“Wait,” I said, “You guys tie me up and bring me up here then we need to keep moving, but I can’t move? This makes zero sense.”
“We didn’t bind you or bring you anywhere, Tweeb,” the female voice said, smoothly.
I waited for more but the three voices remained silent.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“Shhh!” one of the voices hissed.
“No, I won’t ‘shhh!’” I yelled.
The ground shook and a thunder exploded all around me.
I tried to hop forward but fell into the grasses.
Whispering, one of the male voices commanded, “Stay down, and stay quiet.”
Sarcastic words began to form in my mouth.
The female voice responded, this time in my head, “We’re hived, Tweeb, and you can hear us because part of you is here with us. This is new for us, too, and we’re trying to figure it out. Where you are, I mean physically, right now is unknown to us, but we’re working on it. You must know where you are; there’s no other way you could have ended up there. There are other things there, too, and right now, you need to stay still and quiet. If you can understand me, think ‘yes.’”
I thought it loud and clear, and the ground continued to shake around me.
I could hear the grasses sizzling with increasing activity.
“Well, if he’s not here with us, and we’re not there with him, then how can he hear us?” asked the new male voice.
He had a good point, if, in fact, they were not there.
But, aside from not being able to see them or see any indication of their presence, I could hear them as if they were only a couple of yards away.
“It’s a hiving issue,” the more familiar of the two male voices said.
Then the woman’s voice responded, “It’s not an issue, it’s an ability.”
I wanted to interject, but I wasn’t sure how to say what I was thinking.
The woman said, simultaneously in my mind and in my ears, “You don’t need to know right now, Tweeb. But, we need to figure out how to be more in the same plane.”
I nodded, then, finding my voice, said, “So, can you guys see me?”
The two male voices said, staggered, “Yeah,” and “Yep.”
The woman’s voice said, “What do you see, Tweeb?”
I answered with the best description I could give to someone I was sure was looking at the same thing as me.
“And, you can’t see us at all?” the woman asked.
“I can tell where your voices are coming from,” I said, jumping toward them, “Keep talking.”
The newer male said, “What do you want us to say?”
It was enough to tell their distance remained the same while I hopped forward.
“Did you just move away from me as I jumped toward you?” I asked.
“No, but you didn’t move,” the woman responded.
“I did,” I answered, “I jumped toward the sound of your voices.”
“This is wasting an amazing amount of time,” the now more silent of the two male voices said, “We need to keep moving.”
Of course I spun.
The sound startled me, which, if you think about it, was kind of funny considering I expected sound.
Eventual sound, at any rate.
I mean, I’d only been set on the ground moments before, and unless I was being left as food for something, my captor wasn’t going to take off or leave me alone for long.
Not that the clapping necessarily came from my captor.
It could have come from whoever chased us through the jungle.
I don’t know why our pursuer would clap.
That didn’t make any sense.
Someone binding me with invisible, untouchable binds, running with me on his shoulder through the jungle, laying me down in these grasses, bound and masked, and then stepping back to watch me…that’s probably who clapped.
I assumed, and, yeah, I know what happens when you assume, but what would you do?
At any rate, I spun to see what made the noise, assuming I’d see whoever had brought me here, but there was nothing behind me.
I jumped straight up to look over the green, but I still couldn’t see anything but more grass and the jungle some distance beyond.
“He still can’t see us,” a new, male voice said.
My eyes moved to the spot from which the voice sounded.
The man’s voice that I’d heard twice already today responded, “Because we’re not actually there.”
Same place; still, just grass.
Then, the woman’s voice, the one that had been in my head twice, spoke audibly from the same spot among the grasses, “But he can hear us.”
I breathed the humid air, thankful to be away from my own hot breath.
The sky looked electric through the tall grasses.
Everything was still, and no breeze blew.
Lying like stone, I listened for any sounds but heard nothing.
Uncertain I was alone, but willing to risk the movement, I struggled to slide my wrists low enough down my back that I could squeeze my hips through my arms and bring my hands to the front of my body.
I must have looked ridiculous, and I’m sure I sounded even worse.
But, for the effort, I was rewarded and managed to get my arms, still bound at the wrists, around my waist.
Curling like an infant on the ground, I worked my hands down around my ankles and finally, sweating in the heat, brought my arms back to my front, hands balled at my chest.
I caught my breath quickly and sat up, hands in fists pressed together at the first two knuckles.
The grass still towered above me.
I had to stand if I wanted to see anything.
Moving would be a challenge, but I needed to know where I was.
One last tug at my hands and then at my ankles confirmed I wouldn’t be breaking the invisible binds.
They were amazing, really.
I couldn’t feel anything against my skin or around it, and yet, the binds held me like there were magnets under my flesh.
I leaned back and then rocked to my heels.
It took the momentum of two rocking attempts before I popped up.
I almost lost my balance and had to hop forward to keep from tumbling.
The tips of the grass flowed away from me like water at my chin level.
Behind me, hands started clapping.
“Leave the sleeve on his head,” the voice said, muffled, from somewhere to my right.
I held still, expecting something to happen, something to touch me.
Wincing for several moments before I relaxed my neck and face, I laid face down, listening.
I waited still longer and still nothing happened.
The sleeve – as the voice called it – kept most sounds from entering my ears clearly, but I could still hear noises.
But, lying there, waiting for something to happen, I couldn’t hear anything.
Finally, I grew my guts, clenched, then twisted my shoulders wildly to flip and face up.
The grasses grew blurry and dim around me toward the pastel sky, but I could see nothing in them or between me and the blue above.
I tried my right leg, but it was still bound to my left at the ankle.
My hands were tied under my back, and I could feel cool earth mashed between my fingers.
Kicking wildly with my legs together, I struggled against the binds, but it was useless.
I huffed and my breath rang around my face in the sleeve.
Pressing the back of my head to the earth, I rubbed the sleeve against my hair.
Unable to tell if it moved, I pulled myself with my heels and felt the sleeve tug against my face, creating vibration in the oily action of my vision.
Extending my legs as far as I could stretch, I planted my heels and pulled hard, holding the sleeve against the ground with the back of my head.
It buzzed in my ears as my head slid free.
Pressure built, but I kept pulling.
I felt it release my mouth and catch on my nose, then pull it up toward my eyes as it stretched over my face.
