Ex Nihilo is a short, fast, and engaging sci-fi thriller. For a limited time, you can read the entire story online as one of my FREE giveaways — or download a copy for your eBook reader.
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Enjoy, and have a merry Christmas!
Allison’s life contains a hint of normalcy — she works a steady job, loves her friends, and is searching for the man of her dreams. Unlike most women however, she only knows the man from her dreams, where they hunt one another until dawn.
When a letter arrives linking her rival to Ex Nihilo, a small bioengineering firm in the shadows of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, her dreams come to life as their conflict becomes terrifyingly real. Haunted by ghosts from her past and an uncertain future, Allison must learn the truth about the hunter before he reaches everyone trapped in the halls of Ex Nihilo.
Allison Rhode didn’t know much about the sleeping man, and that concerned her. After following him for months, she’d only learned that he traveled a lot, which was why she needed to keep searching for him every day or two. The last few nights he’d been staying at a bed and breakfast in the country; tonight however, she found him checked into a filthy motel in downtown Grubsttip.
She always found him though; that much never changed. She always found him sleeping, always in the same nightshirt, and always smelling of sweat and cigarette smoke. As she inhaled his toxic scent once more, Allie considered it odd that such a noxious odor could at the same time seem pleasant, or even endearing.
Stepping toward the bed, she knelt down beside him, and studied the creases of his weathered face. She didn’t know his name, didn’t fully understand her own reason for seeking him out each night. She only knew that they were connected, somehow, and that tonight she was determined to find out how.
“Wake up,” she whispered into his ear; he barely moved an inch. “Wake up!” she demanded with a great deal more volume; the man winced and began to stir.
As she reached out to shake his shoulder, however, she felt a surge of cold run through her hand, causing her to draw it sharply back. She hadn’t actually touched him, but as her fingers neared his shoulder a warning shot through her nerves, not unlike the freezing sensation she felt when digging with bare hands through a bank of snow.
Interestingly, that same sensation must have passed through the man’s shoulder as well. He shivered, wrinkled his brow, and then jerked open his wild eyes. For the briefest of moments, Allie could see into them, could see that they were blue as the sky. Yet soon they focused, moving down from the ceiling to meet her gaze. As soon as their eyes connected, however, Allison’s world went dark.
Her eyes shot open. She was back; she was home; she was safe. As her heartbeat slowed to its regular pace, she stared at the sky-blue ceiling of her bedroom, until finally she forced herself to sit up. A glance to her window revealed that dawn was only minutes away, so she grudgingly rolled out of bed, put the dream and the man out of mind, and began to prepare for the workday.
Still, as she stepped toward the shower, Allie couldn’t purge from her mind or from her nostrils that scent which still seemed to linger beside her bed. Sweat, she noted, and cigarette smoke.
At the office, a familiar voice called her name. “Allison Rhode,” she heard; looking up from a rather tedious stack of tax law documents, Allie glanced to her right and smiled.
“Hey Grace,” she replied in a friendly tone; then when she caught her coworker’s perturbed expression, she followed the greeting with an uncertain, “What’s up?” In reply, Grace Hawthridge released her crossed arms, and strode over to Allie’s desk. Then, before Allie could raise her own arms in defense, she felt the sting of Grace’s backhanded slap across her shoulder.
“And where were you last night?” she demanded.
Last night? Allie wondered; then she remembered. “Oh.”
“That’s right,” Grace nodded condescendingly. “You missed my graduation.”
“Sorry,” she winced. “It completely slipped my mind.”
“Not surprising; you have a terrible memory.” Grace sat down in the swivel chair beside her, swiveled a bit, and sighed. “It’s all right,” she allowed, rolling her eyes. “I mostly just wanted to introduce you to my family.”
Allison nodded, then quickly glanced back to her friend. “You mean you wanted to introduce me to Brendan,” she accused; she shook her head as Grace quickly masked a smile. “I told you, I’m not going out with your brother.”
“And why not?” she challenged.
“Because it’s weird!” Allie shot back. “He’s your brother.”
“How is that weird? People go out with other people’s brothers all the time; that isn’t weird.”
Allie sighed. “I’m just not interested in starting a relationship right now.”
“I know,” Grace nodded. “You never are.”
“Well what about you?” Allie returned. “Last I checked, you were single too.”
“But at least I get out there,” her friend shot back, appearing almost angry. “At least I try! What do you do? You drift through every day, waiting for the perfect man – a man who is never going to arrive.”
