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.”
The first thing that Vearden could feel was the pain. His head felt like someone had cut an ever-delicate slit over the tip, and then pulled the two halves apart just a little. He tried to reach up and massage it, but could not. They were trapped behind his back. Even lifting his chin had painful consequences, but still he did. Across the room was a woman who was tied up too. There was no one else, not even a guard, in this small dungeon-like room. It was all metal, with two metal hatches on either side of them. It was very clearly a ship. It didn’t feel like they were on the water, though. All he could hear was creaking. The most important things to figure out now was why they were tied up, and how they were going to get out of it.
“You’re awake. How are you feeling?”
“Pretty terrible, actually,” Vearden replied. “Where are we?”
“In an abandoned something or other. Though, I suppose everything’s been abandoned these days. With what religion did you identify?”
“What? My religion? That’s the first thing you ask? Not my name?”
“What’s your name?”
“Imelda. I was a deist.”
“I’ve never believed in God, but I never gave it much thought either.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. If you were an atheist, you would have been sent to hell.” Then she got a little excited. “Unless you were sent to hell, and then you escaped. Are you part of the resistance? Is that why they captured you?”
“What? No! How dare you say I belong in hell. Where I come from, we respect each other’s beliefs.”
“Oh, I do. It’s just...you’re completely unaware of what’s going on, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, let’s just say that I’m not from around here.”
“I hope it’s nicer there than it is here. Maybe you could take me there...someday. Maybe.”
“Imelda, explain to me what’s happened. Why were you so confident that I should be in hell?” More creaking from the walls.
“That’s just the way it is now. All atheists were sent to hell...all at once. Over half of people were sent to heaven, and the rest of us stayed here. We call it the rapture.”
“So, the Christians were right.”
“They weren’t, no. They were wrong. We were all so very wrong. And now the demons have taken over. It is my position that we were all in such a hurry that we hastened our own demise. We should have been more patient.”
Vearden struggled to get out of his restraints, but not even his chair would move. It was bolted to the floor. Hers wasn’t, however. “Hey, I can’t move, but you can scoot over to that twisted metal conduit over there. Use the sharp edge to cut through your ropes.”
“No need, we will both survive this.”
“What? Imelda, we have to go. I don’t know what happens when whoever took us comes back.”
“They will try to kill us.”
“Then we definitely have to leave. Come on, please! It’ll just take a second.” Each time he got a little worked up, the creaking would intensify.
“I wish not to waste my energy.”
“If you won’t do it for yourself, then do it for me. Please!” he begged.
“You just need more patience.”
“No, what I need is to survive, so I can go save my friend.”
“I have faith that you will find her in time.”
“I never said she was a girl.”
“Hm,” was her only reply.
“Imelda. I’m asking you nicely, and slowly...with patience, to please help me get out of my ropes.”
They waited for a few moments before hearing muffled voices from the other side of one of the two hatches. Vearden couldn’t really hear exactly what they were saying, especially with the creaking, but they were clearly angry with each other, and he did catch something about gold.
“No, you little imp—!” was the last thing one of them said, fairly clearly, before the gun went off. Then they heard a body drop.
“Is he...an actual imp? As in the demon.”
“Well...” Imelda answered vaguely. “No.”
The person—or demon, as it were—left standing tried to open the hatch. They could hear the latch jiggle a few times. Then they could hear what sounded like little beeps. Then bang, bang, bang! Then creak, creak, creak.
“I guess the guy he killed never gave him the code.”
“God...DAMMIT!” cried the demon. He just went berserk, kicking and banging on the hatch over and over again, while screaming profanities, and sometimes just nonsense. He would not let up. He wanted to be in the room, and nothing was going to stop him, not even the creaks.
“Okay,” Vearden said, trying to take that patience thing a bit more seriously. “That hatch is not going to hold him forever, so if you could just try this. Just try it. If it’s too hard, you can give up, and I won’t be mad. Please try.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it?” Vearden repeated, angry in his own right. “Don’t worry about it!? This is life and death! Maybe in your world, people can just come back from the afterlife, but for me, dead is dead!”
“All will work out in the end.”
“Now, you listen to me.” He stopped himself once Imelda casually pulled her arms to her front and massaged her wrists.
“What. The. Hell?”
Imelda reached down behind her chair and lifted something up, saying, “thank you” into her palms
Vearden squinted through the darkness and was able to see that she was holding a little mouse. “He’s mine, I brought him here.” It was the mouse he had incidentally picked up from the island with the plane crash in the previous reality.
“Then I thank you as well.”
He let out a heavy sigh. “That’s why you didn’t bother getting yourself free. My mouse was chewing through your ropes. You coulda said something.”
“You would have seen eventually. We could all do with a little more...”
Vearden rolled his eyes and recited the word “patience” at the same time as her. She was a broken record.
“Yes,” she said on her own, happy that her wisdom might be reaching him afterall.
He took another deep breath, trying to call himself down, despite the constant ruckus from just outside...and the creaks. “I know you’re all about patience, but if you don’t get up right now, you’re going to die.”
“Death is no end.”
“And I told you that it is for me. Now that you’re free, you can stand up and untie my ropes as well.”
“We are better off with you there.”
“What are you talking about? Is this a test? Are you actually the one who knocked me on the head? I never did see who did it. Is this some elaborate interrogation plan?”
“There is no plan but God’s.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he said, rolling his eyes again.
“He’s not very involved this time.”
Just then, the banging stopped. But Vearden knew that this was no good sign. The demon was probably just taking a break. A few minutes later, he realized he was right. They could hear the sound of metal dragging on metal. “I have you now!” the demon yelled to them through the door. The banging started back up again, but this time, he had a tool.
“Okay, now we have to go. I can see the door move. He’ll break it sooner rather than later.”
“Stop saying that! My legs are killing me, I shouldn’t have to sit like this anymore.” He stretched his legs away from the chair as much as he could, to relieve some of the pain.
With Vearden’s last word, the door broke free. It swung open a little bit on its own. They could hear the demon more clearly now. “Ha!” it said through heavy panting. It pushed itself through and immediately ran for Imelda who was standing patiently in the opposite corner, petting Vearden’s mouse. The demon had to pass in front of Vearden first, and didn’t notice Vearden’s legs. It tripped right over them and felt on its face. It fell hard, and then it stopped moving.
“Ho-oly shit,” was all Vearden could say.
“No, it was quite unholy,” Imelda disagreed. “It was the embodiment of impatience.” Ooooohhh, it wasn’t an imp. It was impatient. Haha, that’s dumb.
Just then, they could hear footsteps headed for them from down the hallway. “Can we go now?” Vearden asked.
“Of course...now that he’s finally opened the door for us. If he had just been patient, backup would have arrived with keys.”
