*Wordcount: 1959 words.
Jeffrey was at a clothes shop, idly browsing. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but a friend had dragged him along and away from the cosy confines of his room.
Really, had Jeffrey known, he wouldn’t had agreed to go with.
Oh well, just a few more hours in this infernal shopping centre and he would be home again.
He was inspecting the price tag (unfairly priced, he’d say) on a black dress shirt when he noticed something strange.
It was a clicking sound, like a spring-loaded machine winding up. He looked at the few speakers littered around the store, and at the cameras, and even checked his phone, all to no avail. No one else seemed to be reacting either, so he shrugged it off (it’s not exactly like he was an expert on, well, shop noises).
It faded, only slightly, and he made his way to the till with a few socks. He reluctantly took out his wallet, keeping an eye out for his probably-still-busy friend.
Then, reality broke.
Jeffrey didn’t notice entirely at first. He dropped the money on the counter, irritated that the clerk was taking so long.
Then he noticed the clerk was standing, frozen. He cleared his throat, which had little effect. He looked around the store, startled to find that everyone had just… stopped.
Everything was quiet as well. No talking, no bustle of bodies or beeping of the registers. Just silence.
He felt dizzy, and his vision started distorting. Everyone and everything blended together, losing colour and definite shapes. Just swirls of grey sweeping through his darkening vision.
He didn’t notice that he had fallen flat on the ground.
Jeffrey stayed like that for a few minutes, though he didn’t have much choice. He could barely think, and what thoughts he could force through his scrambled brain made little sense. In a way, he would later reflect, it was quite peaceful. The silence, the slowly spinning grey swirls, the ease of not having to (or, rather, not being able to) think.
He jumped when the phone rang.
His vision got its shit together, and his dizziness subsided. He stood shakily to his feet, looking around with no small amount of confusion.
He shook his head, and then swiftly stopped when it made everything slightly worse. The ringing drilled into his head, and he turned back to the counter.
A landline on the other side was ringing, the only noise cutting through… whatever exactly was happening. He made his way around the till, staying well away from touching the frozen clerks (which felt like a good decision, though he could not say why).
Jeffrey answered the phone.
A male voice responded.
Jeffrey was at a loss. “Who is this?”
“I should ask you the same thing,” the voice replied. “How did you get this number?”
“Number? You phoned… Me? The store, I guess. You phoned this phone, is the point.”
“See, that’s funny. Because my phone rang, and I answered. So I’m afraid I’m pinning this on you.”
“Oh.” Was all Jeffrey could come up with.
All of this was bizarre. Last time I leave the house Jeffrey thought.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, er, Jeffrey.”
“Huh, that’s plain. Tell me, you say your phone rang too?”
“Yeah. Well, no. Yes. Not my phone, the store phone.”
“Store phone? Sure as hell doesn’t sound like you’re in a store.”
“Why not?” Jeffrey asked, already having forgotten about the strangeness of the silence.
“It’s dead quiet.”
“Oh, right. It’s strange. No one’s moving as well.” Jeffrey felt he could trust this voice, for some reason. Really, he just went with it.
“No one’s… Hmm. Jeffrey, why can you move?”
“I.. I don’t know.”
“I think I know why you got in touch with me.”
“Well, someone did. For a good reason, it looks like.”
Jeffrey wasn’t sure he should just believe that, but, on the other hand, it sure sounded right.
“I don’t know. Did you do it?”
“I don’t know. Did I do it?”
“You are very helpful, Jeff.” The voice dripped with sarcasm.
“I don’t like Jeff. Jeffrey-”
“Okay, Jeffrey, walk me through what happened.”
When Jeffrey was done, the voice was silent for a moment.
“Nothing sounds too out-of-the-ordinary. Except for you, of course. It’s not often that people are unaffected by this kind of thing.”
“You sound like you know a lot about this.” Jeffrey said.
“I do. I’m one of those rare few who can get through such things without being affected. But… This kind of breakage is rare, I’ve never actually lived through one in person.”
“But I know a few collea-… People, who have.”
Jeffrey’s ears picked up a sound. A mechanical clicking sound.
“Jeff, you still there?”
“Oi, if you’re going to be like tha-”
Jeffrey heard the click of the phone line, and the phone fell dead quiet (no dial tone or any such thing).
The clicking sound that Jeffrey actually cared about echoed around the room.
Jeffrey ducked low behind the desk when he heard what sounded like footsteps. Heavy, metallic clanking moving at a steady pace.
His eye caught a silver dart behind a rack of discount jeans. He heard what sounded like hissing steam, and saw a brief cloud that quickly dissipated.
Jeffrey got as good a look as he dared when the thing stepped into the open.
It was big, and walked on four legs. A heavy tail swished behind it, traced clothing racks and frozen people. The whole thing was made of a dull metal, reflecting bright beams of light but otherwise dull.
He could see where he thought its eyes were, though there were no glowing lights to indicate such a thing. Just indents in the smooth plating of what looked like its head.
