A Game Of Red
James M. Thomas
Copyright © 2019 James M. Thomas
All rights reserved.
To my wife, thank you for supporting me in all you do.
To my readers, thank you for taking a chance.
“The dark is merely the absence of light. Without light, one can’t see. Our amygdale fires, increasing our anxiety, for we do not know what might come out of the black. We, as humans, usually fear what we do not understand. In this realm, what might be hiding in the darkness can be truly terrifying.”
He fixated on the sphere of blood at the end of his knife. A dot of yellow, a reflection from a glimmer of light, gave the red a beautiful, glossy look.
The droplet released its grip from the blade and fell.
As it neared the ground, it wobbled, as though trying to defy gravity.
The blood smacked the stone floor, its faint tap echoing in his ears.
The undulating sphere formed a flat, irregular circle on the hard surface. The liquid spread, rebounded against its periphery, then rippled back to the center.
The world around him forgotten, he savored the moment and took a deep breath, fulfillment and pleasure building within him. Scents of pleasure teased his nose. His tongue enjoyed the taste.
The blood looked magnificent. A vital fluid of the human body, it ran through miles of veins and arteries providing nutrients and oxygen to the body. However, it must flow inside to be beneficial to the host. He gave a wry grin at the irony.
He lifted his head, following the array of blood. Viscous red liquid arranged in intricate patterns, smeared all around with different strokes and pressures, from smooth lines starting in the center to rough lines where his utensil created a wind-brushed look. Lumps, where the liquid had pooled, would dry in ridges like mountainous arêtes. His art—beautiful, authentic. Without concern for time, he scrutinized every detail and pondered any further changes. He didn’t glance at the body. The vessel that had carried his sacred paint was empty, irrelevant. He had pumped out the blood, generating the most volume of art media with the least waste. He compared his painting to prior works. Each was different as each paint container was different, like a signature fingerprint or an organism’s DNA.
He delicately lifted the body’s ID and spoke the name aloud. “Jen.” He felt the wetness between his legs. His erection subsided. Wonderful new memories imprinted in his hippocampus.
Black shadows consumed the stone floor like blankets of ice. The darkness covered the sticky, pooled blood and hid death.
He stepped back, letting the shadows engulf him. “What a wonderful beginning, don’t you think?” He smiled. His words flowed like honey. Knowing the recorder on his device had captured every detail, he relaxed and slipped away into the blackness.
Another headache, Tommy thought. Damn it! How many days now? He shook his head and instantly regretted it, Great way to start the day again. Last week...did I have a headache? Hmm. Fuzzy, I can’t remember….
His first thought robbed by the headaches, the second quickly followed. Her name was Dahria. She had survived, they had survived. The contamination of earth’s surface was a permanent fixture in his mind. Dahria was his main reason to push on, to battle the resistance of life. He had to help her, protect her. They needed to survive, move forward, anyway they could.
The springs squeaked and strained from his moving mass as he rolled out of bed. He glanced around his room. Another bright sunny morning. Wind spoke as it flowed outside. Other natural sounds resonated into the room, communicating that it was a wonderful life. His mood changed as he remembered his dream.
Water flowed. Tall green trees echoed the horizon, dense in its luster. The sun orangish-yellow with a blue-pink sky. Fluffy white clouds etched here and there gave a sense of breath to the crisp, clean atmosphere. A light rain fell from darker clouds that had rolled in, wetting him. He smiled until he looked at his hands. They were wet but looked odd, like his eyes couldn’t focus right. Tommy lifted his hands and looked closer. He squinted to focus better. His vision clearing, his hands were red. His brow furrowed in confusion. Glancing up, the rain ran across his lips. He tasted copper. Blood. Glancing back at his hands, blood poured from invisible cuts. That was the last thing he remembered. He blinked and focused on the present and his hands. As he stared at them, they returned to normal. Confusing reality with his dream, he flipped them over to confirm they weren’t bleeding.
Laughing off the fantasy of dreams, he sent out a puff of air. Tommy focused on more important things—like getting some breakfast.
Looking around the organized room his eyes came to rest on the table. Tommy smiled, remembering what life was like...before. The table was smooth. New. Shiny and strongly grained. He thought about how people took things for granted. They only appreciated something when it wasn’t there anymore. Like that table. Like back then. Please let it be like that again. Let it be ... easy. He moved close and touched the table. It was cold, rough, splintered. Old and worn. His touch proved everything his eyes told him wrong. Tommy sighed and moved in front of the image deluder cutting off the beam of light protruding from the 3d holo projector. His shadow revealed part of the table turning into a corroded, worn, discolored version of itself, but as he kept moving out of the path of light, the table reverted to its beautiful color and shine. He sighed again, the disparity of the real and unreal gone, he ate.
