This post contains the eleventh chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.
I’m strapped tightly into a worn crash couch and the world is coming apart around me.
I’m in the belly of a small spacecraft. I guess from the rows of identical couches lining both walls of the long, roughly cylindrical space, that it must be a short hop shuttle. Silent, stone-faced cadets are strapped into many of the other couches, each clutching the thick black harness straps in white-knuckled terror. Nearly a third of the seats are empty and the straps of their 4-point harnesses writhe and snap menacingly like furious black snakes as the world jerks and trembles around us. The entire hold shakes violently, and from somewhere beyond the massive sealed blast doors at the far end of the room, the avalanche roar of the main drive burn is nearly deafening. It’s like being drowned at the base of a waterfall. My teeth feel like they’re going to vibrate out my head and an invisible hand crushes downwards from the wall opposite the main drive roar, threatening to smother me back into unconsciousness.
The hold has no windows and the space above the line of harnessed cadets looks like it was made to hold small pieces of luggage. It’s almost completely empty. This is either supposed to be a short trip, or we boarded in one hell of a hurry.
Boarding…I don’t have any memory of boarding this ship. I don’t remember buckling myself in, can’t remember where we’re headed, and I have no idea who any of these people are, aside from the vaguely familiar dark blue naval uniforms we all seem to share. How did I get here? I try and remember where I was moments before and my mind fills up with blurry, disjointed images of snow-covered trees and of someone’s blood, bright and accusing on the white ground. Is it my blood? Does it belong to someone else? Try as I might, I can’t force the memories into focus, and the more I struggle, the more the images become thin and hollow against the crisp reality of the crowded hold and the agony of sound all around me.
There is a sharp rapping sound, like fist-sized hail hitting a tin roof, and the entire compartment vibrates like a massive tuning fork truck by a gigantic hammer. I can feel the vibrations in the back of my eyes and in the roots of my molars. Harsh white light bursts into the cabin suddenly, flickering violently and freezing everything into a jarring stop-motion strobe of jerking bodies and terrified faces that hang in the air too long. Wide eyes and fear-distorted faces shudder in a grotesque freeze-frame collage. A shower of orange and white sparks burst from a panel above the heavy door, momentarily blinding me with intense light. When my eyes readjust, a familiar face stares serenely back at me from the couch opposite my own.
“Hey Buddy.” The cadet strapped into the seat directly across from me says with a crooked smirk. “Remember me?” I stare blankly at the wiry, sharp-faced girl. I’m vaguely aware that this smirking teenage girl looks familiar, but my mind refuses solidify her memory into something as tangible as a name.
What the hell is going on?
Without warning, an avalanche of fractured images and jumbled memories flood through my head as a painful torrent of faces, voices, and thoughts. It’s like a firehose has been opened up, inches from my face, and I’m choking as I try to drink it all in at once.
It hurts like a bitch.
The sudden surge snaps my head forward painfully, and my hands fly up to the sides of my head involuntarily, like they’re trying to block the sudden burst of excruciating information all on their own. When the pain in my head finally subsides to a dull ache and I’m able to raise my head again, I’m shocked to I realize that know exactly who the person across from me is. I doubly shocked that I was ever able to forget.
Her name is Ghoul, and she’s my best friend in the world.
“Sorry, bud, I know that probably sucked the big one, but we don’t have much time. Had to improvise a little.” She’s shouting at the top of her lungs, struggling to be heard over the steadily rising roar of the main drive. In the flickering light of the long cabin, her face suddenly sharpens, becoming impossibly clear in the space of time it takes me to blink. All at once, the world around us blurs, colors fading like a saturation knob has been cranked to its lowest setting, then stretches and bulges away from where we’re sitting while Ghoul snaps into razor sharp focus. The roar of the engine becomes dulls and muffled like I’m hearing it through ears stuffed with cotton.
The effect is disorienting, to say the least.
“There, much better. At least I can hear myself think, now.” Ghoul says as she brushes a stray stand of dark hair away from her face. The instantly familiar gesture sends a frigid spike of homesickness into my heart like a guided missile. Her voice is strange and disjointed – like the sound is coming from all around us instead of from my friend’s still-smirking lips.
