Click the images to follow the story.
In an unknown place in an unknown time, a man walks down a corridor. His face is framed by silver hair and, if anyone could see him, he would seem confidently blank, though a little sad, as if facing an easy task that he disliked but had to complete. This is a face he almost exclusively wears. The hallway he walks is blank and silver, made entirely from a strange reflective metal. There are doors, made of the same material. The corridor is well lit. There is no source to the light, it is simply a fact that the corridor is well lit. He can feel, in a sense now entirely unknown to anyone else, a power emanating from the doors and a darkness beyond the walls of this place.
On every door, there is a small plaque etched with symbols that reshape themselves constantly, in a language this man seems to understand as he glances at each door on his walk. He pauses at one and spends some time reading the symbols. An outside observer could tell no difference between this door and any other, but something has definitely caught his attention. He clicks his teeth as he makes a decision, opens the door slowly to the brilliant light beyond, and steps through.
Four friends arrive at the trailhead in preparation for a hike. They are close college friends, though only three of them remain in school. They decided on the trip to celebrate a particularly difficult round of exams for all except one, the louder man in a green shirt, currently jobless and fresh out of college. The younger man beside him with painstakingly styled hair is applying sunscreen liberally while being poked fun by the Khaki shorts-wearing driver, notably inadequate clothing for a weekend in the woods. Green Shirt yells out that they must get moving, though he is mollified slightly after The Hair explains quietly that the hike is, at most, an hour, and seeing as it was only two in the afternoon, there really was no rush. Blue says nothing, watching the ground and sipping from his hydration pack while bouncing up and down slightly.
They depart, laden with gear, and make their way down the trail, not noticing the recent stillness of animal noises, nor feeling the eyes watching them from the trees.
Khakis seems confused, and opens his mouth to respond. Alas, Green Shirt, who has been listening in on the deep debate for a moment, picks up a pinecone, and, with a grin, declares that he “would not be able to do this without free will” as he pelts it at The Hair. He laughs and starts a new topic of conversation for the group.
There are conversations and jokes. Green Shirt likes to tell stories. Blue and The Hair have a deep discussion on the nature of existence while Green Shirt regales Khakis with the details of his latest business idea, though he thinks of a new one several times a week.
Blue argues that free will can only exist in the absence of God. God implies divine omnipotence over the world instead of chance and solely cause and effect. Thus a divine plan implies free will would be a figment of the mind. The Hair attempts to explain that, even so, from our perspective, there would still be free will. Even if a divine force is guiding his fate, his decisions feel like his own, and so imagined free will looks the same as true free will. Since it’s all in our heads anyway, it sounds good enough for him.
Blue begins to shoot back a Buddhist interpretation of universal determinism; everything is a series of cause and effect such that no decision is ever solely an act of will but the cumulation of every action and consequence up to that point. In that view the mind is always subject to the control of past conditions and decisions.
It has been almost two hours when Green Shirt speaks up, raising the possibility they’ve all been thinking: they must’ve made a wrong turn. Blue has been suspicious for a while now, and The Hair has been making small discontented sounds as the last hour wore on, but neither had quite worked up the courage to comment. As a matter of fact, they had made several wrong turns, following wrong blazes only minutes in. The Hair, being the one familiar with the area, was confident he would’ve gotten them there by now, but Green Shirt insisted he would take point. They strayed further and further from the path, the wrong trail leading to a deer trail that eventually petered into empty woods. Blue and The Hair want to turn around, but Green Shirt declares he can hear water, so they must be close to the creek. They’ll just follow that until they find the campsite, a reputed island oasis called Rattler’s Falls. It’s a lesser known campsite, an old gem they learned about from a family friend of The Hair. If anyone had ever decided to keep track, they would be hard pressed to count more than a half dozen travelers a year. And yet, this stretch of woods the friends are trailblazing hasn’t seen a human in nearly a century.
At a distance close enough to perceive, but far enough away so as to not be perceived, a pair of eyes continues to watch and wait.
