Click here for the second series (Second Stage of Something Started).
Click here for the first series (Seeing is Becoming).
Click here for the first series (Seeing is Becoming).
Vearden Haywood was almost completely alone. He once traveled the galaxy, completing missions, and going on adventures, with his best friend. But Saga was gone. She had sacrificed herself to save thousands of lives, and now she no longer existed. He found himself in a new reality; one in which an ally named Mateo Matic was never born, and neither was Saga. They had been battling an enemy who liked to call himself The Cleanser...or The Cleaner. Whatever it was, he was not a good person. It was he who tried to destroy The Pentagon with some kind of quantum duplication trick, but in order to achieve this, he needed to share some of his power with the two of them. Saga held onto this power, and used it against him, leaving Vearden to regret allowing it.
Vearden was able to maintain some power for a while after Saga’s disappearance, but not enough to find a way to bring her back. Once all this power had been drained from his system, he happened to be stuck in the year 2017. Not that it mattered, really, but it would have been nice to have gigabit internet. At present, he was sprawled out on the couch of a safehouse, watching trash TV, just like he was doing before he knew that time travel was real. He could hear clicking sounds on the other side of the door. Ashlock must have been trying to break in again. He said it was weird that a guy with his last name couldn’t pick a lock. Vearden didn’t really see a relevant connection. Garen Ashlock was a fellow time traveler, except instead of being beholden to the whims of the powers that be, he could choose how he used his powers. Not surprisingly, people like him were known as choosing ones. He had an interesting limitation, though. He could send someone from present day to any time and place in the future or past, and then bring them back, but was unable to travel himself. They called him The Action, but Vearden preferred Ashlock.
Fifteen minutes later, the door swung open. “I think I may have broken it,” Ashlock said apologetically.
“Whatever,” Vearden replied. “The only people I’m worried about getting in here can teleport anyway.”
Ashlock looked at the TV. “Why are you watching this crap again?”
“Well, I just finished watching LOST for the fourth time, and it was left on this channel.”
“Do you think watching your friend’s favorite show is gonna bring her back?”
“I can’t imagine it’s preventing her from coming back.”
“But it prevents you from moving on. This life is not healthy. How long has it been since the powers that be gave you a mission?”
“They keep opening portals to Stonehenge, but I think they know by now that I’ve figured out how to subvert them.”
“Well, you’re the only I’ve ever met who’s been able to do that.”
“The other salmon just aren’t working hard enough.”
“And they were never temporarily granted the temporal powers of one of the most powerful people in histories.”
“There’s that too.”
“Come on,” Ashlock said, like a worried mother. “It’s time to get out and about. I wanna send you somewhere.”
“No, thanks, I don’t feel like it.”
“I didn’t say you had a choice.”
“You didn’t say I didn’t.”
“Do you want to talk in circles?”
“Do you want to talk in circles?”
“I thought so.”
“If you don’t get up and get dressed right now, you’ll be going on the trip in your jammies.”
“It’s a robe.”
“Then I’ll send you to a transport ship in the 24th century, and you can pretend to be Arthur Dent.”
“I don’t get the reference.”
“Yes, you do, I know you do.” He waited. “Seriously, this is happening. I consider it my duty and honor to extract you from your funk.”
“Fine,” Vearden said finally. Then he got dressed.
“Bring Saga’s camera, by the way. You’re gonna want it.”
“It better be somewhere cold this time,” Vearden said from the other room as he was retrieving the camera.
Ashlock cracked his knuckles, and his neck. “Thank you for flying Ashlock Airlines. Here at Ashlock, we understand that you have a choice in transport options, and we thank you for not choosing Dave. Dave’s a dick.”
“Okay,” Vearden said dismissively.
Ashlock didn’t care. “At this time, please ensure that you have removed any citrus from your person, as it will explode during transit. If you cannot afford to leave your citrus, a napkin will not be appointed for you.”
“Could we be quite quick?”
“Your wish is my command.” He snapped his fingers, twitched his nose, then crossed his arms and bobbed his head.
“We get it,” Vearden cried. “You have superpowers, and you like TV!”
As one final flourish, Ashlock reached back and began to punch Vearden. An invisible force propelled Vearden backwards, before Ashlock’s fist could make contact, sending him to another time and place.
He was standing in a field, which was where all good stories start. At first he thought that that’s all it was, but then he turned and saw something familiar. Ashlock’s voice came to him from the aether, which was something he could do to people he’s sent somewhere. “I’m sorry. It’s for the best.”
Vearden was looking at a Stonehenge archway. But that’s all that was there. Only one archway of three stones had been built. The rest were presumably on their way. Though never this early in the timeline, he had been here before. A man called The Delegator liked to use it as his office. He would summon salmon—time travelers who had no control over their movements—to his location in order to tell them what they’re going to be doing to serve a mysterious group of people ominously called the powers that be.
“I have been waiting for you for a very long time,” the Delegator said.
“That’s BS,” Vearden argued. “You can manipulate time. I bet you just tried to take me back several times within the last five minutes, from your perspective.”
“Then correction: you have been waiting to return for a very long time.”
“Whatever,” Vearden replied, his catchphrase. “I’m not gonna fight with you about this. I think I did a pretty good job of avoiding it, but that’s over now. There’s only one archway, which means I don’t have a choice in the matter this time. Either tell me what I’m doing, or let me walk through and figure it out on my own. I’m fine either way.”
“If you had come when you were first called, you would have learned that this is a mission you might actually want.”
“I doubt it.”
“The archway will take you back to Saga.”
With no further question, Vearden started walking towards the portal.
“Wait,” the delegator stopped him desperately. “It won’t take you directly to her. You’ll have to go through a whole lot of trouble on the other side in order to find her.”
He would not be deterred. “Fine, that works for me.”