“Where the hell are we? Why can’t I remember anything?” I ask franticly, still rubbing my temples as I try (and fail) to blink the blurry scene around me back into a less-nauseating semblance of focus.
“Long story, bud, and we don’t have the time. Let’s just say that this…uh, this is like a dream…sort of.” She waves her hands in frustration as if my questions are an irritating swarm of flies that she’s trying to bat away. “Trust me, we don’t have much time and there’s a lot we have to cover.” Ghoul spits the words out rapidly, racing through each one until the syllables run together in a near constant torrent of sound. Something I can’t see grabs her attention and her head snaps to the right, her eyes focusing momentarily on what appears to be nothing at all. I follow her gaze but all I see is empty air above a patch of blurry deck plating. “Shit.” She whirls around, focusing all her manic attention back on me. “I’m running out of time. Listen up, amigo.”
‘Ghoul, what the fuck is going on? How the hell did I even get he…” I say, cutting in before she can continue talking.
“Jesus, Crash, will you please shut up?” Her brow is furrowed so fiercely that her pale forehead resembles a line of tiny dunes on the surface of some small pink moon. Before I can speak again, Ghoul launches into another barrage of machine-gun-rapid speech. From the look of intense concentration on her face and her flat, frantic monotone, I wonder momentarily if she’s reciting a memorized speech or reading from a script. “Red circle, gold pyramid, blue cube, gree…”
“What the hell…?” I interrupt her bizarre litany of shapes and colors and glare at my frantic friend as a look of panicked desperation crawls over her face like oil dumped into a pristine ocean. “Ghoul, just tell me what the hell is going on? Why the hell can’t I remember…?”
“God damn it, Crash! Shut up! Just shut up the hell up and listen to me!” The world around us convulses wildly, slamming me painfully against the straps of my crash couch. Ghoul turns her head to the right so quickly that I hear the loud pop as the joints in her neck pop in protest. She stares with wide, terrified eyes at the same empty spot in the vibrating hold. “Damn it, I’m losing it.” She says to herself grimly. “Crash, You need to know this shit; you have to remember!”
Another bone-jarring groan ripples through the cabin and the world around me blurs and distorts maddeningly like an oil painting tossed onto a bonfire. First the walls and then the screaming cadets strapped into their seats seem to twist and stretch away into infinity before snapping back towards us with sickening speed. The ship groans again and the world fractures into millions of jagged pieces that spin outwards and race away, leaving nothing but a total, endless blackness all around us.
Somehow, I’m still strapped into my crash couch, hanging motionless above an endless empty void.
Ghoul floats in front of me, face red and spittle flying from her lips as she continues screaming to be heard over the bone-shattering sound all around us. “I’m trying to save your life, you idiot. Listen and remember, Crash!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The sound around me has become so loud that it’s impossible to tell if Ghoul can hear me over the deafening roar threatening to suffocate us before it drags us into the yawn void all around us.
“Red circle, gold pyramid, blue cube, green st….” Ghoul recites again. I stare at her thin lips and try to decipher the words coming out of her mouth. Before she can finish, my friend seems to freeze midsentence, her mouth suddenly motionless. Her lips hang open like a grotesque statue, stranding her face in a strange, desperate rictus, eyes still locked onto mine in desperation.
What the hell is she trying to tell me?
It’s the last thing to cross my mind before her motionless form shatters into a billion glittering fragments in front of my eyes. Before I can react, I’m swallowed by the onrushing darkness and smothered by the roar of some distant, unfolding apocalypse.
I wake to Snow shaking my shoulder, his ghostly pale face inches from my own. The cold from the forest floor has seeped into my back like a toxin, leaving my entire spine numb and aching. Snow kneels next to me, his eyes darting around the floor of the small stone hut we’d taken shelter in for the night. The haggard group of my former bunkmates are asleep in a tight group near the far wall of the broken-down hut, huddling together for warmth beneath the jagged remains of the structure’s largely absent wooden roof. Snowflakes drift down through the gaping hole where the ragged wooden ceiling has surrendered to open sky, and dim moonlight paints their sleeping bodies with a soft silver brush. In the stillness they look almost peaceful.
The silence that surrounds us is oppressive and total, and my ears play tricks on me as I strain against the emptiness for whatever errant sound has Snow so freaked out. All I can hear is Snow hissing at me in an irritated stage whisper.
