19. Lagos (D2)

“…Dr. Lagos,” said Aida as Jimmy and Patricia stood in front of the mounds of furniture, piping, faux plants, anything that could be used to barricade the doors that kept them from the living quarters. 

“We’re familiar,” Jimmy said back. “Please tell me he’s close to the entrance.”

“He’s not far from it,” she said back. “Is everything alright?”

He heard Patricia laugh and turned toward her. “At least she cares enough to try and keep us calm,” she said with a hint of sass.

He smiled back, secretly enjoying the jealousy that was growing in Patricia. She had complained about Aida the entire way over, pointing out how she refused to acknowledge that she was there and focusing the entire conversation toward Jimmy. She tried to mask it by saying she got a bad feeling about her, like Aida was trying to manipulate the person she believed would be easiest. It was adorable.

“It just doesn’t look very cozy,” he said into the unit.

“I transferred the location,” she said. “Good luck.”

Patricia stretched her arm out and said, “After you.”

He glanced at the dead bodies that lay sprawled outside the doors like a warning set by someone to keep out. They sent a bad feeling through him.

The giant doors to the quarters were always kept open. Patricia had informed him that only in the event of a blackout or lockdown did they ever shut. It explained why they had tried to barricade the entrance and prevented the door itself from being able to fully shut.

He turned his body sideways, squeezing through the tiny opening. There wasn’t much play in which direction he could go. He was forced to push things aside to even make enough room to push himself through. He felt tense each time he did so. At any moment it felt like the entire barricade would collapse on them and they would be trapped under a stack of desks and bed frames, left to suffocate as they were unable to move the crushing weight atop them.

“I hate tight spaces,” said Patricia from behind him.

“Just keep your eyes on my ass then,” he said.

She chuckled and he smiled at the thought of her staring at it. 

After a few minutes of pushing furniture aside, he finally reached the edge of the pileup. They had clearly put quite a bit of work into it but it had done them no good.

There were rows of small rooms, smaller than Patricia’s, that stacked up three floors. In between the rooms, at the center of the large hall, were larger communal rooms that separated it all. They stacked up just the same but you could stuff eight or more people into each of them with their own individual sleeping pods. Jimmy had remembered they had tried to dump him into one of those communal spaces on his previous stays, claiming it was the free housing provided for Lumis employees, but he wasn’t any regular Lumis employee. Looking at the horror that met him now made him glad he had never accepted.

“Christ…” whispered Patricia as she came up behind him.

The entire station had truly become a graveyard. There were piles of bodies stacked up like decorations. Dismembered limbs and guts lay on the floor like welcoming mats. Torn flesh stuck to the transparent walls, the blood dried and acting like glue. Ripped apart jaws with teeth fully intact hanging by a thread of skin from the unrecognizable faces of bodies while deep crimson streaks painted the walls of even the highest floor.

There was furniture that had been taken off the pileup. Judging by their surroundings, Jimmy guessed those pieces had been flung back in a desperate attempt to clear a path out.

Patricia stepped ahead, her hand over her mouth. She was planting her feet carefully so as not to accidentally step on anything. Jimmy followed suit, tapping his unit to pull up the layout. The grid lit up, showing the blocked sections like New York streets with layers of apartment buildings.

“We have a bit of a walk,” said Patricia as she glanced at him over her shoulder.

“Yeah,” he said, feeling a bit disappointed that Aida had lied to him.

Waling by the rows of rooms, he noticed all were left bare to look through. These rooms, even the communal pods, were supposed to have privacy images that imitated neighborhoods on the surface. The only thing they imitated now was a death museum that trapped all the tortured souls of people too scared to run and fight. People that had been hopeful that if they were quiet enough, they would go unnoticed and be spared. 

“Poor bastards,” said Patricia, looking to the right into one of the better lit rooms. There was the body of a man huddled up under a desk, a couple of chairs blocking clear view of it. A sea of blood had formed out in front of it. The body held something in its arms that Jimmy couldn’t quite make out.

He raised the flashlight from his unit. Patricia gasped and turned around. The body of a small child was being held tight, the two chairs helping to keep them propped up. There was a massive hole in the child’s body, another through the man’s, leaving a tunnel that gave clear view to the other side.

“James,” said Patricia. “Please.”

He lowered the flashlight and waited for her to start moving again before stealing a glance in the room again. It was the first young child he had seen down here. His guess was that it wouldn’t be the last where they were walking through.

“I wish there was still enough power to get the privacy images up,” said Patricia, doing her best to keep her eyes from straying around.

I’m glad there’s not. He thought as he looked around at each of the rooms they passed by. At least this way he would be able to see death approaching.

He noticed one of the 4th generation entertainment consoles in one of the communal rooms. When he had been assigned to push them as prerelease he had become fascinated with them, even spent most of his time using the excuse that he was ‘learning the product’ before the shows. He had sold them all out, had even forced Lumis to order a second wave, and felt proud of it too. He had lagged on selling the other products but he hadn’t cared. He always felt proud when he pushed out the front runners. Like a king making room for his throne.

It seemed so pointless now, surrounded by grips of dead who would never use it again. All it had done was taken time from them, leech them from the things that truly mattered.

“Why didn’t you ask them to contact your family?” said Jimmy.

Patricia glanced back, not saying anything for some time. “I didn’t want them getting their hopes up.”

“I see,” he said, feeling at a loss for words. He had intended to probe the way that she had. To try and show her he was interested in her as well, but nothing came.

“I had thought that’s why you had asked them not to contact yours…”

“But then you realized what a selfish shit born asshole I am,” he laughed, glad she was able to contribute to his failing conversation.

“I was planning on using less colorful language,” she said, laughing with him. She clung to the residue smile as she turned her head to look through the rows of living pods. The imitated street blocks with the exception of the concrete floors and vehicles. Jimmy had always wondered if Lumis would eventually design personal vehicles for the Galapagos cities so people could have better transport methods as the cities continued to grow. At least the way things were now, they had maintained a healthy level of fitness among the residents.

“Who would have thought I would have been sharing a laugh with someone while taking a stroll down a hall of-” continued Patricia.

“They’re dead,” said Jimmy brashly. “They can’t tell the difference between you laughing or you crying. They can’t tell anything anymore.”

“I know,” she said, “and every part of me tells me that, but there’s a part that doesn’t and leaves me wondering, ‘what if’?”

They are watching us. They’re taking notes. Waiting. Ready to pounce at the moment I trip up, Tear me apart for thinking I’m better than them. “What if they’re watching us?”

“They were people too. Don’t you think they still deserve some respect?”

He thought about his words carefully, his eyes finding the body of a dead woman up ahead who stared back at him blindly. “If they’re still somehow able to see us, they should be understanding that there is no way we could ever know.”

“We know what would be while they are alive, it doesn’t change just because they die,” said Patricia.

“The only reason it wouldn’t is if there were some sort of afterlife for them and since we can’t be completely sure of that…” he allowed his words to trail, not wanting to create any waves. “They’re dead Patricia. We’re not. We can’t live our lives in fear of what they might or might not think when our time comes. Only our lives matter now.”

“Selfish, shitborn asshole sums it up well,” she said with a smile, causing him to laugh. 

They walked silently through the quarters, Jimmy watching her swaying back and forth. He began to realize that although he found a strong attraction toward her, there was no sexual desire. Only the desire to protect her. He could picture her coming home to her family, each opening their arms so wide as they tried to embrace the entire group at once. All of them telling her how much they had missed her and loved her. How they never wanted her to leave again.

It was obvious she loved them more than her own selfish desires to achieve.

