Dreams In The Storm – Part One. Part Two coming soon!
Rain smashed the bedroom window like spears on a shield. The storm, reaching the apex of its destructive flurry, lashed, whipped, and churned. Coal-black clouds congregated, frothed, and spewed pure fury. Distance was skewed and muddled. Diana could make out the silhouette of the city centre’s mighty spire, jabbing upwards towards the inimical black spume like a pearl-crowned lance. She moved from the window, huddled closer to the fireplace, and prayed for the storm to pass quickly. Storms had become common in recent months, each subsequent onslaught dissipating slower and slower. The meteorologists, with all their fancy gadgets, devices, qualifications and instruments for measuring precisely these types of natural phenomenon, were grasping in the dark for their numerous textbooks and worriedly assuring the public there was nothing to fear from sporadic bursts of nature’s anger.
Unlike the rest of the flustered town, Diana had remained surprisingly calm. She wasn’t panic buying or boarding her door and windows shut, or sliding through the water-clogged streets to spend time with friends and family in case she didn’t get another chance. She would wait, all night if she had to, by the roaring fireplace for the storm to pass. Sometimes it didn’t take all night, sometimes it would last an hour and dissolve, but there had been one terrible night when knells of thunder and raids of lightning presaged the encroaching tempest- that night the storm rumbled adamantly towards noon. As she expected, the town had elevated its desperate panic to pandemic levels.
She didn’t mind the rain. It was the thunder and the ferocious swirls that rollicked bestially that unnerved her. At least, she thought, you can see the rain. You can’t see thunder. You can’t really see the wind. You only see what’s left in its wake.
Her flat, if it could be called such, was a cosy one-bedroom burrow capping a twenty-floor apartment block. Furnishing and decoration were topics that contently sat outside her arc of knowledge and expertise, and she was happy this was the case. Proficiency in the school of decoration would push out something important, something she needed. As such, the flat was bare-boned and skeletal; a few leather chairs, a two-piece couch slicing the kitchen from the main room, one measly lamp dangling from the peeling ceiling, and an antique wooden dresser gathering dust in the corner of the bedroom were all she cared to purchase and employ. She preferred the simplicity of having a diminished sum of possessions.
The window pane fluttered. She checked the latch was shut, double checked. It’s not like the storm is going to invade my home, she thought. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
There was a deep rumbling thump. The ceiling shuddered. Flecks of cream paint, liberated from their concrete prison, flittered and tumbled. The sheltered roof was withstanding a brutal pasting and probably wouldn’t survive the night. The plastic shelter fencing the small roof area had been savagely brutalised over the past few weeks. Ripped from their foundations, huge tattered blocks were discovered several streets towards the city centre, and even as far to the city’s cluttered fringes as the residential housing terraces. Of course, it was grotesquely melded with the untold detritus the storms swallowed and emigrated and was only identified on the basis of paintings Diana had embellished on the plastic squares.
I should go check everything’s okay, she reflected. She imagined the wailing blasts, the extraneous debris flung and regurgitated by the storm, the vicious pelt of the blitzing torrent, and decided against leaving the flat. Whatever the damage, it would be fixable. A patch here, a patch there, tape on tape, and it would be effortlessly restored. Nothing to worry about.
The TV offered little comfort at all. It was like having a pet; pleasant and at the very least, company in the warren of seclusion, but occasionally it would leap up and down, flap its paws around, snap its jaws, bark, meow, snarl, grab at your leg, and generally make an annoyance of its existence and through sheer proximity, yours as well. A well-groomed, poorly-suited old man in a tie and beard gibbering about the caustic trail of the storm didn’t count as succour. She switched it off.
Another thump. Diana groaned. That would be the door to the roof, she decided. The lock on her front door, she ascertained, remained locked and steadfast. Gusts of wind whistled through the hinges. She grabbed the larger chair and propped it prone against the back of the door. Paranoia bubbled.
More thumping. She froze. The ear, assaulted by the din of a boisterous, raucous storm, can influence the mind into believing what was heard from one specific place came from another. Rain smeared the windows and clawed at the latches. With this racket, she thought, it’s impossible to tell where anything is. That was it. The thump came from the roof. Not the bedroom.
She rummaged through the kitchen drawers. Her fingers, in a freaked fuss, selected a serrated meat knife and instinctively, she stalked to her bedroom.
The storm bellowed. She felt like it was watching her through the window, judging, flinging hails of torrent as robust impediments. It stirred up an abhorrent thunderstorm in her chest that harmonized with the flustered chaos pugnaciously drubbing the streets, lashing the rooftops, snatching stone slats and hunks of timber, driving forward its hostile crusade.
The knife’s chill grounded her, reminded her that the storm was outside and would relentlessly continue, that her paranoia listlessly endured. Fear in her own house. It wasn’t right. She didn’t deserve to be afraid, skulking in the shadows, hand gripped to a knife like a buoy. She approached the door and turned the handle, the knife’s point raised and primed.
As the door skittered ajar, Diana wondered- what was she planning to do with the knife? She certainly couldn’t hurt anyone and killing, even when the unfortunate victim was a violent intruder, couldn’t be entertained. Defence, she decided. Use the knife as a deterrent. Don’t hurt anyone.
The bedroom was as pasty-white and virtually naked as the rest of the flat and sustained the lofty theme of sparseness. A blank bed collided with the crumbling wall, a set of drawers occupied the far corner, and a delicate, guileless mirror hung on the left wall. Hail abused the shuttered window. Nothing was out of place, she thought, relaxing. All that paranoia for nothing- nothing but the storm.
The flat floor suddenly rocked and rumbled, Diana felt like she was on a conveyor belt. She grabbed the edge of the doorway tight and screamed. Her knees buckled. Like veins on flesh, fat cracks invaded the stone walls and swarmed the ceiling, and thundering roars of splitting concrete boomed and screeched. Diana’s screams, barely audible above the titanic din. Rattling. Shredding. Splitting. Rumbling.
As soon as it had begun, the quake stopped. Over her hovered a cloud of faint rubble. She waved it away, coughed, and shakily tried to stand. She felt hungover- with a supplementary module of horror. The storms had been horrible, sure, but earthquakes? There had never been an earthquake, not during her entire life. The city wasn’t a hotspot for tectonic shudders, not even the continent. Something was wrong with the world, she thought. Everything was going as horribly as possible.
Had she any care beyond her own safety, she might’ve checked her paltry chattels for damages, but what difference would it make if they were damaged? That was the value in owning nothing valuable- easy to replace, less to be stolen, nothing to worry about. As long as she had her health, that’s all that mattered.
Diana groggily collected the knife, which had plunged and slid during the quake, and figured out what to do next. The only thing out of place, she was pleased to notice, was the mirror which had been hurled from the wall and lay in shattered pieces.
“Good riddance,” she said quietly.
She was about to leave for the kitchen, to put back the knife and reclaim begrudging tolerance, when an audible groan rebounded. The knife swished through the air, edge winking in the dim light. Her hearts thumped in her ear.
Storms don’t groan, she astutely observed. Storms howl. Storms scream. They don’t groan. People groan.
‘Who’s there?’ was what she wanted to shout. Having an outsider in your venue of privacy often drives this question to the surface and for introverts such as Diana, block like a castle wall the barb of inquisitiveness. She’d watched enough horror movies to know that giving away your position to possible axe-wielding maniacs or fanged hunch-backed beasts is seldom conducive to survival, so, she kept her mouth clamped shut and readied the knife.
The mind can perform incredible feats of mental acrobatics when faced with mortal peril. It can twist, flex, and construe with affluence expected of Mensa prodigies and soldiers in the heat of battle. And so it did. It lit up the huddled figure swathed like a towel over the bed- outlined it as a peculiar instance worthy of her urgent action and attention.
She advanced slowly, fingers wrapped around the knife’s handle. A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead. There was no time to applaud being correct- that she was right about a home invader- there was simply the figure and all it inferred.
