Cover Artwork: Athdara-Seleya
John Burtok was in his middle years, his face still sporting some yougthful features, especially in the gleam within his blue eyes. He had always thought that he would die at a young age, but life had decided otherwise. So that he still lived, somehow despite his own will, living his life day after day, without knowing where it would bring him.
On this warm summer evening, he was walking at a tranquil pace through the streets of the large city, trying to avoid the brightly lit areas, because shadows were his favorite place to immerse himself in his thoughts. This had been a long and tiring day. Everything at work had gone well - or at least, "not worse than usual" - until that moment when he had felt the weird sensation that the reality was somehow shifting around him. He could not clearly pinpoint what the actual change was, but he had suddendly felt awkward, misplaced. He had gazed around him, looking at each of his collegues, who all seemed totally oblivious to what he himself was feeling. The sensation had not left him, despite his numerous attempts to convince himself that he was imagining things, that the lack of sleep of the past few days was getting the best of him. So he had left his office at the usual hour, waving goodbye to his collegues who were busy packing their stuff to go home after a good day of work.
As John stepped outside of the building, he more acutely experienced the sensation that something was amiss in the air. He looked alongside the sidewalks of the street, crowded with people walking purposefully, hastening their pace to return home. Their behaviour was most usual at this hour of the day. Cars went by, horns sounding impatiently from time to time. He decidedly could not associate his weird sensation to anything remarkable in the street, no more than he had been able to at work. Trying to grasp that faint sensation as if he could capture it physically out of thin air was most certainly hopeless. He did not feel hungry so he decided to walk home and enjoy the warm summer evening, hoping it would rid him of the uncomfortable and strange sensation. After all, no one waited for him at home, so that he had no obligations for tonight. After half an hour of wandering through the city, more and more convinced that his senses had simply played a trick on him, something in the air caught his attention and without second thought he reached for it with his hand. Carefully opening his fist, he saw nothing at first on the palm of his hand. As he walked toward a lamppost, he finally caught a glimpse of a minuscule sphere - the size of a sand grain - glowing with a faint fluorescent light. But before he could get a closer look at it, the sphere disappeared with a small popping sound.
He looked at his now empty palm during a few minutes before he finally resumed his walk. This was most disturbing. Of all the tiny objects he had collected during his solitary walks (his full pockets were enough proof of this habit), he had never observed anything even remotedly similar to this tiny sphere. It had looked so perfectly geometrical, so unlike the irregular grains of sand or pepper or sugar. Even if not unheard of (everybody knew of oyster pearls), such a regular shape was rarely produced in Nature. And what surprised him most was the luminescence of the object. He was well aware that some living organisms were able to naturally produce some light, but that glow had seemed quite artificial. He wished he could have looked at the sphere a little longer, and even been able to bring it back home to add to his collection of unusual objects. But it had happened so quickly and unexpectedly...
As John resumed walking and was still pondering about this mysterious discovery, he felt a sense of strangeness progressively penetrating his mind, and hastened his pace without being aware of it. He was now heading directly toward home, his lazy evening mood long forgotten. It felt as if he could not wait for the safety of his home any longer. As if he could bear no more weird things for the day. Walking at a fast pace, he was quick to reach the street where he had inhabited since many decades. The narrow street was poorly lit - which was usually to his taste - but tonight he would have preferred a good bunch of those very powerful streetlights. Now standing in front of his home building, he struggled some time to find his keys amidst the usual mess within his pocket, absentedly looking up to the fourth floor where he lived. He noticed that the light of his bedroom was on and swore at his own distraction. Mornings were always hard on him and his mind had been far away from energy saving when he had departed for work. Surprisingly enough, the front door gave way before he could insert the key in the lock and he rapidly climbed the stairs to his flat.
