Voices in the Dark

by Brandon Nolta
 


Voices in the dark, monotones without light or inflection. I was not yet far enough from my previous assignment to know precisely when I was still dreaming. So, the rules. Endless repetition following me from sun to moon.

You shall eschew flight, and the conveyance of animals.

It was not enough to be able to recite them by heart. Not to the Watched, trainers of the Keep and defenders of all within and without faith. For their purposes and our safety—we were told—we had to know the cadence, the spirit, the ineffable qualities of their molecular structure. Each rattle upon the stirrups and anvils of our ears had to invoke their weight. Life inextricable with their rules, we were to be wound into that knowledge. To be one with the rules was to be among the Watched.

No shadow, no sliver of flesh or light shall pass you unnoticed.

What I remember was that everywhere I turned, those rules were there, plaqued upon the classroom walls, beautifully tiled into the mosaic floors. Other students whispered that the words could be heard in the walls and, if one climbed to the highest point of Forrad Hall, spelled out in the muted foliage that spotted the campus of the Keep. Some of my fellows were joking. Most were not.

Death is nothing in the Sight we guard.

But through the incessant training and recitation of rules that I learned to follow without thought or question, I lacked an understanding of it all. Not even the dream mills, with its great turning grottoes of luminescence and endless racks of those between, could prepare me for the vast unknown that was my new duty. The rules were now part of my being, along with the training in sciences and skills once thought impossible, but their purpose was not yet among my new knowledge. What exactly was I doing? Why was I doing it? Even as they handed me my weapons and lantern, I questioned.

Protect the Seeing, and destroy the Unwatched at every turn, for they threaten all.

“How am I of any use?” I asked, as my car was delivered to me. Arms full of devices, my civilian clothes fitting loosely, I was aware of feeling foolish, the black and white diamond badge weighing on my lapel. The quartermaster said nothing at first. Silently, the model I requested, an older-model Mustang meticulously rebuilt to a state of technological grace, was wheeled up to where we stood.

I sighed, and went to open the door. A hand on my arm stopped me, and I turned to find the quartermaster’s eyes, solid pearlescent orbs through and through, fixed on mine. The rumors are true, I thought.

“At least you ask,” he told me. “Not all of you have the wit to wonder.” He took his hand back, dismissing me, and motioned for the next cadet to claim his vehicle. I shuddered at his sightless dexterity, and climbed into my car, spilling a few items on the floorboards as I clumsily sat.

Amusement radiated from the quartermaster, though he did not turn toward me. Setting my jaw, I did not look back to him as I drove from the Keep, into the world as I no longer knew it.

* * * * *

My first assignment was intended to give me a first-hand view of the wastes where the Unwatched and more secretive people liked to vanish; in this case, the deserts of the American Southwest. I always thought of those lands as dry and harsh, never hospitable to life unless you counted the poor souls who haunted the truck stops and gas stations along the highways and interstates. Now, however, I knew better than to simply gaze along, content with what I expected to find. Now I knew how to see.

To either side of the long highway, expanses of salt flats and dry scrub spread like an inland sea, muted in the daylight, filled with whispers of life and nocturnal promise. I could see the waiting for night rippling off the earth, spreading streamers of color and heartbeats in my vision. The mountains, stolid against the sky, loomed toward me as if to catch a breath. Shadows, long and geometric, stretched thinly forth like fingers. A vault of unbroken blue perched on the mountain peaks, masking it from the darkness beyond gravity’s reach. Such beauty. My confusion, which had gnawed at me since my training began, abated for a moment.

My right hand left the wheel, and rested upon the unassuming brown package that lay on the front seat beside me. I looked down for a moment, murmured words of thanks, and turned back to the road.

