Toward the Stars, Toward Home

There was nothing aside from blackness – divorced from time and space. Then a light appeared, a pin-prick that gradually opened like a film iris. A giant eye stared at him. It was distorted and fragmented, a reflection of an eye rather than the real McCoy.

His cheek felt cool and smooth, and he recognized that his face was pushed against a window, the skin smashed like a grotesque cartoon character. Wind whistled on the other side of the glass, a shrill sound paired with a relentless pattering of what he guessed could only be rain.

The giant eye staring at him blinked, the dark iris blinking briefly out of view. Awareness now extended to his arms, which sat lifeless on worn jeans. It took every effort, but he was eventually able to lift one of these floppy appendages to the window. He felt the coolness of the glass on his palm, and with a grunt, he pushed off the pane, his face peeling away and moving upward through space.

He sensed pressure across his chest. He instinctively moved his arm, and what he sensed was his hand caressed an unpleasant nylon belt that was anchoring him to where he was sitting.

It was then that he knew he was in a car throttling down a highway. Thin beams of light emanated from the headlights, clawing against a wall of rain-soaked darkness with painful futility. But that was all that he could see. There was, of course, some dim illumination that came from the dashboard, but for the most part he was surrounded by darkness, as if he had entered a black vacuum of space devoid of even a single star.

It was then that he noticed the numbness in the cheek – not to mention the throbbing in his head. He groaned softly, his fingers rising to rub his temples and restore life to his cheek. The sound of cloth rustling then broke into his thoughts; it was coming from the driver’s seat next to him.

The driver’s seat … the driver! He was in a dark car, but he wasn’t alone. Rain continued to splatter on the exterior of the car. Wind continued to whistle against the window. The windshield wipers rhythmically thumped back and forth. Slowly, he turned his head to the left, toward whoever or whatever was sitting next to him.

The darkness was nearly all-encompassing, and initially, he couldn’t tell what he was looking at in the driver’s seat. Male or female, tall or short, young or old, the figure’s identifying traits were impossible to discern. He could tell, however, that the figure was watching him. Its eyes gleamed out of the blackness. “Hi,” it croaked. Its voice was androgynous and bubbly, as if the thing’s mouth was choked with saliva, its throat coated with phlegm.

He was jolted to attention, and the fog dissipated from around his head. The figure across from him giggled, a somewhat high-pitched, juvenile laugh that made him catch his breath.

“Who are you?” he stammered, his voice sounding weak and hoarse.

“I should ask you the same thing,” the figure quipped, clearly amused.

Such a question should have provoked an innate response – something subconscious, embedded in his cells. But nothing came. Inside of him, it was all murk and gloom, a charcoal-colored void that tried to ignite itself with mental power before quickly short-circuiting.

He couldn’t remember. His name, his identity, his very self seemed alien to him – or, at the very least, alienated. Each time he dug deep, the answers slipped through his fingers like water vapor.

“I… I don’t know. I can’t remember!”

The form smirked in its seat, causing his heart to leap up and outward.

“What’s so funny?” he cried, voice rising in both volume and octave. White-hot anger leaped through his body, rippling through his appendages in a way that felt like old hat.

Automatically and instinctively, his hand darted to his pants pocket, grasping violently for his phone but hitting nothing but denim.

Swallowing deeply, he tried to get a breath, tried to steady himself against the unnerving presence next to him and the void within him.

“What do you want?” he finally inquired to his driver, fists clenched, muscles tight, anger beating out fear – at least for now.

“You’ll find out.”

His hands were shaking involuntarily. Tumultuous emotions were overriding his brain, threatening his higher faculties like a flood cresting at the top of a levee. He needed to process things, engage in analytical critique. There was a cause and effect to the universe. Processes could be observed. Data could be analyzed. Reason could be a lifeline, a buoy, a beacon for him to follow through both the literal and figurative darkness.

Think.

