Black Reverb (Short Story): Part Two

pen-and-paper-820x312
Part Two of Conn McCloskey’s first story for The Gown. Photo Source: Fresh Eye Solutions.

Conn McCloskey, Contributor

The Dream

He dreamed of binary suns, circling each other like a pair of predators in the emptiness of space. One sun was of a brilliant whiteness and all that orbited it was flourishing with life as they were nurtured under its caring gaze. But all too soon they passed to the orbit of the other, the black sun. Soon they were burned to desolation as the star extracted all life from their surfaces, leaving them as broken husks, drifting aimlessly and mournfully under its merciless gaze. Time passed again, and the planets passed once more into the gaze of the white sun, bringing new found life to the ruined husks and beginning the cycle anew. He watched this process repeat itself for a hundred thousand times, the suns standing on opposites, but working in tandem to effectively bring about a cycle of life and death to the solar system. But the beauty of life and death soon became ugly. The black sun grew bigger and horrid as it consumed all around it, coming to envelop the planets orbiting it in its madness. The white sun watched on silently as this travesty played out, hoping that the black sun would end its wrath and that the pair could once again return to their purpose. But the black sun did not stop. Its rage did not slacken, and its horror grew tenfold. As time passed, it even sought to consume the white sun, forcing it to flee into the expanse of the universe. But the black sun followed, destroying all that the white sun created as it went. As it did so, it grew, and the King knew, even as he dreamed, that if it were left unchecked in its madness it would one day consume all and become everything.

Part Two

He awoke in comfort and darkness. He could not see anything, but he was in a bed of some variety, his head resting on a pillow that soothed his pounding head. He was naked from the waist up and across his wounded shoulder was a bandage of strange material. For a moment he gasped in panic as he failed to feel the presence of the locket on his throat, only to sigh in relief as he found it on the dresser next to him. After placing the locket back on, he rose from the bed, forced to shield his eyes as the whiteness of outside poured in. The windows were being pulled up somehow, taking the darkness with it and revealing the outside to him. He was high up, higher than he had any right to be. He was forced to hold on to the wall as he made his way out to the recently opened outside, partly from his fatigue and partly from his vertigo. The patio was strange to him. It was sunken down and filled with water and surrounded by loungers, one of which held the dusky woman who was resting with her eyes closed. She was wearing a pair of dark trousers and a laced shirt with a frilled over coat. Her dark, thick hair hung in a ponytail over her shoulder, gently blowing from the open windows. As he approached her, her eyes flickered open as she quietly rose to her to feet before turning to regard him. Her face became brightened by a weak, yet still brilliant, smile as she joined her hands together in front of her.

“Hello there, and let me be the first to welcome you to the Hotel Parnell… I’m sure you’re very excited to be here.”

The King was taken aback by her upfront and relatively cheerful disposition. She was the first person he’d encountered out here and he had never seen her likes before.

“I- “he began.

“The Hotel Parnell,” she interrupted him, “was built in U.A 793 by the benevolent M.K Ulysses in New Ulyandatta. It is the largest hotel on the planet and the entire Averion section of the Hyperion Empire, able to hold 75,000 people.”

She said all this while maintaining her smile and acting like what she was saying was the most fascinating thing in the world. But to the King it was meaningless, and so he walked past her and leant over the side, looking below. As he did so, he felt a twang of pain in his shoulder as the wound opened, dying his bandage red as a fresh amount of blood poured forth. Screwing his face up he brought his hand to the article before turning back to the woman.

“75,000?” he croaked. “And where would they be now?”

The woman opened her mouth but quickly shut it again. Instead she walked up to him and removed his bandage.

“Sit down please”, she said while motioning to a nearby chair. Doing so he was surprised to see her remove a small tube from a nearby bag on a table next to him and place it against the wound.

“Brace yourself,” she said, before pressing down on the end of it. The shock was enough to cause the hair to stand on the back of his neck, for the pain was intense but fleeting. When he looked at his shoulder, he could see the wound closing itself up, the flesh knitting itself back together until it was completely healed, leaving behind another scar to match the others on his body. As the woman rose from beside him he reached his hand out and grabbed her own. Looking into her face he matched her gaze and for the first time noticed that her eyes were an unnatural violet. The Kaldenan nobles had had violet eyes.

“Thank you,” he said. The smile, this one sincerer than the last, returned to the woman’s face as she drew herself away from him and placed the tube back in the bag.

“Ulysses did,” she said as she slung the bag over her shoulder.

“Did what?” The King responded.

