Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The House at the End of the Lane Is Dreaming

ACT ONE

Your name is Alex and you live in a small town at the edge of the sea. You have a sister and two parents and no pets.

In your town, everyone follows their destiny: They cross the street, cook endless meals, stand in the same room, deliver the same mail every day. You can’t remember most of their names. It’s the way it’s always been.

You’re different.

You wake up one morning and know something’s wrong. It’s an unsettled ache in your chest. Bad things will happen soon. Unfortunately, you can’t articulate these feelings. No one but you knows anything is different about today.

You pull on your red jacket. It has three pockets, all empty for now.

“I dreamed about the house last night,” says your sister. She sits on her bed, knees pulled to her chest.

Do you ask her: What was the dream? Or do you tell her: It was just a dream?

She answers anyway.

“It called to me, Alex. It whispered that the sky is going to turn inside out. It told me to run.”

Run where?

“Inside,” your sister says. “Inside the house.”

No one goes to the house at the end of the lane. The house has been here before the town sprang up. The house has never been owned, or taxed, or entered.

She won’t say anything else. She rocks back and forth if you nudge her, so you leave the room.

Your mom and dad are in the kitchen. “Good morning, Alex.”

It’s best if you go outside.

When you’re outside, a piece of paper drifts down in front of you. It’s part of a page from a book. Smudged words in permanent marker overlay what looks like a fable: . . . KEY INSIDE THE HOUSE . . . [unintelligible] . . . ONLY CHANCE. HURRY.

The edge of the page where it was once glued into the binding is splattered red. You must find the rest of the pages and decipher what the warning means.

In the distance, a storm rumbles towards shore.

There’s an old hermit woman who lives up on the cliffs and who used to collect books, and who comes into town once a month to trade in hand-woven shawls for used paperbacks. You decide to visit her.

You walk along the edge of the cliffs like you’ve done a thousand times in your childhood. This time you slip and fall, and you’ve forgotten how to swim.

PROLOGUE

A butterfly drifts like an ember against the sky: bright orange and black, delicate wings beating an unheard rhythm.

The butterfly bursts into flame. Its ashes drift in looping spirals. Through the haze runs a girl.

Her hair is short; she’s wearing jeans and a bright red leather jacket. Eyes wide, breath fast, never looking over her shoulder. She runs along a dirt road. In the distance, scarlet-black clouds boil against the horizon. The sounds of explosions rattle the hot air.

Behind her, there’s a second girl, her sister: limping, a plaid skirt flapping about her knees and her plaster cast scribbled with unintelligible good wishes.

The lane is worn brick, edged in weeds and barbed wire. Bleached fields cup the house on three sides, scattered with leafless oaks and lightning-scarred rocks. Down the hill a town is burning. Giant smoke-veiled shapes—too many legs, too many sides—writhe across the ruins.

There’s no going back.

There’s only the house at the end of the lane. It’s a tiny, immaculate rambler with white board siding and a gray shingle roof. Polished windows, a bright red door, and a yard stained with grass. No fence, no inhabitants, never any lights inside.

The girl in the skirt trips. “Alex, help me!”

The girl in the red jacket spins around, one foot already on the stoop. Her mouth opens, ready to scream back. But she can’t move.

The invaders are here.

It’s just a glimpse, before she turns away: Their mouths are fleshy strings caught between blackened protrusions on eyeless, knobbled lumps that pass for heads. They have too many angles, too many possibilities. Alex can’t scream, but she can save herself. She can look away.

In the pristine glass pane of the house’s window, she watches. Her sister’s hand stretches forward in desperation. The invading thing looms so large it blots out the sky. Its white-noise breath sucks her sister up so she floats toward the mouths, skirt fluttering. Then she’s grated like cheese between the strings and disappears.

Alex can’t hear anything over the ringing in her ears. A cacophony of atonal noise.

She grabs the doorknob. The invader reaches another leg—or a thousand legs, who can tell—towards her. Mouth hungry. A piece of wet plaid skirt clings to its lip.

Alex shoves against the red door, so bright and bloody and matching her jacket, and she steps inside the house at the end of the lane.

ACT ONE

Your name is Alex and you live in a small town at the edge of the sea. You wake up one morning and know something is wrong.

