“It looks peaceful enough,” Baker said, his eyes calmly scanning Outpost 727, the largest space station ever built by the Dark Alliance.
I nodded before looking back at the pilot, letting my fingers run through my white hair. It had gone from dark to white seemingly overnight during the war. “It does, doesn’t it? Seeing it that peaceful just makes me all the more nervous. I feel like a small animal sneaking down to the river to take a drink where the lions live.”
“I still can’t believe they are just sending one man and not a fucking army,” Baker said, removing his eyes from the screen and looking me over. His face registered that he was unimpressed with my rather unthreatening appearance. “Sydney Vale has a very deadly reputation.”
I smiled and looked back towards the hulking space station. It rested ungracefully amongst the beautiful stars, turning clumsily in the silence of space. A few of the portholes were glowing with some odd, reddish cast. “Well, it’s certainly not because of my prowess in combat. I’m just a pilot. Syd and I go back a long way. We grew up together. We also shared a mutual friend. Paris was killed in the war, though.”
“Vale murdered Senator Huxley last month when he tried to check up on him. Sent some video feed of Huxley’s severed head with electrical-like wires stuck into it. He also killed twenty or so soldiers, guards and aides.” Baker grinned at me, his smile flashing from his thick beard. “I don’t know about you, but that would bother the hell out of me. Not only that, he has a little private army in there.”
“That he does,” I said, watching as our small spaceship came into docking distance.
“Well, you still haven’t explained why they aren’t sending an army.”
I was already walking towards the door when I heard his comment, and I turned around to face him, my voice soft. “If you were the Dark Alliance and you had already lost a very important political Senator, would you send an army or a former friend?”
“I would send the army. Wipe his ass out. We’d probably get some casualties, but at least the risk would be gone. Why would they send you, you ain’t but a man?”
“Because, I’m expendable,” I said, leaving the room to his soft chuckling.
I studied my haggard face in the mirror, trying to prepare myself mentally to go into Outpost 727. Sydney Vale’s dark eyes swam into my mind, and I wondered what he would do.
The last time I saw him was at least ten years ago. We met on Krassnar 3, a neutral space station situated between the two higher powers. It was just after the Virus wars, and the Dark Alliance had been victorious.
When I met Sydney Vale at the bar that night, neither of us were smiling. We had lost too many friends in the war to feel any true sense of satisfaction. As far as I’m concerned, Victory only feels good when it’s glamorized in movies and novels. When you have lost as many close friends and family members as I have to the war, victory feels just as fucking bitter as defeat. Celebrating is like throwing a party in a room full of the corpses of your friends. It just feels wrong.
“I can’t help but feel tortured at the fact that Paris is not here with us,” I said, taking a long sip of my drink.
His eyes flashed then, and I got the kind of feeling that one gets when you are about to see extreme aggression. It almost appeared as if Syd was struggling to hold back a door, that if opened would blow up the whole station. His face was entirely calm. I saw all this in his raging eyes.
Syd’s voice was low. “Paris did not deserve to die like that. Would you believe he lasted five hours under the Reaper?”
The Reaper was a device that could only be described as an electrified razor blade. It both cut and burned the flesh, finding nerve endings with the precision of a surgeon. It could even remove eyelids without damaging the eyes. “No, I didn’t know that. Perhaps now isn’t the time to discuss this, Syd. I kind of want to relax tonight. Lord knows we deserve it.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to stay with the Alliance,” Sydney said, sipping slowly from his glass. “Every time I look into space it reminds me of what I’ve lost. I think I need to get down on a planet.”
I chuckled. “You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself on a planet, Syd. You’d go fucking crazy.”
Syd smiled then, and I swear there hasn’t been a sleepless night where I didn’t see that eerie smile in my dreams. It was a sharp smile, the kind that seemed to stab into your face with the apathetic violence of a sharp blade. His eyes glittered like icy stars in the dim lighting of the bar and I felt myself actually wince. At that moment, I knew how much Syd had lost and it wasn’t just friends.
It was his fucking mind.
He stared at me with those razor eyes, and that smile, and said, “I’m already fucking crazy, Randall. I don’t give a shit about anything anymore. When you get to where I’m at, nothing matters but the memories.” He started to laugh then, a chilly, almost computer-like titter that sounded nothing like the warm man I grew up with.
I didn’t return his laughter, only offered a fake smile and nodded. Syd threw his money on the table and got up. “I’m truly going to miss you, my friend. Our paths better cross again.”
As I watched him go, his back rigid from years of military training, I realized the sad truth. Sydney Vale, even though he was walking away from me, was already amongst my dead friends.
The doors hissed close behind me as I entered the docking bay. For a brief moment, I thought Syd wasn’t going to let me in. Some part of me didn’t want to go in. It was my orders that if I thought things weren’t going well then I was to kill him. Whether or not I would be able to go through with the murder of a good friend was a debate I didn’t want to torture myself with right now.
