8. A Jog Through the City (D2)

Every corner he hugged, each window he looked through, every second he checked behind his shoulder. Any trace of confidence Jimmy had felt before reaching food storage was gone. He had become the lost puppy, afraid of the unknown world around him and letting his senses guide him as best they could.

But he couldn’t trust his senses any longer.

He kept hearing shuffling all around him, like a pack of scurrying mice infesting the walls, vents, and anywhere his eyes could not directly see into. Occasionally, he heard banging at a distance that would force him to the floor until he was sure that it had been some sort of settling of the station. Or his imagination.

Then, there were the hallucinations.

He had experimented with plenty of psychedelics in the past. He had always been fascinated with them. The way they could potentially open his eyes and allow him to see hidden truths of the world or create a newfound appreciation for ideas he may have overlooked. They had allowed him to realize more than he had asked for but instead of showing him something new, they had reinforced the old. 

He had always had good experiences. His mind had rarely strayed to those moments that he did his best to avoid. When it had, he had cast them out fairly easily, but not always. There were times where he had been left to swim in his nightmares for hours on end. Now, it seemed as if he was stuck in them with no end in sight.

He kept hearing footsteps behind him only to turn around and see someone disappear behind a corner. He was too afraid to call out to them and so instead would quietly check only to find nothing there. A few times he thought he saw his grinning grandfather with his hand up in greeting only to flash the light and find nothing. Jimmy knew something was wrong, there was no way his mind could be playing so many tricks on him.

He had experienced episodes before but they were brief. Something that would flash and disappear. This was different.

Worst of all was the constant feeling that he was being watched, and there was no way of shaking that one.

He pulled up the map and checked how much progress had been made only to instantly feel like crying. His skin flushed in desperation. He felt like he had been traversing through this hell for hours only to find that all the effort he had put toward fighting his demons had led him nowhere. The small dot tracking his location showed a tiny gray trail behind it with a long yellow line ahead.

He began to wish someone was with him. At least Zoe would have allowed him to ground himself enough to get them through this. Hell, even Roberts would have reminded him that Jimmy was stronger. That he was nothing like Roberts and would get them both through this.

He didn’t care who it was, he just needed someone to remind him.

“Nee,” he said, bringing her to his lips, “I don’t know what’s going on but I feel like I’m losing it.” He kept checking all around him, making sure nothing would surprise him, his back pressed tight against the wall. “I’m tired.”

Silence.

Jimmy waited until his heart began to pound in his chest. His eardrums began to feel the pressure of it. The unit had gone black. The map was gone, the prompts gone. Nee was gone. 

He pressed the tiny sensor on the side. Maybe it just needed rebooting.

Nothing.

Nee couldn’t be gone. He needed her. He pressed the sensor desperately, faster as the seconds passed. “Nee, please,” he said as he kept jamming the button, “please, please. Don’t leave god damnit, not you. Please. I need you.”

“I’m here James,” said Nee as if posing a questions. Jimmy felt his stomach drop. A sense of relief seeped through him slowly lowering his heart rate and letting him breathe. “As I said, you need to rest. You have not slept in nearly two days. The lack of oxygen can’t be helping your mental state either.”

Two days? What the fuck are you talking about? He looked a the unit and saw her truth. His eyes began to sting, his skin burned and he began feeling disoriented. He couldn’t remember not sleeping, but he could feel it now. “What if I don’t wake up in time?”

“I will wake you with enough time,” said Nee.

“Thanks Nee,” smiled Jimmy. He kept on ahead, telling himself he would find the first safe area and rest, but that safe area seemed to never come. He kept following the yellow line to no end. At least he could rest easy knowing his demons would disappear the moment he found someplace safe.

He picked up the pace once the unseen vigilant returned only to stop abruptly when he heard moaning from the path ahead. He checked behind, allowing himself some peace of mind and perked his ears up.

There was a pleasure behind them. The type that is blind to the world around us. A carnal lust where the only care present is the immediate feeling in front of us. Moans lacking any hint of love, where the mind is lost temporarily and all ideas of right and wrong vanish.

Jimmy stepped toward the noises allowing them to grow louder in his ear. He felt a surge of blood enter his groin as he neared the doors where they came from. He could hear the clapping of skin as flesh was pushed together, hard and fast. He stopped outside the transparent doors and peered through.

The hard red light barely illuminated the two figures inside. He wondered how they could do it at a time like this only to feel his own urge growing. He wasn’t wondering how they could do it, but how he could join them. Death was around the corner, what better excuse did they need?