Afterwards, he drifted to the window shade. The image of a bright sunny day and gorgeous forested area outside instantly disappeared as he pulled it up. Behind the shade was a solid wall. He knew what lay behind that too. Dark, humid areas only lit by synthetic methods. Wires littering the ground gave power to lights that were tacked to corridor walls. The screen was there giving the illusion of a window overlooking a pleasant natural area. All of these deceptions were intended to keep the population sane, to make this complex feel like home, like it was…back to normal.
His face relaxed, and gloom filled him like an ocean wave receding and taking all life with it.
From his clouded memories, Tommy knew the world had collapsed on itself, though the exact time in history wasn’t known. His memories were hazy, and he didn’t know why. He also wasn’t sure why he hadn’t asked any questions either, or maybe he did, but the answers were fuzzy. He could only remember bits and pieces of his life before a few weeks ago. The outside air was not only dirty but polluted. The climate freezing cold from a nuclear winter. Whether the changes were due to a natural or man-made disaster was unclear. Recalling how humans had treated the planet, he didn’t think man-made was out of the question. He concluded the harsh reality was that his life was changed for an indeterminate amount of time. This was a busy new life, hard, strained, and stressful. Living day-to-day with no clearly-lighted exit at the end.
The housing units were small. Only one small room for washing, eating, and sleeping. Other rooms had a separate bathroom, yet these were reserved for women. Drab colors and bare walls engulfed the room with only a few pieces of furniture, a counter, and a shelf with nothing special on it: an old book or two, broken memorabilia, a mug, and dust. A musty smell suffocated his lungs. It was like a small weight pushing on his chest. Labored.
Calmly, Tommy walked to the water source. He grabbed a worn coffee mug and filled it with the not-so-clear liquid.
At least he had the comfort of deluding himself by placing a beautiful life into his mind as he slept. In a way, it was therapy. It kept the mind diverted from the bleak reality. He put his hands down on the counter and leaned on it. Looking down, Tommy sighed. Another day loomed ahead. At least he would catch a glimpse of her—of Dahria— interact with her. He was sure of it.
He opened the door to observe the writing on the wall. After a few weeks of training and becoming accustomed to this place, he’d settled into a routine.
‘E-Block West.’ The directional arrow pointed the way. He followed without a second thought.
The torment of everyday living was difficult locked in this complex. Some people possessed an inner strength, a purpose to provide a better life for everyone. The population soon developed an understanding of everyone needing and depending on one another. This was the way to survival.
Tommy, a quick learner, knew the station like a rat knew a maze it had completed a hundred times. He walked along the dark, humid tunnel only lit at the intervals of lantern-type lights crudely hanging on the rough stone walls. Cords stretched the length of the tunnels giving the lights power. He passed several rooms, giving them no mind as he knew the people in these units. After a few turns and stairs leading up, he came to a junction. A cement staircase led up and down while tunnels and ladders went in other directions. His past assignments led him to different parts of this underground place, so he knew where most of these routes went. The stairs, the only way out of the living cell block, were cast in shadow and claustrophobically tight. He climbed it. As his hard boots hit them, the stairs clanged, echoing through the halls. Another maze of turns, more flights down, and a couple times bending over to make sure the obstructions didn’t hit his head, he was then at the operations center’s outer rim. The dented and partly-rusted door echoed as he knocked. A piece of metal slid over to reveal a small peep strip. An eye blinked behind it, looked at Tommy standing in front of it, and closed. A lock creaked and banged, the metal door grinded open.
“Morning, Tommy,” Kevin, who was six foot six, looked down on Tommy. An intelligent man in his late twenties, Kevin was wise beyond his years. Many sought his wisdom.
Tommy nodded and gave Kevin eye contact out of respect, but walked passed quickly. Tommy wasn’t rude, just efficient. He was almost all business. Though only nineteen, he often seemed cold, but Tommy was focused on his assignments, on survival. Making the world better, cleaner, and habitable again was priority number one. Down here in the complex, life was hard. Tommy was good at what he did, efficient, hard-working, and succinct. He was often misunderstood in the beginning, but people around him learned about his efficiency.
Once through the door, the path moved on to the core of the Command Center, a big chamber. Delicate information was shared and delivered it to various group leads. Tommy was one of them.
Personally, Tommy had no desire to have the responsibility for a group, but he was chosen anyway. He was the head of the response unit within the compound. His tasks changed daily. It was a lower level job, one reserved for younger people down here, but Tommy didn’t care. He did his duty and reported back as necessary.