The woman walked over to him and joined him by leaning on the railing, “that’s what happened to those seventy-five thousand people and billions upon billions more. That’s why there’s no one else here.” She stopped to brush a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “I don’t know what happened, but all the stars went out and it all… fell away into some void. When it stopped, all that was left was the hotel. Mr. Ulysses found me in the lobby.”

The King had by this time turned to regard her, “and what happened next?” he said.

Her eyes were downcast as she said, “nothing. He just nodded at me and left the building, walking somewhere…”

The King regarded her for a short while longer before making his way back into his room, working his newly healed shoulder as he did so. Before he returned to his spacious and strangely decorated room, he called back to her, “the same happened to me.”

He did not look back as the door slid closed behind him, but he could feel the woman’s eyes on him. Inside he found the rest of his clothes and, to his surprise, saw that the rip in the shirt and jacket had been repaired. He also caught a look of himself in a proper mirror for the first time in months. His face was gaunt and dominated by a scraggly beard while his hair hung past his shoulders, but most alarming of all was the single black eye that stood in contrast to his other blue one. He brought his hand to it and flinched at the memory of the other king thrusting his hand into his empty socket and leaving the new eye behind. Shaking his head, he experimented with the strange facilities around the mirror. One button brought forth a torrent of chilly water into a bowl beneath it, the next brought forth hot. Smiling to himself, he continued to amuse himself until he had filled it up with warm water and found a device that easily took the hair from his face with a harmless light that shone onto him. His hair he cut with his knife until it was much shorter and far more manageable for him. Once this was done he tied it back into a short knot as he regarded his appearance with satisfaction in the mirror. Finally, he dressed himself in his borrowed clothes, hesitating when he found the pistol still in the jackets holster. For a moment he considered tossing it over the side of the building for all the good it had done him, even going so far as to slide a window open in his room, when he was surprised by the woman suddenly appearing behind him.

“What are you doing?” she questioned.

He awkwardly looked over his shoulder at her, “getting rid of this”. he muttered, motioning to the weapon.

“Yes, but why?” she said, giving him a curious look as she walked up to him.

“Because it does not work and was useless to me against the metal monstrosity that attacked me. Because of it I almost died.”

Before he could stop her, she had the gun away from his hand and was turning it over.

“My, my” she said, “this is a type of weapon that went out of use quite some time ago. It still fires live rounds! Why, it’s something you’d find in museum!”

The King watched her silently as she continued to toy with the weapon and its mechanism, pulling it apart and placing it back together, seeming to enjoy herself. After a while she seemed to come away from some faraway place and returned the weapon to the king’s hand, “oh, and it wasn’t firing because the safety is on.”

The King cocked an eyebrow as a way of response, and upon seeing him do this she rolled her eyes. “The button on the side,” she motioned with her hand, “press it down.”

The King went to follow her instructions only to hear her cluck her tongue in frustration, “not here, you could blow my head off!”

The King sheepishly placed the weapon back inside the jacket as the woman walked by him and into a pod of some kind at the end of the room. “Coming?” she smirked, hand on hip. Sighing, the King made his way towards her and shuffled in beside the waiting woman. He watched intently as she touched a clear pad, making a strange motion with her hand that brought the pod to life. The pod moved forward into the building itself for about five seconds, before descending. “It’s Nyla” the woman sighed, almost to herself.

“Hmm?” the King said, taken aback by her breaking of the silence.

“My name,” she responded, “it’s Nyla”. The King blinked in response before returning to look back into space. As names went, he supposed it was a good one, but not one he had ever heard before.

He was soon interrupted by Nyla again, “and what’s yours?” she said, turning to him. The King remained silent for several moments, before swallowing heavily and turning his head away from her. “Gone,” was all he said as the pod continued its low hum. With a look of confusion, the woman known as Nyla turned on him, “Gone?”. The King nodded his head, “Gone. Lost it, or maybe it was stolen…” he scratched his now clean-shaven chin thoughtfully for a moment. “Suppose it doesn’t really matter. Won’t get it back till I kill the one responsible… not even sure if I want it back for all the good it did me when I had it, if I’m being honest.”

Nyla made like she was going to say something else, only for all further conversation to be cut off by the pod opening, revealing a range with several crystal-like men standing still. The King was taken aback but was soon reassured when Nyla walked forward from the pod and beckoned the King to follow her. She soon approached a nearby machine of some kind before stopping and holding her hand out expectantly. The King understood what she meant and handed over the pistol to her, and eagerly watched on as she placed it inside a compartment of the machine.

