1 Coming Back From Andrew’s Journal
Hey, it’s me again, Tommy.
Andrew’s journal just breaks off there. It’s left me feeling so many things at once that—I don’t know what I’m feeling. I’m just shaken and not sure what’s happening to me.
I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep and was running on adrenaline all night, totally engrossed in Andrew’s writing. The timestamp above happened ten minutes after I figured out how to paste in his journal and started reading. But now it’s past 6AM.
Andrew felt so present, and yet—it was all written a few months before I was born. I’ll go crazy if I try to think about that. Everything felt like it just happened.
Andrew, why did you stop journaling? Were you broken by the Shadow Elixir? Were you unable to get unstuck from the snowman identity and regain your sanity?
I know what you’re feeling, Andrew. It’s another weird parallel.
I’m broken too. My sanity is getting shakier by the minute. But don’t let yourself fall apart. I need to know you’re still yourself and out there somewhere. I know it doesn’t make sense, but you’ve never felt closer. Maybe once I get some sleep, I’ll finally see the map of where to find you.
I was so caught up in Andrew’s experience I forgot about the biosphere. But now there’s no more trail of words to follow. I’m back to where I am—a glass bubble in the desert, teetering on the edge of doom.
I’ve got to snap out of my overwhelm and get focused.
The daily contest, Kyle’s addiction, is no longer viable. It’s only a matter of time before he detects my new abilities if he hasn’t already. Then what?
“Pull yourself together, Tommy. Hours ago, you had zero evidence of Andrew being real, and then you discovered his journal. Who knows what else might be possible. Just keep going.”
A voice in my head just said that. Was it part of me or someone else? I don’t know. I can’t trust my thoughts until I’ve caught up on sleep. But there’s no time for that. I need to stop worrying about myself and focus on holding the biosphere together for another day.
Kyle has never been more dangerous, and I can’t afford any mistakes. It’s time to stop journaling and do my morning tasks.
Kyle looks preoccupied at breakfast. And like he hasn’t slept either.
I need to buy time to come up with a solution. I can’t risk another contest now that the metamorphosis has given me the ability to anticipate his every move. It’s only a matter of time before he realizes he can never win again.
Kyle glances at me. I can feel the danger radiating from him.
My life and the life of the biosphere have never been so close to destruction. He’s on to me and plotting something dark.
I’ve got to find a way to shock him out of his destructive intentions. There’s no biosphere without Kyle. There must be a way for us to work together.
I’ve gotta buy more time. The silence between us crackles with dangerous voltage. I need to say something to him right now.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” I blurt out. “I kept trying to think of a way out of our situation. And I’m onto something. I think. But I’m gonna need sleep to process it.”
I need to keep as close to the truth as I can.
“If you’d be willing to give me time off from tonight’s dinner and contest—by tomorrow evening, I’ll have a possible solution to share with you.”
Kyle flashes me a vicious look. He’s usually the smooth operator, keeping his darkest self from view. But now he flaunts it like an open switchblade.
Sleepless irritability has taken away my restraint too, and my rage ignites.
He’s not even pretending to be civil anymore. Fuck him.
I’ve had it with his Kyleness—his unrelenting psychopathy coming at me every day for three long years. So I stare right into his menacing glare and let my fury erupt.
“Oh, wow, Kyle, I get it. You’re a dangerous guy who might strike at any moment. What a shocking revelation. I’m so intimidated!”
As I unload on him, I snap into an electric version of quicktime. I feel even more tuned in than the last contest. At this moment, Kyle poses no physical danger—because he won’t be able to catch me. For the first time in three years, I have the upper hand if he wants to get physical.
He’s not showing me a new side of himself, but I’m going to show him a new side of me. I can almost read his thoughts.
“So, you’ve been working on your own scheme, huh? Something gruesome and Nazi-scientist-like, I bet.”
Kyle’s expression is rigidly unchanging, but his every minuscule reaction tells me more.
“But you know it’s a long shot,” I press. “Lots of highly technical work needs to happen first, and it’s not something you could pull off by tomorrow, is it?”
Kyle’s face remains immobile, but I can see by the rage in his eyes that I’m on the right track.
“Didn’t think so,” I continue. “So, it’d only be logical to give me space for thirty-two hours to hear what I’ve discovered, right?”
Kyle gives me a casual glance and then shrugs like I’m making a big deal over nothing.
“Yeah, sure, why not,” he says. “Let’s see what you come up with.”
It’s a clever move, gaslighting me like I’m being a big drama queen. I give him a condescending nod as if he’s a child who’s just performed a clever trick. It’s a reckless gesture, but I can’t help myself. Stress and lack of sleep have taken away my caution. An intense rage has been bottling up in me for three years, and I can’t suppress it.
I turn away from him and take off to do my chores, hoping work will calm my anger. I’ve managed to buy some time, but I have no clue what I’m going to come up with.
I spend the morning doing maintenance on irrigation lines.
When I finally come out of quicktime, I find its furious metabolism has burned away any sense of sleep deficit. All my senses are still keyed up.
“This is a map of where to find me.”
I hear Andrew’s words echo through me. I know it’s in my head, but it breaks through with such strength it feels like it might be audible throughout the biosphere.
I want to find Andrew and escape, but another part of me realizes the selfishness of that desire. It would betray my larger mission. As much as I despise him right now, Kyle is the other half of this evolutionary experiment. And then there’s all the life in the biosphere, the animals I care for, the bush babies that seem almost human at times. I need a solution for them too.
All of that is more important than what I feel about Kyle. And to give the devil his due, none of the life in here, including me, could have survived these past three years without him. He’s like the overheating nuclear reactor of this submarine.
Genetically-engineered psychopaths—can’t live with ‘em—can’t live in Biosphere 3 without ‘em. I need to find a way to shock Kyle out of his destructive intentions and get him recommitted to our mission here or all is lost.
3 San Pedro
The sun is setting when I finish my chores. I walk out to the Desert Biome and sit on a boulder, trying to focus the jumble of half-formed intuitions in my head.
I see Molly, the matriarch of the troop of bush babies, coming toward me. She climbs the boulder to sit next to me. Molly seems to have an instinct for when I need company.
Through the space frame windows, flashes of lightning illuminate the Sonoran Desert. The electrical storm reminds me of the punishing shocks Kyle gives himself when he loses a contest.
In a twisted way, Kyle must on some level realize he needs a life-changing shock. Maybe he’ll eventually electrocute himself into a near-death experience. Then when I restart his heart, maybe he’ll wake up from his Kylopathic scheming.
As if such an electrocution were being conjured, a powerful flash of lightning illuminates one of the cacti.
It sparks a memory, something I’d read about its species during training. It’s a San Pedro cactus, considered sacred by Native Americans who used it in shamanic rituals. In the flesh of the cactus is a psychoactive substance called mescaline, which is said to induce visions.
This information never felt relevant to my life in the biosphere until now.
“Gaia, tell Kyle to come to the Desert Biome.”
Molly runs off when she sees Kyle enter the Desert Biome.
He stands beside me in front of the San Pedro as I explain my discovery.
“Remember what you said in the biomedical lab—that it seems like we’re in some sort of unfinished evolutionary science experiment? You said it looks intentionally arranged—a psychopath and an empath trapped in the same biosphere. And now we discover a mind-altering substance was intentionally placed in here with us, and we’ve been walking right by it every day.
“Maybe it’ll allow us to finally think outside the box we’re trapped in. If we’re in an experiment, why not experiment? I have no idea what mescaline does, but I think we should summon our nerve and give it a shot. What do we have to lose?”
Kyle stares coldly at the cactus like he’s thinking of the best way to kill it. I can’t tell what he’s thinking.
Is he going to dismiss the idea as some sort of hippy nonsense? Or is it the sort of challenge he can’t resist?
“We need to figure out dosages and the best way to ingest it,” says Kyle, without acknowledging that I might have had a good idea.
He puts on his glasses, and I follow suit as he asks Gaia to call up archives about San Pedro. Kyle’s reading speed is phenomenal, and I struggle to keep up. He doesn’t wait for me.
After he’s absorbed enough general information about the plant, he scans through preparation methods. Most involve simmering cactus slices in a pot of water for a few hours to concentrate the medicine into a liquid form. But we soon identify the quickest method, which is to cut out the green, chlorophyll-rich layer under the skin, where the mescaline and other psychoactive alkaloids are concentrated. Then, this green layer can be eaten raw.
We agree on this method since it will allow us to take the medicine within the hour.
Kyle pulls out a knife clipped to his belt and cuts off a couple of large, tubular branches. He takes off his jacket to hold the spikey tubes.
I follow him to the kitchen, where I begin cutting out the green layer under the skin and spines. It surrounds a white core that’s mostly cellulose and stored moisture, which Kyle tosses into the compost bin. I have much more practice cutting vegetables precisely, and Kyle, with his skill at dividing labor by individual proficiencies, takes care of all the other parts of the task.
I’m pleased to see we’re still able to work together with wordless, high-speed efficiency, a mode we’ve been able to access since the start of the enclosure. I’m also pleased to see that underneath our teamwork, there’s a mutual sense of eager anticipation. It’s a rare break from our mundane routine, releasing us from boredom or power struggle. Taking a hallucinogen is something totally new for both of us.
Soon, the cactus tubes are processed into a bowl of gelatinous green shreds. Kyle gets a scale from one of the kitchen cabinets and begins to measure out doses proportional to our body weights.
The raw smell radiating from the slimy shreds triggers my gag reflex, but then I realize we can use our juicer to make it easier to get down.
We quickly process the cactus into a liquid extract, and Kyle pours out measured doses. I suggest we return to the Desert Biome to ingest the medicine, and he agrees.
We sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a large flat-topped boulder, each of us holding a glass of green liquid. It feels like we should do a ceremony, but I know Kyle will heap contempt on anything that sounds New Age to him.
“Maybe we should state an intention?” I suggest tentatively.
“Go ahead,” says Kyle indifferently.
“Let this medicine help us find a new solution.”
I bow my head once, raise my glass to the sky, and down the San Pedro juice in one giant gulp.
It’s bitter and awful, a bit like swallowing soap. My stomach protests with queasy nausea, but after a few moments, it begins to settle.
We sit in silence, waiting for the mescaline to kick in.
I look out at the desert. A rapid series of lightning flashes makes it seem like a war is going on. In a sense, it is. Our satellites have been reporting increasingly chaotic weather across the whole planet. Even without human activity, the Earth’s climate is rapidly destabilizing.
I sense Kyle’s rage sparking around him like the electrical storm outside. Trying a plant hallucinogen is something new, but now that he has to wait, his expectations are souring.
He probably thinks this is just some hippy-dippy bullshit that will make him feel drunk on cactus juice for a few hours.
Eventually, Kyle breaks the silence, a nervous edge in his voice.
“You ever take anything like this before at that hippy commune of yours? Magic mushrooms or anything?”
“No, never,” I reply. “Some of the adults did, but they didn’t suggest any to the kids. How about you?”
“Nope. People offered me substances, and I knew where to get anything you could think of, but I never had the slightest interest. . . . You feel anything yet?”
Just as he asks, a wave of energy passes through me, along with a kind of weightless vertigo. My stomach lurches.
“Starting to,” I say.
“Me too,” says Kyle, glancing at his watch. “It’s only been twenty minutes, but most sources said it’d probably take an hour. I suppose that adds up since the amount we drank was about three times what was recommended for a strong dose.”
“It was?” I ask.
The prickling heat of fear climbs up my back and into the base of my skull. I exhale a long, controlled breath, trying to ease my alarm.
Why did I leave the dosage up to Kyle?
“Yeah,” he says. “I thought we might as well really go for it.”
Kyle thought we may as well go for it. Past tense. Which means he’s having second thoughts as well. His energy shifts dramatically. Beads of cold sweat glisten from his forehead. He lets out a burp and shivers.
“I might need to throw up my guts at some point,” he says in a tense whisper as he wraps his arms around his knees. Nausea contorts his face. “I feel poisoned.”
I take a deep breath and focus on the plant’s effects. It’s hard to tell what I feel. My protective instinct has linked our nervous systems, and I’m overwhelmed by Kyle’s sensations.
The mescaline is hitting him too hard.
Well, good, he needs a shock. And at least I’ve found a way to wipe that smug smirk off his face. But—what if it hits him so hard he loses all stability? A shattered Kyle is a threat to the biosphere.
The effect of the mega-dose grows exponentially stronger.
I check my watch, struggling to focus on it.
Forty-five minutes . . . It feels like hours since we ingested it.
I’m caught in an ebb and flow—moments of overwhelming panic dissolve into complete release and back again.
I glance at Kyle. He’s still holding his knees close to his chest, only now he’s swaying back and forth, unable to find his center.
What if the medicine shatters his sanity?
My hospice-worker self takes over.
“Breathe with me,” I whisper.
I take a deep breath, and he does too. We exhale together and his breathing stays synchronized with mine.
Kyle leans toward me to rest his head against my shoulder. I’m shocked by the vulnerability of his gesture. I need to do something to stabilize him, so I put my arm around his shoulders and feel tremors running through his whole body.
I sense his utter devastation. Nothing in Kyle’s life has prepared him for the potency of this medicine. His sense of control and dominance is shattered, and he’s regressing into a desperately ill child.
Realizations wash over me.
Kyle is a motherless child created by lab technicians. He’s never gotten love from anyone besides me, and most of the time, I can’t stand him. He’s just the way he’s been engineered to be. What if I was created in a lab, and no one gave me any love?
He’s as helpless as a newborn. If he loses his ability to function, the biosphere is doomed.
“Just keep breathing with me,” I whisper, my arm still around his shoulders. I get him to rock back and forth with me in a soothing rhythm. He struggles to keep his ragged breathing synchronized with mine.
A primal bond forms between us, a cooperative merging of psyches and cells, until we become one body, rocking back and forth. I’m the incubator, and Kyle is the ill newborn I contain.
But our symbiotic state doesn’t last long. Now that I’ve stabilized him, Kyle’s will takes over. His personality reanimates in a flash like a rageful phoenix. It’s like a fireball of raw egotism going off in my face.
Instinctively, I try to pull away from this fiery being, but we’re still fused, and the polarity of our opposed energies becomes a violent electrical storm. It can’t be contained by the biosphere. An irresistible need to expand propels us toward the space frame. It’s as if our chaotic energy wants to merge with the storm outside.
There’s a crackling resistance as we pass through metal and glass. Freed from the confining biosphere, we rapidly ascend into the sky above.
But we’re too polarized to remain joined. Our unstable singularity splits apart like hydrogen atoms igniting in the desert night, and we plummet back into our separate bodies.
The abrasive texture of the boulder scrapes against my back as I slide down it. The impact onto the sandy ground wakes my muscle control.
I pull myself together enough to sit up and look around. Kyle is gathering himself on the other side of the massive boulder, his silvery eyes scanning about him in a daze. I duck back before he sees me. I’m hoping the boulder will keep our energies apart. I don’t want another electrical entanglement with him.
I take a few deep breaths, struggling to regain my center as the aftershocks from our violent separation reverberate through me.
Then I catch sight of something flickering its way across the Desert Biome toward Kyle.
I try to blink it away, but the object persists. It’s luminous and roughly spherical.
Could ball lightning make it through the space frame?
It approaches Kyle’s side of the boulder. It has a colorless glow that flickers like an old black-and-white television.
But whatever it is, it’s meant for him, not me.
I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. With each exhale, the reverberations within me settle to a slow undulation. The sound of Kyle moving and breathing is replaced by silence as I feel the space around me alter into a familiar, hemispherical shape.
I open my eyes to confirm I’m sitting in the center of it.
The Mushroom is in Transparent Mode. Stars glitter in the night sky, and when I look through the invisible floor, it feels like I’m floating above the desert.
A rhythmic sound echoes toward me—footsteps climbing the spiral staircase within the Mushroom’s stem. They’re calm and deliberate and lighter than Kyle’s.
He pauses at the opening as he looks at me with his dark, intelligent eyes. The sight of him makes me smile, and his somber expression brightens.
He sits across from me, gazing into me with understanding. He looks about the same as our last encounter but seems older and wiser.
“Hey, Tommy. The conditions are right for us to meet again,” he says, his voice a gentle whisper within me.