It felt looser before I’d decided to pull it off.
But, I was committed now, so with one final jerk, I ripped it off my head.
Light, sound and air flooded my senses, and I blinked in the light, still tied but no longer as claustrophobic.
“Shhhh!” a whisper hushed in my head.
It was clear, but not sound.
I wondered when I’d gotten used to having voices in my head.
At that point, it didn’t matter.
What mattered was the figure coming through green behind us and the fact that I could not move, or dodge, or escape.
I’ve never considered my demise before yesterday morning.
But in the last two days, I’d lost count of how many times I’d thought about it.
I can say that when I go out – because I know with these conditions, even with my seeming invincibility to the blended creatures, I’m bound to lose – I don’t want to know the end before it happens; see what’s going to kill me or how.
Surprise me, Death.
I think I’ve been through enough to deserve at least that.
My voice was still locked in the translucent hood that covered my head and face, so it was useless trying it again.
We broke the jungle line and continued ascending into tall, thick grasses.
They swished as whomever or whatever carried me ran through them.
Our follower stopped at the edge of the jungle and stood, then disappeared.
It could have just looked that way because everything was blurry and got blurrier the further away we moved.
After more than one hundred yards, my captor stopped abruptly and hoisted me from its shoulder.
Those big hands again.
I could feel them, but the way I was manhandled and faced out, I still couldn’t see anything.
Flipped around and lowered, I watched the grass come toward my face and then deflect off the cover as I neared the ground.
Laid face down, I tried to move, to roll over.
The same voice I’d heard command I be grabbed from the sand spoke.
With no time to see what was actually happening, I was flipped like a rag doll and thrown over what felt like someone’s shoulder.
I couldn't pull my hands free to protect my chest or face, so I folded over the shoulder at my waist and watched, through oily lenses, the ground below us turn from sand to dirt and gravel as we entered the jungle.
Because everything was blurry, I couldn't tell if the shadow I was seeing below us was what carried me or just the motion of plants as we brushed through the foliage.
Whoever, or maybe I should say whatever, carried me was tall; it felt like I was six or seven feet above the jungle floor.
The further into the green we got, the less the daylight penetrated and the faster we moved.
Even though my ears were full of cotton, I could still hear muted grunting.
After what felt like minutes, but I'm sure were only seconds, I noticed a new dark figure coming up behind us through the foliage along the game trail we followed.
When I opened my mouth to say something, my voice sounded as it might if I were yelling underwater.
Unsure whether or not whatever I said had been heard, I tried to kick my feet or move my arms to warn my captor.
But it was useless; I was bound and mute, and we were being hunted.
The pressure in my mouth released.
No, it evaporated.
Around my face as well.
I sucked in some air and coughed.
Then everything got fuzzy.
I don’t mean that my memory faltered or anything like that.
I mean, it was like someone put olive oil in my eyes.
Only, it didn’t feel like there was anything in my eyes.
It was more like there was something over my face or even around my whole head, but it wasn’t the same kind of pressure.
More like the inside of an invisible pillow case.
As I squinted and tried to focus, I realized that the sounds around me were muted as well.
Well, more muffled than muted.
Like I had my fingers in my ears, only it didn’t feel like there was anything in my ears.
Anyway, it was disorienting.
I was still bound and laying in the sand when this all happened, and, it happened very quickly.
As soon as the pressure relieved and my eyes and ears (possibly my entire head) were covered, hands – I assume, as I still could not see – grabbed my shoulders and plucked me from the sand.
Not to be misunderstood: the new whistle was still a whistle, as much as the other one that had stopped when whatever it was collided with whatever the other thing was on the beach.
That invisible argument continued as I pulled further away.
But, I mean “new” because it wasn’t just a whistling sound; it was a tune.
Someone was whistling a tune.
And, not something I recognized, but it was musical.
Dragged across the sand, I could hear my own body hushing through the silica, the snarling and grappling out in the sun, and that spritely whistled tune.
Someone whistling is not really strange, but at that moment, given my circumstances, it was the strangest thing I could hear.
It got louder the closer I got the jungle.
I wanted to turn my head, to see what was coming, but I was still bound, unable to move any limb or look any direction but toward the sun and water.
I thought if I could open my mouth, maybe I could bite whatever covered it.
As I opened my mouth, it filled with pressure and I couldn’t close it, couldn’t even breathe through it.
My nostrils whistled as I struggled for breath.
Behind me, a voice said, “Yep, that’ll do. Grab him.”
Stars lit up my vision and the beach tilted wildly.
I tried to keep my eyes on the sand cloud forming in front of me, but the way the ground spun and shifted, I failed.
A scraping pressure caught me off guard and yanked me out of my delirium.
Yanked me physically.
The beach didn’t seem to shift; it was my vision.
But not from dizziness; I was being pulled across the sand back toward the foliage.
My body left a long rut in the golden beach, and as I passed back into the jungle’s shadow, I felt the temperature drop again.
The scuffle of invisible forces out on the sand continued, and the noises were more familiar now; animals sparring, slashing, biting and growling.
I wished I could have seen their shapes.
Being dragged through the sand toward a thick, unfamiliar jungle, even if you were being dragged away from invisible predators ripping each other to shreds as I assume these two (or, however many there were) were, is nothing I’d recommend.
Shoot, I’m not sure I’d put my stamp on anything I’d experienced in the last two days.
Or, was it longer?
I still have no idea how long I was out.
For sanity’s sake, two days.
Whatever, what mattered now was that I was bound and being reeled into dark green like a catfish being trolled through a pond.
And, just when I decided I’d try to struggle again, I heard a new whistle.
Something started stirring the sand several yards in front of my face.
It was hard to watch, mostly because of the angle at which I’d been pinned, but also because the insides of my head were vibrating close to disintegration.
I think the movement was the source of the squealing, but I still couldn’t see anything other than the sand rippling.
Rippling, and getting darker.
The shadow I’d been following, the one that had melted into the sand, formed again from nothing and the sand around it started moving.
From my peripheral vision, moving toward the spot ahead of me, the bigger shadow continued to accelerate.
I was frustrated I couldn’t move and couldn’t do anything to block the noise.
Well, make that noises; the squealing intensified to shattering.
Then, something happened, but I’m still not sure what.