But there wasn’t much to go on. The car was surrounded by black; it might as well have been in a tunnel deep underground. Of course, there were the two pin-pricks of light coming from the car’s headlights, but even these did little aside from reflecting off the pelting rain drops that came down mercilessly from above. He looked outside the rain-soaked car windows, attempting to find some reference or marker that could help him calculate the velocity of the car in which he was trapped. But there was nothing concrete, just an endless expanse of cold and wet darkness. A vague guess put the car at 60 miles per hour. And he figured there was a good chance he would be seriously injured if he risked jumping, a possibility that gave him legitimate pause.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the form bubbled, jolting him out of his thoughts. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“You need to let me out of here. Let me out of here right now!”

The assertiveness and anger was comfortable for him, an indicator of perhaps who he was. It didn’t faze the form, however. It remained motionless and serene. Then it spoke, its voice bubbling up like a hot spring.

“You don’t want to get out of here,” it said in a light, patronizing tone. “That I promise you.”

The uncanny nature of the voice, not to mention the bizarre statement, made him even more irate. He seethed to himself, cracking his knuckles yet saying nothing. After a moment the form spoke again.

“Let me you ask you a question. Would you still want to want to jump out of the car if the ground wasn’t there?”

His throat constricted, and he could feel his hands become slippery with sweat.

“What are you talking about?”

“What if you jumped and the ground wasn’t there to meet you?”

“Man, I don’t know what you’re…”

“What would you do if you didn’t hit the ground?” it repeated again, this time in a deeper tone. “What would you do? Would you like that?”

“If this is about money,” he began, uncertain now if he should meet the form’s intensity with his own. “I don’t know if I have any or not.”

Fear was now rising within him like smoke through a chimney, blotting out vestiges of anger. He thought about his situation and tried to hearken back to something, anything later than a few moments ago when he woke up with his face pressed against the window. The form noticed him receding away from the moment and grunted. Or was it a chuckle?

Behind him, he heard the car door click, indicating that it had been unlocked. How this was, he didn’t know. He had been watching the form intently, and it had not moved in any perceptible form or fashion. It was also now watching him, investigating him for any sign that he might attempt to open the door.

The fear that just a moment ago had been a source of paralysis was now merely a grating annoyance, prompting and pushing him to engage in rebellion. The rain continued to fall, pattering against the metallic top of the car. His chest heaved, and his breath was becoming increasingly loud and fast. On the other side of the car, the form simply stared at him; its chest was not rising or falling at all.

The silence and the dead air of the car sickened him, as did the form’s endless gaze. Adrenaline pumping, he rotated in his seat, grasped at the door handle and pulled it toward him.

Howling wind rushed into the car, and rain seeped onto his exposed hands. He looked down, every fiber of his being expecting to see a faint texture of asphalt, and saw an abyss – a black hole of utter and total absence. He gasped, his mind not fully comprehending what he was seeing. It wanted to place the ground there, wanted to apply laws he took for granted, but he couldn’t. He was in-between – entering into ancestral worlds of unreason while clinging vainly to a default state of modernity.

He jerked himself back into the car, shutting the door as he went. The deafening wind faded to a faint, thin howl. The form still didn’t move; it made no attempt to threaten him, but the message had been sent. His mind wheeled, and felt as if at any minute he might lose it completely. The car was still here. Its surfaces felt as they should. External stimuli were filtered through his subjective consciousness in a way that felt familiar and expected, but the world had clearly taken a turn, shifting into midnight shadow.

Digging into his jeans, he found a quarter, its metallic, smooth surface feeling cool against hot, sweaty fingers. Opening the car door again, he dropped the quarter onto where the road should be. It fell from its hand and was soon swallowed by blackness. But it made no sound. No high-pitched twinkle or clatter. It had soundlessly disappeared into ubiquitous onyx hues.

The form didn’t say anything, didn’t move or gesture. Finally, it stirred slightly, although it didn’t turn toward him.

“Do you see now?” it chuckled.

They continued to drive. For some time nobody made a sound. He tried to think, and yet he couldn’t. Throughout the drive, he had ridden wave after wave of adrenaline, hormonal crests that gave him what felt like temporary superpowers. But they had no place to go. His fight or flight response was curtailed by something unseen, a powerful hand that was onerous and authoritative.

But it was not omnipotent. Snatches of imagery were forming in his mind. Were they emblems of his life before the car? He couldn’t know for sure. He could see what appeared to be himself exploding in anger, erupting without concern or care for the potential ramifications. He could feel himself switching places with the form, giving into excess and driving erratically down a highway only slightly brighter than the one he was on currently. He imagined himself as a younger man, enamored by love for the first time, wholeheartedly believing that he and he alone had discovered a secret to the universe.