They slunk out of the door and separated into rooms on either side of the hallway, peeking around the corner to watch as black-clothed figures ran past them, and into the hostage room.
“Where did they go?” one asked.
“They couldn’t have gone through this door. We would have seen them,” added another.
“Open that one,” a third one ordered.
As he did so, the creaking came to a head and moved the entire structure. Vearden stepped out of his hiding place due to curiosity as the entire hostage room broke away from the rest of the structure, and tumbled into the abyss below, sending all the pursuers to their deaths.
“You knew that would happen.”
“They shouldn’t have opened that other door. It was the only thing keeping the pressure balanced.”
“What are you?”
“I’m God,” she said, and she wasn’t joking. “But enough about that. We ought to be going. The rest of the ship could fall at any moment.”
They ran down the hallways. She looked like she knew where she was going the whole time, like she had been there before. Finally, they made it to that ramp that people use to get on and off. It didn’t look or feel stable, but they had to risk it.
Just as they were reaching the bottom, a group of people nonthreatingly ran up to them. One of them asked, “Imelda Angelo?”
“I am,” she said kindly.
“My name is Dana. I know this may sound strange, but—”
“Yes, yes, yes. We’re hypostates, and we’re trying to save the world. Got it. We should leave.”
“I was told that you would be—”
“Patient?” Imelda asked. I am, which means I know when it’s time to act.” She turned to Vearden. “Oh, before you go, here’s your mouse.”
“No, you keep it. Her name is Monica.”
“Monica Mouse, I like it.”
Then it was over.
The Shepherd was sitting in a chaise in the corner of the suite when Vearden woke up a few days after his last challenge. “What are you reading?” he asked.
“This little story called Seeing is Becoming.”
“Is it any good?”
“Not as good as the sequel...which isn’t as good as the third one.”
He nodded politely, but she surely knew that he was just making small talk so that he could get into something more serious. “What was that?”
“That was a dark reality. You saw the beginnings of the end of the world on that plane earlier, but you didn’t really see an apocalypse scenario. You didn’t see what people become when they lose everything they have, including their sense of truth.”
“Is God real?”
She squinted and tilted her head. “God and reality are tricky things. You’ve seen first hand that other realities exist. Other universes, that is. Each of these potentially follows a different set of physical laws...but they can’t be too different, can they? I mean, laws are laws not just because that’s how it happens to be, but also because they follow a certain level of logic. Gravity pulls things together. No universe exists without it. Well,” she amended, “not habitable ones. What I mean is that it wouldn’t make sense if gravity pushed things apart, because then nothing would be there at all. So that’s a constant. It may be stronger or weaker from one universe to another, but it’s always there. What other constants may there be? Well, when molecules speed up, heat is released, and when they slow down, that’s what we perceive as cold. There’s no way there’s a universe where the opposite is true. Check off another constant. What about life? Well, you’ve met aliens. Hell, you were dealing with humans in the universe where you donated blood, but they too were aliens, because they weren’t from Earth. Is life any more different across universes than it is within them? Not really. Those constants I was telling you about can have different properties, and that can alter evolution, but in the end, life is life.
“So when you ask me whether God is real, you might as well ask if ghosts are...or if there’s a universe out there where little boys and girls ride a train to a school that teaches them how to do magic. Or if there’s a galaxy far, far away where people—mostly men—have space magic, and fight each other for no fucking reason. Yes, these things are real. Of course they’re real. But some things are less real than others, because they’re formed uniquely by a different variable. Some of these variables are strong, while others not so much. Some God variables make magic, but others make time travel.”
“God variable?” Vearden was more confused than ever.
“Yes,” the Shepherd confirmed. “That’s the best equivalent I have for your linguistic comprehension. God as the rule-maker.”
“Are you a God?”
She smiled. “No.” She closed her book and set it on the ottoman. “But I am a variable.”
“So, what now?”
“You just saw first hand how strange other universes can be, and I’m glad we had this conversation, because it actually fits quite nicely with where you’re going now. The world you are about to enter is not unlike the one you lived in before you found out that you were a salmon. There is one person in it, though, who is...different.”
“He perceives fictional realities as real. He superimposes his corrupted perceptions onto his environment.”
“But you’ve said that fictional realities are real.”
“They are...and they aren’t. He’s managed to pierce that veil, so to speak, and it’s driving him insane. He’s hurting people because of it.”
“And you want me to stop him?”
“I want you to do whatever you can do when you get there.” She climbed onto his bed and gently pressed his shoulders back down. “For now, I just want you to count down from ten.”
“Just do it.”
“Okay. Ten.” He was starting to feel sleepy. “Nine.” He could barely keep his eyelids open. “Eight. Saga, Saga...”
Vearden felt like he was dreaming, but he knew that this was all as real as anything he had experienced in the last however much time had passed. At first he couldn’t move. He was just sitting and staring forward, drool dripping out of his mouth. He could hear two people talking—no, arguing—somewhere to his left.
“No, you have to let me go so I can help this man.”
“You were supposed to help people, but you were selfish. You only thought of yourself. You can’t make up for it now.”
“Please, he needs medical attention.”
“He’s had it. And you are about to experience the same thing. You deserve worse. I hear the procedure is quite peaceful.”
“I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t deserve it. I did nothing wrong.”
“You hurt people. I’ve seen it.”
“That was a TV show! That’s not really me!”
“You think I don’t know that! I know that! But...but, you—this has to be done. I’m sorry it has to be you, but you’re the closest thing I have to the real thing. Ian is real...and I have to get rid of him for you, so you’re just Jason. You can be a doctor again.”
“I’m not a doctor, I’m an actor!”
“Yes, but you are quantum entangled with your character. Look, I know you can’t see it, but I can, and you have to trust me. You’re the only one I can actually help. The others were evil, but you’re both evil and good. I can make you whole again.”
“You’re gonna tear out my brain, how is that gonna make me—” They stopped talking.
Only then did Vearden realize that he was standing up. In fact, he had been slowly trying to regain control of his body the entire time.
“Let me out of here so I can help him, ‘cause I know you’re not gonna do it,” said the one who was clearly the good guy in this situation.
“I’ve already helped him. I told you this. I will not say it again.”
Vearden was able to finally turn his head and assess the scene. Things were a tad bit blurry, but one of them was strapped to a medical table of some kind, while the other was wearing a labcoat. Vearden couldn’t speak.
The fake doctor smiled at Vearden as he approached. “The procedure went better than even I could have hoped. You were an excellent practice run. For an invader, you’ve actually helped our reality immensely. If only you knew.”
“Sir, sir!” the hostage yelled. “If you can run, just go. Get out of here before he hurts you again. Don’t try to help me.”
