William Todd Rose
The first warning in the handbook states, in no uncertain terms, that there’s some malevolent shit out there. This isn’t a job for the timid or weak. To work in this profession, a man needs to be carved from stone; he has to continually face his own mortality and somehow not go insane when out there in the crossfades. That’s what we call The Divide, see. Crossfades. It’s like that moment in movies where Act One and Act Two briefly coexist. They touch one another and melt into a composite before one asserts its dominion over the other. The same thing happens with what we tend to think of as Life and Death. There are borderlands, like little pockets of stasis dimpling the surface of eternity; most departing souls pass over them so effortlessly they don’t even notice their existence. But some specifically look for these warrens. They refuse to let go of the physical and hang on with everything they’ve got, sometimes creating their own cut scenes where previously there were none. Others simply become trapped.
For reasons we haven’t quite figured out, the majority of these snared spirits come to inhabit the bodies of moths. Johnson, the head of Theoretical Positioning, told me once he suspected these creatures have the ability to flutter through both dimensions simultaneously. He compared them to bees in a field, picking up pollen along the way, but openly admitted the math to prove his hypothesis dangles maddeningly out of reach. Jewell, who should have been a poet instead of an assistant, insists this is why moths continually bat themselves against bulbs: these quantum hitchhikers know their paths have diverted and try, time and time again, to cross into The Light.
The handbook warns against this as well. We’re not supposed to attach any emotion to the things we see and do. We’re supposed to balance the stoicism of a scientist with the resolve of a soldier. Romantic notions are bad enough in the labs, but they can get your ass in serious trouble in the field. The slightest hint of emotion is like striking a match in the darkness: all things previously hidden are brought to light. With a mind of pure reason, you can see them. But illuminated with the passions of the living, they can also see you.
Which is where I come in. My official title is Recon and Enforcement Technician, Level II. When wooing recruits, the Agency makes it sound like you’ll be some sort of cosmic cop, patrolling the beat and extending mankind’s reach over the kingdom of the dead. After six months of mentoring you go solo and discover the truth. You’re a glorified janitor, sweeping cobwebs from the corners of infinity. That’s why, despite the handbook’s recommendations to the contrary, we refer to ourselves internally as Whisks.
As such, life becomes routine. I wake up at six AM, have coffee and buttered toast over the morning news. I catch an unscheduled subway at an abandoned station whose lock is shiny and new, perfectly matching dangling from my neck.
My office is fifteen stories underground and is the nest in a tangle of wires that siphon energy from structures above. It’s a vast network of relays, switches, and humming transformers that most eyes never see. We take just enough power from each home and business that the owners never notice. Distributed between hundreds of thousands of buildings, we steal enough electricity to power a small town without as much as a bill.
The handbook highly recommends keeping a journal such as this, but it also warns against mentioning specific cities. I could be in San Francisco or New York. Paris or Moscow. Like those I hunt, I exist nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. So instead, I’ll describe my office.
It’s a fairly small room with cameras perched in each corner. The walls are painted in soothing pastels and water gurgles over a stone fountain in the corner. I have potted plants that I never water, their needs tended by Maintenance, and instead of a desk there’s a long, plush couch. Behind the couch are monitors and leads, all the equipment which tracks my vitals when I’m in the crossfades. And across the room is my partner.
I’ve been working with him for a year now and have never known his name. His body is frail and shriveled and the hum of the respirator keeping him alive is a rhythmic constant. An IV drips nutrients into his withered arm, ensuring he never awakens from his induced coma. Being under isn’t like sleeping, you see. There are no dreams, no REM, none of the brainwaves you’d see in a functioning brain. Anesthesia is the little death people plunge into daily without realizing what lurks within those murky depths.
This much about my partner I know. He was terminally ill. They all are, when first approached. With medical bills mounting, the scouts paint a picture of financial ruin for those left behind. Wives, husbands, and children: in addition to grief, they’ll need to deal with the strain of treatments insurance stopped covering long ago. Staying alive is akin to selfishness, but it can all go away by signing a simple contract. One signature and the patient “dies” in the night. He’s whisked away to our labs and grieving loved ones are surprised in days to come by a settlement from a life insurance policy they didn’t know existed. A very sizable pay-out that ensures their continued comfort while coming to terms with grief.
