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Authors: William Todd Rose


BOOK: Crossfades
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is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Hydra eBook Original

Copyright © 2015 by William Todd Rose

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Hydra, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

eBook ISBN 9781101883686

Cover art and design: Scott Biel



The Secret Life of Chuck Grainger

The first warning in the handbook stated, in no uncertain terms, that there was some malevolent shit out there. Chuck Grainger knew this and took a certain amount of satisfaction in that fact. His job wasn't for the timid or weak. To work in his field, a man needed to be carved from stone; he had to continually face his own mortality and somehow not go insane when out in the Crossfades. The handbook, of course, also had a thing or two to say about those. The official description of Crossfades described them as being like that moment in movies where Acts One and Two briefly coexist; they meld into a composite for a moment—both scenes visible, yet
eventually one asserts its dominion over the other and the plot moves on. Chuck knew that this was technically a term from audio engineering, not film…but he also knew the boys in the lab weren't exactly the types to let facts get in the way of snazzy jargon.

He had to admit, though, that the analogy was pretty accurate since the same thing happened with what people tended to think of as Life and Death. There were borderlands, little pockets of stasis dimpling the surface of eternity, and most departing souls passed through them so effortlessly they didn't even notice. But some specifically looked for these warrens. They refused to let go of the physical realm and fought against the transition with everything they had, sometimes creating new Crossfades by sheer willpower alone. Others, however, simply became trapped.

For reasons the research scientists hadn't quite figured out, a portion of these snared spirits came to be linked with moths. Randolph Johnson, the department head of Theoretical Positioning, had told Chuck once that he suspected these creatures had the ability to flutter through both dimensions
He compared them to bees in a field, picking up pollen along the way, but openly admitted that the math to prove his hypothesis dangled frustratingly out of reach. Jewel—who should have been a poetess instead of his research
this was why moths continually batted themselves against bulbs; these quantum hitchhikers, she claimed, knew their paths had been diverted and tried time and time again to cross into The Light.

Chuck, being a more practical man, recognized the elegance of Jewel's notion but didn't waste much time considering whether or not it might be true. It wasn't that he thought it was silly; it was simply the way he was wired. When he'd been a freshman in college, he'd signed up for one of the psychological research studies posted on the bulletin board in the student union. At the time, it had seemed like easy money. All he'd had to do was spend a couple hours one Saturday morning answering multiple choice questions on a personality questionnaire. Some of the questions had certainly seemed odd, but he knew enough about basic psychology to suspect that the real goal of the study was buried somewhere among the more inane questions. It was only several months later that the truth of the matter became known; he'd been approached by a man in a gray suit and fifty-dollar haircut, handed a business card, and advised that his results fit the profile for a very specific job. This opportunity, he was told, would prove more lucrative than any career his eventual degree could ever hope to net; and the best part was that he would be able to begin immediately.

There were stipulations, of course; with an offer like that, there always are. He'd have to drop out of school, would be required to move halfway across the country, and would never be able to tell anyone what he actually did for a living. But if he accepted, the rewards would far outweigh the things he'd be giving up; these rewards, he was assured, would go far beyond mere wealth and physical comfort. His entire view of reality would change. He would find the transcendence his test results suggested he secretly yearned for, would be exposed to secrets only a handful of people throughout history had been privy to, and would be able to live out the rest of his days knowing exactly what was to come once he'd closed his eyes that final time.

The recruiter hadn't told him everything, of course. The man hadn't mentioned the loneliness or the strain that such secrecy would place upon interpersonal relationships. He hadn't explained how this job would come to be Chuck's entire world or how he'd define himself almost exclusively by how well he performed in it. There was no doubt the man had known these things, just as there was no doubt that they were considered desirable in a candidate. The questionnaire had been specifically designed to give the man a complete understanding of a potential candidate's psyche, revealing things the recruit may not have even known about himself. Coupled with a background check so exhaustive that even his preschool teacher had been questioned under false pretenses, The Institute had known exactly what made Chuck tick; they'd played upon these motivators, tailoring the pitch to match his profile, and almost ensuring that he would say yes.

