Well, today was turning into a strange day.
With my squad, I located the massive, impossible-to-understand monster that may have been responsible for billions of deaths. Despite feeling almost absurdly over-prepared, we failed to kill the thing. Hell, we failed to do anything but make it angry – at which point it decided to squash us like insects under a boot heel.
Instead of dying, we apparently woke up in some sort of shapeless version of Hell, where we fought off an endless stream of attacking psychic tentacles using the power of our mental focus. We managed to escape through a cheap pine wood door, appearing in-
-in a living room, I finished that disturbing, totally bonkers summary inside my head.
Indeed, we stood in the middle of a medium-sized room, with a fireplace on one wall and bookshelves lining the others. A couple of well-worn, lived-in couches sat scattered around, facing towards an older CRT-style television, and an abstract patterned rug covered much of the wood floor. A large window was covered by drawn curtains.
I blinked, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. The curtains, I saw, had a rather dowdy floral print on them.
A second later, it registered to me that I had blinked. I glanced down at myself and found, with a burst of relief, that I had my body back! I wore comfortable jeans and a tee shirt, the outfit that I preferred most for lazy days back at home with Alexis, just lounging around in the morning and then tinkering with my truck in the afternoon-
I stopped. I hadn’t been wearing these clothes when I was last conscious. Before the huge tentacle thing came down on the truck, crushing me and Sara inside, I’d been clad in rather dirty BDUs.
I shifted my attention over to the others, and my confusion only grew.
Jaspers was in full black battle gear, what a SWAT team member might wear, complete with Kevlar and armor plates. Next to him, Corinne wore a hunter’s outfit colored pure white, the kind of clothing that a big game hunter might wear when stalking deer in the heart of winter. Sergei had a white robe, the kind that people wore when practicing karate, knotted with a black belt. Henry wore a high-necked jacket that put me in mind of a chef, rather than a warrior. And Feng…
“I know that outfit,” Henry said in surprise, looking down at the diminutive little Chinese sniper. “Is that Master Chief?”
Feng reached up and pulled off the helmet, sending a cascade of black hair down over the armored shoulders of the costume. Long hair? I’d never seen her with long hair, always with it trimmed short and tucked away. It made her look curiously feminine in a way that I’d never seen her before.
“And what are you wearing?” Feng countered, running her eyes over Henry’s white jacket. “Cooking?”
Henry glanced down at his outfit. “So what? It’s a chef’s jacket! The professionals wear these!”
“Professional chefs?” Sergei asked, raising one mocking eyebrow.
“Yes!” Henry rounded on the taller Russian, waving a finger up at him. “And just because some of us have hobbies outside of learning new ways to kill people-”
“Enough, enough,” I interrupted. “Where’s Sara?”
“Oh. She’s…” Henry paused as he, and the others, glanced around in confusion. “Ah hell, what happened to her? She was with us when we went through the door – it didn’t open until she touched the knob. I saw her come in…”
“In where, particularly?” growled Jaspers. He turned his head to look around with the others, as if Sara had decided to duck behind the couch and play hide and seek. “Where the bloody hell is this place? Have we been here before?”
I didn’t even know where we were, if we were truly alive or if this was just some sort of crazy hallucination as I died. But Jaspers’ words struck a chord in me – something about this place felt strangely familiar…
“Gentlemen. Sorry to keep you waiting.”
We all spun around at the new voice, coming from the other side of the living room. None of us carried weapons, but we all flew into alertness as we stared at the newcomer.
He looked like he was in his middle forties, with a full head of hair that was more gray than brown. His face wasn’t creased with deep lines, but crow’s feet crinkled around his eyes with a slight upward lilt to his lips. He wore a pair of tan slacks and a light blue button-up shirt, both a little baggy on his slender frame. I caught sight of a pencil tucked behind one ear, rather carelessly, as if he’d stuck it there and then forgotten about it. He looked mild, warm, reassuringly unthreatening.
And he hadn’t been sitting on the sofa just a minute earlier. I remembered that exact spot being totally empty.
“Again, I’m sorry,” the man said, climbing lightly to his feet with a spryness that belied his apparent middle age. “This whole thing has been… unexpected, to say the least. There’s been a lot of adjustment.”
We’d all turned towards him when he revealed himself by speaking, and I took a half step forward. “Where’s Sara?” I demanded. Somehow, unexplainably, I knew that this innocent and mild-looking man was responsible for her sudden disappearance.
“She’s fine,” the man said quickly, holding up his hands, palms out, in a placating gesture. “She’s safe. After too long in danger, she’s safe.” He ran his eyes around to take in each of us, not looking the slightest bit fazed by the strange outfits, the way that Sergei rolled his arms in their sockets, the way that Jaspers flexed his thick neck from side to side and gritted his teeth.
“And now,” he finished, that little smile dancing around the edges of his lips, “I’d like to offer the same opportunity to you.”
“What opportunity?” Jaspers snapped.
His smile grew a little wider. “The chance for safety, of course. An end to all this fighting. Relief.”
That little prickling at the back of my head grew to a fever pitch. There was something really wrong here. Something about this pleasant little scenario, us standing with this man, all buddy-buddy in the living room, wasn’t right. How had we gotten here? And why was this place so familiar?
I’d walked in here, at some point in the past. I’d stood here, looked at some of those pictures in little frames, clustered on the mantel above the fireplace. I’d picked one up, seen this mild face with the graying hair-
It clicked. I knew where we were.
“That’s right,” the man said, and I felt his eyes on me. “This is my house. My living room.”
The others looked over at me, and I saw that they hadn’t made the connection just yet. I kept my eyes on the new man, not letting his mild smile or calm appearance throw me or knock me off my guard.
“You’re Nathaniel Hobbson,” I said.
He smiled, and for the first time, I noticed that the smile didn’t quite manage to reach into his eyes. Sure, the crow’s feet at their edges crinkled, but the pupils themselves didn’t show any warmth.
“Pleased to meet you,” he answered. “I’m so glad to finally meet you, after so long. We have a lot to discuss.”
To be continued…