“Not so fast. Right now, she feels no pain. She feels nothing. If you do this. If you go on this...journey, you’ll be subjecting her to the pain of life. If you walk away, you’ll go back to your tighty-whities and microwave popcorn, and the powers that be will never bother you again. Hell, I’ll even throw in a one-way trip to a time and place of your choosing, at no extra charge. Walk through that portal, and the deal’s off. If you get Saga back, you’ll both start going on dangerous missions again.”
Vearden laughed. “As if that’s a real choice.” He continued towards the portal.
“Can you do that to her? Can you bring another human being into our terrible world?”
“The world is better off,” Vearden said without turning back, “with Saga Einarsson in it.” He stepped forward...and began his voyage to Saga.
The face of Saga was waiting for Vearden once he walked through the portal. He was about to hug her, but was immediately wary of the whole thing. She looked like Saga, but she didn’t look like her. She didn’t hold herself, or look back at him in the same way the real Saga would. No, this had to be an imposter.
The imposter turned her chin slightly, sensing his doubt. “Wow,” she said. “That has to be a record. No one has ever figured out that I’m not really their loved one, let alone right away. You’re good. You might actually get through this.”
“Take off that face,” Vearden ordered.
“We do this—” she tried to say.
“Because you think it’s a form I’ll be more comfortable with. Yeah, that’s all well and good, but here’s the thing, I don’t really have time for that, and it isn’t. I do not appreciate seeing my friend played by anyone other than her. Original cast or bust. Take off her face so we can have a real conversation.”
“Very well.” She shook her body, letting bits of Saga form drip off, revealing just another person he didn’t recognize.
“What is your name?”
“They just call me The Shepherd,” she replied.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To your destiny.” When she saw he wasn’t impressed, she dropped the act entirely. “Okay, work with me here. I kinda have a bit. I don’t get a lot of visitors, so I spend my time rehearsing. It’s really important to me.”
Vearden pointed to himself. “Look at my face.” He turned his pockets out. “Look at my pockets. Frisk me, if you will. I assure you that I do not have any fucks to give.”
“Can’t argue with that logic, can I?” she said sarcastically.
“What do I have to do to get Saga back?”
She paced around a bit for dramatic effect. “Has anyone ever told you the reason the powers that be do what they do?”
“I thought I told you I don’t have time.”
“It’s relevant, I promise.” When he restrained himself, and stopped arguing, she continued with her speech. “Most salmon think that they’re doing great things; that they’re saving the world—and that’s true, to an extent. But the motives of their controllers are not so noble. Just watch any movie, and who wins in the end? Sometimes it’s the antagonist, when that writer has decided to be particularly pessimistic about how things are. Maybe he’s trying to hold a mirror up to society, or some other fartsy bullshit. But for the most part, the hero needs to win. He may die in the end, and it won’t work out the way he planned, and he definitely loses a lot along the way, but in the end, his efforts will not have been in vain.
“So when the powers that be jerk you around time and space, they are trying to get you to do things, but only because that’s the kind of movies they like to watch. Why did they let The Cleanser keep torturing Mateo Matic and his family? Why didn’t they just reach down, grab that dark knight, and knock him off the board? Well...because that isn’t very interesting. The only way the good guys win is if they come this close to not.”
“They’re just watching us on a TV screen.”
“Nothing so...pedestrian, but yes.”
“Makes a level of sense. What does this have to do with Saga?”
“I am not a power that be,” the Shepherd said. “I do, however, identify with them.” She made her face all creepy. “I like to watch.”
“Meaning that whatever you make me do to get Saga back won’t have any real connection to my goals. You’ll just come up with dangerous situations to throw me in so you can have a good time.”
“Why not? You do that too. Weren’t you just watching LOST? Those people’s lives were terrible.”
“Those people aren’t real.”
“You sure about that? How do you know that you’re real? How do you know that some dude isn’t just writing your story while naked in his home office, eating unsalted nuts and listening to, oh I dunno...maybe Civil Twilight?”
He sighed. “Is he?”
She shook her head. “Not anymore, the album just ended, so he’s listening to VAST.”
“This is a fun conversation; we should do this more often.”
“Yeah, well, when I’m done with you, you’re gonna wish all we did was talk.”
“That may be. I can’t see the future, unfortunately, so for now...let’s just get on with it.”
“Fine. What you experience next will be the first of eleven trials.”
“Did I stutter...literally? Sometimes I do that, human is not my first language.”
“You said there would be eleven trials. There are only ever three trials. It’s the Rule of Three.”
“These may or may not be based on the eleven Labors of Hercules.”
“There were twelve labors.”
“There were? Then I guess I’m an all-powerful being with the ability to return people from complete non-existence, and no limit to the number of trials she can come up with!”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”
“Plus, there are kind of eleven dimensions.”
“Oh, I think I’ve heard that.”
“I mean...it doesn’t matter how many dimensions there are, it’s not like I’m going to be sending you down the manifold. What I am going to be doing, however, is sending you to other universes. If you’re lucky, and you get through all of them, you’ll find yourself in what’s known as base reality. It is there that you will be given what you need to retrieve Saga.”
“I know you appreciate watching people struggle through these things, but can’t you just skip it this once? She doesn’t deserve this. How about I take her place? Yeah, how about that? A one-to-one. Let’s do it.”
“I don’t make the rules. I’m implementing them in my own fun way, but they’re not mine. I can’t personally give her back to you. Only The Superintendent can.”
“Okay, let me talk to him.”
She was exhausted from having to explain herself. “He’s in base reality, which takes time and a hell of a lot of work. This is how it’s happening, I don’t know why you’re questioning it. You told The Delegator that you wouldn’t.”
“That’s true,” Vearden said. He did say that. “I did say that.”
“It’s okay. I can tell that this is stressful for you, and you’re a lot different than other people I’ve shepherded. I want you to know that I’ll be there with you, every step of the way. You may not see me, and I may not help, but I’ll be close by.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or bad.”
“It could go either way, depending on what happens,” the Shepherd said honestly.
“So what is my first...trial?”
