The Departure of Hokusai Gimura

Chapter One
The first thing I do after secretly leaving Analion Tower—which is in about the same state it was in the other reality—is return to the bus station and retrieve the money that The Repairman procured for me. The one benefit of living in that corrupted reality Yatchiko created was that I was a whole person, with an identity, and resources. I even had a girlfriend with immense time powers whose help I could use right now, but I have no idea how to contact her. Her phone number no longer works, which I discovered after borrowing a phone from a kind stranger. I still have my phone with me, but it only works with public WiFi, because my original wireless carrier has never heard of me. The only thing I was able to keep with me from the corrupted reality was my face. Melantha—or Meliora, as it were—used to give me deaging therapy, which somehow transferred over to the true reality.
After resting for a night in a seedy motel, I walk to a seedy car dealership, where they don’t ask many questions, and buy a crappy car. I drive the crappy car to the crappy part of the city where people do whatever they can just to get by. I’ve retained my memories of being a Kansas City police officer, and a corporate fraud investigator, in the corrupted reality. While most of that never actually happened, I still have knowledge of how this city works. When you’re a cop looking for really bad people, sometimes you have to let the not so terribly bad people keep living their lives, and doing their jobs. I never really had a problem with that since I don’t agree with every law anyway. I struck a deal with a couple who specialize in generating false identities for people. As my confidential informants, they would keep their ears to the ground for any nefarious activity. In return, I would let them keep helping people escape their old lives. Most of their clients were abused wives, and street gang members who wanted to get out of the life. They charged a lot less for their services than they could, and never helped violent criminals evade the law. All I can hope is they still exist in this reality.
“You smell like a cop,” the cliché of a freelance security guard says when I try to enter the forger couple’s den.
“I was a cop, and I left this operation running because I appreciated what they were doing. It was my job to stop gang violence, and they contributed to that cause. I don’t think they ever knew about me, but I wanted to extend my gratitude...and ask for a favor.”
He lifts his head to alter his perception of me.
I take a thousand dollars out of my pocket. “I just wanna talk. You can pat me down, if you want.”
“That won’t be necessary,” someone from a dark corner. A young man steps into the light and offers me his hand. “Nice to meet you, detective. My parents spoke highly of you.”
“They did?” That’s impossible, I never actually worked for the KCPD, at least not as a detective.
“Yes, of course. In the corrupted reality, that is,” he says. “Follow me.” He turns around and walks back into the darkness.
As I’m following, his personal guard casually plucks the cash from my hand, which is fine.
“Who are you?” I ask him once we’re in his office. “How do you know about the corrupted reality? Do you remember it?”
He points to a mirror on the other side of the room. “That allows me to speak with my dead parents. Yesterday, they start talking about contradictions in their own memories, acting like they’ve lived lives that never happened. I figured it out.”
“You have a Mirror of Erised?” I ask, referring to an object in the Harry Potter franchise.
He grins. “Where do you think Rowling got the idea?”
“So you know who I am?” I ask, getting the subject back on track.
“Detective Kallias Bran, not really. Was the corruption centered on you?”
“It was.”
He nods. “But you broke through it?”
Trusting him, I take the Incorruptible Astrolabe from my bag and show it to him.
He dons a pair of his own steampunk goggles, and adjusts the magnifiers. “Very interesting. Got anything else?”
“Yeah, I do,” I say, guarded. “Questions.”
“That’s all right, I’m not in the business of stealing from people.”
“What are you in the business of?”
He takes a breath. “My name is The Forger. I help time travelers assimilate into their new environments.”
“You’re a time traveler?”
“I’ve traveled, but by aid of others . I can’t do it myself, this is my time period.”
“So you can help me create an identity.”
“You had an identity during the corruption, but now now?”
“The reality was created in order to give me that identity, which was stolen from me when my city disappeared from time.”
He’s taken aback by this. “A whole city?”
“Gradually. Eventually.”
“Holy shit, I need to talk to The Historian about that.”
“First, could you make me a real boy?”
Still preoccupied with the mystery of Springfield, Kansas, he steps over to the multi-function printer and punches a few buttons. It starts spitting papers out of one tray, and then a full passport from the booklet tray. He then moves over to the ATM. “Are you staying in 2017?”
“Yes, but I don’t need any money. The Repairman took care of that for me.”
“Oh, you met him? Kind of a weirdo, right?”
“He’s good people, though.” He pushes a few ATM buttons. A few cards fall out, which he hands to me. “He always hands out cash, so you’ll need at least one bank account, and a line of credit.”
I take the cards from him, which are completely blank, except for the chip, and the magnetic bar. “Which bank?”
“You choose. “The cards will fill in themselves once you decide which issuers they’re from. I recommend staying away from Gregorios, though. They’re even more corrupt than regular banks.”
“Ah, man, this is amazing. Thank you for all you’re help. How much do I owe you?”
He laughs and taps on the ATM a few times. “I don’t need your money. Just tell me what kind of life you would have led had you not lived in this mysteriously disappearing city. The documents that printed were just the initial ones. You’ll still need a history.”
