His heartbeat thundered painfully in his ear, mixing with the strange whispers that came and went like a terrible breeze between rotting trees. He swore that he could feel spit spewing from empty space next to him as the strange language dripped into his ears.
Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e
He shivered so hard he thought his back might spasm.
Robert knew that his wife would never make it off the planet, like most of those on Earth. There were only so many shuttles that were capable of escaping the gravity-well. Not nearly enough. They never made enough. A terrible case-study of financial Darwinism.
He heard the airlock open, a whooshing creak accompanied by shouts and boots thumping into the passenger cabin. Voices other than the ones from the darkness trickled through the flimsy plastic door to the suitcase compartment he crammed himself into. A thin line of light gave him the air he needed to breathe and allowed him to hear his soon-to-be captors.
“Well, looks like Brillby finally offed himself. Poor bastard.” A gruff chuckle.
“Have some respect, Clark. The man lost more than most.” A reverent voice said.
“Hey — I said ‘poor bastard’. Just… keeping it light.” Clark grumbled. Slow, heavy footsteps.
“Jackson, what do you think?” Silence. Boots thumped around, and he heard the steel click of a rifle loading a bullet into its chamber.
“There will be no need for that, Clark. Robert and I know each other.” Robert felt frost spread within his gut.
Who is Jackson? I don’t know anyone named —
The compartment clicked open and light flooded fiery fluorescence into his retinas. Squinting, he saw the familiar sight of a gun barrel leveled at his face. A man’s eyes came into focus, eyes dark as coal looking furiously at him. A large hand came from the side and pushed the gun barrel down.
“God, Clark. You still can’t listen. You want to be stuck on sewage duty again?” The older voice chided like an irritated father.
“No, sir.” Clark still stared at Robert with hateful daggers, unblinking. He backed away, and allowed the older man to step forward and stare at Robert. A shock of white hair on top of his head was contained by a small black beanie, a large and regal white beard covered his face and went down to the center of his chest. The bluest eyes Robert had ever seen. Like clear ice over a frozen lake. He had seen this man somewhere before. Somewhere. But where?
“Robert, get on out of there. Out of the shadows.” Robert sheepishly climbed down with the awkward movements of an older, out of shape man. A foot down onto the chair below – with hands still in the luggage hold – he began to slip and the artificial gravity caused him to fall — but Jackson caught him. Strong despite his age and taller than he expected, Robert was set down onto his feet by Jackson holding him under his arms. Like a parent sets up a toddler. He felt the blood rush to his face. Recovering quickly, Robert spoke:
“You said you knew me. Explain.” The men erupted in laughter around him.
“This one has balls, lieutenant.” Lee giggled.
“Leave us.” Jackson whispered. The two guards exchanged glances.
“Sir?” They both said together. Jackson remained silent, simply looking at them from the corner of his eyes. They both looked at each other and shrugged in unison, walking toward the airlock.
“We’ll be right outside, sir.” Jackson waved his left hand at them, his right on his sidearm.
“I know why you’re here, Robert. Do you?” Jackson asked as he stared unblinking with wolf-eyes. Robert replied with silence and a stare.
“I finessed my way into this universe. I followed you from outside your real home, back on Sedgebrook Drive. You fell through quite the rabbit hole. Again. Do you know what’s happening yet?”
“What are you talking about? Sedgebrook? I lived outside of the city, within view of the Great Elevator. What do you mean, ‘this universe’? Who are you!?” Robert said.
The older man shook his head.
“When you think of your wife, what memories do you see?” Robert’s heart skipped a beat. Those strange memories of a different timeline flashed again into his vision as he conjured the image of Linda’s face. Something was horribly wrong.
“I… I don’t know what’s happening to me. These memories aren’t –”
“Those are your true memories, Robert. Each time you slip between worlds, they become harder to see. Given enough time, they will vanish completely. You have to focus, focus on your love. That’s the only thing that they don’t understand.”
A thunderous explosion shook the Gwaden, and they both lost their footing and fell into seats across the aisle from each other. They locked eyes and Jackson stood remarkably fast for someone his age. He leaned over Robert and put his left thumb in the middle of his forehead with a soft force and his right thumb into the skin over his heart. An electric current rushed through Robert, and memories he had forgotten about rushed back to him in an instant. The cold forest. The sands of post-war America. The lights flickered and died inside the shuttle as another explosion rocked the Gwaden, and the red glow of emergency lights filled the cabin. Whispers violently hissed, forcing fear to flow into Robert’s body. A fear laced with anger. He remembered everything now.
But for how long?
“They hate me, Robert. I try to save the souls they keep. You are not alone in this game. Millions of people over the course of human history have become trapped in their game, replaced by the elites of their malevolent society…”
A blast rocked the ship, cracking a hole in the hull of the Gwaden. Air began to rush out of the docking bay, and he could hear the screams of Lee and Clark as they were sucked into the vacuum of space. The artificial gravity created by rotation was stopped as the frigate lost power, and Jackson skillfully glided over to the airlock and pounded his fist on the emergency seal to force the door shut.
“They are going to kill us both, Robert. Fill your mind with thoughts of your wife, and your life. Maybe they will be strong enough to –”
Another explosion rocked the ship and there was the monstrous sound of steel being ripped apart, violently tossing the shuttle out into space. Crashing and tumbling, Robert was bounced around inside the cabin along with Jackson. He protected his head the best he could, and pissed himself only a little bit.
“Dream of her to escape, Robert. You must dream of -”
A stray slug of iron tore into the shuttle, tearing it in half like a wet paper bag. Robert’s eyes dilated from fear. Remembering the first time he was knocked out by the vacuum of space, he could not help but let fear wash over him. There were no happy thoughts to be had. Clutching at his throat, his lungs burned as the air was pulled out of them. He felt his eyes bulge, and begin to pop.
Stars looked on, devoid of emotion. They had seen this all before.
And they would see it all again.
A washcloth woke him, icy on his steaming head. Comforting. Soft. A skillful hand dabbed his fevered skull with the caring touch of a mother. Almost settling back into the pillow, Robert began to sit upright and pain shot through his body, driving him back into the bed. His legs were like hard, dead rubber. Forcing his eyes open, the natural light made him squint.
“Hush now, don’t try to move. I found you in the dark wood. You should know better than to go there. Bandits love to ambush travellers. You had nothing but the clothes on your back when I found you.” Robert’s eyes had adjusted and focused on the elderly woman who was tending to him. The corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly upward, the tiniest smile.
“Where -” A cough thundered from his chest, labored. He felt exhausted and weak. “Where am I?”
Who am I?
This thought he kept to himself. Robert knew his name, but his mind was a terrible mixture of shadows and fog. He was scared, and tired. So tired.
“You are far from home, ser. Human land is a week’s ride from here, with a fast horse. And we don’t have any of those left.” The woman sighed. Something about the sighs of the elderly make one feel an existential despair, and it weighed on Robert’s fragile psyche. Tears began to form under his eyes.
“Shhh. There, there… Don’t worry. You have surely heard tales of Elven hospitality?”