“Mr. Townsend?” Tommy stood beside the commander and waited for his assignment.
Townsend’s face grim, but he always looked like that, scowling like his mind was heavily engaged in something. However, he was the commander. A solid man with drab and worn clothes, Townsend was battleworn. People’s lives depended on him.
Without even lifting his head from the two data readouts he was scanning, he said, “Tommy.”
Then, something unusual happened, he lifted his head and his gaze caught Tommy’s.
Tommy squirmed, uncomfortable with the solid stare and the awkward silence that lasted a little too long. Whatever Townsend was engaged with took a secondary priority, as he turned his full attention to Tommy.
A small sigh rushed out of Townsend. “I need you to do a run on the station two air handlers today. There seems to be an efficiency problem. It’s cranking out air, but the O2 dropped to nineteen percent. We need to find the cause. If the O2 levels don’t get at least twenty or twenty-one percent, we’ll all get light-headed then hypoxia will set in.”
“Yes, sir.” Tommy’s heart sank a little. He moved away to let Townsend get back to what he was doing.
As Tommy gathered his checklist, thoughts of Station Two engulfed him. Damn, I hate Station Two. That tunnel is nasty. Dark, far to travel, ducking underneath obstacles, tight squeezes. He wasn’t claustrophobic, but the tight places could turn even the hardest man into becoming spineless. Being sealed underground with only the 3D projected images to simulate open spaces was bad enough, but some of these stations were narrow, black and humid, with only the empty air for company. In there, fear crept into a man’s spine like some kind of weird game. Tommy has seen other people act pretty strange under those circumstances. He sighed. This was a one-man operation too, no sense pulling someone else off duty just to keep him company. He had to keep his imagination in check.
Tommy left the Command Center and headed to the first turn on his way to Station Two. He was already on edge.
Someone popped around the corner.
Tommy froze for a split second, stopped breathing, and braced for impact of some unknown object about to clobber his skull.
Tommy recognized the voice, then Jones’s huge smiling face. Tommy relaxed and gave a sigh of exasperation. The built-up adrenaline faded. “Urgh, asshole!” Tommy said as a smile formed on his face. “All right, you got me.” Tommy liked Jones, one of the few people that could make him forget about this precarious place.
“What’s the old man got you doing now?” Jones asked quietly.
“Oh, just checking out a lower oxygen level in station two air handling area. I’m assuming it’s just air quality that somehow went down, hopefully just changing some filters.” Tommy said.
“Ughh,” Jones implied distaste. “That place sucks. It’s like you’re in a frigging B-rated psycho movie when you’re travelling down a long dark tunnel, and the psycho keeps up with you when you’re running at full speed and they’re limping.” His eyes opened larger, and he brought his fingers up to his face and wiggled them while whistling a bizarre theme.
“Yeah, creepy and definitely not my first choice.” Tommy grimaced. “Well, we all get shit duty sometime.”
“It’s almost all shit duty in here.” Jones chuckled. “Well, here goes my crap-shoot, let’s see what Townsend has for me today. Have fun in your solo adventure. Oh, don’t forget to give Dahria a nice sweet long juicy kiss!” He smooched the air, making an exaggerated kissy face. “Mmuah, muah, muah.” Being the goofball that he was, he laughed and slapped Tommy on the back in a show of friendship.
Tommy laughed with him. He liked Jones, as many did.
Jones was a taller young man, nineteen too, who has a spirit and sense of humor. He was slim, almost gangly with darker skin. Younger than Tommy by a few months, he had a slight goofiness about him as his face looked like he didn’t take life too seriously. The kid had a charm about him. He was refreshing.
Tommy scoffed as Jones walked away, but his joy faded quickly as he turned to leave for station two.
Drips of water smacked and splattered off the large round pipes and stone walls. The delicate sounds entered Tommy’s ears from all different directions making it hard to place the location. His breath and echoes of the drops were loud surrounded by the silence of the air.
The shadows created by objects blocking the sporadic dim light were vast. The dark was pitch black, and the mounted lights only allowed some visibility. Musty aromas from the humidity mixed with the rusting iron and other metals weighed on Tommy’s chest making it hard to breathe. Even with a ventilation system, it couldn’t keep up with the moisture and metallic aroma.
As Tommy entered the open chamber, he clicked his flashlight on the beam illuminated the area.
Have I been here before? The familiarity was evident yet he couldn’t place it. Yes, yes of course, I know this station sucks, but something seems different. He shook his head and furrowed his eyebrows. At least my headache is better, He noticed.
