Project Atlas - the end of the line. If you've done your rounds in the chair force, you might've heard of it. Secret military base, weird experiments - all the shit that gets recruits all hot and bothered. As for the reality, well ... never meet your heroes. Anybody with a lick of experience knows it's a dead-end job, and I'd say they were right - but nobody thinks about that. They do their reviews, and they ship you off. A blindfold is wrapped over your eyes, and two guards guide you onto a plane. An hour or two later, you land, and they lead you to a car parked on the runway. You feel the prick of a needle in your arm, and you wake up at your new home away from home.
The thrilling intrigue stops there.
As one might expect, this isn't your usual base. It isn't much of a base at all, really - more like a fortification. It's completely walled off, and unless you're on watchtower duty, you don't see the outside. We were somewhere in the mountains, way up north, but that's all I know. Military personnel live on-site in a barracks kept separate from the main installation; nobody went in there, and if you did, that'd be the last anybody'd ever hear of you. We don't ask questions; we just do our job, and that job is to stand around and look scary. We were glorified security guards, drawn in by the mystery and high pay that you can't even use until you're discharged, but boredom has a price of its own.
A couple weeks went by, and the reality slowly sank in that I would not become a secret agent, and would not be seeing any aliens. Rumors existed, sure, but there were so many going around at that point that it didn't even matter. Even if somebody did know the truth, it's not like anybody would believe them, and the brass were wizards of disinformation.
It's not all bad in the grand scheme of things, though. My old base, Fort Rousseau, was not the kind of place you expected to show up at when you're fresh out of basic, but I didn't have any illusions about what I was doing. I enlisted because I had nothing else going for me, and intentionally chose a non-combat MOS. I was not a hero, and I had no intentions of fighting back against the monsters of the world. I was just drifting through life, aimless and without any real goals beyond continuing to breathe.
I hadn't a clue that the real monsters were right by my side, until one morning came. It was still dark out, the air filled with that kind of calm stillness you'd only expect at that hour. I had a friend, there. My only friend, really - Jenny. She fixed up any helicopters that landed on base, generally making sure they didn't explode when you hit the ignition. Most folks out there made me feel like shit, 'cause that's what you did to the newbies, I guess - anybody with rank took a swing at me, and I never had the will to fight back. Call it a negative feedback loop.
It was morning, dark, and I couldn't sleep, but they were pretty lenient, there, so I went outside for a walk, everybody else in my barracks still passed out from the training of the day before. It was nice, really; I've always had a thing for morning walks. There's just something peaceful about them that's hard to get anywhere else. I think it's the lack of people. Maybe twenty minutes passed, and I'm about to turn back, when I hear this noise. It was a kind of squealing, like from an animal caught in a trap. I remember thinking of the rabbits in the forest out back, when I was a kid. They'd get caught in the snares, and they'd make the most horrible sound you ever heard.
I go around a corner or two, and wind up at an old storage hangar. I peek through the window. Jenny's on the ground, trying to scream, being held down by a group of six guys that always had their eye on her. I'm looking around, panicking, trying to figure out what to do, when somebody grabs me from behind. He's stronger than me, and he drags me into the hangar, trying to cover my mouth while I'm biting down on his hand, but he just hits me, and I drop. They made me watch them take their turns, and all I felt was absolute powerlessness. I wanted to help her - I wanted to do something - but after a while, I just stopped trying to fight it. I gave up. Eventually, one of them rose to his feet, after it was all over, and Jenny was crying and bleeding on the ground. He kicked her in the head with his boots, stomping and kicking, over and over again. They left, eventually. Jenny wasn't moving.
She was placed into long-term care, brain-damaged for the rest of her life, and the whole thing was just swept under the rug. People didn't give a shit about enlisted women, and I couldn't do a thing, either. Those people were connected, and I couldn't touch them. All they were 'punished' with was being relocated to another base. I visited her every day until I was transferred, but she didn't know who I was anymore. I guess it didn't really matter, at that point - what's done is done. The last real memory I had of her was at the beach, on leave, just the two of us sitting down on the shoreline, staring out at the water. I still remember the feeling of the waves gently lapping against the sand, winding between my toes. The water was warm. I thought about ending it all for her, one day - that maybe she'd be better off dead. Now, part of me's still beating myself up inside for even thinking that, while the other part's laughing at me for not having the balls to go through with it.
I had done it before - there wasn't anything to it.
But I didn't, and the next thing I knew, I was at Atlas Station, where every day's a routine - every day but one.
One of the first things we're told when we get there is that when you hear a buzzer over the intercom, you march your ass straight outside and fall in - like a grade school fire drill with M16s - but that's all they ever were. Drills.
We stood in formation in the center of the courtyard, atop a set of sealed aircraft silo doors. The air was cold and humming with a strange electricity, every hair on my body standing on end like I was bracing for a static shock. The others at my side held deathly still, but you could cut the tension with a knife. We were called to attention, and an officer in a black overcoat approached us.
"You will now be taken inside Atlas Station, where you will stand guard at the posts assigned to you," he yelled. "You will not leave these posts. If you observe anything unusual while on duty - anything at all - you will immediately report it to your senior officer. If you see visual distortions, like sudden flickers of light, you will report it. If you experience nausea, or a sense of vertigo, you will report it. Any break from protocol is grounds for immediate discharge. Do you understand?"
We gave our 'yes sirs,' and were led in single file to the towering metal doors, a chill wind rushing through the trees as I gripped my rifle tight. The installation loomed above us; a windowless box of steel and concrete designed to look as uninviting as physically possible. The doors opened with a hiss, and we stepped inside, entering a brightly lit reception area, where every surface was tiled with a clean, white plastic that gleamed with an unnatural sterility. The man in the black coat stopped by a group of guards as we filed into the room and resumed formation.
