Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Collector

by James Mascia

The door behind me slid shut with a clank.

"You're collecting three tonight, Jerry."

I sighed and accepted the list from my superior. Looking it over, I prayed it wouldn't be a long night. I barely paid attention as I made my way to my locker and prepared to suit up. The hinge creaked on the old locker door. I blew a kiss to the picture of my wife, like I did every night before my assignment, and threw on my uniform, putting my clean-suit into its place.

Both my shoulders cracked loudly as I pulled my jacket over my head. I groaned in pain. The last few days hadn't been kind to me at work. The uniform was getting tight in the neck, a couple more uses and I wouldn't be able to wear it at all. The bright blue color marked me as a Collector. It wasn't the most glamorous job in the world, but in these troubling times I was thankful to have anything at all.

I hoped I could knock out my three collections early tonight and get home. A little extra rest would do me good. I looked at the list again, checking all of my destinations for the evening and then slammed my locker shut.

"Hey Jerr," a voice called from behind as I trudged up the hall toward the Portal Room. "What's on tap for tonight?" Marcus -- one of the best Collectors our company had ever seen.

"I've got three on my list," I explained.

"Oh!" he said. "Monster of a schedule."

I chuckled at that. It was a really bad, and a really old joke, but somehow Marcus could always make me laugh. "Yeah, I suppose."

"Did ya hear what happened to Glenn last night?" he asked.

"No," I responded.

"He was in the middle of a collection, and he got caught. They had to send in two squads -- terminated all subjects."

"What about Glenn? Is he okay?"

Marcus shook his head and repeated, "All subjects terminated."

"That's horrible."

Marcus smiled as if he hadn't just delivered the most horrifying news. "We still goin' out for a couple after our shift?"

"I'm kinda hoping to get home early tonight," I told him. "I feel like I've had a building dropped on me."

"All right. I'll catch you later then." Then he turned the corner and went into the locker room.

I continued on into the Portal Room, passing the Morphology lab and quickly stared in at the latest subjects. The young volunteers appeared nervous. Who wouldn't have been, undergoing such a procedure.

Once I reached the Portal Room, I handed my list to the tech sitting by the door. He barely even looked up from the computer to take it from me. Before he even placed the list fully on the desk, his fingers flew over the keys and punched in the first set of coordinates.

I crossed the room to the portal in the far wall. Stepping up to the empty circular archway, I watched as the back wall was replaced with the image of a dark bedroom. I couldn't hear anything except a heavy, steady breathing coming through the portal. I still made a visual scan of the room, the door was shut, the light was low and the only furniture appeared to be a child's bed. There only seemed to be one occupant in the room: the subject.

I looked over my shoulder, a conveyor belt had brought in a small boy from one of the stasis chambers. Freckles dotted his face, and his rosy hair could have been spotted from a mile away. Satisfied that everything was in place, I stepped through the portal.

A small light glowed in the corner of the room, casting just enough illumination for me to see that small trucks and cars littered the floor. I was careful not to step on any as I made my way over to the bed. I kept my ears open, just in case someone from the outside happened to be on the other side of the shut bedroom door.

I crept to the bed, my eyes just peering over the mattress on which the subject slept. He was sound asleep, a small trickle of drool hanging from his lips, waiting to splash down upon his pillow. Same freckles, and same red hair -- this was definitely him. The subject was obviously a restless sleeper because his legs were tangled in his blankets.

I poked him with my finger. This was the worst part, because I never knew what the reaction would be. Some just rolled over and looked up, some woke with a start, emitting a loud, high-pitched squeal that could draw attention to my presence, still others had violent reactions and attacked me.

He didn't move, so I tentatively poked again.

"Wha... what?" he mumbled. His eyes were half open, but I could tell he saw me. He rubbed his eyes and blinked a few times, then stared at me in wonder.

"Come on, Tim," I said. "It's time to go."

"Already?" he said. "But..."

"I have my orders. There's no arguing. Now, come on."

He sighed, but untangled himself from the blankets and rolled out of the bed. I led him back to the portal. Just before we stepped through, the identical child from the other side walked into the room and climbed back in the bed. I made sure nothing was amiss, and then Tim and I stepped back into the Portal Room.

Two techs were waiting. One grabbed the subject and held him while the other stuck him in the neck with a rather large needle. He collapsed into the tech's arms and the two carried him from the room.

Very good! If the other two were that easy I could be home in a little more than an hour.

Even before the subject's unconscious body was taken from the room, the tech at the computer punched in the next set of coordinates. The room in the portal was immediately replaced with another. This one was a little bit more brightly lit, but as I put my senses to the test, I could tell the subject was asleep and alone. The conveyor belt brought in another child just as I stepped back through.

This one was as easy as the first. The subject made no attempt to resist when I brought him through the portal. The switch was made without a hassle and the techs had him sedated within seconds of crossing back over.

Two down and one to go. My nights never went this well, what a fortunate turn of events.