I sit down with him and discuss what I’ve been though. I make a few things up, but most of it is just my real past, conflated to Kansas City, instead of Springfield. He prints out two copies of each document, and keeps virtual copies in a magical network that apparently disseminates them to time and space. He’s not just giving me papers to show people as needed. He’s actually somehow rewriting history to reflect my presence in it. I ask him whether he’s met Yatchiko Ishimaru, who could do something similar, but he just says he stays away from all those people, as most salmon and choosers do. Whatever those are. The Children of Springfield, as I’ve decided to call them, are a special class of temporal manipulators that no one wants to talk about, according to the Forger.
He collates all the documents, handing one set to me in a manilla folder, and placing the other in a large envelope. He then steps over to a mailbox, opens it once before closing it, then lifts the red signal flag. He stands there for a few moments, playing with his phone, while I review my new information.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door, through which a twentysomething guy walks when the Forger announces that it’s open. He’s wearing traditional courier garb, complete with shorts, and a flimsy hat. I can see burn scars peaking out on the side of his face. “Detective!” he cries upon seeing me.
“Do I know you?” I ask. He does look familiar, but I can’t quite recall.
“Ennis. Ennis Patton. You helped me and my family move.”
I look at my folder. “Wow, these papers work fast.”
“What?” Ennis asks. “This was years ago, in Springfield.”
“You remember Springfield?” I ask, surprised.
“Yeah, I’m from there. Born and raised, like you. Though...I suppose not anymore.”
“You’re a time traveler,” I guess. That must be why he remembers a city that no longer exists.
He smiles proudly. “The Courier, at your service.” He flicks the brim of his hat. I never got a chance to thank you. You got us out. Had we stayed in our neighborhood one more day, we’d have been toast.”
That’s it. I used to go around finding ways of moving people out of the houses that were about to be swallowed up by the ravages of broken time. I do remember him now. “Ennis Patton. You were the one...” I trail off, not wanting to be insensitive.
“Who got blown up in that package bomb?” he finished my sentence. “That was me.”
“They could never explain that, how three houses in a row exploded at once. That’s not how blast radii work, but I guess it had to do with time travel.”
He nods. “That’s exactly right.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Don’t be. That block disappeared soon thereafter. It was another several years before our new street went with it. I don’t think we would have believed you had that package not blown up. It was after that that I started having some weird time experiences, like the Purple Rose Lane pocket dimension. And now my parents are safe in Wichita, and I have a job that I love.”
“Speaking of your job,” the Forger jumps in, “I need you to get the Detective’s new documents to The Archivist so he can update his file.”
“I have a file?” I ask.
“Everybody has a file,” Ennis explains. He takes my identity package from the Forger and stuffs them into his delivery bag.
“Well, I’m glad things ended up okay,” I say to him. “It still shouldn’t have been so...painful.”
“These scars haven’t exactly been a hit with the ladies and gentlemen,” Ennis says, lifting his shirt to reveal them to be much worse on his back, “but they’re mine now, and I accept that.”
“Still,” the Forger begins, “Doctor Hammer could probably do something about them.”
“Thanks,” Ennis says. “I’ll consider it. Right now, though, I have deliveries to make. It was nice seeing you again, Detective Bran.” He tips his hat and turns to leave back through the bathroom door.
“You as well,” I say before he vanishes.
“Well, you’re all set up,” the Forger says with finality. “Unless there’s anything else I can do for you.”
“No, you’ve been a great help.” I take the Astrolabe back out of my bag and set it on his table. “Put this somewhere safe for me. You’re obviously familiar with the time traveler underground. I wouldn’t know the first thing about hiding a magical object, and I certainly don’t want to keep looking at it.”
“Will do,” he says quietly.
I exit to use my identity to buy a really nice condo at the Ponce de Leon using my new bank accounts. There’s no reason I can’t be comfortable while I’m looking for where Hokusai ran off to.

Chapter Two
I spend one day looking over every document that Hokusai left me in that frightening knife dimension—and while it’ll be helpful in understanding how the world of time travelers works—it doesn’t give me any leads as to where she went. From this failure I give myself a week to rest and recharge while indulging in the kinds of things rich people have access to...namely time. With more than a million dollars in the bank after buying a unit in the Ponce de Leon, I don’t have to worry about working. I don’t know how much I’ll end up having to spend on my personal investigations, but at least for now, I’m not even going to consider finding a job. Ennis Patton, a.k.a. The Courier drops by a couple times to check on me. Out of pity, he ends up giving me a little bit information that can help. As it’s his job to know lots of different time travelers and time manipulators, he’s able to provide me with some connections I wouldn’t be able to get on my own. He first directs me to a wealthy investor who uses his ability to see the future to play the market with zero risk. Apparently everyone who can, in some way, manipulate time has to have a nickname, but this guy is different. He never gives me his birthname, no, but nor does he have his own code name either. Instead, he belongs to a class of precognitives called Investors who see money and power as the only benefits to their gift. He throws a single tip my way, saying that this investment is too minor to be worth his time, but could set me up for life if I live frugally.