"You will be called by name," he yelled, turning to face us. "You will step forward, and will be led to your assigned post. If I did not make myself clear, you will not leave this post for any reason. If you need to use the washroom, you will notify your escort, and do so now, as you will not be able to again for the duration of your assignment. No exceptions - you shit your pants if you really have to. If you are told to do something by a member of the guard staff, you will do it. If a member of the staff is in danger, you will remove that danger. You will be relieved in approximately five hours. Do you understand?" I could tell that more than one of us wondered what he meant by 'danger,' but questions in the military had a habit of only getting you more work, so we acknowledged him all the same. One by one, men were called up, and were led down the hall behind the crescent-shaped check-in desk. Everything had a clean, almost futuristic aura to it, like I had set foot upon the shores of another age.
"Corporal Ethan Ramirez," the man called. I stepped forward and was met by one of the guards, who led me around the desk, and through a long, white hall before coming to a large, gated elevator. As I looked at the numbered control panel inside, the true expanse of the installation began to dawn on me. The floor numbers went far into the negatives, down to the low hundreds. The bulk of the structure was below ground. A part of me felt like a kid again, reliving the excitement I had felt when I first took the job - but something was wrong. I felt nervous - almost afraid - but I didn't know why. The guard hit a key on the panel, and we began the long ride down.
"So, what's so special about today?" I asked. He stared at me for a moment, giving me the kind of look you only have when you want somebody to shut their mouth. Taking the hint, I remained silent for the rest of the way, listening to the slow shift of the cables above. The deeper we traveled, the more the anxiety grew within me, evolving into a lingering dread. I imagined it was a lot like how a prey animal would feel, grazing in a field as the eyes of a predator fall upon them. They run out of instinct, but they never know why - they never know how much danger they were truly in.
When we reached our destination, the gate slid open, revealing another hallway with a single door at the end, everything coated in same sheen of unblemished plastic. The lights in the hall flickered as we walked, rousing a look of caution on the guard's face. He was scared of something, but I knew my questions wouldn't get any answers. The door opened with a hiss, and I was led into a massive chamber lined with immense, sweeping cables, and a ring of control consoles manned by teams of researchers. In the center, a looming reactor hummed with power, the air lensing around its intricate design.
"Your post is here by the door," said the guard. "Nobody leaves for the duration of your assignment, by penalty of deadly force. Any additional orders will be broadcast over the PA system, or your radio."
With that, he left. I turned to face the room, scanning the advanced machinery that surrounded me. I began to silently debate myself over whether or not I really just heard him say 'penalty of deadly force.' Did he seriously expect me to shoot anybody that wanted to leave? The PA system flared to life on the speakers above with a high-pitched whine.
"To all participating stations," a man announced. "The project will begin in five minutes. Please ensure that all nodes are running at full capacity, and we'll be well underway. In the event of an anomaly, all nodes will be required to power down when notified. All visiting personnel at Atlas Station are again warned to stay in your assigned locations, and immediately report any abnormal phenomena." The transmission ended, and the steady patter of keyboards filled the room. The researchers looked increasingly nervous, if not outright terrified of whatever was about to happen. Sweat dripping down my brow, my eyes panned across the room as the minutes passed, a feeling of impending doom weighing down on me. The lights dimmed for a moment before powering back on again, and a low hum resonated throughout the structure.
A man got up from his chair and made a break for the door, a look of utter terror etched on his face. I moved to block him, and quickly restrained him as he slammed into me.
"Get back over there," I said. "I'm sorry, but I can't let you leave."
"Get the fuck out of my way!" he screamed, attempting to hit me. "We're gonna' die, you fuck, now move!" I pushed him back, and he grabbed hold of my rifle, fingers wrapping around the grip as he pulled the trigger. I knocked the barrel aside as shots cracked through the air and ricocheted off the ground, nearly deafening me as I pried his hands off the weapon and threw a hard hook to his jaw. The blow knocked the teeth from his mouth in a spatter of blood, and he stumbled back. I leveled my sights on him, but he was still determined to get past me.
"Stay where you are," I said, finger tensing upon the trigger as everyone in the room stared at me intently. "Stay back!" The walls around us began to shake, and terror filled the man's eyes. He charged at me, and I pulled the trigger, firing a three-round burst through his heart. He dropped at my feet, clutching his chest in shock before quickly falling unconscious. The PA system flared to life once more.
"All nodes are ordered to power down immediately," a voice announced, my hands still shaking with adrenaline. "Urban detachments are advised to evacuate the western coast by the fastest means available. Further updates will be given shortly." The team of researchers got up from their seats and charged toward the door, faces transfixed in abject horror as though their lives were about to end. I jumped aside as they stampeded past me and poured into the hallway, unwilling to fire upon another person.
"What's going on?" I yelled at them. Nobody answered, their minds solely focused on getting away from whatever it was that frightened them. Possibilities flashed through my mind as I debated running. They could kill me if I run, but if something bad's about to happen, I could die anyway. The PA system screeched on again as the growing hum trembled through the walls.
"Atlas is down, people," yelled a different man. "I repeat, Atlas is down. All personnel detachments are urged to escape to the eastern hemisphere. The coastline is about to be -"
The facility began to violently shake, cutting off the speaker. I dashed out into the crowded hallway, adrenaline pumping through my veins as the screaming researchers mindlessly clawed at the grating of the elevator shaft, hoping for an exit that would never come. The ceiling began to crack, a fissure splitting through the plastic and the concrete beneath it as debris tumbled and sparked down the elevator shaft. All at once, a surge of pain rushed through my body, every muscle seizing and contracting as I collapsed to the floor in absolute agony. It felt like every nerve in my body was on fire, boiling my blood as the numbing heat crept through my bones and shot into the roots of my teeth. I screamed until my throat was raw, but the pain only intensified, until at last, I blacked out.