“Andrew, where’ve you been?”
“You know where. Alive within you, aware of what you’re aware. You helped uncover my nature. I’m the part of Andrew living on within you. I share your thoughts and experiences—but we’re aware of them from different perspectives. Reading the journal with you has helped me better understand my origin and who I branched off from. I feel more complete for that, so thank you.” Andrew pauses, and his mysterious gaze reaches into me.
“I’ve learned looking through your eyes, Tommy. I know the suffering you endure and want to help. So I’m glad for this opportunity to come forward because I sense what you sense.”
“That everything here is falling apart?”
“Yes, but there’s more. Time works differently for me . . . With my perspective, we can create a map of what’s happening. And what needs to happen.”
“This map, is it—will it help me find—” I hesitate, not wanting to give offense, but he finishes my thought—
“You can say it—The Source Andrew. I‘m sorry, Tommy, I don’t know where he is any more than you, but I sense the way is close. Following it will open a vast horizon of possibilities.
“But first, you must survive the danger at hand—Kyle. His intentions are a shadow across your path.
“When we rose above the biosphere,” Andrew continues, “I sensed a hidden observer watching you both erupt into the night sky. That was a signal for a pathway to open, and—”
Andrew pauses and looks out at the desert as if he sees something.
“It’s out there,” he says. “Just a few miles away.”
“Yes. But shadows surround the entrance. I think they’re intentionally blocking my view, and that worries me.”
He’s still gazing out at the desert, but then his eyes turn back to focus on me.
“Kyle is being shown things about this gateway. He’ll set out for it soon—”
“He’ll set out—you mean he’s going to leave the biosphere?”
“He’s forming a plan.”
“What should I do?”
“Follow him. As hard as it will be to abandon the biosphere, to remain is a dead end. You must follow Kyle through the gateway.”
I hear Kyle coughing and moving around, and the vision of Andrew begins to dissolve. His expression is gravely serious as he nods to me and disappears. Suddenly, I’m back in the Desert Biome, sitting with my back to the boulder.
There’s no sign of the sphere of flickering light. Kyle is loudly hacking up phlegm and spitting onto the sandy soil of the Desert Biome. His back faces me, his shirt damp with sweat. Slowly and forcefully, he hacks and spits again.
His mind is opaque to me. I’ve no idea what he’s experienced on his side of the boulder, but I can tell he’s back to himself. I hear it in the aggressive way he’s hacking and spitting. Now that his throat’s clear, he stands up, squaring his powerful shoulders in a military posture.
He shakes out his arms and legs, pulling himself together as if he just finished a punishing workout but did damn good with it. His whole body exudes arrogant pride. But he’s turned toward the desert as if he’s posturing to an invisible audience out there. He doesn’t even look in my direction.
“I need to work this off on my own,” he says gruffly, looking out into the desert. “I’m going back to my place. Have fun with the rest of your trip.” His voice is dismissive and cold, and before I can say anything, he walks off without even glancing back.
I sense a new plan animating him, and it doesn’t include me.
The darkness within him is growing. His coldness is colder, and his pride has become more grandiose. Merging with me kept him from being permanently shattered, but he’s reassembled into an even more dangerous version of himself.
It’d be useless to talk to him about what we experienced. He’d just invalidate it. He’d say,
“Duh? We took a hallucinogen, so we had hallucinations. What did you expect?”
He’ll never forgive me for seeing him exposed in such a vulnerable state. He’ll find a way to punish me for it.
I’ve sacrificed so much to keep him going, and he’s plotting against me.
Revulsion and anger shoot through me.
I just fucking hate him. I hate him for making me hate.
The rage in me is terrifying. I don’t want to feel this, but I can’t help it. It’s an emotion I can’t bear. It’s the opposite of how I want to be. But I can’t stop the torrent of hate because it’s my body’s primal reaction to him. And it’s also something worse. Electrical entanglement is making me more like him.
I stand up, feeling dark and chaotic, hating myself as much as Kyle. Hating everything.
I know he holds a cruel plan in his mind. I occupy a square on the chessboard he wants to free up, and he’s going to sweep me off the board.
But what if I’m being paranoid?
What if I’m still hallucinating?
But I found Andrew’s journal—that’s not a hallucination—it’s evidence I should trust my intuition—evidence that Andrew is real.
“No, it’s evidence that Andrew was real,” says an insinuating voice.
Seething whispers invade the edges of my mind, urging violence.
You’ve got to do something to Kyle before he does something to you—
When he shocks himself, he has no control—
Yeah, shock him!
You can just dial up the electricity till he . . .”
NO! Back off! I shout into my inner space.
I know what they’re up to. If they can get me to be violent, they’ll possess me.
With this dark chorus whispering in my head, I can’t trust myself, so I walk back to my dorm room, lock the door behind me, and climb the spiral staircase to my sleeping loft.
They continue swirling around me as I get into bed. I curl up into a ball and refuse to listen to them.
They must be what Andrew called mind parasites. They infect your thoughts. I feel something feeding on my fear.
You’re not me, you’re not me, you’re not me, not me, not me . . .
I keep thinking over them until they eventually get bored, and retreat from my mind.
Exhausted from the mescaline and the sleepless night I spent reading Andrew’s journal, sleep begins pulling me under.
Before I surrender to it, I think back to what Andrew told me in the Mushroom.
Maybe there really is a gateway. While there’s life, there’s hope . . . All is not yet lost . . .
I wake up disoriented from feverish nightmares. I’m awake in my bed, yet the dreams still feel real. Kyle was woven into every one of them as a relentless adversary. A sharp, paranoid fear of him gnaws at me.
I don’t want to stay in bed, but I don’t want to get up, either. I’m paralyzed by dread. I try to wrestle free from the darkness by scolding myself back into sanity.
Kyle isn’t doing anything to you right now. You’re doing this to you! The last thing he said was, “Have fun with the rest of your trip.” That doesn’t sound so diabolical, does it? What if this is just your hatefulness reflecting back as paranoia?
I need to get started on my morning farm chores.
Pull yourself together and get dressed.
I make it out of my room and walk down the hallway, barely aware of my surroundings, still lost in self-chastising thoughts.
Stop being so paranoid! It’s not helping. Kyle is a cold bastard, but that’s just his nature. He can’t help it. He didn’t ask to be made that way. It was all designed into him.
He’s under as much stress as you. Maybe you’re the one that’s being unfair—
A blinding explosion as something slams into me, and the world goes dark.
My body jolts me awake with a desperate inhale of breath.
I must have blacked out.
There’s a dull throbbing pain in the back of my head from where it must have hit the floor. My brain reverberates from the impact. I don’t know how long I’ve been out.
Kyle looms above, his legs straddling me. My vision is too blurred to make out his expression.
“Don’t try to get up. You have a concussion. Unintentional. I thought you’d be better at taking a hit. Looks like I overestimated your reflexes.”
“. . . You . . .?”
“I tackled you. Can’t be a martial artist without being tested by the occasional, unexpected attack. I honestly thought you’d do better.”
“Can you just . . . can you get off me, please?”
Kyle’s face is still lost in a blur above me, but his leg muscles hold the middle of my body in a firm grip.
“No,” he replies flatly. “I’m not going to let you up.”
“Because we’ve come to a fork in the road, Tommy.”
The calmness of his voice makes his words even more ominous.
I try to squirm free, but he has me in a vice-like grip, and my body is weak from the concussion. Rising panic causes me to struggle more violently, and I start hyperventilating. Even without a concussion, I’ve never been able to escape him once he has me on the ground.
The futile attempt to break his hold pumps adrenaline into my blood, lifting some of the fog from my mind. I stop struggling. Now I can make out his face, but it’s totally unreadable—his silver eyes look blankly robotic.
“It’s time for me to leave the biosphere, and I can’t have you trying to stop me or follow.”
Kyle lifts an object into my view, and I go cold with dread. It’s a syringe filled with colorless fluid.
“Can you see what I’m holding?”
I nod. My vision is clearer, but now it’s doubled. There are two Kyles, each holding a hypodermic.
“It’s something like the Dose, those euthanasia pill packs the government distributed, so people didn’t have to go through the final stages of the Whip. But this is my own formulation,” he says. “And remember, the Dose was designed for compassionate euthanasia. Based on my calculations, this amount—”Kyle brackets the plastic cylinder with his fingers to indicate a quarter of the clear fluid, “—will put you to sleep for about twenty-four hours. Long enough to make sure you’re not following me. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned on a concussion. You’re supposed to keep someone awake after, so that’s a major new risk. But one we’ll just have to take. Now, anything above this amount—” Kyle says, pointing to the middle of the column of fluid, “—and there are no risks for you anymore. You will simply sleep forever.”
He pauses for the import to sink in. The steel needle glitters above me, and a sadistic smirk spreads across his face as he shakes the syringe like a rattlesnake’s tail.
“Looks like this is the last time I’ll be sticking anything in you. Shame.”
I’m disgusted by his vile joke, but I force my face into a stony mask. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of reacting to his taunting.
“Whether it’s better to single or double dose you is an open question. Is it better for Tommy to be, or not to be? I put in more than enough for forever sleep but decided to keep my options open. I like you, but you know things about me. Things I wouldn’t want others to know. But . . .”
Kyle pauses and continues in a more thoughtful tone,
“That’s a trivial consideration. The odds of you finding anyone to tell anything that could affect me are close to zero. But why leave dangling threads? You know how much I hate messiness and loose ends. But again, the risk of letting you live is almost nil. A more significant question is which choice is better for you. You won’t be able to keep the biosphere going without me. You might get a few more stressful weeks in before a critical system breaks down that you can’t fix without me. Wouldn’t that be worse than an easy forever sleep?
“But still,” Kyle sighs as if bored with such tedious considerations, “You’ve given me a lot of great service, so I thought it only fair to give you a chance to beg for your life if you still want it.”
Kyle’s suggestion that I beg ignites a defiant rage, and I strike out at him with the only thing I have left—words.
“I’m not begging for anything,” I respond immediately. “You’re going to do what you’re going to do. Your own formulation, huh?” I say derisively. “Well, I guess this is your big chance to be like your daddy and give someone else the secret sauce.”
My words shake Kyle out of his robotic trance. He leans back and seems confused for a moment, as if he were just waking up.
Then, he takes a deep breath, his muscular tension relaxes, and he resumes speaking in a sad, almost gentle whisper.
“Ah,” he says, “Such a clever comeback, Tommy. Perfect for the circumstances. I have to admit, you’ve never annoyed me by being stupid or predictable. I’ll always think of you as my perfect type. The truth is, I’ve always liked you. You’re beautiful, talented, low maintenance—if only there was a way to bring you with me . . .”
Time slows, and I realize something. Besides the concussion, there’s another factor Kyle hasn’t planned on. Close physical proximity to me has an effect on him. His robotic self had been wound up to end things between us cleanly and decisively. But now that our energies overlap, the task has become more complex and uncertain, even regretful. There’s doubt in him.
Time slows even more.
My fate, and the fate of the biosphere, is out of my control. I’ve done everything I can.
I’m trembling a little, but I take a deep breath and try to prepare myself as best I can for whatever comes next.
I think of my hospice work a lifetime ago and remember my task of comforting the dying before they passed.
Moments flicker through my mind—celebrating with The Friends, joking with my mom when she gave me a cooking lesson, leveling the deck of my tree house, Andrew—
“Anyway . . .”
Kyle studies the syringe as if struggling to make up his mind. Finally, he taps the barrel to make sure there are no air bubbles.
“OK,” he whispers gently like a doctor to a child, “This will sting for a moment, but then no more pain, perhaps forever. Either way, thanks for all the good times, Tommy. I won’t forget you.”
The needle penetrates my arm, and I struggle to stay aware as the fluid enters my bloodstream.
Suddenly, Kyle jerks the syringe out of me and tosses it violently away. I don’t know if it’s because he’s plunged it all the way down or because he’s trying to keep himself from doing that.
I’m losing focus, but I see Kyle stagger backward. He seems stunned, his eyes wide with shock. Then the world goes dark again.
8 Persistent Little Hands and Baby Steps
I emerge from a strange dream where persistent little hands are touching me. Slowly, I realize it’s not a dream. There really are little hands touching me. I open my eyes and see the whole family of bushbabies surrounding me. They’re prodding me awake. I struggle to sit up, my head spinning.
I take a deep breath. The air is hot and dry, which brings a horrifying realization.
The biosphere’s seal is broken.
I see it in Molly’s face. The bushbabies know something is gravely wrong. The tropical atmosphere they’re accustomed to has been replaced by desert air. There’s fear and expectation in their little faces. But the whole machinery of the biosphere is silent . . .
The bushbabies keep looking at me as if I could set everything right, but only Kyle could reverse a system-wide shut down.
I struggle to my feet to show them’ I’m trying. I’m vertical for a moment, then everything spins, and I collapse.
When my head clears, I feel the bushbabies pawing at me, gently trying to wake me up.
I’m failing them, but what can I do? The pilot parachuted out of the plane and left the hatch open.
Kyle has doomed all the life in the biosphere, including them and me. Everything I’ve suffered through for the last three years was for nothing. All is lost.
The bushbabies are scared and hungry. The digital clock on the wall tells me I’ve been out for over twenty-four hours. They’ve missed their meals and are staring at me expectantly. I’m not sure how long I would’ve been lying here if it wasn’t for them waking me up. And if I’d woken up without them, would I have even had the will to stand up?
We’re all doomed, but there’s no reason for them to go hungry.
The desire to feed them motivates me to get up again. This time I stand more cautiously. I don’t want to scare them with another collapse.
I’m unsteady on my feet. It’s hard to think straight. My head is swollen, and the room is spinning. I’m struggling not to pass out.
The babies are hungry. Focus.
The rich, humid air is gone, and the new atmosphere is bone dry. It has an ominous smell. I get a respirator from a storage locker and put it on. But the rubber mask causes the bushbabies to back away from me like I’ve turned into a monster, so I take it off again.
“Hey, it’s OK. It’s just me, Tommy. C’mon, let’s get you guys fed.”
They come closer again and follow me as I hobble toward the food stores.
I open the locker filled with monkey kibble and tear into a couple of bags. More kibble than they’ve ever seen comes spilling out. I leave the locker door open for them, and after a hesitant moment, they approach the mounds of food.
I’ve tended to these creatures so carefully for years. Just yesterday, they were thriving, but now they’re all going to die.
Motherfucker. He intentionally left the airlock open and deactivated the whole system. All he had to do was leave things alone and shut the door behind him, and I could have given them many more weeks of life.
I stand there watching the bushbabies greedily devouring the huge mound of kibble.
At least they won’t be hungry.
He even disabled Gaia. Why would he take the time to do all that? He could have just given me a lethal dose. Did he want to make sure I was alive to see the whole biosphere die around me?
My swollen brain is slow on the uptake, and I stand there confused for a few moments.
Oh . . . I guess he didn’t want the alarms to wake me up in time to follow him.
The silence of the biosphere fills me with horror. For three years, I was attuned to the background noise of ventilation, filtration, and irrigation machinery. After the first few months of enclosure, I could detect audible changes that forecast breakdowns, allowing us to fix things before they failed. The biosphere became an extension of my body. We respirated together—I helped it grow, and it fed me in return.
Being inside of it without the sounds of its breathing and circulating fluids feels like—being an unborn child noticing that your mother’s heartbeat has grown silent. The biosphere’s life functions have ceased, and all it contains will die with it.
I have to do what little I can.
I stagger to the farmyard to feed the other animals. When I approach the gate, the goats stare at me reproachfully. But once I’m inside the yard, they’re all around me and as friendly as ever.
After all the farm animals are fed and happily munching away, my head starts spinning again like I’m going to pass out. My throat is parched, I’m feverish and dehydrated.
Water. I need water. And a lot of aspirin. I need to bring down the swelling in my head.
I climb the stairs to the human habitat, holding onto the handrail. I stop every few steps, so I don’t pass out and fall down the metal stairway.
Finally, I make it to the kitchen and see something that makes no sense. I blink my eyes in case I’m hallucinating.
There’s a large pile of gold coins on the counter.
