With her hands bound, Elena desperately spins her head from one side to the other; unable to see behind her. The click and clack of claws against the floor grows ever closer.
“Jack,” she says, her heart nearly beating out of her chest. “Jack, if it's really you, then I know you love me. I know that you didn't spend all this time just hiding behind me.” Tears begin to run down her cheeks.
There is a moment of silence. Elena holds her breath, fear forces her every sense to heighten. She hears the beating of her heart, the blood rushing through her body, pulsing so hard she feels it in her neck, like hands strangling her.
A low snarl finally breaks the silence, and sends her stomach plummeting like a stone. She feels the warm rhythmic breath at her hands, and then a violent tug pulls her arms so far back her shoulders cry out in pain. She too, screams, terror exploding in her mind. When her primal flee response finally subsides enough for logical thought to regain control, she realizes she's running. Stopping, Elena turns around with eyes like saucers and stares at the chair, her bonds laying torn a few feet behind its steel frame.
The Jackal had set her free.
Her own voice echoes from everywhere, “He won't let you keep doing this.”
Elena shook her head, wincing. “What do you mean? What do you want?”
This time the voice was directly behind her ear. Elena spins to find herself face to face with her eyeless double. The deep sockets writhing with maggots.
She screams, falling back, tears of terror flowing from her wide eyes. “Stop what?” She asks with a trembling voice.
“Living.” It says, as a dark cloud of flies pour out of the deep furrows that once held the windows to her soul.
The buzzing becomes so intense Elena clings to her ears; but it does nothing. She stands, and turns to run from the grotesque sight but runs headlong into another body. Once again Elena is on the ground, looking up at the bloodshot eyes of her mute self.
The double stares at her with a piercing glare as her mouth slowly opens. Inside, a dark void reaches all the way to the back of her throat. The doubles hands come up and hook on to her bottom teeth, her fingers bleeding as she pulls downward.
Elena shakes her head, “Stop, no, stop,” she says, with a meek voice that can barely escape her contorted lips as she watches on, unable to take her gaze away.
The crackle of ligaments tearing away from the bone clatters even louder than the flies overhead. The slimy wet slapping of flesh being rent asunder echoes like a thunderclap. The lower jaw falls to the floor, blood red painting its torn edges with the stark white highlights of sinew and bone.
Elena stands, holding her ears so tightly she feels her nails digging into her own flesh. She screams, pain pulsating through her head. She can't help it, the buzzing is too much to take. Her fingernails break through and with clenched teeth and eyes cemented shut in agony; she tugs.
Standing there, breathing like she'd ran a marathon, Elena feels an unbelievable relief. She looks to her sister selves, one jawless, one eyeless, and looks down at her hands. In each clenched fist she sees blood pouring from between her fingers, sliding along tufts of hair. Her fingers open slowly to reveal the bloody remnants of her ears in each palm. “What did I do?”
“You can hear me now.”
The Jackal trots up between the Eyeless and Jawless. It sits, lapping its lips with a pink tongue.
“I've waited so long to speak with you, for you to hear my voice again.”
“They said you were still alive.”
“In a sense, I suppose I am. That was the point really. I've spent a lifetime trying to understand the moments after life has left the body. It wasn't for nations, it wasn't to take over England or to gain power. It was to be with you. All I ever wanted was to be with you.”
Elena shakes her head. “But, what is this? Where are we?” Around her, the world was a night sky, it's stars spinning so quickly the pricks of light strung trailers that drew circles around them.
“Right now, you're asleep. You see, my research discovered that sleep is intrinsically linked to death. It's like the waking world is above the waterline; death is in the depths and sleep is when you're just floating on your back; your ears submerged. It's the only state in which you can hear both worlds, albeit muffled and distorted.”
“If that's true, why can I hear you perfectly right now.”
“Because you're not just floating on the surface baby. You're diving deep right now.”
Elena's fear returned tenfold. “Am I dying?”
“If you stay too long, maybe, I don't know.”
“They said … they said you wanted me to stop living, is that true?”
With a high pitch whine, the Jackal yawns. When Jack spoke, it was never through the animal itself; it was directly into her soul. “Yes, but not now. Death comes to us all; and I can wait, however painful it will be to stay apart from you. We have a job to do Elena, but we can't do it alone.”
“What job, and who can help us?”
Standing, the Jackal snarls, bearing its white teeth. “They're trying to eavesdrop. We have to be quick. Follow me.”