I remember dreaming of the color white, flowing like fabric upon the shadowy air with a viscous liquidity. A low drone hummed within my mind, and I felt a primal, instinctual fear overtake me as streaks of blood began to stain the currents of the angelic veil, sweeping through the folds like great rivers of crimson death before fading to an unyielding blackness.
I awoke, and my eyes opened to a blurry haze of color, the pain from before fading into nothingness. Confused and disorientated, I scanned my surroundings, the broken, white hallway slowly worming its way back into my field of view. I was floating, pressed against the ceiling and staring down at the floor. My rifle was gone.
A surge of adrenaline flooding into my veins, I looked around in a panic to see the petrified human figures that reached out from the walls, coated in an amalgam of plastic, metal, and concrete as their screaming faces were frozen forever in horror. The researchers were gone, and their bodies had somehow melded with the structure. The air was thick, almost syrupy, and difficult to breathe, like I was swimming through some malign interpretation of water. I pushed back at the broken ceiling, sending myself flying softly toward the elevator before stopping six feet away. The grating had been torn aside, the grasping hands of a petrified woman reaching up from the rim. Everything looked as though it had been suddenly liquified, only to be reconstituted before it could fall too far out of a logical alignment, scarring every surface with a snaking, drooping texture.
"Hello?" I called out, my voice muted, as though it had no echo. "Is anyone there?"
Only the cold silence of the station responded. Everyone was gone. Everyone - except for me.
I made a stroking motion through the space ahead of me, pulling myself forward again until I gently collided with the back wall of the shadowy elevator shaft, the failing lights of every floor flickering in the distance above and below. I felt completely and utterly alone in that moment, the overpowering atmosphere of isolation weighing upon my mind. It felt like the planet had been jettisoned from the solar system, hurtling through the darkness of the void like an insignificant speck upon the cosmic winds. What had actually occurred - I had no earthly clue - but I knew the feeling all too well. The feeling of powerlessness and smallness before an overwhelming force. I began to float upward with little effort, the darkness of the shaft swallowing me as I sailed toward the upper levels, guided only by the light that shone from the floors above me.
Approaching what I assumed was the surface-level floor, I braced myself against the wall to slow my ascent. Above, the remainder of the shaft spun into a winding corkscrew that extended up into the darkness, as though it was no longer bound by the confines of the station. On the ground floor, the gate was missing, with the hall being just as tattered as the last, the upper body of a guard molded into the plastic and concrete of the wall. The liquified coating had failed to envelop him entirely, his exposed face staring lifelessly in an expression of eternal fear and confusion. Then, I noticed the fallen debris upon the ground. How was I floating, but everything else was still secure? If I were in zero gravity, the air would be choked with wreckage.
I swam down the expanse of the corridor and drifted into the reception area, where the walls sloped inward as though they had been melted. The warped room was lifeless and empty, save for the crescent desk set before me, with only a deafening silence ringing in the background. I could almost hear the sound of every organ in my body, my heartbeat hammering in my ears as my lungs struggled to breathe the syrupy air.
I drifted toward the exit and pushed the door open, the panels sliding away with a soft hiss. Floating still, I was met not by the glare of daylight, but by a lingering blackness that swallowed the courtyard, save for the faintly glowing lamps that were mounted upon the walls of every structure. Looking out onto the field, the sparsely lit grass had been warped into pyramidal needles of petrified earth, jutting up from landscape as they were swallowed by the hungering shadows that wormed their way through the cracks in the light. Turning my gaze to the sky, a feeling of dread immensity washed over me, as though I were an atom staring out into the vastness of space. It was blacker than pitch, with neither sun, moon, nor star suspended in the trembling void. A primal fear began to well up inside me, feeding the aura of malevolence that radiated out from the unforgiving darkness. Unable to take any more, I turned away and retreated inside, quickly closing the door behind me.
Turning back to face the room, the deathly silence became more apparent than ever, every shift of movement amplified in the eerie serenity. I felt as though I had to be quiet - like some cosmic aberration would take notice of my presence if I didn't - but still, I refused to believe it, berating myself for even considering it. I was alone. The only monsters that existed were of the human variety, and I had seen more than my share of them.
In search of any other survivors, I swam back to the elevator shaft and sank six floors down, entering another hallway. The door at the end had been ripped into several pieces that were now strewn haphazardly across the floor, sweeping claw marks embedded in the metal as though it had been mauled by a bear. A strange light flickered from beyond, rapidly lashing against the walls in a staccato of trembling shadow. Cautiously, I swam forward and passed through the open frame, drifting above the grated surface of a large, circular chamber lit by a blinding, stroboscopic radiance. My heart stopped as I saw the petrified soldiers frozen in place upon the floor, standing like statues as the grating ensnared them in the flickering darkness. I recognized most, having lived with them for the better part of several months. They looked like they were caught in the act of running when the tendrils of liquid metal pierced their feet and traveled up their legs, impaling their organs from within. Blood leaked up from wherever they touched the floor, weightless upon the air as the crimson droplets cascaded up to the ceiling, and slowly trickled up their perpetually screaming faces. It was like anything organic was unaffected by gravity - but I touched the station floor just like any other - why wasn't I killed like the rest?
