Short Story: Riders

She was seeing it all through his eyes, would be until it was over. That was how it worked. Riders were like ghosts; like the little, niggling thoughts in the back of one’s mind that drove them to do a thing they normally wouldn’t.

That was how the agency liked it. More importantly, that was how Riders needed it. To allow further levity meant revealing more of the Host’s takeover. Two-twenty-three didn’t think she couldn’t handle that anyhow; the final moment of betrayal in their hearts was too much already. It was like hating yourself for so crassly leading to your own demise.

She couldn’t bear to think of feeling that the whole ride, especially knowing it was validated.

No, it was best for Hosts to live in as utter an ignorance as possible. She made sure they did, too, as every other Rider. It was an unspoken agreement that Riders do their level best to whisper thoughts that kept their hosts calm while re-forming them.

It was like the oxygen mask on a plane, deploying as it went down; Riders soothed for the sake of all aboard so the Hosts accepted their fate.

Fact was, Riders were necessary. Even if they didn’t quite understand why. Even if they never saw the full-effect of their Ride– the actions of their host– there was always an explanation, a bigger picture. The Agency assured it, promised it.

Riders couldn’t handle riding pointlessly anyhow. They’d all heard the stories of the first Hosts, their Riders. 223 didn’t need to be reminded, it was part of their training to know it. A body could only play host to more than one consciousness for a few days, a week at most. After, both Rider and Host began to lose the delineation of one and the other. It was an effect, the Agency said, of becoming too exposed to the mental processes of one another.

In essence, because both consciousnesses were encountering new methods of processing thought, they began emulating them in bits and pieces. That was perfectly fine for the short term, enlightening even, but the longer it lasted, the more permanent it became.

The block was simple human thought; certain thoughts took longer to unravel or understand as a result of mental intermediary between them and action. Generally, those intermediaries were often evaluatory, acting as filters of morality, experience to dictate decision making.

But a ridden Host had shortcuts, even longer paths. Their Rider did too, if only temporarily. The longer that connection was maintained, the longer those basic requirements were over-written, over-stayed or altogether avoided.

As a result, traits of both Rider and Host bled between them, freely exchanged. Before long, the lines blurred to non-existence. Then Rider and Host became part of one another in a sort of quasi mental-merge.

But since the Human psyche wasn’t meant for such uses or abuses, it wasn’t long before both Host and Rider were utterly insane. They became unwitting schizophrenics, completely unaware that the voices they were hearing were one another’s. The only way to really handle them then was to eliminate them.

Reasons there were two-fold; if for some reason knowledge of Riders were discovered, the consequences could be disastrous for every universe involved. More than that, it meant mistakes had been made, needed to be corrected as cleanly and painlessly as possible.

223 wasn’t a pup by any standards. She’d been a Rider nearly forty-years. Course, that was by a measure of time that didn’t exist where she hailed from. Though ostensibly human, her people had long outgrown the need for singular universal inhabitance.

In fact, if the Agency were true, the Riders efforts were to raise remaining universes’ to their level. 223 believed the Agency’s aims at least. But as much as she believed in it, as a goal-oriented entity, she had a hard time believing in its people.

After all, they were human– or near enough– and especially susceptible to error and manipulation. Riders were a pure manifestation of that.

Still, she saw his world through his eyes and would until she backed out, was pulled out, or the Host was killed. The harsh reality of being a Rider was ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Host ended up dead, in trouble with authorities, or worse. The rarer good ending did exist, and a Rider was guaranteed to have a few over time, but they were far enough between to easily forget them otherwise.

It was all for the greater good, the Riders knew, and it was never a comfort.

223’s current ride was no different from any of the other forty-years of Hosts. She rode three to four new Hosts a week these days, but had long ago abandoned hope the odds of good-to-bad would be altered in any way.

To do so was pointless. All hoping could lead to was damaging her back home. Either through some misguided attempt to help, rebel, or more emotional scarring than was necessary.

