Hi. My name is Emily Manson, and on the off chance that anyone should find this, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve done something I never should have, and I’ve dragged someone else into it. Now we’re both dead.
It feels like such a cliché, this, writing down my life story as my final moments tick away. It’s like I’m in a bad horror movie or something. But it’s not as if I’ve got much else to do, sitting here with nothing but an iPad and the clothes on my back. You’ll ask, why don’t you do something with your last few hours instead of just sitting there? If you’ve got an iPad, why don’t you call someone? But there’s literally nothing else to do. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s far, far too late for that. And I guarantee you there’s no service here.
Also, as I sat here, I was kind of filled with this sort of dread that no one else would know who we were or where we’d gone. We’d just be two more suicides – strange and inexplicable ones, certainly, but numbers on a spreadsheet nonetheless. I mean, we’re probably going to end up as that anyway, but I like to think that someone, somehow, will find this and tell the world. Improbable doesn’t mean impossible.
Anyway, I suppose I should get on with it before it’s too late. Like I said, my name is Emily Manson. I’m seventeen years old. And I can astrogate.
Alright, I just came up with that word off the top of my head. I just call it "hopping", but that’d look even worse. At least astrogating looks professional, like the faster than light drive in a sci-fi movie. But I’m getting distracted again. I’m nervous. I always ramble when I’m nervous.
Right, astrogating. I don’t know how it works or what it is. It’s just something I can do. I can…visit other places with it. It’s not teleporting, because I stay where I used to be. It’s not astral projection, because I’m physically in both places. It’s…weird. Like I said, I don’t know what it is.
The first time it happened, I was five or six. We had a little house in suburbia, and there was one of those little plastic slides in the backyard. I was on that, playing, and then suddenly the light went yellow. That was the first thing I remember, the light. The next thing I remember is looking up and out across this vast, barren plain, the sky the color of cheap mustard and vast, vast structures on the horizon. Like, there weren’t any mountains where I lived, but I knew that was the scale these things were at, gargantuan towers and domes and pyramids. All around me, perfectly spaced, were these big black pillars or monoliths that reached up, up into that bizarre sky, in two rows on either side of me reaching away towards a big black altar that was almost on the horizon. And beyond the pillars, marching on either side in funeral perfection, were the creatures.
I don’t know how to describe them. They were horrifying, to say the least. They were thirty feet high, even as hunched as they were, so that their shoulders humped up above their heads. They wore long black cloaks that trailed on the ground, and under them were eight or ten long, long legs like a spider’s or one of those little house centipede’s. In front of the legs, under the shoulders, were four multi-jointed arms, long enough to almost reach the ground and tipped with hands that were simultaneously indescribable and fascinating. Their small heads looked like a horsefly’s nightmare of death, and from them like a horrible mustache came two long ribbed hoses that plugged into complicated ports on what should have been their chests. In their front pairs of hands, each one carried a small object, held up before its face like an offering. It took me a second to realize that they were carrying unconscious – or worse – human beings.
I was terrified. Even now, the memory scares me. My younger self was witless with fear. I watched, practically tasting my own heart, as the ones at the distant front of the procession dropped the people they carried into a vast pit at the foot of the altar, then turned and disappeared to make room for the next. I wish now I had turned around, to see how far the line extended behind me, but all I could do then was stay still and hope they didn’t notice me.
They did, of course – or at least I assume that’s what happened. It’s not like I was trying to hide. I stood there, watching them, when I heard a sound from up ahead, a sort of high-pitched rustling or rattling. The creatures didn’t stop their march, but there was something coming towards me, coming from the altar. It was a bright point of light, a miniature sun, a collection of shining polygons flying at me faster than I could comprehend. For the first time I screamed, and felt a searing pain as it hit me –
And I was on the slide again.
I just sat there for a minute, trying to process what had just happened. It had not been a daydream, certainly. But what, then? I had never experienced anything like that before. I slid down the slide and walked towards the house, intending to tell my mother, and stopped. I don’t remember why. I think my childish mind thought I would get in trouble. I distinctly remember her telling me not to go outside the yard, and wherever I had been was clearly that. Whatever the reason, I never did tell her.