The feet it walked on sported four digits each, three in front and three in back, each ending in a wicked-looking point.
It looked vaguely steampunk, he mused, with interlocking plating running along its body and grinding gears occasionally glimpsed as it moved and turned.
It looked like a robotic dog, he supposed. Less friendly.
It was moving as if it was sniffing the air, though Jeffrey couldn’t tell if it was.
It was looking for something, that much was clear.
Jeffrey decided that he didn’t want to stay here, and didn’t want to be seen by that thing either. Doing all he could think of, he grabbed the socks off the counter (as sneakily as he could) and chucked them somewhere other than here.
It occurred to him that it might not be the best distraction, but in this silence even that made a noise.
He watched the thing perk up, and start plodding towards the back of the store.
He crept, as quietly and quickly as he could manage, towards the exit.
The whole shopping centre was frozen, it seemed. It was unnerving, though not entirely unpleasant. He walked briskly along, stopping only when a phone started ringing.
This time it was his cell phone, and he quickly answered, hoping that thing hadn’t heard.
“Yeah yeah, you phone back?”
“Ah, same thing I’d guess. How’re things?”
“Strange. There’s some kind of robot dog hunting me.”
“It’s hunting you? How do you know?”
“It looked like it was looking for something. I assume it’s looking for me.”
“Think you’re important, eh? Well-”
Before the voice could continue, everything flickered. Jeffrey felt dizzy again, but kept his footing. He moved into a nearby alcove housing an exit, and rested against the wall while keeping an eye out for the thing.
“You felt that, Jeff?”
“Yeah. What was it?”
“I… I’m not sure. For now, I will refrain from calling you unimportant.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They were silent for a few moments.
“Hey,” Jeffrey began. “Could you tell me… What is going on, exactly?”
The voice hmm’d at this.
“I probably should. Fine. Haven’t had to give the spiel for a while, give me a moment.”
There was some rustling on the other end, and then the voice spoke up.
“Reality is a fickle bitch. It seems solid and dependable, but in truth it’s fragile as all hell. Sometimes it just sorta, breaks. If something exists that shouldn’t, or cant, exist, it can’t take it. Almost like a defence mechanism, it puts everything on hold. In particularly bad cases it could rip apart everything we consider real. Sometimes it hiccups and creates something that it shouldn’t have, and effectively breaks itself. People vanish, sometimes buildings or entire populations. We imagine that sometimes planets, not that we could ever know. People like me, those who are unaffected, try to keep it from happening. Which has been harder and harder lately, mind you, and I don’t get paid enough for this shit…” The voice trailed off.
“Point is, Jeff, something now exists that has no right to. But this is worse than a normal hiccup. I felt some of the reverberations even here, and that almost never happens.”
“Is it bad that I didn’t hear most of that?”
The voice groaned. “This is important, Jeffrey. No one can help you, and our reality is about to tear itself into nothing. You’ve got to do something.”
“Do what, exactly?”
“You mentioned that robot? I’d start with that.”
“Yeah, but do what with it?”
“Not sure on that myself. Don’t die, I’d suggest.”
Before Jeffrey could ask for something more helpful, he heard the steady clanking of metal behind him.
Panicking, Jeffrey ran into the exit. Which turned out to be a bathroom, much to his dismay. He almost regretted not learning this shopping centre’s layout, or at least stopping to read the signs.
The clanking crept closer, painfully slowly. Jeffrey considered leaving the bathroom and making a run for it, which was exactly when the door flew open.
The thing walked in, slowly, its prehensile tail holding the door open. It locked ‘eyes’ with Jeffrey, who was peering out of one of the stalls considering his escape.
He felt a chill run down his back, and the dizziness returned in force. He tried to step back, but his legs gave out beneath him.
He fell, hard, hitting his head on the rim of a toilet on his way down. His vision swam and his thoughts were instantly scrambled (not that they were terribly helpful before this). The toilet cubicles seemed to fall away, and he saw the thing walking towards him.
Its head plating split, opening a mouth that was previously hidden. Metal spikes studded the dull jaws.
Jeffrey grabbed at anything around him as the thing approached.
It dug its metallic claws into his legs, which was agony. It put its full weight down, and Jeffrey swore he heard bones snap.
Its tail slid forward, wrapping around his throat and lifting his head up to look at it.
It walked forward, stepping hard on him and digging its claws in with every step.
Its jaw whirred open, and Jeffrey did the last thing he wanted to do.
He shoved his hand into its open mouth, towards the interlocking internal gears.
The thing shuddered, and the roll of toilet paper Jeffrey had managed to free as it had approached him shredded.
While being shredded, however, it jammed the gears.
They slowed, and smoke wafted out from between its body plates.
The thing slumped, the winding clicking sound growing strained before stopping.
Jeffrey celebrated, before he saw his hand, which was a bloody ruin.
Still, a victory is a victory.
He heard the bustle of people, and the world came to life around him.
A bittersweet victory indeed.