I stared at the doors, waiting patiently, my fists clenched at my sides. The only sound in the bay was my own soft breathing and a strange, dull roar beyond the entrance to Outpost 727. I felt something soft brush the back of my neck, almost as if someone had dragged a piece of thread across it.
I knew at that moment that Syd was watching me from the security camera, knowing how impatient I was and probably a little amused. I kept my body language still, not allowing him the pleasure of knowing how annoyed I was.
“I really missed you, Randall,” a voice said from the speaker just above the door. It sounded machine-like and lifeless, but something in the inflection stabbed into my psyche like a blistering needle of recognition. “You have no idea how good it is to see your face.”
Before I could complete my thought, the double doors whispered open in front of me. I flinched visibly, stepping backwards when the music blasted into the previously quiet docking bay. It was a classical piece by one of my favorites, Gregor Handel, a composer that both Syd and I loved. I inhaled deeply before stepping into the dimly lit corridor, my mind resigned to the blunt fact that whether I accomplished my goal or not, I would be betraying my friend.
There was a man standing in the corridor as I entered, his body so still that for a brief moment I thought he was a mannequin. He wore a black military-like uniform, a stark contrast to the light blue and white colors I was used to seeing as a member of the Alliance. His head turned slightly, and our eyes made contact. He had no whites in his eyes, only an ebony sea of moisture, dull red pupils in the middle like a droplet of blood. The crow’s feet around his eyes were tightly etched into his unusually smooth white flesh, snaking across his temples like tribal tattoos. He nodded then – his pale chin coming down so slow I was reminded of a reptile, his closely cropped hair gleaming in the fluorescent lighting. Then, with a slow movement of his hand, indicated that I follow the corridor. I was surprised that he had not asked me to relinquish any weapons, but I certainly wasn’t going to remind him of it.
The music continued to play as we walked, seeming to fit right perfectly in the militaristic design of the station, all order and mathematical perfection. I could feel the sweat dripping from the pits of my arms, falling to my side like blood from cold wounds.
We stopped at the doors of an elevator and my escort kept back, watching me clinically with his hands behind his back. There was something inhuman about him, something almost alien. He stood there watching me, his body impossibly still, studying me with that unnerving gaze. Shivering, I turned to face the elevator, feeling his stare on my back like the touch of a murderer’s fingertip.
I concentrated on the digital numbers above the door, imagining them to be the countdown to a bomb. The humming of the elevator could barely be heard over the music and I resisted an urge to turn around to face my guard. I imagined that he was only inches behind me, studying me with his dead eyes, his teeth bared to bite hungrily into the back of my neck.
I stopped breathing when the doors opened, my knees quivering underneath my wiry frame, my hands curling up into tight little balls. My breath shot out in a hiss of air, my mouth immediately firing sharp staccato wisps of my own shock.
“Paris,” I found myself whispering, my voice sounding ghostly in the now quiet corridor.
My dead friend stood there, an out of place grin under his dark eyes, his chalky hand held out to me. His head was shaven – long black veins winding around his skull like spidery shatter lines on broken glass. A large indented area stood out on his forehead, about the size of an apple, and it took me a moment to realize that it was a closed, third eye. I took his outstretched arm by instinct, his cold fingers enveloping my warm hand.
He pulled me to him then, his rancid breath shooting into my face, squeezing me in a frigid embrace. “I knew you would come, Randall,” he whispered into my ear. “We all knew you would come. God, it’s good to see you again.”
I was numb, but I heard myself say, “My god, Paris, you’re dead.”
“Not anymore, Randall,” he said, pulling me tighter into his arms. “Not anymore.”
“But they took your DNA from the lab. The Reaper – “
He laughed then, the sound of wings fluttering, his third eye opening. It was entirely red – looking more like an almond shaped bullet hole than an eye. “I crossed back. You have no idea the beautiful things I have seen.”
I felt the elevator rising, pulling me upward with the disconcerting feeling that he was soaring with me in his frosty arms.
“You’ll see too, Randall,” he added. I saw what appeared to be tiny fingers dragging across the red sheen that was his third eye. My stomach felt the punch when I realized it was some sort of spider. I could see dozens of them swimming around through the red window into his head.
“Hello, my friend,” Sydney Vale purred behind me, his voice taking on a liquid inflection.
He was standing with his back to the viewing window, the stars winking around his gaunt form and shaven head, his face turned to the side like crescent moon in the darkness. His arms were held rigidly to his sides, reminding me momentarily of the ancient film Nosferatu. His third eye glowed silently from the center of his head, a reddish tinge highlighting his arched eyebrows. He was grinning, his dark mouth a black slit on his snowy face.
To his right was a machine that could only be described as organic. Thousands of wires shot out from a pulsating red globe, piercing into the severed heads of Alliance soldiers that circled around it like some perverse sculpture, their mouths slowly grinding together like they were chewing. One of them was Senator Huxley. All their eyes were turned towards me, seeming to plead to be destroyed. Above the globe was some sort of scaly insect, its thick tentacles seeming to undulate like it was breathing, or sucking the life of the soldiers.