My contentment faded as the tech punched in the coordinates of my last collection. Even as the image of the room faded, I heard the voices from the other side.

"Daddy, just a couple more minutes," a high pitched voice cried. "I'm not tired yet."

This was the part I really hated. I would have to wait until the father left. The last time this happened, I ended up standing by the entrance of the portal for almost two hours.

"It's late, honey." The man leaned down and gave the subject a kiss on the forehead. "You need your rest."

As he turned to walk out of the room, a sigh of relief escaped my lips. The sigh was cut short as I heard...

"No! Not yet!"

He had reached the door, but he stopped and turned around.

"You hafta check under the bed first."

"Honey." He sighed and I could tell he felt almost as frustrated as I did at that moment. "We've been through this before. There are no monsters in here."

"Just check. They're coming for me tonight. I know it."

I froze as I heard the words. How could she know we were coming for her? I turned to the techs in the room, but no one appeared at all concerned.

"You think they're coming for you every night. Go to sleep."

"Pleeeeeease check!"

He shook his head and walked back into the room as I cursed my horrible luck. "Okay, but this is the last time." He crouched next to her bed and pretended to look under it. Then he stood straight and looked at her. "Nothing under there."

"The closet too."

His upper body disappeared as he approached the portal, stopping not a foot in front of it. I saw his legs sway left and right as he pretended to look through the closet.

I wasn't worried he would discover the portal. It worked almost like a two way mirror. While we could see through from our side, it was invisible to the naked eye on the other. There was one time when an unlucky parent had stumbled through. The man was terminated on the spot.

This man, however, simply turned away from the closet and back to the subject's bed. "There's nothing in there either, honey. Now get some sleep."

Apparently satisfied there were no "monsters" the girl lay down. Her father stepped out of the room, flicking the light off as he shut the door behind him.

The nightlight in the corner glowed brightly, making it easy to see everything in the bedroom. I stood at the threshold of the portal and waited, making sure the father wouldn't reenter to check on her.

It wasn't long before the child's deep breathing said she had drifted off to sleep. Now, was the time.

Just as I took a step toward the portal, the subject shot up in her bed, eyes glaring at her closet. I stumbled back. She appeared to be staring directly through the portal, at me.

"What was that?" She looked around the room. "Who's there?"

I turned to one of the techs. "Does she know?"

The tech shook his head and shrugged.

I felt as nervous as the girl appeared. It wasn't unusual for a subject to be frightened. But the fact that she seemed to realize I was coming, really threw me off.

I took a breath and went through the portal for the third time that evening. As I shimmered into view in her closet, her head spun and looked directly at me. "Who... who are you?" Her voice sounded like it was caught between crying and whispering.

"I'm Jerry," I introduced myself. I saw no reason not to be honest with her. "I'm here to take you home."

"But, I am home."

I shook my head. I knew this night had been going too well. It could never be easy. "No," I explained. "This isn't your home. You don't belong here."

She gazed at me, her eyes glazing over with tears. "You're trying to trick me. You're a monster!"

This was becoming more and more frequent as of late. I turned to the portal. "The subject has severe brain damage." The techs watching on the other side would make the necessary preparations.

Turning back to her, I said, "I know you're scared. But I'm not going to hurt you."

I took a step toward the bed, and immediately realized my mistake. The subject pulled her blankets up to her nose and pushed herself up against the headboard. Even worse, she let out a high-pitched scream.

I waved my arms and tried to shush her. If her father burst in we would all be terminated. As she continued to wail, I could already hear footsteps approaching the door. Quickly, I ran toward it and turned the lock.

"Shhhh," I tried once more, and when she didn't stop screaming, I slapped my hand across her mouth and held it there, muffling the noise. The footsteps grew closer. The handle of the door jiggled.

"Honey, why is your door locked?"

The subject calmed down just a little and the wailing noises stopped. I had to convince her to come quietly otherwise it would be all over for both of us. "Listen," I whispered. "Try to remember. You were sent here three years ago to collect data. That mission is over. It's time for you to come home."

"I am home," she insisted. Tears streamed down her face as she looked between me and the door.

The father banged on the door, the loud knocks reverberated through the room. I too found myself looking at the door. I shifted my weight between my feet, wondering if I should jump back through the portal before it was too late.

"You aren't one of them!" I shouted. "We altered you to look like that! Can't you remember anything? You're like me!" I held out my three-fingered hand to show her the difference, hoping some small familiarity with who she once was would spark something in her brain.

She wailed and pulled the covers over her head. "Go away! Leave me alone!"

"Honey!" the father yelled. "Who's in there with you? Open the door." His banging grew desperate now, as he pummeled the door with both his fists. "You need to open the door, honey!"

"Daddy!" she cried from beneath the blanket.

Dammit! There would be no reasoning with her. The brain damage had gone too deep. Prolonged use of these frail bodies was just too much for us to handle. Cramming our brains into those tiny heads destroyed nerve cells -- specifically memory centers. She really believed she was one of the subjects.