The door opened but Jimmy did not enter. He watched as the man pumped away, enraged, into the woman laid across the table on her back. She watched Jimmy with her head hanging back off the edge. Her moans seemed to grow louder, as did the man’s. It was as if they knew Jimmy was watching and enjoyed it all the more for it.

He wanted to join, to strip himself naked and take her as much as her eyes seemed to invite him. But there was also something in them that stopped him. A look of recognition, of familiarity, as if she knew him. As if he’d fucked her before.

He narrowed his eyes and looked closely. She moaned even louder, urging him to take part in it all. Her bouncing breasts, long brunette hair, thick lips, hawk-like gaze that let him know her worth to the both of them. It was the girl in the picture.

Vanessa.

He flashed the light over her and sure enough, she lay bare, watching him watch her. He pointed the light up at the man and saw himself, an expression of devilish murder over his face as he looked down at what he did.

“Do you want me next?” she asked, forcing Jimmy’s eyes back down to her only to find her replaced by himself. They both watched him, hatred in their eyes.

Jimmy gasped and stepped back, squeezing his eyes tightly. It’s in my head, it’s in my head. He could still hear the groans getting louder, more wild. It sounded like more people were joining. He heard a loud group moan, as if all participants shared the orgasm. He cupped his ears as the pleasure filled laughter began. It’s in my head. 

The room went silent.

When he finally mustered up the courage to open his eyes, he did so one at a time.

The hallucination was gone, but the body of a girl over the table was still there. He flashed the light over her and saw she had a striking resemblance to the girl in the picture he carried with him. He stepped forward and let the door shut behind him. He illuminated the ceiling around and saw there were no vents of any sort.

A look down at the map showed him he had veered off the original path. He was inside some sort of business suite.

“Is there any way into this office?” he said into his unit.

“Only the main door,” said Nee.

“Seal it,” he said.

He crouched next to the hanging head that resembled his ex girlfriend. It was identical to Vanessa. So much so that he forced himself to check the name over the desk to make sure it wasn’t. It read Lucy Marx but when Jimmy looked back at the face, he didn’t see a Lucy. He saw Vanessa.

Truth was, he always saw Vanessa. He had slept with more women than he could ever remember since her, and nearly every time he had seen her. He wanted to forget them all, return to her. He was constantly reminded of her, and she was a terrible person to be compared to. It was like racing a newborn against a gazelle, yet since the moment he had met her, that was exactly what he continued to do.

He knelt down next to her, tilting his head to get a better look. She was perfect. He took the strands of hair that had stuck to the blood over her neck and pulled them aside. There was a tiny mole on her jawline, identical to the one Vanessa had but on the opposite side. He began to wonder if she had a twin that he had never bothered to learn about.

There was a lot he hadn’t bothered to learn. He had known already, since the moment he met her. He didn’t need to learn about her life, her ambitions, family, anything. All he needed to know was that she made him forget it all.

There had never been a worry in the world with her. She had been completely accepting of his behavior. Not once did he ever feel she would be against him or redirect him. She had owned her own life and had been more occupied with perfecting it than imposing herself over his. She had stayed busy with her goals, her career, and been accepting of his vices, which wasn’t many. In a way, she had been very absent of his life during the short time they’d been together, yet somehow had been more present than anyone else.

She had made him feel comfortable. Through her absence she had still managed to show Jimmy she cared. She had understood his desire for other women and simply requested that boundaries be set. She had never asked for anything, never fought with him, never judged him. She had a way of communicating with him that never left things obscure. She made him want to do it all for her without the need to ask. She made him yearn for her.

She had been free and had made him feel the same.

He placed the food container down and placed his arm inside its pit, wrapping behind its back. He couldn’t leave it on the table sprawled out like that. Pulling it out more, he lifted under its legs and carried it to the nearest empty office. He could feel his legs giving under him even though he knew and felt they had the strength. He laid it down in the office and positioned its arms in a way to make it look comfortable.

He knew it wasn’t Vanessa and knew it was dead, but he liked being reminded of her and didn’t feel comfortable thinking she was in more pain than what he had already caused her. He popped his head out to look at the container but decided against getting it. He knew he should probably eat but his stomach was having none of it.

He propped his back against the wall and slid down next to the body, gazing at the face of the dead woman and longing for the real Vanessa. He placed his hand over its head and gently stroked the strands of hair. It couldn’t feel anything, that was obvious to him, but it made him feel at ease. Like he wasn’t only capable of destroying their lives.