Still, she admitted that familiar pang of pity for the guy as he straightened his poorly knotted tie in a mirror. He was a well-meaning dud, but a dud nonetheless. The Multiverse was swarmed by them. It was sad in its way, so much wasted potential.

He grabbed his suit-jacket, completely unaware of the phantom taking possession of him. Before long, she had him waltzing about his kitchen to kiss his wife and kids good-bye, grab his briefcase and coffee, and slip out the door.

223 slotted herself into the correct mental state. Good riders could do it instantly, but the best took their time, got to know their Host first to develop the right empathy, the right control. 223 was nothing if not one of the best.

Thing about it was, the Ride was really just that; a ride. Good Riders knew how to nudge their Host onto track with a few, specific thoughts, nudges that turned out to be all anyone ever needed.

They weren’t really thoughts though. That was important to remember. More like feelings, shadows of feelings, shifts or sparks sometimes so deep in the psyche a person didn’t know they existed. They were phantom’s phantoms, ghostly shadows of desires, dreams, hopes. They were the little darknesses Jung built his career off.

At least, most of the time. Sometimes they were lights, but those lights were rare.

In forty years, 223’d learned to tell when big events were near. She’d been through a few; armed revolutions, bloody coups, massive, sexual awakenings– her personal favorite– and everything in and around. They were all experienced through various Hosts, eachusually only for a short period.

Usually too, the closer the event was to its climax, the darker the rides were.For some, it was assassinations, suicides, public or private but with massive repercussions. Sometimes, it was a cheating or cheated-on spouse meant to become the next Gloria Steinem or Jane Roe.

This time, it was looking bigger, darker. She wasn’t sure what, but the rides had gotten darker. Moreso than she’d ever seen. Whatever was set to happen, even this waltzing family-man had his dark part to play.

His day wasn’t rough. She’d seen worse, but she nudged him at every necessary turn. It was a testament to her skill that mere hours allowed her to turn the wife-loving, tax-paying smartly-dressed family-man into one of the most depraved monsters to have ever walked his Earth.

It started with a near accident in his brand new Lexus. The car was fine, but left him covered in coffee, neck to navel. The second nudge came minutes later at a store, when stopping to buy a new shirt. Only few pennies off the exact change, he was forced to use a credit card.

Such little things could be important; tiny sparks that fed big fires, stirring massive resentment via the way people viewed the world at-large. 223 was almost proud of how easy it had been to turn him from upstanding citizen to monster brewing.

The next nudge came an hour later. He’d changed from the ruined shirt but the suit-jacket and tie were still drying. He was forced to shake hands with his company’s CEO for the first time, neither looking nor feeling his best.

In the back of his mind, a pill of rage had formed.

223 hated herself for being so damned good, but a Rider directed their Host as per the Agency’s objective. It could take minutes, it could take days, but sooner or later the Host wound up where the Agency wanted them.

If it weren’t 223, she knew, it would’ve been someone else. Someone that might’ve made their Host suffer unduly, whether through malice or ineptitude.

223’s skill allowed her to ride The Host’s humiliation all day, nudging and prodding him into the rabid, froth of bilious fury she needed. He arrived home an hour before his wife and children a miserable wreck, then soused himself to the gills until they appeared.

The show began.

223 half-suspected the wife was a Host too. It seemed too-well played, too-well matched, for she alone to have done it all. Whether the wife was a Host too she’d never know. It didn’t matter anyway.

It took all of ten minutes before two, upstanding people became absolute, raving animals.

The wife hurled insults better than 223 expected. The husband hurled them back. Then, some plates and glasses. The children cowered, bawling in a corner further scarred with each moment.

223 couldn’t focus on them, they’d be provided for. Hell, for all she knew, they were the point of this.

Then it happened; the Wife lunged, struckhim. Humiliatied, terrified, and cooked to a boiling rage by the heated nudge of a phantom Rider, he struck back. The wife reeled back, slipped on broken glass, and slammed the back of her skull on the edge of a counter. She was dead before the crack finished resonating.