“This was it,” she answered as she was nodding to herself, like she had just decided on that in the moment. “There’s one universe I was planning on sending you to, but it’s having some, uh...developmental issues, that I don’t really want to deal with.”
“And you’re good people, so we’ll just say that having to talk with yet another cryptic and frustrating choosing one is a hard enough trial on its own.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I’m not as bad as you might think either.”
“I am starting to see that,” Vearden admitted. He waited the appropriate amount of time, maybe a little longer. “Then what’s the next one?”
“Ah, this one will be familiar. You see, these universes bleed together, but they’re not seen for what they are. They’re interpreted as fiction, if you can believe it. This particular universe has been depicted in film, television, and other media quite a bit in our universe.”
“Let me try to understand this, are we talking about alternate realities?”
“Oh, no. That’s a different thing. Alternate realities, and alternate timelines, refer to some kind of point of divergence. They take place in the same universe, but with conflicting events. In our universe, they can run concurrently, but usually don’t.”
“Wait, back up. What’s the difference between a reality and a timeline?”
“The latter addresses historical differences, while the former is really just about the perceived differences in the so-called present condition.”
“Okay, now I’m up to speed...kinda. Go on.”
“Parallel worlds exist simultaneously with ours, like bubbles in an undrained sink, and sprouted from different start conditions. That is, the universe was created from some other big bang, or maybe not even a big bang at all. I won’t be sending you to that second kind, though; they’re weird. And they’re harder to get to.”
“This is all very confusing. I feel like I’m understanding it, but also that I’m going to be completely lost when I wake up tomorrow.”
“No, you won’t be lost tomorrow, that’s later.”
“What does that mean?”
“Never mind. You better get some sleep. Your trial starts tomorrow.”
The Shepherd provided Vearden with a conjured lavish six-star resort suite that was far too big for one person. He had the most comfortable bed in the worlds, and access to a room service bot whenever he wanted it. He kept asking the Shepherd to send him on his way, but she said the delay was not for his benefit. It was taking her longer than expected to prepare for his departure. She mentioned something about copyright issues, which didn’t make any sense, but also said that getting to the trial faster would not result in winning them faster. They would just take longer. Again, what does that mean? She wouldn’t explain completely, and he knew he couldn’t push it. Instead, he accepted his condition, and decided to take full advantage of the fake hotel amenities, especially the gym. He was in dire need of exercise, so it wasn’t like he was just wasting time.
Still, when she returned after nearly a week, he was ready to go. She dressed him in nice athletic clothes and opened a special door for him. It revealed a view of stars like none he had seen before. It wasn’t from the perspective of a planet, but from the orbit of one. She gently nudged him out, and he began to uncontrollably float and spin towards the surface. She was either trying to kill him, or he would somehow be able to survive the fall. It seemed to the be the latter, for he was headed down at too steep of a rate for a normal entry, but he couldn’t really feel that much movement. It could best be described as zooming into a certain Earth mapping software, completely safe and harmless. But this was not Earth. No big deal, Vearden had been to other planets before. In fact, this was so boring, that it was more interesting to turn around and watch the publish-blue sky fall away.
He continued to zoom in until passing through the roof of a large building, as well as a few floors below. At last he landed. A man was hastily providing CPR to another man on the floor. At first, Vearden couldn’t tell if people could even see him. He thought it might have been like It’s a Wonderful Life, but no, the guy was just busy trying to save somebody’s life.
“Where did you come from?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Vearden said. “I can help. Do you need me to take over with compressions?”
“I do,” the man said. “I need to find out what’s taking Geltona so long with the resuscitator.”
Vearden got down on his knees, found his hand placement, and got to work. “What’s his name?” he called out before the first responder could leave.
“Governor Litsendi.” He ran out of the room.
Vearden continued compressions for a few more minutes, but it was becoming incredibly tiring. He could feel something else, though. It was a feeling he had not experienced for many years. Soon after unwillingly becoming a time traveler, and being sent to his first non-Earth planet, he encountered a race of natives called the Gondilak. They had the ability to heal their bodies at a phenomenally fast rate. Through a series of accidents and coincidences, Vearden was bestowed their ability temporarily. This allowed him to travel across Earth, saving lives by donating blood to them. He thought this ability had been literally drained from his body, but perhaps not. Some tiny sliver of that crept upon him just now. Looking back, he probably always had it with him. It was just enough power to save one more life, and no other beyond, so subconsciously, he must have been saving it for a special occasion. This was going to have to be that occasion. He just needed to find enough time to search for the right medical supplies, which would be tough, because the man was on his last breath, and he was now alone. Fortunately, this appeared to be some kind of doctor’s office. Or was it a museum?
He stopped compressions for a few seconds, rushed over to grab a couple needles, a tube, and some alcohol. Ignoring proper procedure, he jabbed himself with one needle, and siphoned off a steady stream of blood, which he let flow into the patient’s body. Governor Litsendi woke up less than a minute later, just as the first responder, and a new woman came into the room. She was presumably Geltona.
“How did you get him back?” the first responder asked. Then he noticed the tube. “Why the hell did you do this? What’s going on here?”
Vearden held up his hands to show nonviolence. “Everything’s okay. My name is Vearden Haywood. I come from...well, another world. I healed this man with my blood. It’s something I used to be able to do. I only had one more dose left, which I used for him.”
Governor Litsendi was happy about it, but the other two were unsure. “Castanea,” the woman said, “please escort our prisoner downstairs.” There was something weird about their mouths when they talked that Vearden was just now starting to notice with her. He couldn’t quite figure it out.
“Hey, come on, man, I saved his life,” Vearden argued, but Castanea didn’t try to take him away. Instead, he held the governor’s wrists behind his back, and walked him out.
“Uh...he’s a prisoner?”
“Of war, yes. Not our war, mind you,” Geltona said, “but we must honor Galactic law, and let the authorities take it from here.”
“So, are we cool?” Vearden asked.
“This room serves as the exit for the Museum of Medical History. It must be kept at a particular temperature in order to protect the artifacts.”