What I did do was draw a picture of it in class the next day. My kindergarten had a big set of art supplies on a table, and I vividly remember sitting there, on my knees, scribbling away with black and yellow crayons in hope of conveying the things I had seen. We had been doing a unit on the planets recently, and when I was finished I took the thing and walked over to the teacher. “Miss Harrison? What planet is this?”
Miss Harrison turned around (Miss Harrison, if you’re reading this, thank you – for everything) and said, “It can be whichever one you want it to be, darling.”
“But which one is it?” I shouted.
Miss Harrison knelt down in front of me. “Shh. Let’s use our indoor voices. Which one do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. I went there yesterday. I thought you would know.”
She laughed. “I’m afraid I don’t know everything, darling. Why don’t you run along and play?”
I did, leaving the picture with her. It was a long time before I saw it again.
The next time it happened was when I was in second grade. I had done something to annoy the class bully – I think I called him a name during lunch – and he and a couple of his friends were chasing me across the schoolyard. I was flustered, and in my haste to get away I ended up on top of the jungle gym. Funny how all of these early stories involve some kind of playground equipment. Odd. Anyway, the top of a jungle gym is a poor place to hide, and they basically surrounded the thing and climbed up on either side of it, with me stuck on the top. One of them shouted something, and I freaked out even farther, and closed my eyes –
And when I opened them I was in deep space. And there was a starship.
My mom had shown me Star Wars the day before the incident happened, and it’s all tangled up in my mind with the image of the Star Destroyer sweeping over the camera. That was more or less what the scene in general looked like, except it was below me, and spread out as far as I could see. It was black, dead black, spectrum-absorbing black, so I couldn’t really see it very well, but there was an impression of spheres like small planets, interconnected cylinders, and flat sheets as thin as paper and as wide as the world. On and on it swept down there, far too fast for anything that size to be moving, and it was then that I realized that there were no stars in the sky, only dim, hazy masses that I realize now were distant galaxies.
For about a minute I hung there, unable to do anything but twitch and watch that immense ship fly past. Then suddenly, horribly, I realized I was asphyxiating. It wasn’t a sudden return this time. My vision darkened as I struggled desperately to fill my starving lungs. Minute after long minute I hung there, as I felt my skin start to tense and my eyes start to cold boil. And all the time that spaceship went on and on and on, as I thrashed and gasped at nothing. And then I was back. Back on the jungle gym, with a boy on the other side staring in shock. Gradually my senses returned, and I realized there was shouting, alarm bells, one of the other boys running back with a teacher. And all that time I sat there on the jungle gym, exactly like that time two years before, trying to make sense of what I had seen.
The rest of the day was chaos. There were questions, of course, from the teachers, the principal, my mother, doctors and nurses. Had this happened before? Had I been unconscious? Did I remember anything? I tried to explain to them, and the boys backed me up – they could be jerks sometimes, but they weren’t the pure-evil, Dudley Dursley sort of bullies that you see in movies, and as far as they could tell, they had just watched a girl die and come back to life. They weren’t on my side, I don’t think. I think they were just scared of me.
Despite all that, the whole thing blew over pretty quickly. There had been what seemed to be a medical emergency, but I was fine now, and as far as the doctors could tell, there was nothing wrong with me. If they had done EM scans, they might have found something more interesting, but they didn’t. Only my mother seriously remembered it, and after we got home from school that day she questioned me more seriously, using big words like hallucinations and schizophrenia. I wanted to tell her about the first incident, but I couldn’t bring myself to – I still had the idea that I was somehow guilty of something. Eventually, she let it go, telling me to tell her if it ever happened again.