More money is great, but what I really need is to meet someone who can get me answers. Investors live in their own respective worlds, not inconveniencing themselves with problems like disappearing towns, or door scribbles that magically turn into books. So Ennis gives me another lead, this time a twentysomething guy who lives in a safehouse, for a reason he won’t tell me. He jokes that the guy might be able to open some doors for me, but I have no idea why that’s funny. Since it’s my only good lead, I make the drive out to Overland Park and knock on the safehouse door.
A man opens with a juice box in his face, completely apathetic to my arrival. He stands there waiting for me to say something, but I don’t know what I should say. After a moment in the awkward silence, he crushes his box, and lets it drop to the floor. Then, leaving the door open, he just goes back over and sits on the couch.
“I’m sorry,” I say to him from the threshold. “My name is Kallias Bran. I’m looking for a few people, and was told you might be able to help.”
“Where are they?” he asks in monotone.
“Well...I mean, I don’t know. That’s why I’m looking for them.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“You have powers?”
He chuckles and burps. “Quite the opposite. I power over my life. I’m salmon.”
“I’ve heard that, what does that mean?”
This finally gets a reaction out of him. He turns his head, but slight enough to still be looking at me sideways. “You must be pretty bloody new. I’ll give you the run-down. Some people have powers. Ya got your teleporters, your time travelers, your precogs. Then you got the weird ones, like the bubblers, and the ripplers. They can all do whatever they want with whatever power they have. Since they get to choose how to use them, they’re called choosing ones. Then there are the people like me. We travel through time too, but we do so at the behest of some mysterious group of shadow people. Someone told me once why we’re called salmon, I can’t remember.”
“What do these shadow people make you do?”
“Are you gonna sit down, or just stand there like a weirdo?”
“My mother taught me manners.”
He burps again on purpose. “Manners aren’t allowed in this house.”
I start walking in.
“But take your shoes off. Goddammit, animal!”
I just sit down in the chair he probably uses to tie his shoes when he leaves the house.
“What were you saying?” he asks.
“It doesn’t matter. If you don’t think you can help me yourself, maybe you know someone who can.”
“Well, what do you need?”
“Maybe there’s someone who can...track people? Or someone who can send messages across time and space.”
“A spacetime email?”
“Yeah, sure. Can someone do that?”
“Shit,” I say under my breath, but he could definitely hear.
“I don’t know that many choosers, Elias. Where did you last see these missing people?”
“Springfield, Kansas.”
“Did you try going back there and retracing their steps?”
“Springfield doesn’t exist anymore.”
“They got rid of it? Good riddance. Frickin’ Red-Tailed Hawks, always beating my Cardinals in the postseason.” Yet another person who’s heard of a town that was taken out of time. I’m starting to think that never happened.
“I’m sorry to have wasted your time. I’ll let you get back to your LOST marathon.”
“Now, hold up, he says. I might have someone for ya. But we’re gonna need two things.”
“Number one: another juice box. I’m parched, and the kitchen’s way over there.”
“I can get you two.”
“My man! Thinkin’ big. You’re okay, Alias. You’re okay.”
As I’m retrieving the drinks from the fridge, which is about five feet from where Vearden is sitting, I ask, “what’s the second thing, a pudding cup?”
“Oo, three things.”
I hand him the juice and pudding, then sit back down, trying to stay patient.
“A gun.”
“A gun?”
“A gun. You got a gun?”
“I used to a cop, I got a gun. Why do we need a gun?”
“You ever heard of cell phones?”
I don’t even bother answering.
“Dude, we’re time travelers. I’ve met people who haven’t heard of phones before, including my first wife. Don’t act like that’s a dumb question.”
I just show him my cell.
“Guns..are like cell phones, but they only call one person. His name is...The Action, but I just call him Ashlock.”
“The gun is a phone?”
“Like how you stand in front of a mirror in a darkroom and say bloody mary three times. Lots of choosers have special ways of contacting them since cellular networks don’t work past, what, the 1930s?”
I take my gun out of its holster. “You want me to fire my gun in your home?”
He seems confused. “This isn’t my home, it’s a safehouse. My real home is nine years from now in an alternate timeline. And you can’t just fire a gun, otherwise, Garen would have to be in a million places at once.”
I take in and release a deep breath. “What do you want me to do?”
He starts chowin’ down on that pudding. “His calling card is on the TV stand, if you can figure out my filing system.”
“You mean this pile of trash?”
“I’ve heard it both ways.”
I sort through the mess and find the card from Garen Ashlock. On the back is a script I’m apparently meant to recite, which I reluctantly try, ultimately shooting a hole in the baseboard next to a small closet. Nothing happens.
“Nah, you gotta do it right. Once more with feeling, and all that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to act it out, Elsa. Again, he can’t risk some rando just stumbling upon his code phrase.”
I take another breath, then try again, moving around to mimic the way the original characters said these lines as best as I remember them. First I reholster, and re-unholster. “Say hello to my little friend!” I then point it at Vearden. “You’ve got to ask yourself one question; do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” I toss my gun to the floor, which I was never explicitly taught at the academy I shouldn’t do, but it was kind of implied. “Trinity! Help!” Then I awkwardly pick the gun back up and place it point blank at Vearden’s head. “Dodge this.” Before squeezing the trigger, I swing over and plant another bullet in the same hole I made earlier. Again, nothing happens. “Son of a bitch!”
