• Mick Brady

In the Shadows


A dark crystal tower dominated the landscape. It sprang from a fracture in the earth in the center of the city, blooming from the soup of energy and elements at the planet's core. It thrust itself upward like a giant metal cancer -- asymmetrical, disorganized. Thunder boomed. Lightning sheared through the violet sky.

As Will walked toward the tower, she saw its shadow begin to move. It formed a canopy over the smaller buildings in its vicinity, shrouding them like a veil. Then the buildings disappeared -- engulfed and absorbed by the darkness. The tower leaped higher into the sky.

The shadow rolled outward in all directions like an inky sea. Whole sections of the city disappeared in the flood as Will watched in dumbstruck horror. The tower's girth grew more massive as it continued its climb toward the heavens. Its shadow became a tidal wave of blackness, rising above her, curling with elemental power, poised in a breathless moment before it would come crashing down.

Suddenly, Will found herself in another time/space -- disembodied, yet complete. The great, jagged tower had ripped itself from the Earth and was circling the sun, its velocity increasing madly as it whirled around and toward the ball of gas. Will saw the life force of millions of lost souls glowing from within the dark crystal. It burned brighter as it careened toward the solar furnace.

This is the way the world ends, she thought. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. With a bang.

The monolith exploded into a tremendous ball of cosmic dust. Like the ashes of a global crematory, Will thought. Like spangled stars on a blanket of night. Like the breath of diamonds.

She awoke to find herself lying next to the stinking corpse of a dolphin. She rolled away from the thing, extricated herself from the sheets and stumbled to the bathroom, where she splashed cold water on her face and worked hard to calm the beating of her heart, the trembling of her hands. To force back the impulse to start screaming and never stop.

Her mind groped for a plan of action. She needed clothes. She was naked, having scattered her garments in the trail of her inexplicable passion the night before. Girding herself against a wave of nausea, she left the sanctuary of the bathroom.

Adam lay in the bed, sleeping peacefully. Will dressed hurriedly and left without waking him.

A taxi waited at the curb. She got in and said nothing. John Smith drove toward the city, whistling "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," watching her in the rear view mirror, his eyes cold.

He drove toward Willis Tower -- a dark, irregular structure that dominated the city's skyline. It seemed to spring like a great crystal from the earth, Will thought, not for the first time. When they got there, she left the taxi wordlessly. She didn't pay.

As she approached the tower, John Smith's whistling reached "one, two, three strikes you're out," and abruptly stopped. Will knew his mocking eyes were following her, but she didn't turn around.

She walked into the tower with a mixture of dread and resignation. She had been there many times before. Every time her travel plans had been interfered with and she had found herself unwillingly hitting the tarmac in Chicago, the tower had pulled her like a magnet into its cold clutches.

She didn't know exactly what to expect as she rode the elevator to the Skydeck, but her heart raced. Each previous experience had been different in the details, but predictably terrifying.

She didn't notice the shift when it took place, just that she was sure the elevator was full when she got on, and somehow, while speeding up the shaft, it emptied without her noticing. This is impossible, she thought. As usual. The elevator doors opened, and Will stepped into a waking nightmare.

The Skydeck was crowded. Everywhere Will looked, she saw them -- walking and chatting in little groups, gazing out of coin-operated telescopes, snapping photos. Small grays. Not a human in sight.

The aliens ignored her at first, but the screeching white owls seemed angry and impatient. They swooped toward her from all directions, skimming just over her head.

When Will tried to raise her arms to protect herself, she found that her hands were gripped by two taller aliens. How had they taken her without a fight? All at once, she was at the center of a mob of grays, and they were moving her in their current.

She felt a sudden surge of defiance, but it was quelled in an instant when they turned a corner, and she got her first look at an object that took her breath away. Will had never seen anything so beautiful or so threatening.

A huge crystal skull rested on a large platform with twin sets of steps leading up to the thing's eyes. They were dark and liquid, and large enough for people to walk through, four abreast. The eyes pulled Will like a magnet, and the thought came to her that if she entered their recesses, she would find unimaginable suffering on the other side.

Will tried to halt the progress of the alien escort pushing her toward the skull, but she was swept along, the owls harassing the mob like dogs herding sheep. Struggling seemed pointless, but she would not go passively to her doom. She managed to wrench one hand out of the alien's grip and raise it high, in the gesture of a drowning victim's final plea.

There was some scuffling ahead -- Will craned her neck to see. Something had broken the ranks of the alien troops. She felt their confusion and dismay as an interloper made its way toward her. What she saw next topped all the other bizarre sights around her.

The rescuer carving a path through the alien mob was a large dolphin, lurching impossibly on its tail. The thing should have looked crazy -- even comical -- but to Will, the beast looked heroic. It held her in its gaze, telepathically conveying reassurance. Her heart leaped with hope.

Then she watched in horror as the white owls swooped down on the great dolphin, homing in on it with ferocity, taking great chunks of its flesh in their beaks and claws.

The creature wobbled and swayed, and its ragged breathing filled the air, but it continued its stalwart march. Blood poured from gaping wounds. As it reached Will, the aliens encircled her, but the dolphin simply pushed the whole knot of them back until Will found herself slammed against the doors of the elevator, which mercifully opened.

She stumbled backward, and felt the sensation of moving through a gauzy veil. As the elevator doors closed, she caught the dolphin's eyes, deep and sorrowful, and hoped the creature read her gratitude.

Will struggled for calm as she found herself once again in the company of an ordinary group of tourists making the usual mundane observations about the city sights. No crystal skull, aliens or owls for them. No magical dolphin.

The elevator doors opened on the lobby, and Will sensed that all was not right even before she saw the small crowd gathered near the entrance. She elbowed her way through the onlookers and saw a man lying lifeless on the floor.

Adam wore his gray suit and an expression of sorrow in his dead gray eyes.

"He just fell like a stone," someone murmured.

Now, Will knew, she would be able to go home.


This is Excerpt No. 5 of The Darkest Eyes by Mick Brady

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