From the dusty gray horizon, I saw a building emerge and gradually grow into a dilapidated gas station. Its primary colors were weather-beaten wood and rusty refuse, but other cars were parked there, and as far as my sight allowed, all appeared to be as it looked. The Mustang slowed as if hearing my thoughts, and I pulled up to the first pump, barely shaded by the overhead sunbreak that still had Esso painted on one faded corner. No matter what else had been modified in my new vehicle, it still needed gas. I took comfort in this.

The note, written on paper that might have been papyrus, was taped over the gas pump’s window. It said, simply, COME INSIDE. I brushed one hand over the holstered steel in my jacket and stepped into the building. While it seemed unlikely the station person or persons were allied with the Unwatched, it was not impossible. Sometimes what’s likely is thin on the ground.

“Afternoon,” a voice rasped as I stepped through the doorway.

My eyes adjusted when I walked in, enabling me to distinguish the speaker from the shadows. He was not Unwatched; his form was too solid in the half-light. He was an older man, solidly built, thinning blond hair disappearing under a dark blue cap, and something about him sent a shiver across my back.

“Afternoon,” I said, looking at his hands. They were clean, white, almost delicate, a contrast with the black of his fingernails. A piece of my training turned over in my memory, and I looked at him again, searching for a scar.

Suddenly the man laughed. “You won’t see it, son, though you have good eyes.” He motioned at his lower back. “Not unless you new ones can see around corners.”

“No,” I said, and quickly added, “sir.” Erasers, active or not, are among the greatest of the Watched, worthy of respect. Training had not covered the specifics of their duties, but I had the trauma of seeing one in action as part of my apprenticeship in the mills. No nightmare is adequate to describe their tasks.

“Well,” he said. “Look around, but don’t stay long. Traffic’s pickin’ up.”

I nodded, and looked out the window. A small, stoop-shouldered man was cleaning the rear windshield carefully, his face thoughtful behind aviator sunglasses. The diamond on his lapel twinkled as he moved around the car, shadows twinkling in his wake. He finished his task and started to walk back toward the store.

I reached into my pocket to pay.

The attendant slowed, and turned his head slightly. His eyes were invisible from where I stood, but his gaze was not; it rippled in my vision like the passage of a great ship as his seeing was focused on the direction from which I drove.

The former Eraser turned his face toward the light from outside. Whatever he was seeing was not yet there, but I was sure it was coming quickly. The attendant said something I couldn’t read or hear, and headed toward a side door. A sliver of something passed along my neck like a graveyard breeze.

“Best leave, son,” a voice from the shadows said. “Worry about the road now.”

I nodded, not looking toward the attendant, and headed for the door. I never really believed that I would feel the Unwatched coming, chalking that rumor up to storytelling and intimidating recruits. Like so many other things, I found I was wrong about that. That understanding was sitting on my shoulders now, a sluggish weight squirming in a sudden chill the day’s blowtorch heat couldn’t touch. Air seemed to gather at the corners of my sight, magnifying the light. Colors became sharper. Shadows grew more defined.

In all seeing is beauty, even in the corruption we fight. Mark it all.

I reached inside my jacket and undid the clasp to the holster. Before weapons training, I had never been around guns, never felt the need for it. Now it was a thing of comfort, though I knew it would probably not do me much good in a fight with one of the Unwatched. There are other weapons, ones that can hurt them, or even kill them if used correctly. Still, not everything on the road is Unwatched, and some things can be dissuaded with lead and gunpowder.

“It’s not your duty to fight here,” the attendant said as he opened the door. “Drive on.”

“Sir,” I said, and climbed into my car. The package was still on the front seat; how stupid to leave it unguarded! Had my instructors seen this error, a beating would have been the least of my punishment. I placed my hand on the paper wrapping, pressing it into the seat, and pulled out of the station, spinning tails of red dust into the air. Clouds gathered in its wake.

The map was clear on very little except one thing: there was hours of road between here and Railhead, my destination. Wide spaces on paper with little link to life or civilization. Those who were assigned to desert runs were told, even more so than usual, to keep their eyes open, precisely because there appeared to be so little to see.