You dreamed about drowning and a black void over your eyes. It means something, but you aren’t sure what. You rub your chest where your lungs still ache in phantom pain.

Outside, you find a page from a torn and bloodied book, and you need to visit the hermit woman who lives on top of the cliffs. You’re careful when walking up the worn path that cuts around sandstone and scrubby pines. You wouldn’t want to slip and fall into the ocean.

The old hermit woman’s house is tiny. She sits by the window with books heaped on all sides. You show her the snippet of paper and ask if she has any idea where it came from.

“I recognize this,” the hermit woman says. Her voice creaks like her joints. “It’s from a collection of fairy tales I used to have.”

You ask her if she still has that book. Of course she doesn’t, but she knows who does.

You tuck the page in one of your pockets along with a map the hermit woman gives you on how to find the book’s owner.

“Better hurry,” the hermit mumbles as you stand by the door. “Storm’s coming.”

• • • •

The apartment the hermit directed you to is in a rundown complex made of graffiti-painted brick and soot stains at the edge of town. Blank-eyed boys lean against the alley walls; they call you a bitch if you try and talk to them.

You buzz the pager at the front door. A crackly voice demands what you want.

Do you tell the truth, that the hermit sent you? Or do you pretend to be a delivery driver here with a package?

You opt for the truth.

“What the hell did she send you here for?” demands the voice.

You tell the person you have a page from a book the hermit once owned. You need the rest of it. You aren’t entirely sure why, yet.

A moment of silence, then the door squeals and you can enter.

You climb stairs with slow, deliberate steps, and hunt through a maze of hallways until you find room #327. The door’s open. You can either knock or walk in. You opt for politeness.

No answer. You cautiously enter the room.

There’s no one here. The room is empty, the floor dirt-smudged, windows curtained. The only furniture is a small end table with a revolver atop a note.

You pick up the note, which reads: DO NOT READ THE BOOK. I’M GOING TO DESTROY IT. TAKE THE GUN. IT HAS ONE BULLET. CHOOSE WELL.

You put the gun in your pocket.

You’ve got to find this book.

(Why is it your concern? Why does no one else seem to want it?)

Taking a closer look at the room, you notice that there are footprints leading out the fire escape. You could follow that trail . . . and then your cell phone rings. It’s your sister.

“Alex, I need your help,” she whispers. “Please hurry.”

Where is she?

“At the docks. Mom was expecting a package from across the bay and I offered to pick it up for her.”

Thunder rumbles. You peek out the window; the curtains are mildewed, more brownish than red. Rain’s imminent. It’ll wash away any trail and your chance to find the book before its owner destroys it.

“It’s that creepy guy,” your sister goes on. “He’s loitering outside and he won’t leave. I’m pretty sure he saw me come in here.”

Your sister gets sick easily and she always forgets to bring an umbrella. She’ll catch cold if she waits until it starts storming, and you know your family’s health insurance is expired.

That cramp in your gut isn’t PMS. It’s a warning. You need that book.

You tell your sister you’ll be right there.

• • • •

After you scare off the creep by letting him glimpse the gun in your pocket, you loop your arm through your sister’s and hurry home before the rain starts pelting down in icy waves.

As soon as you reach the front door, everything goes black. You have a sudden flash of memory—vision?—and see a book going up in flames.

ACT ONE

Your name is Alex and you live in a small town at the edge of the sea. You wake up one morning and know something is wrong.

You ignore your sister and your parents, and when you find the page outside, you hurry to the hermit woman who knows who owns the book.

In the apartment, the owner fled, thunder rumbling and rain imminent, you tell your sister you’ll be there as soon as you can, then follow the trail of sooty prints out onto the fire escape.

The trail winds through back alleys.

This feels so familiar. You know, before you round a corner and see a hunched figure beside a metal fire barrel, that this has happened before. You’ve saved the book. But not yet.

(How do you remember drowning, the book burning, waking up so many times in a row without ever going to bed—but no one else does?)

You grab the figure by the shoulder and wrench them around. Under the baggy sweatshirt and hood is a thin young woman whom you’ve never seen before.

(Have you?)

