Palmer was tired. Bad news for a soldier doing battle in the realm of dreams and nightmares. Even if he wanted to sleep, Private Ethan Palmer of the 221st B.O.O.G. S. - the Biosomnic Operational Offensive Ground Squad - couldn’t stop thinking about Lt. John Rydell’s last words as he was dragged into the Flicker. “I can see them!” Rydell had screamed. “I can see them all!” Then his eyes closed, and a deep calm – almost pure serenity – washed over his face. It was the final moment Palmer had with his field commander: there one minute, gone the next. Maybe he couldn’t stop replaying that night because of the guilt. Or maybe it was the divorce. Fighting with Beth these past three months had gutted him. His family was there in name only - merely another corpse in his combat-ridden life. Or maybe Palmer was just too damn tired – exhaustion hung over his head, a succubus in his ear, whispering thoughts of tantalizing, nourishing sleep. The call from dispatch had come at 3am. He should’ve been used to it by now, but what Boogs did went against every rhythm the body had – circadian, psychological, emotional. Palmer let the rocking of the modified tactical vehicle dull his senses as it cruised the streets. The rocking gently swayed his body, lulling him. A half-second later, Private Hatch slapped Palmer so hard it split his lip. They both ignored the blood as Hatch leaned in, hissing under her breath, “Jesus, Palmer! Eyes and ears!” Sleep warfare when you’re drowsy would get you grounded from missions. And that meant no paycheck. And that meant your wife would take your kid and leave you for a damn dentist. Or at least his wife did. If he could just lean his head back and close his eyes, maybe for a moment – “Stop thinking about Rydell. Post-mission therapists went over this,” Hatch whispered. “It was no one’s fault. Hazard of the job.” But it was Palmer’s fault. Rydell was lost to the Flicker because Palmer hadn’t been focused. All those fights with Beth, all those screaming matches had worn him down, dulled his edges. “No, it’s not Rydell,” said Palmer, though the memory was wedged like a splinter. “I’m thinking about Beth. She finally left. Took Chase with her.” “I thought you two were working it out. The counseling?” Palmer shook his head, clutching his helmet as the transport hit some bumps and jostled the soldiers in their harnesses. The half-dozen Boogs rode in the cargo hold of a nondescript transport vehicle, each wearing over three million dollars in skunkworks tech. “What about Chase? He’s only five--” “Chase is six. Just had a birthday. That’s where it went down. Right after we cut the cake. Finally told me she didn’t love me anymore. That I was an absentee human. Lawyers, divorce, the whole shit-show.” Hatch leaned back, frowning. She was terrible at empathy – they were trained to suppress it - but she now understood her squad mate’s behavior a bit better. “Beth said she was staying with a friend, but I think it’s the guy she’s seeing. A damn dentist. Can you believe that?” The pain on Palmer’s face made Hatch uncomfortable, with Palmer’s normally cynical smirk now quivering at the implosion of his marriage. She subtly checked the charge on her comm. There wasn’t much left to say - wives and husbands left all the time in their line of work. Palmer was so tired; the rocking of the vehicle didn’t help. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Rydell’s face – placid, accepting, at peace. “Alright sleep maggots. Load up. Bedtime in ten!” screamed the squad Captain. Bedtime meant they were going to see action tonight. “We’ve got a location on a Flicker tear at the coordinates in your skullcaps.” Captain was all business when he wasn’t belittling them. He waved a finger towards the back of the transport. “Private Hatch, get the Sandman.” Hatch was in charge of the Sandman, their nickname for the omnidirectional interference device that scrambled the brain waves of any living thing in a two hundred yard radius - in nanosecond intervals, it flipped your theta waves to alpha, your alpha to beta, and so on. Harmless in short doses, it kept the Boogs out of sight and out of mind. Ever see a car driving late at night, its headlights blinding you momentarily – then a second later you can’t remember what the car looked like? That’s how the Sandman worked, scrambling short-term memory. The Sandman was, like most inventions that change the world, a creation of necessity and fear. Especially fear. The Sandman functioned to minimize that fear, minimize what would otherwise be absolute panic across the general population. Because the Boogs, above all, had to work in the shadows…. with