Dispel illusions; always see what is, not what you expect or believe to be right.

“Rules, rules,” I muttered, and felt a touch of that something along my shoulders again. I looked at the rearview; still nothing there except the horizon and the gas station, fading into the earth as I drove my invaluable cargo away. The speedometer needle quivered at 65, rumbling in time with the chained roaring of the Mustang’s monstrous V8. No reason to hold back, was there? Not with miles ahead and the prospect of Unwatched at my back. I pressed down, and let slip the Mustang’s engine.

The night unfurled quickly. Twilight faded within minutes, leaving the sky to darkness and her stellar children, scattered and brilliant overhead. I glanced up to note the constellations as I had been taught: Orion, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia. All were in their places. Many eyes are on them, I thought, and allowed the Seeing to fill my vision. Arcs of deep light shimmered, jagged peaks of rarer elements dancing among spectral peaks like heat lightning along a canyon. Iron and argon radiance dominated, although a rare bend in the highway brought a shell of gold winking through in the desert black to my vision, a supernova beacon of defiance marking phoenix ascension: starshine to earthblood.

A ground flash drew my eyes. I looked forward, though my subconscious had been focused on the road while I Saw, but I looked forward first. The flash steadied and grew brighter in the rearview. I turned the mirror slightly to better focus. Headlights, brilliant and hotly edging toward blue, stared back. Training leaped unbidden, and my senses focused as I repeated the Watcher’s Litany without thinking:

            Eyes open.

            Hands ready.

            Heart steady.

            Weapons free.

The headlights grew larger in the mirror, and the throaty roar of a large-block engine overpowered the wind’s howling. My window was down to better taste the night air and leave room for me to maneuver, if it came to that. The stars shone, keeping their secrets safe.

The weight on my shoulders spread into my back, chilling my skin. I prepared my other weapons, keeping one hand on the package. The reality of it, solid and prosaic, was soothing. I slipped it inside my coat when my tally was done, where it lay against my chest, warm like a second heart. An ordinary miracle wrapped in paper, no better or different than the hundreds already making their way to myriad other places, yet valuable enough to risk the Unwatched at all turns. I couldn’t help smiling.

Fast, too fast, the car pulled near. Under the wind and engine roar, I heard another sound, soft and high like the scuttling of scorpions. I’d never heard it before, but I knew what it was. Unwatched.

They would ram me if they thought of it. If my instinct hadn’t said so, all my training convinced me. Darkness that walks, uncaring whether it, or they, lived or died, as long as the Seeing was lost. The warmth of the brown paper-wrapped package near my heart steadied me. I took my eyes from the road ahead and looked at them.

They’re driving an Olds, I thought. It was a solid car, low-slung and predatory, the thunder of its passage deafening even through the highway wind. I couldn’t see in the back windows, but I didn’t need to. The passenger window was down.

It would try to pass for female in the light. Maybe it would work; the long hair whipping from its head looked real enough, and even with the large dark sunglasses hiding its eyes, it had a feminine face. Perhaps it could even be considered pretty, to normal eyes. But my eyes were better now, so there was no mistaking the malice in the grin, or the .357 in its hand. It took magic to kill an Unwatched, potent and difficult magic, but all it took for me was lead. I, like all the other riders on the veins of the world, am only human. The Seeing would be pointless otherwise.

It smiled in the darkness, its finger tightening as I watched, and I understood suddenly that the thing was not wearing sunglasses.

“Filth,” I said into the wind, and drew my handgun at the same instant I stood on the brakes. The four-piston assembly seized the road, and I squeezed off a triad as the deceleration pushed me forward, leading the shot as my instructors taught me. The smile twisted into a snarl, and a single round winged its way into the night, yards safely away from my all-too-human flesh. The dark-tinted rear windshield was now spider-webbed with white fracture lines from the three holes near its center, but it held. My foot slammed down, and the Mustang leapt forward as though falling. Within seconds, I was on their tail and firing, alert to the slightest sign of braking.