These Sleepers are the most important part of our operation. When tuned to the proper frequencies, their bodies act as conduits. Dry lips move so slightly that it almost looks like a trick of the light and the thin wheeze from their throats could pass for the body desperately trying to breathe on its own. But in reality, the dead speak through them. Once, these people had loved and laughed and lived; but now, so close to the end, they’re nothing more than eavesdropping devices and the snippets of captured conversation are dutifully recorded.
Position can be triangulated by the strength of their voices. The more clear and distinct the words, the closer the crossfade is to physical space. Algorithms I don’t fully understand calculate a coordinate from this data and cross reference it with heart rate and brain activity. This, in turn, creates the equivalent of a pushpin in the topography of Space-Time. That pushpin is both my focus and destination.
As a Whisk, I’ve been trained in the art of meditation. I’m not the fastest by far, but I can guide myself into Theta in the same amount of time it takes most people to mumble their bedtime prayers. At that level, visualizing the golden cord is a snap. I let it out like a guide rope tied to my mortal body. A little at a time, taking tentative steps into the unknown. Laymen call this astral projection; but to a Whisk, it’s simply The Walk.
My Walks correspond with the messages my partner broadcasts and most are simply routine assignments. These are the spirits who long to cross The Divide. They sense the mystery and know the trappings of the flesh are no longer a concern. They’ve just become sidetracked on their journey and need a little help.
But, occasionally, things can go very wrong.
The day Albert Lewis was executed, my Sleeper screamed. His vocal chords rattled as neck muscles bulged and his body arched off the bed while his hands reflexively clenched. Beads of sweat dotted his brow and for a moment I thought I heard the sizzle of electricity accompanying a whiff of singed flesh. His instrumentation went haywire, spiking like a seismograph placed on the epicenter of a major fault as his face screwed into a grimace of clenched teeth and spasming muscle. To the untrained eye, it probably looked as if he were in the throes of an agony so intense that Death would seem a welcome friend. But I reminded myself that it was just involuntary contractions, no different than making a dead frog twitch with the application of current. I remained professional and detached, just as the handbook says I should.
Two weeks later, the other screams began. A dozen voices moaned through a single mouth, alternately pleading for help and yelling wordlessly. I could feel their pain and fear as clearly as my clothing, which suddenly felt too tight and constrictive. Loosening my tie, I leaned over my Sleeper’s writhing body and peered at his charts before staring into one of the cameras.
I knew what this was. I’d read about it in case studies, but never actually witnessed the phenomena. I felt like a child who’d begun doubting the reality of Santa Claus only to awaken to a jolly fat man in red.
The handbook calls it a Vertices Collision Scenario; but to us, it’s bad news.
“Chuck, it’s nearly 3:30. Jarvis left an hour ago. Rollins hasn’t come in yet.” The female voice came from a speaker embedded into the ceiling. The familiar lilt sounded strained and I imagined stress creasing a face I’d only ever imagined.
“Alone, at last.” My attempt at humor fell flat and the woman I’d only ever known as Control let it hang in the air. In perfect silence, I looked up at the camera as I ran my fingers through my hair, weighing the consequences of the situation.
According to the handbook, it shouldn’t have been a decision at all. Protocol dictates the data be handed off to a Level I Whisk, who’d have more experience in the field. Someone who’d passed the exams instead of continually screwing up the translocation equation.
“So what’s it going to be, Chuck?” Control’s husky voice always reminded me of a film noir heroine; I pictured her within the booth, masked by shadow as crimson lips parted just above the microphone.
I’d get my ass chewed and a mark in my file at worst. Or a promotion, if I played my cards right. What can I say? I was ambitious but it seemed like that damn equation would never give up her secrets. If I had any hope of making Level I, it would require a bold and decisive move in place of exams.
“I got this, Control.” I was so naïve, I actually believed it.
What I’ve never understood is why Control gave me that option. She knew the handbook as well as I. Part of her duties was safeguarding my wellbeing. And perhaps that’s what it was. Maybe a bond had formed over the years; maybe she realized my eagerness, my drive to rise to the top, and didn’t want to disappoint me. Or maybe she was just bored.