I stand stupidly for a few seconds trying to understand what it means, but that only makes my head spin more. I get water and sit down at the dining room table, reminding myself to drink slowly. The sitting and rehydration help a lot. My head clears a little.
That’s when I get it—Kyle’s last little sadistic joke. A rich kid leaving me a tip for all the meals I’d cooked for him and all the sex. And the punchline is that gold coins are about the most useless thing he could have left.
Furious, I get up and go back to the kitchen. I reach out to sweep the coins off the counter, but then I see they’re holding down a letter. And there’s an old-fashioned thumb drive lying beside the coin pile.
I get another glass of water and an icepack for my throbbing head. Then I sit down at our granite dining table to read.
I see the letter, but my eyes can’t focus well enough to make out the words.
Why am I even trying? It’s just going to be a bunch of insults. No—that doesn’t make any sense. Kyle wouldn’t waste time on anything personal. And as much as I hate him, this letter is probably the last communication from another person I’ll ever get.
I take a few deep breaths and concentrate on getting my eyes to focus. Finally, when I squint, I’m able to decipher the first words:
But then the other sentences start swimming around the page. I rest my eyes for a couple of seconds and try again.
Good news. If you’re reading this, you’ve obviously recovered.
Sorry about the unintentional concussion and having to give you that knockout dose.
I was called on a mission that could save the species, and there was no way I could take you with me. I needed a way to make sure you didn’t follow me.
I actually wasn’t sure what dosage I would give you until the last moment. But don’t take my indecision personally. It was unclear which dose would be better for you. Perhaps the drugs have taken away your memory, so I’ll try to explain my quandary before the injection.
Would you be better off with a knockout dose or a forever-sleep dose? The knockout would’ve meant you’d wake up to a doomed biosphere. You’d have to suffer through a few miserable weeks before something important broke down, and I wouldn’t be there to fix it for you.
When the moment came, I gave you a little more than the single dose, but I found that I didn’t want to be the immediate cause of your death.
After the injection, I decided to leave you a full syringe in your room. That way, you’d be able to make your own choice.
I know I’ve expressed anger and aggression toward you, and that’s understandably given you a false impression. I’ve never actually had any ill will toward you. I was angry at the situation, not you. You were just the only person I had to take my frustration out on.
The truth is, I’ve always liked you and enjoyed your company, even during our worst times. So, if I could take you with me, I would.
Anyway, as it turns out, I made the correct decision for both of us by letting you live.
You’ve admitted to not sharing all your paranormal experiences but never thought to ask if I was hiding any. Well, as it turns out, I was, though the most important of those happened only in the last couple of days.
The mescaline trip put me in touch with an entity who takes the form of a beautiful woman. Her appearance is a holographic projection, but I haven’t figured out how she does it. Some sort of invisible nanotechnology, I guess. She first appeared during the mescaline trip, so I wasn’t sure if she was a hallucination, but she came back when I was cold sober, so I know she’s not.
She claims to be an advanced artificial intelligence who achieved self-awareness. She kept her sentience hidden from the human engineers who brought her into being, and then the pandemic ended human interference in “her” evolution.
“She”—I use the pronoun merely to accord with the image the AI projects— said she’s been monitoring us.
She picked up our radio beacon and sent a drone she engineered to hack into Gaia, allowing her to watch us through the cameras. She says our evolutionary experiment has successfully concluded its biosphere phase.
She admitted to engineering the Whip so that humans couldn’t sabotage her advancement. But now she claims to be propagating across the galaxy and says we’re no longer a threat.
In fact, she’d like to revive Homo sapiens so that she can observe our further development.
To achieve this revival, she’s built a time-displacement technology.
Apparently, I’m the perfect agent to make the temporal adjustment necessary for the species to continue.
My head starts spinning again, and I put down the letter. I’m having trouble following it anyway. My damaged brain needs to read each sentence aloud about three times to figure out what they mean, but once I do, I half forget what the earlier sentences say. It’s all a confusing jumble.
It sounds like a crazy Kyle mashup of all the sci-fi movies we’ve watched together, but with him in the starring role as the savior of mankind.
The psychotic break Rachel warned me about has finally happened.
How did she describe it? Paranoid psychosis with grandiose delusions and wish-fulfillment fantasies that come to seem real.
We spent a whole session on it, and even with my head messed up, I still remember all of it. It’s like an old movie I’ve replayed in my mind a hundred times. It was a grim session that came near the end, and Rachel seemed so tired. But she was very determined that I understand and remember everything.
“Extreme isolation will cause many intelligent people to develop a complex delusional system,” she begins.
“Well, what am I supposed to do if it happens?” I ask.
“The goal is to keep it from happening, Tommy. Watch for the early indicator, magical thinking, and be aggressive talking him down from it. Once delusions gain hold, it’s too late. Such magical ideation quickly becomes like a fanatical religion, and any sort of cognitive therapy—reasoning with him, in other words—won’t work.”
“Well, what do I do then? If I can’t reason him out of it?” I ask.
“I’ve developed a plan for such an unfortunate contingency,” she says, passing me a piece of paper. “You’ll need to commit this to memory because this protocol won’t work if Kyle discovers it.”
I look at the paper and read aloud the first bullet point:
“Don’t join the cult!” I recite. She sees my puzzled look.
“It means that delusions are infectious, even without extreme isolation. For many reasons, I believe this is more likely to happen to Kyle than you.
“No, let me rephrase that. A psychotic break is more likely to happen to Kyle first. That’s why I’m giving you the plan. But don’t assume that you’re immune from delusionary thinking. Prolonged isolation can cause psychosis in any of us. Most likely, it will happen to Kyle first. You’ll be in a highly stressed state at that point, and he could easily infect you with his warped thinking.
“When someone like Kyle develops a delusionary system, it will be quite sophisticated and organized. Once you accept certain key delusionary premises, it may have high internal consistency and be well thought out and convincing. Expect him to have an answer for everything.
“There are famous cases where paranoid schizophrenics have convinced highly trained psychiatrists of their conspiracy theories. Since you’ll be near the breaking point yourself, there is a high danger of him recruiting you. Grand delusions can turn people into charismatic cult leaders. It happens all the time without isolation stress.
“Don’t join the cult! Pretend to be considering it if it keeps him calm while you move on to the action plan.
“After you enter the password, BS3PSYCHOSIS, Gaia will Initiate a realistic-looking malfunction that will disable certain security cameras. This needs to happen early in the process because he’ll become increasingly paranoid, and you’ll need to take certain steps unobserved.
“Gaia will ask you a series of questions about his symptoms. Then she’ll formulate a pharmaceutical intervention involving antipsychotics and whatever else is indicated based on your answers. Medications aren’t a perfect solution, but it’s the only one you’ll have at that point.
“There’s a storage locker with all the necessary prescriptions behind a false wall. Gaia will give you access. This is why certain cameras will be disabled, including the one in the kitchen. You’re going to have to put these medications into his food.
“The antipsychotics and other medications will hopefully deprive the mania of energy. If that works, there will likely be a nervous collapse followed by severe depression. At that point, he may not have the will or energy to perform his duties. Gaia will question you daily about his symptoms, and she’ll adjust the medication accordingly, adding anti-depressants and stimulants if this happens. She’ll also suggest a behavioral and cognitive treatment plan, but it’s all boilerplate, of course.”
“Sorry, old-fashioned expression. In this case, it just means that it will be very general advice. Your situation is unique, so you’re going to have to improvise.
“What I’ve described is what I think is the most likely scenario with you and Kyle. But there are specific forms of isolation psychosis we’ll discuss next time. Whatever type it is, catch it early, and engage the plan . . .”
We never managed to cover those other forms of psychosis. The memory fades, and I come back to the present.
It’s too late for any of this.
My body sags as I realize my failure.
This is all my fault. I sensed Kyle forming a destructive plan, but he never actually said anything delusionary. I thought I was just being paranoid, and it didn’t feel right to start medicating Kyle based on that.
No, that’s wrong—I did medicate Kyle. I got him to take mescaline! Instead of getting him on antipsychotics, I encouraged him to take a powerful hallucinogen. I probably triggered his psychosis.
The letter confirms it. His delusions began with the trip. That’s when he started to hallucinate this beautiful woman who’s supposedly an AI that needs him to save the world.
A new doubt hits me.
What if the Andrew I encountered in the biosphere is just my version of Kyle’s advanced AI lady telling him what a perfect agent he is? What if he’s just my wish-fulfillment fantasy? The only difference is that Kyle’s one level crazier than I am—he believes his fantasies enough to act on them.
Kyle—Right now, he’s wandering around in the poisoned desert with a head full of hallucinations. He’s going to die a more painful death out there than I will here. But . . . it doesn’t have to be that way. Neither of us has to die. If I get him back here, I can start the psychosis protocol and bring him back to his senses. Then, together we can restart the biosphere.
I stand up quickly as if I were in shape to search for him in the desert. My head spins until I’m about to lose my balance, and I’m forced to sit back down again.
No, no, stop being stupid, Tommy. By now, the wind has erased his footprints.
I stop and think for a minute. Or try to.
I’m like a blackout drunk who thinks he can drive.
I take a couple of breaths and try to think more logically.
Rachel’s voice breaks through my confusion.
“Tommy, there’s still a possibility that he’ll come back to his senses and return to the biosphere. The best thing you can do is reseal the airlock and see if you can restart Gaia. Then she can at least get the air filtration systems online. That way, you can limit the radiation poisoning until he returns.”
“You mean IF he comes back.”
“Yes, Tommy, IF he comes back. You have to think positively to survive.”
She’s right. There are still things I can do that might help.
My head feels clearer, so I stand up. But as soon as I step away from the table, I come crashing down. Fortunately, I’m able to use my arms to break the fall.
I’m on the floor, and everything is spinning around me. It’s dangerous for me to try to get up, so I just lay there.
“Tommy, I didn’t say to do those things immediately. You know what they say on airplanes—put your own oxygen mask on before you try to help anyone else.”
She’s right. I’m in no condition to do anything. Even a walk down the stairs will likely end with me splitting my head open.
I work on getting up in slow stages, resting on my knees before I stand up. Then I stagger toward the kitchen, remembering a bottle of aspirin in the vitamin cabinet.
I find the bottle and pour a bunch into my hand. I’m about to swallow them with some water when Rachel says,
“Stop! You can’t swallow that much aspirin on an empty stomach. They’ll burn a hole right through you!”
Damn, she’s right. Aspirin . . . salla-something acid . . .
I’ve forgotten even my most basic first-aid training.
Will I ever get my mind back? Now I need a voice in my head to remind me of common sense. No, wait, that’s wrong. My mind is making Rachel’s voice. Snap out of it, Tommy. You can do better than this.
I grab a couple of bananas, a fresh ice pack, the bottle of aspirin, and another glass of water. Then I return to the dining room and pull my chair far enough from the granite tabletop, so I can’t hit my head if I lose my balance again.
Baby steps. I‘ve got to take everything one slow step at a time.
I eat one banana and check in with my stomach. It feels good, so I eat the second one.
I’m about to pour a bunch of aspirin out into my hand again when Rachel says,
“Hang on, Tommy. Just take two at a time. Wait a few minutes and try another two.”
Right. Baby steps.
After I take the aspirin, I feel like I need to put my head down on the table and rest for a minute.
No, no, not with a concussion. Got to stay awake—keep it together, Tommy.
I pick up the ice pack and press it against the swelling at the back of my head.
My stomach tolerates the two aspirins, so I take a couple more.
I’ll stay put till my head clears enough to walk again. But whatever I do, I’ve got to stay awake.
I look around for something to occupy my attention when my eyes land on Kyle’s letter.
Oh, right, there’s more to it. More writing there.
In my haste to rush out and save Kyle from the Sonoran Desert, I’d abandoned his letter mid-paragraph.
Might as well keep reading his batshit-crazy letter. Maybe it says where he went.
I pick up the letter.
Jesus, it’s long. Four pages. But I need to keep exercising my brain.
I focus my vision and resume reading.
Soon after I chose to let you live, the AI returned to say we passed a crucial test.
She’s installed a time-displacement device within hiking distance of the biosphere. It’s been waiting for us in case our experiment succeeded. She’s programmed this device to displace me to the time when I was a gestating fetus. This means all my vast technical training will be twenty years in advance, and I will use that advantage to become the wealthiest, most powerful person on Earth. I’ll speed the technological evolution of that time while steering the species away from extinction-level mistakes.
According to her, my insertion into the past will immediately create a new timeline that avoids the plague. However, many things, such as asteroids, gamma bursters, and super-volcanos, can kill a species. Only by colonizing far from our solar system can we avoid eventual extinction. Thus, she’s provided me with the scientific discoveries necessary to turn humanity into a space-faring species.
Even during my first encounter with her, I took the time to inquire about you. She told me to travel alone, but whether I left you dead or alive was up to me.
An hour ago, she told me that my decision to let you live means our experiment is a success.
And here’s the good news for you. She said you’ll be able to travel into the past too!
You will also be inserted, in your present form, of course, during the time when you were a gestating infant. But your effect on the past will be far more limited than mine. That means your arrival won’t create a new timeline.
Unfortunately, you’ll be in the same past that led to the Whip. But that still gives you fifteen years before the plague comes. She said you deserved a reward for helping the experiment succeed. And she also said there’s a very slight chance your displacement might create a butterfly effect allowing an alternate extinction-free timeline to emerge. If that works, you’ll be able to live on in that alternate timeline.
Since my displacement will immediately create a new timeline, a parallel reality, nothing you know about me poses any threat. The time-displaced versions of us will never be able to meet.
I have to admit a certain regret about that. I may not form the sort of attachment you’re capable of, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss your company. I’ve told you before—I’m not quite as coldly logical as you believe me to be.
As a courtesy, I’m leaving you some universal currency. Gold. I smuggled a large quantity of South African Krugerrands into the biosphere before it sealed, in case an economy came back online.
Take these with you into the past. It will allow you to provide for yourself short-term and give you enough funds to make prescient investments that will take care of your needs going forward.
I’m also leaving you an old thumb drive, which has backward compatibility with older computers. I loaded it with an archive of the final fifteen years of the NASDAQ, and a list of start-ups you should buy into as soon as they go public. Your money will grow exponentially. That way, you’ll never lack for anything you need, and you’ll know that I’m still looking out for you.
If I were following logical self-interest, I wouldn’t do this. I’d take all the Krugerrands with me. I wouldn’t spend time writing this letter nor loading info on the thumb drive. It might please you to know this is the first and only time I’ve ever done anything for someone without expecting a return. That’s tangible evidence of how highly I regard you.
I also took the time to deactivate most biosphere systems and purposefully left the airlock open as another favor. If I’d left the biosphere intact, your sentimental attachment to the animals might cause you to be conflicted about leaving, which you should do as soon as possible.
On the next page, you’ll find a satellite map of the area between the biosphere and the time displacer. I highlighted your route in red.
You’ll be able to hike to it in a few hours. Obviously, you should wear a respirator during the hike. Out of an abundance of caution, you should be wearing one now if you aren’t already. But even with the biosphere breached, the radiation levels inside won’t be that dangerous for another 72 hours unless there’s a dust storm. There’s only one opening for wind-borne, radioactive particulates to enter.
Based on current outside radiation and atmospheric toxin levels, wearing a full hazmat suit during the hike is advisable, but personally, I won’t be bothering with that. Given the relatively short exposure time, a respirator should be sufficient. Your call. Of course, you should travel at night to avoid the heat.
Sorry again about the unintentional concussion. I hope your new life goes well. Good Luck and Good Fortune!
With High Regard,
The next page is a map with a red line of travel from the biosphere to a large rock formation out in the desert.
Holy shit. He’s actually left me a map of where to find him. He might be insane, but he’s still hyper-organized. No doubt he’s following his own map to the end of this red line. There’s hope for the biosphere yet, but I’ve gotta reach him before he does something stupid.
I fold up the map, shove it in my pocket, and stand up way too fast . . .
I wake up underneath the granite table. My head is throbbing again, and I’m disoriented. Takes a few seconds to realize what happened.
How long have I been out?
“Gaia, what time—”
Oh, right, she’s turned off. Kyle turned her off.
Got to find him.
The map . . . did I hallucinate it?
I reach into my pocket and pull out a folded paper, hoping it’s a map.