He had no one to love more than himself. He had made sure of that. The only thing he would return to was two people who would find some way to milk this fuck up for their own benefit. He wondered who would use it most. Likely his father with his upcoming release of his new novel. Milk the free publicity for all the audience he could get. If it succeeded, it would be because of the deep emotions he felt during the tragic ordeal his son had been forced to endure. If it failed, the darkness and overwhelming worry of the thought of losing his child had made him unable to center his thoughts.

At least he would have Filo to return to. Jimmy could always count on him to be happy. Jimmy knew Lumis would insist on mandatory time off and most would be spent with his dog, but when he tried to think of what else he would do, his mind drew a blank.

“It’s up here,” said Patricia as they turned into a long corridor that led to a cul de sac. He checked the map on his unit and saw how close they were. 

“Have you thought about what you’ll do when we get back?” he asked.

She looked back with a warm smile as if she had read her mind and asked the perfect question. Or maybe, she had read his. “I’m taking my family somewhere, anywhere. I don’t care where. I just,” she stopped and gazed at him, “I don’t want to be apart for long periods again.”

He felt the pit grow in him as she smiled at him. He forced a smile on his face but only sadness and envy filled him. She continued walking and the thought crossed his mind that he could always ask her if he could join them, but even there he would not be welcomed. He would be alone again, amidst the millions of people that he had met in his life. By his own doing, he would have no one and would end up returning to work early so he could continue his same routine until he was sure he could surpass his parents in talent and prove he was better.

“How about you?” she asked.

He unglued his eyes from the empty focus they had wandered toward and forced his cocky grin onto his face. “You already know I have a date.”

“Of course,” she said. He had expected her to laugh but her reaction let him know that she had not found his surface response amusing. He felt the urge to please her, to reveal more, but his own insecurities demanded he keep quiet. He had shared too much already and now she was expecting the whole world from him.

The silence felt long. Just moments before it had felt like it was passing by too quickly, like they had appeared in front of the dead doctor’s home in a beat. Now, paces away and the entrance could not come sooner. He could sense the disappointment thick in the air. He was pushing her away, just like he was used to.

After what felt like grueling hours, Patricia reached the exact door marked on his map. She looked back at him and nodded with a neutral expression, but Jimmy knew there was something underneath it all.

He pulled Zoe’s busted unit from the bag and held it close, “Aida, I’m here.”

“Great. You had us worried there for a second,” she responded. He glanced at Patricia who raised an eyebrow as if something hidden could not be more obvious.

“How do I get in?” he asked.

“Pull up the manual terminal, I’ll provide you a code,” she said.

He input the code and moments later the security on the home was overridden, giving access to anything inside that was manufactured by Lumis, which was everything.

He walked around the dead scientist’s home, slightly bigger than Patricia’s with the most obvious difference being that Lagos’ had an entirely separate office from his sleeping quarters. Jimmy had expected a crazed mess, scribbles on the wall, broken pictures on the floor, files thrown everywhere but he was surprised by an extremely well organized interior. Nothing in Lagos’ home was out of place. The man had been a neat freak.

“What am I getting?” he said into Zoe’s unit.

“We’re going to need everything inside the doctor’s drive,” said Aida. “We can’t be sure how much unauthorized research he took part in.”

“How do you know he took part in any to begin with?” he asked.

“He requested a private lab within his own home, away from the rest of the crew. We knew what he intended to do but it was the only way we could get him to agree to lead the project.”

“That doesn’t sound unauthorized to me,” said Jimmy.

“Nor I,” said Aida back.

Jimmy understood the implications of how much power Lumis held. As frightening as it was knowing it had its hands in everything from manufacturing entertainment systems to the construction of entire underwater cities governed by its own laws, there was also something exhilarating about knowing he was a part of helping build it all. Maybe he had bought the propaganda too much, but in all his years being side by side with the giant, he had never seen them stray from their vision.

A better world for a united people. 

Aida had a tech walk him through the process once again. As the unit prepared itself to be detached, Nee prompted Jimmy.

“There is a file requesting to transfer to us,” she said. Jimmy glanced at Patricia who was inspecting the man’s home.

“Have you scanned it?” whispered Jimmy, as if Aida could somehow hear him if he spoke louder.

“Yes James,” said Nee. Jimmy imagined her offended by his lack of trust. “It is a holo log without description or time stamp.”

“Play it,” said Patricia.

Jimmy pulled the dead girl’s unit close and said, “Give me a minute. I hit some trouble.”

“What’s going on?” came the tech’s voice.

“Nothing to worry about, I’ll take care of it. Just hang on,” he said, taking the lack of response back as a sign of acceptance. He tapped Nee’s request to play the log.

An image of a disheveled Lagos appeared. Massive bags sagged under his eyes, making him look like he had not slept in days. He looked worried, paranoid, unable to keep his focus on the camera as if his thoughts were racing a million miles an hour. His fingers twitched and rubbed together like a junkie who’s taken a hit. 

“I tried telling them,” said Lagos, running his fingers through his hair. “And they want to shut me down because I’m speaking the truth. This project is fucked. It was fucked before we ever even got here but we just didn’t want to read the signs. It was never technical malfunctions or freak accidents. Our equipment is top of the line, there’s no such thing as accidental deaths or constant blackouts when you work with a company bigger than a fucking government! There’s just too much ambition…

…I was an idiot for agreeing to this,” continued Lagos, chuckling like a maniac as his eyes bounced around. “I got my own private office with my own private lab where I could run any kind of experiment I could dream of and there would be no consequences. None. No consequences. I thought I was finally free. I didn’t even care what I was giving up, or who I was leaving behind. I could just send them my paycheck and call them every once in a while to make them feel happy. What I would accomplish down here was more than anything my family could ever provide me. I think all of us that signed up for the project thought the same thing.”

Patricia shifted uncomfortably.

“But me most of all. I shipped out the moment they agreed to my terms and overlooked all of the signs,” Lagos shook his head, fighting with something inside his own head. “I found a vein of Element Lu…It was sometime back but I couldn’t admit it to anyone or they would ask questions. I kept trying to point them in the right direction but these people are soft! But I’m glad they are now. I had two assistants with me,” Lagos laughed. “Not really assistants, they were residents I found who would be…easy to keep quiet. I blackmailed them into helping me and they went with me each time I took an expedition without the crew. I’m sure if I’d have been caught I would have been immediately discharged but I had to find the Element. It was impossible that this thing was reading all around us and we had found nothing! In months! Months…Months…

When I found it, I lost one assistant. Literally, lost. He fucking vanished, and I saw the White Knight for the first time. I thought it was the devil at first, coming to punish me for all my crimes. Coming to make me regret ever leaving my family. But I know now, it’s far from the devil. It’s trying to protect us. It’s us. It’s all of us!”

Lagos stood up, the recording device following. He shuffled his way slowly toward the door neither Jimmy nor Patricia had dared open.

“I know I don’t look my best,” continued Lagos as he looked down, embarrassed over his presentation, “but you all have to believe me. I…Lumis will replace me and try to continue this project but they can’t. This isn’t what we thought. It’s not nourishing you. It depletes you. It takes everything as it sits inside you. It keeps you full, until it doesn’t and then, then things change.”

He opened the door and revealed his laboratory, a section of it blacked out by privacy settings. The doctor shuffled his way toward the blacked out walls and ordered his AI unit to reveal behind them.

A man slammed against the transparent wall, startling Patricia and causing her to squeeze Jimmy’s arm. He slammed the bottom of his fists repeatedly against it until he began using his fingers to try and somehow scratch through the impenetrable wall. He streaked blood all over the walls, revealing the missing nails and tips of his fingers that had been reduced to the bone from previous attempts. Sections of his arms and legs looked like they had been chewed through all the way down past the muscle and judging by the blood on the man’s lips and chin, Jimmy could guess by whom. 