In the center of the chamber was an enormous metal cylinder lined with electronics that extended down into the complex below. Pipes filled with masses of wire looped out from the walls and across the ceiling, connecting to the large instrument. It was like the entire station was built to power a single, monumental task - but what that was, I had no idea. The shadows of the soldiers flashed upon the walls in the quivering light, yet they seemed to move of their own accord, assuming new positions every time the light flickered back in. Squinting to avoid the seizure-inducing chaos, I drifted toward one of the soldiers and tried to pry the M16 from his grip, but his hands were bound by the same snaking, metallic tendrils that held him in place. Blood slowly leaked into his eyes as he seemed to stare at me in lifeless horror, and I backed away, wanting to be as far away from the horrible sight as possible.
I swam back toward the elevator shaft, drifting softly through nothingness, until a sudden sensation of unease brought me to a halt just before the edge. I felt like I was in danger, but I didn't know why. Pulling myself to the ground, I peeked over the edge and stared down into the depths of the shaft. Nearly six floors below, a humanoid shape poked out from the hallway, startling me. Barely illuminated by a thin sheen of light that grew dimmer by the second, it held deathly still, its features utterly obscured by the shadow.
"Hello?" I called out, my voice muted by the air. Every hair on my body stood on end as I looked down at the shape, unable to understand what it was that I was seeing. It was turned away from me, yet its arms were reversed as though double-jointed, gripping the walls of the shaft like an otherworldly animal. It jerked suddenly, arms snapping forward and pulling its body toward me with a heavy, metallic thud. It continued, its twisted limbs erratically shuddering up the wall below to drag its body ever closer. The light that revealed its silhouette flickered off, leaving only a thick shroud of darkness in its wake, and a steady thumping sound that grew louder and louder with every passing second. Whatever it was, it was coming toward me.
I kicked off from the ground, sailing up into the twisting elevator shaft as I swam through the air as quick as I could, struggling to reach the surface again. I looked back as I rose, seeing the lights on the floors below slowly die out and give way to the shadow, and the horrifying noise that was rapidly gaining speed behind me. Reaching the surface level, I swam out into the hallway, sailing swiftly toward the reception desk. Frantically pulling myself forward as I shot nervous glances over my shoulder, I entered the lobby - but it was not the room that I remembered. Everything sloped up into an angle that I could barely perceive, hurting my eyes every time I looked at it, and the door at the end was embedded in the wall at a diagonal.
A sudden scuttling sounded from somewhere around me, unnerving my senses as I froze still to listen. A soft pattering was echoing from within the ceiling above, like a massive insect was scurrying upon the distended tiles, slowly rising to a steady chorus of fast clanking noises. Panic overtaking me, I quickly swam toward the exit, nervously scanning the room as I moved. Colliding with the misplaced door, I opened it, once more revealing the muted darkness of the courtyard, which now laid at an angle to match the new position of the door. Drifting forward, a sense of vertigo spun through my mind as I slowly adjusted to the shift in perspective. Dizzy and nauseated, I shut the door behind me and turned to face the barracks, an old concrete two-story connected to the inner walls of the station, which allowed passage between the watchtowers. I wasn't alone, and I needed protection - some way of defending myself from whatever it was that now stalked me. There was an armory inside the barracks, and if I could reach it, I could take one of the spare rifles.
I drifted out onto the empty field, trying to keep my eyes peeled away from the pitch blackness of the sky, a sight that bothered me on a level that I couldn't even begin to explain. Stopping half-way to catch my breath, I inhaled the syrupy air that surrounded me, an act that left me dizzy and nauseated. It had a chemical taste to it, like I was breathing the fumes of industrial runoff. I floated still, listening to the cold silence as I slowly recovered. All at once, a vast rumbling sound emerged from the hungering void. The buildings began to shake as the warped ground beneath me fell by at least two meters, and I swam down to catch up with the sinking landmass. As I collided with the grass, the tremors ceased, and all was still once more.
Struggling to catch my breath, I gently pushed myself up off the ground, suspending my body in the air. The barracks just ahead of me, I swam toward it, eyes trailing cautiously across the darkness as I moved. I gripped the door handle and tugged firmly, but it didn't budge. Someone had sealed themselves inside.
"If there's anybody in there, open up!" I yelled, rattling the handle. I heard a scraping noise sound from the other side, and the door unlocked itself. There was actually someone in there. I cautiously drifted back as the door slowly creaked open in the void, yet all that it revealed was dust and silence, the dim lights of the barracks flickering and waning from within.
"Ethan," a voice spoke from behind. I whipped my body around, clenching my fists. Floating nearly six feet away, Jenny stared coldly at me, suspended in the darkness. My voice caught in my throat. I could barely think of how to respond.
"You're ... how are you here?" I stammered. "You're -"
"Is that really all you can say?" she asked, sneering at me. "How am I here? Aren't you happy to see me?" I floated still in the grim serenity, confused and alarmed.
"You were in the hospital," I said in disbelief. "You couldn't even feed yourself, you -"
"And whose fault is that?" she yelled, her voice echoing out into the blackness. "You just watched, so weak and so afraid. You passed by them every day, after that, looking away like a coward, even when they laughed at you. You gave up."
I stared onward, speechless and on the verge of tears. Then, I looked closer at her face, and a chill ran down my spine. Her teeth were as sharp as razors, grinning sadistically as her mouth began to ripple and expand, stretching and rolling back her features until her face became a single, gaping maw, a black ichor dripping from her jutting fangs. Panicked and terrified, I spun around and pulled myself into the barracks. Slamming the door behind me, I backed up against it to hold it shut. An inhuman wail sounded from the other side as something began to pound against the metal, warping it with its terrifying strength. Desperate and struggling to keep the door closed, I fumbled for the lock, gripping it tight in my hands, and sliding it shut.