The children erupted in screams.

The last nudge. 223 watched the Host drop to his knees, lift broken glass. He jabbed, pulled. Arterial bloodspurted and sprayed the air like a demented fountain.

Then, his body hit the floor. She felt it then; that last feeling of betrayal oozing through her, but not at her. Never at her. Always at the host. Child-screams faded into the light of the Rider’s chair, and she felt it automate and sit her upright.

She fell from it into a desk chair, body shaking with grief. She slugged back something vaguely liquor-like to settle her nerves and poured. She lifted a pen, slid an ancient-looking notebook from a drawer of the glass and metal desk, and began to write:

20,073. Male. Caucasian.

Short Story: Never Greener

His eyes had long ago drooped. Deep black and purple accented their sockets. His face was emaciated, as much from lack of nutrition as sleepless nights. More than he cared to remember. The world outside was dead to him, him to it. The two had mutually agreed: he no longer needed sunlight, no matter how paste-white his complexion.

Billy Renard was pushing thirty. He’d long ago given up hope for anything more from life– sometime in his mid-twenties, really, but he couldn’t recall the details. All he knew was the utter contempt he’d developed for the world. It felt no different for him. His extensive, repetitive failures were to blame. Then again, such failures would send even most optimistic into furtive sobs.

Currently, Billy’s pasty skin was illuminated by a soul-sucking programming application he’d opened. His hands rebounded along mechanical keys. The rhythm was as sluggish as his brain had become. He’d largely checked-out, was working off sheer adrenaline and intuition– that, and an unending compulsion to turn thoughts into commands. His desk was from an obsessive-compulsive’s nightmare. Paper cups. Old plates. Moldy food. Beer and soda cans. Ashtrays piled into stinking mountains. Miscellaneous clutter so dense as to be indistinguishable to tired, watery eyes. Billy certainly had those, along with a hefty BO and the wretch-inducing appearance of one who’s neither bathed nor re-dressed in over a week.

Strung-out was an understatement. He barely felt human anymore. He hadn’t spoken to in anyone in weeks. Had lost track of the last time he’d dated. Even then, it was a few minutes of fumbling about for conversation before inevitably giving up. As usual he went home, settled into his place at his computer.

His hands came to a halt and his eyes made slow, incongruous blinks. His brain attempted ridiculing them for their misrepresentations. This time, they were honest. Billy was finally finished. It was only a matter of moments before he’d know for certain if all his work and self-exile was worth it. He rose from his chair on rubber legs. They’d become accustomed to the rough-seas of this life. His involuntary swagger compensated for the tilting room. He swayed for a cylindrical capsule nearby that something from an old space-travel film– the sort of makeshift aircraft built from imaginations unaware of things like G-Forces.

He angled his shoulders in, faced away from the door. The cylinder was just wide enough to fit in, but too narrow for any hope of angling in it. A door sealed shut behind him. A hiss sounded. His stomach lurched. Vile acid burned his tongue. A bright flash disoriented him into a slump. The door of the cylinder wrenched open. A burst of smoke and sparks ejected Billy. He soared through the air, landed in a heap against a wall. His exhausted brain took in a few, unfocused blinks, and he fell unconscious.

Billy awoke utterly refreshed. He couldn’t recall having slept so well in his entire life. His eyes took a moment to focus against a blinding, white light. He blinked away water, put a hand up to shield his eyes. His newly invigorated brain knew it made sense: he’d been sitting in the dark staring at a screen from a month.

He was about to question why his room was suddenly bright when it focused. It was no longer his room– or any room he’d ever visited. The walls were stainless steel, the floor too. Everything shined like freshly-polished chrome, including the bed-frame he’d somehow found his way into.

A voice suddenly sounded beside him, “Billy!?”

His head whipped at it so fast he nearly broke his own neck. “Jenna?”