You tell her to give you the book. She refuses. You can either argue with her, or take it by force. You need to get to your sister. So you slam the woman against the alley wall and she goes limp. Blood pools from her head. You pick up the ruined book—cover blackened, edges torn—as it begins to rain.

There’s a police officer loitering by the alley. She saw everything, and she finds the gun in your pocket. You’re arrested. The book is taken as evidence.

That unbearable wave of blackness . . .

ACT ONE

Your name is Alex.

• • • •

You remember drowning, but you’ve never died. You saw a book burn, but it hasn’t happened yet. You can never recall when you went to sleep so you can wake again.

It’s dark, still. You’re not yet awake.

“Hey,” you whisper to your sister, who’s asleep in the twin-sized bed on the other side of the room. “What’s your name?”

“I keep trying to remember,” she says, curled up in a fetal position. “It’s like it’s just outside my grasp . . . I’m your sister. I’m . . . I’m . . . I don’t know.”

You shiver in the dark. “How’s that possible?”

“I know you’re Alex,” she says. The glimmer of her eyes shine in the dark. She’s crying. “Who’s everyone else? Who am I?”

• • • •

You wake up one morning and know something’s wrong.

• • • •

The book’s owner hunches her shoulders, but doesn’t toss the book in the fire barrel. You keep your hands relaxed at your sides.

“You don’t want to know,” the woman says, her nails digging into the leather cover. “Nothing we can do to stop it.”

Do you let her continue, ask her questions, or demand she give you the book?

You don’t want to incite violence or make her do anything rash. You wonder if she has a name, or if she’ll forever and only be known as the twitchy book owner.

You ask her to explain.

“This book wasn’t made in our world,” she says. “It fell out of the sky over that old house up at the end of the lane. I was just a kid. The old bookshop owner grabbed it. I used to bring her the paper each morning and each week she’d give me a free book. Then she went mad. Burned her place down, tried to kill me when I dragged her out of the building. She kept yelling that it was all the book’s fault. I’d wanted it for my freebie but she refused. There was something about it—I just had to have it. It took me years before her memory went to hell and I could buy it from her.”

You wait.

“I didn’t realize a page had fallen out ’til I heard you at my door. Then I knew I couldn’t stall anymore.”

So what is the book?

“It’s a series of codes that look like tiny stories. They predict the invasion. Give coordinates to our plane.”

How will destroying it prevent this . . . invasion?

“It won’t anymore,” she says. “They can sense where it is, and it’ll get them here faster. But burning it will weaken the connection. Maybe give us another generation or two to prepare.”

You know that kind of time doesn’t exist.

You show her the page. Does this mean anything?

She shudders. “That’s our address,” she says. “Please. Burn it.”

You do.

• • • •

Your name is Alex.

• • • •

You promise you’ll destroy the book when you’ve figured out if it has any clues on how to stop the invasion. The twitchy book owner refuses to talk to you any longer.

It’s getting darker, the wind clawing at your jacket. You need to get home and decipher the page.

Your cell phone rings again. This time it’s your mom, telling you your sister is in the hospital. She broke her leg climbing out a second story window at the mail depot on the docks.

• • • •

Your sister flips through the hospital’s limited TV channels, her leg wrapped in a heavy cast. You brought her a balloon that says “GET WELL” and it’s already wilting on the string.

“Only bright side is that the creepy guy saw me in the window and I fell on top of him. Broke his collarbone.” Your sister sighs and turns off the TV. “Can we go home, Alex?”

The book is next to the gun in your jacket. You collect a pen and complimentary notepad from the hospital front desk and stick them in your last pocket.

• • • •

It’s dark. You aren’t asleep; you’re standing in the living room, and your sister is sitting on the couch. Everything is oppressive. Like you’re frozen in this moment, and the world has stopped.

“Hey,” you whisper. Each word’s difficult. Sluggish. “Sis.”

With effort, she blinks. “Alex? What’s happening?”

“Dunno.” You inch towards her. Pull the book out, and the paper, and the gun. “Do you get the sense we’ve done this all before?”

“Like déjà vu?”

“A little.”

