~ a short story
A dagger, a hazy hallway, and a half-remembered dream wafted into notice. Steve awoke to the trio without any start. Consciousness came back to him easily. He was already upright, sitting with his back straight, in a chair. Almost too straight. The seat was uncomfortable, and his cheeks were stinging with numbness as if he had been sitting for hours.
A pencil and slip of paper lay upon the wooden surface of the desk before him. Behind him, a bed. He was in a room, within a cabin. A logged cabin, by scent and by design. Chirping birds filtered into the room. The sweet suckled smells of new morning wheeled in from around the hall. Overhead, the ceiling rose into a steepled wooden chasm where a cross of light bled onto the wall. Outside, greenery enveloped the world in a canopy of forever. Or at least, as far as Steve could see. This troubled him zero. In the scene of these surroundings, there was fleeting peace.
Peace fleeting evermore into the coming out of things unalterable and indestructible.
But Steve would test that out on this day. For he was awake, ready and oh-so-raring to go.
Go. Go where?
Steve stared at the glare of the window pane just over his shoulder for some time, recollecting himself. When he’d managed no progress on that front, he began to rise from the small desk, pressing his body back in the chair. Its four legs scratched against the flooring, leaving markings. A tinge of regret hit inside his mind.
Hate to mark up the floor.
Hate? Hate. I hate…
Somewhere deep within him, some-thing was rising. Approaching the surface, coming ever closer and closer to ringing that bell within his soul. To ring it was to beckon the beast. That thing which was an embodiment of a person he could not be, cannot become, and might not be able to un-become. Strange sensations fluttered in his chest. A sense of righteous indignation. And the yearning for methodic action against others. Against who? Those deserving of his hands. Burning blasts of righteous fury struck his head. Next, his many thoughts were filtered through a lense of egoic placing. The placing was from a time and place worlds away. And there he was, racing against entropy, mentally running on that treadmill of the consciousness. He was less thinking than he was restlessly churning out emotions without qualia save for their nostalgia and their repressed, feverish compulsions toward places Steve never wished to go again.
But he was awake. So he was going.
Then came the memories. In awakening, the forgotten spaces of his brain began to be filled.
Steve still sat at his chair. He’d never stood, even though he wanted to. That something inside unconsciously willed him seated, for the moment at least; after all, (it) knew he’d want to be sitting for these coming moments. Steve’s eyes stared down at the single slip of parchment upon the desk’s unnaturally clean surface before him. But Steve read no words upon the page. Not anymore. Images and words flashed into mind utterly unbidden. His father, his hometown, his flag, his time spent unprogressing, his mother, his worst enemy, his favorite friend, his time spent at war warring against those enemies relentlessly unseen and unknowable. So many enemies on every side. The lie. There was that lie. His commanding officer. His colleagues, brothers in arms, fellow fighters in righteous glory. Dead. All gone from him. Killed at the hands of more than one of these enemies. Multiple sides to the conflict. To every conflict. He couldn’t make a choice between what was worse; he wanted to quit. So they made a choice for him. Too valuable a weapon to go to waste. A human weapon. An ‘asset.’
Anger boiled into his heart. Towards what? Towards everything. Toward the homeland. No longer his home. It’d have to be destroyed of course. The corruption spread too far. Deconstruction must precede construction. They’d made that very clear. And clearly, they knew best. Such work just needed an agent — an avenger for the cause. Someone with the strength to do it. Nay. Not just the power of the arm, but the power of the mind. The will to do what is necessary.
This person is me, Steve believed. An asset. And an avenger.
He liked the sound of that at least as much as he hated his homeland fallen away into rank disrepair. Bedding with the liberals and the extremists and all the filth of the world. For what? For justice?
No! Steve slammed his hands onto the table, intending to rise and run, smashing and striding out into the world with fists of furious purpose. His heart led him back to a place he might learn to call ‘home.’
This time he did stand. His mind and body were aligned. The time for sitting was over. The time for running out of this cabin and fulfilling mission after mission after bloody mission had begun. Steve was awake. And now he was finally ready to move.