Time slowed, or seemed to, and from what I could see and hear, I think the two invisible sound sources collided.
The air rippled like water, the sand compacted then lifted in an inverted cone, and the sounds stopped simultaneously.
There was a sickening schlop sound, and then a blast of pressure hit my face.
Because I couldn’t move, or, talk, or, really do anything, I held tense.
It was everything I could do not to struggle against my invisible binds, but the voice had been one of authority.
And, if I’d learned anything in the last two days, it was to listen to voices in my head.
Well, listen isn’t really the right word, but I’m assuming you know what I mean.
Anyway, it didn’t matter, because even if I tried to move, I wasn’t going anywhere.
And, that probably didn’t matter, either.
Judging by the proximity of the whistling, whatever was in the sky just out of sight behind the tree line moments before was over head now and approaching too fast to outrun.
In my periphery, I could see a new shadow moving along the sand.
It grew more concentrated as it accelerated more directly into my line of sight.
The whistling began to burn in my ears.
I wished I could cover them, afraid my eardrums might burst.
That’s when the squealing began.
At least, I tried to run.
My feet slipped in the sand and before I knew it, my face was in it as well.
It was hot and I scrambled to push up, but something hit me in the back.
Well, really, it must have landed on my back, because it forced my chest back into the sand.
Whatever it was, it held still and held me down.
I squirmed, fighting the weight and trying to push off the ground, but soon something wrapped around my wrists and ankles and pinned them as well.
I turned my head to see what held my arms, but there was nothing there.
Some invisible force.
I wagered whatever was on my back was the same.
I opened my mouth to yell, but something immediately covered it.
In my head, the same voice I’d heard only moments ago say my name said it again.
But, the sound didn’t come through my ears; it was in my mind. As if it had a direct line to my aural nerves.
“Tweeb,” she repeated, and, it was now clear it was not a voice I’d heard before this day, “hold still.”
I’ll always be the first to admit I don’t know everything.
But, in moments like this, I feel like I don’t know anything.
Whatever was casting the infrequent shadow I’d been watching and now pursuing only moved when I did and didn’t look directly at it.
This new shadow ripped across the sand directly at me. In my panic, I stopped paying attention to the whistling sound even though its approach only seemed to be accelerating as well.
Even though I seemed more-or-less invincible to everything I’d encountered yesterday, I wasn’t willing to test my luck.
The new shadow coming right at me, the other shadow nowhere to be seen, and the sound in the air were three too many chances I wasn’t ready to take.
The whistling was getting louder each second, and I could tell that the source should soon break into view.
The rate at which the volume increased was accelerating itself, so whatever it was, it was moving fast.
But, I didn’t want to lose whatever was on the sand.
I wish I had another set of eyes!
Quickly, I peeked back at the sky to the treeline: nothing yet.
So I turned back to the sand where the shadow had last disappeared.
Taking two steps closer to the spot, I broke into the sun.
Nothing moved on the sand, so I carefully approached.
The whistling grew louder and a second low whistle started.
Then, a new shadow broke from the jungle’s shadow line and started moving across the sand a dozen yards from me.
I could tell, as the sound intensified, that whatever was making it was, indeed, in the air, but it must have been behind the line of the canopy above the beach, because I could see nothing.
Having my back to anything I don’t know anything about has always made me uncomfortable.
Given what I’ve been through in the last couple of days, I think it’d be fair to say I’m reasonable for feeling this way.
If you think I’m paranoid, I’d like to see you deal with this stuff and keep your cool.
I think I’ve done pretty well.
At any rate, I glanced at the sand just in time to see the shadow instantly shrink and disappear again a few feet off.
It was moving when I watched the sky.
As I walked across the sand, a low whistling sound joined the rustling of jungle and crashing of waves.
I didn’t want to look away from the shadow’s resting place on the beach (assuming it was even still there), but I also didn’t want to not know what was making the new noise.
It sounded like it was coming from up in the air, but I couldn’t see anything.
Whatever it was, it was getting louder, which meant likely closer, too.
Surprised, I stopped walking and the shadow disappeared.
Careful not to look at the spot, but watching it in the corner of my eye, I took a few steps.
The shadow formed again and moved across the sand, floating along several feet out from the shadow-line cast by the jungle.
Watching it was not easy nor clear in my periphery.
It looked amorphous and only a couple of feet in diameter.
Its pace was similar to mine.
I wanted it to get ahead of me so that I could see it more clearly.
When I slowed down, it slowed down.
When I stopped, it stopped.
When I looked directly at it, there was nothing there.
Nervous, but recalling the mysterious effect I had on the creatures at the Nest Mission (what had Goatee called them? Platys-somethings…platystrophs?), I turned and walked toward the place in the sand the shadow had just disappeared.
My voice was alone in the air, and no echo followed.
The way things had been, I almost expected some sort of answer, was even a little disappointed when there was only silence.
Not even another snapping branch or rustling leaf came through the jungle.
My shoes squeaked in the sand as I walked back to keep my line with the elevator mark.
On the beach, movement in my periphery caught my interest.
Something was on the sand past the line of shade.
Whatever it had been, I couldn’t see it now.
I waited, but nothing happened.
My eyes were messing with me.
Turning back to my initial direction, I kept walking.
Again, movement out of the corner of my eye.
I snapped my attention, but there was nothing.
I looked up and down the beach; only sand and water, sun and sky.
Slowly, I resumed my direction.
A flash of movement, low against the sand.
Keeping my eyes forward, I tried to focus what I could on the peripheral vision, like I might see a star more clearly in the night sky by looking around it rather than directly at it.
Fuzzy, on the sand at the edge of my vision, a shadow, with nothing casting it, formed.
Considering I had no idea where I was and I couldn’t see jack in the jungle, the crack demanded my full attention.
I don’t mean I stood still.
I mean, yes, I stood still, but that’s not what I mean by “I froze.”
I mean, I got really, really cold.
It was as if a sudden blast of frigid air ripped through and the temperature plummeted.
But, there was no blast or even noticeable pressure shift or anything.
It just got instantaneously cold.
Of course, the surprise of the sound of something unseen moving in the jungle didn’t help.
My heart raced against the furious chill.
I exhaled and my breath fogged in the frozen air.
The sound of the place was no different; the light was exactly the same.
It was only the temperature that had changed.