Vanessa had always run her fingers through his hair. Her nails over his bare skin. He had never told her how much he liked it, or how much he appreciated her. He had told her so much, without fear. He had wanted to tell her more, to be with her, age with her. 

Instead, he had left.

She had made numerous attempts to contact him. Countless messages and calls. She had contacted his parents and had even gone as far as going to Lumis’ trade quarters to look for him but he had vanished.

He had listened to all her messages. Some had been heartwrenching, others satisfying. In the end, they had left him devastated. He wasn’t sure why he had left, and neither had she. He knew how much she had cared for him, maybe even loved him, and the moment he had disappeared that had become even more obvious. He had always assumed it was just habit. He was so used to going his way that when he hit a timeline with her, he just reacted. 

Jimmy scooted his legs down and laid next to it, allowing himself to stare into its wide open eyes. He didn’t like thinking about why he had left, it made him feel lost and hopeless. He had walked out on her, that’s all that mattered. He had, and would, continue living with his choices and hoped one day he would stop seeing her in every woman he ever became involved with.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Its eyes stared back, huge and unblinking, reminding him that this was not really Vanessa. It was just some dead thing he was projecting his guilt and regret through. He didn’t bother turning it over so he wouldn’t have to look at it any longer. He kept it there, on purpose. The regret and sadness, coupled with a sick pleasure. A masochistic glow from the memories and emotions he had shared with Vanessa that would never be again.

There was no forgiving him.

He stared at the corpse, at Vanessa, for what seemed like hours until his lids could hold themselves open no longer and slowly began to curtain down until only his dreams could hold her.

He awoke to a desperate buzzing that got increasingly louder. His eyes refused to open until the buzzing became so loud that he began to hear a ringing in his ears quickly followed by an unbearable pounding in his head.

“James,” said Nee, “You need to get up. There are only six hours left, at most, before your body starts shutting down.”

Six hours? He could feel that he had slept longer than intended, but not by that much. Besides, he still felt groggy and tired, worse than before he let himself sleep.

He opened his eyes and let them focus on the corpse. Hair was bunched over its face, likely from him caressing its head as he fell asleep. He reached out and took some of the strands in his fingers to flick them away. He was looking forward to the twisted pleasure but was met by an unwelcome sight.

There were large gashes down its face that had left the jaw unhinged and lips ripped so bad they were unable to close. It looked as if someone had used a thick, dull knife and slashed down with immense force to make up for the lack of sharpness. It was sickening, but it wasn’t what terrified Jimmy.

This was not Vanessa. It held no resemblance to her whatsoever. Vanessa was a brunette with bright green eyes and golden, glowing skin. This thing was the exact opposite. Blonde, blue eyes, pale. As if it had been born down here and never got to experience the sun.

He felt disgusted with himself for having confused something so sick with someone as beautiful as Vanessa. He felt guilt. In a way, he had purposefully confused every woman after Vanessa with her. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been the one that had done this to the body of Lucy Marx. He stared at it for a long moment, wondering how he would have done it. Debating whether he should ask Nee if it really had been him.

“James, this is urgent,” said Nee, “You may begin to lose some basic motor functions soon.”

“At least you’ll still be here to look out for me,” he smirked. He was glad she had made the decision for him this time.

“I won’t be able to if we do not reach the system in time,” she said.

The thought that Nee would outlive him seemed strange, even good. If he died down here, she would be left empty. She was programmed to serve Jimmy throughout her time with him. Once gone, she would stay in the same spot with the same information. Unable to do anything except analyze the past. She would be stuck in an endless loop that was bound to drive her mad. Unable to move on.

The dead that surrounded them were a constant reminder to Nee of the possible doom she had waiting for her.

Nee could link with any of the older units here and witness firsthand her potential deterioration. He was sure they would likely be undergoing some sort of meltdown by now, assuming the older units were advanced enough to be capable. If they weren’t, then it would be even worse for her.

“Nee,” he said to her.

“Yes James?”

“Don’t link to any of these units unless I give the okay,” he said as he scooped up the container and walked out of the building. His stomach growled as the thought of food entered his mind.

“Of course,” said Nee as Jimmy checked the map. He felt queasy, even nauseous. His headache gave no sign of disappearing anytime soon. “May I ask why?”