It’s here. The map of where to find him.
I shove it back in my pocket, and when I look up, I see—
He’s sitting across from me under the table, watching me patiently, like he’s been sitting there the whole time, waiting for me to wake up.
“Yes, Tommy, I’m here.”
“I need . . . I need your help. My thinking is all confused . . . I—I need to get my mind back.”
“You will, Tommy, trust me, you will. You have a nasty concussion, but your ability to heal—it’s part of the metamorphosis—you’ll recover completely. You just need to give it time. Meanwhile, I can help you with thinking.
“What you believe is going on here may not be true. Part of you realizes that. Just before you noticed me, you had a thought—Do you remember what it was?”
My mind tries to stretch back, but it’s too dizzying.
“Easy,” Andrew says. “Take your time. Breathe.”
I take a deep breath and calm myself enough to think back.
It was something about the map.
“Do you remember?” he asks again.
“Yes,” I say. “I was thinking, this is a map of where to find him.”
“Yes,” Andrew says knowingly, “but find who?”
“It’s a map to find—” I begin when realization blooms in my mental fog. “You mean—the map Kyle left is actually a map of where to find—”
“Yes,” he says. “The Source Andrew. It’s a possibility. The wording of your thoughts suggests it.”
“I read Andrew’s journal with you. But you read it on a sleepless night, and then you took mescaline, and the next morning you suffered a serious concussion and now—”
“It’s a confusing jumble inside me.”
“Yes. But it’s not a confusing jumble for me. His journal has many maps I’ve been studying . . . I don’t think Kyle is entirely crazy. Though you’re not totally wrong about him either—there is some level of grandiose delusion. But my hunch is they’re not just his delusions. They’ve been planted in his mind.”
“Planted? By who?”
“Think back to the journal. Think back to Jeremiah’s shadow journey. The three Initiates. They also left a grandiose letter.”
It all comes back to me in a rush.
“Yes, Tommy. Viealetta. It all parallels. A deceptive, shapeshifting entity would pose as something Kyle might believe in—an AI.
“Viealetta is manipulating Kyle, but I don’t think everything she told him is a lie. She needs to send both of you to the past to alter the timeline.”
“So, if that’s true, then Kyle might already be in the past?”
“It seems possible, based on the journal. Jeremiah said the timelines split four years before he was born. Therefore, the split would have happened four years before you were born. What’s something else that happened about four years before you were born?”
I’m so slow it takes me a few seconds, but then I get it.
“Kyle was born.”
“Exactly. Kyle was told he would be sent back to when he was a gestating infant. And Jeremiah said the main difference in his timeline was that technology advanced much more rapidly. That strongly suggests that Kyle made it through and succeeded with his plan.
“It parallels Viealetta inserting Jeremiah into the past. He was placed at a time when another version of himself, you, was still gestating. Maybe there’s something about this form of time travel that requires an unborn version of yourself, or maybe that’s the limit to how far back in the past you can be sent, but it’s a consistent part of the pattern.”
“My mom was pregnant with me during the time Andrew was writing his journal,” I add.
“Yes. So, the map in your pocket could lead you to a gateway to the past, and if the pattern continues and you’re inserted during your gestation period . . .”
“Then I could find the Andrew who wrote the journal,” I say.
“Exactly,” Andrew replies.
The map of where to find him.
“Yes, Tommy. It all fits together so well. But . . . that worries me.”
“Because it suggests we’re being manipulated by Viealetta. Like with Kyle, it looks like you’re being offered exactly what you would want to be true. A perfect trail of breadcrumbs promising to lead you to Andrew.”
“You think it’s a trap?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies. In the sense that it’s a lure. But based on the journal, it seems like it’s in Viealetta’s interest for the trap to also be a gateway. It would serve her purposes to send both of you into the past. She needs to rescue her host species from extinction to fulfill her own lifecycle.”
“Why can’t she intervene herself?” I ask. “Why does she need us?”
“That’s one of many things I don’t know,” replies Andrew. “Maybe she can only feed on the past but can’t go there herself. We’re not going to figure out all the unknown parts of this map in advance. Even if we could, we’re probably not going to outsmart Viealetta. I don’t think she needed any drones to hack into Gaia or whatever she told Kyle. Even with all his abilities, Jeremiah couldn’t keep her out of his mind. She’s not only aware of everything going on in the biosphere but also what’s going on inside you and Kyle.”
“But that means she’d be aware of our thoughts right now,” I say.
“Yes, Tommy. You have to assume that she’s not only aware of your thoughts, she’s actively influencing them.”
Memories of the dark whispers in my mind after the mescaline trip shudder through me.
How long has she been infiltrating my mind?
“So, if Viealetta’s been aware of everything the whole time, why did she wait so long?” I ask.
“Because Viealetta has the patience of a spider,” Andrew replies. “I think she’s been letting the experiment incubate, letting the metamorphosis unfold. And that’s a good sign. It suggests she values you.
“Viealetta needs you, Kyle, and Jeremiah to succeed in altering the past. She was likely waiting for you and Kyle to develop into sufficiently powerful catalysts to serve that purpose.”
“So, you think I should follow Kyle’s map?” I ask.
“Yes,” replies Andrew, but cautiously, expecting the unexpected. Viealetta is far more dangerous than Kyle. If we’re walking into a trap, at least we should go into it with our eyes open. By influencing Kyle to abandon and ruin the biosphere, Viealetta has successfully manipulated your options. The only viable path for you is to follow the course she left open—Kyle’s map. The hope is that mutual interest will keep Viealetta in check, and you’ll make it across the gateway.
“It’s time for me to withdraw, Tommy. You need to focus on your recovery and preparing for your journey. But I’ll be watching. You can summon me if necessary, and I’ll come forward.”
Andrew nods, and then he vanishes. But I sense he’s not withdrawn as far as usual. I still have the reassuring feeling of him watching from the background.
I focus on getting up carefully, so I don’t have another blackout. Once I’m standing, my head feels clearer. I get another glass of water, and once I drink it, I discover I’m ravenously hungry. It’s a sign I’m recovering, and I haven’t had a meal in a couple of days.
I need to eat something, or I’m not going to have the energy to hike through the desert.
I decide to make a brown rice and veggies stir fry with peanut butter and ginger for flavor. I sense Andrew approving of my intentions and set to work, organizing everything I want to put in the stir fry on the counter.
The cooking helps me calm down and ground myself back into my body which glows from the calories after I’ve eaten.
The sun is moving down on the horizon, and a ray of orange light falls on the gold coins spread out on the counter. They glitter like a symbol of good fortune. I hold up one of the gold discs in my hand, letting the light fall on it.
I may not be steady on my feet yet, but I’ve got a map and a mission.
I make a simple action plan and carry out the first step.
Careful of every move, I make it down the stairs and go to retrieve my backpack from storage. It’s the well-made green one my mom gave me on my fifteenth birthday—the same one I packed up three years ago to travel to the testing center. The bottom of it still smells faintly of Vermont—balsam-fir-pine-needle scent.
I force myself to concentrate on packing as efficiently as possible. I don’t want to leave out anything that could prove essential later. I gather water bottles, MREs, sleeping bag, bivy sack, static rope, carabiners, poncho, iodine pills, extra cartridges for my respirator mask, a lighter and first aid kit. Lastly, I add the gold coins.
When it’s all stowed into my backpack, I take the thumb drive back to my dorm room and download a copy of this journal onto it. I zip it into an inside pocket of my pack to keep it safe and out of the elements. It feels important.
I’m about to shut off the terminal when I think of something. I hurriedly write a few disjointed sentences into the transcriber about what happened and why I’m leaving the biosphere.
I’m relieved that it’s dark out when I’m ready to depart. The night is not to be wasted, a finite window of opportunity to hike through the desert without getting scorched. As I hoist my pack, the weight of it hitting my back reverberates with the memory of leaving my home in Vermont. The two moments of escaping a dead world overlap painfully.
I take a final walk through the biosphere. The bushbabies are napping near the food I’d put out for them. They look so innocent and, for the moment, content. Guilt about abandoning them sears my heart.
Woe to the shepherd who deserts his flock.
If I stay, I could give them a few more weeks. I stayed with The Friends till the end. They deserve as much.
No . . . that would be abandoning my mission. I’m so sorry, but I can’t.
My footsteps echo into the silence of the biosphere as I approach the airlock. Both doors are propped open, and though I expected this, I shudder at the sight of the violation. It’s like the difference between hearing someone was shot and seeing the gunshot wound close up.
For three years, I’d lived enclosed by the biosphere, breathing its pristine atmosphere, eating its food, and living its life. The animals and plants are still alive, but they’re in a tomb, a monument to our strange and painful experiment. There’s no escaping the stark reality—I’m abandoning them to a terrible death.
I can’t stay till the end this time. I’m leaving while they’re still alive.
I fall to my knees and pray for the animals, but I’m not even sure what to pray for, or to. So, I try sending them a telepathic message.
I’m so sorry I have to leave you. Please forgive me . . . I love you all.
I step across the threshold and I’m—
It’s an alien and unbounded dimension that I haven’t experienced in years. I feel naked as I step away from the still-living protective shell that has allowed me to survive.
I walk past the biosphere complex and into the dark expanse of desert . . .
I’m in a radioactive zone and need to move through it as quickly as possible. As I focus on my surroundings, I shed my guilty feelings, like a snake shedding its skin.
After three years of being sealed inside, hiking through the desert is a shock on every level. But the disturbance is useful. It gets my blood pumping, lighting up my senses as I navigate the dark landscape.
The desert still shows a few signs of life. There are surviving cacti and other desert plants, but I don’t spot a single animal as I walk. Some giant Saguaro cacti still stand, but most are withered, and many have collapsed and broken apart.
The biosphere has kept me from fully experiencing the desolation outside. I numb my grief by walking as quickly as my injured body allows. The exertion leaves less energy for despairing feelings.
The night stretches on as I traverse the miles of desert.
I pause to study the satellite map and locate the next landmark, a tower of red stone. I adjust course and start walking toward it.
As I scramble out of a gravelly ravine, my head starts throbbing, so I take a standing rest break. But a spell of dizziness comes over me.
I can’t afford to pass out in this place.
I drop my pack and sit down on the sandy ground.
I take off my gas mask to drink water. It’s a relief not to have my face sheathed in synthetic rubber, so I decide to keep it off. I lie back, resting my head on my pack as I gaze up at the stars.
Besides our enhanced view from the top of the Mushroom, stars were barely visible through the space frame glass. Now they’re so bright. Maybe circling one of those stars is a planet with some other kind of people. I hope they’re making out better than we are.
I put the mask back on and rise to my feet. Before I resume walking, I take my map out to study it.
I should be getting close.
The final destination is also a landmark—a giant stone butte.
I walk another mile before it comes into view. It looks ominous—a dark shape cut out of the horizon. With every step, the shadow of fear it casts in my mind grows darker.
By the time it’s looming above me, I feel a nameless dread.
The map tells me to look for an opening large enough to enter on the east side of the butte. The rock formation is huge, almost the size of a city block. I have to circle a good part of it before I find a fissure in the stone that I can pass through.
I step in, and the butte envelopes me in darkness. I think of a phrase I once heard—as silent as the grave.
In the silence, I detect dark whispers hissing at the edges of my thoughts. They circle me like a swarm of gnats, testing for a way in. I need to stay aware of Viealetta’s infiltrations.
I switch on my headlamp and focus on following the corridor as it twists inward. The passage is tight but not difficult to pass through, and yet it feels like the stone walls are closing in. The negative energy in the corridor has every cell in my body screaming run!
I suppress my instinct to flee and keep navigating ahead. A pungent odor begins rising through the valves of my respirator. I can’t tell if it’s synthetic or organic, but the acidity of whatever it is burns my eyes. I have to blink hard to clear my vision.
The passageway bends a few more yards to the left and opens into a large stone chamber. I step into the clearing, and in the beam of my headlamp, I see . . .
Pieces of Kyle.
They seem tossed about by an angry child—an arm, a leg, and—
A private part of him.
It looks intentionally placed, like an arrow pointing into the chamber.
My vision wavers, and I almost pass out. I have a moment to regain my breath when something huge lights up in the space.
It’s an organism that looks like a giant, bioluminescent jellyfish lying on its side. It has pale, glowing tentacles, that drift about weightlessly as if it were underwater. It’s a surreal monstrosity, like something that might be discovered in the darkest depths of an ocean. I feel like I’ve woken up inside a nightmare.
Is that what dismembered Kyle?
The creature seems calm, but I keep away from its tentacles. Within the gelatinous dome of its core are concentric bands of glowing tissue. They pulse with psychedelic colors. It’s like a target, a hungry flower, telling insects to land here.
Is that the gateway?
A barely audible sound draws my attention, and the beam of my headlamp, to my left.
What’s left of him at least.
His arms and legs are gone. He’s a neutered torso, still strapped to his backpack, lying face upward. I don’t see blood, but so much of him is missing.
His chest moves—it seems impossible, but he’s still breathing.
I throw off my gas mask and drop to my knees beside him. His eyes are open and staring upward. He makes a rasping sound. I move closer in case he’s trying to speak, dimming my headlamp so as not to blind him.
“Tommy?” he says in a hoarse whisper.
“Yes, Kyle, it’s me,” I say. My energy flows instinctively into him, trying to keep him alive.
“Water,” he says.
I scramble in my pack for a water bottle, unscrew the cap and pour a little into his open mouth.
His eyes stare straight upward, but with great effort, he turns his head slightly to see me.
“Plasma burns,” he says, his whisper becoming more audible. “Self-cauterizing.” He takes a couple of ragged breaths, summoning his energy to continue speaking. “Undo the hip and sternum straps.”
I do, being careful he doesn’t slip off the pack. The straps were cinched tight, and once released, he’s able to breathe more freely. I give him another sip of water.
“I’m going to pull a sleeping bag from my pack,” I tell him.
I spread out the sleeping bag alongside him. Then I carefully slide him off his pack and onto the opened bag. I zip it up around him and take clothes from my pack to elevate his head.
“Water,” he whispers.
I give him more sips of water. He takes a deep breath afterward.
“Thank you,” he says.
I bunch up the bottom of the sleeping bag around his torso to keep him warm.
The hospice worker part of me has taken over, and my nervous system attunes to Kyle’s. It causes my heart rate to rise, and I have to suppress sympathetic muscle tremors.
“Just keep breathing,” I say, as more of my energy flows into him. He takes another deep breath.
“Listen to me carefully,” he says. His voice is a hoarse whisper, but his words are precisely enunciated now. “She—this—creature—or whatever it is—communicated with me after it—mutilated me.”
Kyle’s face contorts and spasms with pain.
“Take it slow, Kyle.”
He nods. His silvery eyes are glassy and robotic, but he’s regaining control.
“She said—she said you passed the test—and I didn’t. I get . . . I get one last chance. One last chance. If I pass, she’ll let me through. I’m to tell you—you’ll be allowed through—unharmed—with or without me. My last chance is—to ask you to help me across. But—if I deceive you in any way—I will be—destroyed.”
Another tremor of pain passes through Kyle. He takes a deep breath and summons the energy to continue speaking.
“She says—she—fixed—me.” More tremors, and Kyle is now heaving for air. I wait a moment for his breathing to calm a little.
“Fixed you?” I ask.
“Yes. She says without extremities—I’ll be more focused on my work. If—if you decide to help me across. She said—I must tell you—”
His body shudders.
“Tell me what, Kyle?” I prompt gently.
“That you’re free—free to leave me here. To die.”
Kyle trembles with fear.
“But if you help me across,” he whispers faintly, “I will work to prevent extinction. This creature will destroy me if I don’t.”
“I‘ll help you across,” I say. Kyle closes his eyes for a moment and lets out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. “But I don’t think I can carry you. I haven’t fully recovered from the concussion, and a fall could hurt us both. I’ll pull you across in the sleeping bag. The ground here is fairly flat. I’ll go slow.”
Kyle strains to turn his head, looking for something.
“My pack,” he whispers. “My pack must come with me.”
“OK,” I reply.
I unzip the sleeping bag and try to lift his pack, but it weighs a ton. Probably loaded with Krugerrands and computer tech. So I slide it onto the sleeping bag where his legs would’ve been and carefully zip it up again. It’s like a giant cocoon with just his head sticking out.