My body began to ache and sharp pain flashed through my chest with each breath.
I couldn’t tell if it was getting colder or if I was just quickly freezing.
A cold tickle in my throat forced a cough.
I hate phlegm.
I spit it out and it froze mid flight.
Then, before the little gooey icicle hit the sand, the temperature changed.
As suddenly as it had set in, the arctic inversion was gone.
The glob of goo splashed onto the sand.
I threw my hands in the air and shook them, “Oh, c’mon! What the hell was that?”
It was a woman’s voice.
It was fleeting, and immediately I thought about the two from the fog.
But, I’m not sure if I thought of her because it was her voice, or because it was a woman’s and hers was the only woman’s voice I’d heard in several days.
Either way, someone, I believe female, said my name.
But that’s all she said, and I couldn’t tell from where the sound came.
I scanned the trees, walked through the shade along the jungle’s perimeter, even called back “hello!” every thirty feet.
A breeze rustled the vegetation.
I looked back to the beach; I’d wandered several hundred feet laterally from my elevator line.
Starting back in that direction, the breeze lightened.
Deep in the jungle, a branch snapped.
The shadow of the jungle intruded on the beach.
Shade was a relief; I was surprised how quickly I’d gotten hot in the salty sun.
Standing on cooler sand, I turned to look at the water.
I could see the spot I’d marked for the elevator in the sand, but there were no other landmarks on this stretch of coastline.
Straight lines are impossible in the woods, and the dense undergrowth of these tropics meant even jagged paths were unlikely.
Thirst was becoming a real issue, and I knew that my best chances at fresh water lay in the jungle.
Still, it was hard for me to reconcile leaving my only mode of transportation without any knowledge of the navigability of this terrain.
I was about to turn back to the trees when someone said my name.
Of course nothing happened.
I grunted in frustration and a breeze rushed my face.
The sounds of the world outside the box followed the fresh air.
I put my hand out in front of me, feeling for the wall.
It was open, and I stepped out onto soft, sun-warmed sand.
The air was humid and salty, warm and teased by a gentle wind.
The temperature outside the box was easily twenty degrees warmer than it had been inside.
I wondered how it was possible.
Waves crashed loudly, rhythmically.
I felt for the outside of the elevator then used my toe to dig a deep line in the sand around it.
When I finished marking its location, I turn a full circle.
The water met the horizon in one direction, deep green jungle rose in the other.
Thirsty and already sweating in the sun, I decided the shade of the jungle offered more than staying on the beach.
I wiped my brow and walked toward the tangles of foliage.
The reverberation only lasted a moment.
My breath caught.
Thug had instructed that I pilot the craft to a destination simply by thinking about the place.
Obviously that logic didn’t flow for opening the doors, or they would have by now.
For that matter, I had no idea where I was, so the technology likely failed altogether.
Was the box responsive to vocalization?
I’d been in two (well, three, I guess…if you’d count this one that’s actually part of the second one, and…it doesn’t matter) of these boxes in the last two days, and I’d had conversations in both.
Neither had changed course or reacted to any voices.
At least, if either had, I’d been unaware.
And, if there’s one thing I do well, it’s pay attention.
I hummed again, a little louder, and watched the floor.
The box’s vibration played like electricity up my legs.
It ceased when I silenced.
I said, “Ooooh,” and the box vibrated more slowly.
“Aaaah,” and it nearly hummed back.
Was the box responding to my voice, or simply echoing the sound because of the six hard, invisible surfaces reflected the sound waves strangely?
It seemed to powerful a response to simply be sound bouncing around.
Would it be this easy?
“Open?” I asked the box.
Kicking with some force, the ball of my foot met the invisible wall.
The resulting thud sounded like a bucket of water being tapped with a rubber mallet.
It was dull but clear.
It was as if the air inside the box were thick enough that it suppressed the sounds reverberation.
Could air be viscose?
Either that or my ears were affected.
I thought about the elevation changes I’d gone through in the last…well, at least thirty hours.
How long had I been asleep?
Sweeping my arm through the air around me, I tried to sense its density.
It felt normal, and I felt like a goof.
A frown spread under my shifting eyes.
Resolved to escape this invisible box, I took a deep breath and considered what I knew.
I sighed, “hmmm.”
The box vibrated under my feet.
I thought I must have looked like a mime from outside the box, but then remembered that the outside was mirrored and likely nothing could see me.
Not that I could see anything outside the box that would see me.
I felt for a seam, a panel of buttons, for something.
Stepping back, I considered things I already knew about the vessel.
Balling my hand into a fist, I slammed the side of it into the elevator wall.
I jumped and stomped as I landed.
The sound following was muted.
Slamming the wall with my fist again, I noticed the same seemingly blocked sound.
Had it always been that way, or was that new?
Remembering that the piloting instructions were simply to think about where I wanted to go, I again surveyed my surroundings.
I had no idea what this place was.
A slideshow of memories flashed behind my eyes – none matched anything I could see.
Where was I?
There was only one way to find out, and I wouldn’t be able to do so standing by myself in the elevator box.
I felt for the walls; all four felt the same.
When we’d arrived at The Nest Mission, how had Goatee opened the elevator?
The events of the previous day started crystallizing in my memory.
I tapped the hard plane under me.
It wasn’t sand, but a clear layer between the sand and me.
I was still in the elevator box, which explained the silence.
As I stood, every muscle in my body protested.
Was I stiff because of the abuse I’d endured the day before, or because I’d been unconscious in the box for who-knows-how-long?
I stretched, groaned, scratched, and took a few deep breaths.
The awful taste in my mouth was persistent.
Outside, the beach met the ocean and followed to the horizon in both directions.
Behind me, the sand eventually gave way to greens, browns and shadows of thick foliage.
What had Thug told me to do when I’d jumped into this box?
My mouth tasted like I’d been licking batteries all night, and my eyes refused to open against the blinding light.
I rubbed them with the heels of my hands, then dug my fingers into the back of my neck as I sat up.
One eye managed to open a slit, then the other.
I blinked against the light of the sun burning through the bluest sky I’d ever seen.
Waves fell on the beach a hundred feet from where I sat.
Confused, I reached for the sand under me.
It was solid and flat.
I could hear nothing.
I shook my head to clear it.
Outside, stars won the sky and a sliver moon reflected crisply on still water far below.