"Help me, Ethan. Open the door," it pleaded, mimicking Jenny's voice as it rammed itself against the door. "I'm all alone out here, Ethan. Please, help me." The pounding ceased, and the fluttering of wings sounded from beyond. The creature had departed, leaving me to drift alone in the dim stillness of the barracks. As I struggled to gather my senses, I turned to face the room, my eyes meeting with a sight that burned itself into the darkest recesses of my mind. Directly ahead of me laid a grisly patchwork of fallen soldiers, their flesh and limbs mutilated, twisted, and fused together into an eldritch frame that adorned an open passageway, gaping like a sphincter of rotting meat as it led into the outer walls of the station. Their blood slowly trickled up to the ceiling, running upon the walls in great rivers of red stricken across the white. As I drifted closer, my mind begged me to look away, yet reason overtook me, and I forced my eyes to search the bodies for supplies. I found a knife, and then a pistol, checking the chamber and magazine before tucking the weapons into my belt. For now, that would save me a trip to the armory. The less moving around, the better. Rising again, I thought I heard a gust of air. I listened closer, holding still in the silence. The faint sound of breathing rattled around me, and my eyes drifted back to the mutilated bodies. Their chests rose and fell ever so slightly with the intake of air. They were alive.
Surveying their horrific injuries, my mind struggled to comprehend how they could still be conscious. The world around me began to shake once more, trembling as I did in fearful reverence. The cabinets, doors, and bunks rattled and swayed with the tremor, creating a constant barrage of noise until all was still once more. The furniture and beds of the barracks were now partially embedded in the floor, as though caught in quicksand.
My hand lowered to my pistol, the labored wheezing growing louder upon the air. I could end their suffering. I could stop the pain. My fingers trembled upon the grip of the weapon as I tried to come up with every excuse to turn away. What if something heard the gunshots? What if I needed those rounds to protect myself?
I didn't want to be that person. Not again.
Pulling my gaze away from my dying compatriots, I swam through the macabre gateway into the darkness of the outer walls. It didn't matter. They would be gone soon, anyway - but I could still live. My only thought was to get to a watchtower. From there, I could see over the entire station, and if miracles were possible, spot any survivors. The tattered, concrete walls swam with movement, lit by a sourceless red glow that seemed to melt into the viscous hall that surrounded me, curving in a way that couldn't logically correspond to the structure of the station. Moving forward, I eventually came to the first ladder. Gripping its bars, I braced myself for my ascent, but froze still upon hearing a sound echo in the distance. It was a high-pitched squealing, like a dying animal, barely audible through the thick, fortified walls. I felt a horrible chill in that moment, everything urging me to stay where I was, but something about it felt so eerily familiar. I let go of the ladder and swam further into the writhing glow of the corridor, saturated flashes of blue passing over the red like waves upon an ocean. The sound grew louder and louder, until it seemed as though I were floating right next to it. My eyes drifted across the hall, confused, until they met with a small window embedded in the wall, only six feet away. A lingering dread crept through my mind as I slowly approached it, the muffled squealing echoing from beyond. There were never any windows in the outer walls, yet the structure of that place was no longer something that conformed to rationality.
I leaned in, peering through the opening, and felt my blood run cold. It was the old hangar from Fort Rousseau. Jenny was pinned on the ground by six men with faces like blurs of motion, their features hazy and indistinct as she forced a muffled scream through the hands that covered her mouth. Blood and tears wept away from her face, drifting up into the air as I remembered the feeling I knew all too well. The surrender. I wanted to die, in that moment. I remember trying to kill myself, when it first happened, because I couldn't live with the guilt, and I had the gun in my mouth, and I could taste the metal, and I remember how my finger shook upon the trigger - but I couldn't do it. I was a coward.
The horrific show stopped in place, as if frozen in time. Slowly, the faceless men turned their gaze toward me, staring blankly into my soul. I heard a muffled squealing at my side, and I spun around, drawing my pistol and aiming it at the blood-soaked man that now shambled toward me, wearing the severed head of an enormous rabbit, its mangled ears drooping down over its lifeless eyes. He slowly lurched down the corridor, inching ever closer to me by the second. My hands shaking with fear and rage, I squeezed the trigger again and again, gunshots cracking through the air. The assault did nothing but break the illusion for a fraction of a second. For every bullet that struck the man, his form flickered and waned, revealing a writhing mass of tendrils in his wake, drifting through the air like a spiraling chaos of flesh.
I blinked for a second, paralyzed with fear and trauma, and the creature was gone. All was still again, bathed in the impenetrable silence as my vision spun with a sudden vertigo. Shaken, my eyes desperately scanned the glowing walls. The window had vanished, leaving no trace of its existence behind. I was lost and alone in a place that defied any semblance of reason - that toyed with me as though I were a thing of amusement. My mind struggled to rationalize the things that were happening to me, yet drew upon nothing. Things like this - they don't exist. They shouldn't exist, and yet there they were. Maybe I lost my mind - maybe I'm buried under the rubble of the station, hit by a fallen chunk of concrete rattled off by some massive explosion. Maybe everything I was seeing was only a dying nightmare, but I can pinch myself and scratch at my skin, and I know I feel pain.
Where am I?
Still trembling in shock and delirium, I drifted back toward the ladder and gripped its cold bars, propelling myself up into the watchtower. I floated in silence at the top, warily scanning the open field of the courtyard, and the pitch black wilderness that lurked beyond the walls. Nothing. This was a fortified base staffed by thousands, and all I could see was darkness. Noticing the spotlight at my side, I grabbed hold of it and switched it on, taking a moment to catch my breath as the dizziness briefly overtook me. The ray of light lit up the wall of a nearby structure. Cautiously, I panned the beam across the field, parting the shadows that enveloped it. The sealed aircraft silo in the center of the courtyard reflected the light off its surface, glistening softly in the waning darkness. I almost thought I saw Jenny dancing upon it, whirling in a dress of bloodstained white, but the mirage fled as quick as it came.