The petite, freckled blonde girl fell from a chair to her knees. She instantly burst into tears. Her head fell into Billy’s lap. He froze. His mind ran wind-sprints, plowed through hurdles with lumbering clumsiness. He aimed for a finish-line he hoped might form any logical conclusion. All he found was himself eating pavement, more perplexed than ever.

“Jenna?” He repeated aloud.

“I thought you were dead!” She sobbed. “You were in a coma for weeks.”

“I was?”

“And I couldn’t bear losing you–”

“You couldn’t?”

She withdrew to pull her chair over, “Of course not. Not on our anniversary of all things!”

His eyes might’ve crossed from confusion. He and Jenna had dated approximately two months five years ago. They’d been madly in love the entire time, but one bout of drunken stupidity ended it all: Billy slept with Jenna’s sister. Worse, she caught them in bed together. Despite Billy forgetting almost the entire night, there was no defense for what he’d done. Jenna left and hadn’t spoken to him since.

Now, she was kissing him, deep and long, with that same love she’d had when they were together. His body reacted on instinct, but his mind lagged behind. When she finally pulled away, she looked him over with a curious sadness.

“What? What is it?”

He sat up in the bed, hands out, flat and low, to stay any further progression of things. “Jenna, we broke up five years ago.”

“What?” She recoiled with disgust. “Is this some kind of sick joke? I think you’ve died on our Anniversary. I sit here for weeks, waiting for you to wake up. Then, when you finally do, you start … acting like this? What the hell’s wrong with you, Billy?”

His mind reeled: Anniversary. His stomach to plummeted. He and Jenna had never made it past that two-month mark. The incident with the cylinder rushed back. But no, it couldn’t have worked. It was impossible. Even all that work, he never expected it to perform. And even if it had, how was this possible? The odds were so astronomically improbable, it was absurd. But then, here he was here. Evidently, whoever he was supposed to be was with Jenna. Judging by the massive diamond on her hand, they were married. How?

He deflated with a long, exhaustive sigh. “Jenna, what happened before I was brought here?”

“You don’t remember?” She asked, teary-eyed.

He was careful not to give too much away, “Were you there?” She nodded. “Walk me through it, step-by-step.”

“You finished the coding in your lab. Then, when you were ready, you hugged and kissed me, and stepped into the device. A second later the thing went nuts and threw you back across the room.”

“Unreal.” She squinted. “You knew what I was doing?” Again, she nodded.

He eased himself to the bed’s edge, sat before her and prepared to lie his way from the room. Her baby-blue eyes stopped him. They glistened with such admiration and love that he was lost in them. His mind threatened to whisk him away, but he wouldn’t allow it. He needed to be honest with her, for his own sake. To say she hadn’t been the best thing in his life would’ve been a lie. She didn’t deserve further disrespect, especially not after what he’d done before, elsewhere.

“Jenna,” he said with a pained look. “I’m not… me.” She was visibly taken-aback. It made him wince. “You know what I was working on, so you must know the theory I was working with.”

She nodded along, “Inter-dimensional travel. You confirmed the multiverse theory a decade ago, Billy. Everyone knows that.”

He swallowed hard: a decade. Had it been that long? He was 19 at the time, so it must’ve been, if his mind wasn’t failing him now. The fame it afforded made him a celebrity. He got rich off books and public appearances, then pissed most of the money away testing his theories. Amid that pissing away, he’d met Jenna, fallen in love, screwed her sister, then himself for life. Since then, he’d been living off royalties, as much a recluse as a burn-out.

“Jenna, the Billy you knew… he’s gone.”

Her eyes widened, instantly leaking water. “What?”

He winced, “There are only two possible variations according to my theory. One states an inter-dimensional traveler will arrive to find himself in an alternate timeline, meeting himself in the process.” Her face wavered, trembled with sorrow, “The other states–”

“That the traveler will replace himself, eradicating one of the two…”

“I’m sorry, Jenna,” he said with genuine sorrow.