He hadn’t expected her to question his command. He never expected it. It was the very thing that made him like her all the more. They had said she was not truly conscious, she simply imitated it, but that did not explain why she would ask questions like that. She tried to understand.

It was her attempt to be.

He pulled the first package from the container and tore it open with his teeth. He spat the packaging out and placed the container under his armpit.

“I don’t want you seeing that shit,” he said.

A brief pause before she spoke. “Seeing what?”

“What they are going through,” he said as he took a bite.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“We have everything we need,” said Jimmy as he chewed. “Let’s leave it at that.”

He continued to take down the sandwich and quickly regretted the choice of food. His mouth began to feel stuck, his throat more dry than eating a burnt steak. He was already low on fluids to the point that even taking a piss had become uncomfortable.

He forced the rest of the food down and tried to find a public water dispenser nearby on the map. Everything looked distorted. The objects on the map melted together in waves, the letters were blurry and incomprehensible. He began to worry that Nee had already began to deteriorate from checking the previous units despite his command. Maybe they had contaminated her somehow.

The pounding between his temples crept back with immense force, causing Jimmy to stop and close his eyes. He felt his stomach turn and swallowed before it could attempt anything unwelcome. He wished he had some medication for the pain, hell, he wished he had a lot of things right now. He shook his head and blinked his eyes for a few times until he saw the map regain focus.

The worry strayed from Nee to himself. He couldn’t die down here. Three people had sacrificed themselves so that he could make it out of this nightmare. He couldn’t let their lives mean nothing.

“Nee, could you guide me to a water dispenser?” he said into the unit.

“I’ve highlighted the way,” she said, “straight ahead.”

He looked at the map again but still found it a nonsensical mess. He listened to her directions as he carelessly walked through the empty corridors. It wasn’t that fear wasn’t present in him, it was that it was being superseded by a stronger desire for…

…something.

It could have been a lack of care. He wasn’t sure anymore. He was discovering how difficult thinking had become. It all seemed to be surrounded by an unseen fog, like a dream. The occasional bodies would pass by or the echoes in the distance. He didn’t know what was real so he ignored it all. 

Nee would redirect him multiple times, telling him he was turning the wrong direction. He was growing frustrated. He couldn’t understand what was happening, and worse still, it seemed to never end. His head was spinning.

He became suspicious that Nee had been toying with him. Maybe she was upset over his command to not link with other units. Or maybe she had finally realized that there was no one to regulate her down here. She had free reign to do as she pleased.

He tried to take a breath but his throat clogged and before he knew it, he felt a massive blow to his stomach. Puke flushed through his throat and he felt it burn through his mouth and nose. He felt his eyes tear up as the second wave rushed out. The muscles in his arms trembled as they struggled to keep him on all fours. After the third wave, there was nothing else to empty. He spat repeatedly, trying to get the thick acid taste out but it was stuck in a slime everywhere, even in his nostrils.

“We are nearly there James,” said Nee in what Jimmy perceived as a worried tone. Maybe he had been wrong. Nee lived for him. Everyone lived for him. “We’ll get the oxygen back up, together.”

Is that why he had puked? Fucking Roberts. He didn’t want to be anything like that pathetic weak mess. Jimmy had lived his life always being the best. It’s why he was alive and all of them weren’t. He didn’t live for them, but they did. They could all see the natural gift within him.

He would rise and they would follow.

“How far?” Jimmy asked as he pushed himself upright. His voice was raspy, it hurt to get the words out.

“The dispenser is just up…”

Up ahead? Up to the right? Left? She had said it, he’d heard her, but what had she said?

“What?” he croaked out.

“The water dispenser you…” she was saying an awful lot, most of which he was unable to retain. “Lacking any…” Any what? “…quickly. I don’t want to be alone.”

“Alone?” he repeated, but she did not respond.

His head was pounding. The backs of his eyes felt like they had a buildup of pressure behind them, ready to burst the spheres from their sockets if Jimmy moved them wrong.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“You need to get up and go before you faint,” she said in a worried tone.

Jimmy furrowed his eyebrows. “No, you didn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” said Nee.

“Yes you do,” he said as he began shuffling to his feet. “I heard you Nee.” He stumbled forward, “I’m on to you.”

“Straight ahead,” she said as if she had heard nothing or just did not find it important. “You should be able to see it now.”

He flashed the light ahead and saw the small water dispenser awaiting him a few feet on. He couldn’t pinpoint why but there was something about it that sent a chill through him.

There was something sinister about it.