It was definitely a man. A scraggly man with tanned skin, an ebony timeworn military-style trench jacket emblazoned with silver and gold buttons and garish helical patterns, thick black and muddied boots, and a thatch of bedraggled brown hair. Diana thought he looked like a remarkably fashionable pirate with the occasional flair of modern soldier. His face was submerged deeply in the bare mattress.
She prodded him in the side with the butt of the knife.
He groaned and waved.
“Nexus…” he rasped. “Never… gets it… right.”
She prodded him again, harder this time. He flipped around in an ominously fluid motion, like a snake rounding on its tail.
“Hello,” he said casually.
First and foremost, he was considerably younger than she expected. Despite the aging wrinkles around his eyes there was an undeniable spark of youth that couldn’t be incarcerated behind the prematurely aged skin. Scars and faded bruises, like blobs on a heat map, marked the lower band of his neck. He was a man who had lived in destitution and struggles, Diana observed, and lived more in his short time than some have in sixty years- unfortunately, that short time had been spent in battle and blood.
Secondly, his eyes shone with silver sparks, like silvery minnow swimming through a white pond, a mast of cobalt blue at its precise centre. They were remarkable, she reflected. Beautiful, even. Why, then, was it so unsettling to look at?
She flourished the knife defensively. “Who are you? And what are you doing in my house?!”
“Uh,” he said, timidly, “You know, I don’t know. I wish I knew. Is that a knife?”
“Of course it’s a knife!” she shouted. “And if you don’t get out of my house right now, you’ll be stuck with the business end!”
“The business end?” He was bemused. “How does a knife do business?”
From the other side of the bed, below the edge, echoed a groan. A burly man, noticeably exhausted, popped into view. Dark hair shadowed his forehead, fatigue carved his drooping face, his eyes, like rough-edged diamonds, slumped indolently and radiated veteran taciturnity. He was the archetype of excessive work and too much pressure. Stress, like a viral infection, encapsulated and infested his entire body. The underbelly of the criminal body could do well with a thug like this, Diana thought.
“Adrian?” he said hoarsely.
“I’m here,” said the young man. “There’s also a woman with a knife. Do you have any idea what kind of business a knife would have?”
Stressed-man clambered up the side of the bed, rubbed his temples. “A catering business, I’d imagine.”
“Ah!” said Adrian. His head swivelled towards Diana. “Sorry, I’m not interested in joining a catering business. But if you have cake, I’ll take some of that.”
She pointed the knife’s tip angrily. “What are you doing in my house?! Get out!”
Adrian calmly raised his hands. “Look, we’re sorry. We obviously don’t mean to be here; this is just a big misunderstanding-”
“Adrian,” Stressed-man interjected, “that’s enough. Where’s Jane?”
Control was slipping through Diana’s fingers like sand through a drain. She forcefully wedged herself between them and the doorway, ready to run, prepared to fight, brandishing the knife as offensively as she could manage.
“I want you out of my house!” she roared. “Now! Go!”
Stressed-man grumbled under his breath and glanced around. “We’ll be out of your hair when we find our friend. You haven’t by chance seen a girl around here, have you? Young, red hair?”
She feigned a lunge and feebly thrust the blade forward. The men didn’t budge, didn’t flinch, didn’t blink. They’re hardened warriors, she thought, a cold bite at her chest. I can’t threaten them with a knife, they could end me in a heartbeat.
“Please,” she said. “Just leave. I don’t care why you’re here, please, just get out!”
Fear crept up. These people were in her humble home, her tiny sanctuary, and from them exuded insouciance, like this was a perfectly ordinary situation, like she wasn’t gripping a knife or quivering with dread, a stone’s throw away from tearing out her hair, from dropping to the floor and cradling her arms in the foetal position.
“Don’t freak out,” said Stressed-man, coolly. “I guess that means you haven’t seen our friend, then? She has to be in here somewhere. Jane! Jane?!”
A petite, bony hand calmly creeped from under the bed, grasped at the edge, and yanked a slim female body free from the dark crevice. From the shadows emerged unnaturally bright red hair collected and contained in thick dreadlocks, each the size of the average tree branch, followed by a thin set of shoulders wrapped in a slim-fitting blue dress covered in tacky, obnoxious floral patterns, and a set of inky black leggings. The girl- Jane- moved with serpentine impetus; body animated as protean and malleable as water. Her bright eyes permeated a lean face, though, Diana noticed, there was a vacant shade swirling the pupils and silver glimmer, as if the brain paid rent but had long vacated tenancy.
“Jane,” said Adrian, lending a hand. “Are you alright?”
“Blueberries,” she mumbled, and scrambled onto the bed.
Diana lunged forward and slashed blindly. Violence was not her inclination but she’d had enough. Strange intruders in her house, sitting on her bed, babbling nonsense and paying her no attention in the middle of an appalling storm. The knife hissed through the air, and was then sharply silent. A fist clamped around her wrist and another effortlessly wrestled the knife from her grasp.
She peeked from behind closed eyes. Stressed-man had the knife- and looked markedly disappointed.
The air had been knocked from her lungs, her muscles refused to cooperate, her hearts drummed onwards like jackhammers; and her mind shut down. She felt like she wasn’t all-there anymore, drifting outside the cusp of reality.
“You don’t have to stab us,” he said, calmly. “Rude, really. We’re on our way out. Jane, explain on the way.”
Jane, brushing the air like she was petting a cat, jumped at her name. “Explain?”
“Explain what happened,” said Gavin, hobbling around an inert Diana. “What in Ogro’s name was all of that? That wasn’t normal travel.”
Diana was a statue in an artist’s impression of the word ‘confusion’. The trio’s jovial nature, their carefree and abandoned aura, scared fear to oblivion and substituted bafflement. She was divorced from reality, married to surrealism.
“Oh,” Stressed-man added, “here’s your knife back. We won’t need it.”
He jammed it into her closed fist and signalled to the others. They followed him out of the room and towards the front door.
“Do you think she lives here?” said Adrian.
Stressed-man absorbed the particulars of the tiny flat. “She did call it her home, didn’t she? Doesn’t look like one. Looks like a heap of sh-”
“Ships don’t fly,” Jane advised, puzzlingly.
“Someplace they do,” Adrian argued.
They stood at the door and argued quietly. Diana could feel their penetrating glares perforate fervidly. Why can’t they just go? Why won’t they leave? I want them gone! Let the storm eat them up!
A metallic clink echoed, the thump of a bulky couch tumbling bellowed, followed by murmured curses and approaching delicate footsteps. The girl appeared at her side.
“Found this,” said Jane timidly, presenting a light fixture, complete with bundles of wires usually concealed behind concrete. “Not like a homunculus.”
Then they were gone. Diana was alone- alone with a cold knife in a hand she couldn’t open, a desecrated lamp, and the stentorian swell of the storm.
Just get on with the day, she told herself, get on with it and get it over with. Easy. Nothing to worry about.
Dwelling on the events of the night would have to wait, she had work to do, a job to tolerate, a life to facilitate, a dream to realise. Shortly after the invading triad escaped into the bustle and beat of the storm, normal motor functions were recompensed and normalcy returned. Whatever that was.
The pasty white complex spilled forth like a gigantic white octopus- with a sky-piercing spire centred on its bulbous pate. The town centre; also Halgon’s base of operations, who lobbed their sales team at the surrounding city sprawl like hopeful fishing nets. Diana considered the place a dismal and gluttonous sinkhole where dreams marched to their death. Coincidentally, this was her place of work.
She flicked her ID card through the metal receiver at the staff entrance, and as always, the metal contraption whirred menacingly and stubbornly declined to open. She was told that the persistent storms had caused malfunctions in the building’s electrical circuits but she couldn’t help but notice that no-one else had this problem. Placing an order for a new card would take too long, too much hassle. Huff, moan, but get on with it.
Ten minutes later, another dead-eyed worker drifted close and permitted Diana entrance. She even offered a sympathetic glance. Diana gracefully and begrudgingly returned it.
The white-washed guts of the building surrounded and engulfed like canals of polystyrene. Regimented corridors slopped into further and longer corridors, and snaked a path to the centre auditorium, where the circuitous ramparts of the Halgon company’s motivational banners enclosed a multi-tiered baroque water fountain. If a company needs motivational posters, it’s probably not a good company to work for. But still, she worked.