“Wow, that must have sounded like a non sequitur. It’s just an expression from my world. I mean to ask if you and I have a problem with each other, or if you accept my presence and actions as agreeable.”
“You saved the life of a very important—very terrible—but very important man. Your actions may have prevented a grave escalation of interstellar conflict. For now, you and I are...cool.”
“Good. Can I stand up?” She nodded with her eyelids. “I do want to remind you that what I did was an anomaly. If you’re planning to dissect me, or keep me locked up, or use me for some grand plan, you’ll be disappointed. I’m normal now. I became this way by accident, and it really is gone by now.”
She dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand. “His condition was nothing we would not be able to handle under normal circumstances. He was only in so much danger because he was in the most remote part of the building, full of antiquated surgical paraphernalia.”
“If that is the case, then I am greatly impressed by your partner’s knowledge of basic manual resuscitation technique.”
“The best doctor knows everything about medicine and treatment. We do not forget the old ways.”
“That’s nice to hear. I might need some of that knowledge while I’m around. It’s likely to be dangerous for me here.”
“Why are you here, and where exactly did you come from?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“I judge only by facts, not impressions.”
“Well, you see, that’s the problem,” Vearden said. “The fact is that I come from a distant parallel universe, and was brought here on an unknown mission, the completion of which—along with ten more—ultimately hopefully leads to the safe return of my partner.”
“That is quite a story.”
“I told you that you wouldn’t believe. Even though it’s true, I would not be able to prove it.”
“That is not entirely accurate, but we do not have time to run the necessary cosmic frequency tests. I will simply operate under the assumption that you are telling the truth.”
After an awkward pause, Geltona decided that they best find out what Vearden’s mission might be, if it wasn’t simply to save the governor. Theoretically, if that was it, he would be gone by now. No, it was probably something else; something bigger. He was getting the sense that he was meant to help people, rather than just survive some danger. Afterall, the Shepherd wanted to watch him win, and the only time he’s ever felt like a winner was when he was helping people.
Castanea was waiting for them in their joint offices. “I figured you would bring him here.”
“Is the governor secure?” Geltona asked of him.
“Yes,” Castanea confirmed.
“So is he the governor of his planet...or another one? Or what?”
They looked at him funny. “Governor is a military rank, above coronel, and below ligament,” Geltona explained before turning to Castanea. “He’s from another universe. Must be a translation error—which doesn’t explain how we are understanding each other at all. You obviously don’t speak Vertean, because I can see your lips moving differently than the words that I interpret you enunciating.”
“I guess you’re right, I had a hard time following what you just said, because I’m not that smart...but it did sound like English to me.”
Castanea perked up. “Where have I heard that before?”
Another woman came into the room holding some kind of computer device that resembled an ancient Egyptian scroll. She handeded it to Geltona who pressed a button and released a hologram. “Thank you, Awilda.”
“Also, Comsprint wants you to know that he will be returning from Aehdre,” Awilda said. “The patients are not getting any better, and he doesn’t feel he can do any more good onsite.”
“Thank you, Assistant,” Castanea said, but he made it sound more like a respectable title, rather than just him not caring about her real name.
Vearden couldn’t help but peak at the images on the hologram. They looked familiar to him, but he wasn’t sure, so he would need a better look. He rudely took the device from her hands, but she didn’t seem to mind. “I recognize this rash. What is the diagnosis?”
“There is none.”
“We see these symptoms in other diseases, or rather in the historical records of diseases, but the patients test negative for all of them.”
“What are the symptoms?” Vearden asked.
“Fear of light, deep confusion, these rashes you seem to know something about. It’s killing by the thousands, we’ve not seen anything like it in centuries.”
“Well, I’m not a doctor, but they look exactly like something I picked up in the 18th century called typhus. A doctor from the future had to come back and heal me, but I assume I still have antibodies for it.”
“Diseases tend to not leap across whatever barrier separates our universe from others,” Castanea said. “At least I don’t think so, since I’ve never heard of other universes.”
Geltona sighed and took the device back from Vearden, setting it down on her desk. “That’s true, but it can’t hurt to take a few samples.” She removed a pod from her desk and unwrapped the plastic. She then smashed it between her hands, letting a mist cover her skin. Castanea cleaned his hands as well, so that he could place gloves on hers. She rolled up Vearden’s sleeve, and took a gun-like device from Castanea.
The Shepherd’s disembodied voice came from nowhere. “Let them have nearly all of it,” she said. The other two did not indicate that they could hear it.
He knew he had to comply. “Take as much blood as you can without killing me. Leave me only as much I would need to survive in a bed with an intravenous drip.”
They were not convinced. They probably had their own version of the hippocratic oath.
“Please,” Vearden begged. “I can’t go home if you don’t. This is what my mission entails, so this is what I need from you. Ignore ethics, save the patients.”
That was enough for them. Geltona took litres of blood from his veins, leaving him a wreck, curled up on the floor. He quickly passed out, and then woke up in a hospital bed. The Shepherd was standing over him.
“Are we feeling better?” The Shepherd asked of him. She was holding a clipboard and wearing a stereotypical nursing cap.
“Good enough.” He struggled to sit up. “What’s my next mission?”
“Now, hold on. You don’t even know if you did well enough on the last one. Hell, you don’t even know if you survived. I can talk to dead people.” She said that like an overconfident kindergartner who can now count to ten.
Vearden just sat there and waited.
“Okay, fine, you did great. The people on that planet are fine too, by the way. You cured them, and saved the better part of an entire galaxy.”
“That’s nice to hear,” Vearden said honestly.
“I thought you might enjoy that, because this next one is going to be more complicated, and you’re not going to like how it starts.”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not,” the Shepherd agreed. “You could always quit. You came to me, this isn’t like the Cleanser with his tribulations, or Arcadia with Mateo’s expiations.”
“Arcadia who, and her what?”
“Don’t worry about it.” She paused before adding, “yet.”