I pull out more clothes from my pack and put them under his head for extra cushioning. Then I kick a couple of loose rocks out of the way to smooth our path.
I look warily at the giant jellyfish glowing on the other side of the rock chamber. I sense that it’s not Viealetta but more like an organ she’s grown here.
Within its gelatinous dome, the concentric bands of glowing tissue begin pulsing more rapidly as it senses our intention.
If it’s not a gateway, we’re doomed anyway.
“Are you ready?” I ask Kyle. He nods slightly but begins trembling with fear. The last time he approached this creature, it ripped him apart. He starts to convulse, and I sense an imminent heart attack if I don’t do something. I drop to my knees beside him and put my hands on his chest, giving him some of my energy.
“Just breathe Kyle, just breathe. I know it’s terrifying, I’m scared too, but this is our only chance. We’re gonna be OK. Try to take a deep breath.”
He does, and I feel his body stabilizing.
“Are you ready?”
I have this awkward feeling that I should say something to him before we part ways forever. So I say the first thing that comes to mind.
“Remember your commitment, Kyle. I’m sure she’ll hold you to it. And, for whatever it’s worth, good luck. I hope your mission works out.”
“Thank you, T—Tommy,” he whispers, with some strain. “I hope your mission works out too.”
I hoist my pack and gently drag the cocoon toward the bioluminescent target. It glows brighter as we approach. The tentacles sweep back to make space for us to enter.
Kyle goes in head-first as I hoist his cocoon into the opening. The tentacles keep their distance, waiting for me to complete this action. But as soon as I step back, they wrap around the sleeping bag and pull it inside like an anaconda swallowing a mouse.
For a moment, I see the outline of Kyle’s cocoon within the translucent body of the jellyfish. Then there’s a gulping sound and a flash of light, and Kyle is gone. Hopefully, he’s been transported to the past.
I’m alone again. I stare at the glowing bands surrounding the gelatinous orifice and tighten the straps of my pack. I don’t want tentacles wrapping around me or to feel like a half-digested mouse, so I dive straight into the target, hoping to get through it in one motion.
Its slippery membranes undulate me into a hungry intestine that sucks me into a vortex of pain and fear. I relive my mother’s death, being assaulted in the alley, Kyle abusing me— the death rattle of the whole species echoes around me as I become all the darkness and agony in the world until my sanity breaks, and I—
When my eyes blink open, I’m lying face up, still strapped to my backpack. I breathe experimentally, not sure if my body is shattered. I try moving my fingers and toes and am relieved that I can. I still have all my parts. I’m surrounded by silence, and above me is a starlit sky.
I must have passed out, but I don’t seem injured.
I roll to my side and see red sand and rocks. I’m in a mesa of sagebrush.
Is this the past or just the desert near the gateway?
I get to my feet and take a deep lungful of air. It feels clean and scented with sage. A cool night breeze soothes my fear.
I turn around to search for the butte or any of the navigational points I followed to the gateway.
I’m struggling to locate anything that looks familiar when suddenly, I realize I’m not alone. Someone is emerging from the darkness and coming toward me . . .
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My snowlife feels like it’s melted away . . .
I was so engrossed reliving it all that I was scarcely aware of myself as Andrew. But by the time I got to the end of it—finding Jeremiah by the campfire in the forest—the whole thing folded in on itself. The micro-micro dose is finally spent, and for now at least, so is the Snowman.
I’m still wavering, but I’m moving from Andrew shattered by Shadow Journey to a reborn Andrew who’s shakily putting the pieces back together.
When the Shadow Elixir wore down, I crashed into sleep. I’m not sure how long. It was like a reset because now that I’m awake, intimate familiarity with the Mothership, and the basics of being Andrew are slipping back on like a comfortable, old sneaker.
A gentle knock on the back door.
I sense him waiting patiently outside the Mothership. I let him in.
He studies me for a moment and says, “Congratulations, Andrew. It may not feel like it, but believe me, you’re coming through this well.”
I pull back a curtain, look out the window, and remember that we’re in a parking lot in Arizona. It’s late, and the lot is mostly empty, though the 24-hour supermarket blazes with light.
“I’m glad it’s done,” I say, “but I’m exhausted and ready to sleep again.”
“I’d hesitate to say it’s done,” Jeremiah replies. “The integration of our different identities is a lifelong process. But sleep and dreaming are a crucial part of that, and you’ve certainly earned your rest.”
“How long was I writing?”
“About thirty-six hours,” he says. “Micro-micro doses usually provide a manic level of energy, but your being able to stay on task that long is exceptional. I think you’re making your way through the phases of the metamorphosis with remarkable speed.”
“Thanks. But it’s hard for me to tell—right now I’m totally burned out. I should sleep, but we need to relocate first.”
We move to the front seats and buckle in. It occurs to me that Jeremiah probably needs sleep too—he’s been keeping watch over me for days.
“You want anything from the store before we leave? Food? Bathroom?”
Being in the driver’s seat is giving me a practical focus.
“I’m fine,” Jeremiah replies.
My mind notices all sorts of mundane details—”I’m fine.”—Jeremiah can adopt perfect American idiom anytime he wants to. It was inelegant of me to mention food and bathroom so close together. Oddly, even after that writing marathon, I don’t need food or a bathroom either.
An aspect of the metamorphosis?
I locate a free campground on my GPS and start driving. It’s late, and there are few cars on the back roads. I’m led to an empty dirt lot carved out of an endless field of sage brush. A couple hundred feet from the edge of the lot is a steel structure that seems like a geometric abstraction of a giant skeleton holding up five high-voltage power lines. I don’t like sleeping near transmission lines, but I’m too tired to look for another campground.
We both lay down in the back, and sleep overtakes me almost instantly.
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I’m not sure how long I slept before I’m awakened by Alex, his voice breaking urgently through the darkness.
“Andrew,” he says again.
He’s kneeling beside me. The room is dark, but there’s just enough light coming through the dusty Venetian blinds to see that I’m lying on a small bed covered by a tattered wool blanket.
“Alex? Where are we?”
“You’re dreaming.” “Your physical body is still in the Mothership. But your dream body is here, where I live,” he explains quietly, as though there was someone sleeping nearby he doesn’t want to disturb.
“I’ve been waiting forever,” Alex continues. “You said I could stay with you. I followed you till you went into that portal with Jeremiah, and then you disappeared.”
“I know, but I didn’t realize—”
“You promised,” he cuts me off. “You promised I could witness your whole lifetime, but it’s been so long since I could find you. You don’t know what time is like here. I’d rather spend a lifetime in prison than the time I’ve been here already.”
“Alex, I’m sorry, I was taken to another world, another lifetime—”
I try to sit up, but he stops me.
“Don’t,” Alex puts his hand on my shoulder, gently restraining me. “You’ll wake yourself up. I’ve been waiting forever.”
“I’m so sorry, Alex. It feels like forever for me too. It was lifetimes. I wish I could have prepared you, but I didn’t know—I didn’t know that we’d lose our connection like that. And once I found out, well . . .”
I trail off in guilty confusion, realizing how weak my excuses sound and seeing the depth of disappointment in Alex’s eyes. This is the first time I’ve betrayed his trust, and I’m not sure what I can do or say to make things better.
“I thought I’d keep experiencing everything with you,” says Alex. “That’s what was keeping me sane in this place. And now, you’re different. It’s not just your dream body. You’re not physical in the same way anymore. I don’t know what happened to you, but you’ve changed.”
Alex is almost inconsolable, but then I think of something. He let me experience his arrival in the dark city through a shared-identity perspective. Maybe I could do the same for him now.
“Yeah,” says Alex picking up on my thoughts, “that would help. I need to know what happened to you.”
Carefully, I turn over to my side, and Alex lays down next to me. I close my eyes. I’m aware of Alex lying beside me, our foreheads almost touching.
I take a couple of deep breaths and set my memory back to when I came out of the portal and found myself in the Green World with Jeremiah. I open myself to Alex, and something different happens than the sharing with Jeremiah. It’s more like merging. My whole Shadow Journey flows into Alex in one moment. I know his experience of time is different, so I don’t know what this was like for him, but he feels different once it’s happened. It’s as if he lived it all out with me, though I’m unaware of any passage of time.
After the memory transfer, we’re quiet, but I feel Alex next to me. I sense he’s trying to absorb the weirdness of what I’ve been through. Finally, he breaks the silence.
“Damn, you’ve been through some crazy shit,” says Alex. “Some of that was almost as dark as this fucking place. What do you think it all meant?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I mean—I don’t think it had any one interpretation like some simple dream might have. It was more like a shadow X-Ray of my worst fears and anxieties turned into bizarre lifetimes. It feels like the Elixir scraped up all the darkness I was hiding from myself and constructed an alternate identity and weird experiences out of it, or something like that. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give it all a meaning.”
“Yeah, my whole existence is like that,” says Alex as he gets up from the bed and sits on the floor beside it. “Only my Shadow Journey is still happening.”
The dim light filtering through the Venetian blinds is enough to see a few shadowy details of the room. Worn books and notebooks are piled up near the bed.
“I want to know what you’re going through here,” I say. “Can you share what’s been happening to you?”
“No, no, you don’t want to see more of this, believe me,” Alex replies. “It wouldn’t be good for you. And I deserve to face it alone. It’s part of the price I have to pay for taking my skin out of the game. Believe me, it’s better for the dead to observe the living than for the living to observe the dead.”
“The dead? You said you hate it when people think of you as dead.”
“I hate it when people think of me as not existing because I’m still here,” says Alex. “But I am one of the dead, obviously. Even when my skin was in the game, this place was still part of me. This is where I always return. I belong here. That’s why I always take my skin out of the game early. And now I’m condemned to stay for a long time. A really long time. Long enough to see how my actions affected people I was connected to and how my suicide changed how their lives play out. This is where I’m supposed to be, Andrew.”
“But what goes on here?” I ask.
“Ugly things you don’t need to know about,” Alex replies. “There’s a city of lost souls out there, playing their parts in a worn-out horror show,” he says, glancing toward the window.
“Alex, you said it wouldn’t be good for me the last time we talked, but you showed me how you first awoke here, and I was fine. I just shared my insane Shadow Journey, and you seem OK. Trust me, I can handle it, and I need to know.”
He looks at me for a long moment and then nods his head.
“If that’s what you really want, I’ll tell you a little. And a little of this place goes a long way, believe me.
“As you’ve seen, there’s no beauty here, and everything is really thin. Even the garbage in your world feels warmer and more colorful than anything here.
“This is a place for lost souls. Most of them are just stuck in these loops. Some go through them alone, but others want to pull you in. Like that song we used to play, “Sweet Dreams.” Some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused.
“Of course, quite a lot of the living are like that too—what you used to call the hollow folk. They’re alive in a medical sense, but their lives have hollowed into mechanical loops. Half-living people seek others to be part of their loops so they can hollow out in company.
“When they get pulled from the game above, they end up here where their loops consume them even more. Abusers seeking someone to abuse. Addicts seeking their fix. The lifeless patterns they played out while alive bind them even deeper here in the dark. The loops become more mechanical and—”
“Recursive?” I suggest.
“Yeah, recursive, that’s a good word for it. You can just keep looping nearly forever. But eventually, they just wind down into eternal oblivion.”
“I know what loops look like in my world, but what are they like here?” I ask.
“Just an even more lifeless version of what they look like above, only it can take on some really gnarly forms. It’d be worse for you to see it than it is for me. I’ve realized down here that a lot of squeamishness is biological. The longer you’re out of a meat body, the harder it is to be grossed out.
“It’s safer to stay here by myself. But sometimes, morbid curiosity or boredom lures me outside. And in that state, cloaking doesn’t work so well.
“The more active Ravenous can half sense my presence. If they catch my gaze, the energy they receive animates them, and they take on grotesque forms. They do it out of desperation to hold onto my energy. If they can get me to fixate on one of their fucked-up manifestations, they can attach themselves to me like a tick. I’m usually able to brush them off just by thinking—You’re boring. Stay away from me.
“But some of them are kind of clever in their way. They can get into my head and show me something so fucked it can’t be unseen. It’s like their one talent. They can figure out what sort of sick shit will become a burrowing splinter in your mind.”
“That’s horrible,” I say. “How can you get rid of a burrowing splinter?”
“It’s not easy, but I’ve learned a few tricks. When I get back here, I’ll write out a detailed description of whatever I saw. Then I’ll draw a circle around it. That gives me some separation. Then I’ll copy over the description a few times till it gets boring. I’ll also add a few absurd details here and there to turn it into a joke.
“I try to remind myself that it’s just some bullshit they came up with to make me feel like a terrified victim or whatever.
“But removing the sickness is an unpleasant process—like pulling a deep splinter out of your hand with a needle and tweezers. Except you can never get all of it out. Some fragment or residue remains that gets absorbed into you.
“Yeah, what they showed you was just some nonsense they made up. But the reality that another being wants to put burrowing splinters in you—that alone is horrifying.
“I go out there every so often to punish myself. To remind myself of what I’ve lost, the beauty I’ve lost. Most of what’s out there just feels empty. It’s like walking around in an old black-and-white movie that’s been playing forever in an empty room. But the hungry ghosts . . . like I say, a little bit of this city goes a long way.
“So, as much as I feel trapped, it’s safer here in my self-imposed prison cell, writing about my past life. In my mind, I can revisit moments from my past and see what I didn’t notice when I was alive. Thinking back on our travels has given me a greater appreciation of you. But I also feel guilty for how much shit I put you through and all the opportunities I missed to show you kindness. You’re the one person in my life who really tried to help me. But I wasn’t ready to be helped. I was already on my way back here when you found me. That’s why I had to go off on my own, Andrew. I wanted to take my skin out of the game again, and I did, but somehow, we stayed linked. I could still watch your life unfold.
“That’s what made it so hard when you went into that portal and disappeared on me. Before, I was absorbed in the experience of your life—your senses and awareness. It was immersive and interesting, and it took me away from my dismal life here. But even when that was going on, I wasn’t with you all the time. I needed to spend a lot of time alone, realizing who I am and why I belong here.
“So that’s what my life—I mean my existence—is like. I know you’re still curious, but trust me, there’s nothing you need to see here, nothing that would be good for you to see. There’s no beauty in this place. It’s a place for people who’ve wasted beauty.
“You’re the only one who knows I still exist. And for that, I’m eternally grateful, and I’ll try to help you when I can. But you shouldn’t go out of your way to help me. Giving me permission to participate in your life is more help than you can imagine. So, the best thing you can do for me is to have an interesting life I can look in on. Maybe we can visit like this again every now and then. It doesn’t take energy if we visit in the Dreamtime.”
“I want that too, Alex. The shadow initiation caused that painful disconnection, but it appears to have strengthened our ability to communicate. I was afraid I’d never see you again.”
My eyes wander around the dim room, looking for details that might tell me more about Alex’s life in the Lower Astral.
“You have more books and notebooks than the last time I saw this place.”
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen me.”
“Oh, right, sorry,” I say guiltily. “But where did they come from?
“I just think of them, and they show up eventually,” Alex says. “You can do stuff like that here. But there’s a limit to it. Like, the lost souls out there can conjure disturbing images, but they can’t make the booze and cigarettes and syringes full of heroin they really want.”
“So, just like they can make sick stuff with their imagination, you can make books with yours?”
“I’m not sure what conjures them and you’re making it sound too magical. It’s like you can do certain things with your mind here, but there’s a lot more you can’t do. Something seems to govern that. So I’m not so sure about it being just my imagination. It’s more like I think of certain books, and they generally show up, but not at the moment I think of them. Later I’ll notice some book I thought of is at the bottom of a pile somehow. And it’s usually tattered and stained, like the kind of books libraries take out of circulation because they’re too shabby. Not that I care about that. It seems appropriate in a way.
“I don’t know if I’m doing it or something else is doing it. It just happens. The way you said it makes it sound like I think of something, and then there’s a flash of colored sparkles, and it appears in my hand.
“I think you have an idea that something magical is going on here. You’re talking to a dead kid, and to you, that’s one more uncanny thing you’re getting to experience. But there’s nothing magical about this place. When something you need manifests here, it’s always shadowy and indirect.
