He sighed and straightened his spine. Popping vertebra as he stretched, groaning.
“You’re still here, Ashton? You should go home.”
Ashton dropped his hands into his lap and cocked his head to look over his shoulder. The fiftyish, graying lab tech stared at him from the aisle that led out of the lab.
“Can’t. Have to get this finished.”
“Didn’t get the transfer, huh?”
The sympathy on his coworker’s face hurt, so Ashton ducked his head back to his station. “No.”
“You know, killing yourself for them isn’t going to get you what you’re after.” He rustled as he shifted his load of clipboards. “Well, I’m done as soon as I put these away. You’re last for lock
“Yeah. Night.” He waved without looking. His pulse pounded in his temple. He fought the urge to just swipe everything, all equipment, slides, papers, everything to the floor. He would just have to start all over again if he gave in to his childish impulse. Why did they pass me up for that transfer? Again? I’m more than qualified.
With exaggerated care, Ashton slipped the slide from the microscope and prepped a new one. He hated working in pathology. He took this position three years ago because it allowed him to make ends meet, and still have the opportunity to advance to the field specialty he had trained for and loved. But this place had become a hole he couldn’t climb out of. He was too good at what he did.
I hate being stuck in this lab. I was supposed to be spending my days out in the open. Just the sky and the elements caging me. The challenge of deciphering the intricate puzzles of how the environment, creatures, plants, all interacted with one another to stay healthy and strong, drove him. His dream of working with biological systems/habitats slipped through his fingers every time the company held him here. Bringing failing biosystems back to health was his ultimate goal. Not this boring crap.
He picked up his pencil and started to record his observations. One eye returning repeatedly to the eyepiece.
“Arggh.” Ashton threw the now broken pencil at the wall. His chest heaved from the unexpected fury that resulted from the simple mishap. He pushed away from the bench and dropped his head into his hands, his elbows on his knees. Slowing his breath he performed a
simple relaxation exercise to regain control. “God I’m tired.”
Strange dreams had broken his sleep for the last few weeks. And they were getting worse. Getting darker. He scrubbed his face with his hands and leaned back in his chair to look up at the ceiling. The patterns in the tiles absorbed his attention and he stretched his legs out, settling deeper into the chair.
A hot breeze caressed his face, followed by a cold arctic nip that made Ashton snap his eyes open.
"What the hell?”
He stood on a ragged rocky crevice. Gray, ash coated rock stretched as far as his eye could see. Towering behind and dropping off to undulate in cracks and plateaus. What he could see of the roiling sky was a giant bruise. The only color, and the source of the heat that teased him, came from the lava flowing like veins through the cracks.
Ashton’s heart stopped and he fell to his knees. “Where the hell am I?” Shaking, he rubbed his sweating palms down his thighs, and tried to regain his feet. It took a couple of tries before he succeeded. The dark landscape appeared lifeless. The only movement came from the clouds and the flowing lava. His eyes darted everywhere below him. No paths obligingly showed themselves. A cold whirlwind whisked around his body, freezing the sweat. His teeth chattered.
A sound penetrated the silence. Something scraped against a rock behind him. A soft whimper escaped before his jaw clenched shut. His eyelids lowered and he swallowed slowly. His breath came in soft pants. His mind yelled to spin around but his body wouldn’t obey. It stood frozen, like the wind that had passed around him.
Force of will got him moving. His muscles quivered with the effort it took to make his body slowly turn to face what was behind him.
She matched the landscape, the dark horse that stood looking at him. Black as the shadows that surrounded them, with blood red nostrils and flickering eyes. Heavy with foal, she placed one delicate hoof closer. Flames skittered as her hoof struck stone. She was so close Ashton could reach out to touch her, if he dared. Her pelt looked like velvet and her silky mane, whipped up in a sudden gust, lashed around the wrist he didn’t remember lifting towards her.
Held by the encircling strands he stood frozen. She wuffled his hair, the velvet softness of her nose brushed down his cheek to nuzzle the skin of his neck. He trembled.
She pressed against his chest over his heart and exhaled. Hot air lanced through his clothes and he gasped, no longer cold. His eyes shot up to hers and were trapped. Emotions spun in their depths. He felt dislocated, stripped of who he was…
“I see you.” She whispered.
Ashton fell out of his chair with a painful thud. His heart raced and he gasped in great gulps of air. Disoriented, he sat up swaying. “What the?”
His chair still spun lazily and he stopped it, using the seat to lever himself up off the floor. His thigh was stiff from the landing and he rubbed it, wincing. “That’s going to leave a bruise. Man, this was the worst one yet.”
He sank gingerly into the chair, his thoughts circling around his nightmare. The latest in his string of sleep disturbances. The dreams had started as vague feelings of uneasiness, enough to leave him restless and quick to anger. But in the last week they had escalated. Become increasingly vivid, he could remember more details when he woke. But until now, just dreams.
This one had felt so real, he almost believed he had been somewhere else.
“This was still just a dream.” He shook his head and rubbed his hand over his still pounding heart, wincing at the unexpected pain. There was nothing to hit his chest on when he fell, a quick glance around proved that.
With trembling fingers, Ash undid the buttons of his lab coat and pulled aside the collar of his polo shirt. Over his heart was a butterfly of scalded skin. In just the shape of a horse’s exhale.
He could run from the lab. But how did he run from himself?