“Ammo,” she barked, her command being immediately followed by the machine dropping a box inside of another separate compartment. Nyla reached inside and grabbed both the gun and the ‘ammo’, before thrusting it into the waiting hands of the King.

“Now” she began, smiling up at him, “I want you to go over there and shoot at the holograms until it becomes as natural to you as breathing. We don’t want you getting eaten by the machine outside now, do we?” she said before adding “at least, not again.” She finished with a chuckle.

The King did not know what a hologram was or even what the purpose of such a room is, but he decided that there was going to be many more things he did not understand about the ‘hotel’ and it was best if he just went with it. Striding over to the line of half-wall that marked the barrier between himself and the targets, he raised the gun and fired it at the nearest ‘hologram’. His shot flew by the intended target and instead hit the side of the wall, where the foam-like substance easily absorbed the force of the bullet and dropped it harmlessly on the ground.

“Again,” Nyla barked, somehow appearing by his shoulder. He once more raised and fired the weapon, this time clipping the hologram, knocking a piece off its shoulder and causing it to disappear. “Better,” Nyla chirped, “but you still have much more room for improvement.” Nyla turned away from him and walked back to the pod. “I have other duties to attend to, but if you need me for anything, just press that there” she said while pointing at a small circular and black device she had left beside the King. “And speak into it.” The King picked it up and pressed down on it, causing it to light up red, bringing a similar response to the one strapped to Nyla’s hip. “You got it,” she beamed at him before turning away and entering the pod, only to turn back and say, “And I hope you enjoy your stay here,” before the door of the pod slid shut, taking her away from him.

After his brief introduction, time went by quickly for the King and he soon built up a routine in the hotel. He spent his days training with his weapon in the firing range or wandering the hallways of the immense building, discovering new and strange things. One day he stumbled upon a massive room that seemed to house an orchestra, with enough seats for a great amount of people. On another, he found a luxuriously decorated indoor forest with strange agriculture, the likes of which he had never seen before. Occasionally as he travelled to and from the firing range, or wherever else he decided to go on that day, he would bump into Nyla, the seemingly only other inhabitant of the building. How she kept the whole operation running on her own was a mystery to him but whenever he did come across her she would stop to ask him about his day and whether he was enjoying his time at the hotel. Admittedly the King had begun to enjoy himself. The comforts of the building were almost enough to distract him about what lay outside, but the illusion would be broken as soon as he looked outside one of the many windows.

 One day he was walking through one of the lower levels, picking his way through several abandoned tables in a place that must have served food once to multiple people at the same time, a strange concept to himself as a man of the Fall, but he knew it was a practice that had become popular among the nobles of Kaldena. As he made his way across the room he happened to look outside the window and down. Directly below him was the same metal monstrosity that had pursued him all those weeks ago, pacing along the side of the building. The King could not make out what it was exactly  that the beast held in its mouth, but he could see it briefly squirm as it continued to maul into it, causing its weak struggling to stop. The King watched on coldly, matching the look of the beast as it gazed up at him, its pale-yellow eyes working their way into his own. For any other animal it would have been impossible to spot him from that far down and through the glass. But he knew this was no ordinary animal. They held each other’s gaze for a short while, until the king broke contact and went about his business for the rest of the day. He never saw the beast again.

As the months dragged on and on, the King’s skills greatly improved, and he was soon a master of shooting the holograms, blowing them apart with relative ease. He had even begun to spin the weapon as he carried it, marvelling in how well balanced it was and at how it no longer even felt slightly awkward for him to hold. It had become an extension of his own hand in the same way his old sword had once been. The practice of aiming, firing and reloading had become as natural as breathing to him. As he was making his way back to his room one day on one of the many pods available in the building, he was surprised to find Nyla waiting for him in his room.

“I want to show you something,” was all she said as she walked into the pod next to him and pressed the button at the very top. The ride up was done in silence, Nyla being unusually sullen and the King, in turn, quietly regarding her. When the pod opened, an all too familiar scene greeted the king. The top of the tower was scorched black and had been partially torn asunder, making it precarious to walk across. Evidently Nyla had been up here before as she had lain down several walkways across the more dangerous parts as she led him to the very edge of the top. Standing atop the raised platform she pointed across the horizon in silence. The King followed her hand to see a speck at the edge of his vision.

“And what is that?” he questioned, eager to hear her reply.

“That,” she said, “is where Mr. Ulysses went.”

Intrigued, the King leaned onto the edge, “and is that where I will find him?”