Syd walked towards me then, moving so gracefully that he seemed to float, his palms outstretched in what seemed to be a mockery of a crucifixion. “I would love to hear what they are saying about me, Randall. Old Sydney Vale’s gone fucking insane right? Send his old friend to talk some sense into him? Kill him if that fails?”
He stopped when he was only inches from my face, the red window in his forehead glowing like a perverse beacon in the gloomy light. Small, parasitic tick-like insects could be seen swimming around inside, their legs dragging across the surface, some of them even penetrating outside.
His thin lips pulled back, exposing his metallic teeth. His mouth was red. “I’m not insane. Would you bring back your dead friends if you could, Randall? You know you would.”
“I would never try and kill you, Syd,” I found my deadened voice saying. “I love you like a brother.”
Syd stopped smiling, dark shadows slithering across his smooth scalp as he moved. I noticed then that they weren’t crow’s feet around the eyes after all, but the raven tentacles of some sort of creature embedded deeply into the flesh of his temples. “I know.” He gestured towards the organic machine. “I found Them you know, or They found me. I think They sensed my loathing toward the Gods, Randall. They sensed I wanted to strike back.”
He held out his wrists, and I could see his veins as if they were made of glass, tiny spiders could be seen in them. “They entered my body near the end of the war, most likely when I lay rotting in that cell on Tanex Five. The change was quick. I took this job as Commander of this station knowing I had some purpose. We’re all here now, Paris and Joseph. Even Gordon is here.” He gave me what he probably thought was a warm smile, but it only came out as creepy. “You can even bring back your mother if you want.”
Gordon was a childhood friend that had drowned when we were back in high school on Earth. I was often haunted by memories of those days. When I realized I would be overjoyed to see Gordon again, I froze, the realization that I was being drawn into Syd’s world and its corruption seeping into my flesh like poison.
“Syd you aren’t even certain what you’re doing here,” I said, a sudden insight detonating in my mind. “You don’t know that it’s really even them. They could be fucking byproducts of your own damn memory of them for all you know.”
“You say that because you cannot see, Randall. I promise you that you will see differently by tomorrow.”
I turned towards Paris. “Do you remember what we talked about the night before you left for the war?”
Paris nodded, that fake smile on his face. “Of course I do.”
I waited in silence and when he didn’t say anything, I spoke again. “Well, tell me, Paris. What were the last words you told me?”
“God, I don’t remember, Randall,” he said robotically, a parody of his former self. “That was years ago.”
“Let me give you a hint. You were looking out the window and you told me it was your favorite aphorism. You told me that you would never quote it to Syd, saying that he would not understand.”
Syd moved stepped up to me, his inky eyes widening in rage. “Leave him the fuck alone.”
“He doesn’t know because it’s not him, Syd. All these people are just creations of your own mind and those fucking aliens you have wired into your whacked out brain.”
“Shut up,” he hissed, his voice taking on a dangerous edge.
“But, Syd, he would know. He has it tattooed on the center of his back. That’s how important it was to him. It said, ‘We’re all sitting in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.”
“I said shut the fuck up!” He howled, spinning me around and hurling me into the view screen. I hit the glass hard, my breath shooting out of my lungs like the firing of a gun.
He was on me then, a pearl handled straight razor in his hand, a blade he had carried with him since we were kids. “I will send you to the other side,” he said, the spiders stuck to the eye in his forehead obscenely. His rotting breath shot into my face, entering my nostrils like a physical entity.
I felt the blade slicing painfully into the skin of my neck. “It won’t be me,” I wheezed. “Just a half-assed mirror image of your decaying mind. You aren’t raising the dead, Syd, only your memories. You aren’t striking back at God.”
“You’ll understand, Randall,” he said, a golden teardrop falling down his cheek. “You’ll understand when I bring you back.”
I actually heard the ripping sound of my own throat, saw my crimson blood splattering into his snow-white face. I fell backwards and stared through the glass into space. I knew I wasn’t coming back. Oddly, I didn’t care that I was dying.
I stared into Sydney Vale’s black eyes, noticing a glimmer of light in their murky depths, a dim shimmering over the blackness. He squeezed my arm, a final gesture before I went to the other side.
I turn away from a friend I once loved and look through the window. Stars twinkle in my dying eyes, oscillate to the shallow beating of my heart as blood soaks my shirt. Remembering all I have lost, countless friends who died for nothing, I notice Syd’s moon-like face reflected on the glass, a dim milky gleam on an endless black canvas. The glowing red eye in the center of his head throbs like a heart among the stars.
I look past his reflection – Syd’s sharp breathing the only sound – and let my gaze drift into the immense darkness of space.
About the Author
David Whitman is the author of several books, including Delightful Agony, Deadfellas, Harlan, Body Counting, and two Scary Rednecks and Other Inbred Horrors books (with Bram Stoker winning author Weston Ochse). His short stories have appeared in over 100 publications over last 15 years.