and pulled it away, revealing a gaping dark crawlspace filled with blackness.

“W-wait, you—you want me to get in there? How do I—”

“Quiet!” the woman hissed. She tapped her ears as a gesture and gazed about the pools with wide eyes.

That’s when Christina heard it. Something like a soft murmur or moan echoing from the distance. And then goopy splashing sound, followed by trickling dripping noises. Another moan, that started to turn into a cry. Off along the far wall, in one of the pools, a figure was standing. A shadow amidst shadows, shivering now in the dark. And then that figure did something which sent a shiver down both women’s spines. It spoke.

“Mommy?” it cried. “Mommy?!”

The little girl’s voice rang throughout the space like an alarm bell. Its echo bounced off the walls like a crashing clamber of cymbals.

“Shit!” the woman said in her full voice, for the first time.

“What? Who is—?”

Christina watched out in shock and confusion, as the other woman brushed past her and ran toward the girl with unrestrained haste. It was less than half a minute before she reached that distant silhouette. The sound of her rapid footfalls was accompanied by something else. A kind of whirring chittering sound. It started off in the dark, somewhere in the far distance to Christina’s left.

“Ahh!” the little girl screamed as the woman grabbed her naked body and raced back to Christina. “Let me go! Put me down! I want my mommy!”

In between the echoing cries, the chittering clamor grew louder. It seemed to be coming from the ceiling. Inhuman patter of something like many feet and a kind of buzz or whir. By the time the woman and the girl had returned to Christina, the buzzing whirring chittering noise was just beyond several pools and approaching with alarming speed. In the midst of the orange-hued darkness, a strange shadow loomed larger and larger as it made its approach.

“In the shaft! Now!” the woman screamed. Christina nodded hurriedly and crawled into the darkness, as the woman pushed the now-screeching girl in with her. A metalic scraping sound clattered in the dark, as the woman grabbed and retrieved something from the little black tunnel’s floor.

The buzzing chittering shadow was only a few yards away now, clinging to the ceiling before dropping down with an omnious loud flutter. It stopped for a moment, before crawling forward a yard or two. In the gloom, Christina could see it more clearly now. And the sight filled her at once with both dread and disgust.

It was like a grasshopper, but as large as a horse and more menacing. It had a curled stinger that wiggled around behind it in the dark. Perhaps most disturbing of all was its face. A strangely humanoid face, but with lifeless eyes below. Massive souless pupils glared at the woman, but without moving. It slowly opened its mouth revealing a gaping maw filled with rows of spikes.

“C’mon!” the woman cried out, while Christina looked on in terror.

“I want my mommy!” the little girl squeeled.

“C’mon! I’m here, you piece of shit!” she shouted again, goading the monstrous insect-like abomination.

It extended its hairy forelegs toward her like pincers, as it raised its stinger tail up like a scorpion. Within a flash, the stinger shot forward and down at least a dozen feet through the air, but the woman was ready. She batted away the tail with the blunt weapon in her right hand, while simultaneously rushing toward the monster. When she was close enough, she threw some kind of liquid in a container from her left hand, spraying the side of the creature’s face. It, in turn, screeched and recoiled.

The attack gave her just enough time to rush toward the tunnel and close the grate behind her. Screeching, buzzing, and chittering ensued as the insect monster clawed at the grate and walls. Christina was gripping the little girl’s mouth closed now, while the little girl wailed as she could through her nose. After a moment, it finally gave up and flew back into the dark.

Another moment passed while the two women caught their breath. Christina finally spoke up. “What the hell was that thing?”

“Locust,” the other woman panted.

 

 

Several minutes passed as they crawled in relative quiet through the dark grimy tunnel. After the other woman had fended off the “locust,” the little girl started to listen to reason and passively rode on Christina’s back as she scooted along on her hands and knees, following the sound of her doppelganger’s own shuffling. The swish of fabric, the pat-pat of hands and toes, occasional huffs and puffs, and the perpetual scraping of the metal rod she dragged along with her. Whether from trauma or passive acceptance, the little girl remained silent, apart from the occasional sniff and soft whine.

“Okay,” Christina spoke up, “you have to tell me now. Where are we going?”

“We’re meeting up with a man named Phil,” the other said with a sigh.

“Phil…? You wouldn’t happen to mean—”

“Have you met a man named Phil yet?” she interjected. “Someone you related to?”

“Heh, well… Last night I just slept with a man named Phil.”

The other woman stopped in her tracks. Christina’s hands brushed the woman’s feet, before she stopped, herself. After a moment, the woman continued crawling without explanation.

Finally, she spoke again. “Life was so much simpler back then.”

“Back then?”

“Look, this Phil isn’t the one you knew. But he’s just as sharp. It’s been over a year, but if he’s right we might just be able to actually get out of here.”