He could see and feel all of that, he could also nearly understand that – whether real or imagined – the images pointed to how the emotional, the spiritual, the transcendental shaped human affairs just as much as reason did. But this didn’t change his impression of his present circumstances. What he had seen with the quarter had been some sort of trick, a hoax, an elaborate lie. It made him mad, and the shape, the form, the being, the person, whatever sat next to him was responsible.

“Look, I don’t know who you are or what this is, but you need to stop the car,” he growled.

“Soon enough.”

“Stop the car right now.”

“Soon enough.”

“RIGHT NOW!”

He lunged and attempted to grasp the wheel, but before he could, a blast of light exploded out of the corner of his right eye, cutting through the dark and temporarily blinding him. He cried out in fear and discomfort, throwing a hand over his face and turning to face the windshield of the car.

Powerful light emanated about 200 yards in front of them, and its illumination gave him his first clear look at the world outside the car. The road had appeared, and it was shiny and black, cracked and covered in pools of rainwater. On all sides trees taller and thicker than any redwood stood in rapt attention. Staring at them, he felt his insides go cold with dread at their horrifying age. What had these trees watched over? What changes had they seen over the centuries?

Even more frightening than the trees themselves were the spaces between them – or the lack there of. Thick tangles of undergrowth that appeared capable of repelling any machete were now noticeably visible, their tendrils reaching out and nearly running up to the decaying road itself. Much of this foliage bristled with thorns – sharp, long appendages that were hideously pronounced. The light flickered and danced across the primordial-looking landscape, its amber and gold broken by occasional shadow.

Shadow.

He looked back toward the source of the light, the flare of illumination that was slowly developing more clarity as they approached it with the car. He could see that the light source was a massive fire, a towering inferno that bit and licked upward toward gargantuan trees. Black dots encircled it, swayed around it, and gradually grew in both size and definition as the car began to pass by. They were human – or at the very least humanoid. And they were dancing, sailing, careening about the fire. Dressed in what looked like rags, the figures joyfully venerated the blaze, hurling themselves through space in a violent exaltation.

The primitive, ugly chaos of the dance filled him with a cold chill; and yet it also transfixed him. They were definitely human beings; yet their skin was rough, coarse, misshapen and wounded. It was as if all vestiges of society had been stripped away, leaving mankind totally at the whim of the state of nature, the state it had attempted to forget but had never truly left behind. His eyes drifted away from gyrating bodies, moving across the flickering ground to the flame that crackled with unnatural strength. Amidst the twitching, swirling, whirling flames, he could see something else: a trio of blackened, charred figures standing against a looming post.

A wave crashed somewhere behind him and his vision blurred. Someone was screaming – an agonized, terrible, helpless bellow. He slumped against his seat. The scream died in his throat, and it was only then that he realized it had been him all along. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that the flame – which was now receding in the car’s back window – had shed light on the car’s dark interior. His driver – the shapeless, ambiguous form – was now at least partially visible.

He didn’t turn his head, relying instead on his peripheral vision. The form was nude, its body wiry, emaciated, skin like tissue paper – thin, light, ashen and borderline translucent. It was both old and ageless at the same time, appearing to be discolored, weathered, but also hairless and devoid of wrinkles.

But its face – that was beyond description. Its head was huge, round, lumpy. Its eyes were little more than huge, reflective black ovals that sat in the place of recognizable pupils and corneas. Underneath them lay, yes lay, what might have once been a nose. However, the cartilage looked as if it had been deflated, and it now hung flaccidly toward the thing’s mouth: a broken array of teeth with far too much gum exposed.

His mouth opened, but no sound came out. Then he saw something move in between the form’s teeth: a black, serpentine form that moved up and spilled out of its ruined mouth. This was followed by another tendril. Then another. Until the hole was obscured entirely behind a wall of black snakes that dripped and oozed with unknowable fluids. He was screaming again, his unbroken cry insufferably long and loud. Now the rest of the form’s head was starting to crumble. Discolored skin was peeling away, revealing more snakes that flopped out of the form’s face, spraying gore and viscera across the car, and then rearing to life as if each had a mind of its own. The black ovals were burning, liquefying the surrounding skin, which ran down its ruined cheeks.