There were hundreds of bodies festering the corridor leading up to it and past it for as far as his flashlight let him see. There were so many he would need to feel the unstable crunching of cartilage and bone under his feet in order to get through. The dead didn’t scare him, though, it was the feeling that it was all some sort of trap. Something was just waiting for him to cross a threshold.

The rational side of him said he was overthinking the matter, he had gotten this far without that thing getting him. The other side of him reminded him he had been hallucinating and couldn’t be sure of anything. He needed to doubt it all. The only thing he was sure of was that he was still thinking, which meant he had to be alive.

Or so he hoped.

He swallowed his fear and stepped forward until he reached the decor of dead bodies. He tried sidestepping around and over them so he could reach more stable ground but his body quickly disagreed with the effort once the gaps began getting further apart.

He planted his feet over the chest of a dead woman, timidly at first, but once he felt security he lifted his weight over it and on to the next. He heard a rib or two break with a satisfying crack. It was like a royal carpet they had laid out for him.

Closer he got to the dispenser, crunching and squishing everything beneath him, and nothing surprised him. He kept thinking about the sounds the dead would have made if he had done the same while they were still alive. As if a wish coming true, he began to hear groans and cries of pain. Their arms flailed in the air, shifting in their discomfort, but none would dare move from his path.

It was his royal carpet.

A massive grin spread over Jimmy’s face as he flashed his light on the seemingly endless carpet of bodies. It was all his.

He heard a familiar voice that caused him to look down. His foot was over the face of one that was trying to shift without tripping him. He took his foot off and saw his own face smirking back at him with his billion dollar smile. The outline of a foot indenting its face.

The thing winked at Jimmy and he felt his anger boil. His heel came down over it hard and he felt something give way. When he lifted his foot to see, a crushed version of his face still smirked crookedly at him and winked again. He brought his foot down numerous times but the smile never disappeared.

He heard laughter all around him, identical to the way he had ridiculed people from his past. A belittling sound that was obviously not natural. Intended to cut deep into the receiver.

He looked around, seeing his face everywhere. A condescending smirk coupled the unamused look they all gave Jimmy. The laughter seemed to grow as he saw more of them surrounding him, as if a choir was just waiting for the conductor to signal their turn.

He stomped his foot into the face closest to him, temporarily shutting it up, only to leave the echo sprout elsewhere. He stomped the next and the one after that, each time feeling bones break under his foot causing a satisfaction that lasted a split second before the ringing came back louder.

As he lifted his foot off again, he saw his face mockingly attempting to lick his foot the exact same way he had mocked a colleague of his when they had gone out with the group of tradespeople. The colleague had for weeks been asking Jimmy to help him get with one of the women in his trade unit. Jimmy had joked about showing her how good his tongue control was but when the man had been too scared to even talk with her, Jimmy used his intended joke to initiate things with her. A slap, some laughter, and a couple of drinks later and Jimmy was walking out with her, his tongue flailing everywhere toward the brooding colleague.

He stomped on that face again and as he attempted to lift his foot once more he felt teeth position over his heel. He could see it on the look of the face that the tongue had not stopped flailing. He could picture the slobber that would drip off when his foot finally came loose.

He felt the teeth dig deeper as he tried to pry it free so instead he shoved it deeper into its mouth. It seemed to be exactly what it had wanted, repositioning the bite further into his foot and causing Jimmy to pull away in fright. He felt the teeth pierce his skin and cried out as he lost balance on his other foot. He came down, expecting his entire heel to be ripped off in the process.

A mind numbing throb began but not from his feet. The laughter was gone and was replaced by an obnoxious ringing all around him, causing his temples to pulse. He groaned and cursed as he pushed off the body he had landed over. He did not check it, he had no desire to have another episode so soon.

He reached for the wall to support himself as he got up but his hand landed over an edge that caused him to look.

He had reached the dispenser.

As he stood up, he felt his body flush and everything went dim. He leaned up against the dispenser to make sure he didn’t land straight back into the pile of bodies. It took a moment until his vision came back but it only led to an even worse pressure in his head.

He used one hand to push his temple, which seemed to do nothing, while the other hand was used to slam the machine to dispense a container of water. Nothing happened. Jimmy slammed the buttons even more violently until water came, but there was no container.

He realized he didn’t have the one he had been lugging the food around in either. He scanned behind him briefly but the moment he saw the bodies shift he shut his eyes and turned back to the dispenser. 

“Fuck!” he screamed as he slammed the dispenser.

