The tunnel begins to impose a claustrophobic menace upon me but Orion's presence seems to hold the worst of the anxiety at bay. I feel it drifting beyond the darkness as whispers of ambient noise, growing distant the closer we get to the glow ahead. At the light's source is a row of trains, the whispers tingle at my neck but I refuse to turn around in fear of being consumed by the darkness behind me. The trains at the station no longer work, instead their husks have been modified to serve as homes. Orion climbs up to the edge of a train and forces the door open. A metallic screech resonates through the tunnel, forcing my eyes to close in discomfort. He extends his hand to me with a smile, inviting me to follow him up. His hand grasps mine securely, pulling me up into the train car. We're standing at the doorway looking into a dimly lit train car. I can smell the stale air of complacency within. The wretched smell of the place registers in my brain as a familiar pattern. By embracing it's familiarity I'm able to stomach it until it fades from my attention completely. I look further down the length of the car and notice some people sitting, some sleeping on benches and the floor. They seem dejected in their comfort as if feeding on the negative energy of the space they occupy. Some stare back at us with apprehension as we move down the cars. Orion leads the way, stepping over personal belongings and people scattered on the floor. I follow suit and remain cautious not to disturb the environment, Orion's light heartedness helps in diffusing the situation. Still, I can feel their hatred gazing at my back as we pass, similar to the darkness creeping up on me in the tunnel. I focus on Orion's movements and follow his lead as he clears the path forward. After passing through several train cars we exit from a side door, leading us out into the central plaza of the metro station. It is no longer a station but more of an underground town with a gross number of denizens that make it their home. We bravely enter the buzzing hive of this subterranean civilization. The plaza is alive with an organized chaos of activities. The dwellers on shift move supplies between different areas of the shelter. Reinforcing, expanding, and constructing shacks to a newly expanding district. Most of the dwellers just loiter, blending into the old and rusty background. I notice sentries patrolling on high vantage points, oppressing the atmosphere with their watchful eyes, making sure everything remains in relative order. We move deeper into the crowd, my eyes follow Orion so I don't lose him in the turmoil of the moment. My memories of him have been looping in my mind, his presence helping me discard the attachment to feelings of mistrust that resonate from everyone around us. We flow with the crowd of people, congesting at a chokepoint leading to the mess hall. I feel their tension and hostility so I stick closer to Orion to avoid being trampled. He looks over his shoulder at me and extends his hand back to me. I grab it so I don't lose myself in the crowd as the chokepoint squeezes all of us together. Clearing the chokepoint we emerge into the mess hall. Rows of tables and benches are lined along a fenced off area. Between the columns of the second level, a row of food shacks are serving today's rations of fungus protein with potato mash. The idea is to chew the stringy mushrooms while killing the taste with the over spiced mash. It's an acquired taste that everyone here eventually learns to live with. The server drops the strange looking slop into my bowl with a forceful splash. The bowl nearly squeezes past my grip, He returns my stare with a toothless grin. The line pushes us forcefully ahead as soon as our bowls are filled. "I see some open seats over there, come on." There's just enough room at the edge of a table. We sit across from each other and begin to fill our stomachs. I don't feel hungry but I try to force myself to eat. "Today's extra spicy... the mushrooms must be getting moldy..." He laughs, looking over at me expecting me to laugh. I stay silent, looking down and eating slowly. The stringy fungus tastes strange, almost impossible to swallow without easing it down with the spicy mash. He takes a spoonful of mash and chomps it down with another bite of fungus protein. I notice the technique is something that's imprinted in my muscle memory but it doesn't make it any easier for me. I hold back my gag reflex with every swallow. "I heard you've been missing for a few days" He was waiting for an answer but I had none to give. I didn't realize I spent so much time outside the tunnels. I just remained focused on the food on my plate. I hear him sigh above the noise of the crowd. "Look, you're free to do your thing. I told you that before." I pause the motion of eating my food. "I just want to know if you're staying safe. You're not having any problems with anyone are you?" I give him a look of reassurance to clear away his concern for me. He's somewhat relieved by the gesture and the tension seems to vanish. We both smile and resume eating in silence as the crowd roars around us. After having our fill of the rations we leave the mess hall, moving back to the center of the station. The tunnels nearby are always busier than the other