“Yeah.” She hugs herself. It’s getting easier for you both to move, even if everything else is deadened and motionless. “Alex, listen. The dreams. I’m having more of them. In one, I see us both running towards the house, but I trip and fall.”

“Why are we running?”

“Something’s chasing us. I . . . die.”

This is bullshit. “I won’t let you die,” you tell her. “I will never let that happen.” You wrap an arm around her shoulders and pull her tight against your side. “I promise.”

“But that’s just it,” she whispers, dry-eyed. “Every time you try to save me, you fail. Something happens and you can’t. I’m always going to die before we reach the house at the end of the lane.”

ACT TWO

You wake up and hear the news playing too loud in the kitchen, on the tiny black and white television. Your parents stand in front of it, mesmerized.

“. . . mysterious storms have appeared over the mainland, baffling meteorologists . . .”

Your parents don’t say good morning.

• • • •

There’s a retired programmer who now operates a museum at the edge of downtown. She gives demonstrations of a telegraph and has a class on Morse Code. No one ever attends.

The programmer sits in front of an ancient, boxy computer with lines of blue numbers scrolling across the glitchy screen. She has a mug of perpetually steaming coffee by her elbow.

She raises her eyebrows when you hand her the book. “Fairy tales?”

No, they are codes for an invasion.

She flips the book open. Rain pounds on the glass window of her little office. It’s been storming all night and day. No sign it will let up. “Do you know what you’re looking for?”

Somehow, you do. The invaders used fairy tale structures meant for humans to read aloud. When a person speaks the words, the invaders hear the vibrations across space-time. They hone in on the frequency.

They are getting closer.

• • • •

“None of this makes sense!” You pace in front of the couch. The darkness isn’t as intense now. Or maybe your eyes have adjusted. “Aliens? A book that’s made of codes? A house that’s dreaming? Where’s the logic in any of this?” You clench your hands. “And why can’t I remember your name?”

You want to scream: Why can’t I save you?

Your sister taps the pen against her teeth. She’s been writing down all the details you remember in the time before the Dark. Together you’re trying to piece together what has happened, and what will happen. The false paths and the approved choices.

“Something is pushing us to go to the house at the end of the lane,” your sister says. “What happens if we go there before we’re forced?”

• • • •

There’s a gate blocking the lane that winds up to the house. You don’t have a key. And despite the fence being only as tall as your hip, you can’t climb over it. You have no tools to break it down.

You punch the gate once. It’s useless, though at least you don’t feel the pain.

Your sister didn’t come with you, because it’s raining. She’s stuck on the living room couch watching TV.

• • • •

The path up to the hermit woman’s house is flooded, and you can’t step through six inches of water to make it up the cliffs.

The twitchy book owner is nowhere to be found.

All around town, shop doors are locked. People never move from their stations, and none of them have umbrellas.

• • • •

You visit the programmer again. Is there a way to decode the book—and specifically the torn page—to get answers? If no one reads aloud from the book, does that delay the inevitable?

She taps a pen against her teeth. “I bet I could figure it out. Let me borrow the book for a day to look at it?”

You give it to her, but you keep the page.

“I’ll call you as soon as I have anything,” the programmer says.

• • • •

You visit the library. The librarian looks irritated when you ask her to access the old microfilm archives. She shows you to a narrow room with walls of canisters.

You put your eye to the microfilm viewer and newspaper clippings scroll across your screen.

• • • •

Baytown Gazette, May 24th

NORTHSHORE—A massive, unexplained storm appeared over the uninhabited house up on North Lane at around 2pm yesterday afternoon. Meteorologists have not been able to deduct the cause. The storm swirled over the house for three hours, and then vanished.

The bookstore owner who lives on Second Avenue was the first to examine the area after the storm. The house at the end of the lane was undamaged.

Baytown Gazette, June 1st

MAIN STREET—Police responded to a public disturbance complaint today at 6am when the middle-aged woman who owns the bookstore on Second Avenue began pounding on all residential doors and screaming for everyone to leave town. When questioned as to the reason for this, the woman’s only response was, “They’re coming for us! The invaders from the other world!”

Police have not issued a comment.

