The Voice from the Wastes
by Ryan Walraven
“You’re going to die out here,” a voice whispers at the back of my mind. The snow kicks up and I shut my eyes, trying not to listen.
It’s not just any voice. It’s the voice. The one that haunts my every thought.
I clench my jaw and try to shut it out.
Behind me, the flaming wreckage of my ship is making a racket above the howling of the wind, probably coughing plutonium dust into the already volatile snowstorm. I grunt, sheltering a cigarette and lighting it as I limp my way forward. Not sure how I survived, but here I am. Maybe whatever gods are out there want me to see this through.
As I come to the ridge of the first snow dune, I stop and draw my duster more tightly about me. Standing like an obelisk in the center of icy wasteland is what I’ve come here to see. Ruin. Abomination. City of the dead. The Gray Tower. The base of the thing is half-buried in the snow, like some Egyptian monolith, but the rest juts out into the sky and disappears into the clouds.
Behind me, a series of explosions goes off and I know that all the weapons I’ve packed are going up in flames. Well, nothing’s gone as planned, but at least I’ve made it. Just then, the wind picks up and drags my cigarette away as the voice comes to me again.
“Death follows at your heels, wanderer.”
“Shut up!” I shout into the wind. If anyone sees me, they must think I’m mad, but this place is devoid of life. I laugh out loud.
You see, this entire world is a deserted wasteland. There hasn’t been an active settlement here for a least a thousand years, and even back then it was mostly maintenance workers and miners: some ramshackle blue-collar town out in the sticks, the far edge of one of the spiral arms. To find a time when this place had some significance you’d have to go further back, but all the records from that era are lost.
I haven’t been here long, but my reverie has already cost me too much body heat. There’s frost forming on the stubble beneath my nose and my fingers are going numb through my gloves. With most of my supplies gone, it’s a miracle that frostbite isn’t already setting in. I have to hurry.
“Into the void,” I say. It’s an old smugglers catch phrase that basically means “ready or not, here we go.”
Lifting my pack to my back, I trudge onward. I’m not entirely sure what awaits me at the tower; I wasn’t sure if it would be here at all, but now that I’ve found it I know what I have to do.
* * * * *
“The go-to man.” That’s what they used to call me.
“Hey Andy! Got time for another run to Corinth?” my boss shouts from the back of the hangar.
“What, you think I’ve got a life or something?” The other guys laugh and the sound of it echoes at the back of my mind. I recall the moment often, but it feels stale now, like a cliched scene out of a black and white movie. Still, those were good times.
Shipping, transportation, escorts, you name it. If the price was high enough, I’d smuggle things across the border from one quasi-feudal planet to another. I bent the rules when I needed to, but I was fair most of the time. I worked for the traders’ guild, the last vestige of order in a fractured galaxy, and it was a good gig. I’d been at it for longer than I could remember. Even had a wife at one point.
But it didn’t last. I guess it hardly ever does when you’re zipping back and forth across the void for a living. She and I had trouble enough trying to make things work with light-years of distance between us, but then the voice came. With one little whisper, it sent my life careening into madness and ruin.
* * * * *
I shield my eyes from the swirling snow as I stop for a drink of water and stare at the tower, but my canteen has frozen. I lick my chapped lips and slip in into my pocket, opting for a mouthful of snow as I stare at the archaic building. How tall is it? Five hundred meters? Seven hundred? A kilometer? I walk on and on but never seem to get any closer.
When I lower my gaze, I’ve come to a stone bridge that crosses a frozen moat. The bridge is crumbling and some of the stones from the right side have tumbled into the river. I take a tentative step onto it, skirting the damage.
“Don’t look down,” the voice says at the back of my mind, laughing. Daring me to defy it. “You’ll be joining them soon.”
I can’t help it; I lean on the stone wall and gaze into the frozen water. The ice is blue and beneath it you can see chunks of old machinery interspersed with frozen rubble. I’m about to turn away, but then I glimpse a pale pair of eyes staring at me. Two corpses lie in the clear ice, staring at me with blank expressions.
I shut my eyes and shiver as the cold seeps through my boots.