“Over a year? I just got here! Are you trying to tell me that… this is… there is… some kind of time travel or something?”

She replied with a sigh. If their inky surroundings hadn’t prevented Christina from seeing, she probably would have been frustrated at the sight of how hard the other woman rolled her eyes. After a moment of invisible head shaking while they continued crawling, the woman spoke. “You still have the luxury of asking irrelevant questions. I lived through hell on earth for seven years before I got here. Whatever here is and when and how… I’ll leave that to Phil. For right now, just save your breath and focus on keeping up.”

Christina did as the woman said. They crawled for some untold age in the deep black void of that tunnel. A time that no doubt seemed longer than it really was in the discomfort of that tiresome space. The little girl on Christina’s back remained surprisingly silent for the journey, letting out only the occasional sniff and sigh.

Finally, after that interminable moment, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Nothing quite like the reassuring brilliance of sunlight at the end of a cave, but rather more like the ghostly glow of some bioluminescent sea creature, floating in the distance amidst the inky black of the deep ocean. Nevertheless, it sometimes only takes a glimmer to reignite hope, and that fire burned in Christina’s bosom, kindling her limbs, moving her to pick up the pace.

After momentarily bumping into the woman—who didn’t share as much of that enthusiasm—her double sped up as well. Before long, they were emerging into the dim gray of some open space, with only the barest hint of blue to an otherwise colorless fog.

They each crawled out onto a narrow walkway, just barely thick enough to support a pair of feet while standing with one’s back to the wall. A gray featureless wall which stood across a gap from another identical wall with its own tiny ledge a couple dozen feet away. Christina made the mistake of looking down, and her stomach immediately rolled somersaults. There was no discernible bottom. An endless dark pit growing mercilessly down, before fading into the dark fog. Likewise, above, the walls of that bland corridor rose endlessly into obscurity. Far below, beyond the blue-gray fog was the rolling, goopy, bubbling noise of what sounded like a whole stream of some kind of sludge.

Christina felt like asking the woman where the hell they were, but she was a quick learner. An irrelevant question to be sure. In the meantime, she had the child to think about.

“Come take my hand,” she called back into the tunnel while extending a friendly palm.

The little girl stuck her head out and looked past the ledge with trepidation. “Scary! This is scary! I’m too scared!” And with that she started to pant and shiver with fear.

“Christina,” the woman said.

Her call was met by a little harmony of voices, as both Christina and the little girl replied in unison: “Yes?”

Christina looked from the woman to the girl with a little shock and back again. The woman wasn’t looking back at her. Instead, she had her eyes fixed on the little girl still on her hands and knees in the tunnel next to them.

The woman then bent down to the little girl’s level and looked in her eyes with a stern expression. “You can do this. I know you can do this.”

The little girl looked back at the woman and cocked her head. The woman reminded her of her mother, but in some strange way she felt even more familiar. The way she said “know” with such confidence and understanding gave her pause. But that only lasted a moment before she shook her head and said, “It’s too scary. I’m gonna fall!”

“Christina,” the woman said again, commanding the little girl’s eyes back to her own, “remember when you didn’t want to ride the ferris wheel on that beach back in Movie City?”

“Y-yes…” the little girl replied with a puzzled expression.

Movie City…” Christina muttered to herself in awe. She hadn’t heard that term in ages. That’s what her late father called Los Angeles when she was taken to visit as a child. And that ferris wheel. The big one in Santa Monica. Riding it as a kid captured her imagination, and was one of a series of experiences that made her enamored with “Movie City,” eventually leading her to move there years later after college.

“You rode it then,” the woman explained. “You can do this now.”

The little girl crawled out and took the woman’s hand. The woman then turned to Christina and nodded her head, gesturing for her to take the girl’s other hand. Christina nodded in return, and then looked down to the little girl and gazed at the side of her face. The first time she had really gotten a good look at her since escaping from… wherever that place was before. She shuddered with surprise when she recognized that face. A face she had seen so many years ago. A face she would have nearly forgotten, but for occasionally revisiting old photos with her mom.

“Okay, everyone. Nice and slow, like this.” The woman started to side step to the left. Christina and the naked little girl between them followed her lead, hand in hand as they shuffled their way along the ledge. “And remember… don’t look down.”

 

 

After a long period of sidestepping carefully along the precipice of that bottomless pit, the walls of the long gray corridor ran up to a third wall, perpendicular to both. A final dead end, bridging the gap. In the center of that wall was a great circular opening, a couple dozen feet in diameter. The women and the girl carefully climbed up into that vast hole. A hole that showed itself to be a kind of tunnel with the barest hint of light at its other end.