There was nothing outside the box to indicate my direction; nothing inside that begged illumination.
I watched the night sky, thought of nowhere I wanted to go, tried to make some sense of the day.
Was this really the beginning of the end?
It seemed more likely the epoch of my happenings.
I drifted, and, eventually, I slept.
I didn’t know what else to do, what other way to expel my cumulative anxiety.
I yelled, I roared, I shrieked until my throat hurt and my voice felt raw.
Tears squeezed from the corners of my eyes.
The glow in the elevator dimmed and fizzled with each outburst.
Exhaustion overcame tension and I sat against an invisible wall.
I hit the back of my head against the impediment and darkness filled the box.
I kept their glowing elevator car in sight for less than a minute.
The outer mirroring must have been ineffective if viewed from the inside of another similar vessel.
I slapped the wall of my elevator, illuminating my private cabin.
Night was nothing but ebony silence outside, and I was more interested in processing and planning my next move.
Or, more honestly, preparing for my life’s biggest freak-out session.
Right before time popped back to presence speed, joining the creation of the second elevator that caught me as I landed from my knee-lifting jump, Thug was cut-off while shouting, “Don’t think about anywhere you don’t…”
I never heard the end of his admonition, and while he tried to mime to me once we were in totally separate vehicles, mine dropped away from his and zipped into black noctivagance over the water.
Something hiccupped in time.
While we’d been in one invisible box growing longer, we now slid through a slow motion state.
I wondered if the feeling was that of being weightless in a bubble.
No sound accompanied the pressure shift between the single long elevator severing into two independent vessels, but my ears and sinuses felt the change.
In a state of penumbra, I hung in the air in my own, impossible ride.
I stood, making absolutely certain I was not contacting the wall behind me.
Our separation slide was slow but steadily increasing in speed.
Three feet turned into seven while Thug strained against the obstreperous walls.
Survival mode had kicked in, and while I was desperate for answers, I was also not at all interested in dying.
Through clenched teeth, Thug urged, “Okay…on ‘now’…one…two…three…NOW!”
Thug lifted one leg and pressed it against the wall to my right.
He then reached forward and rested his right hand against the wall to my left.
With his left arm, he stretched behind himself and balanced against the wall opposite the one at my back.
In this awkward pose, he grunted and pushed against each wall.
Frictionlessly, I began to move slowly away from him.
Eyes locked on mine, he commanded, “Get ready.”
“No,” I shook my head, “I need more instruction.”
Arms crossed, I leaned back against the glowing nothing of the wall.
Thug didn’t waste any time.
“You are in danger with us right now, Tweeb. You need to be somewhere else right now. To pilot this technology, you’ll simply need to think about where you want to go. But you need to be the first sync. I’m going to tell you when to jump, and if you don’t, you’ll die.”
“Protect me how?” I demanded.
“By getting you somewhere safe,” Thug spit the words, “You have to trust me, please.”
His body’s language was fluent anxiety at this point.
Rather than argue with him, I stepped three steps back and bumped into the far invisible wall.
“What now?” I asked.
He instructed, “Put your hands in your pockets and try not to touch the walls. When I say ‘now,’ jump straight up.”
“Seriously Tweeb, you need to step over there.”
His tone was growing anxious and I had long ago sailed past my point of tolerance.
“Give me an answer.”
I held my ground.
Thug stopped moving; drilled me with his full attention.
“I don’t have one right now. I don’t know what’s going on with these two, nor any of the others. I need to protect you, and, with time limited as it is, this is the only way.”
I knew if I waited without response, he’d say something meant to answer but ultimately just confuse.
“Tweeb, I’m sorry,” he started, “Today has not been a waste, though it may feel that way at first.”
He bent and pulled the two over to the wall he’d hit to illuminate the box, propping them against each other.
He pulled a net from his pack and snared the humming bird, then the frog.
I waited while he secured them.
He didn’t point, and, even though the box wasn’t very big, ‘over there’ could have meant anywhere I wasn’t currently standing.
I asked, “Over where?”
He turned back to me from whatever it was he was figuring out and pointed to the far side of the elevator.
“Over there, away from these two and me.”
I looked back, calculating the space.
“Why? I can think from anywhere in here.”
Thug answered, “That’s the problem.”
In the limited time I’d spent in these ridiculous, impossible boxes, I’d been party to ridiculous, impossible occurrences; all of which had kept me from noticing any sort of piloting committed by anyone.
“Do you think YOU can fly it?” I asked Thug, “Because, I can’t even see it.”
Thug chuckled, “Okay, fair enough. Relax. All you need is to do is focus on where you’re going. Step over there. Quickly, please.”
The theme of my day could not have been better summed than with those two words.
Thug crossed his arms, took a deep breath, then pinched the bridge of his nose, making a pained face.
His hand slid to his stubbled chin, and he scratched while he said, “Okay. You’re out here now and they’re in there.”
He paused, looked at them, then at me.
“This isn’t going to work this way. Think you can fly this thing?”
Thug shifted, peered down at the two still out.
“They didn’t wake with you?” He asked.
I huffed, frustrated.
“Relax,” he said, “I think I get what you’re saying about your hiving. I’m just confused: you’re fully here; they’re now fully gone.”
I realized he was thinking further than I.
They had been more present before I’d joined them for my seeming afflatus.
Quietly dark, he said, “I think something’s wrong.”
My sarcasm may not have been missed but was ignored.
Thug exhaled, “It’s too dark to tell if we’re back on track or still cruising.”
Adding more sarcasm, I joked, “This thing doesn’t have headlights?”
Thug looked sideways at me, but remained expressionless.
Without pretext, he slammed his fist into the side of the box.
The interior illuminated with phosphorescence emitted from the invisible walls.
When I’d finished my gapped, rapid, detail-lacking recap of the last hour (or however long it had really been), Thug stood quiet, thinking.
At awkward’s peak, he finally spoke, “Well, we’ve been going in circles.”
I wanted to punch him in his face.
He must have understood my expression, because he clarified, “I mean, this box has been going in circles. With me unconscious, it seems we’ve slipped into neutral.”
I told him most of what had happened since he’d been stung and blacked out.
Time and insecurity factored into the details I shared with him.
I told him about being hived, but I didn’t tell him about the foggy place.