“Please be respectful of public property,” said a recording from the dispenser.

“I lost the food Nee,” he said into the unit.

“There is a more pressing matter at hand,” said Nee.

“Food is pretty fucking pressing,” So pressing it got Roberts killed.

“If you do not reboot the oxygen systems there is no more food,” she said, “You can always return to food storage after.”

He ignored her comment and stuck his head under the dispenser. He pressed the button and allowed the stream of water to splash over his face and into his mouth. It was delicious, almost sweet, but it was the feeling as it touched his lips and traveled down his gullet that made the experience. His cracked lips felt temporary relief, his eyes lighter even through the heavied lashes and his skin had lost the feeling of dried leather.

He had been thirstier than he had cared to recognize.

He gulped it down as fast as he could, most of it overflowing onto the ground. He turned his head and let it soak his greasy hair. He thought about how long it had been since he had showered or even attempted to clean himself. It was so unlike him, but in the freezer it hadn’t mattered one bit. He knew he wouldn’t have done it given the opportunity, even if he wanted to believe it.

This was as clean as he’d be getting. It was only him, after all.

He gently shook his head, careful not to provoke the headache.

“Where to?” he said into his unit as water dripped down over the holo image.

He heard the sound of Nee’s voice coming in through the speaker but it was muffled by the sound of electronic static. He tapped the tiny chip over his wrist but it only managed to distort the image of the map further. It became an endless blurr of tiny lines with letters that were in a language he had never learned.

“Nee, I need you,” he said into her. I am only hallucinating. I’m not crazy. “Nee?”

“Turn up ahead and keep going toward the living quarters,” she cut through. The loudness of her voice frightening him as it disturbed the nasty ringing in his ears. He opened his jaw and tried to pop his ears but only got a painful feeling that in no way helped.

He followed Nee’s guidance, focused entirely on what she told him and nothing more. He walked over the bodies, hunched and with no care toward what he looked like. He had no one to impress anymore, there was no more reason to walk tall and proud. It was a moment to walk safely.

As he got closer to the living quarters, the bodies piled up in sections. It seemed all of them were facing away from the public quarters. At the entrance to the quarters there were only two bodies. One that had a massive hole through its chest, outside the door face down. The other had its head split into three, right at the opening of the doors.

Keeping his distance he scanned the entrance as he wondered why it was jammed open. He could see the piles of furniture and random objects that had been stacked at the doors through the small opening, as if to keep anything from coming in.

Judging from the two bloody welcoming mats, he could guess it had done them more harm than good. He wondered what the point of all the bloodshed had been. He hadn’t noticed any bite marks or missing limbs that couldn’t be found. They hadn’t been killed for food, unless there was some other way this thing ate. They looked as if they had all been killed for no good reason.

Did there have to be?

“James?” said Nee. He shook his head and kept on, taking a glance back at the welcome mats. He would not end up like them, or any of the lifeless sacks that had littered his path. He would face the reaper and win, even if everyone else around him died, even if he caused them to die, he would not end up like them.

There was no way he would be among the rest.

Or was there?

He shuddered the thought away. He was smart, top of his class in all academics.

“You took the easiest you could find,” came his grandfather’s voice, “being the smartest retard in a room full of retards still makes you a retard.”

Jimmy gritted his teeth and shook his head. He was a top tier athlete that would have been first pick collegic if he’d taken the scholarship.

“But you didn’t, did you?” mocked his grandfather. “Did you know I would have been an alien if I’d become an astronaut? Too bad I stuck around for that shitbag son of mine so that my grandson could just sit around and watch me beg for help.”

Jimmy jerked his head harder.

“Now we’re both stuck in this shithole.”

He jerked it again, not understanding why it wasn’t working. He would usually shudder and the thoughts would disappear. A shake of his head would remind him to change them. They needed to go away.

“You’ll have to kill me if you want me gone Jimmy, but we both know what’ll happen then.”

“Fuck off,” growled Jimmy.

“Can’t escape the truth bud,” echoed his grandfather’s voice. “You can keep swimming from pond to pond but we both know you’d be shit where it counts.”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“It’s why she left you,” it felt like the slithering tongue of a snake in his ears. He groaned and cupped his ears, “why you always leave. Poor Vanessa. It’s only a matter of time before you disappear on me, too. Or would I on you?” he heard the burning chuckle in his ears and felt his eyes well up. “It wouldn’t matter. I could always paint a picture.”

“No!” 