“Oh, that was beautiful, I don’t know why it didn’t work,” Vearden says. “Let me see that.”
I give him the business card.
“Oh, you know what, I think this is his old one.”
“I feel like I’m not getting anywhere!” I shout louder than the gunshots. “I do all this work, and nothing really does any good! Sure, I got money now, but who the hell cares! I’m just looking for Hokusai, Springfield, and the missing children! Is there no one who can help me with that!”
Suddenly a beam of light shoots out from my double bullet hole, and shines on the opposite wall. This light expands to form an opening vaguely in the shape of a doorway. There’s a staircase on the other side of what I can only guess is a portal. A woman and a man are walking down the stairs, but only the woman steps through. “Thanks for the ride, Juan,” she says to the man, who just smiles and nods. He then snaps his compass shut, giving the impression that this act is what causes the portal to close too.
“Garen Ashlock?” I ask of the woman.
She shakes my hand. “He couldn’t be here, so I’ve been sent in his stead.”
“Sent by whom?” I ask.
“The powers that be, of course,” she answers.
“You’re salmon.”
“Indeed,” she replies. She shakes my hand again, possibly hoping I don’t notice that we’ve already done that. “My name is Sanela Matic...but you can call me The Screener.”

Chapter Three
“You’re a Matic?” Vearden asks. “Any relation to Mateo?”
“Yes, actually,” Sanela answers. “I would have been great grandmother.”
“You would have been...?” I ask.
“He went back in time to kill Hitler, which created a new reality; one in which he was never born.”
“I know of a device that can fix realities.”
She shook her head. “I know what you’re talking about. That’s for reality corruptions. This is just a new timeline. There’s nothing to fix. Thanks, though.”
“What does it mean that your The Screener?” I ask.
“I can show you the past. You won’t be able to interact with anybody, or anything, but you can watch.”
“So you can show me where Hokusai Gimura is?”
“I don’t know where she is, but I can take you back and let you retrace her steps. That is, if the powers that be allow me to do so. I operate at their behest.”
“So, how does this work? Do you need a picture of her, or a specific date and time?”
Sanelea takes a small bottle out of her pocket and removes the cap. “Lean your head back.”
I’m about to ask why, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll do anything. I lean back and let her drop one drop of some unknown substance into each of my eyes. It stings a little, but is at the same time pleasurable. I can feel a warm sensation pulsing through my veins, reaching every square inch of my body within seconds. After I’m done instinctively blinking, I open my eyes and find myself in what looks like The Construct from The Matrix. Sanela is here with me. She explains that this is The Antapex; another dimension. It’s not the first time I’ve been in one, so it’s no big deal, except that there is nothing here, which gives me a feeling of isolation and emptiness that I didn’t know was possible.
“What’s that stuff you gave me?” I start looking around even though, again, there’s nothing here but whiteness.
She walk around as mirror to me. “Nothin’ but my tears.”
“You mean anyone can do this if they just have your tears?”
“I can take you anywhere I want you to go,” she begins to explain, “tears or no. I gave you my tears so you can decide where, but you still need me to drive. If I just left you with a sample, you would only be able to observe your own past. We’re waiting here because it takes a few minutes for your mind to bond with the solution.”
“Is my body just slumped against the wall back at Vearden’s safehouse?”
“No, your body is here. You can only observe the past, but your body is still here.”
My head grows hotter, not feverish, but a heat the likes of which I’ve never experienced.
“Okay, this is it; we’re entangled,” she says. “Just think about when and where you wanna go, and we’ll go.”
I try to think about Hokusai, but my brain isn’t working right. The heat from that eye solution is overwhelming. My thoughts wander further and further back, until I’m hyperfocused on Escher Bradley, the child whose disappearance started it all. Suddenly, we’re back inside that wretched house. Escher is just opening the door, carefully but inquisitively. He places one hand on the inside knob while taking a cursory look at the foyer, causing it to break off. He puts the knob in his pocket and continues to explore.
“I thought we were looking for a woman,” Sanela notes.
“We are,” I say. “I took us too far back. This is the first person to go missing. Well, technically second, but I was a child during the first one.”
“Is this gonna help with your investigation?” she asks me.
“It could. I believe they’re all connected. I believe they’re all in the same place.”
“I don’t know how long the powers that be are gonna let me work this case,” she says tentatively. “We might want to hurry this along.”
The whole time, I’ve been watching Escher, but now I turn towards my guide. “Can you do that? Can you speed this up?”
“Speedwatch? Yeah, I can.”
“Keep us with him,” I order, somewhat rudely. “Wherever he goes, we go. I don’t want to have to run twice as fast.”
“I can do that too.”
