A Scrape in the Dark

I stared up at the ceiling, my eyes wide open and my brain feeling like a skipping record.

Okay.  Silence.  It’s lasted a while now – it has to have been at least a minute.  Maybe that means that the sound has-

Scrape.

Nope.  There it is again.

With a grunt of exasperation, I sat up and threw off the covers.  The red digits on the clock across from me told me that it was morning, if just barely.  My brain feverishly calculated that I had approximately seven hours until I had to be at work.

And for the fourth night, I couldn’t fall asleep, thanks to that damn noise.

I turned, dropped my feet off the side of the bed and into the slippers positioned next to my nightstand.  I fumbled for my glasses, sliding them onto my face.  Standing up, I grabbed my dressing gown and pulled it around me as I stumbled towards my front door.

It was that mysterious tenant in 201A, I knew it.  I’d only just moved to this apartment a couple weeks ago, but I’d already gotten to meet most of the tenants.  Old Mrs. Rabbish, down on the first floor, now greeted me with a cheery smile that made her wrinkled skin crinkle around her eyes.  Terry, the muscle-bound bodybuilder up on the fourth floor, gave me a high-five whenever he came hustling past me on the stairs.  The tenants all seemed like a friendly enough bunch.

But I’d never met my neighbor, the occupant of 201A, the other apartment on my floor.  Strange – I would have expected to bump into him or her sooner or later, but I never saw any sign of my neighbor on the second floor.

Someone lived there, though.  I sometimes saw packages sitting outside their door, or Chinese take-out menus looped onto the doorknob, when I left for work.  By the time I returned home, however, they’d always be gone.

Now, opening my door, I stomped over to the door for 201A.  I wasn’t sure what I would say, but my body, fatigued with exhaustion and fogged with desire for silence, carried me forward.  I lifted my hand, formed a fist, and pounded on the door to 201A.

I heard no answer from within.

After another knock produced the same lack of result, I leaned in, pressing an ear up against the cold wood.  Perhaps the scraping sound was coming from somewhere else…

No, there it was!  From the other side of the door, I heard it, fainter but unmistakable!  This neighbor of mine was making the noise that kept me awake!

I pounded on the door again, but I still didn’t hear any approaching footsteps, any sign of life.  My hand dropped down to the knob, but I hesitated for a moment as I felt it turn beneath my fingertips.

“You’re just going to put a stop to that noise,” I told myself, taking a deep breath.

I turned the knob, leaned in to push the door in – and stopped as the swinging door caught on something.

There was something in the way, some object on the far side of the door.  The crack was a few inches wide, now, enough for me to slip my arm in and feel around for the obstruction.  Turning my body to the side, I blindly slipped my hand and arm in through the crack, feeling along the door as I searched for whatever might be in the way.

Nothing at the top of the door.  I lowered my hand down, dropping to a crouch, feeling a pit open in the bottom of my stomach.

My hand bumped up against something, and I nearly screamed.  The obstruction was only about a foot off the floor.  It felt like fabric, maybe cotton – and it gave a little at my touch.

I gave the cotton object a push, and felt it roll backward with a soft thump.  Standing back up, I gave the door another push, and this time felt it open further.  It still wasn’t all the way open, but the crack was now wide enough for me to slip my body inside.

Briefly, I considered whether I should call the cops.  But I hadn’t found anything bad yet, right?  I hesitated – and then stepped inside, feeling around as I did so for the light switch.

I found it, and for a moment my eyes saw nothing but white as they tried to adjust to the sudden brightness.

Once my eyes had recovered from the flash, I lowered my hand down from across my face.  I glanced over at the door to see what had been blocking it – and nearly screamed, leaping backward.

For just a second, I thought that the… thing… on the ground was some sort of rubber suit.  It looked large, detailed, with gray hair covering the head and wearing some sort of clothing.  That must have been what I pushed on, I thought numbly to myself.