I turned to the portal. "I'm going to sedate her," I informed the techs. I pulled a syringe off my belt and walked to the bed. I reached out to pull the blanket off her head and jab her in the neck before she could react. But just as I grabbed the edge of the blanket...

BANG! Startled, I dropped the syringe. It shattered on the ground.

The door bent inward, as the father must have thrown his full weight against it. Luckily, the door didn't give. But it wouldn't be long now.

With no sedative, and pretty much out of other options, I grabbed the girl and the blanket and dragged her off the bed. She screamed a high pitched scream that all but shattered my eardrums.

"Trust me," I tried again. "It's for your own good. You don't belong here." I might as well have been talking to an insect. She flailed and struggled and continued her high frequency scream.

BANG! The door nearly caved this time. The hinges began to pull away from the doorjamb. Dust rained down from the frame and I heard the unmistakable crack of wood. But the door held.

"Send the child through!" I shouted at the portal. We needed to move quickly. I didn't think the door could withstand another hit.

"Get away from my daughter!" the father bellowed. His fist slammed on it once again.

Ahead of me, the child -- identical in every way to the one I dragged across the floor--right down to her garments -- stepped through the portal. She stepped peacefully across the room and lay in the bed quietly--asleep.

I was only a few feet from the portal, but it might as well have been a few miles for all the progress I was making. The girl -- being only slightly smaller than myself -- struggled and pulled, knocking me off balance and making it nearly impossible to move forward. I needed to get through the portal before the door finally gave. Otherwise...

BANG! One hinge shot off completely, the metal screws clanging as they hit the floor. I only had seconds left. One more hit and it would all be over.

In my desperation, I did the only thing I could think of. I reached back and plowed my fist right into the girl's blanket-covered face. Her body fell limply into my arms. I threw her through the portal. I looked back at the room one last time, making sure the replacement was fitfully asleep in the bed, and dove through the portal just as the second hinge let go. The door slammed inward and the father came barreling through.

As I fell back into the Portal Room, I watched the techs scramble to collect the stunned girl, and get her to Memory Extraction, before she made a bid for freedom. I looked back over my shoulder, to the still opened portal, as the father looked around the subject's bedroom in bewilderment, as there was apparently nothing wrong.

"A successful collection," I said to myself. Then cringed as I thought of all the paperwork I would need to fill out from this.

That would wait until tomorrow though. After that last collection, I just wanted to go home and get to bed. I walked to the locker room, not paying much attention to anything as I passed. I barely even realized Marcus had followed me until I slammed my locker shut.

"You all right?" he asked. "I just heard what happened."

"Yeah. Like you said. I had a monster of a schedule." The joke didn't seem funny anymore as I pulled my clean-suit over my head, and tugged it on tightly.

"Maybe we should go out tonight. You look like you could use a few drinks."

"Really, Marc," I told him. "I just need to go home and rest."

"Okay," he said, and began walking away.

"Hey, Marc," I called.

He stopped and turned. "What's up?"

"Do you think it's worth it? I mean, all of this. Morphology, collecting, all of it? We don't seem to be getting anywhere."

"We've gotten somewhere," my friend assured me. "We know so much more than we did even five years ago."

"But all those subjects. Is it really worth their lives?"

"They know what they're getting into, Jerr." The way he said it, told me he really did believe his words. "It's dangerous, yes. But, it's worth the risk. A few more months, maybe a year, and we won't need to do this anymore. We'll be able to repair, or, if need be, move on."

I zipped my clean-suit shut and got up, smiling at my friend. "Thanks, Marc. We'll hit the bar tomorrow night, okay?"

Before he could answer, I left the room. As I passed my superior's desk, I gave him a slight nod and he punched the key to let me out. The door slid open and, as I stepped through, it slid shut. Standing before yet another door, I pulled my oxygen mask on and made sure it fit snugly over my nose and mouth, the last thing I needed now was a leak.

The next door slid open, and the bright lights nearly blinded me. Every light in the city seemed to be on tonight. It made it easy to see the haze of particles hanging like a thick fog over everything. Visibility was good that evening, I could almost see two blocks down Main Street.

As I began walking home, I knew that what we did was worth it. It was worth the sacrifices we made. We didn't have much life left in us if things continued this way. If we couldn't find a way to repair our air, from the data we got from the subjects, then we would have to plan an invasion. Either way, what they brought back to us, was invaluable.

I didn't want my children growing up in a place like this, fearing their world would give out on them at any moment. My job might have been hell, but at least it was for something worthwhile.


© 2009 James Mascia

Bio: James Mascia has had several short stories published in A Thousand Faces, a quarterly journal of superhuman fiction and a short comic published in ICONIC. He is an English/Writing teacher at both the high school and college levels, so he gets a good look at his target audience on a daily basis. He is also a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). .

E-mail: James Mascia

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