Baytown Gazette, June 15th

SECOND AVENUE—At approximately 3:30 pm firefighters arrived on the scene of an inferno: The bookshop was engulfed in flames. The woman who owned the bookshop admitted to the arson, claiming again it was the only way to be safe. Police have taken her into custody on charges of arson and assault after she tried to strangle the girl who delivered newspapers to the block.

• • • •

Your cell phone rings. The librarian glares as you step outside to answer.

It’s the programmer.

“Couldn’t stop her . . . she broke in . . .” Her breath comes in ragged, wet tears. “She . . . took the book . . .”

You know who the thief is: the book’s previous owner.

• • • •

The programmer’s office is trashed. Coffee stains the desk. The computer monitor is broken. She lies on the ground, covered in blood.

(Why didn’t she call 911?)

“She just . . . attacked me . . . out of nowhere . . .” The programmer wheezes. Blood foams at the corners of her mouth. “Kept screaming that it needed to burn.”

Do you tell the programmer you’ll get help, or wait to hear more?

(It doesn’t matter.)

“But see . . .” She smiles, holds out her hand. “I scanned it into the computer and made a copy. Made precautions. She didn’t . . . find this . . .”

You take the thumb drive. It fits in your pocket where the book was.

“Left my . . . notes . . . on there, too . . . hope it . . . works . . .”

And then she’s dead.

• • • •

You wait for the Dark again, that eerie stillness in which you have a voice, in which you aren’t confined to an unseen will.

Your sister reaches a fork down her cast to scratch her leg. “What did Felicity tell you?”

“Who?”

“The programmer.” She makes a face as the fork fails to reach far enough, and sets it aside. “I’m remembering names now. Remembering . . . more, I guess. It’s all like dreams, like I’m seeing what you do before we wake up. Not who I am, though. Not yet.”

You pull out the thumb drive. “She—Felicity gave me this.”

Curious, you pull out your cell and dial Felicity’s number. You get nothing except a voicemail. You hang up, feeling sick. How can you come back after drowning, but a woman you barely met can’t? What makes you more important?

“Is she really dead?”

“I don’t know what’s real,” your sister says.

• • • •

The thumb drive has a voice recording from the programmer. Sitting in your bedroom, the rain pounding the glass, you open your laptop and click on the audio file.

“This is fascinating. There’s not a code in the words, per se, but under a black light the pages each have a series of numbers, like an IP address. Perhaps the syllables of the words match the language or numbers in an alien dialect that allows them—whoever they are—to follow the trail back? I’ve transcribed the addresses into a spreadsheet . . .” Faintly, someone knocks on the door in her office. “Oops. One sec, have to get this. Save and pause recording.”

Then silence.

You look the torn page. Our address. But what does that mean?

What’s in the rest of the book?

You need a blacklight. You can get one at the hardware store.

• • • •

Your cell phone rings. It’s Felicity.

“Hey, Alex, sorry I missed your call. Fell asleep and just woke up.”

Your back prickles. “You’re okay?”

She hesitates. “Yeah? I got the hangover of a century. Weird, I don’t remember drinking . . .”

You don’t know how long you have in the Dark. You never do.

“Listen,” you tell her, “we need to meet, right now. Can I come over?”

• • • •

At the hardware store, the clerk listlessly rings up your purchase and comments, “Looking for something?”

Back home, your sister limps into your room as you screw in the blacklight bulb into your lamp.

“Alex,” she says, looking exhausted, “I had another dream.”

Do you listen, or do you look at the page and ignore her?

(Why is this a choice? You can multitask, can’t you?)

You ask her to tell you what she saw.

“I saw a closet, and Dad was uncovering a gun, and then he was shooting all of us.” She shudders, hugging herself. “But I don’t know why. Why would he do that, Alex?”

Do you tell her it was just a dream, or reassure her he would never harm any of you?

The power goes out.

A different, familiar blackness takes hold of you.

• • • •

Your sister comes into the room and says, “I had another dream.”

You tell her you’ll hear her out later. She leaves without comment.

You switch on the lamp and hold the paper under the blacklight. A string of numbers appears on the page.

You scribble them down on the notebook you took from the hospital, and the power goes out.

ACT THREE

You wake and find that your dad has dragged a hand-crank-powered television with an enormous antenna up from the basement. He’s crouched in front of it, watching the news.