“Lagos!” screamed the man, desperately scratching at the wall. “Let me the fuck out!” He reverted back to slamming his fists against the wall, only to quickly change to shoving his shoulder against it. “Just let me out! Please, I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”

“My other assistant,” said Lagos proudly as he turned to the recording drone. “He gets like this anytime I come in here. Desperate. Unable to think about anything else. I tried feeding him more of it and it helped, but only for a moment. A couple of days later I found the holes on his arm so I tried giving him more but just hours later he was back at it again. He would rather get mine than his own first, that I’m sure of,” Lagos smiled warmly as he turned back toward the man. “But that won’t be happening, will it?”

“I did everything you asked,” sobbed the man, sinking to the floor. “Please, just let me out. Please!”

“Last time he kept insisting he would chew through my stomach while I watched while the time before that he told me he would get out and lock me in there to starve. It’s almost quite amusing all the different tactics he’s willing to try to survive.”

“Fuck you!” screamed the man as he kicked the wall so hard that his leg broke, the bone tearing through his skin and jutting out like a split tree. The man seemed to barely notice, continuing with his other leg as the blood spilled from the opening and pooled over the floor. “Just give it to me!”

“You have food,” snapped Lagos. “Silence him,” he said, immediately removing all of the sound the man was causing and leaving a jarring silence as the man continued to thrash against the wall in any way that would help him break through. 

“He has food,” continued Lagos. “I suppose I am being somewhat cruel. I know he won’t eat it. Neither of us would.” He turned toward the recording drone. “It wasn’t the walks, if anything they probably helped. It’s this,” he said, raising a lump of pitch black clusters that reminded Jimmy of the boiled over scar that had formed over his abdomen and caused him to run his fingers over it. “I can feel it inside me taking over. I’m all over the place. I have no control at times. Sometimes it’s just rage or joy to the point where I’m blinded to anything else. It’s as if all of the different thoughts inside my head have become their own but only one really matters. I’ve been trying hard to keep myself on track. The talks with Dr. Watts, or my team. I’m sure they know. Something. They know something at least. It spins like a propeller, trying hard to take the thoughts out but as long as I keep a steady stream in me, I don’t think I’ll ever get to that point.”

Lagos twitched back toward the thrashing man and spat. “Fucking degenerate,” he said as the man began kicking with both his legs, causing the broken leg to bend further and wobble like jello. “I should have just gave them over to security. Ah, there I go into my shoulds and shouldn’ts! I should have kept my composure when I tried telling everyone. I should have done things by the book. I shouldn’t have come down here to begin with. I should have stayed with my family. Family. I miss them. This wasn’t worth never seeing them again. We were never supposed to find this. The White Knight. The White Knight is protecting us, trying to warn us. Telling us to leave before it’s too late. It wants to keep us safe. Keep us from that!” He pointed a finger at the man. “Dr. Watts will have me replaced no matter what. I will make sure of that. It’s too late for me, but not everyone else. Everyone. Else. I. Molly. I’m sorry. I lied.”

The holo log ended, leaving them to stare at nothing.

Jimmy turned toward the private lab door before Patricia gripped his arm. “Don’t,” she said.

“He could still be in there,” he said. 

“Then leave him,” said Patricia. “You heard Lagos.”

“We have to check.”

“No,” said Patricia sternly. “We were supposed to find him a long time ago. We may have been able to help him then. It’s too late.”

Jimmy gritted his teeth as he looked toward the lab door. He had no intention of letting the man out or helping him somehow. His only thought had been seeing him firsthand. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s too late.”

She let go of his arm and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“Why didn’t you check his quarters after you relieved him?” said Jimmy as she turned around.

“We couldn’t,” she said. “We had no communication. No way to get access codes.”

“You’d think they would keep them here as well,” said Jimmy.

“An outside influence is supposed to pass judgement,” said Patricia, “to prevent emotions from being involved.”

Jimmy bent down and took the tiny box they had used to remove the drive from Lagos’ personal system. He stuffed them both into his bag and turned back to Patricia who stood next to the dead scientist’s food locker.

“Ready?” he asked.

“You hungry?” she asked back as if nothing had happened.

“No,” he said, “We should just get the fuck out of here.”

“Me neither, but we should eat. It’ll be a long journey up.”

The journey down had felt long, and that was traveling through a high speed elevator. These pods would be going three times slower. They would be begging for food the moment their ascent began.

“What do we have?” he said, approaching her.

“Does it matter?” she said, handing him a packet. 

They ate in silence, each of them lost in their own thoughts. 

“Aida,” Jimmy said into Zoe’s unit when he finished forcing down the food. “We’re heading back.”

“Be careful,” she said back. “I want my date.”

He could feel her trying to manipulate him but he didn’t care. It felt good to play a game he was good at. He caught Patricia glaring at him and realized he had a big grin on his face. She stood and made her way out of the dead scientist’s home.

“Are you jealous?” he asked, following after her. Patricia laughed instantly, making Jimmy feel stupid. He glared at the back of her head. Her laugh died off, leaving a thick silence between them.

She stopped suddenly in front of him. “Yes, I am,” she said, turning toward him to reveal her distaste at admitting it. His offended glare turned to confusion. “But that’s not what bothers me.” She paused as if trying to decide if she should say anything more but they both knew she would.

“You’re not simple or stupid in any way. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re the exact opposite,” she continued. He prepared to listen to her barrage, curling his lip to show her he was ready to attack back if it came to it. She gave no sign of backing down. “You expect me to believe that the highlight of returning home is some half assed date with some big name bimbo?”

“I would have preferred it be with you,” he said, uncurling his lip and allowing his cocky and arrogant look to shine through.

“Don’t,” she said, showering him with all her disappointment at once. “Why do you keep trying to push me out?”

Jimmy raised his brow, “You rejected me, remember?”

“I’m married, James,” she said softly.

“Wouldn’t stop most people that know they’re probably going to die,” he said.

“Then I guess I’m not most people,” she said, gazing into his eyes. “I never rejected you. I’ve been chasing after you since the moment you tried to kill me.” He felt his stoic expression wavering. “Just because I don’t want to fuck you doesn’t mean…I wouldn’t have risked my life for you just to push you away.”

“Grueling me like I’m your fucking patient doesn’t inspire much trust,” he said. She blinked a few times as if he had thrown a pile of shit at her. “I haven’t even fucked you and I’ve told you more than the people I’ve been stuck with for years. There’s no need to get personal. Soon as we’re out of here I’ll forget all about you, go on my shit ass date with my big name bimbo and return to who I am.”

“I’m sorry. I forget that not everyone is a client,” she said in a low, defeated tone. Guilt seeped out of Jimmy as if he had forced a virgin to walk through the streets bare. Why was she not attacking back? There was nothing for her to apologize for, all she had done was provide him an outlet. It was too easy. He had expected her to fight, to twist things the way he did and find a way to make it all his fault. She was a powerful woman and could have easily jammed his lack of distrust to all his problems, like everyone else tried to.

But instead, it was as if she understood.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, “Let’s just forget about it.”

She turned and walked off, leaving him to watch her hips sway in the sensually perfect way he could no longer enjoy. He should have felt pride at defeating the powerful woman so easily. A lust from heated passion that had built between the two that he had taken charge of, but he only felt sadness. It had been too easy, as if he had fought a battle that only he had been part of. Defeated an opponent that had taken no part in the war.

Maybe she had been trying to help him. She had plenty of reasons to let him die, betray him, ridicule him, but she continued to show him nothing but unreturned kindness.

