Parallel Journeys Book

Cover design and photo (of Andrew Warren Anderson in Venice) by Jonathan Zap with special effects by Tanner Dery and Topher Sipes.  

For Jack

Parallel Journeys

BOOK ONE

BIOSPHERE 3

International Copyright Jonathan Zap, 2022

My name is Tommy, and I’ve been sealed in this biosphere for three years. 

I had only just turned sixteen when I entered, and the life I once had—a beautiful life I could touch and smell and taste, a life full of people I loved and who loved me—is ever more distant, like the receding home planet of a space traveler on a one-way trip.

With zero evidence of any other survivors, I’m not even sure what I am now. Does my existence even qualify as a life?

A horrible image keeps rattling through my head. A pair of flies buzzing around in a Coke bottle buried in the desert of a dying planet. Putting such dark thoughts into words feels like treason, but I need a place to express what I’m feeling. I need it to keep going.

There’s a grim truth that gets worse every day. The biosphere has a room full of scanners and terminals linked to several satellites, and yet we haven’t picked up a communication signal of any kind in almost two-and-a-half years. Total radio silence from the whole planet. So yeah, Kyle might be the only human face I’ll ever see again. And Kyle—well, I’ll get to Kyle.

Based on the information I got in social isolation training, it’s a near-miracle we’ve survived three years without either of us having a psychotic break. But I might as well confess now, I’ve been allowing the voices in my head to speak to me as other people. I realize it’s a classic isolation symptom. It might border on some kind of multiple personality disorder, but I think I’d be in far worse shape if I didn’t allow it. Sometimes I hear the voice of Rachel—Dr. Rachel Miller—the psychiatrist who counseled me before I was sealed in here.

“We’re social animals,” she often said.

So, if there are no other people, it becomes necessary to invent them?

“Yes, Tommy. And it’s better to allow yourself to knowingly invent them before they become uncontrollable hallucinations.”

See what I mean? That’s not something Rachel actually said during training. It’s what she’s saying in my head right now. It sounds sensible, like something she’d say if she were still alive. But it’s also a sign I might be going crazy. She once told me that if you doubt your sanity, you probably aren’t insane. I really hope that’s true.

Part of why I’m writing this journal is to try to break out of my disassociation. I’ve learned to numb myself as I go through the motions of my daily tasks and responsibilities, but I barely feel alive anymore. I need to become more human again. More Tommy again. I can’t allow myself to break down. But if I am going crazy, this journal might be the only safe place to let it happen. The only safe place to pull myself together. I can’t let Kyle see me like this.

Although there’s no evidence of other survivors, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Maybe they’re lying low, being careful not to emit electronic signals and draw the attention of anyone who might threaten their shelter. As unlikely as that is, I can’t abandon my post while it’s still a possibility. And that means I need to help maintain Kyle’s morale as well as my own.

I haven’t confessed anything in this journal until now because everything I write becomes permanent. It’s kind of a weird setup, so I’ll explain how it works. Inside a steel vault is a titanium sphere containing a small transcriber device. If I stop for ten minutes, the machine laser-inscribes everything I’ve typed onto a single, gold-plated disc. It’s like an old-fashioned DVD, but it’s meant to last forever. Like a time capsule. The vault unlocks automatically a year after the biosphere is unsealed. I guess they thought it would be a record of a historic experiment. But right now, it feels like the black box in an airplane recording the last moments before a crash.

With his tech skills, I’m sure Kyle could break into any other computer in the biosphere. But each of the sixteen dorm rooms—fourteen of them empty—came equipped with a journaling terminal connected to the transcriber by a single fiber-optic cable, that no one—not even Kyle—could get into. After ten minutes of inactivity, a timestamp is added to the end of an entry. Then the text is permanently inscribed. Everything we could ever write will fit on that one disc. But right now, my words are still in limbo. I could delete them, and no one will ever know they existed.

I feel like that myself. We are, as Rachel said, social animals. So if there’s no one to observe my life, the real-life of who I am inside, a life I do everything I can to keep hidden from Kyle, then—Is it even real?  That’s the kind of question that invites madness. I need to make my inner life real to keep myself from falling apart, even if the only witness is a machine. So . . .

Entry: 1 Seal Day: 1135 7:42PM

There. It’s real now. Knowing my words are recorded makes me feel more solid. I’m leaving a mark someone might read one day. But the price of this record could be my life. A couple of weeks after we sealed, I swore a blood oath to Kyle not to disclose certain things about him. But I need to break that oath. To tell my story, who Kyle really is must come out. But if he finds out about this—well, I just have to make sure he never finds out.

Am I being selfish in taking this risk? I’ve often wanted to end my life, so maybe I’m just reckless. But the possibility that someone might read this gives me the feeling that my life still serves a purpose. It could be a necessary madness brought on by isolation, but I feel someone will read this. Maybe that person isn’t even born yet, but I feel you out there, wanting me to continue. At least, that’s what I’m feeling right now. A rare moment of hope. It won’t last, but I’m grateful for it anyway.

I want to believe Andrew will read this one day. For years, it’s felt like we’re living parallel lives, but he always remains out of reach. I realize it’s almost impossible that he’s still alive, but he haunts my thoughts. My whole life has been guided by strange intuitions about impossible things that somehow became real. So why should Andrew be any different? If I’m honest though, even before the plague, I couldn’t be sure he was alive. I just can’t

Entry: 2 Seal Day: 1135 7:58PM

I’m back. We just had a false fire alarm. A sensor picked up some anomalous hydrocarbons in a hallway near cryogenic storage. Gaia, our main computer, interpreted it as possible combustion, but we couldn’t find anything amiss. We get a lot of false alarms due to our super-sensitive air sensors. You can’t let anything toxic leak into the air of a sealed biosphere. A loose cap on a tube of glue is enough to set them off.

Kyle inspected the hallway suspiciously, scanning everything with an infrared thermometer to see if anything was overheating. Finding nothing, he cleared me to go. He usually contains his stress and is hard to read, but for some reason he seemed really on edge. I wonder what he was working on when the alarm got tripped. As he walked away, he flashed me a paranoid look, as if I had purposely set up the false alarm to distract him from something.

 Maybe he’s aware that I’m finally using my journaling terminal? If he’s monitoring changes in the wattage going into my dorm, he could tell I’ve turned it on. But we were strongly encouraged to use those, and there shouldn’t be any way for him to know the actual words I’m writing unless he’s messed with my terminal or keyboard, and we were told those were made to be tamper-proof to ensure privacy.

What if he set up the false alarm because he wanted to stop me from journaling?

No, that doesn’t make any sense either. The interruption was more than ten minutes, so everything I wrote is permanently inscribed, and I’m still journaling. Rachel warned me that paranoia is a dangerous isolation symptom, and I can feel it infecting both of us.   

Anyway, sorry about where I broke off. I didn’t mean to speak in riddles, but now I can’t delete that line about not being sure if Andrew was alive even before the plague. I hope this will make more sense once I tell you about my first encounter with him. Somewhere within that encounter lies a map of where to find him. And hopefully, a way out of this impossible situation. Unfortunately, it’s a map I’ve never been able to figure out. As important as that encounter is to me, I’ve never actually written it out. Maybe once I do, I’ll finally see the map.

It happened three years ago, just a few months before the plague, but it’s still my most vivid memory.

It begins with me picking blackberries. I’m in the woods near the settlement I grew up in, deep in a valley of the Green Mountains of Vermont. My basket is nearly full when a wave of slowtime passes over me. I need to be alone when this happens. I’ll explain it later, but slowtime forces me to see into other people more than I want to—behind their thoughts and feelings. And that’s like disrespecting their privacy. So I take my basket and disappear into the woods to hide out in my treehouse.

From its high cedar deck, I look out over the sea of leafy branches and rolling hills that form the valley I live in. Gusts of wind rustle the canopy of leaves around me. The wind calms as the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the forest with its golden rays. The warmth on my skin melts my uneasiness. I undo the tie holding my long, blonde hair and lie back on the deck. The grain of the cedar planks against my skin, and the smell of the newly sawed wood, make me feel like I’m on an old ship, sailing under the sun.

A fresh wind carries the evergreen scent of fir trees from deep in the valley, bringing me back to where I am. My sensations become intensely vivid, like I’m feeling everything for the first time. I reach into the basket, wanting to taste the blackberries.

They’re sweet and smooth, almost bubbly, sliding on my tongue. My senses cross, and their flavor becomes a deep purple light flowing into me.

Slowtime stretches every moment.

A great horned owl soars into view. I can see the brown and white stripes of its wind-ruffled feathers in perfect detail. The owl is like a banner rippling in the sky, bringing a message. It passes overhead and screeches, sending a current of fear through me. As the owl flies off, a strong gust of wind pushes dark clouds across the sun. I hear a distant rumble of thunder coming from the western part of the valley, followed by more gusts of wind. The sudden chill forces me to sit up and hug my knees to my chest for warmth.

The howling wind is making me shiver. The shivering builds until it becomes violent. It’s almost like a seizure or being electrocuted.

And then I become  the electricity.

I erupt from my body into the howling wind, swiftly ascending toward the dark clouds above.

I look down and see my body on the deck of the treehouse, shrinking away as I rise higher and higher. I’m still sitting there hugging my knees, the windblown tree branches moving chaotically around me. But it’s too weird to view myself this way. I feel intense vertigo, like I’m about to plummet. A dizzy moment of panic throws me, and I drop—

Suddenly, I’m standing a half mile away at the edge of our land where it meets a dirt road that heads to Bridgeton. I take a deep breath. The ground beneath my feet feels solid. I look around. Everything is familiar but—

Something’s wrong.

There are no storm clouds anymore, but the air is smoky from distant fires. The sugar maples are orange and red, and there’s a chill in the air. It’s as if I’ve gone from summer to autumn in the blink of an eye.

I turn toward the dirt road and see the new gate we put up in late March.

This isn’t a memory.

Sticking out of the ground beside the gate, like a green nylon tombstone, is my backpack. It’s bulging unevenly because I packed it in such haste. A sense of urgency rushes through me.

I need to move. Now!

I reach for the pack to hoist it up. It swings wide and slams against my back. A realization erupts inside of me.

There’s no one left for me to help. Everyone but me is dead.

The moment repeats.

SLAM—

There’s no time for grief. Danger is close. I have to move quickly and be ready to hide.

SLAM—

What I feel doesn’t matter. My mission is all that matters.

SLAM—

The last slam jolts me back into my body on the treehouse deck. I’m sitting exactly as I was before I was pulled away, arms wrapped around my knees, but I can still feel the impact of the backpack in my bones.

The wind settles. Though the sky is still overcast, it’s no longer darkened by thunderclouds. The warmth of the humid air stops my shivering.

I sense someone is with me, watching. I can’t see anyone, but I feel their gaze emanating from a point in space about ten feet beyond my treehouse deck. I stare in that direction until an outline of light begins to form. From its center, a boy about my age comes into shape.

He’s glowing and not quite solid in the way I am. As his body takes on definition, I discover something terrible has happened. His clothes are burnt, and much of his skin is charred. I try to hide my shock at the sight of his burns. The fire hasn’t touched his face, so I focus on his intelligent, brown eyes looking deeply into me. I’m struck by how calm and aware he seems, even though he’s in such a terrible state.

I think of my volunteer work at the hospice. I’d been with old people as they transitioned at the edge of death. Sometimes they communicated with me. Other times they’d just look back at their body and depart.

But he’s my age. He needs to live.

As I look into his eyes, it’s like I’m being seen for the first time. Understood for the first time.

I want him to live. I need him to help me understand what just happened—what’s coming—it feels like there’s something important we must do together—

Like knowing in a dream, I realize certain things about him.

We’re so different.

He’s grown up in a city world with books and complex ideas. His dark hair and eyes against his pale skin suggest an ethnicity I can’t name. We’re from different backgrounds and even different bloodlines. And yet, there’s a bond of brotherhood between us. Whatever’s coming has brought us together. I sense he understands much of what I do about this moment. His dark eyes are like portals of awareness, and I want to know the depths he’s seeing. It’s the moment to say something.

“Hey.” Despite the strangeness of the situation, I keep my voice calm and friendly. “I’m Tommy. What’s your name?”

“Andrew,” he replies.

“Welcome to my treehouse, Andrew. Can you—would you like to sit with me?”

He looks at me uncertainly. I smile and pat the deck with a welcoming gesture. He flickers for a moment and suddenly is sitting across from me. Closeness makes him seem more solid, and I realize that he’s not only my age but almost exactly my size. I want to hug him, my usual way of greeting people, but I don’t want to shock the fragile sort of body he’s in.

“Where are we?” he asks.

“Vermont. A valley in the Green Mountains.”

He turns to look out, but as soon as we break eye contact, his body begins to thin. He looks back in a panic, and our gazes lock as we realize something. We need to stay focused on each other to keep him in my world. So I slow my breathing and surround him with my energy to help him stay with me.

“What happened to you, Andrew?”

“I was . . .” Andrew hesitates, and his vision turns inward for a moment. “I found myself looking down at the wreck below. There were two smashed-up metal hulks. Smoke was coming from the one that was once our—”

Andrew breaks off, his eyes fill with tears and cast downward as if he’s still seeing the wreck. His body trembles, and I feel him trying to contain his feelings. I sense he’s afraid they’ll disturb me. He gathers himself, and when he looks up, his eyes are haunted, but his voice is calm and almost trancelike.

“There was broken glass everywhere. Flashes of red and blue lights from emergency vehicles lit up the fragments like rubies and sapphires. It all looked so strange, but sort of eerily beautiful too. There was a feeling everything was exactly the way it was supposed to be. The wreck was just something that unfolded in time—like a flower bud opening its petals.

“I let go of it and ascended into space. And . . .”

Andrew seems confused and hesitates, looking downward again. It’s like he’s realizing he shouldn’t tell me certain things. When he looks up, his gaze steadies.

“I blacked out. And when I woke up, I was floating near your treehouse.”

“Well, I’m really glad you found me,” I say with a welcoming smile.

“I’m glad you found me too,” he replies. “At first, you didn’t see me. I watched you. I saw you shivering, and it made me feel cold. Then, when you rose out of your body, I went with you, almost like we were the same person. I saw and felt with you. I think I know what it all meant. Something’s coming. Something like . . . what just happened to me. But . .  . for the whole world.”

I let out a breath, grateful that Andrew experienced the vision with me. I’m about to ask him more, but something in his gaze quiets me. We look into each other’s eyes and then . . .

We merge.

It’s like we fell into each other. We were still ourselves, only swirling together without our bodies. Two sides of the same being. I really can’t describe it any better than that. I saw with my soul instead of my eyes, like some kind of revelation.

We separate. We’re still sitting across from each other on the treehouse deck. Andrew gives me an intense look.

“Tommy—” he begins to say when an electric shock arcs through his chest. His body seizes, and he vanishes in a flash. It happens so quickly I can’t even react. The empty silence he leaves behind is crushing, and there’s a painful moment where I’m afraid I’ve lost him forever.

He was ripped out of my world, and I’ll never know—What, Andrew? What were you going to say?

And then, I hear him.

“Tommy . . .”

His voice seems to stretch across space and time, like it’s traveling an impossible distance to reach me. An echo of an echo.

This is a map of where to find me.”

The words are urgent. Pleading. But I can’t make out what he means. I’m waiting for something more, sitting at the edge of the deck, listening like I’ve never listened before. But all I hear is the wind.

In my mind, the echo of his words trails off.

This is a map of where to find me . . . a map of where to find me . . . where to find me . . . find me.

I stay on the deck for quite a while—an hour, maybe longer—searching for a trace of his presence. Hoping for something more. He’s gone, and yet I sense that wherever he is, he’s as desperate to reconnect as I am. Before I climb down, I take a last look around. There are only treetops as far as I can see while the sun drops toward the ridgeline in the distance. I don’t know if my words will reach him, but I whisper a promise into the silence.

“Andrew . . . we’ll figure it out.”

Entry: 3 Seal Day: 1135 10:07PM

His voice still echoes within me.

For three years now, I’ve hoped and prayed Andrew made it back to his body. But he looked so badly burned. Even if he survived, his life would be painful and difficult.

So maybe I’m being selfish to hope he’s alive. But I want him to look at me again with that deep understanding. I want to know what he saw in me during our merger, and what he thinks all of this means. I need him to share the burden I feel.

Yeah . . . I guess that is selfish.

I still need to

Entry: 4 Seal Day: 1135 10:19PM

Sorry, another false alarm, but this time we found the cause—a smoldering circuit board that controls a water pump near cryogenics. Fortunately, a replacement was easy to locate and install.

Anyway, I scrolled up to see the last thing I wrote—about it being selfish to hope Andrew is alive—and maybe I shouldn’t have written that. It’s probably what Rachel called survivor’s guilt. I might have selfish desires, but the need to find him feels like it serves something larger. Merging with Andrew was the most profound experience of my life, but I don’t know how to put even part of it into words. We were together in a dimension that felt like it was above time.

Normally, I have so much work to do I have to keep running from daytime to nighttime to daytime and on and on. Just one damn thing after another, as they say, to keep this place going. So I keep running on my hamster wheel. But it’s not just me—that’s just the way time is—the wheel keeps spinning whether you want it to or not, and you’ve got to keep up.

But Andrew and I encountered each other in a dimension beyond the hamster wheel—the Nowever.

“Tommy, you need to reality-test your belief in Andrew. Do it now, and in writing!”

Rachel just harshly broke in with that. When she’s warning me, it’s not like this whisper of suggestion—it’s more like she’s trying to slap me awake. Her voice can be severe, but I’ve got to respect her advice because she’s given me survival warnings that probably saved my life.

But I can’t just follow what a voice tells me. That would be totally irresponsible. It’s up to me to decide if my thoughts, or anyone else’s, are right or not. Rachel isn’t the voice of God. Logic isn’t the voice of God either. And even if I thought I was hearing the voice of God, if it told me, like Abraham in that Bible story, to kill my son or something like that, I’d disobey. I’m not crazy enough, not yet at least, to let voices command me. But I do take Rachel seriously even if there are parts of her advice I don’t follow.

The way Rachel described the need to reality test made it sound like more than advice. It felt like her religion.

“Reality testing must be a daily and hourly practice,” she once told me. “You must be in the habit of applying it to any thoughts that are elaborate and removed from physical evidence. A mind stressed by isolation drifts into magical thinking, and if you give such thoughts energy, they will pull you into psychosis. You must use reality testing to defeat magical thinking!”

Something inside me rebelled every time she said, “magical thinking.” It was too risky to tell her about my life-changing paranormal experiences, especially my encounter with Andrew. If I confessed, she would have said I had a hallucination and was giving it energy with magical thinking. And then she might have felt duty-bound to disqualify me from the biosphere.

Rachel always meant well, but she didn’t have the paranormal experiences I had—experiences that were not just real, but far more real than anything else in my life. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore her advice. She’s the one who tried to help me the most. The only training I got for living in isolation was from her. She gave me the tools that have helped me survive and stay at least partly sane. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t give her the appreciation she deserved when she was alive.

She was so serious when she told me, ”Stay vigilant, Tommy. When magical thinking appears, reality test it!”  The way she said reality test it!  sounded like she was saying, Reality test the shit out of it!  She said it angrily, like reality testing was a sledgehammer and magical thinking was a wingless fly begging to get squashed. But anger isn’t logic. It felt more like a strong prejudice. Like angry reality testing was her religion.

But I haven’t found magical thinking so easy to get rid of. And with Andrew, I don’t even try because I need to believe in him. Rachel told me to deprive magical thinking of energy. I do the opposite. I give a lot of energy to Andrew, and my thoughts about him are elaborate and without evidence.

By not reality testing Andrew, I know I’m disobeying Rachel, and I feel how disrespectful that is. I owe her more than that.

I’m sorry, Rachel, I should have followed the practice a long time ago. I’m going to make some strong black tea, and then I will reality test Andrew with logic and rules of evidence, like you said.

Entry: 5 Seal Day: 1135 11:08PM

 

The first thing I notice when I apply logic, is that Rachel’s advice is contradictory. She died before the seal, so her telling me now to reality test, fails reality testing. But to be fair, she gave the same advice when she was alive, so that doesn’t excuse me from applying the practice. So here goes.

I’m living in social isolation, and my emotional life revolves around someone who isn’t physically present. I have zero evidence that Andrew exists or that he ever existed. Although he feels real, Rachel told me that people often adapt to isolation by creating imaginary companions. So, the logical explanation is that I’m hallucinating an imaginary friend. Andrew is just my version of Sugar-Candy Mountain, a wish fulfillment kept alive by magical thinking. That’s the answer to the reality test she would consider correct.

But it’s just not what I feel from my depths. Andrew is another person. And there’s an unfinished destiny between us.

Neither of us said it, but I think we both understood we were being called together to serve a larger purpose. So it’s not just selfish that I want us to reconnect. Andrew followed me into a prophetic vision I was having about the end of the world—the reality I’m living in right now. And it’s always felt like he knows more about our shared mission than I do.

No matter what reality testing says, the encounter with Andrew seems like the most real thing I’ve ever experienced. I’m going with it because I need it to keep going. And that means I need to decode the map of where to find him.

I’ve searched our archives for any record of a boy named Andrew in a car accident with his parents on that date. But that type of search has never turned up anything. There’s some pattern I’m not seeing. Maybe it’s because everything in my life that led to my encounter with Andrew was also part of the map?

I don’t know. But maybe I should expand the edges of the map and start with my life before the plague. After all, my encounter with Andrew wasn’t my first experience with the paranormal.

I was already changing that summer, before we even knew about the virus. Of course, any fifteen-year-old is going through changes. That’s normal. But I was changing in ways that weren’t. Looking back, I think something in me must’ve known the plague was coming. My new abilities began to surface only a few months before I’d need them to survive.

It was a beautiful time of year where we lived, in the Green Mountains of Vermont. We were a small community of twenty called “The Friends,” which you may know as some Quaker thing. They loosely inspired our customs, especially our commitment to nonviolence. Like Quakers, we saw each other as friends, and our meetings were similar in some ways. They happened every month, and anyone who felt called to, including kids, could speak. But, like I said, loosely inspired. We had a few shared values, but we didn’t impose religion on anyone. We also applied our nonviolence to the land and lived sustainably.

Entry: 6 Seal Day: 1135 11:22PM

Sorry, I had to take a break. I guess I knew this part would be hard to write about, but I need to tell you where I came from. I had such a great life then, and it ended so suddenly.

One day, I’d like to write a whole book about each person I grew up with, but at the moment, I can’t face all that loss. So for now, I’ll just tell you what I can about my former life.

My education was a type of alternative homeschooling set up by what’s called the Sudbury model. No kid was forced to learn anything. Even from an early age, we picked subjects based on what we were into. Schooling wasn’t scheduled according to a program, or for a certain time. My life was my schooling, and my schooling was my life.

For example, my mom, Eleanor, read me storybooks. When I wanted to learn how to read them for myself, she taught me. Soon I wanted to write, so she taught me that too. I saw Mark, who used to be a major graffiti artist, spray-painting an amazing mural for our meeting hall. Seeing my interest, he gave me art lessons.

I spent time with Dorothy learning herbalism, nutrition, and cooking. Later she taught me how to make essential oil blends which were carried by a few local stores. I learned about farming from everyone, but especially Josh, Jordie and Scott, who were trained in permaculture. I worked beside them, doing every specific task from tending to our beehives, to grafting vines onto hardier rootstock, and animal husbandry. They showed me how every part of the farm functioned together as an ecosystem.

We were free to learn from people or sources outside the community too. If we wanted to use the internet, we’d catch a ride to the public library. Our community was intentionally low-tech in that sense. We didn’t use smartphones either, so we spent more time with each other than with screens. From an early age, I felt different than the other kids I saw in town who were always lost in their phones.

At ten, I had a strong urge to volunteer at the hospice in Bridgeton, where my mom worked. I know that wanting to work with dying people is a strange calling for a kid, but I felt deep inside that I should do it. I also didn’t want to selfishly use up resources without giving anything back. Helping out at the hospice and within our community, gave me a sense of purpose.

The hospice was my most meaningful work, but I spent a lot more time on woodworking, which I learned from Matthew, our master carpenter. We made one-of-a-kind furniture, boxes, mirrors—all sorts of beautiful things. A large craft co-op on one of Burlington’s main streets carried our work. People bought whatever we made as fast as we could make it, and it helped fund our community. Matthew was also the designer of our meeting hall, cabins, and workshops. We all helped with the building, but he guided us every step of the way.

At fifteen, I‘d already been Matthew’s apprentice for a few years. People said I was a fast learner. There was some truth to that, but it didn’t hurt that I lived with my teacher and spent most of my time enthusiastically learning my craft. In our last winter together, Matthew and I worked on a new project—handmade kaleidoscopes. We ordered front-coated mirrors, lenses, a laser cutter, and hardwoods with interesting grain patterns—rosewood, poplar, walnut, and teak. This allowed us to create intricate inlays. It was the first project where we worked together like equals.

When spring came, Matthew announced I was ready to design and build my own completely independent project. I’d always been drawn to the forest, so I began researching treehouse builds. I discovered techniques that didn’t require putting nails into the trees, and as I worked, I came up with some of my own innovations that allowed me to save weight and put less stress on the tree.

Building the treehouse was my initiation into what it was like to work on my own, and every part of me rose to the challenge. At the same time, I was going to the hospice a couple times a week, handling farm chores, cooking, and helping Dorothy make essential oils. So to get the treehouse done, I had to work more efficiently. I was busy doing something every minute.

I loved everything I was doing, but at the same time, I was uneasy about myself. I was going through an unusual kind of growth spurt. It wasn’t so much about getting bigger, but growing in other ways. I got much faster with my craft and chores. And as I got better at anything, I seemed to get better at everything.

It was great being able to do tasks more quickly and efficiently, but I soon discovered that what seemed natural to me, didn’t seem that way to others. There were raised eyebrows when people saw how quickly I was moving. It made me really self-conscious. I didn’t want people around when these speedy phases came over me, so I figured out ways to do my work in private.

Hiding became its own skill. If anyone approached or even looked in my direction, I could feel it, and I’d slow down to a more normal speed. But when no one was around, I went with the waves of speed—what I call “quicktime.” It felt great while it was happening, but I sometimes felt guilty after. We were such an open community, and I was hiding something from the others. I knew quicktime wasn’t normal—that I wasn’t normal—but I didn’t want to worry anybody about it.

I also found myself entering these zones of what I call “slowtime.” It tended to come over me when I wasn’t busy doing a chore. Like maybe I’d be out walking by myself, and it’d just take me. But other times, I was more in control. I could usually bring it on just by sitting still and breathing deeply, almost like a kind of meditation. But sometimes, weird stuff happened once it kicked in.

When in slowtime, I didn’t move any slower than normal. It was more like everything around me, especially people, slowed down. I always tried to avoid others when it was happening, because I saw more deeply into them than I had a right to. I felt their innermost feelings, which seemed wrong, like an invasion of privacy. It made me uncomfortable around people. Knowing who someone was on the inside, made it harder to relate to who they wanted to be on the outside. So I tried to resist slowtime unless I was alone.

The only exception to this was when I would sit beside a dying person at the hospice. When it felt right, I’d close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and allow slowtime to take hold. It let me feel closer to them and sometimes share their experience at the edge of departure.

I hid this part of my hospice work. But I didn’t feel guilty about it. If the other hospice workers knew how strange the shared experiences were, it would only raise doubts about whether a young kid should be there at all. At least some of them would think this work was causing me to become delusional.

They could see my visits were calming, but it was better if they thought I was helping just by my presence. Like the way spending time with a dog or a cat can help a sick person.

What I saw and felt in those moments was part of a bond between the dying person and me, and the experiences still feel too private to write about. Also, my mom always told me that if you work with patients, everything is supposed to be confidential.

Anyways, a few days before the summer solstice, I finished my treehouse. The Friends gathered there for a brief ceremony, and everyone got a tour. Then it became my private space. Although I had a room in my mom’s cabin, this was the first time I had a place to myself. At night, I pulled up the rope ladder, sealed the floor hatch, and was totally alone.

I designed the treehouse to look like a wooden ship, and I even called it the Tree Ship. I didn’t share that name with anyone else, but it’s how I thought of my treehouse. When the wind blew, it moved slightly with the branches like it was sailing on waves. Slowtime often came over me there, and I went with it into many strange experiences. And that’s how I met Andrew. Someone who

Entry: 7 Seal Day: 1136 12:19AM

Sorry, same damn fire alarm! The new circuit board started smoldering too, so it looks like a grounding problem or a bad transformer. Kyle’s working on it.

Anyway . . . a couple of weeks after I encountered Andrew at my treehouse, everything changed. That’s when we started hearing about the plague. It had a terrible name, “The Whip.” They called it that because it created lesions that looked like whip marks.

The virus was artificial and engineered to be as deadly as possible. It had been released in several international airports but was designed to remain dormant for months. So it spread invisibly across the planet before being detected. There were lots of conspiracy theories about who made The Whip and why. Many believed that a sentient AI had created it to rid the planet of humans. The government denied knowing its origin, and if anyone on the biosphere team knew the source, they never told me.

Like I said, The Whip was undetectable during its dormant phase. But it had a time trigger. It came out of hiding in late July and began replicating and mutating into multiple lethal forms. Many people died as soon as three days after the first appearance of symptoms. Others bore its marks—the whip-like lesions—while they slowly weakened and collapsed into a high fever. Finally came convulsions and bleeding out.

The final stage turned the cells of the dying body into a Whip factory, pumping virus into the air like a cloud of deadly spores.

The danger of this last stage was so great that governments began distributing “The Dose.” It was a little bubble pack of pills. If you took them, you went unconscious in a couple minutes. Once you were out cold, it paralyzed your breathing and ended your life painlessly. Government-subsidized mercy killing.

The Whip mutated too fast to create a vaccine. To overcome immunity, it had been designed to use the illness’s final stage to generate new variants. Some totalitarian countries tried killing the infected and burning the bodies. But attempts to control the virus quickly descended into chaos. When the soldiers commanded to carry out the killings became infected, they turned their weapons on their superiors.

Like all medical facilities, the hospice was taken over by the military. They turned it into a Dose distribution center. The Friends retreated to our settlement in the woods to care for our own. My hospice work helped prepare me for what followed. My mom was a nurse, Dorothy was a licensed midwife, and the three of us worked side-by-side, tending to the dying. We worked around the clock and barely slept, doing whatever we could to give our friends as dignified a death as possible.

A lot of our care was about respecting how long people wanted to go into the illness and stay aware, versus when they wanted to be more sedated or felt ready for The Dose. Some of them wanted a little more time to reflect on their lives. Mostly I was just staying with someone—holding their hand and giving them a chance to talk if they wanted to.

My mom died on September 24th.

Entry: 8 Seal Day: 1136 7:17PM

Dorothy and I were the only caretakers left. At that point, she was already sick, but she kept going so long as anyone needed help. Finally, when the last patient in our care, Jordie, died, she collapsed. Within a few hours, Dorothy was gone too . . .

Why am I the only survivor?

When I thought about it, I realized that all along I feared others getting sick, but never myself. I know lots of people are fooled by “it can’t happen to me.” But this was different. It was another case of strange intuition—what Rachel called magical thinking—turning out to be right. 

At the time, surviving felt more like a curse than a blessing. It still does, but I’ve grown used to living with the feeling. But when all the other Friends died, I was still a newborn in the world of despair. With no one left to care for, there seemed no point to anything. It was like everyone else had gone away and left me behind. I just wanted to go to sleep and join them wherever they were.

I slumped onto the floor of Dorothy’s cabin, and within moments, exhaustion took over and pulled me into sleep.

While I slept, my mom visited me in my dreams. I’d had experiences at the hospice watching patients cross over, but this was the first time I’d seen anyone cross back. And it was my mom.

She’s kneeling before me, radiant and younger than I’ve ever seen her. The way she must have looked in her mid-twenties, just before I was born.

The sight of her is overwhelming.

“Mom?”

“Tommy. My beautiful son.”

“You’re

“I’m fine, Tommy. Please don’t worry about me. I love you, but you need to take care of yourself now.”

She looks into my eyes, and it feels like she’s looking into my soul.

“Tommy. . . I can see the beginning of your journey. The world is dying, but you must live. So much depends upon you . . . you’re needed to do something crucial, and you have everything within you to survive and serve this great purpose. 

“But you can’t stay here any longer. Dangerous people are coming. You must leave here right away.”

“But mom, leave to where?”

“I’m sorry, Tommy, I don’t know, but your purpose is about to be revealed. Go wherever it requires you to go. Walk along the edges of the roads. Let no one see you. Use everything you learned with The Friends, and we’ll always be within you.

“Stay alive and fulfill your mission. Tommy! GO

Her last words are so urgent they jolt me awake. I shoot to my feet and hear voices outside. I fear they’re the dangerous people my mom warned about. Overcast morning light is filtering through the windows, but when I steal a glance outside, I find everything’s shrouded in a thick fog. Smoke from distant wildfires has been getting worse every day, and I can’t see where the voices are coming from. 

The quickest path to the woods from Dorothy’s cabin is a few yards from her back door. I creep quietly over to it, ready to run. I’m about to break outside, when I stop to listen more closely and realize the voices are coming from a radio in a nearby cabin. They’re giving instructions on how to burn the dead, and then there’s a bulletin—

“It’s crucial we locate anyone who may be immune to the virus. If you’ve been heavily exposed but are completely symptom-free, you must get tested. You may be our only hope of finding a cure. This is a nationwide search. There are testing facilities in every state. In Vermont . . .”

The closest facility listed is in Burlington, about seventy miles away.

This must be the purpose my mom was talking about.

A wave of quicktime comes over me. I use it to gather what I need—water, food, flashlight, sleeping bag, bivy sack—and shove them into my backpack.

I can balance the load later. I need to go now.

When I hoist the pack, its uneven weight slams against my back. The impact ripples with déjà vu—storm clouds, desolation, Andrew—but I can’t think about him now.

When I reach the gate at the edge of our land, the gate from my vision, there’s still no sign of anyone approaching, but I know I need to keep moving. I walk a few steps down the road, then turn back to look at our settlement. The place where I was born and spent my whole life. I know I’m seeing it for the last time.

There’s an old bandana around my neck. A gift from my mom. It’s deep purple and spotted with little orange flowers. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why, but I take it off and tie it to the branch of a hawthorn tree leaning out over the road. It hangs there like a trail marker. Then, before the wind has time to lift it, I turn and start my journey.

As my mom advised, I walk along the edge of the dirt road. The radio had warned that prisons were not being maintained—they had all been unlocked and abandoned. It was advised to use extreme caution when traveling. About fifteen minutes into my walk, I hear a vehicle approaching and duck into the woods, hiding behind a massive oak. I peer out as it passes, catching enough of a glimpse to see a large, red pickup truck. It slows near me to go over a rough patch in the road, and as it passes, I hear the shouts of a bunch of guys arguing with each other. They’re speeding right toward our settlement, and I’m sickened by the thought of them invading it, but there’s nothing I can do.

I keep hiking, maintaining a high pace well into the night before I set up camp. A crescent moon hangs coldly above me as I crawl into my sleeping bag inside my bivy sack and surrender to sleep.

When I wake up, there’s smoke in the air again from distant wildfires. They were happening more often even before The Whip, but now, with too few left to fight them, they’re just letting them burn. I hadn’t brought any masks with me, and I left my bandanna on that tree, so I pull my only other shirt out of my pack to tie across my face.

I packed light so I could hike faster. I’ve got only one water bottle and a filtration straw. For food, I have a large bag of raw almonds and another of dried apricots. It’s enough to keep me going. By nightfall, my feet are aching from hiking all day, and my eyes and throat are irritated from the smoke.

On the third day, I get caught in a vicious thunderstorm. I have a water-resistant parka with me, but in my haste to pack, I forgot a key part of my wilderness survival training. All the clothing I have with me is made of cotton, including my denim pants. When they get soaked in a cloud burst, I remember Matthew calling denim, “death cloth,” and warning me that most hypothermia fatalities aren’t caused by extreme cold, but usually happen at moderate temperatures when people wear cotton clothing, especially denim, in the rain. Thank God for the parka, or I would have been completely soaked. Even so, I have to hike really fast to keep from shivering, and my wet boots and socks blister the hell out of my feet.

Eventually, the storm blows off and another three hours of fast hiking into a headwind dries out the denim.

I’m only a few miles from Burlington when I set up camp that night. I’d been there many times with Matthew making deliveries to the craft co-op and thought of it as a wealthy tourist town with lots of stores. I fall asleep uneasily, sensing danger.

The following morning, my fear intensifies as I approach the edge of town. Most of the store windows are smashed, and broken glass is everywhere. I reach the craft co-op where most of the stuff Matthew and I built was sold. The windows are shattered, and the place has been torched. I recognize the charred remains of our furniture and the best kaleidoscopes we ever made.  

I can understand people taking things they need, but this is just totally pointless destruction.

The sight of it hits me hard, and I can’t hold back my tears, but I push on toward the testing site.

There’s no sign of women, children, or old people anywhere. The only ones on the street are a few sketchy-looking guys. Most of them are shuffling about in a sick haze, while a few healthier ones loot what’s left of the stores.

I try not to draw attention, but there are no woods anymore. I’m in plain sight and have to travel through the streets to get to the testing center.

“Hey, I got somethin’ for ya,” a guy says from the entrance of a looted store.

I sense his bad intentions in every cell of my body.

Growing up, I often got compliments from adults about my looks. But it was harmless stuff—what you expect to hear as a kid. Now my appearance has a completely different meaning—it marks me as prey.

Just as the man rushes toward me, I take off running down the street. Thankfully, I’m much faster, and he can’t catch up. As soon as I lose him, I slow down to avoid more unwanted attention.

I pull up the hood of my jacket to cover my long blonde hair, but nothing can keep me from standing out. Many pairs of bloodshot eyes are tracking me. And they sense I’m not sick. No one else is moving quickly. Most of these guys lack the energy to chase me, so I walk swiftly, even though it draws more attention.

I’m making my way down Church Street when a guy with a scruffy beard coming the other way passes me on the sidewalk.

He’s staring straight ahead. He seems totally unaware of me, determined to get where he’s going. As we pass, he stumbles and trips in my direction. We collide with a shocking impact as his fist explodes into my face, and I’m hurled to the ground.

My head is spinning.

I’ve never experienced violence before.

The sucker punch should’ve knocked me out, but I will myself to stay conscious. I shake my vision back from the explosion of lights in my head.

Oh my God.

He’s dragging me by the scruff of my jacket, backpack and all, into an alley. The guy is huge, and I only weigh a hundred-and-fifteen pounds.

My head clears, and time slows as he pulls me behind a dumpster. He crouches over me in extreme slow motion. I look up and see the rape he intends burning in the dark pupils of his bloodshot eyes.

Flashes.

Memory flashes from him.

I see him walking in a prison yard like he’s minding his own business. Hidden in his hand is a piece of stray metal he’s sharpened to a razor’s edge. Suddenly he pretends to stumble into another prisoner. He slashes the other guy’s throat in one smooth motion before calmly walking away.

It’s a memory he relishes, and it’s flickering through his mind right now. A triumphant use of his special play, his sneaky way to take someone down before they even see him coming. Now his trick is paying off again.

His blunt and vicious thoughts are like a hammer hitting the back of my head. He smells of sweat and violence. The slowing of time nearly freezes him in place, and I see what he is. All he feels is the gratification of a victim under his control. But he’s beginning to perceive a strange awareness in my eyes. It’s the signal I need to act.

My body knows what to do. My knees shoot up to my chest, and my legs explode outward. The rubber soles of my hiking boots strike his crotch with enough force to slam him against the dumpster. His lower body hits first, and as his spine whips back, his head strikes the blunt metal edge like a gong.

I roll away from his body as it collapses to the ground, spring to my feet, and take off in a full sprint.

A wave of speed propels me to the sidewalk, where I run with bounding strides. Even with a backpack on, it’s effortless, like running in a dream. I no longer care about avoiding attention. People I pass on the street seem impossibly slow. I’m moving through time so differently they don’t even notice me.

Before, I thought of people’s eyes as camera lenses capturing the world in front of them. But now I see them as projectors, shooting energy out toward things to see them. Staying ahead of the sweep of their vision, I’m hidden in plain sight. The ability feels natural, like remembering a forgotten skill. I’m riding waves of survival adrenaline, focused on getting to the testing center. When I finally reach the facility on the south side of town, I find soldiers guarding the entrance. They’re in full riot gear, their hands resting on assault rifles.

“No treatment here,” one of them shouts. “Move along.”

The guards aren’t really awake. Their uniforms make them robotic, and what’s yelled at me is like the barking of a dog guarding a fence. But then I realize my face is throbbing and swollen from the sucker punch.

They must think I’m infected.

I’m usually shy with strangers, but I need to be assertive now.

“I’m not here for medical treatment!” I shout, as one of the guards begins to raise his firearm. “I’m immune! I’m here to be tested!”

The commander motions the guard to lower his weapon. He opens the gate and gestures for me to step in.

Several rows of tents line the open courtyard, but the space feels oddly abandoned. I expected to find a crowd of people waiting to be tested, but there are just a few bored-looking soldiers and a nurse who leads me past the tents to a testing station inside.

A blood sample is taken from me before I’m shown to an empty waiting area. Uneasy minutes tick by as a guard posted by the lab door eyes me suspiciously.

He must think I’m here to steal medical supplies.

 I sense when they get the results. A wave of excitement surges through the building. Suddenly, soldiers surround me, and the wave of excitement sweeps me up like I’m being pulled into an action movie.

“We need to pat you down,” a soldier behind me says.

Another searches my backpack and then slings it over his shoulder. They hustle me out of the waiting room and up a staircase to a rooftop helipad, where a helicopter is powering up. Wind blasts my face as I’m forcefully pulled into it. My backpack is tossed in after me, and we take off before I can even catch my breath. I’ve never even flown in an airplane before, and it’s a shock to feel the helicopter suddenly ascending.

A medic buckled in next to me does first aid on my face as Burlington shrinks away beneath me. From the air, it looks really bad. Scattered across town are fires sending tall plumes of smoke high into the sky. I don’t see any cars moving. The whole town looks like it’s dying.

Within minutes, we land on an airstrip and board a small jet. In the curtained-off section I’m in, it’s just me and two doctors—one male, one female. We take off right away.

Once we reach cruising altitude, they start examining me. They take my temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, and look into my eyes, ears, and mouth with lighted scopes—basic checkup stuff. They question me during most of the flight, especially about my injury and how it happened. I give a simplified version—I was attacked but managed to run away. They take a detailed medical history. Mostly I’m answering “no” to a long checklist of health problems I never had. They ask me about my family, schooling, community, and work. My answers are straightforward, but I keep quiet about my paranormal experiences.

The whole process makes me uncomfortable. I try not to let my nerves show, but when they ask about the Friends, I become defensive. I know it’s stupid–I’m the only one left. But the Friends lived off the grid. I was delivered by Dorothy at home and never even had a Social Security number. It feels like the government is shining a spotlight on our whole community. Earlier, my blood was examined under microscopes, and now everything about me and my upbringing is being picked apart.

They take notes, and my answers are audio-recorded. The questions only stop when someone comes by with a tray of food and a drink. It’s some kind of microwaved attempt at curry with a yellowish mush on white rice. But it’s the first hot food I’ve had in days, and I eat everything without paying too much attention to what it is.

The two doctors do their best to act with professional courtesy and treat me well, but I feel their tension as they study me. Neither of them is visibly sick, yet I sense they’re infected and know it. They’re desperate. And their desperation is partly directed toward me. I sense what they’re thinking—Why this kid and not me? Why him? Will this kid provide a cure in time?

I’m wondering the same things.

I feel bad for them, but there’s nothing I can do. They’re here to be professionals, and I’m an immune kid they have to process.

After they finish the interview, a grim-looking guy in his thirties comes through a curtain at the back of the plane. He must be a government lawyer because everything he says sounds so carefully worded. He asks me to sign a nondisclosure agreement, warning me that even though I’m a minor, everything I sign is legally binding, due to martial law. After he gets my signature, he tells me I’m being taken to a secure facility at the University of Arizona in Tucson, set up for people with immunity. They’ll brief me about a special program if my test results hold up. If I decide to participate, there’ll be more documents to sign.

When he’s done, I finally have time to collect my thoughts as I stare out the window. It’s actually really peaceful. From this height, there’s no sign of the plague, just an ocean of clouds beneath us.

Before long, I overhear one of the doctors on a phone near the cockpit. She’s nearly whispering, but my hearing is really sensitive. At first, it’s just technical stuff like my blood pressure and a description of the injury to my face. But then there’s a pause like she’s thinking about what to say next. She’s being asked something important.

“He’s remarkably calm, given what he’s been through—he’s alert, intelligent, and well-mannered and . . . Mmm hmm . . .  Yes, Doctor Miller, as far as I can tell from our preliminary checkup, he’s in perfect physical health. Yes . . . Yes, as far as his mental health, he gave no outward signs of trauma–at least no obvious PTSD symptoms, and he spoke in complete sentences and gave appropriate, well-organized responses to everything we asked . . . Mmm hmm . . . Yes, doctor, I found him quite personable and cooperative . . .” 

The seatbelt light chimes on, and the doctor returns to her seat.

As we descend through the clouds, and the city of Tucson expands below us, my heart starts racing. I sense a shock is approaching, but I have no idea what it’s about. In the hands of these professionals, I’m probably safer than I’ve been in weeks. It’s not about the plane crashing.

No, it’s a person I’m going to meet. Someone who’s just been told about my arrival.

I sense a powerful mind scanning the sky like a searchlight. The sensation lasts only a second or two before I lose track of it. Perhaps whoever it is thought of me briefly, and now their attention is onto something else..

As soon as we touch down and the plane rolls to a stop, the hatch opens, and the doctors usher me out.

I’m shocked by the sun’s intensity and the dryness of the air. It’s so different from the overcast, humid weather I’d left in Vermont. Nearby, another helicopter touches down. I stand on the tarmac in the desert sun for a few seconds before I’m hustled into the copter, and we’re airborne again.

Something obvious finally occurs to me.

Their efforts to get me to this facility are over the top. It must mean immunity is extremely rare.

Our headsets allow us to communicate over the rotors’ noise, so I ask the doctors a question.

“How many people with immunity have you found?”

There’s an uncomfortable pause as they exchange a nervous glance. Eventually, the female doctor answers me.

“You’ll get a full briefing after we arrive and run more tests,” she responds. “If the initial blood work holds up . . . you’ll be number two.”

“Two?” I can’t believe I’m hearing her right.

“We’re hoping to find more,” she adds. “There are facilities all over the country designated for testing people.”

I’m waiting for her to tell me more, but she turns her attention out the side window, perhaps to avoid any more questions. She was uncomfortable telling me what little she did, so I decide not to ask anything else until we get there.

We land on a helipad at the top of a large building. As the rotors slow, and we get out of the windblast area, a lean woman in her sixties with dark hair and intelligent eyes approaches. She smiles and extends her hand.

“Hello, Tommy. I’m Dr. Rachel Miller, but please just call me Rachel.”

She’s carefully informal and friendly, but I can feel her studying me closely. The others keep a respectful distance from us, and she seems to be in charge, at least of me. I like her immediately. Something about her reminds me of Dorothy. It’s her confidence or her sense of dignity, maybe. She takes me by the arm like an old friend, and I feel looked after, carried along by her quiet authority. We make our way down a flight of stairs to a bank of elevators.

“Tommy, we need to trouble you for another blood sample and to run a couple of scans,” she says, “but I’ll be with you throughout. Did they feed you on the plane?”

I nod.

“Good,” she replies. “But while we’re going through these few procedures, I want you to tell me your favorite foods. I’ll make a list, and we’ll bring them to you a little later this afternoon. Once we’ve completed the scans, we’ll do a brief orientation and tour the facilities. Finally, we’ll end up at your living quarters, where I’ll introduce you to your roommate, Kyle. He’s nineteen, just a few years older than you. I’m sure you’ll like him. He’s excited to meet you.”

I’m not sure why, but I pick up a sense of forced cheerfulness as she tells me about Kyle. We step out of the elevator, and I follow her down a hallway and into her office.

“Is Kyle the other person with immunity?”

“Yes,” she says, giving me a guarded look. I sense she’s hiding things, but it doesn’t feel sneaky, more like hiding things is just part of her job. She gestures toward a chair and sits across from me as a lab tech draws another blood sample. 

“You and Kyle will be working together closely. And you’re going to be roommates, so you can get to know each other.”

“What’ll we be working on?”

“Well, that’s getting a bit ahead of the orientation, but tell you what,” she says, “I’m going to put a hold on your scans till later today, and we’ll go right into it. That way, you’ll know what’s going on. How’s that?”

I can tell she’s trying to win my trust, but I sense her goodwill. I’d spent the last few weeks tending to the dying and then on my own, so it’s a relief to have someone taking care of me for a change.

“Thanks,” I say.

The lab tech applies a small bandage to my arm, and then quickly disappears into the hallway.

“Have you ever heard of Biosphere 2?” Rachel asks.

“No, I haven’t.”

“About thirty-five miles from here, in Oracle, Arizona, is a facility now called Biosphere 3. It was originally built back in the late nineteen-eighties. Until recently, it was called Biosphere 2. The idea is that the Earth is Biosphere 1, and Biosphere 2 is the second complete ecosystem that can support human life. But since we’re upgrading it with the latest technology, we’ve rebranded it Biosphere 3.”

Rachel rotates the monitor on her desk so I can see it. She projects images of Biosphere 3—how it looked originally, and how it’ll look when the refurbishment is finished. It’s this huge, complex structure in the desert. A series of domes and wide pyramids made of metal struts and glass triangles, almost like a computer-generated wireframe, only it’s real.

“The original foundation was built with a stainless-steel liner, enabling it to seal up as tight as a spacecraft,” Rachel continues.

A series of interior images appear on the monitor.

“Inside are biomes—a tropical rainforest, an ocean, a desert, a savannah, an agricultural area, and a human habitat. As you can see, the facility is spacious, over three acres. To be independent of any power grid, we’ve built an extensive array of solar panels in the desert around the main structure. Ten megawatts of autonomous power. The latest robotics will take care of outside maintenance and are currently being programmed to do routine tasks within.

“Once sealed, the biosphere will sustain an atmosphere with optimal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It’s designed to function as a self-contained ecosystem, able to recycle water and produce all the food needed for a community of up to sixteen people, whom we call biospherians. In the first experiment in 1991, only eight biospherians were sealed inside, but we’ve figured out ways to increase its carrying capacity.”

Suddenly, what she’s saying hits me. I thought my immunity might lead to a bunch of medical tests to figure out why. But now I realize that something much stranger is going on.

“And I’m going to be one of the sixteen people sealed inside?”

My question derails her technical pitch. It’s like she forgot she’s dealing with a fifteen-year-old kid. Rachel looks at me with tender concern.

“Tommy,” she says gently, “We won’t seal you in anywhere unless you’re willing. There’s no easy way to say this, but you need to know certain grim facts about our situation. This pandemic is a potential extinction-level event. Unless we find a cure soon, which is highly unlikely, in a few months, the Earth will depopulate. Industrial facilities requiring human maintenance will deteriorate, spilling all kinds of toxins into the environment. It takes a couple of years to properly decommission a nuclear power plant. Once the power grid goes down, the cooling and pumping machinery will be kept up by diesel generators until they run out of fuel. Then they will go critical and melt down. The Earth’s atmosphere will be poisoned for many years with genetically damaging levels of radioactivity. The only place where you or anyone can survive is in the biosphere. And we need you to survive, Tommy . . . If you were my son, I’d want you to be there.”

I can almost see my mom standing behind her, willing me to accept the task before me. She’s gently coaxing me to trust this woman I’ve only just met with my safety, my life. I’m touched by Rachel’s concern, but not sure how to show her this.

“Thanks, Rachel,” I nod quietly, overcome for a moment. “I’m grateful for the chance. I want to help.”

“I’m so glad, Tommy. We’re all working to make the biosphere succeed, but the demands on you and Kyle will be tremendous. It’s too much to ask of someone your age, but we don’t have a choice. Your life will be difficult, and it will remain that way, but you will be serving as great a purpose as any human being could possibly serve.

“Beyond protecting you and your rare immunity, we need to preserve the genetic potential for humans and other terrestrial life to continue. The future seeds of the human species—uninfected embryos and sperm from a genetically diverse set of people—will be stored in cryogenic suspension inside the biosphere. So in addition to the biospherians, animals, and plants, there’ll be extensive banks of seeds and genetic samples of numerous species.”

“Like Noah’s Ark?” I ask.

Rachel gives me an appraising look. I can tell she’s a science type who’s allergic to religion. She’s wondering if I’m a fundamentalist Christian or something.

“Don’t worry,” I add, “I’m not super religious or anything.”

Her eyes widen momentarily as she realizes how much I read from her expression.

“Yes,” she continues, “it actually is like a high-tech version of Noah’s Ark. Others have made the comparison. Of course, you won’t have two of every animal. But the biosphere will have insects, fish, pygmy goats, chickens, and six monkey-like primates called galagos.

“And Biosphere 3 is like a ship, though more like a stationary spaceship than a seafaring vessel. A remarkable coincidence is that Biosphere 3 is located in Oracle, Arizona, a town named after a 19th Century sailing ship. It’s as if the place was destined to be the site of a great desert ship. The vessel itself, Oracle, was named after a sacred site in Greece with temples dedicated to the twins Apollo and Artemis. People went there during times of danger to consult the cosmos.

“As you can see,” Rachel continues while projecting a video on the monitor, “the biomes are rather beautiful, but beneath them is an industrial basement level called the Technosphere. It’s filled with tunnels, machinery, plumbing, and wiring. One of the original eight biospherians compared the biomes to a miniature Garden of Eden growing on an aircraft carrier. The Technosphere includes storage rooms, workshops, laboratories, cryogenic facilities, and a supercomputing center. As we speak, the mainframe computer, which we call Gaia, is being uploaded with just about every bit of digital information in the public domain.

“The facility is designed to comfortably house, feed, and maintain a breathable atmosphere for a capable group of immune people.”

“A capable group?” I ask. “You mean being immune isn’t enough? What capabilities are you looking for?”

Rachel raises an eyebrow.

“Very perceptive, Tommy,” she says, smiling. “Don’t worry. I’m already certain you’re highly capable. Starting tomorrow, if you sign on to be part of the program, you’ll begin extensive training on how to live in and maintain a biosphere, especially the high-tech agricultural work.

“You’ve already got a great background. I listened to your interview on the plane. I can’t imagine a more perfect upbringing to prepare you for living in a biosphere than growing up in an isolated permaculture community. And your roommate, Kyle, is one of the most capable people any of us have ever met. All I meant by ‘capable’ is, well, suppose we found an immune person who was psychotic? Or what if they were immune to the virus but about to die of another cause?”

Rachel pauses, and slowtime comes over me as I sense a major revelation coming.

“I was planning on going into this later, but the most crucial attribute we’re looking for is the capacity to live in isolation with a tiny group of biospherians. I must be honest with you, Tommy. The outcome for small groups living in isolation—Antarctic explorers, astronauts, cosmonauts, and biospherians—is not good. Human beings are social animals meant to live in open communities of at least a few dozen people. Biosphere 2 was originally designed to support eight people. With the upgrades, we think we can double that capacity. However, for the biosphere to succeed, we need fertile, immune women.

“To be frank, the isolation factor is troubling. Even though they’d been part of the same community for years, the original team of biospherians developed bitter conflicts. Like most cases of communal isolation, they factionalized into two opposing groups.

“My job with the Biosphere 3 project is to prepare biospherians for the social isolation they will endure. This is quite a challenge because although technology has advanced enormously in the decades since Biosphere 2, human nature hasn’t. Tommy­—”

Rachel gives me a serious look.

“I’ve known you for less than an hour, but I can tell you’re an asset to this endeavor. Your upbringing in an isolated community, the volunteer work you did at the hospice, your obvious ability to tune into others­—as far as I’m concerned, you have the most crucial capabilities we’re looking for.”

Slowtime allows me to study everything Rachel says. It’s as if her intelligence is boosting my perception. I see what’s beneath her statements. Although I tend to hold back with people I’ve just met, something tells me to show her I’m picking up on what she didn’t say.

“You say you’ve been looking for those capabilities. You mean—you didn’t find them in Kyle?”

She’s startled but quickly recovers her poise.

“Kyle has great leadership skills and absolutely crucial scientific and technical abilities. But like many technical people, he doesn’t have the­­—,” she hesitates, “your emotional range, let alone the empathic ability you’ve shown me already. Advanced technical thinking and high emotional sensitivity in the same person are a rare combination.

“But I’d rather you form your own impression of Kyle. And I don’t mean to imply any deficiency in him. He’s by no means a science geek or someone dry and technical. He has high social skills, but of a different sort than yours. Most people here find him highly charismatic.”

Rachel pauses to read something on a computer screen.

“Congratulations, your blood work confirms the initial tests. You’re officially immune to the virus. And now I think we should alter our plans once more. I’ll take you straight to your living quarters to introduce you to Kyle so he can complete your briefing. It will be more valuable for you to spend time with him than anyone who won’t be in the biosphere.”

Rachel gets up and beckons me to follow. We step into an elevator. The doors close, and the moment stretches. As we descend to the dorm level, my heart starts racing again and I sense the shock I anticipated on the plane is about to happen.

We step out to enter a long, stark hallway. As we walk by a series of closed doors, I sense the dorm rooms are empty and lifeless.

 Rachel stops at a door at the end of the hall and knocks. At her third knock, the door swings open, and a tall, athletic-looking guy with piercing gray eyes stands before me. There’s a split second of surprise when he sees me. Maybe it’s because of my huge black eye. Before I can read any further into it, he gives me a bright smile and shakes my hand in a powerful grip.

“Tommy! I’m Kyle. Great to meet you. Welcome!” he gestures me into the room.

“Thanks, Kyle,” says Rachel. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.”

Kyle waves, and so do I before he closes the door behind us.

“Rachel probably explained why they’re not giving us separate rooms or much living space?”

I nod and take a deep breath, trying to relax, but slowtime has me feeling too out of phase to speak. My instincts are picking up things about Kyle that my mind can’t grasp, so I try to tap into what my body senses. Waves of nervousness pass through me as my heartbeat quickens again.

Kyle is, like Rachel said, charismatic. He’s friendly and cheerful, yet something about him is different from anyone I’ve ever met. His sleeveless shirt shows he’s got crazy muscle definition—like an Olympic athlete. But looks aside, I can’t catch hold of what makes him so unusual.

I sense no ill intent from him. Quite the opposite. He seems to like me and is happy I’m here, but that’s all I can read from him.

He doesn’t seem phased by my silence and quickly fills in the gaps.

“This one’s yours,” he says, giving the bed along the left wall a friendly pat. The room is small and perfectly clean. My pack is resting on top of a dresser. Kyle opens an artificially wood-grained refrigerator and passes me a bottle of cold water.

“Thanks,” I finally say.

It’s the first word I’ve spoken to him, and I had to force myself out of the more extreme depths of slowtime to get it out.

“We’re under orders not to drink a drop of tap water,” says Kyle, “but there’s bottled water for us everywhere. Are you hungry? They’ll have dinner for us in a couple of hours, but we can get snacks from the cafeteria.”

“No thanks, I’m fine. They fed me on the plane,” I reply.

“That’s quite a shiner,” he nods at my black eye. “Are you in any pain? Want an ice pack?”

“Ah, no thanks, I’m fine. It probably looks worse than it feels.”

Kyle reaches into the fridge for another bottle of water.

“In case you want to rest it on your face, the cold will help.”

“Thanks.” I take the bottle to be polite.

“I was told you arrived safely, but they neglected to say anything about the injury. You were attacked?”

As casually as I can, I give him the version of the assault I told on the plane. Of course, it’s at least half a lie considering how much I’m leaving out.

Kyle studies me.

He knows I’m being deceptive.

I’m ready for him to call me on it, but he takes it in stride.

“I wish I could’ve been there,” he says enthusiastically. “I’ve been training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other martial arts since I was a child. Sorry you had to go through that, but I’m glad you were able to escape. If you’re fast enough to get away from an attacker, that’s often the best course of action.”

The martial arts training explains a lot. Kyle’s eyes and movements are almost cat-like. I sense some version of quicktime might be his normal state. He’s hyper-alert, like a Navy Seal who might be called into action at any moment. I’ve no doubt he could’ve demolished my scruffy attacker.

“I wish you would’ve been there too,” I offer, trying to cover my anxiety about being caught in a lie.

Kyle smiles, pleased by my compliment.

“If you’d like to learn martial arts, I’d be happy to teach you. Exercise breaks are built into our schedule, and it’d be great to train with someone again. We’re not likely to need such skills in a biosphere, but it’s a great mind-body discipline and way to keep in shape.”

“Thanks, I’d like that.”

The words have barely left my mouth, and I feel guilty. The Friends were committed to nonviolence. For me, it’s not just my upbringing, but what I feel and believe. And now I’ve agreed to martial arts training.

“I understand you had to hike about seventy miles to get to the testing facility.”

“Something like that.”

“I bet you’d like a shower.”

“Oh, I’d love one. But is there time?”

“Of course,” says Kyle cheerfully. “I’m under orders to make you feel welcome, and that takes precedence over anything else today. Once you get settled, though, you should expect our time to be tightly scheduled.

“There are clean towels and toiletries in the bathroom,” he points to a door at the back of the dorm. “They stock this dorm like a hotel room and clean it while we’re away. They’re not trying to spoil us—it’s because every minute of our time is needed for training. But Rachel put everything on hold today, so this feels like a vacation.”

As Kyle speaks, I go through my pack to find clean clothes. His cheerful tone seems like an act. For some reason, he’s playing a role that has nothing to do with who he really is. Like he’s in an ad for the University of Arizona portraying the perfect college roommate from the perspective of parents. This feels like a vacation sounded completely fake. The most obvious thing about Kyle is that he’s the type that’s always on alert and ready for action. I doubt he even knows what vacation feels like.

Kyle sees the old clothes in my hands and points toward a closet.

“Forgot to tell you, a set of new clothes was delivered for you when they brought in the bed. You’ll find more in your dresser.”

I put the old clothes back in my pack and quickly check out the drawers and closet, taking a few things to wear after the shower. There are high-quality tracksuits and casual clothes, exactly my size, along with cool-looking running shoes.

“Let me show you something about the shower. It’s tricky, and I scalded myself before I figured it out.”

Kyle speaks in the same perfect college-roommate tone, but he gestures toward the bathroom with eyes that look deadly serious and commanding.

I use the mirror to track him as he follows me into the bathroom. In a clever move of faked clumsiness, he bumps the bathroom door, causing it to shut behind him.

My heart is pounding. Adrenaline pumps through me like I’m about to be attacked.

He turns the shower on high, puts his hand on my shoulder, and leans in to whisper in my ear.

“If it seems like I’m acting, it’s because I am. Everything we do and say here is being monitored. Cameras and microphones are nearly everywhere, and we’re being studied and evaluated constantly. Be careful what you say to Dr. Miller. She’s the one who could disqualify either of us. Don’t ever complain or look worried or stressed about anything. Just follow my lead. Your life depends on showing them you’ve got what it takes to fulfill this mission. I’ll tell you more next time there’s a chance to evade the surveillance.”

Kyle turns away before I can say anything.

“Enjoy your shower!” he calls out in a loud, cheerful voice as he closes the bathroom door on his way out.

The hot water is running, and steam billows toward me. I take a deep breath and try to shake out the tension in my body. It’s a relief to have a moment of privacy during a day of such extreme scrutiny.

As I’m undressing, Kyle’s warning plays a few times in my mind.

“Your life depends on showing you’ve got what it takes . . .”

He’s intense, but he seems like an ally. We only just met, and he took a risk to clue me in to our surveillance. But what he said isn’t particularly alarming. Hearing my life depends on keeping it together isn’t exactly news. I’d been living on the edge of death for weeks. A few days before, I lay on the floor of Dorothy’s cabin next to her body, willing myself to die.

Now I have a reason to live. A mission. And the people here are doing everything they can to help me fulfill that mission.

I don’t care that much about being monitored. This place feels safe.

I hop in the shower, turn the knob to a comfortable temperature, and stand there with my eyes closed. The endless supply of hot water running over me is a luxury. At home, we always had to conserve our solar-heated water. It feels like I’ve got all the time in the world as the warmth of the shower pushes anxious thoughts out of my head. As it does, I come out of slowtime feeling better than I have in weeks.

Entry: 9 Seal Day: 1137 12:13AM

By the time I step out of the bathroom, I feel like a new person. Kyle is doing bare-knuckle push-ups but rises to his feet when he sees me.

“We should sit and talk for a few minutes before I take you around,” he says, gesturing toward two chairs on either side of a small table by the window. A view of Tucson and the mountains unfolds in the distance.

“I’m assuming Rachel covered the basics about the purpose of the biosphere project?”

I nod.

“OK, good,” he says enthusiastically, his perfect-college-roommate persona firmly in place. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about this without sounding overly dramatic, but that might be impossible because this is an extreme situation—as I’m sure you’re already aware.”

Kyle opens a laptop on the table between us before continuing.

“It’s incredibly fortunate Biosphere 2 had already been built. If we had to start from scratch, even with all the resources of a superpower, there wouldn’t have been enough time. No country, before or since, has built a completely sealable structure anywhere close to the scale of Biosphere 2. Even in 1991, when it was sealed for its first mission, Biosphere 2 had a lower gas leakage rate than the top-of-the-line spacecraft of that era. Of course, that’s not quite as impressive as it sounds because the pressure differential with the outside atmosphere was nothing compared to a spacecraft in a vacuum. Nevertheless, it was an impressive accomplishment in its day.”

I don’t know how long Kyle had to learn the details of the biosphere, but he talks about the project like he’d designed it himself. He’s obviously brilliant and isn’t shy about showing it.

“Even with the head start we had—a functioning structure already built and tested—we’re still in a race against the clock. As far as we know, no other country is doing anything like this. There’s no conceivable way they could have anything ready in time. And what that means—” Kyle pauses dramatically. “It means we’re the only large-scale, viable biosphere on the planet. The future of the human species will likely depend on the success of our mission.”

Kyle touches the trackpad, and a video clip of the ongoing rebuild plays. It’s different than what Rachel showed me. All the glass-and-space frame structures look like they’re covered with giant spiders.

“What are those things?” I ask.

“Robots specifically designed to reinforce the window seals,” replies Kyle. “The old seals have been under the desert sun, deteriorating for decades. So every one of the sixty-six hundred space frame windows must be individually resealed. Quite a challenge, but as of today, we’re eighty percent done with the resealing.”

As I listen to what Kyle says, I search for something about him I know I’m missing. Everything he does is for my benefit and to impress whoever is monitoring us. It’s carefully planned, not a word wasted.  It also feels like he’s hiding something, but it’s locked away deep inside.

“We don’t need any technological breakthroughs for the mission to succeed. We’ve already gathered the hardware. Mostly there are logistical challenges—checking and double-checking that the systems work together and will be ready in time. The limiting factor, the one resource we don’t have, is enough people with immunity. Did Rachel explain about the cryogenic facilities, the sperm and eggs stored in the biosphere?”

I nod.

“Our cryogenic bank holds the genetic potential to repopulate the Earth with the human species once atmospheric contamination reaches acceptable levels. But it’s worthless unless we can find a few immune, fertile women. And those women would have to be willing to have multiple, invitro pregnancies to achieve genetic diversity.

“For our mission of repopulating the Earth, fertile women are far more valuable than men. So, if we had sufficient immune candidates to choose from and train in time, it would only be logical to select a crew consisting exclusively of fertile females. Obviously, it’d be ideal to find these women before we seal. However, even if they found their way to the biosphere after, that could still work. The biosphere is equipped with every type of radio receiver and transmitter. If we don’t have sufficient immune people when we seal, we will continuously broadcast radio messages on every frequency, urging any immune survivors to contact us.

“Although there’s no other facility like this, we hope immune people will find their way to underground survival bunkers with air-filtration systems. We’ve heard conflicting reports that the Mormon Church may have set up such a facility somewhere in Utah. So it’s possible survivors could emerge from well-equipped shelters years from now and travel to our location.

“Rachel probably didn’t get into this grim aspect of the facility, but the biosphere is also an automated military fortress. Its perimeter is defended by electric fences, drones, and surface-to-air missiles—the latest AI weapons systems. Roving bands of the infected won’t be able to get near us, even if they find a tank at an abandoned military base. AI systems linked to satellites surveil a one-hundred-kilometer radius surrounding the biosphere. There are signs and PA systems to warn anyone wandering through the desert that only immune individuals may approach. Automated facilities can screen them for immunity. If they pass, we’ll screen them remotely for general health and fitness. Obviously, it’d be disastrous to seal someone into the biosphere who isn’t fit—”

Suddenly, sirens go off in the building, followed by a voice over the PA system.

“ACTIVE SHOOTER LOCKDOWN. ACTIVE SHOOTER LOCKDOWN.”

My heart surges with adrenaline.

“C’mon,” says Kyle, perfectly composed. “It’s probably just a drill, but we’re required to go to our panic room.”

I follow him quickly down a couple of hallways, and into a windowless room with a heavy metal door, four cots, MREs, and bottled water. After he bolts the door shut behind us, he calmly picks up a phone at the far end of the room. “OK . . . I understand . . . Got it.”

“Not to worry,” Kyle says as he hangs up. “It’s just some looters out on the street exchanging gunfire. They’re getting it under control right now.”

I nod, trying to regain my composure.

“It’s usually a few minutes before the doors unlock,” he says, giving me an appraising look. “We might as well continue the briefing here.”

He crosses the room and sits on the edge of one of the cots. I mirror him, taking a seat against the opposite wall.

“In general, it’s ideal for us to train together in isolation to prepare us for being sealed into the biosphere. Even in this facility, you can expect to have little face-to-face contact with anyone besides Rachel and me. Technical briefings and training sessions will be done via video conferencing as if we’re already sealed in. Our activities are scheduled to keep us from running into cleaning, maintenance, or security personnel. Rachel designed our social environment to replicate isolation as much as possible. It’s partly to prepare us for that stress, and partly to evaluate how well we handle it.

“The irony of this evaluation is that we’re the only candidates so far. As I said, the key limiting factor for the mission’s success is a sufficient number of immune people capable of maintaining the systems. A team of eight was considered enough when the first biospherians started their mission in 1991. With the technological enhancements and robotics we’ve got now, a crew of four can handle everything. Until today, I was the only candidate. One person couldn’t keep up with the workload, and even if they could, no one could deal with complete isolation for more than a few months without cracking.

“But as of today, there’s two of us, and that begins possible viability for the Biosphere-3 Mission. We hope to locate more immune candidates. But my position is that we need to win with the hand we’re dealt, even if we don’t like all the cards. Although four is a safer minimum, I think two highly efficient and physically-fit people are sufficient to maintain the systems.”

“ALL CLEAR. ALL CLEAR,” announces the PA.

The door unbolts electronically, and Kyle, unfazed by the interruptions, leads us back to our dorm as he continues the briefing.

“Since there’s only two of us, I propose we train to work as a crew of two in case that’s all we have when we seal. I’ve already got a working knowledge of all the technical systems. Right now, I’m getting intensive training on troubleshooting and hands-on repair. However, I haven’t been trained in the agricultural systems necessary to provide oxygen and fresh nutrition. We decided whoever arrived next would get trained in those. Fortunately, you already have agricultural experience. Of course, there are many differences between outdoor permaculture and the finely tuned agriculture of a sealed biosphere, but this is what most of your training will consist of.”

We return to our seats by the window.

“The first few months in the biosphere will be particularly stressful as we work out inevitable kinks in the systems. But as we get the robots programmed to help with routine maintenance tasks, we should be able to get the workload dialed down to manageable eight-to-ten-hour days. I know that’s a lot to absorb. Any questions?”

I have too many to know where to begin, but I follow Kyle’s lead and try to appear as capable as possible.

“I’m sure I’ll have some questions later, but I understand what’s being done and why.”

“And are you up for this challenge?” Kyle asks, almost leading me to the right answer for whoever’s watching from behind the camera mounted in the corner of the room. “Any reservations or concerns?”

“I’m up for it,” I say confidently. “And given what’s at stake, I better be. I’m also willing to give up my place to a fertile woman if enough of them can be found in time.”

I’m trying to talk the way Kyle said I should, but I also mean everything I say. He seems pleased with my answer.

“Sounds like you’ve got the right attitude,” says Kyle. “The biosphere and our mission are not about ensuring our personal survival, but the survival of the species.”

I nod in agreement, and Kyle sits back in his chair, studying me approvingly. There’s still something I can’t quite gauge in his eyes, but I’m thankful that he’s guided me through my first test.

Entry: 10 Seal Day: 1137 1:17AM

The next day, I’m kept busy from morning till night with training via video conferencing. The lead botanical engineer, Michael, starts teaching me the science of sealed biosphere agriculture. I’ve never spent so many hours on a computer before, and I’m grateful for the distraction.

But a feeling keeps creeping up on me throughout the day, even when I’m trying to stay focused on the work. Guilt. The sense that I should be grieving for all those I’ve lost, instead of learning about irrigation lines and seed banks. My only comfort in those moments is remembering my mom telling me I was needed for a great purpose.

I’m serving that purpose, I keep telling myself. So, in a way, I’m still being loyal to The Friends by giving the project all my focus.

But even with that thought, I work myself to near exhaustion trying to stay ahead of the guilt. I operate in a form of low-grade quicktime throughout the day, not enough to turn heads, but fast enough to keep my senses fully stimulated with whatever the technicians throw my way.

The project as a whole is moving even faster than me. By the third day, we get the news that the biosphere refurbishment has reached the stage where our training can proceed on site.

The next day, right after breakfast, Kyle and I are ushered to a bulletproof van that’s going to take us to Oracle, Arizona. We barely get our seatbelts on when screens light up in front of us as the van speeds away. Technicians on-site at the biosphere brief us about various issues with the rebuild, and what to expect when we arrive. I barely have a chance to look out the window and see what Arizona looks like, but mostly I catch glimpses of looted big-box stores. The screens don’t shut off till we turn from the highway onto a dirt road that leads us away from civilization, or what’s left of it, and into the deep desert.

“They always take us in through the back way,” Kyle says.

The vehicle rattles along, stirring up dust as I look out at the large Saguaro cacti on either side of the road. A massive structure glittering in the desert sun rises into view. Before long, it’s nearly on top of us. Too much to take in all at once. We step out of the air-conditioned vehicle into intense heat, and suddenly this place I’d been briefed on so intensively is a physical reality.

I stand there, awed by the scale of the massive glassed-in structure. My attention is drawn toward a particular part of it—a white tower with diamond-shaped windows and a geodesic sphere on top. It looks like a giant mushroom. I’d seen images of the complex during briefings, but now that I’m actually here it feels like I already have memories of this place locked up inside of me.

I’m contemplating that strange sense of memory when a young woman in a pantsuit comes up to us, radiating forced cheerfulness. She asks us to follow her to our living quarters on site—what looks like a small condo covered in red and pink stucco. As we walk, she tells us that Columbia University built these dorms years ago when they used to run Biosphere 2. To save time, our stuff has been packed up and is already being moved in.

She gives us a tour of our quarters as if we were prospective renters, showing us the various amenities. It’s larger than the dorm we had in Tucson. While she takes us around, she keeps making eye contact with Kyle but not me. Her nervously upbeat tone makes me uneasy.

I drift away from her at one point and part a heavy curtain to look out at the massive structure. The glare reflecting off thousands of glass triangles is blinding.

After the tour ends, Kyle and I are separated, and training recommences immediately. I’m given glasses that allow the trainers to talk to me and to see and hear everything I’m doing throughout the day. They also project checklists and images. If that isn’t distracting enough, the biosphere’s supercomputer, Gaia, speaks to me through the glasses in this weirdly calm feminine voice.

It’s a shock to have zero privacy, or even space to think my own thoughts. I was used to working alone or with a few of The Friends, but now I have to constantly interact with voices in my ears, people I never met before, their faces sometimes appearing as heads-up displays projected in front of me. It’s like ground-control guiding an astronaut through step-by-step instructions. Amidst all their constant input, I must stay focused on the agricultural tasks they’re talking me through. I’m a good worker, but it’s hard to find my rhythm with so many people I don’t know communicating with me.

I’m not complaining about anyone—they’re all doing their jobs with great professionalism—it’s just that beneath it all I feel their anxiety about impending death. It eats at me. It’s never talked about. Nothing human is ever talked about by anyone except Rachel. And it seems like each of the techs has had around ten cups of coffee before they get on the glasses with me. They talk really fast and urgently about everything, and I’ve got to stay on my toes every minute to keep up. It’s partly because there’s so much material to cover, and partly because they’re testing to see how I perform under stress. Before long, I begin to feel like a robot constantly following instructions.

I’m just learning to manage the stress of this robotic life when, barely a week into training, the malfunction of an actual robot nearly kills me.

I’m in the basement Technosphere, looking for parts in Storage Bay C—a long corridor with floor-to-ceiling metal storage lockers. It’s a test to see how efficiently I can navigate the computerized inventory system. I’m pulling out the last item on my list when I hear this terrific banging.

At the other end of the corridor, a huge lifter robot is repeatedly ramming itself into the steel lockers. Its carbon-fiber exoskeleton is the color of gunmetal with yellow stripes, so it looks like a giant wasp with broken wings. It’s clearly glitching out. Its torso shakes with each collision, and it seems like it’s in agony, like an ant being burned by a magnifying glass.

Head cameras pan frantically in random directions while hydraulic pistons trigger its powerful titanium arms to lash out wildly. It slams back and forth across the corridor, leaving large dents in the sheet-metal lockers.

Panic seizes me as I realize I’m at the dead-end of the storage aisle and have no escape route. Despite the juggernaut’s erratic motion, it’s quickly closing the distance between us, careening in a zigzag pattern toward me.

“EMERGENCY! Storage Bay C!” I shout. “HELP! HELP!”

Frantically, I open the largest locker near me, but it’s way too shallow to fit inside. The robot lurches toward me, and I fling open lockers looking for something, anything, to fend it off. All I find are useless small parts. I hurl them in the robot’s path, hoping to slow its progress and continue calling for help on our com system.

I’m backed into a corner.

The whipping arms are seconds from slashing range when suddenly I see Kyle sprinting up the corridor toward the lifter. He’s moving faster than I’ve ever seen a human being move.

He lifts off from a few feet away and delivers a powerful kick to the robot’s massive torso. It slams against a wall of lockers, but immediately rebounds, its arms whipping in Kyle’s direction.

He dodges the flailing arms and deftly reaches in to yank out its battery pack.

The lifter’s hydraulics release, and it hisses into lifelessness.

“Holy shit!” I shout. “You saved my life! Thank you!”

I’m afraid to even step near the dead lifter in case it sparks back to life.

“Are you OK?” Kyle asks. He can see that I’m still over-amped on adrenaline.

“I’m fine, I’m fine. Are you?”

Kyle shrugs. He’s not even breathing hard and seems completely nonchalant, like fighting robots is an everyday event.

“Target practice,” he says. His manner is casual, but his look is serious. “It’s a shame to damage valuable equipment though. We’ll have to take our three other lifters out of service till we figure out what went wrong.”

Kyle steps over to me. I’m wired, standing in the littered corridor, still clutching a wrench I’d intended to throw at the lifter. He puts a hand on my shoulder.

“You look pretty shook up. I’ll ask Rachel to give you the rest of the afternoon off. Accidents with robotics are extremely rare. Statistically, any car is a thousand times more dangerous to life and limb than a robot. This was a freak accident, and the odds of another one happening to the same person are infinitesimal.”

“Of course. Yeah. I understand, infinitesimal,” I say, loosening my grip on the wrench. 

Kyle kneels beside the lifter to pull out components for testing, and I take in the destruction of the hallway. Lots of dented and thrown-open lockers, their contents strewn everywhere. I feel the many eyes watching from the cameras, all the technicians, and Rachel.

I panicked. Damn it. And Kyle was so decisive, taking down the lifter and calmly bringing the situation into perfect control. Nice going, Tommy.

I bend down and start gathering parts off the floor. I’m still rattled, but I can hide it, and there’s no way I’m taking the afternoon off.

“Thanks again,” I say to Kyle, as collected as I can. “And thanks for the concern, but I’m fine. Really. I’m ready to get back to work.”

That night at dinner, Kyle explains how a defective battery fried the lifter’s motherboard.

“Don’t worry,” he assures me, “the others are out of service until their batteries are replaced, and additional safeguards are installed. I’ve asked the robotics team to add an independent failsafe processor that can initiate a shutdown if it detects a malfunction.”

“I’m glad to hear the problem is being taken care of,” I say, trying my best to match Kyle’s even tone and forcing myself to smile. “And thanks again for the rescue.”

I resume eating, but I feel restless.

During the rest of training, I get anxious working around lifter bots and other large machines, fearing they might malfunction at any moment. I begin having nightmares too, but I don’t report them to Rachel.

Entry: 11 Seal Day: 1137 8:21PM

In the following weeks, we’re kept busy with mostly separate training from morning to night, but we’re together for every meal and exercise break, and sleep in the same room. Still, I learn little about who Kyle is as a person beneath the act. He said he would look for another chance to evade the surveillance, but since then, he either hasn’t had an opportunity or has decided the risk isn’t worth it. The awareness of being continually monitored shapes our every word and action. I follow Kyle’s lead, and we act like perfect teammates. It’s as if we’re a couple of astronauts living and working on a space station under ground control’s constant, watchful eye. You don’t want to show you’re stressed or worried about anything.

Nevertheless, I notice Kyle’s expression brightens whenever we interact. As unreadable as his feelings are, his friendliness doesn’t seem fake. He’s always looking out for me and is there when I need him, like with the lifter incident. And I start relating to him almost like a protective older brother.

The trainers put on their own version of the astronaut-with-the-right-stuff act, but they deserve more credit for keeping it up. While Kyle and I prepare for a mission with a future, the people helping us know they’re going to die soon.

In one-on-one sessions with Rachel, she tries to get me to drop the performance to see how I’m feeling, but it’s too risky to confide in her. The nightmares might make me seem mentally unfit, and I’m certainly not going to tell her about my paranormal experiences. Most likely, she’d think I was delusional and a risk to the biosphere.

There was one moment though where she caught me by surprise, and I reacted emotionally. She mentioned my sixteenth birthday coming up and asked how I’d like to celebrate.

The wrongness of commemorating another year of my life, when everyone I’d ever loved was taken by the Whip drains the color from my face. I beg her not to tell anyone else or do anything special to mark the day. Only when I realize how adamantly I’m pressing her, do I regain my composure and remember to thank her for thinking of me.

My excessive reaction isn’t lost on Rachel. Our next session is on survivor’s guilt.

Often, I feel Kyle studying me. He gives me martial arts lessons during our exercise breaks, and I see he’s sometimes startled by my speed. I sense he has a depth of strange aspects too, but he hides them well. He’s better than me at not letting those qualities slip out. He’s obviously got plenty of experience keeping people from reading between his lines, and he plays his role to near perfection.

Some techs on the other side of the video screens aren’t as careful as me and Kyle about letting things slip out. During video conferences, I catch hints of what they think of us. I learn the project’s security team has given us code names. Kyle is “The Quarterback,” and I’m “The Kid.”

And Kyle really is their quarterback. Those in charge often defer to him. Part of it is his charisma, but mostly it’s because he’s just really good at everything he does. He has a photographic memory and the ability to master anything he turns his mind to. He’s on top of all the technical details and the science behind every biosphere system. Individual project managers know more about their specialties, but no one else has Kyle’s grasp on how it all interrelates. This allows him to figure out the logistics of getting everyone and everything to work together.

He also has great leadership skills. He’s quick to thank others for their contributions, and even if he has to contradict someone or point out a flaw in their approach, he does it with grace. He manages to come off like he admires their work but just has a suggestion about how to make it that much better.

Kyle never hesitates before speaking and knows exactly what to say. He does all this while never breaking character. He’s like an airline pilot in heavy turbulence, calmly telling you there’s nothing to worry about.

“Yeah, most of the species is being killed off by the Whip, but here in the biosphere project, everything’s under control and working itself out, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the remainder of the flight, folks.”

Despite his age, Kyle has made himself our unofficial project leader. And as far as I can tell, he deserves to be.

Meanwhile, I’m The Kid, a predictable role given my age. To be fair, I am the youngest. And the gap between fifteen and nineteen doesn’t just seem huge to me but to everyone.

The agricultural and ecosystem specialists hold me in slightly higher esteem. Maybe because I spend more time with them than Kyle does. At first, they treat me like a kid, explaining stuff with lots of oversimplifications. But they drop that mode when they see how quickly I catch on.

Overall, I like our roles. It’s easier to be The Kid than The Quarterback, and Kyle’s vast tech and management skills take some pressure off me.

Rachel’s the only person who seems doubtful about the roles we’re playing. I sense she’s skeptical about Kyle, but I can never get her to reveal why. She adopts a more serious tone in our private sessions, trying to draw me out. I feel bad hiding things from her, but I can’t think of a way around it.

It’s unfortunate because Rachel’s the only person who doesn’t put on an act, and she has a sense of me as a person. The others see me as bright and capable, but Rachel focuses on my empathic side. Although she acknowledges the need to solve all the logistic and technical issues, she always emphasizes isolation as our greatest challenge.

Instead of being cheerfully upbeat, she always warns me about the psychological and social challenges we’ll face. She wants to prepare me, so I won’t be thrown off when they happen.

In what turns out to be our last session, I report to Rachel’s new office in the administrative building outside the biosphere. She seems uncomfortable in the new setting. Her stuff has been moved and is still disorganized. Her tone is grim from the start of the conversation. It’s like she’s cautioning me about Kyle but not really explaining where it’s all coming from.

“If the interpersonal dynamic is going to remain healthy,” Rachel begins, “it’ll be due to your efforts and adaptability, Tommy. Everyone’s dazzled by Kyle and for good reason. At the moment, he’s riding high because people recognize his talents and let him take the leadership role he was born to play. But what happens after he’s solved every technical challenge, and his intense energy is confined to an increasingly routine life of extreme isolation? What’ll happen when he has no one to lead but you?”

She seems a bit off-center. Like she’s working her way around to something in her mind but hasn’t found it yet. I’m not sure if she’s asking me these questions or asking herself. Either way, I keep quiet.

“None of us have any idea how he’ll handle that stress, including Kyle. It’s not a situation he, or any of us, were designed for. Fundamentally, we’re social animals. Staying physically and mentally healthy during long-term isolation is an incredible challenge. But if there’s anyone I know who could handle it, my hunch is it’s you. You’re a well-balanced person. More so than Kyle. Or most of us for that matter. But your emotional resilience will be stressed to its furthest limits.

“Unless we find another person with immunity in the next few days, it will be just the two of you. You’ll have outside support at first, but at the rate we’re losing people, you and Kyle may be alone within a few weeks. Your challenge will be helping Kyle handle the stress of fine-tuning the systems and keeping his morale up. You’ll have to be a one-person support system for an intense, tightly wound person. Tommy . . .”

Rachel sits back in her chair, studying me, weighing what she’s about to say.

“Underneath his casual, upbeat professionalism, Kyle has a ferocious inner drive that needs outlets.”

I don’t know what she’s getting at, but I take it as criticism of Kyle and reply defensively.

“Well, he’s just focused on getting everything done.”

“You’re right,” she replies. “Of course he is. We all are.”

Rachel pulls back to consider. Like most sessions, she’s hit the wall of my astronaut-in-training act. But something’s different this time. She’s tired. She looks at me compassionately as she continues.

“I’m not trying to cast doubt on Kyle. I know you’ve grown close to him over the last few weeks, and that’s a good thing. A great thing. It bodes well for the two of you surviving this situation. Now that you two are closer, I wonder if you’ve noticed anything in Kyle? Anything that I and the other specialists might have missed?”

Now I see everything Rachel’s saying is based on wanting to help me live with Kyle, not disqualifying him, so I decide to admit something.

“I usually pick up on the feelings of people I spend time with, but I rarely can with him.”

“You and me both,” Rachel sighs. “Kyle is great at containing himself and showing only what he wants to. But I think there’s another possibility. If you can’t pick up on his emotions, living and working so closely with him, it suggests he may not have them . . . Not everybody has the usual emotional range.”

I start shaking my head. Without realizing it, I become defensive again.

“No, I think it’s what you said earlier. He’s great at containing himself. He’s under all this stress and needs to put a good face on things to keep everyone’s spirits up.”

“Remember, I’m not blaming Kyle for anything,” Rachel replies. “If he has a limited emotional range, it wouldn’t be his fault. It’s just an intrinsic part of his nature. People differ in all sorts of ways. That’s why we’re meant to live in communities. One person’s deficiency is another’s proficiency, and we get different things from different people. But there’s no one else to fill the void if your one companion has a limited emotional range. So, you’ll need to be Kyle’s support system and very likely your own. Kyle has great leadership skills, but that doesn’t mean he has the capacity to be a long-term companion. If that’s the case, all you can do is accept it. You may never get the warm feelings from Kyle your upbringing may’ve led you to expect from someone close to you. Those feelings may not be in him to give.”