Just as they pulled the girl up into that great passage, in the distance a rhythmic tapping whispered in the dark. The sound grew steadily louder, as they all peered breathlessly into the far gloom. Against the backdrop of that remote light, a silhouette slowly increased in size.

Sooner than later, they both could recognize the nature of the sound. Footsteps.

“C’mon,” the woman said. And with that, they both advanced toward the figure for a bit, before she called to it softly in the dark. “Hey, Phil, it’s me. And I’ve got the secondary with me.”

“Excellent,” a familiar voice replied. Familiar, yet different. Somehow Christina seemed to recall Phil sounding a little gruffer. Not in a gravelly rustic smoker kind of way, but just the subtle lower tones and rich maturity that came with age. This man sounded very much like the Phil she knew, but somehow… younger.

“We’re not alone, though,” the woman explained, as she reached behind her and petted the head of the little girl hiding behind her legs in the dark.

“Oh?”

“The neefesh swapper ended up swapping in me as a child too.”

“We don’t know for a certainty that is you as a child.” At this, the woman let out a groan. She knew it was the prelude to a bit of pedantic pontification, but she let him continue nevertheless. “We may have observed the growth process, but there’s no way to empirically validate whether a neefesh even exists. For all we know we may be effectively clones.”

“Wait, what?” Christina interjected with a gulp.

“Oh, hello there,” Phil said as he turned to Christina in the dark. They could barely make out one another in the gloom. “My name is Phil.”

“You—you don’t… remember me? We met last night. At least, I—”

“I’m afraid I don’t recall said meeting, sorry. Apparently I—or whoever’s memories I inherited—lived until the age of nearly fifty. That being said, as a secondary like yourself, my memories are from an earlier period. Last I recalled I was twenty-six. That would make me twenty-seven now I suppose… assuming my memories are remotely authentic. If not, Christina and I are only a year old or so, heh.”

“I’m this many,” the little girl interjected, holding up the dim silhouette of a small hand in the dark, extending all five of her fingers.

“H-how old are you…?” Christina asked, turning to the other woman.

“Forty-eight,” she said with a sigh.

“And, and… why am I a secondary exactly?”

“I came up with the term, actually,” Phil explained. “Primaries are those who are awakened—or potentially created—first. Everyone starts out in the pools, as far as we can tell. But the primaries are generated first—or ‘swapped in,’ if you can believe the documentation—while secondaries come after. Usually not very long after. Most people only stay in the arboretum for a few days. Primaries have the full set of memories, while secondaries represent a snapshot of an earlier period. Well, at least ‘earlier’ from a certain relative perspective. Considering what we’ve seemed to find out about spacetime here, it’s—”

“Wait,” Christina—the younger woman, that is—interjected. “What do you mean, by ‘full set’ exactly?”

“It means I remember dying,” the older Christina said.

A mixture of fear and malaise rippled through the younger Christina’s body. Dead? Was she dead too? Was she destined to die at forty-seven? Or had she ever been alive in the first place? She slowly sauntered away from the group. It felt like when she was a child. Those times of such emotional distress that, in between open mouth crying, she felt like she had to go somewhere, but all she could manage was the most sluggish of shuffling between tears. But she wasn’t crying now. At least not on the outside. After reaching nowhere in particular, she collapsed to the floor. A wet grimy floor sullying an already soiled robe, but she didn’t particularly care. She had to catch her breath. One arm resting atop a bent knee. The other held lifelessly at the side of an outstretched leg.

In the dark, the little girl left the older Christina and went to the younger. She sat down next to her and cozied up to her like a cat. After a moment, the mid-30s Christina wrapped her arm around her child self and gave the little girl a muted smile. A barely visible gesture in that shadowy space. The girl in turn rested her little head against Christina’s chest. Two lost girls comforting each other in the gloom.

The old Christina peering off at the two, finally turned back to Phil. “Why did the process bring in the girl?”

“Well, in retrospect it makes perfect sense. From what we can tell, it’s a triadic entity that threatens us. In order to possess and assimilate, it likely needs a kind of tripartite instantiation.”

“A suitable host…”

“Exactly.”

“What about… the others?” she asked with a shudder.

“Others?”

“There were other pools. Dozens of them. I don’t even know how long that room went on.”

“Ah… That might explain what I read about the golems. Held in stasis, devoid of any neefesh. Something like a philosophical zombie. Of course, like said entity, it would be impossible to tell. Any one of us could be the same for all we know. Assuming we know anything at—”

“Excuse me,” the younger Christina chimed in. “Is there something we can do for the girl here? She’s shivering.”

With that, Phil set down something in the dark. The soft plop of a sack. And from that container, the subtle rustling of some cloth.