This place was alive, once, covered in trees and vegetation, and it had a purpose, though no one seems to know what that was anymore. I uncovered that much during my research. Almost everyone left when The Crash hit and the empires came tumbling down, but for a while the ramshackle nations that remained maintained the place. The tower served a purpose back then, as a communication beacon, waypoint, and trading post. Now it’s dead, or so they would have you believe. But somehow I know better. I’ve been drawn here ever since the voice came to me and I can sense its presence here even now. It’s watching, waiting, infecting my thoughts.
I grunt, scrape the frost off my stubble, and move on.
As I cross the last expanse of the bridge and finally begin to approach the base of the tower, the wind picks up and runs straight through my jacket. I stumble on and draw my jacket more tightly about me, but I can already feel my limbs going numb. I’ve got to get inside, and soon.
On the far side of the bridge is a large, open courtyard, and beyond that the tower looms. It’s base opens up in a giant vault, with arches leading out in each of the cardinal directions. They’re large enough for a small ship to fly through if the pilot dared, though I can’t imagine anyone caring enough to try.
Finally, I pass underneath and press my hand to the stone bricks of the wall. They look almost like ones you’d find in some ancient castle, crumbling away on a planet in the galactic rim. “How long did your builders expect you to last? And to what end?” I wonder out loud.
My lips are still dry. Trudging through the snow is tiring work. I try my canteen again, but of course it’s still frozen, so I switch straight to my flask of gin.
‘Nothin like a good drink to take the edge off,’ I think, leaning against the wall and letting my gaze wander to the shadows overhead. Even at this distance, I swear I can make out almost every crack in the ceiling. This place is old.
* * * * *
My wife’s name was Ezra, but I called her Ez. She was a vagabond like me, traveling from place to place and writing, cataloging things as she went.
We met at a bar on the outskirts of Minos, the galactic trading hub.
“So you think you’re cut out for me, smuggler?” she said, raising an eyebrow and downing her gin-and-tonic in one gulp. Just bought it for her, too.
I glared and followed suit. The gin sloshed down cold and made my guts burn.
I ignored the feeling and put on a lopsided grin. “I admit, I’m not much to look at,” I said brushing my bangs out of my eyes, “but I’ve got a higher vocabulary than most of these scoundrels. And besides, those rumors about me are greatly exaggerated.”
She laughs. “Including the one about you beating up three customs officials out on the docks?”
“You think a wiry guy like me could take on three guys at once? Besides, I more the bookish type.” I smirked, leaned on the counter and looked at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Grey eyes, tall, in pretty good shape. “Two more of those, Edward,” I called to the bartender.
He flicked his flaxen ponytail and winked at me, putting his cigarette out on the floor. “Finished the first drink and she’s still talking to you? Ain’t that a new record for you, Andrew?”
I spread my hands. “Only because your drinks are so terrible.”
He snorted and poured the drinks.
“So you’re a reader?” she asked. “I thought pilots wasted all their time on fighting and recreational drinking?”
I laughed. “Books and booze. You need some of both for the longer voyages,” I said, grabbing the gin-and-tonics Edward set in front of me and sliding one over to her. “But company’s always preferable.”
“Hmph!” she laughed and looked me in the eye. “A bit direct, are we?”
I shrugged and took another sip. “You’re telling me you don’t get lonely during the long voyages? The galaxy’s a big place.”
“Oh please. I’m usually knocked out for most of the journey. But I’ll tell you what; start with one of my manuscripts, and if you like it, maybe we can meet again and discuss it.” She grinned, leaned back in her chair, and crossed her legs as she took as sip of her drink.
My eyes widened. Could you believe this woman? She was in way over her head if she thought she could manipulate old Andy like some podunk schmuck. I turned and locked eyes with myself in the mirror again.
‘As soon as I leave the bar, that manuscript is going straight in the incinerator,’ I thought to myself.
* * * *
I shiver. Air is blasting through the base of the tower like it’s a wind tunnel.