areas. It's always easier to avoid confrontation with the others when I'm with him. I'm trailing a pace away, following his path through the crowd. "Hey, you got a minute?" One of the sentries approaches Orion. His eyes reveal secrets hidden within. He comes here to pass along information. "What is it? I'm kind of busy at the moment." Orion glances at me and the sentry betrays his nervousness when he briefly catches my eyes. I exhale slowly and listen in on their words from a few paces away. "You got any smokes? Heard you were up in the wastes earlier." "Yea... yea... I got you." Orion digs around in his pockets and fetches out a clear, plastic baggie. I notice the extreme caution both men use to hide the contents of the baggie from everyone else. "Same price good?" "No, not this time. These are hard to come by you know. Twenty marks for one" "Shit... with prices like these you're making me want to quit." "I keep saying you should. I'm gonna be rich if you keep this up." The sentry gives Orion some stamped notes, approved by the council of elders. These marks signify that a trade has been made, giving the holder an allowance to collect resources at a specified time. Orion fetches two cigarettes from the baggie and passes them to the sentry in secret. "Thanks man... I can always count on you." Just about ready to leave, the sentry gives me a quick glance. I notice his face flash an expression, there's something he was meant to say. "By the way... almost forgot to tell you." He leans in closer to pass along the message to Orion. "The elders want to see you." "Shit... can't it wait? I'm kind of busy right now." "Sorry man, this can't wait. It's urgent, all the top hunters are being called in for this." The conversation is drowned out by my speculations. The secrets of the elder council become a curious thing to me. Was it like this before? I don't recall ever having a need to know these details but now I feel compelled to know everything around me. Especially the knowledge that the leaders of this place contain. I want to know of their plans for this community and their plots against me. I want to learn everything about these people that are making all the calls. This wonderful curiosity pulls at my insides like an unquenchable thirst. The nausea comes at a sickening rate. The taste of the fungus surfaces as gas from my stomach. I almost retch out my daily rations. The force of holding back the vomit brings me out of that loop of strange thoughts. "Looks like I have to go give my report early today." His smiling face gives me time to breathe a few deep breaths. The nausea is replaced by a slight dizziness. "Sorry we couldn't hang out a little longer..." I look up at him to see if I could feel more than just the hollow memories I have of him. But only one message seems to resound in my mind. He's lying about something. I see the hesitation on his face, deviating his previous giddy mood to one of calm. His work begins to occupy his attention and I sense the conflict inside him. He has no choice but to do his work, I understand. "Sam will come find you soon. Stay out of trouble while I'm gone, ok?" With a quick pat on the head, he leaves me to meet with the elders. The crowd blends out of the background with each receding step and their noise begins to consume the moment. I feel lost and afraid, tension building inside me with the roar of the crowd. I walk quickly in the opposite direction, hoping to retreat somewhere quiet, away from the people and their contagious hatred. Moving past the scaffolds and shacks left behind by workers taking their turn getting rations, I encounter the one group I try to avoid the most. Coincidence? I always hope so. Whenever I seek to escape one pain I seem to stumble into something worse - another wrong turn. The children are busy dealing with their current victim, their angry faces, their mindless violence, their rage, all a reflection of the place they were born into. The little girl on the floor accepts the beating, knowing that her turn has come. I freeze in the moment, confusion warps my thoughts as I'm caught between helping her or fleeing before they can notice me. But it's too late, their eyes are watching me with fury, nostrils flaring like angry bulls waiting to charge. The girl on the floor looks at me in relief as her lips betray a smile. "GET HIM! GET THE FREAK!" I run as fast as I can, hearing the quickening of their footsteps thunder behind me. Through the dejected crowd and the grimy shacks I can hear them lose their distance. I lead them through zig zagging paths until I know I vanished from their sights. I enter the center of the station where a large crowd is busy fulfilling it's tired routine with the purpose of ending the day. I slip into the crowd, losing my pursuers completely, trading physical abuse for mental. I still don't know which is worse but the transition brings me a temporary relief. That's all that matters to me for now. Their whispers echo against the cavernous walls of the plaza. The barrage of voices make me slow down into a catatonic pace. You waste of space! You little freak! Out of the way! Their faces morph and twist as their voices grow louder in my head. Let's kill it. Burn it alive! It doesn't belong here! The crowd begins to blur past me, the motion