She doesn’t seem to need to move a muscle to make this happen. We remain connected to Escher’s location as he moves, our feet sliding across the floor as mere observers, like a true three-dimensional movie. Everything moves at least twice as fast as real-time. She slows down sometimes so we can hear things he says, and sometimes speed up even more when little is happening. Escher, completely hopeless and alone, starts out by activating some kind of portal in the mural above the fireplace. He crawls up into it, and then falls back out, now in another dimension of his own, and somehow upstairs. He looks out the window to see his mother, who still apparently has her memories of him, and is wondering where he is. Escher tries to walk down the hallway, only to be transported to a basement. He begins to cry so much that a puddle forms from his tears. He ends up falling through it as well, as it has become a portal. He’s in a new basement, and just as trapped as before. I try to comfort and help him, acutely aware of how pointless my attempts are.
Escher continues to run through the maze of rooms, which could not possibly fit within the confines of a single-family home. Sometimes these rooms are basements, but not always. He hears noises, and sees dark masses pursue him. He keeps running for his life, eventually learning the power of what I’ve been calling the Escher Knob. Eventually he comes across a little girl named Effigy, but she is not what she appears to be. She’s a monster in disguise, and all but admits this outright. She shows him a magic mirror that reveals my first meeting his parents, when I was trying to investigate his disappearance. She later puts him through a series of incredibly dangerous challenges, eventually releasing him to the outside on what’s either an alien world, or Iceland...but probably an alien world.
“Pause it,” I ask of Sanela.
She complies, and also removes our lock on Escher, so we can move around the scene at will.
“Where are we?”
“I’ve no idea. I’m not a tracker, and I’ve never been here. I can tell you that it’s not Earth, nor is it in another dimension.”
“We’re on another planet. I had no hope finding them as long as I stayed on Earth.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Sanela agrees.
“All right, play again, but at normal speed.” The scene continues, but now we can hear the dialog.
Effigy returns again, still in the form of a little girl, but maintaining no illusions that she is innocent. “You made it,” she says to him.
“Is this your world?” Escher asks.
“It is now. It’s not where I come from; just where I’ve been trapped. Until you came along.”
“What? What did I do?” he questions. “How have I freed you?”
“You're a little young for the physics,” she says dismissively.
“Try me. I’m smarter than you think.”
“The tests I put you through were not arbitrary,” Effigy says. “They served a very, very specific purpose. They are what ultimately allowed you to come here. Well, you could have come here at any time, I guess, but that would have been a waste. What I needed was a bridge, and you built that bridge for me. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“I don't remember building a bridge,” EB says, showing his youth.
“See? I told you that you wouldn’t get it. It’s not an actual bridge. “Then she mutters, “idiot” under her breath.
“Hey, leave him alone!” I shout at Effigy. For a second there, I think she can see and hear me, for her eyes dart at me ever so quickly.
“All right,” Escher says coolly, giving no impression that he might be able to see the two observers. “Calm down. Yeah, I’m young, but ya just gotta give me a chance. The challenges were...connecting the dots?” He guesses.
“Yes,” she confirms. “Particles needed quantum entangling and you got the chops to entangle them. Not everyone does, mind you, but you’re special.”
“That's lovely to hear,” Escher lies, almost convincingly.
“Well, you asked the question, and since you don’t like the answer, you wanna get all defensive. That is not my problem. In fact, you’re not my problem. Not anymore.”
“If I’m not your problem, then you can let me go back home.”
“Nah, sorry. Not possible. “You’ve done a brilliant job getting us here in the way I needed you to, which means you’re stuck here.”
“Umm...sorry?” She does her best to pretend she has any empathy for him, or that she’s even capable of it.
“No, that can’t be true!” EB cries defiantly. “You have to have a way back to Earth, I know it! This whole thing is about escaping. That’s one of the first things you told me about yourself!”
“I thought I did, yes,” Effigy says. “But when I discovered that you could bridge worlds, I realized I had to take advantage of that. I can escape later. I have more work to do here.”
“I've been helping you this whole time,” EB says, near more tears. “I think I always knew that that was a mistake. I shoulda been stopping you.”
“You coulda tried, but you’re no match for my power, I’ll tell ya that much.”
“That might be true, but you said I have power of my own. I don’t understand it—but I will—and I will find a way to use it against you.”
She grimaces. “Good luck with thaaaaat. I’ma go get my friends so we can take the universe for ourselves. We certainly deserve it after what we’ve been through.”
“You're gonna lose,” he says, bolstering his own courage. “You may win a few battles here and there, but I’ll figure this place out, and you will ultimately lose the war.”
“Good luck,” Effigy repeats. Then she blinks away for one second. Escher doesn’t seem to notice that she never really left. He starts moving away, hopefully looking for shelter. “Sorry about that,” she says, apparently to herself. “That conversation went on longer than I thought it would.” She looks right at my face, like she can see me. “Are you gonna say something, or just stand there like an dumbass?”
“You can see us?” Sanela asks, shocked.
“Sure can!” Effigy responds excitedly.
“How is that possible?” Sanela takes out her special tear drops. She removes the cap and smells it, but she doesn’t really know what she’s looking for.
“That ain’t gonna give you no answers, honey. My power can’t be explained.”
“Who are you?” Sanela approaches Effigy with caution, and nudges her on the shoulder.
“Yes, amazing, I know.”
“This has never happened to me before,” Sanela says to me. “There’s something wrong with her.”
“Or something right,” Effigy suggests.