“Patricia wai-” he instantly fell silent as she abruptly crouched and shoved her arm back, fingers spread indicating he stop. He looked past her into the distance. There was nothing there. He began to feel as if she were the one who was avoiding the subject, until he saw movement far off.

The long tendrils dragged over the floor, enshrouding the nightmare that lay underneath. Even as far as it was, Jimmy could see the long claws escaping the cape of tendrils and reflecting bright against the dim blue lights.

He cursed under his breath and crouched. Patricia slowly withdrew the stun rifle she had been lugging in her bag without making any noise. She began inching back toward Jimmy, never letting her eyes leave the creature. He put his hand out over her back to let her know he was right behind her. With a slight turn of her head she whispered, “Find us another way.”

“Nee, silence,” he whispered into Nee. He saw the prompt flash once and dim down. “Reroute the same path.” 

Nee flashed again and the map pulled up showing him the line changing direction. Jimmy turned around and stood enough to allow him to walk but he never took his hand from Patricia’s back. She turned to look at him and tilted his head back. She nodded and stood like him, still facing the monster.

He could feel his heart spiking as they distanced themselves from the creature. He tried to make his steps as quiet as they could, unsure of what senses the monster reacted to. Jimmy kept playing the image over in his head, turning the corner at full speed only to have his legs sliced clean off. Patricia running as he tried to crawl away only to have the creature envelop him how it had Roberts.

He knew Patricia would notify him the moment they needed to act, but Jimmy’s nerves could not allow him to go on without reassurance. He repeatedly glanced over his shoulder until he could no longer see the creature roaming. At that moment, he began fully scanning his surroundings, telling himself that if it had ripped apart this many people, it had to have had a way to be everywhere at once.

He glanced behind once again at the nearly pitch black distance as a last minute reassurance before taking the corner. Patricia turned impatiently. She looked down at his unit and nodded toward it.

Jimmy pulled up the map and felt relieved that she was clear headed enough to focus on the task at hand. He could not stop his own mind from reimagining all the different ways his death would come.

He began to wonder if this was actually happening or if his mind was once again allowing itself to become enshrouded by his tormented imagination.

He felt something squeeze his arm, forcing him to glance at Patricia’s concerned face. He could feel his eyes wide and unable to focus, ready to leap out and save themselves if they could. She squeezed his arm again and brought them fully on to her. 

“Stay with me,” she whispered, nearly inaudible by the loud beating throb in his ears. He nodded repeatedly, fighting the urge to ask her if this was all real. He felt a buzz in his bag that drew both of their attention.

It had to be real. Nee was still in her unit, Zoe’s communication line was still up with Aida on the other side, and Patricia was still with him. They were going to get off this place.

He looked back to Patricia, ready to reassure her he was, only to find her skin melting at the top of her forehead. He watched in horror as her face took on different appearances, never settling for enough time to let him recognize one. 

“This isn’t real,” he thought, but he was sure he had heard it.

Its shifting fingers cupped his cheeks gently, forcing him to stare directly into its horrific melting face. “Yes it is,” it whispered sharply in Patricia’s voice. “Stay with me James, I need you.” 

Jimmy blinked a few times, each blink allowing more of Patricia’s face to return, but never fully. He squinted his eyes as much as he could to help keep him there with her. 

“Are you with me?” she whispered.

He nodded as confidently as he could muster. It must have been convincing enough, Patricia not hesitating to turn and move along the wall at nearly jogging pace after. He felt his mind cry out to her to not abandon him as his body sent a surge of dread through him. He watched her get further into the darkness until he forced himself after her.

He wasn’t sure if it was the loud pounding of his heartbeat that drowned the noise of her footsteps but he was surprised how quickly she could move without any sound escaping her. He tried not to question his own noise, or the occasional scurrying that would echo around them every few minutes. He ignored the smiling faces of the dead as they gazed at him with the passion of someone who would wait an eternity to finally be with him.

He kept his eyes on Patricia, trusting her to see him through it all.

At every end of a block she would stop and check on him before inspecting the long hall ahead. He no longer saw her, only the melting pot of people from his past. He forced himself to ignore it, following blindly behind the mind-formed abomination and hoping he wasn’t making a mistake.

The end of the path could not have come sooner. They took the final bend and he could see the easily recognizable communal rooms waiting for them in the large hall. As they neared them, Patricia slowed and carefully approached the open space.

She pressed her body up against the wall and poked her head out enough to look at the expansive hall. Jimmy took the liberty to look in the opposite direction. They were close to the exit, close enough to see the pileup of furniture off in the distance. He instantly regretted taking his eyes off Patricia as he saw the furniture get further away and millions of spider-like creatures crawl down from the walls and pack themselves within the blockade.

His squeezed his eyes shut to avoid the revulsion of having to think about squeezing his way through there with the nest inside. It’s not real. He repeated in his head, knowing that there was no way spiders could or would be allowed to survive down here. Only she is real.

He opened his eyes and found the distorted face of Patricia staring at him. “We’re almost out,” she reassured him in her voice as if she had once again heard his thoughts. “I don’t see it anywhere.”

He nodded once, trying hard to show confidence again when all that was present was horror and confusion. He was a master at it and the more he made people believe it, the less he wished he was able to. 

This time was no different. He wanted all of this to be over with already.

Patricia crouched and silently made her way over toward the awaiting nest. 

He followed after her and watched her cautiously pave the way for them. The closer they got to the nest, the more spiders he began to see crawl from inside the piles of dead bodies surrounding them. From within their mouths, ears and eyes they burst through and made their way toward him. It didn’t take long for his mind to begin feeling them.

He kept his jaw clenched tight, trying hard to make no noise as he felt their legs crawling on his feet, working their way up, trying to dig their way into his suit. Patricia swayed as if nothing was happening and he used that to retrain his sanity so as not to swat at his legs.

Something moved out of the corner of his eye but he refocused on Patricia, keeping his mind from tilting completely. He kept on behind her until the urge to rid himself of curiosity overpowered him.

The shroud of tendrils loomed over the third floor. It sat perfectly still as it watched them walk. His heart skipped a beat but he kept his legs in motion, unsure if this was like the spiders that crawled within him now. He blinked repeatedly, hoping it might bring momentary reality but the white tendrils never disappeared. He reached out and gripped Patricia’s shoulder with shaky hands. He felt her muscles tense as she stopped. She turned back and looked at him, the melting faces washing into each other stronger than before. Jimmy turned his head slowly toward the creature and by the gasp she let out, he knew it was no hallucination.

Patricia pulled him in front of her once again and with a quick hand signal motioned for him to lead the way. He stared ahead at the spiders making their way out of the pileup and heading toward him. The ticking of their feet blended with the constant hum of the station, muffling even Patricia and his steps. He forced himself forward, using the spider-like trail to lead his way feeling them under his feet as he crushed them into mush.

The nest of the eight-legged creatures kept growing, even with the ones that made their way to him. His mind fought with itself, forcing him to gag at the thought of being paralyzed by the spiders and feeling each of their steps over his skin as they ate him alive, tearing at his flesh and organs in a slow, painful process.

They stared at him at the entrance of the pileup. The bodies he had been welcomed with now eaten and revealing partly chewed muscle, just enough to leave room for their main meal. As much as he told himself they weren’t real, he couldn’t bring his mind to believe it. He felt one finally dig through his suit. It’s all in your head. He reassured himself as he squeezed his eyes shut, but his head was all he had, and he could clearly feel each of its eight legs as it worked its way up his suit.

A warmth brushed over his cheeks. He opened his eyes and found Patricia’s beautiful face staring back at him, the only thing melting over it were concern, sadness, determination. Fear.