Rachel pauses and takes a deep breath. She’s always been cautious when speaking about Kyle, but now she’s going way past those limits. I look at her and become alarmed. The room is air conditioned, but she’s starting to sweat. Fever is usually the first symptom of the Whip coming out of hiding.

“Anyway, I could be wrong,” she continues. “We should all have the humility to realize it’s easy to misjudge people. They’re more complex than the diagnostic labels my profession puts on them. But assuming that Kyle’s emotional range is limited, you’ll need to accept that he’ll be genuinely unable to provide what you need in a companion. However, there’s a need you must insist on. Always. And that’s basic respect.

“When I said you need to be adaptable, I don’t mean you should adapt to disrespectful or abusive behavior. You may be isolated, but for two people, the biosphere is a gigantic house. So, if at any time you’re not being respected, stay away from him. Communicate from a distance and keep it about practical stuff.

“Respect is a boundary you must always defend. Enclosure will begin with Kyle playing the role of leader, but as time goes on, he should relate to you more and more as an equal. He must respect that you have a will of your own and can differ on various judgment calls. You may often need to defer to him on technical matters, but never when it comes to your values.

“Another part of respect is honesty and truthfulness. Right now, you guys are under such scrutiny it’s perfectly understandable why you’re avoiding self-disclosure.”

My face flushes with guilt as I see what I should have picked up earlier—Rachel is well aware I’m hiding things.

“Soon, that outside scrutiny will be gone, and it will likely be just the two of you in the biosphere. You must establish a relationship with Kyle built on respect, truthfulness, and proper boundaries. Going along with anything that compromises your values might make living together easier in the short term, but it won’t work for the long term. And this is going to be a very long-term situation.”

The finality of her last phrase settles over me. It’s not like I’d forgotten but hearing it out loud is jarring. Soon, everyone will be gone. Rachel will be gone. I realize how much she’s tried to help and prepare me. I want to thank her, but at the same time, I disagree with her attitude toward Kyle. I can’t accept it. So I put on the unshakeable astronaut act one last time.

“Thanks for your advice,” I say diplomatically. “So far, I’ve found Kyle to be extremely fair and respectful and all those other things you said. But if that changes, I’ll remember your words and keep my distance until he starts acting properly again.”

Rachel studies me silently, her eyes sad, even mournful.

Only a few days later, she came down with a fever.

We never met again.

Entry: 12 Seal Day: 1137 10:49PM

The fact that I didn’t thank Rachel in our final session still eats at me. She was right that I didn’t really know Kyle yet. But I felt brotherhood growing between us, and I was always searching for moments when we could make a genuine connection. One of those finally came on the day we sealed into the biosphere.

We stand beside a podium in front of the airlock for a send-off ceremony. It’s a really awkward situation. Most of the officials who show up are people I haven’t seen before. The one person I want to see, Rachel, is too sick to be there, and a number of the attendees show signs of the virus that will soon end their lives.

I feel their desperation to establish themselves in the spotlight of history. They each want their names and faces in the biosphere’s permanent record, so they are more interested in speaking to the cameras than to Kyle and me. At one point, they patch in the acting president of the United States, who makes a brief, prepared speech in which he declares the Biosphere 3 project, “The hope and future of our species.”

After a series of these grand speeches, Kyle speaks last.

“Today, we do not enter the biosphere as individuals, but merely as representatives of a heroic team,” he says. “Thank you. To everyone who put their tremendous efforts into this gravely critical mission, I and the future of humanity salute you. Your sacrifices will never be forgotten.”

A small scattering of applause follows. To my relief, no one asks me to say anything.

Kyle opens the submarine hatch-like door, and we step into the airlock. As we do, a wave of slowtime comes over me.

The first door seals shut behind us.

I watch Kyle open the hatch at the opposite end of the airlock. He pauses to politely gesture that I should step through first.

I do.

The moment feels dreamlike, as if I’m reliving an important memory.

As much as I’ve trained in it, I’m always struck by the deep green smell of the biosphere’s humid air. Outside is the Sonoran Desert, but once inside, I smell our tropical rainforest.

Then Kyle seals the second hatch behind us, and the great experiment begins.

The sense of separation from the outside world is profound. We turn to face each other. Our eyes meet, and our masks drop.

“It’s ours now,” Kyle beams. “Finally.”

His tone makes me uneasy, almost like he’s boasting. And it makes his humble, we’re-merely-parts-of-a-team speech seem really fake.

“Yeah,” I reply warily. “And who knows how long before we’re ever outside that door again.”

It’s a rare instance of privacy that lasts only a moment before we link back up with all the techs in the outside control room. We put on our glasses, and with them our astronaut acts, and we’re as monitored and scheduled as ever.

Entry: 13 Seal Day: 1137 11:31PM

The initial phase after lock-in is a combination of doing the actual work and training at the same time. We’re kept busy from morning till night, on pace for the sixteen-hour days we’ll face as a two-man team. I understand the need, but I get tired of hearing voices in my ears giving me feedback and instruction about everything I do. It gives me little space for my own thoughts.

Gradually, the number of people speaking to me through the glasses drops, but I’m never told about any casualties. I ask every tech I talk to for news about Rachel, but everyone says they don’t know. Finally, when Michael, the trainer I work with the most, tells me he doesn’t know for the third day in a row, I’ve had enough.

“Hey Michael, I know this isn’t your fault, and maybe they’re telling you not to distract me with news, but I’m done training until someone gets me a straight answer,” I say.

I’m never assertive, and it catches him off guard. He nods and steps away from the com.

I hate putting Michael on the spot because he was always so nice to me, and I knew he had asked to be my lead trainer. But I also knew that if anyone was going to find out about Rachel for me, it was him. I was pretty naïve then, but now I realize Michael was attracted to me, not that he ever said anything flirtatious or inappropriate. He just seemed excited and a bit nervous or insecure sometimes when he would first get on the glasses with me.

About five minutes later, he returns. There’s a moment of silence while he gathers himself, but I already sense what he’s going to say.

“Tommy, I’m sorry to tell you, but she died a week ago.”

The news hits me hard. Rachel was the one person on the biosphere training team who helped prepare me for the isolation. Not getting the word when it happened only makes it worse. I should have been grieving for her days ago, so it feels like I’ve disrespected her passing.

A couple of weeks later, Michael is the only tech left on the glasses with me. I can hear in his voice that he’s getting sick, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. One morning, he has a coughing fit, and I tell him to take a break to look after himself. He tries to push through, but eventually, it gets so bad he has to log off. For the rest of the day, I work in silence.

I wake up the following morning sensing something’s changed. I pull aside the curtain of the floor-to-ceiling window in my sleeping loft to look out at our farm—the Agricultural Biome, divided into eighteen little plots of land, with pens for our pygmy goats and chickens.

The outer glass reveals a smoky orange sky outside the biosphere. We were told to expect this. Climate change caused more droughts and wildfires, and now, with no one to fight those fires, the whole country is covered in smoke. There’s no risk of our air inside being polluted, but the sight of so much smoke outside is unsettling.

I reach for the glasses charging by my bed.

“Good morning, Tommy,” says Gaia in her ever-cheerful voice. “All conditions are normal.”

She says that every morning, but nothing seems all that normal to me. She shows me a display of temperature, CO2, and oxygen levels. All the data fields are green, indicating everything is within acceptable range.

I descend the spiral staircase to my small living room below. Normally, a second or two after I reach the lower floor, I get a second hail from Michael in the control room. But this morning, he doesn’t log on. A pang of guilt stabs at me as I realize how much I’ve taken him for granted. I should have expressed more concern and appreciation.

What if it’s too late now?

I walk out to our kitchen. Usually I make every meal, but I find a thermos of coffee and a bowl of fruit salad already out on the gleaming granite table in our dining area. Kyle stands with his coffee mug in hand, gazing out one of the windows into the Agricultural Biome. The morning sun filters through the smoky haze to illuminate the outline of the Catalina Mountains in the distance.

“It’s happened,” he says. “You probably noticed. Total radio silence.”

Kyle’s manner is serious but relaxed.

“Gaia, show control room in all glasses,” he says.

A live video feed of the control room appears. The lights are on, but all the chairs are empty.

“We knew this day would come,” says Kyle, “and now it’s here, even sooner than expected.”

A cold and empty feeling overtakes me.

“What should we do?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he answers. “I set up a repeating hail to all personnel. It’s working silently in the background, but no one is responding. I’ve already reset Gaia, so we’re in fully autonomous mode. We can monitor the outer facilities through video feeds. They should continue operating until their diesel generators shut down.

“It looks like the geometric progression of the depopulation is steeper than predicted. Outside radio signals are ninety percent below where they were just two weeks ago. Based on present trends, global radio chatter may drop to automated signals from devices running on battery-power in a couple of weeks.”

I nod, at a loss for words. I feel disturbed by the news and the completely relaxed way Kyle is taking it. His voice is as calm as Gaia’s.

“Well, let’s see how the day goes,” says Kyle. “There’s a chance someone will log on later. For now, we’ve plenty of work to do. If we’re still in radio silence this afternoon, I suggest an early dinner. After, we can take the evening off and talk. Meanwhile if you run into a problem you can’t solve, give me a call, and we’ll work on it together.”

Entry: 14 Seal Day: 1138 12:50AM

I go through my day feeling strange. For the last several weeks, I was coached most of my waking hours, and now there’s complete silence. I try to hold out hope that Michael will sign on, but I sense I’m alone.

It’s a solitude I’m not quite ready to accept.

I’m inside a three-and-a-quarter acre bubble made up of seventy-seven thousand space frame struts and sixty-six hundred panes of sealed, laminated glass. There are thirty-eight hundred carefully chosen species of plants and animals. And then there’s Kyle and me. This is my reality. A glass-and-steel-enclosed island in the midst of a desert on a dying planet. And this will be my reality for the indefinite future.

I fight off my uneasiness and try to summon a sense of purpose while I take my morning inspection tour of the biomes. I can’t afford to be paralyzed by grief. My mission is to take care of the biosphere and all its precious life. That’s what Michael trained me to do, and I’m not going to let him down.

I let a calming wave of slowtime take me, and with no one talking to me through the glasses, it feels like I finally have the space to discover where I am.

As I walk through the rainforest, I hear the call of the galagos, or bushbabies, the six monkey-like primates who swing from the branches of trees or use the struts to travel through the biosphere. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it seems like they sense a change in the air too. They’re more vocal than usual for the morning, as they’re nocturnal creatures.

If they’re affected by the change, why isn’t Kyle?

Maybe he is but wants to keep up our morale. I should support his efforts.

I try to push away my heavy feelings and focus on my inspection.

I stand on the narrow wood-planked path suspended above the ferns and mud puddles. A column of tiny ants spirals up the trunk of a banana tree. A few black-and-yellow heliconius butterflies flutter through the misty air.

Outside is the Sonoran Desert with five-percent humidity, but where I’m standing, it’s closer to one hundred percent. The rainforest is modeled after a Venezuelan cloud forest, and no other biome is so lush with vegetation. Machine-generated fog drifts above the canopy. The space frame echoes and amplifies the sound of the waterfall. It descends from the simulated thirty-foot-tall mountain into a pond, where pumps turn it into a stream running the length of the biome. Forty feet above the mountaintop is the highest point of my world—a ninety-foot-tall arched ceiling of space frame. Small clouds drift near the top, waiting to precipitate into rain. The tropical mist wilts my hair, and my clothing sticks to my skin as I walk from the rainforest into the Ocean Biome. The smell of saltwater greets me. I stand next to the frankincense tree at the top of a three-story cliff and look down at the million-gallon ocean. Coconut palms are scattered along the white coral-sand beach, and I see fish swimming in the gentle, machine-made waves.

I take a deep breath of the ocean air and feel the sunlight on my skin. Unlike other parts of the biosphere, the glass above the Ocean Biome is made to conduct ultraviolet light. It’s mainly to keep algae from killing the reef, but it also gives us vitamin D and the benefits of unfiltered sunlight. One day, once the smoke clears, there might even be time to sunbathe. But even now, the orange sun is drying the dampness of the rainforest from my clothes and hair.

I walk along the cliff path through the savannah, where forty-five species of grass are growing. Some are more than six feet tall. The stream that begins at the rainforest waterfall meanders through the length of the savannah, which is like the Florida Everglades but without mosquitos or alligators. Tall cattails grow at the edges of the flowing water. A garter snake with fine blue and red stripes slithers across the path in front of me on its way to the stream to hunt for small fish.

I stay on the wooden plankway through the Marsh Biome. It’s densely green with forested swamps and mangrove trees. In the water, I see some nearly transparent fairy shrimp swimming around anemones.

The humidity drops as I step into the Desert Biome, being careful not to catch myself on the thorny cacti. I stop before what looks like a cave entrance framed by sun-blasted rock. It’s actually a large air vent releasing dry air into the Desert Biome. It takes the last trace of dampness from my hair and clothes.

This biome was built to mimic a scrub brush desert kept at forty-percent humidity. It’s more of a coastal fog than an arid desert like the one outside the biosphere. Compared to the other biomes, it’s pleasantly dry. Large boulders are interspersed amidst the cacti— cardon, boojum, yucca, and San Pedro. When it’s not smoky, the Desert Biome provides great views of the Sonoran Desert outside and the Catalina Mountains in the distance. It’s one of my favorite places. I sometimes sit on a large, flat-topped boulder and meditate.

I head to the Intensive Agricultural Biome. Most of my work time is spent tending to this half-acre, highly productive farm. It’s divided into eighteen rotating plots, including four rice paddies. There are more plots of sweet potatoes and lab-lab beans than anything else because they’re our most successful crops. But we also grow corn, kale, chili peppers, squash, beets, tomatoes, various herbs, carrots, cabbage, onions, eggplant, peas, peanuts, strawberries, and watermelon.

I set to work pruning the sweet potato leaves to stimulate the growth of the tubers. It’s a routine task and slightly meditative, which keeps my mind off the silence of the outside world. When I finish, I gather the loose leaves for composting but stuff a few bundles into a backpack to feed the goats. Then I circle back toward the Human Habitat Biome.

On the way, I stop for a moment in our tropical orchard. It’s lush and dense with green shadows. There are taros with giant fan leaves, banana, guava, avocado, fig, lime, lemon, and tangerine trees. Ventilation fans make the leaves sway. Even though I know the wind is artificial, it makes this dense grove seem like a real jungle.

Below the Human Habitat’s living quarters is a barnyard area for our domestic animals—chickens and pygmy goats. I love working with them. My first chore is to feed and milk the lactating goats. When I take off the backpack, the sound of the zipper opening brings the goats over to me, and I feed them handfuls of sweet-potato leaves. I talk to them a little, while the milking machine does its job.

They don’t seem to know that everything has changed. And looking around their enclosure, why would they? It’s the same today as the day before, as it will be the day following.

What’s really changed? The world in here is the same.

Trying to ground myself in that, I focus on my next task, harvesting peanut plants.

The afternoon arrives with still no word from Kyle about whether anyone responded to the automated hail. So I continue digging out peanuts until it’s time to shower and make the early dinner Kyle suggested.

I wonder if the quiet is getting to him too?

I switch from reflection to quicktime as I blend some pre-cooked sweet potatoes to use in a pie for dessert. Once the pie is in the oven, I cook a stir-fry with fresh veggies, lab-lab beans, and brown rice. Going with the speed wave helps to suspend my anxiety.

When Kyle returns from the Technosphere, he’s cheerful and relaxed. But he quickly picks up on my anxiety.

“I know it probably seems like we should be mourning, but I don’t see what purpose that would serve,” says Kyle. “It’s not anything they asked for or wanted. All our training was about getting us to this day. We could mourn for the rest of our lives, and it wouldn’t be enough, given how many people we’ve lost. The best way to honor them is to focus on the biosphere.”

True to his word, that’s exactly what Kyle does. During dinner, as usual, he briefs me on the status of various technical issues and how he plans to fix them. This time I only pretend to be interested in what he’s saying. I want to support his efforts to maintain morale and a sense of normalcy. Maybe it’s what he needs to deal with the stress, but I’d prefer talking about our loss of connection to the outside or not talking at all.

Despite my efforts to keep up a good face, Kyle reads my unease.

“Hey, why don’t we head to the beach to decompress. We can take some time off and talk more openly now that we no longer have to put on the act. Sound like a plan?”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” I reply.

Entry: 15 Seal Day: 1138 1:53AM

As I’m cleaning up after dinner, Kyle returns wearing a swimsuit and a beach towel draped around his shoulders. He must have stopped by storage because he’s carrying a case of vintage wine labeled “For Special Occasions.” Unlike the original biosphere experiments, we’re not trying to prove ecological self-sufficiency. Instead, we’ve been provisioned with plenty of stored food and supplies. He pries open the case and grabs a couple of bottles.

“We need something to lighten the mood,” he says cheerfully. “Why don’t you go change?”

When I return from my dorm, Kyle tosses me one of the bottles of wine. He’s got another under his arm and a pair of wine glasses dangling from his hand. The glasses clink together as we walk, as if they’re celebrating.

In the short distance to the Ocean Biome, I do my best to blend with Kyle’s mood.

If he’s taking this so smoothly, maybe I’m missing something.

When we get to the beach, Kyle spreads his towel across the sand. The orange light of the late-afternoon sun gives everything a warm glow.

The Ocean Biome is like a miniature Hawaiian island. The water is kept between seventy-seven and eighty degrees. And it’s actual ocean saltwater trucked to the biosphere from the Pacific. The deepest part is twenty-five feet, and we can dive into it from the cliffs.

“Listen, Tommy, I know you’re upset,” Kyle says, setting out the wine glasses. “And I understand that. Really, I do. It’s a big moment. But we’ve spent months preparing for this. We knew it was coming. And it is what it is. So we should let it go and relax a bit, right? I know I could use a break from all the pretending.”

Kyle uncorks a bottle and pours a large glass of red wine for each of us.

“To our new life in the biosphere,” says Kyle.

“To our new life,” I echo half-heartedly as our glasses clink.

The Friends made homemade wine and mead, so it’s not the first time I’ve ever had alcohol. But it’s the first time in many months, and it hits me immediately. My face flushes, and my muscles relax as the warmth of the wine flows through me.

“Gaia, play EDM Set 2,” says Kyle.

Techno beats fill the Ocean Biome from hidden speakers. It isn’t my favorite genre, but I don’t want to insult his musical taste. The electronic music is jarring at first, it seems so out of phase with what’s happened to the world, but I try my best to get into it.

My thoughts become a little more playful as the alcohol starts loosening me up.

He spends all day working in the Technosphere, so makes sense he would like techno.

“Drink up,” says Kyle, grinning at me.

I do, and a pleasant swell of intoxication comes over me. Kyle smiles encouragingly as I finish off my first glass. I relax under the wine’s influence, the sun’s orange glow, and his increasingly joyful mood.

“Feels great, doesn’t it?” Kyle says, pouring each of us another full glass. It’s the first time I’ve seen him having fun, and his mood lifts mine. I start on my second glass and feel the weight of the future on our shoulders fall away. I thought this might be disrespectful, but it’s starting to feel good.

We’re just two friends chilling on a beach.

Maybe it’s the alcohol, but Kyle feels like even more than a friend, like maybe a cool older brother. He’s always looking out for me. He amps up the music until the whole Ocean Biome reverberates to a high-speed electronic rhythm. Now he’s gyrating with his arms and upper body. We have to shout to hear each other.

“I didn’t realize how much I needed this,” I say, raising my glass. “Everything’s been so damn serious. This feels great!”

“Great? It’s fucking amazing!” shouts Kyle. “No more Big Brother breathing down our necks!” He downs his second glass and lets out a wild howl that rises over the throbbing music like a wolf baying at the moon. He turns to me with a big grin. “Come on, Tommy, I know you want to!”

He howls again. I can’t help but join in, even though it feels silly. We laugh—at each other, at the moment, maybe at the insanity of it all. I’m suddenly charged with confidence.

“I’ve got to admit,” I shout, “at first, I thought going to the beach might be disrespectful or something, but this feels fantastic!”

“Definitely!” says Kyle as he tops off my glass. “Sometimes you just have to say fuck it.”

“Fuck it!”  I shout over the music. Then I laugh before I take another big gulp of wine. “Hey, before I get too drunk what’d you wanna talk about?”

“Lots of shit, now that we can finally talk without being spied on!” he yells, raising his glass in the air defiantly. “One thing I’ve wanted to say but couldn’t before is I haven’t just been pretending to get along with you. It just so happens I really like you!”

The compliment catches me off guard. I’d never realized how much I wanted his approval. I blush, unsure how to respond, but there doesn’t seem to be a need because he’s on a roll.

“Don’t think I’m flattering you, but you should be flattered because I don’t like many people. So you can take that to the bank. Most people are totally lame. They annoy the shit out of me and disappoint me constantly. They’re too slow, and I can always guess what they’re going to say or do. But you—Gaia, lower the volume—” When the volume drops, Kyle shifts his voice to a more confidential tone. “You’re different. It was obvious the second I met you. So, let’s get it out in the open. It’s not just immunity—we’re unusual people. We’ve got . . . abilities. You’ve tried to hide yours, but I’ve noticed them. The martial arts lessons we did—you’ve got incredible speed, more than I’ve seen in anyone. And I’ve sparred with some of the best. I’ve never met anyone faster than me, but you’re at least as quick.

“And I’ve seen you . . .” Kyle searches for the right words, “read people. I do too, but in a different way. You sense changes before they happen. So do I, but it’s mostly a high-speed calculation of variables in play. With you, it’s more instinctive. Right?”

I’m a little startled by how well he’s observed me, but it feels good to be seen. At least partly.

I nod.

“I thought so,” he continues. “See, we’re unusual in different ways. So we can learn from each other. And I like that there’s no competitive vibe with you. Not that I don’t like competition, I do. But each of us is specialized to be good at our own things, so really—we’re the perfect team.”

Maybe it’s the drunkenness creeping in, but his rush of compliments is so unexpected I don’t know how to respond. All I can manage is a grin and a nod. Kyle sees my hesitation and fills the gap.

“And I’ll say one more thing about you—and I hope you don’t think I’m bullshitting or just running my mouth because of the wine—In vino veritas!” shouts Kyle as he uncorks the second bottle. “I can even say I like you more than anyone I’ve ever met. And I’ll tell you why.”

His face is flushed, but his silvery-gray eyes look clear and in control.

“There’s an edge of mystery about you. I pick up some things, but there are other things I don’t. And that’s great because it’s a challenge. And I love challenges!”

So, he hasn’t read all of me. Never thought of myself as mysterious, but it’s cool to be seen that way. Tommy, the mysterious.

“And speaking of challenges,” he says, “there’s a huge one that never got addressed in any of our training sessions—sex!”

The one-syllable word springs out at me as if Kyle popped a white rabbit from the wine bottle and tossed it in my lap.

A sudden surge of fear, my face flushes, and my heart pounds.

“Sex?” I ask. I feel stupid, embarrassed by my startled reaction. And Kyle sees it. He smiles slyly, studying me.

“Yes, SEX!” says Kyle laughing. He reaches to top off my glass, but my desire for wine is gone. “We’re healthy young guys. I’m nineteen, you’re sixteen. Sex was a major part of my life pre-pandemic. How about you?”

I’m forced to think back to my life before the plague, and that throws me even more off balance.

I was a late bloomer. I finally hit puberty earlier in the Year of the Whip. It happened at the same time my abilities appeared. But it all got mixed up in the paranormal stuff and the vision of something horrible coming. Before I could sort it out, that something came, and I needed to care for the dying.

I feel awkward answering.

“Well . . . I’m still pretty young. And with the plague and training and all, I haven’t had time to think about it.”

“That’s fine,” says Kyle. “I can understand that. A lot can change between sixteen and nineteen! But I’m sure you’ve noticed those fertile, immune women they kept expecting to find . . . they’re not here. So . . . you’ve got an instinct for what’s coming. Do you see anybody joining us in the near future?”

I never even allowed myself to think about it, but it had always been there in the back of my mind—a sense that no one would be joining us for a long time.

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“Exactly,” says Kyle. “I’m not expecting company any time soon either. But it’s not just a hunch. It’s a straightforward, logical conclusion. When the biosphere project was conceived, it was assumed a tiny percentage of the population would be immune. Even if it was only one-thousandth of a percent, we expected there’d eventually be a statistically calculable set of immune people. Unfortunately, this was not the case. You and I are not statistically significant—we’re anomalies.

“For months, I was afraid I’d be the only one. As soon as I met you, I sensed you were another anomaly. Not merely immune, but unique in other ways.

“Maybe somewhere else on the planet, it’ll turn out there are a couple of female anomalies sheltered in a well-stocked underground base. Maybe in ten years, the radiation levels will drop enough for them to travel here. But based on present trends, with so many unattended nuclear power plants melting down—any fertile, immune female who wanted to travel to the biosphere would be sterile or genetically deformed from radiation poisoning by the time she got here. So . . . this brings us back to the subject of two isolated young guys and sex.

“The practical reality is that if either of us is going to have sex in the foreseeable future, it’ll have to be with each other.”

He’s staring at me intensely, but I’m too shocked and confused to return his gaze. Instead, I look out at the ocean, and a deep state of slowtime comes over me.

It borders on an out-of-body experience.

I’m not looking at Kyle, but I know he’s looking at me. There was always something unreadable about him. That’s gone now. I see what I didn’t want to see before. And now it’s obvious how he’s been manipulating me—the wine, the beach, the praise. The realizations are sobering while I follow what Kyle says next.

“The good news is that even though we’ve only got each other, it so happens we’re both highly desirable specimens. And my flag flies both ways. I don’t like to boast, but pre-pandemic, I had my choice of partners, male and female, and none of them went away unsatisfied. And you, I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re exceptionally beautiful. And it’s not just me saying that. Do you remember Deanna, the computer engineer who led the team that set up Gaia?”

It’s hard for me to form words, but I force myself to. I don’t want Kyle to see my fear.

“I only talked to her once, but, yeah, sure.”

“She accidentally left her glasses on transmit, and I overheard her talking about you. When Michael said, ‘He’s remarkably good looking,’ she said, ‘Good looking? He looks like an angel. I have a theory that Kyle is immune because he’s the most physically fit person on the planet, and Tommy is immune because he’s the most beautiful.’”

Kyle gives me a smirk that shoots sparks of fear through my brain.

“From the first moment I saw you with your long blonde hair and that black eye you had, I found you incredibly attractive. Exactly my type and not what I expected at all. When I heard an immune fifteen-year-old was on the way, I imagined an annoying, pimply kid. Maybe you don’t have a type yet, but lots of people would consider me ideal. You’re at the age of experimentation, so I suggest we experiment. They never talked to us about this directly, but I’m sure the team would’ve wanted us to work it out. What do you think?”

Before I can think of an answer, I detach from my body entirely.

I ascend and float near the top of the space frame enclosure.

I look down and see the two of us below, sitting on the beach blanket. My face is vacant, while Kyle’s eyes glitter with fire.

Gazing down is a mistake. A panic of vertigo—I’m about to plummet back into my body.

I shift my gaze toward the silhouette of the Catalina mountains framed by drifting smoke and the setting sun.

My awareness expands as insights flow through me. They’re deeper and more complex than anything I’ve ever comprehended. I realize what I couldn’t in my body under the direct pressure of the situation.

An array of portals appear all around me. They’re tubular and spinning like pipelines, the kind that surfers ride. Somehow, I know they’re possible timelines branching off from this point. Every move I make, every choice, and every word I say to Kyle, will send the biosphere in a different direction.

Every spinning portal I look into shoots flashes of images.

Flash— I wake up on the floor of the Desert Biome, but I’m too weak to stand. Both doors of the rear airlock are wide open, heat rippling in the air outside. I feel the furnace-like, poisonous atmosphere of the outer world seeping into the biosphere and realize this is the death of all its life.

Flash—Kyle and I are arguing. Our shouts get progressively louder and more enraged until Kyle strikes me in the throat with his fist, crushing my trachea. I struggle to take a breath that is no longer possible and look up at the face of my killer.

Flash—Kyle straddles me, holding a syringe in his teeth as he wrestles my squirming body with both hands. He manages to put me into a submission hold, one arm pinned between his clenched legs, while the other is held in his death grip. He releases the grasp of his left hand just long enough to grab the syringe from his mouth and pierce its glittering steel needle through the soft skin of my neck and into my jugular.

I pull back from the terrifying visions and become aware that I am the spinning portal at the center of all these pipelines. They each branch out from my potential choices.

I look into the deepest pipeline. It’s the outcome of a complex series of delicately balanced choices that allow me to survive much longer, but it disappears into unformed darkness. The darkness is turbulent and unstable. It’s the horizon line of the unknown outcomes of Kyle’s choices and mine.

Kyle is his own spinning portal, with timelines branching off from him. His choices have the power of life and death over me and the whole biosphere.

I need to understand what Kyle is. So I focus my mind on him and insights flow into me. Kyle is the pinnacle of an evolutionary stream—an apex predator. But he was made to operate in an advanced global civilization, not a biosphere. Captivity here is just as traumatic to his nature as it is to mine. He’s a highly complex being, and there’s conflict within him. He’s aware of his warring sides and struggles to stay in control. The predator part of him has been suppressed for months and wants to be unleashed. But his strategic mind realizes surrendering to such an animal impulse would destroy the biosphere.

Kyle’s mind and will keep his body in check. He’s not focused on destroying, but on skillfully manipulating me. To him, I’m an extremely valuable reward he’s earned. His every word and action is logically aligned with his purposes. But this limits his options and makes him predictable. As fierce, intelligent, and deadly as he is, I’m the less predictable one with more choices. I can see deeper into him than he can into me.

Only, I have no skills for dealing with such a creature. Power and manipulation are as natural to him as breathing, but they go completely against my upbringing. We’re like members of different species. Since I can’t change his nature, I must alter mine. I must learn to use manipulation to counter his destructive impulses . . .

These insights pass through me effortlessly, like I’m remembering things I already knew. Soon my mind has expanded as far as it can, and I’m sucked back into myself, into being Tommy, the kid who has to start making all those delicately balanced choices.

And it’s all just completely overwhelming.

What should I do right now?

“You’ve already done the first part, Tommy, by recognizing what’s at stake,” says Rachel, speaking in my head for the first time. “You need to see the forces in play to help you solve an impossible situation. Kyle is your adversary, but there’s also no survival path without him.”

“Rachel, I’m so sorry. You tried to warn me, but I wanted to believe in him.”

“Don’t be sorry, Tommy. It’s perfectly understandable. People like Kyle are experts at gaining trust. But you need to focus on what’s happening right now. The predator in him sees you as weak. He set this trap—the wine, the beach, the compliments— to blindside you. He wants you in a confused and vulnerable state. You need to blindside him back to gain his respect. He must show you respect. Now and always. You’re in a battle for control. You need to set up boundaries and claim territory.”

“How?”

“He wants a contest, not an easy victory,” Rachel replies. “So give him one. Kyle may not form deep attachments, but it’s obvious he’s attracted to you, which gives you a certain power over him. You must use that power to keep him challenged. The single greatest threat to the biosphere is Kyle becoming bored. Seeking is a crucial animal drive. If an apex predator like Kyle finds himself in a situation where there’s nothing left to seek, his sanity will unravel. His darker impulses will overwhelm his logical mind. So you must never cease to be a challenge for him. Feed him with partial victories when you need to, but never allow him total control.”

“What do you mean by partial victories?”

“I’m so sorry, Tommy. There’s something you have to face. Refusing him will end in violence and the destruction of the biosphere. You’ve been shown that. He’s determined to experiment with you. You’ll lose all control over the situation if it happens by force.”

Rachel’s words horrify me, and I push her out of my head. But that only fills me with panic and a sense of being trapped without anyone to help me. It feels like when I got sucker-punched by that guy in Burlington who dragged me behind the dumpster. I survived by fighting back. I could never win a fight with Kyle, but I might be quicker. I could grab a wine bottle and try to knock him over the head—but then what? There’s no place to run away to, and I can’t run the biosphere by myself.

Suddenly, I’m pulled back into my body. But I’m not sitting on the beach anymore. I’m in the dark forest surrounding my treehouse in Vermont. In front of me is a boy. He looks just like me when I was about six. He’s wearing Star Wars pajamas, and his eyes are filled with tears.

This boy is me. But he’s also outside of me.

“I don’t want this. I want to go back to the Friends.”

His tearful eyes and pleading voice overwhelm me with sorrow. His emotions feel more real than my own.

Which me is me? Whose eyes should I look out from?

I’m supposed to protect this boy, like an older brother, but I’ve abandoned him. Forgotten him. Left him alone where he could be hurt.

I fall to my knees and hug him. I’m crying now too, as remorse floods through me.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—I didn’t mean to leave you.”

“Don’t be sad, Tommy,” he says. But I can’t stop crying.

“What can I do? What can I do to help you?”

“I don’t know,” says the boy, “I don’t want this. I don’t want him! He’s scaring me. I want the Friends. I want mommy! Where’s mommy? Where’s our mommy?”

“Mom’s not here,” I reply, “but I am, and I’ll stay with you. It’ll be OK, we’ll be OK. I’m right here to protect you.”

The boy is trembling with fear. I have to pull myself together for him. I need to stop sobbing. There’s no one else to take care of him except me.

I hug the boy closer to me. As we relax, we dissolve into each other.

Entry: 16 Seal Day: 1138 8:32PM

I’m floating again above the ocean, peacefully gazing down at the water from the top of the space frame.

I’m larger now, more whole.

I see two figures sitting on the beach. It looks like a mythic painting of a scene that was destined to happen.

An understanding unfolds within me. In these months of fighting for survival, and training for the biosphere, I’ve had no time to reflect. When I turned fifteen, I was still a child in some ways. Then the plague came, everyone died, and my world collapsed. I was forced to split into parts. A survivor took over. The child part of me was left behind. The survivor, a grown-up self, had to be in charge from morning to night. He forgot there was once another self. The survivor thought he was me, but he’s only part of me. I’ve become only a part of myself.

Another part, the boy, was abandoned in the dark forest within me where I don’t look. He peers out from the edge of the woods and sees terrifying things.

And I sense other watchers living in the dark woods with him. My mom, Matthew, and Dorothy look out from the edge of the forest and see Kyle staring at me with his glittering eyes. They see what he is and what he wants and are horrified. They want to protect me, but they can’t. They don’t want me to surrender my body to a predator.

Helplessness is pulling me apart. But I can’t allow it. The whole world has shattered—I can’t let this last part of it, the biosphere, fall apart too. I have to keep myself together for all of them. The survivor needs to step up and protect the boy in the forest.

I hear the last thing Kyle said to me,

I’m sure the team would’ve wanted us to work it out. What do you think?

His last question echoes in my mind as I plummet back into my body.

What do you think? What do you think? What do you think?

I’m not sure what Kyle saw while I was disembodied. I turned away in shocked confusion. There must’ve been a couple seconds where my eyes looked blank or spaced out. It feels like I was gone for hours, but Kyle seems to have only just finished speaking.

I hear Rachel’s words in my mind:

You need to blindside him back.

I snap my head around and lock onto Kyle’s eyes before he can disguise the flames of desire raging inside them. My unwavering stare tells him that I know what he’s up to.

“You want me to think they would’ve approved of this,” I reply defiantly. “But the biosphere is a government program. A U.S. government program. And the law of this country says it’s a crime for a nineteen-year-old to have sex with a sixteen-year-old. I think they call it statutory rape.”

Kyle laughs. He’s surprised and curious, but his confidence is unshaken.

“Good point,” says Kyle. “Though it’d be more correct to say the biosphere was a government program. There is no government anymore, and therefore there is no law. We are the law now. We—”

“We are the law now,” I shoot back. “That means both of us. So any new laws require two votes, right?”

“Absolutely,” says Kyle, intrigued. He raises his glass to me, smiles, and takes another drink.

He tries to refill my half-full glass, but I pull it away.

“Thanks, but if I want more, I’ll pour it myself.”

Kyle shrugs cheerfully.

“Of course.” He sets the bottle between us and gives me an approving smile. “You’re full of surprises today, Tommy. I love it.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re having fun with this whole beach-party-getting-me-drunk set-up. How many other kids have you gotten drunk like this?”

Kyle smiles slyly.

“You sound jealous.”

“You sound like a sex predator,” I fire back.

Kyle, still smiling, flashes me a dangerous look.

“That’s quite an accusation. Perhaps you need someone to show you the difference between sounding like a sex predator and being one.”

His whole body radiates a menace I can feel in every cell. There’s a sinister glint in his eyes, like a match flame held near a short-fused stick of dynamite. I will myself to hold his gaze and not show the fear shooting through me. My heart pounds with adrenaline, but my thoughts are cold and sharp.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself and made a serious mistake. I can’t afford to do that again. There’s a hidden tripwire between challenging him and defying him. I’ve got to yield ground but without sounding weak or apologetic, or I’ll define myself as his victim.

“Look, I want to get along with you,” I reply. “We have to for this biosphere to work. I’m willing to consider an experiment with you, but only under certain conditions.”

Kyle’s pupils dilate at the word “experiment.” Waves of heat radiate from him, while he appears calm and amused on the surface. My heart pounds with fear.

Am I yielding too much, too soon? I can’t take back my words.

“Conditions?” Kyle says with supreme confidence. “Awesome—a negotiation! I love negotiations! Go ahead. Let’s hear your conditions.”

Kyle takes a drink of wine. I’m about to as well to calm myself, but I don’t want to mirror his gesture, so I wait.

“I might be willing to experiment with you, but I’m not willing to be experimented on. We both have to be cool with every part of it. For me, it really is an experiment because I don’t have any experience.”

Something surges in Kyle as I admit my lack of experience. His smile curls into a smirk. Another stab of fear.

I am giving away too much.

 I’m afraid but also angry and disgusted.

“But I guess I’m not the first sixteen-year-old to be inexperienced,” I say, glaring at him. My anxiety is spiking, but I hold his gaze. I take a deep breath and force myself to regain control. “So that’s one condition—we both have to be cool with every part of every experiment.”

Kyle gives me a casual shrug of acknowledgment.

“That everything be consensual? Of course, Tommy, goes without saying. What kind of monster rapist do you think I am?”

“I’m not sure, Kyle. What kinds are there?”

He looks blank for a second before laughing heartily.

“Nice one, Tommy. You got me. I’d no idea you were such a comedian. Excellent timing and delivery!”

The compliment seems genuine, and there’s a break in the tension. We both know what type of creature he is, and this way of bringing it into the open seems to have worked. I allow myself to drink a gulp of wine to steady my nerves. There’s almost a feeling of respect from Kyle at the moment, like the cat-and-mouse game is shifting into two operators competing for advantage.

“So, anyways,” I continue, “since you said the old laws are gone, it makes sense to pass some new ones. So, consensuality gets two votes. Right?”

“Right.”

“And we respect each other as equals.”

Kyle raises his glass to me in a slightly facetious salute.

“Absolutely. Two votes.” He studies me before sitting up and speaking more seriously. “Of course I respect you as an equal. I’d be an idiot not to. I can’t run the biosphere by myself, and no one could stand total isolation. Disrespecting you would be like pissing in my own swimming pool. If you feel disrespected in any way, we both lose because we’re an interdependent two-person team.”

He takes another drink of wine while I sort through the layers of truth and deception in this. For the first time, he looks a little drunk. But it doesn’t fool me. He’s still in control of himself. And though the heat of the wine burns inside me, I have myself under control too.

“Any more conditions?” asks Kyle with an amused smile. Rachel’s voice pops into my mind.

“The power struggle is entertaining him too much,” she warns me. He has to take this seriously. You can’t afford to give in to anything until Kyle gives up what he’s been hiding.”

She’s right. I’ve got to know who I’m dealing with, and there might never be a better chance to find out.

“I’m not done with the respect condition yet,” I say sharply. “Respect is really the main condition. Consensuality is part of respect, but another part of respect is honesty.”

“Have I ever been dishonest with you?” replies Kyle with a look of mock innocence.

“Oh, of course not,” I say, matching his sarcasm. “I can’t imagine you ever being deceptive.”

As I reply, I catch sight of myself from the outside. I’ve never mocked anyone before. It feels ugly, and I’m disgusted by the need to mirror Kyle’s attitude.

“This whole beach party set up, getting a sixteen-year-old drunk and trying to have sex with him, some people might see that as creepy and dishonest.”

Some people are idiots,” replies Kyle. “Yeah, we drank wine. And you said it felt great. Plus, it looks like you’re holding your alcohol as well as I am, which is pretty respectable, given your size. Besides, I didn’t just get you drunk and start groping you. Have I laid a hand on you? In case you didn’t notice, so far, I’ve been as respectful and civil as I get. This is me on my best behavior. Yeah, I brought up sex. But it came up during a reasonable conversation, and now we’re having this awesome negotiation. So, where’s the dishonesty exactly?”

“OK, OK,” I say. “But honesty is more than not lying. We need to be open about things. I think we should know more about each other so we know who we’re experimenting with. We’ve been hiding stuff because we had to, but now we don’t. I’m willing to tell you anything, but are you willing to do the same? That’s my last condition.”

“Fine,” replies Kyle, his expression more serious this time. It’s a major concession. “Two votes. I think we have a deal. And I’m happy to fulfill all the conditions. But since it’s your suggestion, you go first. Tell me what you’ve been hiding, and then I’ll do the same. And believe me, I’ve been hiding plenty. I was planning on telling you most of it eventually. I’m good at deceiving people, very good. But no one is good enough to live in isolation with an empath and expect to hide anything major indefinitely. So we might as well get it all out in the open.”

He’s leveling with me. It’s a sort of respect I haven’t felt from him before, and I have a hunch he’s treating me as more of an equal than he’s ever treated anyone.

So, I go first. I let out my truth in small doses. I tell him about slowtime and quicktime.

“Very interesting,” says Kyle. “It sounds close to what I experience in competitions when I get in the zone. But I’m not getting the difference between slowtime and quicktime. It seems like in both modes, the outside world would appear to go slower, and you’d have more space to think and react.”

“Well—,” I pause to think. They feel so different that I’d never actually thought it through before. “Quicktime involves being physically and mentally sped up. It started with me just getting faster doing carpentry work. At first, I didn’t think it was strange. It just felt great to be working quickly. But when others saw, they were shocked, even disturbed. They said my movements were a blur. So I began hiding my abilities from everyone around me. But quicktime is useful when I need to think and react fast in the moment. I let it come on when we sparred because I felt you were in your own version of quicktime. That zone you mentioned.”

Kyle nods.

“So, in quicktime, the world is going at its normal speed,” I continue, “but I’m able to move and think quicker. In slowtime, the outside world decelerates. I get more space to observe and consider options. And my perceptions are enhanced more than my movements. I can look beneath the surface, and access intuitions about what’s really happening. I see a high-speed situation as if it’s happening in slow motion, so I can react to it more precisely. Like when I was attacked on the way to the testing center. Slowtime allowed me to see into my attacker’s mind and know what to do next. But when it was time to act, quicktime took over.”

Kyle’s eyes glimmer with avid interest when I tell him the real story of the fight in the alley and how I defeated my attacker. But I leave out the part about the telepathic flashes. He has me go over the details a second time before he’s satisfied.

“Nicely played,” says Kyle. “Though if I were you, I would’ve taken the opportunity to give the old bastard a few well-placed kicks to the head while he was down.”

“Well, Kyle, I guess that’s a good example of me not being you. I was raised to be nonviolent, so I’m not proud of what I had to do.”

“Yeah, you were raised to be nonviolent,” Kyle scoffs. “You were also raised in a hippie commune out in the woods where you didn’t need to be violent. But when you were attacked, your body knew what to do, and you became violent. Would it have been better if you were nonviolent and let that guy do whatever he wanted with you? Suppose you grew up in a neighborhood full of guys like him? I think you would’ve figured out the problem with nonviolence pretty quick. By not kicking that guy’s head in, you probably allowed him to dust himself off and find some other kid to attack. Did you think about that?”

“No,” I reply, as the image of my attacker flashes through my mind, his bloodshot eyes and foul breath. “I didn’t think about it. I’m not sure what to think about it. I didn’t say defending myself was wrong, just that I’m not proud of what I had to do.”

Kyle questions me about my ability to anticipate certain events, and I give the best explanation I can. But I don’t tell him about my out-of-body experience, the possible futures I saw, or the insights I had about him. Intuition tells me to hold back. Perhaps that makes me deceptive, but Kyle had me go first, and I’ve given up a lot of secrets without knowing how much he’ll share about himself.

When I sense he’s running out of pressing questions, I level my attention at him.

“So, now you know what I’ve been hiding. You’re the only person I’ve ever told about my strange abilities.” I try to register if this means anything to him, but there’s a concrete wall behind his eyes. “Your turn.”

“Oh, me? What’ve I been hiding? Plenty of things. But don’t worry, I won’t hold out on you. I do, however, have my own condition before I begin.”

Kyle twists the base of his wineglass into the sand next to him and turns to focus on me with deadly seriousness.

“At the moment, there’s no one for you to share my secrets with. But in the future, there could be. So I need you to swear a blood oath on pain of death that you’ll never, under any circumstances, share any of this. No matter what happens.”

“OK,” I reply, “if you swear on your life to the other conditions you already agreed to.”

It may sound like something two children would do to form a secret pact. But for me, blood oath is no figure of speech. It’s a consequence I know Kyle will enforce.

Obviously, I’m breaking that oath by writing this. But I’m willing to pay with my life if I get caught. The way things are going, I probably won’t survive in here much longer anyway. The only reason for me to keep living is in case it helps others.

If there are any survivors in the future, I owe them this record. I don’t want Kyle to manipulate anybody else. And, yeah, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I guess there’s a part of me that wants to live on in some way, even if it’s only through these rambling words etched on a gold disc . . .  So maybe it’s a selfish risk. I don’t know. But I need to keep the hope that someone will read this one day. That any of this will have mattered. It’s the only hope I have left.

Entry: 17 Seal Day: 1138 Time 10:35PM

After we swear our blood oaths, Kyle begins his turn at truth-telling.

“Alright, good,” he says, confident as ever. “Well, we might as well get the big one out of the way first—why I’m immune to the virus.”

He casually reclines onto his elbows, but I can tell he’s studying me.

“I’m immune because I’m genetically engineered.”

His tone is so matter of fact, but the shock of his admission causes my breath to catch. My mind starts snapping jigsaw pieces into place—he looks too perfect—his off-the-charts IQ—his superhuman athletic abilities. It all makes sense now, but it’s too unreal to accept.

I feel a wave of revulsion.

He’s a GMO.

I’d heard of genetically engineered animals. So I guess I knew doing that to humans was possible too. But it always seemed like one of those futuristic sci-fi possibilities. I never imagined I’d be living with a GMO person.

I struggle not to show the revulsion on my face. For a moment, I’m almost paralyzed by fear as his cool, engineered eyes study my reaction. Then I realize I have to say something.

“Genetically engineered?”  I blurt out. “By who?”

“Lab techs, of course,” replies Kyle with amused sarcasm before continuing in a serious tone. “A more meaningful question is who or what was behind my being engineered. And the answer to that question is James W. Vaughn. A wealthy and powerful old bastard. One of those behind-the-curtain billionaires, who was, purely in a legal sense, my father. My adoptive father. He happened to be one of the richest men on the planet, the owner of numerous corporations, with a controlling interest in many others. And one of his fully owned corporations was a biotech company doing cutting-edge research into recombinant gene manipulation.”

His explanation goes mostly over my head, but I try not to let it show.

“So, your dad arranged for you to be genetically engineered, but what about your mom? She went along with it?”

“My mom?” Kyle emphasizes the word as if I’d said something really childish like teddy bear. “I have no mom. I was implanted as an engineered, fertilized embryo into a surrogate. She was a human incubator paid for her services. Of course, she had no idea she was carrying a genetically engineered embryo.”

“Wow,” I reply. It’s a terrible thought to grow up without a mother. I’m sorry for Kyle, but I know he’ll resent my sympathy. “I didn’t even know it was possible not to have a mother.”

“Didn’t have one, didn’t need one. It was annoying enough to have a father. Technically, some might call the anonymous woman who donated the embryo my biological mother, but even that would be a stretch because both ovum and sperm were so extensively modified. The original genetics were more like raw material for the bioengineers.”

My mind races to keep up with the disturbing implications.

“Well, so what did they engineer you to be?”

“That’s an open question. I was never able to learn the specifics of the modifications.” A bitter edge of anger, even rage, lurks beneath his words. “Of course, some of the intended changes are obvious—enhanced immunity, reflexes, strength, memory, IQ, and so forth. But there are probably others that aren’t so obvious. For example, I could’ve been designed to have an exceptionally long lifespan. Or I could auto-destruct at age twenty-five.”

“But wouldn’t your dad know those things?”

“Of course he knew!” Kyle shoots back furiously.

Startled at his own loss of control, he takes a deep breath and sits up straighter before continuing.

“Of course he knew, but he wouldn’t tell me,” says Kyle. His voice is tight, and I notice the slightest tremble in his hand as he twists his wine glass deeper into the sand.

“When I turned eighteen, he told me I was engineered, but refused to give me any specifics. When I asked, he laughed at me and said, ‘Ah, so you want to know what’s in the secret sauce. That’s proprietary. You don’t expect me to give away trade secrets, do you? Consider yourself lucky I disclosed anything. Let’s see how pleased I am with you when you turn twenty-one, and maybe then I’ll tell you. We need you to be fully developed first to compare how well the actuality matches the design. We don’t want any heightened expectations skewing the results. But don’t worry, we put a lot of work into making you as optimal as possible. Just don’t fuck it up. I’ve got big plans for you, kiddo. You’re my secret weapon. All you have to do is make sure I’m pleased with you and your future is taken care of.’”

“Sounds like a real asshole,” I reply, careful to keep any hint of pity out of my voice.

“Of course he was. But he was a rich and powerful asshole. And I was glad he was a rich and powerful asshole. Just not that he wouldn’t disclose the secret sauce. I’m sure it was kept in a database somewhere, but my father’s most important projects used state-of-the-art firewalls. Not even Government-funded hacking teams could crack them. I’d have gladly wrung his neck if I was sure it’d lead to the secret sauce. But I never found the chance. And then the old bastard managed to croak a few months before the plague.

“Obviously, I didn’t tell anyone in the biosphere project about the engineering, but they’d be fools not to suspect. Until you came along, I was the only one with immunity. And it just so happens my father was the owner of a biotech company specializing in recombinant genetic manipulation?

“When my father dropped the news on my eighteenth birthday, he claimed there were no manmade fingerprints in the coding. He said I could get my genome mapped anytime I wanted, and it’d look like natural variations. But who knows what the most sophisticated analysis might reveal? If the biosphere project turned up anything anomalous, they certainly didn’t tell me. Maybe they thought I wasn’t aware of my genetic origins and didn’t want to traumatize me right before the mission.

“The official story was that I joined the family through a Russian adoption agency. And that was fully legit, at least on paper. My dad received an actual Russian boy, an infant. Who knows what they did with him once they did their little switch-a-roo, but I’m sure he wasn’t wasted. A living human subject without a legal identity is a valuable resource. And if there was one thing old James was good at, it was getting his money’s worth.”

Kyle pauses and looks at me for a reaction, but I try to keep my face neutral as I study him. He takes a deep breath, and I sense him feeling relieved to be able to discuss this openly. Like me, he’d never said such things about himself before. For a moment, I feel a twinge of sympathy. We both know what it’s like to carry heavy secrets.

“So,” Kyle says, regaining his composure, “That’s big secret number one. I’m genetically engineered, and no doubt that’s why I’m immune. A more interesting question is, why are you immune? That will be worth looking into at some point.”

He studies me for a long moment. The analytical part of him wants to cut me open. Instead, he continues.

“I was planning on telling you my other big secret anyway because there’s no way to hide it from an empath for long. And it looks like you’re already onto it. That annoying Rachel woman was, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she warned you about me. Did she?”

I don’t respond and keep my face neutral. Kyle smiles.

“That nosy bitch! I knew it. So, this isn’t all empathic X-ray vision, is it?” he laughs. “No need to respond. Your silence says enough. But I’m guessing Miss Rachel gave you a watered-down version with a lot of euphemisms so as not to unduly alarm. Have you heard of the Warrior Gene?”

“No,” I reply

“It’s a normal variant of the MAO-A gene present in about one percent of males. It correlates with increased athleticism, aggression, and psychopathy.”

“Psychopathy? You mean like being a psychopath?”

“Yes.”

“You mean—you’re a psychopath?”

“Yes,” replies Kyle, with patience.

“But—,” I’m thrown off by the starkness of his revelation combined with his casual tone. It’s as if he were telling me he was a Capricorn. “Why should I trust a psychopath?”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Well . . .” I trail off, unable to think of a safe answer.

Kyle sighs theatrically.

“You obviously have many of the common misconceptions about psychopathy, but I can help you work through those. We don’t all drown puppies.”

He stretches and takes a deep breath like a schoolteacher readying himself to provide a tedious but necessary lesson. I can tell it’s a carefully planned performance, and he led me right into it. His patience makes my startled reaction seem immature. I’m supposed to be the student with a head full of fuzzy misconceptions, and he, the dutiful teacher helping to clear up my confusion. To be fair, he did say he planned to tell me eventually.

“First off, psychopathy is a poor name for a natural variation. One percent of males are genetically coded to be alphas—dominant males, who tend to be more athletic, aggressive, possibly violent, and less emotional in a conventional sense. For example, they may not form attachments to people. These qualities combine to make them fearless warrior types, a type any hunter-gatherer tribe would need as a defender and perhaps leader. Hence, Warrior Gene.”

Kyle pauses to make sure I’m following along before pressing forward.

“Psychopathy is a poor name since path means illness, as in pathological, yet the condition isn’t considered a mental illness. People with these attributes tend to be more rational and intelligent than average. Technically, it’s categorized as a character disorder, but that’s also nonsensical. Our characters aren’t disordered. We just operate based on different principles than the cultural norm.

“Uninformed folk think psychopath is a synonym for violent maniac. Yes, psychopaths are more violent than average, but many aren’t violent at all. They may be highly successful politicians or businessmen. The professional group that tests with the highest level of psychopathy are CEOs—like old James W. Vaughn. So, I’m pretty sure this trait was genetically selected for me. I don’t think my father would’ve called me his secret weapon if he thought there was any chance I didn’t have it. But none of this is a big surprise, right?”

“Right,” I lie, keeping my face and voice neutral. Instinct tells me to go along with his assumption that I’d seen through to his true nature early on. “When we first met, I noticed that I couldn’t pick up much emotion. Rachel suggested you might not have the usual range.”

“Right,” says Kyle. “Usual range. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have emotions at all. It’s like color blindness. Most people with color blindness have trouble telling red and green apart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see any color. Likewise, people with the Warrior Gene have what are called proto emotions—we get angry, frustrated, excited, and we do like to have fun and receive pleasure. But, as I’m sure you’ve already sensed, psychopaths like me don’t have the warm and fuzzy feelings you want us to. We’re as sentient as anyone, but we’re not sentimental.

“Not having such emotions, and not having certain moral inhibitions, what’s conventionally called a conscience, can be useful. According to some evolutionary biologists, psychopaths are a successful subspecies. We have an adaptive advantage in social systems where most people are inhibited by conscience and confused by excess emotion. Plus, male psychopaths are more likely to get women pregnant than the average guy. So they’re more likely to pass on their genes.”

“Why are they more likely to get women pregnant?” I ask.

I’m more horrified than curious, but I don’t want him to catch onto my revulsion. Apparently, this is Kyle’s big chance to give someone the lecture on the total awesomeness of psychopaths he’s been rehearsing in his mind for years.

“A few reasons. One is that women find them more attractive. Females seek the alpha male, and those with the Warrior Gene are more likely to be alphas. Also, psychopaths don’t form typical attachments, so they have no problem leaving one woman and impregnating another. Males in general have that tendency. We’re biologically hardwired to spread our genes as much as possible. Psychopaths are just better at it. Since they excel at spreading their genes, evolutionary biologists assumed their numbers would likely increase. One of them even referred to the psychopath as the man of the future. We may have arisen in the hunter-gatherer epoch, but we’re even better adapted to mobile, modern societies. We excel at everything corporate interviewers or voters look for—strength, confidence, charisma, and strategic thinking. Sound like anyone you know?” asks Kyle, affecting a charming smile.

“Indeed it does,” I reply neutrally.

“Anyway, psychopathy is a normal genetic variant. I think the evolutionary biologists who described the psychopath as the man of the future understood us best. They noted that psychopaths are ideally suited to play valuable roles in technologically advanced societies. We’re immune to fear and will act effectively in chaotic situations like wars and natural disasters. Research has shown there are situations in which psychopaths are more likely to act altruistically than the average person.”

“Why would they do that?” I ask.

“Because we’re fearless and enjoy risk. So a psychopathic first responder may be the one willing to enter a burning building to save your life. There are many life-or-death situations where you’d be better off in the hands of a psychopath. Saving you from that malfunctioning lifter robot is an obvious example.”

Suddenly, a horrifying possibility shoots through me.

Did Kyle manufacture the robot disaster? It was too rare an occurrence and too perfect a rescue. Was it all a setup? A game to win my trust?

“Surgeons test out higher in psychopathy than average. Let’s say you have to undergo a high-risk operation. Would you want a surgeon who cares deeply about you, is highly emotional and might freak out if things go wrong? Or would you rather have a cool-as-ice psychopathic surgeon who’s totally focused, enjoys risk, and won’t hesitate under pressure? In dangerous situations, there’s no better ally than a psychopath. And what situation is more dangerous than a global pandemic threatening the whole species?

“If you think about it, the most reasonable conclusion is that the higher-up biosphere people were in on both my big secrets. The dots were easy to connect. My guess is there was something like a gentleman’s agreement not to talk about it. They were probably afraid some high-ranking bureaucrat would disqualify me if they knew. If that happened, they’d have had zero immune candidates until you came along, and the government might’ve stopped funding the program. With the notable exception of Miss Rachel, I’ll bet many of the better-informed realized my psychopathy was an asset. The whole world was in an emergency that would emotionally overwhelm anyone who wasn’t a psychopath. A leader who could act efficiently in a catastrophe was ideal.”

“Well, they did call you The Quarterback,” I reply. “But wouldn’t a leader who doesn’t care about other people have disadvantages?”

“Often, the person who isn’t emotionally attached to the people under them is the best adapted to make the right move and save lives. I’ll give you an example—it’s a classic thought experiment.”

“Sure,” I say. I don’t know where this is going, but I realize Kyle’s on a roll, and I couldn’t stop him if I tried.

“Let’s say you’re standing in a railway yard next to a track-switching device. A train’s brakes have failed, and it’s coming in way too fast. A track switch is set so the train will derail at a platform where six people are standing. It’ll definitely kill all six. However, if you throw the switch, the train will be diverted to a different track and hit another platform where only one person is standing, killing them instead. So, what would you do? Would you stand there and do nothing and let six people die, or would you throw the switch?”

“I guess I’d throw the switch,” I say uncomfortably.

“Good choice,” says Kyle. “And that’s what most people say they’d do. But you don’t know any of these people. Maybe the six people are members of a criminal gang, and maybe the one person is a saintly mother of five small children. You’ve basically made a cold, mathematical, but correct decision based on the information available to you—it’s better to save six lives than one. You acted to choose an outcome that came out five units ahead of the other one. But you also violated your nonviolence principle, didn’t you? By taking action and throwing the switch, you chose to kill a person who was safe until you acted. In this situation, most people would act the same way as the psychopath, the logical, correct way that saves the most lives.

“Now consider a variation of this situation. You’re in the train station, and the same train is speeding down the track toward the platform with six people. But you’re not near the switch anymore, and you’d never reach it in time. You’re standing on a bridge above the track. You look down and see the six people are these lovely kids who’ve just been let out of a school for gifted children. They’re full of promise, and their whole lives lie ahead of them.

“Beside you on the bridge is a morbidly obese man eating doughnuts out of a greasy paper bag. You can tell he’s a diabetic, slovenly mess who obviously doesn’t bother to take care of himself. Judging by his terrible physical condition, he’ll likely be dead in a year or so. Plus, he’s too obese to have a girlfriend, so he’ll never pass on his shitty genes anyway. And he’s not even enjoying his life. He looks totally apathetic and barely aware of what’s going on around him.

“Suddenly, with seconds to spare, you realize how you could save the children’s lives. If you were to push the fat guy off the bridge, he’d land right on the track where the train is heading, and his large body mass would cause the train to derail before it got to the platform. Of course, the fattie would be killed, but all six gifted children would be completely unharmed. Also, no one is watching. There are no surveillance cameras, so you know you won’t get caught. If anyone asks, you could say he jumped to save the kids. With one push, you’d transform him from zero to hero and give his pathetic life meaning.

“So, what would you do? If you do nothing, the fat ass lives his miserable life for another year or so, but all six gifted children die. But if you push him, he’ll lose that last miserable year of his life, but you’ll save all six of those lovely children. So what’s your choice?”

I feel trapped, like I’m actually standing on that bridge. My pulse is quickening, and I can’t think of an answer that feels right.

“So, what’s your choice, Tommy?” Kyle presses. “You’ve thought for about five seconds. In that scenario, you had five seconds to act before it was too late. Hesitate any longer, and those six kids are dead while the fatso is still scarfing down doughnuts. But you get to walk away from the bloody wreck with your conscience clean.

“You stay true to your nonviolence. You don’t lay a hand on anyone, but those six kids pay with their lives to preserve your precious conscience.

“Doing nothing is still a choice of who lives or dies. Your hesitation, your choice to do nothing, just killed six kids. But you know what? I’m going to give you a do-over. I’ll set the clock back five seconds starting now. What are you going to do?”

I feel cornered and desperate, but I’ve got to say something.        Kyle enjoys watching me squirm.

“I don’t know, man. I hope I’m never in a situation like that. I’m not sure what I’d do, but I’d have a hard time pushing someone off a bridge. I’d rather jump off myself.”

“But that won’t stop the train,” replies Kyle. “You only weigh a buck-fifteen. So the price of martyring yourself for your conscience would be seven gifted, dead young people and one fattie eating his doughnuts. Oh, and one of those seven gifted dead kids, you, would later turn out to be the only naturally occurring person the U.S. government could find with immunity to a global plague.

“So that’s really your answer? You’d commit suicide? Think about what that would mean. There’d be no Tommy, thus we wouldn’t have the minimum of two competent people to run the biosphere. Biosphere 3 would be nonviable without you, so your suicide would dramatically lower the odds of our species surviving. Your choice means you’d be willing to sacrifice our entire species just to preserve your precious conscience. Your suicide would be the most selfish act in the history of mankind!”

“OK, well, sorry if I just destroyed the whole species. I said I don’t know the right answer.”

“Really? Even with a do-over, you still don’t know? So how come in the first situation, you had no problem throwing the switch and killing someone? And the person you killed wasn’t this fat slob—it turned out to be a saintly mother who had five kids depending on her. It sounds like your nonviolence thing isn’t about saving lives or caring about other people. It’s about not wanting to get your hands dirty. It’s about wanting to feel superior to people willing to act. Isn’t it?”

Kyle is pressing his attack brilliantly. My head’s spinning. Maybe I’m finally drunk.

“I said I don’t know. I guess you got me. Can we just—can we talk about something else?”

Kyle smiles, enjoying my defeat.

“That’s fine. But first, I’ll tell you what should be obvious. If I were standing on the bridge, and knew I wouldn’t be caught, I’d push the fattie in a heartbeat. I’d save the six gifted kids and kill the fatass. Instead, you chose to let him live and for six kids to die. All because your conscience made you unable to act. So, who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy here? Whose character creates the highest body count? Who’s better at leading the human species back from the edge of extinction—the psychopath or the virtuous empath? Maybe I’m the one who shouldn’t trust you,” he says, grinning.

I can’t afford to give Kyle total victory. I need to keep challenging him, but I have no idea how.

“You should see yourself,” he laughs as if it was all a big joke. “Come on, Tommy. Relax. I have no choice but to trust you. And you me. But you see my point? Psychopathy has its benefits.”

“Yeah,” I say flatly.

Kyle gulps back his glass of wine and reclines on the sand. I’m increasingly fearful of what’s coming next.

“Anyway, now you know my big secrets. Have I met all your conditions? Any questions about any of this?”

I need to say something. I can’t let him see me helpless and confused. Not now. Not ever.

“Yeah,” I say, grasping at straws. “You said you don’t form attachments to other people—”

“Right,” says Kyle.

“So why should I trust someone who doesn’t form attachments?” I ask.

“Because attachments don’t make someone trustworthy or reliable,” Kyle replies. “Unattached people are more likely to relate to you reasonably.

“Let’s say a guy is highly attached to his girlfriend, but he thinks she’s cheating on him. Because of his attachment, his assumption he owns her, he might decide to kill her rather than think about her being with another guy. Happens all the time.  If someone’s attached to you, they’re likely to relate to you irrationally and cause you all kinds of trouble. So, yeah, I’m not attached to you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value you. I value you very highly, more than anything else in the biosphere, which is practically saying I value you more than anything else in the whole world outside of myself.

“I’m not a machine. I’m a human being, and a social animal. Like anyone, I need other people. Even if I could run the biosphere alone, the isolation would drive me crazy. The only rational relationship between us is cooperative interdependence. I’m a reliable ally because there’s no reason for me not to be. Psychopaths are more rational than regular folk, and I’m a particularly logical psychopath. If I were attached to you, there’d be moods, jealousies, demands, dramas, acting out—the usual human crap. Acting irrationally toward someone is disrespectful, isn’t it? I behave rationally, which is another way of saying respectfully.

“What do you actually lose by my lack of attachment? In a dangerous situation, I’d act in the most efficient way possible to save your life. But if I couldn’t save you for some reason, I’d move on. I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life crying myself to sleep. Would that help you? I wouldn’t want you to do that for me. I’m not asking you to be attached to me. All I’m trying to do is set up a relationship based on cooperative interdependence. Sex, for example, is a human need. Since each of us is the only other person we’ve got, if we can work that out, it’s a win-win outcome. Isn’t it?”

“What if it doesn’t work out?” I ask.

“I don’t suppose failures, only success. I focus my energy on finding ways to make things work, not anticipating failure.”

My last question was a mistake. Kyle is getting impatient, and he’s essentially right. We can’t afford to suppose failure. To cover my misstep, I hurriedly reach for another question.

“You said you’re more reliable because our interests coincide. But what about a situation where our interests don’t coincide?”

I regret the question as soon as it leaves my mouth, realizing it also implies a negative outcome.

“But our interests do coincide,” says Kyle irritably. “That should be obvious. The only way that could change is if other people entered the biosphere and you broke your oath. That’d absolutely cause our interests to diverge, and you’d be right at that point to consider me extremely dangerous. Anything else?”

“No,” I say tiredly, “not at the moment.”

Kyle’s satisfied. There’s a mutual sense we’ve talked enough. He’s met my conditions, and more resistance would be dangerous. Given the circumstances, our negotiation reached the best possible outcome. There’s nothing left to do but wait for his next move.

The sun has set, and the Ocean Biome’s artificial lighting is low. I feel Kyle slowing himself down to study me carefully. I let him. I’ve been more defiant and aggressive than I’ve ever been with anyone, and that’s not an easy stance for me to maintain. The fight in me is burned out. 66

In the silence, I enter slowtime. The moment stretches long enough to locate the basic direction of Kyle’s thoughts. He’s studying me with the psychopath’s version of empathy, trying to put himself in my position and calculate the best way to seduce me.

I’m the object of his desire, but he realizes I’m more than that. He’s well aware he underestimated me, and that I still have unknown aspects he can’t fully predict. But Kyle is a careful strategist who knows how to avoid unnecessary risk, and he’s adapting at high speed to these new findings. It’ll be better if he can pull off the experiment without freaking me out. He can afford to be patient. After all, I’m not going anywhere.

“Any interest in a swim?” Kyle asks. ”Clear our heads from the wine and intense conversation?”

I pull myself out of slowtime.

 “Yeah,” I say. “Sounds nice.”

We wade into the ocean water, and he’s right, it relaxes me.

Deciding to be playful, Kyle asks Gaia to increase the wave power until it’s strong enough to bodysurf. Then he changes the music to a techno remix of “Surfing Safari” and splashes me when I ride in on a wave.

Kyle is an excellent swimmer. He shows me a technique to hold my breath longer and how to wrestle while treading in deep water. We take turns putting each other in headlocks and trying out various moves.

Yeah, I understand what he’s doing and why, but I go along anyway. He’s getting me used to physical contact in a non-threatening way.

After the swim, we’re quiet as we walk back to the Human Habitat, and I try to prepare myself.

It’s just an experiment. Any sacrifice that keeps the biosphere alive is worth it.

But . . . but how much of myself can I sacrifice without losing who I am? And if I’m no longer me, can I keep the biosphere going? What will happen to the boy in the woods?

I feel myself starting to spin out.

Stop thinking, Tommy, it’s just making you more nervous.

I’m trying to still my thoughts, but there’s no way around it—I’m intimidated by what I know is coming.

When we get back to our quarters, Kyle suggests we take showers to get the salt water off and meet up in the Mushroom.

He’s trying to be nice by using the word “Mushroom.” It’s a nickname I’d given to the mushroom-shaped tower at the center of our habitat, designed as our recreational oasis. It’s got a vast library of movies and virtual-reality games. All state-of-the-art. The biosphere team, probably thanks to Rachel, recognized the hazard of boredom. So they went all out, creating a space for virtual travel and adventures to relieve the monotony. It’s one of the coolest places in the biosphere, but I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it after tonight.

Entry: 18 Seal Day: 1139 Time 2:21AM

Once I’ve showered and dressed, I start up the stem of the Mushroom. It’s a spiral staircase enclosed by space frame and long, diamond-shaped windows overlooking the desert. Each step makes a hollow sound beneath my feet as I climb toward the head of the Mushroom.

The Mushroom is a domed space, sheathed with panes of optical glass. Its default mode is called Transparent which gives you a spherical view of the desert and sky.

When I get to the top, I find Kyle lying on one of the black futons, staring up at the stars.

My heart rate’s way up, and my palms are sweaty. I try to slow my breathing and find a degree of calm. Kyle rolls to his side to look at me as I approach. I sit beside the oversized futon on the floor, hugging my knees to my chest.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” I say back.

“Beautiful night,” he says. “Look at the stars.”

They’re dazzlingly bright and look lifelike, but I know it’s a processed image because of the smoke outside. With the optical glass, we can dim what’s outside or magnify it. Even at nighttime, the light can be altered to look like sunset or other times of the day.

Kyle pats the open space on the futon next to him.

“Don’t kill your neck, man. We should be able to get a great view of Saturn tonight.”

I lay down beside him. I’m sure he can tell I’m nervous, but at least he’s not drawing attention to it.

My mind races as I try to relax.

Maybe he’s right. We’ve got no one else to choose from. And I’m not even sure if I have a gender preference. I find certain people attractive, but I don’t really care much what’s between their legs .  .  . I think. Maybe it’ll be easier than I—

“Gaia, enhance our view of Saturn,” says Kyle, interrupting my anxious thoughts.

Saturn expands to fill the dome as Gaia’s color mapping software enhances the contrast of its ring bands. The planet looks imposing amongst the stars burning coldly above us.

“Watch this,” Kyle says, grinning. “Gaia, enhance with Hologram Mode Three.”

In a flicker, Saturn becomes three-dimensional, floating in the space above us. Subtle colors are now distinguishable on its surface as the ring’s striations become more complex.

Kyle turns to look at me.

“I never had a chance to mention this before, but I’m an expert massage therapist. Care for a session? It might help you relax.”

“OK, sure,” I say, hoping he’s right.

He asks me to remove my shirt. I take a deep breath, and my hands shake as I comply. I lie down on the futon on my stomach, trying to calm my nerves.

His hands are strong, and everything he does seems professional. None of it is overtly sexual, and I try to calm my mind and go with the physical sensations. In his massage-therapist tone, he asks for feedback here and there—if he’s using too much pressure or if I’m willing to take a little more.

He has me turn onto my back to work my legs. Saturn is still floating there above us. I try to keep my breathing slow and go with everything, but I can’t stop my heart from racing with anxiety.

“Are you ready to go past massage?” Kyle asks in his massage-therapist voice.

Up to this point, the whole experience has felt docile and consensual, even if it wasn’t. Manipulation disguised as care.

“OK,” I reply quietly.

He has me roll over onto my stomach again and kneels behind me. I feel his hands sliding toward the waist band of my shorts, and that’s when it hits me—the volcanic onrush of predatory energy he’s been holding back. I freeze with panic.

NO! I don’t want this! Run! It’s the alley again—the alley and the rapist—but I’m letting it happen—I’m letting it happen!—But I have to let it happen—Run!—I have to—Run!—I don’t want this. I don’t want to be—

He grabs the waistband of my shorts and pulls down. And then . . .

And then . . . I disassociate.

Disassociate.

The word floats there so harmlessly. I guess I got the term from stuff I read later on sexual trauma.

But it was more than just disassociation. Time stops—completely—and I branch off into a different timeline, an alternate reality. I’m still in the Mushroom, but I’m clothed again. There’s no Kyle, no fire burning above me, just quiet space. I take a deep breath as my panic releases.

Then I hear the echo of approaching footsteps. Someone’s climbing the spiral staircase within the stem of the Mushroom, but the footsteps are lighter than Kyle’s.

His head emerges from the opening in the floor, and he pauses to look at me. Then his whole body is up, and he’s striding toward me.

It’s Andrew.

But—I’m not sure how to put this. He’s not real in the same way as the Andrew I met at the treehouse. He has a stronger glow, almost an aura. And no burns. He looks perfect.

I can barely speak from the shock of seeing him.

“Andrew . . . How . . . how are you here?”

He sits down across from me on the other side of the futon.

“I think we should focus on you and your situation,” he says, looking into me with his compassionate gaze. “The how isn’t important. I’m here to help. I understand the trauma you’re undergoing. You deserve consolation, but all I can offer is clarification.

“You and Kyle are polarized streams of evolution. Two opposites destined to collide. You’re both crucial parts of an intentional experiment.”

“Intentional experiment?” My mind races. “Intended by who? Who designed it?”

“Forces beyond our comprehension,” replies Andrew. “I don’t know more than you, Tommy. I’m just reading the patterns implicit in this situation. The sexual element of the experiment might seem to come from nowhere. But sex is at the cutting edge of evolution, so it shouldn’t be surprising that an evolutionary experiment is also a sexual one. And yet, you and Kyle are a paradox. Two males can’t pass on their genes to further evolution. Perhaps this impossibility may be what sets up a transformational possibility in you . . . a metamorphosis.”

“Metamorphosis?” The word reverberates strangely in my mind. “What do you mean? What sort of metamorphosis?”

“I don’t know exactly. But I can see that it’s already happening within you. Your relationship to time has altered, or we couldn’t be talking right now. You may be the seed crystal for a species metamorphosis. Possibly there are other survivors out there going through similar changes. Strange transformations can happen to a species threatened with extinction. But only you can live out this part of the experiment.”

“But I don’t want to live it out! It’s going to break me!”

Andrew’s eyes fill with tears. I feel the same understanding in him as I did in the treehouse.

“You’re right, Tommy. It will be deeply harmful. But you’re strong and adaptable. It doesn’t have to destroy you.”

His voice is soft, but his tone becomes urgent.

“Kyle’s energy is deeply tainted. I know my words are of little comfort, but it’s better to face it. Metamorphosis requires the painful destruction of earlier selves. The biosphere is a crucible of intense survival pressures needed for transformation. The pressure is on you because you are the one capable of metamorphosis, not Kyle. You’ll be able to influence him to a degree, but you can’t shift his fundamental nature. Stay vigilant to his dark energy and how it affects you, so it doesn’t distort your personality. Above all, don’t let your fear show. If Kyle gets a taste of sadistic pleasure victimizing you sexually, it will set up a death spiral for you and the biosphere.

“I wish I could do more, Tommy. None of us are in control of this experiment. Kyle thinks he is, but he’s wrong. All you can do is keep improvising . . . You’re much more than you think. . . You will survive this.”

Andrew bows his head.

“This is a map of where to find me,” he says. Then he stands and walks swiftly to the center of the Mushroom and disappears down the stem.

This is a map of where to find me.

The words echo in my mind as the Mushroom fades away, and I’m alone in a dark space. I’m within myself, still suspended from ordinary time.

Improvise. I tell myself. Just keep improvising.

I feel a tugging on my ankles. The moment has stretched as much as it can, and I must return to my body.

Suddenly I’m back, feeling the fabric of the black futon under me and Kyle above my exposed body as he slips my shorts past my feet. I’m back in the chaotic stream of events but in extreme slowtime, and I have an expanded moment before his next action to feel Kyle’s raw desire coming at me. Fear surges through me as I struggle to bring it under control.

He moves closer, fiery excitement radiating from him.

And then.

Entry: 19 Seal Day: 1139 8:44PM

Sorry. Reliving that moment made me sick, and I had to step away.

I let it happen.

And I let it happen again. And again. And again.

And over time, I learned to become an object, a source of pleasure for someone. An ever-more skillful sex worker, basically. But I don’t have sex with Kyle whenever he wants or in every way he wants. That would be as disastrous as denying him all together.

Even in surrendering myself, I realized I needed to set limits, both for my own sake and to keep Kyle engaged. But deciding when to resist, and when to give in, was its own exhausting work.

I do what seems necessary for the survival of the biosphere, but it’s wearing me down.

I’ve gotten better at disassociating from the trauma as it’s happening. I let the sex worker do his job while I disappear. But . . . disassociation is like a topical anesthetic that wears off quickly and leaves you hollow.

I’ve become a shell of the person I once was.

Allowing myself to be used brings dark feelings I can barely contain. Worthlessness, shame, failure, self-pity, confusion, doubt, rage, self-hate, despair—pretty much any dark feeling you can think of. During the day, when I’m busy working, I can usually block it out. Work is like my drug. I work almost fiercely and go into quicktime a lot. And fortunately, there’s a lot of work available. And I have another drug—running laps in the South Lung till I’m exhausted. That sounds weird, running in a lung, but it’s just a large circular building with a dome that can expand or contract to equalize air pressure. It’s an ugly, industrial-looking space you access through a long tunnel, but once I put on music and catch my rhythm, I go fast and tune out everything. It’s like my hamster wheel, one of the few things that keeps me from going crazy in here. But other times, especially when I’m alone at night or getting up in the morning, it hits me hard.

I’ve done all I can to hide this from Kyle, but it seeps out. I can feel it—I can feel myself slipping into the darkness. But I must contain it to maintain the fragile equilibrium of the biosphere. How I feel doesn’t matter so long as there’s some point to this whole biosphere experiment. But my hope that there is grows dimmer every day. When I try to look ahead, the path vanishes into unformed darkness.

And yet, as damaging as my life here is, I feel it’s leading somewhere. While part of me is pulled into darkness, other parts are growing. Having to continually adapt to captivity with a brilliant psychopath has furthered the metamorphosis Andrew spoke of. My mind’s been forced to expand. There are moments of lucidity when I have deeper insights than ever before.

My heart is beating fast as I write this, but my mind is oddly calm. It’s like my body feels the pain but I’m numbed out, like being under anesthesia while getting stitches.

“It’s disastrously unhealthy to repress feelings,” Dr. Rachel says.

I know that.

“Repressing your feelings might make life easier in the short term—”

I know all of that.

“But in the long term—“

There’s no choice!

I have to repress my feelings. Even though it threatens my sanity. In reality, Rachel isn’t here to help me with this. But even if she was, she couldn’t help me recover from trauma that’s still happening.

“Just take the pain, Tommy, and keep going. The biosphere can’t afford for you to have a useless meltdown.”

Another voice in my head said that, but it doesn’t have a specific personality attached to it.

Often, I feel like I’m just pretending to be someone. I don’t feel fully real anymore. I’m more like an actor putting on a Tommy performance. I can immerse myself in the roles when I need to, but there’s a terrible cost to it.

I feel hollow. All my energy goes into maintaining the illusion that things are working. And I can’t afford to mourn for who I was or might have been.

I’ve blocked myself from thinking about most of what happened that night. But there’s one part I can’t stop thinking about—Andrew.

The most rational interpretation is that Andrew was a hallucination created to help me adapt to a traumatic situation. Sometimes survival takes priority over sanity. I get all that.

What I had to do was such a catastrophic threat to my identity—perhaps I needed to create another male I respected to tell me it was OK.

Whatever Andrew is, I can’t stop thinking about him. I’m still trying to figure out the words he left me with both times,

This is a map of where to find me.

Are the treehouse and Mushroom encounters the map themselves? Both? If so, how do they connect? And how are they supposed to help find him?

I don’t get it.

Entry: 20 Seal Day: 1139 9:50PM

There’s something I need to confess here. The way I’ve described the sexual trauma makes it sound like I’m—I don’t know—stronger than I really am.

When I’m around Kyle, the survivor kicks in, and I disassociate from my feelings. It’s been like a three-year-long chess match, with every move needing more calculation than the last. I keep it together till I’m back in my room, but then I have . . .  meltdowns. Meltdowns I’m ashamed to write about.

“But you must, Tommy. You need to write about them,” says Rachel.

I don’t know, maybe she’s right. I don’t want to create a false impression to make me seem better than I am. Or to make any part of this seem OK . . .

My meltdowns

Entry: 21 Seal Day: 1140 7:41PM

My meltdowns are terrifying. So dark and painful. I fear having one I won’t make it through. I fear losing my sanity.

It is lost when they’re happening. I lose my sense of self and all faith that my existence has value or purpose. I hate myself and my life, and I just want to disappear.

I think about hanging myself from the spiral staircase to my sleeping loft. A few times I’ve actually gone to the top of the stairs with an extension cord in my hand, but I couldn’t follow through.

What if I had just adamantly refused Kyle? What if the visions I saw were wrong? What if I just stood my ground—he couldn’t afford to kill me. I’ve betrayed The Friends by allowing this to happen to me.

Entry: 22 Seal Day: 1140 8:39PM

. . . I had to delete some stuff before I broke off. Some of my meltdown thoughts are too shameful. I just can’t let them be inscribed. I must not allow such thoughts ever again. They destroy my will to go on.

If it was just about me, I’d go back to the top of the stairs and end this. But it isn’t, at least I hope not. There’s still a chance the biosphere could one day help the world come back to life.

I’m ashamed of how close I’ve come to quitting.

Entry: 23 Seal Day: 1140 9:13PM

Bad day. And then it took hours to get to sleep. I hate this life, but I’ve got to get better at containing the darkness in me. I’ve got to keep going.

Entry: 24 Seal Day: 1142 11:21PM

Sorry, I couldn’t bring myself to write for a few days. But I’ve got to. It would be selfish to stop. If survivors find this journal, it might have value, even if it’s just warning them about Kyle. So, I’ll try to give you some idea of what’s happened for the last three years.

The night of radio silence set up the terms of my relationship with Kyle for the first year of enclosure. We had a tremendous workload getting everything in the biosphere dialed in during that time. But once we programed robotics to do more of the routine work, the pace slowed to a nine-hour workday. It was still seven days a week, but compared to the first ten months, it was almost a life of leisure.

But for me, leisure time is tormenting. When I run out of work, I dwell on the people I’ve lost. And the innocence I’ve lost.

Kyle has fewer technical challenges to solve. And that means his boredom has grown, and I’ve had to sacrifice more of myself to keep him satisfied.

I need to stop. I’ve lost the urge to write. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.

Entry: 25 Seal Day: 1149 9:17PM

Nothing’s changed. It’s still hard for me to write about what’s happened since that night. Most of it’s a gray blur of monotonous labor, sex work, and waiting for a viable future to reveal itself. There are, however, a few episodes I must write about.

The first of these was the darkest, but despite that, it renewed some hope in me. Hope that there’s value to my continued existence. The episode also gave evidence of the metamorphosis altering me. It’s changing me in ways I don’t really understand.

It begins with what seems like a terrible nightmare. I should warn you—it was about a gruesome suicide attempt. The sensory and emotional impact was so intense it took me a while to realize I was no longer Tommy but someone else.

I’m standing in a bathroom—and it’s quiet. I’m overwhelmed with hatred of my life and myself. The pressure within me is unbearable. The only way to relieve it is to cut open my wrists and let the suffering pour out of me until I drain into oblivion.

I look at myself in the mirror with so much pain and self-hate it takes a moment to register—

That’s not my,reflection.

I’m staring into the eyes of another kid about my age and size. It’s jarring.

But then, my Tommy self is pushed to the back of my awareness, and his emotions overpower mine completely. I am him.

I hold a razor blade tightly between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. I’m hyperventilating—trying to summon the physical courage to slash into my left wrist. I need to be decisive and cut deep on the first try.

White light rips through me as I drag the blade. It shudders to red.

I stagger backward and drop the razor, my body trembling with shock. Instinctively, I clutch my left wrist, trying to stop the pain. Then I remember the whole point is to bleed out, so I let go of my wrist . . .

I slump to the floor, blood gushing out of me. I lie there, letting it happen, but the bleeding doesn’t release me from pain. It only fills me with fear and horror as my life drains away. I’m chilled and trembling, and I want the agony to stop, but now I’m too weak to save myself.

. . . I’m only half alive, curled in a fetal position on a cold tile floor. I smell the blood pooling around me. I become the blood running along the grout between the tiles, seeping through the cracks. I drip into a vast, dark space below, and fall through emptiness, a void between places, and there’s nothing to catch hold of. I no longer have a solid body. I expand in a terrible, thinning way when I reach out to stop falling.

There are no more chances or opportunities. I’m in the place you fall to after last chances are gone. I have no name. No identity. I’m the core of something that’s lost its parts but still feels pain.

In this terrible void, I hear thoughts, but I’m not sure whose they are.

I’ve nevered myself.

I will never make contact with anyone again.

I will never be anyone again.

I fall deeper into the sightless darkness like a corpse tied to cinderblocks, plummeting to the bottom of the ocean. Far below me are ravenously hungry, bottom-feeding creatures. They sense my glow falling toward them through the void. They’re a swarm of night-crawling shells waiting to devour what’s left of me.

Suddenly, a brilliant light erupts in the void and arrests my fall.

It’s me becoming aware of myself as Tommy again.

I’m with the dying boy but no longer within him. My glow is strong enough to surround him and stop his descent. I hold him close, and my energy revives him like wind blowing on a fading ember. I pull him upward, and we ascend like a flare rising through the darkness.

We separate as we breach the physical world again, and I float above his body.

He lies curled in a fetal position with blood all around him. His sightless pupils dilate with terminal shock. He’s on the edge of death, a few heartbeats from flatline.

I sense someone approaching and rise above the tar-shingled roof of the house to see a kid get out of his car headed toward the front door. His movements are awkward, and his eyes are only half-open like he’s really stoned.

Energy rushes from me and into the stoner kid, firing up his nervous system and hastening his steps. Without understanding the urgency propelling him, he hurries down the tight hallway and yanks open the bathroom door. My vision zooms in on his shocked face, and time freezes.

I see the scene before him reflected in the corneas of his eyes. The bloody razor pops out like a red hazard icon blinking SUICIDE on the dashboard of his mind.

Suddenly, I wake up, gasping for air, my mind a horror of confusion.

I can’t tell where I am until I look out the window and see the outline of the Catalina Mountains in the pale, pre-dawn light.

No, I’m not him, I’m Tommy. But where is the other boy? Is there still time to save him?

I was urging his stoned friend to help him, and now—there’s no trace of that reality at all. I’m in the biosphere, but I still feel his blood all around me and his life hanging by a thread.

I pull myself together. It’s too early for morning chores, but I get up anyway and shower as if I’m washing off blood. All day I’m haunted by the nightmare. It still feels so real.

I try to reason myself out of it. I’ve had suicidal moments, so maybe that caused a terrible nightmare to scare me out of hanging myself. That’s the only sensible explanation. But what makes sense isn’t always what’s true, and something tells me those two kids are real people, not dream characters. Only I don’t see how that’s possible. There was no sign of the pandemic in the nightmare. The boy lived in an ordinary house, and the stoner kid drove up in a battered, old car. It didn’t feel like the past—it felt so right NOW. I felt my energy getting the stoner boy to hurry into the house. Was this happening in a parallel reality or the pre-pandemic past?

How could I influence the past? And who was this boy I became? Why was I suddenly so connected to a total stranger? And what’s the point of the whole experience? Did I actually save that kid?

As much as I’d like to believe that, the situation looked terminal. Too much blood. He must’ve had only a few heartbeats left when his friend showed up. And this other kid didn’t look like the best person to handle a medical emergency.

All I could do is hope and pray it worked out. The experience left me shaken and perplexed. Of course, I didn’t discuss it with Kyle. I tell him as little of what’s going on in me as possible. And I knew he’d just laugh it off as a nightmare.

But then, three days later, I’m tending to the farm when I get a distinct sense of being watched. I look up at the cameras attached to the space frame since the logical assumption is that it’s Kyle monitoring me. But I sense that’s not it. A sudden feeling of shame ripples through me, and with it, a partial shift of self, like I’m casting another person’s shadow. It lasts a moment before I snap back into focus.