Vearden tried to speak again, but more drool fell out. The fake doctor pulled a towel from his pocket and wiped Vearden’s face. “There, there. Why don’t you sit back down? You obviously have an innate urge to see what’s going on around you, so I will let you watch me work.” He helped Vearden back down, then turned the wheelchair towards the hostage.
“No! Just run!” the hostage pleaded again.
“Quiet, Ian!” the fake doctor ordered.
“I’ve told you as well. My name is Steven Pasquale. I played a character named Ian Price, but none of that is real. And even if you’re right, and he’s real in some other reality, how does that have anything to do with me?”
“You two...well, three, have been infused with each other.”
“Wh—” Vearden struggled to say. “Wha—who?”
“You can speak,” the fake doctor said with excitement. “A little. Well, if you wanna know, I’ll tell you.” He walked back to the hostage, who was apparently named Steven Pasquale, and gestured towards him. “This man portrayed a character on a television series called Do No Harm. But this wasn’t just any character. It was about a man with a split personality. He was actually two people. One was evil, and the other good. Now people think that none of that is real, but it is. They all exist in a different universe, and for some reason, our universes have collided. Some of the evil people from those other universes have possessed the bodies of their doppelgängers; the actors who played them. I call them the avatars.”
“That’s insane!” Steven argued.
“Of course you would say that,” the fake doctor argued back. He looked towards Vearden once more. “You see, my friend, this is not your universe. You belong somewhere else.” He looked back down to Steven. “And so does he.” He reached behind him and grabbed a long tool that looked like an ice pick from the little surgical table.
Vearden tried to scream no, but nothing came out. Or very little, he couldn’t really tell the difference at this point. The fake doctor had really messed up his head. Was this permanent? Seems cruel, even for the Shepherd.
The fake doctor wasted no more time, and started slowly aiming the long tool at Steven’s left eye. Steven protested and yelled for help as loud as he could, but no one came. The room didn’t look particularly sanitary, so it was probably in an abandoned building on the edge of town. Vearden certainly couldn’t help. He felt like he would have trouble keeping his tongue from the back of his throat if he were lying down.
He watched as the fake doctor reached over, presumably trying to find another tool. Suddenly, he turned the sharp tool around, and jammed it straight into his own eye. Blood spurted out and onto Steven’s face.
“Oh my God!” Steven screamed, but his cry was no match for the fake doctor’s howls of agony.
“I did not think it would hurt that much!” the fake doctor yelled. “Dear God, I think I pushed it too far in. Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah! I need to leave! Get me out of here, I’m done! Oh wait, no, that’s right. He pawed at Steven’s wrist restraint with his one free hand, while the other kept pressure on his eye. After some struggle with the restraint, he was able to pull it loose enough so that Steven could free himself even more. “Please get him out of here,” the fake doctor asked Steven, pointing to Vearden.
“One more thing,” he approached Vearden a little, but didn’t seem to want to be too close. “Vearden. A word of warning, do not accept anything from The Superintendent, except for Saga, and the car. Remember that. Saga and the car. Those are the only things you want. Anything else is straight out of a say no to drugs ad, you hear m—?” The fake doctor jumped a little, interrupting his own sentence. “What the hell is going on, what just happened to me?”
Steven still hadn’t gotten himself quite out of the restraints.
“How did you get out of that?” the fake doctor demanded to know.
“Shit,” Steven muttered. He grabbed a hammer from the surgical table and bashed it over the fake doctor’s temple. “Ah, damn, I didn’t like that.” He went back to undoing his second wrist restraint before moving on to his legs. He then hopped off the table, and took hold of Vearden’s wheelchair. “Let’s get out of here, buddy.”
The last thing that Vearden remembered was famous actor Steven Pasquale pushing his wheelchair down the hall of the abandoned whatever it was. He couldn’t tell if he just blacked out, or if The Shepherd simply apported him back to the hotel suite. Honestly, it could go either way. He could remember way back when. When being strapped to a chair that was bolted to the floor of a ship that was hanging over an apocalyptic cliff was the second worst thing that had ever happened to him. Now, the true lobotomy experience might be even worse than losing his best friend, Saga. At least he would soon get her back. His sanity, on the other hand, might never return. That was positively horrific, and he would never be able to forgive the Shepherd for putting him through it. It wasn’t like they were good friends before that, though.
“I understand how you feel,” the Shepherd said from her chaise.
By now, Vearden was—at least physically—nearly fully recovered. “No, you don’t.”
She became deeply serious. “You don’t know what I’ve been through. You have no idea who I am.”
“No matter what has been done to you, it does not give you the right to violate something like that. That isn’t right in any reality.”
“Fair point.” She waited for a moment. “I had a pretty nasty universe lined up for you next, but I’m going to cancel that one too. Instead, I’m going to give you a break. An easy one.”
“What makes it easy?”
“In your universe, you deal with time travelers. In two others, an airplane emergency, and in one, it was demons. This one is different. Like your last assignment, it takes place in a world resembling the one you lived in before you knew you were a salmon. Unlike that one, there will be no serial killers, or unethical medical procedures. There will be drama, but the most danger you’ll be in is from a paper cut.”
“That...actually kind of sounds nice.”
“It won’t be perfect. There is one catch.”
“What is that?”
“You’ll be staying there for roundabouts five years?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I need you to add to the drama, make things more complicated for the people you’ll be interacting with. Whereas before, there was a single moment where you could make a difference, here it’s more practical if you’re able to stick around for some time.”
“You could skip it? Well...you could stop, that is.”
“And never see Saga again? No thanks, I’ll take the five years.”
“Very well.” She handed him a folder.
“Here is your forged documentation, complete with an alias, and fabricated history.”
“My alias is Vearden Haywood?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t see the point in changing your name since this is an entirely different universe.”
“Then it’s not an alias.”
“Whatever! Your human words are...whatever!” She clapped her hands in his face violently and yelled, “wake up!”
He blinked, and found himself awkwardly slouched toward his side in the back of a car. He felt groggy, and a little cold.
“Wake up, buddy. We’re here,” said the taxi driver.
“We are? Where’s here.”
“Magnate,” the driver replied. “Apparently it’s your first day? That’s what you said, anyway.”
“I did?” He started rubbing his eyes.
“Better get goin’. Don’t wanna be late.”
“No, wouldn’t want that.” He cleared his throat and climbed out of the cab.
“Right.” He took the briefcase that wasn’t his from the seat, and closed the door.
He dodged a couple cars on his way across the street to a skyscraper with the word Magnate on the front. Once inside, he was met with an eerie feeling. It seemed more like a funeral, and less like an office building. Trying to blend in, he kept his head down, and made a beeline to the reception desk.
