(This story contains violence, nudity, coarse language, and mature subject matter. Reader discretion is strongly advised. Gma, this means you. <3 )
Early endeavours into the past resulted in ‘slicing’ of the time traveler. ‘Slicing’ is any number of tiny imperfections of the body/brain caused by time travel which may include but is not limited to the following: minor to severe brain injury, slips in physical symmetry, missing limb(s), fusion of items carried into the body, blindness, shifted/missing organs, changes in eye, hair, or skin colour, subtle or drastic changes in personality, sudden urges to harm self/others with no previous history, total catastrophic failure of structure leading to death.
~ Official Guidebook of Governmental Regulated and Approved Phasing Projects, 3rd Edition.
After the Grey: Currently
When you stay at the mouth of a relay instead of going with the flow of the tunnel trying to take you to the other side, it’s kind of like holding back the water in a water slide: eventually there will build up enough water to force you through the tunnel. Only the flow of this tunnel isn’t water: it’s time. And the side effects are dangerous. It puts a strain on the chip in your brain. It can age you fast if you’re not careful.
Yet here I am treading in time again. It’s like watching a screen reversed in front of you. The further you move back into the relay the faster the film in front of you plays almost like a Buster Keaton film. The closer you try to hold on to the mouth of the relay the harder you tread. The more exhausting it is.
I am swimming in the maw of oblivion, all because I like to make the chips in my brain beep harder. Actually, just watching for warning signs it’s not safe to play here. Haven’t been back in a while. Can’t remember how long. Who knows what’s changed?
Two men in jumpsuits walk in that wobbly fast way that speeded up films go. Bingo. Trouble.
They are wearing jumpsuits. Navy blue jumpsuits. I can’t hear a word they’re saying. I can only hear the usual whispering of your ears trying to make sense of what you’ve immersed yourself into which is to say an anomaly: man made of space and time.
The relays have mathematics imputed into them from the Architect himself. He is the only one who can derive the equations to cross the other side. He is the tunnel builder. The First and so far, the only. And these nifty chips in our brains interpret that specific equation. No master degree in physics needed for us peons. Just a little cut rate brain surgery and pow! You too can be a time traveller. Just sign this waiver. Caution. Warning. May cause a shit ton of side effects but more on that later. Come live your dream.
One of the men comes closer to the flickering screen. Idiots can’t sense the relay. He has a bag of tools which he drops to the ground. He’s talking to the guy behind him. They laugh. The guy behind him grabs a thermos and offers his partner a glass. They sit. The one near the relay pulls his gun out from his pants pocket. Rather large gun for a jumpsuit. Would be uncomfortable to sit down on. Tools and weapons and such.
Pressure mounting in here, the chips begin to beep. Tunnels of time like water were made to be traveled in and then surfaced from. I’m holding my breath, but losing air.
As I stare at the gun trying to place its model, I hear in my head, “Database not found.” The funny thing about having a chip in your head designed to read your thoughts and provide complementary information for you is the errors you constantly end up with once the world has gone to shit and there’s no internet connection. It’s a calm voice. It’s not like mine. It repeats itself. “Error! The information you are looking for is not available at this time.”
“Thanks, George,” I think towards the malfunctioning part of my brain. It doesn’t reply.
The men in jumpsuits have turned and are staring at me mouths gaped open in horror. In my distraction I let go control of the flow a little and must be forming inside the room. Got a little too far out and must look a frightful kind of ghost to those poor men.
Fuck it. There’s no time to waste. Detox onset in less than an hour.
The one furthest from the relay grabs his gun. Just as the one closer to me moves to do the same. Could stall them out but if they tamper the relay, I’m stuck in here forever.
I come out. Feels like a step down and can feel disorienting for the rookie time travel, but I’ve done this so many times it’s just an agile down jump. I am still quick though feeling a little weaker than I’d like. I can’t remember how long I’ve been gone this time. Maybe memory is going.
I tuck and roll and grab the gun of the man closest to me. Turn and aim him.
“Who are you?” The one further away demands.
I don’t bother answering. “What are you guys doing out here?”
They don’t bother answering. There’s something I’m missing. They seem surprised but not shocked to see me. Maybe they knew where the relay was after all.
Guy close to me lunges for the gun. A slight step back into the relay careful to keep the gun out; fusion is never good for the skin. I pull his weight into the relay. I hold him a little ways out. His screams have a ghostly reverb.
“Drop the gun or I drop your friend into oblivion. Relays are a bitch to traverse without the chips.”
He shoots at me. Misses. I let go of his friend. He is gone. And without the chips in his head, he’s never coming out.
“What the fuck did you do to Carl?” The other one screams. He fired his gun. Misses me. Again.
“You shoot. I let go. Simple cause and effect really.”
“Shots fired. Shots fired. Echo station neutral.” I hear coming from a static radio. Out of the relay I come shaking like a leaf. Body isn’t designed for dancing in the mouth of a time portal.
“Put the gun down.” Guy yells at me.
“How far away are they?” I ask.
“Not far,” he responds quickly. Bluffing?