Whatever her reasons, Control allowed me to walk to my couch with its assortment of tasseled pillows. She let me slip the Halo onto my head, an insanely expensive piece of equipment that looks like a hard hat’s webbing. She let me close my eyes and open my chakras as I slipped from this body like a balloon from the grasping hand of a child.
She should have stopped me, damn it.
She should have stopped me.
Here’s the thing about crossfades. Usually, they’re simply void space. Unless you’ve actually stood in the heart of a singularity, you can’t possibly understand the true meaning of desolation. In a place where the laws of physics no longer hold sway, your golden cord is your lifeline. It connects you to another place, a world of things and events. Without it, you’d never find your way home. Drifting through dead space for all eternity, neither alive nor dead but subsisting somewhere between. That, my friend, is my personal definition of Hell; and it’s precisely what Albert Lewis strove to create.
Albert Lewis, as we all know, was an evil man. He existed at a crossroads between sadism and black magic, choosing to torture his victims for weeks on end before performing the final rite. Their suffering, he claimed, was like energy flowing into a battery. With every puncture, burn, and scream, he grew stronger. The field behind his farmhouse was a garden of corpses, each one dropped into a shallow furrow sprinkled with lime. Severed hands sat upon his mantle, clutching various ceremonial objects in their withered fingers: a dagger, a bell, the mummified heart of his mother. They say he’d painted murals in blood upon his walls, tortured landscapes of such detail museums would have displayed them if done in any other medium.
When a person as willful as Albert Lewis gets their hooks in a crossfade, they refuse to let go. Instead of being an empty pocket of nothingness, they exert their determination and create personal realities. The more convincing the crossfade becomes, the wider it expands. Textures, smells, and tastes take hold and the illusion of time reasserts itself. If left unchecked, it can become an entire world with thriving ecosystems and complex weather patterns.
My job, in a nutshell, it to keep this from happening. We try to clean up these transient dimensions before they become too real and the megalomaniac at their core is convinced of his own divinity. If allowed to grow indefinitely, a crossfade will draw other souls like filings to a magnet. Maybe they’re fooled into thinking it’s the Promised Land. Or maybe it’s governed by the laws of attraction. The point is, once others believe in the reality of this custom crossfade, they’re stuck there. Like flies in a web. And that convergence constitutes a Vertices Collision Scenario.
Albert Lewis had created a world of darkness. Storm clouds flickered with lightning above a scorched landscape of cinders and ash. Hot winds carried the scent of carrion on their wake and left an oily patina over what I thought of as my skin; my golden cord streamed from my belly button and trailed off into a blank horizon.
I stared into that black, empty space and closed my eyes. When opened again, my cord snaked like a phantom through stone walls. The blocks glistened wetly by torchlight and condensation dripped from beams overhead, plinking into puddles on the brick floor.
I seemed to be standing in the curved stairwell of a medieval turret. Windows shaped like tombstones lined the wall, the stone frames surrounding them slick with algae as lightning bathed the structure in electric blue. Flames sputtered in the wind and drops of molten tar hissed from the orange glow of the torches. From somewhere up ahead, a woman wailed. Her sobs sounded as if they came from the far end of a long tunnel and I glanced back at my cord again, searching for reassurance in its presence.
“Remember the feel of warm sand against bare feet. Your 10th birthday, surprised with a trip to the beach. The smell of saltwater and gulls squawking overhead.” It was Control’s voice, seeming to radiate from somewhere within my mind. “Remember cutting your heel on broken glass, how the wound stung as your blood dripped onto wet sand.”
She was good. With nothing more than my vitals to guide her, Control skillfully reinforced my bonds with reality, summoning memories from the physical details notated in my file. Her ability to capture emotion, to build a sense of time and place, was just as important as the golden cord. Without that, my cord would fade. Without her, I’d be lost.
Instead of succumbing to this false world, I turned and faced the spiraling, stone stairs. I heard other voices now, as well, lending their distress to a symphony of suffering. Whimpers, weak pleas for help and mercy, hysterical crying, and strained, warbling wails: their pain and fear swirled around me like an invisible demon. It raked the back of my neck with cold talons and chased chills down the length of my spine. It coiled around my throat like a tightening constrictor and plucked at my golden cord as if testing its resolve and durability.