Mom has a camp stove set up on the counter to percolate coffee.

“What’s the matter?” your sister says as she hobbles into the kitchen. She’s wearing a plaid skirt that flaps about her cast. She only uses one crutch.

“I don’t believe this,” Dad says, staring at the TV.

A triangle in the corner of the screen blares BREAKING NEWS! Underneath is cinematic aerial footage of the mainland.

Huge shapes stomp through cities you can’t name. The invaders have too many angles, too many legs. Their mouths are fleshy strings stretched between blackened protrusions.

The anchor is breathless. “. . . came from the unusual storms we’ve been seeing . . . military has no effect, can’t stop them . . . millions dead already, nowhere to run . . .”

The invading things blot out the cloud-churned sky. The camera shakes and then zooms in on a single invader. It wavers in the middle of a dozen skyscrapers. Its breath sucks up hundreds of people from the streets and slurps them through its mouth. Blood speckles the camera lens.

All you can hear are those hundreds of thousands of people screaming as they’re devoured.

“. . . can’t fight them,” the anchor is whispering now, “can’t stop them . . . satellite imaging shows more heading for the islands . . .”

A map materializes over the carnage, and you see your town circled in a thick, warning line.

“Oh my god,” Mom says. “What do we do?”

Dad leaves and the coffee finally boils.

• • • •

It feels like eternity before you and your sister plod through the darkness to Felicity’s office. One step at a time, aware any second you might be yanked away.

Felicity sits wrapped in a blanket, her monitor giving off the faintest hum of light.

“Are you okay?” your sister asks.

Felicity shrugs. “Just the hangover. I’ll be fine. You?”

Your sister shrugs in turn.

You tell Felicity everything you know so far. She listens until she resembles a ghost.

“I found something weird,” Felicity says at last. “There’s a bunch of letters in my hard drive from people named Mario and Felix. They’re talking about us.”

“Can I see?”

“Sure.”

She taps the keyboard and brings up an email string.

• • • •

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: glitch?

Hey bro, you seeing these glitches? Alex’s jeans keep changing color, and betas are telling me the loading screen is getting fucking long. What’s up?

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: re: glitch?

Hi Mario,

Yeah, I’ve seen the bug reports. I’m not sure. It looks fine, and I spent five hours last night looking through the code AGAIN. Btw, you noticed that the controls seem glitchy when you try to move Alex around? She isn’t responding properly. Half the time you get through the level and you gotta restart to make her work.

—F

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: re: re: glitch?

Dude, this is nuts. We’re supposed to demo in a week! We need a fucking working playthru NOW.

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: re: re: re: glitch?

Mario,

We’ll make the deadline. I’ll figure out what’s going on. Keep your shit together. We’ll be okay.

—F

• • • •

You have a cold, itchy feeling in the pit of your stomach.

They call themselves game developers, and they’re making a video game called The House At the End of the Lane. An indie title, where the player is “Alex” and must stop an alien invasion.

Your life isn’t a fucking game.

Even if it is, why can’t you have sensible choices? Practical outcomes? The constraints make no sense.

“Felicity,” you say, closing the emails, “do you know how long you’ve lived here?”

“Sure,” she replies, then hesitates. “Um . . . yeah, it’s been . . . I moved here from . . . shit. I don’t remember.”

You take a slow breath. “Can you remember anything outside this office?”

She swallows. “No.”

Your sister doesn’t know her name. You can’t remember your childhood other than the fact you’ve always lived here. What did you have for dinner? Did you ever go to the movie theater? Favorite color? Name of school? Do you have a sexuality?

It’s all blank spaces. You don’t know anything about yourself or most of the people you’ve lived around for sixteen years.

Your sister bites her lip. “It’s like we have no past. Like we’re all just . . . placeholders.”

Felicity is shaking. “Alex, why can’t I remember?”

You grab her hands, rub your thumbs over her knuckles to soothe her. “I have a theory.”

Your sister puts an arm around your shoulders and you feel safer than you have since you woke.

• • • •

You didn’t know Dad owned a shotgun.

Do you grab the gun and try to wrest it away from him, or run for the door with your sister?

Of course you try and stop him.