the sole purpose of pushing the shadows back. *** Early in the 21st century, scientists noticed an uptick in sleep apnea; gradual, then all of a sudden, a double-digit percentage of the population gasping in their sleep, barely hitting REM cycles. People all but accepted fewer hours of healthy, deep sleep; couldn't even remember what it was like to not be exhausted by lunch. An afternoon coffee, and all was right again in the world. Then the DDS – the ‘deaths-during-sleep’ – started to happen. Random. Inexplicable. By the hundreds. Then the thousands. Across the globe. SIDS, heart attacks, blood clots, sleep paralysis, the collapse of social norms amid modern society – all these ideas were floated as potential reasons. None were true. The truth was far more simple and sinister, all at once. The blue-wave light of digital screens – phones, watches, tablets, computers. Everywhere, omnipresent, hitting our optic nerve - connected directly to the brain stem, intertwined with our cognition. This blue light altered sleep patterns; hours and hours of viewing time, of emails, of nightly binging, converted into weeks, months, years of unfettered, raw, digital emission onto retinas, altering theta wave functions in our synapses. All that light had brought the darkness. Had opened some sort of gateway. To the Flicker. By 2026 DARPA had pieced it together. Their funding lead to the creation of the Sandman, the Wave Guns, the entire arsenal to fight the creatures that arose from the Flicker. This generation’s atom bomb, its polio vaccine. Salvation and damnation, all in one package. Once the Sandman could be weaponized, the folks over at JSOC assembled The Boogs, trained them to be unlike any other unit in the world, a combination of tactical offensiveness and psychological defensiveness - a new breed of military. Soldiers of sleep. Palmer and the others grabbed their helmets, slung them on without a word – the sleek material clinging to their shaved scalps, engulfing their ears to protect their equilibrium. The Boogs wore the skullcaps to prevent the desynchronization from affecting them, while their goggles provided color-coded night-vision to wash out the visible spectrum and see what was out there in the dark, going bump in the night. That was their battlefield - just at the edge of the fire’s light. The logical brain isn’t quite sure what it saw, but that cave man part of humankind that gets scared of the dark – it subconsciously knows what it saw. Creeping forward, waiting for its moment. Equipment check complete, Palmer leaned back, letting the weight of his gun rest on his thighs. Each Boog held a tactical, electro-pulse wave rupturing modulator – which was techno-babble nonsense, to be sure - so the Boogs just called them wave guns. They looked like assault rifles but fired silent, invisible electromagnetic waves that could be focused on any frequency. The Boogs could “see” the wave guns firing, a concussion of vibrational air capable of cracking bone and stopping hearts if on its highest setting. Dangerous, to be sure – but nothing compared to what the Boogs were shooting at - Somnus Malum. The name was Latin for “bad sleep”. The Italians of the Renaissance had called them Pandafeche, while the Cambodians knew them as “the ghost that pushes you down.” In Brazil they were called “Pisadeira”, a creature that lurks on rooftops and tramples on the chests of those who sleep. Ancient Egyptians referred to them as Jinn, and in the Middle Ages they were Night Hags. The Spanish version translates to "a dead body climbed on top of me." To the Choctaw Indians they were Impa Shilup, the “soul-eater”, the great black being. These silent killers of the night – sleep paralysis and death - have been explained across cultures, over many generations, all around the world. But old legends aside, what the Malum did was even worse than our ancestors could have ever suspected: They drank our brain waves until they killed us. For what purpose, no one knew. Once upon a time it was extremely rare. Now, it was nightly. And getting worse. *** The Sandman started humming – it would discharge soon, and the Boogs would disappear from any memories of civilians they encountered. The Captain looked at the squad, leaning over the railing of the cargo container in the semi-truck that shuttled the Boogs. “We leave the past in the past,” the Captain growled. Everyone knew that he was talking about: Lt. Rydell. He was the first soldier the Boogs had lost in some time. Palmer flinched at the memory. Sadness and guilt were not even registering. He was just thinking about his bed – the California King he and Beth