It’s that boy. He’s struggling somewhere.

He barely has any will to live, but he’s trying to recover, and my presence is helping. He recognizes my perseverance, despite the darkness I face, and it’s giving him hope for his own situation.

I do my best to stay open to his observation and focus on my work, harvesting vegetables. He passes in and out of my awareness most of the afternoon. By the time night falls, I’m alone again.

I know this all defies logic. And what I’m about to say will defy it even more. As dark and terrifying as the first part of the experience was, the encounter three days later renewed my feeling of purpose. No matter how hopeless my situation seems, other people in some future or past are connected to me. They’re depending on me. So, I must keep going, and I will keep writing this journal for you, whoever you are—the person who will one day find my words.

The strange encounter also renewed my hope of finding Andrew. If the metamorphosis allows me to influence someone separate from me in both time and space, there must be a way to reconnect with him.

If only I could understand the map of where to find him.

Entry: 26 Seal Day: 1150 11:09PM

I need to tell you about a night with Kyle when I felt my life hanging by a thread. But there are some things I should explain first.

From the perspective of his interests, Kyle acts logically. I realize that lowers the odds of him causing me serious injury or worse. He knows I’m irreplaceable. But if Kyle had ten Tommy clones on ice in the basement, I don’t think he’d hesitate to sacrifice this one to science. And I’d be lucky to get anesthesia before he began dissecting me piece by piece.

In his normal state of mind, Kyle’s not going to do something irreversible like that unless he’s sure it serves his purposes. But what if he’s so stressed and angry that he forgets his purposes?

I enraged him that night. And as it all unfolded, there were moments when I flashed back to a possible vision of the future I had—a vision where I looked up at Kyle and knew I was staring into the face of my killer. And since then, I’ve been living with a dread hanging over me. Every day I feel more certain that a violent outcome between us is inevitable.

That night, we were hanging out in the Mushroom as we often do in the evening. Kyle picks out a movie, but it takes only a few minutes to realize neither of us is into it. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to watch any film. They’re all pre-plague and so oblivious to what’s coming. Not that it’s their fault.

In this film, the two main characters meet in a glamorous nightclub, but my imagination keeps superimposing an abandoned post-plague nightclub on top of the actual set.

I still haven’t worked through grieving for the species and the world. Some nights, anything we watch seems like an eerie ghost story. Movies and shows about people who have no idea what’s coming can fill me with guilt and sadness. Kyle isn’t bothered by those feelings at all, which is even more disquieting. It’s impossible to grieve with someone who feels no grief.

I don’t know how the movie landed with Kyle, but I’m relieved when he loses interest as well and tells Gaia to stop playing the film. The Mushroom defaults to outside view mode, and the sudden shift to darkness and silence sends me into slowtime.

Kyle looks at me, sex burning at the surface of his mind. He’s lying motionless in the dark, scheming the best way to get me into bed.

I sense desperate boredom beneath his desire. Seducing me has become a mechanical routine, and if I go along with it, sex will become part of that boredom. It’s a terrifying recognition, like noticing cancerous lesions on someone you thought healthy. Boredom in someone as high energy as Kyle is not a passive state. Beneath it is a rageful chaos that could destroy me and the biosphere.

I’ve got to do something to snap him out of it immediately. I can think of only one move, but it’s infinitely risky. It will create far-reaching consequences I can’t foresee. He’s about to make a seduction move, and if he does, it’ll define anything I say after as either resistance or submission. I need to get him on another track, fast.

I turn to make strong eye contact.

“I’ve been hiding things from you,” I say in a low voice.

My admission catches him by surprise, and his eyes gleam at me with greedy curiosity.

“That night on the beach,” I continue, “we agreed to share our secrets, but I held many back. I told you about some of my paranormal experiences, but not all of them.”

With that single disclosure, I’ve become the least boring object in the biosphere. Fascination dances in Kyle’s eyes. In the dim light, the silvery gray of his irises are reflective rings around his dilated pupils.

Any secrets I sacrifice now will give him an edge and a greater degree of control, but it’s too late to back down.

This could be a fatal mistake, but I’ve got to roll the dice.

“On the night of the radio silence, I had visions about the biosphere’s future and what was necessary to make it work. Even now, it doesn’t feel right to tell you everything. So, I won’t.”

“Why do you think you need to hold things back?” asks Kyle, his eyes burning into me. The tiger is no longer bored—he’s stalking me. “Aren’t you the one who said honesty is part of respect?”

“I’ve always been truthful with you,” I reply, ready to spar. “But that doesn’t mean I have to tell you everything going on inside of me. You don’t tell me everything going on inside of you.”

“Fair enough,” says Kyle. “But I’m not asking you to tell me everything going on in you. You said you had visions about what was needed to make the biosphere work. That sounds crucial to disclose. Why hold that back?”

He’s turned on his trial-lawyer mode. His memory allows him to quote anything I’ve ever said word-for-word, and he’s brilliant at making whatever he wants seem like the only logical choice. But I don’t have to play his logic game.

“Because I had a strong intuition that holding certain things back was necessary for the biosphere’s survival,” I respond, “and I’ve learned to trust such feelings.”

Kyle doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s sizing me up, looking for a way in.

“What can you tell me?”

What can I? What’s safe and what’s necessary are two different things.

“The greatest danger to the biosphere is you getting bored.”

“Really?” says Kyle. “We were both told in the isolation training that boredom would be a major psychological hazard. So why is my getting bored the greatest danger?”

“You know why,” I say.

A moment of uncertainty plays across Kyle’s face before he leans forward to stare into my eyes.

“OK, OK, you’re right,” he says, dropping his trial-lawyer act. “Boredom is a huge problem for psychopaths. We thrive on challenge and risk. I’ve already dealt with the technical issues, and now I feel like a fucking maintenance worker. So yeah, I’m bored. What do you propose we do about it?”

Kyle ends his question with a leering smirk. It’s both offensive and frightening. It’s not that he’s showing me a dark side of his sexuality I don’t already know. But he usually has the control to keep from being grossly offensive. Boredom is making him reckless.

I’ve got to push back. Hard. I’ve got to show Kyle his dark side will get him nowhere.

“I’m not sure what the answer is,” I say. “But one change that definitely won’t work is allowing you to have sex with me anytime you want.”

Murderous rage flickers in Kyle’s eyes, but I hold his stare.

“You’re always gaming me, seeking control. And, yeah, I get it, that’s your nature, that’s what you do. But don’t you see? Suppose you gained total control over me—I’d become as boring to you as one of the maintenance robots. If I were under your control, you’d be alone in the biosphere. There’d be no one left to challenge you, and your boredom would become infinite. Isn’t that logical?”

I speak as assertively as I can. For a moment, I’m afraid he’s going to explode, but then something unexpected happens—he looks away in total confusion. It’s the first time I’ve knocked him off balance with logic. His mind is racing, desperately trying to make sense of the contradiction.

Seeking control is at the very core of his being, something he’s never questioned before. But I’ve exposed his will to dominate as a predictable nuisance I have to help him manage. I’ve successfully challenged him, but my attack might’ve been too strong. As much as I want to, I can’t afford to humiliate him—the consequences could be deadly.

“You raise some interesting points,” says Kyle after regaining his composure. His tone is thoughtful, like a college professor receptive to a promising student. He’s got it together enough to strike a dignified pose, but I sense his hesitation—he doesn’t know what move to make. Beneath his tight control is rage and confusion.

Damn it, I’ve gone too far. I’ve got to get him out of this fast, or he’ll feel humiliated.

“Look, here’s another way to think about it,” I say, quickly switching to a casual, just-brainstorming tone. “We both know you’re the undisputed champ at gaining control over people and situations.”

I freeze up, realizing it sounds like over-the-top flattery.

If he thinks I’m being condescending, he’ll make me pay for it. But I’ve got to keep talking.

“Look, the problem is there’s only two of us, and I don’t want control over anyone. I just don’t. It’s not how I was raised, it’s not how I think, it’s not who I am. I don’t seek power unless I need it to survive. So if we keep playing these roles, it’s only a matter of time before you figure out how to conquer my resistance. Just like I can’t win a physical fight with you, eventually, an endless power struggle will wear me down. So, here’s where our interests meet. You can’t afford to gain total control over me, either. We’d both lose. I’d lose my free will, and you’d become horribly bored.”

Kyle’s silvery stare is unreadable, so I keep going.

“I don’t think either of us can alter our fundamental nature. Seeking power is essential to who you are, so we need to work with that. That night on the beach, I realized I’ve got to keep challenging you. Tonight, I felt your boredom taking hold. I knew I had to do something. I don’t know if it was the right move, but I decided to bring this out in the open so we can work through it.”

“OK,” says Kyle. His face remains neutral, but his usual, overbearing confidence isn’t there. The implication is terrifying.

It’s only a matter of time before he makes me pay for this.

“Any ideas?” he asks.

“Well—” my mind races to think of something. “Off the top of my head, how about like in sports? When a player is too powerful, too strong for the competition, he accepts a handicap. If you were to accept enough of a handicap, I’d continue to be a challenge. To an extent, we already have a system like that.”

“How so?” asks Kyle.

“You’re a lethal martial artist. If you wanted, you could beat me senseless, and there’s no one to stop you. But you don’t use physical force to control me because it would have disastrous consequences. It’d be a defeat for both of us. A lose-lose outcome. Because you accept that handicap, I can safely challenge you at times, like I am right now. And that’s a win-win.”

“OK, so what other handicaps do you have in mind?”

I can think of a couple, but Kyle’s in a dangerous space, and it’s not the time to ask for concessions. Also, whatever I ask him to handicap will indicate an area where I feel vulnerable.

“I don’t have any in mind. You know yourself best, so maybe you can suggest your own handicaps.”

“No,” says Kyle adamantly. ”It’s your idea. You must’ve had something in mind.”

He’s testing me and defying him could trigger violence.

“OK, well, I guess I can think of a few handicaps,” I say. “One is not using misinformation to gain advantage. No outright lies. I was going to say no deception, but I think that’d set the bar too high. Subtle deception and misdirection are how you operate.”

Kyle maintains his poker face as he studies me. Cold sweat forms beneath my clothes.

I’m treading on the tiger’s tail, but there’s no going back. Before this evening, I’d subtly influenced Kyle without him realizing what I was up to. Now I’ve outed my most dangerous secret—I’ve been managing him all along. Under his composure, Kyle is seething with rage and resentment. He’s tightly containing it, but every cell in my body senses the inevitability of future punishment.

To cover my fear, I keep talking in a breezy, just-brainstorming tone.

“The other thing I thought of is not monitoring me through the cameras. I often feel you watching me. I don’t monitor you, and you probably learn stuff you can take advantage of by surveilling me.”

“No, I’m not agreeing to that,” says Kyle flatly. “Those systems were set up for safety and other practical purposes. I need to keep an eye on everything in the biosphere. That includes you.”

Sparks flash from the dark pupils of his eyes. His mind is spinning up something new.

“I think I’ve got a better idea on how to keep the challenge going,” he says. “Few activities have ever stimulated me as much as martial arts contests. I offered to continue your training but respected your wish to exercise solo. Maybe it’s time to bring back martial arts, but with a competitive setup. I’d train you into a more worthy opponent, and with the right handicaps, you’d have an equal or greater chance of winning.

“For example, we can set up contests so speed counts for more than strength. Let’s say we draw a large circle on the exercise floor. You win by evading me for two minutes. I win by forcing you out of the circle. We’ll adjust the rules by increasing or decreasing the time, or the circle’s diameter, so the odds are always stacked in your favor. If you’re not winning seventy-five percent of the rounds, we’ll make adjustments until you are. That way, I’ll always be challenged. And  . . .” there’s another glint in Kyle’s eyes like he’s just thought of something.

“To keep the contests interesting, let’s up the stakes. What if I get to have sex with you when I win? But only on the days I win, so I’ll be sacrificing something too.”

His last suggestion takes me by surprise, and my thoughts become rapid-fire.

Sex as a prize is disgusting. Of course he’d think up something sick like that! But I can’t refuse him in his current state. He took my ideas seriously enough to suggest a system, and he is offering a sacrifice—no more cat-and-mouse games every night. But sex for a win reinforces it as a power game. But so what? It’s already a power game. If he holds to the agreement, I’ll be off-limits three out of four days. And it simplifies things. No more nerve-wracking decisions whether I can afford to say no or have to give in. Just a single two-minute contest a day. But . . . what if the contests get violent?

I flashback to the vision of Kyle punching me in the throat and crushing my trachea. This could be that moment. Not in the exercise room during a contest, but right here in the Mushroom. I need to give him a victory.

“You do,” Rachel interjects, “But you can’t let a psychopath’s violence and sex wires cross. Make sure the reward doesn’t come right after a win.”

She’s right.

“OK,” I reply to Kyle. “I’m not sure if I like the idea, but I’m willing to accept it with some conditions. You still have to treat me respectfully. I’m not agreeing to be a full-on sex slave the days you win. I can still say no to some things or everything if I feel you’re being disrespectful. And your reward won’t come till later in the day, here in the Mushroom. I don’t want to hear a word about sex in the contest space.”

“Deal,” says Kyle, shaking my hand. Then he puts his other hand on my thigh. “But the new system starts tomorrow.”

Entry: 27 Seal Day: 1151 10:08PM

Something just happened that could destroy everything.

My normal routine with Kyle is to meet at 5PM in the exercise room for the daily contest. So when he calls me today at 4:30, so close to when we’d meet up anyway, I know something is off.

“Hey, Tommy, don’t be alarmed, there’s no cause for concern, but I discovered something anomalous in your blood tests I’d like to discuss with you. Can you meet me in the bio-medical lab?”

The anxiety I’d felt all day becomes a sharp spike of fear.

“I’ll be right there,” I reply.

There must be something seriously wrong. Kyle’s never called me in to discuss anything medical. Why’s he looking at my blood?

I realize it’s illogical, but it feels like he’s caught me doing something I’ll be punished for.

What if he knows I’m writing about him, that I’ve broken the blood oath? But why would he call me to the lab for that? Maybe it really is my bloodwork, and I’ve got a serious disease that will incapacitate me.

When I show up at the lab, Kyle gestures toward a chair across from him.

“I hope I didn’t alarm you. Like I said, no cause for concern.”

I get something like déjà vu as I move toward the chair. It’s like I’m shuffling through multiple versions of this moment. My body falls onto the seat like an accordion of cascading playing cards.

A black desk lamp that looks like a miniature construction crane spotlights the printed lab reports spread out between us. Kyle’s manner is smoothly professional, and his pose masks whatever might be on his mind. I look into his impersonal eyes, and my fear intensifies. He’s like a surgeon about to put me under the knife. I’ve stepped into a danger zone in which my choices are constricted. Fate is about to act, and I’ve gotta just let it happen.

“Absolutely nothing to worry about—as far as I can tell,” says Kyle in his cheerful airline pilot voice.

“Folks, the plane is definitely going to crash, but there’s up to a full minute to prepare, so no need for panic.”

“And it’s not something new,” he continues calmly. “It’s been in your blood work all along, but I never analyzed for it. I was actually focused on my own cell microscopy to look for any signs of accelerated aging. I’m sure you remember my frustration at not knowing what was in my father’s secret sauce— the specifics of how I was made and for what purpose?”

“Yeah, of course I remember,” I reply.

“You may also remember my concern about my lifespan. Without access to the secret sauce, I don’t know if I was engineered to age normally. Maybe I was designed to live an exceptionally long life. Or perhaps I came with a time fuse—cells engineered to auto-destruct when I reached a certain age. It’s a rather significant open question.

“So, earlier today, I went through my biometrics to check for any signs of accelerated aging. There are numerous age markers—I won’t bore you with the technical details. But I checked the length of my telomeres which predictably shorten with age. My results were in the normal range. Still, I wanted to make sure I was doing the measurements right, so for comparative purposes, I looked at your telomeres. That’s when I discovered a consistent anomaly. Their length hasn’t changed since you’ve been in the biosphere. So then I analyzed all your age markers, and—You’re not aging.”

Kyle’s last words reverberate ominously between us as if he’s delivered a terminal diagnosis.

“Not aging?  You mean I have a growth disorder or something—like my hormones are off, and I’m not developing correctly? Is that why I’m small for my age?”

“No,” he says with an edge of impatience, “your development doesn’t look stunted by any disorder or pathology. Your size is on the low end of the spectrum, but it’s normal. What’s less normal is it remaining unchanged at an age when you should be growing. Every marker from every blood test says you’re not aging at all. That makes you unique in the whole of medical literature. And you’re unusual in other ways—in your various abilities and so forth. To the naked eye, you appear perfectly normal and healthy, if exceptional in your quickness and athleticism. But biologically, you’re an anomaly. You’re the only non-engineered person we know of with immunity. And now we find an even greater anomaly—you’re apparently in an ageless state.”

An image of Andrew flashes into my mind.

The metamorphosis. I needed to keep it secret, but these test results have given it away.

Kyle looks at me with deadly seriousness.

“Exactly how sure are you that you’re not engineered?”

My heart races. Kyle radiates paranoia as conspiracy theories shuffle in his mind.

“I’m pretty sure I’m not engineered, Kyle. I knew my mom very well. Nothing about her or what little I knew of my father suggested they were involved in genetic engineering. But—anything’s possible, I suppose. For all I know, my mom was abducted by aliens when she was pregnant with me, and they altered my genetics,” I reply, my voice edged with sarcasm.

I hate that he’s making me explain and defend myself, my family, my upbringing. His questioning feels like an autopsy saw coming at me. But for some reason, it’s no longer frightening. I’m just sick of him and the whole situation. If he’s going to kill me, I want to get it over with already.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” I demand. “What? Do you really think I made up my entire past, and this whole time, I’ve secretly known I was a lab-grown creature? If we had that in common, don’t you think it would be the first thing I’d want to discuss?”

“No,” replies Kyle evenly. “I just want you to consider it carefully. There’s a principle in logic—I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it—Occam’s Razor? Sometimes called the Law of Parsimony. Does that ring a bell?”

It doesn’t.

“It means,” he continues, “the simplest explanation that accounts for the facts is the one most likely to be true. And genetic engineering is the simplest explanation of your differences. The next most likely explanation is a spontaneous mutation, but that’s far less likely. When mutations occur, they’re mostly unfavorable, but every so often, a particular variation can be advantageous. Usually, it’ll be a single variant, like a skin pigmentation better suited to a climatic region. But what we see with you, much like what we see with me, is a whole series of trait variations that look purposefully enhanced. The odds against so many traits being mutated in a favorable direction happening by chance are close to nil. Of course, that’s based on our present understanding of genetic variability. Perhaps there’s a way of explaining such an occurrence as a leap of evolution. The point is, we’d need to speculate about a much more complex hypothesis if you aren’t genetically engineered. Did your mother have a normal pregnancy, as far as you know? Any talk of in-vitro fertilization related to your birth?”

“Nope,” I say quickly, feeling enraged. I don’t want him talking about my mom related to anything. “Normal pregnancy. I was born in what you call my hippie commune, not made in a laboratory.

“OK,” says Kyle with studious calm. “For the sake of argument, let’s say I believe you. Let’s say you’re the first of an emergent subspecies coming into existence with a single specimen. And, conveniently or inconveniently, this spontaneous evolutionary shift just so happened to occur fifteen years before the species became extinct.”

Kyle delivers his last word like a Judo strike.

Extinct.

It’s a death blow to me, the biosphere, and humankind. Commitment to Biosphere 3 as crucial to the species’ future was my religion, the faith that kept me going. Even after three years of radio silence, neither of us had openly doubted it. Now with just one word, he’s made my whole existence feel pointless.

“If you are a spontaneous emergence of a new subspecies—and I’m seriously considering that possibility—then you must be aware of more unique aspects than you’ve let on.”

I feel cornered. Kyle hovers like a scalpel over my very being, ready to make the first exploratory cut.

“Yeah, well, what of it?” I counter. “The night you came up with the contest idea—I admitted to hiding things. I don’t have to tell you everything going on inside of me. So, yeah, sure, I sometimes have weird perceptions I don’t talk about. But they’re not unique, lots of people have had similar perceptions and it didn’t make them a new subspecies or whatever. It’s not like I can start fires with my eyes. I don’t have a diabolical master plan, Kyle. That’s your department.

“And I think you’re a little too sure of your Occam’s Razor or whatever. You said it couldn’t be chance that all my traits moved in a favorable direction. But they haven’t. How is my being undersized a favorable variation? If I’m not going to grow anymore, isn’t that unfavorable?”

“Yeah, if your goal was to be an NBA player,” Kyle replies smoothly. “But it’s not a deficit from an evolutionary point of view. In an age of robotics, we rarely need large and strong anymore. At our level of technological development, being small and light is mostly a practical advantage. For example, a smaller astronaut, or biospherian, needs less interior space, oxygen, and every other consumable. Size matters for some applications, but nowhere near as much as it used to. Not aging, however— well, that’s the god-damn holy grail of genetic variations. Perhaps the most sought-after thing in all of human history. The fountain of youth!”

His words echo in my mind—Not aging? Is that even possible? It must be an effect of the metamorphosis—but for what purpose, and why does it feel so ominous?

Envy and paranoia burn in Kyle’s eyes.

“Yeah, but I don’t feel like any holy grail, Kyle. Who cares if I’m not aging? Why would I want even a normal lifespan trapped inside this bubble? Were you serious when you said extinct?”

“Of course I was,” Kyle replies, “Don’t play stupid. I always described the belief in other survivors as a necessary working assumption. Does that phrasing sound hopeful to you? I just didn’t want you to do something dumb, like offing yourself. But it’s time to face the facts. Every day of radio silence makes our working assumption less workable. The highest likelihood is that the human species presently consists of two mutants, one the product of genetic engineering, and another the product of good-old Vermont-woods Mother Nature popping out an elf or whatever the fuck you are.”

“Yeah, well, sorry for being a freak of nature and not a genetically engineered psychopath or whatever the fuck you are,” I fire back.

Kyle laughs.

“Nice, Tommy. I finally got the empath to show some real proto-emotion. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

He gives me this smirk like he’s won a huge battle by getting a rise out of me. I glare back. I’m acting recklessly, but so what? If we’re the only survivors, none of this matters anyway. I want to lash out again, but I won’t give him the satisfaction.

“Anyway,” he continues in his Dr. Calm pose, “Occam’s Razor would simply explain our survival as one artificial and one natural mutant having immunity in common. But I’m not quite as logical as you think. You’re not the only one with uncanny perceptions and intuitions. Catch up with me if you’re not there already. There’s a sense about this situation—you might call it destiny— I might call it orthogenesis—put whatever label you want on it. But it looks like we’re in some sort of unfinished evolutionary science experiment. You see that, right?”

Andrew used almost the same words—evolutionary experiment. But how did Kyle arrive there?

“I suppose that’s possible,” I say cautiously.

“Then why do you look surprised?” Kyle asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I thought you’d stick to a more orthodox scientific perspective.”

“Yeah, well, the patterning is too obvious to ignore,” Kyle replies. “The polarized symmetry of it—one artificial, one supposedly natural, one a psychopath, the other an empath—it looks too intentionally arranged. What could possibly lie behind such an intentional-looking arrangement, I’ve no clue. I also have no idea how to further it. It’s not like I have the biotechnology to clone genetically diverse variations of us, some male, some female, so we can continue the species by mating them. So what the fuck are we supposed to do?”

His calm is slipping. His frustrations are pouring into the open, giving me a deeper look into his private thoughts than ever before.

“And there better be something for us to do about this,” says Kyle giving me a menacing look. “I’m not going to maintain the biosphere just so I can be an aging, artificially engineered Lost Boy stuck with Peter Pan in Never-Neverland.”

“Oh, and you think I want to be Peter Pan stuck in Never-Never Land with a psychopathic Lost Boy for company?”

Kyle glares at me for a tense moment. Then he lets out a long breath like a steam vent off-gassing. It’s like it never occurred to him that I might be sick of his company . . .

“I take your point,” he says.

“OK,” I reply, “then let’s get on the same page with this. I want a solution as much as you do. So let’s put our heads together for a change and see if we can come up with an alternative.”

“Fine,” Kyle replies, staring at me as if I should already have an answer.

He drums his fingers impatiently on the test results in front of him.

“Well . . . is your empathic super-intuition whispering to you about possible solutions? I’m open to suggestions.”

“No. No whispers at the moment,” I reply. “I’ve been trying to keep up the old working assumption. But now that we’re aligned in searching for a new solution, maybe something will come to me. Just give me some time to use my super intuition before you blow up Never-Never Land.”

“OK. Fine. I’ll give you some time,” he says as if he’s being incredibly generous. “But my patience is limited.”

I sit back in the chair while Kyle organizes my medical files and stores them away.

The evidence.

My mind is riddled with fearful questions. Kyle is a bloodhound with my scent. He’s on to the metamorphosis and resents it. He knows I’m a mutant, but I don’t want him to find out how much I’m changing.

More immediately, I need a solution that will satisfy him.

But what?

As we walk from the medical lab to the exercise room for our daily contest, the silence between us crackles with electricity.

To explain the danger of what followed, I need to fill you in on how the contests have evolved.

They began with Kyle spray painting an eighteen-foot diameter circle on the rubberized floor of the exercise room. I remember the smell of fresh spray paint in the air during the first contest. For some odd reason, that sense memory persists. I smell it every time we enter the exercise room, even though the paint has long since dried.

The contests always begin with a buzzer from a countdown timer. Kyle has two minutes to throw or drag me out of the circle.

After the first couple of months, it became apparent there was a flaw in how Kyle had set up the contests. He wanted them to be a challenge with the odds stacked against him, so his design favored speed, agility, and evasion over everything else.

Initially, Kyle was winning about half the time. Although I was quicker, he was better at everything else—technique, strategy, and every advantage provided by size and strength. The rules prohibited him from causing serious injury, but not from being rough. So I got used to the temporary tattoos of dark purple bruises. By the time one was fading, another took its place. He’s even landed strikes on my face that caused me to bleed all over the mat. But unless the blood got in my eyes, I could still win.

At first, Kyle coached me to help move the odds in my favor. And I learned a few things myself. Wearing a shirt was a mistake because it was too easy to catch hold of. He recorded every contest and showed me my mistakes and how I could have evaded him.

For a while, we watched MMA videos every night, and he’d talk over them the whole time, pointing out various moves and types of strikes and holds. He was mostly just showing off what an expert MMA commentator he is, but given what was at stake in the contests, I paid close attention.

We improved. Kyle got quicker and more agile, but I got better at a faster rate, and soon the odds were three to one in my favor as originally intended. But I continued to improve, and his victories slowly dwindled to ten percent.

Pride has kept him from adjusting the contest to bring his odds back up, though I can tell he’s extremely frustrated by his losing streak.

Every day he spends considerable time training before and after our scheduled work. He’s always experimenting with new strategies. I don’t do much training, just my usual exercise routine, mostly running laps in the South Lung.

Kyle’s run of losses is making him more dangerous. But there’s nothing I can do about it. He might not be as quick as me, but his awareness of what’s happening in the ring is nearly total, and if I ever tried to compete at less than my best, he’d know. I’ve already outed my efforts to manage his moods, and he resents it. If he caught me throwing a contest, his rage could turn violent.

One day, frustrated by his slump, Kyle added a dangerous twist. I showed up at the exercise room to find a makeshift electrical apparatus with an attached cable that ended in a copper prong.

After I won, he silently walked off the mat, applied the prong to his arm, and gave himself an excruciating shock. Later he shared his theory that a body at risk of real harm will move quicker.

The shocks seem life-threatening. After that first day, I refused to watch. But then Kyle began upping the voltage. Now I’m scared he’s going to have a massive seizure or go into cardiac arrest. It’s forced me to stand by in case he needs emergency medical help. There’s an AED—an automated external defibrillator—in the exercise room. I’ve studied the manual and committed it to memory.

One day, Kyle shocked himself into a few seconds of convulsions. I threatened to stop participating in the contests if he continued, but his murderous look forced me to back down. He’s addicted to the contests like a drug, and you should never get between a psychopath and his vices.

As much as I detest them, Kyle’s addiction to the contests is an absolute I’m forced to accept. For me, they’re a daily dose of high-adrenaline poison I approach with dread. There can be painful injuries, even on the days I win. I’m keyed up and nervous beforehand, but as soon as the buzzer sounds, I’m in the zone, undistracted by thoughts or feelings.

Before today’s contest even began, I knew something was off.

As I wait for the game clock to countdown the five seconds before the start buzzer, my heart rate accelerates and quicktime kicks in. We haven’t even started and I’m already sweaty.

Good. I need to be slippery.

BUZZZZ.

The buzzer hasn’t even finished, and Kyle launches himself at me with a flying knee, but I pull back in time. Speedy moves and countermoves flicker by.

Kyle’s envy of my blood test results is giving him a vicious edge. But his anger makes him more predictable.

He tries for a takedown, but I see it coming.

I know the cruel leverages his body is capable of all too well. I can’t let him cut off my escape routes and bring me down to the mat. If I can just stay on my feet, the odds are I’ll be able to stay in the circle for the next ninety seconds.

He looks for ways to close the distance between us, and though he’s lightning fast, I keep dancing out of range.

I sense his axe kick a split-second before he executes and sidestep. Fear jolts me. He’s playing dirty, throwing strikes that’d cause serious injury if they land.

He presses with a sweep kick, but I jump over.

He shoots in explosively with another attempted takedown, but his arms flail into empty space as I dodge backward. His rage focuses on me like a death ray.

He fires a series of vicious jabs, aiming for my face. But I’m too quick, bobbing in time to see his fists flash by. I counter with a knife hand strike to the side of his face. It’s not enough to slow him down, but knowing he’ll be the one with a bruise this time is satisfying.

I anticipate the roundhouse before his foot leaves the ground, rolling under his leg and ending up behind him. He whips around furiously, and we catch eyes just as I’m making it to my feet.

In his rage, he’s telegraphing every move.

I hear the thirty-second warning tone from the countdown clock, and a sudden, shocking realization flows through me.

It’s not Kyle who’s different—it’s me.

A new effect of the metamorphosis. I see Kyle’s moves before they happen.

He’ll never catch me now.

An explosive crescent kick flares toward my upper thigh, but I’m already slipping away from its arc.

BUZZZZ.

Instead of relief that the contest is done, the silence reverberates with terror.

Kyle turns and marches with purpose over to his electrocution device, fuming with anger. Before he can “motivate” himself, I realize this is my chance to buy some time.

“Hey Kyle,” I say, pausing to catch my breath, “I’m getting an idea about a possible solution. Dinner’s already made—you just need to heat it up. I’m gonna go to my room and keep brainstorming, but I’ll fill you in as soon as I can.”

He waves me off, preoccupied. Before departing for the dorms, I linger in the hallway to make sure he doesn’t accidentally shock himself to death.

***

I’m back in my room now. My heart pounding with fear.

I’m fucked once he reviews the contest in slowmo. He’ll see me reacting before he moves. And when he realizes he can never win again, he will turn his rage on me.

The doomsday clock in my mind is ticking, ticking, ticking—ever closer to midnight.

“You won’t find any new solutions in a state of fear.”

It’s Rachel.

What should I do?

“You need to calm your mind. Step away from the immediate situation and seek an oasis in your memory, a moment when you felt safe and loved.”

I close my eyes and allow my awareness to stretch across my life, searching. I take a deep breath and see Andrew sitting on the narrow deck of my treehouse, his legs dangling off the edge. He’s like a living memory preserved in a glass paperweight. The sight of him fills me with relief. But the vision feels like more than a mirage created by my desire. It’s like he’s really there gazing at me. I want to reach out and shatter the barrier between us, but I don’t know how. As Andrew and the scene fade from my mind, I remember his words.

This is a map of where to find me.

What map, Andrew?

In our last encounter, he said the solution to my impossible situation is metamorphosis. The bloodwork proves I’m a biological anomaly, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve been aware of changes happening in me for years. I seemed to influence that suicidal boy and his friend, and they must’ve been living in a time before the Whip. If I affected that past reality, there must be a way to connect with Andrew that transcends space and time.

The bond with him is deep, as if we grew up together. In my dreams, I’m often in a room he’s just occupied. His presence lingers, but I’m always a few steps behind and can never catch up.

It’s like he’s leading me somewhere.

I think he’s metamorphosing too. And maybe that will bring us together somehow.

The Andrew who spoke to me in the Mushroom didn’t seem as real as the one I met at the treehouse. But I don’t think he was completely a hallucination. Is there a zone between real and hallucination?

We’ve got a room full of radio scanners in the Technosphere continually monitoring the airwaves for a proof-of-life signal. It feels like there’s another room full of scanners in my head, listening to the static, searching for a whisper of Andrew hidden in the noise.

This is a map of where to find me.

I’ve tried using our whole treehouse encounter as a map. I’ve searched the biosphere’s vast computer archive for any reference to the car wreck. I found a few articles involving wrecks and families with boys named Andrew, but no meaningful results.

I have zero evidence he’s still alive. For that matter, I have zero evidence he was ever alive. Perhaps he’s just a shimmering mirage in the desert of a dying planet. Maybe the Occam’s Razor idea is right. The simplest explanation. Andrew can be explained in one word—mirage.

But I have nowhere else to turn, nowhere else to run. Grasping at a mirage is a better way to go than sinking into despair. So I’ll keep searching for the map of where to find him. Maybe it will lead me to a way out of this doomed situation.

I’ll come back to this. Right now, I need a walk to clear my mind.

Entry: 28 Seal Day: 1152 7:43PM

Passing the exercise room just now, I heard Kyle furiously striking the heavy bag in the contest room. With every thud of his fist, it felt like I was taking the blow. It’s only a matter of time before his frustration turns to violence.

I went to the kitchen to boil water for tea and had a vague feeling of Andrew watching me. It’s similar to the sensation I had when the suicidal boy visited me in the Agricultural Biome.

When I return, my fingers are drawn to the keyboard like it’s a Ouija board waiting to bring me messages.

I breathe in the scented steam rising from my tea. There’s a charged expectancy in the air, like the moment before a phone rings.

“Andrew?”

Faintly, as if from a great distance, I hear his voice.

“I’m here.”

Flickering images of him light up in my mind’s eye as his whisper resonates in the space between us.

His body stabilizes beside me in the room, and I can see his dark brown hair is now long like mine. Then the images shuffle apart again.

“Is it really you?”

His presence is vivid, just to the right of the computer terminal, but his image is unstable. My imagination is working to piece him together.

“I feel like I’m really me,” he says.

“Yeah, but—but you seem like . . .”

“Mostly imagination?” he asks.

I don’t say anything, but he reads my doubt.

“Well, I am, but not just your imagination. We’re collaborating so I can become more visible and audible. It’s like meeting on a bridge we’re creating—a shared space.”

I try to visualize us standing on a bridge, but it feels like a distraction.

“Not a literal bridge,” he says. “But something like that. A portal, perhaps?”

Andrew trails off. He seems as puzzled as I am. Our thoughts churn for a moment before I break the silence.

“Can you tell me a detail or two about your life before the car wreck—something I can look up and confirm? Some way to find you? What was the address where you lived with your parents?” I ask.

“New York—Manhattan, Andrew replies. “. . . an apartment . . . I can almost see it, but. . . I don’t know why it’s so vague. . . my memories are cloudy when I look back. Everything’s indistinct before the treehouse.”

“Where’ve you been since then?”

“I’m . . . with you. I’ve been with you . . . I . . . I guess I’m part of you now. I’ve been experiencing everything with you, watching from the background. . . I want to be helpful, but I must be a disappointment . . .”

“A disappointment?” I ask.

“I’m just a fragment of Andrew that remained within you after you merged with him at the treehouse. A splinter of him. I’d fall into the background again if you weren’t focusing on me. Calling me forward gives me the energy to speak. You’re imagining me into a greater existence, and I . . . I want to help you . . .”

The flickering cascade of Andrew images stabilizes again, holding long enough to see the empathic intelligence in his eyes.

We’re straining to stabilize him in my room when I have a better idea.

“Why don’t we meet in the treehouse? You’ve seen it before, and I built every part of it, so I can visualize it perfectly. We’ll be more equal in an imaginary place as imaginary versions of ourselves.”

I close my eyes, and the space inside of me shifts like the turning of a giant kaleidoscope.

Suddenly, we’re seated on the cedar deck of the treehouse, bathed in warm summer sunlight. Like our first encounter, I keep eye contact with Andrew to keep him more solidly present.

“Can you help me understand the last thing you said when we met here—”

This is a map of where to find me?” Andrew asks.

“Yes,” I reply. “Did you say that?”

“No,” says Andrew. “I heard those words with you, but they didn’t come from me. I don’t think they came from the other Andrew either . . .”

“Wait, wait—” I say. “They didn’t come from either of you? I don’t get it. Who spoke them?” 

“I think they came from a higher self that’s unbound by time and aware of larger patterns,” says Andrew.

I have trouble wrapping my mind around this. For years, I’d been so sure the Andrew I met at the treehouse said those words. But if this splinter Andrew is right, he may not have been aware of them at all.

“Well, what does it mean?” I ask.

“More than I can grasp,” he replies. “But I also have a hunch there’s a way to use the treehouse encounter as a practical, functional map. The interaction must contain specific information that will allow you to locate the original Andrew in time and space,” he says.

“I’ve tried,” I reply. “Many times. I searched our archives for any accidents on that date involving a boy about my age named Andrew in a car wreck with his parents. I limited the search to the fifty states because he seemed American. No matches. They could’ve been traveling in another country, so I made the search worldwide. Still nothing.”

“I’ve witnessed your searches,” Andrew replies. “But here’s another idea. The specific information in the encounter went both ways, right? You gave him your first name and told him you lived in Vermont in the Green Mountains. The treehouse is a precise detail. So are the exact words you said to each other.

“I may not have specific knowledge of the original Andrew, but I know he’s intellectual and literary, and would most likely write about such an unusual encounter. Unfortunately, I also sense he’s secretive. So, if he did write about it, there’s only a small chance he left it somewhere on the web where it could’ve been archived. But it’s worth a shot. Everything you said to him is part of the map too, so I suggest you try searching that way.”

The idea rings in my mind like a meditation bell. I feel stupid for not thinking of it myself.

The realization that I’m the other half of the map pulls my attention away, and the connection between us collapses. The splinter of Andrew and the treehouse flicker off, receding again to the dark background of my mind.

I open my eyes and slide my chair over to my terminal to access the archives. Instead of just entering Andrew’s details, I paste in the whole description of my encounter with him and let Gaia’s vast processing power go to work. It takes a couple minutes, an eternity in supercomputer time, before she comes back with a single search result—an untitled document in an obsolete format. When I look into the document’s properties, my heart sinks.

This document couldn’t possibly be written by the Andrew I met. It was created a few months before I was born.

I open it anyway and begin reading. What I find is both thrilling and bitterly disappointing.

It’s him. His words. Andrew is real. Or, I should say, he was real.

His journal is older than I am. Like with the suicidal boy, I’m apparently connecting with people from the past. Somehow, when Andrew separated from his body in the wreck, he must have traveled through time to find me.

After reading a little more of his journal, I look deeper into the document’s properties. It was originally stored in a publicly accessible cloud server. And yet, it has a visitor view count of zero.

That must be wrong.

But when I dig further, the journal almost seems like it was purposefully hidden. It’s not that it was encrypted or locked in any way—it was left unlabeled in an obscure place. I was only able to find it by entering everything I could remember of our encounter as a search entry.

There really was a map!

Now I finally have proof of what I’ve obsessed about for the last three years. Andrew is real, not a mirage.

But the Andrew I’ve found, a twenty-two-year-old, wrote his journal a few months before I was born, almost nineteen years ago. We’re separated by so much time. If he’s still alive—a near impossibility given the state of the world outside the biosphere—he’d be forty years old.

But . . . Andrew had to travel through time to find me at the treehouse. What happened once can happen again, right?

Maybe there’s another map hidden somewhere in his journal that could bring us back together. I’ll copy and paste it into mine to preserve it in the time capsule’s permanent record.

His journal is massive and may take all night to read through, but I need to explore the secrets it holds. I’m going to make some strong coffee and get on it. There’s no time to waste.

In case any survivors are reading this, goodbye for now. I promise to come back when I can.

Entry: 29 Seal Day: 1152 9:15PM

BOOK TWO

Fireskin

Andrew’s Journal

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It’s a foggy night here in the outskirts of Seattle, where my Mothership is docked.

Mothership. It’s just my name for the camper van I live out of. There are ordinances in almost every city against camping in a vehicle, and yet I’ve managed nearly five years without getting caught. She’s one of the few constants as my life tracks ever deeper into the unknown.

I’m enclosed within her stealthy interior, blackout curtains drawn, so no stray photons from my laptop escape the tinted windows. I’m careful to keep any trace of my presence from leaking out. A passerby would see only rain beading up on the sheet-metal skin of a generic Sprinter van. That, and a magnetic sign advertising an imaginary electrician company. My friend Jason got it for me to disguise the Mothership as a work van.

I don’t expect much scrutiny tonight. I’m docked beside a vacant lot, with only dead grass for company.

But it’s not just my van that needs to be stealthy. My whole life involves cloaking, secrets, and hidden mutilation.

I too am not what I seem.

I’m twenty-two, but most people assume I’m younger. There’s always been something off about my age. Even as a child, people said I didn’t speak or write like a kid. Or even someone from the present age.

This may be because I grew up spending more time with books than with peers. In addition, my parents and their friends were university professors, and the language I was exposed to was intellectual discourse, not contemporary dialect. Or perhaps it’s because I’m, as my aunt used to say, “an old soul,” so my diction sounds older than it should.

Before I began searching for my missing friend, Alex, I made my living as a freelance photojournalist. I specialized in long-form articles on subcultures. Traveling as a stranger in strange subcultures. Observing without drawing attention to myself . . .

. . . I’m hesitating. Of all subjects, writing about myself is the most awkward. But I can’t afford to be paralyzed by self-consciousness, or this journal will never happen.

There’s a commitment I need to make—no takebacks. I need to keep my fingers moving on the keyboard, and nothing can be deleted once it’s written. I can’t leave room for doubt, I must keep going. It’s the only way to the truth of things.

So, who am I? What am I?

As I said, I’m a traveler, an observer, and what little others can see of me is mostly illusion. I’m twenty-two, but when people look at me, they assume I’m barely out of high school—good-looking and slightly androgynous, with high cheekbones and long, dark hair. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of an illusion, but it is, especially the good-looking part.

Hidden beneath my clothing is a mutilated landscape, what I call my Fireskin, flesh horribly disfigured by burning gasoline. And beneath my Fireskin, I’m—what? A mutant? A freakishly weird something-or-other? Still trying to figure that out.

As a child, I felt the heavy weight of secret knowledge even before I had any grasp of it. It was like a dark planet I could barely see, but its tidal pull was strong.

I had paranormal experiences and perceptions before the accident, but after . . .

After the god-hammer of fate, the six-thousand-pound metal fist of a drunkenly careening pick-up truck slammed into our little hatchback at eighty miles per hour . . .

After the explosion of metal and glass killed my parents and cast me across the threshold of death . . .

After being pulled back into this reality, reborn in a mutilated body, my fifteen-year-old brain massively altered by concussion, third-degree burns, and intravenous opioids . . .

After . . . afterlife . . .

The life I’m living after death and near-death experience is a paranormal life, a life driven by ever-stranger perceptions and encounters.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been searching for my closest friend, Alex. We traveled together in this Mothership for three years, rarely apart for more than a few hours.

Two months ago, while I was out walking alone, Alex packed up his things and disappeared into the night. But he did leave a letter, words that still weigh heavily on my mind. Finding him gone was a terrible shock. But maybe it shouldn’t have been because I knew he was deeply troubled.

At seventeen, less than a year before we met, Alex tried to “take his skin out of the game,” as he put it. He nearly succeeded. He would’ve died but for the unexpected intrusion of a friend who found him unconscious and bleeding out.

Like me, Alex had experiences at the threshold of death that left him permanently altered and deeply scarred. I came back fireskinned. But when Alex returned, he felt like he’d been left with no skin at all.

Besides the scars on his wrists, Alex’s body is as flawless as mine is mutilated. But something essential was lost. He returned from the edge of death, stripped of a protective layer that kept him separate from others. His mind was laid bare to paranormal perceptions. A naked psychic empath. And for Alex, this was a constant source of torment.

“I’m skinless,” he told me the day we met. “But not in a way that exposes my insides. Other people barely see me. I’m skinless in a way that exposes me to what’s inside of everyone else.”

The skinless exposure zone Alex lives in threatens his sanity and survival. Before we met, he adapted by disconnecting from everyone and living on the road.

He once said, “Passing by strangers is like an endless horror movie, but at least it’s always changing.”

He tried to warn me off when I invited him to travel with me . In addition to his other problems, he told me he’d been diagnosed as borderline and bipolar.

“Those are just labels,” I told him. “My parents always quoted E.L. Doctorow, someone they studied with at NYU, who said psychiatric diagnostic labels were just the ‘industrialized version of storytelling.'”

But Alex knew, and I soon discovered, that industrialized or not, some part of those labels did apply to him. When I did some reading on borderline, I recognized many of his difficult aspects. He did give me fair warning. 

Even before the suicide attempt, he told me, he had a history of lashing out at people close to him. And after, his moods became even more volatile. So, it was safer for everyone if he kept people at a distance. Even those he loved.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting to be close to him. I was enchanted—attracted to Alex on every level. And our first encounter revealed shocking parallels between us. For better or worse, we were destined to meet.

I was nineteen, and with zero experience saving anyone, no shade of doubt tempered my desire to rescue Alex and be his friend. Even now, after the three turbulent years of our shared journey and his sudden departure, I still believe I can save him.

But if I let it, reason makes a devastating case against that belief. I can’t heal myself from my own torments, so what sense is there in believing I can heal Alex if given another chance?

There may not be much sense to it, but my dreams compel me to search for him. They fill me with dread that his life is in danger.

In the dreams, I always find Alex in a desperate state, wounded in body and mind. He’s terrified and alone, wandering the streets of a desolate, nocturnal city.

That’s where I found him last night, reaching out to me for a few heartrending moments of contact. Only this time, something was different.

As usual, when the dream begins, Alex hides in the shadow of a sooty apartment building. He comes toward me on the deserted street, drawn by the security of my familiar presence.

Alex stands near me, his back to a brick wall, his eyes flashing fear as he scans around us for danger. There’s a terrible wound to his left arm, which he’s bandaged with rags. His other hand clutches a broken mop handle, ready to fend off attackers, though no threat is visible on the empty street. He’s traumatized and verging on panic.

It’s terrible to see him so wounded and alone.

He’s about to tell me something, the same something he’s been trying to tell me for weeks in the dream, when I notice a new detail behind him on the wall. A faded poster that looks like a map of some sort. It’s vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place it.

Alex turns toward me, his eyes frantic. A single word escapes his mouth.

“They’re—”

And the dream abruptly ends.

I wake up gasping for air, my whole body shaking with his desperation, an urgent desire to rescue him searing my heart . . .

I was too overwhelmed at first to recognize the significance of the new detail. But once I calm down, I see it.

In the many weeks of having this nightmare, the dark city was always bare and grayscale. But this poster behind Alex had faded color.

It looked like a weathered advertising bill, but it included a map of some kind of settlement shaped like a polygon with rounded corners. It’s fuzzy when I think about it, and I can’t recall many details, but that shape—I’ve seen it somewhere. But where?

Ah, I’ve got it now. The Renaissance Fair.

It’s a map of where Alex and I met. I was led there three years ago—led to Alex for the first time—by a dream.

But what use is that now?

I’ve been searching for him for weeks without any clues, and now this dream with a map? And yet, it was a dream that brought us together in the first place . . . maybe this new dream is trying to lead me back to him?

I wrap a blanket around myself and open my laptop, keyboard and screen glowing to life.

I should record that first dream. Maybe there’s something in it I’ve missed.

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When the dream begins, I’m on a moonlit, cobblestone street with wooden structures—a tavern and shuttered shops of various kinds, many with hand-painted signs illustrating what they offer. Occasional flickers of amber light filter through diamond-pane windows. Straw and horse manure litter the ground, and my senses are lit up by the aliveness and immediacy of this place.

I see the silhouette of someone small and agile step out of a doorway, his cloak flowing behind him as he walks swiftly up the street.

He turns and looks at me when he reaches the corner. I sense he expects me to follow, so I do. He doesn’t look back again as I trail him through a maze of narrow streets.

We end up at a canal of the sort you might see in Venice or Amsterdam. He halts at the edge, and I stop when he does to keep a respectful distance. He stands perfectly still, watching the flowing water. Moonlight reflects on the dark ripples, which lap against the canal’s walls.

It seems like he’s contemplating something.

He’s still for a minute or two before he resumes walking swiftly down the street parallel to the narrow waterway, approaching a bridge that spans the canal. His gait slows as he steps onto the bridge and walks to its center, stopping to study a small brass object in the palm of his hand.

The time feels right to approach, so I step onto the bridge and slowly walk toward him. As I draw closer, the object in his hand becomes visible—a brass compass. He gazes at it intently.

Just as I’m about to reach him, I’m halted by vertigo, as if the bridge were swaying beneath me. But it’s not the wooden planks that are moving.

The time-of-day shifts from night to dawn, late afternoon, sunset, and back to night. The progression of dark to light and back to dark again quickens until it becomes stroboscopic. Yet the young traveler stands there unperturbed, still gazing at his compass as time cycles around him.

He glances up as if wondering why it’s taking me so long to approach. I step closer until we stand only an arm’s length apart. He raises his eyes to meet mine, and . . . everything changes.

Our eyes become portals merging us into a swirling, amorphous space.

We’re removed from time, as if our bond has always existed. Like we’ve always relied on the polarity of the other. I need the dynamism of his mercurial essence, while he needs my stability.

When we emerge, it’s predawn and we’re still standing on the bridge. He raises the compass as if he’s showing me a revelation. The compass dial is altered—it has Roman numerals like a clock face instead of cardinal points of direction.

“This is a map of where to find me,” he whispers. 

Then there is a pop, and the glass and dial vaporize into colored plasma, opening an aperture of black space in the center of the compass in which a green double-helix spiral rotates. My gaze becomes transfixed by the moving spiral. I feel myself being pulled into it.

That must have been the end of the dream because I can’t remember anything after that.

When I wake up, his words echo in my mind.

This is a map of where to find me.

The words carry an edge of urgency. I know I was dreaming, but the traveler feels like more than a dream character. He played one, as I did for him, but those guises were shed when we merged.

But how can I find someone without even knowing their name? I don’t even remember his features clearly. I was so transfixed by his gaze, and then by the compass, that I can’t recall the details of his face.

His words perplex me, like a Zen Koan.

This is a map of where to find me.

Did he mean the compass was the map of where to find him? A compass is a navigation tool to be used with a map. How could it be a map itself? It looked like an ordinary compass when I first saw it resting in his hand. But then, when he whispered his few words, it had Roman numerals instead of cardinal direction markings as if it were a pocket watch. Was it indicating a point in time to meet him?

After he spoke, the compass transformed once more. The center of it looked like a spiraling strand of DNA floating in space as if it were promising evolutionary metamorphosis if I found him.

Is there a set of coordinates I’m supposed to decode from what seems like symbolic dream content? Perhaps the mysterious compass conveys a path rather than a destination, a suggestion to navigate through mystical intuition rather than a set of coordinates on a journey of transformation.

And yet, his words were urgent, as if he were giving me specific space-time coordinates I should act on immediately.

He was holding the compass when he said, “This is a map of where to find me.” But he didn’t say, “This compass is a map of where to find me.” So maybe “This” meant the whole encounter?

If the whole encounter is a map, where does it lead? Am I to find him in the past, in what looked like a Renaissance-era town?

I search my memory of the encounter for clues, and a possibility occurs to me. Someone once suggested I write about the subculture of Renaissance festivals, but I never followed through. Perhaps this dream is calling me to finally do so. And it is the right time of year for outdoor festivals.

My heart lightens with the thought, and I feel a call to adventure. A quick search online, and I discover that a Renaissance fair is happening less than fifty miles away. I fire up the Mothership and take off immediately . . .

That was three years ago.

Now I’ve had this new dream about Alex with a map of the Renaissance fair where we met. Should I go there again? I don’t see a reason why he’d be there. It’s the wrong season, and the fairgrounds will be empty.

Or is the dream of the nocturnal city functioning like the dream that led me to the Renaissance fair in the first place? Should I be looking for a city as bombed out as the one in my nightmares? My journalism career has led me all over this country, and I don’t think a place like that exists here.

Since Alex left, I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on our travels together, looking for patterns I may have missed. The nightmares have made that search even more urgent, and for the last few days, memories of our first encounter keep resurfacing in my mind.

It feels like my subconscious wants me to notice something I’ve overlooked. Maybe that whole day is a kind of map. Physically searching for Alex has gotten me nowhere, but maybe if I unfold that map, it will give me a clue about where to find him.

That’ll take time, and I can’t do it here in the Mothership.

The weather is dark, gray, and rainy, and it’s been that way for days. The overcast sky does little for the two solar panels on my roof that charge my coach batteries, so I won’t have enough power to run my laptop for long. I also feel the need for strong coffee . . .

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I wander out into the rainy grayness in search of coffee, my laptop protected by a weatherproof messenger bag. Even the outskirts of Seattle must have coffee shops.

I catch a promising glimmer of chandelier light behind a storefront window, refracting flashes of color that draw me inside.

Most coffee shops are too noisy and distracting, but this one is on a deserted side street with few customers. The lighting is tastefully subdued, and the atmosphere intriguing. Gilt-framed mirrors reflect the chandeliers twinkling above antique-looking marble-topped tables. There are inset shelves that display 19th-century oddities, such as a ceramic hand illustrating palmistry lines. Every detail is artfully blended to create an ambiance of old-world elegance surrealized by a Victorian steampunk motif.

Three women work behind the counter, and they appear to be in on the same secret. They’re polite, but in a formal, distant way that discourages chattiness. This pleases me greatly. They appear to share my preference for privacy over loud and intrusive American informality. Perhaps they’re a sisterhood of highly conscious lesbians or something like that.

Whoever they are, they’ve somehow set up the atmosphere of the coffee shop in a way that subtly discourages the shout-talking folk who so often keep me from writing in other coffee shops. You know the kind I mean—the over-loud, over-caffeinated, ever-erupting with explosive guffaws of cackling laughter types who assume that talking in an extremely loud and relentlessly emphatic way—No, she didn’t!!!”, etc.—elevates the art of mundane conversation into a rip-roaringly hilarious entertainment worthy of broadcast to anyone in earshot.

So far, the customers here are quiet and few. Nevertheless, I’ve secluded myself in a back-corner table.

Arabica-scented steam rises from my crazily oversized white ceramic cup, which compliments the Alice-in-Wonderland, neo-Victorian elegance of the place. Though it’s quiet, I still need a couple more layers of seclusion, so I put on my dark sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones. Behind the lenses, no one can tell when my eyes are closed. And I need darkness to reach back into my memory and pull that day to the front of my mind.

The day I met Alex.

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The festival grounds are surrounded by grassy fields. Within are trees and permanent structures, mostly shops with thatched roofs. The shops feature Renaissance-themed handicraft—swords, amulets, chainmail, pewter tankards, and the like.

I arrive as the gates are opening and default into photojournalist mode. I spend most of the morning interviewing people who work in the shops or are paid by the fair to parade around in elaborate Renaissance costumes.

I’m taking a few photos of a blacksmith when I catch a glimpse of what appears to be a young elf in a green cloak watching me.

I turn toward him and—ripples of déjà vu—I’m certain he’s the traveler from my dream.

He approaches, and I discover my mind has played a trick on me. I was sure he was dressed as an elf in a green cloak, not an unexpected sight in a Renaissance Fair, but actually, he’s not costumed at all. What I’d perceived as a cloak is merely a weathered green hoodie.

He has a friendly, trickster glint in his large blue eyes, and he’s wearing a travel-worn backpack like he’s living on the road.

“Forgive me, my lord,” he says in pseudo-archaic dialect, “but I’m curious about what you’re doing with these strange devices.” He nods at my camera and the voice recorder dangling from my neck. His voice is lyrical, and his words cleverly emulate the actors who cosplay at the fair. I can’t tell if he’s serious or not, but I catch a glimpse of interest glowing in his eyes. Then, as if he can’t stand still, he begins circling around me, juggling four multi-colored balls.

“Oh, I’m just—my lord,” I stumble on my words awkwardly, trying to match his dialect, “I’m just a humble traveler from the future here to learn about this realm. I’m a—I belong to a guild of word and picture makers called photojournalists. Would it be possible to interview you?”

I see my words pop into the space between us like dialogue bubbles in an off-kilter cartoon.

There’s a feeling of mutual interest, but I’ve defaulted into photojournalism mode out of nervousness, seeking permission to turn him into an object of passing observation.

Instead of responding yes or no, he catches the balls with a whirling finish and says nothing at all. Instead, he retrieves a small camera from the pocket of his hoodie, points it at me and takes a picture. Then, still gravely silent, he removes his backpack and fishes inside of it, producing a battered notebook and a pen. He opens it and hovers the ballpoint above the page.

“So,” he asks in a serious interviewer voice, “what got you into photojournalism?”

At first, I can’t tell if he’s mocking me. It’s so absurd that I break into a reflexive laugh.

He finally cracks a smile and laughs, shrugging off his journalist persona. The awkward tension goes with it, and I finally feel like I can talk. Neither of us wants to play interviewer and subject.

“I’m Andrew,” I say, extending my hand.

“Alex,” he replies, shaking my hand and bowing slightly.

A stout, bearded man clad in chainmail and leather wanders by. He’s chewing on a giant, steaming club of flesh—an oversized turkey leg. I grimace at the sight.

“I love the Renaissance,” I say, “but not the food. I saw a Thai restaurant while driving into town this morning. It looked cool from the outside. Care to check it out? I’d like to buy you lunch.”

Alex’s eyes widen, and then he looks shy and embarrassed. I realize he’s living on the road and not getting enough to eat.

He recovers his composure quickly and studies me with streetwise wariness. I’m afraid I was too forward, and I’m not sure what he’s read in me.

Apparently, I pass a test because he breaks into an amiable smile.

“Ah, what a kind gentleman you are,” he replies. “I’d like that very much.”

“Excellent. It’s only a few miles, and I’ve got a camper van— I mean a carriage —I mean a kind of horseless coach out there,” I say, struggling to recover the fair dialect. I point to the field used as the festival parking lot. “It’s right there.”

“Lead the way, good sir. Lead the way,” says Alex, adjusting his backpack. “I’ve been walking all day.” For just a moment, he drops the Renaissance flourishes and seems vulnerable, struggling with physical exhaustion.

We’re silent as we enter the field. The grass, blue sky, and dazzling sunlight— everything is glowingly alive and flowing with energy as if I’m seeing through the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh.

I feel myself drawn by a powerful current.

 I experience our destiny as a physical force, directional as a compass needle and perilous, like a strong undertow pulling us into mysterious depths.

Does he feel any part of that?

 His eyes are serious and alert like a soldier’s on patrol.

I sense we’re both secretive travelers, accustomed to being mostly invisible to others, and neither of us knows how to handle there being two of us.

I turn to steal a glance at Alex. He’s instantly aware, and defensively turns to meet it.

Our gazes meet across a boundary of charged tensions and . . .

At the same moment, we recognize the telepathic perceptivity in each other’s eyes and immediately look away.

We keep walking, silently agreeing to act as if nothing happened, but the tension between us reverberates like sound waves between struck cymbals.

Realizations flood through me. I knew he was acting earlier, but it wasn’t just to blend with the Renaissance fair. He played the part of an excited young adventurer to deflect my gaze from deeper scrutiny. The harlequin jester character, who charmed and captivated me, cleverly disguised the empath who was peering warily into my soul.

As we walk, the awkward tension settles into gentle respectfulness. Without having to say it, we agree to avoid eye contact and the other’s private space.

I’m too caught in my own confusion to realize that we’re both filled with hope, excitement, and fear. We want to be seen, but we’re also desperately afraid because we know our hidden mutilations will be exposed. In our different ways, we each feel starkly inferior to the other.

I’m too preoccupied with fear and self-hatred to recognize Alex’s feelings. My inner tormentor is busy lacerating me with a sharp, new cutting-edge—the painful contrast between Alex’s uncanny beauty and the fireskinned horror hidden beneath my clothing.

Why did I have to become so hideous? No one as beautiful as Alex will ever want me. I’m a monstrosity. What could I ever offer—

But then, something unfamiliar intrudes on my self-inflicted suffering. As Alex walks beside me, I sense his own pain and loneliness. And there’s something more—a gentle warmth reaching out to me. It’s tentative and vulnerable, like an offer of friendship from a lonely child.

Now that I’m writing about it three years later, I see aspects I never did before. The shameful wounds that caused each of us to feel inferior were also what had brought us together.

That day my inner torment struck chords of sympathetic resonance within Alex. He knew self-inflicted pain better than I did. The sharp edges he used to cut himself included a razor blade he’d used only a few months before to slash his wrists.

He couldn’t see my Fireskin yet, but he felt the suffering of it and a solidarity of pain. And he sensed he’d be safe in my company. So much past trauma taught him to make sure of that before letting down his guard.

I thought I was the one who extended the bond of trust to Alex when I later invited him to travel with me, but that was only on the surface. Actually, it was Alex silently reaching across the scar tissue that lay between us, who offered the bond at that moment, the bond that held us together through the tumultuous years of our journey.

Even now, across the unknown darkness of our separation, I feel that bond connecting us . . .

When we reach the Mothership, it looks like it’s posing for a magazine ad. It’s spotlighted by sunbeams, and the silver flake paint sparkles like it’s covered with pavè diamonds.

“Welcome to my Mothership,” I say.

Alex perks up at the sight of the camper. He circles it, taking in the tinted windows and solar panels on the roof.

“Man, I’m impressed,” he says. “You travel in style!”

“Thanks. This is my home, ship, office, kitchen, everything. I live and work out of it year-round.” I open the coach door and gesture inside. “I can stow your pack.”

He unbuckles it and passes it to me with a sigh of relief. As I lift the awkward bulk of it, I feel a surge of protective instinct. This pack is all he has in the world.

Alex steps into the camper, his eyes glimmering with curiosity and approval as he takes in details of the well-equipped interior.

“I wish I had something like this,” he says, buckling into the co-pilot seat.

As I navigate the maze of cars in the festival parking lot, Alex notices a purple crystal lightly rattling on my dashboard.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a star sapphire crystal. I got it in Tucson at the annual gem and mineral show that takes over the whole town every winter. See how one end is polished into a dome? It refracts a star if you hold it up to the light.” Alex picks it up and angles it toward the sun. “It’s a lucky talisman, so I keep it on the dash. I call it ‘the Star Chrysalis’ on account of its shape and size.”

“I see,” says Alex, studying it with childlike fascination. He tumbles the crystal, finger-by-finger across the back of his hand, the way some people can with a large coin, before placing it back on the dash.

Alex glances at his backpack as we pull into the restaurant parking lot.

“You can leave it in the van if you want,” I say. “I’ll give you a ride back after lunch.”

“Thanks,” he says, removing a shoulder bag. “I must trust you because I’m breaking one of my rules—to never leave my pack out of sight. All my stuff got stolen from my tent a few months ago, and I’ve been married to this thing ever since.”

He sighs and pats it affectionately.

“Sorry, old friend, I know this hasn’t been easy on you either.”

He puts on his shoulder bag, and we walk into the Thai restaurant. It’s five minutes past opening time, and we’re the first and only customers.

The interior is unusual and fantasy-like. The ceiling and walls, covered with wooden slats interspersed with porthole windows and Tikki décor, conjure a Disney pirate ship. Except for a few bamboo plants, none of the interior design seems particularly Thai, though the waiters look Asian.

I unsling my camera from around my neck and set it carefully on the window ledge beside our table. Beyond it, the Mothership rests at the end of the lot, and small bursts of late morning traffic rise and fall from the road.

Alex asks me to recommend something, so I order two vegetarian green curries with tofu, a double order of spring rolls with peanut sauce, and coconut waters.

“Thanks,” says Alex after the waiter departs. “I haven’t eaten in such a beautiful restaurant in a long time.”

He seems shy, and I wonder how long it’s been since he’s had a decent meal.

The spring rolls and coconut water arrive almost immediately. They’re soon followed by large bowls of green curry emanating fragrant steam with reddish-green basil leaves floating on top.

It’s so fulfilling to see Alex enthusiastically devouring the food that I don’t want to distract him with conversation. Then, halfway through his meal, he pauses, puts down his spoon, and leans back in his chair. He seems to glow with caloric replenishment and warming spices.

“Thank you, sir, your generosity is most gratefully appreciated. I’m in your debt and at your service,” he says, bowing his head formally as if he’s a character in a Dicken’s novel who might be an exceptionally well-bred young man or the Artful Dodger.

As we talk, his charming trickster persona alternates with a multitude of others, sometimes shifting mid-sentence. But the characters disappear when something touches one of his many raw nerves.

When I ask what inspired him to go on the road, he replies, “I wasn’t getting along with my family . . .” before trailing off into a distant gaze. Then his face blushes as if he’s said too much, and he snaps back into his young adventurer character. “And I wanted to get out and see the world and what fate might bring my way.”

He quickly turns the conversation to me.

“And what about you? What got you into writing about subcultures? Is that your way of seeing the world?”

“Well . . .” I have a canned answer to this familiar question, but I want to offer more than prepackaged words. “It is a way to see the world. But it’s also because I’ve always been an outsider. I like to observe people, but I feel like a visiting anthropologist, never part of any tribe. So, if that’s how I experience life, might as well get paid for it, right?”

Alex’s stare intensifies.

“That’s really how you feel? Like a visiting anthropologist?”

“Sorry,” I say, my face flushing, “I know that must sound horribly condescending—”

“No, no, no, it doesn’t sound horrible,” says Alex, cutting off my apology and flashing a conspiratorial grin. “It might be the greatest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Why?” I ask, not sure if he’s making fun of me.

“Because I thought I was the only one who felt that way. And I’ve always assumed my need to be alone means I’ll always be poor. But you actually found a way to keep your distance and get paid for it! That’s brilliant!”

“Thanks,” I say, delighted by his compliments.

I can hardly see the irony through my overwrought feelings. We’re bonding over being detached anthropologists, but I’m feeling more like an insecure teenager desperate for Alex to like me. I look for a way to return the appreciation.

“You know, people ask that question all the time, but you’re the only one to get the truthful answer out of me. I’m not sure how you did it. Maybe you’re the one who should be interviewing people. You’d be really good at it,” I say, catching myself in an overly enthusiastic smile. “How long have you felt like a visiting anthropologist?”

“I’ve always felt like a stranger in a strange land, as they say,” Alex replies. “But after some weirdness I went through a few months ago . . .” he hesitates, a shadow of pain passing across his face. “Since then, I’ve had to live as an outsider. And I don’t know if this is exactly what an anthropologist does,” Alex pulls a battered blue notebook out of his shoulder bag, “but I always find myself observing people and taking notes. I’m obsessed with recording dialogue I overhear, word for word.”

“That’s exactly what anthropologists do,” I say. “And journalists. Those word-for-word notes are like gold when it comes to writing about subcultures. Way more revealing than putting a microphone in someone’s face. I wish you were there on my last few assignments—I mean it’d be great to capture the candid stuff I miss because people know a journalist is recording them.”

“Well, you’re welcome to use anything I picked up at the Renaissance fair or elsewhere in my travels if it helps with an article. I’ve never found a purpose—for the notes, I mean.”

“I’d love to read through them. And of course, if I use any of it, I’ll give you credit in the article—”

“No, no, I don’t want any credit. I’d be happy just to know it was put to use.”

Alex turns his notebook so the front cover is oriented toward me.

“This whole notebook is full of stuff I overheard.”

The cardboard cover is decorated with an intricate design embossed in shiny, ballpoint pen ink. The intricacies flow organically from a single phrase, “The Great Design,” rendered in a graceful script.

“Wow,” I say lamely, “that is a great design.”

I regret my words as soon as they come out of my mouth. Alex hastily puts the notebook back in his shoulder bag, his face flushing with embarrassment.

“Those words don’t mean I thought my design was great,” he says resentfully.

“No, no, I’m sorry, that came out totally wrong—I know what you meant, but I was—

“You know what I meant?”

“Yeah.”

“OK, well, since you know what I meant, why don’t you tell me?”

“Well . . . you meant life is a great design.”

Alex doesn’t contradict me, but I sense I’m still on trial and need to defend my point. I’m learning for the first time what I’d learn all too well in the future—it’s so easy to accidentally wound Alex’s pride, and once it happens, it’s hard to recover his trust.

“It struck me because I experience it all the time—a level of design under the surface you can sometimes glimpse but never fully understand,” I say, sitting forward in my chair as I organize my thoughts.

“I hate when people talk about the randomness of life as if they’re giving you this great insight into what’s really going on. They act like they’re pulling back the curtain to reveal the ultimate nature of reality. And for them, the ultimate revelation is that everything is meaninglessly random. The only miracle in the universe is their sophistication at getting the cosmic joke.”

Alex listens intently, but I can’t tell if I’ve convinced him yet.

“I saw this interview once where a famous British atheist said human beings were no more significant than mold growing on a shower curtain. But he said it in a smug, self-satisfied, smarter-than-thou tone as if he thought he was mold of a higher order than the common sort who aren’t in on the joke.”

Alex laughs appreciatively, so I continue.

“This kind of person pulls randomness out of their hat, like the most tired of magicians’ rabbits. And even though they’re one of many performing the same disappointing trick, they act like they’re offering you this cutting-edge revelation suitable only for tough-minded sophisticates like themselves. And they give these ludicrous examples to prove the randomness of everything. Like, if I hadn’t been five minutes late, I never would’ve been standing at the street corner and never would’ve met so-and-so, or the car wouldn’t have hit me, etc. They don’t seem to realize their examples don’t illustrate randomness at all. An infinite number of other events could’ve happened, but they didn’t. A fateful and particular pattern played out. But because they can think of alternative possibilities, they come to the absurd conclusion that what actually did happen was just random.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” says Alex, his face dimpling into a smile.

“I once heard a podcast with an information scientist who claims true randomness is an unproven assumption, and that one day the mistaken belief that anything could be random will be recognized as the greatest error in the history of science. Not that I actually know anything about the science behind this . . .” I add sheepishly, realizing I might be overselling my point of view.

“I totally agree with you, man,” Alex responds. “You don’t have to know any science to see life isn’t as random as some claim. But I get where they’re coming from because most of the time the great design is hidden, and a lot of stuff does look random . . .”

Alex pauses before falling into a more subdued tone.

“Most of my experiences might as well be random, though, as far as I can tell. I mean, I do have weird perceptions, but I guess they could be seen as random in a way too.”

“What kind of weird perceptions?” I ask excitedly, hoping to find more common ground.

“I don’t know, man,” Alex says, suddenly becoming wary and dismissive. “They were just weird perceptions, like seeing creepy stuff in people. It’s nothing worth hearing about.”

My curiosity was too forward. I’m desperate to learn more, but I don’t want Alex to withdraw further. I consider telling him about the dream that led me to the Renaissance fair.

No, he might see it as a cringeworthy romantic overture.

My self-doubt creates a lull in the conversation, and I can tell Alex is waiting for me to pick it back up again, testing me to see how I’ll recover.

“For some reason . . .” I begin, unsure which direction to take, “when you first approached me, I thought you were dressed up as an elf. I guess it was the green hoodie.”

My words immediately seem irrelevant, but Alex greets them with an impish smile.

“So, you assume I’m not an elf?” he says, feigning offense.

“Well, from a statistical point of view,” I say in my best expert-witness voice, “one assumes most people are not elves.”

“But if people can dress up as elves,” Alex responds, “shouldn’t we assume elves can dress up as people?”

“Sure, sure,” I say, trying to stay in character. “Sounds reasonable. Do you consider yourself a member of the elf persuasion?”

Elf persuasion? Does that mean I’ve persuaded myself I’m an elf or that I persuade others I am?” asks Alex.

“Both, I suppose,” I reply. “I was looking for a less blunt way to pop the are-you-an-elf question. I know it’s quite a personal thing. But if you self-identify as an elf, I respect that. We should embrace a diversity of species, including elves.”

“Well played, sir, how diplomatic of you,” says Alex with a smirk. “The truth is sometimes I do identify as an elf, and others do seem persuaded. People often say I look like one. That’s why I wear a green hoodie. But it’s ironic you’d put me on the spot about it when you look as much like an elf as I do.”

“I do?” I ask.

“You don’t see that?” asks Alex.

“I never really—” I say, but Alex cuts me off.

“C’mon, the mysterious eyes, long hair, high cheekbones—you’ve definitely got the look. Takes one to know one, they say. Put on a green hoodie, and I guarantee you’ll get elf projections.”

Even though it’s easily hidden by clothing, I’d always thought of my Fireskin as ruining any look. I feel a twinge of pain at the thought of Alex discovering how wrong he is.

“I meant that as a compliment, by the way,” says Alex, reading my discomfort. “I think elves look pretty cool. I don’t mind looking elfy most of the time. Well, some of the time at least, but . . .” he slumps back in his chair and sighs. “I’m just really, really small. In middle school, I was a star athlete, until my classmates turned into grown men, and I stayed tiny. It kind of sucks a lot of the time . . .”

Alex looks miserable at the recollection, but I’m touched that he’s trusting me with such a vulnerable disclosure.

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty small myself,” I reply, trying to brush away his worry. “Better to be quick and agile than big and clumsy. Your juggling skills are impressive. I’m not surprised you were an athlete.”

“Yeah,” says Alex gloomily. “Was.”

“You know, from an evolutionary point of view, it’s more efficient to be small,” I say, grasping for something encouraging. “Most astronauts are on the small side. Nobody wants a big, beefy astronaut sucking the oxygen out of the space capsule.” Alex smiles, so I keep going. “They want every kid to think they have the potential to be an astronaut. But the sad truth is that only the few, the proud, the way-smaller-than-average test pilots have the right stuff.”

“OK, OK, you can stop now,” says Alex smiling. “But, thanks, man, I appreciate it.”

“Speaking of the great design,” I nod toward his shoulder bag, “doesn’t it seem more than a coincidence that both of us are travelers writing down overheard speech and taking photographs?”

“Maybe,” says Alex. I see a flicker of wariness in his eyes as he reads something in me, but I’m not sure what.

“Yeah, maybe,” I defer. “I guess lots of people write stuff down and take pictures when they travel.” I look for another direction. “Do you do other kinds of writing?”

“I journal,” Alex replies. “A few poems here and there. But mainly, there’s this one story I’ve been working on.”

“What kind of story?” I ask.

“Well . . . I’ve got a long way to go,” Alex replies. “It’s all a bit disorganized right now, but mainly it’s about this fourteen-year-old boy who finds himself caught between two worlds. He’s in a terrible car wreck that kills his parents and leaves him in a coma for several months.”

My eyes widen with shock, and I stop breathing. I drop my fork and look up at him.

Is he a psychic trickster pulling memories from my mind?

“What?” asks Alex, raising an eyebrow.

“I . . .  I’ll tell you, but can I hear more about the story first? What happens after the coma?” I ask.

“Well, a lot happens during the coma,” Alex replies. “On the outside, he looks brain-dead. But within, or somewhere, he experiences a whole other life, a magical life, in a world with elves and wizards—yeah, I know, it sounds like the worst story ever, but I’m not trying to win awards or anything, I’m just writing it for myself . . .

“The doctors try a risky procedure to see if they can shock him out of the coma,” Alex continues. “They inject him with an experimental drug mixed with adrenalin. It nearly gives him a heart attack, but it works. He wakes up to discover he’s an orphan lying in a hospital bed, his body so weak from months in a coma he can barely sit up. Metal pins hold his legs together, and he’ll never walk without crutches. He’s not sure which world he belongs to, and he’s desperate to return to the magical realm, which is better in every way than his miserable existence in the hospital. He’s sure the other world still goes on without him, but he’s clueless how to get back.”

Alex pauses, sensing the shift in my energy. He looks at me uncertainly, not sure how to read my reaction. My heart is pounding, and I struggle to get myself under control.

He’s seen through to my life story and Fireskin.

“Anyway,” Alex says as he studies my face. “Like I said, I realize how lame it sounds, but it’s like this obsession. I started working on it in high school and can’t let it go.”

“It’s—” I sputter, “No, it doesn’t sound lame. I’m just shocked.”

“Shocked? About what?” asks Alex.

“About your story,” I reply. “It’s damn near the story of my life.”

“What?” says Alex, studying me. “Wait, seriously? You’re not kidding, are you?”

I don’t even know where to begin. But Alex reads my hesitation and leans forward encouragingly.

“What happened? Tell me.”

“Well . . . for one thing,” I reply. “I was in a car wreck when I was fifteen. It killed my parents. Killed me too. But they resuscitated me, obviously. I was in a medically induced coma for a few days—”

“Oh man, I’m really sorry,” says Alex. “I would never have—”

“No, no, it’s . . . it’s OK,” I reply. “And I want to read your story. I think it’s fascinating and happening for a reason. I mean, what are the odds?”

“The great design at work,” says Alex carefully as he tries to gauge where I’m at.

“Yeah, exactly,” I reply. “But it’s OK. Really. It’s been years. And the whole experience made me the person I am. For better and for worse. Also, like the character in your story, I had a near-death experience. It wasn’t a whole other life, but I did encounter another world. And the people there were like elves. I mean, they didn’t have pointy ears or anything, but they were beautiful and had an uncanny glow. Sounds like a hallucination, of course, but one of them communicated with me, and he seemed as real as you do. And, like your character, I woke up in the hospital and found I was an orphan . . .”

This is the moment to confess the Fireskin. Better get it over with before an accidental tug on a shirt sleeve gives it away.

But the color drains from my face as I summon my nerve.

“Hey, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” says Alex, sensing my anxiety.

“No, no, I do want to . . .,” I reply. “I woke up from the coma, but it wasn’t quite like your character, getting shocked awake with adrenalin. I was pumped full of pain meds, so it was a more in-and-out process, and . . . You can’t see because I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt—but I’ve got third-degree burns all over— I call it my Fireskin, but anyway—”

My face flushes, and I grasp at the first question I can think of to deflect.

“So, your character—did he get burned in his accident?” I ask.

The straw I grasped for explodes in my hand like a firecracker as I realize my question is begging attention to the very thing I’m desperate to get past. Alex studies me.

“No, my character didn’t get burned,” he replies gently. “But if it makes you feel any better, his legs got shattered into like a million pieces, and he was never going to be able to walk without crutches. So, there’s that.”

“Oh, well, I guess he got it worse than me,” I reply. “But at least he got to live a whole other life before he woke up,” I say in mock complaint, trying to seem casual about everything.

“OK, but wait a sec,” says Alex. “I hope this isn’t too hard to talk about, but I’m trying to wrap my mind around this.”

I feel a dread certainty he’s going to ask about the Fireskin, and then he’ll want to see it.

“You said you had an encounter with another world while in a coma—and elves?” he asks.

I let out a breath as relief pours through me.

“Yeah, it was brief,” I reply, “but I was in another world. The few people there looked like elves. I mean, they looked like people, but really beautiful, and they had this radiant vitality. So I’ve always thought of them as elves.

“I’ve never actually talked to anyone about this,” I say. A twinge of conscience forces me to add, “Well, at least not extensively. . . But perhaps recounting my experience could inspire some added details for your story, being they’re so similar.”

“Please,” says Alex.

“OK,” I reply. “Well, the accident happened at night. A drunk driver slammed his pickup truck into our little hatchback at around eighty miles per hour. I was told my parents died instantly. I still choose to believe that. I survived because I was in the back seat and a fire-rescue team got to the wreck in minutes.

“I detach from my body and see the aftermath of the accident below me. Red and blue lights flash across the twisted metal hulks. Broken glass strewn across the asphalt glitters with the strobing of colored light.

“Although it looks eerie, a scene of total devastation, I’m surrounded by an atmosphere of calm reassurance. Everything seems to be exactly the way it needs to be. The wreck is just something that unfolded in time, like a flower bud opening its petals at the right moment.

“I ascend above the highway, the whole region, then the planet from the perspective of outer space. Suddenly, I’m hurtling through a tunnel, or wormhole or something, faster than light-speed. Instead of stars, there are streaks of light.

“It’s over in moments, and I’m left floating in a dark space where everything’s perfectly still and quiet. The floating gives way to a sensation of rising from the darkness like a scuba diver out of deep waters. As I rise, I become more physical.

“I emerge onto a grassy field. It’s a warm, sunny day. Sitting beside a patch of wildflowers a few feet away are a boy and two girls who appear to be my age. Their long hair gleams in the sunlight, and they have a strange glow. The boy smiles as if he’s known me his whole life and is welcoming me back after an absence.

“I start to experience physical sensations—the warmth of the sun, the fragrance of the flowers, leaves rustling in the breeze.

“Everything is vivid, but I don’t feel my body having any weight as I sit on the grass. I seem to be made of energy. And there was another oddity I overlooked until I reflected back on it. At least, it didn’t feel odd at the moment. It was apparent one of the girls was much younger, but physically all three looked about the same age. The difference was in her eyes. In her soul.

“The boy looks at me and asks, ‘May I approach?’

“I nod, and he sits down before me. His green eyes reflect wisdom far beyond his apparent age. I feel fully seen and accepted. He understands I’m in shock, and he’s calming me with his presence . . .”

Telling Alex about the encounter makes it feel like it’s happening again. As I look at Alex, his large, curious eyes peering into me, I realize he’s like them—a certain glow, uncanny eyes, and physical beauty.

“Did you get to talk with him?” asks Alex, interrupting my reverie.

“Yeah, we talked. He said much more than I can remember, and—maybe said isn’t even the right word. Things seemed to be—mutually apparent. I knew he was Jeremiah, and he referred to me as Andrew, though I don’t recall ever telling him my name.”

“But you said there was some talking,” Alex presses eagerly.

“Yeah, near the end,” I reply. “He asked me a couple of questions.

‘How old are you, Andrew?’

‘Fifteen.’

‘What’s the last thing you remember before you came here?’

‘A car accident, my parents, I left my body, I left the Earth . . .’

‘I see,’ replies Jeremiah.

“Right after he said that something life-changing happened. We seemed to merge through our eyes. It was a blissful feeling, but hard to recall. The last thing I can remember him saying is, ‘I think it’s time for you to go back.’

“And what happened after that?” Alex asks.

“Next thing I see is the crumpled ceiling of the car,” I reply. “I hear sheet metal being wrenched and glass crumbling. A fireman is yanking the car door open, his face illuminated by flashing lights. He turns his head to shout, ‘He’s not breathing!’

“There’s a moment of vertigo as I’m being carried by someone, and I lose consciousness again.

“When I wake up, I’m somewhere else entirely. Another reality. I see a kid about my age, who I later learn is named Tommy. At first, I’m just an invisible observer. I watch him climb a rope ladder into the branches of a large tree. He reaches a wooden platform and climbs through a hole to come out topside, where there’s a beautifully constructed treehouse surrounded by a little deck.

“The boy turns around to take in the view. Now I can see his face, but it’s like one of those optical illusions where your mind keeps switching between two different ways of seeing the same image. He both is and isn’t Jeremiah. Visually, they’re a mirror image of one another. But Jeremiah, though he bore no physical sign of age, was far older and wiser. And this boy is an actual kid about my age. His faded denim shorts and T-shirt are what any kid might wear, but he has dazzlingly green eyes and a radiant vitality. But it’s not just appearance. He has the same essence as Jeremiah, just in a younger form.

“There’s loose lumber on the platform, and futuristic-looking power tools armored in weathered teal plastic. Using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, he surveys the surrounding forest. Then he picks up a tool and sets to work making a round door hatch for the hole in the platform.

“He’s so comfortable with the power tools, they seem like an extension of his body. He moves with astonishing speed but never seems rushed, as his movements have a graceful fluidity. His project must be based on a plan, but his actions seem effortless and spontaneous like it’s all a highly skillful form of play.

“The treehouse flows perfectly with the shape of the tree. It looks like a ship made to float on branches rather than waves. Every contour and detail of his woodwork has a look of organic inevitability and yet, he seems so young to have achieved such exquisite craftsmanship.

“I watch him with fascinated admiration. I want to know him, to be part of his world . . . I want to . . . to be like him, I almost want to be him, he’s so . . .”

Suddenly, I feel overcome by embarrassment.

“That sounds crazy,” I say with a forced laugh, “hearing it out loud.”

I have a panicky feeling Alex might get up and leave.

“And, yeah, I realize it could all be hallucinations from the pain meds, or whatever—

“No, don’t do that,” says Alex in a serious tone.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t back away from it. We both know it’s not crazy. And it’s not because of the medication.”

We both know?”

“Right. We both know. I’ve had just as weird an encounter, and it probably saved my life.”

“You—”

“Don’t worry,” Alex interrupts, “I’ll tell you all about it. But, please, keep going.”

I put aside my curiosity and continue.

“OK, there was a discontinuity after I saw Tommy working on the treehouse. I turned my head for a moment to look at our surroundings, but when I looked back, my vision flashed forward. I was now watching Tommy on a different occasion.

“It must be days or weeks later because the treehouse is finished. His mood and whole way of being are so different. Before, he moved so quickly, but now he lies back on the treehouse deck, looking up at the clouds. He’s immersed in the moment, experiencing the beautiful summer day with all his senses, flowing through some deeper current of time.

“I’m absorbed by the depth of awareness in his gaze until I feel myself being pulled into him.

“Looking into his eyes becomes looking through his eyes.

“It happens so naturally I don’t even notice the difference at first. I’m no longer an outside observer—I’m an inner witness of everything he’s experiencing.

“It’s as if my wish to be him is coming true. I feel the sun’s heat on his skin, the light breeze through the leaves and branches.

“But then . . .

“Thunder clouds roll in, and the temperature drops. A perception comes to his mind— something terrible coming.

“Past the horizon line of his vision, there’s a curtain of shadow he must part to know what’s coming.

“I stay with him as he shoots out of his body and reappears by the side of a dirt road. There’s a backpack at his feet. I feel the tension of his muscles as he hoists it, and the weight of it thudding against him somehow brings a revelation of the darkness he’s facing. It doesn’t lift the curtain completely, but many perceptions flood in. A great loss, a great tragedy, has befallen him and the world. Then the moment loops. He hoists the pack, and it thuds again. Loop. Thud. Loop. Thud. Each time brings deeper feelings of fear and dread. I stay with him through all of this.

“The last thud jolts him—us—back to the deck of the treehouse, where he sits close to the edge of the wooden platform, trembling. I’m watching him from the outside again.

“Everything I felt for him has changed. When I first saw him building the treehouse, I admired the graceful way he inhabited his body and the swift precision of his every movement. I wanted to be him and live his carefree life, surfing waves of summery euphoria in a beautiful, natural world. But now I realize that he, too, is haunted by an ominous sense of destiny, and I feel an intense kinship.

“With ragged breaths, he fights to stabilize his body on the deck. He wraps his arms around himself and prays for help.

“I want to lift him out of his despair, and my desire is so strong that it reaches him across whatever barriers lay between us. He sits up and looks straight in my direction, even though I’m not in his world yet. Not visible. And then—a tingling sensation—a tectonic shift in the whole reality—and the mirror between our worlds melts.

“As his eyes focus on me, I become more spatially aware. I’m floating just beyond the treehouse deck. It’s strange, because until he could see me, I had no sense of being physical.

“A wave of shame passes through me—”

“Shame about what?” Alex interrupts.

“My burns. I look like something out of a horror movie, and he’s so—I’m afraid he’ll be sick when he sees what I look like. But instead of turning away in horror, his eyes lock onto mine, and I feel him holding on to me.

“It’s like he’s been in moments like this before and understands how to handle them.

“And it feels like we’re so alike, but also so different.”

“Different how?” asks Alex.

“Well, it’s apparent he’s living in a small community in the woods, and he seems so wholesome and uncorrupted. I grew up in Manhattan, so I feel like a city mouse encountering a country mouse. We’re from different worlds.

“I sense he’s aware of this too but isn’t put off by it. He’s just happy to see me. His eyes are warm and welcoming. He pats the wooden deck beside him, inviting me to join him. I sit across from him and become more embodied as our connection strengthens.

‘Hey. I’m Tommy. What’s your name?’

‘Andrew.’

‘Where are we?’ I ask.

‘Vermont,’ he replies. ‘In a Valley of the Green Mountains.’

“As I look toward them, a shudder of instability passes through me. I need eye contact with him to keep my form. He understands and holds me with his gaze. I watch his chest rise and fall as he slows his breathing to calm the turbulent energy between us.

‘What happened to you, Andrew?’ he asks gently.

“I tell him about the accident and leaving my body.

“But when it’s time to tell him about showing up in Jeremiah’s world, I hesitate. I sense it would violate something.”

“Violate what?” asks Alex.