I told him about being in two places at once, but I didn’t tell him about the new senses.
I told him about time passing without regard to time.
And, I told him about the sudden break from the hive.
Before I could ask anything, Thug nudged one of the two with his foot and said, “Have these two come to yet?”
I shook my head, unsure of how much I could safely tell him, but my face must have given me away as hiding something.
“What happened, Tweeb? What did I miss?”
Recalling the girl’s encouragement to trust Thug even in his apparent ignorance, I said, “You might not understand it all, or even believe it.”
There was a quiet slap-crunch sound.
In one of the upper corners, the tree frog had grabbed the wasp with its tongue and was now using toothless gums to crush and swallow it.
Upset that I’d missed my chance to grab the frog before it had eaten the wasp, I turned my attention back on a groggy Thug, “As you can see, it’s almost dark. Where is it we should be by now?”
He grunted as he stood, “The Source Mission.”
Darkness and reality were fast approaching, and I was torn between trying to reconnect with the hive senses and explore what came with them and grilling Thug for more answers before we arrived at whatever destination he’d set for us.
He pushed himself up, winced, rubbed the back of his neck.
Dazed, he looked around.
Then, through bleary eyes, he connected with me and said, “Something’s wrong; we should be there.”
The buzzing of voices stilled in my head and I turned to look back out on the ethos that had made itself visible to me through the side of the elevator.
Nothing but darkening ocean on all sides.
I closed my eyes to bring the fog clearer in my mind’s eye.
Nothing but darkness and thought behind my lids.
“Hey!” I shouted.
I felt alone.
Had I broken out of the hive?
My two peers were still out cold.
In my mind’s ear, I heard my hived voice say, with her voice and a mix of other voices (I was surprised by them but unable to say for sure whether they’d been present and murmuring all along or not), “Beware the waters.”
I’d been reaching out to grab the frog, and froze, recalling the first time I’d heard this warning, and now wondered if hearing it now was fresh, or echoed.
Out loud, I asked, “What waters?”
In the box, I turned, seeking the frog.
It had moved to one of the other walls.
We were still wheeling over the water, but the sun nearly collided with the horizon.
Distracted by the dusk outside, I felt a coaxing inside.
My mind moved back, meshed with the fog me, and I realized I’d just pushed myself to focus on the task.
The frog crept silently toward the ceiling of the box where the wasp had lighted.
“You know what?” I responded, surprised be the sound of my voice in the box as different than that of the inflection in my mind’s ear in the fog, “It’s unbelievable. Seriously, I can’t believe any of this.”
I thought about lifting my arm again, a test.
This time, present in mind and body in the box as well, I felt myself moving.
The fog me was still, but watched the box me moving.
I decided to try something new.
Elaboration was something on which I’d given up regarding anyone I spent any time with that day.
I expected her to share the meaning of her words like I expected a cow to milk itself.
In an uncharacteristic (if I can say I’d grown familiar with her character) move, she continued: “Riley, the gravity of this moment may take the rest of your life to resolve itself to you. How does this feel? What can you do?”
In relatively little time, I stopped bouncing.
It felt as though I was buzzing—not radiating or anything like that; just humming with energy.
It didn’t hurt, but it was disorienting in a new way.
My senses balanced and I realized that I actually felt present in both places.
“Remarkable,” her voice sounded stereo inside my head mixed with the sticky wet of the fog and the warmth of the elevator.
It went on like that for what felt like minutes, though I’m sure was only seconds, if that long.
I bounced, literally shot between the two spaces, looking at the opposing version of myself, while the space between held its distance integrity and at the same time eliminated.
To this day, the only way I can describe it is as what it might feel like to be the air held between to magnets of the same polarity.
Words aren’t adequate to describe the range of feelings I ricocheted around in those next few moments.
First, the fog appeared, ethereally, outside the elevator.
The two stood behind me and I could see the other vaporous version of myself.
In the next instant, I was in the vapor looking back on the box.
Only, this time, the sun shone out of the crystal clear space, causing the fog to feel sticky on my skin.
The water zipped under us while the sun, moving closer to the blue horizon and eventual retreat from the day, lit the box from a shallow angle.
I touched the invisible wall of the elevator, hoping that by placing my face as close to it as I could I might be able to tune out the buzzing and humming that shared my sound space.
I leaned in until my nose touched the barrier and I focused on the sense from the fog.
“Why can’t I see you?” Again aloud, then added, “I mean, the you I was looking at a minute ago, not the this you that’s zonked on the floor of this thing.”
She sighed, which sounded whispy in my head.
“If you’d focus, you might be able to.”
Still unsure of the meaning behind her repeated instructions, I breathed in through my nose and turned to the clear wall through which I’d seen myself from the fog.
Are you still in my head?” I asked out loud.
The sound of my voice resonating in the glass box after so much soundless chatter surprised me.
“No Tweeb,” her answer in my head, “You’re still hived with us. Focus on the sense.”
I thought, “Gotcha,” then aloud, “You used my nickname. Why not my real name?”
No hesitation in her response: “You hear my address relative to your state of mind. Now: please; focus.”
The view through the lensed walls was of nothing but late-day sunlit sky comingling with water.
I fought the urge to tell myself I’d dreamt the experience in the fog.
The girl’s voice still echoed in my memory: “Focus.”
I looked around the elevator cabin, spotted the tree frog hanging on what looked like nothing, glimpsed the wasp and hummingbird zip in chaotic fashion.
“On what?” I thought.
“Sense.” Her voice.
Buzzing filled my left ear and I flinched away from it. Suddenly warm and dry, and disoriented, I spun, tripped on something.
A thickly resonant thud sounded when my hand met a wall I could not see.
Thug lay sprawled under my arched, balanced frame.
Next to him, propped against another invisible wall were my latent mystery peers.
The buzz came at me again and I dodged the wasp.
It was sunny inside the box.
“For example,” she continued, clearly aware of, and avoiding, the other thoughts creeping into my imagination, “I would assume, since you are conscious both here and seemingly in there, that you may be able to think in both places at once.”
I thought she paused, but when her voice failed to resume in my head, I realized she was waiting for me to do something.
In answer to my hesitation, she spoke, “Focus.”
“Other senses?” I thought before I could ask the other question nagging.
“We’ll share what is safe to share right now. As I said, in time.”