used to share, with the soft cotton sheets and the memory foam – “Palmer!” spat the Captain, in his face now. Palmer must’ve spaced out for a second. He didn’t even remember Cap approaching from the command perch - “got something on your mind?” “Yes, sir! I mean, no, sir!” Captain stared at him hard – he could see Palmer’s haggard look. The Captain turned to face the squad, chewing the scenery like the cigar he so desperately wished he could smoke. “This system ain’t perfect,” Captain growled, “and we’re not copasetic. And, yes, we scare civilians if they catch a glimpse. But” - his voice lowered, his tone menacing - “we keep them things at bay – the shit-your-pants and turn-your-hair-white kind of stuff”. He looked at his unit, soaking in the dramatic moment. “Let’s go. We drop in sixty.” The squad sprang into action. *** With their helmets on and the Sandman firing its memory-scrambling pulses, the Boogs crept through the upscale neighborhood. Past Bentleys and Range Rovers, security signs on lawns and Calacatta marble patios. All quiet - even the crickets lulled by the Sandman’s EEG waves. Palmer noticed the wealth and waved dismissively as he approached their target home. “Beth would love these houses,” he said into his comm. Just the thought of Beth leaving, Chase crying, all the screaming – exhaustion and depression pummeled him from all sides. Hatch put a gloved finger to her lips, speaking into the subsonic vocal mics pressed against their throats. “Don’t worry about Beth, let’s just get through tonight. Stay frosty.” From the skullcaps’ headsets, the Boogs could hear the technicians rattling off coordinates. “Alright, gang. Windsor style Tudor home at your one o’clock. Second floor is where the readings are strongest. Switching to radio silence.” With a click, control switched off and the audio feed went dead. Though devoid of sound, that which comes from The Flicker could hear the breath of a baby from over a mile away. Only the Sandman scrambled their signals enough for Boogs to close in. Radio silence in effect, the mission was all hand gestures, tactical training, and the will of God from this point on. Palmer and his squad climbed the stairs of the upper-class home. Palmer, gun at the ready, crept up the stairs, past old sketches of metallic tools from the 1800’s. Weird ass art, he thought. Another of his squad mates made the “cut” gesture with his fingers, giving the circular hand motion to charge the wave shotguns. Each squad member’s gun would fire on a different brain wave frequency. The signals blasted by the guns would basically blind what they were hunting. Down the hall they crept, invisible to anyone not wearing a skullcap, as the Sandman disrupted visual cortexes of the brain – all anyone would see were faint shadows and a shift in air pressure. The soldiers stepped over a stray toy as they made for the bedroom door at the end of the hall. Gathering in diamond formation, the left flanker shifted behind Palmer while Hatch faced rear in the hall to provide cover. Palmer gave the signal. In a split second, the right flanker flung open the door and the Boogs entered. And there it was, sitting on the child’s chest. No matter how many times Palmer had seen one, it never ceased to shake him to his core, his scrotum pulling up inside of him – a biological, visceral reaction to seeing an apex predator. A Somnus Malum. Like an armor-skinned poltergeist. This one was massive, its huge form hunched over the child, its spindly limbs swollen at the joints, horrible black skin on twisted bone – its huge eyes forever darting back and forth, forever in REM, never stopping. Palmer and the others couldn’t see the child the Malum was hunched over, couldn’t see if they were too late. The Malum turned as they entered, sensing them, its shiny darting eyes looking through the Boogs. It let out a furious scream upon the intrusion of its terrible ritual. Only, when a Somnus Malum screams, it does so via brain waves, so the creature is technically silent but you can hear it inside your head – a horrible screech, barely audible, but you couldn’t turn away, couldn’t shield your ears – because it was inside your brain. The screech scraped thru their skulls, but the Boogs were trained – they kicked on their wave guns, sending out blasts at gamma hertz cycles to slow cortical potentials. They tore into the creature, bending its branch-like limbs this way and that, causing its back to arch, double-jointed spine writhing in unholy undulations. This was a big one – the amount of wave pulses being blasted would’ve turned a smaller Malum into mush. The creature leapt off the child in the bed. Palmer made a hand gesture to move in, to crank up the pulses and push this thing back to the Flicker. Palmer leaned over to get a quick visual on the child – to make sure he was still sound asleep. Perhaps it was the invisible force of the Malum leaping off, or the EEG waves that were flying around the room - but the child shifted, peacefully rolling his body towards the Boogs. It was Chase. Jesus Christ. It was his son. But this wasn’t his bed, this wasn’t his house. