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An evil-looking creature resembling a sideways jellyfish, closing in on prey.

Eve of Evil (Part 2)


To Eve of Evil (Part 1)

Darlai lay back and let her eyes slip shut against the soft orange light. She tried to empty her mind, to relax all her body, but thoughts and memories intruded.

For over a thousand generations the Valley Cities had been engaged in elaborate gift-giving rituals and increasingly formalized agreements to help them all survive as resources under the Blood Sun dwindled. Some Cities mined the minerals exposed by a cataclysmic earthquake that had created the Valley millions of years before, while others harvested the Gray Grasses, one of only a few plant species that grew under the Blood Sun, or refined fuels from remnants of hydro-carbon lakes. All these resources the Cities offered freely to one another in a spirit of cooperation and peace, exemplified by the wise Cynosures in each city. Darlai’s home city, Endjolos, had access to mineral deposits, and regularly sent large gifts to nearby cities, along with the Cynosures’ formal prayers for health and happiness. The other cities sent back gifts of Gray Grass bales, refined liquid fuels, and similar prayers.

Thus a culture of peace had grown strong, suppressing aggression and fear. The Cynosures in each city embodied the highest ideals of loving care and altruism, and all the populations followed such examples, aspiring toward ideals of selflessness. They all might have believed that with such peace and a wise frugality, they could live for a thousand more generations. With this they might have been content.

Except for the prophecies. Only a few generations ago, the Cynosures of every City had withdrawn to a secret underground chamber not associated with any known City. After prolonged secluded meditation, they emerged with strange visions. They spoke of a more austere future, when the Blood Sun had faded to a dull russet glow, bringing an era that would come to be called the Crepescule. Then the peoples of the Valley Cities would suffer a madness, that caused them to leave their enclosed homes and wander into the wildlands of the Valley. There they would encounter brute creatures that had arisen in the shadows as the sun simmered gloomily. With these they would engage in degeneracy and perversion, and from such abominable unions would issue hoardes of grotesque hybrid monsters that would attack the Cities, and drive the survivors across the Valley in desperate flight.

These prophecies had sown deep concern throughout the populations. The Cynosures reassured their peoples that they would seek some cause for hope.

Long had the Cynosures known that strange forces of an essentially ‘other’ nature existed beyond the Periblima, that barrier which shielded their human dimension from the Outward Realm. So the Cynosures had initiated the Outward Powers Program, and the Cities had begun breeding and training the psychonauts. These psychic journeyers, the Cynosures promised, could be the means to save the future.

Darlai was one of the best, trained from birth for hardship and loyalty. She had forgotten the details of her own birth and early childhood, but memories of her later childhood and early youth in the Program were still with her. Barracks-like dormitories where she stayed with the other subjects, daily training regimens, channelling of nascent sexual urges into competitive contests...

Darlai had come to guess that she and her colleagues suffered hidden psychic wounds, deliberately inflicted. She sensed a deeply buried death wish was at the core of the Program training, redirected by later conditioning into obsessed loyalty to the Handlers and manic zeal to serve the Program.

She saw it in herself and loathed it, but she knew no way to overcome such deep influences. It was inhuman, and yet perhaps she could redeem herself by helping the other people of the City, allowing their lives to blossom free from fear, as hers never could.

Right now, the best way to continue such service was to lie still in the slime chair and complete the relaxation meditation, then use the next four Diurns to prepare for another psychic journey. She willed all her muscles to relax, focusing on her throat and belly, where she usually held tension. Her breath settled, her fingers uncurled, and even her eyes seemed to sag into the sockets. Thoughts and ../images intruded throughout — the sight of her private quarters, anticipation of her first meal since returning, playing music on her zendanum — but she immediately detached from them all and let them pass. Emptiness and stillness...

As she settled deeper into that inner void, something else arose to touch her. She willed herself to detach from it, and it receeded, but then returned stronger. Believing it to be some thought generated by her own mind, again Darlai disengaged her awareness, letting herself be empty. This time though, the presence remained. Sometimes her own thoughts could be stubborn. She remembered to let her breath settle into her pelvis, and again sought to clear her mind.