The footsteps were loud in the tunnel as the crunch of dirt and grit suffered under his boots. Let’s get this shit done, he decided, letting go of his hesitation. He shined his light and proceeded along the chamber. The shadows danced like a ghostly party from his moving beam. As he sauntered on, the walls became narrow and formed a tunnel. A tighter fit, he had to move around giant pipes placed vertically projecting through the top and bottom of the tunnel. Massive twenty foot diameter pipes ran horizontally disappearing into the vast darkness.
Wonder where these go? He assumed leading to some kind of water, waste or even air resource.
A cold draft hit Tommy on the back of the neck and made his hair stand up. He paused sensing something. He didn’t know what. Listening with concentration, he only heard the tinnitus in his ears. After a long pause, hoping his mind was making things up, he relaxed and continued. Walking another hundred yards weaving the obstacles, he brought out his checklist. Handwritten, he read the first item. Check the interlocking system grid and make sure all systems are green. Scouting for the location, he assumed it must be further. The ground started to downslope as he walked, and it forced him to slow down as gravity was trying to make him walk faster. His flashlight cut off, pitch black appeared and his inertia kept him moving forward. He slipped and tried to catch himself, but the slippery sloped ground overcame the force of friction and he fell on his back. The dancing routine would have won an award, but no judges were present.
“Urrghh! Damn it!” he groaned. The jolt of the fall knocked the flashlight from his hands and turned on. The dust reflected the light like stars hanging in the air. His elbows and back were wet and it soaked into his shirt.
“Great,” he said to himself without enthusiasm, “fucking dirty water. Damn it.”
He grabbed the light and got up. Tommy felt the wet shirt stick to his back and rubbed his elbows to make sure there wasn’t an injury. As expected, grit, a little wetness, and a small amount of pain were present. Tommy shined the light on his hand and there was blood.
Damn it, he thought, got cut.
He took note of the location and situation of the new possible leak. Never ends, he thought. A little further to the control box, he took a couple more steps and heard something beyond his own movements. He swiftly shined the light in the direction his ears told him the sound came from. The light found only massive pipes, cords, dirt, and rocky type walls. Nothing. He heard drips, their echoes, and the noise of silence. He released his breath not realizing he was holding it. Tense. I’ve got to get this crap done and get the hell outta here, he continued.
At the control box, he went through the checklist and marked everything he found...all ok.
Well shit,Now what? He wrote some notes and double-checked everything. Gauges, filters, power, all checked out okay. Oxygen meter gauged at twenty percent, just lower than where it should be, but better than nineteen percent like Townsend told him. He got up, sealed the control panel and left.
From behind a large pipe fixture several feet away, the peering eyes studied and stared.
The man watched as Tommy’s faint light shined in the tunnel. The crunch of footsteps became louder. Frozen and keeping his breathing soft, he peered out from the darkness. He saw Tommy. The illuminated beam shined a glow of yellow light, moving the shadows around. The man shifted his weight to balance himself for an unknown wait time trying to suppress fatigue. The man in shadow glided behind the large pipe, listening as Tommy came closer. He was silent and rigid, like a statue. He knew what consequences of error might produce, he waited patiently. This was too soon to become exposed, the game was just getting started. What’s he doing? The man hidden in shadow lost visual for a moment as Tommy rounded an obstacle. Hearing nothing for a moment, he watched the light move. A sudden dancing of light raced around throwing shadows then went out. A few moments later he heard and felt a vibration through the ground. The light came back on. Colorful language echoed the halls.
Sounds like he fell. His eyes opened wide. Fuck! My work! Ruined!
Anger flushed through him, but still, he wasn’t ready for another painting yet. He needed the mental preparation, the feelings to build, the timely elegance to infiltrate his body. It was orgasmic if done right. He was getting excited thinking about his past work, and his future work. A tingling sensation permeated his body as he felt a stiffening erection.
Good, An erection made his heart quicken allowing more awareness to new situations. He closed his eyes and listened, heard the footsteps closing in, and his knife crept out of its sheath held with expert hands. Opening his eyes, the light moved around and the shadows continued to dance. The man waited, his patience extreme, expecting the fallen person to run away down the tunnel from the discovery of his art, but it never came. Then, as quickly as the person arrived, he went away. The footsteps grew softer and softer until he couldn’t hear anything. It wasn’t a run like he expected, but a normal cadenced walk. He relaxed.
What? He didn’t notice what he slipped in? Fool. he giggled to himself.
The man strolled to his artwork. His smile faded as he observed what had happened and his light mood was replaced by hatred.
Staring at the havoc that Tommy had created was like a personal stab into the heart of him.
So you want to play games, huh? I’ll show you a game.Next time we meet, I’ll make it special.