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the shock – but Palmer took a step back. Too quick, losing his footing for just a split second as he slipped on a teddy bear lying on the ground. He took his finger off the trigger, ceasing the pulse from his wave gun. It was all the time the Malum needed. Freed from its paralysis, the creature spun quickly, flinging out its long arm and sending the closest soldier flying across the room, smashing him into another. Palmer resumed firing but it was too late. The Malum leapt forward, knocking the gun from his hands. It would’ve finished him then and there but Hatch rushed into the room, hearing the subsonic cries of her squad. She charged right into the three-knuckled fingers of the Malum, which shattered the bones in her arm as she tumbled back into the hallway and down the stairs. Palmer crawled for his gun, trying to make sense of it all. As he scrambled, he saw the teddy bear on the floor that had thrown him off balance, realizing it was Chase’s teddy bear. And then it clicked. The art on the wall – Victorian-era drawings of dental tools. This was Beth’s boyfriend’s house. But what were the chances of a Malum picking this house, on this night, with Palmer the one on call? There was only one answer: The Malum had set them up. It knew. Chase, Beth, this house, Palmer – it knew. The creature landed on Palmer’s back, knocking the wind out of him, flipping him over with its filthy fingernails. He gasped for breath, trying to regain his senses. Sleep paralysis was just like survivors would describe - tightness in the chest – pulling, ripping, rending as the Malum stepped onto him, claws digging in. The second to last thing Palmer saw before he drifted off, before his synapses slowed completely, was the face of the Malum as it sat on his chest, pressing onto him. Its mouth and chin, right above his head as it drank him in, drank his brain waves into the Flicker. But then Palmer saw something behind the Malum, out of the corner of his eye. Or more accurately, he saw someone. It was Lt. Rydell. Staring at Palmer from the Flicker. Only, Rydell was different – the long, spindly limbs, disproportionate joints bending this way and that, the black sheen of skin, those eyes that dashed back and forth, forever in REM. As Palmer’s world faded to a pinpoint, his airway closing, the battle raging around him, all he could think was one thing, burning in his mind- They were once us – he realized. Those that die in their sleep become Malum in the Flicker... that’s what they’ve been doing all along. Forever awake, forever feeding. Converting us to become them – a new breed of species. Digital vampires – the next step in evolution. They’d been waiting at the gate, all along, until our technology had readied the whole of humankind. Just then, Palmer managed to reach for his wave gun. And though his rotator cuff was ripped to shreds, Palmer pictured his son - smiling wide like a beam of sunshine - and summoned the strength to swing his gun to his chest and send a point-blank blast into the Malum. It was enough to knock it back. Palmer re-charged the gun and held down the trigger, hating and cursing and yelling obscenities until he finally passed out, the edges of blackness rendering him unconscious at last. *** Three Years Later The wind-up alarm clock went off, bells clanging. But Palmer wasn’t sleeping. In the time since the suburbs massacre had landed Palmer his dishonorable discharge, dismantled the 221st B.O.O.G.S. and killed nearly everyone he held dear, Ethan Palmer had been busy. He’d managed to erase himself - cell phone, address, bank account, fingerprints, social security number, DNA markers. All scrubbed and disposed of with black market hackers. His face no longer pinged facial recognition programs – but that was thanks to the Malum. The doctors had done a solid job of putting his bones back together, but the scar that ran from temple to chin simply couldn’t be grafted, even with laser-wielding reconstructive robots. Palmer preferred it that way. Preferred the daily reminder in the mirror. He shut off the alarm clock and began preparing his equipment. Equipment