“Wake up, Crash.” Snow whispers, giving me another sharp shake to rouse me from my sleep. “Jesus Christ, you sleep like the dead.” He mutters bitterly to himself as he continues shaking my shoulder. Even though I hardly know this strange pale warrior, I can tell something has changed – that something is very wrong. His usually dispassionate voice sounds brittle and unsure, stretched thin and weakened by glowing veins of fear that course through his words like a spreading cancer.
The soft human sounds of sleeping cadets drift towards me from the covered corner of the tiny building. Frog rolls over and begins snoring loudly, prompting Stretch to let loose an irritated groan as he blindly kicks at the portly boy until the buzz saw racket of the younger boy’s snore abruptly ends in muttered half-conscious curses as Frog rolls on his side and lapses back into silence.
“What’s wrong?” I start to say, but Snow claps his hand over my mouth, cutting the words off sharply with all the tenderness of a battlefield amputation. His eyes sparkle darkly as they meet mine, full to the brim with a barely restrained panic that jolts me into silence even more effectively than the rough hand still secured over my mouth. Without removing his hand, Snow brings the finger of his free hand to his lips slowly and I nod once to indicate silently that I understand. His hand lingers for moment on my face like he’s unsure he can trust my promise of silence. Finally, he pulls it away. He seems to relax slightly when it’s clear I’m not going to make another sound.
Somewhere beyond the halfway-tumbled walls of the hut, a soft rustling sound, like wind gently nudging some bit of forest foliage, whispers somewhere in the dark, barely audible over the sounds of my own breathing and the steadily increasing thud of my heart. Snow’s eyes snap up sharply to follow the sound. He scans the perimeter of the room, head swiveling smoothly on his neck like some automated defense turret scanning the world within its electronic field of vision. When the sound doesn’t repeat, he turns slowly back towards me as I raise myself into a crouch next to him as silently as I can manage. I wince at the noise my movement generates, giving Snow an apologetic look as I crouch next to him in the moonlight.
When he speaks, his voice is barely audible, but shot through concern. “Dex is gone.” He whispers. “I have no idea where he is.”
“That son of a bitch,” I hiss back. When we found this place, after hours of following Dex’s torch through the forest, Snow had insisted that someone stay awake to keep watch. Dex had volunteered to take the first shift so the rest of us could catch a few hours of rest. He must have slipped away while the rest of us slept. After his unsettling speech on the way here, I kick myself for not seeing this one coming. “How long has he been gone, Snow? Any idea when he slipped away?”
“No. All I know is that he never woke me for my watch.” Snow sighs softly. His voice is so quiet that I have to strain against the darkness to watch his lips as he speaks. In the anemic winter moonlight, it isn’t doesn’t help much, but it’s enough for me to follow along. “But that’s not the worst of it. I think someone’s out there…outside the hut.”
“Maybe it’s him. He’s probably just taking a piss.” I say without conviction. Snow fixes me with a withering glare that tells me exactly what he thinks of my tactical assessment. I close my eyes and hold my breath, focusing hard on the sounds around me. The mass of sleeping cadets breathe in soft rhythmic sighs in the corner of the hut. The dirt of the structure floor crunches softly under Snow’s boots as he shifts slightly on the toes of his feet to keep his balance. When we found the hut, we’d dug out as much of the snow as we could so we could sleep on dirt instead of a hard-packed snow. If my aching back is any measure of success, I don’t think it made much difference.
There’s another soft rustling from outside the hut, followed by the sharp crack of a twig snapping under what could be a boot – or a claw. The rustling outside abruptly stops like the sound has been hacked off with a blade. Snow’s eye snap open wide as they meet mine. We hold our breath and strain to reacquire the sound, but we’re met only with a crushing, pregnant silence from the darkness outside.
Across the hut, the open doorway is an imposing ink-black rectangle, as dark as deep space and suddenly just as deadly. We draw the swords from our scabbards as silently as we can, mine from its place on the ground next to where I had been sleeping, Snow’s from the scabbard still cinched tightly on his back. We turn silently to face the open door, moving as slowly as we can, both half-crouched as we glide towards either side of the half-destroyed passageway cut into the heavy stones of the building’s wall.