Running past her, the Jackal's every step illuminates the darkened sky of ethereal stars that swirl around them. Jack stops and looks back. “Elena, you need to keep up.”
“I can't run as fast as you can Jack, you're a dog ... I can't believe I just said that."
“Then be one too.”
Another Jackal passes her by, this one eyeless, then another with a dark fissure reaching down its throat.
Feeling an itch, Elena reaches forward with her hind leg and scratches the wound where her ears once were. Her eyes shoot wide open and a yelp escapes her jagged jaws instead of the gasp she was expecting.
“Come on!” Says her eyeless companion.
As if she'd always been an animal, Elena bursts into a full sprint, slowly catching up to the others as they race across a landless dreamscape.
*** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Carter kneels at the treeline. Looking from side to side, he makes eye contact with the other squad leaders of the assault group. There are no words, they've already rehearsed the assault and radio silence is a must at this crucial moment; where any tip off could render the operation a disaster.
A masked soldier crawls up from behind him. “Sir.”
“What is it?”
“Two Section says they've encountered an obstacle, they need orders to breach or reroute. Either way, it'll take some time and we need to postpone the main assault.”
Carter didn't answer.
“Sir?” The soldier puts his hand on Carter's shoulder. “Jesus Christ!”
Carter's eyes are white; rolled back into his skull. He falls limp to the forest floor.
*** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Standing on a beach, Carter surveys his surroundings. “Not now,” he says. “Why now? What do you want?” He screams to the nothingness of his paradise prison.
Four Jackals crest the forest line and come rushing down the beach, wet sand catapulting into the air behind them as they sprint.
Carter instinctively reaches for his pistol, but it isn't there. He looks around, searching for an object to protect himself with. The wood line is nearly fifty meters away and he knows the canines will reach him before he gets there.
The leading animal slows, and the others follow suit. They trot up to Carter.
Elena nuzzles her husband. “How do we get him to understand us?”
“Pulling him here took a lot from me, he's still too shallow. We need him deeper before he can interact with us.”
Elena looks to the water and then to Carter. “I hope he forgives me.”
One of the animals sits, while the other three move forward.
Carter is panicking, “Stay back.”
“Sorry Carter,” Elena says, looking left and right to her vestiges.
Something is odd about these three. They aren't whole. Carter see's one has dark holes for eyes, the other has a stub of a tongue hanging like rotting meat from the roof of it's mouth, with no bottom jaw to hold the thing from flapping back and forth as it walks. The leading Jackal's ears are torn clean off, blood soaked fur trailing down either side of its head.
“What in the hell?”
All three then lunge at him simultaneously and drag him down to the ground. Carter is struggling, but he can't overpower them. They pull at his limbs, all three dragging him toward the water.
“No!” He screams, as the rolling waves begin lapping at his shoulder, and then his head. “Aaaaarrgh!” The final scream gurgles into silence as his head is submerged. He is pulled deeper and deeper into the ocean, past the breaker and into the darkness. The need for air begins to scratch at Carter's mind. Soon, it overwhelms the conscious thought of holding his breath and he gasps. The muffled sound of bubbles echoes past him as his lungs fill with salt water. Again, he breaths in the ocean and convulses. His eyes bulge from his face as he gives in and lets the darkness take him. He hears the hissing of water rushing into his lungs as they finally fall limp in his chest. A wave crashes nearby and his ears catch it pummeling the beach, but suddenly the crashing utters his name. He realizes he isn't dead.
To his surprise, his feet are on solid ground, the four Jackals in front of him once again. He falls to his knees and regurgitates ocean water, adding to the puddle his clothes had made. “What the hell is going on?” He says, between labored breaths.
“You're walking into a trap Carter.”
“Jack? How is this possible? You're dead.”
“You've seen my research, you know some parts of what I was working on.”
“What you were working on in the lab was just a cover, sleeping pills? You were researching the afterlife, what the hell do sleeping pills have to do with that?”
“Let's just say I was trying to find a way to commune safely with the underworld, and it didn't go so safely.”
“Why, what happened?”
“I wasn't getting results fast enough. I was told to speed up my research and Sabre decided to slip me a sample of my prototype formula. It worked … but I didn't know what the side effects were going to be since I had no time to test. Regardless, before it killed me, I was able to understand this sliver of the world between life and afterlife.”
“What does Sabre want this for? How will it help them take England?”
“If you seriously think the USA is interested in invading England you're more stupid than I thought.”