Part of me didn’t want to ascend those stairs. In the pools of shadow, I sensed danger, as if some lurking creature followed my every move. My feet had become leaden weights and I channeled every all my willpower to muster the strength required for that next step.
“Remember your training.” Control again, establishing a link to a world of sunshine and flowers, of fresh spring breezes and laughter. “It’s only as real as you make it, Chuck.”
Another step and the keening of tortured souls grew louder. My palms felt as moist and cold as the stone walls surrounding me. My instincts screamed to go back, to follow my cord home and turn this assignment over to a Level I Whisk.
A spasm tremored my thigh, making the muscle twitch and jerk, and yet I still placed my foot upon that next stair. Ignoring fluttering wings of panic in my stomach, I focused on the next bend, the next flickering torch.
“Chuck, you have to keep that emotion in check. For God’s sake, don’t expose yourself. Commence Kundalini Breathing in three… two… one…”
Drawing a deep breath through my nose was like snorting a line of decayed flesh. The stench watered my eyes and infected my sinuses, seeping into my saliva glands and flooding my mouth with the sickeningly sweet taste of rotten meat. My diaphragm hitched in protest, expelling the tainted oxygen through choked gags that left my trachea feeling as if I’d belched fire.
“That’s it. I’m pulling you out.” Control’s words were a panicked babble, shouted so loudly into her microphone that they crackled and popped with static.
“Negative, Control. I’ve got it covered. Mission proceeding.” I tried to sound confident and relaxed, but even my own ears couldn’t ignore the tremble in my voice.
The top of the stairs loomed closer and it sounded as if Hell existed right around the bend. So many voices calling out, such much prolonged agony erupting from their souls; for a moment, my head swam with the combined force of their anguish and I steadied myself against the wall. The roughhewn stone seemed to sigh at my touch and the torches wavered as if their flames danced with a gust of air.
Snatching my hand away, I waited for a reply from Control. But only the cries of the damned answered me. I pictured her dashing from her console room, fumbling with the convoluted override codes that would grant access to my office, and finally letting me see what she really looked like.
The problem is the passage of Time is a human perception. It would take Control three minutes to open that door and remove the Halo. Two if she were half as good as I suspected. But that seemingly short period can translate into days within a cut scene. Each construct has its own rules governing existence. Time, like matter, becomes putty to be molded and shaped at will. Help was two minutes away; help would not come for millennia: in The Divide, there’s no difference.
My golden cord fluctuated like a fluorescent bulb on the verge of burning out. One moment solid, the next hazy and indistinct. I knew this meant my perceptions were taking hold, that this tower was integrating into my existence paradigm with each frantic beat of my heart.
The handbook says in a worst case scenario, Whisks can implement an escape technique we call Crashing. I’ve never had to actually utilize it in the field, but mastering it is required to pass the Level III exams. An abrupt change of focus, like shifting a speeding car suddenly into reverse, and your body falls. All the different dimensions making up our universe become like intricately detailed stained glass windows stacked upon one another. Shattering one after another, the Whisk crashes through reality until hitting his own physical body with a jolt.
I knew I could Crash. I knew I could escape from that hellish tower and the nightmares that awaited, so close now that the stench seemed to emanate from the very molecules of the air itself.
I knew I could be free.
And yet, I chose to trudge on.
The chamber was as large as a football field and bordered on all sides by the same stone that comprised the stairwell. Moldy banners hung from the walls with scenes of torture fading into moth-eaten fabric. The glow of torches imbued the crude drawings with lives of their own, creating the illusion of movement in dancing patterns of light and shadow.
There were no windows in this room, nothing to convey that anything existed other than the high ceiling and impenetrable stone. Every few yards a column descended from the gloom overhead and planted itself firmly into the floor. As large as elevator shafts, they lined either side and the cobbled floor became a network of paths leading to each one. Grating covered the gaps between the paths and wisps of smoke curled above the blackened steel, born of the fires raging miles below.
Here, the sounds of agony were deafening and pierced my eardrums like sonic needles. Screams so harsh and shrill that they seemed to vibrate my skull with resonance were punctuated by gasps of pain. Blubbering sobs mingled with animalistic howls and from the far end of the room a man with a child-like voice repeatedly shrieked the word No like a protective mantra.
