(Read the Prologue here: http://fultonmiller.com/?p=116)
June 14, 2036, 5:32 pm
It’s a long way down. Brandon shifted his drink back over to his left hand nervously, struggling to keep his hands from shaking. Stop looking out the window, he thought to himself, doing his best to keep his gaze fixed on the alcoholic beverage, though he seldom lifted it to his lips for a swallow. It wasn’t that the drink wasn’t good; in fact, it would have been some of the best scotch he’d ever tasted, but he always got nauseous when airborne. He hadn’t really wanted the drink, but the smiley Japanese businessman who had seen them off from the HanedaAirport in Tokyo had insisted the stewardess bring it to him, despite the fact that he was only eighteen. He swirled the liquid distastefully, watching the three remaining ice cubes tumble over one another.
The initial wave of awe that had struck him as he first walked onto the expensively furnished plane had long since passed, and he was already tired of sitting in the too-soft leather seats, staring at the gleam of the polished wood decor. He took a glance away from his glass to peer down the fuselage towards where Luke was sitting, deftly using chopsticks to pick up a piece of sushi with his right hand while keeping his eyes riveted on the light display of the tablet in his left. On land, Brandon would have been more than happy to devour all the sushi his stomach could hold – and then some – but in the air… It’s not natural, Brandon thought with a shudder.
He watched with somewhat morbid fascination as his friend’s hand moved like a construction crane forward, then straight down, dipping the piece of sushi into the small dish of soy sauce directly below. The morsel reemerged as quickly as it had gone down, the brown stain still spreading across the bed of rice. His arm acted almost as a separate creature, mechanically shaking two droplets of soy sauce back into the dish and swinging the sushi around to its owner’s mouth.
Brandon let out a chuckle despite his current demeanor. “Jesus, Luke. What are you, a robot?”
Luke stopped and looked up, eyes wide as if he had forgotten where he was. Half the piece of sushi was still comically perched in front of his face, and his eyes darted down to it and back to his friend sitting down the aisle. A smile twisted the side of his mouth upward as he made the connection. “My apologies for being a distraction. Would you like me to order you another glass of scotch to stare at?”
Brandon grimaced; he was hoping Luke hadn’t noticed. “You’re right. I’m sure reading the same research data hundreds of times is far more stimulating.” The words tumbled out of his mouth even as he tried to stop them. Too late, he watched the look on Luke’s face melt back to one of worry and mild frustration.
“I need to be sure,” Luke said in a strained and desperate voice. He absently began twirling one of the chopsticks between his fingers, his cold blue eyes swirling in thought and focused on something near his feet. “This meeting could go any number of ways, and I would rather it be the right one.”
“Luke, relax,” Brandon said, raising the glass and downing about half its contents, wincing as his throat caught fire. “The research is sound,” he managed to choke out. “Everything will go just fine.” He caught a glimpse out the window and his face immediately paled, “That is, if we make it to the damned meeting.”
Luke looked back up, “What are you afraid of?”
“You mean other than the fact that we’re in an enclosed steel tube, hurtling through open air at an altitude and speed nature couldn’t possibly have prepared us for? Nothing. Why do you ask?” Brandon responded with a nervous grin.
Luke smiled, “Hey, it’s only three times more dangerous than driving. By the way, how many car crashes have you been in now?”
Brandon looked back down sullenly at what was left of his whisky, “You’re a goddamn comedian.”
* * *
Miles looked down. The tiles below him formed a checkerboard pattern, alternating black and white, littered with mostly-empty crumpled beer cans and scuffed with black streaks of shoe rubber. His feet weren’t touching any of it. The ground slid by beneath him as he stood in one spot, staring forward in a daze. There was a voice up ahead, quickly cut out by a powerful and robust bout of laughter that shook the air around him.
The square table was the color severely oxidized iron, worn down in many places to reveal the rough plywood beneath and decorated with scattered playing cards. On the left side sat a thin, pale boy with crystal blue eyes set in a face so narrow you could hardly see past the fine black hair that fell over it. Miles found it strange that the boy wasn’t wearing a shirt; the strangeness was made even more so by the large, raw burn across his chest, which still had wisps of smoke curling off of it. The boy’s focus was elsewhere and his face was angled upward, brilliant eyes shining in deep thought.
On the next face at the table he saw a man who looked like he was in his late teens or early twenties, broad shouldered with thick brown hair. The boy/man’s skin was slightly tanned, but his face was sickly pale and coated with small droplets of perspiration. In his right hand he tightly gripped a glass of whiskey, making an obvious effort to avoid meeting it with his cold green eyes.