was a kind word for it – instead of high-tech, cutting edge, Wi-Fi integrated nano-weapons, Ethan Palmer had gone backwards. He used old-fashioned radar from a WWII Japanese receiver. His wave gun was powered by a car battery, humming and clunking as it charged; his skullcap was now a mishmash of electrodes jammed into his ocular cortex, forged from ham radio receiver parts and an old telescope. Crude and ugly – but it worked. It was the only way to fight that which was still coming. No digital. No blue spectrum light. Palmer had gone guerilla. Homemade. Analog. The way a bat chases a moth in the dead of night, these 20th century tools now allowed Palmer to hunt the Malum. While the world continued to become more technologically advanced, Palmer disconnected. He used fax machines, land lines, a pocket watch. Drove a 1987 Winnebago Chieftain RV that he parked at campgrounds, trailer parks, mountain roads around the Southwest – places the government never looked. Places with no money, promise or hope. Places drifting into oblivion. But Palmer wasn’t drifting. Far from it. After the massacre, the government blamed him for the failed mission. Higher ups wanted a scapegoat. Palmer was it. His trial was a farce - surviving teammates were paid to testify against him in closed door hearings. The government shuttered the program shortly after – the problem was contained, they claimed. But it wasn’t. It was getting worse. And Palmer knew it. *** Outside his Winnebago, a pay phone in the RV Park suddenly rang. Palmer put on sunglasses to hide his photosensitive eyes and stepped outside. He picked up on the 9th ring. Just as was always arranged. A dull click-click sound on the other end of the line. Palmer clicked back with his tongue. Several times, in rapid succession - an old Navajo code. Native Americans used it to communicate when they fought Custer. That way, they didn’t have to learn each other’s languages. It worked then, and it worked again, nearly two centuries later. Without digital tones, government software couldn’t tag him. Dead air. Then, after a long moment, a voice on the other end – “Another tear. Big one. New Orleans. 29.9511° N, 90.0715° W.” It was Hatch. She survived the massacre. Barely. These days, she had one arm and was confined to a wheelchair in a Veteran’s Hospital, at a location she never revealed to Palmer. Not that he wanted to know. If you know something, your enemy can use it against you, Palmer had come to realize. Hatch had been in a coma during his trial, could never testify. Just as well. If she’d been conscious, she’d have gone down, too. Palmer finished jotting the coordinates before answering, his voice the texture of sandpaper. “I’ll leave today.” “Palmer, this one’s different.” “They’re never different. Same method of attack. Same cause of death.” She paused, as if what was coming next was difficult to get out. “No,” Hatch whispered, “You don’t understand. The Malum, it left a message.” “They don’t leave messages. They can’t communicate.” “Well, this one did. It left your name – written on the child’s body.” Palmer’s world spun. He’d always tried to stay as hidden from the Flicker as it had from him. But now the creatures knew who he was. Or maybe they were starting to recognize what he was doing, how he was ruthlessly and relentlessly eliminating them. Because these days, Palmer was not bound by military protocol, government oversight or any sense of collateral damage. What came from the Flicker were nightmares – and Ethan Palmer was the nightmare coming after them. He had a new name now, whispered amongst those who knew and those who’d heard rumors. A reference to a memory of what Ethan Palmer once was, before all of this, and what was still to come – The Boogey Man.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: ERIC BROMBERG is an author, producer and executive that dove headfirst first into the entertainment business as an intern for Plan B, devouring as many scripts as he could. From there he helped launch Pluto TV, then eventually founded and ran the science fiction platform DUST. He’s a genre story lover and lifelong beach bum, having been born and raised in Santa Monica, California. DENNIS FALLON is a Blacklist screenwriter, award-winning journalist and prolific television composer. He’s written graphic novels, video games and commercial jingles. A MENSA member and ordained minister, Dennis got his start in Hollywood training celebrity dogs. Brought up in a fundamentalist religious sect in the Appalachian Mountains, Dennis currently lives in the Hollywood Hills with a basset hound and too many guitars. Twitter handle: @Weirdfallon