“At least the snow is out of my eyes,” I grumble as I try to get my bearings in the dim light. The ground level of the place is more like a cave than a building. Finally I spot the entrance tower at the center of the room. It’s broad and reaches from floor to ceiling of the vault, serving as a backbone for the tower and the main entrance. I’ve seen similar structures on more populated worlds, but this one feels larger. More imposing.
Wispy drifts of snow swirl on the pavement like snakes as I stride toward the central doors, glancing around and keeping my eye out for traps. Here and there I have to kick junk out of my path, but the place seems otherwise devoid of hazards.
When I come to the brass doors, I stop and press them. When they don’t budge, I try slamming my shoulder against them. Nothing happens.
“You’re energy is waning, wanderer.”
“No!” I growl, and slam my shoulder into the doors again. The only difference this time is the sharp pain that shoots up my side.
“Tsk tsk. Your mind is going too, I see.”
“No!” I repeat, mostly because I’ve thought the same thing myself at least a thousand times. My voice echoes around the vault, coming back to me over and over again. It sounds like someone pleading for their life. Maybe the voice is right, I think, but then I sense something: the hum of power beneath my feet, as if ancient machinery is still turning beneath the building. There’s got to be a way in.
I pry my gloves off and press the massive doors with my bare hands, but there’s nothing but coarse, cold metal. Then I feel them: broken stubs where handles used to be. The doors are supposed to open outward. I look for somewhere to jam my fingernails in, to pry the doors apartment, but as my hands scan the cold metal I can’t find a single seam.
Behind me, the sun is setting and the snowstorm is showing no sign of abating. The smoke from my ship has died down too. I don’t have much time, but there must be a way in. In all the old stories, there’s always a way in.
* * * * *
Books. I’m not sure when I started reading, but I devour them like a machine. A tattered copy of “The Collected Works of H. P. Lovecraft” has been my constant companion since before I started flying. That, along with whatever interesting fare I could pick up at the local ports has kept me company for most of my travels.
Contrary to Ezra’s thoughts on the matter, pilots go into extended hibernation for long periods of their voyages as well, though there are scheduled wake-ups: safety checks, maintenance, and fine-tuning. That’s when I get most of my reading done. The rest of the piloting occurs when you’re entering of leaving the atmosphere, or if there’s an emergency (which happens more often than you might think).
Anyway, I like to read old Sci-Fi. It keeps me grounded in the past, thinking about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It’s nice to recall the era when the stars were still seen as a distant frontier, not some boring trading outposts.
So when I picked up Ezra’s manuscript titled “Love and Time’s Embrace Beyond the Stars,” I instantly cringed. The thing had been staring at me from the floor of my quarters for a week and I figured that at best it was going to be a sappy romance novel about modern space travel, at worst, a new age self-help manual. But it was good, really good: a tale about two lovers spiraling into a black hole.
As I finished the last page and put it down just half an hour later, I felt a stirring in my guts and couldn’t help but think, “I’ve got to find this woman again. But how?” Then, the most unexpected thing happened. Something answered back. Only, it wasn’t the normal voice in my head – the voice of my own thoughts – but something distinctly alien.
“You were born alone and you’ll die alone. Forget the woman.”
The sound of it, the loudness, made me bolt from my chair. I was sure that one of the passengers has risen from suspended animation and was sleepwalking, shambling around like a zombie and blurting things out. When I couldn’t find them, I turned my desk upside down looking for speakers, a transmitter, anything, but I found nothing. I’m not one to believe in ghosts, but in the quiet of the ship I began to find it hard not too. Finally, I gave up, blamed it on isolation, had a whiskey on the rocks and put myself under for the rest of the voyage.
* * * * *
I search the snow at the base of the tower for something to pry the door open with. It’s hard to see things in the shadows beneath the great vault, but what I can’t see I manage to stumble into every few feet: a crumbled statue here, a frozen piece of clothing there.
Finally, I kick something metal and vaguely tool-sized and my toe starts throbbing through my boot. It’s heavy! I look down to see a crow bar lying, half covered in the snow. Too good to be true, I think.