Nyla sighed and brought her hand up to her forehead. “Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s a better lead than what you came here with, and who knows…” she said, turning towards him, “maybe you’ll find him there and maybe you’ll kill him.” Nyla reached her hand out and placed it on his chest, “He is the one who did to your world what he did to mine, isn’t he?”

The King’s voice cracked as he tried to reply, and he suddenly found himself choked on emotions. Battling them back, he managed to crack out a, “yes,” before turning away and heading back for the pod, only to stop and say, “meet me at the bar on floor seven,” before closing it behind him. On the pod down, he slid onto the floor and cried softly. He had never wanted to be a violent man; he had always detested violence, much to his father’s wroth. Many a night he had hid himself inside the tunnels of the castle as he father roared about his, “no good bastard!” who did, “bugger all!” His mother had always defended him, but soon she was gone. Taken by the fading, they said. A victim of his father’s rage, he knew. And so, to avoid the wrath of his sire, he had trained himself to be tough, taking up the blade and putting down the books, training day and night. He fell in with rough men and terrorized those weaker than him and soon, he was no longer acting. It had become a part of who he was. That had all ended after his defeat on the Ice Bay, where countless men of the Fall had lost their lives on that frozen shore as the Kaldenan cannons picked off those who desperately tried to clamber onto the waiting boats. He had returned to his father and faced his wroth once more as he spat in his face and brought his fist to his face, slapping him to the ground and calling him as weak as his whore mother. That had been enough and so he brought his own hand to his father, then he brought his foot and then the fire poker. He knocked him back onto the edge of the stone staircase, drawing forth blood from his withered skull, shocked into paralysis at what he had found himself capable of. He had sat there afterwards, tears pouring down his face as he rocked his father’s quickly dying body as the old man babbled through the blood that was foaming around his mouth. “Sorry,” he had sobbed, “…so sorry.” They had found him in the same position not an hour after the old king had expired and within the day he was crowned in the great hall for all to see. The King did not relish killing and understood its consequences better than most, so when he believed that the other king needed to die, he meant it.

Nyla found him in the bar sometime later sipping on some brandy as he looked out across the great nothing in the direction of where Ulysess, or the other king, or whatever his true name was had gone. “Nyla,” he said, “I’m going to kill him.” With a flick of his wrist he dumped the rest of the beverage on the carpet. “I can’t stay any longer.” Looking up from the spill he matched Nyla’s gaze before saying, “will you come with me?”

Nyla sighed before walking over to him and taking the glass out of the King’s outstretched hand and placing it down on the table, before sitting herself down across from him.

“Do you know how long I’ve worked in this hotel for?”

Intrigued by her question, the King replied by way of shaking his head. Nyla brought her hand onto the table, absently playing with a clean glass. “I have worked here for three hundred and fifty-eight years, four months and seventeen days.” The King was taken aback and before he could say anything Nyla raised her forefinger, silencing him. “It is what I was grow- or, rather, designed to do. See, I’m not entirely a real person like yourself; I was designed to serve them. Real people, that is. It is programmed into my very DNA and it is why I saved you. Officially I was designated as Service Synthetic 99X, and that is the name I carried until everything disappeared.”

The King once again did not entirely understand, the idea of a synth was completely alien to him, but he accepted it as a reality. He did not care what it was, Nyla was Nyla. As much a person as himself. “Why are you telling me this, Nyla?”

As way of response Nyla stood herself and walked over to the window. “In those three hundred and fifty-eight years,” she spoke towards the nothing, “I have went to the place beyond the horizon three times. The first I found it empty. A black obelisk of marble whose obsidian shimmer confused me in its dark tranquillity as I wondered in it. The second time I went, I found someone… or something. He spoke sweetly, but his honeyed words were dripping with a hidden venom. I do not know who this man was, but he spoke highly of Mr. Ulysess and seemed to deify him. I soon left him, but his porcelain mask haunted my dreams for years after. I even saw him in the lobby once, but what he was doing remains a mystery to me and by the time I caught up with him, he was gone.”

Nyla continued to stare across the empty plain below, lost in thought. The King allowed her a moment of respite from her story, admiring the tenacity that she had shown in her extended stay here. If it were him who was left alone for so long, he is sure he would not have survived as she had done. Without a doubt, he would have went the way of the man on the tree.