He shut his eyes tight, but the screaming continued.

“No. Open your eyes. See this. Take it in.” the form cried, its voice even more guttural than before, little more than sloppy gurgle than anything else.

He tried to drift away, crawl toward the darker recesses of his mind. For a moment it seemed to work, but then the form spoke once more.

“If you don’t open your eyes, I’ll come in there to find you.”

Rattling horror overcame him, compelled him, and he slowly opened his eyes.

“NO!”

The form was revealed now, and it filled the car’s interior. Light shone from it, and its body was now on the dash, on the floor, on the seat, on everything. It gurgled again, spraying brackish liquid across the car.

“OPEN YOUR EYES!”

He screamed and lashed out an arm, clutching at the passenger seat door. Wrenching it open, he felt the cold air again lash at his face and body. He saw the enveloping darkness where the road should be, and he launched himself toward it.

What little there was of the world disappeared. And he fell through total darkness, so ubiquitous and complete he felt disembodied and erased. There was no sound. There was no air. He just drifted, sailing downward with no end in sight.

He alighted on something solid. He could feel the pressure points where his body was connecting with the ground. He could sense the cold of his location. A deep chill that ran through him, encircling each appendage with an icy grip. But that was all. His smell, sight and hearing might as well have disappeared. With great effort he raised an arm, placed his middle finger together with his thumb and snapped – only to hear nothing.

Light suddenly flared, a silvery beam that crackled off in the distance. It lit up the milieu, a black, static expanse that went on seemingly without end. But it wasn’t all static. A part of the expanse was moving, growing, rearing into the sky. The silvery beam streaked across the landscape again, revealing the growing shape in its entirety.

He started running, heart smashing against its sternum, tears streaming from his eyes. Every stride required effort, as if gravity’s force had been increased. Straining, he threw himself forward, crashing and thrashing like something large, wounded and uncoordinated – acting solely on instinct and emotion.

The black floor was now recognizable concrete and asphalt. He ran down it, passing two-story buildings that were broken and boarded, and mauled vacant lots filled with trash and weeds. Gasping for air, he collapsed on a corner near an overturned mailbox that was covered in grime, scars and wet leaves. He knew this place; it sparked something inside of him, filling in one small portion of a mindscape that had been painfully erased. He could see himself as a much younger person, walking these same streets, which had then been safe, bright and full of people.

He somehow knew that three blocks away there was a larger road, the main thoroughfare that lead in and out-of-town. He struck out for it, hoping vainly that it might give him an idea of what to do. A tattered doughnut shop, a mutilated book store and a destroyed co-op – all of these structures passed by him as he half jogged and half stumbled through the town’s ravaged grid.

Nearing the thoroughfare, he suddenly stopped, horror pulsating through him. A car was approaching, its headlights illuminating the craggy, battered path ahead of it. He ducked behind a nearby building adjacent to the co-op – a wasted shell that had once been used to sell outdoor adventure equipment.

The car slowed to a stop, idling in the center of the road. He didn’t want to look, didn’t want to move. Instead, he zeroed in on the sound, fixated on the hum of the engine. He heard the crunch of gravel as the car began to reverse, saw the light from its headlights illuminate the ground past the wall he was hiding behind, and he knew that somehow, someway the form in the car could see him; it knew that he was there.

He pushed himself away from the wall that he was pressed against and began running toward a grove of trees that swayed back and forth against a dark sky. Vaulting over a decrepit fence, he crashed into the underbrush. Bushes and vines tore at him, impeding his process and scratching his arms and face. A few yards behind, something was following him, gliding almost silently through the dense brush. It was gaining ground fast, and for as much as he tried to redouble his efforts, he just couldn’t put any additional distance between them.