The shotgun fires and your world is red and black.

• • • •

You’re seeing the patterns now, and you’re waking more and more people in your town.

Next is the librarian—Diane. She’s much more pleasant than she was before, hiding her confusion over why she’s still at work when it’s dark. “Did you need to access the microfilm again?” Diane asks.

“No,” you reply. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Thanks, Alex.” She seems surprised. “No one seems to ever remember I’m even here . . .”

You’ll get to everyone. You’ll learn their names. You’ll let them decide their own fates.

It may be dark, but you learn how to build light.

ACT THREE

You grab your sister by the arm and run.

Outside, looking back through the kitchen window, you see Dad shoot Mom in the head before putting the barrel under his chin and pulling the trigger a second time.

• • • •

You reread the emails and sift through the pieces of what you know.

Simulated reality. To Mario and Felix, you are code in a game.

They live in another world, one they believe is real.

The emails have files attached: links to current news, articles about international events, blog posts about daily life.

These glimpses into Felix and Mario’s world are horrifying. Genocide and war. News that is nothing but murder, assault, rape, hunger, pain. Endless loops of repeating history.

Endless code crafted so fine they can’t see it.

They act as if you’re not real. Just a series of basic animations, fixed dialogue choices, and no personality. The devs don’t care who you are. Only what you can do to manipulate their audience.

Your tragedy is their voyeuristic pleasure. Your grief at your parents’ deaths is never written out in the game. They want to use you, hurt you, tear apart your life for their entertainment.

So they won’t expect anger. They won’t stop you now that you know what they are trying to do to your family, to your home, to your world.

• • • •

The gate to the lane is unlatched. You pull your sister along as fast as you can, but she’s limping and the cast drags her down.

“Go!” she shouts at you. “I’ll manage!”

(Don’t let go. Don’t let go. Don’tletgogoddamnit—)

You release her hand and sprint up the lane.

The noise is louder behind you.

You have one bullet in the gun.

You are almost to the house when your sister screams.

“Alex, help me!”

You spin around.

She trips and falls, her hand stretched out in desperation.

Do you shoot her, or shoot the alien, or just turn around and run inside the house?

You aim for the invader’s mouth. The bullet bounces uselessly, and in those precious two seconds you wasted, it snaps up your sister and shoots a leg out toward you. It yanks you into its mouth as well.

ACT THREE

You try and mercy-kill your sister.

The invader eats you both.

• • • •

You transcribe the addresses that Felicity unlocked into your notebook.

The men trying to use you cannot—will not—give you options that do not end in tragedy. They cannot imagine you with agency and a life beyond what they see.

You aren’t even sure you’re angry that they think you’re a simulation. It’s that the only choices are awful. Life should not be a series of bad or worse paths, with no hope to follow.

But you have a plan.

ACT THREE

The gun was always a red herring. You can’t use it. You abandon your sister and enter the house at the end of the lane.

• • • •

Dark. Glorious relief. You’re back in the living room.

Your sister grabs your hands, her eyes bright. “Alex, I remember! My name is Maria.”

Maria. Maria. Maria.

You won’t forget when the Dark goes away.

“Listen,” you tell Maria, “in the morning, we have to run. And first we need to prepare.”

PROLOGUE

A butterfly drifts like an ember against the sky: bright orange and black, delicate wings beating an unheard rhythm. In the distance, scarlet-black clouds boil against the horizon. The sound of explosions rattles the hot air.

The butterfly bursts into flame. Its ashes drift in looping spirals, and through the haze run two girls.

One is wearing jeans and a bright red leather jacket. Beside her is her sister: limping, a plaid skirt flapping about her knees and her plaster cast scribbled with unintelligible good wishes. Both girls have their arms wrapped about each other’s shoulders, and their steps are in sync—like a three-legged race, they chant “left right left right” to keep moving.

The lane is worn brick, edged in weeds and barbed wire. Bleached fields cup the house on three sides, scattered with leafless oaks and lightning-scarred rocks. Down the hill, a town is burning. Giant smoke-veiled shapes—too many legs, too many sides—writhe across the ruins.

There’s no going back.