Her cramped cubicle, rooted in the corner of the third floor, was one of hundreds teeming the imposing borough. It contained a rudimentary and aging computer, an orthopaedic chair, a rickety grey desk brimming with myriad trifling documents and stationery, and a hitherto idle filing cabinet. Into the chair’s comforting luxury Diana happily sank and wiped her clammy brow.
The computer slowly and painfully booted up, droned and hummed. A hectic spreadsheet popped open. Numbers- swarms and swarms of numbers, lines, cells, formulas, nonsensical symbols, goose-stepped comments and blank spaces obdurately sneered. Her job was simple and tedious: move a number to a cell, ensure this doesn’t conflict with any other cell, rinse and repeat until all cells were populated or she ran out of numbers. Occasionally, to spice things up, she would purposefully insert errors and wait for a superior to reprimand and chide the resultant anarchy. This never happened- not once. Even when I make a mistake, she reflected, I don’t get noticed. A blessing, she thought. A depressing, mind-numbing blessing
Footsteps resonated from her right. A figure materialised at the cubicle’s entrance.
“Diana,” said a deep, familiar voice. “Anyone told you about the review?”
Mark Lornish – floor manager. The kind of man who enjoyed power, displays of dominance, wore his name-badge like a warrior’s shield. Diana could astutely cast under one banner all his derogatory mechanisms- ‘Prick.’
“What review?” she said, without turning around.
“Whole department’s getting shaken down,” Mark moaned. “You’ll give a short statement to a board of investigators, explain certain elements of your working process, answer all their questions, and that’ll be that. Even an idiot like you can handle that, right?”
Diana absent-mindedly moved a number from Column ‘A’ to Column ‘D’. “I-I- yeah, sure.”
“In any event,” he fumed, “you won’t mention me. A notification will pop up on your screen, that means they want to see you. Don’t be late, they’re sticklers for punctuality and what reflects on you, reflects on me. Don’t fuck this up.”
She continued inattentively with her work. The daily grind. The labour of mundanity. Unremitting. Chronic inanity.
Using the desk as a touchpad, she flicked open the only image she cared to download. A precipitous mountain range, reaching like a rocky finger to a yawning plain exquisitely embellished with resplendent rivers and bowing stone formations. The image was a portal to another world; a significantly better, improved plateau, worthy of paintings and photographs and particularly poignant rhetorical captions on social media.
Iceland. The dream.
How many people dream of running away? How many think of jumping on a plane and starting a whole new life? Diana wondered – how many make it happen?
A blue box slid towards the screen’s centre. A message, direct: “Red Wing. Conference Room B. Five minutes. Get running. Don’t be late.”
She groaned, put on her jacket and made to head off. Red Wing was on the other side of the complex, she’d have to use the Insta-Tram.
The computer beeped. A second blue box demanded urgent attention.
“Also. Tractor. That is all.”
A third blue box shot up and completed the trifecta.
The Insta-Tram rocketed tremulously like a caravan on steroids. Unstable, shaky, crumbling apart like an old pastry, the IT had been installed five years prior and largely remained as a relic; an archaic curio amidst an ever-growing catalogue of advancing technology. The bosses wouldn’t upgrade or replace it on the basis that ‘it functions fine.’ As functioning as a coffee machine in a volcano, Diana scowled.
The boxy contraption shuddered and gradually came to a stop. Dismounting dizzily, Diana sprinted towards Conference Room B. Red Wing was regretfully white. At least red would shatter the dreariness.
Vibrant and flourishing, this sector was a nucleus of commotion, a thriving planet separated from the dull bight of numbers and columns. The people weren’t any nicer, but they were too preoccupied to advocate enmity.
A group clustered around the entrance to the conference room, inaudibly quarrelling. As Diana guardedly approached, the intricate details leaked.
“How dare they!” said a suited, supercilious man. “I thought this was supposed to be a review of our work, not our personal lives!”
“Horrible people,” murmured a shivering woman.
“Why would they ask questions like that? That was absolutely horrible. We have to make a complaint!”
Diana shimmied carefully towards the infuriated cluster. A burst of anxiety sprouted in her stomach. A normal day involved side-stepping social situations at every turn and juncture, but she sensed this was necessary.
“I’m about go in,” she said, scarcely audible. “What did they ask you?”
All sets of eyes focused on her, like daggers permeating the protective cloak she had prudently and meticulously fabricated in the interests of seclusion.
A wide-eyed woman cackled. “We’ll let you find out for yourself. I hope you don’t mind relating intimate details about your entire life.”
She did. But she went in regardless.
The far end of the conference room was broadly obstructed; a stretched onyx table grappled both walls, on its back accumulated ranks of water jugs and fallow glasses. Behind it, luxuriating mindlessly, were three bored-looking figures. The information digested, the results equated, all numbers in the right column, and the axiomatic penny dropped like a bowling ball. Diana closed the door behind her forcefully and coerced gallantry into action.
“You three?!” she shouted. Invaders. Intruders. She couldn’t forget those faces, even dolled-up in fancy suits.
The two men- Gavin and Adrian- snapped to attention. The girl- Jane- was attentively engaged in unravelling her suit jacket, of which she was making a tangled mess like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.
“You?” Gavin grumbled, ruefully. “How is that possible?”
Diana charged forwards, undiminished and unperturbed. Bravado pulsed. “Now you’re at my work?! What the hell is this?!”
Jane slunk beneath the table and skulked out the other side, moving erratically like every muscle was in spasm.
The girl was at her throat; one long nail pushed sensitively into the soft of her neck.
Moments had passed and the girl had travelled fifteen feet in the time it took Diana to blink. It was as if reality shuffled at her request, that by wishing to be there, she simply was.
Jane’s nail prodded the skin without breaking the shell. That level of control, Diana thought in panicked segues, required masterful precision; to know at exactly which point the skin would break, precisely how much pressure to apply to threaten and not impale.
Suddenly, her two enigmatic cohorts appeared arms-length from Diana, distinctly mellow and entirely undisturbed, as if- for the second time in less than twelve hours- this situation was the definition of routine.
Diana tried not to gulp. The sharp nail poked.
“Jane,” said Gavin, examining Diana like a newly-discovered insect. “She wasn’t supposed to remember us, it’s not supposed to be possible. Care to explain?”
The girl leaned close enough to see the bacteria crawling through Diana’s cells, sniffed, scowled, and with her free hand tapped the latter’s forehead like she was testing her ripeness. This close Diana noticed with no small amount of horror that Jane’s scarlet mane of snakelike dreadlocks tangoed with small shards of pointed bones picked clean, like ghostly surfers riding along crimson crests. These weren’t organic additions indigenous to their tangled abode, these were raiding deposits of skeletal infringements as foreign to the realm of hair as fish are to the function of walking.
“Robins,” said Jane, eventually.
“Why not?” Gavin grumbled.
The girl’s eyes drilled fiercely. These weren’t the eyes Diana saw previously, the vacant glaze, the not-all-there; these were blazing hot pokers moulded and whetted in the heart of a star and determinately they perforated and scorched.
Diana kept her muscles locked down. One movement, a single wrong flex, and the girl would be like a snake on a mouse.
“Bugs on a stick!” Jane exploded suddenly. “Bugs… like a chicken without a roost.”
“Right,” Gavin muttered, and looked desperately towards Adrian. “Any ideas?”
“I don’t know,” he said, sadly. “Chicken without a roost pulls a slipknot but I can’t remember what it means. If we find a gate we can ask Rachel.”
“Pulls a slipknot?” Gavin scoffed. “What the hell does that mean?”
“You know, ‘pulls a slipknot’. Reminds you a bit but you can’t remember the whole thing. Have you never heard that? It’s common tongue.”
Gavin gently peeled Jane away from Diana by the cuff of her shirt. Her eyes swirled, ogled, and returned to oblique haziness, peering wildly at nothing at all like she was instantly shut down.
“So, no idea?” said Gavin moodily. “Great. I love doing this not knowing what the hell we’re doing or what’s going on. Is she Pantheon?”