It didn’t, for four years. Mom and I had were driving back from a family visit, and had been delayed by a flat tire. It was two in the morning, and I remember staring out the window at the stars, steady lights above the flickering trees. I don’t remember what happened next very well. I was told that a drunk man had been driving the wrong way in the wrong lane and had hit the car, killing himself and Mom but miraculously leaving me alive. All I remember is the sudden, gut-wrenching howling of horns, and Mom screaming, and the visual scream of headlights in the front window. Then I was gone.
When I awoke, it was still dark and I was still in a forest. It was cold – really cold – and the spined tangles of alien trees reached for the sky like the Tower of Babel. All around me, snow shimmered in the brightest moonlight I had ever seen, and the path I stood on stretched on in either direction to the eerily close horizon. It took me a few minutes to think to look up.
The moon was not a moon. In fact, I think I was on the moon, and the object above me was the planet – if you could call it a planet anymore. It was made of shining pale metal, and its surface was covered in dark, labyrinthine fractals like a circuit board built by madmen. All around it, smaller shapes of the same color darted and flickered like fish in slow motion, each a complex assembly of polygons and blades, each tiny in comparison to the whole. They circled in the same intelligent way you see YouTube videos of flocks of starlings do, but they stayed in perfect symmetry the entire time.
I was still watching when I heard the howling. It was the most familiar thing to happen to me in one of these alien environments, and despite what it meant it felt almost comforting. It was the howling of wind, simultaneously high and low, building and approaching at terrible speed. And I found myself watching as the snow on the path ahead of me was caught up in a pale tidal wave, watched as the trees leaned away from it and then moved, retracting themselves down into armored stumps. I watched as the storm grew bigger and bigger and bigger, looming up before me like a pale mountain. And as I watched, mesmerized, I realized that I was going to die.
I think that was the first time I consciously astrogated. I shut my eyes, ignored the cold and my hair in my eyes and my jacket tearing itself from my back. I blocked out everything, focused on the car, and on the similar forest on a similar cold night, on the faraway blue dot I called home. And when I opened my eyes again, I was there.
Not in the car, mind. I was in the forest beside the road, watching the car drive by. I stood there and watched as the pickup swerved around the corner, headlights burning through the darkness. I heard Mom honk the horn, heard her screams and my own as the little blue Volkswagen crumpled like an unwanted letter into the pickup’s grille.
What I did next is something that haunts me to this day. I’ve done it again, since, and sometimes it’s been worse. But that first time…that stayed with me. I walked up the hill, climbed over what remained of the guardrail, and opened the passenger door. There, inside, was me.
She had less snow in her hair, though she had blood to replace it. She wasn’t dead, though. She was alive, though thankfully not conscious. And so I did what I had to do. I took her, hauled her bodily out of the wreckage, dragged her through the forest, and threw her into the barely-liquid river.
I didn’t stay to watch – I was eleven, I just…couldn’t. But that water was frigid. She must have died in minutes. But her face, staring at me out of the water, stayed with me as I took the phone from the guy in the pickup’s pocket and dialed 911. And if anyone ever found the body in the river…well, they can’t very well connect it with the living girl who had miraculously survived an accident, can they?
After that, it didn’t take me very long to start doing it all the time – astrogating, I mean. My ordinary life was chaos, dull, miserable chaos. My father was long gone and Mom was dead, so I was placed in a foster home with a bunch of other kids from problematic situations. It was stable, but just barely. There was always someone yelling or fighting in another room, and more often than not the fight would spill over into the rooms of hapless noncombatants. I had three roommates, who were nice, but noisy, and who regarded me as an invader in their territory. In retrospect, it could have been far worse, but compared to my quiet, peaceful home life, it was hell. And so, when it got to be too much, I would sneak out of the house and into some secluded hiding spot, and I would astrogate.