The security guard receptionist was on the phone at the time, speaking very quietly. He held up one finger to keep Vearden from interrupting. “Okay, I’ll let them know.—Yes, thank you, I’m sure the family appreciates it greatly.—Sorry, I cannot speak on that.—I cannot speak on that either.—Okay, we’ll give you a call back. Thank you.” He took in a deep breath, removed his glasses, and started massaging his eyes. He then finally looked up. “I’m sorry for the wait, sir. It’s just that the death is still fresh in all our minds.”
“It’s fine. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank y—” he stopped to study Vearden’s face. “Your tone. It’s like you’re saying that to a relative.”
“Do you not know who died.”
“I...” Oh no, he’s been made. He kept his eyes glued to those of the guards, but tried to focus on his peripheral vision for a clue. A large painting was hanging behind the reception desk, with some kind of black ribbon underneath. He also remembered other gravesite and memorial objects; pictures, flowers, candles. He hadn’t given it much thought since he was so confused about just being there, but it was clear what had happened. He gestured towards the painting up above, of a stern and regal man who held himself proudly, and likely made people believe that he was reading their minds. “Of course I do. Sorry. It’s my first day, I didn’t know if you knew him personally, or what.”
“I’m just the security guard.”
“For all I know, you were his first hire?”
He was suspicious, but let it go. He put his glasses back on and prepared to type on his computer. “Name.”
“Oh, you’re the new shadow. Congratulations on your win. I’m sorry it came at such a bad time.”
“Rrright.” He was still not sure of Vearden, but had found him in the system, and that was enough for now.
“You’ll be starting in the mailroom, but only be there for a few days. Building services will be next. I can print off your entire tentative work schedule.”
“That would be great, thanks.”
There was a minor commotion ever since he stepped into the building. It was quieter than other places with this many people, probably because of the recent death of who appeared to be the company’s founder, but still loud enough to notice when it suddenly became silent. Now only one sound could be heard. A woman in her early twenties was briskly walking from the elevators, to the desk. All eyes were on her. She was damn important. “Galen,” she said with a high level of authority.
“Yes, Miss Wallace.”
“Something...” She paused. “Something f—ed up has happened.” She censored herself. She actually pronounced only the beginning, and the ending of the word, and mouthed the letters in the middle. He knew at this moment, that his relationship with the nurse back in the fifteenth century of his home universe, meant next to nothing. Violante, was it? He could barely remember what she looked like. Not now that he had seen the face of this absolutely radiant Miss Wallace. He was already in love.
“What is it?”
“Mister Burke’s legacy is in jeopardy. I just got out of a meeting with his lawyer, and he just sprung this on me. My assistant is sick. Or dead too, who cares? I need someone to take notes for me.”
“Uh, I can take notes.” As soon as he said it, Vearden knew that he shouldn’t have. He was no one, and he should be as invisible as possible. He was pretty good at that, so why not now? Oh, that’s right. Love.
“Who are you?” she asked, somehow both sweet and critical at the same time.
“Um, Miss Wallace, this is Vearden Haywood. He won the contest. He’s our new shadow. He’ll be with us for the next year, moving from department to department.”
She started sizing him up. “So he has no real qualifications? Yeah, no thanks, you can stay in the cafeteria, or wherever you’re going.” She turned back to Galen, who was presumably looking into finding someone more suited for the position.
“I know shorthand.” Yeah, he shouldn’t have said that either. She was not letting him think clearly.
She started studying him again. “Impressive. What type? Pitman? Gregg?”
She was taken aback by this, which was a reasonable reaction to meeting a modern-day person being familiar with Shelton short-writing. It was something he picked up back when he was living in the 18th century. He was just glad she had heard of it in this universe. Some things never change, even really innocuous things.
“That’s weird, Vardan.”
“Why do you know Shelton?”
“I’m kind of a history buff.” If she only knew what his life was really like, that would be a good joke.
She thought about it for a moment. Vearden could see Galen’s hand hovering over his keyboard, waiting for her to make a decision. “I suppose you would eventually find your way up to the top floor anyway,” she finally said. “Might as well start today. Manus would have hired you in a second, just for knowing tachygraphy. He was the best kind of crazy, and would appreciate us bringing in someone completely random for this situation.”
“Thank you,” Vearden said. “I won’t let you down.”
“We’ll see.” It was only then that she realized everyone had stopped what they were doing when she showed up. She spread her arms out and lowered her head as she looked at them. “Who here works in the lobby?” she asked rhetorically, but still had to wait for them to take the hint. “Get to your workstations,” she ordered.
They did so.
Miss Wallace looked back at Galen as she was leading Vearden away. “He can get his badge later.”
He was having trouble keeping up, but her tendency to walk fast was one of her more attractive qualities. “I want to thank you for this opportunity.”
She ignored him. “I’m going to talk to you like you’re an alien, okay? I have to assume that you know nothing about this company. But as soon as we step in that conference room, you act like you’re the foremost expert in all things Magnate, and Manus Burke, okay? Don’t talk. Don’t even look at anyone, but hold yourself like a seasoned professional. As Manus would say...act like ya been there.
“Manus Burke was born in 1948. He started this company when he was only nineteen years old. He named it after himself, but combined it with the name of his favorite high school teacher, Nathan Lister, with whom he was rumored to have once been in a relationship. My grandmother needed money, so even though he didn’t need one, he hired her as his assistant. My mother took over when she retired, and I took over right out of college last year.”
“I’m sorry, you were his assistant? And you had an assistant?”
She stopped walking. “Yeah, is that a problem?”
“No, no, of course not.”
“I wasn’t just his assistant. My mother and grandmother practically ran the company with him during their tenure. They were more like partners, but the board of directors would have to vote on that sort of thing, and there were all sorts of legal issues, so it’s more of the company’s worst kept secret.”
“I understand,” Vearden said. That was really the only thing he truly understood about this universe.
“We’re almost there. So I’m just going to prepare you for what’s coming next, at least to the best of my ability.” She had to take a moment to compose herself as the elevator doors were opening. “I am evidently about to meet two women who are reportedly Manus Burke’s estranged daughters. From what I understand, they don’t even know each other, let alone who their father was, but they’re about to be handed a multi-billion dollar global organization.”
“And you think you should take over instead.”
She just placed her hand on the door handle and looked at him.
“I don’t know you, but it sure sounds like you’re the most qualified.”
That might have created a smile, but he couldn’t quite tell.
“I’m Gretchen, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Gretchen Wallace, sir.”
Vearden then spent the next five years working for Magnate, and being married to Gretchen Wallace for two of them.
In preparation for his departure from this universe, Vearden revealed to his wife, Gretchen the truth about him. From the second she met him, she had suspected that there was something off about him. Over the following five years, her suspicions grew at about the same rate as her love for him. Eventually, she decided that it didn’t matter where he came from, and that she would accept whatever he ended up telling her. She even considered the possibility that he was an alien, a Buck Rogers, or a humanoid robot. She never imagined that he was not from this version of Earth. That information was a tough pill to swallow, but several days of deep discussions were enough for her to be okay. It was not easy, but she wasn’t going to throw him to the wolves because of what he was, or because he didn’t tell her earlier. They were married, and they were in love, and they would together get through whatever was coming. There were still some questions, though, and she knew he wouldn’t be able to answer them himself. “When you leave, what happens to me?”