“I don’t know exactly,” I reply. “It was an intuition. Perhaps telling Tommy about another version of himself would’ve been too much of a shock. So I just told him I lost consciousness, and when I awoke, I found myself floating near his treehouse.

“I tell him about experiencing his vision with him. The approaching darkness. Tommy’s posture relaxes, and I see appreciation in his eyes. I realize then what he needs—someone who knows the burden of dark visions and can understand him. No one had ever shared his burden of being set apart. It’s a kind of fulfillment I’d never experienced either, and it makes me want to live.

“These new feelings melt my defenses, allowing his gaze to travel deeper into me, and for me to comprehend more of him.

“We’re both driven by a powerful current of hidden purpose, a force so encompassing of who we are, it never occurred to us it could be shared with another. What had always set us apart was bringing us into communion, dissolving all boundaries between us.

“And then, our physical surroundings become an impressionistic blur, and we merge. The outside world disappears into a color-shifting flow of energy. I’m no longer sure where one of us leaves off, and the other begins. In some place outside of time, we become a single being with two souls.

“I know that doesn’t make sense, but it happened. We were in a state without beginning or end. On some level, I believe it may still be happening. And yet, in my present state, I can’t return to that moment to describe it any better.”

I trail off into silence, feeling that merged state still out there but unreachable.

“Wow. Is that how it ends?” asks Alex.

“No. But I sensed it was about to. We emerge from that infinite space, still sitting across from each other in the treehouse. I have an impulse to say something, but I’m not even sure what because all I get out is his name and then there’s an electric shock, like being struck by lightning. I have no memory of anything after that. I’ve always assumed that was when they restarted my heart. The next thing I remember is waking up from the medically induced coma.

“This happened four years ago, and yet the effect of the encounter increases with time. It feels unfinished, like I’m meant to help Tommy with his mission. I came out of the near-death experience with a compulsion to search for him. And that intention has only gotten stronger. But the more I think about it, the more impossible finding him seems. The whole experience is riddled with time paradoxes.”

Alex raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah, time paradoxes,” I repeat. “Aspects that don’t make sense from a single, linear-time perspective. Tommy lived near the Green Mountains of Vermont. It was summer when I encountered him. The accident happened a hundred miles from the Green Mountains in upstate New York, but on a winter night.

“And I have contradictory perceptions about him. It feels like we’re living in parallel with each other. And yet, I also feel like he’s upstream in time, somewhere in the future.

“But despite the temporal inconsistencies, the need to search for him has grown. It’s actually why I started doing photojournalism about subcultures. Tommy didn’t tell me in words, but I sensed he lived in a small community in the woods. And he did say we were in the Green Mountains of Vermont, so I visited every intentional community in that area. That led to writing an article on intentional communities in Vermont, but it didn’t lead to Tommy. Searching for him, and others like him, has become my life mission.”

“And that’s how we met, isn’t it?” asks Alex.

I nod, and a brief silence follows.

As different as they are in some ways, the similarities between Alex and Tommy are striking. They’re both so intensely alive and empathically attuned to the moment. They share an uncanny physical beauty and athleticism. The precision and speed of Tommy’s carpentry work mirrored the uncanny dexterity of Alex’s juggling.

And yet their differences are equally stark. Tommy felt at peace with himself and was so trusting, while Alex seems to be hiding some deep suffering behind a shifting array of personas. Tommy was aware of darkness approaching, but Alex seems like he’s been through it.

“OK,” Alex says, pulling us out of the awkward silence, “so what happened after you woke up from the coma?”

“Well, it was like how it was for your story’s character. I came back with an overwhelming sense of being in the wrong world. At first, I was so high on pain meds I wasn’t sure what was real. And yet, though nobody told me while I was still in critical condition, I knew I was an orphan.

“Whenever they left me alone, I’d close my eyes and try to go back to sleep, hoping to rise through the darkness again to be in the sunny meadow with Jeremiah, or the treehouse with Tommy. But mostly, I wanted to be back with my parents when we were packing up the car for the trip. I could prevent the accident if only I could return to that moment. But even through the opioid haze, I knew that wasn’t possible. And Jeremiah—he felt at a much further remove, like someone living in another dimension. Tommy, though—he feels close and far away at the same time. It’s like we’re living alongside each other, but in parallel dimensions or timelines or something. He still feels close, but—”

“Parallel lines can’t meet,” says Alex.

“Yeah, exactly. But I keep hoping they will anyway. And when I was in the hospital, I had only just encountered him, so he felt so close. I kept hoping we could connect in the Dreamtime. Unfortunately, I always woke up to pain and disappointment. I haven’t had another encounter with him since the near-death experience.”

“I’m sorry, man. That sounds pretty rough,” Alex says. “But if you’re still willing, I’d like to hear more about what it was like waking up in the hospital. But if it’s painful—”

“No, no—it was painful to go through, but talking about it is therapeutic, if anything, so thanks for asking. I should warn you, though—a lot of it is quite gruesome. Sure you want to hear about it at lunch?”

“Definitely,” replies Alex without hesitation.

“OK, well . . .” I hesitate for a moment as I try to figure out where to begin, “it’s actually hard to say when I woke up. They kept me in a coma for several days, and I was intubated—on a ventilator even when they woke me. Then I was put on powerful sedatives that cause amnesia. And that’s not a side effect—it’s by design.”

“Why did they want to give you amnesia?” asks Alex.

“Some procedures are so painful you’re better off not remembering. So they medicate you into amnesia to reduce PTSD. Like when they had to clean the donor sites. Those are places where they remove healthy skin for grafts. They’d give me propofol—that’s the anesthetic that killed Michael Jackson—but they couldn’t give me so much that I was out completely. And they also gave me Fentanyl. I’m sure you know what that is.”

“Of course,” says Alex. “Someone I went to school with died from that shit like a month ago.”

“Sorry—” I say.

 “No need,” Alex replies. “It wasn’t anybody I was close to. Anyway, I want to hear more about your experience. What else did they give you?”

“They gave me a powerful barbiturate called Versed— that’s the one that causes amnesia. They also had to ensure I was sedated enough to stay completely still during procedures.”

“Damn, man, that’s intense,” Alex says, his eyes glowing with curiosity.

I’ve learned from experience that some guys tend to be fascinated by grotesque medical details, and I’ve performed this rap many times before. I feel it’s helping me gain respect with Alex, like I’m telling an epic war story, so I’m eager to continue.

“When you get burned that bad, they ‘ve got to rush you through multiple complex surgeries. And it’s only since the nineties that they had the medical tech to bring someone with as many injuries as I had back to life.

“They’ve got to get the dead skin off as quickly as possible before it causes massive infections. The process of removing the dead skin is a weird term—debridement. One of the burn nurses joked that she underwent debridement when she got divorced. That joke made the term seem creepier. You’re supposed to be married to your skin till death do you part. But the fireskinned must go through this gruesome divorce.

“After the divorce, I needed massive skin grafts. This is kind of gross, but they grafted cadaver skin on me at first.

“Cadaver?” asks Alex.

“Corpse—dead peoples’ skin,” I clarify.

“Ahh,” he replies.

He seems unphased, so I continue.

“They had to keep working on me constantly, right to the edge of what my body could take. Then there’s the trauma of having healthy skin removed to make the permanent grafts.

“Metabolically, it’s like running a marathon for several days straight, so they had to insert a feeding tube to pump enough calories into my body for it to keep up. Luckily, I was fifteen, and my regenerative capacity was at its peak.

“But anyway, getting back to your question, waking up was more like fever dreams, these nightmarish intervals of semi-consciousness. My brain was bleeding from a major concussion, and had further damage from lack of oxygen, due to my heart stopping for at least thirteen minutes before they could get it going again. Later, when they gave me a series of cognitive tests, I got higher scores than anyone they’d ever tested. By nine minutes, most people have severe brain damage, so that makes me a medical anomaly.

“In the early weeks, though, I had lots of cognitive problems. When I was conscious, I hallucinated. But it all seemed so real. I think some of the hallucinations were intentionally frightening because my body needed a surge of adrenaline at certain moments. Like I was sure millipedes and spiders were crawling everywhere. Medical staff would shine flashlights on the walls to show me they weren’t.

“Anyway, it was a month before I had anything resembling normal consciousness. And even when I did know what was happening, I could barely speak because the intubation damaged my vocal cords.

“Gradually, I regained some speech and mobility. However, once I could move, I had to constantly repress the desire to scratch everywhere because my whole body was itchy. The itchiness is caused by nerves regrowing through subdermal layers. So even if I was allowed to scratch, it wouldn’t do anything because the nerves hadn’t reached the surface of my skin.

“By that point, I knew I was in a hospital, but I was still totally confused about what was real and what wasn’t. It can still seem unreal when I go back once a year to get these laser treatments—”

“Laser treatments?” asks Alex.

“Yeah, it’s this specialized procedure to help with scar tissue. When skin cells regrow, it’s like they lay down this kind of scaffolding, but not in a normal way. They do it in parallel lines that contract the whole scar into bands, which limits mobility. It’s called burn contracture. That’s the real problem. Depending on where it is, contracture can hurt your joints, so they cut into it to relieve the pressure. The laser treatments are like thousands of tiny cuts that get the skin cells to grow in multiple directions. They use fractional lasers—

“Fractional?” asks Alex.

“It just means the laser is split into thousands of different beams,” I reply. “They burn a grid pattern of centimeter-sized squares onto your skin. The squares are made of tiny perforations that look like pixels.

“The part that seems unreal is that for a week and a half after the procedure, my skin has this grid pattern, so it looks like I’m part organic and part computer-graphic wire frame.

“Trying to keep my Fireskin elastic enough to move properly is a lifelong problem. I need to go back every year for more laser treatments, and every morning I’ve got to put on lubricating lotions to work through the stiffness.

“Getting back to waking up in the hospital, I was in and out during the ICU phase, and it was like a fever dream with scary hallucinations. Thankfully, I was asleep a lot of the time. But I’d always wake up to unpleasant sensations—tubes stuck in my arm, antiseptic smells, the itchiness. And I was getting woken up round-the-clock for these painfully invasive procedures—needles, cleanings, and dressing changes performed by blurry figures rustling around me, their voices an incomprehensible murmur.

“When left alone, I’d drift along at the edge of sleep and oblivion—an unformed place between worlds. When the opioids dissolved my physical discomforts, it felt like I could choose which reality to be in, only I had trouble navigating there.

“The reality I didn’t want was the hospital. When they worked on me, I lost my freedom to drift away. And they attended to me around the clock. I felt like a burnt meat puppet with its strings cut, helplessly bound to a hospital bed. I didn’t complain, but I wasn’t always rational enough to appreciate that they were saving my life. I was a brain-damaged fifteen-year-old high on pain meds, and they were constantly intruding on my states of chemically induced disassociation. Eventually, I got better at reminding myself they were just doing their jobs, and I always cooperated as best I could.

“When I stabilized, I started to accept that all other realities were fleeting, while the hospital had a nightmarish permanence. But I still wanted out. Out of the half-burned body, out of the whole reality.”

“Yeah, I know how that feels,” says Alex. “Not the hospital part,” he adds hastily, “but wanting out of the whole reality.”

“Well, we’re in good company,” I reply. “Lots of people feel that way. It doesn’t always take a major trauma like I went through. And I’m not saying I went through anything worse than anyone else—I don’t want to throw myself a pity party—”

“No, no,” replies Alex. “That’s such a horrible experience—no one can call that self-pity. And listen, man, I know this isn’t easy to talk about, and I really appreciate it.”

“Thanks.”

“How long were you in the hospital?” asks Alex.

“Three months,” I reply. “But time stretched, and every week I was conscious felt like a lifetime. The first month I was in the ICU, then I was transferred to a step-down unit, then a month of rehab.

“After three months, I was discharged, but I was still totally disabled and had to return to the hospital every day for another month and a half. I was weaker and more incapable of helping myself than I was as a child, but my Aunt Leah was a patient caregiver.

“Recovery was a slow process. It took about eighteen months to regain most of my range of motion. I had to do all these painful stretches—like standing while two physical therapists slowly pulled my arms apart like a crucifixion. It was a long time before I could even put a shirt on by myself, and I still need to stretch every day to keep my arms flexible.

“For a year and a half, I was either homebound or back in the hospital for follow-up surgeries. Burned skin looks like this distressed hide or something, but it’s actually much thinner than regular skin. Any little cut and you’ll keep bleeding because the skin doesn’t heal well, and infection is a big risk. So I couldn’t go anywhere. Maybe that’s part of why I like traveling now.”

“Making up for being housebound for so long?” asks Alex.

“Yes, exactly,” I reply.

 “I have an uncle who got burned pretty bad a few years ago,” says Alex. “He was trying to barbecue while shit-faced drunk and squirted lighter fluid from a can into a fire. Just his arms were burned, but he had to get grafts. You must have had a lot of stitches.”

“Mostly staples,” I reply, “thousands of these tiny metal staples. One staple went into a nerve which was . . . annoying. And they didn’t get them all out—some of them scarred over and are still inside me. After doing some scans, they discovered how many got left behind.”

“Damn, man. I’m sorry, that all sounds rough,” Alex says. “Anything else you can tell me about the hospital phase?”

“I just wanted out,” I reply. “Everything seemed wrong. Grieving for my parents, prolonged nausea from the medications, the fluorescent lights reflecting off the linoleum floor, the helplessness, pain, and weird sensations of my injured body—it all merged into a vast sense of wrongness about the default reality.

“I felt like an alien trapped inside a half-burnt kid. Everything about the hospital world seemed distorted, unnecessarily brutal, and ugly. The staff looked malformed, even grotesque. And my own body seemed like a monstrosity. Tommy, Jeremiah, and the two female elves I encountered during my near-death experience looked how people should. But nothing in the world I woke up in looked right.”

“Damn,” says Alex, “that’s a lot heavier than what my character experienced. Did life get any better when you recovered?”

“The feeling became more tolerable,” I reply, “and I came to appreciate certain people. But on some level, this reality still feels wrong to me.”

I pause to take a breath, feeling a weight lifting off me. I didn’t realize how much I needed to confess my alienation from the species.

“So, that’s why I’m a visiting anthropologist,” I add, “traveling the world as an observer because I can’t shake the feeling I don’t belong here.”

“Well, it still sounds like you’ve made more peace with this reality than I have, says Alex. “That stranger-in-a-strange-land thing, I’ve always felt it, and it’s only grown more intense with age. Life got way worse for me after I turned seventeen,” he says, his voice dropping to a confidential tone. “Like you, I had a near-death experience. Only mine wasn’t an accident. I tried to take my skin out of the game.”

Alex pulls back the sleeves of his hoodie to reveal razor scars on his wrists.

He’s laying out his life before me like a Tarot spread. Now he’s just turned over some major arcana—the Hanged Man and the Death Card.

For the first time, I see the depth of his torment and his precarious hold on life. I have a surge of protective instinct, but I also sense he’ll resent any expression of sympathy. Right now, he just wants to get his story out, and any words from me will make that awkward.

Alex tucks his wrists back under the sleeves of his hoodie.

“It should’ve worked. I picked a time when no one would be home for hours. The only reason I’m here is because of my friend Chase. Well, friend isn’t quite right. But I wasn’t answering my phone, so he drove to my house where he found me unconscious and bleeding out.

“I didn’t go to the hospital, and hid the scars from my family, so no one ever found out. I’ve never even talked to anyone about this till now.

“Sometime before Chase found me, I experienced another dimension. It was made up of all these crazy geometric shapes, continuously morphing and weaving into each other.

“But I wasn’t tripping or anything. It felt like an actual world going on behind this one. To this day, I have a sickening feeling I saw what’s really going on, and all this,” Alex makes a sweeping gesture, “is just a simulation.

“The feeling’s been with me ever since,” he says, shifting in his seat uneasily. “What if all this crazy shit keeps happening because none of what we’re experiencing is real? The world seems wrong to us because it is wrong. We’re all being suckered by a simulation. The more I think about it, the more it all seems like a setup. I was bleeding to death. My brain should’ve been completely messed up. So, where did these super intricate visuals come from? Even at my best, I couldn’t imagine anything so complex.

“As my brain shut down, it lost its ability to process the simulation. It was like I zoomed in too far on a photo and got lost in the pixels. I saw the stuff behind the curtain you’re not supposed to see—whatever is generating our experience. I was lost in the reality factory that’s normally behind the scenes—the machinery that creates . . . this,” says Alex making the sweeping gesture again. “The world beneath this one was weirdly beautiful in its way. But it was also. . . appalling.”

“Appalling?” I ask.

“Yeah, appalling,” Alex replies. “Because there’s no human scale to it. It’s like for a fish—water is its default reality—the only dimension it’s ever known. Have you ever seen a fish pulled out of the water? For a while, it flaps around desperately, trying to get back to where it came from. And then it gives up, and there’s this glassy, shocked look in its eyes.

“That’s what I felt like. Everything I ever thought or experienced had no meaning in this geometric world. Patterns weave in and out of each other in impossible ways, and your mind can’t catch hold of anything. And it’s not just me—lots of people see the same thing when they smoke deemsters. I do too.”

“Deemsters?” I ask.

“DMT,” he says. “But this was even more terrifying because it felt like I’d lost contact with the simulation forever. A fish out of water.”

Alex pauses and shifts in his chair again, as if he needs to move his whole body to come at the subject from a different angle.

“I have no idea what’s behind the simulation. And I’m afraid to find out. Maybe our bodies are like virtual reality suits. When they’re working right, we can experience this world normally. But if your suit takes some heavy damage—if you slit your wrists open or get badly burned in a car accident—you find yourself in a processing area outside the simulation.

“You found yourself in a better place—a sunny field with elves—but I landed somewhere . . . inhuman. Maybe I was being punished for breaking one of the key rules of the simulation . . .”

“A rule against suicide?” I ask.

“Yeah. Thou shalt not off thyself. Or something like that.  Maybe you’re supposed to take whatever the simulation throws at you. If, instead, you hit the reset button, the system drops you from the surface of the world into the plumbing beneath it.

“I got a forbidden glimpse behind the curtain, and now I’m cursed with it. Sometimes that makes me feel . . . insane.”  There’s a flash of fear in Alex’s eyes. “Does any part of that make sense to you? Have you ever gotten the feeling this could all be a simulation?”

“All the time,” I reply. “So, if you’re insane, then we both are. I’ve doubted this reality since I was ten. My questioning began as soon as I was old enough to reflect on my experience. As a child, I was tormented by paranoid feelings that most people were simulations. I called them extras. I thought about asking my mom how I could tell if she was still really herself and not an imposter. I never did because I was too afraid of how she might answer—”

“Exactly!” Alex breaks in. “That’s the kind of thing haunting me. How can I tell if anybody else—if any of this is real? Does anything I do even matter?”

“I think it matters,” I say, “even if it is a simulation.”

“Even if it’s a simulation? How would that work?” asks Alex.

“Look at it this way,” I reply, “suppose this is a simulation. We appear to be sentient beings in the simulation together. Some of what you’ve said deeply affected me, and vice versa. That matters. Effecting another sentient being is the definition of what matters. And you shouldn’t question your sanity for having   ago claim the world we perceive is created by a parasitic species called the Archons.

“Some physicists claim that billions-to-one odds favor the probability we live in a quantum computer simulation. Replicated experiments have proven that observation alters what’s out there. Multiverse, parallel worlds, and observer-dependent reality are all aspects of mainstream physics.

“But I’m not sure it matters what we’re made of—quarks, probability waves, superstrings, quantum-computer-generated matrix source code. It’s all just the stuff that dreams are made of. And dreams are as real as anything else. Anything that exists is real. Any dream you ever had, or fantasy flitting through your mind, has a factual existence. You thought of that particular at that moment and no other. The complete history of the multiverse must include every thought since each is an event. And if we’re composed of zeros and ones generated by alien quantum computers, then the pattern of zeros and ones is real. A simulation is as real as anything else because it exists.”

“Never thought of it that way,” says Alex. “But I think you’re onto something.”

 “At the end of the day,” I continue, “hair-splitting logic can’t prove anything. But what we do has moral consequences. I feel we’re both self-aware entities. How we act toward each other is more meaningful than what sort of insubstantial stuff we’re made of.”

“I like that perspective,” Alex says. “It makes life seem less scary.”

He sits back, and I can see his mind turning, realigning the world around him. He steals a quick glance at the few other customers in the restaurant.

“I don’t know about these folks,” he says conspiratorially, “but I feel you’re as real as I am. Regardless of what we’re made of.”

He smiles slyly, raising his coconut water, and we toast our shared reality. It’s a small gesture, but deeply satisfying. It’s the kind of mutual recognition I’d been searching for all my life.

“Anyways,” Alex goes on, “that’s where my doubts about reality began—finding myself trapped in a geometric dimension while bleeding out. Something happened, though, after I went through all that.”

His voice drops to a whisper.

“I fell into a black nothingness, where I was completely alone with my pain and terror and—”

His eyes dilate as he stares into the table as if it were a deep pool of memory.

“I—I can’t talk about that part. It’s too . . . Someone pulled me out of the darkness and saved my life—someone from another plane of reality. But the person who physically lifted me back into this world, this reality, was Chase, ironically a kid I found really annoying.

“The reason I’m alive is because of him. I called him a friend earlier, but he wasn’t really.

“Chase was a sketchy kid I barely knew. Dealing weed was our only connection. I was his plug, and when—”

“Plug?” I ask.

“His dealer. He ripped me off a few times—minor amounts, but only because I didn’t give him a chance to steal more.

“He was a typical stoner—one more of the revolving cast of shady types drifting through my life. He wasn’t interesting or even all that likable.

“The day I did it, Chase needed more weed, and my phone was off. So he drove to my house and found me lying on my bathroom floor in a puddle of blood. He wrapped my wrists with duct tape. I’m not sure where he got it—I was pretty gone at that point. Guess he had it in his car.

“When he shook me awake, my brain had no filters, and what I saw changed me forever . . .”

“What did you see?” I ask.

“It’s like . . .” Alex struggles for words. “Normally, you’re hidden inside your skinsuit, right? Others can pick up on your body language but can’t directly read your feelings. You can be in a packed elevator, and smell someone’s cologne or hear them breathing. But you don’t know what goes on inside their skinsuit, and vice versa. It’s a basic privacy we take for granted. A normally functioning brain has an immune system to keep other people’s insides out.

“My whole life, I’d seen people from the outside. I’d never really felt the full depth of anyone. But when I opened my eyes and saw Chase, I actually saw him. All of him. His feelings and life force. It was like a portal opened between us and . . . he was so full of compassion. I never expected that. He felt for me and what I’d done to myself. And I sensed his darker emotions, too—shame for his mistakes in life, bitterness, and deep resentment.”

“Resentment of others?” I ask.

“Yeah, but beneath that, a resentment of himself and having no purpose,” Alex responds. “Resentment that he was wasting his time and not developing any talents. He felt like a total loser. Seeing what I’d done to myself shocked him. He wasn’t alone in those feelings. Maybe that’s what opened the portal between us.

“At the same time, I had compassion for him.  I thought I was the only one ashamed of living the way we did. We hid our feelings beneath a thick skin of sarcasm and indifference. But in those moments with Chase, our insides were exposed. It was a sad revelation, but it deeply connected us. A primal bond formed. It was emotional and . . . animal.”

“Animal?”  I ask.

“Yeah, animal,” says Alex, lowering his gaze. I sense him repressing tears. Finally, he takes a deep breath and resumes.

“I’m lying there half dead, but I feel the bond with Chase in my whole body. I can barely see his face, and everything else is a dark blur. I’m too weak to even lift my head. My life depends on this other animal. We’re like two little monkeys alone in the back of a cave. I’m as helpless as a newborn, and he’s doing his best to keep me alive. My life is literally in his hands—in his nervous and shaky hands, as he wipes blood from me with a towel soaked in warm water.

“The towel felt like a mother cat’s tongue licking blood from a newborn kitten. My eyes were closed, and I felt Chase’s whole being flowing through the pulse of his fingers like it was keeping my heart beating and . . . it overwhelmed me with . . . empathy.

“I understood him in those moments even more than I did myself or anyone else. Chase was a weak, confused kid who couldn’t find his way. He knew he wasn’t smart or good-looking or good at anything. He lived a lonely and miserable life, trying to make his way around forces larger than he was. His parents were self-medicating wrecks who came home exhausted from work. They didn’t have the energy to keep track of him or give him more than the basics.

“Chase was background noise in the lives of other people. He needed to be loved and guided, but others, including me, barely noticed him. I felt the sadness and desperation of his whole life trembling through his hands . . . But I was too weak to show appreciation.

“I was in and out of awareness. At some point, he must’ve cleaned up the floor and traces of blood because no one ever found out. He helped me to his car, and somehow got me to his basement room. I woke up in a makeshift nest of blankets on his floor.”

“Why didn’t he call 911?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” says Alex. “We never talked about it, but Chase knew the weed was in my house somewhere, so he probably thought we’d get in trouble. Or maybe he was just running on instinct. All we cared about was staying high and living without adult interference. So it was definitely in our MO to avoid the attention of authorities.

“Chase left me a big bottle of orange juice and an empty bottle to pee in. I was too weak to stand for three days. Mostly I was down there alone, but every so often, he’d check on me to see if I needed anything. And his parents never bothered to come downstairs. Like I said, they never paid much attention.”

“Did you two ever actually talk about what happened?” I ask.

“No, not at all,” says Alex. “The situation made him nervous. He didn’t want any more to do with it. I heard him playing video games in another part of the basement sometimes, and he came and went, doing whatever he usually did.”

“And the bond you felt with him?” I ask.

“Gone. It existed for the first few minutes after he found me. But once he got me to his basement, I was just another sketchy situation he had to deal with. When I healed enough to leave, I gave him all the weed I had left. I owed him that much. He started dealing to my old customers, and I withdrew from everyone. I really don’t think he missed me.”

“Wow, sounds pretty cold,” I say. “But he did save your life.”

“He did, indeed,” replies Alex. He reflects silently, taking a sip of coconut water before continuing.

“I meant to take my skin out of the game, and in a sense, I did. I’m still here, but skinless. Not in a way that exposes what’s inside of me. Others barely see me at all. I’m skinless in a way that exposes me to the darkness inside everyone else. That’s why I live on the road. I need to keep moving to deal with the horror show.”

Alex looks at me, his eyes searching. I sense his hope that I’ll understand and accept him despite his strangeness. But there’s also wariness, as if he sees something in me that might destroy that hope.

“I experience time . . . differently now,” Alex says, sitting up straighter in his chair and taking a deep breath. “It’s hard to explain . . . I head home the day I’m strong enough to walk out of Chase’s basement. Fortunately, it’s a warm day, and the movement revives me. But my sense of time is altered. Maybe it already was while I healed in the basement, and I didn’t notice. But the people I pass on the street appear to move in slow motion. And they’re loud. Psychically loud. The stretched time forces me to see extremely unpleasant things about them.”

“Forces you?” I ask.

“I had no choice,” Alex says helplessly. “I was raw.”

“What did you see?” I ask.

“Negative thoughts and feelings they had about themselves and their lives. Addictions, shameful secrets. A bit like what I saw in Chase, minus the compassion.

“The perceptions are disturbing, and yet they seem obvious. Like it’s all there for anyone to read, in their eyes and bodies and everything. But then I start to get flashes. Flashes of memories burned into them— flashes that burn into me . . . ”

Alex trails off. I’m desperate to hear more, but I don’t want to press him.

“Look, if it’s too painful . . . ” I say.

“No, no, you’re the first person I’ve ever wanted to tell,” says Alex. “It’s just graphic. . . Like there was this teenage girl. I got flashes of her alone in her room, slashing parts of her body hidden by clothing. I saw her fleshy inner thigh while she cut it with a razor. And I felt the fever of self-hate driving her to do it.

“Then there was this guy—an obese middle-aged guy walking down the street. When he gets close, I’m barraged with images—he’s at his kitchen counter pouring himself a drink before refilling the whisky bottle with water. He doesn’t want his wife to know how much he’s drinking. I feel the shame burning inside him. Shame of being weak, fat, and impotent.

“I saw each person move through time in their own way. Some sped through it. Fueled by anxiety and caffeine, their thoughts were a red-hot jumble spinning inside them like overheating motors. They seemed about to burst into heart attacks, like they needed death to cool them down. Others were depressed and moved agonizingly slow like flies stuck in a grease trap, oil-soaked wings wrapped around them like straitjackets.

“And I can’t stop myself from seeing these things.

“I’m desperate for refuge, so when I reach my neighborhood, I go to my favorite park. I call it Sundial Park because it has a giant sundial in the middle of it. But instead of peace, I find a gang of shady-looking train-hopper kids eyeing me down. I’ve met some cool drifters on my travels, but this crew oozes horrifying images, the worst I’ve ever seen. The shock in a victim’s eyes after being slashed with a knife. Someone getting curb-stomped on a street corner. And even more unspeakable—things done to children. Things you can’t unsee. I got out of there as quick as I could, but the images still burned inside me.”

Alex takes a deep breath and measures me with his eyes, deciding if he should continue.

“I don’t want to exaggerate my troubles. Today I’m in a better mood, and the Renaissance fair doesn’t attract the worst kind of people, so this is about as good as it gets,” he says with a weak smile. “How much comes through varies, and it’s usually nowhere near as bad as that first day. It’s not like I pick up everything going on in everybody. It’s mostly just the dark side of people. But it’s a vicious circle. The darker I feel, the more darkness I see, which makes me feel even worse.

“As traumatic as the flashes are, they come from a survival instinct. They’re like the warning label on a bottle of poison. A normal person might pick up a creepy vibe from someone, but for me, the warning-label images light up like Roman candles.”

“That’s terrible,” I say.

“Well, I’ve had a lot of time to understand it better. I have a theory. When I slashed my wrists, I think my body interpreted it as a predator attack. It turned on this over-active radar system to prevent another one, and I can’t turn the goddamn thing off.

“So anyway, I get home to an empty house and go straight to my room, where I curl up under the covers, trying to quiet my mind. But I start hearing muffled voices coming through the walls. It’s as if the toxic thoughts of the people I passed are still coming at me, and the images attached to them are like insects crawling around in my head. I want them to just Go. The fuck. Away. But they keep torturing me.

“I curl into a tighter ball, hugging my knees to my chest, and start shouting, ‘Stop!’ ‘Go away!’  And it actually works for a second, but only while I’m shouting, like my voice and will are a protective field. But the moment I’m silent, the field collapses, and the muffled voices and hideous images swarm back in.

“They’re eating me alive. And the more terrified I become, the more they feed. I think . . .” panic flickers in Alex’s eyes, “I think there are beings who feed on fear. And they still feed on me. It’s like they never fully leave.”

Alex searches my face for a moment, then his muscles tense as if he’s about to get up.

“So yeah, anyway, sorry to lay so much heavy weirdness on you at lunch. I’ve never talked to someone about this. If you’ve had enough, you can just drop me back at the fair or whatever. It’s cool, I get it.”

Suddenly, he stands and puts on his shoulder bag.

“Alex, wait—” I can’t believe how badly he’s misread me. “Just—please sit for a minute,” I gesture to his spot at the table. “Please.”

“No, no—it’s all just too messed up,” says Alex. “I know—it’s crazy. It’s OK—I really think I should just—”

“Alex, please.”

He studies me uncomfortably. The panicked, untrusting part of him is out the door already, but another part, the vulnerable part desperate for understanding, wants to stay.

“Please. I haven’t had enough of you. Far from it,” I say. “And I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

“You do?” asks Alex.

“I do,” I say, leaning forward. “Just hear me out. You see into people. And I’ve felt you reading me—”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” says Alex, his face flushing as if I caught him shoplifting.

“No, no, no, don’t be sorry. I want you to read me. Read me right now. Do I seem like someone who’s had enough?”

“I don’t know. Do you?”  he asks resentfully. There’s an edge of defiance in his voice, like he’s hardening himself for a rejection he knows is coming.

“Just read me.”

Alex stares into me. I feel his energy slow down and become more focused. The directness of his gaze is arresting, but I try to open myself to it. I only hope he doesn’t see all the way to the bottom of me. Not yet.

“No,” he finally says. “No, you haven’t had enough.”

“Exactly!” I say. “That thought couldn’t have been further from the truth. I want to—no, I need to—hear about the weirdness. All of it.”

Alex looks confused, and his defiance collapses. He hesitates, but then settles back into his seat.

The waiter passes through our side of the restaurant, and I lower my voice. “Do you want more food? I’d like to get you something else.”

“No, I’m OK, but thanks,” says Alex.

I catch the waiter’s eye and order two more coconut waters. Alex looks at me expectantly.

“How could you have missed me hanging on your every word for the last hour? Play the tape back a couple of minutes—what were you just talking about?”

He looks unsure what I’m getting at.

“You were talking about beings who feed on fear, and the more you fear them, the more they can feed on your energy, right? Then, like two seconds later, you started walling me off, thinking I was weirded out. But there’s no way you read that from me because I was totally intrigued. I watched fear come over you, and then you projected onto me the opposite of what I was feeling. And yet, you’re an empath.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” replies Alex. “I freaked out too fast to realize.”

“Exactly. Look,” I continue, “I’ve had my own experiences. That swarm of insects in your mind, they’re parasites. I research them, and everything you shared is super fascinating and valuable to me.”

“You research them?”

“Well, second-hand, I suppose. It’s mostly this one website I’ve been following since I was a kid. It was created by an eccentric friend of my parents who’s become an occasional mentor to me, helping me to understand paranormal things. But yeah, we’re not the first to observe these creatures. You can find references to these fear-feeders in all cultures throughout history. The Buddhists call them Pretas or hungry ghosts, and the Christians call them incubus and succubus.”

Alex lets out a breath and leans back in his chair.

“I had no idea. I mean, I thought I was alone with this,” he says, looking at me earnestly. “It totally makes sense that they’re parasites. Parasites are sneaky. Here I am talking to someone who might finally help me understand this shit, and then an attack just happens? I was about to tell you what they looked like, and maybe they knew it because I suddenly felt super self-conscious, like I was annoying you with crazy talk. And all I wanted was to run away.”

“That definitely supports something I’ve observed about them,” I reply. “Parasites need to be sneaky because they work in our blind spots, misdirecting our attention to evade our awareness. They need to blind us to feed undetected.”

“But how do we see them?” asks Alex. “I mean, is there any way to defend ourselves?”

“Well,” I reply. “I don’t know if it would work for everyone, but I discovered a way during an attack.”

“What happened?” asks Alex.

“It was a few months ago in my camper,” I reply. “I had a migraine that evening. It was nothing out of the ordinary, I’ve had those all my life, but it made it hard to fall asleep. Finally, I did, but in the middle of the night, I was jolted out of a nightmare. My mind was awake, but my body was paralyzed. It’s happened to me before, sleep paralysis, but this was different. I had the unnerving feeling that something was in the van with me. Something. . . dark. Restraining me.

“It’s hovering above me, a cloud of darkness suctioning my life energy. It’s as if it slipped between dimensional planes, like a bedbug crawling out of a crack between floorboards to feed on me.

“I’m terrified, utterly helpless. But then something more powerful than fear rises up in me—the will to fight back, but even more, the will to know. I’d been researching these parasites, and here’s a live specimen caught in the act. So, I consciously choose to go through my fear, and my will flares out into the darkness like a glowing sword pulled from a sheath.

“As soon as I begin to observe its behavior—pry into it with my awareness—there’s a shift in the flow of energy in the Mothership, and the thing, whatever it is, disengages from me. Before I make out any physical details through the darkness—if it even had any—it vanishes like a puff of smoke, suctioned back into another dimension.

“That’s amazing,” says Alex. “So, you think just being aware of that creature stopped it from feeding?”

“I think it was a particular type of awareness,” I reply. “When I shifted from frightened victim to observer, my energy became toxic to the feeder. I see the various energies we output as a spectrum of color temperatures. Spiritual and intellectual awareness fall in the blue range, while fear, anger, and greed are in the red. Parasites are specialized feeders. They need red-spectrum energy, just like leeches need red blood.

“At first, I was glowing red with panic, and the creature was greedily slurping that up. The moment I became curious to observe, my energy shifted into the blue spectrum. And for shadow-dwelling feeders, that kind of energy is a burning death ray.”

“Like ultra-violet light is for germs?” asks Alex.

“Yeah, exactly. If you can convert the red fire of fear into the blue light of awareness, you can stop the feeding. When you activate your will to know, your awareness focuses into a penetrating beam, like a searchlight burning into the shadows.

“That understanding has been a kind of armor for me. Ever since that encounter, attacks have been rare and much more subtle.”

“Do you think it’s because your energy has become toxic for them,” asks Alex, his eyes lit up with fascination, “or because they don’t want people to see what they’re doing?”

“I think it’s both, really,” I reply. “But it all starts with awareness. There’s an alchemical principle: As above, so below. In the above world, the macrobiological world, parasites outnumber other species four to one. Most animals host parasites, and many parasites host other parasites, and so on.

“The world that is figuratively below the macrobiological is the microbiological realm, which is also riddled with parasites. All viruses are parasites, for example. Above the macrobiological, is another realm where these mind parasites exist. Just as UV light kills microbiological parasites, the light of our awareness is toxic to the unseen parasites from the spirit world.

“But I also suspect there are hidden feeders. Higher-order parasites that are much harder to detect. They avoid those who could expose them to the light of awareness, working in the shadows to keep our whole species in a state of fear, hatred, and greed. And they’re patient. Bedbugs can wait in floorboards for months to feed. Lower-order parasites wait for someone to be intoxicated or emotionally vulnerable to evade detection. Higher-order parasites are even more patient. They can hang back and manipulate powerful individuals to keep civilization in turmoil. And we’re too distracted by strife to see who’s harvesting all that negative energy.

“Our species assumes its place is at the top of the food chain. But what if this assumption is a carefully maintained illusion, convenient to those who are actually at the top? We assume we’re divinely ordained to turn other animals into livestock. And yet, we might be more oblivious than cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.”

“That’s horrifying,” says Alex. “You really think we’re being harvested?”

“Well, it’s pure speculation, of course,” I reply, realizing I may be overselling my case again. “But there’s precedent for ignorance of a whole dimension of life. Until the microscope was invented, we were clueless about the microbiological realm. Back in the day, surgeons washed their hands after surgery, but not before. When the blinders came off, we awakened to the shocking reality that we live amongst a stunning variety of tiny creatures, invisible to the naked eye.

“But, unlike the microbiological plane, hidden for most of history, energetic organisms have always been known. Every culture from every era has names for them. They each have practitioners—shamans, priests, exorcists—officially designated to help people deal with infestations. Only one culture in human history dismisses eons of human testimony about this realm of life.”

“Ours,” says Alex.

“Exactly. At least that part of our culture that’s fully invested in materialism and disregards the spiritual world. True believers in scientism assume that science, without any investigation, has somehow disconfirmed a dimension of life recognized by every other culture. And there are so many consistent patterns in what these societies observe.”

“Like what?” asks Alex.

“Some of the same patterns you can detect in both the micro and macro-biological dimensions of life,” I reply. “Almost every ecosystem has symbionts, predators, and parasites. These three types are basically just classic types of relationship between organisms.

“The third dimension of life—”

“Third dimension of life?” interrupts Alex.

 “Yeah, the first two are the macro and microbiological dimensions. The third involves organisms that seem to be made of energy rather than carbon. And yet, they follow similar patterns—and behaviors as organic life. As above, so below. But it, too, is a diverse ecosystem with the same classic relationships of energy exchange—symbiosis, parasitism, and, in rare cases, predation. The micro and macro-biological dimensions are overlapping food chains, so—”

“OK,” says Alex, “I get the food chain idea, but these higher-order parasites you say are above us on the chain—what are they?”

“It’s hard to know for sure,” I reply. “Studying this dimension of life seems almost impossible, like trying to explore a dark continent by holding a flickering candle to a keyhole. Most feeders I’ve experienced are instinctual creatures like parasitic insects, driven by blind and relentless hunger. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a higher-order parasite, but from my research, I understand them to be more like puppet masters. They manipulate thoughts and feelings from the shadows, pulling invisible strings to control our species.

 “Two thousand years ago, the Gnostics named the highest order of feeders the Archons, which means rulers. They described them as masters of deception and believed the world we live in is a corrupted plane of illusions created by the Archons to keep us enslaved.

“The Gnostics claimed the Archons purposefully distort our religions to keep us in a state of eternal conflict—a forever war. And to keep us in that red zone, they also need us at war within ourselves. Consumed by inner and outer conflicts, we’re blind to their machinations. We spend our lives oozing fear, rage, and base desires—a rich harvest for their insatiable hunger.”

“OK, the Gnostics believed that, but do you?” asks Alex.

“Well, I’m more interested in exploring than believing. I probably shouldn’t have used the word belief. The Gnostics were against blind faith. They prefer knowing to believing. They focused on learning from their individual experiences rather than blindly following sacred texts or priests. Their main goal was achieving gnosis, inner knowing of the transcendent through experience and intuition.”

“Yeah, I get it,” says Alex. “The more you believe, the less you can learn. If you think ancient texts have all the answers, there’s no need to explore the unknown.”

“Well said,” I reply. “And you also lose your searchlight if you think science has closed questions about subjects it hasn’t even begun to explore. Paranormal researchers say science should investigate the unexplained, not explain away the uninvestigated.”

“I like that—learning to question the unknown rather than explain it away . . .” Alex says, trailing off into his thoughts. “You said the higher-order parasites might be more like puppet masters,” Alex continues. “I think I might have encountered one. I never finished telling you about my attack.”

“Please,” I reply.

“So, like I said,” Alex continues. “I’m in bed, eyes closed, with all these dark voices invading my inner space. I found shouting pushes them away, but only momentarily. I was definitely in the red zone of fear and rage because they kept swarming back in.

“Maybe it was like what you experienced, a will to know that allowed me to see them—these worms swirling around me, glowing with a pale light from feeding on me.

“Some burrowed into me, while others floated around me like space debris. And beyond them, I see this spindly silhouette. It’s the orchestrator, and the worms are its instruments. It hangs back, looking for holes in my defenses to invade.

“The sight of it is too much for me and throws me into a panic. I scream ‘Noooo!!!!’ and push out with my will again. Then, like a drowning man gasping for air, I cry out, ‘Help me!!!’

“And then bam! I shoot out of my body like a bolt. Like, out of the whole reality. But not how you experienced leaving your body after the accident. I didn’t look back and see the scene from above or get any image of how I traveled . . . it was like . . .” Alex struggles to think of a comparison.

“I saw a documentary where a fighter pilot described what it was like to hit the eject button. Explosive charges ignited under his seat, shooting him from the burning fighter jet like a cannon shot. He said it was the most violent thing he ever experienced. For me, it was like I hit the eject button, but instead of a seat, I was strapped to a lightning bolt, shooting me into a different reality. It was so intense I blacked out.

“When I come to, I’m hovering near the vaulted ceiling of some large, glassed-in structure. Like a kind of futuristic, giant greenhouse. Below is a kid about my age. He’s tending to each plant, trimming them a bit, and making neat rows of bamboo stakes to support their stalks.

“As he works, I tune into his feelings. I can’t read his mind, but I feel the background of his thoughts. On the outside, he looks healthy and fit, but within, he’s suffering. I don’t know any details, but I sense his isolation. It’s like he’s being held captive by something, forced to live and work in this giant greenhouse because of—something really dark, like end-of-the-world dark.

“His essence feels familiar, and I get a flash of déjà vu.

He’s the one who pulled me up from the darkness during my suicide attempt.

“I watch him methodically tend the plants. His situation is clearly more desperate than mine, but something tells me he’d never off himself. He’ll keep working till his last breath if it could help anyone. I was always so cynical about other people. I assumed everyone was selfish, so I was too. But I began to wonder if I could have been like him if I’d been raised differently.

“He looks up just before the encounter ends, his eyes searching toward me like he’s aware of being watched. I want to make contact, but something pulls me out of the alternate reality, and just like that, he’s gone.

“My eyes blink open, and I’m back in my room. There are no feeders anymore. No voices coming through the walls. I’m safe. Weak and dehydrated, but safe.”

Alex lowers his head in contemplation before he resumes speaking.

“I lay in bed for a while, trying to understand what happened.

“I called out for help and got it, but I have no idea how or why. The encounter gave me this strong feeling that I should persevere, like the kid in the greenhouse. Otherwise, I haven’t found any great purpose for my life. And yet, just knowing he’s out there gives me a kind of hope.

“Anyway, that was my strange encounter. Whatever pulled me from my bedroom to that giant greenhouse saved me from those feeders. And seeing that kid dealing with his own darkness probably kept me from finishing the job I started when I cut my wrists.

“But it’s not like I found Jesus or something and my whole life turned around . . .”

Alex looks down again, his expression darkening.

“The strange perceptions continued,” says Alex. “I saw ugly things in people I didn’t want to, so I kept to myself. I didn’t even leave the house for the first couple of weeks. But it wasn’t exactly a refuge. I picked up every unpleasant thing about my mom and her latest lowlife boyfriend.

“Slowly, I figured out ways to suppress the visions somewhat. Distracting myself works OK if I’m just passing people in the street and don’t have to interact with them. Listening to stuff on headphones. Keeping my hands busy with something. Avoiding eye contact is crucial. They say eyes are windows to the soul. For me, they’re windows into all the darkness in people’s souls.

“As soon as I was well enough to work, I got a job as a dishwasher at a busy restaurant. I loved it when there was a rush, and I could turn on the speed. I was a super-fast dishwasher and working at top speed blocked out unwanted perceptions. I’m pretty sure my speed weirded out some of my coworkers, but no one was going to complain that I did my job too quickly.

“I worked nights and otherwise retreated to my room. It wasn’t much of a life, but I read a lot and worked on my writing and drawing. Actually, now that I think about it, I made some sketches of the kid in the greenhouse.”

Alex reaches into his shoulder bag and retrieves a well-worn sketchpad. He opens to a few studies of a huge geodesic greenhouse. When he turns the page to the sketch of the boy, I’m almost too shocked to speak.

. . . The long hair, elegantly thin eyebrows, and perfect bone structure of his face.

It’s him,” I say, astounded. “It’s—Tommy!”

“Seriously?” says Alex. “The same kid you saw in the treehouse?”

“Definitely. He looks older in some way, like he’s been through more since I met him. But that’s him. It’s a perfect likeness.”

The sketches are superb, like studies done by a Renaissance master. It’s the first physical artifact of Tommy I’ve seen in this reality, and the drawings feel like the contour lines of a map to another world.

Then, as if it had been waiting for this exact moment, a poem I’d memorized long ago comes spilling out.

“What if you slept

And what if

In your sleep

You dreamed

And what if

In your dream

You went to heaven

And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower

And what if

When you awoke

You had that flower in your hand

Ah, what then?”

Alex looks intrigued.

“It’s a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” I say. “Your drawing is like finding that flower in the waking world.”

“Would you like it? I can always make more,” offers Alex.

He grabs hold of the drawing, about to rip it out of the pad.

“Oh, no, no,” I respond, “I can’t take that from you. But can I take a picture of it?”

“Of course,” he replies.

I snatch my camera off the window ledge.

“Would you mind?” I ask, gesturing for Alex to hold up the pad.

He displays the sketch pad beside himself with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, and I can tell he doesn’t like to be the center of attention. Observers are usually uncomfortable being observed. Still, he holds it long enough for me to take a few good shots.

“For both of us to have encountered the same kid in a near-death experience,” I say, “is proof we didn’t meet by accident. But it looks like we crossed paths with him at different points in his life. What was he doing in a giant greenhouse?”

“I don’t know,” Alex replies, “but he definitely wasn’t happy about being there. I haven’t made any sense of it, but I get the same impression that he’s upstream in time. At one point I saw a futuristic-looking robot traveling across the greenhouse. Actually, I made a drawing of it.”

Alex flips the page of his pad to show me a detailed, colored-pencil sketch of a robot. Its body is black with diagonal yellow hazard stripes, and it looks too well-designed to come from the imagination of anyone but a robotics engineer.

“I mean, it’s not like we don’t have robots now,” Alex says, “but this one seemed way more advanced.”

The mystery hangs silently between us until I recall that Alex hasn’t finished his story.

“So . . . you were working as a dishwasher and isolating at home. When did you start living on the road?”

“Almost a year ago,” Alex replies.

A year? That’s a long stretch. What do you do for money?” I ask.

“I trim weed for outdoor grows in Humboldt County,” says Alex. “If you’re a real scissorhands, and willing to work long hours, you can make three hundred bucks a day. I can trim faster than anyone I’ve met, not that it’s much of a talent. A week or two at a trimming camp can fund my travels for a couple of months.

“But it’s tedious work and taxing to be around the same crew during marathon trimming sessions. Sometimes it’s like eighteen hours straight. I listen to music and podcasts and focus on keeping the scissors always moving. But unwanted perceptions usually leak through anyway.

“Most of the trimmers are harmless stoners, but there’s still plenty of dark stuff in them that slips out. They’re generally tolerant, but some get strange vibes from me. Others resent my speed. It’s understandable because I get paid more, and the more weight I produce, the less work there is for them.

“It can get kind of oppressive after a while, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, I guess,” adds Alex, making a weary effort to get back into his young adventurer character. “I’ve earned a reputation for speed, so I can usually find work when needed. There’s a camp coming together in another three days, so I’ll be heading that way soon.”

My heart sinks. The thought of us separating had been so far in the back of my mind. I don’t want to seem desperate, but I grope for a way to extend our time together.

“How are you getting there?” I ask.

“Probably just stick out my thumb,” says Alex. “It’s how I get everywhere. It usually works fine, but I’m kind of sketched about it at the moment.”

Alex’s tone is casual, but I see fear in his eyes.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Something really bad,” says Alex. “But it was kind of my fault in a way. My skinlessness can create weird situations on the road.

“When I’m alone in a car with someone, I can’t keep intuitions about them away. I think people unconsciously sense this and want to talk to me. They want to tell me their secrets, so I listen. I mean, it’d be rude if I just sat there with my headphones in and ignored them the whole time. And there’s a lot of desperately lonely people out there. Sometimes it’s fulfilling. I get to the end of a ride and feel like I’ve actually helped. But a lot of the time, it’s draining and disorienting. People dump all these heavy problems on me.

“A few days ago, a guy really unloaded on me. He rambled on and on about how his ex-wife screwed him over and took his kids and his money. But the whole time he complained, I got flashes of disgusting things he’d done to her and other women. Like really low-budget porno shots in motel rooms. The lies he told, combined with the gross images, drove me crazy. Finally, he dropped me off at an exit ramp. But long after his taillights disappear into the night, the disgusting images still swarm around me like flies.

“I wait three hours for my next ride, the whole time consumed by this disgusting psychic cloud. I made up my mind to never let anyone get under my skin like that again.

“So I start building a kind of armor around myself, a shield of my own energy. I’m busy with that when a car finally pulls up, and I get in without even looking at the driver.

“As soon as we pull out, I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake. The driver is a guy in his thirties with a handlebar mustache. He reeks of cigarettes, whiskey, and rage. Maybe meth rage. I never would’ve gotten in the car if I hadn’t been suppressing my ability.

“He starts hitting on me immediately, asking if I’d ever hooked up with a man before. He puts his hand on my leg, and when I pull it off, his rage fills the car like a gasoline fireball. He slams the pedal like a maniac, doing something like fifty over the speed limit.

“Violent flashes erupt from him, but I summon my will to keep them out of my mind. I’ve got to keep my head clear. I think about jumping out of the car and doing one of those roll maneuvers I’ve seen in movies, but I realize we’re going way too fast.

“I’m praying we get pulled over or something, and my prayer is answered but in a different way. We come over a hill and find traffic stopped by an accident. The flashing lights of police cars and emergency vehicles never looked so good.

“The car screeches as he slams the brakes, swerving to the shoulder of the highway as he barely avoids plowing into the row of cars in front of us. We come to a skidding halt, and before he can grab me, I throw open the passenger door and jump out. I’m even able to yank my backpack out of the back seat before he can stop me.”

Alex pauses and takes a deep breath. The harrowing story triggers a protective feeling, and my mind races.

I should drive him to the trimming camp. Maybe I could write about the subculture of illegal weed growers in Humboldt .  . .  No, they’d probably be paranoid about journalists, and it would put him in an awkward position.

I don’t know if Alex sees the wheels spinning in my mind, but he gives me an appraising look.

“Anyway,” he continues, “it was a scary experience. But it taught me a lesson. As disturbing as my ability is, it’s dangerous to suppress it. I think it’s a natural survival instinct I always had, but the suicide attempt intensified it. Now, it’s just part of who I am, and I have to live with it.

“But traveling is also a kind of search mission too. I’ve spent the past year working through these fringe crowds hoping to find—I don’t know. Someone who experiences what I do, or understands it at least . . . I can’t be the only one to sense such things. So, I keep an eye out for others with the ability. Once in a while, I see someone flowing through time differently, but it hasn’t felt right to approach anyone until today. With you, it was like we were already friends, picking up an earlier conversation.”

Alex’s recognition leaves me almost speechless. He needed to find me just as badly as I needed to find him.

“Thanks,” I stammer, “I’m so glad you did and . . .

I pause. Something forces me to blurt out a question,

“So, have you gotten any warning flashes about me?”

“No,” replies Alex smiling. “Not at all. Quite the opposite. You seem really safe. But . . .” he hesitates.

My breath catches as I feel a ripple in time, like a future memory of pain, and my whole body begins trembling. Alex lowers his voice to a whisper.

“No warning flashes, but . . . I sense you’re attracted to me. I get that from a lot of people who pick me up for rides and others I run into. But with you, it doesn’t feel dirty like it does with most of them. I don’t have any problem with it, but I should tell you I’m not into guys that way. Sorry if that’s a disappointment, but there’s nothing I can do about the way I am, just as I’m sure there’s nothing you can do about the way you are. I’m attracted to girls, but mostly, because of my ability, it’s hard for me to be intimate with anyone. What I really need more than anything is . . . a friend.”

Alex looks down and takes a deep breath. When he looks up, time slows, and I see the naked empath.

The wary street kid has relinquished his defenses. His eyes are portals of telepathic emotion. Instead of reading me, he’s allowing himself to be read, his most private feelings, the depth of his loneliness. He fears his inability to fulfill my Eros has already doomed a companionship he desperately needs. I realize his suffering is deeper than mine, and his intentions are more honest. While I was becoming infatuated with my fantasy of him, he was hoping for a friend. We’re both desperately lonely.

“A friend is what I really need, too,” I say, my heart pounding. “And as far as the attraction—that’s a line I’ll never try to cross.”

“Thanks for understanding, man,” says Alex. “That means a lot. I hope we can be great friends.”

“Me too,” I say, feeling a surge of hope. “You know, I’d really like to give you a ride to your trim camp. After what you just told me about your last hitchhiking experience, you probably shouldn’t be sticking your thumb out right now.”

“Really?” Alex perks up. “It’s not out of your way?”

“Not at all. I was thinking about heading up north anyway,” I lie. “Or you could just skip the camp and travel with me.”

The offer leaps out spontaneously, and I instantly see hesitation in Alex’s face. It’s too forward, but something compels me to keep talking.

“You could help me explore American subcultures. Never a dull moment. Figure out what makes people want to live in the Renaissance and trade in their smartphones for chainmail.” I add in a lame attempt at levity.

Alex breaks into a smile.

“I mean, somebody’s got to answer these questions, and I’ve been working alone for far too long. I could use a traveling companion, and there’s plenty of room in my camper for the both of us.”

“Yeah, but I’m broke,” says Alex, his mood growing dark again. “I can’t throw down for gas or food. That’s why I’m going to the trimming camp.”

“Well, that’s no problem at all,” I reply. “Living out of a camper is cheap—I’d spend the same on gas anyway. Plus, I’ve been getting paid more than I’ve found anything to spend it on. And—do you have a driver’s license?”

“Sure,” says Alex.

“Great,” I reply, “you can share the driving. We’ll cover more ground, and two of us will see and hear twice as much wherever we go. Which means more opportunity for work, and more money, so you’d be more than pulling your weight . . .”

I stop myself because I sound desperate, but I also see Alex struggling with something. His face is pale.

“Thanks, man,” says Alex. “You’re very kind, and that’s incredibly generous, but I don’t think you realize—I’m not an easy person to live with. I go through extreme mood swings. And my abilities aren’t just disturbing for me. They affect others. Even before I lost my skin, I had a history of lashing out at people close to me. So, I couldn’t let you—”

“No, I want to,” I interrupt. “Alex—I need to be your friend,” I blurt out.

Alex looks conflicted. I realize I’m coming on way too strong, but I can’t stop myself.

“What I mean is, we met for a reason. And this shouldn’t be the end of it. Don’t you feel that? It’s all part of the great design. For both of us to have encountered Tommy—it means something, right? We don’t know what, but I want to find out. With you.”

Alex looks into my eyes, reading me, and I stop talking to welcome his scrutiny. I know my conviction, sincerity, and need are real, and I want him to see that. But looking back, I realize he saw more of me than I intended. I was caught up in the moment, but I think Alex foresaw the storm clouds ahead.

“OK,” he says in a quiet voice. “But all I can say is I’m sorry if I’m ever a disappointment.”

“It’s OK,” I say, but I realize words aren’t enough.

I take a deep breath and summon all the courage I can find to unbutton my left shirt cuff. Slowly, I pull up the sleeve to reveal the worst part of my Fireskin.

“We’re all a bit broken, right?”

Pain and empathy well up in Alex’s eyes as he takes in my ruined arm. Then he does something I could never have anticipated.

He reaches across the table and gently grasps my forearm with both hands. I instinctively recoil, but he looks me in the eye and doesn’t let go. Slowly, tenderly, he begins massaging my mangled skin. My arm trembles and I let out a shaky breath, forcing myself to relax as his compassion flows into me.

My heart beats wildly as I feel the bond between us taking hold. We’re loners, solitary travelers who’ve hidden our vulnerabilities even from ourselves. It takes the eyes of the other to see through the scars and the insecurities. And for the first time since my accident, sitting with Alex in the Thai restaurant, I finally feel seen for who I really am.

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That was the moment our bond became real. We’d found one another. And despite what the future would bring, we never looked back.

Our journey to so many amazing American subcultures, from a community of obsessive LARPers to a tiny Amish village, a shared journey lasting almost three years, was, as Alex often put it, epic.

Our adventures were intense. But as dramatic as our immersion into those subcultures was, our fellowship was our greatest challenge, lifting us to the highest highs and plunging us into the lowest lows.

There were battles, soulful intimacies, celebrations, and agonizing misunderstandings. But even in our darkest moments, need kept us together, and we persevered as co-pilots of the Mothership.

We kept an eye out for others like us everywhere we traveled. Tommy was never far from our minds, and we searched for any clue that might connect us to him again.

Was he living in our time or some possible future? What was the darkness he labored under in that giant greenhouse? Was he seeking us too?

There were always more questions than answers, but we felt the Great Design drawing us forward.

Beneath everything was the central question—why were we brought together in the first place? And what did these strange experiences mean? We spent long hours discussing our paranormal encounters—the mergers and out-of-body visions. I was sure we were part of an evolutionary shift. A metamorphosis. Jeremiah seemed to be on the other side of this transformation, while Tommy was closer to where we were.

But Alex was often skeptical. His belief rose and fell with his moods. On darker days, he found my conviction that we were part of an evolutionary metamorphosis, grandiose and naive. He wasn’t shy about pointing out the depressingly mundane aspects I’d overlooked, like how conveniently wish-fulfilling my theories are. And his criticisms always had irritating grains of truth. My desire to see everything as mythic created blind spots.

To be fair, his paranormal experiences were usually intrusive and painful. Mine were rarer, but often positive, so it was easier for me to believe they served an evolutionary purpose. And he had no real sense of Jeremiah. Despite my skill with words, I could never fully convey the qualities I felt in him, and why I believed he was the next step in our evolution. Jeremiah seemed to be effortlessly in command of his paranormal abilities. Alex had witnessed Tommy doing farm chores, but he never encountered Jeremiah, so he didn’t have the inspiring example I did of how much we could change.

Despite his doubts about my theories, there were areas of mutual perception that Alex never questioned. We both sensed it, something dark coming, like a massive thunderhead gathering above us.

We needed to reconnect with Tommy to learn what lay ahead.  But while I felt that was possible, Alex believed our encounters were one-off events possible only at the brink of death.

Chaos and calm were never far apart.

We were two extremely introverted loners accustomed to living within our own highly pressurized weather systems, but for the three years of our shared journey, we merged into one. The intensity of the turbulence was part of why our time together felt like a high-seas adventure. There were always storms on the horizon, but we could never sail clear because we carried them within us . . .

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I’ve been sitting in this coffee shop for hours, and the rain is still coming down. The lighting outside hasn’t changed since dawn, and I’ve been so immersed in reliving our first day that my sense of time is confused. A shift change brought new, pleasingly aloof women behind the counter serving coffee and food, customers have shuffled in and out, but everything is more-or-less the same. Still, I sense a great change is coming.

I feel connected to Alex, as if we’re suffering through something together. Like we’re mountain climbers exposed on a steep rock wall with a storm coming in. We’re carabined onto the same rope but there’s no anchor point. If one of us slips, we’ll both fall.

There’s nothing I can do with the weight of these feelings but keep writing about my time with Alex.

There’s still so much of our relationship I don’t understand. There’s also what I know but am not strong enough to accept.

I don’t want to create an impression of Alex’s moods as something inflicted on me. My soul needed his aliveness and engagement with the moment, even though I knew the weather between us could shift in an instant from a glorious summer day to a brutal storm, threatening shipwreck. His mood swings were fateful, tidal—a force of nature never to be tamed by talk or pills.

But Alex wasn’t the sole cause of the turmoil we endured. Intense forces within me also pressurized the atmosphere between us. True to the promise I made in the Thai restaurant, I never tried to cross the line or do anything to violate the boundary of our incompatible desires. On the surface, I always showed restraint. I overcompensated, partly from honor, partly from fear of experiencing Alex’s aversion. I was never the one to initiate a hug or do anything that could be taken as an expression of desire.

But Alex is an empath. He always sees what’s behind the curtain. And beneath the curtain of my reasonableness and consideration he saw the eternal flame burning inside me—the insane hope that one day he’ll love me enough to cross the boundary and be . . . some sort of magical sexual savior, healing my deepest wounds and fulfilling my deepest desires.

Pathetic, right? It’s not like I don’t know how pathetic that is. Worse than pathetic, it’s unethical to desire someone to be something they’re not. I feel shame and guilt about it, but I don’t seem to have a choice. Eternal flames don’t come with an off switch. It’s one of those things that just is. It’s a drug I’m fatally addicted to. Snatch it away from me, and my will to live collapses.

Even more confusing was that as much as I wanted to be with Alex, I also wanted to be Alex. In the same sense that I wanted to be Tommy when I first encountered him.

It was tormenting not to light up in his eyes the way he so radiantly lit up for me. One-sided attraction creates huge blind spots that exist to this day. Blind spots that hurt us both. The harmful impact of all that sexual tension on Alex is something I still can’t bear to see. It would break me down.

I’ve had my own uncomfortable experiences with people who thought they were attracted to me. All it takes is long-sleeved shirts and pants to pull off a cheap magic trick that makes me seem good-looking. My exposed skin is the smooth, antimatter opposite of my Fireskin.

Usually, these deluded admirers are not people I’d want to be with anyway. Nevertheless, there’s always this painfully grotesque aspect I must navigate— an illusion they’re not aware of. If they saw all of me, their attraction would turn to revulsion.

Fear of that revulsion has kept me from physical intimacy with anyone. It wasn’t until Alex came into my life and took hold of my fireskinned arm that I dared to feel it was possible. Even though I knew it wasn’t.

Intellectually, I realize the right thing is to just accept his unavailability. But my feelings don’t care about intellectual understanding. For them, the acceptance of permanent unavailability is a death sentence.

Most of the time, Alex was compassionate toward my Eros. But it was more than mere tolerance. My one-sided attraction was intrinsic to our bond. It was implicitly understood but too difficult to talk about, so we left its mysterious centrality undefined.

Another part of the truth is that Alex often seemed to enjoy my appreciation of his beauty. In a generous mood, he had the power to dramatically affect what I was feeling with a hug. Other times, my tormented longing must have tormented him.

So why would two people continue to live with so much unresolved tension?

Maybe we could’ve had an easier friendship if I wasn’t so attracted to him, but neither of us is driven by easygoing fates. Nor were we designed for casual, easygoing relationships. Alex lives on the glowing edge of the moment. Without the painful intensity of my unfulfilled desire, I wouldn’t have had the energy to meet him in his perilous zone.

Bittersweetis that the right word? It sounds too weak. If it is the word, then the bitterness was agony and the sweetness euphoria.

Despite all that, our bond was far more soulful and heartfelt than either of us had experienced with anyone else. Alex needed me, and he acknowledged that many times.

Yet this bond lived alongside the fiery boundary of envy between us, fueled by inner torments. I saw Alex as the hauntingly beautiful, unobtainable object of my deepest desires. And it was hard to appreciate his beauty without triggering the painful awareness of myself as a fire-skinned mutilation.

And Alex’s feelings for me were an even more volatile mixture of love and envy. His fragile pride felt continually wounded by my education, intellectual lineage, and successful career on which we were both financially dependent.

In fairness to Alex, I should admit the obvious—my life was infinitely more fortunate than his. Yes, I’d been traumatically orphaned and fireskinned. But before that, I felt loved and honored by my parents. I was their gifted only child, admired by their intellectual friends and colleagues for my precocious language and thinking skills.

After the accident, my aunt Leah became my legal guardian. She was thoughtful, intelligent, and nearly as introverted as I am. We lived together in my parent’s apartment with mutual respect and care not to invade each other’s space. Thanks to a large insurance settlement, my medical needs, living expenses, and education were provided for. And there was enough settlement money left over to buy the Mothership.

Alex and I both went on the road at eighteen, but under very different circumstances. I left after graduating with honors from NYU, and a family connection to a high-profile magazine facilitated the publication of my first article. Yeah, beginner’s luck plus nepotism is the dirty little secret of my modest success.

But when Alex set out, it was with nothing but a knapsack and a few dollars in his pocket. He was brilliant and multi-talented, but he’d dropped out of high school. And whatever family connections he had were good for getting street drugs and probation, but little else.

Alex’s home life was an unrelenting horror I can scarcely imagine. He told me bits and pieces, but never wanted to discuss it in detail.

He was the only child of an alcoholic mother who attracted a revolving door of sketchy guys. Typically, she brought them home the day they met. Alex never even learned his father’s name. He said his mom didn’t know which of her boyfriends at the time had knocked her up.

One night, Alex confessed he was beaten and raped by one of them. The next day, when I gently tried to discuss it with him, he stormed off and didn’t return till late at night, warning he’d be gone for good if I ever referred to it again.

On another occasion, I asked Alex what he thought about his gift of physical beauty. There wasn’t a trace of pride in his three-word answer,

“It just is,” he said.

It was simply a fateful given, a just is like my eternal flame. And, like so many just is things, it was both blessing and curse. The body I saw as perfect, he saw as a dangerous vulnerability. What I assumed was a magical superpower, he viewed as a weakness that led to him being beaten and raped. But the main reason he covered up was because prowling glances could flash into his mind with pornographic images of what the prowler wanted to do with him.

Traveling with me instead of hitchhiking had removed most of that danger, but we both drew the same sort of prowling glances on the road. Yet while Alex often wore oversize hoodies to hide his looks, I wore long-sleeved shirts to hide my mutilation and create the illusion of two good-looking kids, when actually, there was only one.

Strangers couldn’t know or see the truth. That every morning in the Mothership, while Alex buried his perfect body beneath layers of baggy clothing, I’d spend the better part of half an hour applying lubricating lotions to my painfully constricted scar tissue. It was a ritual of shame we performed both together and painfully apart.

In our public disguises, Alex envied my education and journalism credentials as if they were a glittering suit of armor. He said I exuded an upper-class aura that led people to take me seriously. Meanwhile, he assumed others saw him as my impoverished sidekick.

Preoccupied with my own insecurities, I didn’t believe I had any advantages worthy of Alex’s envy, and that blinded me to the full extent of his shame and suffering.

The body I so desired and envied was the same body whose wrists he had slashed. His grim, it just is, answer reflected the diminishing way he viewed his whole life and identity. When he looked at himself, he saw only shadow.

I understood Alex better when I did some research on borderline personality. His basic sense of identity had been neglected and abused from the earliest age. The chaotic instability within him was not something he asked for. It was forced upon him, just as Fireskin was forced upon me. We were both mutilated by fate, but Alex’s injuries came earlier and cut deeper.

In his worst states of inner torment, he would lash out at me.

These episodes pushed us to the edge of endurance and sometimes past it. In those moments, we were partners in suffering, nearly drowning until the storm spent itself. Then we’d find ourselves exhausted and needing each other again, like two helpless children clinging desperately to the same life raft.

But it was my choice to go through that. My soul craved the sort of intimacy only possible with another soul living at the edge.

A surveillance-camera view of our relationship would probably make me look like the good guy, and Alex the problem child. It would show Alex lashing out, and me not responding in kind. My politeness and restraint were part consideration, and part carefully crafted performance.

A surface view of our relationship would miss so much hidden depth. Underneath was a molten flow of raw energy and telepathic perception.

By acting as the calm, reasonable one on the surface, I unintentionally put Alex in the role of initiating the extremes and feeling the most guilt about the consequences. I left him to bear the responsibility of our conflicts alone, a weight that must have felt crushing. I can only assume that was part of what drove him away . . .

The cursor pulsates like a lighthouse beacon, commanding me to look deeper into these stormy latitudes, but even the thought of writing about our worst episode makes me shaky.

I haven’t been fully honest here. A sentence in the letter Alex left probably explains why he took off.

I don’t think this is good for either of us.

He had good reason to write that after what happened a few nights before he disappeared.

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I feel disloyal even writing about that night. I don’t want to make Alex look bad and give the false impression that he was always mean to me. He did lash out sometimes, but more often we played off each other in oddly comedic ways and had fun in each other’s company. So, before I do write about that night, I want to first talk about an example of how Alex went out of his way to help me where he could.  

Alex always encouraged me to let go of shame about my Fireskin. He never acted grossed out by it, and he often helped me stretch my arms and apply “Bio Oil”—I know, that sounds really gross, but it’s just the brand of lubricating lotion I use to loosen my scar tissue in the morning.

One experience stands out, a kind of initiation Alex created that liberated me from the need to always hide my Fireskin.

We had been following the Rainbow Tribe while I worked on an article about that subculture. They are essentially a leaderless group of mostly transient individuals who meet periodically in the middle of national forests all over the United States to camp out together for weeks at a time. But there are also international gatherings held around the world. Their name, “Rainbow,” although often mistaken with the LBGTQ+ community, is meant to symbolize the connectedness of all peoples in all walks of life. Although there are certain similarities, rainbows hate comparisons to Burning Man, as their movement dates back to 1971 and there’s no admission fee, amplified music or VIP camps. Actually, Burning Man borrows key ideas from Rainbow, such as a gift economy. While Burning Man began as anarchists blowing things up in the desert, it later became a highly organized legal entity. Whereas Rainbow has always operated outside the law and with no official structure. Most people go by rainbow nicknames, the location constantly changes, and people find gatherings via word of mouth and social media.

The National Rainbow Gathering is held at a different national forest site every year. It revolves around the Fourth of July, when there’s a big peace prayer and celebration. Alex and I had been at the National since “seed camp” when infrastructure—water filtration, kitchens, etc.—were being built, so this was around three weeks into the gathering for us.

We were walking in the main meadow where everyone was assembling, the air rippling with heat. It felt like we had stumbled through a portal into the plains of central Africa. Alex had his shirt off, lots of people did, and as usual, I felt uneasy by all the looks he was getting. Alex didn’t seem to mind. He told me that in big crowds, there was so much psychic noise that it suppressed the eruption of individual shadow images.

He could tell I was suffering from the heat because of my long-sleeved shirt and the inability of fireskin to sweat. There’s a silent peace prayer till noon, so he motioned me to follow him to the shady treeline to talk without disturbing anyone.

“Listen, Andrew, and hear me out before you say no. I think you should take your shirt off and own the Fireskin. And I think Fireskin should be your Rainbow name. People here are gonna think that’s badass! They’ll see you as one of them and less like a journalist observing them.”

I’m stunned by his suggestion and unsure how to react.  

“Alex, sun damage causes burn contracture.”

“Oh, c’mon, Andrew, you’ve got sunscreen in your bag. Give it to me. I’ll put it on for you.”

The offer of tactile contact was too generous to refuse, so I took off my long-sleeved shirt and let him put it on. He knew what he was doing—committing me to the initiation. I couldn’t let him do that for me and then just put my shirt back on after.

It turned into one of the most amazing days of my life. After the long OM that concludes the silent prayer, I joined the mass of people dancing around the Peace Pole.

No one but Alex and medical workers had ever touched my Fireskin before, but that day at least a hundred strangers gave me hugs. I think I got more hugs than anyone. It was like everyone there was an empath.

I started introducing myself as “Fireskin,” and people did think it was cool. It melted away any journalistic distance when I did interviews. I kept my shirt off the whole day, and even at night around the fires and drum circles.

Alex is an amazing dancer, and movement helps him keep dark visions away. He actually got me to dance with him around the fires. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t half bad once I let intuition take over my movements.

That night, I had a surreal and life-changing encounter around one of the fire circles. I met another burn survivor who was also dancing shirtless!

His name is Sven, and his burn pattern is worse than mine as it goes up to his neck and chin. But he was way ahead of me in owning it and having a positive attitude. He calls his fireskin a “six-million-dollar tattoo.” Sven is small like Alex, and me and looks like an eighteen-year-old hippie kid with really long hair, so I was stunned to find out that he was actually a thirty-three-year-old analytical chemist who works for a major bio-tech company.

He gave me all his contact info and asked me to come with him to a Phoenix Society meeting later in the year. I did, and that led me to other burn forums, where I spoke about my recovery and listened to many other survivors’ stories. Eventually, I wrote an article about the subculture of burn survivors.

Sven is still a great friend and inspiration. We meet regularly at the Phoenix Society and at the annual Rainbow Gathering.

Anyway, with the support of Alex and Sven, I went shirtless for the rest of the gathering, and became known as Fireskin to the Rainbow community.

That experience led to two of the best articles I ever wrote. It was, like I said, a kind of initiation, a transformative experience that wouldn’t have happened without Alex.

But . . . I’m also digressing, hesitating at the brink of confronting our most painful episode, the night that led to our separation.

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It was a bad night for us both. I had insomnia the evening before and felt impaired all day. Maybe some part of me sensed what was coming.

We were camped at the edge of a Walmart parking lot in Missouri, and Alex was having a bad night. Really bad. The worst I’ve ever seen. A full-on dark night of the soul. He was in tears part of the time, which was a rarity for him. He was angry, bitter, and frustrated with every part of his life.

I was trying to pull him out of his despair but failing miserably. There was no power behind my words because I was despairing myself. Alex was attacking the whole mythology I’d built up around us. And, as always, his attacks were hard to fend off because they contained disturbing elements of truth.

“I’m not this special mutant you think I am,” he says bitterly. “I’m not like you. You’ve made something of yourself, turning your strangeness into a creative career. You have a purpose in this world. But what am I? I’m just a fucking sidekick traveling around with you. It’s pathetic.”

“Alex—again with the sidekick thing? I’ve never seen you that way for a single second. You’re incredibly talented and—”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffs. “You’re the only one who even notices my so-called talents. Maybe they only seem like talents to you because you’re so into me. A more objective person would see me for what I am—damaged goods.”

“Alex, that’s not what you are.”

“Right, like you know what I am. You’re always telling me what I am.  But you’re wrong. What I actually am is a high-school dropout whose only employable skills are dishwashing and weed trimming.  I’m not this evolving mutant about to have some grand metamorphosis—into what—an immortal elf like Jeremiah?

“Look, I’m not saying he doesn’t exist, but you keep saying he lives on another planet or in another dimension. I mean, what the fuck? How would I ever become that?

“When you turn yourself into an elf with amazing superpowers, come back to me with your grand evolutionary theories. But I live in this world, Andrew. And here, I’m just a loser hanging out with a guy who’s infatuated with me and can afford to keep me around.”

Alex stares me down. My posture slumps from the weight of all the doubts he’s leveled at me. I know if I don’t respond soon, he’ll take my silence as agreement. But then I see a possible opening, a way to argue against his despairing view that rouses what little energy I have left.

I sit up straight and summon the will to turn the situation around.

“I wish you’d stop putting yourself down, Alex. It’s not helping. Of course I’m not objective about you any more than you’re objective about you. But I think I can make an objective case for you being more of a mutant than me, Tommy or even Jeremiah.”

“Oh reaaallly? Wowww, sounds like I’m about to hear another fucking amazing Andrew theory,” says Alex, his face lighting up in mock surprise. “This should be entertaining. Go ahead. Tell me your objective theory about me being the top mutant.”

“OK, I’ll do that,” I say, defying his taunts. “You’re right—you’re not like me. Or Jeremiah. Or Tommy, for that matter. The rest of us are like unusual flowers grown in expertly tended gardens. I grew up in the most culturally enriching subculture imaginable. New York City can be gritty and oppressive, but no one can call Manhattan a backwater. My parents raised me in the Ashkenazi Jewish intellectual tradition of scholarship and aggressive Socratic dialogue. They were professors at Columbia, and so were most of their friends. Some of those brilliant people were highly neurotic, but often in interesting ways—”

“You mean like you?” Alex says derisively.

“Exactly. Like me,” I shoot back with a smile, trying to spin his diss into a compliment. It fails to lighten his mood. “And, like me, they were complex people. Even their foibles had interesting aspects. Everyone around me helped my mind and talents develop. My parents argued sometimes, but they loved each other. And in that world, I was treated like a young prince with infinite potential.

“Now, look at Tommy. He obviously had a superb upbringing in some kind of wholesome, loving community, allowing him to fulfill his own creative pursuits. A kid from a more supposedly privileged family would’ve had helicopter parents. They wouldn’t have let him climb a tree, let alone build a treehouse with power tools based on his own inspiration.

“A loving community was implicit in everything about Tommy. Yet he could set himself apart when needed, and space allows for growth. Even the way the treehouse looked—like a seed pod resting in tree branches—reflected him being in a favorable place for metamorphosis, and—”

“And this is all going somewhere, right?” Alex interrupts. “I know you’re impressed with his treehouse, but I don’t see what any of this has to do with me.”

“I’m getting there. Just give me a chance. It’s hard when you keep interrupting.”

He’s thrown me off, and it takes me a moment to get back on track.

“Now look at Jeremiah—and, yeah, I know you’re tired of hearing about him—but he arose in an even more ideal world a community of extraterrestrial elves or something like that.

“My point is it takes a whole village to raise a mutant child. But you, you’re an anomaly. You’re like an exceptional flower growing from a crack in the cement despite people dropping smoldering cigarette butts on you.”

I mean the analogy sympathetically, but Alex flinches. It’s too painfully close to the truth.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” I say quickly. “Look, Tommy and I both had darkness to deal with too. I got orphaned and fireskinned at fifteen. By the time you saw him, Tommy was enduring some sort of apocalypse. But that stuff happened to us after we’d been tended in our gardens and had healthy cores.

“Meanwhile, from the earliest age, your core was under attack. So for you to be a functioning person means you have a super-strong essence. And teaching yourself to draw like a Renaissance master and your other creative skills, that’s an objective accomplishment unique to you.”

Alex looks at me incredulously for a moment, then slowly claps his hands in mock applause.

“Wow. Great speech, I’ve got to admit. A bit flowery— but I’ll give you an ‘A’ for effort and imagination. You really pulled out all the stops. No question—you’re the greatest orator I’ve ever met. Anyone can see why you were the prince of your tribe of Manhattan Ashkenazi college professors.”

“Alex—”

“But your little theory doesn’t hold up, does it? I mean, aren’t there people who wrote great symphonies, made great discoveries, whatever, who also had really messed up childhoods? My childhood was fucked up, but I can draw and juggle. Wow. So what? That doesn’t exactly make me one of the X-Men, does it?”

He’s deflated my argument, and he knows it. I’m searching in vain for a response when he suddenly turns to focus on me.

“You just don’t see me for what I am, Andrew. For how fucked up I am, and for the total nothing I’ve made of my life. Your infatuation with me, what you call your Eros, totally blinds you to my reality. I guess I can’t blame you for that. But this crazy mythology you’ve built up around me just isn’t healthy for either of us.

“Aren’t you the one who writes about subcultures having their own quirky religions? But have you ever taken a good look at your religion? The Andrew-and-Alex-romantic-evolutionary-quest religion, or whatever the fuck you want to call it?

“Look, I think you’re basically a good person—I do—but you’re not a whole village, are you? Did it ever occur to you I might need to meet some other people, some of whom should be girls? No. You don’t think about that because it’s not part of your religion.

“I’m not trying to be harsh. I want you to be fulfilled, man, I really do. It’s just your total lack of sexual experience that makes it seem mythic to you. But because of my life experience, it’s always going to seem dirty to me.

“You feel uncomfortable when people are attracted to you because you think they’d be horrified by your Fireskin. And yet it never occurs to you how uncomfortable it is to be seen as this magical mutant when I know I’m not.

“Look, I don’t enjoy raining on your mythological parade. I’m not trying to oppress you or anything. So if you can take any pleasure from thinking about me when you jerk off, or whatever, feel free. Just take me off the fucking pedestal, please. It’s exhausting.”

Alex’s onslaught leaves me shaking. There are devastating elements of truth in everything he says. But reducing my feelings for him to an annoying pornographic addiction is a gut punch.

But what if he’s right? Maybe my love for him is just a masturbatory fantasy.

No! It’s something beautiful. But he’ll never see it that way.

Whatever it is, my obsession isn’t good for him. It’s going to drive him away.

I can’t hold back my tears, and then, without fully intending to, I express my despairing thoughts aloud.

“I’ve failed you,” I say. I just mean that I’m a fuck-up in general and feel guilty about projecting so much heavy shit on him, but he doesn’t take it that way at all.

“You’ve failed me?” Alex snaps back, more furious than I’ve ever seen him. “Just who the fuck do you think you are? Some sort of God? And I’m your flawed creation you’re weeping over?”

He lunges toward me, grabbing me by the shoulders and shoving me against the Mothership’s inner hull. He’s right in my face, eyeing me down. As he glares at me, time slows, almost pauses. I should be rattled, yet for some reason I’m perfectly calm, utterly fascinated with what I see.

Alex’s eyes are uncanny, more alive, and mutant-like than ever before. They’re the glowing event horizon at the boundary of his turbulent inner chaos. Almost like a vision rather than a threat to react to.

I’m in the eye of the storm, the first calm moment of the night. But suddenly, I wonder if I’m acting appropriately.

Would it be better for me to shove Alex away?

I just don’t feel any fear or anger to motivate such an action. Perhaps part of me likes the physicality of the moment.

Alex releases me and falls back to his side of the sleeping platform. My strange calmness has thrown him off, but he’s still furious.

“This is all about you, isn’t it?” he says. “You failed me? So fucking self-important. You really think you’re my savior, don’t you? If you’re such a great savior, why don’t you try saving yourself? I can’t fucking believe how patronizing you are. You must be the most patronizing motherfucker on the planet. You remember that young Amish guy you liked so much—the one you thought had such a benevolent aura or something like that?”

“Liam.”

“Yeah, exactly, Liam. He was annoyed by your condescension too.”

“Did he say something?” I ask, my voice shaky. I was sure Liam thought highly of me.

“No, he didn’t say something,” Alex replies furiously. “Of course, he didn’t say something. He’s AMISH, remember?

“Seriously? After all this time, you think people need to say something for me to know what they’re feeling? You still don’t have the first clue who I am, do you? Do you, Andrew? I see through people, whether I want to or not. Remember? Just like I can see through all your patronizing bullshit. I can see what you really want with me. And this thing you keep hoping will happen between us, this great romantic fantasy—It’s NEVER gonna happen!”

His words slash out like a razor. Then, without warning, the strength needed to hold up my body gives out. Like a puppet with cut strings, I collapse. My body curls into a fetal position, and I—I disassociate from everything—my fireskinned body, Alex, the back of the Mothership, the whole reality.

My love is a lie. It’s all just a selfish obsession. All I do is drive him crazy with my madness. I’m the failed creation. I should’ve died in the car accident. My love is defeated. I want—I need to die.

Suddenly I’m being shaken out of my pit of despair and back into my body. Alex has me by the shoulders again, only now he’s sobbing.

“I don’t want this,” he chokes out through his tears. “I don’t want this, Andrew. I didn’t mean to—”

His words are plaintive, and he’s beyond distraught. I can’t bear to see him so helpless. The urgency to save him from his own sorrow revives me, and I struggle to sit up.

He needs me. He needs me to become Andrew again.

The voice that comes out of me is ragged, crushed. But I put everything I have into it.

“I know,” I tell him with conviction. “I know, Alex. It’s OK . . . We’re going to be OK somehow. Both of us . . .”

My words break through his panic and regret, and he pulls me into a hug. A release of tears shudders through both of us, then gradually subsides.

The storm passes.

Exhausted, we fall asleep, lying close to each other for safety.

The following morning, I’m still quite shaky. I look out the window, and the Walmart parking lot is quiet and misty with intense humidity. It almost looks abandoned.

I say good morning to break the uneasy silence, but my voice is slurred like it was when I first awoke in the hospital, high on opioids and struggling to act normally.

 I’m not really myself anymore, but I owe it to Alex to get my shit together and keep the Mothership afloat.

Alex appears less damaged, at least on the surface. Like so many of our fights before, the storm clouds in him give way quickly to other moods. But he’s also making a conscious effort to be gentle as I work on recovering myself. He’s attentive and supportive. He offers to put lubricating lotion on my Fireskin, and I let him.

I have to pretend to be OK, or he’ll feel even more guilty. In our different ways, we’re both struggling with shame.

But I’m definitely not OK. I’ve never felt so fundamentally broken. Our fight has shattered my whole mythology. Alex’s disgust with my selfish savior complex has exposed me as a total fraud.

“I’m not sure who I am anymore now that my faith is gone. All I know is that I can’t let my despair become Alex’s problem. For three years, I’ve been burdening him with my deluded romantic hope. I’ve never said it aloud, but the weight of my delusion has been on him the whole time. Exposing him to the darkness that’s taken its place will only make the situation worse.

I try to focus on practical tasks as we prepare for a long eastward journey, but all my actions feel hollow. I’m as drained of deluded hope as Alex is filled with guilt. Neither of us has the emotional buoyancy to keep the Mothership above the waterline, but we’re still going through the motions.

For Alex’s sake, I wish I could switch on the witty, enthusiastic person he’s used to, but it takes all the energy I have just to keep my body moving through the necessary chores. My one organizing purpose is not to burden him anymore.

From the day we met, I had relentlessly mythologized our relationship. I needed Alex to believe we shared a sacred quest to find Tommy and go wherever the Great Design called us. And that’s the more defensible part of the religion. The completely indefensible part is the eternal flame, my neurotic hope for something impossible between us.

My religion, like most, has tragic magic woven into it. All creeds that center on the love of another person have a fatal flaw. The same thing that makes you shine with the light of faith can also cast you into the dark night of the soul.

But if I don’t snap out of this soon, it’ll make him sick. I can’t afford despair. It can’t be hidden from an empath, and it’s too much for him, or anyone, to deal with.

So, I reach for the one drug capable of reanimating me. Knowing where it’s gotten us so far, it’s the last thing I should do, but I have nothing left to grab hold of . . .

I secretly double down on my religion. I latch onto the idea that Alex needs my stability more than ever. I need to believe in myself as his savior to overcome my despair.

Maybe this fight had to happen. Maybe I’m helping Alex after all. Descent into darkness is a classic part of the hero’s journey, right? We weathered the storm. We’re still in the Mothership and on the quest. Alex needs to believe in the metamorphosis. All we need is a revelation. A shared revelation. It’ll happen, I know it. I just need to hang on until then. Anything’s possible. Where there’s life there’s hope.

I repeat such thoughts to myself all morning as we prepare for travel. And then, all afternoon while Alex drives, I repeat them like mantras until they become true.

Later that night, as if I had willed it to happen, the shared revelation comes.

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It’s a full moon and a warm night as we drive through a rural part of Mississippi. There’s no Walmart or truck stop around when we get tired of driving, so we turn onto an unpaved country road the GPS says is public access. We follow it to a spacious turnoff, where we hide the Mothership within the encircling shadows of tall elm trees and a symphony of crickets.

Alex offers to cook dinner, and I let him. I step out of the Mothership and into the cricket symphony.

I walk into the nearby woods, entranced by the cricket’s fractalizing composition. Its rising and falling waves play against the counterrhythmic pulsations of yellow light from a swirling constellation of fireflies. It’s a beautiful sound and light show, and a moment of peaceful distance from the strain of our fractured relationship.

All insects should be crickets and fireflies, I think as I swat a mosquito. Well, maybe not all— butterflies are pretty cool, and bees are necessary.