His mind already on a hot bath and a good old western movie, he awoke from his reverie at the sound of voices behind the door of his flat. He raised his eyes to the nameplate on the door and thought that he was decidedly distracted today: he had miscalculated the number of floors while climbing the stairs. The name was unknown to him, but he had never given much attention to his neighboors, so rapid was the turnover of the tenants in the building. He was afterall one of the few long-term tenants of the surroundings. He rapidly climbed up to the next floor, but the name on the plate was still not “John Burtok”. Cursing aloud, he ran two floors down and stood still at the sight of another unknown name on the door. Now fighting a surge of panic, he ran down to the basement and rushed out of the building, unintentionally slamming the door behind him in his haste. Trying to gather his wits, he slowly turned around and carefully examined the facade of the building he had just exited. No doubt was possible, this was definitively his home. Everything coincided to the tiniest of details, including the broken window panel on the first floor and the tiny weed at the base of the downpipe that he had noticed on the morning. Most probably this was simply one of his friend Lucas' pranks (he was still a twenty-year-old student at heart) and changing all the nameplates was his doing...
Sighing but smiling inwardly at his friend's mischievous humour, he went to the front door and produced once more his key to open it. But that time the door would not let him in. No matter how delicately or forcefully he turned the key, the lock would not yield. He began pounding at the door and yelling, but to no avail. Taking a few steps back, he began to throw tiny peebles on the windows of the facade, desperately trying to get the attention of his neighboors. He obtained a few angry faces peering through half-opened windows, but no one seemed to recognize him and faces soon disappear with threats to call the police.
Now completely confused, he slowly sat on the floor and closed his eyes, his mind in a turmoil. The strangeness of the situation was taking its toll on him. As he reopened his eyes a few instants later, his gaze settled on the weed at the base of the downpipe. He absentedly noticed that the tiny flowers of the plant seemed to catch the light of the street lighting strangely, somehow more intensively than the rest of the plant. As he rose to his feet with the intent to try once more to convince his neighbours to let him in, the plant retained his attention: the light now seemed to progressively detach from the flowers as if of its own will, and slowly form a luminescent cloud a few centimeters above the flowers. Walking the few steps that separated him from the weed, he knelt in front of the plant and closely inspected this strange patch of light.
The light cloud was composed of hundreds of tiny points of light, distinct spheres faintly glowing in the night.
Today of all days she could not allow anything to interfere with the progress of her work. The deadline was only two days away and Susan Sullivan already knew she would barely make it. Reaching for the handkerchief stucked in her pocket, she hastily mopped the sweat on her brow. It was such a hot day. Summer would still be there for a whole month, but the season had been so exceptionally dry that the harvest would be ahead of schedule this year. She stretched her legs and went back to work. Collecting plant samples was such a tedious work. It was not complicated per se, and she had learned quite fast the right protocol, but the tiniest mistake in the sampling process - especially contamination from other plants - could spoil an entire day's work. Staying focussed was made difficult by the constant insect buzzing around her and their occasional biting. She carefully knelt in front of the next plant and sampled with extreme precaution one of its tiny purple flowers, inserting it in a new sampling tube. She dutifully wrote down the sample's code on the tube, “Sol dulc” (for Solanum dulcamara
) “#2048”, and went on to the following plant.
Since her childhood, Susan had often wondered how Nature could produce such living paradoxes as bittersweet nightshade. Beautiful dark violet tiny flowers, star-shaped with a bunch of bright yellow stamen at the centre, transforming into highly toxic berries after pollinisation. It seemed like it came directly from the backyard garden of a country witch. The plant was pragmatically listed as a noxious invasive weed, and science projects - such as the research study Susan was working for - were undertaken to define measures to better control its spread.
Hours went on. From time to time Susan would indulge in a short break, and then sat on the grassy field margin, refreshing herself from her water flask. The day's work would soon come to an end. Her colleagues would pick her to go back to the hotel that accommodated the scientific team during the two-week field mission. It was already time to resume working and she stood up, once more stretching to shake off the soreness from her body. She had never thought that field work would be so tiring both physically and mentally. Glancing at the setting sun, she glimpsed a flock of birds coming in her direction. Wildlife movements were quite frequent at sundown, but she frowned at the sight of the pattern formed by the birds, or more precisely, at the absence of a pattern. Birds flying in large groups were well known for their high skills in coordination and synchronisation, never colliding despite swift movements and direction changes. But these birds were flying in an erratic manner, occasionally even bumping into each other. The only comparison that came to her mind was with a panic-striken human crowd, each individual desperately trying to flee from an unseen danger, oblivious of the others' fate. The birds flew high over her head and hastily went toward the direction opposite to the setting sun. Still intrigued by the strange behaviour of the birds, she hastily went on with her sampling, trying to catch up with the precious time wasted while observing the birds.