Another curiosity is the mushrooms. Parts of the island are covered in them, seemingly growing at random on the trunks, and dotting the ground. The Hair could swear those are new. Watching them closely, they seem to quiver every so often. Green Shirt is already in the middle of the island, packs dumped unceremoniously on the ground, as he digs out a towel, throws off his shirt, and wades out into the water.
Distantly and with growing concern, a being watches the four friends. So far none have disturbed the mushrooms, though the loud-faced one came close with his bag. Judging from the amount of things the humans brought with them, it seems they planned to spend the night. This would not do, this would not do at all. The being watches and waits and thinks.
They find the creek. Between a meandering stream and a river, it spans 20 feet at the largest point and is rarely more than two feet deep. They find an island dividing the creek, only a few feet of water separating it from their side of the mainland.
Green Shirt is triumphant, though The Hair has doubts about the location. This island is smaller than he remembers. The stones sticking above the water barely form a path, even though there definitely should have been a clear and wide path across. The trees here seem larger, older. He knew he couldn't hug the larger ones, though perhaps, with Blue and Khakis, they could just touch fingertips.
It happened when they lit the fire, just as the flames caught and began to crackle. They twisted and dimmed. The five felt a heaviness in the air. It had a wildness to it, a sense in the back of their minds of shifting chaos. And then it was emptiness. A hollow echo of a shadow where there used to be light. All sense of joy and amusement was gone from their faces, as some yawning pit inside each of them threatened tears and anguish.
Blue collapsed to one knee, tears streaming down his face. Green Shirt froze, a look of shock and horror.
And then came a whisper, ancient and hoarse. The words slid into and out of the four minds, seeming to resonate physically. The wild emptiness diminished, folded away like a bad dream in the morning.
Out of the night stepped a figure, humanoid but far too tall. Parts of the creature’s body seemed warped—it had silver hair made of twisted wire, seemingly made of metal. It’s eyes were slitted like a cat's. Its face curiously blank as the four humans screamed. Khakis fell to the ground, Blue just covered his eyes, as the almost-human spoke once more.
Had any of them been paying attention, they might’ve noticed a faint distortion in the air, like a heat mirage on a highway. The almost-human didn’t need eyes to feel the darkness pouring out of the wound in the air. And even he didn’t notice the mushrooms on the ground swelling and shivering, growing and changing to darker shades of their original reddish brown.
The almost-human spoke. Its voice was the grating of a dozen knives, this time in English. The tone was stiff and monotone, barely understandable in its roughness. Nevertheless, it spoke.
“You must leave.”
They stared up to see its eyes, dark coals now, without pupils or conjunctiva. It hissed, this time the words unknown, and the fire dimmed to embers at its command.
Green Shirt was the first to rally. He, more desperate than courageous, brandished a small knife at the giant. It quirked its head in an almost childish visage of confusement. A short biting rasp that might be amusement escaped its throat. It took a single step backward, away from the tear in the world that only it has noticed, and the four humans staggered, Green Shirt dropped the knife, as the existential despair and emptiness returned. Khakis managed to gasp out a plea. The almost-human spoke, and the darkness fades once more.
“I am trying to help you.”
But the almost-human realized its mistake. Releasing its grip for that instant caused agitations in the rip, widening the crack between the air and the void beyond. Forcing it back was taking too much of its strength. The tear was continuing to grow, feeding off the emotions and energy of the world around it.
If the humans looked toward the center of the island, they could now see the shiver in the air, the distorted rip in the world, and the mushrooms beginning to blacken, even as they swelled.
The humans were afraid. There was a biological response coursing through their veins more suited to fighting off a mountain lion than assessing and responding to this impossibility.
“You must depart from here now.”
The creature’s hiss was pleading, tinged with a tiredness, though the human’s couldn’t tell. It was forbidden to act with impunity. It’s old. It no longer understood how the humans of this world work.