Maybe they disabled the brake lights, the voice of reason whispered to me.

I let the car fall back a length and holstered my handgun. Other, stronger weapons were needed now. I swerved into the lane directly behind them, said a brief incantation, and pulled the gray lever under the dashboard to trigger the light bar. The Unwatched must live mostly in darkness, shadows, areas of low visibility. Light and the Seeing are their greatest enemies, and thus are among our best weapons.

What the light bar was rated in human terms, I do not know, though I suspect to most eyes, the bar would appear like a bank of argon fog lights: bright, but not painfully so. What I do know is that the Oldsmobile and its occupants were within an instant the center of a Seeing, forged by processes I can’t begin to name to render a terrible brilliance of focus. The universe seemed to bend in incandescent attention to the Unwatched in their powerful machine.

Stars held fast in their courses.

And the Unwatched became the Seen, if only for a second. From behind, I saw the darkness part, and despite my attention on the tasks at hand, I waited to see what lay beyond the veil of cessation.

Fittingly, I saw nothing.

The Unwatched screamed in the Seeing, a keening agony in a pitch no living thing could make. My teeth ached in their sockets, and I resisted the urge to slam on the brakes and let them limp away. The artificial Seeing would hurt them, but they would survive. I had but one option: make sure they did not survive, or at the least, make sure they could not pursue.

Confront only when you must, but never fall back when you do. Every stand holds the world in its balance.

A flick of a switch brought the passenger window down. As I pulled alongside the rumbling Olds, I said a couplet for strength. Underneath my training and the awe of the Seeing, my terror fought to be free. My chest seemed to hum in time with the wind.

The driver turned to face me. Through the tinted window, nothingness sparkled.

In my hand, I held a pneumatic cylinder. I didn’t remember pulling it from my jacket’s hidden pocket, but it was what I sought. I held it outward, finger hovering over the wine-red trigger, and spun the steering wheel to the right with a savage jerk. Metal collided to the sound of a grating crunch. I pressed the trigger at the same instant the passenger fired two shots through the driver, directly at me through the window.

The bullets passed through the driver’s face, barely rippling the simulated features as they shattered the glass. The first was easily dodged, limned by the expanding ley fire from the cylinder I held. I was not as lucky with the second; it clipped my shoulder as I lunged away, spinning the steering wheel and slamming on the brakes to pull me away from the doomed Oldsmobile, visibly aging as the entropic field charge performed its task. Pain, sharp and searing, arced through my arm.

Before me, the Olds sputtered and roared, swerving from side to side as metal fatigue tattooed the car’s surface, cracks and dust sprouting. The Unwatched themselves would not be harmed by the charge; they were too close to chaos to notice a bit more. The car, however, could not survive long. Drawn to heat and electromagnetism, the charge would render machines unusable within minutes, little more than shards soon after. I spared a moment to look at my arm, blood glistening black in the starlight. My stomach rolled as I Saw within the wound. No poisons or shadowmarks, thank God.

The tires squealed as I stopped, watching the Olds’ death throes, now about a hundred yards ahead. Quickly, one eye on the Olds and the Unwatched within, I pulled out my first-aid kit from under the seat, located a blood patch by feel. Rough and grainy, it seemed to leap from my fingers onto my wound, digging in to the skin as it halted the flow, corking the capillaries shut. It would do for now, the analgesic in the fibers already dulled the burn. I touched the package in my pocket again, rolled up the passenger window and replaced the cylinder in my jacket.

A pair of shadows leaped from the Olds, now sagging like a deflated balloon. Dust, once metal and rubber, puffed from the car in their wake as they began limping toward me. The light bar had hurt them; not enough, but any damage to the Unwatched lifted my spirits. Despite their limping, both seemed to be grinning, their teeth a pale and malformed reflection in the darkness. The feminine one raised the .357 into a firing stance.