“I don’t know, Meta” Gretchen’s real first name was Gretchen, but Vearden later learned that it could also be a shortened name for Margareta, and that another shortened name is Meta. It was a strange little pet name, but they both liked it...especially now that it symbolized some interesting existential implications.
“Will this Shepherd woman let me go with you?”
“Do you want to go with me?”
“Do you not want me to?”
“Well, it’s not exactly a safe life. I have to admit, this is the best universe I’ve ever been in. Things seem to be rather normal, even including all we’ve been through. I don’t know why you’d want to leave.”
“I don’t know why you would want to leave me.”
“I don’t, but I have to do this. I have to get Saga back.”
“I understand that, but...what did you think was going to happen when you said yes to my marriage proposal?”
“I guess I hoped the Shepherd would send Saga and me back here once this is all over.”
“You had to hope, because you don’t really know. You have no clue what’s going through her head. These...choosers, and powers that be don’t seem all that keen on giving people what they want.”
“That’s true, but this one’s different. She doesn’t see people as chess pieces. I don’t even know that she’s human.”
The Shepherd came in from the other room. “I’m not.”
“You heard the whole conversation?” Vearden asked, not sure he would have to repeat it for her.
“I did. I heard every conversation. All the conversations. I’ve been here the whole time.”
“I don’t love that,” Gretchen said.
The Shepherd drew nearer to Gretchen. “I’ve seen more than you could even conceive. I stopped judging others a few millions years ago.”
There was a brief moment of silence.
The Shepherd restarted the conversation, “I’ll make a deal with you.”
“I will let you and Saga return to this universe. In fact, I’ll put you right in this very moment, so that no one you know here wonders where you’ve gone.”
“Okay...” Vearden said tentatively.
“But only if Gretchen completes the last three challenges with you.”
“No, no,” Vearden said without hesitation. Can’t do it. I’m not subjecting her to that. It’s waaaay too dangerous. Please, we can come to an agreement.”
“We can come to an agreement,” the Shepherd...agreed. “We can agree to what I’ve already proposed. It shouldn’t be too hard, one-third of us already has agreed.”
“Well, I’ve not. I will not. I cannot.”
“I will,” Gretchen said plainly.
“You’ve spent the last five years in my world, Vearden,” Gretchen told him. “The least I could do is spend a little time in yours.”
“It won’t be my world,” Vearden said back. “You would be going to worlds I’ve never even heard of before. There’s no telling what we’ll find on the other side. I don’t even wanna do it, I just have to.”
Gretchen smirked. “I have to as well. You’re going off to save your partner, why am I not allowed to do the same?”
That was some twisted logic, but it was also solid, and Vearden had no argument against it.
“Me me biiig girl,” Gretchen said jokingly. “I’m going, and I’m going to do everything in my power to help you both. Then we’ll all come back here and live in peace.” She faced the Shepherd. “We will, right? The powers that be can’t get to us here?”
“Only I have access to this universe, and I would never. You’ll be safe.”
Gretchen definitively nodded her head once. “Then it’s settled.”
Vearden shook his head. “Now, hold on. I didn—”
“It’s settled,” Gretchen interrupted. She gave him the look. He knew the look well. She wasn’t backing down from this. He would have to get on board.
The Shepherd took in a deep breath to signify the end of the conversation. “I’ve left your outfits for the next universe in your closet.”
“Outfits?” Gretchen asked.
“Costumes,” the Shepherd clarified. “I honestly thought you two would stop at the self-defense training, but you went all out with the martial arts classes. I never thought in a billion years I would send you to this next universe, but I guess you can handle it.”
“Shepherd,” Vearden began, “are we going to samurai-world?”
“L-O-L,” the Shepherd said. “No.” She left the room, and at some point, disappeared from this dimension.
“We better not keep her waiting,” Gretchen said once she had gone. She sounded a bit too excited than Vearden was comfortable with.
They were not dressed like samurai. They looked like superheroes, complete with form-fitting jumpsuits, and masks. They were already in the new universe. “Why do I have a big F on my chest?”
“Is that a lance?” Gretchen asked. “It looks like a small lance.”
Vearden looked down at the sharp weapon that had suddenly appeared in his hand. It was a much shorter version of its medieval cousin, and it looked like the business end could be removed. He looked back at the big letter F emblazoned on his chest, and closed his eyes. “I get it. I’m Freelancer. Very funny, Shepherd!” he quietly yelled to the aether. This was a reference to the salmon title The Delegator had given him and Saga since they were constantly being traded between powers that be and choosing ones.
Gretchen couldn’t help but giggle.
“Well, what are you supposed to be? Is that a megaphone?” It was about the size of a handgun, with several buttons on it.
“It’s my metaphone. My codename is obviously Director.”
“Like your job title at Magnate. That makes sense.”
They were just standing in a darkened alley with vines running up a fence, no idea where they were meant to go, or what they were meant to do. Usually, something just sort of presented itself to Vearden, and this universe was no different. They could hear rapid footsteps approaching them, occasionally splashing in puddles of water.
A mid-thirties man wearing a leather jacked appeared out of the darkness and approached them. “Help me, please! She’s crazy!”
Another figure came from the shadows, stopping short when she saw them. She was wearing an all black form-fitting costume, with a mask over her the top of her face.
“Who are you?” Vearden asked. “Daredevil? Daredevilette?”
She tilted her head. “I’m Stuntwoman.” She kind of sounded like a female Batman, altering her voice to protect her secret identity.
“Well, I’m Freelancer. This is Director.”
“I’ve never heard of you.”
“We’re new,” Gretchen explained.
“Are you part of Forager’s crew?” Stuntwoman asked.
“Uh...” Vearden didn’t know which answer she was looking for. “No?”
“I was not aware there was competition,” Stuntwoman said. She approached the scared man, stopping only to acknowledge Vearden and Gretchen’s clear intentions to protect him. She looked him in the eyes, of which she appeared to have none. “You must go,” she ordered him.
The man hesitated, still too frightened to even move.
“GO!” she yelled. She patiently waited for him to run off, and out of earshot, before returning to the conversation. “Are you good or bad?”
Again, Vearden didn’t know what answer would make her happy. He just had to make a choice. He didn’t want to be judgmental, but the leather-jacket guy didn’t exactly look like an upstanding citizen. Theoretically, Stuntwoman was a hero, rather than a villain.
“We’re good,” Gretchen told her with confidence.