The four remain rooted to the ground in terror. Green Shirt tries to think, to respond. His mind is foggy and hollow. There is a growing emptiness that threatens to unlock his knees, to send him tumbling to the ground. There is an abject and primal terror inside him, threatening a frantic dive into the water, to escape as quickly as possible. And above all of that, a growing apathy. A growing lack of concern.
Blue stares at the almost-human. He sits on the ground, looking comfortable and unconcerned, gazing with idle curiosity. The void has already consumed him. He stares without emotion or care. Too late now, he gazes without fear or any other emotion up at the giant trying to save his life, the only thing preventing him from sinking into the abyssal emptiness of the void between reality.
The world itself begins to warp as the rip widens. The weakness of the humans’ minds is providing too much of a handhold, too much willing energy. The almost-human has started chanting in ancient tongue, using powerful and forbidden secrets to attempt to slow the darkness. The mushrooms have turned black, drowning in the energy of the rip, splitting and popping as it overwhelms the fungi’s ability to process it.
Now all of the humans have the same blank, uncaring gaze. Khakis held off the longest, managing to crawl backward a few paces before giving way to the darkness.
The almost-human has fallen to one knee. Its creators have failed it. Sheer folly, the limitations they forced upon it. An inability to act born out of fear. If only it could have made the humans stop. If only it could have forced itself on their minds, tearing out any desire to disobey and make them leave, make them return to safety. Now it could only watch and wait as hopelessness swirled and darkened the air, creeping even into its own thoughts.
With a radiating shiver and a cracking whine, every single mushroom on the island exploded into goo as the tear in the world ripped open, a vast sphere of darkness blooming over the island. Howling shadows and terrible terrible not-beings twisted and danced in the air. If any of the humans were still able to feel, they may well have died of fright. Dark not-vines of shadow and void grew from the ground, brambles of night and darkness. Twisting thorns and swirling chaos. Madness flitted in the eyes of the humans. Processing, if not understanding, such terrible impossibilities slowly tore apart the little that was left of their identities.
The almost-human screamed. A raw and terrible scream that echoed through the woods and cut through even the darkest of shadows. It was defiance. It was light. It was hopelessness and hope and understanding. In the last extremity, when the darkness had won, there was only one path left. One move forward for this world, or any other, to continue.
The scream shattered the silent horror of the night, and light began to pour from it. Shining cracks that covered its skin and burst from its eyes. The radiance burned back the shadows, defiant. One final act against the infinite night. The final extremity.
Then, there was a shift, a sense of loss, as if a thread had snapped. As if a bridge had collapsed, and reality was alone once more. The light faded, and so did the darkness. The world was quiet again.
On a small island in some unknown part of the forest, there lies four backpacks around a small campfire, on the ground rests a few strands of silver hair.
A half-dozen people sit manipulating strange machinery. One might call it a computer, though it is far, far more advanced than anything known to our world. The most suitable name to call these people would be scientists. Yesterday, they celebrated an accomplishment long thought merely theoretical. Tomorrow, they will plan expeditions into other realities. Today, however, they are designing a protector for their gates.
They are frantic. An unguarded gate allows the risk of agitating the fabric between reality and void. They hadn’t realized the dangers. If a gate became agitated enough to open, that world and all worlds would be plunged into darkness. Existence would end, for them and for everyone.
Their creation would walk the gate between these realities, protecting the very fabric of the multiverse. Hopefully it would be enough. Hopefully, they hadn’t doomed us all.
Gussie Weiss (@gussie.weiss) is a rising junior at Amherst College, pursuing Art History and language studies with a career trajectory in museum collections. Her main areas of study include Pre-Columbian art, especially Mexica art, and she has a special interest in image and text relations. She also enjoys art-making, with practice in oil pastels, pyrography, and plaster carving.
Nicholas Govus (@nick_govus) is a rising senior at Amherst College studying Computer Science and Theater. This story is a cumulation of the great multitude of science fiction and supernatural media he has consumed. Nick is currently working on a theater thesis that merges with comp sci and as such, has spent much of the last few weeks in or working on VR, which may have lended to some thematic choices. He hopes you enjoy!