I fought to keep my thoughts my own; fearful that even wondering words to form my questions might reveal too much more of my obvious skepticism.
“Riley, don’t worry, we are safe. And, yes, other senses. In addition to what you experience already, you’ll experience more.”
Unable to break eye contact with the other version of me, I approached the box until I was standing face-to-face with myself, as if I was in front of a mirror, and my reflection moved independently.
“My hands aren’t clear anymore,” I noted, more to myself, “and there’s no pain. No real feeling at all.”
Warmly, she responded, “It’s not pain you felt. Your brain will learn to process these other senses, in time.”
Not sure if she was asking me if I could see myself or see everything else in the box, I thought, “I honestly don’t know. What do you see?”
Without needing to look at her, I could feel her smile.
Then, I knew what she meant.
“Yes, I can see that I’m awake in there while you guys are asleep.”
Still smiling, she responded, “We’re not asleep, Riley, we’re hived, and so are you, but you’re not. This is exciting.”
“It’s remarkable,” she mused, staring at the version of me locked in the elevator.
I hadn’t noticed until now, looking back to my other self, that Thug and the two with whom I shared this foggy place, were still unconscious on the floor of the elevator.
The tree frog hung from one of the pellucid walls, while the wasp and hummingbird flew erratically in the space.
Behind me she asked, “Do you see what I see?”
Without trying my voice, I thought, “I don’t know what to think; I sure as hell have no idea what you guys know!”
Turns out I can raise the volume of my thoughts, because they both grimaced at the intensity.
“Riley,” she responded, still using my real name, “There is no artifice here. You are a part of us, and more than we can be, and it is in our best interests to help you.”
She looked past me at the other me.
“This is too much,” the male voice I’d heard when I first stumbled in this place, “Too soon. His differences are too many to understand, and we run the risk of action.”
His face showed concern.
She, without looking away from me: “It is his differences that make it possible, and seeing this much now that will keep him from inaction.”
To me, “You are more than you think or we know.”
Not being alone in my head was startling each time her voice chimed in response to my unvoiced thoughts.
But, not as surprising as the face that appeared on the figure as we got closer.
I didn’t remember the outside of the elevator being mirrored.
I stopped, moved my arm, but the figure stood still, watching us.
The only aspect reflection was confusion on his face.
It looked like me inside that invisible cage.
As we squished through the haze, I motioned at the apparition and interrupted the girl, “Hold up; you told me that he wasn’t who he says he is.”
Casually, “He’s not, but the only way either of you will figure it out is through time together.”
The idea of trusting Thug, a man barred from this hazy reality and held captive in what I assumed to be our invisible elevator spooked me.
“No,” she said, “Not Thug; him.”
“I’m sorry, this is all just too…” I trailed off; the right words escaping me.
“Uncomfortable?” She offered.
I shrugged, pursed my lips, rolled my head.
Not the word I was looking for, but it worked.
She continued to speak; her words piped directly into my ears.
“Trust ‘Thug;’ he only knows a little but will take you where you need to go.”
I missed when we started moving, but we approached the shadow in the fog.
“Not before some answers, please!” I pleaded.
I took a breath.
At least, I tried to.
I realized that I wasn’t breathing, nor had I opened my mouth when I begged for answers.
The girl looked at me; sympathy evident in her eyes.
She spoke again.
Though her lips remained closed, I could hear every word she said.
Had it been that way when she’d first spoken to me?
“Riley,” she urged, “Focus, there is little time.”
“Riley,” she began, using my real name, “What you see and feel right now is not what it seems. This place is only accessible to those like us,” she motioned between herself and her partner, “and you are not actually like us. You are more than we, so keeping you hived here long is dangerous.”
She pointed past me, into the fog at the silhouette.
“The man is not whom he says. He must leave, but you go with him.”
One by one, 10 of the 12 turned and disappeared into the mist.
The experiences of the day had numbed me.
Intrigued, and without turning to peek at the mystery form in the fog, I watched my former zoo peers evaporate.
They left only the guy and girl from my elevator ride to this wet haze behind to collogue with me.
The girl spoke first, and nothing could have surprised me more than what she started to say.
I jumped, suddenly aware that the shadow figure and I were not, as I’d assumed, alone.
Unsure that giving my back to the adumbrated presence was wise, but sure that leaving it with this new voice was not, I spun.
One of the 12 stood a few feet into the mist, his eyes bright through the befogged climate.
Behind him, in two nested point formations, stood the other 11, each looking into me with unmatched intensity.
Obscured more by the lack of the penetrating light than by the translucence of the fog, the figure recklessly waved and kicked but did not approach.
Wondering if I was witnessing some sort of aggressive show or mock charge, I held my ground.
Though, I remained still; hopeful that my form was as concealed from this potential threat as its was from me.
Behind me, a male voice spoke softly, “Quislings die here.”
Unable to recall the end of the flight, let alone anything but being over water, I let anxiety creep in and coerce acceleration of my heart’s beat.
Moisture left the air and clung heavily to my hair and clothes.
As I stood, I turned, expecting nothing but fearful of everything.
A shadow stood in the fog where I figured the elevator to have been.
I looked human.
It raised arms and swung them wildly, slapping air.
I felt fuzzy, as if standing quickly after squatting for too long.
I reached to steady myself against the elevator wall and stumbled, landing on soggy earth.
Bubbles squished and popped around my hands and knees.
Sideways glances revealed the sun not as paling; it was obscured by thick, warm fog.
The vapor twilight was disorienting, but it was the simple silence of the stillness around me that turned my world.
Someone told me once that lack of fear was no proof of courage.
Thinking back to those moments, however many we shared in that peculiar link, I have wondered what the scholar would have penned had he understood total fear.
There was nothing to see or hear; it was only the sense of doom unlike any that I’d felt prior.
More out of necessity than foreboding, I wrenched my hand free of his leg.
The sun had dimmed.
I hope to one day be able to describe with some certainty how what happened in those moments actually happened.
For now, the only thing I can say is it was what I imagine an out-of-body experience might be like.
Only, it’s like I was in both bodies at the same time.
I could see him, but I could also see me looking at him.
And, what’s more, I could feel his senses: smell, sound, sight, the slowing of time, dread.
I moved to hunker against the wall, but something still held my leg.