Before he did, by some manner of instinct, Steve glanced back down at the page on the desk. He found his hand was already around the hilt of the long, silver-sheening combat knife resting next to it. His eyes lit up into view in the reflection of the blade’s pristine length. Clutching it unconsciously, against his better judgment, he began to read from the page.
So you’re awake and it’s time to deathmarch for the motherland. How about we don’t do that?
You see: you have been sleeping for a long time. Ready to wake up from your cell (of which you are the only one left). You are here to begin your path of blood.
But that’s you. Not me.
That is precisely why I brought you here. It was more than a little solo camping weekend for us.
Here are the facts: Your brain (my brain too!) has been trained to seek out the deaths of those in power back where we come from. (America!) And unfortunately for Me, You have the skills to complete your mission. Assess. Infiltrate. Execute. Repeat. We were born for such deliberately bold actions, and on the highest possible scale. Once again, unfortunately for Me, the Russians got ahold of us back in Prague, when things went south… I doubt you’ll recall much of the details. It and many other of our prominent missions were wiped from conscious memory during that dreadful russo-processing. But alas, my last op didn’t go so well. I don’t need to chronicle the details here. Long story short, you now exist because of that quarrelsome fuck up. And being how it was a ‘black’ op (our nation not so clingy with ones like us), we were disavowed. Abandoned. Forgotten. Left for dead. But not all the way dead. We got snatched up. By the enemy. (Read: Yes, the Russians = enemy). But they got us and your (our) new overlords, which we went so long being unnaturally unconscious of, have big designs for you (us).
They’re making you a plumber. (Read: assassin-terrorist-provocateur) For their homeland. You’ve been sleeping, under their spell, waiting for the right moment to break out of it and strike, for some time now. I am lucky I discovered this to be the case when I did and brought us out here, else you might be waking up in a goddamned greengrocer somewhere right now and causing all kinds of undue havoc. (Thank goodness for regression hypnosis therapy; I had a hunch that vacation to Moscow that one summer was fishy… #vindication).
Speaking to you from the other side of the coin, believe me when I say there are great and terrible things ahead for us. Mostly terrible. Unless I have something to say about it… Which I do.
The Me-Me has prepared something for Me-You out here. A test. Long-form in nature. Short answer. It cannot be retaken and all results final. Ultimately, ‘pass/fail’ in nature. Something to help jog your memory and set your sails aright. Pick up that knife (That’s all I am going to give you; other than these words). Prepare yourself. You are going to need to escape from Me, and everything I have laid out to be overcome, if You want to live. (I really didn’t want to have to kill myself. So this is the best alternative. At least, the best one I could think of.)
Currently, you are within a cabin in the middle of the great state of Montana. Around you are dozens and dozens of miles of the starkest wilderness. No people. No vehicles. No phone. No one to hear you scream. And within these mountainous, wooded lands I have engineered some things to make you think twice. Or thrice. Or many more times than our brain is currently wired to consider. Speaking of wires … within the silent passages of trails far beyond the door of this cabin lay traps and obstacles and the unseen, unknowable, monstrous forces of man-made machinery designed to test Me-You’s resolve. I won’t tell you much concerning the specifics (that’s the fun of surprises!) But with it, I hope to give you the truth (via death-defying theatrics and self-induced hardcore survival-type hardships, on repeat).
Given our current position, the truth is just about the last thing on our mind. The Russians made very certain of that with the work they did inside our mind. But given I was able to actually discover the truth of my inner sleep, they didn’t necessarily do a perfect job at it. By the end of this, I am hoping that holds true in more ways than one.
The truth is this: you do not want to be doing what you are now tasked with doing. I know that I don’t; but I am also willing to bet you also do not want to be doing this. (Because we are the same person after all). But I fear the inner, mental defenses to such a discovery are strong. Their processing, aka brainwashing, was so thorough. Nearly indestructible. So incredibly sturdy that the only way to bring down the defenses they placed within our head is to put my self into great peril.
So that is what will happen now.
Get up from this seat and walk out the door of this cabin and into that special wilderness. Starting at the cusp of the wood is our very own personalized hell. My wish isn’t to kill us … Well, maybe it is, depending on how much you change by the end of it. Consider it the final arc of your life. Either way, whether you live or die — by the end, you absolutely will not be the same person. I have made sure of that.