Inwardly, Darlai gasped. The emptiness within became a malicious hunger that sucked in her soul, hurling it through a cold dark void. Thick trembling terror filled all the space within her. She felt as if she’d been swallowed by some force for black oblivion that hated all light and life. Even terror seemed a vain response to so great a force, and Darlai surrendered, relaxing her soul to whatever it might wish with her.

She felt herself pulled toward some known center, a focus of all the dark void. A distant echo of pain and grief touched her soul’s ear. Faster she hurtled, and the echo became a shrill wail. Soon she saw a single glint of light. It swelled larger, and Darlai stopped before its pale light, the one thing shining in the emptiness. Smooth skin on the rounded bulges of its bare body, the over-large head with eyes clenched shut, dark maw wide and shrieking. The sound shivered through her, provoking a common agony. Darlai’s soul was helpless. She reached forward to comfort, to enfold that abandoned soul in the warmth and love of her own —

And fell into the wailing maw, plunging again into the cold dark void within.

Darlia walked back to her quarters in the personnel section of the Project complex. She opened her door and beheld the tan textured walls and ceiling arching overhead, the smooth floor with its spongy earth-tone mats, the soft curves of her comfortable furniture. She waited for the wash of relaxation and reassurance to drift through her. Here was her sanctum, where she could be free for a time from all the demands and reactions that compelled her around other people. Here she could be alone to commune with her underlying fear, knowing it as just her own. She always sensed an easing of tension when she returned here.

Not now though. The image of that screaming infant, grown huge in the endless void, haunted her. It had swallowed whatever shreds of relief and comfort she might have found here. Perhaps a meal...

Darlai stepped into her galley. The flat surfaces and smooth planes gleamed when she summoned the red glow of the ceiling’s light pools. She knew some sections of the city had gone dark, no light flowing upon the proper mental summons, and felt both grateful and guilty. Endjolos required power rationing, and some citizens had had to move in with others to conserve, but Darlai knew the Program complex would be among the last sections to be rationed. The City was putting great resources and greater hopes into the Program.

Darlai began to prepare a meal, taking food from the conservator, warming the coil stove. She added toasted Gray Grass seed, a few sprigs of suage spice. She spooned in blobs of Sluren lard, collected from the giant slug-like creatures long domesticated by the Cities. The rich fat always worked to calm her after the distress of one of her journeys. Milden’s orders after all: initiate recovery patterns. This time, she felt like she’d need all four of the Diurns he’s recommended if she was to recover for another journey.

Sitting at the center of her circular table, she rotated her chair to savor the various dishes. She focused on the flavors as she chewed, hoping the intimate sensation would ground her again in the firm fact of her body, but could not taste the essence of the flavors. Something distracted her and made the food seem bland. She ate it all though, and though the meal settled into her belly, it did not touch the ache of distress in her soul. She sought to relax into the feeling of contentment she always felt after her first meal back, but her sigh hitched and became a sob.

On impulse she got out of her table and went to sit in the slime chair in her sanctum room, willing to lights to dim brown. The chair sagged and swelled around her, receiving her body into its yielding mass and warming her bones. She tried to remember gratitude for the giant Sluren that produced this bio-electric slime with which so much of their technology was fashioned, but a cold cloud, untouched by the chair’s warmth, hung around her heart. Just take me and do what you wish, she thought, and while she imagined she was mind-speaking to the chair, she wondered if she might be speaking to the cold darkness within her.

By habit, her hand reached out for the zendanum she always left beside the chair. Her fingers curled around the hard neck as she lifted its familiar weight into her lap. Her other hand drifted down to caress the slippery smoothness of the song board, evoking a swell of tones from the resounders embedded in the globular body. She stroked for calming, soothing, comforting tones. Gentle harmonies like soft breezes, ripplings of water, rustle of grasses, purrings of kind creatures wafted about the rounded chamber. Darlai tried to let their effects soothe the agitation her soul always felt after returning from the Outward Realm, but this time they fell into the well of silence within, not touching her distress and leaving not an echo. Only the echo of a distant wailing pealed on within her.