“Here, stand up,” Phil gently commanded the little girl. In the dim gray light, he held up a robe to the child. Finding a good place to fold it, he ripped the robe nearly in two, tearing off a good chunk of its bottom. “There. The arms are still too long. We’ll have to keep them rolled up. But at least this won’t drag on the bottom.”

“So where are we going now?” the younger Christina asked. “How are we getting out of here?”

“The sheep gate,” the older Christina replied.

“What?” her younger doppelganger responded in confusion.

“That’s what we call it,” Phil explained. “It’s one of a number of ruach portals for infused livestock. It seems mostly sheep that go through it. The point is that it connects back to Earth for the most part, as far as we can tell.”

Ruach?”

“Look,” the older Christina interjected, “we don’t have time to go over everything. The point is that we have a chance to get out of here. All of us. Got it?”

“The real problem is avoiding any resistance,” Phil explained. “Speaking of which, do you still have that flask of Persian powder?”

“I used it on a locust,” the older Christina said. “It was damn near on top of us, so I used it all.”

“Jesus,” Phil remarked quietly. “Well… fortunately I brought a whole liter of the stuff. Hopefully we can avoid using it.”

The older Christina replied with a nod.

“Shall we get going then?” Phil asked.

The little girl grabbed the younger Christina’s hand and squeezed it tight. She returned the gesture with a smile, before turning back to the others. Everyone then glanced back and forth at each other in the quiet dark of the tunnel and nodded solemnly.

 

 

After a minute or two of a quiet hike along the bottom of what seemed like a large drainage pipe, they were finally at the end of the tunnel. It, in turn, opened up to another yawning chasm. A massive cylindrical space that endlessly reached above and below to unseen heights and depths.

At least a thousand feet away beyond the foggy gloom in the distance was the other side of the shaft. Circumscribing it all around was another narrow walkway. This time, thankfully, was a shallow wall between the walkway and the bottomless drop beyond. It was some strange bit of alien architecture topped with intimidating spikes and lined with all manner of what looked like long running pipes of some kind. Its presence gave them all a little sense of reassurance—even if that sense was not exactly merited.

“So what happens if this gate is closed?” the younger Christina asked, as she stepped out on to that narrow walkway with the child in tow.

“Shh!” the older Christina replied, before stopping dead in her tracks and turning back to Phil, who was trailing at the end of their narrow line, all shuffling along the walkway. “Do you hear that?”

Phil listened intensely for a moment. A low murmuring drone echoed from the abyss below. And it was quickly growing louder. Phil nodded with a gulp and gestured to her to continue.

“We have to move, quickly,” the older Christina said in a strained whisper. “Move, move, move!”

They all picked up the pace of their shuffling. That pace was ultimately set by the awkward steps of the little girl with her little legs. The younger Christinas had no idea what was coming, but based on the panicked disposition of the oldest, who was quickly leading them toward some kind of grate, it couldn’t be good.

The increased pace finally got the best of the youngest Christina in the group. Right as their elder leader was opening the stone grate door, the little girl slipped and nearly tumbled onto the spiked wall to her left. The middle Christina holding her hand pulled her back with a gasp.

In the meantime the sound continued to grow louder. And louder. The walls were rumbling by the time Phil at the end was crawling through the grate. An ominous deep bass accompanied by a shrill whine. The new tunnel they were in was large enough for the three adults, when bunched up together, to stare back out the metal slotted fins of that grated stone door.

“I wanna see,” the little girl whispered as she jockeyed for a position.

Her request was met with a harsh refusal from the older Christina who sternly wagged her finger with an angry chopping motion, as she shook her furrowed-brow face “no.” The little girl then complied, albeit it with a fair amount of sulking.

As they looked on through the grate, the sound grew nearly deafening. And as it finally appeared, whooshing up from the abyss, another sound. A ghastly ethereal roar. An inhuman roar, that nevertheless had some strange vocal quality. It was like the sound of a loud torturous scream of a man, which had been somehow recorded and sped down. The sound stretched low in pitch and long in time. With that frightening sound came an even more frightful sight.

“Wheel…” Phil whispered with some mixture of awe and dread.

Before them, hovering in the middle of that great shaft beyond the door was an unfathomable monstrosity of seemingly mechanical mayhem. Defying all commonly intuited laws of nature, what floated before their eyes was a conglomeration of rings. Rings within rings. Massive rings, at least two or three stories of a modest building in size. Always moving within each other, even as the whole of that mass hung weightlessly in the middle of the dark chasm. And upon each ring were eyes. Endless columns of eyes, covering the surface of those rings. Rings of eyes all rotating past one another within a great abominable ball, floating above a great abyss.

That grotesque horror hung in the air for an interminable moment, before slowly starting to ascend again. The three breathed out a collective sigh of relief. The older Christina just started to turn away, when all three were shook to the core by another sound. A shrill familiar voice just beyond them in the tunnel…

“I wanted to see!” that voice shouted. The impertinent cry of the little girl, now sitting on the tunnel floor with her arms crossed indignantly.