I reach down to pick it up, but it’s as if the cold metal is frozen to the ground. I give it a couple good kicks, shivering and getting desperate, and miraculously something snaps loose. I pick the thing up and a frozen hand comes with it. I stumble back and drop it to the floor with a loud clank.
How I missed the body lying in a heap in the snow, I’ll never know. Thankfully, its face is turned down into the ice, but it looks all too like me, with scraggly hair and a long jacket covered in snow.
“You’ll join him soon enough,” the voice says. “The void calls to you.”
I curse and shut it out, lifting the crow bar up and trying to pry the hand free. The thing is so frozen to the metal that I snap the entire pinky finger off without getting the rest free. For a moment, I just stare, but then I start laughing and heft the thing over my shoulder, hand and all.
This is the most excitement the hand has had in a millennium, probably.
Although I can’t see the seam in the door, I’m too desperate not to try something. I start smashing at the center of the doors, denting the solid steel, but after only a few whacks old four-fingers the disembodied hand and I find somewhere to wedge the crowbar inside. Still, the doors won’t budge and it’s getting dark out there. I grunt and slam my whole body into the crow bar. A cascade of ice comes showering down from over head and finally one of the doors cracks open with a woosh of cold, dusty air. The place looks like a tomb inside. A posh, paper-pushing, corporate tomb, but a tomb nonetheless.
It’s not what I expect from an abandoned transmission tower. What was this place?
“This place is your tomb, wanderer.”
* * * * *
As things with Ez and I progressed, the voice got worse, more violent. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I thought I was losing it. Too much time in the void does that to some people, but I had always assumed I’d be the type to tough it out and retire with a fat savings account. At that point, however, my whole reality seemed to be crashing around me. My job, my love-life, my drinking money – they were all in jeopardy.
“You’re losing it wanderer. Kill the girl and seek me out.”
“You and I aren’t meant to live like this. Throw her out the airlock and set a course for the outer limbs.”
“You’re above these mere humans, wanderer. Leave this life behind.”
Thoughts like these came all too often, and always at inappropriate moments: when we laid down to sleep, while I caressed her hair, when I sat alone reading. I began to suspect that I was a schizo, that my brain was just talking to itself. And then it got worse.
I had always dealt with some degree of insomnia. Traveling like I did made it inevitable, but now I never slept. During the long nights I either read or researched my condition. Before long, the sci-fi novels, news headlines, and old medical articles began to blend together:
“Beyond the Mountains of Madness.”
“Sole Survivor of Martian Expedition Found, Completely Insane.”
“Insomnia Plagues Pilots and Pirates Alike.”
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
“Long-term Space Travel Correlated with Likelihood of Mental Illness.”
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”
“Failed Colonies Face Isolation, Depression, Schizophrenia.”
This last one was the one that tipped me off to The Grey Tower. It planted the seed of my mania. And as soon as I read the title, the voice called to me again.
“You’re nearly there, wanderer… embrace me and leave them all behind.”
I recoiled and nearly threw the article into my fireplace, but how could I not read further? Somehow the planet in the article seemed familiar, and I needed to find out why.
* * * * *
The room is dark and dusty, but mostly snow free. It feels colder inside than outside, but at least the wind is gone.
I stride inside and strike a flare, casting shadows around the room. I should have brought a flashlight, but I was in such a hurry to escape the ship that I only had time to grab the nearest things to hand.
In the light of the flare the whole room has a violet hue to it. There’s a frozen fountain in the center and ahead of me is some sort of glass reception desk, its surface cracked but still standing. Laying beneath it is another dead body, nothing but a frozen skeleton on the marble floor.
I turn my gaze and head straight for the double elevators at the far end of the room. I know the place has been abandoned for generations, but I half-jokingly hit the button anyway. The smile is wiped from my face when it lights up and the hum of grinding machinery kicks in.
The building seems to be shaking gently and ice crystals are falling from the ceiling, but I can hear the elevator coming. I’m expecting it to crash into the floor, but then the doors slide effortlessly open. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by silence as the machine beckons me inside. Dare I trust my life to something that hasn’t been maintained for centuries?