Uncomfortable, but unwilling to draw away, I peered closer at the suit.  Why did that face, despite being empty, deflated, somehow look familiar?

It wasn’t until I had lowered myself to put my own face barely a foot away that I realized how I recognized the face on this suit – and I backpedaled with horror, my heart accelerating until it was thumping like a rabbit in my chest.

I knew that deflated, sagging, dead face.

That was Mrs. Rabbish’s face.

It took several seconds before I was able to even breathe again, my heart still pounding in my chest like I’d just sprinted a mile.  What in the world was going on?  I couldn’t think, couldn’t make any sense of it.

But then, on the edge of hearing, I caught that scraping sound, coming from further inside the apartment.

I felt beyond tired, unable to think with any sense.  I stood up, doing my best to keep my eyes away from that empty skin on the ground by the door, and padded further into the apartment of 201A.

Book 39 of 52: "1632", by Eric Flint

Ever dreamed of going back in time, maybe with a .45 caliber pistol to help smooth things over with the natives?  Well, in “1632”, an entire town of West Virginia hillbillies is magically/mystically teleported back to the middle of Europe, in the titular year, right in the middle of the 30 Years’ War.

How’s it happen?  There’s a brief little science explanation, but the “how” doesn’t really matter.  No, what truly matters is what happens next – and that’s four hundred pages of good ol’fashioned American ass kicking.
Reading “1632” makes me think of a favorite Reddit sub-forum (or subreddit), known as Humanity Fuck Yeah.  This forum features all sorts of stories about humans being awesome, stories which often have an ending so satisfying that I can’t help but cheer and pump my fist in the air.  Awesome heroes triumph over villains through firepower, courage, and daring!  Democracy kicks the ass of those cruel and vicious monarchs!

I’ve read “1632” before, but I’ve never managed to make it all the way through the series that it launches, with the following books including 1633, 1634: The Baltic War, 1634: The Galileo Affair, and many more.  This time, though, I’m willing to give it another chance.

Occasionally dense with history and politics, but with enough action to make up for it, 1632 is definitely a must-read for lovers of alternate history.  Up next?  The sequels!

Time to read: About 8 hours.

[Elements] Be meets Al, K, and V

For reference: https://imgur.com/gallery/OawUY

“Through here!” Alli called to me, her voice barely audible over the rumble of machinery.  “We’re close now!”

“Close to what?” I shouted back, although I knew that it wasn’t of any use.  The girl had already dashed too far ahead to hear my response, and even though she’d disappeared out of view, I saw a door fly open ahead of me.

Shaking my head, I hurried after her.  What we were even doing here, in this dangerous factory, wasn’t clear to me.  But this girl was my only contact, and I had to follow her.

On either side of the narrow walkway, massive vats of molten liquid bubbled, sending heat up in waves through the still, heavy air.  The walkway had rails on the sides to prevent anyone from tumbling in, but those still seemed like scant protection against the crushing heat.

Hurrying along the walkway before that heat could get to me, I saw the door that Alli had pulled open still standing ajar.  It looked as though she’d broken a lock that had been holding it shut, but that didn’t surprise me.  Despite looking in appearance like a normal high school girl, albeit it one with pure silver hair, Alli was much stronger than she let on.

Aluminum, I reminded myself as I ducked in through the door.  Lightweight and strong.

“Hey, guys!” I heard Alli call out in this new chamber we’d entered.  “I found a new one!”

“What!?” came an immediate reply from a male voice, delivered in sharp and disapproving tones.  “And you brought her here?  Do you know what a betrayal of trust this is-“

“Oh, can it, James,” snapped a new voice, a deeper female voice with tones of mingled annoyance and amusement.  “You react too strongly to everything.”

I stared around as I entered this new chamber.  Huge steel apparatuses sat in two lines running down the length of the chamber; they looked like molds of some sort, perhaps for the molten metals in the previous chamber.  From one far corner, I could see a purple glow rising up, stronger than the orange lights that illuminated the rest of the chamber.