The little Christina’s shout was met with a roar. The “wheel” returned, and with haste. Those spinning wheeling rings of eyes came right up to the edge of the walkway. The tunnel rumbled all around. They instinctively covered their ears, before backing away from the door.

Then, just as quickly as it had whooshed down, it flew back up, ascending in a flash and taking its terrible sound with it.

“God damn it!” the older Christina exclaimed.

“Wh-what the hell was that thing?” the younger asked, trembling with wide eyes in the dark.

“To and fro, throughout the whole earth…” Phil muttered.

“What?” the younger Christina said.

“Wheels,” the older Christina explained. “At least that’s what Phil calls them. They’re the eyes and ears of this fucking place.”

“I saw a lot of eyes,” the younger Christina replied. “But I didn’t see any goddamn ears. How the hell does that thing—?”

“We should keep moving,” Phil interjected with a sigh.

The older Christina breathed out a sigh and shook her head. “Fuck! Let’s go then.”

 

 

They crawled along this new tunnel for a while in silence. Unlike everything else, this new passage way was dry. A little dusty, but notably devoid of the wet grime they had been trudging through before. It wasn’t big enough to stand up in, but it could permit an awkward crouch. And in the distance were some bright streams of yellowish light that filtered down to their surroundings, leaving the tunnel illuminated with a dim grayish brown hue.

“You didn’t answer my question before,” Christina said. And her older counterpart already started to groan. “What happens if the gate is closed when we get there?”

“Then we’re shit out of luck,” the older responded quickly.

“Well…” Phil said. “There is plan B.”

“Plan B?” the younger asked.

“We’re not doing plan B,” the older said.

“I admit it would be far less preferable, heh.”

“What’s plan B?”

The older Christina sighed and shook her head. Phil then spoke up and explained, “Plan B is to head back to the neefesh swapper and use the lateral entry chamber to swap ourselves back to Earth.”

“We’re not crawling into a goddamn meat grinder coffin.”

“Meat grinder what?” the younger Christina asked, alarmed. She stopped for a moment in shock, before continuing to shuffle along on her hands and knees with the rest of the group.

“The lateral entry chamber is a compartment just large enough to accommodate the subject in question. Per the documentation, the subject’s neefesh is transferred to a calibrated entry point. You wind up back in your body, back in that dimension of reality we all used to know, while the neefesh that’s there is swapped into a newly generated body back in the pools.”

“Yeah,” the older Christina spoke up, “and then your ‘old’ body here is torn to shreds and recycled in same-said chamber. For all we know, that’s it. Could just be a plain old murder box.”

“Heh,” Phil replied, “fair enough. But then, it’s technically possible that we die all the time without realizing it. Maybe every night you go to sleep you die, and a new person wakes up in your body in the morning. The only reason they think they’re you is because they inherit all the memories stored in your brain. It’s like the ship of—”

“Jesus, this sounds familiar,” the younger Christina remarked.

“The point is… we’re not doing the murder box,” the older said. “Even according to the documentation, best scenario is we send ourselves back in time just to essentially live it all over again without ever changing any outcome. Our memory would be precisely the same, so we would make precisely the same decisions, and, yada yada, we’re back here again living this hell all over.”

“Where did you get all this ‘documentation’ anyways?”

“Ah, well, that’s something we’re just about to see,” Phil explained. And with that, he gestured to one of the distant light sources which was, as they progressed, steadily looming larger in the growing light of the tunnel.

 

 

“The great library,” Phil said as he pointed to a stone grate on their right. The younger Christina stared in awe through that grate at a vast open space filled with ancient stone columns reaching up to unseen arches. Rows of bookshelves ran between those columns and extended off into the mists of a grand hall that seemed to stretch on indefinitely. “What we’ve been crawling through has essentially been a kind of ventilation shaft, as far as I can tell. It connects a number of key locations. This library is reserved for the acolytes.”

“Acolytes?”

“Yeah, I’ve managed to sneak in when they’re not around. Fortunately I’m fairly conversant with Paleo-Hebrew. The higher level documents are in the administrators’ own language. And it’s one that has a remarkable resemblance to Paleo-Hebrew.”

“This all reminds me of that crazy cult up in Thousand Oaks.”

“I remember that,” the older Christina interjected. “Poor Wilson family. I wouldn’t doubt if it wasn’t connected to the administration here.”

“More than possible,” Phil said. “They have their hands in a lot of things. Anyhow, I’ve been studying here at this library for a while now.”

“For the better part of a year…” the older Christina noted wistfully.

“Hey, remember this?” Phil asked her, as he pointed off to another light up ahead on the left side of the shaft.