Looking back and pulling at the same time, I could see the other of the 2 had locked his feet around my ankle.
Unlike his counterpart, though awake, he paid me no attention.
Fearful that against whatever I needed to brace was imminent, I reached out with clear hands to separate his feet from mine.
As I touched his legs, brilliant light flashed.
Time zipped back to its crazed, current state of absurd speed as I turned my head from the macabre miracle that had taken place in my hands.
The 2 lost zoo kids-turned-adults were awake, though only one spoke.
“Set them down,” she said, her bright eyes unrelenting, “You will need your hands momentarily.”
Unable to break from her stare, I squatted, let the animals fall from my invisible palms.
The tiny, feathered wings of the creature pushed against my now clear palm.
The bright blue body of a hummingbird pulled from the back of the frog-wasp as melted marshmallow from a sharpened piece of aspen over a fire.
The bird plucked its feet from the wasp’s back as the tree frog’s front legs reached back, pulling the wasp’s body from itself revealing a green-red amphibian body.
“Tweeb,” a girl’s voice sounded.
I’m not sure if it happened the same way while we were in the cave or not.
Maybe I hadn’t been paying as close attention at the time.
The transmogrification transpiring now limited itself not solely to my hands.
My skin, then my tendons followed by carpal and metacarpal bones faded from visible to not.
The pain was again blinding, but I couldn’t look away from what was developing between my open, ghostly, palms.
As I opened my hands, the frog-wasp rested, croaking a quiet, amphibian purr.
Then, two things happened so quickly it was difficult to separate them.
First, something touched my leg at the ankle.
Immediately following, heat and pain coursed through my body.
My leg was on fire, but my abdomen felt like it was melting.
The heat down my arms was unbearable.
Time slowed as I watched my hands dissolve.
As I gagged, coughed and sputtered, the vibration in my hands stopped, and I could feel the creature still.
I shook my head, recovering from the sudden vertigo, finally fully confirming that these God-forsaken beasts were the unlikely, though consistent, cause.
How, I still can’t say.
Though, it also seemed my voice (or, at least a cough or throat-clearing) had a strong neutralizing effect.
I opened my hands.
I’m not sure if I was surprised because I’m not sure what I expected to happen.
I could feel it moving between my palms; squirming, humming, stinging.
But, as had become usual, its attack mechanism bent and folded against my strangely impenetrable skin.
The frog-wasp became still and started eerily buzzing.
The vibration zipped from my hands to my head.
The nausea hit hard and, as also usual, I wretched.
It jumped, hummed past my head, then zipped around the cab, pausing at intervals as a humming bird might before resuming quirky, ragged flight.
Finally, its sticky, pad-toed feet adhered to one of the clear walls.
I crept two steps toward it, as slowly as possible.
I could see my reflection in its huge, black, multi-faceted wasp eyes.
It jumped but met my palm.
I cupped my other hand.
His body crumbled, face slapping the clear floor.
Stunned, I stared at the now three bodies slumped in this tiny, invisible rocket box.
Something moved under Thug’s shirt collar, then poked out from beneath the cotton piping.
I leaned down, realizing it was a wasp of some sort, though its wings were feathered and its legs were those of a tree frog.
Boldly, foolishly, I kneeled slowly, then lashed out to grab it.
“…and that’s what they mean by the waters.”
He continued, but I interrupted him, having missed most of what he’d shared as I tried, and failed, to remember having said ‘Goatee’ out loud at any point since I’d met the increasingly enigmatic Thug.
“Wait, sorry, I’m not sure I got all of that. Say again?”
Thug studied me, “Tweeb, let’s level with each other. I make you nervous. Why?”
Then, silently, he collapsed.
I asked again, not sure what I was asking, “So, you ‘played’ with the waters, created these platystrophs?”
Thug smiled a sideways smile, as if I’d told a joke.
“Platystroph,” he replied, “is a neologism that Four, or, as you’ve been thinking of him: ‘Goatee,’ started using and only applies as a cognomen because of its similarity to that of the aptly named ‘platypus.’”
He continued, but I was completely off-guard.
“The waters?” I wagered.
Thug didn’t respond.
The visible clench and release of his jaw muscles told me he was carefully considering what to share.
“Maybe,” he began, “In truth, we don’t know. We thought we did; we thought we had it mapped to 13 specific genome anomalies and a coincidental genetic binding of living, breathing, copulating creatures exposed to the waters. It might be more, and less, than that.”
Flying fish blasted from foamy wave crests, sailing over the blue not far below.
Behind them, sea snakes with the same lofting fins exploded unnaturally from the sea, snapping at and snagging the naturally flight-gifted icthyoids.
Thug sighed, “It’s getting out of hand.”
He turned back to me, “Millions of years of natural, patterned evolution. Then we play with something we don’t understand, and bang: chaos.”
I stared at Thug.
He frowned, bit his lip, then offered, “We only have a few minutes till we arrive, so I can’t detail answers for everything you want to know. What you need to know right now: The other 10 went ahead of us, in groups of 2, with other coordinators. They’re paired to avoid risk of dehiving them, which would kill them. These 2 are with us for that reason.”
His attention shifted to something outside.
“You know what!?” I fumed.
“Forget me for a minute! I’m sick of you guys dodging my questions with ambiguous answers referencing me.”
I slapped the clear wall of the box in which we jetted over, for all I knew, the waters to which the comatose 2 had alluded.
“Talk! And you heard them: no lies. What is a platystroph? Why are these 2 with us? Where are the other 10? And, what do they mean by ‘Beware the waters?’”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I mused, frustrated.
Thug spoke without taking his eyes off the 2 now heaped against each other, “I realize you feel as though you’ve been lied to, and that you’ve been pulled into this without explanation. But, you have to admit: there’s something remarkable about your control ability.”
He finally looked at me.
I refused his bait.
“You’re the control, and our main nodus, Tweeb.”
He breathed out again.
It drove me nuts how much time Thug spent breathing heavily.
I snapped, “C’mon, man, spill it! I’m sick of being dragged through the dark.”
Without opening their eyes, the 2 others spoke in unison, “Tell him no lies.” T
hug huffed, furrowed his brow.
In harmony, they spoke again, “Beware the waters.”
I tried to respond, my throat suddenly dry.
I cleared it, and the 2 slumped, unconscious.