A simple delivery, that's what they said.
An icy breeze blew through the flat desert landscape beneath a starless sky. I took another drag from my cigarette with a shaking hand before checking my watch for the fifth time in the last three minutes.
I instinctively looked over my shoulder once again. The government warehouse loomed tall and ominous behind me, surrounded by fencing topped with barbed wire. Cameras hung like silent vultures from every corner of the building.
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I stamped out the cigarette and pulled it out. Molly, my handler. I let the call go to voicemail.
"Roy Carter?" a voice asked.
I dropped the phone back into my pocket and spun around. A man dressed in army fatigues with a chiseled jaw and steely eyes stood holding a clipboard.
"Yeah, that's me."
Behind him, four men moved toward the back of my nondescript white van with tinted windows.
My eyes wandered over to the men. The one in the front carried a small, unassuming, brown paper box in shaking hands. The other three stood with armed rifles, fingers on the trigger, ready to open fire at a moment's notice.
"Not quite what I expected. Just what the hell am I transporting?" I asked.
The soldier jotted down a few notes on his clipboard and then passed it to me. A pen dangled from a short chain.
"Sign this please."
"You didn't answer my question," I said, taking the clipboard from his hands.
"It's classified, Crimson-6."
I didn't even know it went that high. I looked down at the clipboard. It was an agreement. A quick glance made it apparent that it was an NDA on steroids. Say nothing, don't touch the box, drive straight to the destination without any stops, never speak of this to anyone.
I signed the document. It was a simple job. Creepy as fuck, but simple. The pay was nice too. Molly sure did know how to pick them. The soldiers finished loading up the seemingly innocent cargo and departed without another word.
I climbed into the driver's seat of the van, taking time to adjust the mirrors, the air vents, the seat, and the rearview mirror. Everything had to be just right. My phone vibrated again in my pocket as I started up the engine.
Haven't even had time to set up the GPS. What's got her so worked up?
I pulled out the phone and tucked it between my chin and shoulder.
"This is Roy."
"Why haven't you been answering? Are you on the road already?"
"Calm down Molly, I'm just leaving now."
Molly was quiet on the other end. I heard the clacking of her keyboard.
"How is that possible," she whispered.
"What's wrong? I'm still on schedule, they just took a while to load up whatever the hell it is that I'm transporting. Crimson-6 classification, can you believe it? The damn thing is just a brown paper box. Feels like I'm transporting someone’s online order. This is a weird one."
"It's fine, I just needed to make a note on my end. Crimson-6 is about as dangerous as it gets. You need to take this one seriously."
"You worry too much. I’ll call you when the job’s done.”
I hung up the phone and placed it in the center console before setting off. Driving along empty, country highways by the light of the moon was standard for me, but something about this delivery felt different.
About an hour into the trip, I noticed the temperature had dropped significantly inside the car. I considered rolling down a window, but decided against it, instead turning on the heat.
Weather wasn’t cold last I checked. Could it be the package?
I stole another glance at the box in the back. A soft whisper carried through the air and into my ear, chilling the blood in my veins to ice.
I was transfixed. Staring at the box instead of the road, unable to look away. The words that seemed to emanate from it were not like any language I had ever heard, but their effect was undeniable.
A fear unlike anything else I had ever experienced gripped my chest. I could feel the icy chill crawling its way towards my heart. My body was paralyzed.
The thunderous sound of a horn broke through the silence and somehow shook the box's hold on me. I spun around in my seat to see the blinding headlights of a semi barreling down on me.
My instincts kicked in as I wrenched the wheel to the right, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision. Beads of sweat cascaded down my face as I switched off the heat and put down the driver's side window.
Can’t let my guard down. It’s fine, I just need some fresh air.
I took a deep breath, held it in, let it out. Just like I was taught. I could feel the box pulling my gaze back toward it.
My phone buzzed in the console beside me. I swiped to pick it up. Molly's voice came through on speakerphone.
"Roy, what the hell is going on? I'm seeing spikes in your vitals."
"It's the box, Molly, the fucking thing hypnotized me! It was talking to me!"
"Roy, just stay calm. Keep your eyes on the road. Don't touch the box, don't look at it, just stay focused on the mission."
Another horn cut through our call, followed by bright headlights flashing through the rear window. I shot a glance at the side mirror and saw a pickup truck fast approaching.
"Molly, I gotta go, someone's following me."
"Roy, do not stop!" Molly shouted.
"I'll call you back once I lose them."
"No! Don't hang up!"
I ended the call and leaned over to the glove compartment. With a flip of the latch the lid popped open, revealing a M9 handgun, fully loaded. It had been a long time since I needed it during a delivery.