Eventually, Nyla turned back around and carried on with her story. “On the third occasion I went there, I saw him again, the porcelain man, standing inside a huge ruined coliseum and before a gate that shimmered like water. After a while I saw him emerge from the gate, Mr. Ulysess, only he had changed. He was much less… refined. His eyes were wilder, and his appearance was of that of a wild animal. The man in the porcelain mask bowed before him, but whatever he said I could not hear. Whatever it was, it displeased Mr. Ulysess and the porcelain man cowered from him in fear. Mr. Ulysses then looked at me and I knew then that he remembered who I was, even after all these years. I do not remember what happened next, but when I awoke he was gone, and the shimmering gate had opened. And I saw a world on fire within it… I ran then and didn’t stop until I had made it back to the hotel. It was then that the machine that attacked you appeared, only there was two of them back then.” Once again Nyla stopped her story, turning to regard the King before lifting her laced shirt off over her head. On her arm was a savage scar that reached across her chest, snaking its way under her bra and to her throat. “That was what the first one did,” she said while drawing her fingers across the wound. “But I managed to destroy it some time ago. Only the one that attacked you remains now, the Last Machine.” Shrugging her shirt back on, Nyla sat herself back down across from the King, who now doubly respected her as a fellow warrior.

“But this last one,” she mused “it’s smarter than the other. It’s… learned, grown even, with time. Traps that once caught it are now useless against it and anytime I do manage to hurt it, it always comes back healed. I’ve tracked it before and it too comes from the place beyond the horizon. If you go there, you will find it.”

The King nodded his head in acknowledgement of her warning, before repeating his question to her. “Will you come with me?” he said, standing up and slinging his knapsack over his shoulder.

Nyla watched him as he readied himself before standing up and walking over to him. “In all my time here, you are the first other thing that hasn’t lied, attacked or otherwise attempted to harm me… but I don’t even know your name.” The King smiled sadly at her. He opened his mouth to answer but found himself unable to say anything. He simply closed his mouth, swallowed hard and nodded at her before turning and leaving the room, closing the door behind him as he went. As the door slammed firmly shut behind him, he breathed in heavily through his nose before walking over to the pod and calling it with a press of the button. When it arrived, he climbed into it and descended to the lobby. As he did so, he began to feel solemn. He realized he would miss Nyla and briefly considered staying there with her, but it was not a luxury he could afford. The path of revenge was to be forever a lonely one. His father had told him that, perhaps in preparation for when he would be king. But he was talking of the Kaldenans, not of strange machines and dark weavers. Perhaps he understood why his father was so rage filled as he was powerless to stop the destruction of his kingdom by the men from the south. Like his father, the King concluded, he would drive everyone away from on his quest for vengeance. And that is why he was surprised when the pod opened to the lobby and Nyla was already there waiting for him, her weapon slung over her shoulder.

“And where,” she said while crossing her arms “do you think you are going?”

The King was surprised once again, an almost constant theme when Nyla was involved. She strutted by him and into the pod behind him before once more crossing her arms. “Well?” she said while cocking an eyebrow. The King lifted his finger and pointed towards the door that he had entered through all those months ago, causing her to roll her eyes once more. “It would be quicker” she said, “if we took the Slyer.”

Smiling, the King followed her into the pod. The ride up was done once again in silence, but the King had a demanding time suppressing the smile on his face. The Slyers turned out to be of a similar shape to the torn carriage-like vehicle he had seen before, which Nyla had told him was something called a “car”, only like his pistol and the Kaldenans, it was of an advanced calibre. There was a row of six spaces with a window open in front of each of them. While the other five had a Slyer, the sixth was noticeably empty.

Sitting himself down in the passenger side of the Slyer he watched Nyla as she flicked a few switches up, bringing the vehicle to life as it purred. The Slyer began hovering off the ground, kicking up dust, as the doors in front of it slid open, revealing the great expanse down below. The King looked over at Nyla with a raised eyebrow, only for her to respond with a sly wink as they sped out into the sky. It was unnatural and yet at the same time it was the most natural thing that the king had ever done. The feeling of almost weightlessness as they zoomed across the nothing was invigorating, so much so, the king found himself not only smiling, but grinning like a mad man.

“Why Nyla?” he said, breaking the silence between the two.

“Hmm?” Nyla responded, eyes focused on piloting the craft.

“You said that your name was something different before. So why did you choose your name to be Nyla?”

Her response was to return his own smile before saying “It’s my favourite flower.”

He turned his gaze away from her and looked once more outside the window and into the expanse bellow. A tear rolled down the King’s cheek unchecked. For the first time in what had felt like eternity, he was happy.

 

END OF PART TWO

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s