Then the trees broke, and he spilled out on a vast landscape covered in smooth agates. He continued to run, his feet causing the stones underneath them to click and clack as they were pushed together and pulled apart. After a few strides, the landscape noticeably dropped off. The small agates disappeared, becoming replaced by exponentially larger stones of out age and dimension. It was in that moment that memory overtook him, visions from childhood of being in roughly the same place at a given point in time, playing on the agates near a roaring, endless lake that was every any definition great. This area though was nearly devoid of water, as if it had been removed by a gigantic siphon that had come down from the heavens. Such a thought, which initially would have struck him as completely crazy, now felt to contain some plausible dimensions – a fact that horrified him even more.

The ground was decreasing rapidly, causing him to need to nearly jump with each stride. Tucked between each boulder and crevice, he could see small pools of water and minuscule fragments of aquatic plants, tiny remnants of a lake that had once held trillions of gallons. He couldn’t hear the form anymore, and although he breathed a sigh of relief, he didn’t slow down – even with the rocks becoming steeper and slippier with every step.

A shadow appeared in the corner of his eye. A dark, looming form was sitting on and also crammed in the small caverns of rock, its bulk twisting and crammed into various nooks and crannies. It took him a minute to finally recognize that it was a ship wreck, an antiquated vessel that was easily hundreds of years old yet still strangely intact. The ship’s hull was splintered and broken, smashed against the slick boulders and rocky caverns. Yet despite its disarray, the wooden panels appeared vibrant, almost like new. Its canvas sails hung loosely over the stones, its corners flapping in the wind. And although they were tattered and torn, the sails looked as if they had just recently been stitched and stretched. It was impossible; but there it was – plain as day.

And why shouldn’t it be?

The thought emerged from somewhere within him, and yet it felt alien – as if it had been implanted by a foreign agent. Was he the one thinking his thoughts? The notion of it seemed too terrifying to comprehend, a frank rebuttal to the legacy of rational agency that had been handed down to him throughout the generations. But he couldn’t deny it any longer.

Something small and unbelievably hard struck him on the top of his head. His feet slipped, and he careened downward, his body cracking against several different rocks, and finally coming to rest wedged in a deep crevice full of water and sand. He could hear the object clatter against the stones, bouncing downward and finally plopping into the wet sand near his head. He moved his arm and fished the item out of the sand. His fingers closed around its smooth, round and thin surface. It was a quarter – the very same quarter that he had dropped out of the form’s car.

A horrible fire ignited in his shoulder, a searing blaze that made him groan in agony. He felt sick, and had to turn his head to the side to expel the watery bile of his empty stomach, where it mixed immediately with the damp and grainy sediment. He was dizzy. The world tilted. Perspective was swirling away from him. Blackness was coming in from the edges, and yet he didn’t fear it; he didn’t fear anything anymore. He erupted with high-pitched laughter as the darkness finally engulfed him.

The form continued to move closer, and it was growing larger, cascading over stones, swirling through the night sky. It was taking over, consuming everything. The world belonged to it. The world became it.

YOU ARE THERE LYING AMONG THE STONES. YOU ARE BROKEN AND EMPTY. BUT YOU WON’T BE FOR LONG. YOU WILL BE RESHAPED, BROUGHT TO A NEW PLANE OF UNDERSTANDING. BUT THAT WILL NOT BE WHERE THE JOURNEY ENDS. YES, YOU WILL LOSE YOUR BODY. AND YES, YOU WILL LOSE WHAT IS LEFT OF YOUR MIND. BUT IT IS UNAVOIDABLE, AS IT IS TIME TO COME HOME.

IT WON’T BE WITHOUT SUFFERING. MANY SCREAM WHEN THE PROCESS BEGINS, AND MANY ARE SCREAMING STILL. BUT IN TIME, YOU WILL KNOW PEACE.

BECAUSE THIS IS NOT WHERE YOU WERE ALWAYS MEANT TO BE. YOU BELONG OUT THERE, AND YOU WILL SEE IT SOON. YOU WILL TRAVERSE THE CELESTIAL EQUATOR, PASS THE STAR CREST OF OLGAH-HAN. AND YOU WILL SEE THAT THE FACULTIES YOU SO FOOLISHLY CLING TO CAN ONLY TAKE YOU SO FAR. THEY, LIKE THIS PLANET, WILL RECEDE BEHIND YOU AS YOU TRAVEL TOWARD THE NORTH, TOWARD THE STARS, TOWARD THE INFINITE, TOWARD HOME.

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