“You’re an alien,” I say.
“Very good. But even more alien than you could know. I’m not even from this universe. I was screwed over. And while The Shepherd got a cozy job in the military, I got stuck here.”
“We can’t let your friends come here,” I tell her. “Whoever they are, they have to stay wherever they are.”
She sports what must be her signature smirk. “Like you got a choice.” She apports a remote control into her hands, and points it at the two of us. “Act Two, Scene One.”
She presses a button, and apports us back to Springfield, Kansas.

Chapter Four
“When are we?” I ask, recognizing some landmarks of the city. Night is falling.
“November 18, 2000.”
How does she know that?
As if reading my mind, she explains, “I have an innate sense of time. It’s one of my required secondary powers. Most time travelers don’t have it, which means they’re always getting lost. That’s why the world’s not even crazier than it is.”
“Did you send us here, or did that woman do it?”
“Kinda both, I guess.”
“Well, this is where we need to be. This is the day that Rothko Ladhiffe disappeared.” Suddenly, the sun disappears, as if the light in the sky was no more than a lightbulb that can be switched off.
Sanela shivers. “Something’s wrong here too. I’m the Screener. We shouldn’t be feeling the weather.”
“Come on, let’s go find RL.”
We’re several blocks from the Ladhiffe house, and since Sanela doesn’t trust her powers at the moment, we have to walk the whole way. We see zero signs of life on our way. Not only are there no cars driving home from the bar, or people setting their trash bins on the curb, but there’s nothing. It’s like this area of town was built overnight, and people haven’t moved in yet. As expected, RL’s house is empty, so we go back outside, hoping to run into him. It is then that we come across the special disappearing house. A figure is standing at the entrance, banging on the door.
“No,” I cry, like an inconsiderate audience member at a movie screening. “Don’t go in there!”
I reach the house just in time to see RL open the door, and steal a flashlight from the figure who was knocking on it, who’s turned out to be some other version of RL. “You won’t need this,” he says to himself. “Go inside. Trust me.” For some reason, the other RL complies with his duplicate’s orders, and steps in. I’m about to follow when the RL with the flashlight stops me. “Not you,” he says.
“Oh my God!” Sanela complains. “You can see us too?”
“Yeah, it’s this whole thing. Come on.”
RL then runs off, and we chase after him. “Rothko!” I keep yelling up to him. “I’ve been looking for you!” He ignores me, and leads us to the high school, only stopping once we reach the gymnasium.
“What are we doing here?” Sanela asks.
RL just steps into the equipment room and starts looking around.
“Answer her!” I demand. “What’s your problem?”
RL finds what he’s looking for in a baseball bat. “Sorry, we just don’t have much time. Take this.”
“He can’t take that,” Sanela says. “We’re not really here.”
“The rules are different in this dimension,” RL explains. “Take it.”
I reluctantly take the bat. “What is this for?”
“You remember your surrogate daughter, Hogarth?”
“I’ve never really considered her my—”
“You remember her, though,” he interrupts.
“Yes, of course.”
He points at the bat he’s just handed me. “Protect her.”
“From what?”
“You’ll see.” He starts looking around again, eventually deciding he now needs a basketball. “Somebody got a pen?”
I always keep a pen on my person, and have been doing so since I was a child. What kind of man leaves the house without a pen? my father would always say. It made an impression.
RL takes the pen, draws a sorry excuse for a cat on it, and stuffs it in my face. “Take a mental note of this. This is the most important basketball in the worlds. I’m going to leave the Rothko Torch in here for you. You will retrieve it in 2022, and then leave it in 2160. I would give it to you now, but I need it for something else first.”
“I’m so confused. Why don’t you come with us?”
“I have to save them all.”
“Save who?”
“You’ve already seen.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“One last thing before we part ways. I’m going to tell you something that no one else knows.”
“What is it?”
His watch beeps. “Shit. Remember the cat!”
“What did you want to tell me?” I ask hastily.
“The Rothko Torch,” he says, “it’s not one of a kind! There is one other. It’s in my—”
Time runs out, and we’re transported once again, apparently out of Senela’s control. She can’t even sense what year it is. As I’m trying to figure out which direction we should go. Hogarth Pudeyonavic appears out of the darkness. She’s running with a woman I don’t recognize. Behind them are town residents Paul Harken, and a very pregnant Hilde Unger. They duck around a corner, and I’m about to run after them when I notice three men already chasing them. They don’t look like they have the best of intentions.
“The bat,” Sanela says simply.
They don’t seem to be able to see me, but they can definitely feel me. I lower the bat and use it to trip one of the pursuing men. The man in front got past me before I could stop him, so I toss the bat in his direction. It’s not a particularly elegant throw, but it does the job, hitting him in the face, and causing a nosebleed.
“Nice shot!” Sanela says joyously, but becomes ashamed of her schadenfreude, and calms back down.
The third man is still standing up, so I fix that with a quick jab in the back of his kneecap. I don’t know what his deal is, or why he’s chasing after Hogarth, but RL said to protect her, so that’s what I’ma do. Like I needed a reason.
A fourth man runs up and looks at the mess. “What happened here?” He carries with him an air of authority.