He didn’t know why she refused to leave him behind. If she would have proven this big a liability, he was sure he would have left her without second thought. There is no way he would have risked his life to save someone who was deranged.

But here she was again, risking her life for him.

He glanced behind her at the pileup. The spiders were still there. They looked like they had arranged themselves to appear like a devilish grin at a distance. Patricia turned to see what he was looking at but it was clear they did not share realities. She turned back and nudged his face to focus his attention on her.

She didn’t need to say anything. The look on her said it all. He clenched his jaw tight and nodded his head repeatedly. She wasn’t convinced as quickly, staring into his eyes as if she were having a heated debate with her thoughts. She glanced up above toward the creature and her eyes went wide.

She scanned the room, turning her head violently around in quick, jerky movements. Her hands were no longer on his face but he could see the tremble in them. He didn’t need to check himself to know what she was searching for. His own nightmares were real enough.

She took his hand without looking at him and pulled him down as she crouched her way toward the furniture. He could see her head moving in all directions while his own eyes tunneled toward the awaiting spiders that were constantly rearranging themselves as if anxious to find the perfect formation to take him down and give each of the thousands of them a taste of his flesh.

He could feel a shroud looming over him as if he were being carefully watched by something he could not see. He didn’t want to look but he felt he owed it to Patricia.

He twisted his neck back, directly to where he could feel the watchful gaze up above. At the top of the communal pods, the tendrils hung over the edge. The long tail uncoiled slowly and dropped out the other side revealing its full length as it nearly touched the floor. It almost appeared to be a thick piece of rope, the individual vertebrae-like joints the knots that held it all together.

Jimmy watched the tail slither up and he squeezed Patricia’s hand before taking off. All thought of the awaiting hive was gone. He pulled Patricia with him so hard that their hands ripped apart. He didn’t dare look back, his eyes glued to the entrance of the pileup. He watched the spiders crawl together over the entrance, creating a wall as they stacked on top of each other, daring him to try his luck.

But Jimmy didn’t believe in luck.

He dove headfirst through them, their countless, tiny eyes full of fear as his body bouldered through them. He felt them squishing under his weight and heard them popping as he landed inside the pileup. A tremendous pressure burst inside his head.

His ears rang and skin tightened as if charred from within. He cried out as it became unbearable, his hands pushing his head in.

“Move!” screamed Patricia as he felt her back press against his own, shoving him on. “James, fucking move!”

He forced himself forward and looked behind him, keeping his hands over the furniture piled above for fear it would come down at any moment. Patricia held her rifle high, aimed directly at the entrance. A forceful blast ripped the entrance wide as the tail of the creature whipped around, smashing desks and chairs out as it found nothing. Patricia fired again, sending Jimmy’s mind into a jumble as the ring of pressure built up and flew toward the creature.

Jimmy’s attention was drawn toward the exit as he felt weight crushing down over his hands and shoulders, the spiders crawling on top of his fingers and digging their fangs into him. He could feel his heart beating faster, adrenaline causing it to throb in his ears. The sound of cracking furniture adding to his nerves. He knew he needed to do something before it all came down on them.

Patricia shoved back against him, desperate to move. “It’s coming down!” he yelled, only to hear the familiar whip of the tail flailing about, smashing everything it came into contact with as it searched for their more soft tissue. Patricia shoved even harder, sending Jimmy forward.

He prepared his body to feel the weight of it all crush them. A piercing crack shot through his ears as the pieces rearranged and made their already narrow pathway even smaller.

But it held.

Jimmy pushed through it all. He crouched and dipped his head under the legs of the chairs or turned skinny when it was all pushed tight together. He wouldn’t stop this time. No matter what, he wouldn’t stop.

He could hear the creature ripping out blocks from the pileup as it chased after them. The spiders swarmed together over any object he would touch, hopping onto his skin and sending sharp needles through him. He kept telling himself there was only one truth. The other could be dealt with later.

Patricia fired the rifle, causing the shockwave of pressure to build all around them and further crumbling their path. He was at least thankful that each time she did, the spiders would disappear.

He shouldered his way through it all, using brute force to carve through the tightest spots. He wondered what they would do once they reached the exit but he quickly pushed the thought out. All that mattered was that they could outrun it here.

Until they couldn’t.

“There’s no way out!” said Jimmy. The path was completely blocked, everything piled up tight. He rammed it with his shoulder again, trying hard to make it budge as he bit through the pain. “We have to go back, there’s-”

Jimmy felt something shoved into his scarred side, scaring him more than anything but sending a ghostly reminder of the sickly disfigurement he lugged around his once perfect body. He looked down at the rifle pressed up on his side. It took him a moment to process what she was thinking and once it clicked, he took the rifle and pointed it straight at the blockage. 

He tapped the firing sensor but nothing happened. The sound of the approaching creature caused his hands to shake and he feared the rifle had ran out of power. He squeezed the sensor this time, praying it would work and felt the weapon vibrate in his hands.

He heard the hum of the rifle as it built up its round and, with a loud wave, released it toward the blockade. It felt exhilarating, watching the ring of light bend through the space ahead, blowing everything from its path. He heard Patricia cry out, forcing him to turn around and find her with her hands over her head. He felt the pressure as well but it was as if the act of firing distracted his mind enough to ignore it.

He gripped her arm and pulled her toward the exit, a clean slit now awaiting them to squeeze through. It took her a second to come back to her senses and regain herself enough to not need Jimmy to drag her. He turned sideways, holding the bag and rifle in front and scooted through the final stretch, inching his way through as quickly as he could. The slams emanating from behind them reminded him that he was in no way imagining this.

He threw the bag and rifle out, freeing his way out of the final squeeze. He landed on the floor and instantly picked the rifle up. He turned to help Patricia only to find her struggling to get through.

He glanced back at the bag. He could pick it up and run. She would buy him enough time to let him get away and live. It’s what she would want.

Jimmy cursed under his breath and reached his hand in through the slit. He called to her, forcing her head up so she could see his hand. She gripped it tight and he began to pull her with all his force.

The pileup behind her was loosening, making it easier for her to come out but it didn’t take a genius to realize something was causing it. The furniture behind her was ripped out and Jimmy saw the tendrils loom tall over her. His eyes went wide and he tore free from her grip, landing on his ass and letting his panic scoot him away.

Run! He heard his mind shriek as he looked into Patricia’s bulging eyes. He turned for the bag. Run, run, run, RUN!

“James, please!” he heard her scream behind him, stopping him in his tracks.

He swallowed, feeling the saliva thick in his throat. He could hear his mind shrieking curses at him, demanding he run, demanding he save himself. Whatever rationale it could muster, regardless of how believable it was.

But Jimmy stopped listening.

He turned and stood, stretching his arm out to Patricia and gripping it tight so there was no way she could let go. “Duck,” he said as he held the rifle in his other hand and pointed it above her. She dropped down as low as she could and allowed Jimmy a full view of the massive creature, only feet from them. Its anemone-like tendrils pulled back and it seemed to stare right at Jimmy.

But it had no eyes to look through, except his own.

It was like a polished orb that had no features. No mouth, no nose, no pores, no ears, eyes, lips, teeth. Nothing. 

It was, perfect.

It was mesmerizing how smooth the orb appeared. It was the most terrifying thing Jimmy had ever seen. The dim lights reflected off its head like a mirror, allowing Jimmy to see his own reflection in it. Dark, frightened, lost.

Alone.