Jane sniffed. “Robins.”
“Then what is she?” He forcefully pushed Diana against the wall. “Who are you?”
Diana blubbered. “I didn’t… I don’t…”
“Simple question,” Gavin hissed. “Who are you?”
She wanted to waver, crumble, run home. Fiery confrontations didn’t entice her interest; especially when the tinder was ignited by three extremely arcane and inhuman vacuities of logic. But she didn’t quaver. She let them free from her home untouched and unaffected, and as a reward they invaded her work, had her pinned to a wall, and were aggressively lobbing questions like she was the latest politician embroiled in a sex scandal.
A clenched fist launched forwards, collided with a cheek, and recoiled backwards.
It was like punching a boulder, Diana thought painfully. A boulder covered in titanium. A boulder covered in titanium forged on god’s anvil.
She tried to dull the pain, flicked her hands and fingers. Gavin was terrifically undisturbed.
“Finished?” he mocked.
“You people…” said Diana, squeezing out from the wall. “I shouldn’t be answering your questions, you should be answering mine! You were in my house last night and now you’re here, where I work. Who are you? What do you want?!”
Jane sloped towards the table. “Like onions in a stew. Wrong column.”
“Really?” said Adrian, with a tone of disbelief. “Are you sure?”
The girl nodded, and suddenly leaped to the table-top with astonishing dexterity and grace. “In the stew.”
“We need to find a translator for her,” Gavin groused.
“I know what she’s saying,” said Adrian. “She means this- sorry, what’s your name?”
What little was left of Diana’s sanity put on its hat and jacket and prepared to walk out the door.
“Diana,” she said meekly. “Could you please start explaining? Anything!”
“Diana,” he repeated softly. “She means Diana is already… out, so to speak.”
“She said in,” Gavin corrected.
“She means out. Like- she’s in, so she’s out. Temporarily, I’m guessing?”
Jane was instantly by his side. “Gangrene.”
Diana yearned for the comfort of coddling blankets and chilly mornings, playing ambassador between frost and warmth and the rousing aroma of old books. Instead she was here, with three oddities talking about stew, in or out, gangrene, and a chicken without a roost.
“We should check in with Rachel,” said Adrian, worriedly. “I don’t know what gangrene means and she’s, uh, looking peaky. You -er- Diana! Stay here until we come back.”
Gavin scowled. “Leave her here? She remembers us, that’s not normal. We have to figure this out. You don’t leave a smoking gun at a crime scene, do you?”
“She’s not a smoking-”
“Listen to me,” Gavin said firmly. “Mysteries aren’t fun. Think about Ygssrettfurr. I can’t handle not-knowing yet another mystery.”
They started to bicker, talking over each other like a pair of idiots arguing that black is white, white is black, and zebras are clandestine zealots who can’t choose their favourite. Diana sunk into the wall. Arguments always upset her; a fight is an obstacle to side-step, not overcome. After all, what was life other than a gauntlet of arguments and fights disproportionately slumped across a rutted road of tedium. She was a ghost, a shadow, a peripheral nuisance riven from the unravelling squabble. She popped the tiny blister that tempted her to judiciously disturb the argument, confident the duo would resolve their absurd spat.
The girl was pulling uncomfortably at her shirt like it was a silken penitentiary, absolutely oblivious to the heated dispute.
“Don’t argue with me!” Gavin shouted. “We’re not leaving this unfinished. Jane said gangrene, do you know what that is?”
“I have no idea,” Adrian confessed warily.
“If something’s gangrenous, it’s infected and the best way to deal with it is to cut if off. An arm, a leg, a nose, anything! You cut it off so it doesn’t kill you. If she’s gangrenous, Jane is telling us to cut her off!”
Adrian looked desperately at Jane, hopeful, praying. She collected enough sense to inject a dose of gibberish back into the conversation.
“Inoculate,” she said. “Like a bird with a keyboard.”
“See?” Gavin trumped.
Smiling, Adrian shook his head. “That doesn’t mean you’re right, she means Diana’s not completely out. She can be put back like nothing ever happened.”
“Not-living ones…” Jane muttered.
“Using Legion,” Adrian translated. “Take her home, wipe her memory, and we’re done. She probably got taken out-”
“-when we travelled,” he continued. “As long as we’re careful there shouldn’t be variable spread— not enough to cause damage, anyway.”
Diana shimmied towards the door. She’d heard too many baffling concepts, hollow shells of ideas she couldn’t fill with any esoteric logic, and decided it was time for her to leave. A fairly certain fear gripped her shoulders and warned that these people- these monsters- were extremely dangerous, worthy of the most superlative dubiety, like a pack of sharks in the ostereosphere.
She felt a shove to her shoulder. Her back hit the wall.
“Are you going to kill me?” Diana whimpered.
Gavin’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe.”
“Why?!” She pushed back. “I haven’t done anything wrong! You’re the one that- that-”
“In your house, at your work, got it.” He withdrew from an inside pocket a small rounded pebble, no larger than an eye. “Adrian, Jane, let’s go. We’ll be back for you. You can run if you want.”
They huddled around the pebble like eskimos around a fire. Diana shimmied closer and closer to the door. The vessel of escape was a shabby wooden door and it was a grab away. Close, Diana thought. A little bit more and I’ll be rid of all this madness. Free. She closed her eyes and thought of home; sitting by the fireplace, socks off, coffee in hand, a good book open on the mantelpiece, a blank canvas lodged on an easel, and the intoxicating cloud that accompanied fresh paint.
Waves of bright blue light radiated through her sealed eyelids, peeking under the lappets. The light pawed, charming her eyes open. The invitation was an open request, signed and delivered like a royal summons, and seduced by its soft brilliant glow Diana was powerless to refuse.
Flocking like a shoal of brill, millions of tiny sapphire globes orbited and swelled and rolled, hovered and skittered, danced and flurried, spiralling like a colossal tower of pocket-sized planets. They revolved around the centre, where stood Gavin, Adrian and Jane, utterly disinterested in the encircling flotilla of cerulean globes.
The fleet sped up, achieving unbelievable alacrity a hurricane would find formidable, and started to expand like a blossoming flower. It should have been a chaotic eruption, a tumultuous clamour of irrationality, but it was an unassuming, discreet affair, beautiful in its serenity and simplicity. Diana was in awe, struck dumb by the alien manifestation, this spectral and unearthly ceremony.
The three figures in the heart of the blue tower were but mere silhouettes strewn in the encompassing cocoon of planetoid wisps.
Admonishing caution like an adrenaline junkie, Diana stepped towards the enthralling beams like a measly shrimp to an anglerfish. It rose and twirled, blue sprites skipped and skidded. Caught on the event horizon, she was imbibed and drunk from the fountain of wonderment, utterly entranced, the notion of escape a far-flung dream.
Go home, said her logical voice. This doesn’t concern you. Go home, where it’s safe, warm, cosy; where you know every crack on the wall, where routine is stocked profusely on the shelves, where complacency is the uniform. You know the walk home, you know the streets, you know the doors and the faces and the humdrum dreariness of the hoary peeling walls- stick to what you know. This is alien, inhuman, illogical. Your pedigree is acquiescence, the ordinary, the everyday. Your life is a pageant of timorous evolutions, easy conquests, and plebeian aspirations. This isn’t for you. Turn around. Walk out the door. An ant doesn’t pretend to be a lion; a stream doesn’t pretend to be an ocean- don’t pretend that this blind voyage into the unknown is a ship for anyone within your social stratum. Go home, Diana. Go home and forget. Walk the path you know, be normal, be content.
Turn around. Average is paramount to survival. Be normal.
She took a step backwards.
Logic often overrides desire, substitutes the trophy for second place, because it is more comfortable to stay where you are than reach for where you could be.
Whatever this beauty was, whatever this supernatural abnormality indicated, it wasn’t a rational animal beached on the same shore of reality she liked to call home; it was a pervading disjointed singularity, and vehemently threatened the stitches that held the whole thing together.
Her hands found the door behind her and wrapped around the handle. Leave, be normal. Leave and forget.