“Ugh, yes.”

“What is it?” the younger asked.

“The arboretum,” the older replied bluntly.

As they came to that blazing light filtering through another stone grate, a painfully bright blur transformed to an entire landscape beyond that grate. To either side were rock faces. A rocky alcove framing distant hills. Lush and verdant hills dotted with trees. An entire river winding away from a rushing waterfall. And further still, the hazy silhouettes of distant mountains, all of which painted against a bright blue sky.

“Wow…” the younger Christina said with a gasp.

“It’s all very lovely and all,” the older remarked, “until you realize it’s a cage. A fake domed sky. And metal flooring only a few feet below the soil. I never would have known if he hadn’t shown me…” After she trailed off for a moment, staring out at that landscape, Christina quietly wiped a single tear from her worn face.

“Do you regret it?” the younger asked.

“No,” the older replied, “no, not at all. I will always be eternally grateful to Phil for so many things. I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be here.” And then, under her breath, she half whispered, “I miss him so damn much.”

“Phil?”

“The older me,” Phil explained. “They… knew each other. Came in at the same time. And before that…”

“We need to keep moving,” the older Christina interjected, before sniffing away a tear. “There’s no telling how much time we have left after that wheel.”

 

 

They continued on in silence for some time more, quietly shuffling along on their hands and knees passing by more stone grates as they went. At one in particular, the elder Christina gestured for everyone to stop. The child Christina blurted out “I’m hungry” before the elder furiously held up a finger to her mouth and gestured for silence.

Half a moment later, as they looked on quietly, footsteps clanged and clattered along a metal walkway just outside the grate, as two looming figures stomped along. Two giants, at least 8 feet tall. Entirely human looking figures aside from their bright blue skin. So bright it seemed to glow in the dim corridor in which they traveled. Between them was half a dozen men and women being ushered along in chains, trembling in fear, as the two massive figures pulled them on a leash like dogs.

“Grash nagkh!” one of the giants exclaimed, before gesturing for them to stop as he pushed a button near a sliding stone door, causing the door to quickly slide open with a low scraping sound.

“Please!” one woman exclaimed. “I’ve been faithful all my life! I just—I just had some questions. The pro-procedure. I’m still willing to—”

“Uul galashg!” the other giant exclaimed as they both started to herd the small crowd into a room just beyond the sliding stone door.

“Please!” a man called out. “I swear I’ll do whatever is asked of me from here on.”

To that, a fiendish smile slowly crept across the first giant’s blue face, just below two black pools of soulless eyes. He spoke out in halting English to the man, “You do whatever we ashk, nakh?”

“Yes!” the man shouted back as the giant closed the door. The man’s muffled voice continued through the clear window of the stone door. “Anything you ask!”

“Good!” the giant exclaimed. And with that, some hope came to the man’s eyes and an insecure smile started to form, before the giant spoke again. “Then we ashk you to die!”

And with that, the tall blue monstrosity slammed his finger against a button, sliding open another door behind the group. All of the men and women were then swept out of that apparent airlock. A whoosh quickly followed by a cacophony of muffled screams, before the outer door was closed again.

The giants then slowly sauntered off, chuckling, snickering, and casually bantering among themselves. Christina shuddered at the horror of what she had just witnessed, while the other two adults sighed in melancholic resignation.

Once the giants appeared to be gone, she turned and whispered to Phil and the older Christina. “What the hell was that?”

“Devas,” Phil explained. “They’re guards of sorts in certain sectors.”

“Those poor people…” Christina said in lament.

“They call that the ‘outer darkness,’” Phil explained. “There are worse fates in this place.”

“Come on,” the older Christina said quietly. “Let’s go.” And with that she lightly placed her hand on her younger counterpart’s trembling shoulder. She rubbed it momentarily as a gesture of comfort before gesturing her to follow.

 

 

The last leg of their journey grew darker. They had passed by a few more lighted grates before there were no more for a long while. They crawled on their hands and knees in pitch black for some time, before another shaft of light from another grate up ahead could be seen. They remained in relative silence, apart from the little girl who issued the occasional complaint.

Finally the younger Christina spoke up. “There’s something I still don’t understand.”

“Yes?” the older Christina replied, neutrally. Her intolerance of “irrelevant questions” having disappeared for the time.

“Why did you guys need me?”

“Because… Christina’s a primary,” Phil interjected. “The gate is somehow able to distinguish. It can detect what’s called a ‘terminal’ neefesh.”

“So… you’re planning to just sneak in behind me?” the younger Christina asked with a growing smirk. “Tailgate through security?”

“There’s… no guarantee it will work,” Phil explained, solemnly.

“Stay sharp, everyone,” the older Christina said. “We’re almost there.”