I light a cigarette and step inside as the doors shut behind me, bathing me in the flickering light of the flare. There’s a sign on the wall saying it was last inspected 1,200 years ago. Reminds me of my love life.
I grin and the metal walls of the elevator reflect my visage, manic and pale in the unsteady light. I raise a hand to the scraggly beard covering my face. How long has it been since I left home? How long since I ate anything? The cigarettes help calm my stomach, at least. I take a long drag and the acrid smoke fills my lungs.
“Your journey is almost at an end.”
“You’re right,” I say. I clutch the crowbar in my hand and prepare to hit the button to go to the top floor, but then something stops me. Unease. The dreams flash back to me, dark thoughts of this place. I need to go down.
I use the crowbar to jab the button for the deepest subbasement and we begin to descend into the frozen earth.
* * * * *
“Something’s wrong. Tell me about it, please,” Ez said, clutching my hand as I tried to get away and walk to my ship.
“I’ve got work to do,” I said, full well knowing that the only way I could get any sleep was when I was knocked out during a voyage.
“You haven’t been sleeping, you’re irritable, and now you won’t even let me tag along on one of your supply runs. You’ve always been distant, but this is different.”
I turned and stared into her eyes, my mind dense with the lack of sleep. What should I say? What could I say?
“Leave her forever.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you,” I said, my voice shaking. “I just… I need some alone time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Things have never been normal between us. I always knew it would be difficult dating someone like you but…” she choked up and I wrapped my arms around her. “No!” she shouted, pushing me away.
I gasped and stumbled back and then she pushed me again until I gently bumped up against a sheet metal wall.
“Enough,” she went on. “I thought I could make it work, but it’s obvious that something’s not right with you. If you ever work out what’s going on in your head, give me a call.”
And with that, she turned and left. I glimpsed a final flash of dark hair and red dress and then she disappeared into port. I was left speechless and numb, my mouth dry. I always knew this day would come.
“Tough break, Andy,” one of the mechanics said, shaking his head.
I shrugged and turned toward my ship, rubbing my head and trying to organize my murky thoughts.
“Now, come to me.”
I stop in place.
“Oh, I’m coming for you,” I said, my voice hoarse, and I could have sworn I already smelled the smoke. I set my eyes and clenched my fists.
What if I wasn’t the only one? What if others were suffering under the tyranny of that demonic voice?
At that point I’d been obsessed with The Grey Tower for months and somehow I knew – I just knew! – that it’s ancient transmitters were the source. Whatever was lurking in that tower was haunting me, and perhaps worse, spreading its malfeasance across the galaxy.
Whatever happened, I knew I had to destroy it at all costs.
* * * * *
I take a deep breath and can feel the ancient air condense in my chest, a cold dense fog. It’s time and I’m not ready. I planned and packed for weeks for this: guns, grenades, explosives, acid, gin, more guns, volatile radioactive weapons. I’m a bit of an over-packer, but everything went up in the blaze. I don’t even have a way out of here.
Now I have only my wits and this hunk of metal by my side. Oh, and that frozen hand. I shake the bar as we descend, but like an overzealous lover, the hand refuses to let go. I sigh and try to clear my head.
“Into the void.”
“Into the void…”
The hair on the back of my neck stands up. This is the first time I can remember the voice echoing my words like this. Are we becoming more alike? My mind buzzes.
I shut it out as I finished the cigarette and toss it to the floor. How far down have we come?
It’s completely dark outside and the light of my flare hardly seems to penetrate the space beyond the elevator doors. I step out onto a walkway of grey stone bricks and nearly plummet into an abyss. Before me gapes a vast underground chasm, bridged by stone walkways that snake through the darkness. I can barely see some of them, flickering in the failing light, far in the distance.
I throw the flare into the pit and watch as it falls. Below me, icy walls and pillars descend into darkness and the flare finally thunks into a pool of water. This must be where the power core was located, but why would a transmitter need such a massive power system? This looks more like a manufacturing plant.
The room is silent now that the flare’s gone. Suddenly, I feel surrounded by the smell of moss, algae, and rust, of a long decay that has been settling for centuries.
