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Michael lined up his shot, looking through the rifle scope at the deer that nibbled at grass down range. Keeping perfectly still, hiding in the brush, Michael held in his breath and slowly exhaled, pulling the trigger. A loud clap split the countryside serenity and the deer bolted, only making four or five paces before it collapsed—a fresh hole just behind the shoulder.
Michael grinned and stood. The winter cold assaulted his senses and he pulled his dirty and tattered long coat closer, drawing the hood to shadow his eyes from the merciless sun. He slung the rifle over his shoulder by the strap and trudged through the icy river to his felled prey. It was a big one. The biggest one he’d caught all winter. Sara would have her hands full packing the meat, but it was sure to last them for months.
He bundled up the deer methodically, preparing to haul it back to his four-wheeler some yards away. Even as he did so, he snickered, remembering those first few months out in the Wilds, learning how to hunt. He’d been so green back then, fearful of his own shadow, only good for scribbling figures for those blasted machines. So long ago…
He hadn’t seen a machine since they’d escaped to the Wilds fifteen years ago.
His mind drifted back to that old life. Sometimes he felt that another person lived those years. At the time, he’d not been aware how angry he was, but now he saw how easily it had been for Rip to manipulate him—to control him, just as the monitors had done.
Michael wondered where Rip was now. What terrible things he was doing across the cosmos. That could have been my life. But it wasn’t. His life was here, in the peace and quiet, with Sara at his side.
Without regret, he journeyed over the plains on his old four-wheeler, finally spotting his and Sara’s cottage. He pulled the four-wheeler into the yard with his prize in tow. Blowing hot breath into his hands to warm them, he pushed his way through the front door. He slipped off his hood and called out, “Hey, I’m back.”
Sara’s usual reply did not meet him. He stepped into the kitchen, but did not find her. “Sara?”
Moved to the next room, their bedroom. Empty, too.
He stood still, his heart beginning to pound. “Sara? Where…?”
Then he heard whimpering. From above.
Jerking his head skyward, he saw Sara pinned to the ceiling by some invisible force. She wept, her long red tresses dangling down past her face.
He reached for her, his mind whirring to figure out some way to get her down, when a wave of unseen energy slammed him, shot him across the room, and pinned him in place against the wall.
Michael grunted in pain and shock, struggling to move his arms—even his fingers—but he was frozen solid. “Sara!”
A voice spoke from somewhere within the shadows of the room, low and calm. “Michael.”
He twisted without success, tears building in his eyes. “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
Michael’s panicked eyes darted every which way, trying to find the source of the voice. At last, the shadows parted and a tall, thin man in a black suit with coattails exited. The pale man’s hair was wild and white, as though styled by static electricity. His eyelids were half-closed, his nose upturned in a display of arrogance. He nearly floated along the hard wood floor, coming to a stop before Michael.
“Who are you?” Michael demanded.
“I believe you once knew an associate of mine. Rip?”
Michael swallowed hard. No…please, no. Suddenly, Rip’s words returned to him, after fifteen years: “You can’t run from us! You can’t run from what you are!”
“You’re Rip’s Boss,” Michael stuttered. “The one he talked about.”
The thin man considered, then shook his head. “I’m more of a…conductor of a symphony. Rip played for me, but we both make music at the behest of a greater muse. Something greater than anything you can imagine. And he is not pleased with you.” The man circled the room, casually eyeing Sara still sobbing on the ceiling.
I’ll get you down, Michael thought to her, meeting her terrified eyes. I’ll save you, just like I did before.
“You see,” the stranger said, “you’ve stolen from him.”
“I didn’t steal anything!” Michael blurted, tears spilling down his weathered face, and he suddenly felt so very old.
“Ah, but you have. All that power, churning inside. It doesn’t belong to you, though you’ve certainly profited from it, haven’t you? Leaving your mechanical oppressors, building a life out here for you and your…woman. All made possible by the Rage. And now it’s time to pay up.”
Michael gnashed his teeth, trying to will himself to move. “Please, I’ll—I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Michael, no,” Sara sobbed.
He winced, and continued, “Rip said I was supposed to help make Chaos or something, right? I’ll—I’ll do it. Just, please, don’t hurt Sara.”
The thin man faced Michael, tapping his chin. The man’s long face was impassive, devoid of all emotion. Just dead, staring eyes, and a put-upon air about him, as though he had more pressing matters to attend to. “It’s too late for that, Michael,” he stated without mirth.
Michael whimpered. “No, please…”
“We have a new part for you to play. You see, we have another stray, running rampant across the multiverse, causing us a lot of trouble. Another Michael Morrison, as a matter of fact.”
Michael blinked in surprise.
The thin man continued, “He, like you, thinks he can escape us, but he’s wrong.” Leveling a disdainful glare on Michael, he finished, “You both are.” He paced again, glancing to Sara on the ceiling. “You will help us find and convince him that to flee from us is futile. We are your fate—the very reason you were created. But to share that truth with him, you must share it from a place of conviction.”
The man fixed a cold, unflinching stare on Sara, then lifted a hand and snapped his fingers. Sara screamed, her body making terrible crunching noises. Bones breaking. Michael grunted, trying to pull himself free. “What are you doing? Stop!”
The thin man spoke over Sara’s shouts, “You are an instrument, Michael, but one that is out of tune. We have to refine you, to prepare you for my symphony.”
Sara continued to scream, her body breaking at the demonic man’s command. Michael wailed and raged against his invisible restraints. “I’ll kill you!”
The man only shook his head. “Still out of tune. Come on, Michael. You are a company man. You remember how this game works, or have you forgotten, living out here in the Wilds? You have to be taught your place. You. Will. Heel.”
“Sara!” he cried, his heart breaking, a thousand memories of their life together passing before his eyes.
But Sara’s screams finally trailed off. Her head hung limp, her body still. The man gave a wave of his hand and Sara collapsed to the bed, lifeless.
Michael wept deep ragged gasps that pained his chest.
At last, the man—this sick Maestro of misery—regarded him. “Ah, much better. The song of your pain is beautiful—don’t ever try to hide that. Now you will be able to sing with passion, to spread my music.”
Michael bowed his head, weeping, his hood slipping over his features. At once, he was released from his imprisonment and collapsed to all fours.
The Maestro moved to him, his polished shoes clicking on the hard wood floor. “Will you submit now?”
Michael thought to rebel, to punch and kick and die fighting. He’d been ready to die when he left The Company, to be with Sara. He’d had fire back then, desperate to be away—determined that his life would belong only to him.
But, in the end, maybe his father was right. Better to blend in. To obey.
If he had, Sara would still be alive.
He stood, his hood draping over his eyes, bathing his sight in shadow. “Yes.”
The Hooded Man arranged Sara’s body on their bed and softly kissed her forehead.
Then he set the house on fire.
He stood now, wrapped in his tattered coat and hood, watching the last remnants of his independence burn away. It’d been a good life, the last fifteen years. A good distraction, but a distraction all the same. Rip had tried to tell him that he was meant for more, but he’d refused. Resistance was useless. He understood that now, here at the end, and he would teach it to this other Michael Morrison.
You can’t run from who you are.
He was a company man, through and through.
“Are you ready to leave?” the voice spoke from the shadows behind him.
He nodded, not facing the Maestro. “I’m ready.”
“Then let us begin the concerto.”
To Be Continued In
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Copyright 2015 Greg Mitchell
Thanks for reading, everyone. Go out and get your copy of Rift Jump: Revised and Expanded Edition, and stay tuned for the release of this summer's stunning sequel--Sara's Song!