“Does your organization have levels as well? What level are you? How did it begin? What information were you given at the beginning. Who hurt you?”
“Uhhh...” Neither Gretchen nor Vearden had any idea what she was talking about.
“We’re visitors. We don’t have levels, or an organization. We’re just...doing this on our own.” Vearden always knew Gretchen to be a good liar, but this was a side of her he hadn’t truly seen before.
She paused to size them up and think it over. “Imitators. I don’t have time for you.” She turned and started walking away. “I have to go find another target.”
Vearden took her by the arm to stop her from leaving.
“Do not touch me!” she shouted at him.
“I’m sorry,” Vearden said, pulling his hand away. He would have done it anyway. Her sleeve was incredibly hot, like a cooking pan that hadn’t quite reached full temperature. “We’re not just copycats. We know what we’re doing. We have extensive martial arts training.” This was actually true. Not too terribly long after Vearden arrived in Gretchen’s universe, a stalker attacked Gretchen in an attempt to reach the new Magnate company owners. This had inspired both of them to take self-defense classes, and it was this that brought them closer together. They didn’t stop there, quickly learning that they enjoyed what it was teaching them. They maybe weren’t good enough to be superheroes, but they were decent fighters in their own right.
“It doesn’t matter. I have to find someone to kill by midnight, or I’m out of the crew. And you have nothing to do with this.”
“Superheroes don’t kill people,” Gretchen said.
“I’m not here to be a hero. I’m here to be a villain. I don’t...I don’t want to be, but that’s what they want, so I’m doing what they ask.”
“You’re infiltrating them.”
“I have to go.” She turned away again.
Vearden stepped towards her, but did not touch. Still, as a defense mechanism, she somehow set her arms and back on fire. She wasn’t at all fazed by it. “I guess we know why they call you Stuntwoman. Plus, Ghost Rider was taken.”
“Who?” Stuntwoman asked.
“Never mind him,” Gretchen said. “We can help. That’s why we’re here. In order to move up the ranks in this organization, you have to prove yourself by killing someone, right?”
“Correct,” Stuntwoman confirmed, just as confused about why she was confiding in them as anyone else Vearden had met during these challenges.
“Believe it or not,” Gretchen told her, removing her mask, “we’ve done this before. We have faked someone’s death. We can do that for you too.”
Vearden removed his mask as well. “We don’t know this...town.” He stopped himself from saying something like universe or dimension. You’ll have to find someone willing to go along with this plan, though. Do you know anyone like that?”
Taking a risk, Stuntwoman removed her mask to follow suit, and dropped the fake voice. “I have someone in mind. I actually think the crew will appreciate my...cruelty.”
“Then let’s get started,” Gretchen said. “We only have until midnight, yeah?”
“Wow, that was a trip,” Gretchen said after they left their last universe, and stepped into the hotel suite.
“How do you feel about it?” Vearden asked. “Be honest.”
“I feel great,” she replied. “We did a lot of good there, I think.”
“Okay...” he said hesitantly. “I don’t love that you seem to be so earnest about all this. It is a dangerous life.”
She scoffed. “Every life is dangerous. I could get hit by a bus on my way to Magnate. I could have an aneurysm for no reason at all. But this right here, what we’re doing? This is living. I’ve never been so excited to wake up in the morning, and I won’t apologize for that.”
“Well,” The Shepherd began after teleporting in, “you will have to wait for a few more mornings. I won’t be sending you off until then.”
“Is this the last one?” Vearden asked, hopeful.
“Technically yes. If you succeed in this one, you’ll be sent to Base Reality. I have no idea what will happen to you there, it’s the most dangerous one. I mean, I guess this next one won’t be pretty either. It has real monsters that make themselves look like people.”
“We can handle it,” Gretchen said with confidence, worrying Vearden even more. “All of it. Both of them.”
“Meta, please,” he begged. “Try to exercise a little caution. Last time, we were dealing with superheroes, and supervillains. Somehow we got lucky, and it wasn’t all that risky, but it could have been so much worse. I never know what I’m getting myself into. Never underestimate your enemy.”
Gretchen took a sufficient amount of time to absorb what he was saying, enough to make him feel better. “I will. I will concede to your expertise, and experience. For now, I follow your lead.”
Suddenly they could hear muffled voices on the other side of the door that usually led to a void. The Shepherd was noticeably shocked by this, so much so that she didn’t know what to do. The voices drew nearer, and they could make out what they were saying.
“It’s here, this is it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, this is it.”
“It just looks like a door.”
“It’s probably on the other side of the door, jackass.”
The doorknob jiggled. Vearden placed himself in front of Gretchen. The Shepherd stepped into a defensive stance.
“Lanzo, you didn’t happen to bring your lock pick kit, did you?”
“From the future? No, I didn’t. You were the one that wanted me to stop doing that kind of thing.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” came the voice of a woman. The doors burst open, and four strangers were looking into the suite. They were fascinated by this, which was understandable since it didn’t quite fit with the barn scenery they were currently standing in.
Three out of the four immediately drew firearms and pointed them at Vearden, Gretchen, and the Shepherd. “Kansas City Police Department!”
The three travelers held up their hands. “We’ve done nothing wrong,” Vearden argued.
“How are you doing this?” one of the male police officers asked.
“Uh...” Gretchen pointed towards the Shepherd. “She’s doing it.”
Apparently, the Shepherd had quickly grown tired of pretending to be harmless. She dropped her arms and took a step towards the intruders. “I am indeed. Can I help you?”
“Where did you come from?”
“Another universe. Well...” she looked to the other two. “They’re from another universe. I’m from all of them.”
“Is it you? Did you do this to us?”
“Did I do what?” She honestly didn’t look like she knew what they were talking about.
“The Back Burn,” the other male officer questioned. “Did you do it?”
“I have no idea what that is,” the Shepherd responded.
“So it’s just a coincidence that you’re here?” the female officer asked skeptically. “The whole world is sent back in time all at once, and you expect us to believe that three people from another universe just happen to show up later.”
“The whole world?” the Shepherd asked, taking another step, and ignoring them when they tensed up because of it. “How have I not heard of you. That’s brilliant. Do you want me to, like, reverse it, or something?”
Now the police relaxed a little bit. “Would you really be able to do that?” the woman who wasn’t holding up a gun asked.
The Shepherd shrugged. “I can do just about anything to reality.”
“Well, no,” the first male officer said. “What’s done is done.” He took a deep breath, and decided to put his gun back in its holster. “And Tadala is alive.” He lovingly looked over to the female officer, Tadala, who put her gun away as well.
“Lanzo,” Tadala said, “it’s cool.”
The third officer wasn’t sure it was safe yet, but he too put his gun away. “You better be right about them, Delvidian.”