I press my back flat against the wall, careful not to disturb any of the loose stone blocks that make up the ancient-looking structure. Snow mirrors my position on the opposite side of the door frame. From outside there is only silence. We wait for a long moment, holding our breath. My cold fingers ache around the frigid hilt of my blade as I reach out with my ears to try and construct a mental map of the forest outside.
Nothing. It’s as silent as the grave beyond the door, and twice as dark. If there is something moving out there, I can’t hear it.
For a moment I’m afraid this is all in our heads, a shared delusion brought on by shock, by hunger, and by cold. I’m about to turn to Snow and say as much when another sharp rustling sound, louder this time and much closer to the doorway, sends lightning bolts of adrenaline lancing down my spine. I jump, startled, and nearly drop my sword. Snow catches my eye and mouths silently for me to follow him, on the count of three. I shake my head and point to the sleeping boys in the corner of the room with a scowl, trying to impart my reluctance to leave my friends unprotected, but Snow ignores me and holds up three fingers, starting the silent countdown despite my mimed protestations. As he ticks down from three using his slender white digits, I notice the dried blood caking each finger like a haphazardly applied coating of dark red paint. I wonder absently how many friends he watched die today. For me, the violence of the last few hours was deeply upsetting, especially when my mind drifts back to the jagged memories of own contributions, but for Snow and Dex and all the rest, today’s dead have the familiar names and the faces of friends. It must amplify the agony a hundred-fold. For these young commanders, today must been an unbearable horror. No wonder Dex has lost his mind.
I can’t blame either of them for wanting to charge into the dark after that pain. As terrified as I am, the least I can do is make sure Snow isn’t alone when he does it. Snow has ticked away two fingers when I meet his gaze with the most determined look I can muster and give him a single solemn nod. Something like relief flickers across his drawn face, but it’s quickly replaced by a granite mask of resolve – by the face of a soldier. He drops the last finger to complete the countdown, returns my nod, and darts out the door without making sound.
“I must be losing my damn mind.” I whisper grumpily to myself, then follow him out the door and into the pitch-black night.
I burst through the doorway and nearly collide with Snow’s back. He’s standing very still, sword clutched in both hands like he’s about to sever the nearest tree – or whatever else may be out here – at chest height with a single horizontal slice. I raise my own sword and scan the dark maze of tree trunks in front of us for movement. Moonlight drifts down through a riot of tiny breaks in the dense canopy above, illuminating the first few rows of trees in a midnight mirage of silver light. Trees melt out of the darkness towards us, then stretch backwards to disappear into an ocean of unbroken blackness. Nothing moves in the twilit stillness. Even the snow has stopped falling as the entire universe feels like it’s holding its breath.
Snow turns to face the half-collapsed building where the rest of our party sleeps. The small square structure cowers on the forest floor like a kicked dog. What’s left of the rotten wooden roof droops like wet hair around the weathered stone walls. Snow nods towards the right side of the structure, then stalks quietly around the left side of the building like an albino cat pursuing unseen prey. I follow his lead and move as silently as I can around the right side of the ancient-looking stone hut. My half-frozen feet are clumsy and ill-suited for stealth in my second-hand boots, and I wince with each step as the underbrush crunches softly beneath my feet.
I move slowly along the perimeter of the hut, listening for any hint of movement ahead of me as I creep along. As far as my untrained senses can tell, the forest is silent and still, the noises we heard from inside the building are nowhere to be found. I slide forward along the wall until I reach the corner of the building. Careful to remain hidden from anyone (or anything) that may be lurking out of sight beyond the wall, I poke my head around the corner until I can see a small empty clearing behind the building. Moonlight scatters and warps on the white ground as shimmering pools, giving the tiny square of open ground an unearthly alien glow that, under better circumstances, I think I’d find quite beautiful. Tonight, it reminds me of a mass grave.
I flinch backwards, nearly dropping my weapon for the second time, as Snow appears suddenly around the opposite corner of the building, striding defiantly into the center of the clearing. He stalks back and forth in the moonlight, as if he’s daring the strange sounds to repeat themselves, like he’s challenging the darkness to come for him.
I emerge from my hiding place around the corner and join him as he slides his sword into the scabbard on his back with a disappointed grimace.