The blue carousel spun and continued to bloat, rapaciously consuming nearly half the room. Whatever was happening was reaching its climactic culmination, moments left.
Leave. Go home. Forget. People like me, she thought, don’t go on fascinating escapades, they slog through mediocrity, drink their coffee in the morning, eat their lunch at noon, and go to bed at a decent time. They don’t walk into a coiling whirl of sapphire gems and tiny planets.
She pulled the door open, never allowing her eyes to leave the unravelling enigma. Adventure, excitement, the future. She was painfully reminded of Gurdinger’s cat; open the box and know, don’t open the box and leave the quantum question unresolved. Contention means the box stays closed.
But, said a hushed voice, bravery isn’t opening the box, it’s your willingness to do so.
The tower was shrinking, collapsing and imploding. The air was ablaze with raw energy. The walls, prison bars. Adventure, she wondered. Mediocrity or possibility.
Waving grass. Fresh air.
Diana groaned emphatically, realised her eyes were slammed shut. She didn’t want to open them.
In fact, she gathered, absolutely nothing was an enticing expenditure. Sleep was the goal; as it most often is. Groaning, Diana tried to pull the blankets over her head and shut out the world, which was screaming like a boiling kettle.
The stubborn blankets refused to cooperate. She angrily yanked, urging them to comply or face the dire consequences. Again they were truculent, again they were defiant. It wasn’t so much that she was cold; it was the earnest embrace she missed, enfolded in a cotton swaddle and transported to a self-sustained pouch of sequestration.
Her eyelid twitched. That doesn’t feel like a blanket, she reflected worriedly. A jacket maybe, not a blanket. She peeked.
She immediately shut her eyes. Dreams in the waking world- or reality in the dreaming world? Curiosity nudged like a cattle prod.
It was difficult to organise all thoughts and sights into coherent data, to transmute the gibberish into solid lucidity. It was like watching a black-hole inhale a galaxy; awe-inspiring, a moment frozen in time and eternally dedicated to memory, utterly terrifying and magnificent in wanton destruction and consumption.
A thick green sky, segregated by fat bands of blaring cyan and luscious teal, rolled out above like an ocean of emeralds, and below the hovering islandic freighter that hung in the lime sky glided armadas of fat translucent bubbles caught in a drifting air current, and all around furrowed boughs surged and wove across flourishing, mossy mountain arms and through cavernous emerald canyons and vast glistening valleys engraved regally in the floating island’s back, extraordinary spindly white trees with limbs like cobwebs soared valiantly and carved roads of shade from the mould of the bright blue sun’s gentle light that tenderly kissed the sumptuous land, and meandering brooks of gold stretched and curled across the burgeoning flora bayou like molten buttery veins.
Sanity raised a little white flag.
Diana was like a wide-eyed child discovering for the first time a chocolate menagerie. Unable to digest all the glorious and astounding alien sights, smells and sounds, she darted from curio to curio, gasping and shaking excitedly, a manically thrilled smile stretched from ear to ear. This was new; fresh, undiscovered, and it positively wasn’t home. A different planet, maybe? A different galaxy? Oh, who cares!
Hands glided along branches, brushed through grass, enveloped smaller bubbles that roamed dreamily from the grander fleet, swept across moss-topped boulders, and endorsed authenticity and physicality. She teetered on the edge of the island platform and gazed downwards, where infinite ranks of bubbles floated in uniformity like sea currents, and gasped in amazement, for the bottomless jade-cyan gulf truly was bottomless. Other island platforms, varying in size and shape, hung and hovered like titanic birds on the horizon belt.
New horizons, she thought. Literally– a new horizon. Adventure, exploration, excitement.
This was so much better than Iceland.
She was finally- and unwillingly- snatched from her dreamy and child-like thrall.
“Well, you must be happy with yourself.”
Diana flipped around. Gavin, clearly fuming, grumpily scowled.
“Where am I?” she said excitedly, ignoring his flippant brashness.
“Somewhere you shouldn’t be,” he growled. “But you already know that. How do you like the scenery?”
“It’s beautiful!” she observed, astonished.
“Good, I’m glad you think so- because if you don’t tell me what you want this is going to be your burial plot.”
Completely unperturbed, Diana hurdled forwards and skipped around the moody man. It was, of course, peculiar to open your eyes and find yourself on a floating island levitating above a bottomless gulf filled abundantly with hordes of prowling bubbles, but she was relishing the vibrant exhilaration and wonderment that accompanied walking on the threshold of a new world.
“I can’t believe this!” she lilted. “Look! That flower’s made of cherries! What is this place?”
Gavin grumbled. “It’s nothing. Come on, we have to get you home.”
Diana’s hearts sank. “No, no! I don’t want-”
“Don’t argue, you don’t have a choice. You don’t understand what it means that you’re here, the kind of problems it creates. You have to go home.”
She looked around at the wondrous nirvana, all three hearts begging to stay. “But…”
“Diana,” said Gavin sternly, “you’re not supposed to be here. It’s like having a fish in the air.”
“Fish live in the clouds,” she said, slowly. “Although, I’m guessing you’re from another world, maybe you don’t know that.”
“Weird,” he mumbled.
Jane and Adrian appeared instantly at his side, each escorted by a flash of blue. Jane gnawed at her shirt.
“We can’t send her home,” Adrian advised. “Legion has to thingy her mind, you know, wipe it clean, then we can take her back.”
Gavin looked Diana up and down like he was studying an art sculpture. “When Sean hears about this…”
“He’ll understand,” said Adrian. “It’s not our fault.”
“There’s still the question of how she managed to remember us – and it’s a little fishy she was exactly where we were looking.”
“And why the Nexus sent us to her,” Adrian echoed.
Gavin rubbed his temples. “This is not going well.”
“Not like a…” said Jane. “Like a… door.”
“Right, of course.” Gavin rolled his eyes. “What was I thinking?”
Diana’s hearts jumped. “So, I can stay?”
“Until we can take you home,” Gavin said, and hushed her ebullient squeaks. “Don’t get too excited. You’ll sit there, do nothing, touch nothing. Don’t wander off and don’t-”
A thundering boom roared like a warning crash of thunder. Mechanically, Diana ducked and dropped prone, hands over head, and sense of wonderment evacuated. She stifled a scream.
A bomb, here?! Am I under attack? Don’t destroy paradise!
Fingers wrapped around her wrist, and suddenly she was on her feet, staring terrified into the manically imposing bug-eyes of Jane.
“Boom,” whispered the girl.
Diana was rotated like a kebab, powerless to fight Jane’s iron grip. The girl was freakishly scrawny and elfin like a blade of grass, and intimated no muscles or core strength, but her physical prowess was manifestly evident. Her pinkie could turn me into a withering globule, Diana panicked.
Level with the horizon, a distant aerial-island crumbled and disintegrated, colossal boulders plunged from its gut like iron ball bearings, the mountainous limbs and soaring trees cracked and collapsed, molten gold rivers gushed over the edge, and hewn titanic chunks dove from the body like stray meteors. The whole event was over in a few seconds, nothing left but a plummeting skeletal hunk, by platoons of roving bubbles swallowed swift and completely.
“What…” Diana slurred, bewildered. “How?”
“Damnit, Jane,” Gavin scolded. “You have to stop doing that. Adrian, say something to her, will you?”
Jane danced towards the edge and pirouetted. “Boom!”
“She… she did that?” said Diana. “But, how? She just blew up a ten-mile island! What are you people?”
“I’ll explain,” said Adrian, guiding Jane away from the edge. “I hope you’re ready for this.”
Diana sat cross-legged on a rounded polished rock Adrian had been kind enough to liberate from the mountainside and work into a comfortable stool. The process had been incredibly quick and genteel, like a veteran carpenter carving a bed out of a lump of dead-wood for the hundredth time, with so much ease and proficiency it would take skills ingrained throughout countless generations to equal such natural aptitude. All of that, or abilities that could only be described as unarguably supernatural.
She watched the trio curiously. They were a rag-tag bunch, that much she gathered.