I flicked the high-beams on and stomped the accelerator. Of the weapons I had left, none were sufficient to do more than injure the Unwatched, and that was already done. I had been hesitant to carry greater ordnance on my first mission, as I was not yet comfortable with that level of power. Stupid, I thought as I sped toward them, leaning low in my seat to present a smaller target. The Seeing was in danger, thanks to my groundless fears on this, my first time on the road. Shame kept me focused on malevolent shadows.

A roar in the night. Two. The tinkle of glass slivers flying in the wake of a steel-jacketed round. Chaos sparkling as it lowered the gun, prepared to fire again. The road between us disappeared under the Mustang’s tires. I flicked the headlights off.

Be always prepared for light, even in the darkness.

Before my eyes had a chance to lose their vision, I hit the high-beams again, hoping that even chaos couldn’t adapt so quickly. I was taught that the Unwatched did not have the ability to perceive the visual spectrum as humans did; even if they could bear the full light of day, they would only perceive a twilight world of shapes and motion. Changes in light could confuse them, hurt them. I had not believed it at the time, but I prayed for it now.

They looked surprised as I hit them.

I flinched as the handgun struck the windshield, adding a sliver of damage to the bullet holes and desert grime. The Mustang lurched as I drove over the semi-solid bodies, then smoothed out again and continued to roar toward Railhead. I looked in the main rearview, saw a spread of shadow flop and shake in my passage. My eyes told me it was pained as it tried to reassume its shape. It tried to pull itself up, but fell back to the pavement.

Where was the other one?

On my left, almost past my peripheral vision’s limit, a shadow sparkled.

The window.

I ducked and pulled to the right, barely evading claws as they tore into the upholstery where my throat had been. Darkness nearly filled the window as the Unwatched dragged its substance toward me, trying to pull its way into the car. Even wounded as it was – part of it was caught on the car’s undercarriage, stretching it like a black crepe-paper kite – if it got into the car, I was dead. In close quarters, even an experienced Watcher is no match for Unwatched ferocity.

I roared into the wind, couplets and curses, damning the filth as I struck at it with my fist and elbow. Every blow was like punching frozen smoke, the cold of outer nothingness striking my skin like needles. The Unwatched hissed and screeched, trying to strike back, a cloud of dust and fury. Between its injuries and my fury, it struggled to stay solid enough to hurt me, but that wouldn’t last. All it had to do was run me off the road, damage the Mustang. On foot, I could not defeat the Unwatched, and even if I could, others might come upon me before dawn. The risk was too high.

“Soon,” the thing hissed, and lunged forward. Its mouth opened as it pulsed toward my neck, teeth and rage and madness. I grabbed the thing where there should have been a neck, swerving as I did so. No traffic, thank God. My eyes flicked to the speedometer: 85 and slowly climbing. An idea sparked across my thoughts. I needed both hands, if just for a second.

I slammed the thing up against the window frame, reached across with my right hand and hit the window switch. The glass rose from the door, pinning the thing as the motor whined for a moment and stopped. A clawed hand grabbed the top of the glass, began squeezing its way past.

Two seconds, three at most. I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand, reached inside my coat with my right. Felt the seam where flap met paper, lifted it with my thumb.

Eyes like pools of rage focused on my throat. Nails clicked and scrabbled on glass.

The package…unwrapped itself. That’s the only way I can explain it. Paper fell away, and I was holding the package in my hand. Potential throbbed under my fingers, worlds spun in my hand. I pulled it from my coat.

The hand at the window found its way in. The first lunge grazed my ear. Blood welled up, a warm spot on skin grazed by vacuum chill. A hiss of triumph filled my ears. There was no new light in the car. I hoped that my half-crazed idea was right.

I let go of the steering wheel for a second, grabbed the unwrapped package with my left hand, took the wheel with my right. No time now for prayers.

Its mouth opened wide. Teeth glinted in the shadows.