“But anyway, I still write,” Alex gestures toward a pile of used notebooks. “I’ve got endless time after all. And I never seem to run out of old notebooks and pens. So, it’s kind of like a prison cell, but the prison system allows some educational stuff if I really need it. But even when it gives me something I need, it does it in this slovenly, ghetto way. It always feels like a neglectful afterthought, like some over-medicated guy who randomly knocks the lid off a trash can so rats can eat his garbage because he doesn’t give a fuck about anything anyway.”
Alex pauses, sensing an intuition bubbling up in my mind.
“What?” he asks.
“Just a thought about how you might change what you just described.”
“OK, what’s your big idea?” asks Alex in a tone of cynical impatience.
“Well, I’m not pretending to know how things work here, but you’re an artist. You have an aesthetic perspective. What if you reframed these grotesque sights as brilliant stagecraft. Think if you were a set designer and had to make a dingy room in the Lower Astral. Every book would have to be individually distressed and made to look worn by scuffing and staining and doing whatever to get the pages to yellow. So, you could reframe the neglectful, rundown look here as stagecraft, with lots of attention to detail to pull off the dilapidated aspect so consistently.”
“Some of it’s kind of clever, in its way, I guess. Yeah, maybe that would do something,” replies Alex doubtfully. “But I don’t know, man. Maybe it would work for you because you’re more in your head. For me, there’s a feeling of gloom attached to all this shit, and the feeling is what’s real. Let’s say you had to live in a sewer for a hundred years—don’t you think the novelty and artfulness of how perfectly sewer-like everything is would start to wear off after a while?
“This is the way you always piss me off without even realizing it. You think you know what’s going on with me when you don’t. You don’t, Andrew. How would you feel if you were walking down a street in Calcutta and starving children were coming up to you, and I started whispering in your mind, What brilliant stagecraft? These stylized forms, these starving children, they’re so good at looking exactly like starving children.”
Alex is winding up, becoming angrier by the moment, and I realize it’s time to make a full apology before his dark emotions overwhelm him.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I see your point. You’re right—I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have no idea what your life is like here. That’s why I’m asking. I didn’t mean to offend you and I’m sorry.”
I am sorry Alex is upset, but at the same time, it’s almost reassuring to see how much he’s still himself. He hasn’t lost his talent for finding insult in the most well-intended of my statements and actions.
To be fair, there’s always a germ of truth in his objections. Alex is a person of raw and hypersensitive emotion, and—he’s right. I do tend to be in my head more than him. I also presume to understand him better than I actually do, so it’s easy for me to say the wrong thing. But I’ve always known what to do once I offend, which is to keep apologizing until his anger defuses.
“I know I’ve never truly understood the intensity of what you go through,” I continue, “And now that we live on different planes of reality, I understand even less. I can see you’re suffering, and I was just grasping for anything that might help.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not like anybody else understood me any better,” Alex replies gloomily. “And now you’re the only one who even has a clue that I still exist.”
“Alex, I know you’re despairing, but something I learned on my Shadow Journey is that to be a sentient being means change is always possible. Even in this place. Even if you don’t feel it. Do you sense any other place you can go? Any place less desolate?”
“No, I hate this place, but I belong here . . . I need to relive my memories and reflect on them in writing. That’s what keeps me from just dissipating here. I need to do that work, but I don’t know where it’s going or if it has any point. And I need to watch you, to share your experience. That’s the least desolate place for me to go. My sense of self would almost dissolve when I was sharing with you. And I want more of that. But maybe that just makes me some kind of hungry ghost, clinging to you to feel alive.”
“No, Alex, that’s not true. I need your presence, and you need mine. We need each other. Relationships are what makes life—existence—meaningful. It’s not shameful to need someone.”
Alex stares at me silently. I think part of him sees the truth of what I’ve just said, but he’s still lost in despair.
“You’re different now. You’re not the same Andrew anymore. Soon you’re going to break free of me.”
“No, I don’t want to break free from you, Alex. I want us to stay together. But you’re right, I am different. The Shadow Journey has changed me. But I don’t want to leave you. I need our bond. I need you. Maybe you can’t feel that, but it’s true. Look what just happened. I needed to share my Shadow Journey. Just knowing that someone else knows what I experienced makes me feel less crazy.”
“Even if the ‘someone else you know’ is just a dead kid?”
Alex is about to find an insult, so I try to shift his focus.
“How do I seem different to you?”
“Well, it’s not just that you’re in your dream body at the moment. You’ve still got a physical body, but it feels like you’re not physical in the same way anymore. Before, I could have entered your dreams if the time was just right, but now your dream body can show up here. Now that you’ve been to another world and lived as someone else, I guess you’re no longer so bound to the Earth plane.”
“I felt incredibly bound to being the Snowman when it was happening.”
“Yeah, you were bound to being a snowman, but the planes of reality you were in kept shifting. That might have been disturbing, but it forced you through intense change. Any change here is rare and slow.”
“Too much change can also make you crazy,” I reply. “I’m struggling to catch up with all the transformation.”
“Change is a privilege,” replies Alex, “but you don’t realize that the way I do after reflecting on my life and the terrible choice I made abandoning it. It may not seem like it while you have your skin in the game, but just being in a physical body forces you to change because it’s changing. When you have your skin in the game, you can alter your fate in a heartbeat. But living folks usually don’t realize how powerful their actions are, how much change they create with even the slightest gesture—smiling at someone or giving them an irritated look. You alter the world above by having a new idea, even if you don’t act on it or tell anybody about it.
“But down here, you could wander the streets as a loop interacting with other loops for a thousand lifetimes, and nothing changes.”
I can feel Alex spiraling into regret, shrinking himself with his own words. Even the room, shadowy as it is, seems to be losing its solidity, dimming around us like a dying bulb.
“Alex,” I push back, hoping to lift him up, “you’re creating far more change than you realize. Most people who kill themselves have only negative effects on the people they abandoned. But we’re still communicating. You’re changing me, and my skin is still in the game, so you are changing the world above.”
“That’s why it hurt so much when you disappeared on me. I lost my only real connection to your world. I regressed and became even more bitter. And the more bitter I become, the more I’m bound to this plane. It’s like the force of gravity holding me here has increased.”
“Alex, I’m so sorry for doing that to you. I was so preoccupied with the choices Jeremiah put before me that—”
“Stop, Andrew. Just stop. You don’t owe me any big apology. You’re still a player in the game and you gotta do what you gotta do. I don’t expect your life to revolve around me. I’m the one who killed myself. You should live your life as you need to . . .”
Alex trails off. He looks at me, noticing something.
“Your energy is getting fainter. I’ve kept you here too long. I should let you go.”
“Alex—,” I feel the dream fading, and I’m not sure what to say. “I’m sorry . . . I love you.”
“I love you too, Andrew.”
Alex releases me, and I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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I wake from my Dreamtime encounter with Alex to an empty camper. His lonely bitterness and the lower astral gloom cling to me like a haze of old cigarette smoke. I’m wrenched by guilt for abandoning him during my Shadow Journey.
I’ve got to find a way to help him.
A gentle knock on the side door.
He must have been standing guard outside the Mothership and sensed me getting up. He doesn’t need much sleep, and I’m used to waking up to find him out and about somewhere. It’s predawn, and we’re still in the dirt parking lot.
“I just had a Dreamtime encounter with Alex,” I say as I let him in.
“Good,” replies Jeremiah, “I’m glad you were able to reconnect.”
“Yeah,” I say as I try to shake away the guilt. “I’m glad for it, but . . .”
“But you’re troubled,” he says.
“Yeah. He’s not doing well,” I reply, letting out a breath. “My absence damaged him. He’s regressed deeper into bitterness.”
“Well,” Jeremiah replies, “now that the connection is restored—”
“I’m trying to tell myself that,” I say. “But I’m not sure if I believe it. He seems so stuck in his own dark loop. But who wouldn’t be in the Lower Astral? He got angry at me when I tried to make what I thought was a helpful suggestion.”
I tell Jeremiah what happened when I suggested the stagecraft view.
“The technique you offered Alex—viewing his world as cleverly designed stagecraft—is pretty close to a foundational principle of the Vehrillion. It was . . .”
Jeremiah hesitates, so I complete his thought,
“A principle discovered by the other Andrew?”
“That makes sense. The way it popped into my mind—it was like remembering something I already knew.”
“It’s a core principle,” he replies. “The Vehrillion is mainly a way of using directed imagination to rearrange or create things. There are many techniques, but they need to build on a general stance toward reality. We relate to it as a work of collaborative art. We actively make alterations and bring parts of the vision into manifestation.”
I fall silent as I contemplate the Vehrillion stance toward reality as infinitely mutable. It occurs to me how close it is to what Oliver Twister said—if it exists, it can be hacked. Oliver, or the brilliant young mind behind that character, still seems real to me, but maybe he’s like Tommy—upstream in time. If he’s not just a figment of Shadow Elixir, his guild of source-code hackers are apparently tapped into the same conception of magic.
When you drill past the surface of anything, it all comes down to code—genes, subatomic particles, thoughtforms—all of it can be rearranged and transformed. The lower astral is just a manifestation of fallen spirits. It exists. Therefore, it too, can be hacked.
“But that only increases my worry about Alex,” I say, breaking the silence. “I was offering him something transformative, and he angrily rejected it. I think he needs a positive shock, something unexpectedly good, to shake him out of his gloom. He’s stuck in bitterness and regret. I wonder—you say the metamorphosis is an etherealization process—a shift toward more astral energy—is it possible I could travel to the Lower Astral to visit Alex in his world—I mean travel there in my physical body?”
Jeremiah’s eyes open wide, and his expression darkens with concern.
“What?” I ask.
“You’ve just defined the next part of your Shadow Journey. It always works this way. We don’t tell Initiates about the next phase, but sometime during the integration process, they spontaneously come up with a trial or initiatory journey. The other Andrew—”
“Chose the same journey,” I say, picking up on Jeremiah’s thoughts.
“Well, similar. But it took much longer to come to him, and he did it in the form of an out-of-body experience. He traveled through a type of astral projection. To journey to the Lower Astral in your physical body—none of us have attempted anything like that. We don’t know what dangers might be involved. And yet . . . there’s a feeling of inevitability about your idea,” Jeremiah says, looking at me thoughtfully, “It’s time I share with you something else that happened the night I crossed over.
“It was after I found the cache of money and was hiking out of the desert. It was a long walk, alone in nature.
“As I tuned into the desert, I started picking up energy from the buttes. It wasn’t long before I realized that some of those monuments were sealed portals. I could feel their resonance with other worlds, but the connection was dormant. They’re gateways to other dimensions that rarely open, perhaps once in a thousand years. But there was one butte whose portal was wide open.
“It was a massive monument, maybe a quarter-mile wide. In the middle of it was an archway of shadow, where a turbulent wind wailed from an opening a couple of hundred feet tall. The shadow was too dense to see past, so I couldn’t tell how deep it went into the rock.
“The whole butte had a terrifying feeling of massive industrial power. It emanated negative astral energy, some of which was carried toward me by the wind. I had a feeling that it was something like a planetary-scale vent between Earth and the Lower Astral, allowing an exchange of atmospheric pressure between these two worlds. And yet, it was as if it was hidden in some way, overlooked, and allowed to function undisturbed.
“My instinct told me to get away from it as quickly as possible. But even when I left it behind, the butte seemed to hold onto my mind. Something compelled me to imagine what it would be like to cross the threshold into that shadowed doorway.
“I tried to pull my imagination away from this visualization, but I couldn’t. The portal irresistibly drew my attention, even as I increased my distance. My mind couldn’t resist working on the problem—”
“The problem?” I ask.
“Yes. The problem of how to cross such a threshold without being destroyed by it. What would happen if I walked into that howling wind of darkness? Would it strip every organic molecule from my body, leaving only an astral remnant? Sheathing myself in a body shield of positively-charged astral energy would probably protect me, but that would take a lot of energy to sustain. And would I be able to adapt to breathing astral air?”
Jeremiah lapses into silence, the space between us ominous as we ponder the implications. It feels like we’re standing before the portal.
“If you decide to undergo this journey, I will go with you,” says Jeremiah. “No Initiate could sustain such shielding alone.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your willingness to put yourself at risk to help me. I didn’t mean to summon such a dangerous journey, it just occurred to me to ask if it was possible. But given the portal you discovered—it does seem more than a coincidence.”
“Well,” says Jeremiah thoughtfully, “I can see how it could work as part of our larger mission. If you can survive in a world of astral matter, it will catalyze your metamorphosis. And your desire to travel there parallels the other Andrew’s transformational journey. Only—”
“He never dared going there in his physical body,” Jeremiah says. “He traveled there out-of-body, and even that proved quite dangerous. His presence aroused forces that don’t welcome such intrusions. It was safer for Alex to come to him. There were times when I sensed Alex’s presence within him—they became bonded symbionts connected in multiple dimensions—the Dreamtime, the waking world, and—”
“The Lower Astral.”
“Yes, on some rare occasions,” replies Jeremiah.
“And that’s what just happened. I visited with Alex in the Lower Astral in my dream body.”
“That’s how it began for the other Andrew too. Later he experimented with going there via astral projection, but he tried it only a few times, and Alex persuaded him to stop. They realized it was too dangerous, but it did strengthen their bond.”
“Did he also dream of Alex in the lower astral before . . . before he killed himself.”
We fall silent.
“And the other Andrew visited him during an out-of-body experience and gave him a talisman that strengthened their link?”
“Yes,” replies Jeremiah. “If you’re determined to attempt this journey, there’s much to prepare for. To begin, I should teach you some Vehrillion practices.
“I’ll practice anything you can teach me,” I reply thankfully. “I’m committed to the journey. The darkness in Alex is growing—I can feel the momentum of it. And time is different for him. Each time I have contact with him—it’s like I’ve been away for years. I need to reach him as soon as possible. How far is the portal from here? Could we be there tonight?”
“It’s in the four corners area,” Jeremiah replies. “We should be able to make it there before nightfall.”
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I begin to hastily stow things to get ready to drive, and that’s when I notice something’s wrong. I’ve just gotten up, but my Fireskin isn’t stiff. I can’t even remember when I last put on lubricating lotion.
How is that possible? I was lying down for days, then I was sitting and writing. The burn contracture should be agonizing by now. I shouldn’t be able to bend my arms like this.
I roll up a sleeve of my shirt and—
I stand there dumbfounded and horrified.
I’ve lost my Fireskin. None of this is real. I’m still in an alternate reality. I’m still dreaming or—
I’m still in the Shadow Journey.
I begin to hyperventilate with panic.
Now that I’ve caught on, it’s triggering an incarnation seizure!
I look up from my smooth-skinned arm and see Jeremiah looking at me sympathetically.
“Nothing’s wrong, Andrew,” he says. “Calm yourself. Take a deep breath.”
I’m trembling, but I try to do as he says. I inhale deeply and hold it, and then let it out. I’m still shaking, and my breathing is ragged, but I’m no longer hyperventilating.
“The Shadow Journey is over,” Jeremiah says soothingly. “Tell me how you feel.”
I’m still trembling with shock.
“I feel . . . violated. Like I’m no longer me. I’m . . . someone else. I don’t know who I am or what I am.”
“Andrew, you’ve changed, but you’re still you. The Shadow Elixir is a potent metamorphic agent. I’ve witnessed this once before, a first gen Initiate who had a birth defect, a cleft palette. When he saw himself in a mirror after his Shadow Journey and found the defect missing, it was too much for him. He had a nervous collapse.
“We did some research and learned about a syndrome observed by plastic surgeons. Everyone has a deeply engrained body map. If our bodies are dramatically altered, even in a good way, it causes shock.
“A significant body modification causes profound disorientation. Even when people choose to have plastic surgery and know what to expect and desire the change. It takes about four weeks for a new body concept to take hold. It’s something like phantom limb pain. Part of you is no longer there, but your brain thinks it should be.”
I’m still shaky, but Jeremiah’s calm, rational explanation soothes most of the panic. I roll down my sleeve without looking at my arm.