Alli stood in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips as she glared around.  “At least come out and meet her!” she called out, directing her voice deeper into the room.

I slowly moved in closer to the other girl.  Alli at least seemed to have some idea of what was going on.  “Alli, what are we doing here?” I asked.

Before she could answer, however, the purple glow grew stronger – and I saw a man step out from behind one of the huge metal molds.  Staring at him, I felt my mouth drop open.

The man looked a bit like some sort of science geek – He wore jeans, a tight black sweater, and a pair of rectangular frameless glasses.  He didn’t have an ounce of spare fat on him, and even his face looked to be all lines and angles.  His mouth was also set in a thin line, frowning at me.

But that wasn’t why I stared.

The man held one palm out, his fingers open, and in that palm danced a guttering purple flame!  Some of the purple glow radiated out from that flame, burning on nothing, but the rest seemed to come from his very body.

He glared back at me.  “So, Aluminum, who is this and why shouldn’t I burn her to ashes?”

My eyes went wide at that threat, but Alli just grinned back at him.  “James, this is Ellen – although now maybe we’ll call her Beryllium!”

“Well, well,” called out the other voice I’d heard, the deeper, more mature female voice.  “So you found one of the Top Ten?”

I turned to this new speaker.  The blonde-haired woman who emerged from behind another mold looked to be in her thirties, but she couldn’t have stood more than five feet tall, even in the heavy steel-toed boots she wore.  The rest of her was covered up by a bulky navy-colored jumpsuit, and she held a large wrench in one hand with a casualness that suggested she often put it to use.  Now examining me, she crossed her arms and regarded me flatly.

“It doesn’t matter which element she is – she still shouldn’t have come here without us knowing-” James began again hotly, but this new blonde-haired woman turned to him and raised the wrench threateningly, and he reluctantly shut his mouth.

“Ellen, how much of this do you understand?” she asked me, turning back to me.

I threw up my hands helplessly.  “I have no idea what’s going on,” I confessed honestly.

She nodded, as if this was what she’d expected.  “Well, let’s start off with some introductions,” she said, as if this gathering in a factory was nothing new.  “You’ve met Alli, who’s got Aluminum.  James over there is Potassium, and I’m Lena, and I’m Vanadium.”

I just shook my head blankly.  “I still don’t understand,” I groaned.

Lena glanced over at Alli, raising her eyebrows slightly.  “You said she’s new; how new?” she asked the silver-haired girl.

Alli grinned.  “Brand new.”

Despite my silver-haired guide’s grin, Lena just sighed.  She turned back to me, shaking her head a little.

“Okay, Ellen, or whatever your name is, listen up,” she said, in a lecturing tone.  “Here’s the deal.  You know the periodic table of the elements, don’t you?”

Staring back at her, I nodded wordlessly.

“Well, out there in the world, there are a hundred-odd people who are a lot more connected with that table than anyone else knows.  Each of them can control a certain element – but has some effects of that element controlling them, too.”  Lena lifted the wrench.  “Take me, for example.  Vanadium – it’s used to harden steel, so I tend to be most comfortable around steel tools, in places like this.”  She slammed the wrench down on her thigh in the jumpsuit, producing no measurable effect.  “It also makes me a bit harder, too.”

“Now, take James over there,” Lena went on, nodding at the still-grimacing man with the purple flame.  “He’s got a reactive element, and he can put that reactivity to use.  But as you’ve already seen from his temper, it’s a double-edged sword.”

“So what about me?” I asked, already feeling overwhelmed.

Lena shrugged.  “You’ve got to figure out your own element,” she said shortly.  “But I’d start figuring it out soon.”

“Why’s that?”

Alli started to open her mouth, but Lena spoke first.  “Because someone out there is hunting us,” she said simply.  “We don’t know who, and we don’t know why.  But someone out there is killing off the elements.

“And you could be next.”