carrying whispering voices of ill intent. Feed it to the dogs! Disgusting little creature! Get away from here! I'm frozen in fear as the barrage of wicked insults floods through my mind. I feel the urge to flee welling up inside of me as the anxiety starts to burn my body. Stop staring you monster! Is it even human? Leave us alone! My body starts to back away as panic boils my brain with searing heat. It feels like I lose all control of my motor functions, my body starts to move on it's own. Their faces are the very definition of evil, their whispers turn to howls as I push my way through the crowd in order to get away. I can hear their wicked laughter and angry noises echoing behind me as I run into the nearest tunnel. I risk a quick glance back only to see their shadows twisting into wicked shapes as if reaching out to grab me. The darkness consumes my vision like smoke, the noise begins to fade away as if time itself is slowing down. The darkness welcomes me back and hides me from their animal eyes and savage voices. I drift deeper into the solitude of the tunnel, slowing down my pace and my breathing. Nothing but the silence remains and I wallow in the calm that follows. The light behind me is now reduced to a faint glowing orb. I must've realized it already and surrendered to my fate a long time ago. This tunnel will never end, eventually the light will fade and I will still keep drifting with no way back. The darkness is suffocating me, aside from the single star falling further away behind me. A strange drive to move deeper into the darkness pushes me forward. As the tiny light shrinks to a single point against the blackness, I begin to feel a presence moving all around me. The darkness in front of me is pure. An unnatural haze permeates from it as if feeding from the blackness of the vast space surrounding it. This does not seem like a tunnel anymore but more like a cavern with infinite horizons - a nightmare come alive. I'm not alone anymore, I'm facing the shadow above an ocean of stars. The creature, phasing and swirling in the darkness, hovers it's hand over the bright water. I'm floating freely above countless galaxies swarming in the infinite void. The shadow pierces it's gaze into my eyes. The focus of it's swirling eyes penetrates my very core. What do you fear? I'm frozen in place as vibrations flow through me and into the darkness beyond, dispersing outward into infinity. "I... don't know..." Do you fear the others? "No... they fear... me... I can see it in their eyes..." Do you fear yourself? "I fear myself... same as they fear me... I don't understand... myself... I don't understand... you..." Do you fear me? Fiery eyes stare at me through the depths of the abyss. I feel the hypnotizing gaze take me over. "No... I don't fear you." I am a part of you. My entire body is paralyzed. Frozen, I can't blink away the demon staring into my eyes. Do you fear the darkness inside of you? "NO! That's not me!" I'm still here... frozen, standing amongst the crowd. Was it just my imagination? How much time has passed? Their faces show fear, confusion and concern. Their whispers chatter away unheard, the motion of their routine bouncing off me like an invisible barrier. As I try to ignore their emotions, one voice breaks through my new found clarity. "Nova!" Nova The voice startles me and splits my mind in two, forming a rift in my awareness. I heard the sound of a woman, shrill in excitement and concern. I turn to look in her direction, she seems relieved to see me. I give her a blank stare and turn my attention to the other voice I heard. It is something that I feel hiding in the chaos of the moment. I see shadows move like snakes against the dim lights. Then I see it, clear as crystal. A shadow hovers above the cavernous station, watching everything unfold with it's hypnotic eyes. The shadow melds back into the darkness but it's shape can't hide from me. The illusion wavers in and out of existence before me. I feel it stare right through me and I stare right back. "Nova? What's wrong?" The woman walks over to me, putting her arm on my shoulder. She tries to look where I'm looking but the attempt ends up confusing her even more. Most of the crowd starts to dissipate, some look up in wonder at the ceiling of the metro, exchanging glances with us and with those nearby. I ignore her compassionate advance and continue to stare into those eyes, as if I'm hypnotized. A feeling of familiar dread begins to rise. What do you fear? I turn to the woman and speak the words I held back for so long. "What do your fear?" Her face twists in confusion as I speak these borrowed words to her. My expression remains fixed as I stare into her eyes. I feel her become paralyzed by fear. Her gaze shifts behind me as she kneels down to my level and wraps her arms around me. We stand there frozen in the moment as the crowd renews it's presence around our barrier, forming a circle of curiosity. She fears me... They all fear me... I observe the faces of the people gathered around and notice the grim expressions of hate mixed with disappointment. It makes me resent this place that I desperately tried to call home. Instead my hope is shattered by their prejudice and now I feel as hopeless as all of them. I hate them for it. I see the shadow