I realize my whimsical thoughts are a sign I’m reviving from yesterday’s dark night of the soul. I look up at the full moon and feel like a butterfly emerging from a broken chrysalis. There’s a feeling of midsummer night dreams flowing through the air.

This is the right time and place to try one of our psychic experiments. If anything could summon a shared revelation and heal the rift between us . . .

Hopeful possibilities light up in my imagination like the fireflies. My religion, the one Alex shattered just last night, is recasting its spells of enchantment into the night.

The reverie is interrupted by Alex opening the back door of the Mothership and calling out to me that dinner is ready.

He’s made one of our favorite meals— pasta primavera and garlic bread. During the meal, I suggest a psychic experiment.

“Yeah, sure, why not,” he says. “But maybe in a bit. We should let our food digest first.”

So, after dinner, we sit at the table in the back, pursuing our individual creative activities. Alex is working on a drawing, and I’m writing whatever comes to my restless mind. I need to write them down to get them in order. It’s therapeutic, and I often make discoveries that way. And I’m feeling hopeful about the approaching experiment. But it’s hard to gauge Alex’s level of enthusiasm. He’s often described these experiments as psychedelic, but he gets annoyed if I make too much of them. And he hasn’t wanted to do one in a while, so I wonder if he’s just trying to be nice. He’s been on his best behavior since my breakdown.

We discovered these experiments, this mutual paranormal state, only a few days after we met.

The first time it happened was totally spontaneous. We were engrossed in an intense conversation, when we both paused to think, engaging in silent eye contact for a few seconds.

Suddenly, Alex’s eyes seemed to grow larger while all the colors in the Mothership shifted, and the interior space flattened like a video projection. Everything except Alex’s eyes seemed a mere backdrop to an unstable portal between our psyches. It was such a startling transformation that I thought someone must’ve slipped me LSD. The state lasted for seconds before we broke eye contact. I was too stunned to speak.

 “Wow, what was that?” asked Alex.

Before I could say anything, he described his experience— which was nearly identical to mine.

So we tried it again and discovered all we needed was silent eye contact to enter this paranormal zone. We eventually developed a whole ritual to get into the right headspace, and we always did them at night before bed.

Yeah, I realize if you stare too long at anything, you can bring on eye fatigue which distorts vision. But it was more than that. I liked to think of them as experiments with telepathic merging. But the merger part was always more aspirational than actual. All I can truthfully say is that strange perceptions happened.

Sometimes we did it like a staring contest, but mostly we let our eyes go out of focus. I also experimented with focusing on one of Alex’s eyes and then the other, and I’d get different feelings from each one.

It was the only paranormal experience we could make happen on demand. But we were never able to bring the experience into a meaningful focus. We felt like infants on the verge of a new means of communication, but without anyone to guide us.

I never said it aloud, but I hoped this state would turn into the kind of merger I had with Tommy and Jeremiah. If that happened, it might heal our conflicts. We’d understand each other and achieve a greater union than . . .

But I didn’t share that hope with Alex. He experienced some telepathic melding with Tommy, but it wasn’t mutual and all-encompassing like mine. I feared he would see my goal of a total merger as part of my deluded romantic aspirations, and then he might not want to participate.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I remember writing something related to the experiments earlier that night. Given the painful aftermath, I haven’t wanted to look at it. But maybe I should. What I was thinking before may be significant. I’m going to look for that. . .

OK, it’s not something I wrote expecting anyone else to ever read. It’s kind of raw and . . . embarrassing. But so is this whole journal. I’m just going to paste it in anyway.

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I can’t help wondering if the experiments never become the transcendent merger I want because they’re corrupted by my romantic longings. But my desires don’t feel corrupt. At least to me, they don’t. To me, they feel like an urge toward metamorphosis.

We’re painfully divided in so many ways, and I want to overcome that. Seeking another merger experience seems evolutionary to me, but what if Alex is right? What if it’s just infatuation dressed up in a New Age/Sci-fi costume?

No, it’s more than that.

What I experienced with Jeremiah and Tommy was real and life changing.

But, yeah, if I’m honest, the infatuation is definitely part of what motivates my desire for a merger experience with Alex. So, I guess it’s both.

And yet, I feel the evolutionary and infatuation aspects aren’t entirely unrelated. Maybe Alex and I are members of the same sub-species, and the metamorphosis needs us to merge energies. I’m an intelligent person. Why should I be so infatuated with someone who’s so unavailable? There must be something more to it.

Yeah, but maybe the something more is just my vanity. I don’t want to admit a pathetic adolescent crush on someone, so I inflate my desire into a grand, evolutionary design. Isn’t that what abusive gurus do? They convince themselves and others that fulfilling their desires is a path to enlightenment, but really they just want a harem. Am I like that?

But how could I be? I’ve never had sex with anyone. And I’ve never crossed the line with Alex. I’m attracted to him— OK, I’m extremely attracted to him—and sexual desire is intrinsic to that, but I don’t just want . . .

Alex assumes my attraction is this pornographic thing. But he also says it doesn’t give him the dirty feeling he gets from others. So, I’m not sure how he perceives it. Maybe I’m just afraid to find out. Sometimes, it feels like he finds it flattering or pleasing in some way, but other times he seems annoyed.

I’m not saying I don’t have fantasies about him. I do. But they don’t feel pornographic to me.

I’ve tried watching porn, of course, but it usually grosses me out. Most of it seems like low-budget horror movies. Even if they have nice bodies, it feels like half a notch above autopsy footage. If that’s all that sex is—yikes!

Instead of the porn soundtrack, I hear Peggy Lee singing, “Is That All there Is?”

Is that all there is to a fire?

Is that all there is to the sex circus?

A bunch of gruesome, sloppy acrobatics?

Is that all there is to love?

If that’s all there is, I’d feel like Peggy Lee, ready to take her last breath and get it over with.

If that’s all there is.

But I know from my merger experiences—that’s not all there is.

And yet, in a fantasy world where Alex was attracted to me, of course I’d want to have sex with him. I just wouldn’t want it to be as dull and impersonal as it is in porn. Sure, I’d want it to be physical, but I’d also want it to be emotional and soulful. Why settle for one-dimensional when something could be multidimensional? I’d want our intimacy to be like an Alex Gray painting with every kind of energy exchanged.

But I also realize what I want is not going to happen. And even though he’s given me permission, I’m conflicted about indulging in fantasies about Alex because I know he wouldn’t want to live them out. It’s like I’m wronging him to even go there in my imagination. And they only add fuel to the eternal flame.

The point is, I’m not anti-sex—I just feel like sex can be more than what it seems like in porn.

I realize I’m a naïve, inexperienced romantic. But, however rare, people sometimes have transcendent, loving, sexual experiences, right? It’s not just me making that up. Sure, I realize it’s not the norm.

Alex views sex as dirty, a cheap thrill like hitting a crack pipe in someone’s basement. But like William James says, all that’s necessary to disprove that all crows are black is one white crow. All the human testimony about these rare, transcendent sexual experiences can’t be fake. There must be some white-crow experiences. And if there are, why would I want to settle for less?

And, really, I am a white crow! I’ve had two transcendent merger experiences. And they felt as complete and intense as they could possibly be. I didn’t come out of those experiences and think, yeah, that was cool—but too bad he didn’t blow me.

No!!! That was the furthest thing from my mind because those experiences were far beyond that.

To me, the porn world looks like black crow hell. And no, it’s not just sour grapes because I’m fireskinned. If that kind of sex is what I really wanted, of course, I could find it with someone.

Jason has always had a thing for me, even though he’s seen my Fireskin. To him, it’s like this cool gothic-punk body modification or tribal scarification or something like that. He agrees with Sven that I should think of it as a six-million-dollar tattoo. I don’t get it, but I guess some boats float on strange waters.

But to want these intimately gruesome physical experiences with strangers! That’s not just gross—it’s appalling! OK, yeah, I get it—it’s some sort of acquired taste, apparently. I may not have experience, but it’s not like I’m totally clueless about how other people see sex. All I’m saying is that porn-type sex isn’t right for me.

Most people would see my attitude toward sex as childish. What a fool I must be not to realize that the greatest reward in life is the same-old, same-old, golden-oldie dumb animal trick of repetitiously bringing genitals into contact with other genitals. Rinse, repeat. What an amazing discovery! What kind of a pathetic loser would want anything more than that?

Jesus, I sound like some kind of religious prude. Dissing promiscuity has got to be worse than dissing mom, apple pie, or the American flag. It’s not like I would ever say any of this aloud. Imagine the ridicule I’d attract as a twenty-two-year-old virgin dissing the world’s oldest and most popular activity!

But I’m not trying to stop black crows from doing whatever with other, consenting black crows. I have no religion controlling how I feel. It’s not a moral thing. It’s not like I think they’re condemning themselves to hell with carnal sins. It’s just that to me—pornos look like home movies from hell.

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Looking at the entry now, I realize it’s an unflattering sample of my tormented inner conflict. But that’s what I wrote before Alex pulled me out of my spiraling rant.

“Hey,” he says, “I finished my drawing. I’m ready for an eye contact thing if you’re still up for it.”

We collapse the table and turn the back of the Mothership into our sleeping platform so we can sit across from each other without anything between us.

We dim the lights and, as usual, take a few minutes to get comfortable and collect ourselves before we begin. We always stretch and do head rolls for neck relaxation to help with sitting still during the eye contact. When we’re done, we take a few deep breaths with our eyes closed and allow time to slow.

When I open my eyes, I see Alex has gotten there before me. He’s sitting with perfect posture, waiting for me.

Déjà vu.

It feels like he’s always been sitting there, waiting for me to really see him.

The grace of Alex’s physical form lights up poignant feelings of appreciation. The golden glow of his skin and hair—the supple musculature of his small but perfectly proportioned body.

A moment later, this light is eclipsed by bitter feelings. Our sharp, double-edged blade of envy glows in the shadow of my mind.

But when I meet Alex’s gaze, everything changes.

The blade is glowing on my side only. Alex has dropped his protective boundaries and is waiting for me to finally see him— the naked empath.

The blade of envy falls from my mind.

I pass through many layers of perception.

Seeing Alex’s beauty as a cruel weapon held over me is an evil delusion. He did not choose his looks and sexual orientation to hurt me, no more than I chose my Fireskin and unrequited longing.

I continue to relax my gaze into Alex, and time slows as each heartbeat expands into waves of empathic awareness. My mind had been a box crowded with nervous scribbles, but as Alex’s empathy infuses me, whole new dimensions are revealed.

I’d only seen Alex through a glass darkly, my vision distorted by cartoon mosaics of projected mental images. Now my eyes and heart are opening and I’m beholding Alex revealed in his complexity and hidden depth. I see his confusion, despair, and inner beauty.

His eyes are portals of sadness, pleading with me to accept his darkness and forgive his sins. In his gaze is gratitude and solidarity.

He’s filled with shame and fears that I’ll abandon him for all the times he’s lashed out at me, especially our last fight. He fears that I resent him for it. And within him are elongating shadows of suicidal despair.

I’m desperate for Alex to see himself as the beautiful being he is. At the same time, I feel Alex’s deep compassion and acceptance. He sees me in a way I can’t see myself. He understands my talents and torments—my desire and commitment to do right by him despite my conflicted feelings. Alex’s eyes quietly plead with me to see myself as he sees me.

My center of gravity reverses polarity and flows outward toward Alex as he flows outward toward me. Our eyes sparkle together in mutual recognition and—

We merge.

The outside world vanishes into a spiraling maelstrom of color and light. We become a state of being, transcending space and time, self and other—

We’re two sides of an infinity loop, glowing in the night of time. One dynamically unstable soul with two polarized selves. Alex is the mercurial one, an essence I need, while I provide the stability he needs.

Then, as spontaneously as we merged, we diverge, erupting out of the singularity and back across the event horizon as we descend into our separate selves.

But just before we return to our bodies, there’s a moment between dimensions where I glimpse another reality.

Alex and I stand across from each other in a darkened street of abandoned buildings.

“It’s too late,” he says despairingly.

“What’s too late, Alex?” I ask, but he just stares at me with sad resignation.

The moment closes, and we’re back in the Mothership, still sitting on the sleeping platform. Alex gazes downward, seeming as disoriented as I am.

Did he experience all that too?

We avoid eye contact until I break the awkward silence.

“Man, did you just . . . “

“Yeah, that was insane,” Alex replies in a strange voice.

“You wanna go for a walk to clear our heads, and maybe talk about what just happened?”

“You go ahead,” he says, still avoiding my gaze. “I need time alone. To contemplate.”

“Sure,” I say.

It’s part of my code—I always retreat if Alex requests space. So I head out into the humid night. My intention is to walk down the creek-lined dirt road long enough to give Alex an hour of solo contemplation. We’ve just had this ultimate experience, but the way it ended leaves me with painful doubts.

We’d always talked at the end of experiments, taking turns describing our perceptions. But this time, I felt Alex distancing himself. He didn’t even look up when I was leaving.

Bitter tears stain my face as I walk into the night. I’m scarcely aware of my surroundings as I descend into regret and self-recrimination.

The experience freaked him out. It was too much. And now he’s questioning our whole connection. I can feel it. I’ve become a disturbing presence taking up too much space in his mind. He’s done with me. What we had was fragile, and I’ve destroyed it with this experiment.

My whole body senses the terrible jeopardy between us. And yet, it’s still a shock on every level when I return to the Mothership an hour later.

I expect to find Alex in a difficult state, but that’s something we can work through. We always do. But this time, he’s just gone. I step outside the Mothership in case he’s nearby gazing at the stars or something.

“Alex!” I shout into the night. “Alex, are you there?” I yell toward the woods. But I know he’s gone. In my desperation, I step back into the Mothership as if he might be hiding inside somewhere, even though I realize the absurdity. I look around.

And that’s when I see the phone I’d given him resting on top of a handwritten note in the middle of the sleeping platform. I pull out his letter and read.

Andrew,

As you know, I haven’t been happy for some time. I need to venture off. I’m not sure where, but I must travel alone. Please don’t try to contact me.

I’ll always be grateful for you appearing out of the chaos of this world to help me. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.

I do love you, but not in the way you need. I’m unable to love anyone in the way they need. I hope you find someone who shares your Eros, because I want you to be happy and fulfilled. But this isn’t good for either of us. You’re better off without me.

I don’t want you to think this is temporary. We need to separate permanently. Just live your life and let me go.

I hope you’re blessed, as you deserve to be blessed. I wish you well and hope you find everything you’re looking for.

With all the love I can find,

Alex

P.S. I’m sorry for all the shit I put you through. Please don’t hate me.

I’m shaking as I put the letter down, on the verge of another collapse, but Alex isn’t here to snap me out of it.

I need to take action, to move before I collapse.

I’ve gotta get away from this place. I need to make it to a truck stop or somewhere with people around.

I stagger into the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition.

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In the dark days following Alex’s departure, I feel only half alive, and so does the Mothership.

This vessel had so recently been full of talk, arguments, laughter . . .  Now it hosts a demoralized crew of one. And I have only just enough energy to go through the motions of continuing the journey.

As sunk as I am in grief and abandonment, I’m also desperately concerned about Alex. He walked off into the night with nothing more than a backpack, and no safe refuge waiting to take him in.

I try to revisit our last experiment, that sense of really seeing Alex and of being seen, and the merger where we seemed two parts of the same being. I try writing about it, but words are made to render subject-and-object events unfolding in space and time. They can’t map a moment of timeless unity, so all I produce are flattened counterfeits.

But words aren’t all that fails me. My consciousness can’t make it back to the merged singularity. All I can perceive is a Hawking Radiation of fragmented memories emanating from that eternal moment.

My interpretation of what happened—that we had always been and always would be one soul with two selves—might just be a romantic fable I’d like to believe.

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At first, I felt honor-bound to respect Alex’s wish to be left alone. I clung to the hope that he would eventually relent and contact me. But the truth is, it wasn’t just honor that kept me from reaching out. Knowing Alex, if I did anything to intrude on the space he asked for, it would only lengthen the time of separation.

But an odd thing happened since the merger, I stopped getting my weekly migraines. Instead, I have recurring nightmares that leave me in fear for Alex’s life. They forced me to break his wish for no contact. He left his phone behind, probably because I had paid for it, so email is the only possible means of communication left. I sent him a brief one telling him about my nightmares and begging him to get in touch.

He didn’t respond.

So the only option left was to physically search for him. I followed my intuition and what I knew of Alex’s travel patterns before we met, any clue that could bring us back together.

A week ago, an uncertain lead from Alex’s cousin, Rebecca, brought me to Seattle. Though it little resembles the abandoned city of my dreams, I’ve spent the past few days looking for him here.

I’ve debated sending another email, but it seems pointless . . .

Actually, now that I think about it, there’s another way to communicate with him. Well, it’s more of a slight possibility of communicating with him.

Long ago, we set up a shared cloud folder where we posted writings for the other to read. I could post this journal and continue writing it there. Maybe he’ll go back to the folder to look for something he wrote and see that I added this. Curiosity might tempt him to read it.

It’s a long shot, but the possibility of my words reaching him breaks through my sense of abandonment like a ray of sunlight.

Alex, I know it’s unlikely, but in case you read this— anytime I have shelter, food, money, or anything you might need, you have those things too. Just tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you.

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Another troubling dream of Alex suffering in that dark city woke me in the pre-dawn. The urgency of it forced me out onto the foggy streets of Seattle to resume my physical search. I spent the morning and afternoon walking. After distractedly eating a veggie burrito, I pressed on into the evening. As always, I let intuition guide me, having nothing else to go on. I seemed to be getting nowhere when I had one of the weirdest encounters of my life.

I’m still struggling to make sense of what happened. But I was led by a strange boy, if he even was a boy, into a dilapidated ranch house at the edge of the city, and off into, what—another fold of reality? The boy—or whatever he was—seemed to have preternatural knowledge about my search for Alex and much else besides. He gave me more help than I could ever have expected from a stranger, but I’m still disoriented from our encounter.

I was led through an intricate series of illusions that folded together like origami. And when the last crease was made, he set his creation in the palm of my hand before vanishing as mysteriously as he’d appeared.

It’s an hour since I left him, and my sense of the up and down and sideways of reality is only just beginning to come back into focus. And yet the boy . . . the boy himself is becoming less distinct.

If he had a face that was truly his, it’s lost to me, shuffled away in a long lineup of disguises he assumed. But it’s not just the boy fading from my mind. Each step I took from his ranch house felt like it was erasing itself. Like if I were to turn around, nothing would look familiar, and I couldn’t get back to him if I tried.

While the end of the encounter feels like it’s retreating from my mind, the rest is still so vivid. I should get it down in writing before it goes too.

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At nightfall, I was walking in a light drizzle. The dampness contributed to the demoralizing sense that I wasn’t getting anywhere.

The bond with Alex was so telepathic when we were together, but now I sense no trace of his presence. I feel nothing, or worse than nothing—a vague, forbidding coldness.

A thick fog moves in as I walk through a neighborhood near the edge of the city, close to the Sound.

Perhaps it’s only the murky darkness tricking my eyes, but I turn a corner and suddenly see him. Alex. He’s mostly a silhouette walking ahead of me up the block, but I’m sure it’s him.

I pick up my pace, and adrenaline surges through me as I close the distance.

I’m less than a hundred feet away when he stops to unlatch the gate of a neglected-looking ranch house.

“Alex!” I call out, but he doesn’t even glance in my direction as he enters the house and closes the door behind him.

“Alex,” I shout as I run up the walkway, “Alex, please, I need to talk to you!”

I knock on the door, and a moment later, the lock turns.

The door opens a crack, pulling the brass security chain taut. Through the gap, peers a gaunt, elderly woman. Her eyes are clouded with cataracts, and she gazes at me with a look of uncomprehending irritability, teetering at the edge of senile paranoia.

Her face falls like a stone into the depths of my mind, memories rippling from the point of impact.

I know her. I was a child when I saw her last, but her face is exactly the same—like she hasn’t aged.

The impossibility of it freezes me in place.

She’s a delusion—she’s a flaw—she’s—

Cracks tessellate through my mind and fracture across the whole surface of reality.

This can’t be, but it is—she’s, she—

Memories flood through me. The name I gave her as a child pops into my mind—

The Supermarket Lady . . .

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To explain the Supermarket Lady, I must go down a long and twisted rabbit hole.

The Supermarket Lady was an old woman, gaunt and shabbily dressed, who always seemed to be in the tiny Manhattan supermarket near my building, where I lived with my parents. She had this haunted, desolate look as though she had wandered in from a bad dream.

I never saw her buy anything except instant coffee, cottage cheese, and saltine crackers. She was the strangest of many odd neighborhood characters and the only one I gave a name to. But I didn’t think much about her until—

Like a recursive fever dream, images of that terrifying day loop through my mind . . .

I’m eleven-years-old, excited to see this new place, Boston, with my parents. I’m happily taking photos when, suddenly, everything becomes nauseatingly overbright and overloud. I’m hoping it’s not, but phantom lights scintillate and zig-zag in my head, and I know that it is.

Migraine.

All too well, I know the classic aura of its oncoming misery. I keep it to myself for a few minutes, dreading to tell my parents the day-spoiling news. But my mom catches on before I have to.

We step into a large drugstore to get Ibuprofen. Merciless fluorescent light gives a razor’s edge to every mundane detail. I wander away from my parents to search for a bathroom in case I need to throw up. And that’s when I see her—in the middle of an aisle—hundreds of miles from where she should have been—

The Supermarket Lady.

Horror paralyzes me as her bony hand reaches for a jar of instant coffee.

I stand there gaping until a new terror seizes me.

If she catches my horrified expression, she’ll know that I know.

Then they’ll all know that I know.

I whip my gaze away and retreat from the aisle. I try to keep my eyes focused on the linoleum floor, but the light it reflects sets off sparks of pain in my head. Nevertheless, I keep my head down as I follow my parents out of the drugstore. The migraine keeps them from questioning my preoccupied silence as we catch an Amtrak to Penn Station, and then a subway to our apartment.

The whole time, my head throbs with fearful perceptions. What if the strangers we pass are not people, but extras— person-shaped automatons? They fill in crowd scenes everywhere I look, swarming into trains and subways, mutely walking down sidewalks holding lumpy plastic shopping bags in the hot sun.

I try not to focus. I can almost fool myself into believing they’re real if I squint and glance across them quickly. But horrified curiosity forces me to look closer. The illusion of realism collapses as I behold the shoddy, counterfeit motions of hollow, doll-eyed puppets going through their programmed routines.

They’re a mechanical swarm, army ants endlessly looping around a Mobius strip. They run on rails, like the subway trains rattling by. The man spitting on the platform has always been spitting there and always will be. It’s all just loops, loops, loops . . .

A horror show is unfolding in my mind, but from my parent’s perspective, I’m just quietly following them home. I probably look a bit preoccupied and anxious, but that’s expected when suffering from a migraine.

It’s dark by the time we’re back in our apartment. I go straight to bed, exhausted by headache and anxiety.

A nightmare wakes me in the early hours of the morning—a terrifying vision of my parents being quietly taken away in stretchers in the middle of the night, while two identical-looking replicas of them tiptoe into their bedroom and slip under the covers.

I sit up in bed, afraid to leave my room, afraid of who or what might step out of my parents’ bedroom. I want to ask my mom how I can tell if she and my dad are themselves and not identical-looking impostors.

“Silly, of course we’re impostors!” I imagine her smiling reply, “You’ve always known that. Why should it bother you now?”

This is the most horrifying answer I can think of, until I imagine her saying,

“Of course I’m not a replica! Whatever gave you such a crazy idea?”

But she says it with this ever-so-slightly crooked smile and a spiteful glint in her eyes. Because we both know it’s a lie.

Ever more horrifying possibilities spin around me. Once they know I know, the whole game will be up, and then—

Terror keeps me from even trying to imagine what might come after. I’m hiding under the covers as my anxiety verges on a panic attack.

I must do something to stop it.

I summon my will to reach for my phone and do what I usually do when facing the unknown—poke around online.

It takes me about a minute to learn the type of paranoia I’m experiencing is well-known and surprisingly common. And it has a name—Capgras Delusion.

Capgras Delusion, Capgras Delusion—

I repeat the name a few times, and it’s like cutting the strings of the red-eyed puppet whispering in my ear.

“Capgras Delusion,” I say aloud over its crumpled remains.

Maybe the Supermarket Lady wasn’t even there. Maybe it was all just a stupid Capgras Delusion brought on by the migraine.

A little more searching reveals migraines are known to cause paranoid hallucinations.

I saw some other old lady in the drug store and hallucinated her into the Supermarket Lady.

The rational simplicity of this explanation causes my panic to dissipate in favor of surging pride.

My mind is a monster-slaying, mystery-solving hero.

I discovered my one all-purpose superpower. Others might underestimate me as an eleven-year-old boy. But I was a boy hero, as logical as a Vulcan science officer.

“In Gotham City today, scientific boy hero Andrew solves yet another terrifying situation of high strangeness using only his logical, emotion-free intellect.”

Needless to say, my super-logical boy-hero identity, worthy of being emblazoned on lunchboxes and movie posters, had a brief shelf life. Had he persisted, perhaps I’d be one of those smug, professional “skeptic” types, debunking every sort of paranormal mystery I’d never experienced from my armchair while smoking a pipe.

In practice, I found my ever-so-logical boy-hero started every adventure by slipping on a banana peel and plunging into an abyss. His trusty flashlight and notebook slip out of his hands as he plummets down a bottomless rabbit hole where logic is exposed as a puny screwdriver held up against an interdimensional, metamorphic multiverse of irresolvable paradoxes.

That night in my bed, I thought I’d defeated the little red-eyed puppet of Capgras Delusion. But its slippery shadow burrowed into the fertile recesses of my eleven-year-old mind, persisting as a whisper of suspicion, ever insinuating that things are not quite as they’re trying to seem.

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Now the Supermarket Lady has found me again, standing at the front door of a ranch house on the outskirts of Seattle. As I recognize her, those childhood whispers of ontological suspicion amplify into the wailing police siren of full-blown paranoia.

There’s a high-pitched ringing in my ears —tinnitus, I suppose— and through it, I hear someone’s voice. I can’t make it out, but I see the security chain release. I’m being invited inside.

I step into a shabby living room illuminated only by a black-and-white television with a test pattern mandala glowing on the screen. There’s no Supermarket Lady anywhere to be found, or even an old woman. Standing before me is a pale, finely featured boy of about fourteen.

Suddenly, I realize the fog-shrouded night has played a terrible trick on my overwrought mind. Hair that looked white is actually light blonde. The wrinkles I saw were just a mottling of shadows thrown by the screen door, and the cataracts are just reflections in the boy’s large, intelligent, blue-gray eyes. I’m struck by the odd formality of his clothing—an immaculate white button-down shirt and neatly pressed gray trousers.

It’s probably just part of a parochial school uniform.

I stammer out a few words,

“I—I was looking for a friend of mine. Was that—were you—that must’ve been you—the one I saw—coming through the front door?”

The boy nods, his expression gravely sympathetic.

“Yes, that was me. Sorry for the part I played in the confusion.”

His voice is low and mellifluous, yet every word is clear. But his response is absurdly deferential, as if good manners required him to take the blame for my mistake.

“No, no, my bad, my apologies,” I reply. “Sorry to bother you.”

I’m about to wish him good night, but the boy looks into my eyes with a searching gaze that holds me in place.

“Perhaps I can help,” he says.

“Help?”

“Help you find your friend.”

He elegantly gestures for me to enter further, like a maître de leading the way to an available table. His manner is quietly confident, and I’m so rattled by my misperceptions that it doesn’t occur to question his offer.

He leads me from the darkened living room and into a wide, polished marble corridor. Bronze sconce lights with flame bulbs protrude from pillars that line the hallway, giving everything a flickering, orange glow. Mirrors and filigree molding accent the walls, and a series of tall mahogany cabinets lead my attention forward. Through their beveled glass, I see a collection of antique nautical instruments—sextant, astrolabe, ship’s chronometer, and other brass instruments I can’t identify.

I’m so taken by the displays that I barely notice the intricate, almost organically patterned Persian rugs stretched out beneath our feet, so thick that neither he nor I make a sound as we pass.

At the end of the corridor, we enter a round chamber with a domed ceiling. It looks like the private study of a wealthy 19th-century gentleman, with rounded walls paneled in dark wood. Draperies of wine-dark velvet cover the windows, and curved floor-to-ceiling bookcases hold antique, hand-bound books with titles embossed in gold.

I’m dazzled by the old-world elegance of the room. The boy’s face dimples into a smile as he watches me take it in.

Glittering from the domed ceiling above us is a magnificent chandelier, a prismatic cloud of diamonds and icicles dripping with color. Beneath this sparkling firmament are a pair of green-velvet wingback chairs and a small marble-topped table set with a few liquor glasses and decanters. The boy pulls out one of the chairs for me.

“May I offer you something to drink?” he asks.

I nod almost automatically.

From a crystal flagon, he pours an amber liquid into two glasses, passes one, then sits across from me. I assume the glass contains cognac, or some other costly liquor, and hesitate.

Is it appropriate to let an under-aged kid serve me alcohol? Come to think of it, it probably isn’t legal to enter a home at the invitation of a minor.

My judgment feels addled.

“Don’t worry,” he says reassuringly as if in response to my hesitation, “this drink contains no alcohol.”

The boy raises his glass in a silent toast. Cautiously, I take a sip, and a medley of flavors swirls across my tongue—apple cider infused with almonds, apricots, and currants, with hints of cardamom and anise emerging from the background. Its effect is warming and enlivening in the way of an elixir rather than a stimulant. I take another sip, and waves of relaxation pass through me.

Time begins to slow, almost imperceptibly. I welcome the slowing and relax into it. It’s a deepening of time, giving me more space to watch each moment unfold. I begin to understand what’s happening.

It’s not just the drink. The boy is altering the atmosphere and flow of time.

I raise my glass to take another sip, and he mirrors me. As I put down my glass, so does he. He notices I’m studying him and relaxes back into his chair, opening himself to let my scrutiny go deeper. As his body shifts, the energy and tempo in the room shift with him.

Through uncanny means, perhaps a form of sympathetic magic, he’s altering our reality. But he does so with such simplicity and grace it’s hard to notice. Nevertheless, my eyes are opening to his subtle orchestrations. I’m awake inside an illusion— a mirror world—but its reflections still encompass my sensorium.

There’s a feeling of dishonoring him as my mind labels what I’m experiencing as “illusion.” Nothing seems false or deceptive. The setting expresses the boy’s imaginative intuition of what will please me. A gift. One he has artfully constructed out of something other than ordinary matter. Like he’s folded time and space into an exquisite origami and placed it in the palm of my hand.

There’s a depth to the origami I can enter with all my senses. Each of the three inner chambers —the shabby living room, the corridor, and the gentleman’s study, is more beautiful and fully realized than the one before. He’s reading me to learn what will please me.

The boy’s eyes are completely unguarded, inviting me to perceive his every intention. Realizations pour into me, like the knowledge granted in a dream.

His appearance is also part of the origami, a form he’s chosen. He’s like a mirror. My desire projected Alex’s image into the foggy night, and he merely reflected it back. When our eyes first met through the crack in the door, my fear of the unknown projected the image of the Supermarket Lady, and he allowed it to reflect back as well.

Gazing into his eyes, so much has become implicitly apparent. But I still need the confrontational power of words to get a firmer grasp.

“You’re not who you appear to be.”

“No, I am not,” he agrees without hesitation, his tone slightly sad but not apologetic.

There’s an emotional resonance to his voice that goes beyond the meaning of his words. The sadness feels connected to the visual alteration of his person—it’s not his preference, but there’s a need for it which he respects.

“Why can’t you appear to me as you really are?”

“I wish I could,” he replies in a wistful tone. “The way I appear to you is only slightly altered, but for now, I must hold back from showing more.”

“Why?”

“It’s something I feel like wind or tide . . . It’s . . . not in accord with this time.”

He chooses his words with great care.

“I . . . crossed over here from . . .  somewhere else . . .”

A shadow of remembered suffering darkens his expression for a moment before he continues.

“My presence here creates a risk of disturbing things that shouldn’t be disturbed. There’s a narrow current I follow leading me to where I’m needed.”

“A current?” I ask.

“Yes,” he replies. “Sometimes the current is like a powerful undertow, resisting a certain direction of travel. It holds me back from lines of interference as it pulls me along open channels. I don’t always know why it leads me where it does. In our present situation, though, I think I understand. Knowing more about me would be a diversion from your own current, the one that brought you here—the mission to find your friend.”

I want to pierce through the mysteries of this encounter, but I feel the truth of his words. And my heart holds me to the search for Alex.

“You said you may be able to help me find him,” I say.

“I think you sense more about your friend than you realize,” the boy replies. “You’ve been having dreams about him, haven’t you?”

I nod.

“Perhaps I can help you to bring more of that to the surface,” the boy suggests. He sees the agreement in my face.

“Close your eyes,” he whispers.

I do, and as I take a deep breath, space opens around me . . .

I pull free from my physical body and begin to float upwards. I feel a scratchy texture as I pass through the roof, followed by effortless ascension into the air above the house. Far below is my fireskinned body, like the anchor of a ship. A silvery tendril of light connects me to it, but this link is infinitely elastic. I am unbound by space and time, free to go wherever my heart desires . . .

Effortlessly, I drift at cloud height through a night sky. Seattle melts away. Sliding below me, I see the sooty topography of the dark, abandoned city. Alex is down there.

Alex.

His name erupts from me like a beacon.

Alex.

Vertigo, like a blindfolded somersault off a high dive—I plunge from cloud height to a few stories above street level where I drift through a shadowy canyon of abandoned structures until my eye is drawn to an apartment building up ahead. A single window glows from the upper floor. It’s the only light in the desolation of shadows. I’m like a lost sailor being guided to port by its radiance.

I approach the window to peer inside, and what I see pulls me closer.

Alex.

He’s not aware of me, but the sight of him is overwhelming.

Incandescent light from an old desk lamp reflects off the battered tabletop, illuminating Alex’s expression as he writes in his notebook. He’s serious and intent, leaning into his work with his whole body. The sleeves of his worn flannel shirt are rolled up. I watch the shifting tension of muscles and tendons in his forearm as he sweeps his pen in continuous motion, like the stylus of a seismograph. Line after line of script flows from his hand, tracking neatly across the faint blue lines of notebook paper.

Next to him are two neat stacks of notebooks. They’re old-fashioned composition books—the kind with black cardboard covers speckled with white amoeboid shapes and bound by a strip of black adhesive. One of the stacks is noticeably thicker, its pages already embossed with his handwriting.

He’s doing the work he needs to do—reexperiencing memories from a place of deep forgiveness and insight. Sorrow and regret surround him, but also a strong sense of purpose.

Alex is alone in this night world, but it’s the first time in two months I’ve had a vision of him that wasn’t all anguish and fear. A desire to know what he’s writing comes over me.

Alex turns over the next page, stops, and puts his pen down. He senses something. He looks up and gazes right into me. But as soon as our eyes connect, the dark city dissolves around me.

Effortlessly, my awareness recouples with my body which envelops me with its familiar warmth. I take a deep breath, gazing into the phosphine-speckled darkness behind my closed eyelids. When my eyes open, the boy sits across from me, watching with infinite patience.

“I saw my friend,” I say. “In the place from my dreams, a city that’s always dark. Do you know where that is?”

For the first time, the boy looks uncomfortable.

“Yes,” he replies.

“Can you tell me?”

“No, I’m sorry, but that tide I mentioned, runs strongly against my saying. I must not interfere.”

I sense that he’s at the limit of the help he can give.

“Thank you,” I say and bow my head toward him.

The boy returns my bow.

“I think you are on the verge of learning more,” he says calmly.

“Something about Alex’s situation is coming toward you. There hasn’t been anything you could do about it, but soon there will be.”

His last words feel portentous, and silence falls between us.

We both stand, sensing the circle of our encounter closing. I follow him from the study down the long marble corridor back to the shabby living room. The boy goes to a dusty bookcase to retrieve something and returns with a small, brown paper parcel which he holds in the open palm of his hand.

He looks different now. His appearance is not dramatically altered, but he’s more physically solid and less refracted through illusion. Before, he seemed willowy and pale, but now he has the healthy glow of someone who spends most of his time outdoors. There’s a relaxed and confident athleticism in the way he stands. His eyes are a darker shade, but I can’t be sure of their color in the dimly lit room.

“Something practical to help you with your search,” he says, extending his hand to offer me the parcel.

I feel something dense and cylindrical within the brown paper.

“It’s nothing personal,” he says in an apologetic tone. He seems slightly embarrassed by the plainness of what he’s given me.

“Will I see you again?”

My question catches him off guard. He closes his eyes for a moment to look for an answer.

“I hope so,” he says. “I want to meet again, but we travel into the unknown. Some of what lies ahead is formed, but most of it still waits for us to give it shape. When I look into the horizon of your future or mine, I see a loosely sketched map. But the next time I look, the map may be different, or there might not even be one. There may be only clouds scattered about by the wind.”

The boy pauses as if sensing a shift in the current.

“However, I do feel our connection will reunite us,” he concludes.

He looks at me as if we share a vast history. Like we’ve taken leave and found each other many times before. My heart understands even as my mind draws a blank.

“Take care of yourself, Andrew,” he says before stepping back into the shadows. And then . . .

There’s a gap in my recall. An interlude of vagueness.

I have a muscle memory of passing through the front door and down the steps. My visual memory, though, is blurred as if I’d seen everything through frosted glass. I mostly recall the comforting feeling of him gently easing me from the origami into the foggy Seattle night.

I’m halfway down the block before I even realize I’ve started walking away.

A mournful feeling comes over me as if I’ve lost someone close. I turn to look back at the ranch house. It’s a dim shape in the fog, like a derelict ship drifting from view. I sense the boy has already moved on.

I walk swiftly for a couple of blocks, trying to distance myself from the mournful feeling. I pick up my pace to fight the chill of the night.

Something thumps against my thigh with each step, a weight in my front coat pocket. I reach in and feel the brown paper wrapping, the cylindrical shape, and remember it’s the boy’s gift. I let my fingers slide across the texture of the paper, hoping it might reconnect me to him somehow.

I’m too curious about what it contains to take another step. I stop under a streetlamp and carefully unravel the brown paper. I could rip it open, but the parcel feels like a sacred object, the one concrete thing the boy gave me. I want to be sure not to neglect any part of its mysterious content.

The wrapper might not be as plain as it looks. Perhaps there are messages or maps sketched on its inner surface.

I turn over every fold of paper but find no words or drawings.

What I do find is a single object—a massive, tightly coiled roll of hundred-dollar bills held together by a red rubber band.

Cash.

The sight jars me like a physical force. At first, instead of recognizing monetary value, I’m struck by the dangerous look of the thing. It’s like something you’d find in a gangster’s overcoat pocket, keeping company with a revolver and an eight-ball of coke. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps a magical origami artifact or something bearing the mark of the boy’s personality.

I shake off my startlement, undo the rubber band, and quickly shuffle through the weathered bills to see if he left a note or anything I might have missed. Nothing. Then I realize I’m standing under a streetlight holding an enormous wad of money.

Thankfully, the street is deserted. I shove the bills back in my pocket and nervously resume my swift pace.

After a block or two, my jarred thoughts settle into grateful appreciation. The boy seemed embarrassed when he warned me the gift wasn’t anything personal. Perhaps this was why he wrapped it in plain brown paper.

But of course, the gift is crucially valuable. He’s given me the most universal resource in the world. I’d burned through most of my small savings while searching for Alex, but now I have enough to buy food, fuel, and what little else I’ll need for a year or more.

Thank you. If you can still hear my thoughts, thank you.

I’m on a solitary mission, driven by anguish and urgency. But now I have a wad of cash and an ally who’s given me hope that something will change soon.

Hope gave me the energy to work through the night writing this.

Alex? Alex, can you hear my thoughts?

Look for my words. They’re in a bottle cast out into the turbulent sea of zeros and ones circling our world. You can find them if you want to.

Alex—

Whatever you’ve done. Whatever’s been done to you. However broken you feel, however lost, don’t give up. We’re still linked. I know you’re out there—I’m here—come out of the shadows and take my hand. Please—give me another chance to help . . .

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The past few days since my last entry have been traumatic. I’ll do my best to reconstruct what happened.

The morning after meeting the Origami Boy, I’m shivering when I awake, my eyes blinking open fearfully in the darkness.

Above me is a constellation of tiny lights glowing amber, red and green. They are beacons of familiarity that help ground me—the charging indicators of a few devices I plug in nightly to replenish with trickling electrons while I sleep.

I grope for my favorite blanket that had slid off the sleeping platform. I drape it around me, feeling its comforting texture on my Fireskin as I sit up in the predawn darkness of the Mothership.

It’s hard to tell if I’m shivering from the cold or the suffering I felt from Alex in a new dream encounter.

In the dream, Alex is walking down a dark street wearing the same green hoodie from the day we met, only now it hangs about him in tatters, its color barely perceptible in the monochrome shadows of the desolate city.

I feel him shivering as I draw closer. I want to catch up with him, but I can’t. When I try to increase my pace, a force restrains me, holding me at a distance. I become a silent witness to what happens next.

Alex’s face is hidden by his hood as I follow him into a moonlit park. We travel through a maze of gravel paths and dense hedge walls interspersed with willow trees and wooden footbridges surmounting streams.

 Alex knows his way through the labyrinth. I trail closely as he moves through many twists and turns before disappearing into an ellipse of shadow behind a hedge wall. The shadow is a narrow gap. I follow, passing through a tangle of branches and emerging into a grassy clearing.

We’re in a circular area, perhaps twenty-five feet across, empty but for a few park benches resting at the hedge-walled circumference. Alex stands still at the center of the circle.

Almost hidden in the grass before him is a metal disc the size of a manhole cover. I draw closer and see it’s a shallow dome of bronze with a locking wheel. It looks like the hatch of an ancient submarine.

Alex kneels before it and slowly rotates the wheel several revolutions counterclockwise. I want to stop him, I have to stop him, but I’m still only an invisible point of view, helpless to do anything but observe. I hear a locking mechanism release. Alex swings open the hatch and lowers himself inside, pulling it shut above him. The hatch closes with an ominous CLANG.

Heavy vibrations ripple through me, and I become embodied. I rush over and grab the wheel, straining to turn it, but to no avail. It’s frozen in place.

The hatch is embossed with Roman numerals like a clock face. Lying in the grass beside it is an object Alex has left for me. A watch.

It’s the same elegant, Omega diving watch he gave me the day we met. As I lift it from the grass and raise it into view, feelings and images come with it— the memory of him giving it to me . . .

We’re in the Mothership about to pull away from the Thai restaurant. I see Alex retrieving the watch from where he kept it hidden deep in his pack as he tells the story of how he found it in a park—a glint of metal catching his eye from within a muddy puddle. He washed it off in a nearby water fountain and immediately recognized its value. It was in perfect condition, but he never wore it. He stowed it in his pack and never showed a soul besides me. It was the most valuable thing he’d ever owned, but he wanted me to have it. I tried to refuse the gift, but Alex used his hands to close mine around it.

As I hold the watch in my dream, I hear Alex whispering in my mind,

“Coaxial.”

“CO-AXIAL” is a word printed on the dial, a type of watch movement. But it feels like something more . . .

I step onto the bronze submarine hatch, the Omega flat in my hand like a compass as I align its hour marks with the Roman Numerals below. The hatch feels cold, and I begin shivering. Beneath it, I feel certain, is the vacuum of outer space. Alex has entered its freezing void.

How long can he survive there? He’s slipping away from me.

“Coaxial,” Alex whispers urgently.

He’s trying to tell me something. Trying to imbue the word with deeper meaning. It’s something crucial . . . a bond, maybe?

The hatch begins moving beneath my feet, and I step back as it swings open. The pull of the vacuum collapses me to the ground and sucks the air from my lungs. Desperately, I clutch at the grass, but the void pulls me under . . .

I wake up. It’s dark, and I touch my phone to check the time—

3:01 AM

That’s when I see it, an email notification from Rebecca, Alex’s cousin.

The subject heading is “Sad News.”

Andrew, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this . . . Alex is dead. He hung himself last night back in Cascade. None of us even knew he came back. He didn’t leave a note. We’re all in shock.

I’m so sorry.

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It’s hard to revisit that moment. I was thrown into a state of madness—a chaotic turmoil of grief and denial. A survival mechanism kicked in and forestalled collapse by pulling me into a state of unreality where anything was still possible. Anything but . . .

Alex is in Cascade—I finally know where to find him. He’s in trouble.

That crazy talk from Rebecca—his family is going to drive him crazy!

I need to get to Cascade as fast as possible!

My mind fires thoughts, like tracer rounds into the darkness. Seconds later, with an adrenaline-fueled urgency, I turn the key in the ignition and drive off.

Tears stream down my face, my foot pressing down on the accelerator as I push the Sprinter to its limits. Keeping my momentum hurtling down the highway allows me to stay just ahead of the tidal wave of grief swelling behind me.

I try not to think about the terrible things Rebecca wrote in the email, but they’re too disturbing to shut out.

She’s morbidly confused. Can’t take her literally. That whole family’s a bunch of crazy drama queens. Alex came back, and they just want to keep me away!

I press hard on the gas coming out of a curve I took at the edge of what the Sprinter’s higher center of gravity will allow.

As long as I’m racing toward Alex, his fate is unsealed.

To keep other thoughts away, I loop the oracular words of the Origami Boy like a mantra.

Something about Alex’s situation is coming toward you. There hasn’t been anything for you to do about what’s going on, but soon there will be.

Now there is something for me to do—I just need to get there in time!

Cascade . . .

The one place I didn’t look. Why Cascade?

You said it was the last you’d ever return to. You must be in desperate trouble if you’re there.

Rebecca has gone bat-shit crazy! They’re all out of their minds! I’ve got to get you out of there!

Alex . . . please . . . just hold on . . .

As I drive, I try reaching out, all my urgency pouring into the telepathic channel that once flowed between us. But there’s no response.

The line feels—

I focus on the yellow and white lines unwinding before my headlights and repeat the Origami Boy’s words—soon there will be.

Cascade is in Northern Washington, near the Canadian border. I drive straight through the night and into a fiery dawn.

I need to get there before they drive him completely crazy, and he runs off somewhere else!

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When I finally get to Cascade, the town feels quiet and surreal. Everything is incongruously lit up by sunshine and a cloudless blue sky.

I have a destination in mind— Alex often mentioned finding refuge in what he called Sundial Park, which apparently had a giant bronze sundial at its center.

The bronze numerals on the hatch in the dream—it was like a sundial. So that must be where we’re destined to reconnect.

I search for it and set my GPS.

I close in on the park in a matter of minutes. My lack of sleep, and the layers of unreality I’ve wrapped around myself, merge into a dreamlike state that slows the fiery panic I felt racing to Cascade.

Now I’m here at Sundial Park, and I can see it’s the same place I dreamt about. I feel its mystery drawing me in, like currents pulling a ship into a deep inlet.

Slowly, I roll into a space at the edge of the parking lot and kill the engine. Time deepens in the silence.

I emerge from the Mothership, my trusty shoulder bag bandoliered across my chest as if I’m expecting a journey. I let the current lead me into the park.

The day is glowingly alive yet peaceful. The sky is a radiant blue, and golden rays of sunlight illuminate the leaves like shards of chlorophyll-stained glass. The park doesn’t host a single other person, only squirrels, and chirping songbirds.

Alex can’t possibly be dead on a day this beautiful.

Have there ever been people here? It seems too idyllic to be fully real.

I’m pulled deeper into the park until I reach a circular area paved with flagstones. I immediately recognize the space from my dream, but the submarine hatch is gone.

In the center of the circle is a magnificent bronze sundial with a patina of copper oxide. The dial’s dorsal fin projects an ominously precise triangle of shadow between Roman numerals.

VII      VIII

I take a seat on a wooden bench facing the shadow clock.

In my dream, Alex disappeared down a hatch embossed with Roman numerals. It had a metal wheel at its center that he turned to unlock. Maybe there’s a way to turn this sundial back twenty-four hours—Maybe things don’t seem real because they aren’t. Not fully. That’s why there are no other people here—What if this park is an origami creation, a real and unreal place, a place where the irreversible is reversible?

One email does not make someone dead! Least of all Alex.

The email could’ve been a prank. Maybe he sent it himself through Rebecca’s account to bring me here!

What the hell is an email anyway? It’s just an eruption of zeros and ones in the carnival mirror maze of the internet. I was on coffee-shop WIFI all day. Anyone could have dropped a keylogger into my laptop and seen what I’d been writing about. I wrote that I was in Seattle following a lead I got from Rebecca. All they had to do was pull her email address from my contacts and—

Wait a minute . . . Jason!

That motherfucker!

This is a classic Jason hack! How could I have missed that? That’s all he does, day after day. And he’s done it to me before. His little interventions, he calls them. He promised never to do it again. Goddamn it! How could I be stupid enough to believe the promise of a professional hacker not to spy on me again?

Connect the dots, Andrew. It just so happens that the one person from NYU you’ve stayed in touch with is a legendary hacker who’s always been weirdly into you. His keylogger would’ve telegraphed a stream of my overwrought feelings. He must’ve got annoyed—jealous over me obsessing about Alex. The last time we talked, he told me I was better off without him. “Just get on with your life,” he said. This is so like him. How did I not see that?

I look around and notice a security camera high atop a metal pole pointing down into the circle. I feel Jason watching me through it. I stare into the camera and raise my middle finger to show I’m onto him. I imagine his bulky form sitting in a swivel chair with six computer screens glowing around him, my journal open in a neglected corner of one. His mind is in Adderall-and-energy-drink fueled multi-tasking mode. Mostly, he’s focused on bigger and better things, but when he needs a break from manipulating code, he checks on the keylogger for a laugh. Setting up the email spoof intervention would’ve been a five-minute diversion.

I try raising my middle finger again to the security camera to let him know I know, but I’m having trouble raising my arm, because in my haste to get here, I neglected to put any lubricating lotion on my Fireskin.

My hand drops.

Suddenly, I don’t know.

My adrenaline is falling below the level I need to sustain the unreality, and the tidal wave looms up behind me.

My mind can no longer stay ahead of what my heart knows.

I remember the way I was trembling just before I found the email.

I must have known what was coming.

My mind asserts its repressed logic, lighting up the red dots on the map of Alex’s suicidal trajectory—a previous attempt using lethal means—the despairing belief his life was going nowhere— male borderlines have the highest suicide rate.

Alex, you actually did it, didn’t you? Alex . . .

The possibility of him being alive pops like a thinning soap bubble.

My disassociation collapses, and so does my body. I slump over on the bench and curl into a fetal position, closing my eyes as I sink into despair.

I’m too late. Why didn’t I search for you here? Why . . . Alex . . .

My heart tries to call out to him, but I’m stopped by a dream memory. Alex disappeared beneath a bronze hatch with Roman Numerals. When the hatch lifted, the vacuum swallowed me.

You’ve taken your skin out. You’ve gone into the forever void. Only there’s no YOU anymore, no Alex, in the void—just everlasting nonexistence.

You let the void swallow you, and I want it to swallow me too.

Despair draws across my mind like a heavy blackout curtain. I’m falling into the eclipse when a surge of energy stirs beside me.

 Someone else is on this bench.

Survival instinct kicks in—I’m in a vulnerable state in a public park. My eyes blink open to see if it’s a threat, and . . .

He’s there.

Alex.

Glowing with life, sitting beside me on the bench.

His eyes are wide with amazement, like a child seeing things for the first time. He radiates euphoric discovery, gazing at the park like it’s the dawn of a new reality. He’s so luminous but—

He’s not solid . . . He’s not . . .

I try to look directly at him, but his image fragments into a flickering superimposition of perspectives, like a Cubist painting.  Like something unreal. The implication is like a razor blade within a rainbow.

He’s really done it. He’s shorn himself of flesh. Yet, somehow, he’s here.

“Wow, I can still see everything!”

His words glow in my mind like musical notes.

“I’m still here!” he exclaims, but to no one in particular.

He’s vibrating with primal, existential excitement.

His luminous form becomes more definite, and I notice he’s wearing his favorite red-and-blue flannel shirt and jeans. He’s staring into the world with wonder, but his vision doesn’t seem to include me.

Just as I think that he turns to me with casual friendliness, as though we’ve been hanging out all day.

“So, what do you think about all this, Andrew? Pretty fucking weird huh? Can you believe I’m still here? I offed myself, but I’m still here! How is that even possible?”

I respond to his voice from where I hear it—within.

“Alex, what—”

“I don’t really know,” he cuts me off before I can finish my question. “Before I felt your presence, everything was just vague and shadowy, like a dream . . .”

His eyes dilate as he trails off uneasily, but he quickly snaps out of it by turning his attention toward me.

“Come on, walk with me. There are parts of this town I want to show you.”

Alex takes to his feet. Afraid of losing him, I get up and follow. There are too many questions to know where to start.

He leads me from the park and into a tree-lined neighborhood. As we walk, he continues to radiate existential excitement, delighting in the sensory impact of everything.

Wow, this is crazy—this is crazy, isn’t it? I’m still here!”

His voice erupts inside me with nervous, manic energy.

“I just can’t believe I did something so drastic,” he says. “This is so weird—You gotta admit, Andrew, this is pretty fucking weird, isn’t it? But you do realize you’re talking to a dead kid, right? You realize that, right, Andrew?”

“I realize I’m talking to you,” I reply cautiously.

“Oh, nice one, Andrew. What a clever man you are—so diplomatic, so politically correct.”

Alex’s taunting sarcasm is reassuringly familiar. But it feels like he’s barely holding on. The tension between us has a sharp, new edge, and he’s brandishing it at me. He needs to, otherwise he’ll cut himself with it.

“Alex, I—”

“I realize I’m talking to you,” he says, caricaturing my voice. “What a cautious diplomat you are. You do realize what that means, right, that you’re talking to me now?”

“I do.”

“That I did it— I actually fucking did it—”

I can feel him turning on himself, working into a full-on panic.

“Alex—”

“I just fucking did it. And there’s no undoing it. No going back. My skin’s out of the game. Permanently. But somehow, I’m—and now—you’re here—talking with a dead kid—”

“Alex,” I say gently into our thought space, “I realize—but you’re still you. We’re still connected. Stay with me.”

“Oh really? You sure about that?” he taunts, “Sure you want to ‘stay’ with a dead kid? Jesus—doesn’t sound very healthy Andrew. What’s going on, what are you attracted to dead people now?”

“Alex—I—whatever you are now—I just—I don’t want to lose you again,” I say with my whole being.

Alex grows quiet. He’s unable to hide his vulnerability in our telepathic atmosphere. Underneath his taunting sarcasm is desperate need.

I stop walking to speak from my depths.

“I still want to be your friend. I want us to stay connected. I need you.”

As he retreats within to consider, his image flickers and fades from view. A moment of panic grips me. I focus all my energy on where he’d been standing, and Alex reappears.

“Thanks, man,” he says, his voice soft and relenting. “I could really use a friend.”

His voice reaches into my soul. Without the need for vibrating airwaves and eardrums, our communication is so direct.

Maybe it will help to say something positive.

“You know, the way I hear you now, it’s so much more intimate than—” I stop myself from saying normal talking, because that might upset him. “More intimate than breath-talking.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Whatever,” Alex replies impatiently. “It doesn’t feel particularly new or magical to me. It’s familiar somehow . . . I just feel—sad and confused. But I guess this is a pretty good day for you, isn’t it? You got what you wanted, Andrew—you got me back in your life.”

“Alex . . . it’s true. I wanted you back. But not like this.”

“Oh yeah?” Alex scrutinizes my words for anything he can take offense at. Finding nothing, he continues. “OK, sure, I believe you. But look, why don’t you just say it? I did something irreversibly stupid. I cashed in my body and got absolutely nothing for it. I wanted to escape, and now I’m right back where I started. Only I don’t even have a legit existence anymore! I shouldn’t even fucking be here anymore! I’m just the ultimate loser. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”

No, Alex, it’s not what I’m thinking. It might be what you’re thinking, but—”

“So what then?” he asks challengingly.

“I’m . . . I don’t even know what I’m thinking. I’m just grateful we can still communicate, but— I don’t know what to think, Alex. I’m . . . I’m still in shock.”

The inarticulate sincerity of my reply derails his momentum, and Alex’s antagonism deflates.

“Yeah, well, I guess it’s a lot to process, isn’t it? I don’t remember being dead before, but this feels . . . so depressingly familiar. It’s like a recurrent nightmare I can’t wake up from.

“Everything was just so—vague and in-between, like I didn’t have enough energy left to fully exist or to fully not exist—and then your presence on that bench drew me. You were like a docking station glowing in the vagueness. Your presence gave me the energy to come back into focus, into being. I left to be on my own, and now it looks like I’m dependent on you again. I’m only here because you’re here. So what does that make me?”

“Alex—”

“Stop, Andrew, I don’t want to hear—”

“Alex—”

“Stop fucking trying to comfort me, Andrew! There is absolutely nothing for me to be comforted about! Maybe you’re the one that’s holding me here. I shouldn’t even exist anymore, but you’re just so obsessed that—”

Alex pauses as a young mother and her daughter walk past us. They glance at me with polite curiosity. It’s the sort of look we used to get when we traveled together, but their eyes settle only on me. I feel Alex beside me, trembling with anxiety.

“You’re the only one seeing me and hearing my thoughts. So, what the fuck am I now? Some kind of pathetic ghost? Your goddamn ghost sidekick? Now what? What am I supposed to—”

“Alex!” I shout, trying to break through his panic. “You’re still you. I don’t know what any of this means. But if you exist, you’re real. You’re real, I’m real, and we’ll figure this out. Together.”

“Great. I’m real. For now. So fucking what? This sucks, Andrew. I still feel all the pain, but even worse. Everything I tried to escape. Everything that led me to that rope. It’s all still burning inside me. But I’m already dead—I can’t kill myself twice. So what the hell am I supposed to do? And how do I know it’s not just you, your obsession with me, forcing me back into existence long enough to have this pointless conversation. Why can’t you just let me go?”

“Alex, stop blaming me for a second and listen. I didn’t intend any of this. At least not consciously. When you found me, I had just accepted that you were gone forever. I don’t know how you’re still here. If that’s my doing, it’s news to me. Maybe it’s . . . well, I’m starting to get some intuitions—but you usually mock what you call my Andrew theories.”

Alex is silent, considering.

“No, I want to hear them,” Alex replies. “There’s something weird going on here I don’t understand, and I realize freaking the fuck out isn’t helping.

“Look, man,” he continues, “I know I’ve mocked some of your ideas in the past, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being an asshole to you in general. I just can’t help it sometimes. I always know when I’m hurting you, even in subtle ways, and I always know that I’m the one being an asshole, not you. But I really want to hear what you have to say now. Really. I’m ready to listen.”

“OK,” I start carefully. “I think . . . I think it’s all tied to the metamorphosis.”

I feel a twinge of exasperation in Alex, but he doesn’t actively protest, so I continue.

“All the paranormal events we’re experiencing, the parallels we discovered the day we met—they’re all deeply significant. I still believe they’re related to an evolutionary metamorphosis we’re fated to contribute to. You can say I’m just trying to work everything into my Alex-Andrew religion if you want—there’s probably some truth to that. But those things did happen. The night you left, we merged in some kind of profound way, didn’t we? Our minds—”

“Yeah . . . we did,” Alex replies. I’m with you. Keep going.”

“That experience is related to what we’re experiencing right now, isn’t it?”

“How do you figure?” asks Alex.

“The link,” I reply. “The connection that opened between us that night. My intuition tells me the experiment—the metamorphosis—is still happening. Our ability to stay linked to each other, even now, is part of it. We don’t know where it’s all going, but we need to endure through the darkness . . . like Tommy. We need to let this strange experiment keep running. Neither of us is in control, but something obviously wants it to continue.”

Alex calms. Apparently, it’s what he needed to hear.  I’m in a body of some sort next to you. It feels normal, but staying visible takes energy, like I’m projecting my image, but—it’s mostly your desire to see me creating an opening between us. So we’re both expending energy to make it happen.”

Instead of responding with words, I turn toward Alex, emanating my desire to see him. He lights up vividly and gives me a knowing smile, as charismatic as ever.

“Guess you finally got me where you want me,” he says with a glint in his eyes.

 He’s taunting me, but his tone is more playful than before.

“Now I actually need you to look at me that way.”

I feel a flush of shame as I take his meaning. He’s caught me looking at him in a way I’m not supposed to. Alex picks up on my thought process.

“Don’t feel bad about it, Andrew. It’s like a warm flow of energy that helps me come back to my body . . . whatever this body is. Otherwise, I feel lost in a murky world of shadows. A world that lacks color and warmth . . . You’re like a glowing campfire.” He mimes holding his hands above a fire. “And when you look at me that way, it’s warm enough to make me feel like I have skin again.”

At first, Alex’s words fill me with gratitude and relief. My desire is finally welcomed. The attraction that strained our relationship is now a source of nourishment. But then my inner tormentor cuts in.

Oh great, Alex can accept your attraction now—Now that he no longer has a body!

Resentment flares up in me, but I quickly suppress it, fearful that it will leak into the telepathic atmosphere.

Too late.

“All about you again, huh?” Alex says bitterly. “At least now you don’t have to worry about me running off with some girl. Suicide is the ultimate self-castration.”

“Alex—”

The glow of his presence beside me dwindles as his dark feelings pull inward. I want to console him, but I don’t know what to say.

I try to reach him with my mind, but he walls himself off from me completely. The moment he does, the ground beneath our feet starts dissolving—a vicious riptide is sucking Alex downward into the void I felt in my dream—

“Andrew!”  he cries out.

“Alex!”

“Andrew—help me!—I’m—”

A surge of survival energy, like nothing I’ve felt before, bursts out of me toward Alex, wrapping around him desperately. It wrestles him from the riptide and pulls him into my core.

The interdimensional suction vanishes, and we’re together again, sharing my body. I’m trembling, my heart is pounding, and my breath comes in gasps.

A terrible realization forms in our shared thought space—emotions are now existentially consequential.

Our emotional bond drew Alex back to the realm of the living. But it works in reverse as well. If the link between us breaks, the riptide will pull him down into—

We see a vision of Alex falling an impossible distance to the dark city below. It’s a realm that has a claim on him. A claim it exerts with an insidious gravitational pull. If the link between us breaks, he’ll disappear into its shadows forever.

Alex shudders with fear.

For now, at least, we’re together, and he’s safe. Yet, as we cling to each other, another fearful thought erupts into our mutuality.

How long can we hold on this way?

A tremor runs through my body.

I could lose Alex forever.

The orphaned, burn victim inside me takes over, and the fear of abandonment begins shutting me down. I curl into myself and regress. Suddenly I’m fifteen again, waking in the hospital and realizing my parents are dead, and I will always be a fireskinned horror.

I lose everyone I love.

I’m sinking into despair when I feel a flood of compassion buoying me up. It’s Alex, pulling me back to him. His energy is tender and vulnerable—the love of another soul who needs me as desperately as I need him.

What’s always been beneath the tense surface of our relationship is coursing through us. It’s—a love that can’t bear for either of us to be helpless and alone. A love that’s stronger than attraction, desire, or romance. It’s the love between brothers, the love of two soldiers shivering together in a foxhole, the love of . . . it doesn’t matter—it’s every form of love. The roles, the genders don’t matter.

It’s a love more primal than the bodies costuming our souls. It’s always been there. It will always be there. No matter what separation we have to endure, no matter what skins we lose, no matter what dimensions lie between us . . . we’ll always be part of each other.

Our feelings echo into the vastness of time as we recover in our coaxial space.

It’s a space so complete I can’t will myself to leave. But Alex knows we can’t stay in this timeless zone, so he gently pulls us back to the surface of the world and its flow of events. Back to where the body we share stands on the sidewalk, swaying slightly, unobserved on a quiet street.

“C’mon,” he says, in a tone of mischievous adventure. “Let’s get outta here. There’s a few things I want to show you.”

He leads us through a complex route of odd landmarks—a street corner where he once saw a junkie shooting up between his toes, a rusted-out vehicle where his childhood crew used to blow up M-80s, Chase’s house.

At one point, Alex leads me through a gap in a chain-link fence outside an abandoned construction site. We’re in woods, thick with vegetation. As we walk, I feel sparks of pain on the backs of my hands which I assume are biting insects. He looks at me and smiles.

“Stinging nettles,” he says, “they help keep people away. They won’t bother you if you keep your skin from brushing against the leaves.”

I follow him to a flat-topped boulder beside a scraggly creek.

“My secret sanctuary,” says Alex as he climbs onto the boulder. “I used to come here to escape the drunken chaos at my house. This is where I learned how to draw. Look, I left that!” he exclaims, pointing toward the ground.

It takes me a few seconds to see what he’s pointing at. It’s the decaying stub of a yellow pencil. He seems oddly pleased by this meager evidence of his former existence, a small mark he’s left on the world.

As the tour continues, I begin to notice something strange. It’s like Alex is threading a needle through time and space to line things up. Navigating us toward some small events he considers significant.

Alex is silent as he leads me into the center of a weedy vacant lot. Then he tells me to look up just in time to see a hawk fly by with a field mouse in its talons.

“Why did you want me to see that?” I ask.

“What do I have in common with the mouse?” he asks in return.

“Oh,” I reply.

“You keep forgetting that you’re talking to a dead kid,” says Alex, giving me a serious look. “This isn’t going to last, Andrew. You should be prepared for that.”

The finality of his words fills me with sadness and loss as we approach an abandoned gas station. I sense it’s where the whole route was aiming all along. I follow him to the back of its concrete island, which adjoins trash-filled woods.

“This is where I smoked deemsters for the first time,” says Alex. “It’s where I first started questioning the nature of reality.”

It must be a new form of telepathy, because somehow, I see this moment from Alex’s past as if it’s happening right now.

Alex sits on the cement with his back to the gas station. He’s no older than fifteen. One hand holds a glass pipe, and the other a white plastic lighter. He sparks it up and inhales, trying to hold in the smoke.

He stares into the woods, and his eyes dilate with astonishment as the tree branches become fractal neon tentacles, weaving into each other.

Our perspectives separate, and we’re sitting next to each other, looking out into the technicolor forest. The intensity of the light and motion almost stops my breath. It’s not just a memory anymore—it’s happening now.

What is this, Alex?’

“You’re the man with a theory for everything,” he responds. “What do you think it is?”

I take a breath and try to get my mind to focus.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “Some sort of visual telepathy, I guess. I shared your memory . . . and now it’s like an augmented-reality backdrop. But it’s so . . .”

“Weird?” Alex suggests.

I nod.

“I know, right?” says Alex grinning. “Flashbacks are a trip. And yeah, that’s as good a theory as any.”

We gaze out at the spectacle for a few more seconds. Then Alex gets to his feet and stands before me. Behind him, the neon forest darkens and becomes deeper. Its branches are no longer fractalizing. It feels still and expectant.

I stay seated, my heart pounding in my chest as I look up at him.

“I’m sorry I made you suffer so much, Andrew,” he says, looking down at me compassionately. “I should have thought more about how my actions would affect you.”

“Alex—

“Just listen, please . . .” he says, “A few others are out there grieving for me. I’m the source of their suffering too. I should go to them.”

“Alex, I know you’re trying to do the right thing, but if things get dark—I won’t be there to help pull you out of that downward spiral. It’s going to be really difficult, and I’m afraid—”

“I know,” he says gently.

The thought of him getting lost in the night, of not returning, seizes my heart.

“I don’t want to lose you again. Please—promise to come back.”

“I will, Andrew . . . I will come back.”

I can feel the moment closing down around me.

“Alex,” I say with all my being, “No matter what happens, you have a place with me. You can experience the whole rest of my life if you want. We can share everything.”

As the words pour out of me, my pledge takes on a formal quality, like a sacred oath.

“Coaxial.”

The word appears in our mutual thought space, but it’s unclear who spoke it.

Alex’s eyes are wide and full of compassion. He puts his hand to his heart and bows his head before walking off into the darkening forest.

As I lose sight of him, the seeming depth of the forest morphs back to the trash-filled woods.

I stand up, feeling desolation and loss but also grateful for our brief reunion. Alex has gone where I can’t follow, but he still exists.

I walk back to the Mothership, where I spend the evening writing this journal entry.

Gusts of wind howl outside as I write, some strong enough to cause the Mothership to sway on its suspension.

I’m still by Sundial Park. I usually relocate at night to reduce the risk of getting caught camping in my vehicle. But I don’t want to move from here. I want to be where Alex first reappeared to me. He could probably find me anywhere, but I feel closer to the possibility of his return here.

The sound of the wind carries me off to sleep.

In the depth of the night, about three AM, I’m awakened by an urgent tugging sensation. It feels more physical than emotional. A lifeline connects my body to Alex, and he’s struggling to come back.

I sit up in bed and use my will to pull him toward me. Suddenly I sense movement near the edge of the sleeping platform. Alex is there, in the dark.

He doesn’t have the energy to project thoughts or images, but I feel his diminished form and sense what’s happened. What he found in the night has weakened him. His energy is almost gone, and his awareness has regressed with it.

What little I sense of his thoughts is incoherent. Still, I see flickering images of grieving family and friends surrounding him like a feverish haze. He crawls over to me, gravitating to the glow of my life energy, and curls up in a fetal position. Eventually, I fall back asleep.

21 01101100 01100001 01101110 01100100 01110011 00101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01110010 01101111 01110101 01100111 01101000 00100000 01100100 01100001 01110010 01101011 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110011 01101101 01101111 01101011 01111001 00100000 01110111 01100001 01110011 01110100 01100101 01101100 01100001 01101110 01100100 01110011 00101110 00001010 01011001 01101111 01110101 00101110 00001010 01011001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01110111 01101000 01101111 00100000 01110011 01100101 01100101 01101011 01110011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01110010 01101111 01110101 01100111 01101000 00001010 00001010

When I awake, he’s gone, and I feel no trace of his presence. I feel numb, like I was hooked up to a Novocain IV all night. I make myself some tea and sit by a window in the back of the camper. The parted curtains reveal an empty park and an overcast sky.

While Alex was with me, the emotional intensity of our connection was overwhelming. But now that he’s gone, fear and doubt expand to fill the vacuum.

Was that really Alex? What if it was all self-generated, my own grieving psyche creating a few paranormal effects?

I open the lid of my laptop out of habit. When the screen lights up, I feel a tingling sensation in the air around my head.

“Alex?”

No response. I take a deep breath and focus.

“Alex?”

“Yeah, I can still hear you,” he replies.

His voice is distinct but far away. The contact awakens my heart from its numb stupor. The link between us is still alive, but it’s only a shadow of what it was yesterday. My desire amplifies a faint signal traveling across dimensions.

“Yeah, something like that,” Alex whispers in my mind. His voice is tired, and he’s slightly exasperated with my dramatic way of thinking—a signal traveling across dimensions. His energy is greatly diminished, and it feels like he’s been in this state for a while, far longer than the few hours I’d slept.

“Time isn’t the same here. Not the same at all,” he says, picking up on my thoughts.

“Where are you? I want to see you.”

“I don’t have enough energy for that anymore,” says Alex gloomily.

I refuse to accept this. I need to see him. I close my eyes and strain to visualize his form, but there’s a boundary between us.  Finally, my focused desire breaks through, and Alex’s silhouette appears in a background of murky darkness. As I stare, his image clarifies like a slowly forming Polaroid.

He’s standing in a dark space, looking pale and gaunt. The radiant glow from yesterday is gone. His clothes are worn, almost tattered, and he exudes shame.

The vision fades.

Did I lose him again?

“Alex!” I call out in a panic.

“I’m still here, Andrew.”

“I can’t see you anymore. Can you see me?”

“Yeah, that part is easy, but not the other way.”

“Why?”  

“It’s kinda like the observation mirrors they have in interrogation rooms,” he replies. “It takes no energy to look through it from where I am. But for you to look through the reflective side of the mirror takes far more energy . . . And I’d rather you didn’t see me the way I am now anyways.”

“Where are you?” I ask.

“The place where fools who waste their lives go.”

I sense the dark city of my dreams.

“Can you come here?”

“No,” he says with frustration, “I told you. I don’t have enough energy anymore.”

“Well, use mine,” I say desperately. “Please—can you just use mine?”

“No. Just listen to me, Andrew . . . you’re already burning too much energy just trying to keep our minds connected.”

“But I’m also getting energy from being linked. There’s a flow—I can feel it!” I exclaim, and I mean what I say, but I can sense his doubt.

“If you say so. Look,” Alex says, his voice subdued and resigned. “I wish it could be like before—believe me. I like being able to talk to you, but the world of the living is drifting further away. I don’t have enough energy anymore. And even if I could cross over, I’d be drawn back . . . It’s gravitational, this place. You felt it pulling on me when we were together. This is where I belong. I appreciate the company, but I don’t think this is healthy for you, and we won’t be able to keep it up. We just need to let it go.”

Tears roll down my face as I sense his loneliness and desolation. A gentle glow of compassion radiates weakly from the dark background of his feelings. He wants to offer what little consolation he can.

“Don’t worry about me, Andrew. I’m safe now, if you wanna call it that. I know how to survive in this place. Just get on with your life. I can take care of myself.”

“What’s happened, Alex?”

“What needed to happen. What always happens . . . The day we spent together was like a beautiful dream. But a dream can only last so long. I always fuck up my life and end up back here.

“Being in your world made me really tired. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I was here, the world where I belong. This city of everlasting night. Part of me has always been here . . .”

“You seem so far away,” I say, “and yet you feel even deeper in my mind than yesterday.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think the two-way part will last. And I don’t think it should. It won’t be healthy for you to keep this up.

“What you offered—the chance to share your life—created a link to your awareness. I can look in on you. I’m grateful, but don’t expect much from me in return. Watching you is easy—it’s passive, but I don’t have the energy to light up for you on the other side of the mirror. Our timelines have drifted apart and will continue to drift further. There’s nothing we can do about it. . . I’m sorry.”

We fall silent. Loneliness hangs like a heavy curtain between us.

It feels like Alex has been living in this desolate place for a long time. I envision him in his darkened room, gazing through our two-way mirror. But it’s unclear whether it’s the past, present, or future. Time is a muddle.

“Yeah, that’s pretty close,” says Alex. “It’s good to know you have some inkling of what I’m going through.”

“But I know so little,” I say, trying to contain my desperation. “I want to understand what you’re experiencing in—”

“No, Andrew,” Alex cuts in. “You shouldn’t know too much about this place. It wouldn’t be good for you.”

“I don’t care. I want to know anyway,” I push back. “Alex—if we keep drifting apart, this could be the last time we speak. And I need to know. I need to. For my own sake. I don’t care if it’s good for me or not—Please, Alex, I need to know—”

“Really? You sure about that, Andrew?”

“I’m sure.”

“You don’t realize what you’re asking for. I can show you, but there’s some sick shit going on here that’s hard to unsee. This place is for those who deserve to be here, fuck-ups like me who chose to abandon life.”

“I still want—I need to know what you’re going through.”

A long silence follows, and I wonder if I’ve pushed too hard.

“OK,” he says finally. “You might be right about it being our last chance. The longer I stay here, the further apart we’ll get.”

A dim, almost imperceptible glow appears in the formless darkness of our thought space. The glow develops into a silhouette of Alex and then a complete image of him standing alone in a dark room. I can make out the scuffed floorboards beneath his feet, and a small desk and narrow bed behind him.

“I thought taking my skin out of the game would take away my suffering,” says Alex. “But I was wrong. Unimaginably wrong. Now I’m alone with my pain in this fallen place—a city of lost souls. They’re out there, stalking around in their various states of hunger and torment.

“I’m safe from them here. This is a protected space. So, don’t worry about me, Andrew. It’s not much of an existence, but I’m exactly where I deserve to be.”

The dingy apartment slowly becomes more visible. An old gray wool blanket covers the narrow bed. Beside it is a worn wooden desk and chair. Alex stands before the only light source, a window conducting a sliver of moonlight. It’s just enough to illuminate his expression as he peers through the louvers of the Venetian blinds.

“This place isn’t much, but it’s mine, and no one can get to me here. But outside—” Alex gestures toward the window, “—is a diseased world. A horribly dangerous place for a young suicide.

“When you destroy a body full of life, remnants of that energy follow you here. If you’re young and newly dead, you light up in this night world like a sparkler. Hungry ghosts sense the fresh energy and seep out of the darkness to feed on you.

I woke up from our day together and found myself out on the streets—unprepared, raw, and radiating life energy.”

Alex stares into my eyes, summoning me to stare back into his. I do and feel myself disappearing as I enter his memory.

I’m standing in a desolate street of burnt-out buildings. It looks like a city that was firebombed a century ago and abandoned.

I’m seeing through his eyes.

“Alex,” I say in wonder, “I’m—”

“I know,” he says matter-of-factly.

“But . . .”  I struggle to organize my thoughts. “If you have the energy to show me your memory like this, why can’t you come back to my world?”

“This barely takes any energy at all,” Alex explains wearily. “My memory already exists. You’re the one expending energy to look into it.”

I don’t feel any loss of energy, and I have many questions, but I sense Alex’s impatience. What appears magical to me seems grim and commonplace to him, so I still my thoughts and go with the experience.

“It’s always the dead of night here,” he explains. “Dimly illuminated by an invisible moon. And time . . . time has no current, no relevance. Everything just is. Yeah, I know that doesn’t make sense because events still happen. But this place doesn’t care about making sense. It just is. I still have some life energy. I still experience time and events, like talking to you right now. But there’s no day cycle, no stream of change toward anything, just everlasting night—lost souls existing in the shadow of time.”

I see through his eyes as he surveys the burnt-out desolation and perceives the time vacuum.

“It all looks so empty, doesn’t it? It’s not, though. It’s an emptiness riddled with parasites. Ravenously hollow ones. They gnaw on their emptiness deep in the shadows. They are like bedbugs that can hibernate for months beneath floorboards but revive when they sense an energy-filled body.

“See them?”

Alex pulls me deeper into his memory, yet it’s as if I am him experiencing for the first time. His senses fully encompass my awareness. My perspective is so merged with his I’m not even sure what pronoun to use. Him? We? I?

Gradually his sensorium overwhelms my own, and Andrew is extinguished in the maze of memory. I become Alex, alone, frightened, newly arrived in this city of darkness.

I look around and detect motion but can’t see anything. And then, from my peripheral vision, I glimpse a distortion in the air. Something is emanating from the shadows and flowing toward me. It’s nearly invisible, like glare filtering through polarized sunglasses— rivulets of almost nothingness, seeping from cracks and crevices.

They draw closer, swirling around me, and begin siphoning my energy. I feel a black void like a pin prick form within me, a core of desolation that expands the more they feed. What their pale tendrils absorb animates them, and they loom up, shapeshifting into hideous forms.

One of them takes the form of a baby with rotted-out eyes. I can’t look away from it, and the surge of energy it receives causes new deformities to blossom forth. It bristles with vibrating rattles, each a tiny baby with rotted-out eyes. Waves of rattling pass through it, creating hypnotic rhythms.

I stand there, paralyzed, realizing their manifestations are hooks of fear meant to catch hold of my attention. The energy of my gaze is a feeding frenzy for whichever of them can hold it.

 I try shutting my eyes to deprive them of energy, but I can’t keep them closed for long. It’s hard to look away from shapeshifting demons. The terror compels me to watch.

A giant crab-like manifestation scuttles into view, its long, distended pincers slick in the moonlight. It picks its way around me in a long slow arc. The others mimic it until I’m surrounded by crabs with beady eyes on stalks. They click and clack their claws in a new hypnotic rhythm, working in unison to pry a twisted vision into my mind.

I resist the intrusion, but it breaks through anyway. I see the mangled corpse of a seagull lying at the edge of an ocean tide. Crabs emerge from the foam and meticulously devour the flesh of the bird.

They work like efficient surgeons until all that remains are delicate, bleached bones glistening with seawater. The skeleton looks peaceful, drifting at the tide’s edge, purified of organic decay, washed by the pulsing foam of seawater.

The sound of the lapping water gently expands in my mind, relaxing my vigilance, and lulling me into a dark and paralyzing undertow. The seduction of their entrancement is pulling me under. They watch me with their beady, lifeless eyes, waiting for me to succumb. I can feel my soul, my very essence, what makes me me, draining away. It’s—

A shockwave of energy hits the feeding circle.

The swarm of parasites is thrown back like a mass of crabs tossed from a bucket. They spill away from me in a frenzy of clicking and clacking.

A man in a dark, hooded cloak stands at the center of their retreating perimeter. He holds up a curved mirror and sweeps it around the circle, forcing the creatures to behold their reflections. The effect is like burning a swarm of insects with a magnifying glass. They shrivel in agony and twist away as tendrils of smoke. Others see the mirror coming and shrink back into the darkness before it can reach them.

Silence overtakes us as the street regains an eerie calm. The man turns to face me. He has an ominous look—large, dark eyes glimmering from a face hidden within the shadows of his hood. He radiates power.

“Come with me,” he says, his voice grave with authority. “We don’t have much time. This is no place for a youngling. You are drawing The Ravenous from all over the city.”

I rise and follow him warily, my vitality returning with each breath. We walk several blocks in silence and eventually reach a long alleyway that cuts a tight path between the shadowy buildings.

Dark windows gape as we pass. Behind each curtain and blind, an anemic hunger stirs in the void.

The alleyway terminates at an old iron gate, which the man opens with a key. He quickly locks it behind us as we step into a courtyard. Barren trees stand like sentries around the walls of the enclosure. An ancient-looking statue of a woman in a gown overlooks the space. It feels protected somehow, a place the hungry ghosts can’t enter.

The man turns around and throws back his hood, revealing long, glossy black hair and dark, intelligent eyes. His pale skin has a subtle luminosity in the shadowy courtyard. He, too, looks almost like a statue, with chiseled, dramatic features. He stands silent and aware, surrounded by skeletal tree branches and the silhouettes of buildings faintly illuminated by the invisible moon.

Although he bears no physical sign of age, there’s a sense of long persistence in time about him. With the near glow of his skin and his eyes’ timeless depth, he looks like a romantic image of a vampire.

“Yes,” the man says with dignified sincerity, “it would not be unjust to think of me as a vampire because I am consuming some of your energy even as we speak.”

A surge of fear rises in me. I instinctively take more space from him in the courtyard.

“Don’t be alarmed,” the man says. “It is true I feed, but I do not devour. And I can provide many valuable returns for what I take, if you’re willing to trust me.”

“Trust you? Why should I trust you? You just admitted you’re a vampire.”

“I said it would not be unjust to think of me as one, but that does not mean I’m a predator. Members of the Guild I represent are more like guardians. Like all creatures, we feed, but we are more like goat herders who take milk from their flock but do not slay them. A shepherd protects his flock from predators and other dangers, while the flock brings the shepherd livelihood. They share a sacred bond.”

The man’s voice has a seductive gentleness.

“Yeah, but I’m not a goat,” I say defiantly.

“Fair enough,” he says with a slight smile. “I’ve created a false impression. I often forget to adjust my words for people from different times. My metaphor was ill-chosen for one from your age of commerce and dazzling machines. Shepherding must seem as remote as a fable . . .”

He pauses, staring deeply into my eyes. A strange sensation—I feel him gently parting a curtain in my memory to get a general view of what it contains.

“This fallen world we share has elements of what you would call an economy. The most precious substance here is a type of energy, a living astral energy infused in new arrivals. We call this precious energy Laepur. And you, a self-slayer who so recently had a young, vital body, are exceptionally rich in the highest quality of Laepur. Every part of you exudes its glow. As you have just experienced, it’s perilous to be the bearer of Laepur unless you can protect it. Just as The Guild has cloaked and warded this courtyard, making it a protected space, you can learn to guard your energy. Without such protection, you will be like a child carrying a basket of gold coins into a crowd of thieves and cutthroats.”

“What makes Laepur so valuable?” I ask.

“It has useful value only to The Guild,” the man responds, “but it’s an object of ferocious desire to many others. This world is filled with creatures who can sense the Laepur glowing in you, and their insatiable hunger draws them from the shadows. The Ravenous, as we call them, seek to devour this substance wherever they can find it. And whatever they devour is wasted. To these hollow creatures, Laepur is nothing but a morbid addiction. They feed but are never full.”

“What exactly are these . . . Ravenous?” I ask.

“They were once people, but their souls have hollowed out. They have descended into nearly mechanical parasites that swarm when they detect Laepur nearby. For a youngling like you, who’s so rich in this substance, they are a devouring pestilence. But I can teach you how to become invisible to them.

“The Guild has learned to harness the power of Laepur and make valuable use of even minute quantities. We use it for—greater purposes.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Such secrets are revealed only to those initiated into The Guild,” the man replies,” All I can tell you is that the relationship between this world and the world above is changing. Guild members seek to atone for our former lives by doing what we can to serve others and expand the light of awareness across both worlds. We also seek to help the penitent survive threats and evolve into greater states of self-awareness.”

The Guildsman pauses to study me.

“There are basic aspects of Laepur you must understand. For one, you will never again possess as much as you do now. At the moment, it’s escaping from you like steam rising from a cup of tea. There are ways to slow the loss, but in time, every remnant of your original Laepur will evaporate into the night. As it does, you will likely find yourself driven to seek it from younglings—new arrivals to the dark city.

“Your first taste will make you an addict. And once you begin taking without consent, you will spiral downward. Eventually, you’ll become a lone Ravenous and then a member of a Swarm.

“However, should you choose to initiate with The Guild, we can train you to honorably infuse yourself with Laepur from those who bear it.”

The thought of feeding on others fills me with revulsion.

“Yes, I felt the same way at first,” the Guildsman’s eyes meet mine with a kind of cold empathy. “But did you not enter the world above feeding upon the fluids of your mother’s life in her womb? Once born, your appetite grew, and you suckled milk from her breast. When weaned, your appetite intensified until you needed to devour vast quantities of plants and animals, or derivatives of their life substance.

“Above or below, to thrive, we feed upon others. The difference is between those who feed with mindless greed, and those who take with honor. Members of The Guild only draw nourishment from those we serve.”

“Nothing about that sounds honorable,” I counter. “You say you’ve been feeding on my energy, but I didn’t consent. That’s not honorable—it’s theft.”

“No, it is not theft,” the man replies, “For I merely feed on your radiant Laepur as it evaporates into the night. I could take more, but would never dare to, unless you were to offer it in exchange for what I provide. If I were to succumb to taking without consent, I would become one of The Ravenous.

“Nevertheless, you only have the power of consent because of my forbearance. As you are now, many, including me, could devour you against your will. To give you the power of consent, I will teach you how to resist being fed upon. Then you may surrender to me what you deem fair, if anything. We need to establish this from the start. Do you consent to learn?”

The Guildsman studies me with timeless patience. He’s measured out my options in such a way that the scale can only tip in one direction, and he knows it.

I don’t want to become an apprentice vampire or whatever his Guild would make of me, but the alternative—an image of the bristling rattles surrounding the baby with rotted eyes shudders through my mind.

“Yes,” I say quickly, shaking the image away. “Yes, I want to learn. Teach me.”

“We will begin with what you want to prevent. I will briefly feed on you so you can recognize the sensation. Then I will teach you how to block it.”

The Guildsman closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. As he inhales, a rivulet of vitality flows from my core toward him. I feel a thrill running through me as he feeds. It’s weirdly pleasurable, even sexual, and the current causes him to glow brighter.

He takes a second breath and suddenly, the rivulet becomes the gush of a major artery. He halts the feeding abruptly, opening his eyes in astonishment.

“You are linked!’ he exclaims, studying me with newfound fascination. “You have a bond with someone in the living world!

“Ahh! This is a precious thing,” he continues. “Cherish this bond, and keep it hidden, for a link of this vitality is soon broken. The living are driven by powerful currents of time and sensation. We may catch their attention when they dream or slow the flow of time with contemplation, but we cannot stay in phase with them for long. We are suited to be amongst them as unseen observers. We should never intrude upon their attention unless we are trying to serve them. However, while this link persists, it will slow the decay of your Laepur.

“It is possible, if you have the talent for it, to project your awareness, even an image of yourself, to the world of the living. But that takes a lot of energy. Unless you are willing to feed off the living, it’s quite difficult to maintain an active presence in their world of time and substance.

“Looking in on their lives does not take energy—however, it can fill you with regret if your actions have been a source of suffering for those you’ve left behind. Sometimes that is a necessary form of penitence.”

The Guildsman stops and looks at me sympathetically.

“I’ve said enough. You need solitude. Arriving in this realm is a shock on every level of one’s being. You need time alone to recover and contemplate your last incarnation. This ought to occur before anything else. Until you have done that work, leave The Guild from your mind.

“I will find a protected space for you. But before we leave this courtyard, you need to learn how to cloak and contain your radiance. Watch closely.”

The Guildsman focuses intensely and begins moving like a Tai Chi master, rhythmically passing his hands over his body, palms down. As they move, his hands emanate a faint light leaving tracers in the air. These phosphorescent effects diminish as his energy field retracts until he vanishes in the dim courtyard’s shadows.