“This suite exists within a void,” the Shepherd began to explain. “It’s constantly zipping through parallel universes.”
“Like the building?” Lanzo asked.
“The building. From...The Building? You must not have that series where you’re from.”
The Shepherd looked at Vearden, and went back to what she was saying, “I don’t have complete control over its location, which is why a challenge sometimes happens quickly after another, but others have a longer waiting period.”
“So, you’re, like, explorers?” Delvidian, who seemed to be the leader, asked.
“No,” the Shepherd said to him. “Just visitors. We did not mean to come here.”
“I’m afraid I might have had something to do with that,” the other woman said. “Hi, Danuta here, big fan of travelers, interested in joining you, actually. We’ve been looking for answers to the Back Burn, and my instruments either picked up on your...hotel...or it summoned you. I’m still not sure what I did.” She started fiddling with her device.
Delvidian stepped forward and nervously presented his hand for a shake. “If you truly had nothing to do with the Back Burn, then we could use some help understanding it.”
The Shepherd thought about this for a second while she was shaking Delvidian’s hand, then she looked over to the presumed scientist. “You expressed some interest in joining us?” She turned around to look the suite over, her way of presenting it. Her face stopped at the door to the closet.
“Yes,” Danuta said enthusiastically. “That would be amazing.”
“Górski,” Tadala said. “You can’t go. This universe needs you.”
“Let her go if she wants to,” Lanzo said. “We have this chick now.”
“I can help,” the Shepherd confirmed. “Górski can have the suite. Vearden won’t be needing it anymore.”
“What does that mean?” Vearden asked.
“You’re done,” the Shepherd told him. “Time to come out of the closet.” She nodded upwards at the closet door. A bright light was shining underneath.
She shook her head to mean yes. “The only one they say matters.” She stepped to the side so that she could see everybody. “I’ll stay in this universe for now.” She handed a keycard to Danuta. “This will take you anywhere you want to go. I’ll let you figure out how it works. It doesn’t have to be a hotel suite. It can be a library annex...or a police box...or a diner...or an office building. Vearden, Gretchen, step through the closet, and you’ll get your instructions.”
“I wanna go with her,” Gretchen said. The words scared herself, like she hadn’t known she would say them until she already had.
“Who?” Vearden interrogated. “The Shepherd?”
“No,” Gretchen answered. “Danuta. I’m not done yet. You showed me literally endless possibilities. I can’t pass up this opportunity.”
“Well, what about us?”
Gretchen looked towards the Shepherd, and then the closet. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again one day.” She gestured towards Danuta. “This obvious genius will learn how to navigate.”
Vearden looked to the Shepherd, who would offer no help, and seemed to be rather neutral on the matter. He put on an apathetic face, hoping this would make Gretchen uncomfortable, and force her to change her mind. “I can’t stop you.” It didn’t work, she was firm in her decision to travel across all of time and space and reality.
“All right, let’s do this.” The Shepherd followed Delvidian, Lanzo, and Tadala out to the new universe.
Danuta and Gretchen moved to stand next to each other by the bed.
Vearden placed his hand on the closet doorknob, but kept his eyes on his wife. “You can’t promise we’ll find each other again.”
“We will,” Gretchen disagreed. “I have faith...in you, doorwalker.”
The door closed behind the Shepherd, and the cops. Gretchen and Danuta started examining the magical hotel keycard. Vearden opened the closet door. A thirtysomething man was waiting for him on the other side with an ugly smile. “Hello, Mister Haywood. Welcome to Base Reality. I am The Superintendent.”
“People keep saying that, what exactly does that mean?” Vearden asked. All these little nicknames that people who could manipulate time give to themselves. They seemed so...self-serving. Who does that? “Do you run a school district, or something?”
“No, nothing so reputable,” the Superintendent responded. “Superintendent, not as in a leader; superintendent, as in I fix things. I don’t run these universes, I just make sure they run themselves.” He held his hand up pseudo-defensively. “But please, you may call me Gaius. It’s not my real name, I just like it.”
“Very well. And this is.....base reality? What exactly does that mean?”
It didn’t seem like Gaius had a good answer for that one. He paused for a second. “I don’t wanna say anything that’s going to make you feel unimportant, but let’s just say that your universe sprouted from mine, and relies on mine’s continued existence in order to exist itself.”
No good response. “O...kay.”
“Now. Ya’ll ready for this?”
“That sounds like a reference,” Vearden said.
Gaius smiled again. Then he lifted a normal black pen and clicked it once. Suddenly, Vearden knew what he was talking about. That was a lyric from a pop song. Why was he not able to remember that upon first hearing it? He shook it off as Gaius was continuing on with his introduction. “Tell me—and remember that I know the truth, because I know literally everything about you—have you ever heard of a deus ex machina?”
“Yeah,” Vearden answered honestly. “It’s when there’s no logical reason for something to happen in a story, but the writer just decided it would.”
“That’s right. It’s not a good thing. Critics frown upon it. I am no different, but I have recently found myself using them. Now, what I’ve done here is an interesting case. I didn’t actually require a deus ex machina, but what I did require was a series bridges. I needed connections between the universes in my domain, and fortunately, you’re genetically predisposed to that sort of thing. I needed you to establish your presence in these realities so that I could more easily enter them whenever I need to. And in order for this to work, you needed to have a profound effect on the narrative, rather than just sitting back and watching.”
“Can’t The Shepherd do that? She’s the one who brought me here.”
“Well, she can only get me halfway. Yes, she can open windows to other universes, but she can’t establish herself in them. She can barely cross the threshold. That’s why you never actually saw her in one of them with you.”
He cut Vearden off, “went into that last reality? Yes, now she’ll be able to go to any universe that you have created bridges for, as will your wife and the scientist, or anyone else, really. You see what I’m going for here? Vearden, you’re a doorwalker. For a period of time, you were the doorwalker. You just created the Gretchen and Danuta team. They’re going to be very important to me down the line.”
“I see. Almost.”
“So can you give Saga back to me now?”
“I could, but I still need your help with a few things.”
“What might that be?”
He opened his arms to present his surrounds. They weren’t all that appealing. His apartment wasn’t too small, but it was dirty and old; not the best place to live. “I’m not lovin’ where I am in my life. I don’t expect a mansion, or anything, but I could do with a few upgrades. You can help me with that. I’m even more powerless than the Shepherd. I can’t usually personally experience anything but linear time. You’re my loophole.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Just go back in time and make a few changes.”
“Then I get Saga?”
“That’s right, Vearden, you get Saga. Jesus.”
“No, I don’t need him. I just need her.”
“What do I do?”
“First, don’t be afraid. We need to form a bond.” Gaius stepped closer and pressed his lips against Vearden’s, while holding him in a tight embrace. After a few seconds, he released and stepped away.