standing in the crowd, mixing behind their clustering forms, blending with the darkness of their aura. Their whispers growing louder, the hostility of their voices makes my stomach turn. They want to get rid of you. "It's me, Sam. Remember?" The woman's voice is filled with distress. She's on the verge of tears as she tries to comfort me. "We just want to help. Please remember!" I glimpse the interconnection of memories, tying them back to my recall of Orion. I see her as someone I can allow to let through, expecting her to take away my anxiety. The shadow is gone, I can't sense it's presence anymore. I try to look for it in the crowd but all I find are the concerned faces of the people gathered around us. "Come, don't worry. I'll take you somewhere safe." Sam takes me by the hand and I let her lead me away. Their whispers fade away with every step we take, a wave of relief washes over me. With my hand tethered to her's, I follow the echoes of Sam's footsteps through the tunnel. Treading through the shadows of the tunnel, Sam's company provides a feeling of comfort I couldn't expect to have alone. There is a sense of sharing a heavy burden when someone is nearby. I feel the warmth of her hand, the sweat of our palms mingle together. I'm pulled closer as we approach a doorway at the side of the tunnel. I'm in the shadows of the tunnel, I see us moving into the door. I feel it crawling up my spine. I can feel the drops of sweat slowly secreting from every pore. The light pierces through my pupils like sharp blades. I can see the wall breathing as we press through a cramped hallway, the doorway grows smaller behind us. We follow the stairs down into a service station. The sound of each footstep sends vibrations through the air, I can see the colors washing over the stained walls. We enter a dimly lit room, some kind of clinic or laboratory. The lights are kept low to save battery power, except for an illuminated workstation occupied by an unkempt old man. He sits alone with his back to the stairs, deep in thought and muttering to himself. The floor sways like water as I struggle to step forward, my hand being pulled deeper into the room. The old man senses us enter the room, I can see the sounds we make crawl inside his ears. He remains focused on his work unperturbed. "Is that you Samantha?" "Yes, it's me Doctor Maharshi." Their voices are distant echoes vibrating my ear drum. They travel slowly through the air, carrying the sound of their voices in different frequencies as if I was hearing them speak the same words multiple times. "Please, Samantha, can we drop the formalities already? Just call me Ram." "As soon as you start calling me Sam, I'll think about it." "That would be too confusing, wouldn't you say?" "Doctor, I brought..." Turning in his chair, the old doctor is wearing a kind hearted smile on his face. His eyes are barely visible behind his stained glasses and wrinkled eyelids. "Oh what a surprise! I haven't seen this one in some time!" "...Nova here to see you." The sound returns to normal frequency and my vision corrects itself. He leaps out of the chair, straightening his back with a loud pop. His vigor catches me off guard, I step back a little in surprise. This just makes the old man laugh as he moves closer toward us, wiping his glasses on his coat. "Don't tell me a strong boy like yourself is scared of a frail old man like me?" His joy is infectious, forcing me to break a smile. Sam looks relieved when the mood changes. The doctor puts his glasses back on, pushing them to the bridge of his nose with his finger. "Well then, shall we begin?" I'm guided to a chair near the workstation. As I sink into the chair I feel the room sinking with me. The light feels as bright as a star, spreading shadows from all the strange equipment in the room. The shifting patterns on the walls make me feel dizzy. "Samantha dear, can you please sterilize these. You know where everything is." The sounds weave through the air, clashing with the objects in the room. I watch them bounce off the walls and slither into Sam's ears, triggering her to move with purpose seconds later like some kind of robot. The old man's smile reveals bright yellow teeth. Looking into his mouth is like staring into infinity. His wrinkled skin pulls back with the motion of his flappy lips, the muscles on his face reacting with each movement. His voice is soothing, I feel tingles trickle from my brain and down my spine. As the reaction spreads throughout my body I begin to feel relaxed. I sink deeper into the chair as the room grows smaller above my head. I watch Sam bring the sterilized tools, wrapped inside a white cloth. She places them on the table before the doctor. The equipment gives off a brilliant shine against the light. The doctor picks up a needle, flicking it twice with his finger as he pulls on the plunger. A surge of fear spikes through me as I watch the doctor approach me with the needle. I am watching the scene unfold from a distance, as if the room is a fishbowl and I'm looking into the depths from above the surface of the water. "Nothing to be afraid of my boy, I know you're strong. Just look here." He points at the dot on his forehead. I'm back in the chair as I focus on the point. I feel the prick of the needle breaking