The house at the end of the lane is a tiny, immaculate rambler with white board siding and a gray shingle roof. Polished windows and a bright red door.

Neither girl trips. They support each other, hold each other tight as they run.

The invaders are here now.

Neither girl looks back. They’ve seen this before: mouths full of fleshy strings caught between blackened protrusions in eyeless heads.

In the pristine glass pane of the house’s window, Alex and Maria focus only on their reflections, on their survival.

They jump onto the porch together.

Alex grabs the doorknob. The invader reaches another leg towards her and Maria. Mouth hungry. A piece of wet plaid skirt clings to its lip. Maria runs beside Alex in bike shorts.

Alex shoves open the red door, so bright and bloody and matching her jacket, and she and Maria step inside the house at the end of the lane. Inside the house, the girls are safe from the invaders.

• • • •

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: wtf

What did you do, man? The cut scene in the beginning has changed completely!

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: re: wtf

Impossible. What the fuck are you on, man?

—F

ACT

How it’s supposed to play out:

You get into the house (alone) and find the twitchy book owner lying dead just inside the threshold. An empty pill bottle lies beside her head. The remains of the book are slashed into confetti around her feet.

You step over her and look at the table in the center of the empty house. It’s a dimensional portal, a nexus point in the universe. You read the address on the bloodied page backwards, banishing the invaders.

Then you walk back into the smoking ruins of your home and stare at the carnage as credits roll. You find a scrap of your sister’s skirt caught on the fence post and hold it close to your chest.

You aren’t going to play this game.

• • • •

The invaders are entropy and chaos. They take different forms but they are not a malevolent, insidious race of beings hunting through worlds. They are simply physics. Matter degrades. Energy reforms.

Worlds burn and new ones grow.

You cannot postpone them forever, but you can play for time. You put the thumb drive and the bloodied page and your notebook into your pockets.

You have no need for a gun.

• • • •

Inside the house at the end of the lane there’s no furniture. Just a single table in the center of an open space. It glows bright blue-white, humming with eerie music.

You pull the notes from your pocket and look at the address for your world. A keyboard materializes on the table.

“Will this work?” Maria whispers.

The rest of your notebook is filled with the addresses from all the other pages in the book.

“I hope so,” you say.

Maria rests her hand on your shoulder, silent and supportive as you work.

In Mario and Felix’s ideation of your life, you save what is left (yourself, only yourself) by banishing the invaders. You buy time until they come again. Nothing more.

But this isn’t Mario and Felix’s world.

You won’t just send the invaders backwards into the code, into the “before” of the game’s timeline. That will only postpone an inevitable downfall. You are tired of replay quality. You want to move forward with your life, make your own choices, anticipate a future.

The invaders are entropy and they will always be hungry.

So you send them to the developers’ address, give them a new feeding ground, the way Mario and Felix did to you.

• • • •

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: impossible

My mom called from Phoenix. It’s fucking destroyed. She’s trying to get out. Everyone thought it was terrorists, but then she sent me a pic. It’s those fucking aliens from our game.

What the fuck, man, how is this possible?

It was just a game.

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]m

Subject: re: impossible

Turn on the news. They’re everywhere, all over the world. London, Moscow, Japan, Antarctica. Those aliens. The storms. This is insane. How? This isn’t possible. We made them up!

Oh my god, my girlfriend is texting me they’re right here in the city

• • • •

There’s one last thing you need to do.

• • • •

You stand before the nexus keyboard in the house at the end of the lane.

Maria stands in the open doorway. “The storms are gone, Alex,” she says. “Do you think the others are okay?”

You don’t know. But you’ll find out. You and Maria can wake the town. You’ll both remember what it is to live now.

Page by page, you delete the world addresses—erase the thumb drive and burn the paper notes. You don’t know if you’re destroying countless billions of simulated lives or not.

By now, you don’t even care.

If there are no other worlds accessible by these codes, then yours will live. At least until someone in a distant future, or another reality, designs more. People have always created monsters.

You should know.

Your name is Alex.

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A. Merc Rustad

A. Merc Rustad

A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a 2016 Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and other fine venues. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad, Patreon, or their website. Their debut short story collection, So You Want To Be A Robot, came out from Lethe Press in May 2017.