I scan the darkness where he last stood, but there is nothing but hollow moonlight. Every trace of him is gone. Then, like flicking a switch, the Guildsman reappears in an instant.

With his guidance, I practice the ritual. I relax my body and deepen my breath, passing my hands, palms down, near the surface of my skin. I try to imagine myself invisible. But nothing happens.

“You are thinking from the outside,” the Guildsman says. “Turn your attention inward. Concentrate from there. Pull inward from your core.”

I shake myself loose and try again, slowing myself and going inward. I feel the Guildsman’s eyes on me, scrutinizing my every move.

“Do not feel me,” he commands. “Do not give me even an atom of your attention. Being invisible means giving nothing to those who might see you.”

I try to mute the world around me and keep my hands moving, corralling my energy inward, but I feel hopeless. Ridiculous. Then, just before the panic of self-doubt takes over, I start to sense it— Laepur, concentrating within.

It’s a warmth within me—a reservoir of energy, and it’s contained as if my body were a vacuum-insulated thermos.

The Guildsman circles around me like a wolf sniffing out its prey.

“Well done. You are energetically invisible as far as I can discern. You no longer emit or reflect even a mote of light.”

It seems impossible. I sense no change to my exterior, and he’s looking straight at me.

The Guildsman picks up on my doubt. He produces the curved mirror from his cloak and holds it up at eye level. All I see is an empty courtyard reflecting back.

“Look closer,” he says knowingly.

I stare deeper into the mirror and see a vague silhouette of distortion where my body should be. I’m gone, but I’m still here. When I raise a hand to touch my face, the vague, distorted outline of my arm in motion cuts through the reflection of the courtyard, like an invisible hand making ripples on the surface of a lake. When I drop my arm back to my side and stand perfectly still, the distortion clears, and any sign of me vanishes.

“You will likely go undetected if you need to travel the city,” the Guildsman says, pocketing his mirror again. “Only someone trained by The Guild could detect your presence while you stand still. But be cautious when you move. Keep to shadowed areas when possible. Traverse alleys and along the darker sides of buildings. Avoid open spaces if you can.

“Now, before we leave here, we must perform a final test of your new shadow armor. Stand still and seek to contain your energy while I try to feed on it.”

I still myself as the Guildsman takes in a slow deep breath.

At first, it’s subtle, like a drop in the surrounding air pressure, but then I feel his suction pulling on my shadow skin. The suction becomes like octopus tentacles wrapping around prey. I hold my ground and retreat within my own Laepur. As I do, I feel the suctioning tendrils drop away like dead leeches.

His attempt to feed is a waste of his energy, not mine. I’m impervious, like an astronaut in a spacesuit with a self-contained atmosphere.

“Good,” the Guildsman says. ”I want you to uncloak and then recloak.”

I feel the polarized contrast of sensations as I do, the energy of visibility and the containment of being cloaked.

“This seems to already be second nature for you,” says the Guildsman, observing me closely. “Past training, perhaps?” His eyes study mine.

“Stay cloaked and follow a pace or two behind. We will search the city for a place of refuge.”

The Guildsman leads me through a twisted labyrinth of alleys until we arrive at an apartment building in somewhat better condition than most of the others. He approaches it like a wary alley cat sniffing for danger. When we reach an outer wall, he lightly touches it with his fingertips, sensing what’s within. We circle the building as he examines it in this way, probing for hidden dangers.

“Yes, this one,” the Guildsman says after checking the perimeter. We’re standing in the back of the building in a cement yard. “This one is quite suitable. It was warded long ago by a member of the Guild, and it’s been uninhabited for quite a while.”

I follow him back to the front entrance, where he takes hold of the doorknob and turns it cautiously.

We step into a small lobby. It’s dark and gloomy inside but not disordered. It has a distinct, old-apartment-building smell, something like dusty steam radiators, old wool coats, and damp umbrellas.

“An upper-floor apartment is usually safest, but you should rely on intuition. Choose your refuge.”

I still myself and listen with my whole being, until an impulse pulls me to the central stairwell. The black-and-white checkered steps are well-worn, and the smoothness of the banister under my hand has a strange familiarity. I’m drawn all the way to the top floor, pulled by a kind of muscle memory to a door with “86” affixed to it in brass numerals.

I turn the knob to step inside, and the Guildsman follows. The dingy interior resonates uneasily in my mind. Intimate memories of every crevice and scuffed floorboard lurk behind a thin curtain of forgetfulness.

“I’ve been here before,” I say.

“I see,” replies the Guildsman. “It explains why this place seemed suitable. And the way you learned cloaking—it’s obvious you’re relearning techniques you already know. Many self-slayers are caught in a pattern of returning to this world by their own hand. Often at a young age. Some join The Guild to free themselves from that cycle. Perhaps you have been approached by us before. Something to consider during your time of recollection.”

I nod, my attention distracted by the sense that every shadow in the room holds hidden content.

The room is dark, the few simple furnishings worn, but everything is neatly ordered like it was awaiting my arrival. There’s a window covered with dusty Venetian blinds.

Beside it stands a small bookcase with three shelves of shabby books. Every frayed binding and stained cover seems weirdly familiar.

The Guildsman reaches toward the bookcase and then withdraws his hand as if not daring to touch sacred objects.

“It’s propitious such rare objects were left for you. You’ve returned to a fallen world, yet you must be guided here by some fate,” he says as he parts the blinds to gaze thoughtfully at the city. “We’re high enough in this warded building for you to safely look out from this window.”

I peer through the gap in the blinds. The opening provides a vantage of block after block of apartment buildings, tar-covered rooftops, and streets of elongated shadows. An oppressive stillness seems to weigh everything down.

Surrounding the apartment are sooty, brick buildings. None of them appear to be taller than eight stories or so. They resemble the bleak tenements found in any industrial city of the early twentieth century, with narrow windows and iron fire-escapes. As I stare at them, I feel a leaden gravity pressing on my chest.

“It’s better to turn your attention within,” the Guildsman says.

I snap the blinds shut and turn back to him.

“I will leave you to contemplate in solitude,” he says. “If you decide to join The Guild, just think of us, and one of our number will find you.”

I’m still unsure about his guild, but he feels like the only chance of a friend in this place.

“Hey man . . .” I say awkwardly. “I really appreciate your help.”

“It is my honor to be of service,” he replies as he bows and heads for the door.

“Wait, what do I call you? In case I see you again,” I ask.

The Guildsman smiles.

“Ah, you’re so newly arrived from the realm of the living where names are given freely. They are almost never exchanged here. They can give another power over you. However . . . you may call me Elam. I do not ask your name. That’s a decision you can make later, should our paths cross again.”

I sense a long entanglement with him but am unsure whether it lies in the past or future.

Before opening the door, he turns back.

“Lock this behind me.”

The door clicks shut, and Elam’s presence is quickly replaced by the echoing history of the room. The apartment’s familiarity envelops me.

I sit down in front of the bookcase. My hand knows what book to reach for—Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I withdraw it slowly, and a card falls to the floor. It’s yellowed with age and bears my handwriting. The card reads:

The first thing I remember is this thing here.

Written underneath is the month, day, and year of my birthday in the life I just ended.

The card drops from my hand. Memories, like pale flowers, blossom on a vine reaching far back into the night of time.

This room, this place—it’s mine. I’ve killed myself before. So many times. Never able to live past my youth. Again and again, I’ve retreated to this nocturnal world to lick my wounds and reflect on my defeat.

I lift the card from the floor and restore it to its place inside the book, which I carefully return to the shelf.

There’s a small penknife on top of another book. Its handle looks like yellowed bone, but when I lift it, I see it’s some early cellulose form of plastic. I unfold the skinny blade, which glimmers in the silvery twilight of the room. I can see its edge has been honed to razor sharpness.

There are a series of lines scored into the side of the bookcase, some nearly faded into the dark wood. I grip the penknife like a stylus and score a new line beside the others . . .

22 01100100 01100001 01110010 01101011 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110011 01101101 01101111 01101011 01111001 00100000 01110111 01100001 01110011 01110100 01100101 01101100 01100001 01101110 01100100 01110011 00101110 00001010 01011001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01110111 01101000 01101111 00100000 01110011 01100101 01100101 01101011 01110011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01110010 01101111 01110101 01100111 01101000 00100000 01110111 01100001 01110011 01110100 01100101 01101100 01100001 01101110 01100100 01110011 00100000 01100011 01101000 01100001 01110010 01110010 01100101 01100100 00100000 01100010 01111001 00100000 00001010 00001010

The shared memory ends, and I become conscious of myself as Andrew again.

I’m sitting in the back of the Mothership with my eyes closed, waiting to hear Alex’s voice in my mind.

“I bowed my head and wept,” says Alex. “The bottom fell out of time. The moment dissolved into all the other times I’d wept before this bookcase. The life I ended was merely a day in a cycle of day and night swinging back and forth like the pendulum of a clock.

“But then I heard you calling my name. And I realized—our link—this hasn’t happened before. It’s something new.”

“Have we—” I start to ask.

“Yes,” Alex replies. “We’ve been connected as far back as I can see, but this is the first time your voice has reached me here.”

He grows quiet, and I feel his exhaustion.

“Alex—”

“Yeah, I know,” says Alex. I tried to prepare you.”

“I need you,” I say. “I need us to stay connected.”

“I’ll be able to look in on you,” he replies. “There may be moments when I can communicate, but this is my world now, Andrew. Its hold on me grows stronger, and my link to your world grows weaker. In some other lifetime, we may meet again . . .”

Alex makes a last effort to send an image of himself. His eyes are tearful, but it’s too much for him to maintain, and he slips from my mind into the inky void.

Gone.

I’m in an empty space of inner vision.

If I don’t open my eyes, I won’t have to move on in a world without him. But reality quickly intrudes. My inner silence dissolves into the physical sensations of being in the Mothership.

I am alone.

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That’s everything that’s happened so far. When I look outside, the day seems like it’s on pause. The sky is the kind of overcast that numbs time.

And yet, the watch Alex gifted me ticks away on my wrist like it’s waiting for me to do something.

This watch still holds the intention Alex had when he gave it to me—his intention to solidify our bond. It’s a link between us. There’s a magic to certain objects. The Mothership is full of things Alex knew intimately and touched often. Is there a way I can use them to strengthen our link?

I just consulted the online oracle I use frequently, and synchronistically, it gave me card 358, Creating your own Magic. The image is of an old silversmith holding a talisman with wings and gemstones over a piece of paper to reveal the shadow it casts as well as the light it conducts. The card includes Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic: The science and art of creating change in conformity to will.

It refined the idea forming in my head. So many objects in The Mothership are powerfully linked to Alex—his sketchbooks, for one. Is there a way to reconnect with him through an artifact infused with his energy?

There’s one object in the Mothership imbued with more of Alex’s energy than any other. As I mentioned before, from the day we met, he was fascinated with what I call the Star Chrysalis—a sapphire crystal on my dashboard. It’s a dark-purple, two-inch-long hexagonal crystal that looks like a chrysalis. One end is polished into a dome so that when tilted toward a light, it reveals the crystal’s asterism—a little star with six rays.

When I was driving, Alex often did contact juggling tricks with it. It was an outlet for his nervous energy, quickness, and dexterity. And I was often amazed by what he could do with this slightly irregular object in a moving vehicle. An expert contact juggler would struggle to perform such tricks with a perfect sphere while standing on stable ground. Alex could roll it back and forth along the skin of his bare arms and hands with fluid grace.

Once, when Alex had to return to Cascade, I tried to give him the Star Chrysalis.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “When I get back, I expect to find it here.”

And that’s where it is right now, resting on the dashboard exactly where he left it three months ago.

I recognize the sentimentality. But Alex put so much time and energy into doing stunts with it. The link was intensely physical, like that of a master violinist with their Stradivarius.

Hang on, I’m going to get it . . .

I feel a warm glow from the sapphire infusing my palm as if it’s alive. It’s the energy of Alex’s mercurial essence. Maybe if I keep it close to my body, I can sustain him with my energy.

I feel the circuit of energy. The flow is highly directional—a beam moving through the crystal’s elongated axis and focusing into the six-rayed star as if it’s a flashlight emitting a star beam. It feels like it’s reaching across the interdimensional void toward him.

But I can’t just keep clutching the Star Chrysalis. I want to be able to wear it like an amulet.

I can think of some practical solutions, but they’re all rather tacky. The easiest would be a beach bank— one of those plastic, screw-together cylinders on a string that people use to keep money dry at the beach. I could pack the chrysalis in tissue paper to keep it from rattling around. Wearing plastic is lame, but it’ll keep it close to me until I arrive at a better solution. I recently saw them for sale at a CVS. There must be one in a town this size.

OK, I did a search, and there’s one about half a mile from where I’m parked. I can walk there in a few minutes.

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The mission to acquire a beach bank never happened, but something much more interesting did . . .

I step out of the Mothership, the sapphire clasped tightly in my hand. Sunlight breaks through the overcast sky as I stand at the edge of the park. The warm light is dappled with dancing leaf shadows. I hear angelic music from somewhere in the park, which gives me a feeling of stepping into a dream. The sound is like a telepathic whisper, yet it’s audible in the outside world.

I wonder if my mind is conjuring the music from the sound of the wind, but for a moment it sounds like distant singing. It’s louder to my left, and as I start off that way the singing becomes more distinct.

At the far end of the park, I see the back of a slender figure sitting on a park bench, the partial silhouette of an acoustic guitar poking out from either side. I draw closer.

The singer is an exceptionally beautiful woman, about twenty years old. She’s sitting with the casual, athletic grace of a ballet dancer, her olive complexion framed by a profusion of long, brown hair. Her hazel eyes gleam with mystical awareness and her eyebrows are knitted in concentration on her instrument.

Graceful fingers against steel strings. Her engagement with the music is both devotional and spontaneous. She’s wearing a handmade jacket of dark green and brown velvet with a pointed hood and pinecone-shaped buttons.

Without interrupting her playing, she gives me a welcoming smile full of luminous warmth and impish humor. I’m the only witness to her extraordinary performance.

Her voice is as lyrical and mysterious close up as it seemed when mixed with the wind at a distance. A travel-worn guitar case is open before her, a scattering of crumpled dollar bills and glimmering coins on the deep-blue velvet interior. I take a five-dollar bill out of my pocket. When she finishes her song, I approach to drop it into the case.

“Thanks, that’s very kind,” she says.

I’m struggling to think of an appropriate compliment to offer about her music when I notice a large woven blanket beside her displaying a collection of jewelry. I’m immediately transfixed.

There are bracelets made of hammered, inlaid metal and amulets of crystal intricately wrapped with silver and copper wire. I kneel down to study them closer.

“You made these?” I ask.

“No,” she replies. “My friend Mahj did.”

“They’re amazing,” I say, picking up a textured silver bracelet inlaid with garnet, citrine, and amethyst.

“Let me know if you see anything you like. We’ve got more besides these.” She gestures toward a nearby stack of presentation cases.

I unfold my hand to reveal the Star Chrysalis.

“Does Mahj make custom pieces?” I ask. “You may not believe this, but I just stepped out of my van looking for a way to turn this into an amulet.”

I tell her about my plan to get a plastic beach bank from the drug store. She smiles knowingly.

“I think we can do a little better,” she says, grinning at the synchronicity. “Mahj should be back any minute. My name is Sarah, by the way,” she adds, extending her hand.

“Andrew,” I reply. “Oh, and your music. I was so drawn in by the jewelry I never got to say. Your singing—when I stepped out of my van, I thought I heard angels in the distance.”

“Thanks, man!”

“Well, it’s really appropriate—” I hesitate, unsure how much to disclose. “This crystal . . .” my voice catches, “it’s connected to my best friend. He used to live in this town.”

“Did something happen to your friend?” she asks gently.

“Yeah . . . he’s no longer with us,” I reply. The silence is strained, and I feel an inner version of Alex objecting to the vagueness of my statement. “He took his life a couple of days ago.”

The color drains from Sarah’s face.

“Oh wow, I’m so sorry. Was he . . .” There’s a moment of confused hesitation, a sense she has to ask something but fears my answer. “Was your friend by any chance about our age? Small, blonde, blue eyes?”

“Yeah,” I reply, taken aback.

She balls her left hand into a fist and brings it to her mouth, biting down on her clenched index finger.

“I’m so sorry. . .” she says.

“You knew Alex?” I ask.

“Alex . . .” she says, pronouncing his name thoughtfully as if hearing it for the first time. “I feel like I do, but I only met him once. I mean if it was him. A couple of days ago, right here in this park. We didn’t have much time together, but it was one of the strangest encounters of my life. I’ve been thinking about him ever since. Actually, the song you heard me singing was something I just made up, inspired by that night.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“A guy I know from a couple of festivals dropped a small bag of shrooms into my guitar case earlier that day and said, full moon tonight before he winked at me and walked off. I ate them as soon as the moon came out. When they kicked in, I felt the call to adventure.

“Mahj wasn’t up for tripping that night, so I set out alone without a destination. As soon as I saw this park, I felt its mysterious vibe and wanted to explore. Everything was all in shadow, like an enchanted forest or something. I took a few steps, and it just swallowed me up. Suddenly I was in this whole other world.

“I realize I was high on shrooms, but every step seemed to take me deeper into something.

“I followed this hedgerow until it opened into a big circular clearing paved with flagstones. There was a giant sundial in the middle—you must’ve seen it coming from that side of the park.”

I nod.

“Such impressive ancient tech,” Sarah continues. “Like it was excavated from Atlantis or something like that. A real power object. At least—that’s how it seemed while I was trippin’.

“But it wasn’t just an object because there was a person who seemed to be part of it. Standing perfectly still in front of the sundial was this intriguing-looking boy. I notice he’s small, but his shadow is long in the moonlight. I remember it streaked onto the sundial like the hand of a clock. To my stoned imagination, it seemed like he was making himself the shadow pointer of a moondial.

 “The whole experience was like a waking dream. I felt like I knew a whole story about this kid—that he’s a time traveler, the moondial is his time machine, and I showed up just when he was about to use it to disappear from my world.

“I don’t want to disturb him, but I’m curious to see what a time traveler looks like, so I slowly approach. He turns like he expected me to be there. Now that I can really see him, his time-traveler vibe shifts. It’s weird, because I can still feel all that depth of history flowing through him, but he looks my age. Maybe a little younger. He’s wearing a dark hoodie. And he’s got these dark circles under his eyes with this haunted look, like he’s traveled across eons of time and experienced a lot of tragedies.

‘Hey man, I was about to roll a joint. Wanna puff?’

‘Sure,’ he says. ‘Very kind of you.’

“I pull my papers and little jar of weed outta my bag and set em’ on the edge of the sundial. I wasn’t sure if I was disrespecting his time machine by doing that, but he doesn’t say anything. I get the feeling he hasn’t slept in days and is living at the edge of a dream.

“Rolling the joint feels oddly serious, like a ceremony or something.

“The whole time, he just stands there looking out into the darkness of the park like it’s the night sky. It seemed like he wasn’t gonna talk unless I did first ya know? So I tell him about the guy who gave me the shrooms, and how I was drawn into the park and to the sundial.

“I can tell he’s listening, but he still doesn’t say anything. It almost feels like he knows what I’m going to say before I say it. I offer him the joint. He takes a couple hits and passes it back without a word.

“I really wanna break through the silence, so I ask him if he felt drawn to the park like I did, and, ya know, what he’s doing here on a full moon. And he says,

‘Trying to escape my inner demons.’

“Like it shoulda been obvious. So I ask him, ‘What kinda inner demons?’

“He takes another hit. And when he exhales, it feels like time is slowing down. The air gets really still, and the smoke starts to play around him in these delicate swirls.

‘The kind that burrow into your soul and hollow you from the inside out . . .’  he says, real matter of fact like.

“I start to feel frustrated by his knowingness as if I’ve asked him all this before, and he seems to pick up on it instantly.

‘Actually, I have different kinds of inner demons,’ he says in a way that sounds a little apologetic. Like he’s sorry for how he’s been talking to me and is making an effort to give me straight answers.

‘There are the ones I’ve given birth to out of bitterness. From what was done to me and vile deeds I’ve done and can’t forgive. But there are also intruder demons—little worms and parasites crawling inside me, feeding on my dark feelings.’

“And then he’s quiet again. Like he’s lost in those dark feelings. I feel sorry for him and want to give him a hug, but I sense it wouldn’t go over right. We’re just too out of synch, and it’s hard to think of what to say next.

‘What can you do about inner demons like that?’ I ask. ‘I mean, wouldn’t they stick with you wherever you go?’

‘Exactly,’ he says, with this mysterious smile, like I just summed up everything.

“He turns to stare at the sundial, and I get that time-traveler vibe again like he’s just waiting for me to leave so he can dip off in it. So I point at the dial and ask what it means to him.

‘It means I need to escape time.’

“Our eyes meet, and I see so much sadness and regret, like he’s caught up in some deep tragedy. Then he turns away quickly, looking all ashamed for some reason. ‘Thanks for smoking me out and talking to me,’ he says with a humble bow. And before I can say anything back, he turns and walks off into the night.

“I sit by the sundial for quite a while, feeling this deep regret. Maybe it was an effect of the shrooms, but it felt so intense. Like I’d missed some crucial opportunity. He was so beautiful and mysterious. I wanted to know more about him, but I didn’t even get his name.

“It feels like we had this encounter before. Maybe many times before. And each time I failed to . . . I don’t even know. Do or say the right thing, I guess.

“It’s all so confusing and haunting because where do the shrooms leave off and reality begin? I can’t tell . . . I’m sorry to go on like this, I just can’t get him out of my mind. Does . . .  Does that sound like your friend?”

“Yes, that was definitely Alex. And I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but I can relate to the regret. I’d been searching the country for him, but I didn’t find him until . . . Until it was too late. So, I’m the one who failed to help him. . .”

I stop myself.

I shouldn’t think aloud like this, burdening her with my feelings.

“Listen,” I add, “please don’t be hard on yourself about the role you played. When you met him, he’d already decided to end his life. There was nothing you could have said to change his mind. You gave him authentic human contact before he stepped out of time. And for that, I’m forever grateful.”

Just then, a startlingly handsome young black guy approaches us. He’s got long dreadlocks and an easygoing physical charisma undermined by brows furrowed with concern. There’s a moment of awkward tension as I realize this is Mahj, and that he’s not just Sarah’s friend, but her boyfriend. Seeing the emotional intensity in our faces, he’s understandably wondering what’s going on between us.

“Hey man,” he says to me before turning to Sarah with a puzzled look. “You alright, Sarah?”

She lets out a heavy breath as if clearing away her sadness and nods to him.

“Yeah. I’m good,” she says warmly. “We were just, um . . . This is—”

“Andrew,” I say and extend a hand to him. After a moment of hesitation, he accepts it.

“Mahj,” he says with a shake. “What happened? Am I missing something important? You guys look extremely serious.”

Sarah catches him up on our conversation, and his mood quickly shifts toward sympathy.

“I’m sorry to hear about your friend,” says Mahj. “I’d be honored to turn your crystal into an amulet. May I see it?”

I place it in his open palm. He weighs it in his hand and turns it over, studying it closely.

“It’s a beautiful crystal,” he says. “I’m trying to think of the best way to set this. I think it’d look best in copper, but I can do it any way you want.”

“Do it the way that feels right to you,” I say, confident in his ability.

I gesture toward the jewelry displayed on the blanket.

“All your pieces have a look of organic inevitability, like artifacts of an ancient culture.”

“Thanks!” says Mahj, his face lighting up. “I’m used to people saying my work looks cool, or awesome, or whatever. But, organic inevitability—I’ll have to remember that one.”

I reach toward the blanket to pick up the bracelet that first caught my eye. It’s made of hammered, antiqued silver, inset with tiny cabochons of citrine and garnet. Engraved on the silver band is an intricate geometric pattern. It looks ancient and other-worldly.

“This is beautiful. What are you selling it for?” I ask, remembering I’m flush with cash gifted by the Origami Boy. It seems appropriate to trade some of that strangely-gotten money for a magical artifact.

“I’d like to get three hundred for that one,” Mahj says.

“Sold,” I reply. I reach for my wallet and pull out three hundred-dollar bills.

“Thank you,” Mahj says, “we really needed a sale. Here, let me show you how to put it on without bending the metal.”

I hand him the bracelet, and he gently takes hold of my wrist. I’m slightly surprised by the tactile contact and hope he doesn’t feel the weird topography of fireskin beneath my long-sleeved shirt. I can’t remember when anyone last touched me.

“See, you just come in at an angle like this and let it move into your tendon. Then you just let the other side slide over.”

The polished inner surface of the cuff rests comfortably on my wrist. Mahj gives me a warm smile and lets go of my arm.

Even after he removes his hands, the bracelet feels strongly infused with Mahj’s energy. It was his original design, and he must have spent hours intensely focused on crafting it.

“You can sit with us while he works on your amulet if you want,” says Sarah.

“Thanks,” I reply.

Sarah resumes singing and playing guitar while Mahj pulls out tiny pliers and spools of copper wire in different gauges. With the two of them occupied by their respective arts, I let my thoughts wander.

Ever since I was a child, I’d been aware that certain objects retain the vital energy of someone closely associated with them.

The sapphire was imbued with Alex’s essence. But now the amulet is being infused with Mahj’s energy as he weaves his copper wire with the concentrated focus of a surgeon. Sarah’s song, inspired by Alex, her story of their encounter, and the Star Chrysalis being turned into an amulet, all fill me with hope that my relationship with Alex is still unfolding.

Mahj and Sarah are such a beautiful and talented couple, I can’t resist idealizing them. They seem less like people from the present era and more like mystical travelers. They obviously live on the road, traveling along the margins of society as Alex and I had, interacting with various subcultures. But unlike us, they don’t seem like lonely exiles.

I grew up in Manhattan, where beautiful people tended to walk around as if a spotlight were following them, their whole being focused on exuding a glossy force field of camera-readiness. But Mahj and Sarah seem unselfconscious of their looks as they sit on the grass and assume the status of street people. Their energy is flowing into their arts and not on giving off glamorous attitude.

While Sarah pauses to re-tune her guitar, I tell them about Alex juggling the crystal.

Mahj stops wire wrapping and stares at me intently.

“Wait,” he says, “tell me again what your friend looks like.”

I do, and his stare grows even more intense.

“Did he work trimming weed in California a few years ago?”

“Yeah,” I say with curiosity. “He was on his way to a trimming camp when I met him.”

“Oh my God,” says Mahj. “I met him once too. It was a few months after I went on the road. I was working at a camp down in Humboldt.

“I slept out under the stars, and when I woke up in my sleeping bag, I saw something that made me wonder if I was still dreaming. There was a kid with blonde hair dancing by himself in the sunlight. Spinning around his body was some kind of orb. I kept closing and opening my eyes, thinking that I was still dreaming or that my eyes were playing tricks on me. Finally, I had to get up and go to him.

“The orb turned out to be an acrylic contact juggling sphere, glittering like crazy in the sunlight as he did amazing contact juggling stunts. I mean, lots of festival kids juggle or do fire dancing or whatever, but this was like Cirque-de-Soleil level. When he saw me approaching, he did a few more tricks and then swept his arms down and bowed toward me like a magician at the end of a performance.    

“I asked him a few questions about what he was doing, which he answered, but I got the impression he was shy and secretive. He said if he knew anyone was up, he’d have gone deeper into the woods to practice.

“I kept asking questions, and he opened up a little. He told me he had watched some videos but was mostly self-taught. I got him to show me a few of his tricks, and he had me practice with the orb, but I kept dropping it.

“He seemed so solitary and private. It felt like it would be disrespectful to approach him again. I saw him at the camp for the next few days, but that was it. I’ve always wanted to thank him because he inspired me to get into contact juggling. It’s become one of the great loves of my life.”

 “I know we’re in his hometown,” I say, “and that explains why I’m here and why Sarah would have encountered him in his favorite park. But for all three of us to have a connection to Alex . . . It seems . . .”

“Improbable?” Mahj says.

“Yeah,” I nod in agreement as the mystery of it resonates between us. “Still, I’m guessing none of us are living statistical lives.”

“Well said,” replies Mahj, giving me a dazzling smile. “We’re not living statistical lives, indeed.”

“Something brought the three of us together. . .” says Sarah, trailing off.

In the gentle silence that follows, that “something” floats all around us.

Alex.

Sarah looks to Mahj as if seeking his assent.

“Hey, if you’re OK with it, we can do a little performance in honor of Alex,” she says.

“I’d like that,” I reply.

Sarah attaches an electric pickup to her acoustic guitar. Mahj picks up three slender rods lying on their trade blanket. They have taped gripping, and one of them is longer with translucent tassels at either end.

“What are those?” I ask.

“They’re called devil sticks. It’s a type of juggling that’s been around forever, though you don’t see it as often as other forms.”

He holds the two smaller sticks in either hand and balances the tasseled stick between them. Sarah begins playing the same chord progressions from earlier, but now the music is reverberating through her battery-powered amp.

She hits a loop pedal to play lead over the rhythm, adding more and more layers on top of each other. As she plays, Mahj spins and stalls the tasseled stick back and forth between the hand sticks. He twirls it between his legs and behind his back, rolling it all about his body in a remarkable display of balance and athleticism. It’s an acrobatic dance.

Guitar chords shimmer in the air. They loop and superimpose— musical phrases resonating with perfect harmony. It reminds me of a favorite piece of Icelandic music Alex and I used to play at the start of every journey—”Missing at Sea” by Maggie Björklund.

The looping of the guitar chords and gyroscopic dance are hypnotic, and time spirals inward. I’m compelled to close my eyes as the outer world recedes from attention and is overtaken by an unfolding inner vision.

I’m peering down into a desert of red stone canyons and giant buttes.

My vision floats across the landscape and is drawn to a circular area of sand surrounded by large boulders. A few feet above the sand is the same bronze sundial from the park. It hovers in the center of the clearing like an alien spacecraft.

The dial is blurred by vibration like a speaker cone, but I notice the sharp angle of its triangular hand points toward me as if demanding something.

The dial throws a dense shadow onto the sand below. My vision travels into the shadow, where I witness a scene unfolding at the edge of the park at night. I’m standing next to the Mothership while Sarah and Mahj load up their camper.

We’re about to caravan somewhere.

It’s a possible future, a beautiful path. But . . . It’s not my path. It would be a diversion from a greater fate and necessity.

Suddenly I’m tumbling slowly, end over end, through space. . . I’m not sure how long I’ve been there or if I’d ever been anywhere else . . . My body feels fuzzy like it’s made of dust or tiny crystals . . .

“Hey man, are you OK?” A voice reaches me in the void . . . I open my eyes.

Mahj stands before me, looking concerned, devil sticks tucked neatly under his arm.

“Everything OK?”

“Oh,” I shake myself back into this reality. “Yeah, sure. Sorry, I was just spacing out and getting hypnotized by the juggling and guitar loops. It was quite a show,” I say, my face flushing with embarrassment as I realize I’d closed my eyes during his performance. “Sorry, I just—I had an inner vision come up.”

“No worries, man. I understand,” says Mahj smiling and giving me a friendly pat on the shoulder.

And it seems like he actually does understand.

“I should probably get back to work on your amulet anyway,” says Mahj.

“Sure, sure,” I say, still clearing my head. “Hey, I’m gonna go for a walk. I’ll pick up some sandwiches or something for everyone and come back in an hour or so.”

“That’d be great. Wire-wrapping burns a lot of calories,” says Mahj laughing. He swaps out his devil sticks for a pair of needle-nosed pliers while Sarah thoughtfully experiments with guitar chords. I leave them to their pursuits and walk back through the park toward town.

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I feel altered by the vision, but also get the feeling I’ve missed or misunderstood parts of it. I walk through a vague miasma of free-floating anxiety, as if I’m forgetting something of crucial significance.

In the vision, I’m in a zone of dangerous unreality, a nexus of alternate timelines. Fateful currents swirl around me, and I could easily drift into the wrong one.

And—it’s not just the vision—I’m in that danger right now.

Naming my predicament diffuses some of the anxiety.

The vision showed me the possibility of an alternate life—departing from Sundial Park with Sarah and Mahj. It’s not just a notion—glimpses of that timeline play in my mind. I see myself telling them I write about subcultures. They confer with a glance and ask me if I want to travel with them to one.

I want to say yes, but I can’t. I have to follow a darker and more difficult path. Intuition tells me I need to leave soon after Mahj finishes the amulet.

But leave to where?

I walk until I come across a Thai restaurant that does takeout.

Hopefully, they’ll appreciate Thai food more than sandwiches.

Waiting for the food to be prepared, I realize I’ve unconsciously chosen Thai because of the nostalgic resonance with my first meal with Alex. There must be a childish longing in me to create a parallel first meal with Mahj and Sarah. My romantic nature, always drawn toward the impossible, is attracted to both of them.

I feel the longing more acutely when I return with the food. They greet me with enthusiasm and devour every bit of it, which feels almost absurdly fulfilling.

When we’re done eating, I retrieve my laptop to catch up here. I alternate between observing them and writing for the rest of the afternoon and early evening. Mahj is intensely focused on the amulet while Sarah plays music and interacts with the few people who stop to listen and make small donations.

It gets chilly when the sun goes down, so I invite them into my nearby Mothership.

“That’d be great,” Mahj responds. “I’m almost done, but low light and chilly fingers don’t mix well with wire-wrapping.”

Once inside, Sarah and I watch as Mahj finishes the amulet. I’m dazzled by his creation when he hands it to me. The Star Chrysalis is secured by a spiraling weave of copper wire that’s intricate but also extremely durable. I know it’s newly made because I watched it come together. But once finished, it exudes this uncanny quality of timelessness, an ancient feeling like it’s endured eons to get to me.

Mahj attaches the amulet to a sturdy copper chain and adjusts the length, so it rests in the center of my chest. I put it on, and its warmth emanates into my body.

Whatever the source, it’s not a subtle feeling I have to strain to perceive but a distinct current running through me. It may be wishful thinking, but I feel the energy flowing through the amulet is nourishing Alex.

I get The Origami Boy’s roll of cash, peel off three hundreds, and hand them to Mahj. “Is this enough for your work?”

“Whoa, are you sure? That’s more than I was going to ask,” Mahj protests.

“Of course, I’m sure,” I reply. “To be honest, I’m no authority on jewelry, but most wire-wrapped stuff looks sloppy and thrown together. But every one of your pieces is masterful. If anything, I’m underpaying you.”

Mahj laughs warmly.

“Well, you’re very kind,” he says, passing the cash to Sarah. “Thank you.”

“This is enough for us to get down to New Mexico,” she says as she adds it to their stash. She turns to me. “How do you fund your travels, Andrew?”

The moment becomes dreamlike as I give my well-rehearsed answer about subculture journalism. My vision of the red desert superimposes on the present. It’s exactly as I saw it. Mahj looks to Sarah, and they come to a silent agreement.

“We’re headed to Taos,” he says brightly. “There’s a community building houses called earthships out in the desert. You should come with us. I mean, it’s obviously a subculture, and we’d both enjoy your company.”

“That sounds fascinating,” I reply. “Thank you. But . . . I’m already committed to another destination.”

I feel a tug of regret answering, and once the words are out, I realize I can’t follow up with an answer about where I’m going. Because I don’t know.

“Hey, I’ve got a bottle of red wine,” I cut in before either of them can ask. “Do you want to share some before I go?”

“Hell yeah!” they reply in near unison.

I retrieve the bottle that’s been sitting for months in a galley cabinet. It gives me a chance to think of a destination, but I’m uncomfortable with lying. Fortunately, I don’t have to, as they don’t ask.

When I sit back down, Mahj is rolling up a blunt. I pour the wine, and Mahj sparks up. I take one half-hearted toke to be sociable but decline every round after.

I’ve gotten creative inspiration from weed but smoking in a social setting rarely works for me. I usually get anxious and feel alienated from the group. Even back in the day when I was interested in weed, I noticed that smoking more than once every couple of days made the medicine lose effectiveness. I know it works differently for others. But for me, if used often, weed becomes more like a sloppy intoxicant, dulling my mind rather than expanding it.

I’m not sure why, but I start feeling uneasy as I watch Sarah and Mahj smoking without any apparent benefit to their state of mind. I get up and set my ceiling exhaust fan to max to keep the acrid smoke from lingering.

Yeah, I realize most people don’t smoke to expand their minds but to chill out. Also, I realize that I’m the one who impulsively offered the wine and set this up. And wine’s not usually a consciousness-expanding drug either.

I’ve been alone or traveling with Alex for so long that I forgot just how awkward hanging in group settings is for me.

Anyway, once Sarah and Mahj are thoroughly stoned, the social atmosphere, at least in my perception, grows stagnant and slack. They become giggly and unfocused, talking a little about this and a little about that. I make the minimal efforts courtesy requires of me, pretending to be engaged with their meandering talk, but they seem oblivious to my disengagement.

It’s painfully disappointing to see this charismatic and talented couple become dull and self-absorbed. I felt close to them before, but now it’s like they’re on the other side of the Grand Canyon.

I didn’t feel that way when Sarah was intently focused on her music and Mahj on the amulet. I’ve always lived on mission time. But now Mahj and Sarah are on giggly hangout time, and that’s a mode I’m allergic to. I can’t wait for them to leave so I can be alone with my own thoughts.

Yes, I realize how much that makes me seem like an uptight asshole. Maybe Alex was right when he said I’m the most condescending motherfucker in the universe. But when intoxicated people get into this kind of mental channel-surfing mode— jumping from one ill-formed and unfinished thought to another— all I hear is the dread ticking of the clock. I feel as suffocated as I would in a bingo hall or an ice cream social at a retirement home. It’s not that I’m saying my way of spending time is better than theirs, just that mine is more suitable for me.

Actually, that’s not quite honest. I may not be saying it’s better, but I am thinking it. I just find mundane social situations frustrating and claustrophobic, and I don’t seem to have a choice about that. It’s intrinsic to my nature to be allergic to relaxed social time. It may be prideful delusion, but I always feel imbued with a seriousness of purpose, a life mission requiring me to be disciplined and focused and to live on an edge.

In college, people always told me to lighten up, chill, and live a little. By live a little they meant stay up all night hanging out with random people in various states of intoxication, fragmented conversation, and flirtation. They were always laughing at shit that had zero humor value unless you were intoxicated in exactly the same way they were. I particularly hated it when they laughed about sex as if we were all in on the same joke.

Maybe I’m just bitter and jealous because of my fireskin. Maybe if I could get drunk and casually flirt with people, I’d think it was a blast. It’s not like I don’t understand why they’re into it. Maybe I’m just a social misfit.

For better or worse, what works for a lot of other people just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel like a member of a different species when I see how all-in people get in mundane party mode. They talk over each other, their faces flush with excitement, desperately eager to interject inanities and laugh uproariously at their own idiotic jokes.

Nothing they say is even remotely funny to me, but everyone laughs right on cue. And all the while, they’re hyped up with the sense they’re livin’ large and are cool for using all the same embarrassingly lame slang words and catchphrases everyone else is busily wearing out.

No one seems to notice how tired it all is, how indistinguishable from countless other party scenes and hangouts. On the contrary, they seem to think there’s something revolutionary about being drunk and promiscuous. Somehow, by aimlessly partying and getting loud and obnoxious, they’re renegades, raising their collective middle finger to the system.

But to me, they are the system.

They’re more completely systematized than sanitation workers backing up garbage trucks or office workers in cubicles shuffling papers in the accounts-payable department. At least most people working such jobs have the good sense to feel bored and disaffected by the mundanity of what they’re doing . . .

Damn, maybe I shouldn’t have written all that.

Just one of those agro rants that used to fill my journal when it was completely private. But now that I’ve written it out, I can’t take it back. Mostly it’s just a reflection of my being freakishly introverted and not well adapted to group social situations. And I realize my complaints are grossly unfair to associate with Mahj and Sarah, who aren’t stereotypes, but unique, talented people. They’re just not at their best when they’re stoned. And to be fair, if journalism has taught me anything it’s that even people who seem stereotypical can turn out to be far more complex when you really get to know them.

The problem with Sarah and Mahj was that I’d been idealizing them all day— a bit infatuated with both of them, to be honest. Had we parted ways earlier, they’d have remained forever idealized in my imagination. But given enough time with anyone, enchantment always turns to an equal and opposite disenchantment.

Now that I’ve written that out, I see the contradiction. Alex. My endlessly enchanting disenchanting person. And whenever I stop venting and really look into my feelings—it’s all contradictions and paradoxes.

Earlier in the day, I admired Mahj and Sarah’s charisma and looks, especially their casual unselfconsciousness about their physical beauty. But now, hanging out with them in their off time, and seeing them interact as a couple, the same qualities make me feel both envy and annoyance.

How easily they take for granted their attractiveness to each other and their general coolness. They can afford to be loose and giggly. So opposite of me and Alex. Or really, me and anyone. Or, for that matter, Alex and anyone.

And yet, it’s the very fact that I don’t fit in so comfortably that makes me who I am. Just like how Alex’s tormented empathy makes him who he is.

 Feeling like an uncomfortable visiting anthropologist allows me to see and be aware of so much that comfortable folks miss. So, yeah, I’m jealous of them, but I would also never trade places, either.

Anyway, when it comes time for Sarah and Mahj to leave, my irritation and feelings of social alienation dissolve, and my perception comes back into balance.

They’re no longer my idealized fantasies of who they are, but they’re still beautiful, talented people I will likely never see again. Each of us had our own connection to Alex, and our paths fatefully converged for one day.

As I walk them back to their camper, the social claustrophobia of hanging in the Mothership fully releases.

 I feel heartfelt gratitude for the day we’ve spent together. On some level of reality, our meeting feels like a great accomplishment or joyous victory for all of us. I realize that doesn’t make much logical sense, but I think they feel it too—both of them are beaming.

They each give me a hug, and the physical contact feels profound, at least for me. It’s the only tactile contact I’ve had with anyone since Alex left, and it makes parting from them even more difficult.

When I close the back door, there’s a feeling of closing off any possible shared destiny. Part of me still wishes I could go with them to the earthships in New Mexico, but there’s a deeper feeling that I will soon be led elsewhere, and I’m thankful for what we shared.

Mahj’s bracelet is securely on my wrist, the sapphire amulet is close to my heart, and Sarah’s song still echoes in my mind. Today would’ve been a day of overpowering grief and abandonment, but because of them, it was filled with new life.

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Sleeping in the back of the Mothership, I flow through deep currents of dreamless sleep until I arrive at my destination and wake up within a dream.

I’m in the same desert from the sundial vision, surrounded by a moonlit landscape of mesa and giant, red-stone buttes. I look down and see sage growing from the sandy red soil. When I look up, I find The Origami Boy standing before me, his blue-gray eyes studying me with compassion.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says. “I don’t know the details, but I know your friend is gone. I think you should meet me here. I can guide you if you’re willing.”

“I am,” I reply.

A long journey begins taking shape in my mind. Roadways and elevations rush past, long stretches and tight switchbacks, link and diverge until the way is etched into me. The path ends seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a point off a rough dirt road in the desert.

“You’ll remember when you wake,” he concludes with an assuring nod.

The dream ends, but the way remains.

It’s still predawn, but my sleep was deep and restorative. Hurriedly, I slather lotion onto my fireskin and get ready for departure.

I fire up the Mothership and wind my way through darkened streets and onto the highway. As I accelerate along the exit ramp and merge with the interstate, I feel a release of confinement. The sapphire amulet, dangling from its copper chain, hangs in the center of my chest.

The possibility of a strengthened connection to Alex gives me hope as the Mothership accelerates away from Cascade, Washington, headed Southeast toward Arizona.

I keep trying to reach out to Alex on the long drive. As I focus my thoughts, a memory of our encounter two days prior plays in my mind—Alex walking off into the darkening forest.

Coaxial.

I turn toward the co-pilot seat, hoping to see Alex, but it’s empty.

I want to believe the link is still active. And yet, it’s hard to trust such perceptions when my physical senses report only silence and emptiness.

There are times when I don’t feel him at all. Memory and imagination are ready to animate him before my eyes and heart, but it’s just not the same as when he’s actually present.

Come back, Alex.

What if our last encounter really was the last?

My thoughts project into a receptive space as if an open channel waits to receive them. But it’s not Alex on the other side.

An image of the Origami Boy appears in my mind. He stands in a moonlit plain of sagebrush and piñon trees. His presence is a navigational beacon.

He beckons me towards him.

When we first met, he offered to help me find Alex. Maybe he can help us stay linked.

The drive is a blur of blacktop, gas stations, rain, and more rain. A stormy weather system bogs down the whole region of the country. Intense crosswinds, never easy on high-profile vehicles, force me to grip the steering wheel tightly as the Mothership is jerked across the lane by gusts of wind.

The day turns into a driving marathon. Though I started predawn, the bad weather slows me considerably. Eventually, I make it through Washington, Oregon, and a good part of Idaho. By the time I pull into a truck stop near Twin Falls and kill the engine, it’s well into the evening, and I’m completely spent. I step out of the Mothership and look around, realizing I’d spent a night here before in my travels with Alex. It had been summer then, and the cornfields were verdant and ripening toward harvest. Now they’re little more than stubble.

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I cross the Arizona state line the following day. The rain I battled for most of the journey vanishes, but high winds still sweep the plains as I pass through a vast desert landscape. The sun is setting, and there are no other vehicles on my stretch of the road.

 I turn off my headlights for a few seconds and see the silhouettes of giant stone buttes haloed by stars. They seem ominous and powerful, like nuclear reactor towers.

The Origami Boy’s instructions lead me to a barely visible sign indicating a turn onto a dirt road. It’s actually just a cattle trail running between two crumbling fence posts.

The road is rutted, and I drive slowly, fearing I’ll lose traction as I steer between the deeper ruts and sand traps. Objects rattle in the back cabin, and gravel pings against the undercarriage as I navigate with my highbeams.

I continue until the road ends at a turnaround worn into an expanse of sagebrush.

I pull in, kill the engine, and click off the twin-spotlighted glare of my headlights. The Mothership is suddenly enveloped by darkness and the sound of wind flowing over her hull.

My eyes gradually adjust, and through the dusty windshield, I see an expansive mesa illuminated by silvery moonlight. I slip on my nylon parka and my weathered camera bag and step out into the night.

The wind-blown expanse of sagebrush is broken by towering stone buttes. The nearest one is a great looming presence, radiating immense power like a silent and impersonal desert god.

The dirt road is the only evidence of human civilization.

I walk a few paces into the sagebrush and survey my surroundings. When my gaze returns to the Mothership, The Origami Boy stands several feet in front of me.

He’s perfectly still, as if planted in the ground along with the sagebrush. His eyes are hyperalert, like an animal sensing danger in the night. He’s wrapped in a cloak dappled with camouflaging colors of desert plants and red sand. The wind stills, and he steps forward to greet me.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says. “And I appreciate you coming to meet with me so soon after,” he adds, looking at me thoughtfully. “Perhaps you can take comfort from some of what I know about your friend’s departure.

“I know it’s not what you wanted, but it was a fateful inevitability. His path was already chosen. That’s how you were able to dream about it beforehand. You did everything you could to find him, but he didn’t want to be found. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone could have stopped him. And now—he’s gone from this world, and yet, your bond is still alive.”

“How do you know these things?” I ask.

“I will explain, but not here. We should relocate. For now, I’ll just say that dire forces have compelled me to crossover and offer you an initiation. If it works, it will accelerate a metamorphosis already underway in you—

A metamorphosis?

“—but the path I offer is difficult, and I honor your right to decline.”

Metamorphosis—already underway?

It’s a shock to hear him use the word I’ve always believed in, but Alex always doubted.

“The metamorphosis is real, Andrew. But you’re still in an early part of it.”

“You said the initiation will accelerate the metamorphosis if it works. What would cause it to fail?”

“It includes a dangerous phase that could threaten your sanity. So, you’re wise to be cautious. And once again, I fully respect your right to decline.”

A gentle wind ripples his cloak as he studies me.

“I don’t mean to make this sound like the sort of challenge you must accept. I’m guided by my inner truth, but don’t presume to know anyone else’s. Only you know what’s right for you.”

“Tell me what the initiation entails.”

He gives me a solemn nod, and the energy around him starts to swell. He looks calmly into my eyes while his form shimmers and changes. It’s a dazzling transformation. The same being holds my gaze even as the color of his eyes shifts to green, and his hair becomes luxuriantly long and golden. Only as the brilliant glow around him fades back into the moonlit night, like something newly forged and cooling, do I realize who is standing before me.

Jeremiah.

He looks the same as he did when I first met him in the meadow during my near-death experience, but—there’s a shocking alteration.

He’s covered with dozens of lacerations that are still healing into scars. They crisscross in long, twisting lines down his face and neck, like the map of a cruel journey.

In every other way, he’s uncannily beautiful and bears neither sign of age nor the awkward, unfinished aspect of youth. It makes the scars stand out with painful incongruity.

He gives me time to settle after the transformation. I know who he is, but I have need to hear him say it.

“Jeremiah?”

“Yes.”

Memories of our earlier encounters flash through my mind. But so much has changed.

“Your scars—what happened to you?”

“Part of the price of crossing over. . .”

I sense the terrible sacrifice behind Jeremiah’s words, but he diverts me from dwelling on it with a smile of deep appreciation that lights up the space between us.

It feels like he’s known me longer than I’ve known myself.

“Come,” he says, “I will take you to another world. A much better place to discuss the initiation.”

Another world?

I follow him unquestioningly into the brush, certain that he means to conjure another origami of some sort.

“Oh no, nothing like that,” he says.

He points across the mesa to a blur of varicolored light pulsing in the distance.

“Out there in the sagebrush is an opening to another world. An Earth, parallel to this one.”

“A parallel Earth?”

“Yes. It will make more sense once you experience it for yourself.”

His words are surreal, but he speaks them in such an authentic manner that I fully believe him.

We’re silent as we walk. Though we’re two pairs of footsteps, all I hear is the occasional crunch beneath my feet. Jeremiah creates no sound or ripple of disturbance as he moves through the night. He’s vigilantly aware of our surroundings, as well as the soulful undercurrents of the moment.

We’re punished by a fierce headwind as we approach the source of the light, causing my eyes to water and my vision to blur. With each step, the ground scintillates and dances from the brilliant lights ahead. I’m squinting so hard I have to keep my eyes down and focused on Jeremiah’s feet.

We cross the edge of a clearing, where I blink my eyes and look up to see the cloaked silhouette of Jeremiah. He’s walking undeterred toward a turbulent vortex blasting out wind and colored light.

The power of the anomaly makes me stop. It’s almost impossible to comprehend. It’s like a tornado crackling with kaleidoscopic lightning.

Without breaking stride, Jeremiah walks directly into it. The wind violently blows his cloak around him, but his posture is calm and erect. He stands in the center of the vortex, illuminated by the spinning fury. There’s a flash, and then he’s gone.

Holy shit! Did he just get vaporized? No–he knows what he’s doing, and I’ve got to follow or get left behind!

I take a deep breath and step into the anomaly.

Extreme turbulence.

It feels like I’m about to be stripped down to atoms, but when I reach the center, it’s perfectly still, like the eye of a hurricane.

The stillness alters time, slowing the fury of spinning motion until I can resolve its elements.

And it’s the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my life . . .

I’m in a vortex of luminous filaments, twisting and sparking with energy, and they have no beginning or end. They’re like the glowing strands of a double helix being whipped around by some unseen rotational force. Even more bizarre, the strands form into a funnel that folds in on itself again and again and again.

For a blinding moment, it feels like a ground-emanating lightning strike is erupting through me. The bolt rips out of me with a sudden—Flash!

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I’m standing in the same spot, hearing a scream fading into the silence of the mesa. It takes a moment to realize the scream was mine. I’m hyperventilating, but there’s no anomalous vortex or even any wind left to disturb the stillness.

Jeremiah looks at me calmly, waiting for me to catch my breath.

“What was that?” I gasp in shock.

“A portal,” he replies in almost a whisper as if he doesn’t want to disturb the silence around us.

“Traveling across time or long distances of space in a single reality is often more difficult. But it’s possible to slip into a parallel reality with barely a ripple of disturbance. See if you can feel what’s different.”

Faint moonlight illuminates the mesa, and I can smell the sagebrush all around me. Here and there are boulders and piñon trees, and the whole landscape seems to emanate silence.

Jeremiah watches me patiently as I begin to perceive the difference. This is the same mesa, but not the one where I parked the Mothership. Geologically it’s the same, but this land does not have the name “Arizona.”

I suddenly grasp the reason for the overwhelming quiet.

I’ve lived my whole life with a blaring radio of others’ thought forms in the background of every moment. The blare was so incessant I wasn’t aware of it. But here—it feels like I’m the only human being.

I’m an alien presence. My black nylon camera bag rests against my ribcage. It’s the most familiar of objects, but in this place, it’s an anomalous artifact of polymers, lenses, sensors, and computer chips in a world innocent of such things. My presence as a technologically outfitted Homo sapien feels like an ominous intrusion.

The fertile silence settles over me, a silence I’ve never known was possible.

I want to ask Jeremiah a question but speaking aloud in this realm feels wrong. It would be a crude way to communicate, like yelling through a megaphone to an attentive friend standing next to you. Instead, I speak to him as I did with Alex.

Can you hear my thoughts?”

“Yes,” he replies. “But it won’t disturb anything to speak aloud here. I’ve prepared a campsite nearby with food, water, and wood for a fire. It will be a more comfortable place for us to talk.”

As we walk across the high plain in the moonlight, the air fragrant with the scent of desert plants, I become aware of time unfolding in a strange, new way. This is a primordial world, free of human time frames and tempos.

We approach a rock formation, a crown of red stone emerging from the plain of sagebrush. The stones are fringed with an aura of barely perceptible indigo light, like the distortion of air beyond the blue flame of a gas stovetop.

We pass through the crown of stones to a circular area of fine red sand. At the center is a fire pit of precisely fitted rocks surrounding a teepee of sticks and kindling.

There’s a stack of firewood, a pile of folded wool blankets, a woven basket filled with pine nuts, and glass water bottles.

The campsite has been assembled with ritualistic care, like a tea ceremony. It feels protected and intimate.

Jeremiah divides the wool blankets into two piles to make seats for us.

“I gathered these pine nuts from the surrounding mesa, and the water is from a nearby spring. Eating and drinking the matter of an alternate realm helps ground you there. On the other hand, if it’s a world you want to escape, it could trap you.”

I grab a bottle and a handful of pine nuts. Jeremiah reaches into a light shoulder bag made of the same camouflaging material as his clothes. He pulls out a small ceramic cylinder which he uses to ignite the kindling.

Soon the fire blazes, sending sparks flying up and disappearing into the high desert night. He feeds the fire larger pieces of wood until it becomes a crackling orange glow pulsating with warmth.

“What is this place?” I ask.

“I call it the Green World,” Jeremiah replies. “It’s a version of Earth where humans never evolved.”

“Is this your world?”

“No,” he says plainly. “My world exists in a timeline that diverged from yours four years before I was born. The differences between our timelines became more pronounced over the years. Nevertheless, I grew up on an Earth similar to yours. The main difference is that technology advanced more quickly in my timeline.”

“You grew up on Earth? Where were you after that?”

“When I was fifteen years old, my small, intentional community was chosen, without our permission, for a . . . strange experiment. We were rendered unconscious and put into suspended animation. When we woke, we found ourselves aboard a space-faring biosphere that had left the solar system far behind.

“Our journey through space lasted for a generation. And during that time, some of us became a new species.

“Obviously, space travel will alter anyone. Our ship had about half the gravity Earth has, which affects bone density, among other things. Far more powerful, though, was being separated from the rest of the species. Our exile felt like an amputation. We had been part of a planetary body with so much life force. Then suddenly, we were splintered off that body and cast into the endless vacuum of space.

“No human community had ever been in such a state of isolation, with all its energy concentrated into one space-faring crucible.”

“Was your small intentional community in Vermont? Somewhere in the Green Mountains?” I ask.

“Yes,” Jeremiah replies, “and I know what informs your question. It will all become clear soon. Our community was based on permaculture principles and nonviolence. There were other such communities scattered around the country, but we were an unusual group. All eighteen of us were members of a human subspecies with metamorphic potential. This is a key part of what drew us together in the first place, but it wasn’t until after the abduction that we became aware of it.

“Several of us had a history of paranormal experiences, and two of us, including me, had visions of global apocalypse in the months leading up to the abduction. We assume that whoever designed our experiment, must have known about the unusual evolutionary potential of our group.”

“You mean the people who abducted you? You don’t know who they were?”

“We were never able to figure that out. The scale and speed of the ship were far in advance of any technology publicly acknowledged on Earth. Whoever built it had gone to great lengths to leave no fingerprints. We never found anything on the ship to identify its exact origin. Every detail, down to the computer chips inside components, lacked identifiers. No national insignia or corporate logos anywhere.

“But who would go to all that trouble? What would be the point of secrecy after we’d left the solar system? And why wouldn’t they have programmed the AI in control of the ship to tell us once we came out of suspended animation?”

Jeremiah stares deeply into the fire, as these old, unanswered questions resonate within him.

His disclosures are dizzying, but I trust him implicitly. Though my mind is swimming with questions, I try to regain my center. I sit back and stare into the fire. Smoke seasons the air around us with aromatic hints of pine and juniper.

“Why does it feel like you know me?” I ask. “I mean—more than our brief encounters.”

“Because I know the version of you in my timeline,” Jeremiah replies. “You were eighteen when the divergence occurred. I learned about your early life history from the Andrew I know. Until you were eighteen, you and he were the same person.”

I’m staggered by this revelation of another version of me living off-planet. Jeremiah gives me some time to absorb the news before he continues.

I met the other Andrew when I was fifteen, and he became part of our community. At the time, he told us he was twenty. In actuality, he was thirty-seven, but the metamorphosis had halted his aging. He didn’t admit his true age until we were on the ship.”

“So he was part of the community that traveled through space?”

“Yes. We’ve been close since I was fifteen. Much of what I know, I learned from him or with him.”

“Does he also know Alex?”

“Yes.”

“And in your reality, did Alex—”

“Yes, he did. That’s why I said it was inevitable.”

I let his words sink in.

“And you said dire forces compelled you to cross over?”

“Yes. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Andrew, but your timeline is heading toward an extinction-level event—the extinction of the human species. I’ve been sent back to make an intervention . . . That’s the main purpose of the initiation I’m offering.”

The extinction of the species.

I’m stunned by his certainty of an impending apocalypse. My mind is a swirl of questions, and there are too many to choose just one.

Suddenly, a glowing question mark materializes in the smoke rising from the fire. It’s bright green and bloated like a balloon. It floats before us for a moment and then pops like a bubble.

Just as quickly as it goes, a vast proliferation of similar question marks fills the space around us like rapidly popping popcorn kernels. Each is multi-colored and uniquely shaped. They flash into existence, flittering around us like weightless confetti glowing colorfully in the night.

In a cascade of pops, the question marks disappear into nothingness. Jeremiah smiles at me, his grin almost childlike.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll get to all of them.”

I let out a breath.

“How did you do that?” I ask. “Was that something you created in advance?”

“Not consciously,” replies Jeremiah. “I just have a general idea of what I want, and some larger mind manifests it.”

He pauses to add wood to the fire, which crackles and sends up a plume of sparks.

“It’s like how dreams occur,” he continues. “We don’t design every detail of a dream in advance, do we? And yet dreams are far more complex than what I just created.

“You once—sorry,” Jeremiah says, catching himself, “the other Andrew once explained it to me that way. He theorized that dreams are generated by the cosmos.”

Jeremiah shifts his tone of voice to perfectly mimic my parallel self, the Andrew he knew so closely.

“Even the dreams of ordinary people,” he says in a perfect semblance of my voice, “are as dazzling and multi-layered as a David Lynch film, and yet they’re invented on the fly. My theory is that they’re generated in spontaneous collaboration with the cosmos. Our psyches are like bubbles, floating in a field of infinite potential.”

I’ve had similar thoughts, so it’s easy to believe another version of me said them. Jeremiah continues in his own voice.

“Conjuring the question marks was a spontaneous collaboration of that sort. It’s something like lucid dreaming. The field of infinite potential recognizes imaginative intentions and realizes them for you, generating images as effortlessly as a dream.”

“So, when creative people say they were inspired, or they channeled something that just came through them—that’s the field working through them?”

“Partly,” he replies. “There might be rare cases where it all flows in from the field, but they’re probably overstating the case. Usually, it’s more collaborative. The artist’s psyche holds the seeds of creation, and the field is the nurturing soil that allows their visions to grow. However, there are times when the seeds come from the field itself, and then the reverse is true. We become the soil that helps them grow.”

“And when we share visions telepathically—that’s like our individual bubbles overlapping?”

“Something like that,” he says. “Though any spatial metaphors are a bit misleading. The bubbles can overlap in nonspatial ways that don’t require physical proximity to another psyche.

“The telepathic state is like a mutual dream where our imaginations may collaborate, and usually without the need for conscious direction. I intended to manifest the question marks, and then it’s as if some larger processing power rendered the details. And when two people have a strong telepathic rapport, visualizations don’t have to be consciously summoned by one or the other.

“Once you become used to this way of interacting with people, it’s almost painful to remember the limitations we once had. Now it seems hard to believe that we could only make these little mouth noises prior to this evolution.”

As Jeremiah falls silent, a vision appears—it’s like a beautiful Hudson River School landscape painting of the Old West, but it lives and breathes.

The dying embers of a spectacular sunset illuminate two Native American camps.

They’re separated by a deep canyon with a river flowing far below. The teepees of each camp are conical silhouettes against the reddish-orange horizon. The natives surround large campfires, flapping blankets to relay smoke signals across the canyon.

It’s a beautiful evocation of an old way of communication. Smoke signals and mouth noises were high magic in their time.

“I stand corrected,” says Jeremiah. “A butterfly should not view caterpillars as inferior, but as beautiful and necessary manifestations of its own lifecycle.”

I decide to confront the darkest of Jeremiah’s revelations.

“You said humans are heading toward extinction.”

“Yes. But from your place in time, the extinction is in a future that is still partly unformed.

“My hope is that your initiation, if you choose it, will generate ripples leading to a timeline in which the extinction doesn’t happen. Whatever new species may arise from it, the main trunk of human evolution will continue into an alternate future. The extinction timeline will still exist, but only as the lesser timeline, like a sickly branch off the trunk of a tree. Some life will continue in that branch, but humanity will not.

“Sorry, it’s a flawed analogy, and I’m not explaining this very well,” says Jeremiah, seeing my perplexed look.

“What you need to understand is simpler than it sounds. Right now, there are only two timelines to consider. There’s yours, and there’s the one I come from, which branched away when you were eighteen. When you were fifteen, there was only one Andrew, so the one I lived with had the same near-death experience you did. That’s how I know about his encounter with an alternate version of me named Tommy.”

“But wait, if my near-death experience happened three years before the split, how could I have visited with you? Your timeline didn’t even exist yet.”

“It didn’t exist during the moment in time where your physical body was, but when you left your body, you left linear time behind.

“But please don’t think that I understand everything about time anomalies and how it’s possible to cross timelines,” adds Jeremiah, “I don’t. Like you, I know what happened from my perspective in time, but how it all works is far beyond me. And what I know of the larger patterns—the extinction and timeline split, comes from someone I encountered named Wen, who was able to step out of linear time to view certain things. But even he didn’t know how it all works.

“Anyway, getting back to the Andrew I know, you and he were the same person until the timelines split. After, your lives probably diverged only slightly at first, but more and more as time went on. I’m guessing you both had similar relationships to Alex.”

“How much do you know about Tommy?” I ask.

“Only what I learned from the other Andrew, who told me about the brief moments they shared in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He also told me about Alex’s encounter with Tommy.

Unlike you and the other Andrew, Tommy and I were both born after the divergence. Therefore, we’ve always been different people. However, though I was given a different name, we both grew up in an intentional community in the Green Mountains and built treehouses. So I think our lives must have been quite similar until we were fifteen.”

“Well, what about Alex’s vision of Tommy as a captive in a giant greenhouse. Did anything like that ever happen to you?”

“In a sense, it did. The giant spacecraft that made the crossing had many areas where we grew plants for food and oxygen which could be considered greenhouses.

“But I think Alex’s vision of Tommy must have been during the extinction event on Earth. It sounds like he was living in a self-contained environment, perhaps a biosphere. If the extinction was caused by a plague or something poisoning the planet’s atmosphere, biospheres would be needed as survival shelters.”

“That makes sense,” I say.

“But there’s a lot more I can’t make sense of,” Jeremiah continues. “There’s a connection I have to Tommy that remains a mystery. It’s haunted me since I was fifteen and relates to how I ended up in a space-faring biosphere with the rest of my small community.

“I built my treehouse at the edge of our land, about a quarter-mile from our cabins and other buildings. I was sleeping in it on the first night of summer when I was awakened by the sound of helicopters.

“I look out and see them hovering just above the treetops. They’re matte black and have no lights or markings. They circle above our settlement, releasing a yellowish gas that is blown downward by the rotors. It’s inexplicable and terrifying. We’re just a tiny community living in the woods, not bothering anyone. Who would want to do this to us?

“Part of me wants to run to town to get help, but something tells me not to, that I should move closer and find out what’s going on.

“I climb down from my treehouse and walk stealthily along the field where the helicopters are landing. I’m careful to stay hidden by the surrounding trees.

“From the edge of the woods, I’m horrified to see people in tactical gear and gas masks carrying everyone away in stretchers and onto the helicopters. One of them is giving orders. I draw closer under cover of tree shadows and see the commander is some sort of military robot or cyborg.

“It must have infrared vision because it turns in my direction, locating me in the darkness. I stand still, in case I haven’t been detected, but it strides toward me. I want to flee, but I know I can’t outrun something like that. I expect it to shout orders or grab me, but it halts a few feet away and just stands there. Whatever intelligence is inside of it observes me through its black lenses. It feels like it’s keeping a respectful distance, so I won’t be frightened.

“Time slows, and I get this strange feeling, as if the cyborg knows me and has waited a long time for this encounter. Finally, it breaks the silence—’Tommy,’ it says, as if that’s my name.

“And that’s the last thing I remember on Earth. I must have inhaled some of the gas because my memory stops there.

“When I regain consciousness, it feels like I’ve been asleep for a century. We were never told how long we’d been put down, but it was probably only a few years. I’m completely disoriented and physically ill, like an unnaturally reanimated corpse.

“When my eyes focus, I see a pale-green medical robot staring down at me. It hovers above me as it goes through a series of diagnostics, gently palpating my abdomen with silicon-padded fingertips.”

“At first, I’m the only one awake, but then the robot moves onto Andrew. One-by-one, it revives all of us.

“Once we’re all awake, the AI informs us that we’re onboard a space-faring biosphere, navigating across the galaxy. We were chosen to be part of an evolutionary experiment. The biosphere will sustain us for the generation it will take to reach our destination, an Earth-like planet chosen for our future colony.

“None of us could ever solve the mystery of who took us. I was haunted by the abduction even more than the others because I’d seen it happen. And my interaction with the cyborg felt so—personal.

“The Andrew I knew was the newest member of our community, having been with us only a few months before the abduction. Until I recounted my experience to him, I had no clue why the cyborg called me Tommy. Then Andrew shared his near-death experience, and his encounter with a boy named Tommy who looked just like me. It was why Andrew had sought out our community in the first place. He’d been searching for Tommy ever since his NDE. Instead, he found me. After sharing these mysteries, we became close friends.”

Jeremiah becomes silent, and I gaze into the fire, trying to absorb the implications.

As he described his encounter with the cyborg, it seemed like I was looking out from his memory, as I’d done with Alex. I saw the cyborg’s looming form and the complexity of its exoskeleton. And I felt Jeremiah’s haunting perception of the dark figure as it cast a long shadow across time.

“You say you’re here to catalyze a metamorphosis in me that’s already underway. Ever since the car crash, my life has become more paranormal. I’ve had ideas about it, but—what exactly is the metamorphosis?”

“The species you’re emerging from, Homo sapiens, is rapidly evolving,” Jeremiah replies. “It wasn’t always. There were stretches of hundreds of thousands of years when people made the same kind of stone ax. But the Homo sapiens of your time are in an acute metamorphic stage. If that evolution continues, they will likely emerge into several new species. Some may involve genetic engineering and the union of man and machine, while others may be self-evolving forms of artificial intelligence.

“But I’ve only been able to observe the development of one new organic species—the one to which I belong. The one you are evolving toward.

“The name we’ve given to our species will sound mythological, but we don’t think of it that way. As the metamorphosis took hold, we came to share an intrinsic awareness that . . .  we are elves.”

Jeremiah’s words hang in the air, rippling with unreality. Disbelief makes me wonder if I’ve heard him right.

“Elves?” I ask.

“We had to call ourselves something, and wherever that name came from, we had a hunch it was an anticipation of our new species. But the similarity we felt was more influenced by modern fantasy books and films than the old Celtic version of elves. At first, we regarded the name as more of a whimsical place-holder, but over time we concluded this mythical name anticipated an actual biological type.”

“And—being an elf means what? That you don’t age?”

“No, we do age, but not like humans do. And there are many other differences. Right now, you are what we call a protoelf. You have the strong potential to become an elf if the metamorphosis continues. However, extremely few protoelves experience any degree of metamorphosis. Most regress over time and become more human. They simply age out of their potential. Unless one grows up in a community with some who have completed the transformation, it takes extraordinary catalysts to cause that potential to actualize.

“Many evolutionary changes exist as a latent potential for eons before they fully manifest. What triggers these changes are exceptionally ideal conditions, including just the right sort of catastrophe that necessitates transformation. In our case, we had elements of both. Also, our biosphere was an isolated evolutionary cauldron, like the Galapagos Islands. But instead of being separated from the mainstream of evolution by an ocean, we were set apart by lightyears of space. Because of that, our development was swift.

“Like the other Andrew, your life has been a strange combination of ideal and catastrophic elements. It takes a lot to disturb the equilibrium enough to catalyze a quantum evolutionary shift.”

“And what does that . . . quantum evolutionary shift—the metamorphosis—consist of?” I ask. “You say you age, but I don’t see any physical sign of it.”

“It is largely a process of etherealization. The ratio of ordinary energy shifts in favor of astral energy. And by energy, I also mean matter, which is just a special case of energy. We used to say that astral energy is at a higher frequency, but one of the more scientifically inclined members of our community said that’s wrong, and that we should not talk about frequency in relation to this. His argument was quite technical, and I can’t recall the details, but it seemed well-reasoned.

“At first, we felt awkward using old Theosophist words like astral and etherealization. But any other terms would be equally arbitrary.

“We’ve never pretended to understand entirely how the metamorphosis works. Our small community doesn’t have enough scientifically trained people for such a vast undertaking. A planet with billions of humans had yet to fully understand how ordinary matter and energy work. Our understanding of how astral variants work is still extremely primitive.

“What I’m about to tell you is how some of us think about it. We don’t even call it a theory—it’s just a rough and ready understanding. Still, it does seem to accord well with our experience.

“As the ratio of ordinary energy shifts toward the astral, there are a whole series of other changes, such as a cessation of conventional aging and an increase in telepathic abilities. Protoelves are humans with more astral energy and varying degrees of metamorphic potential. But potential is not enough.

“Many of those with us during our crossing did not metamorphose. They became old while our bodies remained youthful. It was—”

Jeremiah falls silent, and I feel him containing a depth of emotion.

“It was a difficult part of the process. Difficult for those who failed to metamorphose, but maybe even more so for those of us who did, those who live on in their absence . . .

“But wait, you were already a small group—how could this even smaller group who underwent the metamorphosis propagate a new species? There’d be too much interbreeding.”

“The ship did come with a cryogenically stored diversity of sperm and ovum, but eventually we realized in-vitro pregnancies weren’t necessary, because the metamorphosis somehow eliminated the possibility of recessive traits.”

“We struggled to understand why some underwent the metamorphosis, and others didn’t. The strongest correlation was that metamorphosis favored those, like me, who were young at the time of the abduction. We realized how many factors, especially on Earth, were weighted against the transformation. Almost every life choice alters the ratio of astral and ordinary energy.

“Protoelves are on a spectrum but are usually much closer to being humans than elves. In normal circumstances, protoelves don’t metamorphose. On Earth, there are so many poor influences—addictive substances, factory-made food, opportunities for meaningless sexual encounters, destructive relationships, oppressive jobs, lack of meaning—you name it. As a result, most protoelves lose their potential. Those who can remain protoelves into middle age and beyond are usually remarkable in all sorts of ways. And an earthbound protoelf that can undergo any degree of metamorphosis is an anomaly.

“Like you, the other Andrew was such an anomaly. I know you to be capable of the full transformation because he was the catalyst for those of us who underwent the change. As the first, he was the only one who could guide us through it. When he looked back on his life, he found his metamorphic process had no clear beginning. Signs of it were apparent as far back as he could remember, but his near-death experience was a prime catalyst.”

“Do you know much about his relationship with Alex?”

“Yes. For one thing, I know their relationship was a crucial metamorphic catalyst. After Alex’s suicide, they became an inter-species symbiont—a hybrid entity Andrew called a coaxial, with two psyches sharing two bodies. One body was primarily organic, and one was mostly astral. They found a number of ways to strengthen their link. For example, Andrew would visit Alex during lucid dreams.

“In one of their encounters, Andrew gave Alex an item of jewelry, an amulet he was wearing. Apparently, the dream object became an astral version, so they each wore the same talisman, Alex possessing an astral version of the physical version Andrew wore.”

I feel the warmth of the sapphire amulet resting in the center of my chest, but I don’t say anything. Jeremiah smiles, sensing the shift in my attention.

“You carry it with you already. Perhaps it will serve you in the same way.”

I place my hand over the amulet as Jeremiah tosses more wood onto the fire, sending up another plume of sparks that disappears into the desert night.

“We believe the potential for elf metamorphosis arose in the human species long ago, and perhaps this accounts for some elf lore. Apparently, the metamorphosis is a massive epigenetic change that can happen to certain protoelves in exceptional circumstances. The species, however, would seek to suppress such a massive mutation.

“Organisms seek homeostasis. Homo sapiens react immunologically to any mutants in their midst. As the other Andrew put it, they defend their equilibrium. Mutants are a threat to the consistency of the genome and potentially to the social order. In the schoolyard, the nation-state, or wherever collective human social structures exist, they tend to be harshly repressed or destroyed.

“Homo sapiens once lived amongst Neanderthals and other hominids, but somehow, they predominated. The human species is not inclined toward tolerating other hominid species living amongst them. Some evolutionary biologists believed this was the source of racism and developed a theory of pseudospeciation—human races tend to perceive each other as if they are competing hominid species. Since elves actually are a different species, if we lived in the past then we most likely had to cloak ourselves to escape genocide.

“To the collective human ego, the metamorphosis of the old genome into something new would be perceived as apocalyptic. Similarly, a caterpillar’s immune system attacks what are called imaginal cells that will eventually congregate and turn into a butterfly. The older species reacts immunologically to the emergence of a new one.

“To avoid attack, many protoelves instinctively learn to hide their differences, and may also actively suppress their protoelf aspects to fit in. If you don’t want to be a protoelf, it’s easy to destroy your potential. A highly processed diet is enough to reduce astral energy to the normal range.”

“Do you think you’re the first elves? Could there be others?”

“Perhaps in the deep past, other protoelves underwent the metamorphosis, and maybe that accounts for the lore. We don’t know. Any elves amongst the human population would be forced to disguise themselves to avoid persecution. But even if they hid their abilities, they couldn’t stay in one place for long because people would discover they weren’t visibly aging. So they would have to keep moving, cloaking themselves and covering their tracks through time.

“You’ve already found some ways to deflect dangerous attention, but soon that won’t be enough. As the metamorphosis continues, living in your world will become increasingly dangerous. You’ll need the advanced self-defense skills and cloaking techniques we’ve developed.

“Even if you don’t choose the initiation, I’m willing to help you with these survival skills.

“In your world, protoelves attract many forms of attention, some of them quite dangerous. They light up as glowing splinters in the minds of other humans, attracting envy, desire, and hate. And the more anomalous they are, the more dangerous attention they attract unless they learn to hide it.

“In our new world, the first-generation elves discovered that many of us had tragic histories of attracting sexual predators back on Earth. And—something of that nature happened to me a few weeks before the abduction.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. “That didn’t happen to me, but it did to Alex.”

“Yes, I’m aware of his unfortunate history. Protoelf bodies are more etherealized, which also means a reduction of entropy and random defects. It increases the likelihood they’ll be well-formed and pleasing to look at.”

“Beauty is not just a byproduct of evolution, but one of its central aims,” I point out, “Darwin made that case in 1871, and that view has made a comeback recently.”

“Yes,” Jeremiah replies with a smile that tells me my other version must have made the same point.

“Of course, most attractive humans are not protoelves,” he continues, “just as some protoelves are not particularly beautiful, but the correlation is strong. And even if they are not conventionally attractive, they have a certain glow that draws attention. Protoelves are perceived as a genetically exotic race. This causes some to desire them sexually. Some may also want to dominate them out of a feeling of genetic competition. Sex predators may be motivated by a combination of these instincts.

“The other Andrew was also targeted for a sexual assault in his late twenties, but by that point, he had metamorphosed enough to defeat his attacker in an unexpected way. The kinesthetic discoveries he made that night evolved into a new type of martial arts. It’s an art we practice more as a discipline than anything we actually need in our mostly peaceful community.

“Cloaking, and this form of defense, are part of a set of practices we call The Vehrillion.”

“The Vehrillion?” I ask.

The word sounds oddly familiar to me, but alien at the same time. I can’t place it.

“Yes. An unusual name, I know,” Jeremiah says. “It actually started as a joke. We were talking about what to call our new practices, and Andrew said ‘Well, it’s got to be something cool and mystical sounding, something like The Vehrillion,’ and we all laughed. Later, he said the word was just something he made up on the spot, a variation of some name he read in a fantasy novel. When we tried to think of a different name, they all sounded lame and pretentious, so we decided to use the joke word so we wouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Jeremiah smiles at the memory, and I see a side of him I haven’t seen before—a lighter, playful self—enjoying himself in the company of friends. He still seems otherworldly, but I catch a glimpse of the teenager he once was. Beneath the cruel lattice of scars and the teacher role he feels duty-bound to assume, his playful self is still alive. He’s both old and yet still young—not just physically—but in other ways too. It’s a new category of age that’s hard to grasp.

“Over the years, the name came to seem inevitable,” he continues. “So, we called our school The Vehrillion. Eventually, some of the next generation of elves—those born on the new world, or Gen Elf as we called them, wanted to join. So we developed an initiation process for them. Everyone in the community knew the joke origin of our name. Still, we always started by emphasizing that history to Initiates.”

“Because you didn’t want to become a cult?”

“Right, and we saw how easily that could happen. A healthy sense of humor about ourselves helped keep us from becoming dogmatic and pretentious. The founding members, including Andrew and I, didn’t want to be seen as an elect. Paranormal abilities can cause ego inflation and power trips, and we were always aware of that hazard.

“Also, we didn’t want to create tradition-bound magic. We were more on the side of chaos magic, where the individual is encouraged to create their own rituals and meanings. An attitude of creative play and experimentation was welcomed. Initiates were told to use the Vehrillion as a starting point to invent their own individual variations. We were eager to learn from them. Playful confidence enhances creativity– ‘the confidence of a four-year-old wearing a Batman T-Shirt’ as someone put it. We were all just partners in learning and didn’t want to create any sort of hierarchical priesthood.

“Despite our resistance to grandiosity, the Initiates started calling us, the founding members, The Adepts, a name we resisted. Eventually, we gave in, but to avoid a closed hierarchy, we insisted that anyone who reached a certain level of training would also be called an Adept.

“The one area we did take seriously was ethics. Using magic to interfere with anyone’s free will was forbidden unless such means were necessary to prevent some far greater harm. The powers we taught were dangerous to anyone who hadn’t integrated their shadow. So, before Initiates could receive the inner teachings, they had to undergo a difficult, even sanity-threatening ritual we call The Shadow Journey.”

Jeremiah gets up to bring more wood from the pile at the edge of the circle.

Shadow Journey.

The name resonates strangely in my mind. Jeremiah adds a few branches to the fire, and I wait for the crackling to subside.

“And this Shadow Journey is the initiation you’re offering?”

“The beginning of it. The most difficult part.”

“You say it’s sanity threatening?”

“Yes, but that’s not the full truth. For some, it threatens sanity, for others . . . we’re still trying to help them recover.

“This is why we’re careful not to prompt the Initiate’s decision. Many who have seen the effects of the Shadow Journey wisely chose not to undergo it. We honored that decision as coming from their inner truth.”

“What makes it so dangerous?”

“It involves bizarre identity transformations. Sometimes the Initiates experience whole lifetimes as other people, even other species.

“Some think of them as complex hallucinations in something like the Dreamtime or another level of reality. One Adept, Justin, calls them The Bridge Realms. He thinks of them as parallel realities created during Shadow Journeys. Justin is an anomaly— he’s taken Shadow Elixir multiple times, so he knows more about it than anyone.

“Others believe the Shadow Journey takes you into preexistent parallel realities that your psyche tunnels into. Nobody knows for sure. But wherever it takes you, it’s extremely disorienting to return.

“Some take years to recover, and others—well, as I said, others may never fully recover their sanity. That’s why we honor the right of refusal until the last moment—we never know who will come through intact. But those who have come through achieve an awareness of their own darkness. It’s an important step in the process of shadow integration. This work, though, is never complete. It’s understood, like all aspects of self-development, to be an ongoing process.”

Jeremiah pauses, studying me with calm appraisal.

“The other Andrew was the one who developed this initiation. He tested it on himself and underwent the first Shadow Journey with no guide. His experience was terrifying, even shattering, and yet he recovered well. This is why I think your chances are better than average. But you and the other Andrew are not the same person. He underwent the experience later in life when he was further into the metamorphosis. He also had many more years of inner work to prepare him. On the other hand, you will have an Adept as a guide.

“The truth is there’s no way to fully assess the risk. Every Shadow Journey is unique, so your intuition is the best indicator of whether you should attempt it.”

I take a deep breath and exhale, feeling the weight of this terrifying decision. “I don’t suppose there’s any alternative initiation—like going on a hike until I figure out what my spirit animal is or something?”

Jeremiah smiles at my gallows humor but doesn’t say anything.

“How does it work?”

“It involves taking a mostly astral liquid we call Shadow Elixir. Technically, you could categorize it as a hallucinogen, but it’s far more powerful than any such substance known to humans.”

I try to contain my revulsion, but there’s no concealing strong feelings from Jeremiah.

“I loathe hallucinogens,” I say. “I have a bad history with them, though not for lack of trying. Mushrooms, LSD, DMT, ayahuasca—each made me feel like I was dying. Dying a terrible death where my psyche was being ripped apart. Some people take mushrooms or acid like tickets to a rollercoaster ride. But for me, they’re like undergoing chemotherapy while getting fried in an electric chair. Even weed can make me paranoid.”

“I understand how you feel,” replies Jeremiah. “The other Andrew shared your history with those substances. And yet, it was his alchemical research that led to the development of Shadow Elixir. The distillation of it was a dangerous and volatile procedure that undermined his physical and mental health while it was in process. All the Shadow Elixir we have was created during that one experiment. 

“Was he—how long did the journey consume him?”

“From our perspective, only a few days. For him . . . he said it was lifetimes. Grotesque lifetimes. But again, his initiation is by no means a direct indicator of yours.

“The other Andrew’s courage was unique, as he took a psyche-shattering dose before the Elixir’s full effects were known. He didn’t have the benefit of everything we’ve learned to assist Initiates. An Adept always serves as a minder for the duration of the experience. We also have Initiates start with a microdose before and a micro-microdose after to help integrate the experience.

“By telling you the other Andrew’s history, perhaps I’ve made it seem inevitable that you should follow the same path. If I’ve created that impression, let me correct it now. What was right for him may not be right for you. Respect for the free will of others is at the core of the Vehrillion. This is a matter of your inner truth, and I want to emphasize again that if you choose not to go forward, I will respect that.”

The choice to accept, to consume this inhumanly potent hallucinogen, is terrifying. Jeremiah is offering me a dignified escape route. But . . . backing down now will mean abandoning everything—the initiation, his vast knowledge of both the metamorphosis and the Vehrillion, Jeremiah himself. It would be sticking my head in the sand and choosing a lesser destiny.

And the stakes go far beyond my own interests. The lesser path could lead to the extinction of the human race.

Jeremiah’s scars bear witness to the suffering he endured to give me this opportunity. And I believe him implicitly.

He’s giving me this choice because he thinks it might prevent extinction.

My whole being radiates fear as Jeremiah is, no doubt, well aware. I’m hesitating at the edge of an abyss, and every second gives my fear more space to expand.

“I’ll do it,” I say firmly. “I’ll take The Elixir.”

Jeremiah nods gravely, but otherwise is careful not to react to my decision. His neutrality seems intentional, part of the code of respecting free will by not showing bias even after a key choice.

“What one Andrew can do, so can another,” I add, trying to lighten the moment. “I’m ready.”

“I admire your determination, but we should spend more time together before you take the Elixir. Being in the company of someone on the other side of the transformation acts as a catalyst. Also, I’d like to prepare you for changes you can expect once the metamorphosis accelerates.”

I let out a breath, relieved there’s still time and preparation before . . .

“Let’s talk about what changes when a protoelf becomes an elf. There’s lots of continuity with our more human selves. We’re still the same people in many ways, with flawed personalities, relationship problems, and many of the same issues that trouble humans. Our bodies have all the same organs, and we do have an aging process—though, as I’ve said, it’s quite different from human aging. We have greater regenerative abilities and aren’t plagued by illness. We recover quickly from injuries, though only up to a point. If severe enough, they can still be fatal. We are amortal, not immortal. Though we can usually avoid fatal accidents for a few reasons.

“Many humans have short-term clairvoyance. Ours is just enhanced. Our intuition and ability to perceive remote events in space and time allow us to sense most approaching hazards.

“Our physical senses are heightened as well. We see, hear, taste, and smell things undetectable to most humans. Our bodies also tend to be smaller and lighter, contributing to our speed and agility. As for our diet, we don’t need to eat as much. And a lot of what humans eat we find repugnant. We don’t tire as quickly as humans and can go longer without sleep.

“Our experience of time is different. For example, we can quicken our metabolism and reaction time in emergency situations. In effect, the world around us slows down, giving us more room to act.”

“And what you conjured in the ranch house—some kind of enchantment—is that something all elves can do?” I ask.

“Yes, but to varying degrees. All elves can share visualizations, but those trained in the Vehrillion can do more. If ethically warranted, we may create illusions in the minds of others, as you’ve experienced. We can appear to them in altered forms or use illusions of invisibility to cloak ourselves.

“But there are even greater differences between us and our source species. For example, elves can merge with other sentient beings in profound ways. We still enjoy the same physical intimacies, but the ability to merge energetically has largely overtaken the more physical way most humans experience sexuality.

“We can also merge our awareness with inanimate objects to pick up memories imbued in them.”

“Well, non-elves can do that too,” I point out. “It’s called psychometry. I’ve felt memories from certain objects.”

I reach for the chain around my neck and slide the sapphire amulet out from under my shirt.

“Alex used to do juggling tricks with this crystal, and I still feel his energy in it.”

“Yes,” Jeremiah says, his eyes intent on the gemstone. “This is not surprising given you’re an evolving protoelf. Maybe I’ve given a false impression. Evolutionary changes emerge episodically long before they characterize a whole species. All the paranormal abilities we possess first emerged in human beings. They’re all on a spectrum. Elves are just further along that spectrum.”

“You read minds so well—I’m wondering if you still speak aloud like we’re doing now, or is all your communication telepathic?”

“No, we still speak aloud when the moment calls for it. It can be a way of showing emphasis or more appropriate for circumstances where telepathy might be too personal and invasive. Like when expressing strong disapproval of something. We’re not perfect. We still yell at times and curse aloud if we’re frustrated. Sometimes even elves need to tell someone to fuck off.

“In general, we’re still a work in progress. As I mentioned before, aging for us involves a gradual etherealization—as astral matter and energy increase, the organic variants diminish. This enhances all the abilities and aspects I’ve mentioned. But we don’t know where this process leads because we’ve had only so much time to observe it. Even amongst the eldest of us, the etherealization continues.

“There are many other differences, but it will be better to discover them yourself after the Shadow Journey. Everyone develops in their unique way, and we don’t want to burden you with expectations. But . . . now that I’ve described it more, do you still wish to proceed? The right of refusal continues until the moment you take the Elixir.”

“Oh, I’d like to refuse—I’d love to refuse—but you said there’s an extinction coming . . . if there’s anything I can do to prevent it, I should. Still, I’m one person—I, I don’t understand, how can I possibly create that much change?”

“Don’t underestimate the difference one person can make. The more anomalous you are, the more change you create, for better or worse. The mission seems overwhelming because you’re thinking of it in causal terms. I must do A to cause B. But sometimes, we create change by simply being, rather than by a specific action.

“You’re right, though. There is much ambiguity in all of this. I have no way of knowing how or even if this intervention will succeed. We can only work with what is presently in front of us and hope for the best. This is the opposite of a causal mission, where we have an exact physical objective. We have a general goal, but we cannot structure in advance the means we need to get there.