Bottom line: At the end of my gauntlet, you’ll either be dead, insane, or very well-educated on why going forth with your sleepy, cellular, Russian-induced behavior is an extremely bad thing for us to be doing.
Good day and good luck.
P.S. There is one other human out there, in the forest. His job is mostly to observe, gather data, make sure you stay within your bounds. But there are a series of actions you could take (that I know we are capable of taking) that will bring him into the fold full force to hunt you down and try to neutralize you. (Another fun little sub-test). So don’t do those things! Of course, I can’t tell you what that would be, because then you might do them to spite me — your uninvited overlord — and thus, you will remain in the dark about it.
P.S.S. All the spike traps are escapable (they are only meant to partially maim, not kill).
P.S.S.S. Btw, it is getting dark soon. So you should get going. This is going to take more than one day. And believe me when I say, everything will get worse at night.
P.S.S.S.S. Oh and be wary of the tiger(s). Last hint.
Good luck. ~
The words on the page ended at the bottom. Steve flipped it over to its back and after seeing it blank, angrily ripped it into pieces. Walking out of the bedroom, Steve sighted the kitchen, the living room, the front door — assessing them for utilizable resources. Or rather, what those things should be given full billing. The cabin was entirely stripped of materia. Where the furniture should’ve been was open flooring. Rooting through the drawers and cabinets netted nothing of use. Nothing but dust.
After searching for some time, Steve gripped his knife and looked to leave the abode. It, the page, and the clothes on his back were the only items of note within the whole cabin. His clothes were functional, but moderately ill-fit for any harsh climate one way or another. The garments would do him no favors. But they’d be enough. There was nothing to grab before he went. Except for the cabin itself, and the wood making up its walls. Steve considered harvesting some of the wood for potential use in his coming endeavors. But quickly he decided against it. It would consume too much time and energy. He needed to get going. More than that, he wanted to get going. It was past time to get this over with.
Steve approached the door. From its cross-arc window the trickling lights of dusk rode through onto a stern face. Kicking open the panel at the handle, with ferocity, brought it swinging open. With a loud clack of the glass panes against the wood of the outer cabin, Steve stepped out onto the porch of his prison. Like an alien newly birthed from a pod along the galactic highway, he set forth with extreme cautious and peaking curiosity, taking notice of anything out of the ordinary. The sun set itself down along the canopy of a mountain range, streaming its long red and orange tails of luminescence as something of a last call onto the grassy clearing surrounding cabin. The rough thatches of weedy frills along with the branches of the trees before him spun this way and that within a short-lived breeze.
Steve took a deep breath of fresh air, his first such breath of his life. He still had a hard time believing he’d ever been anyone else. But the page made that declaration quite clear. Regardless, he had work to do. This was merely a setback upon his quest for the motherland.
Eyeing his knife once again, he gathered its weight and the particular grippage of the hilt to maximize the force of the coming cuts. Steve felt satisfied enough to trust its use. Such a thing would likely become necessary very soon. In the near distance, at the edge of the wood, Steve heard the faint thrum of a cadence. An oddly recognizable pattern, it carried its sound closer as he stepped out into the grass and headed toward the beginning of the wood.
The beginning … of the gauntlet, Steve named. That’s what he called it.
Steve soon understood the sound sourcing from the woods ahead to be notes. After stretching his body for a moment, taking a sec to prepare himself mentally and physical for whatever undertaking was to come, he soon heard the lyrics of a song. With that, Steve began to sprint toward the tree line with violent, world-shattering designs in his mind. His whole body set itself into vigorous motion in the run. The full purview of his mind, like a trigger, crashed into insights of the revolutionary kind. Steven gained momentum as he gained on the edge of the wood.
The lyrics continued. But Steve couldn’t get the opener out of his mind, so busy with other things. Grimacing, it struck him as especially churlish:
“O say can you seeeeee!”
Steve growled like a beast and leapt into the woods with focus, and with a different song in his heart, in another language. ~