It was true that their methods had been manipulative, but Chuck was enough of a realist that he couldn't fault them for it. If they hadn't been so thorough, he never would have lasted in this job; he would have ended up in some padded cell, rocking back and forth as drool glistened on his chin, babbling incoherently about Crossfades and Cutscenes. In that sense, matching the personality profile had been a blessing.

There was another warning in the handbook—one that warned against attaching emotion to the things he saw and did. He was expected to balance the stoicism of a scientist with the resolve of a soldier. Romantic notions like Jewel's were bad enough in the lab, but they could get your ass into serious trouble in the field. The slightest hint of emotion was like striking a match in the darkness: All things previously hidden were brought to light. With a mind of pure reason, Chuck was able to see the things that existed within The Divide…but illuminated by the passions of the living, they would also be able to see him as well.

His official title was Recon and Enforcement Technician, Level II. When he was being wooed, The Institute had made it sound as though he'd be some sort of cosmic cop, patrolling a metaphysical beat and extending mankind's reach into the kingdom of the dead. After six months of mentoring, however, he'd gone solo and discovered the truth of the matter: He was nothing more than a glorified janitor, sweeping cobwebs from the corners of infinity. Which is why—despite the handbook's
to the
like him were internally referred to as

Six years after signing up for that psychological study, Chuck's life had become routine, just as it would with any other job. He woke up at 6:00 a.m. and had orange juice and whole wheat toast, put some time in on the translocation equation as he ate, and then zipped green coveralls over his street clothes. He grabbed a toolbox from the closet beside his apartment door and left his home no later than 7:00. Letting himself into a rusty gate with a key that dangled around his neck, he caught an unscheduled subway at an abandoned station, acting bored and disinterested as he unclasped the lock.

To other commuters on the sidewalk, he was just an average laborer, on his way to repair a faulty junction box or inspect the rails. No one gave him a second look. They went about their business, strolling along sidewalks with briefcases and overpriced lattes, too wrapped up in their own little worlds to realize that despite his disguise, Chuck didn't really look like a maintenance worker.

The hands were where it was most obvious. His palms were soft and smooth, the only callus being where hours of holding a pencil had chaffed the inside of his middle finger. Chuck's mother had wanted him to be a surgeon for as long as he could remember, and he'd been conditioned at a very young age to pamper his hands and keep them safe at all costs. Sports had definitely been out of the question, as the risk far outweighed any perceived payoff in Mrs. Grainger's opinion. But there had been other activities that had been banned as well. Learning to play the piano was one of them, since Chuck's mother believed her son's knuckles might be rapped if he happened to strike a sour note. His free time was expected to be spent studying and he was only allowed to read fiction as an occasional treat.

The indoctrination had been so complete that more than twenty years later, Chuck still hadn't been able to shake it. He still felt twinges of fear when wielding a hammer and instinctively glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one was watching before cracking his knuckles. His nails were manicured on a regular basis and were buffed until they gleamed like chips of polished glass, and their edges were
darkened by embedded grit or allowed to become jagged. These were definitely not the hands of a man who worked with machinery eight hours a day. But it was okay because, as the handbook informed him, people in a city never really looked that closely.

Once he'd locked the gate behind him, Chuck descended into the tunnels, shuffling down a wide stairway littered with dried leaves and discarded candy bar wrappers. The station itself was so dimly lit that he could barely make out the loops and swirls of the faded graffiti that covered the curved walls; traffic overhead was nothing more than a faint rumble with only the heaviest of trucks causing dust to rain down from the ceiling, adding yet another layer to the musty-smelling patina that had settled upon the rows of plastic chairs. The scent permeated the entire station, seeming to exude from the dank air itself. A person more prone to flights of fancy may have imagined he was in some ancient tomb or forgotten catacomb, a place that hadn't known natural light or fresh air for ages. Only the tracks themselves dispelled this notion; worn by the secret train that rumbled over them every day, they glimmered bright silver in the gloom, dissolving entirely as the shadows of the tunnel eventually overtook them.