Diner was welcome and the mood was joyful since the field work would be completed on schedule, after only one more sampling day. Enjoying the high spirits of her collegues, Susan finally chose not to mention the strange birds' movements she had witnessed while working on the field: they were plant biologists after all, not bird specialists. Who was she to know something about bird behaviour?
Instead of directly retiring to their rooms for the night after diner was over, the team chose to linger on the hotel's terrace. They intended to enjoy the last evening together before going back to “civilisation” after two weeks of field work in the countryside. Susan could however not join them that night since it was her turn to prepare the equipment for the last day's sampling session. She wished good night to her collegues and left for the storage room that had been assigned to the researchers. As much as she could enjoy her colleagues' small talk, she would welcome a quiet moment before going to bed. As she entered the unlit corridor that led to the room, she was surprised to see some light filtering from under the door. She would tease her collegue Nilson for his distraction when it came to minimising their impact on the environment. Switching lights off when leaving a room had never seemed to be coded in his genes. As she opened the door, she froze at the doorframe.
An intense unnatural glow emanated from the box containing the plant samples collected during the day. Bewildered, Susan slowly walked toward the source of the light and inhaled sharply at the sight of hundreds of transparent sampling tubes radiating with a strange fluorescence. As she bent low to examine the contents of the tubes, she saw that myriads of minuscule spheres were imprisoned with the sampled flowers and glowed in the dark. Had she still been an undergratuate plant science student at the University, she would have sworn that one of her classmates had played a trick on her and added fluorescent powder in the sample tubes. Such powder was indeed sometimes used to study the dispersal of pollen by insects. She carefully reached for one of the tubes and raised it to her eyes. While some spheres were freely floating in the air in the tube, most of them were inside the anthers - the part of the stamens producing the pollen grains.
Curiosity overcame her apprehension and Susan took the sampling tube to a nearby table to examine its contents with a microscope. She sat transfixed as she now saw the spheres with the maximum magnification. Her analytic mind struggled with what she was seeing. These were definitively not genetically engineered pollen grains made fluorescent by the addition of the gene coding for the lucipherase enzym. The structure of these pollen grains ressembled nothing she had ever encountered during her past researches and the long hours spent observing pollen grains from various plant species. If she had not found these particles within the pollen sacs of a flower, she would never have classified them as parts of a biological organism. What came to her mind was miniaturised spherical robots.
The silence was deafening. Or perhaps he had become deaf himself. Sleeping with earplugs - a common habit when living in the center of a huge city - was something he had never managed to get accustomed to. He somehow liked the nocturnal noises of the city, the continuous humming that gave him the comfortable feeling to be among people. But that morning, as he tried to awake progressively, there was no sound to be heard. His eyes still closed, he stirred in his bed. But as he finally opened his eyes, he realised that he was definitively not in his bedroom. Was it one of these mornings when he had awaken in strange unfamiliar surroundings after too much drinking with Lucas? He could not recall spending the night with his friend. He sat up suddenly and looked around him. And then he thought he had become blind too. Not that he was surrounded by darkness, but as far as he could see, everything was pure white, in every direction. His senses were definitively not functioning correctly. As he looked down at the surface on which he was sitting, he could no longer ignore the panic rising inside of him. There was no surface to be seen, only pure ethereal white. Things worsened as he temptatively reached for the non-existent surface. On the verge of fainting, he reflexively closed his eyes to shut down the vision of his non-existent hand, and tried by pure will to wake up from that so disturbing dream.
Nothing happened. The whiteness was still there all around him, and he could not see his body. His desperate attempt to call out to potential listeners was worst of all: it simply produced no sound. John Burtok had never been one to believe in the paranormal, the existence of ghosts and the like, but the idea that he had somehow become a disembodied spirit became overwhelming. He screamed silently as his mind raged against the weirdness of the situation.