He felt his hand squeezed tight, bringing his mind back to reality just in time to see the jagged and sharp edges of its tail shoot toward him. He squeezed the sensor and in a beat, the round fired, blowing the creature back and causing it to thrash in the air with all the furniture. A loud shriek pierced his ears causing him to double over. He bit down hard and used the moment to pull Patricia out, landing them both hard over the floor.

He crawled back and scooped up the bag, ready to run, positive that Patricia was just as ready. He saw her reaching into the pileup for something.

“Let’s go!” screamed Jimmy. He couldn’t believe he had just risked his life for her only to have her waste it.

“The suit is-”

“Fuck the suit! Patricia, we need to-” he managed to scream before Patricia’s own shriek overpowered his own. He watched her try hard to pull away.

He gripped her other hand and pulled, only to feel her come free too easily. Blood sprayed over all the blockade like a Pollock painting with more direction. A bloody nub flailed about where her arm once was.

He pulled her good arm over his shoulders and put as much distance as he could from there. It wasn’t far until he heard the slamming of furniture louder than the screaming of the woman next to him. If the creature had feelings, it was clearly experiencing rage.

He dropped Patricia and turned to find half of the creature’s body forcing its way free of the pileup. Its tail holding Patricia’s arm in front like a trophy, the suit dangling around like its flag. 

He shot the creature again, trying to buy at least some time but he wasn’t sure what for. There was no way they were outrunning it.

The bright shockwave smashed into the creature and in a split second, the suit burst into a fiery bubble that grew into an explosion. Jimmy lost his balance, managing to keep his eyes glued to the bright light where the creature had been. He heard its piercing shriek once again, wondering from what mouth the sound came from.

He kept the rifle aimed, expecting death to fly at him through the flames but when the flames calmed, nothing came. The creature was gone. Only the residue of flames flickered where it had been. A warning alarm rang and water showered them from above.

He breathed slower but still not let himself turn away. A stream of bright red water flowed next to him. He looked down and saw Patricia lying unconscious.

“Shit,” he said, crouching next to her and rummaging through the bag until he found a small canister. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” He lifted the nub and sprayed it carefully with the canister, making sure to cover the entire section of exposed flesh. It took a moment until he saw her skin begin to boil, fresh flesh forming like bubbles of porridge. Her hand squeezed his with a trembling force that hurt enough to make him gasp. He had expected her to scream, knowing how painful the sealing of the wound was, even in comparison to the making of the wound, yet her lips remained sealed. No sound escaped her, only the tightening grip that quickly lost force.

He checked behind him to make sure nothing hovered over them. The last few patches of stubborn flames drowned and he began to feel the sudden chill of the water as it dampened his hair and trickled inside of the suit. Bursts of heat and cold were sent all over his body as the suit tried to regulate his temperature unsuccessfully.

He looked down at Patricia’s still body. He had been hoping the jolt from the pain would wake her enough so she could walk. The idea of carrying her all the way back did not seem too appealing. What had seemed so close at the start of this, now felt like it was on the other side of the world.

He swatted at his ankle, relieving himself of the itch that had began. He shivered as the suit sent a chill through him that caused him to feel tiny legs crawling over his exposed skin. He swatted at them again and checked the entrance to the living quarters.

A trail of black spiders sped toward him, the emergency lights shining off their shells and giving them a deadly glow. He slammed his foot down over the ones that had managed to reach him already, making his feet tense and ache. He snatched the bags up and knelt down next to Patricia, scooping his hands under her. She groaned in pain, making Jimmy feel relieved for only a moment before the ticking of the thousands of tiny legs got closer gassed it. He lifted her torso up and placed his shoulder under her breasts, heaving her up over his shoulder.

It took him a second to adjust to the added weight on one side of his body, as well as the pain from the newly formed scar as it flexed to try and keep him balanced. He shook his feet as more spiders bit at them and he forced himself on, going in no particular direction, only focused on outrunning the sound of the approaching critters.

He tried to call to Nee but she was absent. He kept on, continuing into areas he did not recognize. His traps and entire back began to burn, twitching and spasming, threatening to give up on him if he did not drop Patricia. But he didn’t. He kept going.

Kept going until he found himself at a dead end.

He turned around, expecting the swarm to surround his trail but he was met with a long, empty corridor. The sound of the thousands of clicking feet, gone. Only his heavy breathing and the droning of the station remained.

He had just allowed his mind to set him back.

He called to Nee, but once again only silence met him. He looked around trying to find anything familiar. His back ached. He knew he needed a break but he couldn’t afford to waste more time. Dragging her would only be worse for him. 

He could feel the urge to scream. To let his desperation take over and his tears to flow.

“Leave her,” said a voice at his right. He turned his whole body and found himself. A whole version of him, without bruises or the boiled-over scar. A perfect him. “She’ll get you killed. Leaver her and I’ll show you the way.”

He felt Patricia getting heavier, his back unable to support her. Maybe he could leave her safe here. Come back for her once he found the way. It would be easier for the both of them.

“Much easier,” the other him said. He shot Jimmy his billion dollar smile. “Set her down for a bit and follow me. You know I’ll always do right by you.”

Anyone who needs to tell you they’re trustworthy is the exact type of person you need to distrust most. His grandfather had taught him that.

He watched the radiant smile effortlessly attempting to sway him. He couldn’t hide the disgust he felt. That smile had deceived more people than Jimmy would ever remember. Worst of all, it had been so effective that even its owner had fell for it.

He bounced Patricia over his back, readjusting her to keep her from sliding further down, and turned toward the path he had come from.

“Where are you going?” said his perfect self as Jimmy put more distance between them. “Come back!”

He ignored it. He couldn’t recognize a damn thing around him but he would not listen. He would choose his own path.

“Nee, are you there?” he said.

“You’re going the wrong way,” said the flawless him, startling Jimmy at how close he was.

“Fuck off,” Jimmy growled, regretting immediately that he had provided his mind fuel.

“I’m only here to help us,” it said, following next to Jimmy. He could hear its footsteps along with his. “You know it’s in my best interest to protect us. To keep us alive.”

He ignored it until the footsteps disappeared. His back felt like it would fold over itself, forcing Jimmy to readjust Patricia every few steps, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable spot. Each step proved more difficult than the last as lactic acid flowed through his thighs, burning as they engaged further to pick up the slack.

“You let me know when you’re ready,” came the doppelganger as Jimmy came to a fork. He glanced down each of the three paths, all of them too dark to see down. He turned around and found three more forks had appeared behind him. His legs trembled at the hopelessness of their journey. “She’s a hindrance. She will leave you. I won’t.”

He turned ahead and found the paths had multiplied. His back joined the doppelganger, burning and aching to try and force him to stop but the barely audible breathing from behind him reminded him that she had risked herself for him. Each time he turned his head, more corridors grew.

“This way,” said the flawless Jimmy, winking as he leaned against the wall next to a random corridor.

Jimmy walked backwards, away from the illusion. He kept going until he saw the curve of the corridor he had entered and the rest of the forks were swallowed by darkness until he finally allowed himself to face the path head on.

“You’re fucking things up,” said a dead body, broken on the floor. It lifted itself into a sitting position to reveal Vanessa with a sad look on her face. “You should have carried me.”

He bit his tongue, resisting the urge to explain himself to her. He forced his eyes away from her and kept walking as she continued to tell him it should have been her, the corridors echoing her words long after he had cleared a large distance.

“You’re going the wrong way, Jimmy,” said Zoe, standing directly in front of him. “She doesn’t know you. You can’t trust her.”

He shoved past her, refusing to look into her eyes. Moments later he bumped into a large body that nearly made him lose balance. An angry Roberts glared down at him, the same look in his eyes when the man had hit Jimmy.