Allie touched her hand to her forehead, more than aware of the chattering office around her. She griped, “Do we really need to have this conversation again?”
“Until you do something about it,” Grace returned. “You’re twenty-nine years old,” she said, “and counting. Another year and you’ll be a relic.”
Allie raised an eyebrow and snorted. “That’s a bit of an overstatement.”
Grace sighed, and swiveled closer. “At this rate, you’re going to spend the rest of your life entirely alone; you do realize that, don’t you? Dreaming and wishing for the life you could’ve lived.”
Allie made a face and glanced to the side. A part of her resonated with what Grace was trying to convey; she did miss being in a relationship. Still, “I feel like I already belong to someone,” she explained, looking back to her friend. “It’s only been five months it happened; maybe he’s still out there somewhere, still looking for me.”
“Or maybe ‘he’ never really existed,” Grace countered, “Maybe you made him up. I’ve spent years waiting around for my dream guy, but you know what I’ve realized Allie?”
“He’s just that – a dream, nothing more. We live in the real world, Allison. You find a real man, an imperfect man, and you find a way to forgive his flaws; with luck, he’ll do the same for you.”
Allie glanced around the bustling newspaper office, grateful that their conversation was masked by the effervescent, ever-present noise pollution of the Pittsburgh Review’s cubicle farm. “What are you going to do with your degree?” she asked, changing the subject. She’d had about enough of this conversation in its current trajectory.
Grace sighed and shook her head, apparently deciding to drop the point. Allie gave a slight grin of relief. “You gonna stay in the mailroom?” she teased.
“No,” Grace laughed, “No, I’m definitely not going to stay here. Oh, but that reminds me,” she swiveled out of her chair, and hurried over to the nearby mail cart. “This came for you today. ‘Ex Nihilo Industries’,” she read. “Caught my eye.”
“You’ve heard of it?” Allie guessed, taking the manila envelope and studying its return address.
Grace laughed. “Of course I’ve heard of it; I’m a biochem major, or graduate now I supposed. Ex Nihilo is the most infamous research facility in the Pittsburgh area.”
Grace shrugged. “They’re just really private about their research,” she replied. “I had a classmate who interned there for a semester – when he came back, we tried for months to pull some details out of him, but it was like pulling teeth,” she frowned slightly. “It seemed like he was almost afraid of them, of what might happen if he did talk.”
Allie raised her eyebrows. “All right, you’ve caught my interest,” she decided, tearing off the top of the envelope. Withdrawing the contents, she scanned the cover letter, and then reread it in confusion.
“What?” Grace caught her expression. “What is it?”
“It’s…an invitation,” she replied. “To tour the facilities with a group of investors.”
“You’re kidding,” Grace laughed. “The mysterious, shadowy Ex Nihilo Industries wants a reporter – an investigative reporter – to tour its facilities. Give me that,” she insisted, snatching the letter out of Allie’s hands; she read it aloud.
My dear Allison Rhode,
I must apologize for contacting you in this manner. I had hoped we might meet in a more social venue, but as it happens I have a present and pressing need for your investigative skills. I hope you will pardon me for cutting to the chase.
Something disconcerting is happening at the company I work for, Ex Nihilo. Someone is breaking into my office at night, and reading my journals and research. If it is someone outside of the company – well, in the wrong hands, the information loss could prove quite dangerous. However if (as I suspect) someone within the company is at fault, then I fear that they may be working to cover up facets of our research gone awry.
There have been accidents around the Pittsburgh area which may tie back to Ex Nihilo – unusual incidents which may (or hopefully may not) be our fault. I have been tracking these incidents in private, but now that someone has read my files, I may not be alone in this knowledge.
I don’t know if my knowledge puts me in any danger, so as a precaution I have attached newspaper clippings of the incidents in question, so that someone else has a copy. Also, there is a facilities tour coming up on August fourteenth for potential investors; if you’re willing to come, it would be great to have your eyes on this; I have placed your name on the list. Should anything happen to me or my research, I have the deepest confidence that you will find and expose the truth about Ex Nihilo, to whatever end.
Thank you for your time,
Dr. Aaron Wright
Allie felt another slap across her shoulder. “You never told me you had an informant at Ex Nihilo!” Grace accused her.
“I don’t,” she replied, distracted. “I’ve never met this Dr. Wri – August fourteenth,” she interrupted herself. “Isn’t that today?”