“There’s no one here.” Snow says with a frown. “Probably just the god damn wind.” The full volume of his voice sounds like thunder in the stillness of the winter night around us. I search between the dark slashes of the trunks with nervous eyes, expecting white-clad killers to materialize from the gloom, called from hiding by the sound of Snow’s voice. “He actually left me behind.” Snow shakes his head in disbelief. “I’ve backed him since day one. Done every damn thing he asked me to do…I even put up with his idiotic quest to open that god damn door…and after all that, he just leaves me here with you.” He spits the last two words at me like he’s hoping they might melt me where I stand. I’m concerned that his restraint might be dangerously threadbare after the day we’ve had, so I bite my tongue and decide not to take the bait. In a one-on-one fight, I have no illusions about which of us would end up broken and bleeding on the forest floor.
“You don’t know that,” I say. “We don’t have a clue where Dex went.” I’m careful to keep my tone neutral and my face sympathetic. I don’t want to give Snow an excuse to start thinking of me as the enemy. It’ll be bad enough when I finally tell him about the dreams. “Let’s get back inside and figure out what the hell we’re going to do next.”
“I knew it was a mistake. I knew it.” Snow mutters to himself, ignoring me completely.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Everything! Everything we’ve done since those assholes started fighting us for the deliveries. I wanted to leave, to get the hell away from that stupid cave, but Dex wouldn’t hear it. He wouldn’t listen. He was so damn sure that the answer was in there somewhere, and when that thing just…appeared in the cave, it was like he’d been given a sign from the gods.”
“Slow down, man.” I put my hand on Snow’s shoulder, and I can feel the rage vibrating through his wiry frame. “I still don’t know what any of this shit means. If you fill me in, then maybe I can help. I’d say we’re in this together now.” Snow tenses at the unexpected physical contact, and for a moment I’m afraid that I’ve made a dangerous miscalculation. Then Snow’s shoulders slump and I feel his body relax as he breathes out a long, ragged sigh.
“Yeah… Yeah, ok. Maybe you’re right.” Snow sighs, sounding unconvinced. His bright blue eyes shine in the moonlight, and as he talks, he never takes his sentinel’s gaze away from the forest. “You know most of it, at least as much as I do. I heard Dex laying shit out as we walked. We found The Falls on arrival day. Clockers chased us for hours, almost like they were herding us to where they wanted us to go, but we were so exhausted that we didn’t care. We were ready to grab any sliver of hope with both hands. Dex was normal at first. Just another freezing, starving kid huddling in a smashed-up town at the edge of a forest full of monsters.” Snow’s laugh sounds fragile and half-crazed, and I wonder again about his state of mind after such a long time in this place. “Shit started to get weird after the first batch of supplies fell out of the sky. At first, we were just happy to have food in our bellies and a way to stay warm, but then Dex started to talking about providence, and destiny, and shit – like he thought we were some chosen tribe in the wilderness, kept alive by a benevolent, but absent, god. Everyone though he was nuts, but he kept us alive…and that meant something. Plus, He knew how to motivate the tribe to get shit done, so we all just wrote it off. Nobody’s perfect, right? We uses the tools from the crates to fix shit, to chop down trees, to build the wall…to make a home. Then we started seeing those white bastards in the forest – Ghosts.” Snow turns and locks his eyes onto mine. His cold cobalt eyes are suddenly shrink-wrapped in tears and his lips tremble, like a man trying to hold back an ocean in his chest, as he holds me in his gaze. “I knew they were dangerous. I fucking knew. I tried to tell Dex that we weren’t safe at The Falls anymore, that we needed to leave. I wanted to keep searching for a way out of this god damn forest, but he wouldn’t listen. As crates kept coming, and life got more comfortable, he became more and more convinced that we were…special. That we were chosen. The more guys that died protecting the crates, the more convinced he got. Some of us started wondering if we’d made a mistake saving his life.” Shame clouds his pale face as he remembers, and I feel a sharp pang of sympathy for this most faithful of Dex’s lieutenants. “Shit – even Hawk was having his doubts at the end.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then you happened, asshole!” The flash of anger is so sudden that I take a step away from the furious cadet before I realize what I’m doing. Snow just laughs. It’s a cold, flat sound that echoes into the darkness around us like a skeleton dropped down a deep, empty well. “Relax. If I wanted to kill you, you’d be Clocker food already. I saw the way you used that blade…I wouldn’t even have to break a sweat.”