I could never tell where I would go, or how long I would stay there. I saw stuff that to this day I can’t describe or repeat, and stuff that would make astronomers wet themselves with excitement. I saw frigid worlds where huge bio-machines trundled slowly under skies filled with alien stars; vast, strange intelligences bigger than solar systems that watched me with things that weren’t eyes; the insides of unbelievable megastructures that enclosed stars or even galaxies; titanic cities still crawling with the things that had brought them to ruin, entire planets of misshapen bones and the sores that were the wrecks of starships. Most of the time I would almost die out there and suddenly be back in my body, but sometimes I would get bored or something else would happen, and I would come back on my own. When that happened, I would have to kill my old self as she lay there (usually, hopefully) unconscious. And yet, despite that, astrogating became calming for me, almost, a sort of bizarre therapy when life got to be too much. I pretended I was learning more about the universe – this race hates that one and is allied with this group, this planet was once ruled by these people but no longer – but I think it was all a fantasy. I didn’t have proof to support it, or if I did it was scant to say the least. I don’t really think any of it had any connection. Sometimes, I would try to draw or describe what I had seen for my roommates or classmates, but I think the general consensus was that I was too old to still be creating fantasy worlds, and gradually I stopped talking about it. And so it went on for six years. Then I met Todd.
I say met, it was more like “introduced”. I’d had a crush on him for a little while, but a month or so ago (is that all it’s been?) I finally got the nerve to go up and talk to him. He was in my grade but mostly took different classes, so I didn’t get to see him much. But one day, I finally worked up the nerve to corner him after school.
“Hey!” I said, running to catch up with him, and sure enough he turned around.
“Hi,” he said, sort of looking at me with his head cocked. “What’s up?”
“Well,” I said, scratching one shoe on the gravel, “I saw you reading The Call of Cthulhu on the bus the other day…”
He grinned suddenly, and his eyes lit up. “That’s right! You’re the girl who likes weird stuff. Want to borrow it?”
“No, no, I’ve read it…” I stopped suddenly, unsure of how to go on. “Do you want to go see a movie this weekend?”
“What? Like, together? Okay. Sure. Any particular time?”
And that was how we met. We went to see The Void, and shivered and laughed and ate popcorn. It was generally a pretty friendly first date. Afterwards, we sat and talked, about monsters and nightmares and horror and science fiction. We talked about the possibility of life between the stars, and I told him about some of the things I’d seen, disguised as “what-ifs”. We grew a lot closer, in those few weeks. Then, one day, one of the people who ran the foster home called me into his room. Something horrible had happened.
About a week ago, I had been pursued through the tunnels of some horrible alien complex by a gargantuan pale creature, whose flesh had been crudely supplemented with rusted machinery and whose mindless, whooping imitation of my speech echoed in my nightmares for days. I had hidden behind an item of furniture in a cavernous chamber, and as it stalked through it and called my name I had hopped back home. There was me, standing behind that tree, fully conscious and so scared her face was grey. Apologizing profusely, I took the cloth belt of a bathrobe that I kept for just that purpose and strangled her. I left her in the woods behind the house to bury some time I didn’t feel like dying myself, and had forgotten all about her as I met with Todd. Some of the other kids had found her while they were out playing, and, well…she looked exactly like me, down to wearing the clothes I owned. Is it any wonder they got suspicious?
I freaked out internally when I saw her, shedding bits of plant matter onto the rug, but I managed somehow to keep my cool. I told them I didn’t know who this person was, or why she looked exactly like me down to the birthmark on our left shoulders. I told them I had never had a sister, twin or otherwise, and this must all be some kind of freak accident. Eventually, they gave up, but they still scheduled me an appointment with the school psychiatrist the next day.
I walked into the little office after school, not sure what to expect. I didn’t recognize the woman behind the desk at first. Then she said hello, and I understood.
“Mrs., now, darling, but yes. It’s Emily, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. How did you get here? Why are you the psychiatrist?”
She shrugged. “Because I applied for the job. Psychiatrist is what I went to school for, anyway. Kindergarten was just a step on the road. But never mind that now. Do you recognize this?”
She put a piece of paper on the desk, soft with age and covered in the scribbles of yellow and black crayon.
I stared in shock. “You still have this?”
She leaned across the desk. “There’s something you’re not telling me, Emily. Something you’re not telling anyone. I didn’t think about it, until they told me what those children found in the woods. What are you?”