“Take me with you.”
“Tonight at seven, apparently,” she confirmed, scanning the invitation resting on her lap.
“Take me with you!” Grace insisted. Ignoring her, Allie placed the invitation on her desk, and turned her attention to the old newspaper clippings that were piled beneath it.
Boy falls from tree, suffers hallucinations
By Jordan Hermire
Eight-year-old Henry Willis was admitted to Allegheny General Tuesday with a broken arm and concussion after falling from his tree house in North Millvale woods. He claims to have fallen when “the forest disappeared around him.” Doctor Warren Bittle attributes his hallucinations to head trauma, although Millvale local Fred Burnstein corroborates the story, stating, “the woods just disappeared for a couple seconds, then came back.” The North Millvale woods are presently intact.
Accountant goes missing, mob loses millions
By Gretchen Sparrow
Suspected mob boss Gary Petrovich reported the theft of $960,000,000 yesterday, along with the disappearance of his accountant Slim Richards. Petrovich states that he will “pursue Richards to the full extent of the law, and then some.” (continued on page 8)
Serial rapist escapes prison, rolling heads to follow
By Gretchen Sparrow
The search for escaped convict Harold “Skippy” Darnight continues, although state police neglect to report any progress. Escaped on Mar 7 from the Pittsburgh State Correctional Institution, Darnight has been at large for nearly a week, “drawing this investigation closer and closer to FBI jurisdiction,” states Harold Dretch of the… (continued on page 2)
The last article immediately caught Allie’s eyes, and she nearly choked. The picture beside it, the photograph of Skippy Darnight – “I know that man!” she exclaimed, shoving the article onto her desk and as far away from her lap as possible. “He’s a,” she looked away, then felt Grace’s eyes riveted on her own.
“How do you, Allison Rhode, know a rapist?”
Allie breathed, glanced at the photograph, then immediately wished she hadn’t. “You remember that recurring dream I told you about?”
“A man who keeps traveling, and you have to keep finding him.”
“Well I don’t think he’s traveling,” she suggested; Grace’s eyes grew wide. “He’s running.”
“That’s your dream guy?!” she exclaimed, jabbing her finger toward Darnight’s picture. Allie shook her head.
“He’s not my ‘dream guy’,” she retorted, “it isn’t like that. We’re just…connected, somehow; I don’t know how.”
Allie paused a beat, took a long breath, then blinked. “Wait a minute.” Grabbing for the article, she scanned its text once more, then shook her head in disbelief.
“What is it?” Grace wondered.
“It’s…the date,” Allie replied, glancing up. “It says here he escaped on March seventh.”
It took Grace a moment before she perceived the connection. “Five months ago!” she started. “If memory serves, that would the same Friday you marched in here, demanding a job.”
“The first day I can remember,” Allie nodded.
“Still can’t believe they hired you off the street,” she complained. “I’ve been after your position for years.”
“So Darnight escapes on the same day I lose my memory, and now I’m dreaming about him,” Allie frowned. “There has got to be a connection there.”
“What do you know about him?” Grace asked.
“Not much,” she replied, “only what the article says, and that he reeks of sweat and cigarette smoke.” Allie paused for a moment, then looked Grace in the eyes. “You know it’s funny,” she spoke, “every morning when I wake up, even if I haven’t dreamed of him, I can still smell his stench in the air beside my bed.”
“What, like he’s watching you sleep?” Grace asked with incredulity; then she glanced to the side as though recalling something.
Allie expelled a laugh that was part pragmatism, and part nerves. “Of course not, it’s just a residual smell from the dream,” she decidedly replied. “But it is kind of creepy.”
Allie glanced at Grace’s mouth, which remained uncharacteristically shut, and then at her averted gaze and somewhat labored breathing. “What is it?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Last month,” Grace slowly began to speak, “when I crashed at your apartment? I got up in the middle of the night to use your bathroom.”
Allie tensed. “Okay.”
Grace shook her head, slightly. “I remember thinking it was strange,” she recalled, “because I knew you didn’t smoke.” Allie stood, ignoring the revulsion running through her veins, and Grace looked up into her eyes.
“I never saw him of course,” she allowed, “But I do distinctly remember the smell – sweat and cigarette smoke.” She paused. “We can’t both be having the same delusion, Allie; he isn’t in your head.”
Grace looked up into her eyes. “He’s in your bedroom.”
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