Gavin was the unsung leader, though Adrian informed her that he was in command ‘on-field’, and that was precisely the extent to which his control covered. He was a harsh, stressed man, as Diana had guessed, recently handed the reigns and expected to know what was he doing. Adrian warned her that desperate attempts to consolidate dominancy might emerge but it wasn’t a thought with which to be too concerned about, as those displays would most likely be contained to himself and Jane. Diana believed otherwise.
Gavin spent most of his time self-sequestered, like a hermit crab at a shark party, offering the occasional grunt and scold when someone moseyed within his indiscernible boundaries, and scowled from afar when no-one was proximate. Not a nice man, Diana reflected. But certainly a man valued by his mood, a buffer barrier between regularity and strain. She wondered how capable he would be in a volatile situation; could he disarm a bomb? Take the lethal shot?
Jane was an enigma. Child-like, juvenile, and from what Diana established, completely and utterly insane.
She would wander aimlessly, randomly and seemingly accidentally igniting fauna, arguing nonsensically with thin air, tittering hysterically at the sky-high mountains, conversing with dirt in extrinsic languages, she would levitate a few metres above the ground like she was a puppet suspended on strings, and would inevitably be steered back to the central glade by the ever-vigilant Adrian. Occasionally she would tumble over the edge of the island and vanish, and moments later reappear unscathed and unperturbed. When she wasn’t dancing, conversing, inflaming, falling, or levitating, she would roll through the tall grass like an enthusiastic and spirited puppy, hop recklessly into the golden streams, and engage in activities suggestive of an immature mentality.
Unnerving wasn’t the word, Diana thought. Unpredictable, unstable, senseless.
Adrian kept a close eye on Jane, ensuring she didn’t stray too far and could apparently understand her broken speech. Out of the three of them, he was the most normal. Normal, she laughed. I’d like to see that again.
The mediator, Adrian would do his best to translate Jane for Gavin’s sake, and comfort Diana as she struggled to maintain an anchoring point in the midst of this otherworldly harbour. He was so average, congenial; an out of place optimist and utopian, wholly estranged from the distorted union of reticence and insanity the other two espoused. Diana fastened the harbouring rope around him, deciding he was her only option to come to land.
“Alright,” he said, sitting opposite her. “Are you ready to begin?”
Diana felt like a scootballer in the dugout, waiting to get on the field. She nodded.
“I’ll try and keep it simple.” He cleared his throat. “You’re on another planet, an alien world, and you’re very, very far from home. I’ll let that sink in.”
Unmoved, Diana gestured for him to continue. Yes, I know, get on with it!
“Oh, okay, that makes this easier. So, new planet, new things. Lower gravity, I’m sure you’ve noticed, zero oxygen, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you, I doubt you even know what oxygen is. I mean, why would you?”
He checked surreptitiously for Jane, a glance over the shoulder, and quickly moved to halt the untimely eruption of another island.
“Sorry,” he said as he returned. “Anyway, we’ve got a lot to cover. This is one of quintillion planets in your universe, like a pea in a bag of footballs.” He paused. “I sounded a bit like Jane there, ignore that. Point is, it’s a big universe, impossibly big. To make things worse… there’s an infinite amount of them. Do you have a concept of a multi-verse on your planet?”
“A multi-verse,” said Diana, like the term was a familiar friend. “Many-worlds theory, I know it.”
“I’d be careful with many-worlds; it can be confusing. Multi-verse works better, you don’t get muddled between planets and universes. Well, no easy way to say it: you live in one.”
Diana’s brow furrowed. “A universe?”
“A multi-verse,” said Adrian, calmly. “Loads of universes, never touching, all connected.”
She deliberated the concept, the ramifications of such a model beyond the scope of understanding. It was like juggling bricks or swimming through a spinach lagoon; she’d advance an inch and be absorbed, or a stray thought would distract her and leave her with a throbbing headache.
Astronomers and astrophysicists had considered the theory at the ass-end of the last century, the idea that many universes, infinite or otherwise, loomed at the edge of each other, imperceptible but present all the same. The consequences weren’t the goal; simply the possibility.
“So, this universe is one of many,” she said, besieged. “That’s confusing… and…”
“Dwarfing,” Adrian admitted. “Most people struggle with it, I know I did. I freaked out, should’ve seen me arguing and screaming, I couldn’t take it. Creation is infinite, but unfortunately, comprehension isn’t. It’ll suck but you’ll manage, you’ll have to, we’ve got other things to cover.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Diana challenged. “Someone is going to wipe my mind.”
“You picked that up, did you?” He squirmed nervously. “Don’t worry about that, it’s plank talk for now. What you should be worried about is how you’re going to deal with the knowledge. It can mess with you, get into your head, so I’ll be as helpful as I can. Any questions, feel free to ask them.
“See, creation works as a functioning machine, every cog fits into a specific place. Every possibility and impossibility has to exist all at once in order to considered all things, to be creation. So, you come to a fork in the road and you have the choice to go left or right. You choose to go left, which means at that precise moment, in a series of other universes, you go right, or you decide to go back the way you came, or a giant meteor crashes into the road, or… or… spiders crawl out of the cracks in the road. All possibilities across all universes, that’s how it works.”
Adrian took a brief respite, carted Jane towards a begrudging Gavin. Diana tried to ignore her levitating upside down several metres above the ground, and begged her thoughts to collect and focus.
“Sorry again,” he said. “As I was saying; your universe, this universe, is a collection of possibilities and impossibilities. What would be possible here, isn’t possible elsewhere. It’s like-”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said Diana, struggling to keep up. “Give me a second. This is a lot to take.”
“Imagine it like an endless street filled with an infinite amount of houses,” Adrian explained, lending a comforting hand. “They were all built at the same time, similar blueprints but distinctly different. Because the street is endless, every permutation of every house will exist – all possibilities covered. Then you have the tenants; and all of them will be completely different and their houses will be treated separately. As time passes, the tenants will change the houses, shape them into their vision of a perfect abode. They’ll repaint, refurnish, knock down walls to make bigger rooms, put up walls to make smaller ones; they’ll have kids, pets, put up paintings, rip up the carpets and put in laminate flooring, reorganise the cupboards, replace their old kitchen with a snazzy new-fangled one; they’ll throw up extensions, landscape their garden, build sheds, fences, flower-gardens, swimming pools – and ultimately we’re left with an endless street filled with every possible house and every possible tenant.
“That’s how creation works – every possibility exists in tandem, each partly connected. On a normal day you’ll encounter billions of variables, tangential points that can be split into multiple threads, and every one of those threads will involve billions more variables. Sometimes it’s a minor change, like someone getting a different haircut, or a Gorldorxlan chemically infusing a Blakshtir. Making sense so far?”
“I think…” Diana rubbed her eyes. “Everything exists… all at once?”
“Exactly!” Adrian exclaimed. “You’re getting it. A while to go yet, unfortunately.”
Pressure building, she trusted in Jane to regale and distract her. The girl didn’t disappoint. High in the air like a paper lantern, Jane flipped and twirled and blew rebellious raspberries in Gavin’s direction. Diana endeavoured to establish her age, but since her immaturity staunchly competed with a bluster and body type tacked on like a wedding dress to a gorilla, it proved a daunting task. She was certainly young and Diana guessed purely on appearance she was in her late teens, and by temperament a nursery student, but her engrossed eyes intimated vague sagacity and a killer edge her youth and innocent juvenility couldn’t explain. Diana returned to the conversation empty-handed.
“I still don’t know why you’re bothering to tell me this,” she said, eyes heavy.
“In good time,” Adrian replied. “There’s a reason I need to explain this to you. So, we’ve covered the possibilities, now we need to talk about why I’m here, why we showed up at your work. There’s this thing called the Causal Nexus. It’s creation’s controller. Imagine it like the landlord, making sure that everything works the way it’s supposed to, that everything functions perfectly. It’s not interested in the happiness of the tenants, purely on the functionality of the street. It’s the scale, the balance; keeping all possibilities real and every reality possible. You remember how I told you creation is infinite? Well, I’m not entirely sure infinite covers it. It’s… big. Spins the soul like a merry-go-round big. And that’s when problems become a little more apparent. The Nexus can’t take care of everything all at once, not anymore, so it makes a few… gazillion mistakes.”