A low hum reverberated through the air above me, shaking the watchtower with its deafening resonance. I held deathly still, paralyzed in fear as the silence slowly flooded in again. Gripping the spotlight tight, I angled the beam up to the sky, trembling in terror and anticipating the worst. The void parted to reveal a swarming mass of twitching appendages and winding limbs that blanketed the world above, their blackened skin flowing upon the sky like gasoline upon water. The writhing cacophony squirmed and separated as the light touched its surface, giving way to an immense, dilated eye that gazed down at the watchtower, every nerve in my body tingling with heat as the malign aberration penetrated my mind. Feeling a rush of panic, I took hold of the ladder and propelled myself down into the depths of the tower. A rush of air sounded from above, followed by a deafening crash as the structure above me was smashed to pieces by a tremendous impact.
I emerged in the corridor as debris tumbled down from the watchtower shaft, a cloud of dust pluming around me as I quickly got out of the way. Panicked thoughts raced through my mind as I listened to my heartbeat pound in my ears, terrified and shaken by whatever it was that I had witnessed. I wasn't on Earth. I couldn't have been. I might've seen the wilds beyond the walls, but beyond them, there was only nothing - I knew it. It was like the station had been ripped away and cast into a lightless void - but this wasn't outer space, or anything that even resembled the familiar comforts of our universe. I was somewhere different.
Steeling my nerves, I swam further down the red-lit hall as my vision buckled and swayed in delirium, a sickness welling up in my stomach as beads of sweat frayed away from my skin. A gentle crackling slowly grew through the silence, unnerving my senses as I aimed my weapon at the flickering glow. I was too disoriented to even hit anything, but I was just going through the motions, the noise growing into the sound of a roaring flame. The darkness parted to reveal the window once more, in the same place as before. A flood of rage washed over me, and I propelled myself toward it. Beyond the window, however, there was no outlet for my anger in sight. It was a vision of rolling hills, forests burning beneath a sky of blackened cinder, and from the storm of ash that trembled above, a cloud of slender, drooping hands drifted through the air, the countless appendages sweeping over the burning landscape as they dripped a foul blood upon the earth. All within its shadow sweltered and bled, blooming into landscapes of flesh and sorrow that breathed in the air and exhaled a choking, toxic death. Slowly, I reached forward through the window, yet I didn't feel the heat of the roaring flames, and the drifting ash passed through my hand as though it were air.
Unsure of what I was really seeing, I withdrew my hand and backed away, a horrible unease growing within me. With only a blink, the window fled once more from my vision, replaced by the pulsating walls of the station, yet from within the cracks and fissures that swept through the viscous concrete, blood ran up across the swimming surface, as though the world itself were slowly bleeding.
"WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?" I yelled, hitting the shifting wall in anger as tears flooded my eyes. My knuckles split and bleeding, I let myself go, drifting in silence through the shadows. "Why am I alive?" I asked the darkness, my voice weary and dry from thirst.
With another blink, I found myself elsewhere. I stood alone in an abandoned city street, my feet planted firmly on the ground as the buildings burned to ash around me. I was surrounded by the bodies of thousands, stretching onward behind and around me for as far as I could see. Mutilated and defiled, they laid sprawled across the pavement, eyes wide with fear and distress. The sky, while still marked with streaks of blue, was slowly filling with rolling clouds of violet that muted the sun into a crimson haze, bathing the city in an otherworldly, apocalyptic glow. I stepped forward, wading through the carnage as I suppressed the urge to vomit, gusts of ash and cinder blowing upon the toxic winds. Not a few moments later, the road ahead of me had ended, giving way to an endless, dark hole that defied measurement. The city, and the world for as far as I could see, stopped there, severed away in a vast, sweeping curve. The skyscrapers caught on the edge stuck out like splinters in the land, sliced in two as though a section of the Earth had vanished into thin air. I could not see the bottom, nor the end of the pit, but I could feel the malevolence that stirred within it - its presence seeming more like a wound in the universe than in the planet itself. Peering into the black abyss, I felt the darkness stir.
I was back in the glowing corridor again, drifting softly through the viscous air. The walls were now covered in a thick, blood-slicked fur that rippled and swayed in the disorientating madness, the curvature of the corridor beyond twisting and turning like a wave. Dizzy and confused, I gripped my temples as my head spun with pain. Everything told me that I was losing my mind - but it felt real - the way the toxic air filled my lungs - the way the world around me felt heavy and weighted. I didn't know what to believe.
I turned around and tucked my gun into my belt, the will to continue seeming nothing more than a pointless effort of prolonging my suffering. Drifting back the way I came, I arrived once more at the barracks. The soldiers, bound and fused in agonizing patterns of gore, still breathed, occasionally letting slip a muffled cry from whatever remained of their mangled lungs. The air was getting harder to breathe, a steady dizziness slowly overtaking me as the levels of oxygen plummeted to nothing. My mind wandered as I stared into the weeping eyes of my friends, drifting from thought to thought in a desperate attempt to escape the moment.
When I was young, I lived out in Texas near an air force base where my father worked. I stayed with him and my mother for nine years, until one day my dad walks out on us. I never did find him, and I don't know what twist of fate wound me up in the same profession. Like I said before, I just didn't know what else to do. Two years pass, and I'm eleven, living alone with my mother, when she gets diagnosed with lung cancer. Some time passes - nothing works, and the doctors let her visit home for a little bit while my grandpa took care of me. She was just ... laying down in bed, in so much pain. She was talking about not wanting to live anymore, but I was just a kid - I didn't really understand it. I didn't understand the consequences of my actions.