I press my back to the elevator, dig another flare from inside my bag, and light it and another cigarette at the same time. The smoke burns my cold lungs, but clears my head. I hold the flare aloft and the hissing sound it makes echoes through the cavern. Way up ahead, in the center of the room, I can see a huge pillar descending from above, a place where the walkways all coalesce. This is it.
My heart beats loudly in my head as I edge past broken sections of walkway and begin climbing. For some reason, I’m nervous. Anything could be waiting for me up there in the dark. Images of ice demons flash through my mind. Of piles of frozen corpses. Of Ezra never seeing or hearing from me again. Worse, there could be nothing. Nothing at all. This whole thing could be for nothing.
I set my teeth and draw my jacket tightly about me, clutching the flare in one hand, the crowbar in the other, and the cigarette between my lips. “It’s now or never, four-fingers,” I mumble. I pause half way up a flight of stone stairs, waiting for the voice to reply, to interject its own dark humor, but nothing comes.
I climb and climb the steps, spiraling around the frozen room as a gentle draft blows upward through my hair. My legs burn, my heart thumps, and perspiration forms on my forehead. When was the last time I slept? Or ate? I clutch a railing and nearly drop my flare as I gasp for breath. My cigarette falls into the abyss and I watch it disappear into the dark.
“Not far now,” I grunt, peering into the space above.
I push myself, my head growing feverish, though the perspiration is freezing on my forehead. My mouth is dry, tastes like rust, but I’ve got to go on.
Finally, I stumble onto the landing of an ornate stone tower. Does this thing ascend all the way into the building above? I peer upward, but the purple glow from the flare doesn’t reach the end of the building; it just keeps going.
So I come to the door, an old, ornate wooden thing, and give it a kick. It groans open and I think the entire room is going to come down on my head. I push into the dark room, which smells of burnt plastic, and see that I’m surrounded by ruined computer consoles. There are rows and rows of desks covered in tools, and what looks like a hollow glass tube coming down through the center. Probably some sort of power conduit.
I take a step forward and stop. There are eyes staring at me from the dark. Actual eyes, glowing in the purple light. I nearly scream, but only a grunt comes out my lips.
“Ah.” A puff of cold, surprised breath is all that escapes my lips. I’ve seen these eyes before.
“At last,” a voice echoes through the room.
I clutch the cold metal of the crow bar in my hand. “What do you want with me?”
The eyes never waver, never blink, but somehow I know they want me to come closer. I feel as if I have no choice, forcing my tired limbs to push me forward. Again, the image of Ezra comes to mind.
“You think of her,” he says.
I say nothing, but he’s beginning to come into focus. Far at the end of the room, he’s sitting slouched over on a throne of broken monitors and mechanical parts, his arms and hands resting on two computer cases.
“Well? Our last wanderer returns to us and you’ve nothing to say?”
I step closer, squinting and kicking things out of my way. I look down and see that they’re pieces of skeletons, arms, legs, and skulls, but not made of bone. They’re made of metal.
I look up again, baring my teeth at him but afraid to go any closer.
“How do you know my thoughts?” I shout.
“Because we’re one in the same,” he says. “Haven’t you realized yet? You’re an anachronism. Your kind were never meant to exist in these dark ages.”
I narrow my eyes, but can’t see him clearly in the cold mist that circulates the room.
“I came here to kill you.”
“I know. So did the others,” he says, sweeping his hand over the remains that litter the floor. I can’t help but scan them again. Swords, guns, and tools lay by their sides. “You won’t succeed,” he ads. Somehow, it’s calming to hear his voice outside my head, but I clutch to my purpose.
“And why not?” I shout.
“Because, as I told you, you and I are one in the same.”
I growl, and throw the flare at him, then cock the crow bar back, ready to throw it at him and smash his face. The purple light strikes his leg and lands as his feet. Illuminated above it is my face, staring straight back at me.
He begins to laugh and the sound echoes through the building like an earthquake. “Kill me and you will only take my place,” he says.
It’s only then that I drop the crowbar and realize the truth. The cold, mechanical truth. There’s no hope. There never has been.
© Ryan Walraven 2016