“What are you, a crossroads demon?”
“It’s either that, or you drill into my skull and touch my brain with your finger.”
“Is that true?”
He shrugged ambiguously. “Maybe.” He nodded towards the closet door Vearden had just come out of. “Open the door, and my mind will navigate to the proper point in space and time.”
Vearden did as he was asked. The doorway turned into a portal to reveal a child’s playground on the other side of a chain link fence. A young girl, and a young boy, were wandering around near the portal, which the girl ignored. It was unclear if the boy could see into the room, but he could definitely sense their presence. He started examining the edges of the portal, trying to understand it.
Gaius watched the boy intently. “I become my own inspiration.” He then redirected his attention to Vearden. “Close it.”
Immediately after Vearden shut the door, it transformed into a different door. In fact, they were standing in a totally different room, which looked like it was in a different apartment. It was much nicer. They had just altered history. “Is that it?” he asked.
Gaius thought for a moment. “Not quite. Open it again.”
Now they were looking at a teenager standing in the hallway of a school. The teen could definitely see them. He eyed them both carefully. Gaius leaned forward and said, “leave her alone.”
“Who?” the teen asked.
Vearden closed the door again. It didn’t change. “That was you, right? I mean, he looked exactly like you. He didn’t seem that surprised to be seeing an older version of himself.”
“I would never be surprised by something like that. Rule Number Zero, act like ya been there. Again.”
Vearden opened the door. The same teen was there once more, but he looked a few years older. He was standing on what appeared to be a farm, gently petting a cow. Young Gaius, or whatever his name was, waved at them from the other side of the portal. Older Gaius gave further instructions. “You need to find a clever way of getting out of this. This is all well and good, but something is about to happen, and you need to be back home when it does. When it happens, you’ll know, and it is where you go next that you’ll truly find yourself.”
“How am I supposed to—” young Gaius asked.
“Make it seem like their idea. Make yourself...look...not well. Use the only skill you and I have.”
Young Gaius nodded understandingly. “I have a few ideas.”
Vearden closed the door, and it transformed dramatically this time. They were standing in a prison cell.
“Ssshhhit!” Gaius cried. “That idiot. Again.”
Vearden didn’t want to be in here any more than Gaius did, so he gladly took the handle. It didn’t budge.
“Oh my God. Of course. Why wouldn’t it be locked, I’m a criminal!” Gaius started scratching at a tattoo on his shoulder that hadn’t been there before. “Okay, I think this can work if we time it right.” He started banging on the door and screaming to the guards. “Hey, boss! Help! Help!”
“Open eleven!” the nearest guard commanded.
Gaius had his own command. “Now!”
Vearden pulled at the pocket door just as the buzzer rang out, releasing it from the locks. They were once again standing before the farm, but it was now nighttime, and the younger Gaius was searching for something.
“Oh, hey, a goat got loose. Would you be able to find him?”
“Dude,” the older Gaius said to his younger self. “Not that idea. You take it way too far. Just keep it simple.”
Young Gaius peers into the prison cell. “Yikes, okay, got it.”
Vearden closed the door, and they were now standing in a house.
“Hmm,” Gaius said to himself. “All right, I know what to do.” He prepared himself mentally, then nodded. “Go.”
The Gaius on the other side was probably negligibly younger than the older one. It was like they were just looking into a mirror, because it was the exact same house, with no change in furniture. “What now?” a frustrated younger Gaius asked, almost rhetorically. “What did I do wrong this time?”
“Don’t argue with them. I know it sucks, and I won’t lie, the television service in the new place is probably going to be the worst you’ve experienced in recent times. You have to tough it out, though. Your relationship with your parents is more important, and it’s a better house, so just agree to it.”
“Fine!” the younger Gaius reached in through the portal with an attitude and slammed the door shut himself.
“I didn’t he could do that.”
“He’s operating on a lot of energy right now.”
Vearden finally looked around. They were standing in yet another place. This was indeed superior to the previous one. It had two floors.
Gaius took a deep breath and muttered, “car.” He then spoke to Vearden, “you can take my old car, but you’re gonna have to get me a new one. Well...a new old one.”
“Is this the last job?”
“Second to last one. I promise. With this one, you won’t be seeing a younger version of me. I’ve never met the person who lives there. I just want her car.”
“I’m going to buy it, not steal it. Calm down and open the portal.”
He obliged, revealing a dining room table covered in documents. Gaius reached in a took a set of car keys. “Close it up real quick.”
“You said you weren’t going to steal it.”
“I’m not, I’m just hiding her keys so she agrees to sell it to me. Oh, don’t give me that look. She’s not allowed to drive anymore anyway.”
“How would hiding her keys make all that happen?”
“You stick to what you know, and I’ll stick to manipulating reality to create my own future? Kthx, byeee.”
“Who is this woman?”
“None of your business. Close the door, and then open it again. Or do you not want to get Saga back?”
Knowing he had no choice, Vearden closed the door for a second, then reopened it. They were now in a bedroom that had the same architecture as the dining room. Gaius reached through and dropped the keys into a purse.”
“That’s it?” Vearden asked as he closed the door for yet another time. “I’m free?”
Gaius picked up a piece of paper and started scribbling something on it. He then handed it to Vearden. “Go to this listing and request to take a look at the car they’re selling. Then buy it, no matter the condition. The car will take you to Saga.”
“Can’t you just—?”
“Vearden, I need the car to be at a certain place at a certain time so it can be used for something important. If it makes you feel any better, if you don’t do this, Mateo dies.”
Vearden nearly gulped at this.
“Buy the car, drive to Saga, and leave the car exactly where it is when she appears. Understand?”
“Here, take my old phone so you can call the sellers.”
“No,” Vearden said. He was remembering what the insane doctor who had given him a lobotomy once said. There was a moment when he was different, like he had changed into someone else, and it was then when he warned Vearden to accept only the car and Saga from the Superintendent. “I don’t want the phone.”
Gaius studied his face for a good long while. He then put the phone in his pocket, coming back with the pen from before. “I’ll make the change.” He clicked the pen. “Now go forth.”
Vearden completed his final tasks, ultimately buying a piece of crap old Toyota Camry from a lovely couple. As he was driving it down the road, the scene changed, and he found himself in the middle of a jungle. Gaius, the Superintendent hadn’t lied. There she was, waiting for him with that beautiful crooked smile. He jumped out of the car and tackled her into a bear hug.
“Oh, Saga, how I’ve missed you. It’s been years for me. The Pentagon thing probably only felt like yesterday to you.”
“Actually, no,” Saga said in her sweet and comforting voice. “I feel a deep sense of emptiness. I don’t remember being anywhere, but I know I wasn’t here, and I know I’ve missed a lot.”
He hugged her again. “Then let’s go find a way back home, and get you caught up.”