“So I shoot you in the femoral and they’ll get here in time?”
His face goes white before he can respond. Technician, not entirely trained killer perhaps.
“Drop the gun, think of your family.”
“What about Carl’s family?”
“People disappear all the time.”
“This is taking too much time. I would take off your belt if I were you.”
I shoot him in the leg. He screams, grabs his leg and drops the gun. Maybe he hasn’t ever been shot before. I drop down out of the relay and rush him on shaky legs. Kick his gun before he can use it. He tries to get up. But he’s losing blood fast.
I grab his gun. Unload it of ammo toss it all on the table far away from the guy. Not that he will be getting up soon. His breath is coming fast between clenched teeth and he’s cursing my existence. I lay Carl’s gun down for a moment out of reach.
His radio crackles. “Steven, Carl, you guys alright?”
“Hostile bogey in the room came out of the portal. We engaged but she tossed Carl into the relay and shot me!” Steve screamed into the radio.
“Hang tight, Steve. We’re on our way. Identity of the bogey?”
“I don’t know! But she shot me, dammit! I’m losing blood fast!”
Looking around for anything useful, I spot torn curtains barely hanging over boarded up windows. I rip down the curtains and twist them into a tourniquet. Tie it around his bleeding leg.
I take his radio from his trembling hands. He calls me a bitch.
“Identity of the bogey, Steve. Skin colour, height, weight, hair colour, anything,” says the radio.
“Those are nothing’s you ask a girl on the first date.”
“Who is this?”
“Not who you were expecting I take it?”
“Identify yourself. You have assaulted two innocent government technicians.”
“Government techs usually arm themselves on neutral territory?”
“They’ve been hired to dismantled Echo station.”
“On who’s orders? This relay isn’t government owned. Veil wouldn’t have allowed this.”
“Lady don’t you read the news?”
“Can’t say you get too much in the relays.”
“The veil and the dominion have banned time travel. Now identity yourself.”
“No thanks.” I throw the radio into the relay.
I move back to Steve who is quickly paling out on me. I gingerly remove his belt. He’s too weak to resist, his limps hands on my arms do nothing other than clam up my skin. I tie his belt around his leg as well. He is slick with blood and fear sweat.
“That should buy you sometime,” I tell him.
He spits in my face. Standing up, I wipe it off. He passes out.
Into the bags I find an extra uniform. It’s not much, but it will do. I dress in it. Pocket the guns from the mattress, one at the ready and the empty one with the ammo in leg pocket.
In the thermos I find water. I take a swig and use the rest to wipe off the blood as best I can. Can’t be going home gorey. There’ll be enough questions as it is.
I take Steve’s boots and socks. They’re clumsy and too big but its better than no footwear at all. I search his pockets for anything useful. There’s keys with one looking like it might belong to a vehicle, a wallet and some more ammo. I take it all. Where’s there’s keys, there’s transportation. I take his watch too. That actually fits nicely.
45 minutes to onset of resurrection sickness: body is starting to cramp up. Won’t be long before unconsciousness comes and the bowels and bladder fail. Would rather be home when that happens.
Rez sickness happens every time you travel. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been gone or how far you went back. Skip six seconds or six centuries into the past and you have an hour before Rez sickness hits. It’s like your organs go into stasis for the short trip and unravel themselves upon re entry into reality. They need a reboot. Brain doesn’t because it has the chips. But I guess no one ever thought of adding a chips to the colon so you aren’t always risking embarrassing yourself in a filthy way. Someone should invent that though.
I grab both tool bags. Over by the old dresser is a breather. Guess the Grey is still as bad as ever. I put the breather on fitting it snug over my nose and mouth. Smells like someone else’s sour breath. On the other side of a notepad is a pair of goggles. I reach for those too and then notice faint etching in the notepad.
“You are relay here,” it reads.
Jaw tightens, so do the hands, breathe held for microseconds – the eyes of the brain – those memory centres are reliving a memory I am reluctant to participate in. The whole body fighting something the heart doesn’t want to remember, but the heart finally sinks in recognition.
No wonder there were guards. You came through here too, mon chère. They were looking for you.
Goggles strapped on and breather in place, I reach for the door knob. With this single action, all pasts come to present. I’ve done this many times before. All my past selves have come through here. What is on the other side is very familiar to. And who knows, perhaps I will open this door in the future if they don’t shut it down. Asshats. Banning relays. Control freaks.
Outside it is grey. I mean, it’s always fucking grey. You never see the sky nor more than a washed out rim of a sun. The sky is a swirling maw more than a breathtaking vista.
I sigh. There’s no place like home.
The dust is piled up on the side of the old motel where the wind collects the fine particles. An old battered black truck is parked two spots to the left of me. I eye the keys I’ve palmed; it’s time to go home to the Veil.
As I step into the truck and close the door, I tear off the breather it’s not worth wasting the canister by keeping it on. The air inside won’t be perfect, bit chalky, so the goggles stay on. Keys in the ignition. I turn them. The car starts. I am a little surprised that anything works so well. Fuel gauge rises to half full. I turn on the headlights to the dimmest setting. The air is too thick for the brights.