Vearden sat up a little straighter. “I’ll be ready in a minute. I just need to find my clothes.”
“Clothes?” she asked. “Where we’re goin’...we don’t need clothes.”
“So, a nudist colony?” He had to admit, if only to himself, that that did not sound like something he would say no to.
“No, L-O-L.” She literally laughed. “You’ll just be wearing someone else’s clothes.” She looked at him over her fake glasses. “I must say, though—and you might call me a cliché—but I do love a man in uniform.” She waved her hand in the air and spirited him away.
He found himself sitting in the cockpit of an airplane, wearing a pilot’s uniform. The Shepherd was right. He wasn’t happy with this. It was giving him traumatic flashbacks to the time he lost Saga in the first place. He had to get over it though, because it was time to get into character.
“I’ll tell ya what, though,” the guy who was presumably his co-pilot said without looking at Vearden. “I sure wish they could put an air marshal on every flight.”
Vearden chose to stay silent. Either he had leapt into the body of the pilot, or they had switched places. He wasn’t quite ready to find out which. He could also hear someone banging on the cockpit door, yelling something about diverting the craft.
“King Dumpster would never—” the co-pilot tried to continue, but then did happen to look over. “My God, who the fuck are you!”
“Uh...” he couldn’t come up with a good excuse. He missed the days when the people he ran into weren’t surprised to see him. The people on Orolak had encountered aliens many times before, and the doctors on Vaidy didn’t dismiss the possibility of alternate universes. Vearden waved his arms in front of himself like a stage performance. “Magic.”
“I’m gonna call this in.” The co-pilot started speaking into the radio, and Vearden had to think quickly. Violence was never the answer, but since when did he ever receive a perfect score for anything? He punched the co-pilot in the jaw, successfully knocking him out.
He stood and turned up the volume on the little security camera outside the cockpit. The man kept yelling. “There’s a bomb! We have to divert the plane! Go south! Go as far south as you can!”
Curious, Vearden opened the door, shocking the man on the other side. “If there’s a bomb on the plane, how would flying south help?”
“Uh...” the man didn’t know what to say either, but then he composed himself. “The bomb is not on the plane. It’s over Kansas, and the resulting EMP will knock out all electronics for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. I can’t believe you opened the...” He trailed off when he noticed the co-pilot. “Who are you?”
“Someone who doesn’t know how to fly a plane. Do you?”
The man didn’t expect to be taken seriously. “I think I could figure it out. We just...we just need to go south. Then we can deal with the whole emergency landing problem.”
The flight attendant showed up from evidently having needed to calm down the other passengers. “What the hell is going on here? Where’s the captain?”
“It’s okay, um...Stevenson,” Vearden said, looking at the flight attendant’s nametag. “I’m an air marshal, and this is an emergency. We have to divert the plane.”
“Where’s your badge?” Stevenson asked.
“I’m under cover.”
He stared at him like he didn’t believe a word he was saying. But then he shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t mind being a hostage.” Stevenson left to sit down casually in his cute little jump seat.
“We better get inside,” Vearden said to the other guy.
“Taniel! Taniel! Come up here!” he called back to the fuselage.
“What’s your name, by the way?” Vearden asked.
“You can call me Kasabian.” They stepped into the cockpit, along with a young man named Taniel. Stevenson waved goodbye to them.
“What kind of world are we living in?”
“Have you been—” Kasabian began.
“...living under a rock?” Vearden proposed. “Let’s say I have. How would you explain this world to an alien?”
“Things have been going bad for years now,” Taniel explained while Kasabian sat down and tried to get a feel for the controls. “Now my father believes shit has finally hit the fan. So instead of taking me and my sister to safety, he left her behind.”
“I have my orders,” Kasabian defended himself. “She’s not a part of this.”
“She’ll die out there!” Taniel argued.
“I have taught her everything I know. She’ll be well clear of the blast, and radiation. She’ll survive, but we won’t if I can’t figure out how to get this thing turned.”
“Oh my God,” Taniel said. He shooed his father from the controls and started manipulating them himself. They could feel the plane make an uncomfortably sharp turn to the left. When he was done, the other two didn’t know what to say. “It’s not that hard,” Taniel said to them. “Parents complain about all the video games their millennial children play...until it comes time to call upon the skills learned in an airplane simulation.”
“Great,” Kasabian said with a nod. “Now that I know how to do that, we can turn again and go south, which is where we need to be, because we’re not going back to Houston, son!”
“You’re an asshole.”
“You’ll thank me when we’re in the—” he stopped short, apparently realizing that he had said too much. He just went back to making a much more dramatic turn than before, and pretended like they hadn’t been talking.
“In the what?” Taniel questioned.
“The safe zone, of course,” Kasabian covered. Taniel wasn’t buying it, but didn’t think he would get any more answers anyway. Besides, someone was knocking on the door.
“Don’t answer that,” Kasabian commanded.
“Why not?” Vearden asked.
“We don’t know who it is.”
“You don’t know who I am.”
“Exactly. I don’t any more variables.”
“I’m the one in the captain’s uniform,” Vearden said, with a slight smile.
“I’m the one with close-quarters combat training,” Kasabian countered.
“I’m here for a reason, and this women might be a part of that.”
“She looks familiar,” Taniel said, peering at the security stream. She was a pretty middle-aged woman who looked nervous and desperate.
Vearden opened the door, knowing that Kasabian was too busy to stop him.
“Are we going south?” the woman asked.
“We are now, yes,” Taniel said. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry but we will not be going to Atlanta,” Kasabian said, now looking through a manual he found. “This is a matter of national security.”
“I didn’t want to go to Atlanta,” the woman said. “I wanted to go to Brazil. Atlanta was just one of my stops.”
“We can’t go to Brazil either,” Kasabian told her. “We have to stop at the nearest airport, and from what I gather, that would be Havana.”
“Are you crazy?” Taniel asked. “We can’t go to Cuba.”
“Why not?” Vearden asked. “Did Obama not reopen Cuba?”