Chuck had just enough time to stow his toolbox and coveralls within the bank of lockers lining one wall and return to the platform, knowing from experience that the subway would be neither late nor early. During the entire time he'd worked for The Institute, the train had never been anything other than punctual.

The interior of the car was cleaner than the ones that serviced the general population and smelled of pine-scented disinfectant. He sat on an upholstered seat that was surprisingly plush and read a complimentary newspaper as the car shimmied and rocked. He recognized the faces of his fellow passengers and had even devised secret nicknames for some of them: Cozy Mystery Lady, Black Tie/Yellow Glasses, and Mr. Ed, to name a few. As a general rule, however, Chuck kept to himself, choosing to shun conversation and camaraderie all the way to the end of the line.

Once the train shuddered to a halt and the doors hissed open, he filed into a service elevator that was almost as large as the living room in his apartment and waited to descend. His office was fifteen stories underground and was the hub in a tangle of wires and conduits that siphoned energy from the structures of the surface world. It was a vast network of relays, switches, and buzzing transformers that most people would never see…or even knew existed, for that matter. Distributed between thousands of buildings and housing complexes, The Institute stole enough electricity to power a small town, without so much as a bill.

When the elevator doors opened again, he navigated a maze of cubicles and offices, smiling at people as he passed nondescript doors and glass-fronted laboratories. This part of the complex always smelled of coffee, and the heady aroma made his shoulders slump without fail. As a Whisk, he was required to adhere to a strict dietary regime that left no room for stimulants such as caffeine—and that morning cup of java, as dark and bitter as his stepfather's heart, was one of the things he missed most about his former life.

Eventually, Chuck came to a door that looked like all the others: windowless, blond wood grain with a silver handle attached and a retinal scanner embedded in the adjacent wall. A soft click announced that his identity had been verified as an LED changed from red to green and the door swung open easily, permitting Chuck entrance to his office.

It was a fairly small room painted in soothing pastels with cameras perched in each corner. Water gurgled over a fountain shaped like the Buddha and sitting atop simple end tables were ferns that Chuck never needed to water, their needs being tended to by the overnight maintenance crew. Instead of a desk, he had an overstuffed couch with a variety of throw pillows strategically placed so that it looked as though they'd been tossed onto the sofa with little thought. Behind the couch was a bank of monitors and leads, all the electronics that tracked his vitals when out in the Crossfades, but he'd become so accustomed to their presence that he barely gave them a glance.

“Morning, Nodens.”

Nodens was the nickname he'd given to his partner. Chuck had been working with the man for more than a year and had never known his name; he knew it didn't really matter if he greeted the man or not, but somehow it felt wrong not to. The man's body was frail and shriveled and the hiss of the respirator keeping him alive was a rhythmic constant in the room. An IV dripped a mix of drugs and nutrients into Nodens's withered arm, ensuring he'd never awaken from his chemically induced coma. As the handbook pointed out, being under wasn't like sleeping, though most people assumed it was. There were no dreams, no REM, nor any of the brainwaves that would be witnessed in a functioning mind. Anesthesia was the little death people plunged into daily without realizing exactly what lurked within those murky depths; and this was a fact of which The Institute took full advantage.

This much Chuck knew about his partner: The man was terminally ill. They all were when first approached. With medical bills mounting, the scouts painted a picture of financial ruin for those left behind. Wives, children, husbands, and life partners: In addition to overwhelming grief, they'd be forced to muddle through a nightmare of insurance claims, struggling to understand the difference between experimental procedures and
ones, what needed
and what required
When the patient finally passed away, the estate would be stuck with the bills. The bereaved would be hounded by debt collectors and the family home might even be seized if Medicaid reclamation was involved. Staying alive would be akin to the most calloused act of selfishness, but it could all go away with the signing of a simple contract.

BOOK: Crossfades
8.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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