Underscoring the cacophony was a steady rhythm of clinks and clanks as the tortured fought against their restraints. The iron chains struck the stone columns as manacles scraped away skin, turning wrists into bands of glistening, red tissue peppered with frayed strands of muscle and nerve. The captives hung off so close to the floor that those with the energy stood on tiptoe in defiance of their trembling legs; others, too weak to fight, dangled like limp dolls. With bent knees and bowed heads, they slumped forward. Their body weight supported entirely by the chains, they swung slightly and gasped for breath.
Walking the central path was like strolling through Satan’s personal museum. A stringy-haired woman drooped in one display and her torso had been sliced with surgical precision. Peeled open and pinned to her back, the parted slabs of flesh revealed organs that squished and pulsed as she shifted positions. In another tableau, a rat perched upon the shoulder of a doughy, overweight man and cleaned droplets of blood from wiry whiskers with swipes of its paws before darting in for another bite. Sinking teeth into lips, it pulled away strands of gristle that stretched like rubber before snapping free with savage shakes of its head.
I witnessed things in that chamber no man should ever see. I cringed as roaches scurried from beneath flaps of skin sliced into the body of a tribal warrior. My eyes teared as I passed a woman with an angelic face who was more skeleton than skin; sloughing off her own flesh, the sagging folds held to her frame by hooks and thin twine.
And yet, I persisted.
From the shadows, I a golden throne emerged. Comprised of gilded skulls, femurs, and tibia, it sat upon a riser of writhing people whose distended and mottled skin had been stitched together with silver thread. A tangle of arms, legs, and torsos: it was impossible to tell where one body stopped and another began. They moved as an uncoordinated unit, some scrambling for purchase and slipping in blood, crawling ever forward like a human rickshaw. With bent backs and scraped knees, they carried the throne on an undulating wave of flesh and their suffering rang through the air like fanfare heralding the arrival of dark royalty.
Seated upon this throne, Albert Lewis stared down with watery, blue eyes. His white hair was a disheveled mop of tufts sprouting from a face that looked as if it were carved from stone. With wrinkles chiseled into alabaster features, he pulled his lips into a thin, tight smile devoid of mirth or warmth.
“What have we here?” The voice boomed from the old man’s body as loud as thunder and fresh gales of pain echoed from the prisoners as its vibrations flicked exposed nerve endings. “Have you come to grovel before my Mercy Seat, boy? Have you traveled all this way to present yourself as an offering?”
My golden cord was nothing more than a shadow by now, as thin and tenuous as a mortal’s grasp on life. Knowing that answering would only mire me more deeply into his depraved realm, I focused on my hands as I’d been taught, willing them to be bathed in the white light that is my stock and trade.
“Perhaps you’d like to play with my pet, then.”
As if in response to a command, a thing which was only remotely human scuttled from the darkness. The base of his living litter had been constructed with coarse fibers pulled so tightly that the skin dimpled around each stitch, but this creature had not been so “fortunate”.
The base of its collective body was formed by two burly men on hands and knees with their asses facing one another. Their buttocks had been splayed extensively and then pressed against each other, conceivably bandaged, and allowed to heal into a single graft. Conjoined to them by the same technique was the body of a petite woman. Her legs were extended like a gymnast caught mid-split and the scarring that melded her thighs and calves to the men was like a jagged pink seam. With wrists severed, her hands had been replaced by curved blades whose barbs gleamed in the torchlight like the teeth of a predator. Her face was a contorted mask of insanity, lips pulled back into a snarl, revealing a web-work of needles attached like braces to her teeth.
“This is my domain!” Lewis yelled as he leaned forward. “You think you can waltz in here with your little bag of tricks and usurp my sovereignty?”
His creature scurried forward, surprisingly quick and spider-like. The woman’s hair was plastered to her skull with sweat and her face burned hotly from an infection which made her veins look like roots spreading through reddened cheeks. She hissed as her blades whooshed through the air and I stumbled backward, my hands flailing for the reassurance of my golden cord.