“Okay,” she said flatly. “And what do you do?”
“We’re like the janitors,” Adrian explained. “Heavily-armed, super-powered janitors employed by the Nexus to take care of the mistakes it makes. It sounds stupid but I assure you, it’s very complicated and… actually, it’s pretty stupid. But that’s what we’re here for, we clean up messes and move on—patch up what we can, dress the wounds, tape the cracks.”
He paused, silently deliberating.
“There’s more to it but I think we should leave what our job is alone for now. We’re here to help- like doctors! You have those, right?”
Adrian glanced over Jane in a panicked fluster, and then relaxed. The volatile redhead was sitting peacefully, toying absently with her arching toes.
Diana sensed an opportunity. “What is she?”
“She’s… uh…” He exhaled. “Confusing. We’re all connected to the Nexus, every single thing across creation, but Jane’s closer to it than normal. It’s like her eyes are directly linked to it; she sees the whole of creation and everything in it, every single creature, monster, star, planet, kilno-liskh, every black void and white-hole, in every single universe, and she sees it all the time. I’m not sure I understand it, I don’t think I can without seeing it myself. I only see what it does to her. That’s why she speaks strange; what doesn’t make sense here makes perfect sense in an infinite stretch of universes. You don’t need to be scared of her though, she won’t hurt you.”
Diana found this a demanding assertion with which to agree.
“What about you?” she inquired. “I have to say- you don’t fit in this picture.”
“Oh,” he exclaimed, surprised. “You want to know about me?”
“Especially those bruises on your neck.” She pointed. “Somebody like you should be able to fix that. If you can’t, I can refer you to an island-smashing, dreadlocked redhead.”
“Ah, these.” Abashedly, Adrian yanked his collar upwards in an effort to obscure the black-blue splotches. “They’re reminders. I… I used to be a thief, a murderer; I stole and cheated my way through life, hurt and slaughtered scores of innocent people, and these bruises are the fruits of those selfish labours. I was hanged three times.”
“How did you survive?”
“They didn’t do a very good job,” he laughed. “It’s easy to run when everyone thinks you’re dead, gets harder when they catch up. I had a few issues. But the Nexus worked through an agent and gave me a chance to redeem myself. I keep the bruises so I don’t forget why I’m doing this. Memories keep you going when you’re out of fuel, even if they’re bad ones. I owe the Nexus for saving my life, in more than one way. It’s a high price to pay but sometimes, when you’re really at the bottom of the barrel and your entire life is an acute script of destitution, it’s a price you have to be willing to pay. I think all you can hope for, all anyone can hope for, is to do something good.”
Diana’s eyes contracted. “Do you even know what you’re talking about anymore?”
“Granted, it’s unfamiliar territory,” Adrian admitted, withdrawing. “I’ve never had to explain this to anyone before, everyone I talk to knows how it works and what the story is. You know, that’s a depressing thought. You’re the first normal person I’ve spoken to in a long time. You’re not dead, undead, psychotic, or trying to kill me. Can I say that I’m actually enjoying it, a little?”
“I guess,” said Diana. She felt like krill staring down a blue whale in a blank ocean of impossibility, and zero hint of escape or respite was related.
“Right, moving on,” he said hurriedly, regenerating focus. “Because the Nexus makes mistakes there’s the occasional major slip-up, and one possibility leaks through to another universe, to someplace it shouldn’t be. We call it a bleed, it’s a wound in creation that does nothing but cause damage. The more the bleed interferes with, the more is taken out of connection to the Nexus, and it spreads like a fire, consuming and destroying everything it touches. It’s a stray Frisbee thrown over the back fence that’s landed in the wrong garden. A Frisbee that’s loaded with the power of a million-ton nuclear bomb… and covered in spikes… and bio-chemical viruses.
“And that’s what we’re here to find, there’s a bleed somewhere on your planet. Jane narrowed it down to your city and since the centre is your city’s hub, it seemed like the best place to start. That’s why we’re not wiping your mind, you can be our Sherpa, the local knowledge. What I need to know is pretty simple: has there been anything, anything at all, that’s unusual or out of place? Would’ve just appeared someday without explanation, something you know is wrong just by looking at it, but you can’t put your finger on it. Could be anything; a person, an object, a painting, a medical advancement, something you know isn’t quite right and doesn’t fit in.”
Diana stared at him blankly. His entire nonchalant attitude, advocating nonsensical ideas and alien concepts and impossible theories like it was general small talk discussed beside a water cooler on a Sunday morning made her skin crawl. She couldn’t consider him wrong; the way he spoke and the things she’d seen, and the fact she was sitting on a rock on a floating paradisiacal island bathed in flawless indigo made it difficult to contest, like punching yourself in the face and claiming it was your fist’s fault. You can’t deny what you know to be true, what’s right in front of you, below you, wafting around you like a haunting mist.
“Okay,” she said, mildly. “Like what?”
“As I said, could be anything,” said Adrian firmly. “Could be as small as a misplaced pen or as big as a planet. Or a galaxy. Or a galaxy destroyer.”
There was only one thing she could think of. “There’s been storms, pretty bad ones too. They started about three weeks ago and haven’t let up. Nobody can explain why or how they’re forming. Could that be it?”
He clicked his fingers excitedly. “Gavin!” he shouted. “I think I’ve got it!”
“What?” Gavin demanded crabbily.
“She says there’s been storms that came out of nowhere. Out of place, causing damage, sounds about right.”
Gavin stroked his chin, evidently pondering the possibility. “That would explain her remembering us. These storms blanket the city?”
“They swallow it,” Diana replied, feeling slightly knowledgeable. “Didn’t you notice the storm when you left my flat last night?”
“Honestly,” said Gavin, “I didn’t pay that much attention. We were too busy dealing with another problem.”
Jane drifted over them like a lazy bird, grinning manically, and waved zealously. Don’t need two guesses to figure out what the problem was, Diana thought.
“Storms cover the city in rain,” Gavin continued. “They tear it apart; wind, lightning, thunder, all the while cleaving everything it touches from the Nexus’ connection. You been caught in the storm, I guess?”
Diana nodded, not entirely sure she was following the conversation.
“That’s why the hypnosis didn’t work. She was already out when we got there, and to make matters worse the bleed interferes with our abilities. I thought we’d be fine if it was something small, something we could take care off without the need for them, but the storm’s turned the entire city into a nullifying bubble. That makes this a lot harder.”
Adrian’s face twisted, worried. “But she can still be put back, right? Wipe her mind and send her on her way.”
“Urgh,” Gavin moaned exhaustedly. “This is a lot of effort for very little reward. Jane, would it work?”
The girl slid through the air like a dart and slammed into the ground, knees buckled, sending lime dust-clouds outwards. Diana’s hands protectively encased her eyes.
“Blueberries,” said Jane. “Like gopors bun-herting sonysmas.”
“Is that — is that a good thing?” Gavin mumbled nervously.
“Shamrock,” Jane replied, distracted by thick dirt collected underneath her talon-like nails.
“I think that means hopefully,” Adrian translated. “Or something like that.”
Gavin wiped his forehead and waved his hand. “You two, go get changed, I’ll stay with Diana. And be quick- I’d rather not shoot her.”
Diana was left alone with Gavin. Unarguably crass, he spent the entire time arms folded, scolding with eyes like bullets. She was careful not to provide him with ammunition, dodging his disparaging scrutiny like an acrobat on the frontline. Her deduction was that secrets were common currency hoarded by pan-universal demi-gods, and despite Gavin’s secrecy and success in meeting the necessary criteria, he didn’t make any secret of his contempt for her undue presence.
Internally she was climbing a mountain, chains lashed to her ankles. The peaking summit penetrated the circling black plumes like a bayonet and beckoned her to its barbed zenith. The path was bizarrely tormented with vacant shells; expectant vessels she would have to suffuse and migrate to the coveted pinnacle. And at that pinnacle, when all profuse ewers had been toted and moored, she would finally understand what the hell was going on.