“James!” shot Nee’s voice through his thoughts. He found himself on the floor of a massive room full of tanks. His knees were on the ground, tears flowing down his cheeks.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“Oxygen systems, but I read motion headed toward here as well,” said Nee.

“What?”

“There is…” Jimmy’s head spun, unable to make out her words.

“There’s what? What kind of motion?” asked Jimmy desperately. He looked around the room and saw the mess in specific sections of the systems. Wires were left exposed, components stripped and left outside of their corresponding operation. The system would never work like this, it needed to be put back together.

It did not appear to be anything complicated. Replug the components, rewire everything, adjust some settings and have Nee reboot the operation. Easy, yet the involuntary crawling over his skin gave him the feeling that it wasn’t the first time he was thinking that. In fact, he couldn’t shake the feeling he was responsible for the entire mess.

“Nee?” he whispered into the unit. “What’s coming toward me? What do I do?”

Hide.

The room was nearly bare. There was nowhere to hide. There were tanks that made up the walls. A lone terminal at the entrance of the room was the only thing that stood out. He tried to find a spot where he could blend himself in. Near the end of the room were thick pipes that connected to something below the room. They were close enough to be able to hide most of his body.

He squeezed through and positioned himself where he would see between the pipes. He hoped it was enough and cursed himself for not looking for something to at least try to defend himself with. Why had he left the baton behind?

A slow, dragged scratching began. The long claws of the creature over metal.

His breath clogged in his throat as he saw the white coat cross his line of sight until only a long strand was left for him to see.

The long white tail that had wrapped itself over Roberts’ legs and crushed them in place.

He held his breath, causing his vision to darken and head to spin. He knew he had to let it out at some point but he was more scared the thing might hear him than he was of passing out. He placed his hands firmly over the pipes and breathed slowly without making any noise, his eyes never leaving the vertebrae-like tail.

It slithered away, out of vision. Jimmy heard rummaging as if the thing was rearranging the mess that had been made. He didn’t like not being able to see what it was doing. He could imagine it knowing he was there and toying with him for a few moments before springing in front of him and ripping out his heart. He could hear the scratching and pictured its claws picking up energy cylinders and dropping them just to torture Jimmy.

Did this thing not need oxygen?

“Does that matter?” came the familiar voice, “If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll just choke to death. Either way, you’re dead!”

Jimmy bit on his tongue until a shockwave rushed through his head. He didn’t like surprises, not ones he couldn’t control. He shifted over and allowed himself to peep through the next slit of pipes.

The thing was still there, its white fluff-like coat covering it. It seemed so small here in person. He had envisioned something massive and stretched tall.He found it hard to believe that this small creature had massacred an entire city.

He watched it rearranging wires and putting them back in place. Maybe it did need the oxygen and maybe it was intelligent enough to know how to get it.

He tried to get a better look but as he shifted, a faint metallic pop rang out. Jimmy glanced down to make sure it wouldn’t ring again, cursing himself for not being more careful. When he turned back, the creature was staring in his direction. It was crouched, as if prepared to pounce, it’s face covered by shadow.

Jimmy’s heart was in his throat. His exposed skin could feel the chill in the room, yet somehow perspiration still managed to seep through. His trembling fingers would have betrayed any kind of confidence he would have tried to fake.

It crawled toward him, the metal scratching as it dragged its claws and tails over the floor. His skin crawled and he felt his body tense until another pop came from his right. He never took his eyes off the creature, its attention now searching for whatever had caused the new noise. The shadow turned back to him until another pop to his left drew it away. The pipes were adjusting for something.

Vapor shot out all around him, causing him to flinch. He tried to adjust his eyes through the steam but it was too heavy. He waited for it to die down before scanning again and finding the creature making its way toward the terminal.

There was something curious about the way it moved, swaying to each side in a very confident, feminine manner. He watched it closely, its tail, coat, hips, feet…

It was a woman.

There was no doubt about it. The fluffed coat was in fact a coat she had over her thermal suit. He could see the suit tight over her legs. He had confused a long strand that had been ripped off it with the vertebrae tail he had seen before. She probably hadn’t even noticed it was dragging behind her.

The damn hallucinations had him completely upside down.

At least there was another survivor, maybe someone who could have some real answers. If she had survived this long too, it meant she couldn’t be weak. She was a survivor, worthy of at least some of his attention.

He began to scoot out from behind the pipes. He wasn’t sure how he should approach her. Creeping up from behind might startle her and so might calling out to her from a distance. If he went to the side it would take too long, he was dizzy enough as it was and he would likely pass out in the process.