“Yeah, and then King Dumpster closed it again in 2019.”
“Who the hell is King—oooohhhh.” Vearden finally realized who they were talking about. “You guys reelected him in this reality?”
“Cuba wasn’t happy about the new ban,” the woman continued, ignoring Vearden’s strange remark. “They won’t be happy to see us. Let’s just go on to Brazil. Surely we have enough fuel.”
“Honestly, ma’am,” Kasabian said, “I have no idea. We’re playing this by ear. We too are trying to get to Brazil, but we may not make it, so we have to play it safe. No one anywhere is ever happy to see Trumpericans.”
“Is that really what—” Vearden tried to ask.
“No.” Kasabian sighed. “It’s not what we’re officially called. Man, that rock must have been heavy. Now everyone please stop talking. I need to learn everything I can about this so we don’t all crash into the gulf and die.”
“Fair enough.” Then Vearden added under his breath, “I’m just not sure what I’m still doing here.”
Vearden and Taniel sat on the floor while the woman, whose name turned out to be Candida, sat in the co-pilot’s seat. The co-pilot woke up a half hour later the jumpseat next to Stevenson; confused, angry, but with no way of getting back into the cockpit. A half hour after that, things got really insane. All of the sudden, the controls that were once lit up just shut off. Kasabian could steer the plane to a certain degree, but the electronics were all gone. It would seem that they were unable to get far enough away from the EMP he mentioned earlier.
“Oh my God, are we gonna die?” Candida asked, loudly, but not loud enough for the passengers to hear.
“We’ll be able to glide for a while, but it may not be enough to get to the runway. I don’t have that math, or enough education to, like, solve it anyway.”
“What can we do?” Taniel asked, but received no response. “Dad! What can we do?”
Kasabian frantically started flipping back through the manual. “Where do they keep the parachutes?”
“There’s no way this plane has a parachute for every single passenger,” Taniel said.
“I wasn’t talking about every passenger,” Kasabian said back. “Just us. In fact, just us two. Only you need to survive, and I only need to survive to protect you.”
“What makes me so bloody special?”
“I’m not having this conversation again.
And then they began to fight with each other, not one of them offering any viable solution. Candida tried to play mediator, but they started attacking her a little as well. Vearden remained silent before doing that thing where he shuts everybody up at once. “We can’t do this. None of us knows how to fly. Sure, you held onto the stick thingy, and kept it moving, but autopilot does most things these days, so I’ma hold onto your medal. Even if it had been programmed to land from a glide, it doesn’t work, because the power’s out. There’s only one person on this thing who can save us.”
It took some more persuasion, but eventually, they reluctantly opened the door and let the co-pilot come back in. Apparently, if they did manage to survive and make it to Cuba, they weren’t going to be punished as terrorists, because...well it was 2023 Cuba in a universe where a massive nuclear weapon was just detonated over Kansas. No one was in charge, so they might as well let the co-pilot do what he was trained to do. It wasn’t like he could stop them after that. He ordered them out of the cockpit, and they complied. It was out of their hands. More specifically, it was out of Vearden’s hands.
He stepped into the lavatory to splash water on his face. When he tried to step out, he found himself back in the magical suite from before. Housekeeping hadn’t even come in to clean.
“Oh, you did a good job,” the Shepherd said from the bathroom. “In the original timeline, no one thought to call the co-pilot back, and they all died.”
Vearden was sleeping soundly in his bed. He was dreaming of getting Saga back. All his efforts led to success, and they were happy. But then suddenly the dream started draining from him, and he woke to find himself becoming increasingly wet. At first he thought it was sweat, and then he thought it might have been something else, which was weird because he had never thought of Saga like that. After a few more seconds, though, he realized that the wetness was not coming from him. His hotel suite was gradually filling up from water, presumably coming from some other time and place. It had soaked through his mattress, and was overcoming his body. He jumped out of bed and started wading through the water in an attempt to get to the door. The water was up to his waist when he finally gave up trying to open it. He struggled over to the bathroom door. It did open, but it was filling up with water as well. It was then that he decided to give up. He lifted his feet and started floating on the rising surface. The Shepherd probably wasn’t trying to kill him, but if she was, so what?
The water was salty, burning his eyes as little drops splashed into his face. Before he reached the ceiling, he took a deep breath, and then let it out so as to sink back down towards the floor. He opened his eyes just enough to see the furniture disappear little by little. The walls broke away, and the floor turned to sand. Then the sand dropped away from him, leaving him in the middle of nowhere. The ceiling was gone as well, so he finally swam up and broke through to freedom. All around him he could see only ocean...and also some kind of platform. He instinctively swam over and pulled himself onto it. A machine buzzed over and started looking at him. There appeared to be a camera on it. Must have been some kind of surveillance drone.
Two people reached down and pulled him farther from the edge. “Are you okay?” one of them asked.
“Can you breathe?” asked the other.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Vearden answered. “Where am I?”
“Well, we don’t know,” said the man.
“They don’t tell us these things,” the woman added.
Vearden coughed a little and sat up. This was only one of a whole bunch of platforms, floating varying distances from each other, with no real land in sight. “Were you kidnapped?” he asked.
“Heavens no,” the man said. “This is a challenge.” He helped Vearden up and pointed at the drone. “Smile, you’re on camera. Millions of people are watching you crash this party. Where the hell did you come from?”
“This is a television show?”
“Well, it’s a web broadcast, but yeah,” the woman confirmed. “More specifically, it’s a reality competition.”
Vearden looked around again, for no reason in particular, just to get his bearings as best he could. Another drone zoomed in from the sky. It opened its aperture to release a holographic image of a man. “Contestants,” the hologram said. “This is an unexpected visit, and I recognize the novelty in it. The producers and I have decided that, since there is no rule against it, this newcomer may help you in this challenge, if he so chooses. He can only, however, help one of you. You have five minutes to plead your case, at which point you must get back to the challenge, regardless of the decision. If you’ve not left this platform by then, you will forfeit the challenge.”