At that moment, I knew all hope was lost. I felt it evaporate within me like a deflating balloon; everything that had ever been good or wholesome was purged from my body with a gasp as my fingers clawed at nothing. No cord. No way home.
Albert Lewis’ laughter echoed off the walls and ceiling, the reverberations seeming to grow in strength and volume as if his guffaws fed off one another like parasitic organisms. The mouths of his victims opened in unison, but instead of spilling more screams and wails, they resounded with the deep baritone of cruel laughter.
My hands tingled as if they coursed with the white light I tried to summon as I backed away from the clattering monster. I tried to narrow my focus, to envision the glow radiating out from them. One concentrated, well-placed blast of healing energy: that’s all I was asking for. But was the numbness due to arcane forces gathering within? Or simply hyperventilation from quick gasps of putrid air?
“Welcome,” Lewis sneered, “to my reign.”
I don’t know why, but at that moment a memory sprang to mind. I saw my grandfather on the sun dappled bank of a stream; squatting beside me, he pointed at the gurgling water and mouthed words I was too young to remember. But that was all it took.
I didn’t need to see my golden cord to know it had returned. I felt it tethered to me like a weight that had previously been missing, anchoring me to my distant body and the world my grandfather had lived in. At the same time, my hands were engulfed in auras of dazzling light. Like the white hot centers of twin explosions, rays burst from central points in my palms and streamed out, dissolving swaths of this false reality in their wake.
The beams of light spun around Albert Lewis like strands of a cocoon, wrapping his body in their brilliance as stone walls quaked and crumbled. I heard his scream, a yell of unadulterated anger amid the rumble of his construct falling away into the void. The monster he’d created stumbled as if the floor had just been pulled out from under and its individual heads glared at their insane creator.
“Die! Die! Die!” They chanted in unison and within seconds the call was picked up by every desiccated soul within the chamber. Some gurgled through a froth of blood, others wheezed from gill-like slits carved into necks, but one voice blared louder than the others; only the raw tightness of my vocal chords clued me into the fact that the voice was my own. “Die! Die! Die!”
Defiant to the end, Albert Lewis fought back. I felt his darkness seep into my beams of light like an oil slick polluting a river. It reached out with malicious tendrils, attempting to trace the energy back to the source as if following its own golden cord.
A tsunami of images crashed over my consciousness. I saw the people he’d chained in his cellar, heard their whimpered pleas as they begged for mercy. I felt organs beneath my fingers, like slippery pouches of warm velvet, tasted the salty tang of blood, and swelled with a god-like sense of dominion. I looked through his eyes, relived his memories, and felt what he had felt.
“Damn it, Chuck!” Control’s voice severed the bond as cleanly as a cleaver and the entire cut scene exploded in a burst so brilliant it could have been the birth of a star.
When the glare faded, I found myself in the arms of a woman with auburn hair. My cheek still stung from her slaps but she cradled my head in her arms as tears streamed from eyes that sparkled like perfectly cut sapphires. The stench of decay was replaced by a slightly floral perfume and she placed a soft, warm hand against my face.
“Don’t you ever pull anything like that again. Do you hear me? Ever.”
And there, in my little office far underground, Control held me and allowed her purple blouse to absorb my tears.
The first warning in the handbook states, in no uncertain terms, that there’s some malevolent shit out there. What it doesn’t tell you is sometimes it follows you back. Like the hitchhiking souls in Jewell’s moth theory, it tags along for the ride, returning to the world from which it came.
I feel him in me, lurking in the depths of my subconscious and wonder how pretty Control’s head would be if it were missing an eye or two. I imagine her chained in my basement, how vibrant and red the blood would be against her smooth, pale skin… her voice screaming a hymn to the glory of my will…
I fight it with meditation. I fight it with prayer and a hundred little kindness bestowed upon strangers.
I fight it.
But it’s getting harder.
Last night, having pulled the information from her file, I found myself on the sidewalk outside Control’s apartment. I watched her silhouette undress through a lit window and stroked the cool blade of a knife through my pocket.
It won’t be much longer now. I’m as sure of this as I am powerless to stop it. She would be so lovely turned inside out, with her viscera quivering like a frightened pet.
No, not much longer; I feel myself slipping away and know it’s only a matter of time before I lose control…