Too well trained to indulge in impulse, Darlai carefully set the instrument aside and lowered her head into her hands. She massaged her eyes, longing to stroke the pain away, but it was too deep, too interwoven with who she was now. All she could hear was that wailing infant, whose only power was casting a sound of distress into the void, needing someone to come and comfort. Only the dark and the cold was there, though. Darlai felt tears smear against her palms, and was horrified to find them cold.

She moved listlessly through the next three cycles, obeying the City’s rhythms by emerging from her quarters each Diurn to meet with others in her section who were also recovering from Outward journeys, sharing communal meals, playing games, talking about their latest journeys, complaining about their Handlers. It was all expected of her, and she dreaded failing to maintain the expectations of the Program. She lay down each Nocturn, exhausted but restless, troubled by dreams.

Once each Diurn, she visited with an assessor in what appeared to be his private sanctum, where she sat in a slime chair and mimicked her usual reports, feigning the known phases of recovery so she would be approved for the next journey. At their first session, Endrin, her assigned assessor, reclined in a small hard chair in his brown singlet hemmed in green, long dark hair pulled back through a silver ring. He wrinkled his broad brow and pursed his lips with appropriate concern and approval at the appropriate signs from Darlai. She wondered if he was pretending to overlook her symptoms.

He probed his senses into Darlai’s soul, scouting for disturbance. He found it among her recent dream content, mental agitation, background emotional distress, even memories of her Handler’s violations, but Darlai kept that wailing infant hidden and muffled within a hard shell at her core. Endrin’s psychic senses briefly stroked that shell, and at once withdrew to scan elsewhere within her. Darlai hoped it meant that he was willing to honor her secrets, so long as they did not affect her performance in the Program. Darlai also hid the fact that she had touched an entity on her last journey, but Endrin sensed the disturbance in her other readings, and she feared he would not approve her for her next journey.

He just made some strokes upon a slime pad. “Monitor your dream themes, and increase the length of your relaxation meditations.” He smiled reassuringly.

At their second session, Endrin leaned forward from his chair and resting his chin on pointed fingers, closed his eyes before speaking. “It’s understandable that your distress should be growing stronger. The effects of exposure to the Outward Realm can be cumulative.” He opened his eyes and stared at her.

Trying to see how she responded to the lie?

Darlai nodded sagely. “Understandable. But my recovery patterns are getting better too.”

It seemed to satisfy him, and Darlai left to continue her recovery through the second Diurn. During that Nocturn she had a tense nightmares from which she woke drenched in sweat with a scream rising in her heart, but could not recall the dream theme. All she could remember was the feeling of horror and dread. She felt exhausted all that next Diurn, yet tense and troubled.

She could no longer deny it: that single brief touch to the Level Two entity had affected her. Milden had shown that no taint had come back with her to escape into Endjolos, but something was different within her. Perhaps a part of herself, long buried, was trying to surface. If so, it was the most disturbed and needful part, and she wished it to stay buried. It had its own life though, and would not let her relax.

At their third session, Endrin leaned back in his chair and looked at Darlai with genuinely kind eyes. “Do you feel restored enough to attempt another journey next Diurn?”

Darlai looked away, scanned the simple spherical chamber. She had been led to believe this was Endrin’s private sanctum, but suspected it was a façade to help her trust him more. She looked back into his eyes and tried to smile. She knew he would notice the dark sags under her eyes, the sallow hue of her skin. “It’s been three Diurns already. I’m sure to be fully restored by the fourth.” She picked at a fingernail. “It’s what my Handler recommended.”

Endrin leaned forward. “How well are you sleeping?”

Darlai leaned back and looked at him from beneath her lashes. Something in his pursed, pinched face, the dark hair pulled back severely, annoyed her, but her loyalty to the Program kept her tone civil. “Well enough. Some dream themes are resolving toward clarity.” She felt that familiar urge to please him, to tell him what would help him in his work. She did not want to lie to those higher up in the Program, but desperately wanted his approval for the next journey.

“Hmm.” Endrin frowned and set aside his slime pad where he impressed notes. “Let me sense your soul state.” Without waiting for her approval, he closed his eyes and Darlai felt his spirit entering her own, beginning to move among her inner structures.

Instinctively Darlai hardened a shell around the core of her soul. The infant within shrieked and began a constant moan of terror, but none of that sound could escape. She then diffused that knowledge of having touched an entity throughout her spirit so her assessor could not identify it.