“Not taking over, but infiltrating; planting a puppet government. You know what I mean.”
“Carter, everything is a means to an end; that end is usually power of some form. Whether it's money or resources, the government of the United States isn't going to put their assets at risk for politics or global favor alone. There's always an agenda, and it's usually a node in a spider web so far away from the true goal that most people wouldn't even have the slightest inkling as to what it was.”
“Just ... I need to know. Why here? Why England? If they aren't trying to take over the government, why not do this research elsewhere.”
“Because elsewhere, there aren't people like you and Elena. Have you ever heard of Mitochondria? They're used in population genetic studies because it's possible to isolate geographical inheritance of certain genetically similar groups based on a gene tree. It turns out that only a small percentage of the population has a certain genetic marker that allows for my research to pull them into these torporific fugue states; the vast majority of them in this region of the world.”
“Are you telling me you drugged me too?”
“No, but I suspect Sabre did. My death was most likely due to the fact that I don't share that marker. The dreams you've both been having are linked to the prototype formula.”
Sighing, Elena chimed in. “I don't understand how a pill makes you a ghost.”
Carter shot his eyes up to the earless jackal. “Elena? How are you-”
“It's complicated, I'll explain later. Right now we need your help. Jack? What do we need to do?”
“Carter needs to get to the real headquarters to destroy the research they've stolen from me, and of course to rescue you.
"There's a reason we aren't supposed to know what's beyond this barrier. There are things deep beneath us that aren't ever supposed to find their way up. Imagine if every person who slept suddenly had their minds devoured by some creature from that abyss? I don't even want to entertain the possibility that they could somehow control the bodies of their consumed victims and travel beyond the surface and into our world in the husks of their prey.”
Carter shakes his head. “That's what it was then. You weren't researching death per se, but a way to control another from a distance; a way to infiltrate the mind through the collective unconsciousness of humanity.”
“Yes, but what they don't understand is that it isn't only the unconsciousness of humanity. It is the unconsciousness of all living things, which does not limit itself to our little blue planet. There are things out there, terrifying things … just trust me.”
“I do,” Carter says, standing up. “Give me the location and I'll re-jig the operation.”
Jack shakes his coat and stands. “First something else has to happen.”
“What's that?” Elena asks as Jack stares at her with yellow eyes.
“You are broken. You were torn apart by my passing and haven't been the same since. Beyond that, you have missed these aspects of yourself even before we met. They were stripped away from you as you traveled through life. Like razor blades, the stresses of social life sliced at your confidence and self esteem for years. You need to become whole again.”
She looked at her vestiges and back to Jack. “How?”
“I can't tell you that. This world, though without shape and form, is not much different from the world of the living. Though I can give you advice to a destination I can never know the path you need to take to get there.”
Elena stands and stares into the cavities of her eyeless self. “You can't see yourself, you can't see how beautiful you are,” she says to herself. “You can't see how much people love you, instead you choose to see the negativity in everything. I hate you.” She turns to the tongueless. “You stay silent when I am screaming inside. You say what is polite in the place of what is right. You are a coward. You hold back when I need to lunge forward.” Introspectively, she feels the pain of her missing ears. “I am the worst of all. I shut myself out. I listen to no one. I refuse to accept what I hear and I burn bridges when I should be building them.” Elena's lip curls, bearing bright white fangs. “I am better than this, better than you!"
“Prove it,” says the eyeless, as she lunges forward and sinks her teeth into Elena's side.
There is a yelp, followed by growling, and soon all three Jackals are locked in a tumbling battle so ravenous that neither Carter nor Jack can tell any of them apart. Tufts of fur fly; bloody strings of flesh trailing through the air. The sound of the ordeal is hair raising as each Jackal whines and growls, snaps and yelps. Moments pass, and the gruesome scene somewhat calms. One Jackal remains standing, violently gorging itself on the fresh kills. It laps up the last of the flesh and turns to Jack and Carter, shaking it's coat of the blood it had just bathed in.
“Elena?” Carter asks, warily.
The Jackal replies with a piercing stare and howls so loudly Carter reels back and holds his ears.
When his eyes open from the cringe, the Jackal is gone.
“She knows what to do,” Jack says. “She's awake now. It's your turn to wake up too, so that we can finish this.”
*** *** *** *** *** *** ***
“He moved! Sir, are you alright?”
Carter waves the soldier away and stands. “We're at the wrong location, follow me.”