 

 

They finally emerged at their destination. A ladder extended from that last grated portal to a platform a dozen feet below or so. From there, it dropped down to the floor of the vast room. A dimly lit chamber with a long walkway connecting to a large open ring. A glowing ring that reached from the floor to the ceiling. And within that ring a view to assorted landscapes beyond. That view would change every few minutes, as one member from a whole queue of sheep would walk through. Remarkably, each sheep appeared to be taking turns, waiting for the sheep ahead of it to enter the portal and then waiting for the portal to change before walking through itself.

After they had all descended to the first platform, taking extra care to help the little girl down the ladder, the younger Christina caught sight of the line of sheep in the distance. “How… are they doing that?”

“Why? Is that the weirdest thing you’ve seen in this place?” the older Christina asked with a sardonic smile.

“Heh… fair point,” the other replied.

“They’re ruach-infused,” Phil explained.

“Right, you mentioned that.”

“A ruach is an incorporeal entity,” Phil continued. “It’s unclear where they fall in the hierarchy of beings here, but whatever it is they appear to be instrumental in influencing human affairs and shaping or reshaping history.”

“What the hell is with the sheep then?”

“Well, as I said, they’re incorporeal. As far as I can tell, that has something to do with them being bound to the fabric of spacetime itself. Since we’re beyond normal spacetime along some other dimension here, they require a carrier. A corporeal organism to which they can attach and cross dimensional boundaries. Once they’re on the other side once the host organism dies they are free to ‘reattach’ to the other… universe, I guess. Since livestock have been routinely slaughtered throughout human history, it provides an ideal avenue of entry. That may be why they apparently had a growing amount of influence in the past couple hundred years, considering the record increase of animal slaughter subsequent to the dawn of the industrial revolution and all.”

“Heh, okay, not gonna lie. You lost me a little bit.”

“He does that from time to time, doesn’t he?” the older Christina interjected. She gave Phil a warm smile, but in her eyes there was something more. Something like nostalgia mixed with grief. It was the other Phil she was thinking about. The one she had known for years. The one she had married. The one she had lost, before her own untimely death, and the one she had lost again less than a year ago. Was there some better truer space or time beyond all this where they might meet again? A part of her never lost hope.

The younger Phil that was actually there broke his gaze with Christina and looked off to the end of the platform. “So here goes nothing, eh? I’m gonna try to reprogram the portal from there. Anyone have any preference on time? We all come from different times after all.”

“The earlier the better,” the older Christina spoke up. “As far away from the invasion as possible.”

“Invasion?” the younger asked, but the others ignored the question.

“I guess that means my time, since I’m the youngest and all, eh?”

“Technically, that’s little Christina here, Phil,” the older Christina remarked.

“Heh, I guess it might be foolish to pick back up my life where it was anyhow,” Phil said.

“Wait, why?” the younger Christina asked. “Why can’t we go back to my time and—?”

“Because there’s still another you,” the older replied. “Another us back there. And trust me, a few short years from your time the world is not worth going back to.”

“Why?” the younger asked. “The invasion?”

The older nodded somberly. “Remember the locusts? Entire hordes of them. Multitudes of swarms of them coming from… oh my god…”

“What is it?”

Phil gulped and lifted his hand. There he pointed off to the walls in the distance. An innumerable mass of sickening insectoid silhouettes. A whole swarm of whirring chittering monsters in the dark.

“Move!” the older Christina barked at the others. “Take the girl and get to the portal!”

“But what are you—?”

“I said move!”

Christina, the elder, fought the locusts with ferocity as the others escaped down the remaining ladder and ran toward the portal. She managed to toss the powder on one as she swung her rod at the others. Yet, for all her effort, one creeped up behind and rose its stinger in the air, before slamming it into her back. She called out with a blood curdling scream, before dropping her metal staff to the floor below.

The weapon lodged itself in a crevice, and in the midst of pain and anguish she fell from the platform to the floor below. When she did, it was in just the horrifically wrong way, as she became impaled on that metal rod, piercing through her chest just below her heart.

The three cowered, awaiting the inevitable onslaught of the locusts. The portal still had yet to open again. But then, just as their doom seemed near, a solitary sheep stepped forth from the queue and slowly sauntered toward the ghastly horde of monsters. With what looked like a nod from that curious wooly beast, the locusts stopped in their tracks, before slowly backing up and then hopping and crawling away back into the dark.

The younger Christina took the opportunity of this strange retreat to run back to the elder woman. The strange solitary sheep looked on, staring at them both ominously.

“Oh my god! Christina! Oh my god!”

“You—you have to get… get through the gate.”

“We’re not leaving without you!”

“No good. I’m—I’m just glad I’m in shock.”

The younger Christina held the older woman’s bloody hand, stared in her face and started to sob.