“You’re a bastard,” growled the fat man. “I looked up to you.” The man’s belly leaked out blood from a tiny cut that kept growing until even his entrails were pushing out. His skin began to melt as Jimmy stared at him in horror. “I gave my fucking life for you and you’re just going to waste it?”

The fat man stepped forward and tried to swing but Jimmy stepped back. He watched as Roberts’ legs were crushed under an invisible force and the fat man came toppling down. It didn’t stop the man as he crawled after Jimmy, leaving strings of melted skin over the floor.

Jimmy stepped around him, trying to put as much distance between him and the sickening sound of skin slapping over the ground like a wet dishcloth smacking over tile. He heard the whispers of the dead as he passed by them, each body staring with a piercing gaze. They riddled him with accusations, demanded that he listen and do as they bid.

He owed them.

“What are you hoping will happen?” came Alice’s voice. He kept trotting along, ignoring her. Her high heels resonated alongside him, making it impossible to leave her behind. “Do you think someone like her would magically give up her life for you?” The sound of her heels bore down on him like a bullied child taunted by a mob of classmates. “Of course she would, you’re James Malto. You’ll carry her to safety and she will see how shit her family is. Almost exactly what happened with me, right?”

Jimmy stopped. He couldn’t let this one go. He needed to tell her how he felt, attack her for what she had put him through. The heartache she had forced him to endure every second after she had cast him aside like a useless toy.

“James,” came a barely audible whisper in his ear. He turned his head and looked into Patricia’s barely opened eyes. He couldn’t be sure they could see anything but she had called to him for a reason. She may have been able to hear the demons in his head, or maybe just saying what she saw. But she was here, with him.

He stared at Alice and pursed his lips before turning back on his path and lugging Patricia forward.

Alice’s voice took a bitter tone, “You’re useless. She’s going to throw you out the moment she gets what she needs.” He walked faster but the words just continued to echo. Useless. Worthless. You should have carried me. He could fool everyone for a time but once that time ran out, they all saw through him. Once that time came, he became nothing to them.

“You’re not worth her time James. At least you got to fuck me,” echoed his old teacher’s voice behind him.

Her heels did not follow, only her words echoing like the insidious thought that continues to slither its way to the forefront of your mind even after being rid of it for what should have been good.

There was no reason for Patricia to want him after. She had spent enough time with him to have seen through his act. She knew he was not worth the world’s time, let alone hers. She would leave him the moment she could. He was going to die for someone who did not give two shits about him. 

Yet he refused to abandon her.

“Neither have I,” came Alice’s voice up ahead, but it was not Alice who waited for him. Nee’s vibrant and naked body stood tall and proud next to a fork in his path. The gentle glow of light emanating from her self illuminated her surroundings like a night light at the end of the hall. She looked like a saint who’s halo had overgrown to fit her entire body and made her even more qualified to reveal all the poor souls the light of the heavens.

He hesitated as he stared at her. Partly out of fear but mostly out of her sheer beauty. She was some distance from him but not far enough to where he couldn’t see that she had a blend of all the best features of every woman he had ever been with. He could recognize Zoe’s legs, Vanessa’s breasts, Alice’s hair and arms. They should have all stood out like strange and out-of-place features but they were perfectly fused together. She was captivating.

The closer he got, the further he realized that most of this glowing apparition was made up of Vanessa. Her lips, nose, frame, posture. If she would have turned he knew her back and ass would have had her imprints all over, but the thing that made it obvious was her eyes. Those big gray orbs that seemed to look right through him from the moment they saw him. They glowed in the darkness, standing out in the midst of chaos. Not just now with the artificial light emanating from them but always. They had been able to look into Jimmy’s own eyes and make him know that not only was she confident and powerful, but that she cared and understood him. That she would never take away his freedom or betray him. 

She would always be by his side.

But always is a long time.

It was fitting that Nee now held her eyes. She had been confident in her abilities since they had been brought together, powerful in every sense of the word. She had cared enough to suggest ways for him to improve himself and had allowed him an outlet for him to speak his mind without judgement. She was always by his side.

“I always will be,” said Nee.

And so was the nagging feeling that it was only a matter of time before it all came crumbling down. The feeling that eventually they would leave him, judge him, betray him. Eventually they would grow bored of him. 

They always did.

“You’re perfect James,” said Nee, her image flickering as if she had temporarily lost signal. He furrowed his brows and studied her. “I could never grow bored of you, we’re meant to be.”

Her image disappeared for a moment, sending a chill down his entire body. He was being watched. He scanned the corridors behind him, trying to find any sign of anything out of place. Anything that would confirm he had been right about her. Right about them all.

Feeding his information to someone. To something. Trying to gather every waking moment for a reason still unknown to Jimmy. He didn’t care to find out why, he just wanted it to stop.

“Then drop her,” said a voice he recognized all too well. A voice he had loved to listen to until it had terrorized him every night and turned into a living nightmare he had never rid himself of. “I taught you to be independent.”

His grandpa slowly walked behind Nee, sensually running his fingertips over her naked waist as if to prove a point Jimmy would never understand. “You are perfect Jimmy. I always told you that. You’ve never needed her or anyone else,” continued the old man.

Nee stood in place, like a slave commanded by its master. Jimmy had an urge to obey as well, his head turning enough to look at his rising arm where the true Nee rested and the other side where Patricia’s head hung. He didn’t know who he was being urged to leave, but he felt it best to leave both.

“We can only trust each other,” came his own voice behind the old man. The flawless version of him stood with its arm outstretched to show him the right path down the fork.

“Leave it all behind,” said his grandpa, his own arm outstretched to show him the path while the other hand wrapped around Nee’s perfectly mixed body as if he were laying claim to her. He felt jealousy build in him only to be immediately drowned as the old man’s eyes challenged him. “You can only trust yourself.”

He stared at his grandfather and himself behind. The words echoed in his mind, never finding a proper perch to sit upon. They felt foreign, intrusive even. They were his thoughts but formed by some illogical process he knew was not real. The old man had never said those words, and deep inside, Jimmy knew he never would have either. His grandfather had needed his family. It was the entire reason he had grown so close to Jimmy.

He experienced the spasms from his numbed back and neck that brought him back to the moment. He readjusted Patricia to make sure he did not accidentally drop her and stared into his grandfather’s strangely hostile eyes. The old man’s neck and head turned to follow Jimmy, his eyes narrowing as if attempting to see something far away. Nee’s own neck followed Jimmy in a robotic and unemotional fashion as he got close that made Jimmy feel his heart tighten at the thought of both Vanessa and her being nothing more than his own exaggerated creation.

He released his grandfather’s gaze as he got closer and turned slightly to squeeze past him. Jimmy caught his own eyes searing into him with a menacing glare that was impossible to ignore. The flawless him had stopped trying to show him the path and now stood tall, prepared to take him down if needed.

Jimmy exhaled slowly, readying himself in case any confrontation came. His skin burned as a gentle hand gripped his arm. He didn’t try to pull away or jump at the suddenness of it. He had expected it, or something like it, but it had been too many years since he had felt it. His grandfather had always held his arm when Jimmy had been a child, a reassurance for when Jimmy had felt insecure over the challenges the old man had presented him with. It had always led to reason.

Instead of the warm, reassuring smile that had always followed, however, the old man showed deep signs of disappointment. So deep that he felt like a child once again, pressured by the desire to not disappoint.

“What are you doing Jimmy?” said his grandfather.

Jimmy tried his hardest to not respond but the big, unwavering look urged him to speak. To say anything to defend himself. Anything but the wrong thing.

“I don’t know,” he heard himself say as his mind tore him apart and replayed the words to show him how weak he had sounded.