I hear a crackle. There’s a radio in here. Tossed onto the back fold up seat was a black hand held radio.
“All units head to echo station. Unknown female suspect is on site. Shots have been fired. Presume her to be armed and dangerous.”
I pick it up, hold my breath, open the door and toss the damn thing out. They’ll be coming from the north where the government tunnels sprawl out. Far away from the river. I am headed south. Towards the river where the abandoned high rises shelter the Veil. I put the car in reverse and pull out of the driveway.
Plumes of dust everywhere, clinging like the folds of a robe to the bottoms of all buildings; yet, the asphalt, as terrible as it is in condition, is clear of most dust and debris. Someone is collecting this shit and keeping it off the roads even though the denizens of the Dominion have lived underground for generations now.
I call it dust, but it’s more a mix of the drifting top soil of the devastated plains, and what little frozen precipitation that does falls. Makes everything Grey.
The truck rumbles at 140 km/hr and its shocks are gone. But its running and I’m strangely thrilled at the luxury of a vehicle.
On both sides of the roads are the wind mills. Tall giants swoop slowly in the dust. Built for great expense to keep the dying civilization alive albeit underneath the earth. The planet still orbits the sun, but we cannot feel her warmth. So we harness the terrible winds. These are the governments windmills. The Veil albeit just as rich, gets its energy from an old hydroelectric dam that they commandeered and keep always under armed guard. Bothers me that these two old enemies are bargaining now.
Used to be that these two organizations were on the same side. Shortly after the grey, when the survivors were still futilely flinging themselves into the past in hopes to save the future, the founders of time travel split up. It was a bad break up. The government considers it a betrayal. A few of the founders took arms, and a lot of money, survival goods, food etc and fled from the safety of the vast government tunnel systems to the old city. They called it the veil. And inhabit it still. There were wars in the beginning but being equally powered, the situation quickly degraded into an unofficial stalemate. Government comes close to the Veil and the guns come. Same goes for anyone of us trying to hit up “Utopia” as they call their tunnels without proper ID.
I’ve lived in both places. My dad left the tunnels after my Grandfather died the way he did. My mother was already gone then. Sliced up bad from a trip gone wrong. Better chip tech, now they say. I remember her melting into a puddle of flesh and blood.
I can’t believe those politicians are swearing off the relays. Well I can, Politics is all about control. But still. There’s an uneasy alliance in the air and I don’t trust it.
I pass the street lights – the last totem poles of the old civilization as I drive south into the old city. The high-rises loom on the horizon in all their ruined splendour. The tall vacant buildings with windows blown out. Billboards half sandblasted and buried to the sides of the roads advertising things once plentiful no longer to be found around here or anywhere else on Earth for that matter. People are always radioing out to the quiet world and no one has ever answered.
I turn off the highway, and pull onto King street heading towards the bank of high-rises that have been heavily modified to survive in this hostile environment. All metal plates welded in the old window frames. And down below, the Veil has tunnels of its own. I can see the Electric Rose glowing in the distance.
The electric rose
she has no soul
but she shines on
Home, almost, home. Body is tight and every muscle is straining against itself. Hands are white knuckling the steering wheel. It’s taking all of me to drive.
There’s a flicker of movement in the rear view mirror. Two motorcyclists pull in behind me. Up ahead, two more block me in. One of them slows down and drives parallel to the truck. Their helmeted head turns towards me. If they’re government, they’re awful close to territory they shouldn’t be on.
The motorcyclist pulls on front of the truck and forces me to slow down. Then they put on the brakes. I decide to cooperate and do the same. I grab the loaded gun and watch them through the windshield.
Off comes the helmet revealing a head of cotton candy blue hair, and goggles and a breather. I’d know that hair anywhere: Verse Moon Song. Or that’s what she calls herself. She smiles at me. The other motorcyclists pull up behind her and she motions them to wait. She climbs off her bike and runs over to the cab. I unlock the doors and put away my gun.
Verse is a relayer like me. She does contracts, killings etc in present time. Shes a hired gun, a mercenary. She’s known to use the relays to traverse the world.
If anyone has survived the Grey outside of the capital, Verse would know. But she isn’t talking. Nope. Verse’s never said a word since I’ve known her. Probably not one word her whole life. Some say it’s because her tongue was cut out as a child, which is total bullshit because she has a tongue longer than a kiss band member. Whatever the reason, she just doesn’t talk. Not hearing impaired either. She wears old oversized headphones which blast music from an ancient MP3 player she somehow always has charged.
She hops into the cab, hugs me fiercely, and kisses my face with her breather on. I gently push her off.
She signs to me “Welcome home.”
I tell her thanks.
She signs to ask me where I’ve been.
I just shrug.
“Four years,” she signs. And whistles. Grinning.
“Really that long.” I didn’t realize.
She nods and hops back out of the cab. She signals to the rest to gather up. On goes her helmet and away they go.
I follow them. Home. No place like home.