“There has to be something. Something we can—”

The older Christina closed her eyes and took in long slow breaths. The stinger wouldn’t have killed her. It only would have made her wish she were dead. She had seen it before. A fate debatably worse than death. Torturous pain for months on end. The blood rushing out of her wound emptied out the toxin, even as it bled out her life.

“You…” the older Christina muttered between breaths. “You have to… to go. It was… always a long… shot.”

The younger Christina shook her head furiously between weeping tears. She had never had a sister. But this woman. Her older self. Someone that knew her in ways she didn’t even know herself. And now she was passing away.

The older Christina stared into the eyes of her younger self and smiled. And then as though knowing the woman’s own thoughts, she breathed out, “I never had… a sister.” She then closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and let out one long last breath.

“Christina!” Phil called out to her from the portal, the little girl clinging to his hand. “We have to go! Now!”

She wiped her tears away and nodded her head, before running back to the portal and there past the sheep. It turned its head as she passed, knowingly. It almost seemed to smile.

The three of them ran across the stone bridge as fast as they could. Man, woman, and child. All of them running through that round glowing gate. So focused on making it through, that they paid no attention to what came through behind. The sound of its clicking clacking hooves was drowned out by the deep drone of the gate and subsequent explosive burst of sound as they passed through it. The gate seemed to collapse all around with a whoosh.

 

 

On the other side, they found themselves atop a great grassy knoll amidst a series of other hills. It was the middle of the day. The first time any of them had seen daylight in a long time. Or perhaps even ever.

The peace and tranquility was interrupted, however, when Phil spotted something in the distance that made his heart race. A man on a nearby hill. And the muffled cries of a young boy.

“Hey!” Phil cried out. The figure stopped for a moment and stared off in the distance, confused. Phil thought for a moment, and then cried out as he ran toward the figure. “M’ah tou seh? Touf sikh!”

The strange bearded man seemed to understand, as he dropped the crude knife in his hand and turned toward Phil in awe. “Cha eem lotai lohchim?” the man called out.

Phil asked him to repeat himself, and the two had a halting exchange. Whether on account of Phil’s sudden appearance or curious white-robed appearance, he seemed to inspire some strange kind of reverence in the man and the man accordingly dropped to his knees. Phil grabbed the man and pulled him to his feet, while angrily shouting and pointing towards the boy. The man nodded excitingly and cut the boy’s bonds. Crude hemp ropes had criss-crossed the boy’s body. As soon as the man cut the ropes, the boy hopped off the pyre, before curling up in a ball of shaking tears.

Christina and the little girl looked on at the scene in shock and confusion. They hardly noticed the beast behind them. The sheep. It ran past both of them in a wooly blur, and scrambled down the hill and up the other where Phil and the stranger were standing. It then slammed directly into a thicket of thorns and started to bleat loudly.

The sudden thump and bristling cacophony threw Phil off guard. He turned and let out a startled cry, gasping at the sight of the strange sheep caught in the bramble. A shiver went down his spine as the sheep then turned its head ever so slowly and stared at Phil. He almost swore it smiled.

“Uhni gholeh!” the bearded figure called out, and immediately lunged at the sheep, before pulling it out of the thicket and forcefully slamming it on the slab.

Phil backed away, and slowly retreated down the hill. With a slack jaw he walked backwards back up the other hill where the Christinas were.

“What is happening?” the adult Christina asked. “Where are we?”

“My god…” Phil replied. “Is this when? I think… oh my god…”

“Tell me! Who is that man? What was he doing to that boy?”

“I… I told him to stop. But now that—that sheep. If this is what I think. If this is when I think… Oh my god…”

Blood poured down the wood altar from the sheep’s slit throat. The bloody head of that strange sheep turned toward Phil and stared. Storm clouds gathered in the distance, and the sky started to darken, as an ominous peal of thunder boomed. A strong wind blew, and on that wind a voice could be heard in the air. Something like a deep cackling laugh, before whispering words in the wind.

All is as it was. There is no escape. It is all part of the plan.


Submitted: October 09, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Jonathan E. Lee. All rights reserved.

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Comments

jaylisbeth

Wow! Fantastic story and the image you chose is stunning.

Wed, October 12th, 2022 4:54pm

Author
Reply

I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for reading :)

Wed, October 12th, 2022 10:01am

Adam L.

You have great story-telling abilities. Awesome read

Mon, October 17th, 2022 8:33pm

Author
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Thanks! :)

Mon, October 17th, 2022 1:44pm

Fahad Ali

Amazing story! Couldn't stop thinking of the Lovecraftian horrors as I read on. Loved it!

Fri, November 25th, 2022 6:07am

Author
Reply

I'm glad you appreciated it :)

Fri, November 25th, 2022 12:28am

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