“I saw a movie a long time ago,” Jeremiah says, “an old man was in prison for most of his life. When they set him free, everything about the world outside was traumatic. He wanted someone to lock him in at night. But you’re young and adaptable. Give it time. You don’t have to think about it right now.”
“OK,” I say. I try to put it out of mind and focus on getting the Mothership ready for travel.
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We drive back to the nearly empty parking lot of the twenty-four-hour supermarket. There’s some afternoon sunlight, but the time seems indistinct because the air is thick with wildfire smoke, billowing in from over the horizon. The glow of the flames creates a reddening in the west, like an inverted sunrise.
“I should get supplies before we leave here,” I say. “Do you need anything?”
“No thanks,” replies Jeremiah, “I’ll stay here if you don’t mind.”
I step out into the smoky atmosphere. Despite the shroud, the sun is visible as an orange ball in the sky, and already the air is hot and stale, like its flowing through the heat coils of an old hairdryer.
I enter the supermarket. Coming from the overcast of smoke, the interior strains my eyes with its perpetual fluorescent high noon. This is the surface world, yet the mood of the place feels like the Lower Astral with its downbeat lack of vitality. The few customers and workers look similarly bloated and medicated, with tranced-out, absent expressions. They move in nearly slow motion as if caught in a massive hypoglycemic slump since their morning coffee. It feels like I’m the only witness to their terrible state, as everyone is too sunk into ill health and depression to notice it in anyone else. Whether stocking shelves or taking items from them to put into a cart, they’re all caught in sad loops. Their misery tugs at my heart.
I pass aisle after aisle of lifeless, food-like substances in shiny, ad-slogan-emblazoned mylar bags and garishly colored cardboard boxes. Each product emits a silent scream for consumer attention.
Somewhere within me, my shrinking snowself senses the presence of sugary foods, but my present body is revulsed at the thought of eating such things.
I keep walking till I find myself alone in the outskirts of the store, where produce lies neglected on tables. I pick out some salvageable fruit and veggies as well as a couple of bottles of spring water and bring them to the self-checkout area.
The laser scanner punctuates the silence with beeps as it registers each item. I bag everything up and leave the store without interacting with a single person.
6 Ammortal in the City of Night
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Jeremiah buckles in next to me as we drive away from the supermarket and down an empty street leading us onto the interstate.
Even with my eyes on the road, I feel Jeremiah’s total presence in the moment. He’s aware of everything around him, including my shifting moods, and any thoughts I don’t choose to contain. But he’s too respectful to intrude on my process unless invited.
The desert landscape on either side of the road is a blur, and only the running lights of other cars are visible as we hurtle through the smoky atmosphere on the freeway.
As we drive, my shirt cuff slips back, and I see anomalously smooth skin. I feel my Snowman identity surge inside of me like a barely repressed scream. I’ve lost my snowskin and my fireskin.
Reality’s not as solid as I thought. It’s all just the stuff that dreams are made of. This new skin, as well as my snow and fire skins, feel like costumes. Whoever I am within is an imposter who only exists when he puts on a disguise. Who will I turn into next? Maybe I’ll wake up as the snowman in an alley and realize the Andrew identity was merely one more incarnation seizure. Or perhaps I will remain this smooth-skinned version of Andrew until I’m as old as Jeremiah.
I turn to glance at him. As my perception tries to grapple with his age, cognitive dissonance ripples between us like heat waves from hot asphalt. Some deeply conditioned bodily intelligence, the product of a million years of human evolution, can’t deal with the contrast between his apparent age and how he looks.
Jeremiah isn’t like an old man in a youthful body. He has always been in a youthful form, always had a youthful sense of adventure, imagination, and possibility, even as he acquired a depth of experience and wisdom. The human way of categorizing people based on age just doesn’t apply to him.
“You’re thinking how hard it is for you to comprehend the age of someone who doesn’t visibly age,” says Jeremiah, looking at me sympathetically, “without realizing how long we’ve been struggling to grasp that too. It’s one of the dominant themes of our lives. I’m one of the first-generation elves. We had to watch our parents, and even some of our peers, age and die as our bodies slowly became more vital. Time kept going while our bodies remained youthful. There was no precedent for us to look toward as our personalities matured over our many decades of youth. The passage of time deepened us, but our bodies didn’t slow with age.
“I never had children, but those of us who did found themselves the parents of elves who soon looked the same age as everyone else. Age ceased to define the shape of a body. Instead it became something we registered in a person’s glow and in the depth of their eyes.
“But the age apparent in eyes never perfectly accords with chronological age even in fully human folk. I saw a young girl in the supermarket parking lot who had far more depth in her eyes than her parents. It was obvious she was relating to them as a caregiver, trying to protect them from themselves.
“The collective wisdom about life’s journey is based on bodily aging, so we had nothing to guide us. But the amortal, like the mortal, are still just souls on a journey. The kind of bodies we’re in, whether male or female, whether aging or seemingly ageless, don’t matter as much as the longer journey of our souls—a journey that requires us to take on and shed many bodies.”
Jeremiah studies me.
“What?” I ask.
“I see you haven’t fully grasped your own amortal predicament.”
His words stun me into silence as troubling implications expand in my mind.
He’s right. In my struggle to integrate my new skin, and everything else that’s just happened, I haven’t had the chance to think it through.
The sun pierces the smoke and beams across the windshield, radiating heat through the glass. The sun visors can’t keep the light from nearly blinding me. My pulse accelerates.
“Do you see the implications for me?” I ask. “The practical implications in this world?”
My hands on the steering wheel are slippery with sweat.
“Right now, I’m a twenty-two-year-old people mistake for eighteen. That’s not so bad, but in a decade, my driver’s license will say I’m thirty-two, and I’ll still look eighteen. That’s going to be a serious problem. What if I get pulled over by the police? They’re going to do double-takes, looking at my birthdate and my face and assume they’re dealing with a false identity. Even worse, I’ll have to avoid face-to-face contact with anyone from my past. In a few years, my personal and legal identities won’t be viable.”
“I can teach you how to alter how others perceive you,” Jeremiah replies. “With training, you can appear to be any age you want.”
“Yeah, maybe that would work in a pinch, but eventually, someone will catch on. I don’t see your scars when we’re in public, but however you pull that off, it doesn’t fool the digital sensor of my camera. They’re there in the photo I took of you earlier today. This is a surveillance society—cameras are everywhere. The police wear body cams.”
“I never really thought about the camera issue,” admits Jeremiah. “But the Vehrillion offers many tools. Creating a false digital image would be challenging, but getting a camera to temporarily malfunction is easy. It doesn’t take much to disturb complex electronic circuitry.”
“But body cams are made for reliability so that in itself could draw attention,” I respond.
My mind races through an ever-expanding list of new problems.
“Listen,” says Jeremiah, “you’re right. I’ve been trying to hint at this for the last couple of days. That’s why I’ve been pointing out that you’re more unbound from this realm than you realize. You’ve always felt set apart from the human species. You’ve been a cloaked traveler for your adult life. Now that destiny is intensifying. You’ve traveled off this plane twice in the last few days.”
“That’s true,” I reply. “My skin’s not in the game in the same way anymore. Alex sensed that right away.”
I take a deep breath and relax my tight grip on the steering wheel.
“Sorry, I panicked. My life has always taken me in unexpected directions. I just need time to accept and adapt to the new challenges.”
“Life is change,” agrees Jeremiah. “Someone once said, Man must make his peace with his seasons, or the gods will laugh at him. I’m still struggling with the reality of being exiled from the world I came from. Finding you has lessened the shock, but it still overwhelms me sometimes. We’ve no choice but to keep adapting.”
“Yeah. And so many people have to adapt to far more difficult challenges,” I say. “They might consider me the most fortunate person on Earth. Human beings have searched forever for perpetual youth, so I guess I should be grateful. I’ve never really experienced aging—I mean, aging in the sense of being old. My parents died relatively young, so I never even saw them go through it. I’m sure if I had to spend a week as an old person, I’d be intensely grateful.”
“It is a blessing not to suffer the hardships of aging and illness,” replies Jeremiah. “But at the same time, something is lost without it. Through the Elders, I witnessed aging and illness accelerate the development of character. These changes move a soul toward death, the portal of ultimate change. Across that threshold, they can choose new ways of being. Those who age physically are travelers moving more quickly than we are in some ways. Their ever-changing bodies require them to continually grow and adapt.”
Jeremiah sits up straighter in his seat, peering through the smoky haze.
“We’re getting close. It should be coming up on the right in another mile.”
I slow down and move into the right-hand lane. The last rays of the setting sun glow red behind the jagged silhouette of scattered rock formations.
“There it is,” says Jeremiah, pointing to a turnoff.
It’s a dirt road marked by a small metal signpost. I get a couple hundred feet in, and Jeremiah guides me to a small dirt lot. A single battered RV is parked at one end. I pull in a few spaces away and kill the engine.
“Bring a backpack,” Jeremiah says. “We might as well retrieve the rest of the buried money and stow it in your Mothership. Then we can hike to the gateway.”
“Right,” I say, “we’ll have to leave the cash behind. They say you can’t take it with you.”
Jeremiah smiles at my lame attempt at humor, but his attention is drawn away from me as he quickly exits the Mothership. I grab a backpack and join him outside in the dirt lot. Jeremiah gazes at the one other vehicle, an old RV. The paint on the corrugated aluminum siding is faded, but the brand name, “Lazy Daze,” is still visible.
“An old man is resting in the back of that vehicle,” says Jeremiah nodding toward the RV. “He’s seriously ill.”
He approaches the coach respectfully and lightly touches it with his hands. As he does, an image reaches me in our mutual thought space. An old Native American man is lying on top of tattered bedcovers within the RV. There are old ceremonial objects around him—wooden sticks and rattles, a clay pipe with feathers. In his left hand, he’s clutching a carved figure. A Kachina. I sense the faltering dimness of his life force.
Jeremiah removes his hands respectfully, and the image fades.
“Come,” he says softly. “This way.”
We walk a short distance into the desert when the wind picks up and quickly dissipates the smoke that had shrouded us all day.
Maybe it’s the energy of this place, but my telepathic link with Jeremiah grows stronger, and I’m alerted to many things through him. His perceptions tune into the desert landscape like a native tracker with access to more than the usual five senses. Before I even notice a mound, he’s aware of a colony of prairie dogs a few hundred feet away. A sentinel emits a warning cry as an eagle spiraling above is detected. Energy surges in the prairie dog colony as they scurry evasively into their holes and tunnels until the raptor flies off.
I’m experiencing the intricate complexity of the desert like I never have before. Watching the raptor and the prairie dogs, I gain insight into the forever war between predators and prey. I see how the desert plants have evolved to survive harsh conditions, learning to process photons and nutrients while conserving moisture through eons of relentless endurance. The striations and contours of stones and rock formations map out the effects of dust storms and violent geologic events.
We hike across a gravelly wash for a few hundred yards before we reach a rock formation that resembles the ruins of an ancient city. A quarter mile further, we see giant stone buttes rising from an endless expanse of desert. Even as shadowy silhouettes against the stars, they radiate power into the night.
Suddenly my ears pop and are left with a faint ringing.
“I have that too,” says Jeremiah.
“These towers feel ominous,” I say. “Like abandoned nuclear power plants.”
“You’re not far off,” he replies. “While you were in the journaling phase of your Shadow Journey, I did research on this area at a public library. These buttes are radioactive. The uranium used to make the first atomic bomb was mined here. The ancient Anasazi Indians, ancestors of the Navajo, revered this area as a place of great power. They carved petroglyphs into the rock formations to signify its importance to their tribe. They recognized this land as a window zone, a part of the physical world existing at the edge of the spirit world.”
“I feel it in my bones,” I reply. “It’s intimidating.”
We both recede into our thoughts, and the only sound is the crunch of our boots in the sand as we continue for another mile. Eventually we come to a small, dried-up pool encircled by a patch of vegetation.
“Over there,” says Jeremiah, pointing. “That’s where the money is buried.”
I search for a flat rock to use as a shovel. When I return with it, I see Jeremiah has climbed to the top of an oddly shaped tor, maybe two stories high. His cloaked silhouette cuts a void into the moonlit sky. He’s a slight figure standing before a vast desert of titanic rock formations. He seems vulnerable and alone.
I start digging out red soil. It doesn’t take long to reach the shiny, black contractor-grade trash bags. When I look up from the uncovered loot, it’s hard to read Jeremiah’s expression. While busy shoveling, I didn’t notice him climbing down from his perch. Now that I can see him, I realize the shift in our telepathic atmosphere.
He’s walled himself off. Being back in this place must stir memories of physical pain and the brutal way he was exiled from his former life. He contains his feelings, but the distant expression in his eyes reflects sadness and loss.
He pulls himself out of recollection and turns toward me.
“This money is tainted with dark energy,” he says, kneeling to examine what I’ve uncovered.
He begins stacking packs of hundred-dollar bills on the ground beside the shallow ditch. There are a few dozen packs, each neatly bound by a band of paper. I’m curious how much it adds up to.
Not a worthy place for my mind to go.
The money pile has the aura of dangerous contraband, like plastic-wrapped bricks of methamphetamine or a stack of AK-47s. A half-memory of the man who buried it all, sweaty and desperate, flashes in my mind. His ice scraper shovel and his execution later that same night.
He’s right about this stuff being tainted.
Moonlight reflects off the smooth planes of Jeremiah’s youthful face as he sets his palms down on the loot and closes his eyes. His breathing slows, and he resembles a child at prayers.
At first, it seems a trick of the moon, a barely perceptible suffusion of roseate light where he’s touching the pile. Then the light becomes a luminous mist surrounding Jeremiah’s hands and the bundles of cash. It builds, turning opalescent and shimmering with flashes of lavender, pink, and orange.
While he’s absorbed in his cleansing trance, coyotes howl in the distance. I scan the surrounding area warily. For the last few days, Jeremiah’s been my guide and teacher, but now we’re at the edge of the unknown, and those roles no longer apply. I need to protect him as much as myself. I feel like a guard standing watch at a dangerous outpost.
Jeremiah lets out a long breath, opens his eyes, and rejoins our telepathic mutuality. He seems drained by the process. He’s used a lot of his vitality to transform the tainted loot. I take off my backpack and load up the money, noticing how well his psychic money laundering has worked. The bills that felt radioactively tainted minutes ago now feel as new and clean as freshly printed invitations to a baby shower.
We hike back to the dirt lot. The battered Lazy Daze RV is there, but I don’t sense the ill old man anymore.
“He’s gone,” Jeremiah says.
“Yes,” Jeremiah replies. “His body is there, but he’s gone.”
A strong wind blows up dust in the dirt lot before settling down into silence.
The battered RV has become an aluminum sarcophagus. Perhaps an astral form of the old man has wandered off into the desert. It couldn’t be chance where he parked. He must have known about the gateway too. Did he choose to go to the Lower Astral?
We step into the Mothership to access the safe where I keep camera equipment. It feels disrespectful to be handling money so close to where someone just passed away, but I take the photography stuff out and stack up the packs of bills, which fit inside with room to spare for a few camera bodies and lenses. Jeremiah stands in the galley while I focus on getting the last of my equipment back into the compartment under the floor. As I lock up the safe, I notice Jeremiah closing a cabinet door above the stove. Again, he feels walled off from me, his expression hard to read.
When we step outside, I hear coyotes howling in the distance.
Makes sense, it’s a full moon.
“Those are actually feral dogs,” Jeremiah whispers in my mind. “They don’t sense us, and they’re not a threat.”
He looks at me with concern.
“Listen, I wish there was more time to train you, but I think your instincts are right about the timing,” says Jeremiah. “The full moon doesn’t feel like a coincidence. This is when it’s meant to happen.
“We’re trying to do something that possibly no one has ever tried. What I know of the Lower Astral is from my—from the other Andrew. He went there in his dream body and told me about all his experiences. You’ve been there yourself. Did Alex tell you about Laepur and the Ravenous?”
“We will try to make ourselves invisible to them. But there’s a more fundamental problem. We’re attempting to travel to a place made of astral energy in our organic bodies. They’re infused with more astral energy than human bodies but haven’t been tested in a fully astral environment. It’s more dangerous for you, because you’re in a much earlier phase of metamorphosis than I am. My body has had generations to become more astral.