The truck swerved into the opposite lane and accelerated. The engine wheezed and groaned as it struggled to catch up. I flipped the safety on the handgun and rested it in my lap as the vehicle approved on my left.
I looked over as the truck pulled up, matching my speed.
"If you know what's good for you, you'll back the fuck off!” I shouted.
I raised the gun and pointed it at the passenger's window as the dusty and tinted glass slowly descended. Inside, a man sat hunched over the wheel, gripping it with white knuckles.
In the passenger seat, a woman with bright auburn hair and pale skin turned to face me. Where her eyes should have been were empty sockets, dripping with fresh blood.
She opened her mouth and reached out with blood-soaked hands to close the distance between our two vehicles. A severed tongue thrashed about in her open mouth as she uttered the same broken words that I heard from the box moments earlier.
The icy grip returned, this time forcing its way into my right hand. I stared at the horrifying sight of her visage as my hand became her own. I watched helplessly as my hand picked up the gun and pointed the barrel against my right temple.
I fought against the influence with everything I had, but still felt my finger curl around the cool metal of the trigger as I struggled to pull it away from my head. The woman shrieked and a gunshot pierced through the cacophony of our dueling engines.
Her influence departed long enough for me to drop the gun onto my lap. Across the highway, the truck's driver laid flat on the horn, blasting a long note into the night. Blood ran from a wound in the side of his head, caused by the bullet that was meant for me.
Without its driver, the truck swerved to the right and crashed into my van. The force sent my vehicle careening to the right before it started flipping through the air. My eyes watched as my phone, gun, and that damned box bounced across my vision.
The van landed upside down amidst jagged metal and broken glass. I spotted my gun laying on the asphalt about four feet from the crash. I unbuckled my seatbelt and crawled through the remains of the windshield. Pain clouded my vision.
Something sharp pierced my back before it was quickly removed. I felt a gush of blood soak my shirt as a pair of scrawny hands gripped my shoulder and flipped me over.
The redheaded woman stood over me with a blood-soaked knife in her hand. I tried to speak out, to escape, to do anything, but the pain was indescribable and all-encompassing.
From my left, I saw the driver of the vehicle carrying the brown paper box from my crashed van. He grinned through rotting teeth as he held it up like a prized trophy. The bullet hole in the side of his head was still fresh.
Before I could even question the string of events, I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, I was being carried by my arms and legs. Two hooded figures swung my limp body once, twice, and then threw me into the air.
I barely felt the impact, but my eyes could still behold the horrors around me. I landed in a sea of bodies, a mass grave. They were all dressed differently, some had different hair styles, but all of them had one thing in common:
They were all copies of me.
So many questions flooded my mind, but my senses were fading. My heart sputtered like the engine of the truck that ran me off the road. As my vision went dark, my thoughts wandered to Molly.
She would never know what happened here, and we would never break free of this cycle like we had talked about. Endless deliveries, always on the move. We had plans to settle down, to leave this all behind. Perhaps in another life.
"EMERGENCE DETECTED! SELF-DESTRUCT INITIATED!"
I stared at the computer screen with my mouth agape as tears rolled out of my eyes. My hands clenched into fists, slamming the desk. I let out a tortured scream and gripped the sides of the monitor, ready to throw it across the room.
"Molly, it's over. He failed," a voice said from behind me.
I paused my rampage and let out a defeated sigh.
"I realize that. I just thought…” I paused to compose myself, “I thought this time would be different. At this rate, they’ll have all the pieces."
"Start the upload. This one is lost, but we can still save the multiverse."
I spun around to face Raymond and stopped when I saw him pointing a handgun at his head.
"You know I hate this part. Better to make it quick," he said.
"Raymond, don’t," I whispered.
"See you in the next iteration."
I looked away as he pulled the trigger. I heard his body land on the floor with a soft thud as I turned back to my computer screen. With a few keystrokes, the upload began.
I lowered my head into my hands and let the tears come. My body shook with sobs as the countdown reached its end. Explosions shook the entire facility. I kept my eyes tightly shut as the flames surrounded and engulfed me.
My eyes shot open almost immediately and I found myself sitting at a desk in front of a computer. The same, but different.
A name, time, and destination flashed on the screen, along with an iteration ID: Earth-65217.
I picked up the flimsy headset beside the keyboard and pressed the enter key. A phone began ringing on the other side of the line. A man picked up.
"Hey Molly, just waiting for them to load the cargo."
"Right on time, Roy. Let's get started."
About the author
Lover of dogs, gaming, and long walks on the beach. Content Marketing Manager by day, aspiring writer by night. Long time ghostwriter, finally stepping into the light. Alone, we cannot change this world, but we can create better ones.