“Invisible force,” one of the henchmen replies. “Smith. Help. Please.” Maybe I hit him a little too hard.
“Where did she go?” the leader, whose name was apparently Smith asks.
“We don’t know.”
“Invisible force, you say?” he starts thinking it over. Then he takes the HG Goggles out of his pocket.
“How did he get those?” I ask, feeling my pocket to make sure mine are still there. “I still have them.”
“Time travel,” Sanela whispers. “He acquires them sometime later. Either that, or there’s more than one, like the Rothko Torch. I don’t know what any of these things are.”
Smith puts the goggles on and looks right at the two of us. “Ha-ha-ha!” he LOLs. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I answer simply. “Whatever you want with Hogarth, you can’t have it. I’ll see to that.”
He smiles and points to his goggles, and then to us. “You’ve lost your advantage.”
As if on cue, we all hear a basketball bouncing in the darkness. It gets quieter as it loses momentum, but then we see it roll into view. The cat doodle ends up on top when the ball stops at my feet.
Smith nods to the bat I’m still holding. “Wrong sport.”
I grimace at him and get down on one knee. I lift the bat like it’s Excalibur, and jam it into the ball. It pops, revealing the Rothko Torch, just as promised. I switch it on and shine it on Smith’s face. He cries in pain, instinctively trying to block the light with his hands, and then turning away. After I turn the flashlight off, I’m near guilt for what I’ve done. He’s trembling, down on his own knees, and trying to cry, but no tears could fall from those eyes. The HG Goggles have been burned into his face permanently. He’s been turned into a hideous monster by most accounts. It’s unclear what he sees, if anything, when he removes his hands, trying to look at at them. At anything. The intensity of Smith’s whimpers increase until they reach critical mass, and he lets out a shriek no human should be able to produce on their own. Vearden Haywood could probably hear it all the way back in 2017, it’s so loud.
Once he’s done screaming, Smith stands back up, working hard to force himself to push through the pain. “I can still see you,” he yells, not as loud as the shriek, but loud enough to strike fear in my heart, and likely Sanela’s.
“We have to go,” I warn her.
“I’m on it,” she says, lifting her hands to just in front of her face. She then pushes them outwards and upwards, driving the scenery away from them to make room for the next scene.
“When and where are we now?”

Chapter Five
We’re standing in some kind of copse, coppice, brush, or brushwood. I’m not sure what to call it, but the undergrowth sure is thick, it is. “Be prepared for anything,” Sanela says. “I don’t have full control over where we go.”
Proving her point, a group of people appear out of the darkness, and into the dimness. They’re running for their lives, much like Hogarth was, but with far more fear in their hearts. The last one in line is Hokusai Gimura; the one I’ve been trying to track more recently. She manages to gain some ground on the young woman in fourth place  just as a dark mass gains ground on all of them. As it draws closer, I can see it’s a vague bipedal monster, like if The Incredible Hulk had been drawn with darker tones, and in impressionist style of art—or whichever style is the one that didn’t use very many pronounced lines. He looked kind of like a giant man, but was also more fluid, often changing the imperfection of his shape, so that you could never really tell where he ended, and the darkness behind him began. The monster overtook the woman Hokusai had passed, and for lack of a better term, ate her. It didn’t seem to have a mouth, or really any facial features. The front of his “head” would change even more dramatically than the rest of him, reminding me of the mask that the comic book character, Rorschach wears. Wow, I feel like most of my descriptions come from pop culture media that I don’t even read or watch.
“Loa! No!” Hokusai tries to scream, but it’s coming for her next, so she has to go back to running. Not that it matters, for the monster consumes her as well.
I try to fight him off, but my body just passes right through him. If ever there was a time I would want Sanela’s ability to merely witness the past to bleed into interactivity, it would be now. But still no one can so much as see me, not even this monster, which breaks a number of laws of physics, I know it.
One of the other three women seems to think that running is no longer an option, so she turns around and freezes, remaining as still as possible. The monster kills the other two, but leaves her alone entirely. It then walks off, apparently satisfied with its four-course meal. Once it’s out of sight, the final girl looks around. “What just happened?” she asks herself. She looks for clues, but there’s nothing around her but dead undergrowth. She shrugs and says, “I better get home.”
“She can’t remember her friends,” I say to Sanela as the survivor is casually leaving the scene.”
“That...thing must remove people from time. Somehow.”
Determined, I take the Rothko Torch out of my pocket. “Take us back.”
“To where? 2022?”
“No,” I say. “To just a few minutes ago. You can do that, right?”
“Rewind? Yeah, sure. But why would you wanna see that again?”
“It might hold a clue. Just...let’s just watch it one more time.”
“Will you want me to slow it down.”
“Maybe a little.”
Sanela holds one hand out and mimes turning a dial to the left. The scene begins to reverse, pulling the survivor back in place, and then the monster. It un-eats all those women, one by one, and they all continue to run backwards, getting back to where they were.
“Okay, stop it there,” I request, once they’ve all disappeared into the black. I approach a spot I know that Hokusai passes over, and get down on my knees.
“What are you doing?” she questions.