I remembered a baby rabbit I'd found out back, behind the house. It was bleeding and crying in the dirt, in a whole lot of pain, so I picked it up and took it inside. I still don't know what gave me the idea, but I ran some water in the sink until it was full to the top. I took the rabbit, and held it under. It kicked for a little bit, but then it stopped moving - stopped trying to fight it. It was better for it.
So, I'm thinking this, and my mother's on the bed, barely able to feed herself, and I take a pillow, and I hold it to her face. It's easier when you can't see the other person. She didn't fight it. Her limbs just relaxed, and I felt her give up.
Everybody thought it was the cancer.
I stood suspended in the air, staring down at the men. Everybody thinks it's hard to kill someone - but it's not. It should be - but it's not. One moment they're there, and the next, they're not, but a corpse is just a shell.
I didn't want to be that person, but I was.
Removing the knife from my belt, I knelt down and held it to the first one's throat. Hesitating for a moment as I fought back the lingering tears, I pushed down. The blade sank into his flesh, sliding through his arteries until the wound gaped wide, letting loose a slow stream of blood that trickled out into the air, floating peacefully in the void. His eyes held still, and I felt the life slowly drain from them as his heart stopped beating. I got up, pulled myself over to the next man, and repeated the process; cutting deep into his throat and watching him die. Then the next, and then the next, and the one after that.
Finished, I took the gun from my belt, stuck it in my mouth, and pulled the trigger. It clicked. I pulled the trigger again. Click. Again and again and again. Click, click, click. I didn't deserve to be alive. I racked the slide, expelling the cartridge and trying again. Click. There was no way.
Something was keeping me there. There was just no way.
Overwhelmed with defeat as I cried in pain, I let the gun slide from my grip, watching it drift off into the air and slice a path through the thick cloud of blood that surrounded me. A soft, gentle rush eased its way through the silence, like the sound of waves crashing against a sandy shore. I would know that sound anywhere.
I drifted forward, but the bolted door that would have led me to the courtyard was no longer there. In its place, a wooden door was set into the concrete, painted black with a white handprint upon its splintered surface. The sound was coming from beyond it, breaking the tension with an eerie calm, like listening to the soft hiss of white noise. With little else in mind, I gripped the handle, the metal radiating a feverish warmth. Turning it, I backed away as the door swung open, revealing a brightly lit shoreline. The sky was cloudless and blue, with a glaring sun suspended overhead. Waves gently lapped against the sandy beach, stretching out into a vast ocean without a single landmass in sight. Looking closer, I saw a figure sitting down upon the shore, staring out at the water. It was Jenny. I drifted through the door and shut it behind me. Turning around, the station was no longer there, in its place a seawall, and a distant city. The black door that I had entered through stood alone in its frame with nothing to support it. I turned back to the water, floating in the calm stillness, the air pressing through my lungs still thick as syrup.
I drifted forward, closer to Jenny, until I stood suspended at her side. Pulling myself down, I sat on the shoreline, and felt the soothing waves wrap themselves around my legs. I knew it wasn't her, but I needed to feel that moment again. Anything to replace the numbing pain that had paralyzed my mind. I'm not sure how long we stayed there for. Just like in my memory, time stood still in that place. Nothing mattered.
"Ethan," she whispered, staring out at the cascading waves. "Is this hell?" I remained silent for a moment, unsure of what to say.
"I don't know," I said, glancing to the side. She was gone.
I sat alone on the beach, trying to listen to the waves as a temporary reprieve from the madness, but only despair lingered in that place. The sound of shifting sand caught my attention, and I turned around, the city vanishing into an endless expanse of desert. An elk stood nearly thirty meters out, staring at me in silence. The sky darkened above me as my eyes trailed down to its hooves, sewn to the ground by tendrils of fleshy sinew. I pushed myself up and cautiously drifted toward it. I remembered seeing them sometimes from the watchtowers, but that was on the mountain, not whatever aberration this place represented. The elk let out a sudden cry, and was ripped from the ground by a pack of gibbering creatures that materialized out of thin air, resembling bizarre fusions of spiders and centipedes, if such insects had human limbs that writhed and twitched in senseless motion. The horrors lashed and tore at the animal, their forms peeling back out of proportion to reveal toothy maws several times the size of their bodies. In an instant, one of them wrapped its mouth around the elk and swallowed it whole, its thrashing legs kicking beneath the writhing flesh of the monster. Their prey devoured, the creatures turned to face me, jittering in and out of reality like a skipping film.
One by one, they charged forth, their limbs squirming madly in the air. I turned away from the oncoming swarm and propelled myself toward the door, hoping to reach it in time. As I collided against it, I frantically gripped the handle and pulled it open. The creatures' rancid breath on my back, I swam through the open door and back into the barracks, quickly slamming it shut behind me. The creatures rammed against the door, threatening to break through the moment I peeled myself from its surface. I wanted to die, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. I wouldn't let this place take me. It wouldn't win. I closed my eyes, hearing the twisting of the wood - feeling the strength in my arms wane beneath their inhuman onslaught. This can't be the end.
With one last effort, I pushed myself away from the door and frantically propelled myself through the fleshy passage that led into the writhing walls of fur, pushing my body to its limit as I clung to one last sliver of hope. I heard the door burst open behind me as I sailed through the air, followed by the gibbering shrieks and howls of the horrors that stalked me. I swam through the glow of the twisting halls, and eventually, the ladder leading up into the next watchtower slipped into view, stirring a shadow of forlorn desperation within me.