Still half asleep, she felt a sudden rush of adrenaline as she perceived light through her still closed eyelids. How could have her collegues let her oversleep while a long day's work awaited them all for the last day of their field mission? Susan blinked several times before finally opening her eyes. And she did not understand what she saw. Or rather, what her optic nerves failed to register. She was looking at a blank ceiling. Where were the wet stains she had noticed when going to bed at the hotel the first night? She blinked a few more times but to no avail: the blemishes did not reappear. But that was not her primary concern if she hoped to catch up with her collegues before they left the hotel. Her mind already on the sampling protocol, she hastily rose from her bed to reach for her clothes. At least she had intended to. In each direction where she looked, she was confronted with unflawed whiteness. Fear invaded her as she thought of the possible brain damage that could result in such a condition. Losing sight was something that had terrified her as long as she could remember, back when her fear of the dark kept her awake at night as a child. She tried to gather her wits and to control her rising panic. From what she knew, truly blind persons could see some colours, shades of brown, dark reds and greys. They did not experience pure dark, fantasised and feared by sighted persons, and certainly not pure whiteness. This was certainly a temporary affection of her optical nerves, due to excessive work and stress during the last weeks. She wave her hand in front of her face, but her visual range remained as blank as before.
Pragmatically, Susan headed for the door with both arms stretched in front her to prevent her from bumping into the wall. She took a few steps ahead, but her fingertips did not come into contact with any surface. No doorknob nor wall was to be found. Bewildered, she turned around but encountered nothing at the location where her bed should have been. She laughted at herself when she realised that she was simply dreaming the strangest dream she had ever had. The fact that her laugh produced no sound made her laugh even more. Decidedly, working too hard had some surprising effects on her subconscious. But uncomfort slowly replaced her mirth. What if she would never awake from that dream? What if she wasn't dreaming at all but everything, or rather the lack of anything tangible, was real? This mere thought was frightening. Seeking comfort, she raised her hands to her face but her palms encountered nothing. That was when her analytical brain ceased to function and her reptilian brain took control over. Her mind shouted silent screams of utter terror.
The building's facade finally yielded to the shadows as the last window went dark. A late passerby frowned at the silhouette of a man lying on the pavement and hastened his pace, wishing that the administration would finally find a solution to deal with street alcoholism in the city. In his haste he failed to notice that the man's posture was hardly that of a drunk man that had finally crumpled to the floor after some random wandering along the street. Under better scrutiny he would not have missed the astonished expression on the man's face, his eyes wide open and lips slightly ajar. The man was lying on his side, his knees and feet bent and his arms somehow stretched in front of him. He looked as if he had droped stone dead while observing something on the floor. Or as if he had suddenly become completely paralysed, later falling on his side, his whole body locked in the kneeling position.
A faint glowing misty cloud was floating a few centimers in front of the immobile man's outstretched hands. It slowly rose in the air, and began splitting into several smaller patches of fluorescent mist. The process went on, expanding in the air, now forming a web of equidistant dots of light above the man's silhouette. Thin threads of light grew from the dots, finally connecting them together, forming a luminous net. The geometrical structure began to descend toward the unmoving shape of the man. It then slowly bent and wrapped around the man, imprisoning him within its confines. A low humming noise came from the net and its glow began to fluctuate. The noise progressively grew in intensity along with the flickering of the light. It finally went out with a popping sound.
The pavement laid empty in the dark. The man had disappeared into thin air.
The hotel went progressively quiet as all the guests had retired to their rooms for the night. The cleaning woman stored her wipers in the closet, released to be done with her work for the day. She swiftly walked down the brightly lit corridor, switching off the light as she left. Had it not been for subdued noises heard now and then, she would have noticed a low scratching noise as she went pass the door leading to the researchers' storage room. The corridor was now completely dark but for a line of light filtering from under the door.
The fluorescence emanating from the sampling tubes had intensified. Small circular openings were forming on the surface of the tubes, and minuscule luminous dots slowly began to pour through. They progressively elevated in the air, and headed toward the still silhouette bent over the microscope. A fluorescent network became to take shape, thin threads of light connecting glowing nodes. It slowly enclosed the woman's body, wrapping around each part, bending to the shape of every detail. The whole network began to vibrate, emitting a low buzz, its light flickering along with the vibrations. The noise progressively increased in intensity, as the fluorescence fluctuated even more rapidly. The light finally went out with a snap and all went dark in the room.
The seat in front of the microscope was empty. The woman had disappeared into thin air.
Book One - Chapters 1|2