So far, she’d made it about three feet.
Her attention diverted towards Gavin; reproaching, cantankerous, arms-crossed Gavin.
“So… a multi-verse,” she said, delicately. “Must be interesting.”
“Uh… it’s a little confusing, though. All possibilities have to exist at the one time? And what exactly do you guys do? I guess it’s something to do with fixing or protecting, but- how? How do you protect infinity? You’d be running around like headless Tilens trying to do all that. And how do you-”
“Awkward silences are better than pointless drivel,” Gavin griped.
Diana winced, but one bitter sentence was still better than nothing.
“I disagree,” she maintained. “Awkward is awkward, and I’ve experienced more than my fair share of awkward silences, so I know for a fact that talking is better. It’s just… it’s not usually me doing the talking.”
“What’s that like?” said Gavin, glowering.
“It’s like me not-talking.”
“That sounds magical, let’s try that.”
No hope, Diana thought, sighing. Relief warmed her as Jane and Adrian returned, gauche dress and tawdry trench coat respectively re-adorned. Jane in particular radiated with effervescent pride, gleefully wreathed in material embarrassment.
“Moult,” she said, beaming. “Clockwork.”
“Aren’t you going to change?” said Adrian.
“I’m liking the suit,” Gavin replied portentously, fluttering the lapel. “Plus, it’s got all these inside pockets for guns and… other guns. You could fit a penguin in here.”
Diana groaned. Sanity was getting further and further over the hill, out of sight, and most certainly out of mind.
“I still have questions,” she said, mainly for Adrian’s benefit. “Can I have some explanations?”
Gavin growled. “This isn’t an educating tour of the multi-verse, we’re here to do a job! Adrian, no more answers. She doesn’t need to know this stuff.”
“But it helped!” Adrian reasoned. “Now we know what we’re looking for and we can start working on fixing the bleed. I think it’s best we be honest.”
“Outside a courthouse even a judge lies. Honesty doesn’t mean spill the beans on every little thing you know- and we don’t have to tell her a goddamn line. That’s not what we’re here to do.”
“Spill the beans?” Adrian’s brow knotted. “What does that mean? And what are beans?”
Diana was beginning to understand Gavin’s arid bite; ten minutes with these anomalous pits of confusion felt like ten minutes fighting a dragon with a piece of celery. Slowly, stability was eroded by the acidic aura the former pirate and the presently insane secreted like a defensive poison.
“Everybody, be quiet,” Gavin rumbled. “Keep it together. Now, are we ready to–”
He was cut short as Jane leaped skywards like a possessed rabbit, soared directly towards an insubordinate bubble and tussled with it viciously; twisting and dodging unseen missiles and blindly slinging fists in every direction. The bubble lasted a grand total of two seconds, but the girl continued brawling with her unseen assailant nonetheless.
“Adrian,” Gavin hissed, “get her down, would you?”
“I don’t know how I’d do that,” Adrian replied, watching Jane with a smile. “Come on, just let her have some fun. She’s not blowing anything up, she’s not hurting anyone, she’s just fighting something from another universe that isn’t really here.”
Gavin’s eyebrow slid up. “What a surprise, you’re defending her. I wonder why.”
A blaze of fury and embarrassment blasted across Adrian’s features; his face couldn’t decide which emotion to clarify first.
“Don’t talk to me like-”
“Am I wrong?”
“You think it matters if you’re right or wrong? You can’t leave this alone, can you- how difficult is it–”
“She’s floating in the sky fighting thin air while we’ve got things to do,” Gavin argued angrily. “Don’t defend her.”
“Completely right, I know.” He amenably checked a small pebble-like device, Diana recognised it as the source of the sapphire tower of orbs. “Get her down and let’s go. That bleed won’t patch itself up.”
Diana jumped and ducked automatically as a Jane-sized crater emerged a few metres away. Clouds of dust invaded her lungs and lassoed her vision, while outstretched fingers sought reprieve.
By the time she had recovered, Adrian was helping Jane to her feet; dazed, terrified, and shaking Jane.
“Jane, what’s wrong?”
The girl’s body trembled, her eyes rolled lithely, fingers curled, like she was experiencing some sort of fit. Adrian calmly supported her neck and enveloped her hands in his and quietly hummed by her ear. She struggled and convulsed, flapping frenziedly against Adrian’s supportive strength like a bird with broken wings. The only thing she wasn’t doing was frothing at the mouth, but her illusive eyes rolled around like plummeting pebbles, her chest heaved, rose and collapsed, her shoulders quivered and drooped. Adrian contained the wild outburst as best he could. Diana rushed to her side.
“What’s wrong with her?” she gasped, freaked. Jane’s berserk fit elicited a rush of emotions. She didn’t know the girl well enough to care, but she was in a dire state, lobbing arms in warding flurries, demonic fortitude spouting forth like a spring of uninhibited and hysterical rage, and despite everything else plaguing her fraught mind, genuine concern for the girl rallied.
“Jane,” shouted Adrian, failing to completely contain the outburst, “it’s alright! I’m here! Listen to me, listen to the song!”
A volley of fists shot forwards, a voluble buzzing, as of vibrations in the air, rose and soared and sang like a choral choir, and like a torrential eruption of volcanic sewage a colossal expulsion of sweltering heat from Jane heaved outwards and bowled through Diana like a tsunami.
Jane’s body fell limp. The manic flurry went abruptly silent. Adrian inhaled sharply, seemingly preparing for a subsequent explosion like he was waiting out the eye of the storm.
And suddenly, she sat bolt upright; a worried expression laid out across her features. The buoyant and toothy grin erased, sunny and sparkling eyes darkened, emotive facilities shut down in favour of crystal clear denunciation. The usual spritely and juvenile playfulness by a dark stab had been expelled and exchanged with vehement terror. The look on the girl’s face chilled Diana like an icy winter blizzard.
“Night, ink,” Jane whispered fearfully, almost sobbing. “Like coal.”
As Diana endeavoured to uncover the meaning behind her incredulous mutterings, Adrian and Gavin experienced visible tremors.
“Are you sure?” said Adrian sternly.
“Blueberries,” Jane replied gently.
Gavin’s hands emerged from his suit holding a doughty and chunky gun, constructed from beige pewter that fluoresced unnaturally in the soft blue glow.
“Jane, get up,” he ordered, though the severity behind his words was diluted with alarm. “Do you know what we’ll be up against?”
Diana felt what little grasp she had on the world slipping away. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Fog… like a mountain,” Jane mumbled.
“Adrian, get ready,” said Gavin pensively. “I don’t know what it’ll be like when we go back and I need you at your best. We take Diana with us, she might be helpful.”
“We’d be putting her in danger,” said Adrian, breathlessly. “It’s like giving a blind man a gun and chucking him onto the front line. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Diana, sitting on the edge of the conversation, nudged a cart of daring. “Somebody could tell me what’s going on. I could help!”
Gavin looked at her sceptically, like her opinion on the matter was moot. She wasn’t confident arguing to the contrary, she was out of her depth.
“You’ll be coming with us and helping out,” he said. “Don’t worry about that. What you should be worrying about is what you’re going to be helping us out with. Adrian told you how creation works- well- this place is an example of creation’s beauty. I guess it’s only fitting you see the horror of it, too, and precisely what’s threatening it.”
“Threatening creation?” Her mind boggled. “What could…”
She looked again at the worried expressions, coldly comprehending the eddying perspective these anomalies commanded like ordinary vision, and began again to wish for the comforts of home. If these people were frightened, if something could truly demoralise them, then it was a knife to her neck as much as it was to theirs; an objective outside the spectrum of her sheltered prejudice; a defacing abnormality beyond her thick-framed panorama. Fireworks of fear erupted in her chest and immolated the breathless wonder on which she had been so enthralled.
Jane regained her feet with Adrian’s assistance, mumbling various disjointed sentences.
Adrian rubbed his brow, stress and panic dancing across his eyes, and muttered a single word that echoed and swarmed over the moss-topped mountains and golden streams, as though its very utterance shook creation’s soul to its core.