“Comforting. What the hell do you mean: I happened?”
“I mean exactly that. You showed up, the black door showed up with you, and then Dex finished losing his fucking mind.”
“I don’t understand. What does any of this shit have to do with me?”
“I don’t have a clue, Crash. But Dex was convinced that you were the key to everything…to leading his people out of the wilderness.” Snow rolls his eyes bitterly, making his thoughts abundantly clear on that particular score, and then continues with his strange tale in a hurried, bored voice. “Anyway…One the day you arrived, Dex and Hawk were in the cave behind the waterfall. I think they were hiding supplies or fallback weapons in case we were overrun. The way they told it; the door just popped into existence while they watched. Didn’t even make a sound.”
“That’s impossible. Doors don’t just…appear or disappear at will.”
“Yeah, well…I’d been in that cave at least dozen times, and I think I would have noticed a huge evil door. Until you showed up, that cave was just a cave.” Snow says, shrugging his shoulders like we’re discussing the weather. “Dex had a couple guys try and open it. They all got zapped, just like you. When we left the cave to figure out what to do next, we saw the flyer way off in the distance, much farther away than we’d ever seen it.”
“Flyer? You mean the drone?” Snow gives me a quizzical look and a pit forms rapidly in my stomach as he watches me silently. As he looks me over suspiciously, I wonder if it might be prudent to keep my odd dreams (visions?) to myself, at least until I have a better idea what they mean.
“Drone, Flyer, whatever.” He says finally. I breathe a silent sigh of relief as he blows past my accidental revelation and continues to talk. “Well, Dex freaked out. Starting raving about displeasing The Zone, or some shit, and about the Ghosts getting all the supplies this time. He grabbed Hawk and Angel and tore off through the woods after the crate. I wanted to get the Fighters armed up to accompany him in force, but he wouldn’t hear it. He was going with his boys, and that was that. I let him go. Didn’t know what else to do.”
“I don’t get it, why did the dro…the flyer drop two crates this time? What changed?” Before Snow can answer, I’m suddenly sure I know what he’s going to say. The pit in my stomach slithers tighter around my spine in anticipation as a cold smile spreads across the other boy’s sharp features.
“That’s just it, kid, it didn’t drop a crate. They got there just in time to see it drop something else.”
I feel my throat constrict painfully, and when I speak my voice is hardly more than a rasped croak. “What was it?” I ask, hoping desperately for any answer other than the one I’m expecting.
Snow’s eyes are hard and distant when he replies, the smile melting from his face like snow under a hard rain. “It was you, Crash. For some reason, on the same day that the everything started to fall apart, the flyer brought us…you.”
The words hit me like a railgun slug in the gut, impact not mitigated in the slightest by the expectation the information was coming. I’m distantly aware that my mouth is hanging open as my mind races to find a response. I grasp for any shred of memory or insight that I can toss into the rapidly expanding chasm I feel growing between this stern, pale boy and myself.
He still thinks I’m a part of all this, that somehow my appearance is the X factor that spun his world on its head.
Shit. What if he’s right?
His gaze bores into me like twin cutting lasers. I force myself to meet the superheated assault with my own artificially confident stare. The depth of fury I see bubbling like magma behind those icy blue eyes sends a cold shock down my spine. A misstep from me now, one word out of place, and I’m afraid that volcano will explode, and god only knows what happens next. Pain makes madmen out of the best of us – and this boy is in agony.
“Look, Snow… I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t have a clue if this shit is somehow related to me, but I swear to God, I’m just as lost as you.” Snow just stares at me, his face unreadable. “I’m not special, ok? I’m not different in any god damn way. I’m just…like…you.”
“Oh, I doubt that very much, Dream Slicer.” Purrs a low female voice from somewhere behind me. The voice is confident, cold, and more than a little amused. Before I can turn around to face the owner of the silky female voice, someone presses something sharp into the back of my skull hard enough to break the skin. I hear the creak of a taught bowstring and feel the single bead of blood that slides down the back of my neck. I freeze in place, every molecule of my body suddenly focused on the small, glowing pinprick of pain at the base of my skull. “Now…both of you… on your knees, or my girls and I drop you where you stand.”