“I may have an influence on you that creates a butterfly effect. And you may, in turn, generate your own effects, the ends of which are unknowable. Through your own subtle means, you may alter the human timeline just enough to bypass extinction.”

“But why be subtle? Why not a decisive act like whatever created your timeline?”

“Gradual development allows for greater evolution. By acting subtly, the intervention filters out through more people—more psyches are influenced. As opposed to a macro shock, like an asteroid hitting the planet, changes over time allow for more free will and unique variations. There’s more room for individual development where many psyches aggregate enough change to alter the timeline permanently.

“When change is delivered as a single shock, there’s a high risk that the pendulum may swing back regressively, which could be another path to extinction. You can’t just attack one source of darkness, because others will rush in to take its place. The hope would be for the species to gradually become more aware of its darkness and for a sufficient minority of conscious people to shift the collective.”

“But your intervention with me isn’t subtle,” I point out. “You’ve taken me to a different world, and the next step involves taking a life-altering substance.”

“Well, you’re right, of course. It seems like a total contradiction, but I think my means are more subtle than they appear. The other Andrew created the Shadow Elixir and went on the first Shadow Journey. I am merely bringing closer what, in one form or another, you would probably find on your own. You’re already a change agent. The initiation merely accelerates the trajectory you’re already on.”

“I understand.” I say, “But it’s still disturbing to know how much is at stake and—I have no clue how to create the right butterfly effects.”

“You may not have to alter your behavior much at all. Extroverts favor causal or chemical means like political activism, while introverts like yourself tend to work through subtle, alchemical means such as art or—like what you already do, writing articles about subcultures. Exposing people to the unfamiliar alters the collective psyche.

“The other Andrew often quoted Jung, who said, There is no hydrogen bomb in nature. That is all man’s doing. We are the great danger. Psyche is the great danger. Andrew pointed out the problems we left behind on Earth—violence, environmental destruction, economic injustice—were all one hundred percent psychological products. But psyche can also be the source of positive change, especially when alchemical means are focused on influencing the collective toward transformation.”

“I can see that, but surely I need to do something different to alter the extinction path.”

“It would be impossible to do exactly what you were doing before taking the Elixir, even if you wanted to. The Shadow Journey and other parts of the initiation will change you in unpredictable ways, so it’s inevitable that your actions will be altered, new pathways opened, new butterfly effects created. You haven’t undergone the initiation yet, so it’s too soon to worry about after.”

“OK. I accept the ambiguity. I’ll do my best, and if enough time goes by and there’s no extinction, I guess it will mean that I, or someone, or something, altered the timeline.”

“Yes.”

Jeremiah seems pulled away by something. He’s staring into the fire, and whatever he sees there darkens his expression.

“What is it?” I ask.

“A vision of my last Shadow Journey, the one that led to crossing over to your world. I think it’s coming up because it needs to be shared before you take your own journey. It’s not something I want to relive, but it will explain why I’m here, and it needs to be part of your preparation. If you’re willing, you can experience it with me from a merged-identity perspective. It’s the most immersive way of sharing an experience we’ve found.”

“I’m willing,” I reply. “I’ve had that form of sharing before with Alex.”

“Yes, I thought that might be the case,” replies Jeremiah. “The other Andrew did as well.”

“Even when you told the story about the cyborg, I started to see him from your perspective.”

“That’s a good sign,” says Jeremiah. “It’s a perfectly natural ability. You almost certainly won’t remember any of this during your Shadow Journey. Still, it will be within you somewhere, and when you return, it may help you understand what’s at stake.”

“When I went into the forest to take a microdose of Shadow Elixir, I didn’t foresee the crossing. I was seeking a vision to help my world survive a great darkness that had befallen us. But the Shadow Elixir brought me visions of the Earth we had left so far behind.

“You will share my sensations, thoughts, and emotions. It will happen in stages until you completely lose awareness of yourself and become fully immersed in my perspective.

“I could encounter you in my memory, and you wouldn’t notice the contradiction. You would just experience this other person, Andrew, from my perspective. The experience will help prepare your psyche for the identity shifts of the Shadow Journey. Do you consent to this temporary loss of self-identity and immersive transfer?”

“Yes.”

“Close your eyes,” Jeremiah whispers, “Take some deep breaths and just allow yourself to be open to my perceptions.”

I do, and slowly the fuzzy, phosphine-mottled light show behind my eyelids clarifies into a starlit night.

As with the shared memory I experienced with Alex of his awakening in the city of night, the merger with Jeremiah’s perspective happens in fluid stages. Soon, it becomes so encompassing that any sense of my self as Andrew is completely submerged . . .

Below me, I see a forest of coniferous trees. My vantage point dives through the thick canopy until it descends below the tree branches and rests just above Jeremiah’s head. He’s camouflaged in a blanket of velvety fabric that blends with the shadows and carpet of pine needles. There are no scars on his face.

He kneels beneath a tree, his cloak pulled around him. I sense his fear and determination. His eyes pull me into him, and once I’m within, I become aware of much that has led to this moment.

Visions appear, like ripples in a scrying bowl—elusive when I try to see details. As they bounce and play off one another, from the edges of the bowl toward the center, a shimmering light radiates through them and the visions coalesce.

I’m detached when each vision begins. First, I see Jeremiah from the outside, but then I’m drawn into his point of view and see and feel through his perspective.

In the opening vision, I see Jeremiah with the other Adepts, drinking tea as he sits at a table in a meeting hall. The walls and furniture are all made of wood and beautifully crafted with sweeping curvilinear lines. The serene perfection of the interior contrasts the anxiety the Adepts feel as they discuss foreboding dreams and intuitions.

My perspective merges with Jeremiah’s as he tunes into the undercurrents of foreboding. The conversation is interrupted as I, and the other Adepts, sense something invading our world. We perceive the intruder as a nucleus of evil burrowing into a cave system deep beneath Mount Liatrin, east of our settlement. The evil flaunts its presence, but its exact form remains hidden, surrounded by dark cloaking fields. There’s nothing we can do to stop its invasion of our world.

Once situated in its unassailable fortress beneath the mountain, the entity releases its cloaking, allowing us to behold its essential nature.

It is an Archparasite, endowed by the cosmos with the powers of a demigod.

It penetrates the Adepts’ minds with a telepathic command—

“Unless the worthiest of you comes before me, I will devour all of you.”

FLASH—

A second vision. It’s a few days later, and I see Jeremiah walking with the other Adepts in moonlight toward The Initiate’s Lodge.

My perspective merges again when we arrive at the Lodge and find three Initiates have gone missing, leaving behind a letter addressed to us. Anxiety radiates in our mutual telepathic space as each of us struggles to contain our fear.

Horror shivers through me as I read the letter.

“We, who were not thought advanced enough in our training to undergo the Shadow Journey, have chosen to act while others remained passive in the face of this existential threat. We have chosen our own initiatory quest—to confront and defeat this enemy. Perhaps when we return victorious, you will recognize the folly of underestimating our courage and abilities.”

The heroic grandiosity of their wording reveals The Archparasite’s potent ability to twist minds and desires. I feel a moral obligation to attempt a rescue even as I realize this is exactly the parasite’s intention—to lure us into its trap. The other Adepts see it too.

A moment after we perceive the trap, a hurricane of telepathic shrapnel penetrates our minds. Each bit of shrapnel is a shard of memory ripped from the minds of the Initiates.  The parasite has repurposed the broken fragments of their psyches into a weapon.

FLASH—

After the attack, I see Jeremiah set off alone into the forest.

My perspective merges with his as I become conscious that there is a vial of Shadow Elixir in my shoulder bag.

 With each breath, I focus my intention. The elixir must reveal a way for the elves to survive.

I set out a blanket beneath a coniferous tree in a secluded grove and prepare to take Shadow Elixir. In my left hand, I hold the vial. The darkly iridescent ceramic is topped by a spire-shaped stopper that rises to a point. I remove the stopper with my right hand and dip the top of it into the vial. I focus on manifesting visions that will help us survive the threat as I touch the point to my left wrist. An inky black dot on my skin disappears as the liquid sinks into my body.

FLASH—

I see geese flying in a perfect V formation through a stormy sky. A moment later, I share their vantage looking down at a turbulent ocean teeming with human thoughts and primal emotions. The clouds part further, revealing the source of the psychic turmoil.

Two fleets of ships–complex structures of wood, rigging, and sailcloth–move slowly through the water. They’re adorned with brightly colored flags rippling in the wind. We fly above them, looking down at their billowing sails. The vessels are crawling with men frantically adjusting ropes, hoisting sails, and readying weaponry.

Canons are pushed through hatches in the ships’ wooden hulls until they bristle with exposed artillery. The two opposing fleets bear flags of different colors, but the thoughts, feelings, and activities of the sailors are almost identical.

The men are straining their muscles and tendons to the limit. I feel their hearts race as spurts of adrenaline pump into their blood. There is a potent mix of smells—saltwater, gunpowder, canvas, wood, tar—but cutting through all of those is the smell of sweat and fear.

Commands are shouted, followed by a deafening roar of explosions as fusillades of cannon-fire erupt from both fleets.

All these complex wooden structures, full of moving parts and people, become one chaotic frenzy of fire and smoke, screaming and blood.

FLASH—

A young sailor kneels on a ship deck slippery with blood. His hands grasp a fallen comrade who is beyond help, his liver pierced by a huge wooden splinter. His gaze radiates agonizing love as he looks into the pale blue eyes of his dying friend. Their eyes become portals, and they merge, their souls united as they struggle to stay alive together for a few more seconds. They’re protoelves, and moments before death, they’re discovering that they have a bond that transcends bodies.

The departing spirit of the wounded sailor rises, and I go with it.

The details below blur into a turmoil of fire, smoke, blood, and suffering as we ascend rapidly. At the edge of invisibility, I perceive something— a hungry web, like a dark funnel in the sky, absorbing the energy of all the torment and rage.

FLASH—

I’m breathing oxygen-rich air pumped into my helmet by a black rubber hose. My fighter jet’s acrylic canopy allows me to glance down at my target—a formation of gray battleships moving through the ocean.

My mind is a cold mechanism driven by adrenaline and the roar of jet engines. Needles tremble on an array of analog instruments around me. I extract critical information from them, flick a switch that arms my weapons—

FLASH—

I stand close to a worker in a slaughterhouse factory line. He stares straight ahead, his eyes dimmed by infinite boredom and numbness. His plastic uniform and face shield are splattered with blood and brain tissue. He holds a stainless-steel pneumatic gun in his gloved hand as he fires a bolt into the heads of cows coming down a chute toward him—

FLASH—

I’m back in the fighter jet, breathing oxygen that smells of black rubber. The diaper in my flight suit is saturated with urine.

I’m cruising above cloud level, accelerating toward Mach 2, when I’m nearly blinded by the light of a hydrogen bomb detonating. The dome of an artificial sun looms up and swells outward. I bank a harsh turn. Brutal G-forces press me into my seat as I desperately try to accelerate away from the approaching shockwave—

FLASH—

I’m hovering above a robotically controlled surgical procedure. Minutely articulated mechanical arms are working on two bodies bristling with cables. An AI system is performing an experimental procedure to transfer the mind of a dying man into a fresh, young body lying beside him, but both bodies are flatlining.  

FLASH—

I’m in a banquet hall, humans sitting at tables of white linen. They wear costly fabrics and perfumes, and their pockets are filled with slender machines of metal, glass, and silicon. They have cunning eyes and faces adorned with subtle cosmetics. Spells of deception and power are woven into their every glance and spoken word. With metallic cutlery, they dine on the cooked tissues of their fellow mammals–

FLASH—

Five children, three girls and two boys, sit in a circle in a grassy field. They live in an Eastern European village that’s about to be invaded.

My attention is drawn to one of the girls. Her name is Lydia, and she’s the leader of this small group of children. She’s only twelve, but she radiates old-soul wisdom and character. The charismatic force of her personality has convinced the other children they can influence the crisis with psychic intention. They grasp hands and close their eyes as they sit in their circle.

I realize they’re initiating themselves into the first level of the Vehrillion, and I want to help. I feel their seriousness, moral purpose, and will to rescue their imperiled nation.

The way Lydia has set up the ritual is brilliantly direct and will have powerful effects. Unfortunately, it will also create seeds of discord within the group. She is about to link their psyches into a telepathic mutuality, but she is the only one in the group strong enough to cope with such a boundary dissolution. The psyches of the other children are much less developed, and they’ll be traumatized.

My desire to help intensifies and—

FLASH—

I’m in an astral version of my body, and my awareness extends into someone else, a young protoelf with great metamorphic potential.

He’s in his college dorm room, sitting up in bed, staring at me with fascination and desire. His body is thin and underdeveloped, and his face is too peculiar to ever be handsome. It’s narrow with a weak chin, and dominated by his large, incandescent eyes, a beak-like nose, and sensual lips that look like a comic afterthought.

His gaze is psychic, but in a highly immature and adolescent way that doesn’t distinguish between vision and projection. He sees me as ideally beautiful, and his gloating smile emanates delight at what he thinks of as his ability to conjure me like a personal genie.

Realizations about him flood into me.

His name is Wen, and he perceives his paranormal gifts with feverish grandiosity. His arrogance attempts to compensate for insecurity about his appearance. He’s fueled by rage and thinks of himself as infinitely superior to the same peers he envies and wants to prove himself to. He wants to shock them with his paranormal abilities and show them the funny-looking kid is actually a powerful wizard. If only they could see him in this moment of triumphant magic.

I light up like a trophy in his dilated eyes. His energy is fiery with mystical curiosity mixed with sexual excitement. He desires me to become more solid and approach, but he’s summoned more than he realizes.

Gently, I draw closer. I want to be careful because my presence will alter him in ways he can’t anticipate.

As I merge with him, the energy of his immature sexuality expands into something larger and more encompassing than anything he’s ever felt. I’m more aware of him than he is of himself, and my love honors and accepts the unfinished complexity of his light and dark, his passions and fears. His gloating curiosity transforms into awe and heartfelt gratitude. New paranormal talents are awakening and about to flower in him. He is a seed crystal, and our merging has altered him profoundly. It’s fulfilling to give this strange protoelf something he desperately needs.

The intervention is complete, and now I’m being withdrawn. I ascend into a luminous cloud of unformed possibilities scintillating above the Earth. Below, a few protoelves are awakening in the Dreamtime. They sense my presence and want to make contact, but a force constrains me. Wen is the one I was meant to influence.

FLASH—

I’m back in my physical body, sitting beneath the tree on the carpet of pine needles, the stoppered vial of Shadow Elixir resting before me.

Sitting across from me is a finely featured boy of about fourteen. His body is completely astral, but stable and perfectly realized. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt and dark trousers. His large, blue-gray eyes are somber and preternaturally aware. He’s studying me patiently, giving me time to compose myself and speak first.

But there’s something more he’s waiting for.

An odd familiarity hides beneath his appearance. His presence alters my time perception, and a strange impression arises. It grows stronger, though it doesn’t make any sense. Finally, I have to say it.

“You’re—”

“Yes, Jeremiah,” he replies in a soft, mellifluous voice. “I’m Wen, the boy you just encountered. But what was a moment ago for you is my distant past, and I’m no longer the person I was then.

“I must speak to you in oversimplifications because speaking is oversimplification. But it’s what we have to work with at the moment.

“You see me in a form I’ve chosen for most of my travels. It’s right for me in ways I can’t fully rationalize. Perhaps it humbles me in a way I need. But I must confess that you’ve been the muse of my long journey, and long ago, there were times when I presumed to take your form. That was shameful behavior on my part, but a compliment to you, I hope.

“I have long thought of you as my guiding star. If not for you, I’d have become something monstrous. My desire to reconnect with you after our first encounter inspired me to pursue lucid dreaming, out-of-body experience, and remote viewing. I’ve waited so long for this chance to tell you how much you mean to me.

“But this opening exists because I have the bittersweet opportunity to help you fulfill your Shadow Elixir quest. I can tell you about the nature of the parasitic threat to your world and point you toward a perilous mission that might remove it. But . . . personally . . . I don’t want you to undertake this mission, Jeremiah. It’s horrifically dangerous. If I were embodied, I’d lack the physical courage to even consider it.”

While Wen speaks, I engage the Vehrillion truth-saying practice. His words light up as fully authentic. If there’s any misinformation, it’s not intentional. And the practice reassures me that despite the lingering effects of the micro-dose, I’m having an actual encounter.

“Yes, I have nothing but honesty for you, Jeremiah,” Wen says, reading me reading him. “And I will disclose everything I’ve learned about the threat, but there’s no rush because we’re meeting outside of clock time. So, I hope you’ll allow me to talk about myself first. I’ve waited lifetimes to speak to you, the one person who has shown me deep love and understanding.

“My life has been disgraceful in so many ways, and I’ve only myself to blame. If not for you, disgrace would have turned to irretrievable darkness. Instead, I’ve left the worst of my sins behind and discovered ways to do a little good.

“A year after our encounter, I was feverishly pursuing psychonautical experiments, especially out-of-body exploration. I was desperate to find you again, as you were central to my selfish mythology. And with all my contempt for my peers, I was just as oblivious as they were to the churning of world history. Current events were just an archaic newsreel backdrop to my personal movie—the one where I played the starring role.

“We were busy competing for attention on social media when our egocentric movies were rudely interrupted by breaking news. As it turned out, we were living through the end of human history. A viral plague called The Whip was tearing through the world. People began dropping like flies, torn from their bodies through gruesome deaths.

“Governments began distributing packs of euthanasia pills called The Dose for any who wished to avoid the horrific death brought on by the virus. But my inflated pride disdained such a pharmaceutical escape hatch designed for the masses.

“Even as a child, I was disgusted by the thought of being merely one of billions of meat bodies, trapped along with the rest of the species in a gravity-bound, animal shell with gross functions. Adding insult to injury, my body was inferior to most of my peers, which was an even worse affront to my pride.

“I wanted to live in the non-linear time of my imagination. Time navigable by desire and will. And I hated what I considered mundane and mediocre, which was almost everything and everyone. My greatest contempt was for the social matrix of my peers. They judged me by my inferior appearance, failing to recognize my great talents. But it was an envious antipathy, because I was desperate to show them how great I was.

“When the unstoppable nature of The Whip was disclosed, I hatched my escape plan. I would graduate from the mortal coil before my classmates and show them, show the world, that I did it my way—Wen’s Way.

“I needed no factory-made pills to bring on a sleepy, unconscious death. Instead, I’d achieve a magical afterlife, empowered by what I read in my Alistair Crowley books. Or so I thought.

“So, one night, while still perfectly healthy, I left on an out-of-body experience. I ascended until I could see the curvature of the Earth. Hovering in the upper atmosphere, I severed the silver cord that connected me to my homely physical form. Far below, still lying in my dorm bed, that body became an uninhabited husk.

“I was unbound—a shapeshifting, interdimensional traveler. I achieved my exit, my way—Wen’s Way. But few bothered to notice when the whole species was dying off. I’d cheated death by a few weeks at most, and selfishly cut and ran with little regard for those I left behind. Instead, I left a demented and grandiose note about my escape plan, a note which failed to express the slightest appreciation or compassion for anyone.

“So, I never got to show my peers my true greatness, but I did get what I asked for, a life freed from the surly bonds of meat embodiment and linear time. But, as they say, the most tears are shed for answered prayers.

“Have you ever heard Frank Sinatra’s egoistic and self-satisfied swan song, ‘My Way?’”

I nod.

“Like Frank, I did it my way. And like Frank’s way, Wen’s Way was selfish and hedonistic. Wen’s Way is a curse I’ve brought on myself.

“My life as an interdimensional traveler was a self-castrated existence. When I cut the cord, I thought I’d be liberated and empowered. I imagined myself able to fly off to the stars and visit extraterrestrial civilizations. I could go anywhere in human history if I really wanted to . . . but I didn’t. Loneliness kept me bound to the times and places where I could witness people of my own era.

“I was a spoiled child with infinite opportunities to be a voyeur, but nothing else. I thought being noncorporeal would cure my tormenting jealousy of those who had better bodies and opportunities for sexual escapades, but actually it only made things worse. I bitterly envied those who lived out an entire embodied lifetime. They had opportunities to create soulful bonds. Even if it was only to a dog or cat, it was more than what I had.”

Suddenly Wen looks away, and when his gaze returns, it’s dark and full of self-loathing.

“As I was saying, my only bonds were voyeuristically one-sided. And the lives I followed before I came to your world were finished. Everyone had already died from the Whip or another cause. From my unbound perspective, these completed lives were like spinning vinyl records, each densely grooved with linear time tracks. And I was the diamond needle that could precisely choose where to insert myself. Once I made contact with the spinning surface of a life, I’d become immersed in its unfolding moments. I picked up the subtlest vibrations, reading the thoughts and feelings of my subjects. I didn’t experience their lives as recordings but as real-time vibrations conducting right through me.

“My relation to the finished aspect of the lives I followed was part of a multi-faceted paradox. Looking into one facet, I saw the inexpressibly beautiful intimacy I often felt with those I followed. But looking through another facet, I saw myself in a horrifying light. I was tainted, sinful, and perhaps evil. I was a shadowy interloper stealing experiences, invading privacy without consent. And I was often resentful and jealous, a castrated observer watching from behind a glass darkly.

“And yet, there were occasions when I could step from behind the glass and have moments of influence and even interaction. If one of my subjects was dreaming or in an extraordinary state—for example, if they’d taken a powerful hallucinogen— contact became possible. And anytime I actualized that potential for contact, I had influence, even if my subject didn’t consciously remember when they emerged from the dream, trip, or whatever. But those moments of influence were also the source of painful doubts. How much had I helped, and how much had I harmed? I didn’t know. Worse, I was aware I didn’t know, yet I kept at it.”

“Wen,” I interrupt, “that’s an honorable doubt anyone daring to relate to another should have. None of us can know perfectly how much benefit and harm we cause. It’s often ambiguous, but we need to keep at it. Without ambiguity, there’d be no relationships, just puppet shows.”

Wen considers my words and studies me in grave silence.

“Thank you, Jeremiah. I do see the truth of that. But with me, it’s a partial truth because I invade lives without consent.”

Wen’s eyes are needy and yet profoundly aware and intelligent. He’s a tormented soul who has waited so long to be heard and to hear from me. But he’s so unusual that I could easily fail to give him the understanding he needs.

My mind reaches back to seeing him in his dorm room, and I gain a new insight. Beneath his studies of Alistair Crowley and feverish psychonautical experiments, I sense a Roman Catholic ancestry. I’m not sure how conscious he is of its influence, but I see how much his view is shaped by sin and redemption. And the form he’s chosen for himself presently—the white button-down shirt and dark gray trousers—gives him the looks of a penitent boy in a parochial school uniform.

He sees himself as a sinner and me as a semi-divine being. He’s looked up to me for so long as if I were a stained-glass window in the cathedral of his personal religion. He needs me to hear his confession and offer some sort of absolution.

“Wen,” I begin warily, trying to navigate the slippery line between acceptance and excusing his transgressions, “the form your relationships take is new to me and hard to evaluate. A core principle of the Vehrillion is to not use its powers of influence on another without consent. But there are exceptions for high-stakes situations where powers of influence are needed to prevent some greater harm. For all your moral ambiguity, you seem to be serving as an evolutionary catalyst. I don’t know if that exception excuses what you do, but it’s how we’re together right now.

“Like any of us, you arose out of the cosmos to play your role. I live that way. I am here to play my role. But I strive to do so with all the ethical awareness I can summon.

“I don’t mean to sound preachy—your remorse shows that you realize that do as thou wilt does not mean acting out every personal desire but acting from your True Will.  Your true purpose. Though finding that and staying true to it is a lifelong struggle.”

“Thank you, Jeremiah. I’ve tried to live that way, and I eventually reformed my transgressions. But in the early days, Wen’s Way was less about do as thou wilt and more about doing what I felt like, even though I was filled with painful doubts.

“Not that it excused anything, but I was also highly confused by paradoxes I could never resolve. How could I influence the young psychics I followed when their lives had already happened? I’d heard of retrocausation and other exotic time theories, but I was too greedy for interaction to theorize about it. During those precious moments of contact, I felt alive and powerful.

“But those were rare occurrences, and mostly I was behind the dark glass. Even worse was when I became bored, disappointed, or bitterly envious of a life I tracked. If a subject enraged my expectations, I could drag the needle across the record and spitefully put it down at the last hour of their life to see how it ended. But when I did that, my spite usually turned into pity and compassion.

“As you can see, my relationship with time was capricious. If I chose the right track, I could become wonderfully immersed. But when things went wrong, I’d often feel compelled to break contact. And even if I wasn’t displeased with a subject, there was a periodic need to disengage. Like a deep-sea diver who must eventually come up for air, I can only stay immersed for so long before some cyclical necessity compels me to come up to the vacuum. So even when immersed in a life, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I would have to pull away before long. It was a curtain of shadow behind every experience.

“Those were agonizing moments. It was like lifting my diamond needle up into the empty space above all the records. There I’d feel the hollowness of my unbound existence—the place where my alienation was absolute.

“When I was in the vacuum, my relationship to time didn’t feel like a superpower. It was a cheap addiction. Still, I could never face the void for long, so I kept dropping my diamond needle into the lives of others.

“I pursued what I thought of as your example and chose interesting psychic kids. Following my desires, I mostly haunted attractive young male psychics, the sort I always wished to befriend when I was embodied. I lived vicariously through these favorites. Their lives were ongoing dramas I returned to again and again. When I found someone interesting, I always followed them in the chronological order of their timeline. I didn’t jump ahead and see how they died unless, as I’ve said, they greatly disappointed me.

“Obviously, my visitations were based on egoistic desire. If their life took a turn I didn’t like—if they fell in love with someone, for example, I might petulantly abandon them. I was always jealous of others who could participate directly in their lives. And if they aged in a way that made them less attractive, I’d leave them and look for someone new and more intriguing. Shallow, I know.

“My glamorous notions of being an interdimensional traveler gave way to the envious life of a hungry ghost.

“Being near my favorites made me feel alive. But I stopped short of trying to steal their energy. It radiated from them in great abundance, so there was no need to take more than what they freely gave off. At least, that’s the way it started.

“Then my visitations developed . . . transgressive aspects. Sometimes, when one of my favorites masturbated, their energy field opened in a way that allowed me to enter their fantasies. I’d shapeshift into forms to attract their energy, and this allowed me, in a guise, to light up in their imaginations.

“I couldn’t see any obvious harm to them, and I had many rationalizations. If anything, I was helping their autoerotic experiences to be more intense. I didn’t really manipulate their desires—I just took the form of them.

“It was so exciting to be in a guise they found beautiful, and that gave them pleasure. But for me, it was an intensely guilty pleasure because I realized the hollowness of my justifications. I was being deceptive and acting without their full awareness or consent. They didn’t realize who they were actually giving energy to.

“I became ever more addicted and intrusive. Eventually, horrifying visions of myself becoming a malevolent vampire convinced me I had to stop. It was a hard habit to break because I had nothing as exciting to take its place. But I knew I’d lose my soul if I continued.

“What saved me was revisiting our first encounter. I returned to it again and again. You showed me what loving someone could be. And it was so much nobler than my sneaky ways of getting off through shape-shifting and deception.

“I fasted from such transgressions and revisited our encounter whenever I felt tempted. More than ever, you were my guiding star. And yet, I’ve never been able to love anyone in the way you loved me, with complete acceptance and unselfishness.

“As a voyeur, I was always a harsh critic of imperfections I found unattractive. If I got annoyed in any way with one show, it was easy to change the channel to another. Only after I abandoned my addiction completely, did I discover a way to be a beneficial influence. I couldn’t make love to those I desired, but I could still love them. And so I did. And sometimes, in their darkest moments, I could feel the subtle influence of my love guiding them away from despair.

“Those rare occasions of conferring a blessing did not remove my doubts and guilt. I was still invading their privacy without consent. So, it’s hard to say if even those moments where I was able to help were warranted.”

Wen lapses into regretful silence.

“Wen,” I say, “I’m not in a position to absolve or condemn your actions. You’re right, it is hard to say what’s warranted or not in such unique situations. You were relating in the only way you could. Hasn’t there always been testimony about spirits watching over people? In those dark moments when your influence guided someone in need, maybe you were something like a guardian angel.

“Ethical awareness does not mean ethical clarity. I’m not clear about the ethics of what I’m saying to you right now. My ethical awareness is more like a candle shinning into a vast field of ambiguity.

“In the early days of exploring our new world, I sometimes had to drive our ATV at night by headlights. There was some risk, but it was workable. And when it comes to relationships, we’re all driving at night by our headlights. We see only so much, but it’s all we’ve got.”

“Thanks, Jeremiah,” says Wen pensively. “That’s a generous perspective. But to follow your analogy, in my shameful early days, I was like a drunk driver careening down an infinite highway with no cops or speed limits. As I reformed, I became less intoxicated, but I was still an unlicensed driver making up my own rules.

“I did become more selective about who I followed. I was still led by desire, but my passion evolved. I sought out those on a path to make a positive difference in the world.

“The most interesting of these was a boy named Andrew who lived in Manhattan. When I first found him, he was only eleven, far younger than anyone I’d ever been drawn to. That kept my interest from becoming sexualized.

“I followed Andrew with obsessive fascination, but a force constrained me from attempting to communicate with him. I sensed he was following a crucial destiny that wouldn’t allow me to interfere with him in any way. So I could only passively witness his life.

“If you were the star above me, Andrew was the planet around which I orbited. I had an absurd romantic fantasy that when Andrew grew up, he’d be my ideal future partner, my true love.

“Andrew’s magnetism for me was uncanny. He was precociously intelligent and imbued with a seriousness of purpose and studious discipline. I knew he had a special significance to the world. Through him, I began to perceive deeper patterns at work. Possibly my visitation experiments weren’t completely selfish and random.

“But my love for Andrew wasn’t as pure as I’ve made it sound. Although I admired him far more than anyone else I followed, my admiration blurred with jealousy. And in darker moments, my love for him soured into bitter envy.

“If only I had grown up with his privileged life. He was surrounded by brilliant and talented adults who recognized his abilities and nurtured them. His insights were so much wiser than mine had been at that age. And he was so much better looking.

“It wasn’t just that he was beautiful. As I said, everyone I followed was. It was the way Andrew was beautiful that was so enviable. He looked so mysterious and intelligent, and others treated him accordingly. I grew tired of people looking at him with shining eyes. It stirred up bitter memories of how I’d been picked on and underestimated when I was his age. I also resented that I was blocked from communicating with him. It was as if the cosmos had judged him as far too good for me, and that I might corrupt him if we ever made contact.

“Still, I loved and admired him too much for my envy to become ill will. What helped keep my jealousy in check was that he was a loner, as I had been. Beautiful as he was, he had no lovers to cause me the most bitter kind of envy. But, of course, he was still so young, and I feared the day when he would fall in love with someone. If that happened, I might’ve been forced to abandon him. Partly out of conscience, partly out of sparing myself agonies of jealousy.

“To keep myself from becoming too obsessed with him, I also followed several others. I’d pick up Andrew’s timeline again when I felt deserving and could bring my best to the witnessing. This prudence turned out to be quite fortunate.

“I’d progressed significantly in my meandering path of self-improvement by the time I witnessed his horrific accident and near-death experience. Along with the reform of my ethics, my ability to travel across timelines had evolved considerably. And my love for Andrew had matured. So, as much as I abhor physical pain and injury, I stayed with him during the terrible accident. That allowed me to follow him as he left his body and traveled across timelines to another planet.

“There, I discovered the truth of the deeper patterning. My love for Andrew had finally brought me back to you.

“But to stay with you required a terrible sacrifice. Andrew was quickly pulled somewhere else, and I had to decide in an instant whether to follow him or not. I sensed if I departed, I’d never make it back to your world. And for all I knew, Andrew might be about to enter a higher afterlife where I couldn’t follow.

“I’m rationalizing the choice after the fact—it was a case where I was limited by linear time and had no space to think it through.

Stay or go?

“I stayed, having finally achieved something I had so long desired—not only finding you but also leaving the Earth behind for a new world!

“But like everything I’ve found in this disembodied existence, blessings always came with curses attached. As with Andrew, I was blocked from communicating with you or any of your new species. And when I tuned into your awareness, I discovered our encounter had not yet happened in your timeline. You had no knowledge of my existence, which intensified my loneliness.

“And yet, there were amazing blessings as well. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered another version of Andrew living in your world! But he was not the young Andrew I knew. He was, like you, timelessly beautiful, wise, and accomplished.

“I bonded deeply to both of you, though I must confess, there was . . . Well, envy has always been my worst inner demon, and the depth of the bond between you and Andrew—I’ve never witnessed a relationship so—admirable. So complete.

“What helped me deal with the jealousy is that you weren’t selfishly obsessed with each other. Instead, you and Andrew were joined by purposes that went beyond the personal. You were united to serve your species and advance the Vehrillion. The nobility of it shamed my jealousy.

“Eventually, I got past part of that shame by viewing you and Andrew as one entity with two symbiotic parts. But—I’m ashamed to confess —I’ve never gotten past all the envy. And now, watching you go out to the forest alone, wanting to spare Andrew and the others from the darkness consuming your world . . . How can I envy someone so unselfish and willing to sacrifice?

“I should be more grateful. Finding your new world was a blessing that has allowed me to grow and develop. When Andrew’s near-death experience brought me to you, I entered the live broadcast of an unfinished reality that pulled me in and drew me along with it. I’d arrived in time to witness most of the development of the Vehrillion. It was the perfect school for me, except—as I said—I was not allowed any contact, even in dreams. I was a silent auditor, always behind a glass darkly. Like so much in my life, this new chapter was both blessing and curse.

“And yet, even though I was always aware of being set apart, I no longer suffered stagnation or monotony. My understanding of magic, the science and art of creating change in conformity to will, and how to do it ethically, grew immeasurably. And I had no transgressive temptations because no intrusion was possible.

“Sometimes, I flattered myself that I was The Invisible Adept. As time went on, I realized a certain validity to the idea, and it began to gain hold. There were certain techniques I was more skilled at than any of the embodied Adepts, especially remote viewing. I was desperate to contribute my talents and knowledge to the Vehrillion. Slowly, I developed more acceptance and patience. I knew the deep patterning had something meaningful in mind for me.

“I tried to accept the barrier as something set by a benign force furthering my development and hoped that one day I would become part of the community.

“Now that day has come. The barrier has finally lifted, but there’s a curse within the blessing. Instead of joining the community, it appears this breakthrough is being allowed so that I can offer you . . . exile. And that’s only if you survive.

“I can fulfill your purpose in taking Shadow Elixir, but the price of that blessing is you, Jeremiah. All the patterning points to a mission that would sacrifice you for its needs. Not just sacrifice you, but put you at the mercy of unimaginable evil—”

Suddenly, Wen breaks off, overcome with emotion. His head drops, and he sobs uncontrollably.

Instinctively, I reach out and pull him toward me in an embrace. He rests his head on my chest as I pour comfort and love into him. He’s a deeply wounded soul who has suffered terrible loneliness and rejection. Though he chose much of his descent into darkness, he’s been struggling to redeem himself and do good. Finally, he’s earned the chance to communicate, but the weight of what he has to tell me is crushing the healing and fulfillment he so desperately needs.

When I sense he’s ready, I merge with him gently in a way that allows him to feel safe and cared for. I want most for him to feel appreciated, but that part of him is still closed off. His feelings of unworthiness don’t allow him to fully embrace the moment.

When we separate, tragedy and dread still pervade our mutuality.

“At the time I witnessed you walking in the forest,” he resumes, “summoning your will to take Shadow Elixir, I sensed something momentous was coming. I didn’t know it would lead to our first encounter, and lifetimes later, to this one. But when I followed you into that encounter, I felt a great circle closing. Finally, you’re aware of my existence, and I have something to offer—what you sought through Shadow Elixir. But it will likely lead to your destruction . . .”

Wen breaks off again, and I feel his reluctance to share what he’s learned. What he’s said already is terrifying—exile, being at the mercy of unimaginable evil, my destruction. I take a deep breath and do a practice to contain my fear. Whatever it is, I must face it.

“Wen, I need to know. I understand the dread attached to this mission, but I want to free you from as much of it as possible. Your intention is to help. You’re not responsible for what you’ve discovered. I took Shadow Elixir to understand the nature of the parasite and to find a way to keep it from destroying us. It will be my choice to accept or refuse, so the responsibility is on me, not you. You are honorably fulfilling your duty. Please continue.”

Wen nods, his expression grave.

“When The Archparasite invaded your world, I saw a possible way for me to help,” he begins. “I could step out of linear time to remote-view this entity to see where it had come from and why . . . But even though I was at a safe remove from it, what I saw tested the limits of my endurance.

“The lifecycle of this creature is complex and riddled with paradoxes. I’ve had to unravel so many tangled threads, and each one is stranger than the last. It’s hard to know which of those threads to pull on first.

“But before I delve into the nature of The Archparasite, there are aspects of your whole existence that need to be revealed first. These hidden realities will explain why the parasite invaded your world. Only then will you fully grasp the scope of your mission.

“Shortly after I was born, there was a split in the human timeline. I grew up in what I’ve come to think of as the main trunk, while you’ve lived your entire life in a branched reality. This crude trunk-and-branch analogy has flaws, but we need some way to picture it.

“The Andrew you know is a hybrid of these timelines. He was eighteen years old at the time of the split, which is why there are two versions of him. There’s the one you know, and there’s the Andrew I used to follow, whose near-death experience led me from his timeline to yours. Obviously, he survived, because the Andrew of your world did, and up until the age of eighteen, they were the same person.

“The trunk continued growing rapidly for another nineteen years after the split. Then it was lost to the extinction caused by the Whip. The Earth of your branch went through a parallel extinction after you left. You and Andrew had visions of it before you were abducted.

“Your mission would be to subtly influence the past of the trunk timeline before the extinction. If the right butterfly effects are set in motion, the dead end could be bypassed. And if that works, it will also remove the threat to your world.

“But, even if this intervention succeeds, your sacrifices would be immense and irreversible. First, you’d have to survive a horrifically dangerous journey into the past. Once there, you’ll be in a zone of unformed possibilities.

“Although you’d be in the past, from the perspective of your unfolding individual timeline, the outcome of that journey is in your future. I can’t fully resolve the paradox between free will and precognition, but my sense is that the future contains a mixture of formed and unformed elements. Some parts look determined and can be remotely viewed, but they might still be subject to change. When it comes to your future though, it’s all a wildcard, and I can’t view any part of it.

“And there’s another part of this intervention I can’t access. Much of the patterning seems to come through a higher dimension that’s not bound by the same reality parameters we are. I can’t see into that higher dimension, so I have no idea what sort of intelligence might be at work, or even if it should be thought of as an intelligence.

“All I can do is share the causes and effects that I can comprehend. As Andrew so often says, reality is not only stranger than you think—it’s stranger than you can think. I’ve been shown enough to offer you a basic map of what surrounds your mission, but as you know, the map is never the territory.

“As I explored, I always tried to keep in mind one of the principles Andrew made central to the Vehrillion.

The mature and evolving mind embraces complexity and ambiguity. We’re surrounded by unimaginably vast mysteries that are themselves evolving. As our sphere of awareness expands, so too does the circumference of the unknown.

“What is within my limited sphere of knowledge is that the pattern requires an Adept to make an intervention in the past to bypass extinction. But I don’t know where in the past you’d be sent, nor what you should do when you get there. Those choices are beyond the scope of my awareness and will be decided in the infinitely greater realm of the unknown.

“As far as I can see, the journey across timelines would be a one-way ticket. If you survive the extreme dangers of traveling to this past, you’d be exiled there. Everything and everyone you know and love in your present world will be lost to you.

Depending on where you’re placed in time, you might have to witness the extinction if your influence doesn’t have the desired effects. You could also be inserted decades or even centuries before the Whip, and you’d have to survive that long to know if your mission succeeded.”

“So, I would need to alter the past of the main trunk, but in some unspecified way that influences humanity away from extinction?” I ask.

“Yes,” Wen replies. “The mission does not come with any sort of plan. But whatever alteration you make must be subtle to conserve the main trunk of the human timeline—to stay within it and not create a new branch.

“The extinction timeline already exists and cannot be prevented. If the mission works, that timeline would be shunted to the side. It would continue as an alternate reality where the Earth will slowly repair itself. Presumably, some lesser evolution would continue without human beings. But in the intervened reality, the main trunk of the human timeline would continue. Humanity would be spared, and the curse that has befallen your world would also be removed.

“Traveling to the past would take you across an event horizon into the unknown. Your very presence there would be a wild card. Hopefully, where you’d be inserted into the past would give you clues about what to do next. The only advice I can give is to keep to subtle means. If you create too much of a disturbance, you’ll cause another split in the timeline and you’d be shunted into another branched reality. That would be a mission failure because there’s crucial evolutionary value in conserving the trunk and allowing it to grow past the extinction.

“Based on my own travels and the extreme limits imposed on me, I expect you’d feel a constraining force keeping you from making too much of a disturbance. But I sense your constraints won’t be as extreme as what was imposed on me. I think you’d have more latitude. Where I was forcefully kept from interfering, you might only feel resistance. But be guided by those feelings. You need to be very precise about where you focus your influence.”

“But Wen, our first encounter was in the past, and you say it had huge effects on your life. Haven’t I already violated this guiding principle of subtle means?”

“No, and for a key reason to bear in mind if you choose to proceed. Influencing someone who is already on an anomalous path is permitted. The system appears to have already accounted for that person being an anomaly. Encouraging them to be even more anomalous doesn’t disturb the equilibrium enough to create a new branch. I’ve observed this many times.

“The only people I could influence significantly were already psychic, wildcard types. And the more anomalous they were, the more I was allowed to step in. Where this broke down was with young Andrew. I wasn’t allowed to influence him at all because he’s like a Major-Arcana Wild Card. The powerful currents of destiny around him kept him out of my reach.  

“Perhaps this is why, until this encounter, I’ve been blocked from communicating with elves. It’s as if your whole world was an experiment driven by powerful forces of destiny that didn’t let me intervene until you ventured alone into the forest and took Shadow Elixir.

“What was behind that experiment, what led the timelines to split, was initially cloaked from my remote viewing. Eventually, I was able to pierce through enough to see the basics. A single mutant was inserted into the past who had so much intention and ability to create massive technological change that his arrival caused an immediate branching.

“This shock intervention reduced the evolutionary potential afforded by gradual development. Nevertheless, it was a necessary structural alteration. For one thing, without the branching it caused, you wouldn’t exist, so the possibility of a more subtle mission involving you wouldn’t exist either.”

“Whatever the source of this mission design,” Wen continues, “it has not just come to us. There are incomprehensible forces above the labyrinth, but at the center of it lies The Archparasite. It has been shown the same design and realizes how this intervention could serve its interests. It wants its host species revitalized so it can continue feeding and further its lifecycle.

“You took Shadow Elixir to learn about its nature. To fulfill that intention, I must lead you now into the darkest part of the labyrinth.”

Wen pauses, his expression haunted, as he summons his will to continue.

“As horrific as The Archparasite is to contemplate, we must acknowledge that its lifecycle is inextricably woven into a larger evolutionary process that includes us. Development requires adversarial forces. Parasites and predators exist in every realm of life I’ve observed. Perhaps from a large enough perspective, even the most monstrous beings would be revealed as symbionts necessary to processes beyond our comprehension.

“The Archparasite invaded your world because of the extinction of its host. For millennia, it skillfully harvested human energy. This allowed its lifecycle to progress. But then its own machinations indirectly led to the extinction of Homo sapiens. That disaster is what set your path in motion. It’s what led to the intervention that caused the split. It also caused the parasite to come to your world to seek an Adept for this mission.

“Throughout human history, The Archparasite was the hidden consumer at the top of the Earth’s food chain. While harvesting, it supported the deluded belief that mankind was the top. A master manipulator, it kept the species exuding the energies it feeds on—the sweet red ethers of fear, rage, dark sexuality, and suffering.

“Technological evolution helped increase the size of the host and led to many feeding frenzies that furthered its lifecycle. It orchestrated its dark effects so successfully that, like many human tyrants, it did not realize when it had overreached.

“The parasite had always possessed certain individuals to act as its agents. It infected their minds and set them to create chaos and suffering. Some were juggernauts of destruction, like Hitler, and others focused on individual acts of evil—such as serial killers and rampage shooters. Some became heads of state, large religious sects, or giant corporations. Others worked on smaller scales as cult leaders or abusers tormenting a single school, church, or family.

“But The Archparasite had a fatal blind spot. It failed to realize that technological evolution put the means to sterilize the entire species into the hands of a single dark agent.

“The parasite infiltrated his psyche when he was a child, cultivating his ferocious ambition and infusing him with its own desire to exploit and torment the human race. He was ideally placed in a family of industrialists that ensured he had the skills and means to amass wealth and technology. By middle age, he was playing his intended role so well that The Archparasite left him unattended. It did not perceive his illness and secret project until it was too late.

“Shortly after the dark agent discovered his body was riddled with metastasizing cancer, he used advanced AI and biotechnology to engineer The Whip. Possibly he became aware of his manipulation by the parasite and wanted to destroy its host species as revenge. There would be a certain irony if that was the case, as viruses are considered parasites. Or maybe his rage and will to power wanted the whole species to share in his terminal diagnosis. His motives could have been no more profound than whatever motivates a rampage shooter, only he had the biotechnology to create an assault weapon that could take the down the whole species.

“Whatever he had in mind, it had never occurred to The Archparasite that one of its minions could strike out at the very entity who had summoned it into existence. But this is what happened—a mere puppet had struck out with a death blow.

“The Whip was released, and as the species that had swollen to many billions began to rapidly die off, The Archparasite withered with it. At first, its own death spiral had an orgasmic intensity as there was so much fear and suffering to feed on. But it was a death orgasm, le petite mort becoming le grand mort.

“The death feast was self-limiting and rapidly dwindled to nothing as the extinction unfolded. The host was disappearing into an abyss, dragging the parasite with it. But it wasn’t organic enough to die. Instead, it shriveled into a famished wraith tormented by a gnawing hunger it couldn’t satisfy.

Even after the human population crashed, other sentient animal life on the planet still exuded suffering, but this was horribly inferior nourishment. Its powers diminished as it sucked desperately at these lesser ethers.

“As the parasite emaciated, it found that paradoxically, this dwindling afforded it a new power. With a more etherealized body, it could extend tubular organs of astral matter into the past. These feeding tubes terminated in suctioning orifices allowing it to vacuum ethers from past eras of human suffering. But what flowed back into it from these organs had a horrible thinness, more like the ghost of the ethers it sought rather than the rich organic ethers themselves.

“The parasite lived on in a diminished, famished state that left it unable to complete its lifecycle. The larger evolutionary experiment it was part of hit a dead end. At that point, an intelligence or higher force operating above the labyrinth apparently intervened to revitalize the system. The Archparasite assisted the intervention by using one of its feeding tubes to insert a mutant into the past. This created the new timeline with accelerated technological evolution and split humanity’s evolution in two. On the surface, it seems this was a failed intervention, as it did not prevent the extinction of Homo sapiens. But it did lead to the elves’ evolution on a distant planet.

“Your new species began to thrive, and the possibility of a second intervention was revealed to The Archparasite. As I’ve said, it now seeks an Adept it can insert into the past to revitalize the main trunk of the human timeline. This would allow the parasite and its host species to continue their entwined lifecycles.

“Once it obtains the Adept it considers right for the mission, it will leave your world. Your kind is not the parasite’s host species, and it cannot sustain itself here. You lack both the quantity and quality of energy it needs. Elves are infused with varieties of astral energy that are moderately toxic to the parasite. But although it cannot further its lifecycle here, it can overwhelm your small community with its array of dark powers. If it served the parasite’s purposes, it could devour all of you.

“This aspect of the creature provides a degree of predictability. You can count on it to do what it thinks is in its best long-term interests. It is far more rational and consistent than a chaotically evil human agent. It doesn’t randomly do things because it can, or act impulsively to vent rage. The only irrational aspect I’ve been able to observe is in relation to what might be considered its sexuality. It can get into a state of passionate intoxication and even orgasmic frenzy when there is a surge of human suffering. Otherwise, its parasitism means it weighs everything as an energetic calculation and considers both short and long timeframes. It seeks to take as much as possible from humanity and give nothing back but suffering. But it’s shrewd enough not to knowingly kill the goose that lays golden eggs of agony, but to keep it alive so it can continually harvest those eggs.

“As horrifying as this is, it also means that underneath the unfathomable complexity of some of its manipulations, is a logic with relatively simple parameters. On that level, it’s as structured as a virus or a thermodynamic formula.

“The only way for your kind to survive is to cooperate with the parasite’s task of intervening in the past. I think you can count on it acting to further that intervention because it doesn’t just serve its interests—its survival and lifecycle depend on it.

“What you cannot count on is the parasite finding you to be the ideal Adept to carry out that intervention. If it finds you lacking, it will destroy you in unimaginably cruel ways. Your only survival path is to prove your ability to serve its purpose as well or better than any other Adept. If you go to The Archparasite and are found to be insufficient as a seed crystal, it will likely preserve you in a state of torment to bait Andrew to come forward.

“Jeremiah,” says Wen mournfully, “Your capacity for love and selfless duty is noble and far beyond me, but I fear The Archparasite will turn those qualities into a tragic flaw it will use to destroy you. You have every right to refuse this mission.”

“Wen, I have no desire to be a martyr, and as you say, my fate is still unformed. But when I compare the value of my life to the possibility of saving two species . .  . I must choose the mission.  Please, tell me anything else that will help me succeed with it.”

Wen seems to retreat inside himself for a few moments as if he’s lost in silent prayer. Eventually, he nods gravely.

“The parasite’s mind is like a skeletal labyrinth, every part of its intricate structure a splinter of bone, sharp with hunger. Do everything you can to keep it out of your psyche.

“For some inscrutable reason, The Archparasite has morphed into an earlier, semi-insectoid form of itself—a kind of hive queen that some ancients called Medusa and others Viealetta.  I’ll use this latter name to prepare you for her present manifestation. Nevertheless, we must be aware that this ancient form and apparent insectoid gender is merely one of many guises she can assume. Her actual gender and nature are too complex and alien for us to fully comprehend.

“She is not a she, but I suggest you don’t challenge this particular deception. Instead, give the impression that you accept it. Since you can’t help but to underestimate her, you can counter by encouraging her to underestimate you at first. But ultimately, your goal is for her to estimate you as the Adept best able to do the intervention.

“Your goal for the first part of the mission is to walk a knife-edge of mutual interest. You need to demonstrate that you are worthy of the mission.

“Viealetta manipulated the three novices into the grandiose delusion that they could defeat her. But to even think of defeating her, is to be defeated by her.

“Don’t let her trick you into believing you can control her. From what I’ve seen, she manipulated the three in such a way that they accepted being devoured. Her preferred method is to twist consciousness rather than engage in physical assault. She hungers for the psyche more than the body that hosts it.

“Whatever happens, always defer to your intuition over anything I’ve said about Viealetta. We can’t anticipate her actions, so all you can do is adapt in the moment.

“I will follow you for as long as I can. Perhaps there’ll be another chance to communicate, or maybe the barrier will be reimposed now that I’ve fulfilled this purpose. Terror of this creature, and what it might do to you, will likely cause me to retreat from your timeline and focus on Andrew. I’m sorry, Jeremiah. I’m not the self-sacrificing and courageous being you are. But I’ll pray for your well-being, and I’ll always be grateful for your presence in my life.

“Now, I must withdraw so you can act on your chosen mission. Good luck.”

Before I can thank him, Wen disappears, and I’m alone again beneath the coniferous trees.

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The metallic taste of the Shadow Elixir still permeates my body, but it fades quickly as I alter my metabolism to neutralize it.

I take some deep breaths to focus my resolve and tune into my immediate surroundings.

My night vision is acute, and my ears pick up the minutest sounds of the forest. I detect many layers of scent—pine and the musky earth are dominant, but there are others. My cloak keeps my body warm, and I stretch before I get up, brushing pine needles from my clothes. I have a bag made of the same self-camouflaging, velvety material as my cloak, and I sling its soft strap across my chest.

My footfalls and movements scarcely make a sound as I walk swiftly, blending with the shadows and the gentle night breeze. Taking deep breaths, I engage a series of Vehrillion practices, adding layers of cloaking and defensive shielding. With each inhalation, I add another band of protection.

When the light from our three small moons is just right, I catch iridescent glimpses of my shields. They have a layered, wavy structure like fine Damascus steel, but they’re a living membrane with curvilinear surfaces that reflect the energies around them. Now that they are stable, I embed them with mirrors and false images to deflect telepathic probing and return only meaningless distortions.

When my shields are as strong as I can make them, I begin hiding away vulnerable parts of myself in the memory palace I’ve built within my mind over many years. It’s surrounded by high, impenetrable walls like a medieval fortress. I take large sections of my personal memories and lock them away in rooms deep within the palace. I am especially careful hiding memories of Andrew. If I fail, and he should have to face Viealetta in my place, I don’t want her to know anything about him.

If Viealetta is as powerful as Wen says, no amount of cloaking will prevent her from detecting my approaching presence. Yet the complexity of my cloaking fields will give her an indication of my level of training. My goal is to limit her perception to those basic facts, without anything more personal spilling out.

I pass from the forest and into the damp floor of the valley where Mount Liatrin looms above me, its dark mass outlined by stars.

I begin to perceive Viealetta as a nucleus of evil beneath my feet, tracking my approach. As I traverse the valley, the throbbing pulsations of her hunger are perceptible through thousands of feet of insulating soil and stone. A primordial sensation activates in me. It’s one that animals, even insects, can recognize—the feeling of prey being stalked by a predator.

I sense her parasitic intelligence enclosing me in a bone labyrinth of sharp, dry edges, a billion thorns and poison-filled stingers scratching at my defenses. To calm my fear, I suffuse the space inside my shield with blue light. I focus on my body and the immediate environment, ensuring my movements flow with the rhythms of the night.

I progress in this way until the lowlands of the valley begin to slope up and away, and soon I’m standing at the base of Mount Liatrin. It glowers above me like an angry giant, its massive presence an intimidating contrast to the smallness and vulnerability of my body.

An opening in the rockface resembles the entrance to a termite mound, as though giant insects had burrowed into the mountain and left a debris field of gnawed stone around the hole. It’s a hideous orifice, a mortal wound penetrating the heart of the mountain with infection. Even the sight of it fills me with dread, but I realize that any hesitation at the threshold will signal weakness.

I cross inside without breaking my rhythm and step into a damp tunnel of excavated stone. There is an acidic smell—an apparent off-gassing of the extreme quantity of insect metabolism employed in the burrowing. I activate my Navigator Medallion, a silver disc with embedded lenses. It emits a hemisphere of illumination.

I’m in a corridor of dark rock with harsh angles, and the light from my Navigator throws back an oily sheen coating the rocky surfaces. Moisture from an unseen source makes the rocks wet and slippery.

I follow the corridor as it curves and narrows until I can no longer stand upright. I’ve reached the aperture of a tight, descending corkscrew and the only way to enter is to crawl on my belly. I stow my cloak in my bag and push it ahead of me.

Soon, the trickle of water flowing down through the corkscrew soaks everything. I intensify my breathing to maintain my core body temperature. Bodily intelligence takes over, allowing me to move as efficiently as possible through the intestine-like bends of the descending tube.

The corkscrew terminates in a jagged, vertical shaft, where water drips through an opening. The rock is slippery, but the shaft is so narrow that extending my limbs is enough to control my descent. Footholds and handholds abound, though many secure positions must be gained by allowing jagged rock to press against my back and other parts of my body. As chilling water drips beneath my clothing, the bruising pressure of the rock feels like I’m being chewed by dull, stone teeth.

A dreadful silence encompasses me, broken only by my sharp measured breaths. Eventually, the shaft begins to swell outward so that my limbs can no longer extend across it. Years of training in Vehrillion arts of balance and movement engage the challenge.

I shift my left foothold to a lower rock. At first, it feels solid, but then suddenly, it gives way and plummets into the darkness. The unexpected shift in weight breaks my other foot loose, and for a panicked moment, I’m holding on with just my hands as I scramble to regain my footing. Then, just as I find purchase, the sound of the rock’s impact comes echoing back up the shaft.

If I slip, this is all in vain.

My vigilance heightens. I probe for cracks in the rock face with my fingers using all my senses to feel the underlying fissures and weaknesses before I trust my weight to anything. And in this way, I descend, like a fly walking backward down a steep wall.

When at last, I reach the bottom of the shaft, my hands burn with abrasions and bloody marks. I’ve landed on a tiny rock and gravel platform over which a thin surface of icy water flows. The temperature has dropped considerably with the descent, and the chill steals over me when I stop moving.

A couple of feet above the shaft floor is a tiny opening that is the only way forward. I remove my bag and push it ahead of me to squeeze through the opening and into another downward-sloping tube.

Slowly, I push my bag and crawl on my belly over the jagged rock and gravel, shivering from the cold water flowing along the ground. The tube descends, spiraling again like a giant corkscrew, and I keep crawling forward, allowing it to take me wherever it goes.

The corkscrew becomes narrower, and soon I long for another vertical shaft that, no matter how treacherous, would at least allow me to stand and expand my limbs. I have no choice but to keep squirming forward relentlessly, hoping I’m not getting squeezed deeper into a dead-end from which it will be impossible to retreat.

I lose my sense of time as I become a crawling thing of meat and bone caught in the deep bowels of the planet.

Then there’s a change in the sound of the water and the flow of cold air about me. The tube curves around a final bend, and up ahead is a gap where the flowing water vanishes into some space below. I crawl forward until I’m at the edge of the opening and can shine my Navigator light downward.

It’s a sheer vertical drop into absolute darkness. I poke my head through the opening and adjust the focus of my Navigator’s beam to survey what’s below. The tube has terminated above an enormous cavern. I’m somewhere on the roof of a high-domed space of rock. Glittering stalactites, like crystal fangs, spike out all around. Far below is a dark lake of inky blackness.

There’s no way to climb down, and retreat is unthinkable. My only way forward is to plunge through the opening and into the lake. I try to probe beneath its surface.

The intense beam of my Navigator reveals a forest of tall stalagmites rising from the lake bottom. Hopefully, there’s enough water to break my fall and give me space to avoid being impaled by a crystal spike.

I crawl forward and perform a practice to slow the perception of time and heighten my senses to adjust my diving form as I plummet.

With a final breath, I push myself through the aperture and plunge into the cold, open air. At maximum velocity, I shatter the still plane of the dark lake and submerge into the icy water, contorting my body to avoid the point of a giant stalagmite.

I rise to the surface and swim toward the nearest shore about 50 yards away. I climb onto solid ground, shivering and wet, but my clothing is made of a survival cloth that sheds moisture quickly. I maintain vigilance so I can respond to any attack in a splintered second.

The ripples from my impact on the lake gradually subside. Water drips from the opening far above, but otherwise, there’s perfect stillness and silence.

I engage focused breathwork, raising my metabolic rate and core temperature until my clothes fully dry. At the same time, I work on renewing my shields, which have been diminished by the impact.

I sense Viealetta tracking my every move, but she no longer feels like a nucleus of evil pulsating with appetite. Instead, I detect the shadowy coolness of powerful cloaking fields and an attitude of watchful waiting.

At the outer boundaries of my shields, I detect the most subtle and devious telepathic probing. The design of the probes reveals a deep knowledge of Vehrillion shielding, and I wonder about the three missing Adepts.

Did they employ the same strategies I am playing out now?

I continuously adjust my outer boundaries to better deflect the probes, but it’s difficult and draining. The force of a conventional telepathic attack could be converted to reinforce shielding, but Viealetta is hitting me with a negative energy I cannot convert. My shields burn away the dark, probing tentacles trying to penetrate me, but this takes a continuous output. Even if she can’t feed off the energy I expend, it still extracts a cost from me.

I feel a profoundly disturbing resonance as I survey the large, domed space with the focused beam of my Navigator. The despair of the lost Initiates echoes all around me. I can’t tell if this emanation is an actual remnant of them or a deception. I suspect it’s suffering Viealetta extracted from them and is now telepathically projecting. With a shock, I realize that if this atmosphere of despair is an illusion, then she has already infiltrated my psyche. I tighten the shielding energy around me until the echoes of their agony fade from my perception.

The beam of my Navigator reveals several openings into antechambers, alcoves, and corridors of hidden depth. After completing my survey of the domed space, I walk along the narrow edge of the lake and climb the craggy rock wall surrounding it like an amphitheater. I decide to enter one of the larger antechambers to wait out Viealetta in a space with fewer entrances.

 The antechamber has a high arched ceiling, like a cathedral. Stalactites glitter in the focused beam I project as I examine the space. Besides the opening on the lakeside, there’s an interior opening that’s large enough to admit a creature of gigantic size. It seems more likely Viealetta will appear through this entrance rather than being exposed on the shore. My stance is relaxed and alert.

My first perception of its approach is an acidic odor, followed by the sound of a scurrying multitude of creatures. Like heralds at the front of a royal procession, a wave of albino insects pours forward. Their ranks divide with military precision until they cover every surface of the antechamber, even the arched ceiling.

The tiny creatures are of numerous invertebrate species, mostly insectoid, while others resemble minute crabs or arachnids. Curtaining the interior entrance is a boiling mass of centipedes.

The anteroom is now a living white cathedral with waves of movement passing through insectoid antennae. Only the small circumference in which I stand, protected by my Vehrillion shielding, is free from their horrible vibrations.

A pulse of energy passes through the tiny creatures as the maelstrom of boiling centipedes covering the entrance gives way, opening a large aperture. A massive form, the size of a mammoth but moving with the springy, stealthy grace of a tarantula, emerges through the parted curtain.

My mind struggles to take in the asymmetric complexity of its shape. Pale insects crawl over every surface of its body so that, at first, it seems entirely composed of a moving mass of insectoid forms.

Her head is enormous and is in the shape of an upside-down teardrop, with the swollen top terminating in a loose approximation of a face with two glittering black orbs for eyes. It’s expressionless beyond the rage and greedy hunger emanating from its black orbs. Her bulbous cranium is translucent, like a giant blister covered with blue veins. It appears almost liquid, like an egg yolk. A corona of chaotically moving hair-thin, red antennae surround her face and more sparsely wriggle from her almost-liquid skull.

Her lower body is a hybrid of insect, arachnid, and crustacean components. Beneath its skin of scurrying insects, I can see the outline of articulated armor. Bristling from it is an array of coiled scorpion stingers and pincers of various sizes and shapes as if each were designed for a different cruel purpose. The whole creature is composed of organic, negatively charged astral tissue, a type of matter I’ve never encountered before. It emits a high-frequency whine I struggle to block out.

I maintain my stance and breathe evenly, sensing the bone labyrinth of Viealetta’s mind. She examines me for betrayals of nervous tension, searching for edges of fear she can pry open to invade my psyche. I can feel insistent telepathic signaling at the surface of my shields, but I refuse to let her in. A telepathic link to Viealetta is far too dangerous. If she wants to communicate with me, it will have to be through audible speech.

Suddenly, her glittering black orbs shoot focused bursts of intense mind pressure against my shielding, piercing the arrow of her will through my eyes and nearly into my brain. The energetic force of it is almost physical, and my knees buckle.

I summon all my energy to strengthen the shielding near my face and head. My outer boundary glows like the heat shield of a space capsule burning through the atmosphere as I repel the intrusion.

But this is a misdirection, and I’m blindsided by a massive hive attack emanating from the myriad creatures in the antechamber. A chorus of a billion insectoid minds emits a scream that aggresses every part of my shields. Their collective force compresses the spherical space of my shielding, and I collapse to the ground. A telepathic image breaks through, a horrifying vision invading my mind.

The three Initiates stand naked before Viealetta. They’ve lost their will and are submitting to being devoured. Viealetta rears up before them, opening a slit in her abdomen to engulf them directly into her body.

Horror shakes every part of my being, and I scramble to suppress the intrusion. I pull my shielding in tight against me, a body shield only a centimeter thick. As my field contracts, the mass of vibrating insectoids rushes in until I’m engulfed. They halt at the threshold of my body, screeching all around me. I bend my head downward, close my eyes and quickly retreat into the inner stronghold of my memory palace. I enclose myself within its high fortress walls and lock myself into a secret chamber. When I close the vault, the distant screaming outside the fortress ceases. I take a deep breath, wrapped in perfect silence, as my energy continues to pull inward and beyond the reach of any intrusion.

The attack has become a waste of energy, and I feel the compression outside the fortress release. I’ve shown that I cannot be overcome by brute force. I open my eyes and rise to my feet, feeling the imperviousness of my body shield, and Viealetta seems to perceive the stalemate.

“If you wish to address me, you must speak aloud,” I say.

Her glittering black orbs study me silently. There’s a hissing sound, like steam escaping a valve, as her unused vocal passages are cleared and readied for audible speech.

A voice as cold and cutting as a razor slicing through leather emanates from ventricles on the flanks of her body.

“Who comes before me to be devoured?”

“I’m not here to be devoured, but only to pass through the portal that leads to the past,” I reply in an even, neutral tone.

“Only?” it replies with a hissing sneer. “How dare you use such a word for a privilege denied to your kind?”

She doesn’t deny the portal’s existence, but would refuse my entrance to it? This is all a test to see if I’m worthy of being let through. OK, I’ll play along.

I raise my posture and respond in a booming voice.

“Who denies it?”

The answer is obvious, but I decide to adopt the mocking, arrogant tone of an over-confident warrior. I want Viealetta to misjudge my strengths and weaknesses.

“I deny it,” she responds coolly, “and I punish unto death and beyond any who question my authority. Like your three little friends. Would you like to see them?”

Viealetta turns and raises a flap on her pale, translucent hide. Within the pustulous glow of her inner body are the shriveled, degraded forms of the three Initiates. Arterial tubes leech onto their eyes, ears, mouths—every orifice. They’ve become fetus-like organs of sustenance within its body.

Horror and revulsion nearly shatter my resolve as I struggle to hide as much of my reaction as I can.

“I keep them around for old time’s sake, squeezing sweet drops of nectar from what’s left. But I’ve sucked on them so often they’ve gone rather stale, while you are so fresh and sweet. Don’t worry, I’ll eventually let you join them, but only after you beg and grovel for the privilege.”

Viealetta lowers her flap and turns back to me, radiating hunger. The revulsion coursing through me nearly ruptures my defenses.

I recite Vehrillion principles in my mind to disassociate from the horror.

All is mind. The cosmos is mental projection. Everything arises from thought. With my thoughts, I shape my destiny.

I take the horrifying image of the three withered Initiates, label it “artifice,” and lock it away in my memory palace so it cannot haunt me.

“Would you like to start begging?” Viealetta hisses. “To be with your poor lost friends? I’m hoping you’ll say no, I’m hoping you’ll resist to the last. There’s nothing so sweet to me as that sort of sport.”

I focus on my shields and maintain a mocking attitude.

“Nothing seems so sweet as that which we can never have,” I reply. “We both know it serves your interests to let me across that portal. All I ask is that we move in its direction, and then you’re welcome to chatter on and on. Travel in the wrong direction, and I’ll know.”

“Ahhhhh, now that will be amusing. I think what I will enjoy most is the slow climax of fear and pain as you start groveling on your knees to join your three little friends. They all beg, sooner or later. So, yes, as you wish. I pledge solemnly to lead you toward the portal. But first, I must rest and refresh myself. I suggest you do the same. The way forward is neither smooth nor clear, but you will reach your portal eventually.”

A thin, milky film creeps across its glittering black orbs. With mind-numbing speed, armies of albino insects race over the surface of her body, into and out of orifices. At the same time, strands of spider silk blow out from thousands of spinnerets. Gradually, the scurrying armies of creatures become invisible beneath a white cocoon shrouding Viealetta like a royal canopy of woven silk.

I remain in my relaxed but alert stance, aware of the myriad tiny eyes observing my every breath and minute movement. While my face remains impassive, my mind races through many vital considerations.

I showed I could repel a brute-force telepathic intrusion, and she switched to psychological attack. If that’s the game she’s playing, my life depends on being as opaque as possible. A single careless word or gesture will reveal qualities Viealetta can use to register my personality and break it. For eons, she has observed and exploited every vulnerability of hominid psyches. She knows the nuances of every language, audible or telepathic, and can read into every movement or shift of tone. She knows our weaknesses better than we know them ourselves.

I replay every word of our exchange but gain little insight. She has agreed to lead me toward the portal. When I test this statement with discernment practices, I detect trickery but no blatant falsehood. Yet how can I be sure?

One thing seems certain, though. We’re both playacting. She realizes that I’m far more skilled than the three Initiates, and that I’m aware of the intervention. Still, she’s testing me, and if I’m deemed inadequate for her purpose, she won’t hesitate to destroy me.

But what’s happening beneath her canopy of white silk?

I know she doesn’t need rest. Probing with inner vision and remote sensing, I detect a furious metabolism that has raised the temperature within her cocoon to an atmosphere of high fever. Within, masses of insects serve as an army of robotic technicians under precise telepathic control. Extensive surgeries are being performed, and whole areas of tissue are being excised and reconfigured.

What’s she doing in there? What’s her plan of attack? How should I prepare?

Enough!

I consciously silence my speculation. I cannot allow restless thoughts to tumble through my mind, as that will only exhaust my spirit.

I should rest.

While keeping my senses alert and shields up, I quiet my mind. My eyes remain open so I can respond to a sudden threat with great speed, but I allow parts of my brain to sleep and recuperate.

Partly awake, partly asleep, I remain in my stance for hours until I hear the gnawing sound of innumerable insect mandibles. They are devouring the cocoon. Gaping holes open in the silken canopy, and all trace of it soon dissolves. Armies of insects scurry away with quivering masses of still-living tissue, and the nature of Viealetta’s metamorphosis is exposed.

She stands before me, reconfigured with a strange female appearance. She has reduced her size and complexity, and parts of her appear more hominid-like. Her body has two main segments. The one facing me is fashioned into a roughly human female form—naked, pale, and hairless. Her face retains the glittering black orbs for eyes and the hideous corona of red antennae, but it’s become expressive with puffy cheeks and a mousy look of fear, confusion, and anxiety. She’s squat, shaped like an ancient fertility doll with pendulous breasts and an exaggerated vagina.

She is not a she, I remind myself. This is all deception.

One hand has ordinary stubby fingers, and the other has human-looking skin and finger-like joints but is shaped like a coiled scorpion tail bristling with more of the undulating, hair-thin red antennae.

This is the human-looking segment of its body. The other, much larger segment closely resembles a headless albino spider, but it has an enormous scorpion tail protruding from its rear, counterbalancing the weight of the humanoid portion. This scorpion tail coils and uncoils rhythmically. The scorpion-tail hand on her humanoid half also coils and uncoils in this breathing way, but in a dissonant rhythm. The effect of the two stingers’ out-of-synch movements is nauseating and disorienting.

The humanoid part is connected to the much larger spider body via a thick, flexible neck at the base of its spine. This neck is large and strong enough to suspend the female form a few inches from the ground like a puppet. The spider legs are ever in motion, moving her backward and forward and side to side, while the humanoid portion faces me, its soft flesh jiggling as its arachnid-like locomotive platform moves it about.

The reconfiguration seems designed to play on both instinctive sympathies and primordial revulsion.

But why this metamorphosis now?

Viealetta had time to transform while I struggled through the cave. Has she registered me and reconfigured herself based on what she perceived of my vulnerabilities? Or does she periodically transform herself to keep victims off balance?

“Sire,” the pale woman whispers submissively, “what is it you require of me? I want only to serve you.”

Her tone is anxiously obsequious as if she fears dreadful punishment for the slightest transgression.

“I hope you’re amusing yourself with this puppetry, Viealetta. You know what I require of you. Take me to the portal.”

“Oh, Sire, why do you call your poor servant, Lianna, by this terrible name?”

Her facial expressions are the perfect semblance of a nervously servile creature. Every nuance of her speech and body language conveys the sense of a much-abused servant, filled with fear and a desire to please. Her scorpion-tail hand lies limply at her side as if she’s ashamed of its deformity. Uneasily, I notice parts of me beginning to regard her new form as timid, even as my mind recognizes the subterfuge. I decide to minimize communication until I understand the psychological warfare at play.

“Since I am your Sire, Lianna, I command you to take me toward the portal without further discussion. And I’ll thank you not to talk out of turn.”

“As you wish, Sire.”

With the help of the flexible neck attached to her arachnid lower body, her humanoid form makes an exaggerated curtsey. Then, while still facing me, her spider legs carry her rapidly backward through the rear entrance of the anteroom. The retinue of albino insects and arachnids part away from me as I follow. She scurries quickly with her multiple legs, and I struggle to keep up as we descend through a winding stone corridor.

In the silence that follows, I have space to study the transformation. The puppetry is quite effective in many ways. Although my mind sees through the deception, my bodily instincts register her humanoid puppet body as analogous to my own. Viealetta is skillfully manipulating my ancestral instinct to stereotype various body types and tones of speech. Viealetta is sidestepping my mind and convincing my body she’s low-status and timid, lulling me into a false sense of control.

But at the same time, the invertebrate part of her—the arachnid locomotive platform—is designed to awaken even deeper mammalian instincts within me. Fears of biting, stinging creatures. By mixing powerfully discordant biological forms, she’s throwing my bodily intelligence off balance. Part of me interprets her as a self-abasing human, while another part registers her as a dangerous invertebrate. The cognitive dissonance taxes my inner resources.

As I study this manipulation, I recognize a shocking flaw in my own strategy. Viealetta carries within her the entire history of human fears and frailties. By breaking and devouring the three Initiates, she acquired intimate knowledge of elf body and psyche. I’d been attempting to hide any trace of my personality by adopting the consistent tone of an arrogant, over-confident warrior. But in doing so, I’ve created a stable frame of reference for Viealetta. The simple subterfuge I’ve chosen must be laughably transparent to her. And now the slightest deviation from this contrived performance will reveal volumes about my underlying personality.

I consider camouflaging myself by adopting a random assortment of personas when I communicate with her. But this requires abandoning my previous strategy in favor of a shape-shifting approach. To do so would mean acknowledging Viealetta as the master while reducing myself to imitative disciple.

I remember Wen’s advice to trust my intuition above all else.

It’s risky, but I decide to forgo a conscious strategy, choosing instead to respond spontaneously as the need to communicate arises.

As if aware of my new strategy, Viealetta tests my defenses with more of her maddening roleplay.

“Oh, Sire, I hope it’s not disrespectful to ask this, but do you really want to find the portal? I sense you’ve tricked me into this dark space to have your way with me.”

I ignore her speech to show that I feel no pressure to respond to such nonsense. She stands there motionless, watching me demurely. It’s a clear statement that I won’t make it to the portal unless I play her game.

“I have to say I’m disappointed in you, Viealetta,” I reply, shaking my head in mock sadness. “I’ve heard that you’re a highly capable creature, and yet, here you are, right from the start, playing exactly the sort of tired mind games I expected. Is there any way you can rework this antiquated routine to make it more interesting?”

Lianna bows her head in a pose of abject shame and submission as if she’s meekly awaiting punishment.

“Oh, Sire, it frightens me to hear such strange things I cannot understand. It makes my poor head too dizzy to lead you. Please, Sire, have mercy on poor Lianna.”

Viealetta is adamantly refusing to break character. I decide to play the part indicated for me, but with sarcastic exaggeration.

“Oh, poor, dear Lianna, please excuse my frivolous jokes. I know you only wish to serve your Sire, so I won’t torment you with further discussion. I’ll leave your poor little head free to concentrate on guiding us to the portal.”

“Oh, Sire, if you want to have your way with me, you need only ask. There’s no need to mock me with such a joking tone.”

Viealetta still refuses to move, forcing me to recognize another rule of its game—I must not only play the part indicated for me, but do so convincingly. Even a facetious tone is enough to create an impasse. This last demand makes me wary, and I make no reply.

How far can I let this playacting go?

If she demands that I play Sire more and more convincingly, I’ll give her a powerful lever to twist my mind. But each second I keep silent may reveal weakness and hesitation. To cover my uncertainty, I extend the silence while I stand before her in a bored pose. I want to see if I can get her to make the next move. Silent moments stretch long and uneasily as I study the glittering black orbs and the chaotic rippling of her corona of red antennae. Finally, Viealetta speaks.

“Oh, Sire, these strange stares and silences make me feel so vulnerable. It feels as though you are undressing me with your eyes, though I have shed all my garments as you desire. If you want to enter me, you know you need only say so. Sire, you know Lianna can deny you nothing.”

“Thank you, Lianna. There is one thing you can do for me. It’s simply to continue leading me toward the portal. And please indulge your Sire in one more kind service and refrain from conversation as far as possible.”

“Oh, Sire, poor Lianna has trouble understanding you when you talk in such a strangely calm way. I’ve grown accustomed to your angry manner.”

Now I know where Viealetta is trying to take me with its puppet games. She’s going to demand an ever-angrier tone from me, and I’ll have to accept the potent manipulation of playacting an ever more sadistic Sire. I can’t let that go too far, but I have to do something to end the impasse.

“Lianna,” I reply in a severe tone. “I command you to lead me to the portal.”

Viealetta, apparently satisfied with this victory, curtsies and begins moving again.

Her spider platform scurries faster than before. She moves so nimbly over the jagged rock floor I can scarcely keep up. I’m loath to reveal a physical limitation, but I’ll exhaust myself trying to maintain my shields and match her furious speed.

“Lianna, slow your pace.”

“As you wish, Sire.”

She begins crawling with agonizing slowness, testing my patience instead of my physical endurance.

“This is too slow, Lianna,” I say firmly. “Continue at a consistent, moderate pace.”

“Oh Sire,” she replies in the tone of a long-suffering, humble creature being humiliated by capricious orders, “I so much want to obey you, but your orders are terribly confusing.”

She races ahead and then abruptly slows, races, and then slows at random intervals. Once more, I’m being successfully conditioned. If I try to use my assigned role as Sire to control her actions, I‘ll be made to regret it. She’s training me to submit to her lead while also insisting that I maintain a dominant tone and manner.

After a long and weary route through massive stone tunnels, we enter a deep corridor not quite high enough for me to stand erect. Viealetta’s arachnid portion flattens to enter the passage and continues along unimpeded, but I’m forced to walk in an uncomfortable, crouched position.

There’s a battle in my mind, intuitions pointing in opposite directions. Although my truth-detecting technique reveals Viealetta is leading me toward the portal, I’m also aware of trickery. I realize she’s taking sadistic delight in drawing out our journey by leading me on a needlessly roundabout route. But I also have an intuition that as unpleasant and disturbing as she is to deal with, Viealetta is holding back. So far, it all seems more like testing than torture. The implication is that she still regards me as a potentially valuable specimen and wants to observe me under stress. But if I fail her tests . . . I’m under no illusion that I could defend myself or escape her lair. The only hope is to be found worthy of her purposes.

As I struggle to follow her, there’s a tactical consideration I can’t ignore any longer. By forcing me down a corridor where I must walk bent over, Viealetta has intensified the war of attrition by several notches. A contorted spine constricts the energy flowing through my body. My shields are weakening, and I’m becoming vulnerable to telepathic attack. I can’t allow this to continue. I’d rather she killed me outright than allow her to gain a hold in my mind.

“Lianna!” I call out in an angry tone. “I insist you tell Sire how long this corridor is and estimate the time it’ll take us to cover that distance.”

“Oh, Sire, you know my poor little head is no good for calculations. If you want to beat some sense into me, I understand and will submit to your discipline.”

Her latest demand is a line I will not cross.

“I’m through with this game, Viealetta,” I respond adamantly. “I won’t follow you another step unless you draw a map of our exact route here in the dust, with correctly scaled distances. And I will not degrade myself by descending to corporal punishment under any circumstances. Show me where the portal is.”

My role change brings Viealetta’s arachnid body to a halt. The Liana appendage stares at me with a look of mortal terror. She takes a half step back and cowers. When she speaks, she stammers as if fear is choking her voice.

“Oh, oh, oh, si-si- Sire, you’re si-si-scaring pa-pa-pa-poor L-Li-Li-Lianna, I da-da-don’t na-na-know wha-wha-what you wha-wha-want mi-mi-me to da-da-da-do.”

She emits a long, whimpering whine that seems to go on forever. My heart rate increases rapidly, and I recognize my body’s immunological response. The whining, and the stammering preceding it, are acoustical spells with twisted information encoded in them. What she couldn’t insert telepathically, she’s infiltrating with the one channel I’ve had to leave open. I focus on canceling the frequency of her whine while allowing my hearing to be sensitive to any other ambient sound.

Viealetta is instantly aware of my new defense and goes silent. Her glittering black orbs study me as I work to maintain my patient, restful stance.

Abruptly, Viealetta’s humanoid form stops cowering. Her mousy expression dissolves, and her face puckers, revealing wrinkles and heavy jowls.

“How boring of you,” she hisses in a new voice, “to take so long to ask these simple questions.”

She sounds hoarse and husky, like a lecherous chain-smoking old woman, and her newly deformed face squints at me with   eyes. Even though my mind knew it was an act, I’d been so conditioned to expect the submissive Lianna puppet that the alteration is a shock. She scowls at me with disappointment and disgust as if I’m a male prostitute whose services she has paid for in advance only to find me unable to perform.

“Who knew that little elf boys have become so dull that a simple game would have to be drawn out to such tediously fatiguing lengths. And yet you still haven’t seen through it.

“Show me where the portal is,” she says in the high-pitched falsetto of an annoying child. “Did it never occur to you how I could be leading you toward the portal no matter which way we went? Turn off that stupid light, little boy, and I’ll show you the portal.”

Warily, I dim my Navigator. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a faint glow coming from the arachnid portion of Viealetta’s body. Within its translucent tissues, there’s a slowly undulating intestinal tube. It has a baleful luminosity like the shimmer of a hungry moon.

“Behold the portal to the past that lives only within me,” says Viealetta, her husky voice taking on a taunting and grandiose aspect. I feel dull-witted to have failed to consider this possibility. Inside her body is the ideal place for the portal, allowing her to extend a feeding tube to directly absorb ethers of past human suffering. I engage my truth-detecting practices to be sure and suddenly catch a glimpse of something in the dark.

It’s like seeing through a door opened by a crack that’s quickly pulled shut. An intricate lattice of spells is woven all around me. Despite all my training, I’ve failed to detect it. Some spells are long and woven together in repeating patterns. Other spells hang just outside the web like magnets misdirecting my attention with great precision. Wary as I am, Viealetta has tricked me into vastly underestimating her powers.

And yet, she is giving me this glimpse intentionally.

But why?

My mind sparks with intuitions.

Somehow, I‘ve passed her tests, and she’s giving me a lesson to help my mission succeed. The glimpse is meant to show me how much my conscious mind has missed and that the dark side of nature is more complex than I can comprehend. Perhaps the Lianna test was to see if I could be tempted toward dark, forceful actions or to arrogantly think I could control what’s beyond my comprehension. It’s a humbling lesson meant to imprint the need to confine myself to subtle means. But I can’t presume she’s done testing me.

The glimpse I’ve been afforded, and the realizations it was meant to provoke, pass in a couple of heartbeats. But within those moments, there’s a sense of mutual respect, dark and light recognizing in each other an intelligence needed for the functioning of the whole. The door closes, and Viealetta resumes her role as Archparasite.

“You see the portal you desire,” she says, her voice slowing to a darkly seductive tone. “Now, little boy, relinquish your shields and remove your garments. The only way to the past is through me, and I allow such privilege only to the most beautiful and succulent flesh, unadulterated by modesty.”

Viealetta’s black orbs glitter at me, and her excited metabolism heats to a feverish intensity. I light my Navigator and see a long slit opening along the length of her rapidly transforming puppet torso. My mind and heart quiver with terror.

Is this how she devoured the three?

But her body is the portal. There must be a chance of my survival, and I cannot afford to hesitate at the brink of this terrible crossing.

I dim my shields as I remove my clothing, which I stow in my cloth bag and tie to my ankle. As my shields begin to flicker out, I slow my perception of time and summon hyperawareness. Finally, I fully relinquish my shields. I struggle to repress muscle tremors as only a few feet of air separate my naked skin from physical contact with Viealetta.

The vertical slit on the humanoid torso puckers open and unhinges wide like the jaws of a snake that’s already paralyzed its prey with venom. Struggling to overcome fears too dreadful to name, I step toward the opening.

Suddenly, Viealetta hisses with a violent intensity that could shatter atoms. Her whole body blows up like an angler fish as her corona of hair-like red antennae shoots out as electrically vibrating tentacles. Then they retract, ensnaring my naked body and lashing it with flames of white-hot agony. Secreted flesh-dissolving acids cut into my skin, allowing the tentacles to voraciously suck my blood.

The pain is blinding. It’s as if the energy of a hydrogen bomb were shooting through my nervous system. Frantic to escape the lethal tentacles, I dive into the opening.

A shocking reversal of sensation.

Opiate fluids stream into my wounds. Viealetta has tuned her body chemistry to transform the pain of myriad acid burns into seizures of pleasure erupting through me, nearly extinguishing my mind.

The urge to surrender to this ecstasy is overwhelming, but if I hesitate, in a few more heartbeats, Viealetta’s parasitic womb will enslave me forever.

I squirm deeper into her body and push into an undulating tube.

Pleasure reverts back to pain, but I keep moving.

Suddenly, I‘m falling into a non-place, an ether-like limbo of concentrated suffering. I plummet through the red vapors of her feeding tube into an agonized scream emanating from a billion voices.

My identity merges with the culminating death moments of countless human lives as they’re devoured in states of absolute horror.

I’m an emaciated woman watching passively, paralyzed by despair, as men in Nazi uniforms slide me on a metal plank into a gas-fired oven.

I commit suicide with razors, ropes, pills, and bullets.

I wither on hospital beds penetrated by plastic tubes.

I am cut down on battlefields.

I am murdered by enemies and lovers alike.

I fall through this endless scream until I rupture another membrane and tumble into a night sky. Cold air whips past me as I drop. The red desert below rushes toward me like a brick wall, about to pulverize my body.

At the last second, Viealetta’s acid-dripping tentacles lash around me once more. Their grasp is a fiery detonation of agony as they again suck blood from the wounds they open. But they also slow my descent. When I’m a few meters from the ground, her tentacles break away, retract and vanish into the sky, and I drop to the desert surface.

I’m engulfed in blackness before my consciousness shocks itself into restarting with a gasp.

I’m naked and bleeding out, my life energy spilling onto the red sand as I struggle to stem the blood flowing from a hundred lacerations. My body begins to convulse, and I use all my will to stay conscious and force it to stabilize. Unconsciousness now would mean certain death.

My nervous system dials down the pain enough for me to function. A couple more heartbeats and the wounds begin to coagulate.

I need to get my body out of shock.

I activate my Navigator and feel its radiance stabilizing my energy and heart rhythm.

Then I remember—Healing Elixir! My bag is still attached to my ankle. I untie it and find the flask. With trembling hands, I unscrew the cap and take a sip.

The elixir is a potent, mostly astral medicine designed to catalyze regenerative capacity. As it ripples through my body, the fever and infection diminish. My wounds are acid burns and damage is still being done. The lash marks singe my skin like red-hot toaster wires.

Hastily, I pull a cloth from my bag, dip it in elixir and dab my wounds. Every movement is agonizing, but the topical application neutralizes the burning acid and begins to seal the lacerations.

I retrieve my clothes and put them on. The soft fabric comforts my skin and protects me from the cold desert night. I draw the hood of my cloak around me, insulating the warmth of my core. Although I’m profoundly weakened, my body has stabilized and is regenerating.

Out of immediate danger, I realize something—Viealetta precisely calculated the amount of blood loss, injury, and pain she could inflict without destroying my viability.

Now that I’m no longer bleeding out, I’m able to scan my environment and evaluate the situation.

I’ve landed in a red desert near the entrance to a canyon. All around are medicine plants of the high desert—sage, agave, yarrow—fringed in blue electricity. Towering buttes rise up in the distance like giant lodestones charged with planetary energies. They resonate with cosmic time and exude stoic indifference.

I’ve survived, but I’m weaker. And it’s not just the blood loss and injuries—those will heal. The Earth’s gravity is significantly stronger than on my home planet. I also feel the weight of the collective human energy which pervades even this isolated desert. And I sense something else—this desert has open boundaries with other worlds and dimensions.

Strong winds sweep across the mesa. With them come visions of certain anomalous protoelves. Whether they know each other or not, their hidden network exists. They need to find each other to stimulate their metamorphic potential. My vision focuses on the one protoelf here with whom I have shared such a long destiny.

Andrew . . .

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Our identity merger folds in on itself and releases. I come back to myself sitting across from Jeremiah, who watches me silently, his face illuminated by the glowing campfire.

The sight of him is disorienting. I’d been experiencing through his eyes, his whole sensorium, even his mind, and heart. But now I’m Andrew again, seeing him as a separate person. The trauma I experienced as Jeremiah quickly dissipates.