She burst into sobs. Whatever his alter-self had with her was gone. Both of them knew it. Billy’s stomach plummeted to his feet. It should’ve been him. He’d only kept working to spite the world. He was a wretched creature of contempt. His alter-self wasn’t. Jenna’s grief said as much. Whatever the future held, he was stuck here. The only thing he could think to do was slink off the bed to coddle Jenna as she wept– a human thing, rather than an intimate one.

No matter what anyone said, Billy knew firsthand the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. Not for him, or his alter-self, or the woman they’d loved.

Short Story: The Hub of the Wheel

The Hub of the Wheel

The first moments of the great epoch of were witnessed by one being and one being only; I. In the depths of reality, amid the finite but innumerable universes, and beyond the ten dimensions, do I dwell. I am the hub of a wheel of never-ending, cyclical, energy conversion. For those that do not understand, they will soon enough.

In the vast infinities of which I occupy, there are but two orientations with which to build reality and all within it: positive and negative. I am that which cleanses these orientations– returns them to their original bearing, hereto called polarity. My ever-present, omnipotent arms, stretch and unfurl beneath all that is, was, and ever shall-be. They ooze cleansed polarities to form the fabric of all existence.

I’ve no need nor fear of life nor death, for I am that which turns them upon themselves. As life is born unto each universe in the cosmoses, and carries on its futile, inexorable existences, their polarities shift. They become tainted with inverse charge. As those that live must inevitably expire, they must also be cleansed. I devour them whole, digest them with purifying acids that return their parts’ polarity to the universe once their forms and consciousness have decayed– passed, beyond eternity’s reach. These exchanges ensure my eternal existence, for I am and am not. I exist, but am beyond existence, surpass it. I am the beating heart of all reality, and its inevitable vacuum of death; that which both stays and balances its hand. For I am all that is, was, or ever shall-be.

The wheel that turns for eternity, and of which I am but the central part, is that of which I shall speak. The wheel is a principle of life, necessary to the process of living, dying and death, and the re-birth of matter, energy. The particles, waves, decaying and emerging organic matter, are to their natural inclinations and excreted once more in diminished quantities upon ever-expanding planes of reality.

But take heed this warning; do not mistake my explanations, nor my eternal existence for arrogance or foolishness. I speak the turning of the wheel upon its bearings as the hub that keep it steady upon itself. I balanced it so that it may spin forever more without fear of it coming of its lugs. This process, ingrained in me by the very fact of existence, must be carried out by one who is chosen for the greatest burden of responsibility.

As for my origins, I can tell little, nor do I remember much. Blinked into being at the very microcosm before reality’s birth, and before time, space, or combination thereof was conjured. I do not deal in uncertainties, and for those whom wish absolution for theology or theories, I cannot provide it. I am. There are no others. I was drawn from nothingness into the void. It was there that I begin, to ever-more balance the wheel as it began its first phase of turns. As time grew, I hungered, and so I feasted on the ever present imbalance on polarity requires. When I was full, I excreted the cleansed forces. I knew then that it was for these reasons alone that I was brought forth.

What began at my emergence will last eternities longer than any life, universe, or space itself. Perhaps one day, an endless void will expand ever outward; growing, perhaps, from the very bearings the wheel turns upon until a fire swallows all, myself included. For now, there is no smoke, no spark, and in that there may never be– For the Wheel is well-oiled, and I balance it well.

I am all that is, was and ever shall be. I am the hub of the wheel who shall know nothing else, but the eternal procession of polarity– of each division of existence, oriented as it is, then swallowed by my limitless arms, to spewn forth once more into reality.

Yes, it is I who keeps the wheel spinning, makes possible the actions of a deftly physical and predictable fabric of time and space. Not god am I, nor man, nor any other of the countless species which identify themselves. For I am the hub of the wheel; the perpetual motivator of its spin, a tree of reality whose roots draw sustenance from every mathematical position, drawn about and combined, in the billions of universes and beyond. I am the keeper of all that is, was, and ever shall be, for I am the hub of the wheel.

Dedicated to Tony Jay.