There was a brief pause after the hologram flickered out when they didn’t know what to do, or say. Then the woman scoffed. She started stretching and warming up. “I don’t need any help. I’m a freakin’ fish. You’ll just get in my way. She dove into the water and began to swim to the next nearest platform.
“I could use your help,” the man said. “Philomena is a surfer; I’m a judge. I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
“What’s your name?”
“Daniel...I’m Vearden. Do people die in these challenges?”
“It’s not happened before.”
“So this isn’t like, you win or you’re executed type of thing? This isn’t some post-apocalyptic sport that the new authorities have imposed on the impoverished?”
“Of course not. Have you never heard of Flipsides?”
“I guess not.”
“It’s like Survivor meets Big Brother meets the NCAA Championship Tournament. So will you help?”
“That’s why I’m here. Tell me what to do.”
Daniel protected his eyes from the sun and looked out to the horizon. “Do you see that sky-slash-ocean-colored blob on that platform over there?”
“That’s called a jelly frog. It’s a genetically engineered amphibian with a severe health defect. If it sits—oh, there it goes,” he interrupted himself when the blobby thing jumped up and fell into the water. He went on, “if it sits in one place for too long, it’ll die. The weight of its own little organs start to crush each other, so it has to frequently get back in water. Unfortunately, its gills don’t work if it doesn’t keep moving, and they suffer from diminishing returns, so it has to jump back onto land to breathe regular air again.”
“So it’s constantly on the move.”
“Yes, and the object of the game is to catch it.”
During Daniel’s explanation, Vearden was watching Philomena swim from platform to platform. She couldn’t just swim right to the one where the frog was, because she wouldn't be able to see it, and she couldn’t stay in one place too long, because the frog wouldn’t. It was designed to be tiring and frustrating. Maybe it wasn’t even winnable, but it looked like Philomena was getting close, so they better get going.
It was then that Vearden was able to see it. There was a distortion above the platform that the jelly frog was on at the moment. He started looking at other platforms to see if it was just an illusion, and found another distortion above a second platform in a different direction. But it was just these two. “Can you see that?” he asked.
“We better go, or I forfeit.”
“The blur just above the frog. Can you see it?”
“No, I can’t see anything. Maybe you just got too much water in your lungs.”
“No, this is for me. This is why I’m here. Come on.” Vearden jumped into the water.”
“That’s the wrong way,” Daniel called down to him.
“Just trust me.” He began to swim past the next platform over.
“Can you predict its movements?” Daniel asked.
“Just trust me,” Vearden repeated. He could hear a splash behind him. Apparently Daniel was following his advice.
Evidently, the platform they had started on was the starting line, because it was far more stable. He was able to pull himself on it, and stay standing, as needed. These other platforms were a lot more trouble, though. Every time he pushed down on the edge to get himself onto it, it would just turn up and slip him off. “This is impossible!” How was Philomena even doing it? She wasn’t struggling at all. Oh, that’s right, she was a surfer. “She has an unfair advantage!” he cried once Daniel had caught up to him to try to get himself on.
“She has a literal advantage. She won an earlier challenge, which gave her the opportunity to pick the place. Not all challenges are in the ocean.”
“Well, we have an advantage too,” Vearden said. “We have each other. Go try to get on the other side. I’ll hold this side down.”
Their plan worked, and once Daniel was on, he spread eagle on it to hold balance while Vearden climbed on as well.
“Okay, now what?” Daniel said. “Do we just wait for it to come?” He looked out to spot the frog. What he saw was Philomena, who had just reached the platform the frog was presently on. “Oh no, she’s gonna win!”
“Remember what I said about trusting me?”
“I did, and I lost because of it. Even if the jelly frog gets back in the water now, she won’t have far to go. It physically can’t swim this far out.”
“I want you to jump...that way.” He pointed towards the distortion, which was a couple of feet away from the platform. The other distortion had followed the frog to its new platform, confirming Vearden’s suspicions about it. Daniel clearly still couldn’t see either of them.
“The hell are you talking about?”
“If you jump, you’ll win. But you gotta go now, or you really will lose.”
“This is stupid. What’s that going to accomplish?”
He decided to change tactics. “If you do what I say, you could win this. If you don’t believe me, then you’re too far away to win, so who cares whether you jump or not? Might as well take the risk.”
Daniel looked back to Philomena. She was pulling herself onto the frog’s platform. She was this close to getting it.
“Fine,” Daniel relented. He prepared himself, then jumped right towards the temporal distortion, disappearing into it, and suddenly appearing through the exit distortion in the distance. He was surprised for a few seconds, and needed the time to find his balance, but he knew he had to get over it. He bent down and scooped up the jelly frog just before Philomena’s hand was on it. Fanfare rang out from the hovering drones. Daniel had won. Vearden smiled as he sat down on the platform. He then let himself slip into the water, but instead, he found only his hotel bed.
Vearden opened his eyes. Above him he saw light filtering through bamboo stalks, and other trees. He could hear lots of jungle sounds; chirping, squawking, and rustling. But the sound that dominated his ears was that of buzzing. A mouse was using his chest as a little table to eat its seeds. It didn’t seem to be bothered by Vearden’s waking up. He took the little guy and placed him in his vest pocket as he was standing up. He was wearing a vest now. The buzzing was coming from bees. He couldn’t see a nest anywhere around, or really any particularly concentration of the bees. They were just all over the place; more than he had ever seen before. Fortunately, like the mouse, they weren’t bothered by his presence, so he just started walking in a random direction.
The buzzing eventually subsided a little, and were replaced by the sounds of people. He continued to walk towards it, and ended up in some kind of encampment. A few dozen people were going about their day. Some were building shelters, others fire. Some were sorting through luggage on the beach, while others were just resting. A man came in from his flank carrying a bundle of sticks. “Hey, excuse me...” Vearden tried to say, but the man just ignored him. He wasn’t being rude, it was more like he literally couldn’t even see Vearden. Likely no one could, if that were the case. This theory required further testing.