In one punch, I thrust the package into its mouth, up into where its brain would have been were it human. Again my foot slammed on the brake pedal, calling on the magic of friction and arrested motion. My mind cleared, and I turned all my attention to the Unwatched. Its mouth closed, chilling my skin even as jagged teeth tore into my flesh.

“Let me See you,” I said, and opened my perceptions to their utmost. Within the shadows, the package responded to my Seeing.

If it hadn’t had a mouthful of my arm, it would have screamed.

#

The bleeding from my smaller cuts stopped within minutes. The damage to my arm was greater; despite the disinfectant and blood patches and healing couplets, it continued to leak blood as I passed the sign welcoming me to Railhead. More troubling, the chill had not passed. I Saw no shadowmarks in my arm, but beyond that, I couldn’t tell. There could be poisons or boneworms or any number of monstrosities making their home in me. Watcher training had been depressingly effective in teaching that the Unwatched were unmatched in developing horrors to inflict on their enemies.

Under the dash, the emergency beacon clicked off. I relaxed a little; only Erasers or Medics could do that remotely. Either group was welcome. I pulled into a dirt parking lot outside a brightly lit diner, improbably named Irv’s, and turned off the Mustang. The package, back inside my jacket, rested warm against my chest like a second heart. I wondered if normal people, the everyday miracles of the world, could even see this building; if a family or traveling salesman were to drive by, would they see me parked in an empty field or in front of an empty building’s shell? I was too tired, too hurt to care.

Inside, the building was clean and well-kept. Red-topped stools lined the counter, with menus and carousels of condiments placed every couple of seats. Dark velvet and brown booths lined the walls, ending at a bubble-topped neon Wurlitzer in the corner. Brightly lit, welcoming and, except for a man sitting silently with his back to me at the nearest counter seat, empty.

“Come in, son,” the man said. “Let me look at your arm.”

I took the seat next to him, pulled up my sleeve. He placed his weathered hand on my arm, closed his eyes. The world seemed to solidify under his attention, black fingernails drawing in the diner’s soft light. Warmth began to return to my skin. My fingers began to tingle like they’d been asleep.

“Hmmm,” he said after a minute. “No infestations, no infections. Beginner’s luck.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Quite inventive strategy,” he continued, sipping from a cup of bitter-smelling coffee. My stomach rumbled, but discipline must be kept. I would wait until the Eraser allowed it. “You handled yourself well, despite foolishly going out under-armed. You will, of course, not repeat this error.”

I nodded. Feeling had completely returned to my arm, and with it pain. Even as I watched the flesh knit, I could feel the tearing of teeth, the memory of cold blackness spreading on my skin. The Eraser’s eyes were on my face, searching for some sign of his test’s effect on me. I bore the pain, chill giving way to heat and itching of new cells, and pulled the package from my jacket pocket. Placing it softly on the counter, I pushed it over to him, a flutter of relief and jealousy passing through me as he placed it in a deep scarlet bag at his side.

A moment passed. My jaw clenched as I waited for the Eraser to speak. Suddenly, he smiled widely, showing me a perfect set of shining white teeth, and motioned to the bowls of food that had appeared silently before me. “Eat. There’s a room with a bed in the back; you’ll stay there tonight.”

“And tomorrow?” I asked.

He smiled again, but it did not touch his eyes. “Protecting the Seeing is endless. There’s plenty of infinity for you to claim.”

I turned away from him to spoon hot broth and stew meat into my mouth. He had gone before I looked up again. A flat package, bulkier than the last and wrapped in white butcher’s paper, rested on the polished counter where he had been. My name was written on it in black, an implied question in the bold inked letters. I sipped from the bowl, savoring the heat and salty sting on my tongue, and looked around at the empty diner. He didn’t even wait for my answer.

I picked up my piece of infinity, slipped it into my pocket and finished my dinner. For road food, it was good.

# # #