Colliding with the cold metal, I gripped the bars and pulled myself upward with all my strength. As I sailed up into the winding, angular shaft, the beasts collided against the ladder, their countless limbs and hands mirroring my actions as they followed closely behind. I reached the top of the watchtower, and quickly scanned the courtyard for a way out as I listened to my pursuers hastily grapple their way up the shaft. Cornered and out of options, I shook with fear as I turned to face the wilderness beyond. I had to do it. Tired and desperate, I kicked off from the ground, and sailed out into the blackness. The darkness swallowed me, hopefully obscuring me from the fiends that now swarmed and writhed around the tower. I had no such luck. The rippling horrors turned to watch me, drinking in my terror before they threatened to pounce. I dove down into the trees, unsure of where else to go.
I heard them launch themselves from the tower as I swam down into the void, feeling the unseen branches scratch and whip against my body as I moved. The nightmares snarled and ripped through the trees, teeth gnashing wildly behind me. I was flying blind, struggling with every ounce of strength that still remained in me to pull myself forward and feel my surroundings as they rushed past me. The further I moved, the thicker the air became, and I felt myself begin to suffocate, my body unable to take in enough oxygen for the amount of strain I was putting upon it. My limbs failed me as I struggled to breathe, and the world around me began to spin and blur in a haze of darkness before finally slipping into oblivion.
The currents of flowing, white fabric enveloped my mind once more, streaks of blood running across the angelic waves as static hissed within my mind. The fabric fell away as the noise reached an unholy crescendo, and stars swam upon the blackness like water, cosmic gas and radiant nebulae warping into the spinning void as though I were falling through an event horizon - and then, it was silent.
I woke in total darkness, floating alone in the absent void. My body felt faint, with barely enough strength to take in the fading air that sustained me. I moved my arms around, trying to get a hold on something, but gripped only the harrowing emptiness of my surroundings. This was it. The horrors were gone, but if I didn't starve to death, I'd be left there, destined to be tormented by my thoughts until I was swallowed whole by some drifting monstrosity. Senseless in a world I no longer knew nor recognized, I panned my eyes across the veil, hoping to glimpse some semblance of light in the distance, and after minutes of searching, it appeared. A single speck of light ascended into the sky, followed by another, and then another until they formed a distant, floating pattern in the darkness. Rays of light shot out from the shape, sweeping across the sky like searchlights. I was staring at some form of massive aircraft. I began to pull myself forward, expending every bit of strength I had left to send myself slowly flying toward the faraway ship.
A resonating groan shuddered through the air, nearly shattering my eardrums with a flash of blinding pain. My eyes locked on my goal, I saw another speck of light appear above the others. It flared up, and then sailed far off into the distance. A blinding flash lit the sky on fire, and I looked away. A rumbling boom shocked against me, followed by a wave of rushing heat. Slowly, I turned back, and saw the world around me illuminated for the very first time. The remnants of a nuclear explosion lingered in the air below a floating mass of twitching appendages that flowed upon the sky like a living storm. My eyes trailing down to the landscape ahead, the true horror of my situation began to sink in. Bathed in the red glow of the bomb was the mountain of Atlas Station, set atop a colossal, flaming landmass that drifted alone in the darkness. It was just as I feared. All that was beneath and beyond the floating island was utter blackness, like a chunk of land had been torn from the Earth and set adrift in an empty void - this hollow shell of a universe, suffered only by the nightmares that haunted our dreams. As the residual heat from the explosion stung my flesh, I looked up at the aircraft that sailed aimlessly below the writhing god, firing its weapons to no effect. The air around the massive creature began to tremble and shake, and a tremendous shockwave shot forth from the mass, rippling outward into the void. As it struck the aircraft, the ship disintegrated into nothingness, blasted into a cloud of stardust that drifted away in the fading glow.
Streaks of fire raining down through the air, the station came into view as I approached the island, and I looked down upon the fiery landscape that sped by underneath me. The mountain teemed with shapes that hurt to look upon; shifting aberrations that defied physical law and writhed haplessly together into impossible shapes. Bound by nothing and suffusing everything, they blanketed the land, stirring a primal fear within me and crushing all hope of survival. As I drifted slowly through the void, I looked up at the writhing mass once more, its many eyes staring back at me as it flayed the meager knowledge from my mind. Pained and weakened, I looked down again, seeing the walls of the station pass beneath me. Part of me wanted to stop myself - to swim back down to the station in some misguided attempt to save myself, but that part of me grew quieter and quieter as I stared off into the depths of the abyss. As the glow of the bomb finally faded, I drifted past the burning island, and felt the darkness swallow me once again.
This was the place where dreams came to die - where all actions are aimless and futile beneath the weight of oblivion. For all our strength - for all our power and technology - in this place, we were nothing.
I don't know how long I drifted for.
Eventually, I began to lose my conception of time, and my memories faded to a hollow darkness until I was little more than a shell of my former self.
I woke up on a sandy shoreline, coughing as a wave rushed against my face, and receded back into the ocean. It was night, and the full moon hung low upon the horizon of the empty sea. I had no idea what had happened to me. I got up, and started to walk in a crippling delirium, the lights of a town slowly drifting into view through the darkness.
I remember the feeling I got, when I first saw another person again, rushing over to see if I was okay. I had forgotten what people looked like. I had forgotten a lot of things, suddenly viewing the world through the eyes of a child - but nothing could remove that feeling of emptiness. The paralyzing horror that haunted my mind. The life that I lived would stalk me forever, and though I tried to recover as best I could, this world is not the one I remembered. I tried looking up old friends and places I've been to, but all the names are different. It says Fort Rousseau was abandoned in the forties, but that couldn't be right. There was nothing about Project Atlas or any damage that had been done to the world, and nobody could find any records of me. I had never even been born.
I hope some of you can make sense of this, but I'm not expecting much, and I suppose it doesn't really even matter anymore. I can't erase my own past, and whatever this world - this universe - is, there's nothing here for me.
I just needed somebody to listen.
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