At the right side of the table, Miles spotted a pair of long, slender legs, wrapped in thin black tights. He followed them up past a dark silk skirt and over a matchedly slender waist and body, clothed in a tight-fitting, white cotton tank top. Her left arm held a tall glass filled with blood-red liquid, a stalk of celery poking out of the top. The arm and glass slowly rose and Miles’ eyes tracked them up to a dark red mouth that was twisted to one side in a devious smile. His gaze quickly traced over her upper lip, across her nose and up to a breathtaking pair of violet eyes, which met his in a knowing stare; yet there was laughter in it as well, and a dangerous intelligence. Thick, jet black hair fell across her forehead, the last two inches of it dyed the same color as her irises. The rest of her head looked as though it were wreathed in violet and onyx flames, coming to a jagged point near the back.
The last patron’s back was facing Miles, but even from behind, his generous girth was obvious. He seemed to be shaking, and every couple seconds a sputtering sound escaped the man’s lips as he attempted to subdue his laughter. As he came to a stop at the table, Miles noticed for the first time the pair of eyes sitting in the middle of it. No eyelids, no skull, no face, just a pair of bloodshot eyeballs aimed right at the man in front of him. The eyes spun, aiming right at his own. They were full of anger, full of fear, full of hunger, and they seemed to be trying to say something to him. Apparently giving up, the eyes flicked back to the portly man. The message seemed to hit home there, as the man suddenly lost all control of his laughter. It came erupting from deep in his chest, exiting his mouth in a deep, throaty roar, intermittent with choking gasps and the sounds of his monstrous fists pounding on the table.
None of the other people at the table even seemed to notice. The boy on the left was still gazing ponderously at the endless sky, the man in the middle was still not looking at his whiskey, and the beautiful girl on the right still had that smile, intently watching Miles’ every move.
Without warning, the laughing man stood up and turned around, grabbing Miles by the shoulders he wasn’t aware he had until that moment. The man was still laughing; in fact, his entire face looked as though it were made for the act, though to call it a face would be inaccurate. The man’s mouth was beyond enormous, lips stretching from one ear to the other, opening his skull in two as it flew open in his raucous fit of merriment. As it did, Miles could see straight down the man’s throat, to the muscles contracting with each violent gasp.
The laughter stopped and the voice that followed made Miles’ ears ache.
“THAT WAS A GOOD ONE, WOULDN’T YOU SAY, MILES?!”
All he could do was stare…
Miles’ torso shot up off the bed like a piston, panting and dripping with sweat. He placed his hands on the bed behind him for support and began taking deep, gasping breaths as he surveyed the room around him. It was dark, but the room appeared to be white… completely white. He heard the sound of soft breathing to his left and turned quickly to see the source. Messy hair as black as onyx and tipped with violet fell across a large white pillow, narrow neck spreading down to a pale, bare chest.
He smiled as he began to remember the events of the previous night. “Well there’s one,” he said softly, feeling his racing heart begin to slow. He let his body fall back onto the soft hotel bed, running a hand through his hair and looking over at the clock on his right. 5:00 am, he mused, closing his eyes. God, I love Phoenix.
Miles’ eyes reopened three hours later, refusing to drift back closed despite how heavy and achy they felt. He practically fell out of bed, then stumbled across the dark, carpeted hotel room to where he thought the bathroom was and shoved the door open. His right hand crawled up the wall to the light switch panel, stopping just short of turning it on as his wits began to return to him. The walls around him were white. The now tiled floor below him was white. To top it all off, directly in front of him and above the bright marble sinks was a large mirror. On second thought, I’ll shower in the dark, Miles decided, wincing at the image of his eyes melting out of their sockets.
Stripping down quickly, he turned the water up almost as hot as it would go and stepped under the stream. As the scalding water cascaded over his head and shoulders, he thought back to the girl, still asleep in his bed. How exactly had they met? Miles remembered her sitting at a bar somewhere, looking bored. He had walked into the club with one of his clients, a jolly fat man who had laughed like a lion roare-
He stopped, the sound of hearty laughter and the image of a faceless mouth in his head. Despite the temperature of the shower, Miles began to shiver.
Miles stepped out of the bathroom, still toweling his hair and was greeted by a soft yawn and then a groan as the woman in the hotel bed stretched herself awake. Her eyes opened and for half a second Miles thought she looked surprised, but it was gone as soon as it had come and that same easy smile crept back across her lips.
“You’re still here,” she observed, “I was worried I might find myself alone this morning.” She stepped out from under the covers, walking naked across the room to one of the windows and began drawing back the curtains. Miles raised a hand to shield his eyes as the stunning rays of light began reflecting off every surface in the room. When the curtains were fully drawn, he lowered his hand slightly and sucked in a breath, staring dumbfounded.
As she stood in front of the window, her once pale skin glowed warmly as it drank the sunlight from outside the window. Her hair was disheveled, but the tangle of violet and black seemed to be aflame as the sunlight caught it. Miles had never seen anything half as stunning.
Veronica, he recalled with a lazy grin. This is the woman from my dream.