When I feel grounded enough in my own identity, I break the silence with a question.

“The boy I encountered at the ranch house. You copied Wen’s chosen form—why?”

“It was just an intuition,” Jeremiah replies. “I had to choose some form other than my own, and he confessed to copying mine, so I thought I’d return the compliment.”

“I’m so sorry for what you suffered,” I say, “but if you were able to bring both of us to this other world, couldn’t you have traveled to the past without Viealetta?”

“No. We’ve learned how to sometimes view events across time, but not to travel there. I brought you here through a naturally formed portal in the desert. I didn’t create it. Perhaps one day, the Vehrillion will advance to where we can create such gateways, but for now we can only detect and use ones that already exist.”

We fall silent as I ponder my next question. I’m most curious about his relationship with the other version of me. But I can’t bring myself to ask. Jeremiah’s suffered too much, and from what I’ve learned from Wen, it would be the single most painful subject I could bring up.

“And what’s happened to you since you fell to the red desert? How have you managed to survive?”

“I’ve simply adapted to my changed circumstances like any living creature must,” says Jeremiah, smiling in a way that lightens the darkness of his painful crossing. Just as I begin to wonder more, I feel Jeremiah’s invitation to return to a merged perspective. This time, switching identities feels fluid and smooth, like slipping on a silk shirt.

When I become Jeremiah again, I’m walking in the moonlit desert when I sense a strong force emanating in the distance—a directional flow that feels physical, like the current of a river.

I follow this current a quarter mile or so until I reach a patch of ground that seems to be its source. Something is buried just beneath my feet that I’m meant to find. It feels dangerous but of high value.

I use a flat rock as a shovel and begin digging. Thankfully, the red dirt is loosely packed, and my rock shovel hits a sheet of shiny black plastic just inches below the surface. Carefully, I unfold it and find neat stacks of money intricately printed on high-quality paper. They’re hundred-dollar bills, and as I touch them, fear rises through my fingertips, bringing flickering memories of the man who buried them. The images coalesce into a feverish montage of the last night of this man’s life.

 I feel his sweaty desperation as he uses a plastic ice scraper as a shovel to bury his ill-gotten loot. I see his panicked drive away from the burial site. His raw terror when the window of a black sedan rolls down beside him. His hand shakes wildly as he reaches for his gun though he knows he won’t be able to draw it in time. A muzzle flash from the sedan the instant before the bullet ruptures him into the void.

The money I’ve unearthed emanates fear from the dark chain of events that led to its being here. Before lifting the cache from its makeshift grave, I use breath and intention to cleanse as much of the taint as possible.

A twinge of curiosity.

I remove a single bill from one of the packets to study it in the moonlight. It’s a precisely constructed magical artifact woven with spells in the form of images, letters, and numbers. Most of the magical artifacts I’m familiar with are handmade, but these were designed by a government and produced by machines. The bills bear energetic traces of those whose hands have touched them, but they were manufactured to be imbued with collective power.

Money. An artifact from such a distant past. I was a different species the last time I touched it. But here on Earth, these bills are potent manifestations of the dominant magic. It’s a dark magic in many ways, but I can obtain any physical resource I need with it.

I replace the bill and stow several dozen of the packets in my bag.

After reburying the remaining loot, I note the spot and consider setting cloaking wards to keep it hidden. But I have no greater claim on this treasure than anyone else, so I leave it unwarded. Besides, even though money is highly valued by humans, a few inches of dirt will be sufficient to hide it from untrained eyes.

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Jeremiah gently diverges our identities.

“Viealetta,” he begins, “or some other force that wanted my intervention to succeed, landed me just a few feet from buried treasure. It wanted me to have this world’s universal resource—the one that can supply any other necessity to fulfill my mission.

“Many of my abilities are lessened here to various degrees. But so far, no hazard or obstacle has hindered my ability to travel where the currents require me to go. Since I’ve no claim on these artifacts, just a greater ability to locate them, I let them pass through me freely. I’ve been able to help several needy people I’ve encountered on my travels by giving them a few of the bills.

“We can return to that spot in the desert to obtain more. But even if it were gone, there must be many other poorly hidden caches I could seek out if necessary. Anyway, that’s how I’ve been getting by.”

We lapse into a restful silence that allows me to consider my next words. A new concern comes to mind.

Alex.

I clutch the star sapphire amulet and try to feel him.

Nothing. The line feels . . .

Panic rushes through me.

Is it possible that going through the portal shattered the mirror link? I took that step without even thinking about how it would affect him.

I close my eyes and focus inward, probing the darkness for any sense of Alex receiving me. Nothing. The link is broken. A pang of guilt hammers into me like a nail.

I’ve betrayed my promise that he could witness the rest of my life. By crossing through the gateway, I’ve abandoned him . . .

An image of Alex forms in my mind. He lies huddled on the tattered covers of his single bed, his back toward me as he shudders with sobs. I see him as if through a sheet of dense, filthy plexiglass. No sound, no energetic contact, just despair.

The image vanishes. I need to get back and find him!

I look up and see Jeremiah patiently giving me space. He’s aware of my feelings, but he’s not intruding on them.

Jeremiah has made no complaint about his permanent separation from the other Andrew. He’s sacrificed so much to bring me here. He doesn’t deserve this.

I’ve got to compose myself.

A sobering clarity washes over my panic.

I can’t go back . . . not yet. Too much is at stake.

I take a deep breath and sit up straight, struggling to contain my feelings and steady my nerves before I speak.

“I’m sorry for what you’ve had to suffer through to be here,” I say. “I won’t let it be in vain. I will take the Shadow Elixir, whatever the danger.”

Jeremiah nods solemnly.

“The fact I had to suffer to get here does not oblige you to anything,” he replies thoughtfully. “Your decision is your decision, not only by right of free will, but because you are the only one in a position to know what you should do.”

 “I understand what’s at stake,” I reply, “but I’m not just putting myself at risk by saying yes. My connection to Alex is already broken. I just hope it can be restored. How will it be affected by the Shadow Elixir?” 

“Your link to him will almost certainly remain broken while you are under its influence,” Jeremiah replies. “The Shadow Journey will have profound effects that will alter your relationship with everyone and everything. Once you take the full dose, you will not be able to connect with Alex or anyone outside your shadow experience. You will lose connection with your own identity as you undergo dark and grotesque lives as others. Less than three days of ordinary time will pass in the outer world, but what you experience may seem to last for lifetimes.

“During the three days, your body will be in a feverish state of metamorphosis as organic molecules are replaced by astral variants. You’ll awaken dehydrated, and there will be plenty of bodily stress, but that will be nothing compared to the psychological disorientation and trauma of adapting to an altered version of your original identity. However the process plays out for you, it will take time to ground and stabilize your newfound self.

“I sympathize with your reluctance to further risk your bond with Alex. Once you recover, though, you’ll likely be far better able to link and communicate with him than you were before. It was so with the Andrew in my world. Though as I’ve said, his path is no guarantee of yours.”

Hesitation is only increasing my fear. I’ve stalled long enough.

“I’m ready,” I say.

“Good. It’s better not to wait,” replies Jeremiah. “While your mind journeys, it will be far safer for your body to remain in this world, where the darkness is not as dense and overpowering as on the Earth you know.”

“I understand,” I reply, taking deep breaths to calm my flickering heartbeat.

“We begin with a microdose. Your identity should remain intact, but the visions will be strong. After the microdose, we’ll move on to the full one. As I mentioned, the shadow initiation puts your body in a feverish state, which will cause dehydration. So I’ll give you small sips of water during the three days when possible. But it won’t be enough. It never is.”

Jeremiah passes me one of the green glass water bottles.

“See if you can drink all of it.”

He waits while I uncork the bottle and drink until I’ve downed it all.

He then lifts his right hand, palm facing the night sky. He takes a deep breath and when he exhales, a transparent, cobalt-blue sphere emerges from his mouth and hovers a couple of inches above the center of his palm. It looks like the highest grade of blue sapphire, about two inches in diameter, but it has a subtle internal luminosity.

Jeremiah holds his hand steadily, allowing me to stare into the depths of the sphere. It’s alive, the way a cell or a star is, and the feeling of its aliveness is calm and aware. The optical clarity and midnight-blue color of the orb are also its essence. 

“It’s an orb of sapphire elemental,” Jeremiah says. “I’m manifesting it through the Vehrillion. Let this medicine infuse you. To behold it is to have it with you.”

Jeremiah moves the orb closer, and the energies flowing through my bodily organs subtly realign, calming and clarifying my thoughts and feelings.

“Form your hands into a bowl.”

I do, and Jeremiah carefully spills the glowing sapphire into my cupped hands. It passes through my skin and dissolves into me, its blue energy coursing through my body.

Jeremiah reaches into his cloth bag and produces a dark flask topped with a spire-shaped cap. It’s black, with iridescent striations that glimmer in the firelight to reveal its curvilinear contours.

“Ready?” he asks.

I nod, and with ritualistic deliberation, he removes the top and dips the spire into the flask.

“We begin with the micro dose. Hold out your left hand.”

Jeremiah touches my palm with the tip of the spire, leaving an inky black dot on my skin which quickly disappears as it’s absorbed into my body.

My eyes shut, and I feel the world collapsing in on itself and then expanding again. I open my eyes.

I’m sitting in the same mesa, but Jeremiah and the campfire have disappeared. I feel the beat of my heart slow along with my breathing.

There’s an odd sensation on the surface of my body as though I were—

I look down, and it takes a long moment to comprehend what my eyes see. Dark threads emanate from my whole body, undulating like the tentacles of a jellyfish.

My vision moves closer, and I see that each thread is a nerve cell, a shadowy black neuron, with complex dendrites interconnecting it with other neurons.

The dendrites and axons undulate and pulsate with a dissonant rhythm that makes me nauseous. The neurons pulse with the inversion of my arterial pulsation, the anti-heartbeat of my heartbeat. As my heart pumps blood out, these parasitic neurons absorb some of my vitality.

The rhythm and counter-rhythm are perfectly synchronized. I’m not sure if the pulsating nerve tissue is an organ surrounding my body, or if I am an organ within its body.

I struggle to contain my revulsion and continue observing. At certain nodes of the web, tangled dendrites form into a bulbous nexus of nerve tissue with a hollow space inside. Floating within those bulbs are pale worms glowing like hungry moons. They feed within a parasitic ecosystem for which I am the food source.

At the outer edges of this ecosystem are loose threads of nerve tissue waving in amputated torment. The vortex that displaced me to the Green World ripped them from their surrounding matrix of nerve tissue. The torn extremities flail about spastically in a futile effort to reconnect to their neural web.

Horrifying realizations blossom in my mind like dark flowers. But before the terror of what I am seeing can fully seize me, the blue sapphire appears in my mind’s eye. The orb’s energy is still inside me.

I summon it to the surface of my body until I emanate a blue glow, causing the whole webwork attached to me to undulate in chaotic torment. I breathe out blue light from my skin, and the dark threads burn away.

The elixir has allowed me to gaze into shadows and see that which it’s forbidden to see. On Earth, we live within a parasitic matrix that invisibly harvests our energy. Its perpetual suction is an insidious taxation of human vitality.

A new vision flickers into my mind.

People going about their day gazing downward with broken spirits. Above their bent heads is a dark, coagulated sky.

Their bodies don’t move through free space but rather a web of hungry neurons. They’re living on the surface of a parasitic brain that darkly influences their thoughts and taxes their vitality. All their fears, hatreds, jealousies, addictive passions, and lethargic indulgences are a harvest of sweet ethers.

A new vision appears, a moment in history that happened years before I was born, but it seems as if it’s alive and unfolding right now.

I’m in New York City on the morning of a beautiful, late-summer day. There’s sunshine and blue skies, and I see the gleaming Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the near distance. The towers are perfectly intact, and people are going about their business as usual.

They’re unaware of what’s happening. The parasitic webwork surrounding the towers is in a state of extreme excitement and accelerated growth. Densely entangled nerve tissue masses all around them.

Hidden above them is The Archparasite, Viealetta, orchestrating a massive harvest only minutes away. A rapidly sprouting webwork of hungry neurons surrounds the towers, ready to absorb all the terror and suffering about to be released.

Flying toward the towers is a living puppet show playing out in the cockpit of a commercial jet. Viealetta is acting from within the hollowed-out fanatics, gazing out at the towers through their eyes. They gleam succulently in her mind.

She is in a frenzied excitement to rupture those towers, to tear into them like a starving bear ravaging hives full of golden honey.

The towers are ready to burst—all those gallons of living blood about to vaporize in the fiery combustion of exploding jet fuel. Gorgeous spurts of red ether will release instantly followed by a floodtide from the shock and horror of billions of people watching it on their screens.

Viealetta vibrates with excited anticipation.

The planes collide with the towers. First one, then the other. Each impact and subsequent collapse set off vampiric orgasms that shiver and pulsate through the whole neural web.

Viealetta glows at the center of this vibrating web in the form of an albino spider, rapidly inflating as she becomes engorged with ether. The red antennae surrounding her dozen eyes vibrate electrically in a silent orgasmic scream. My whole being trembles as I behold the feeding of this godhead of evil. Suddenly, her ancient name comes to mind. Medusa. Her hair of snakes was an early vision of a being too terrible to behold. But, before Medusa can paralyze me with dread, my vision pulls away.

FLASH—

A man with dark eyes looks out from a high office tower window, viewing the world through a mind of cruel stratagems.

I enter his psyche.

He is at a nexus of wealth and power, and that is one of the factors shriveling his soul and souring his tissues. His body is riddled with metastasizing cancer, and he burns with bitter rage. He’s filled with hatred for his entire species, the swarming masses of people on the streets below, and the organic matrix that gave rise to him. He’s programmed a powerful AI to engineer a series of viruses—

FLASH—

Now I see this man from the outside. His body has spinnerets like a spider. They’re where his genitals, stomach, heart, mouth, and eyes should be. Silently, the spinnerets emit axons and dendrites of parasitic nerve tissue flowing into the larger world.

FLASH—

A stream of people walk down a busy city street. Their hazy outlines are highlighted by the rays of a setting sun. I watch from the middle of the street as they pass in slow motion, their elongated shadows bobbing almost weightlessly as they amble through my view.

As dark whispers invade their minds, spinnerets in their eyes emit filaments of nerve tissue into the surrounding atmosphere.

I gaze into these people, recognizing different energetic configurations. Some are puppets whose minds are merely echo chambers for the dark whispers. They are hollow folk, operated by the parasitic web. Others still have cores of self-awareness that vary considerably in radiance and structure. Many are dim like dying stars, but a few shine brilliantly in the darkness. These people are aware of the whispers and see into the black magic behind them.

FLASH—

Dark threads wrap around me, cocooning me in parasitic nerve tissue.

There’s a strong smell of hospital antiseptics. The cocoon is made of densely interwoven gauze bandages stained with darkened blood.

I lay curled up in my hospital bed as it wraps tighter and thicker around the naked wounds of my Fireskin until I can’t breathe through its suffocating mass.

The bandaging cocoon engulfs me, and I thrash about as a creature of white gauze before losing consciousness.

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I awaken by the campfire lying on my back, a folded blanket placed carefully behind my head. Jeremiah sits beside me while the sapphire orb hovers above the center of my body.

I’m in shock, but my mind is clear enough to realize I’ve survived the microdose of Shadow Elixir. I’ve been shown things I didn’t want to see, but that needed to be seen. The visions are like fiery brands that have burned their marks into my mind.

I feel Jeremiah encouraging me to sit up.

“Deep breaths,” he whispers. He uncorks a bottle and passes it to me. I take a drink and feel water replenishing my body. My mind, however, still reverberates with horrifying visions of Viealetta’s dark web.

The experience was like a fever dream. I’m not sure how literally to take it.

“You’re right not to be sure about such visions,” says Jeremiah.

“Some parts may be literal actualities, and others mythological metaphors. We have to allow the line between those to remain ambiguous.”

He pauses to study me.

“Drink as much as you can,” he says before continuing.

“Literalists who experience visions become possessed by them. For the possessed, the fever never breaks, and they are filled with a rabid desire to spread the psychic contagion. Jung described archetype-possessed people as terrifying invalids who think they are on a mission to save the world.”

“But—” I set my water bottle down and try to focus on Jeremiah, “you and I—we think we’re on a mission to save the world.”

“Exactly,” he replies. “It’s an uncomfortable irony, isn’t it? There’s a slippery line between being inspired by visions and becoming possessed by them. We, too, are vulnerable to being fooled by what we see emerging from the unconscious. There is also danger in assuming that everything we see is non-literal. Visions may often reveal truth, but that truth can be literal or symbolic, and we must carefully discern between those possibilities. When the boundary between those is ambiguous, we must avoid premature conclusions, lest we become a possessed true believer or a possessed debunker.”

I try grasping Jeremiah’s words, but the paradox rattles my staggered mind. Then I think of a new question.

“What was coming back from your Shadow Journey like?”

“It was—” Jeremiah pauses to think, “—insanity—total reality disorientation and confusion. I felt like I woke up not into reality, but into the weirdest dream I’ve ever had. Only that weird dream is what’s real, and who you think you are, and your past, is the illusion. I felt like I was drowning, and the only way to come up for air was to accept the weird dream as my new reality. That part is . . . unavoidable. It was an adjustment, but I did eventually come back to myself, and gained wisdom from the experience.”

“OK,” I say with a long exhale. “Well, I think you’ve prepared me as much as possible for something that nothing can prepare me for. Hopefully, I’ll recover as well as you and the other Andrew did.”

“Ready for the full dose?” Jeremiah asks.

I nod slowly.

He carefully pours Shadow Elixir into a tiny concave bowl carved into the underside of the spire-shaped stopper. The liquid is shiny black, like fountain pen ink. He spills it onto the palm of my left hand, and it disappears beneath my skin.

The sapphire elemental hovers at the edge of my awareness as I lay my head back on the wool blanket. I close my eyes once more, and the world goes dark.

BOOK THREE

SNOWSKIN

      1

A gap . . .

I must’ve blacked out or had a very gentle incarnation seizure.

I was just hovering in a forest that lay past the industrial area of Cat City. Now I’m lying down and warm, and everything is dark.

It’s dark because my eyes are closed.

I open my eyes and find the Prince, Jeremiah, gently shaking me.

His face is close to mine and slowly coming into focus.

It feels like I’ve been out for a while.

My body is weirdly hot and flexible and smaller than it should be.

The Prince’s green eyes study me with concern.

The campfire is still here, but we’re no longer in the forest.

Instead, I see orange firelight reflecting off crenulated rock formations pitched high above us.

“Andrew,” the Prince says.

The name is strangely familiar. Perhaps it means Snowman in another tongue.

He says it again, nudging my shoulder.

“Andrew.”

My body feels so different—warmer, smaller—as if it were more meat than snowmeat—

“Andrew.”

Jeremiah puts both his hands on my shoulders, and sends warm, calming energy into me.

My body isn’t shaped right.

I try lifting my arm just to see if I can. But when I do, someone else’s hand comes into my field of vision instead of my own snowhand. It looks like the well-formed hand of a young upright.

This young, upright guy must be reading my mind. He’s putting his hand wherever I think my hand should be.

It’s quite a trick. Anytime I think to move my hand, he moves his in its place.

But the trick is too good. I can almost feel his hand when he moves it.

Then I realize how the trick is being done. Someone has put another hand, like a glove, on top of my hand to fool me.

Furiously, I try to shake the fake hand off, but it won’t budge.

There’s no other hand but this one.

It’s—I shudder with horror as I realize what’s happened.

It’s—a hand transplant

I am the victim of a hand transplant done without my consent.

Some horrendous criminal has mutilated me!

They put me down with general anesthesia—that’s why I blacked out!

And while I was out, this horrible criminal amputated my snowhands and attached upright hands.

Why would they do this to me?

“Andrew, you’re safe now,” says Prince Jeremiah.

I’m hyperventilating, on the verge of a panic attack, but he tightens his hands on my shoulders, and their radiant warmth slowly pacifies me.

Maybe this is all just a hallucination caused by the neuro-pharmaceuticals I got at that More Real than Real place—

No—DUH—I’m still in the goddamned TSW!

Goddamn it!

Why did I surrender control to such a sleazy, commercial simulacrum?

Never, ever, again.

The TSW’s weird and arbitrary rules keep disorienting the snowshit out of me.

Now it’s forced me into an upright avatar for some damn reason!

Just get it together, Snowman. You’ve been shoved into a new body. Deal with it.

Wait—-this is exactly what Oliver Twister was trying to tell me—the TSW doesn’t allow for a Snowman avatar!

No, that’s wrong. That’s not what he said.

The TSW does not allow you to come across as yourself—that’s what he actually said.

So, if I’m still in the TSW, and it’s converting me from my snowbody because of that rule, that proves I’m a snow mutant, or it wouldn’t have to do that!

Thank God. I’ve got my reality grounding back.

Go ahead TSW, hit me with your digital illusions. I know exactly what’s going on!

“Take some deep breaths, Andrew,” the Prince says, in his soothing voice. “I’m sorry I had to pull you out so suddenly.”

I like him, but this “Prince” is obviously a non-player character, an NPC, trying to convince me that I’m this new game-generated avatar, “Andrew.”

I’ve never been in such a corrupt and totally unprofessional simulacrum before.

It’s performed an illegal operation. Double emphasis on illegal.  It just arbitrarily shoved me into a new avatar without my consent. That’s got to be actionable.

I’m going to sue these motherfuckers!  I don’t give a fuck how big the TSW is, I’m going to lawyer the fuck up and make them pay for this shit.

But first, I’ve got to get through their goddamn virtual experience.

“Just breathe,” says Jeremiah.

I like him, this Jeremiah.

It’s not his fault he’s a game-generated character, he’s just as much a victim of the TSW as I am.

No, actually, he’s infinitely more of a victim than I am because I get to wake up from this shit and he’s stuck in it forever!

Poor guy—I feel for him, I do.

Jeremiah—the digital prince with a heart of gold.

He’s just trying to do his job—calm me from the shock of illegal avatar switching. How many other players has he done this for?

Obviously, the TSW is waking up to its liability and sent this appealing NPC to calm me down.

Yeah, right, nice try.

Of course you want to schmooze me into believing this is OK.

But, no, it’s not fucking OK, assholes!

I’ll lawyer up on these fuckers later, but for now, I’ll play dumb.

I’ll just go along to get along.

This whole situation is so fucking obvious!

Just take a chill pill, Snowman. You’re going to come out of this with a huge settlement.

Their toxic brew of neuro-pharmaceuticals intentionally suppressed key cognitive functions, and that’s why it took me so long to recognize the obvious.

Of course, that’s not the illegal part—that’s how any simulacrum works.

But your neuros weren’t good enough to sheeple me into an illegal avatar switch, were they? Did you think you had me under so well I wouldn’t even notice that shit?

Think again, motherfuckers.

“Just keep taking deep breaths,” says Jeremiah. His eyes seem so sympathetic, like he’s actually aware of what I’m going through. Game-generated character or not, I like the guy. He’s helping me get through this.

But what exactly am I going through?

Oh, right, the shock of unauthorized avatar substitution.

The neuro-pharmaceuticals are still messing with my thinking.

They’re designed to anesthetize your reality testing to go with what the simulacrum is presenting, so it seems more real than real. And More Real than Real is the literal name of the business establishment that took my forty credit units and sucked me into the TSW. Duh.

But something doesn’t make sense. The TSW’s neuro-pharmaceuticals are mostly designed to suppress one cognitive function—the tendency to question reality. But I am questioning reality, so they must not be working properly.

Wait, of course they’re not! They were designed for uprights and felines, not Snow Mutants. The TSW is trying to correct the problem by switching me to an upright avatar.

So fucking obvious!

Thank God I still have my mutant IQ and command of logic to sift through the cognitive dissonance! Imagine how confused some simpleton would be by all this?

But—knowing what’s actually going on really isn’t helping me that much at the moment. It’s not making this new reality any less disturbing.

But—what if the disorientation is because what I think is going on is . . . not what’s actually happening? What if there’s another reality behind the curtain?

What if the whole TSW-misfiring-snowbrain-chemistry scenario—my interpretation of what’s happening to me— is just a mental construct—a flimsy narrative I’ve invented to explain what I’m experiencing?

What if the TSW itself is a hallucination!

What if everything I can remember is merely the hallucination of this Andrew? What if he’s the real player, and I’m just his mixed-up avatar?

Is he my hallucination, or am I his?

There’s no way for me to know what’s actually going on—the possibilities are infinite.

All I can do is focus on what seems to be happening right now.

I need to work with this new reality on its own terms.

“Andrew,” says the Prince as he gently shakes my shoulders.

“I’m sorry, I know you’re disoriented. I didn’t want to pull you out, but I sense a danger is approaching your camper van, and we need to return to where you left it.”

Danger is approaching, and the Prince needs my help.

He helps me stand up. My body feels so small and different and—

This is not my body!

The Prince offers me a bottle of water. He wants me to drink water–

Of course! That’s why I feel small— I’m dehydrated. I must have crossed the Beckstein Limit and—that’s why I blacked out.

But—

Crossing the Beckstein Limit causes irreversible brain damage.

All I can do is rehydrate, and hopefully, I’ll regain at least some of the lost cognitive function.

But—I’ll never be who I was. And I’ll never become who I could have been. There’s no coming back from being on the wrong side of the Beckstein Limit.

The Prince holds the bottle to my lips, and I take a few swallows.

I feel the water replenishing me, but my snowbody isn’t swelling like it should because—it’s never coming back to normal. There’s been too much structural deterioration of my ice crystals, and now they lack the capillary action they need to rehydrate. My diminishment—it’s—

Irreversible.

Why do I still exist at this level of deterioration?

Why doesn’t entropy just take its course?

I can’t live like this.

I need the general anesthesia of everlasting non-existence.

“Andrew—Andrew—we need to get to your camper van.”

Yes, yes—the camper van—there is a point to my existence—a mission.

I can help the Prince save the camper van!

He helps me up and beckons me to follow. I struggle to disregard the weirdness of this body so I can focus on walking.

I understand the theory of how uprights walk, and the avatar knows how to do it. I just need to get my doubts out of the way and let it happen.

We’re approaching a vortex. We enter it together—a whirlwind of color and light—and then—

We’re in the same mesa, but everything feels different.

I can see it, the silver camper van that must be saved. It looks strangely familiar and beautiful.

It has a name, the Mothership. It’s valuable, and it must be saved!

As we draw closer, the Prince takes off one of his two shoulder bags and passes it to me.

Is it a gift?

“You must have keys in there,” Jeremiah says.

Now I understand—there must be keys in there.

My transplanted, upright hands seem to know what to do. They reach into the bag, find the keys, and press a button on a plastic thing. I hear a beeping, the lights come on, and the camper van’s doors unlock.

All that happened with the touch of a button.

Whatever reality this is, the technology is incredibly advanced.

“Can you drive?” Jeremiah asks.

Can I drive?

It’s such a pertinent question. This Prince has an uncanny ability to cut through to the essential.

And somehow, I know the answer is yes, I can drive. If I think the answer is yes, it will be yes. When the moment comes, I will know how. Somehow—perhaps because my snowbody is at the very edge of death—I am creating my own reality.

“Yes, I can drive.”

I hear myself answer in someone else’s voice, someone who speaks quietly and in an elegantly well-modulated tone.

This voice sounds so diplomatic and intelligent. It has that silken quality of a young upright. Not a trace of my raspy, old snowvoice. It’s—Andrew’s voice, I suppose.

Fuck—I’ll take it!

It’s so much more mellifluous. Definitely an upgrade. If it was up to me, though, I’d add an upper-crust British accent, an Oxbridge one. That would make the voice even cooler.

Wait a minute!  Of course it’s up to me! I’m in a zone where I’m creating my own reality. I need only assume I have such an accent, and it will be so!

“Where do you want to go?” I ask.

Damn, no British accent. There must be limits to my ability to create my own reality after all.

Well, whatever. This upright body knows exactly what to do and say. So I’ll just go along for the ride.

“Anywhere. Away from here,” Jeremiah says, “But why don’t you take a couple of deep breaths first.”

As I do, he places one hand on my chest and the other against my back. Warm vitality flows into my heart.

As the upright hand turns the key in the ignition, I almost feel meat and bone press against the metal. It locks into a final position, and suddenly a surge of power flows through the vehicle as the engine ignites and all these systems come online. Intricate red and amber icons blink on and off again on the dashboard.

My strange, new body fits this seat easily and seems familiar with all the controls and glowing icons. I’m amazed by the upright body’s mastery of the camper van than must be saved as it switches on the headlights and shifts the transmission into drive.

My self-esteem glows as I realize how impressed the Prince must be with my mastery of this complex vehicle, The Mothership.

We bounce and rattle down a rutted dirt road until we reach smooth black asphalt. The road is less bumpy now, and the upright’s foot—my foot? —presses down harder on the gas pedal.

Moments later, we pass by a motorcade of emergency vehicles going in the opposite direction. I watch in the rear-view mirror as they race down the road we just came from, with blaring sirens and flashing lights.

Somehow, I know they’ve been called because someone died in their vehicle, an “RV”—which means a recreational vehicle. It’s such a weird idea, a recreational vehicle—and it’s even weirder to think of someone being dead inside one. And yet, there’s a weird feeling of inevitability about that, like déjà vu.

Is it me that’s dead inside this RV?

I pull into a supermarket parking lot.

The Mothership is saved.

I could drive more if necessary, but I don’t want to push my luck, so I turn off the ignition.

Suddenly, everything becomes quiet, and the whole save-the-Mothership adrenaline rush fizzles out. Now I feel extremely disoriented and weak.

“You need to drink more water,” Jeremiah says, looking at me with his concerned, green eyes. As soon as he says that, I feel my feverish thirst. He leads me toward the back of the van.

I notice how clean and orderly the coach is—everything in its place. The most striking aspect is the cabinet doors. They’re all decoupaged with intricate collages protected by heavy varnish. Jeremiah waits patiently while I study them.

And then it’s like knowing things in a dream.

This Andrew avatar is pretty cool. He studies subcultures, and each collage is made of photos he’s taken of them, plus some other found papers and small objects. Each collage seems to tell a story, and each story radiates this déjà vu-like feeling that I was part of those stories somehow.

I’m shocked to see how much I’ve underestimated the TSW. Every collage is rendered with such detail and artistry. They have such a human quality. They’re so—expressive.

Could a commercial simulacrum really come up with something like this?

Maybe something even stranger is going on.

When I’m done studying the collages, Jeremiah has me sit on the sleeping platform. He pours water into a glass and hands it to me.

“Drink slowly,” he tells me.

As the replenishing water courses through me, I soak in the atmosphere of Andrew’s camper van. Scattered memories of his life flow into me.

This will go easier if I just allow a degree of avatar switching.

So I let the Andrew info upload. He’s a young upright, and very clever and talented in his way. He’s not a snow mutant, but I must admit, he is some sort of mutant.

A scene of Andrew and Jeremiah plays out in my mind—they’re talking about a metamorphosis, an initiation involving a Shadow Elixir that can cause extreme identity disorders, and whole other lifetimes. I see Jeremiah put a drop of this elixir on Andrew’s hand and watch as it disappears beneath his skin.

I had a vision of that when I looked into the pool in Weedland, and I also saw it on the television in the Mutant Motel!

This whole avatar storyline rendered on the fly by the TSW has a great logical consistency. Cute. If I go with the story, this whole situation will synch up—so smoothly.

Pretty slick guys. You really know your sheepling.

Too bad you pushed your luck and tried it on the wrong mutant.

But for now, fine, I’ll go with the show. I’ll keep my cards close to my vest and catch more actionable mistakes.

I’ll just be the silent snowman taking notes behind the digital curtain of your little camper-van scenario.

I may come out of this owning the fucking TSW.

“Andrew, Andrew—” the Prince is shaking me.

Oh shit, I passed out again. Is this simulacrum trying to kill me?

“Drink some more water.”

I do, and holy fuck—body, body, body, movin’. This is fucking real, so fucking physical.

Jesus, this experience is state-of-the-art. My whole reality ground, my very snowbeing, feels like a Vaseline-slicked linoleum floor being slipped out from under me.

This TSW may be sketchy, but they’ve definitely got some valuable intellectual property.

Yeah, well, good, I’m glad you’re rich—you’ve got deep pockets, bitch.

I can’t wait to own you.

But besides the illegality, something else is creeping me out about this unauthorized avatar switch-a-roo.

I’ve got this weird feeling Andrew isn’t just an avatar. He’s an actual, physical person as real as me. Somehow or another, I’ve been shoved into his actual, physical body.

Really? Really TSW? You shoved me into an organic body that could flatline at any moment? Talk about reckless endangerment! Can you even comprehend your legal exposure here? Anything goes wrong with this meat body and—

INFINITE LIABILITY, motherfuckers!

But wait a minute— if I’m in Andrew’s body—where the fuck is Andrew?

I hope he’s alright. Who knows what the fuck the TSW is doing to the guy.

Jesus! This is turning into a class action suit. What a mother fucking cluster-fuck! How many other victims are caught up in this?

Oh my God, what if they shoved Andrew into my snowbody?

Holy epic mindfuck, Batman.

I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

No wonder this poor guy’s memories feel so real. They are real for him.

“Andrew, Andrew—wake up!”

What the—did I just pass out again? Where the fuck? What is this shit?

Oh right—the Prince—the camper-van scenario—scen-ario—the sin—are—are-I-O—are—I? I? I?—

—OH, OH, OH, FUCK! FUCKING FUCK! WHAT IF I ACTUALLY AM ANDREW?

NO, NO, NO! THAT’S CRAZY TALK. I AM I! I AM THE SNOWMAN!

Am I?

What if I’m Andrew, and I was the Snowman in the TSW?

Which real is real?

“Andrew, Andrew, calm down, take a breath. That’s it, just keep breathing, breathe with me,” says Jeremiah.

What if I’m just a lost, disincarnated soul going through a bardo?

What if all these realities I’m experiencing are just hypothetical incarnations I’m trying on like costumes?

I ‘ve heard rumors of new reincarnation theories. One says that your Higher Self is like the body of a transtemporal jellyfish. Your individual incarnations are like tentacles it uses to reach down into dense time-and-space-bound realms to experience individual lifetimes. And those individual personalities are oblivious to the larger, transtemporal, multiply-incarnate organism of which they are merely a part.

I’m just a slippery, transtemporal jellyfish jerking myself off into absurd incarnations.

How do I stop myself from doing that?

But what if there is no transtemporal jellyfish? What if this is just what it seems to be—a snowbrain fucked up on neuro-pharmaceuticals being way, way, way too credulous?

This whole simulacrum is like one of those optical illusions that is one thing viewed from one angle but something totally different from another.

But which angle shows the truth?

Both do.

Every optical illusion is like that. Each view is equally valid, but I have to slide toward one, or I’ll remain trapped in this nauseating limbo, fluctuating between them.

“Go with where your body is,” says Jeremiah.

He seems to be aware of my thoughts, which should make me feel paranoid, but it doesn’t. Jeremiah feels intrinsically good, and there’s a familiarity with his mind-reading.

I can trust him. He means me well.

He pours me another glass of water, and I drink it in silence. My grip on the glass feels so kinesthetically actualized. Andrew has such well-formed upright hands. And yet, beneath the optical illusion—I feel my snowfingers squirming.

The hand transplant is the most disorienting part of this.

Snowhand shame is intrinsic to who I am. It’s been an engrained instinct since early childhood—

I must hide my hands and avoid eating or drinking in front of other people.

But here I am, holding this glass of water with Jeremiah patiently watching me, and yet—I feel no shame because these are beautiful, graceful, upright hands.

He’s so patient and kind this Jeremiah. Now that the camper van has been saved, he’s content just to watch over me while I have my own thoughts.

True, these upright hands are not the cat paws I’ve always wanted, but they’re model hands. Of course, I would never say this in front of a feline, but hands are actually much more dexterous than paws.

These hands are so physically convincing as I move them.

But they’re—not me, not me, not me!

Where the fuck are my snowhands?

Wait, what if my chronic snowbody dysphoria has finally caused me to go totally batshit crazy? This could all be a wish-fulfillment hallucination!

But why upright hands? Why not the cat paws I always wanted?

Only now that I think about it, that lifelong desire seems grotesque—a snowbody with cat paws?

My hands are perfect like Jeremiah’s, and he’s an elf.

Does that mean I’m an elf?

Holy shit! Why didn’t I notice this before—Jeremiah has scars—can elves have scars? Somehow he’s more deformed than me.

My form isn’t deformed at all now—but how can that be?  I am the deformed one . . .

Maybe my deformity is that I’m two and not one. I am Snowman/Andrew, and these two bodies and identities chaotically fluctuate. Of course, to anyone else, I’m just batshit crazy but—

What if past the Beckstein limit, entropy caused a massive incarnation seizure that split me into two incompatible identities? No amount of therapy will overcome such a schizoid condition!

But—it is what it is—I just have to accept this permanent disability as my new normal.

Jeremiah pours more water into my empty glass as I struggle to accept the disability. This moment of him filling my glass feels symbolic—like it’s showing me that Jeremiah can fill in all my blank spots. He’s the one who can fill me up with sanity.

Jeremiah is so calm, stable, and consistently himself. Which is so much more than I can say for myself. He must know who I really am.

“Who am I, Jeremiah?”

“Trust who your body says you are,” he replies. “Right now, you’re Andrew, and you’ll remain Andrew until you die or take more Shadow Elixir. But you also contain other identities, other people you’ve lived as. We all contain multitudes, but you’re Andrew now, and you’re in your rightful body. All your former identities need to step back as you restore your primary identity as Andrew. In this reality, you will remain Andrew.”

It’s a skillful answer that gives me a stable ground I can step on. I might as well go with it.

If I can’t trust Jeremiah, who can I trust?

“You’re Andrew,” he reassures me.

I feel like I’m coming down from something. Like I’ve been tripping really hard, but now I’m starting to stabilize.

“You’re Andrew,” Jeremiah says soothingly.

The way he says “Andrew” conveys a particular feeling, like he cherishes the name and the person attached to it. Andrew is someone unique and worthy, a person whose presence he needs.

Well then, why not be this Andrew? Jeremiah seems to like him. And it’s not like being the Snowman was any picnic. Being snowbodied created social problems a thousand layers deep in every incarnation.

“You’re Andrew,” Jeremiah whispers.

My body relaxes into acceptance. Yeah, I realize Jeremiah is putting me under a spell of some sort, but it feels good. So I just let it wash over me.

“Close your eyes,” he says, “lie back and allow every muscle to relax.”

Jeremiah places a pillow behind my head and carefully drapes a blanket over me as I lie back. The bed in the back of this camper is so comfortable and familiar.

My eyes close, and tension drains from my muscles.

“You’re Andrew. Let me show you what you look like.”

My breathing deepens as Jeremiah shares his perspective, allowing me to see through his eyes.

I see—Andrew. Finally, I’m getting to see the new avatar from the outside.

He’s lying in the back of the camper van. He’s quite good-looking for an upright—slightly androgynous, young, with high cheekbones and long, dark hair. He has no deformities of any kind.

There are shadows under his eyes, framed by long, dark eyelashes. His smooth skin has a flushed quality, like someone with a slight fever. Although his body appears young, even with his eyes closed, the traces of worry on his face convey a sense of someone older.

I examine him closely and see no trace of a snowbody, not even the usual dandruff of snowflakes. But a blanket covers most of his body as though something is being hidden.

Perceiving my doubt, Jeremiah slowly draws back the blanket. His gesture is almost like that of an artist unveiling a painting, so for a moment, it seems like this body might be an exquisite illusion he’s creating.

I decide to raise my arm, and the body responds. I can move and feel this body even as see it from Jeremiah’s perspective. I pass my new hands over its contours, mapping out the topography.

This new body seems to work, but I feel disloyal, detaching from my Snowman identity. Whatever else I am, I’ll always be the Snowman inside, but the only practical thing is to anchor myself in the identity corresponding to my present body, which is—Andrew.

I have his body, I might as well have his personality too.

“That’s a good way to think about it,” says Jeremiah. “It’s perfectly OK to have more than one identity. No need to fight it. Each has their time. And right now, it’s Andrew’s time. You can shift your center of identification without disowning or dishonoring the other selves you contain.”

I take a few more deep breaths and slowly relax into the Andrew identity.

“That’s it, just keep breathing,” Jeremiah says.

And then—light as a feather—a memory settles over me—the Shadow Journey.

The Shadow Journey is what’s real. And it’s changed me.

The metamorphosis is real.

“Yes, it is real, Andrew,” Jeremiah whispers. “It’s in a heightened state right now, so just go with it.”

OK, I can do that, I can go with it.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“The recapitulation. I’m going to give you a micro-microdose, and then I’m going to leave you alone in your Mothership, and you’re going to write about the life you lived as someone else. You have a slight tolerance to the elixir now, and it’s a micro-microdose, so you won’t feel the full effect for a few minutes, but once it kicks in, it will allow you to revisit your Shadow Journey while giving you enough distance to write about it.”

Jeremiah holds out the glass stopper with a tiny drop of black liquid—a micro-microdose of Shadow Eixir.

      2

It looks like I can write, or type at least, but I—I keep saying “I” but I don’t really know what that means. I’m not sure which “I” is me. I’m more like an unstable chimera of different identities shuffling like playing cards. There’s the Andrew that supposedly was, an unstable new Andrew whose existence is tentative, almost hypothetical, and the shadow self—the snowself—I became between and betwixt.

But none of these selves can claim enough center of gravity to create a stable “I.” We’re like the subatomic particles needed to form an atomic nucleus, but we can’t adhere to each other.

Who am I most?

My shadow self feels the most massive, and I sense him about to take over again. My older and newer selves, the two “Andrews,” are merely witnesses, unable to merge into a core.

The one writing now is a fragile, untethered intellect, hastily summoned into existence to bridge these selves and compose this journal entry. But unfortunately, this provisional self is already running out of energy, winding down, and losing coherence.

The shadow self—the snowself—must be the one to continue the journal and tell his story, however grotesque, bizarre, and unpleasant it may seem to the Andrews and to anyone reading this.

I can feel the micro-microdose Jeremiah just gave me bringing him back to life. He cares nothing for the earlier Andrew’s reputation as a thoughtful journalist. Instead, he wants to take over the journal and express himself with his neurotic insecurities and complaints.

The massive bulk of his body is pushing me away from the keyboard so he can tell his story, his way . . .

3

I awake within a sweaty cocoon of gray blankets adhering me to my bare mattress. The mattress is held up by a layer of steel springs squeaking their annoyance that I have reanimated.

My body feels bulgy and weird, a mass of aches and pains.

There are a series of dreary steps necessary to get out of bed and wake my snowy brain from its uneasy slumber—tiresome, counter-enthusiastic, mechanical steps.

I want to escape the moldering sweaty cocoon of blankets. But my enthusiasm to wake up is roughly comparable to that of a ninety-year-old arthritic coal miner about to begin a one-hundred-hour shift after a breakfast of cold gruel.

I waver unsteadily between two undesirable realities. I dislike the one I’m currently in—the sweaty cocoon of blankets. But even more unattractive are all the irritating steps involved in reanimating myself to get ready for the day.

Instead of getting up, I think about my dreams. They were hectic fragments of outrageously annoying mundane circumstances. My last dream before I woke up involved ordering a sandwich at a deli.

I was told flatly that it will take at least three hours and forty-five minutes before they’ll be ready to prepare the sandwich, if, and only if, all the ingredients are still available by then. And if I’m not there when it’s done, they’ll just throw the sandwich away with no refund.

I boil with rage at these policies.

I’m about to tell them off, but before I can protest, my rage wakes me up. So I didn’t even get to eat the sandwich anyway.

But as irritating as these dream fragments are, the alternative—the life I must wake up to— seems even more stale, flat, and unprofitable.

Somehow, the wake-up procedures must have happened, though I can’t recall the steps. I suppose my morning autopilot must have switched on to carry my reanimated snowcorpse of a body through its mundane necessities.

I’m standing in an empty parking lot outside my apartment building.

It’s a bleak winter morning. A pale sun casts my shadow before me, and I see the grossness of my body and how big and round and heavy my head is.

I’m wearing an old black overcoat, a coat so familiar in odor and texture that it has become like the matted fur covering a mangy old dog. It has fused to my inner skin and become the outer layer of my body.

The pockets of my overcoat bulge with a messy collection of essential items—candy bars, coupons, plastic pens, dog-eared envelopes, and folded-up bits of paperwork. These bulging pockets reassure me. From the inside pocket of the overcoat, I feel my trusty, fat leather wallet, like a swollen animal corpse with a well-worn hide.

The presence of such familiar things is comforting, but I also feel a strange blankness in my head. It’s the sort of blankness you can get on a groggy winter morning when you’ve just woken up and are not yet sure of where you are, or maybe even who you are.

But it could also be, I suddenly realize with a cold spike of anxiety, the kind of blankness you feel after waking up from a series of ministrokes.

Ministrokes often happen while you sleep.

Clearly, that’s it. I slept, oblivious to the unfolding neurological catastrophe. Parts of my brain died off in the night, and with them, vast regions of my memory.

My brain feels like dirty dishwater sloshing around in the kitchen sink of my skull.

I close my eyes, trying to clear the dishwater, but it’s thick like the sooty snow sludge in a city gutter cratered with bits of dog shit and cigarette butts. The blankness in my head has such little islands of specificity.

I focus on one of them. A memory from childhood.

I see Dr. Beckstein, the renowned mutantologist, in vivid detail.  His portentous head is framed by a disturbing series of backlit X-Rays. He looks at me through the thick magnifying lenses of his heavy, tortoise-shell glasses as he discusses my condition in his Old-World, German-Jewish accent.

“Ven you ghett older—and you vill get older— it is inevitable zat arteries in your brain vill deteriorate and become narrower. At zat point, if even a zingle ice crystal zhould break loose, it can cause a stroke. Zere could be a whole zeries of ministrokes at first, some of vich you may barely notice.”

Now, it’s happened. Ministrokes. I am a victim of ministrokes.

But as I realize this, I perceive certain advantages. I have a verifiable new medical condition.

I AM a victim of ministrokes!

This medical status will entitle me to special considerations and a significant number of additional benefits.

I see myself proudly reporting this new condition at the Sloane-Kettering mutantology clinic. The intake nurse immediately summons an orderly to bring a wheelchair, and I receive a whole series of new treatments and recategorizations, entitling me to numerous additional benefits.

I will be kept for observation in a room with an adjustable hospital bed and a TV with a remote control to keep me stimulated. I will be served Jello and ever-so-sweet artificially flavored drinks in great abundance while attentive nurses check on me throughout the day.

But where is the clinic?

Large areas of my memory are still fuzzy and inaccessible.

I pull out my trusty old wallet and open it up. I am immediately reassured when I see the familiar scuffed-up plastic card. My all-important government photo ID is still here—Thank God!

I study my image in the corner of the card—my big round head and the heavy bags under my worried, coal-black eyes. As terrible as I look in that photo, I have to remind myself that this was how I looked six years ago, and I’ve aged horribly since then.

I recognize my name: Morris Schnauman.

“Hey, Morrron Snooowwmannn.”

Whenever I see my name in print like that, I hear a chorus of school kids pronouncing it their way, their falsetto voices rising and falling like a doppler-shifting echo from the past.

Embossed holographically across my face is that familiar person-in-a-wheelchair icon but with an “M” where the head should be.

Thank God I haven’t lost my government ID!

So much more than just an ID—it’s my all-important, official mutant disability certification entitling me to government services, relief checks, and many other crucial benefits worth thousands, if not tens of thousands, of credit units.

Next to the wheelchair icon is something that even ministrokes could never cause me to forget. My disabled mutant registration code— DMR-015-54-7895.There’s no fuzziness about my nine-digit DMR. I know this number backwards and forwards and can recite it in a snap anytime I’m asked. Hell, I could recite it in my sleep!

Damn. I was probably reciting my DMR last night while my brain was being destroyed by ministrokes.

Ministrokes or not, I’ve got a mission. Twice a week, I take the subway downtown to the Office of Disabled Mutant Services or ODMS (pronounced “Odd-ems”) to fill out endless paperwork. Thanks to the new Mutantcare legislation, my DMR must be written out two to three times on every page in blue or black ballpoint pen ink.

Every Monday and Thursday, I have to go down there to ODMS and fill out the same papers over and over and over and over again. Florescent lights flicker and whine above me while I sit on tiny circa-1970 plastic benches with bucket seats that don’t fit my bulk.

I have to sit there for hours, the crack of my snowy ass stuck between two of the plastic buckets.

The repetitive paperwork is annoying and tedious. But I get it. It’s my job. It’s what I’ve got to do to keep those monthly disability checks coming.

There’s another reason besides the ministrokes that my head feels so blank. A self-anesthetizing defense mechanism has taken over.

When I was a snowboy, I was diagnosed with DSD (Dissociative Snowdentity Disorder), as well as Snowbody Dysphoria, which also causes disassociation.

On top of those disorders, and now the new neurological catastrophe of ministrokes, I also have PTSD from the accumulated stress of thousands of hours spent at ODMS, waiting for my number to get called by contemptuous clerks who always assume that mutation is synonymous with developmentally disabled. And they treat me like I’m being special needs just to inconvenience them.

Assholes. If there were no deformed mutants, you wouldn’t have jobs. It’s in your fucking job title!

Meanwhile, I’m forced to be exquisitely polite to these contemptuous clerks, because every one of them ranks my CCI (Courtesy and Cooperation Index) on a scale of 1-5. Anytime my CCI falls below 3.8, I’ve got to start the same paperwork cycle all over again.

Nevertheless, the general public resents us because they think we have it so easy!

My caseworker, Mrs. Sternberger, always tells me I shouldn’t call myself a mutant, but an RCS (Reality Challenged Survivor). And yet she treats me like I’m the world’s most annoying special-needs mutant of all time if I forget to get a paper stamped, especially if it’s my DSM-4 voucher, because she can’t get paid on time if my DSM-4 isn’t notarized. She still gives me attitude because I forgot to get a DSM-4 notarized seven months ago.

I feel sick to my stomach just thinking about having to talk to Mrs. Sternberger. But if I get diagnosed with ministrokes at the intake clinic, they might temporarily waive the need for me to report to ODMS.

But no, I can’t risk that!

If they dismiss me at the clinic because they’re overbooked and won’t see me today, or say my symptoms are psychosomatic, I’ll be late for ODMS without a clinic waiver. Then there will be holy hell to pay.

     4

Now I’m standing on the subway platform waiting for the F train, feeling hungry and nervous. My overcoat pockets bulge with cellophane-packaged snacks that I’ve stowed there for just such a snack emergency.

So I tear into them, stuffing my snowface with square orange crackers sandwiched with a layer of dry, industrial-grade peanut butter. I scarf down four whole packages of them. I don’t even realize what I’ve done until I’m sitting in a screeching subway car with a huge lump in my stomach. The lump feels like it’s composed of greasy sawdust, salt, and chemicals. I let out a belch that reeks of artificial cheese flavoring and rancid peanut butter.

Great, now I have school-cafeteria breath and nothing to drink.

I search my pockets in vain for a mint or hard candy that might relieve the industrial cheesy-peanut taste burning my mouth.

A terrible dryness is forming in my throat. It’s stealing moisture from every ice crystal of my upper GI tract, and I feel dizzy and weak.

For years I’ve suffered from the snow metabolism equivalents of hypoglycemia, candida, Epstein-Barr, and chronic high blood pressure. And yes, of course I realize I’m supposed to be drinking lots of fluids to replenish my ice crystals. (Thanks for that unnecessary reminder.) But instead, like a total snowtard, I just went ahead and ate all these dry and salty industrial cellophane snacks without bothering to bring even a single warm drink box of Hawaiian Punch with me! And then that voice starts to speak in my head—the one who sounds like a cross between a hypercritical AM-radio-talk-show psychologist and my caseworker, Mrs. Sternberger:

“Hey Mr. Softyballs, can’t you remember about avoiding dehydration?—DUH?—Is somebody else supposed to take responsibility for your health?—DUH?—Is it gonna be our fault if you get metastasizing snowcancer, Mr. DUH-head? How many times do we have to send you the message before somebody inside your big DUH-head picks up the phone?”

The voice goes on and on, its harsh criticism merging with the metallic screech of the subway car. I’m in one of those dingy, older cars where the lights always flicker. There’s the continual screech of metal parts brought into unhappy contact with other, equally unfulfilled metal parts. Lost in a malaise of screeching metal and negative thought loops, I stare down into the world of subway-car linoleum.

As the subway screeches around a curve, something slides across the floor and into my field of view. It’s a New Age magazine of the sort that’s mostly ads. I’ve seen it before, but I’ve never really seen it, never considered how transformational it could be.

Healing Nexus Magazine

On the cover is a glossy image of an upright woman wearing a blue tie-dyed leotard. She has smiling eyes and sunlight all around her. Underneath her are the words,

Your Guide to Wellness and Enlightenment

Goosebumps form on the surface of my snowskin as I pick the magazine off the floor. This is no coincidence. The magazine slid right toward me, and flipping through it, I see an article headlined:

There Are NO Accidents!

The upright people in this magazine are backlit and clear-eyed. They smile right into my soul with their beaming confidence and offers of healing. Mrs. Sternberger couldn’t smile like that if a sexy movie star showed up in her office to tell her that the lottery ticket in her purse was worth thirty million credits.

These smiling faces understand my troubles. They just want to heal me, if only I’ll let them. The lonely boredom of my subway ride disappears, and I blink back tears of joy and gratitude.

I flip through the pages and come to a picture of an upright man in white robes with arms outstretched, the dawning light of morning streaming all around him. A deep inner knowing tells me that he is the leader, the highest of all the healers in the entire magazine.

As soon as I read about him, I see how prescient my first impression is. His name is “Ra, Light Bringer.”

Know then, that after vanquishing his ego and shedding the last vestiges of his human identity. The being once known as Matt Wexler is now revealed as Ra, Light Bringer.

Ra, Light Bringer, became one with divine essence at the precise moment of the galactic harmonic convergence. Freed from human bondage, the being once known as Matt Wexler, recalled his former lives and recovered his true identity as Ra, Light Bringer, Master of Osiris and Jah, Secret Origin of the Goddess, Bearer of the Seven Seals of Solomon, Writer of the Akashic Record upon the Emerald Tablets of Eternity, Rider of the White Buffalo as foretold in Native Prophecy, Thrice Certified Reiki Master, Tantric Initiator of all Younger Sisters of the New Age, Conqueror of the Serpent Ego in all its Many Guises, Blameless One, Wearer of the Many-Colored Cloak of Great Radiance, Soul Guide, Grandfather Leader, Past Life Regressor and Sacred Prophet of all Peoples.

Having come back to the mortal plane only to serve as the single true source of divine light, Ra, Light Bringer challenges you to cast aside the pathetic rag of your human identity and follow him with the joy of perfect submission onto the only true path of freedom.

Brothers and sisters, render unto Babylon what is Babylon’s!

Let the Living Light Foundation Trust take from you the heavy and unclean burden of Babylon money and worldly possession and fill you up with the Living Light of Ra, Light Bringer’s video series, “Stepping Onto the Path of Living Light and Freedom.” This exclusive, three-disc series is all you will ever need to cast aside the pathetic rag of your human identity and enter the Realm of Divine Living Light that Ra, Light Bringer has brought forth for your Eternal Freedom Dance.

Do not be deceived by the serpent-tongued enslavements of so-called “friends” and “family” who want to cling and ensnare you, to bind you to their fear and shackle you to the realm of outer darkness where lost souls dwindle and perish. Ra, Light Bringer, as your Divine Prophet, foresees this danger for you! Be steadfast or you will forever lose your one and only opportunity to find the living light path to freedom. This freedom path opens to you only through the divine illumination of the one and only true video series, “Stepping Onto the Path of Living Light and Freedom.”

This exclusive, three-disc series is so much better than free. It’s available in exchange for being freed from the heavy, enslaving burden of your Babylon attachments. Please complete the following Power-of-Attorney form and have it signed and witnessed by a notary so you can step onto your freedom path today!

Act before midnight tonight, and you will receive Ra, Light Bringer’s Medallion of Freedom Pendant wrought of Genuine Polymer Crystal and set on a scintillating chain of Authentic Gold Tone from the Crystal Forge of the Living Light Foundation Trust, which has been authorized and blessed by Ra, Light Bringer himself!

Send notarized documents to:

The Living Light Foundation Trust

care of Fly-by-Nite Enterprises

PO Box 110017

Newark, New Jersey

Become a Freedom Dancer in Ra, Light Bringer’s way of Divine Living Light Today!

Just as I finish reading, the subway pulls into a stop near the central post office.

Another “coincidence”???

OK, timeout, because I know what you’re thinking—What a snowy fool I must be to fall for such an invitation! Like dark ripples flowing backward in time, I can feel your negative judgments trashing my self-esteem. Try to keep in mind that everything you assume” about me just makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” because things are not always what they appear to be.

So, if you’ll kindly hit the mute button on your trash-talking judgments that keep sabotaging my self-esteem and just let my narrative unfold, I think you’ll discover just how wrong your negative assumptions about me and Ra, Light Bringer really are. For example, it may surprise you to learn as my story continues that Ra, Light Bringer is exactly who he says he is, if not more, and that the absurd nature of the ad was actually an alchemical blind, a clever ruse to deceive the uninitiated who could be expected to make naïve judgments.

Being misjudged is exactly what I expect from people who think they know what’s going on with me but have zero actual experience being labeled a deformed mutant by society. These smug know-it-alls are ignorant of what it’s like to suffer through chronic incarnation seizures (generically categorized as MIDS or Multiple Incarnation Disorder Syndrome) or any of the staggering number of mental and physical health challenges I face.

Let me be upfront with you right from the start. The life of a mutant suffering from MIDS (among numerous other health challenges) is not always a pretty picture, and I’ve never claimed to be the perfect poster child for any of my numerous disabilities.

If you can’t deal with that, if you’re the type that can only view a mutant’s life through rose-tinted glasses, if you need the harsh edges of an actual mutant case history sugarcoated with the glib inspirational tone of an after-school special, then maybe you ought to back out now before things get a little too real for you.

But if you are going to keep reading, kindly stop looking over my shoulder and second-guessing my every decision like a passive-aggressive backseat driver.

Now, if you’ll kindly permit me to get back to my story without further unqualified judgments, I’ll remind you that when I read Ra, Light Bringer’s ad in Healing Nexus Magazine, I was righteously—and correctly as it will turn out—filled with the deep certainty of true inner knowing.

I might’ve been deceived by any number of the false prophets in Healing Nexus Magazine, but thanks to my prescient mutant intuition, I recognized an invitation from the one true prophet.

I didn’t have a doubt the size of an organic mustard seed that I would soon receive the three-disc video series and Ra, Light Bringer’s Medallion of Freedom Pendant wrought of Genuine Polymer Crystal set on a scintillating chain of Authentic Gold Tone from the Crystal Workshop and Forge of the Living Light Foundation Trust, and that Ra, Light bringer would authorize and bless it all himself. It felt like I was already marching forth on my freedom path, proudly wearing that medallion for all the enslaved world to see.

With the decisiveness you might expect of someone imbued with absolute inner knowing, I shift from my usual lethargy into a Spiritual Warrior and Man of Action.

As the subway pulls into the station, I make an instant command decision to blow off the ODMS appointment. Then—without going into all the mechanical details—in a manic, but highly efficient, blur of activity, I get all the Living Light Foundation Trust paperwork, including the power-of-attorney form, done, notarized, and sent to their headquarters by express mail . . .

Well, you probably think you can guess many of the events that followed. Since you’re so sure of yourself, I’ll skip over the finer details of what happened next and give you a brief summary:

No, I never did receive the video series or Medallion of Freedom Pendant I was promised.

Yes, I was evicted from my apartment.

And yes, my tiny checking account and other resources became the proverbial black hole at the center of the cosmic doughnut.

Satisfied?

Great, go ahead and congratulate yourself on your premature negative judgments.

Since you’ve already prejudged me, I’m not going to help you feel better by glamorizing what came next.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I became a homeless mutant or “undomiciled reality-challenged survivor.” Thrown out, penniless, luckless, without health insurance or a friend in the world, onto the cold hard streets of urban poverty.

I know you’d like to hear that I descended into an underworld labyrinth as if I were on a classic hero’s journey with a cool, gritty urban slummin’-it flair.

Sorry, but since you can’t seem to stop trashing me with your negative judgments, I’m not going to sugarcoat the harsh reality of what followed.

No, I did not get any spiritual epiphanies from being homeless.

No, there were no heartfelt bonding moments with other street people.

And no, they do not offer seconds at the Homeless Mutant Soup Kitchen.

Whenever I roused myself from almost inanimate depression, I fed off self-pity like a starving subway rat on three-day-old extra-cheese pizza. And even when I got tired of self-pity, I had exactly zero spiritual epiphanies or transcendent experiences.

The high point of my day usually came after three or four cups of Salvation Army coffee (with a lot of extra packets of sugar and non-dairy creamer) which gave me a good thirty-minute caffeine-sugar buzz. I used this heightened zone to curse Ra, Light Bringer, this so-called being formerly known as Matt Wexler—or Sucker Boy, as I called him.

I had endless caffeinated Kung-Fu fantasies where Sucker Boy would happen to walk down the street. I’d just saunter up to him real casual like and say stuff like, “Hey, there he is, Matt, the Wexmeister, Matty W, the Wexrod, the Being formerly known as Ra, Light Bringer. Go ahead, Mattie-Boy, why don’t you make my day with a little Freedom Dance.” Then I’d headbutt him like twelve times a second till stars were spinning around him. Then I’d launch off the ground in a flying scissor-kick that would send Sucker Boy somersaulting upward, only I’d spin around so fast that I’d be in position to do another flying scissor kick to Sucker Boy’s jaw before he could land. I’d keep him somersaulting back and forth like that thirty or forty times in a row.

I’d walk down streets angrily gesticulating and saying things like, “Oh yeah, Sucker Boy, enlighten this.” And people would get out of my way.

But eventually, my blood sugar would collapse. And with it, my Kung Fu identity would plummet from its caffeinated precipice of rage, fall through the low-blood-sugar trampoline of self-pity, and land in the gutter of clinical depression.

Of course, now I can see the immaturity of how I reacted at the time. But this is what my life as a homeless mutant was like. At least, until one particularly freezing and windy night.

I’m aimlessly wandering down street after street. The Kung Fu rage part of the day has long since dissipated, and I’m now little more than a homeless snow zombie, my mind nearly blank. Then suddenly, from behind a dumpster in a trash-strewn alley, the true Ra, Light Bringer, reveals himself. A rainbow-hued aura of light glows around him illuminating his flowing white robes. And when he speaks, his voice is powerful with both subwoofer and echo-reverb effects.

“SNOW CHILD, HEAR ME-E-E-E! IT IS I-I-I-I! RA-A, LIGHT BRINGER-INGER-INGER!”

Instantly, the whole demeaning “Sucker Boy” ego concept I had formed of Ra, Light Bringer, vanishes. Instead, I feel the radiance of his inner strength, clarity, and all-encompassing, unconditional love. It’s the power of Ra’s presence more than any specific thing he says that dissolves my doubts.

With a feeling of profound eternal recurrence, I recognize Ra, Light Bringer, as the ONE. The ONE who has always guided me. For lifetimes I had struggled to rediscover Ra, Light Bringer, to take him into my heart, and let the radiant light of his inner truth heal the severely damaged remnants of my self-esteem. Somehow, the twisting illusions of Maya caused me to forget, doubt, and dishonor him. But now my eyes are open to his true nature.

“Snow Child, listen to me, for I have not forsaken your pathetic and miserable existence. I see what you have suffered. The suffering I created with my deceptive ad in Healing Nexus Magazine was not an act of cruelty but one of love. As you grow toward the light, you will understand that it was the only way to awaken you. Many other worlds than these await. Look about you for a key—a key that will unlock the vast deception of your existence.”

The powerful voice of Ra, Light Bringer, grows silent, and his presence withdraws gracefully as he slowly backsteps into the alley and vanishes.

Carefully, I look around. It appears to be just another slummy street with nothing out of the ordinary to take note of. But I’m filled with the inspiration of Ra, Light Bringer’s presence.

By his grace, I’ve transcended my depression, anxiety disorders, chronically poor body image, and PTSD-related dissociative symptoms.

The ordinariness of my surroundings does not dismay me. Instead, my senses heighten to a state of dazzling acuity as I look for the sign, the key, to unlock the vast deception of my existence.

As I walk down the street, my mutant senses scan my surroundings panoramically. I become aware of every shard of broken glass, every rusty bottle top, and pigeon dropping. I study the surface texture variations of the galvanized steel of streetlamps and perceive even the most faded and obscured graffiti marks on peeling walls of ancient, over-painted cement.

I search ever so skillfully and meticulously for an off detail, the promised key that no matter how minute and hidden must be found to unlock the great deception and open other worlds than these.

And then, I see her.

A gaunt, elderly woman in a shabby overcoat, carrying two lumpy plastic shopping bags, walking out of the dingy fluorescent gloom of a small, inner-city supermarket.

I know her.

I used to see this very same supermarket lady when I was but a small snowboy. The style of clothing she wears is updated slightly—darker and more modern-looking than the flower-print dress she’d worn then. And yet her apparent age and every detail of her face and physiognomy are identical to how she appeared decades earlier, when I’d first seen her.

There’s a harsh ringing in my ears. Adrenaline pumps into the veins of ice water deep in my body, and I finally see the truth.

Every particle of my seeming world is a simulation, holding me like an insect caught in amber. But now the amber resin of Maya is melting.

This is not a solid world. It’s more like a flimsy shroud loosely woven with threads of nitrous oxide, ketamine, and nothingness.

This is what Ra, Light Bringer told me to look for—a key—a single but shocking flaw in the deception.

I’ve found it. A careless moment of recycling an extra, a pseudo-person meant to be a background detail. Some careless simulacrum coder has underestimated me, neglecting to account for my acute perceptivity and memory. It’s a tiny slip, but I’ve caught it, and now, I know, I KNOW . . .

Ra, Light Bringer’s voice erupts inside of me.

“Snow Child, now you understand. You have seen through the great veil of deception. Look about you once more, and you will behold a portal into other worlds than these.”

I stagger down the street, the ringing tones in my ears heightening in intensity.

I pass into the dark shadows under a highway overpass and see a large, immaculate, empty refrigerator box lying before me on my path. Its open-ended side is aimed toward me, and its interior is shadowy and vague.

The box glows with the uncanny aura of anomaly. This is the homeless part of town, and to find an unoccupied box so perfect and in such a convenient place, is as unlikely and fortuitous as finding a roll of hundred-credit bills lying on the sidewalk. I walk around the box, examining its unblemished walls of cardboard and the four reinforcing bands of white plastic that provide extra structural integrity. And then I find the message.

This Energy Efficient CFC-Free Refrigerator is proudly manufactured by Inter-Spatial Home AppliancesÒ,a fully-owned subsidiary of Portal Tech Unlimited.

PORTAL Tech Unlimited? Thank you!

The world divides, but Ra provides.

I get down on my hands and knees and crawl into the shadowed opening of the box.

      5

It’d be conventional to say I “fell into” dark, empty space. But that implies gravity and spatial direction. It’d be a shade closer to the truth to say I crawled for several feet until I “swam out” into space. But it was more like I just found myself in a dark, empty space. There was no up or down or any frame of reference to define it.

I floated in this undifferentiated dark space for many long eternities. Having no context to think in anymore, my mind regressed and curled in on itself like a fetus sleeping through an eternity of self-forgetting. Eons and eons and eons passed, but no one was there to be aware of them.

Without an observer, the eons themselves got sluggish and sleepy. They passed slower and slower. And slower. I had yet to complete even a fraction of the first eternity, and time itself curled inward and went to sleep. But because of how sensory deprivation affected my perception, this incredibly long amount of time passed in an infinitesimal moment, like the twinkling of a star, and I barely noticed it . . .

I can feel you judging what I just wrote as nonsensical because you haven’t experienced Extreme Time Anomaly Trauma (ETAT) like I have.

OK, I’ll explain it in other words. But please try to pay attention this time—it’s not rocket science.

I didn’t notice the passing of the eons because, after a few hours of total sensory deprivation at the start of the first eternity, my ego collapsed and there ceased to be a coherent observer.

My awareness slumbered deep within me, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, my self-identity and self-esteem dissolved. With no observer present, there was no perception of the passing of time, regardless of its duration.

Get it?

No observer, no time perception. And this has a really positive implication you should be glad to know.

It means that an eternal damnation of burning in hell is impossible!

Think about it.

They say insects don’t have complex enough nervous systems to feel pain. For there to be an experiencer (in this case someone to experience an eternity of burning in hell) there must be a complex psyche, right? And what is a psyche? It’s a complex organism—a process or system with inflows and outflows. A psyche is an example of what’s called a “far from equilibrium dissipative structure”—in other words, a structure that requires energy to flow in and flow out, like a vortex of water spinning down a drain.

Psyches arise in social beings—beings that require social interactions. But if you’re burning in hell all the time, you’d be too preoccupied with the sensation of pain to have social interactions, right? What would you have to say to anyone?

“It’s not the heat, it’s the eternity.”

You can’t talk about the weather because there is no weather, just continual fire. The system would have no new information flowing in or out, so the most you’d experience is, I’m burning in hell. I’m still burning in hell, I’m still burning in hell, I’m still burning in hell, etc. If there’s no change, there’s no life, because life is change.

Even a damned and dead person’s psyche is still a life form, a complex ever-changing process. But if there’s simply an unending continuity of burning in hell, there is no experience, therefore such a state can’t sustain an experiencer.

For me, this isn’t just a theory because I actually experienced it. A few hours of sensory deprivation and my psyche, your psyche, anybody’s psyche, will quickly unravel and blank out.

I know what you’re thinking.

“But burning in hell would be an intense sensation, so it can’t be sensory deprivation, Mister Snowypants.”

I’ll bet you think you really got me, huh?

Yeah, sure, if you’re not accustomed to being burned alive, it’s an intense sensation. But burning for eternity is actually the ultimate sensory deprivation.

Think about it. With classic sensory deprivation like what I experienced, there are no physical sensations. You’re in a sensory-free blank space, but at least that allows you to hallucinate sensations and have surreal visions for a while.

But if you’re burning alive, what you have is one and only one overwhelming sensation which blocks you from even imagining any other. Therefore, you don’t have enough space from your one overwhelming sensation to hallucinate. You just have an unvarying intensity of absolute pain. An eternal, unvarying experience is a nonexperience, therefore it cannot be the state of an experiencer.

It’s a logical contradiction. No change, no experience, no experiencer. Get it?

I know being stuck in a featureless eternity like I was sounds like a hellish experience. But I quickly ceased to be an experiencer, so in my perception, it only lasted for a relatively short time.

I floated in this atemporal, nonexperiential space until eventually I fell out of eternity and back into linear time, experience time, which caused the dormant kernel of my psyche to reanimate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          6

Awareness resumes, and there is once more an observer, me, able to notice that I’m slowly tumbling through the distant outskirts of a shoddy, nearly empty universe. That may not sound like a great situation, but any sort of experience, even in a dismal universe, is a major improvement compared to the nonexperience of eternity in featureless darkness.

My first conscious thought is: I’m anxious, therefore I AM.

While this is a great relief from an existential point of view, the novelty of merely existing soon wears off, especially as I realize I actually have a lot to be anxious about. For one thing, I can’t tell whether I’m tumbling up or down. If I am tumbling upward, I will inevitably rise above the universe, but if I’m tumbling downward, I will inevitably fall below the universe. And then where will I be? Another eternity of featureless darkness?

Perhaps you’re imagining tumbling through outer space must be relieved by stars and comets and so forth lighting up the darkness everywhere. But as I’ve already mentioned, this is the distant outskirts of a shoddy, threadbare universe, a spatial backwater where stars are few and far between.

In fact, I can see exactly five distant stars. There are two yellowish stars in binary orbit and a triangular constellation consisting of one blue-white star and two yellow ones. As I tumble, the binary yellow stars are ahead of me until they rotate out of view, placing the triangular constellation ahead of me. This process repeats itself over and over and over and over and over again.

Because of this endless repetition, I can’t keep myself from having negative judgments about this universe and my position in it. Plus, the weightless tumbling is making me nauseous.

I feel oppressed by the extreme monotony of what’s happening to me, as well as stressed and anxious by the total loss of control I’m experiencing.

Time passes with agonizing slowness.

I feel more and more irritated and experientially impoverished by the lack of celestial bodies. Ever since I was a snowboy, I’d always dreamed of going to space, but the fulfillment of this wish proves to be a curse. Any sense of hope is being overtaken by self-pity and despair. What chance do I have of a meaningful relationship or a worthwhile existence in the distant outskirts of such a thin, disappointing universe?

But then a realization brings me up short and shocks me out of my depression:

What a fool I am to wish for more stars! What if I should come too close to one and be pulled into its gravitational field? I would be burnt to a tiny snowcinder. Stars may be nice to look at, but in reality—they’re my enemies!

That’s when I notice something that makes my whole being pulsate with anxiety. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the triangular constellation of stars is getting larger.

I must be falling toward them!

Frantically, I twist and contort my snowbody, trying to change the direction of my flight away from the triangle. But it’s futile. My trajectory has a slow but inevitable momentum, and I can do nothing to shift it.

Try as hard as I might, I will keep going in exactly the same direction. Despite the distance, the immense gravitational pull of the triangular constellation draws me toward it like a giant tractor beam. The cold mechanism of sidereal gravity is in control of my trajectory.

I’ve completely lost my free will.

I grind my icy teeth in frustration. But gradually, I realize that the triangular constellation is not actually getting closer. It was just my anxiety that made it seem that way. As far as I can tell, my only movement is tumbling. I have rotational inertia but no trajectory, no forward, backward, up or down movement.

An object slides into my field of view that does have a strong and speedy trajectory. It’s a smallish, gray, pitted asteroid speeding by at a distance of what I estimate to be a few hundred meters. Without even considering the extreme unlikelihood of there being any sentient being on the asteroid that would want to interact with me, I frantically wave my arms as it hurtles past. There’s no response, so I attempt to shout at it, but absolutely no sound comes out.

I’m intensely annoyed by this unexpected dysfunction.

What is wrong with this inferior universe? It can’t even conduct a goddamn sound!

But then my anger turns to self-mortification.

Duh. There’s nothing wrong with the perfect vacuum of space I’m shouting into—the problem is with me. I’m a mute. I’ve developed a new and profoundly limiting disorder that will severely handicap me socially and practically—the awful disability of muteness.

Realizing I’m a mute devastates what little is left of my self-esteem.

How did I develop this condition? I can’t remember.

For that matter, who am I? I can’t remember that either!

I stare at my skinny twig-like fingers of pale, snowy tissue.

Wait . . .This body structure is not normal! It’s a horrifying deformity, a mutation. I’m a mutant, a highly deformed mutant. . .

The realization stirs somnambulant memories. A lifetime of vague recollections crowds around me darkly, refusing to take on specific forms. I’m lost in the center of an obscure cloud of painful feelings and shame. The cloud envelops me, and my personality spirals downward into an utterly black event horizon as my core self-esteem plummets toward absolute zero . . .

And then, the impossible happens—my self-esteem crosses the absolute-zero threshold and keeps plummeting. At this point, if my self-esteem had fingers that could touch anything, liquid nitrogen would have felt like white-hot metal. Dark hallucinations take advantage of my weakened state to torment me, but I’ve deteriorated to the point where I lack coherence as an observer and am no longer capable of forming consistent memories.

All I can remember is a feverishly looping image of an upright kid taking a poison that looks like black ink.

      7

After the hallucinations are spent, my mind finally clears, and I notice a black, late middle-aged duck with a heavy abdomen, and over-sized rubbery webbed feet standing before me. It’s rotating with me, always in front of my snowface, like a cheap satellite. It has a protuberant gut covered with thick, dull black feathers and an enormous flesh-colored beak that looks like worn, grimy plastic. The aging duck’s wide, staring eyes are full of fear and rage, and its breathing is rapid and agitated. Suddenly it begins quacking something at me that sounds like,

“Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel!”

I can’t understand what the hell it’s trying to say, and every time it quacks, it sprays saliva that crystallizes in the cold vacuum of space and floats away like smoke signals. Impatiently, it stamps its heavy, webbed rubbery right foot in time with the quacking.

“Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel!”

It quacks, quacks, quacks—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen times in a row. Suddenly, I comprehend what it’s trying to say in the garbled, speech-impediment voice of duck-speak.

“Not real! Not real! Not real!”

I gaze into the dark black pools of the duck’s staring eyes.

“Not real! Not real! Not real! Not real! Not real!”

He keeps quacking and stamping his webbed foot furiously. He’s asserting that I’m not real, and he’s intensely annoyed with me for pretending that I am. From the duck’s point of view, I’m a disturbing hallucination he’s angrily refusing to accept.

In a sudden nervous gesture, the duck jerks its wings up and covers its eyes, and that causes me to feel compelled to cover my eyes. But as my hands move through space to where I assume my head is, I discover I have no solidity to stop them. The duck is at least half right—I’m not fully real—my body is more of a placeholder image. I have no physical eyes I can cover, and therefore there’s no darkness behind them to go to, no other real besides this one.

The duck brings his dusty black wings down and stares at me with furious irritation. The dark, enraged pools of the duck’s staring eyes appear to grow larger and larger. Or perhaps they’re getting nearer and nearer or . . . a third and far more disturbing possibility occurs to me.

Perhaps I am getting smaller.

Intuitively, I sense all three factors are in play. The duck’s eyes are getting larger and closer, and at the same time, my size is rapidly dwindling. There’s an uncanny suction in the duck’s stare, and to my horror, I discover I’m being pulled into the dark, spinning vortices of its eyes! Desperately, I try to resist this suction, but I’ve nothing to resist with. There’s a sense of being torn in two, and I black out momentarily.

When my consciousness resumes, I find myself spiraling around in another featureless, dark space. Only this space is permeated by the duck’s quirky personality. I feel the intense fear bordering on hysterical panic in the duck’s psyche as it interprets what’s happening as possession by an alien spirit.

As annoying as this duck is, I feel intensely guilty for being the unintentional cause of its terror. However, I also sadly realize I can do nothing to comfort it.

From inside the duck’s mind, I can, of course, communicate with him telepathically. But if I should do so, the duck will inevitably interpret such telepathic communication as further evidence of possession, severely adding to his distress.

My profound, but impotent empathy for the duck is suddenly interrupted by a shocking telepathic communication from another source.

It’s an alternate version of me calling out from the other hemisphere of the duck’s mind!

The reason for this is both obvious and highly disturbing.

I was torn in two when I crossed the twin event horizons of the duck’s two eyes. My soul was sundered into two parts, and I’m only half of what I was before—a split-off half in one hemisphere of the duck’s mind, while my other half is in the other hemisphere. We’ve crossed a fork in the path of reality and been divided and diminished.

“Our plight lines are diverging!” shouts my other half. “Each of the duck’s eyes is a portal into a different reality, but while we remain in different sides of its mind, we can still communicate!”

“Yes!” I reply. “Our telepathic link is like the corpus callosum, the dense bundle of nerves that allows the two hemispheres of a brain to communicate.”

“But once we leave the duck’s mind,” my other self points out, “our paths will irretrievably split into two different universes where communication will almost certainly be impossible! We’ll be fucked apart forever!”

“And even if we could communicate,” I add, “our experiences will become ever more divergent as time unfolds in these separate realities! Therefore, we’ll become increasingly different, and the possibility of our reuniting as the same being will become more and more remote until it . . .”

“Until it dwindles to zero! And we’re fucked dry!” adds my other self, completing the thought I did not want to admit aloud. “But . . .”  he adds, “it is what it is.”

The telepathic tone of my other self is sad but also reflects a grace of stoic resignation that I’m not feeling at all. I realize he is the better and more worthy of us, and I’m the lesser half.

“Faaarewelllll foooooooorrrreeeeeeevvvvvvveeeer!” cries my other self, his voice elongating and doppler-shifting as he plummets from the other hemisphere of the duck’s mind.

I feel a crushing sense of loss and abandonment. We’re like twin fetuses being pulled into different birth canals to be born into different realities, where no reunion is possible. His heart-rending telepathic cry of farewell happens just before he’s ejected into the birth canal of his new reality. Our experiences are already diverging as I spiral in my side of the duck’s mind, where I linger in the realm of the unborn because, unlike my better half, I lack the courage to be reborn.

Moments later, I discover that I’m not in control of the timing of my rebirth at all.

     8

I spiral and wind downward into the quirky darkness of the duck’s mind. As I descend, the speed of my rotation accelerates like water spinning down a drain. As soon as I fall beneath the bottom of the duck’s subconscious mind, I plummet like a snowball tossed into an elevator shaft. But instead of hitting the bottom of anything, I cross the threshold into an alternate reality, where I find myself shooting upward like a rocket in the star-dappled heavens of a new cosmos.

Unlike the skimpy universe I’d tumbled in previously, this is a proper universe, with a rich array of stars and nebulae.

And I’m not just tumbling. My self-esteem reanimates as I observe that I have a powerful upward trajectory. And in the vacuum of outer space, there’s nothing to slow it down. Up ahead of me, I see a pale and luminous planet. It glows softly, like a giant pearl set amidst a vast jewelry of stars. My trajectory is aimed directly at it. A sense of fateful inevitability intensifies as the separating kilometers dwindle. My intuition tells me this is a world I’m destined to encounter.

Contributing to the rebirth of my self-esteem, I’m aware that, in this new reality, I have solidly regained my corporeal snowbody. I’m clothed again in the dark overcoat and other familiar garments and accessories I wore as I crawled into the refrigerator box portal so many eons ago.

My overcoat flaps and parachutes around me like the cape of a heroic, interplanetary superhero as I encounter the thin atmosphere of this alien world.

Fortunately, gravity is weaker than usual on this smallish planet. However, it still seems that I’m heading toward it at a dangerous, if not flattening, speed.

A silvery-gray landscape rushes into view threatening to crush me, but I impact a surface far softer than I could have dreamed possible. I submerge into an almost-gaseous, liquid layer of grayish dust.

Because of the weak gravity, I swim easily to the surface, but I have to keep swimming to stay above it.

The arid dust crackles with static electricity that sparks painfully on my snowskin, especially when I move. My snowtissues are much more electro-conductive than ordinary snow due to their abnormally high sodium content, which also causes my chronic high blood pressure. And in case you don’t know, sodium is a metal. Don’t believe me? Look it up in the Periodic Table of Elements.

Dr. Beckstein showed me what pure sodium looked like in his lab. At first, it looked like a lump of cheese at the bottom of a specimen jar filled with oil. “Vhe have to keep it in zhe oil,” Dr. Beckstein informed me, “because if it’s exposed to zhe air, zhe oxidation will cause it to catch fire.” He cut into the cheesy lump with a scalpel to show me that it was silvery inside.

Now, all the excess sodium content I was born with is not only contributing to my high blood pressure, I’m also being electrocuted by the high static charge of all this dust. Also, the density of the dust is not sufficient to support my weight. Otherwise, I could stand on the surface, and the rubber soles of my shoes would insulate me from the static electricity.

Yes, damn you, I have shoes, feet, legs, and snowgenitals!

Did you really think I was like an upright’s emoji-concept of a snow person with an undifferentiated snowsphere for a lower body? Do you see the degrading stereotypes I have to put up with from you people? That’s how you like to see us, isn’t it—hobbled, castrated, bulbous, stuck in place, and then quickly melting into oblivion.

I’m unable to stand, but because gravity here is so weak, if I balance myself just right, I can lie on top of the dust supported by precarious surface tension.

So that’s what I do.

I roll over to lie on my back. But it’s not much of a solution, as I have to endure painful sparking on the back of my head. It’s like lying on a flimsy, dusty sheet with crackling electricity as the box spring below. I can fold my hands across my chest to protect them, but my brain, already weakened by ministrokes, is now getting the equivalent of a continuous low-voltage electro-shock treatment—which, in case you don’t know, causes progressive brain damage.

I make a tiny, unbalanced movement, and it’s enough to break the surface tension, submerging me into the dust. I doggy paddle my way back onto the surface while static electricity stings my exposed snowskin like a cloud of hornets.

Panting, I lay carefully on my back. I turn my head, only slightly and slowly, using the wide angle of my mutant-enhanced peripheral vision to scan the landscape. Great dunes and starlit desert plains of silvery-gray dust stretch out to the horizon’s vanishing point. It’s a vast dustscape—a monochromatic desert with pale shadows and windswept topography.

Some surface dust drifts into my nostrils, causing me to sneeze violently. This, of course, breaks the surface tension, and I have to doggy paddle through the hornet cloud of stinging static electricity again. I’m splashing about in chaotic dust waves of my own making as I struggle to regain surface tension.

I accidentally dry swallow some of the dust and become instantly nauseated. The dust has the faint, radioactive aftertaste of ancient nuclear fallout. I’m seized by a fit of sneezing. Dust clouds spray into my eyes, and I also struggle to restabilize my position in the panic of severe dust-allergy symptoms. I can’t seem to stop squirming long enough to allow surface tension to support my weight.

Meanwhile, the hornet swarms of sparks burn painful, itchy sores on my snowskin. My eyes are red and irritated, and my breathing is constricted to an asthmatic wheeze.

As I desperately doggy paddle, wheezing and sneezing and gasping for air, I become painfully aware that I’m highly allergic to the principal ingredient of this new world—dust.

Finally, I force myself to slow my frantic movements, and the dust regains enough surface tension for me to lie on top of it. I remember learning how to float on my back in the swimming pool when I was a snowboy.

I stop hyperventilating and slowly spread out my legs to gain stability. Once the overwhelming panic of electrical dust drowning eases, I feel the dark undertow of despair.

It’s only a matter of time before my allergy becomes fatal in such a disastrously inhospitable and hyper-allergenic dust world.

I’m also worried about its radioactive odor and taste. Even a small amount of radioactivity will eventually cause metastasizing snowcancer.

Intuition tells me this planet must have once supported higher life forms who must have ended their evolution in a massive thermonuclear war, rendering the whole planet into a vast dustscape.

I wonder about my other half, and whether he’s faring better or worse in his new universe. I call out to him telepathically, but there’s no response, only a reverberating silence. But my futile attempt at telepathic contact causes me to make a serendipitous and lifesaving discovery.

As I strain to communicate psionically, I observe a strange pulsing of colored light coming from deep inside my snowbody, radiating out from my thin rayon shirt. Slowly and carefully, so as not to tip over again, I undo the buttons of my overcoat to see more of it. Pulses of different colors come from various parts of my body.

I notice they correspond perfectly to the placement of the chakra system.

If my subtle energy is visible, it must mean that my mutant psionic powers are heightened in this reality too.

I test this by focusing my will on rising above the dust.

I discover my telekinetic power is just enough to resist the planet’s weak gravitational field, and I can hover a meter or so above the surface.

I put my mind to it and ascend two or three additional meters. As I practice, I discover I can also glide forward at a modest pace. I don’t know where I’m going, but in this way, I’m able to navigate over the windswept contours of the desert topography, my chakras pulsing with color. The lifeforce glowing within the icy crystalline structure of my body reflects off the silvery dust beneath me as a living corona of psionic energy, an aura of concentric bands of flickering spectral color.

Since I no longer need to touch the surface, I stir up little dust, and my allergic symptoms begin to abate.

I wonder what time it is, but there’s no dawn or daylight in this twilight world and, therefore, no conventional way to measure the passing of hours. Then I remember my digital watch in my overcoat pocket. I put it there when the wristband broke.

I reach for it and am pleased to find it’s still exactly where I left it. The LCD display is too dim to read in the twilight, but when I press the backlight button, I see the time:

07:21:13

It’s a reassuringly definite bit of information. But then I press the backlight button again:

07:19:44

This affront to linear time expectation is both stomach-turning and infuriating. Resentful and angry, I press the backlight button continuously and see the time is counting backwards, but even that, it’s doing inconsistently. It stays at the same time for quite a while before hurriedly losing about a minute a second, as if trying to catch up with backwards time.

I toss the digital watch away in disgust and see it slowly descend toward the dustscape. The instant the watch disappears into the dust, I regret what I’ve done to it. I just impulsively cast it into dusty, eternal oblivion. My regret is deep and full of nameless grief. It’s not the watch’s fault that it’s in a cosmos where linear time is dysfunctional.

As a snowchild, I dreamed of owning an expensive watch, but now, even the shoddy watch I did have is gone. Despite its broken wristband, this watch was a little part of me, and who I once was. And now I am lessened by its loss.

Regret over the watch causes me to stop gliding forward. My movement ceases, and my self-esteem plummets as health anxieties plague my mind.

The arid atmosphere dehydrates me moment by moment. With each backward-ticking second, I am drying out, my ice crystals are shriveling, and my old overcoat hangs loosely on my diminishing snowbody. I’m shrinking toward the Beckstein Limit.

Perhaps I should stop and explain how dehydration affects a snowbody since few people have the interest, let alone the caring, to know even the basics of how life works for those of us with the rare and permanently disabling condition of b