I’m digging in the soil, pushing dead plants away, and making a nice open space. I lift the Rothko Torch and jam it into the ground, so that it’s sticking business end up.
“Are you...are you trying to plant the flashlight?”
“I am, yes,” I reply. “Have you restarted the scene?”
“I have. It’s in slow motion.”
“Go ahead and put it at regular speed, it should be fine.”
“You think she’s gonna find that flashlight?”
“I’m hoping.”
She purses her lips. “Yesterday, I’d have told you that wouldn’t work, but now all the rules are out of whack.”
“Well, hopefully the flashlight puts this all back in fine whack. I can’t be here to watch Hokusai die. I won’t do it.” I really won’t.
Sanela snaps her fingers, letting the scene play out in real time. Unfortunately, though Hokusai does indeed pass over the flashlight, she does not see it.
“Dammit, send us back again!” I cry in frustration.
“I can’t just keep doing this,” she protests.
“You answer to some higher power, right?”
“That’s not generally how we put it, but yes.”
“If they don’t want you to do it, they’ll stop you. Until then, let’s go again.”
Sanela agrees, and we try the scene again. This time, I turn the flashlight on. D’uh. But it doesn’t work either. I guess the light isn’t passing through the barrier between our dimension, and hers. Which is crazy. Out of all the things the Rothko Torch can do, it can’t do that?
We try again after I move the flashlight a few inches back. No, that doesn’t work, so I move it a few inches forward, which finally does the trick. Well, it gets the job done, at least. Hokusai doesn’t trip on it, but the woman in front of her does. I guess that’s close enough, as long as Hokusai notices what it is. She does.
“The Rothko Torch,” Hokusai says as the other woman is helping her to her feet. “How did it get here?”
“He did it,” Sanela answers, knowing that no one but him would be able to hear.
“Does it matter?" the woman asks. “We have to go.” The others in their party have already run out of their field of vision.
“No we don’t,” HG says with confidence. Good, she has some idea of what she’s going to do with it.
“Hokusai! Please, let’s go!”
“Trust me, Loa,” HG says in a calm voice. “You can run if you want to, but with the Rothko Torch, we shouldn’t have to.”
Loa remains next to her friend, still frightened, but hopeful for Hokusai’s plan, whatever it may be. As soon as the mass appears before them, Hokusai turns the flashlight on, and aims it at the monster. It stops in mid-air, now covered with lava and fire. At least that’s what it looks like from this dimension. This heat overwhelms the monster, and ultimately destroys it.
“What did you just do?” Loa asks. “What kind of weapon is that?”
“Oh, this ol’ thing?” Hokusai asks with the smile of a champion. “Just the Rothko Torch. No big.”
“She’s amazing, isn’t she?” yet another woman says as Hokusai continues explaining the time object’s power to Loa.
“Who are you?” I ask of her.
“My name is Bhulan, and I just wanna thank you for all your help today. This.” She points to the other two women, who can clearly not see Bhulan. “This is what really matters. You distracted Effigy long enough for Escher to get to safety. You helped Rothko fully understand his mission. And you stopped Smith from becoming an even more dangerous threat to Hogarth’s life. But what you did here, giving my ancestor the flashlight, that’s gonna save two worlds. They could have all died, and it wouldn’t have mattered if Hokusai didn’t have all the ingredients she needs.”
“Was that you with the basketball?” Sanela asks. “Did you bounce that to Kallias so he could defeat that Smith guy?”
Bhulan shakes her head, still watching the scene. The other three women have come back to them. “No. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The others are in the middle of arguing about what they’re going to do next, and that other monsters could be close. They turn out to be right as several of these monsters begin to growl from all around them.
“That’s my cue,” Bhulan says. “You have done everything you can, Bran. Go back to your own time period. There’s a lot of work in the mid-early 21st century, and you’ll be vital to that.” She walks into the center of the group, and transitions to their dimension, so they can see her. “Give me the flashlight.”
Hokusai complies quickly.
“Get down!” she orders them. “And shut your eyes!”
A blast comes out of the Rothko Torch, even brighter than the one that Hokusai released. It spreads farther than I or Sanela can see. Though it does them no harm, even they can feel its heat from this observation dimension.
Once the danger has passed, Bhulan says, “we’re good. You can stand back up.”
“Thank you,” Hokusai says. “Not to sound ungrateful, but who are you?”
“My name is Bhulan...and I am your great great granddaughter.”
“Come on,” Sanela says to me as the conversation continues. “Let’s get you back home.” She crosses her wrists, and then separates them, repainting the scenery to something else. Just as she does so, though, she disappears along with it. I’m still standing in the same place. Well, maybe it’s not quite the exact same place, but the terrain is quite similar.
“Hello? Sanela? Bhulan?” No answer. “Vearden?” I venture, but quieter. There’s no one here.
Before me, a few meters above the ground, a fire ignites, fueled by nothing apparent. A figure bursts out of it and strikes the ground, still burning. I pull off my coat and desperately work to beat and smother the fire out. The smoke clears and I can see the face of the individual I’ve possibly just saved. It doesn’t seem to be an animal, but it’s also not human.

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