Endrin surveyed among the more obvious aspects of her soul: her dreaming content, her ambient arousal levels, her mental agitation. Darlai knew he sensed that deeper protected part of her, but mercifully he merely brushed it as if in casual curiosity. He drifted through the thin mist of her other secret before moving outward again and slipping out of her soul.

He moved his fingers on the slime pad. “Your intense devotion and unquestioning loyalty are intact, perhaps even increased by your last journey. Your drive to succeed is just as strong too, but something is distracting you. I’m considering advising you an extra Diurn.” He looked up and smiled. “To give the dream themes more time to resolve.”

Darlai hid her dismay. She was so close! She could be the one to bring back the first entity. If she was delayed, someone else might be given the mission, and she would never gain the recognition and approval she craved. “I — ”

She stopped at once. Endrin was frowning deeper, his brows lowered as he poked at his pad. “I can’t — ” He looked up bewildered at Darlai. “An override message just arrived from your Handler. Milden commands that you report to your usual pulse chamber promptly after four Diurns.” He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “I can’t honestly say you are ready for another encounter with the Outward Powers, but your Handler claims that the command comes directly from a Cynosure.”

He blinked his eyes open and stared at her. “They are pushing you too hard, Darlai. Human souls are fragile things to expose to such aweful Powers. But — ” He waved dismissively at the pad. “We must trust that the Cynosure is wise. I am not, and can no longer help you.” He wiped the pad and it went dull, and he stood to leave.

Darlai had always been the first one to leave, but it hardly mattered. A Cynosure requested her personally! A thrill leapt in her, even as that deep wail in her soul surged louder.

Endrin turned in the doorway. His face had relaxed into humbleness. “Perhaps there is some small way I can help.” He slid the silver ring off and shook his hair loose around his shoulders, then turned and started down the corridor. “Please follow.”

She’d never accompanied Endrin outside these small rooms, and now he led her into a section of the complex she couldn’t remember having visited before. Her body tensed when she heard distant cries, muffled by thick walls and doors, but she remembered her meditation, her resolve to recover, and willed herself to relax. The cries loomed faintly louder as Endrin led her deeper into a section where low crimson light glowed from pools in the walls arching close overhead. The floor was a spongy surface that swallowed their footsteps. Despite her efforts, Darlai’s tension increased.

Endrin approached a console where a Program operative in black bodysuit stood. Behind the console, a large black circle glimmered in the wall. Endrin stopped before the operative, and Darlai heard her assessor mutter the words “recovery therapy,” and “experimental”. The operative paused, gestured, but Endrin nodded and muttered “my idea...” and “responsible.”

Darlai saw the operative step aside and nod toward the large dark circle on the wall. She knew her assessor had asserted his rank in the Program heirarchy to gain them access. Would this risk Endrin’s status with those higher up than he? Even the Cynosures? Darlai wondered that he would expose himself to such risk for her sake. Or perhaps this was not for her at all.

Without looking at her, Endrin approached the strange dark circle, its diameter from floor to arched ceiling taller than he. Its surface rippled and bulged in the gentle air currents like a black bubble. When Darlai came up behind him, Endrin turned and stared at her a moment, the humble slackness of his face become dread. “This portal is a spirit-blocker. No emanation of any living soul can leak through its field. In or out.” He nodded as if to himself, and turned to surge through the wobbling surface.

Darlai followed. Her body slipped through the stuff as if through oil, making a perfect seal against her skin, dragging slightly, and then she was standing on the other side.

She clamped her hands over her ears, but the shattering sound pierced her soul. She stared around in horror at rows and columns of wriggling pink infants, each alone in a wire cage, their tiny fingers clutching empty air, their stiff arms reaching out for a human warmth they would never know. Their tiny eyes clenched shut, but dark mouths stretched wide, shrieking dismay at their abject abandonment. Darlai felt that distant wail in her own soul rise to her throat and shiver out into the room, lost in the greater chorus. She fell to her knees, clutched her hands over her ears and screamed, but could not hear herself over the wailing of a hundred lone infants.

To Eve of Evil (Part 3)

© 2011 by Gregg Marchese.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.