Vearden continued to walk through the camp, quickly seeing the wreckage of a plane about a football field away. It wasn’t smoking, or anything, so it had obviously crashed some time ago. The survivors had already gotten over the shock of it, and were just trying to figure out what to do next. He tried interacting with a number of people, but none of them could see him. He even took someone by the arm. She jumped and pulled herself away, trying to figure out what had taken hold of her, but was unable to find anything. So it wasn’t just that Vearden was in some kind of other dimension, he was invisible. He could use that to communicate with people, or he could protect them emotionally, and avoid touching anything. “All right, Shepherd!” he called out to the aether, confident that no one but her would be able to hear him. “What are you having me do here?”
He looked around, searching for The Shepherd, but she wasn’t there. It was worth a shot, though, right? Then he saw it. The Shepherd never showed herself, but someone else did. A young woman was staring right at him. It was either a coincidence, or an exception. She looked around as well, possibly noticing that the others could not see what she could. She said something to who could have been her older sister. The other woman nodded and went back to threading shoelaces. The younger woman waved Vearden towards her before walking into the woods. He followed her.
Once they were far enough away from camp to be heard, she stopped and turned to him. “Why can the others not see or hear you?”
“I’m not certain,” Vearden answered.
“Were you on the plane?”
“I was not.”
“So there are others here.”
“There is at least me. I assume we are on an island.”
“We wouldn’t have set up camp if we could have walked to civilization.”
“Where did you come from?”
In science fiction and fantasy stories, there’s often this concept of the “underworld”. Most people are just living in the regular world. They have nine-to-five jobs, they drink beer, and they watch trash TV. But then there’s all this other stuff going on that they have no idea exists. We could be talking vampires, aliens, people who can read minds, demons, whatever. It just has to be something so realistically hidden from the rest of the world that it’s technically possible it’s actually real for the audience, but they just don’t know it. The beginning of one such of these stories usually involves one or more characters stumbling upon the truth, and starting their adventure. While they’re at it, they’re charged with protecting their loved ones, the general population, and possibly the secret people. No one who doesn’t already know this truth can know, for it will have terrible consequences. Or maybe that’s just a load of horseshit, and these secret underworlds aren’t giving humans enough credit. Maybe they can handle the truth. Maybe this woman can too. “I’m from a parallel universe,” he said truthfully.
She nodded, not in surprise, but with caution. “Do you mean an alternate reality, or another timeline?”
“I do not.”
“How did you get here?”
“Someone very powerful can cross into other worlds, and she sent me here to help with something. If I succeed, I might get my friend back.”
“So you want me to help you help us?”
“That’s how it’s been going for me so far. Is there anything you need?”
“Besides getting rescued?”
“Besides that,” Vearden confirmed.
“Hmm...” she said, thinking. “Well, Stuart is teaching us how to hunt. Do you speak Japanese?”
“Oh, too bad. Kazuo seems to have a lot to say, but we don’t know what.”
“I know more of those people’s names than yours.”
“Hi, Monica, I’m Vearden Haywood. Why do you think you can see me?”
She shrugged. “I’ve always been able to see things others can’t. It’s just never been quite so literal.”
Another young woman, maybe just a hair older than Monica came through the brush. “Monica, who are you talking to?”
“I see dead people,” Monica whispered, jokingly.
“You’re not well, are you?”
The other woman didn’t know what that meant.
“It means I’m fine, Danielle. I am not the way I ought to be...I’m just the way I got to be,” Monica answered with a song lyric that Vearden recognized from his own universe, which was strange. She turned back to Vearden. “Do that thing again you did with the arm.”
“What?” Danielle asked.
“No,” Vearden said.
“Come on, this is my universe, you have to do what I say.”
“No, I don’t.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Just do it!”
“Fine.” Vearden gently placed his hand on Danielle’s shoulder.
She freaked out and stepped back.
“Told you!” Monica cried in delight.
“I should not have done that,” Vearden said out of immense regret.
Monica shrugged again. “She’ll be all right, she’s rich.”
Danielle started backing away more, like she had come across a snake.
“Isn’t that right?”
Danielle kept going.
“I see you, Danielle! I know who you are! I know what you did! I can see into people’s souls!”
Danielle turned and ran off.
That was weird. “Why did you do that?” Vearden asked.
Monica was still looking towards where Danielle had been. “She knows why. And deep down in her heart, she knows what she must do now. That’s all that matters.”
“Yeah, I’m lost.”
“Yeah, I’m not anymore,” she said with relief. “I see now why you’re here, especially since you’re obviously about to leave.”
“How do you figure?”
“Is that your bed over there?” She gestured behind him.
His bed from the hotel suite was just sitting in the middle of the woods. “It is, yes.”
“Well...unless your boss wants us to have sex, I think it’s probably just your exit.”
“I guess so.”
“It was nice meeting you, Vearden.”
“You too, Monica.” He turned away and muttered under his breath, “I think.”
“I heard that,” she said flippantly.
He sort of plopped himself onto the bed and started massaging his eyes. When he reopened them, he found the Shepherd lying next to him. “What was the point of that one?”
“Danielle has a lot of work ahead of her. In order for her to get it done, and get it done right, she needs to be honest with herself. Her lies are holding her back, making her sick.”
“And Monica?” Vearden asked.
“She plays her part too.”
He knew he wasn’t going to get any details, which was...whatever. He moved on, “what now?”
“You can have one night’s worth of sleep.” She stopped, and paced. She finally spoke again after a few minutes, “nah, you’ll get more than that. This next one is going to be weird. I mean, you see magic every day, because you don’t live in linear time. The next one is going to be different, though. You won’t be able to explain this magic away, not with the toolkit you have now. It’ll also be the most...menacing.”
“That doesn’t sound pleasant.”
“No, but you’ll be okay. Just, be sure not to get...” she paused for dramatic effect. “...left behind.”