“Then why are you doing it?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Again, the internal backlash. His shoulders ached as a ghostly force seemed to double the weight over his shoulders.

“Don’t be sorry…” said the old man. Jimmy glanced at Nee who watched him with expectation, as if both she and his grandfather were waiting for him to finish the old man’s words.

“…be something,” said Jimmy softly.

A gorgeous grin grew over the old man’s face, pushing all of his wrinkles tight and giving him a harmless look. Jimmy’s own lips wanted to curl up, to show his best and only friend that he had managed to make his own too. Show him the smile as a start, the means to let the old man know that he had taken everything to heart. That Jimmy had listened and made sure to continue with everything his grandfather had tried teaching him. Listened, and taken it all past perfection. He wanted to make the old man proud.

However, something kept him from doing so.

A shouting match had ensued within the endless space of his mind. It felt like an artificially overstimulated mind, unable to concentrate on a single thought as the waves of mindless chatter scream amongst themselves. A multitude of voices growing louder and louder as they try to drown out the singular. The only voice that did not try to compete with the rising volume of the rest, hardest to hear and absent of passion, ready to accept its fate. Yet it was for this reason that Jimmy sought it out.

The rest doubled in volume, tripled. They built a level of anxiety that made Jimmy’s hands tremble, but the single, quiet voice in the furthest depths of his consciousness promised calm and reason. The voices shrieked at him, cursed him, using every trick they could muster to keep him with them.

“She’s worthless. Who will want her without an arm? She won’t even want herself!”

“She’s risking your life. Your freedom!”

“Don’t be a fucking retard. Leave her, she’s going to die anyway.”

“You selfish prick. You’re risking us all so you can fuck the old hag! Don’t you understand that she doesn’t want you? She’s using you!”

“You can’t trust her Jimmy! You can’t trust anyone!”

I can only trust myself.

“Drop the bitch and go!” Something gripped his throat with enough force to stop his breathing. He had been so lost in the madness that he hadn’t seen the flawless version of himself come up to him and shove his hand over his throat. He strained his eyes to see his grandfather who still held that near perfect smile Jimmy had always envied.

The weight over his shoulders adjusted itself as if trying to curl into a ball with Jimmy’s head at the center. A gasp, rich with pain, sparked by his ear, making Jimmy’s boiled skin tense. He imagined her nub stretching as she moved around, ripping the tender new skin that had quickly developed over it. He knew the sharp and mind numbing pain all too well and found himself clenching his teeth for her.

The fingers at his throat seemed to triple as if the flawless Jimmy was growing them by the second. They squeezed even harder, causing his jaw to tremble as all air was completely prevented from coming in or out. His adam’s apple felt like the burning pressure would cause it to crack at any second.

His vision began to waiver. Everything grew dark, everything except that bright fucking smile. It gleamed in the darkness, taunting him. Letting him know there was no other way.

“I can’t let you do that,” it said in a cold, lifeless voice that sounded nothing like what he had remembered. 

“She’s no use to you,” said the flawless Jimmy, his own perfect grin lighting up their surroundings in an unnatural way that revealed a crowd of faceless figures that surrounded them. Jimmy knew it had meant to stay alive. Patricia was no use to him alive. “You can’t keep running around for her when your own life is on the line. She’s done for Jimmy. You can still make it.”

The throng of faceless figures cheered with unimaginable enthusiasm. A crowd of cheering fans at a concert would never have been able to match the enthusiasm the faceless cheered with. The pressure at Jimmy’s throat vanished and he saw the flawless Jimmy pick himself up from the middle of the crowd as if he had just struggled like no one else had, or ever would. He recognized Aida, in the same outfit she had worn at their last award show, as she helped him up the last stretch and gazed at him like the god that he was.

“Thank you,” he heard the whisper of Patricia in his ear.

He had always told himself he was a god, and yet now, Jimmy felt like a weak, lonely, useless simpleton. He could see how far from the truth he had driven himself. 

He felt disgusted that he had allowed himself to be fooled for this long. His face adopted the feeling as he stepped forward. All eyes fell on him, glaring with enough intensity to make any man feel insecure of his decisions.

“You’re a fucking disappointment,” said his grandfather, now standing in the path ahead where Jimmy was blindly heading through. “This isn’t what I wasted my last years trying to teach you.”

Jimmy felt the blow like all the air had been punched out of him. Sorrow stung his eyes. There was so much he had wanted to hear from the old man, and that was not it. There was plenty he wanted to say to him, to show him.

“Yes,” Jimmy heard himself say as he shoved past the old man, “it is.”

Jimmy gripped Patricia tighter onto his back, securing her just in case they swarmed him and tried ripping her from his care. Patricia let out a faint cry that in any other circumstance he would have taken as pleasurable. He didn’t let up. He knew he was hurting her but for once in his life, he was doing it to help someone else.

He walked straight ahead through the seemingly endless rows of disapproving faces. He refused to look into their eyes. They weren’t real. No matter how solid they looked, how loud they spoke, how clear he felt them, they were all just his sickness. It had always been easier to delve through the episodes. They had been so rare that they had been easy to forget with the next project at hand.

But he was a rational man. Rational men did not deny irrational thoughts.

Detached he could agree with, even temporarily delusional at times, but crazy was a harder truth to swallow. He had always suspected that there was something off but it had been so easy to attribute it to the way he felt everyone trying to dig through his thoughts. He had always kept his episodes under wraps, refusing to admit their existence with anyone. The time he had, she had taken advantage of his vulnerable state and tried to twist it so she could hold the power over his head.

A severe narcissist and schizophrenic.

She had already begun to fall for him and would have written it all in her report to Lumis. She would have had him discharged so she could have him all to herself, but he had seen through her games and done what was necessary. Sure enough, in the end she had been the crazy one.

Or so he had convinced himself.

He looked up, ready to face them head on but there was nothing there. Like a veil being removed from over his eyes. Jimmy saw how wrong he had been. There was no one there. There had never been anyone there. No Nee or Vanessa, not even a hint of his grandfather. He had created the events, just as he had twisted the memory of the psychiatrist.

She had fallen in love with him, there was no doubt about that, but she had only wanted to help him. He was the one responsible for driving her to the edge with his own sick inability to cope. 

And she hadn’t been the only one.

It was clear that nearly every person in his life had had it out against him only because he had made sure of it. He had lived his life believing he was in control, that he was responsible for the outcome of his surroundings, but somehow he had refused to accept that he had turned the world against him. He was the reason for his loneliness.

Guilt swelled over his thoughts as he relived the all-too-familiar memories of the people he had hurt in the past. His obsession with this impossible quest to become godlike had led him to push away anyone who had begun to see past the surface image he cast. He had kept them at a distance so they would all stay blind.

They had always seen, though. Always known that he was just like them. They had admired him because of his good traits but had never been stupid enough to believe him perfect. Every human has flaws. Only he had been the stupid one. Delusional enough to believe that he could make others believe he was. Foolish enough to think he could fool the world.

He hadn’t even been capable of fooling himself.

The image of Zoe being crushed made his skin crawl. He had let her die. In part because he was a coward, but mostly because it was easier. If she died, he could build her up to sainthood how he had Vanessa. No need to break things off, just pretend to reach out enough so his mind could build the image that he had tried, but her face when he had pulled it away would never let him forget. He had let her die, and the fat man had been no different.

A sickly revenge for the humiliation he had put Jimmy through. Jimmy could have at least tried to help but he had taken pleasure in it instead. 

Jimmy felt like retching. He refused to shake the thoughts away like he typically did. He knew he was responsible for it all and forced himself to bathe in the torment he deserved as he blindly stumbled through the reaper’s halls.

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