skin, followed by a numbing sensation that spreads through my veins. "Good... good..." I break focus with a quick glance at my arm. The blood flows from my veins down into the tube. I can feel each blood cell being lost to the pressure as if I was being flushed down a vortex. I'm collected into a vial held in the doctors hand countless times, again and again. The experience makes me dizzy. I am the tears welling up in my eyes, I am rolling down my cheek, we are a reflected in this stream of warm tears, an illusion created by the beams of light. I see Sam hovering behind me, her hands gently massaging my neck and shoulders. For reassurance, for comfort, is it for me or her? "There, there... Almost done..." The sound thunders in my ears, making the room spin and split into a multiplex of octagons that keep expanding outward, stretching beyond the physical limitation of my field of view. The colors dry up, my vision begins to fade and blur from overstimulation. The voices in the room begin to drift away almost like I'm listening in on them from behind a closed door. I'm sucked into the darkness feeling like my eyelids are melting from the heat. Finally the single light fades away and grows distant with the sounds until everything is black and muffled. Without my senses I lose track of time. I hear a faint whisper, almost like a passing thought. Voices stir with echoes of mimicry like different colors swimming in a bucket of paint. The thoughts become entangled in my mind. Vibrations take the form of a hand... my hand. I reach out to grab at swarms of countless ripples. Can you see me? The moment passes in silence, I can feel myself smile. With a sense of pride I respond to the voice. "Yes... and I can hear you." What do you see now? A point in the sea of vibrations begins to expand, engulfing every string of color into darkness. The colors ripple, cascading into eternity. I see colors and shadows expand in all direction from within me. The multitude of mixing colors and shapes branch out taking paths of their own into an infinity of complex growth. This grand mosaic shifts into familiar and unexplainable shapes. Suddenly the display freezes and collapses. Darkness everywhere again. Distant whispers flutter like birds. I can tune back into the room where I'm sitting in the chair but I choose to explore these depths a little longer. A shadowy figure is hovering before me. It turns it's head around and stares at me. It has a face that I recognize from distant dreams that only now come back to me in fragments. I'm unable to piece them together, a sense of mystery contains my fear. I can see more features on it's face, forming an expression that I think I'm able to read. The shadow's smile has a lunatic quality but it's the eyes that twist at something deep inside me. The ripples in the shadow's eyes swirl hypnotically, pulling me closer. I can see stars everywhere I look. I'm floating through swarms of colorful fractals. The last inkling of sound slowly disappears. The muffled voices fade as if I'm sinking deeper underwater. Nothing remains but my breathing and the beating of my heart. That slowly fades as well. The fear of losing myself makes my stomach jump to my throat. I lose all sense of feeling. The intricate smells of the room vanish. All of my senses have become isolated from the reality I once inhabited. Even though I know my body is still in that room, my mind has gone somewhere else entirely. I meet the shadow again in the distant haze, it makes me feel like I'm sinking into a deep abyss. The blurred figure is face to face with me, following my movements like a mirror. The figure extend it's arm, reaching out to me with it's twisted fingers. I'm breathing heavily, staring at the stars - a beautiful ocean of light and darkness. I begin to lift my arm upward as if to grab hold of something reaching out to me. Still sinking, feeling heavier I see the shadow beyond the surface with it's hand extending toward me. I reach out as well in a parallel motion. The sensation is strange, as if I'm watching myself in a mirror. The feeling of sinking disappears and it now feels like I'm ascending. I lose all sense of direction as I draw closer to the shadow. I grab it by it's cold, black hand - I'm pulled out of the abyss. Suddenly I'm standing out in the wasteland. The same stars still high above me. I look above and breathe in. A vortex of stars begins to descend. The cosmic swirl resembles a tornado forming. The energy begins to collapse into a single point. I'm still breathing in the cold air. The darkness and the light mix intensely, stirring together but in reverse. The colors begin to separate. I'm walking on a beam of light stretching into infinity. Dark and light are on opposite sides of the thread. This energy takes on strange shapes and forms that transcend three dimensional geometry, they are the shadows that I cast. I realize I'm walking this thread only because it cuts the two sides in half, I can see cosmic beasts of light and dark flickering around me like fire. I close my eyes and see a ceiling above me. I'm back in the room. I open my eyes and see myself from above as if I were on the ceiling and outside of my body. I see myself lying in a cot, covered by a thin blanket. My eyes are closed but I'm not dreaming.