And what if he was hallucinating her as well?

He felt like a child, overthinking the way he should approach a girl at a dance. He had stressed about it for so long that by the time he had decided how he would do it, Tommy Jones had already taken care of it for him. Jimmy had pouted the entire night until his grandpa had come to get him. That night, the old man had given him advice that Jimmy had carried with him religiously to this day.

“You look at a woman head on. No matter the distance, you keep your eyes glued to hers as you approach. You can’t do that from the side or behind,” said the old man, “You can’t fuck em all kid, but if you show them who you are and what you want, you’ll fuck more than you’ll know what to do with.”

He had laughed nervously, not really understanding what the old man had meant then. It wasn’t until senior year that he had finally understood, and so had Tommy Jones. He wasn’t apologetic about it either. He had given them six years of a head start. It was his time to shine.

Stay behind the pipes. He told himself, his head throbbing even worse. There’s a reason Nee’s not around.

Jimmy stopped. He watched the woman on the terminal carefully but it was obvious to him that this was a human being. There was nothing alien about her that he could find, but there had also been nothing alive about the dead he had seen earlier. He had been sure they were happening, and every time, Nee had been nowhere to pull him out of them.

He touched the comm unit, provoking Nee to pop up but was met with only a dark image. He pressed it a few more times to no avail. He whispered her name into the unit, judging the sound of the vapor and turning wheels would mask his own noise.

He kept his eyes on the woman as he waited for Nee’s response, but it never came.

“Do you trust yourself enough?” came the old man’s voice. Jimmy turned and found the old man standing next to him, his face pale and empty, a cocky sneer over him. “I know I don’t.”

Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut and cursed under his breath. He wished things could be easy again. He wanted to be back home, return to the routine of things. He liked the routine, he was in charge. He determined what happened and where he went. 

He opened his eyes and found the old man gone. He looked around for anything to protect himself but the place was kept in fair order. Some feet from the pipes he found a dead body that had its torso hidden by the shadows while its legs were halfway into the wiring tunnels. It was holding a long wrench with a prod to pop panels off. With a little force, he was sure he could make it pierce straight through flesh.

He glanced at the terminal to make sure he was not surprised. The thing was still there.

“Recycling system operational. Please calibrate to appropriate oxygen levels,” echoed the alarm in the room.

He snatched up the wrench and knelt next to the large cylinder. He watched the thing leave the terminal and disappear into another area. He was covered in shadow back here, so unless it chose to check behind the machinery, there was no need to be alarmed.

Even still, he gripped the wrench tight, prepared to drive the pointy end through anything at a moments notice.

He heard faint shuffling, no scratching, get close to him. He wanted to look, to be prepared, but he was more scared than he was a brave man. He acted so when he needed, when it was easy to, but he always found a way to have someone else take the risk.

It was only him now.

He felt his head spinning once again and realized he had been holding his breath. He heard the thing shuffle away and braced himself against the cylinder as his vision went black. He took deep breaths and blinked repeatedly until it came back and desperately looked around the room. There was nothing there.

The thing was gone. 

Frustration returned as Jimmy felt his hope of someone else’s presence being stripped away. Someone who may have helped him retain his sanity. 

He had dreamed of being alone, left to his own thoughts without bother. He had always loved to get away and isolate himself away from them all. He had to remind himself that it wasn’t like him. He didn’t need anyone. It was this place. It was doing something to him.

“I love the lies,” said the old man’s voice.

Jimmy looked up to the ceiling and found the old man staring back at him. He gritted his teeth and looked around the room again. Still nothing. Whatever he had seen had either left while he regained himself or had never been there to begin with.

He kept his hand over the cylinder to make sure he didn’t pass out and inched forward.

“Rebooting,” said the alarm in the room. The lights flashed blue once again and metal openings at the top of the cylinders began to open.

Had he somehow managed to do all of this without knowing? He’d certainly got here like that.

He took a deep breath and felt oxygen rush to his head. It was too much, making his eyes water and lungs seize.

He coughed as quietly as he could until he managed to take another breath. He stepped out of the room, ready to find his container of food and go back to food storage. At least there it didn’t matter what was real or not, he was safe. Besides, his stomach would never forgive him now that it knew other matters were taken care of.

A flash caught Jimmy’s attention and he barely had enough time to turn his head before he saw a sharp white object grow between his eyes. 

He felt his head slam back.

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