“A seventeen-year-old girl?” I said, but I was losing control, and I sat there for a few more seconds before it all came bursting out. “I don’t know, Miss Harrison! I don’t know! There’s something wrong with me, and I don’t know what it is. That girl is me…I can’t explain it.”
She sat there, watching me, very calm and understanding, until the tears stopped and I just sat there sniffling. Then, without being condescending or angry, she just said, “Tell me everything.”
“I…I can’t. It’s just… all of it’s insane…you wouldn’t believe me…”
“It doesn’t matter if I believe you or not, darling. The point is that you tell me. Even just that can help.”
“I’m sorry…I just…can’t.”
She nodded. “All right. There, there. Here’s a tissue. Perhaps we can meet again tomorrow?”
“Yes, please. Thank you, Miss – Mrs. Harrison. Thank you so much.”
“Of course, darling. That’s why I’m here.”
“By the way,” I said, reaching out to touch the drawing as she stood up to go. “Can I keep this?”
“Of course. It’s yours anyway. I thought you’d forgotten about it."
“Thank you. Just…thank you.” I stood up and left. There, outside the office, was Todd.
“Emily! I was told you had to – that something had happened. What’s going on?”
“I – I can’t explain it.” I started walking off along the corridor, then turned and motioned for him to come with me. “Come on. I have to show you something. You’ll understand. I know you will.”
He tried to catch up with me as I walked quickly down the corridor. “What’s going on? Emily, what are you –”
“Here. In here. This will do.” I opened the door to a supply closet off the hall.
“Do? Do for what?” He followed me into the cramped space. “Why are we here?”
“I’ve never done this before. Hold my hand.”
“What? Emily, this is a bit sudden –”
I grabbed his hand, concentrated very hard on the fact that there were two of us, and hopped.
We were deep in the void, the space around us tinted green and grey. Obscuring the stars were pillars of dust light-years high, and in them points of light that were forming stars. All around us were bubbles the size of skyscrapers, milky white and translucent, all of them floating very still like an art piece gone wrong.
Todd jerked his head back and gasped soundlessly – it was his first experience with hard vacuum. I lurched sideways, trying to move us towards one of the bubbles, but succeeded in doing nothing more than letting go of his hand. That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.
One of the bubbles moved suddenly, almost intelligently, and it felt like silk as I fell with a sucking sound through the barrier and in. Inside, by some quirk of physics, was pure oxygen gas, which is why I’m still alive. It’s quite cold, certainly, but my body’s working overtime on the stuff, so I’m still here.
Todd didn’t make it into the bubble.
The thing took me and not him. I don’t know why. It just stopped after it grabbed me. I screamed and threw myself at the edge of the bubble, trying to prompt it into motion again, but of course it didn’t respond, and the barrier’s only permeable one way. I watched him for a while as he floated there, choking, until at last he stopped and hung there like a puppet in water. He’s not like me, and I hope that when he died, he went back to his old body, but I don’t think he did. I think there’s just two dead Todds floating through the universe.
As for me? The bubble – well, I don’t know what it’s made of. Perhaps it’s alien technology of some kind. Perhaps it’s even alive, somehow. But whatever it is, I can’t get out. Not physically, and not by hopping either. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried to hop to Earth, to Todd, to basically anywhere in the universe I can think of. Nothing. My last body’s still lying dead in the school, and in a little while I’ll join her. I’m desperately thirsty by now, and I’m getting kind of hungry, and I don’t know how long the air in here will last. But I’ve written it all down for whoever somehow manages to find this – honestly, probably no one at all. I don’t know how I want to end this. I guess I’ve made my peace with the universe, if there’s peace to be made. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and now I’ve paid for them. My iPad’s running out of battery now. I suppose I'll just sit here for a while, and look at this picture, and wait for the end. I suppose this is goodbye.
– Document recovered from government data archive, released to the public by unknown persons on March 3, 2020
Written by StalkerShrike