The Shepherd's Path: Wonder, Chapter 1

Adrian Dunley was about to die.

Dunley had been at war. Not with anyone else, nor had he held a gun in years. But there is no other word that can carry the same power: Adrian Dunley was at war with himself.

It had crept upon him like the darkness trailing a slowly-setting sun, and had come upon him almost without realization. The moment he’d stumbled into the reality was no different than the ignorant traveller who, at the exact moment the train had started rolling from the station, discovered they were on the wrong train. By that point, Dunley had already been dancing to someone else’s tune, and he scrambled to stop the music. He had initially thought the struggle had been for control of the station. Over time, however, the he slowly came to know that the conflict was very different, a fight to the death for his sanity. Adrian Dunley was about to lose the final battle.

Commanding Officers of remote stations invariably made enemies. Even with the countless years of process and training to avoid the kinds of personality clashes that could disrupt operations, people were still human. The overwhelming effects of distant isolation regularly brought about the worst in people, and Dunley had seen such malcontents many times. Even with the kinder folk, there always had been the insatiable demand for supplies, procedures, and time. The unkind dominated over his life, leaving nothing to himself. His superior — his mentor — had high expectations, and had trusted deeply in Dunley to deliver. The stress had been all-consuming, and Dunley had seen even his most trusted allies turn away or step aside, and allow the flood to wash Dunley away. By the time his foes had made themselves known, it was clear to Dunley himself that he was no longer in control, let alone in command. His isolation became total, cut off from CENTRAL and the command structure, effectively unable to call for help in any form. Fighting was futile, as even the most powerful weapon was unable to make any difference. Retreat was equally impossible; there was nowhere to hide, no way to escape. So Dunley continued to fight, believing he might at least win a stalemate. Foolhardy, perhaps, but Dunley could not bring himself to surrender. His steadfast refusals had, in effect, forced Dunley to walk himself directly into a fate of his own doing.

Dunley paced back and forth in the small airlock, his mind awash in memories — real and perceived — rising and falling as waves pounded onto a rocky shore, only to break into rivulets of water to disappear back into the turbid sea of his consciousness. Half of him was grasping for the moment, trying to reassemble the events that had led him astray like an obsessive trying to complete a puzzle from a dozen mixed sets; his mind was desperate to spare himself from the inevitable. It was an hopeless task. The other half of him wasn’t even sure if what he was experiencing was real, or another figment of a horrific imagination bent on annihilation. All the while, his subconscious seemed to endlessly hum an ancient tune.

Dunley sang along under his breath, simultaneously spewing random words, names, and events as they flitted through the tatters of his mind, the combination sounding like he were channelling the long-dead spirits of a dozen beat poets simultaneously. It was a simple tune, a nursery rhyme he had learned as a child, sung again and again and again to his doting mother and father, who had smiled and clapped at his joyful rendition. He had danced to the tune in school plays, even whistled it as he walked down corridors later in life. But now, the tune haunted him, playing over and over and over, never pausing or diminishing. He could hear the voice in his head singing, and he spoke in duet, scattering his words amongst the others bursting to escape from his chest.

He placed his hands close to his scraggly face, tugging slightly on frazzled greying brown hair that had not seen any form of detergent in weeks. Tears slowly rolled down his face from scraped and bleeding eyes that refused to blink. His ears bore half-healed scars from where he had repeatedly cut into them with a knife. His lips were cracked and scabbed from dehydration, his knees knocked from the same. Even without his final actions, Dunley’s body was already in the final throes of supporting life.

Someone spoke. Inside the tiny room, Dunley had heard the suggestion — but not as someone would hear it coming from a speaker. He had heard it like he heard the singing voice, as part of the constant white noise in his mind. Although he didn’t hear it consciously, Dunley’s mind treated the instruction as it had been meant. Dunley’s body straightened slightly and his hand started to rise stutteringly, as his fractured mind fought both to press the button, and avoid imminent death. A week earlier, Dunley could have won the fight, and lived to see another day. But the long months of mental conditioning were at work, and the bloodied knuckle of his right forefinger came to rest on the switch surface that read “Open“.

He paused a moment. The white noise that had dogged him for so many weeks suddenly cleared like the break that forms in a loud party when the beautiful maiden arrives, and everyone turns to watch her descend down a grand staircase. In that moment, Dunley did not see a life repeated for a last reminiscence. He saw his future. He his doom, black and empty. Instead of an impending horror, he saw release. He blinked for what felt like the first time in a week. His eyes stung like acid, bloody tears eked out of the corners and left rusty trails as they fell down the whiskered visage. The end of pain. The end.

Dunley smiled and opened his eyes. He looked through the tiny window at the spectator, waved, and then laughed: “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!“ He depressed the button.

The next thing Dunley heard was a violently brief rush of air as it surged around him, flinging him free of the station’s protection, and dissipated into the vacuum of space. Then he heard nothing.

He felt the impossibly cold void as his warmth rapidly boiled away, freezing his skin, his blood, his muscles, his organs, his bones. Then he felt nothing.

He saw the door of the airlock close as he rushed away, until the humor in his eyes froze solid. Then he saw nothing.

In his mind, the voice slowly died away as his chilling blood froze his brain.

Then he was nothing.

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