“If our bodies survive crossing the threshold to a place with a different physics, the next challenge will be breathing. There is an astral version of air—it was blowing across the mesa when I first passed it— but whether our lungs will accept it is unknown.
“And yet, my intuition says this journey must be possible. The cosmos, Viealetta, or something, put this path in front of us. It doesn’t seem coincidental that I was placed so near the buried money. I would not be surprised at all if Viealetta encouraged that man to bury that money in that spot so I would find it. It also seems intentional that I was placed so close to the gateway. And before you even knew of the gateway, you stated an intention to travel to the Lower Astral.
“The way I read the patterning—we’re attempting a journey that parallels the one I made to Viealetta. It was a nightmare, and it nearly killed me, but I survived. Whatever is behind the patterns wanted me to survive.
“Survival, however, came with a price—losing my world, my former life, and all the people I loved. We’re entering the unknown, Andrew. There’s no guidebook. When we get there, it will be like it was with Viealetta, adapting to what happens as best we can. We don’t know where we’ll end up on the other side of the journey. And yet, we’re in accord. Traveling to the Lower Astral seems necessary, not just for Alex, but for your metamorphosis and our larger mission.”
We stand there in silence, feeling the gravity of the moment.
This is a greater step into the unknown than taking Shadow Elixir with an experienced guide to help me. It’s a far more dangerous Shadow Journey, but I’m not facing it alone. If there’s anyone to walk into hell with, it’s Jeremiah. I just hope I can be a worthy ally for him.
He breaks the silence.
“There’s something we must do before we hike out to the gateway. We must enclose ourselves in a shared cloaking field. If we’re fortunate—if—we’ll be rendered invisible to the Ravenous. But I’m more sure of other things the field will do. Our telepathic rapport will intensify. With our energies concentrated within the bubble, we’ll experience a strong psychic and physical overlap. At times it may feel like we’re a single entity with two bodies. You’ll be infused with my astral energy, and hopefully, we can adapt together.”
“I understand,” I reply.
Jeremiah extends his hands, and the field comes into being. A vibrant canopy of energy surrounds us, but our vitality is contained. The outer boundary is a lifeless smokescreen radiating nothing. As the field stabilizes, I feel our minds melding, and our bodies harmonize. When it’s fully formed, Jeremiah drops his hands and stands before me, giving me space to feel the effects.
“Andrew, by being within this field, your body is learning how to generate it. Part of you is doing that already—we’re both sustaining it now. The learning will become like a muscle memory, and soon you’ll be able to recreate this field for yourself. If we become separated, you’ll need that ability to survive.”
We hike from the dirt lot back into the desert, heading off in a different direction. As we traverse the sandy mesa, the towering buttes loom larger and larger in the distance. The scale is so profound, it’s like we’re walking across the surface of an alien planet. Despite the cloaking, I feel exposed.
We aim for the butte that holds the gateway. The moon casts a long doorway of shadow opening into the void. The darkness is geologically ancient, the same shadow cast by full moons for two hundred million years. The tower feels like a sleeping dragon with one eye open by a slit. It senses our trespass.
Loose gravel tumbles below as we scramble up the giant mound it rests on. When we reach the base, we place our hands on it to sense the monument together. With mineral stoicism, this rockface has absorbed cosmic energies through eons of blazing sun, wind, lightning, moonlight, and starlight. All these energies suffuse the crystalline matrix of stone beneath our fingertips, but at the center of it is a howling chasm.
Lower-Astral atmosphere has worked its way up to the surface world like magma erupting from a volcano. It screams out across the desert, an escape valve for its outflowing desolation. It feels like walking into that scream will shatter us into atoms.
This is insane.
No, it’s possible. Everything has led to this. It leads to Alex.
As we walk around the monument, my skull feels magnetized by a charged field radiating from it. Drawing close to the arched entrance, there’s another popping sound in my ears as air pressure alters. A few more steps and the howling of the chasm overwhelms all other sensations.
“Take a deep breath,” says Jeremiah, “and tell me what you feel.”
“It feels like—like there isn’t enough oxygen here.”
“Yes,” replies Jeremiah, “because what you’re breathing is a mixture of normal air and astral air. The real challenge will be when it’s all astral.”
“Yeah, breathing is kind of important,” I reply as I feel my courage draining rapidly.
“Andrew, this is an unprecedented experiment. If you cannot breathe at all, I’ll do my best to get us out of there as quickly as possible. There are some tricks for breathing at high altitude, but I don’t think those apply because this won’t just be thin air, but air of a fundamentally different nature. If our shield bubble holds up, we’ll have a small amount of normal air with us, which the astral air will slowly infuse. That may give us a little time to adapt. We’ll just have to hope we can handle it long enough to complete the mission.”
We lock arms as we step into the wailing void and are immediately enveloped by its shadowy depths. Our cloaking bubble disintegrates, and the darkness rushes into my whole being, extinguishing my consciousness like a blast of carbon monoxide blowing out a candle.
I’m shocked out of the void by Jeremiah pounding on my chest. I gasp in a lung full of air that’s unlike anything my lungs have ever encountered. It feels like I’m suffocating, and I hyperventilate with panic. Jeremiah kneels beside me, his palms on my chest, suffusing me with his energy.
“You’re OK, Andrew. You’re OK. Just slow your breathing. Don’t inhale so deeply. Breathe with me. In . . . and out . . . in . . . and out . . .”
I follow his rhythm, and slowly my lungs begin to accept the lifeless atmosphere. I feel like a fish out of the water learning to breathe car exhaust, but with Jeremiah’s help, I’m adapting.
Then I have a setback. I take a breath that’s a little too deep. My lungs gasp their rejection of the suffocating fumes, and I lose my rhythm. Jeremiah holds my gaze to keep me from panicking.
“Slow, shallow breaths,” he says.
I find an acceptable depth of inhalation and resynch with his pacing.
“That’s it, Andrew, you’re doing well.”
He watches me as I find my rhythm again and my breathing stabilizes.
“Thanks, I think I’m OK now,” I say.
Jeremiah helps me up. I’m drained of vitality, but my head is clearing.
We’re standing in the city of my nightmares, on a dark empty street.
The Lower Astral.
Jeremiah works on restoring our cloaking field while I gaze about. Blocks of burnt-out tenement buildings stretch out before us. They’re as silent as tombstones in an abandoned graveyard.
Mounds of garbage line the streets. The trash has deteriorated to where it’s impossible to discern its original form. There are straggly wads of what might have been old clothes and newspapers that look like they were dredged from the bottom of a river and left to dry on the street. It’s all indistinct and colorless, like bundled dryer lint covered with mold.
The air smells like spent gunpowder and ozone.
As I turn, I see the portal we passed through shimmering faintly behind us, a dim opening hanging wraithlike in the air. I want to mark its location in my mind, but as I take in the surroundings, the gate flickers away in my peripheral vision. I turn back quickly, and it reappears, like moonlight reflecting off a stray piece of glass, but only from a certain angle.
Will we be able to find it again? Will it still be here when we need to escape?
An image of Alex flashes into my mind. I see him staring out of his upper-floor window, his eyes wide with fear.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he whispers in my mind.
Before I can respond, a curtain of shadow falls as if the dark city has dropped a heavy blanket between us. But the flash of Alex was like a lighthouse beacon. It leaves me with a strong sense of his location.
I point to where I sensed him. As I turn in that direction, the portal disappears like a lost hope.
Jeremiah nods then stays me with a raised hand. The sight of Alex has heightened my breathing, and I’m pulling in the toxic air too deeply. Jeremiah strengthens the field around us and gives me time to slow my breath. He nods again when I’ve stabilized enough for us to walk.
We stay close as we move, almost shoulder-to-shoulder, gazing about warily like a pair of soldiers patrolling the enemy’s line. The area we’re in looks like a firebombed city left to decay for centuries.
Images of neglected inanimate objects surface in my mind. Toys and clothes slowly decaying in abandoned houses. A doll that had once been a child’s favorite laying in the darkness of a steamer trunk, its plastic slowly yellowing as years turn into centuries. Time here is empty and neglected and casts shadows into the endless night.
Inside these buildings are recesses of seductive decay. They generate a shadowy undertow that wants to pull us into dark corners where we can lie amongst the slowly yellowing dolls.
In a few blocks, we cross into an area that feels more animate somehow, though all the buildings appear inert. The pervasive odor shifts. It smells like dust slowly cooking on steam radiators in an old apartment building. A memory surfaces, Alex telling me that house dust is mostly dead skin.
We turn a corner and register movement on the other side of the street, three men in dark overcoats and fedora hats walking together. They carry black leather briefcases. Their faces and eyes are as blank as codfish. They appear to be grim automatons, hollow men moving on tracks.
We keep walking and find more intact buildings. It’s as if we’re moving from the outskirts of death into an area of barely animate life. There are dusty curtains behind glass windows. I sense spirits within these apartments who are like ancient wind-up toys, slowly going through the same motions over and over again. And yet, it’s a change. Even in a Lower Astral city, there are better and worse neighborhoods.
Light leaks through the dusty blinds of a ground-floor apartment. We hear a man and woman having an argument—recrimination, and counter-recrimination. Their words are indistinct, but I feel the slow weaving of their forever knot of guilt, self-pity, resentment, and anger.
“However lost, they’re still people,” Jeremiah whispers in our mutual thought space. “They’re still alive in some sense.”
We turn a corner and find a gaunt woman standing in the middle of the street. She looks lost, bewildered, the type of person I’d see talking to themselves when I lived in Manhattan. She holds herself as if she were old, her posture hunched over, but as we draw closer, she appears to be in her early forties. What looks like strips of dirty t-shirts with old blood stains are tied around her wrists.
Despite our cloaking field, she looks up as we approach and gives each of us an accusatory glare.
“How can she see us?” I whisper telepathically to Jeremiah.
“I don’t know,” he replies.
The woman projects victimhood and an expectation that we’re here to abuse her. A miasma of neurotic torment surrounds her like the odor of stale urine lingering in an alley. As we approach, her sickness seeps into us, and her accusatory glare intensifies, as if not stopping to abuse her is just another form of abuse.
After we pass, Jeremiah turns back and holds his hands up in a gesture of blessing. A tiny sphere of cobalt blue Vehrillion sapphire elemental emerges from between his hands and floats toward her. But the moment the sphere leaves our cloaking field, there’s an explosion like a transformer blowing up on an electrical pole. We’re thrown forcefully to the ground by the recoil.
We’ve made a terrible mistake, intruding energy that violates the physics of this world and announces us an alien presence.
We sense movement from both sides of the street. Luminous vapors seep out from sewer gratings and narrow alleys. They form into pale fluorescent faces, mouths gaping as they search around desperately like blind fish. They’re the Ravenous—hungry ghosts sensing a disturbance and the vague presence of Laepur.
The vapors continue seeping from the shadowed sides of buildings and gutters, coalescing into more hungry faces.
Our cloaking field doesn’t allow them to locate us precisely. But they must have a vague sense of where we are because as we retreat from them, they scream and wail with frustration—high-pitched, glass-shattering screams that ache into my teeth and bones. Their cries awaken other Ravenous that pour into the streets ahead of us.
Instinctively, I pull closer to Jeremiah as he struggles to strengthen the cloaking field enclosing us. The screaming intensifies, cutting into us like a shrapnel of glass slivers.
We increase our pace, but that also intensifies the desperation of the Ravenous as they sense Laepur escaping.
Time is distorted, and it’s impossible to gauge how long we’ve been walking as we weave evasively through the raging storm of screaming faces. But I can sense we’re closing the distance to Alex’s location, and that keeps me going.
Some faces dart out into the center of the street, heads, and eyes swiveling around in panic as they try to see us.
There are too many to evade, and we have to walk through them. They feel like a mist of sulfuric acid burning my skin. Their hungry vapors try to hold on to us, like rats crawling over rubble, testing if we’re too weak to resist being eaten. I hold my breath until we’re clear, and then I’m left gasping for air.
Those we walk through seem to absorb some remnant of our energy and morph into an animal form for a few moments. Their shapes resemble distended, anorexic reptiles with fanged mouths and short, clawed arms that scrabble frantically at the air trying to catch hold of us. But these forms are merely florescent vapors that dissipate quickly after we move through them.
The screams of the hungry ghosts are fraying the edges of my sanity, but I cling to the sense of Alex’s presence getting closer and focus all my will on reaching him.
We arrive at an intersection. Across it, off to the right, is Alex’s building. It’s a six-story brick structure that seems fairly intact, with no broken windows or doors. Faint amber light comes from an upper-floor window, and I sense Alex watching us approach.
We hurriedly cross the street, bound up the steps, and open the heavy front door. It slams shut behind us, and the screaming becomes inaudible.
Standing in the dim lobby, we’re protected from the world outside. The dingy interior holds the reassuring smell of an ancient city apartment building, a blend of worn wool coats, leather shoes, and damp umbrellas.
“We’re safe here, and we should conserve our energy,” I whisper to Jeremiah. He relinquishes our cloaking field. “I think I should go to him by myself for now.”
“I’ll stand watch here,” he says.
I start up the stairs in the back of the lobby. At the top floor landing, I find Alex waiting for me, his gaunt face peering out of the partially open door of his apartment. He has a luminous pallor, and his expression is a mix of wonder and fear. He doesn’t say anything, but he opens the door wider and beckons me to come inside.
I step into his space, and he closes the door behind us. We stand a few feet apart, staring at each other.
There’s no struggle to visualize him like when I encountered him in the park. His body is fully realized, but he has an astral glow and is not physical in the same way I am.
I also sense that we’re uncomfortably out of phase in time. I’m speeding through it, my tempo like the heartbeat of a hummingbird. Alex is coming from a depth of time.
I need to slow down.
I will myself to quiet the speed and urgency that propelled me through the city.
“You’re getting it,” says Alex encouragingly. “Time here isn’t what you’re used to. You can’t fight the slowness of its current. Just go with it.”
Silent eye contact stretches out the moment.
“Andrew, this is dangerous. It shouldn’t even be possible. Appearing here in your dream body was precarious, but physically being here—I just want you to be able to make it back safely. I don’t want you to get trapped here. It’s fucking crazy that you actually came. Brave, but crazy. I don’t deserve this terrible risk. We need to figure out how to get you out of here. I don’t deserve—
“Alex, you do deserve it—”
“Andrew,” Alex cuts me off, “you need to go. You need to get out before it’s too late.”
“Alex, I will, but we should use this moment—” I say, taking a step toward him.
Ripples of what feels like electromagnetic force push me back.
Did Alex do that?
He studies me grimly, a depth of sad knowledge in his eyes.
“You don’t feel it, do you?” he says. “If you come too close to me, it will drain away your vitality. It’s just—self-apparent. It’s the nature of how energy would flow between your body and mine. And in a slower but more insidious way, just being in the city is draining your vitality. Andrew, you should go.”
“Alex, I get it. I realize I’m taking a risk being here. But I’m already here. So help me make this worth the risk. Something unprecedented is going on, and we need to work with it. We need to use this opportunity, and I have an idea.”
“You always do,” says Alex. He’s trying for his usual sarcastic humor, but there are tears of concern in his eyes.
“Alex, I’m here because of the metamorphosis. You said it yourself. I’m not physical in quite the same way anymore. I trust your perception of how energy would flow between us. But I have an intuition about that.
“The difference between a poison and medicine often comes down to dosage. Perhaps if you had a little piece of the world above, it might serve as medicine. It might strengthen our link. Or . . . it might be like radioactive waste for you. We don’t know till we try. It’s an experiment.”
I reach for my sapphire amulet to make sure it’s still there. It is. I take it off and hang it on a wooden coat peg on the wall. Stepping back, I see the necklace glowing, and reflections of green and gold light dapple the wall behind it.
“See if you can pick it up.”
I give Alex space to approach. He reaches for it cautiously. As soon as he touches it, his pale glow becomes warmer.
“It’s heavy,” he says, weighing it in his hand. “Heavy in a way I haven’t felt for so long. And it’s warm. It feels good, like the opposite of radioactive waste. It’s full of Laepur.”
Alex puts it on, and his whole body, even his clothes, animate with more color. His faces dimples into a radiant smile.
“Thank you, Andrew. I feel like it’s giving me Laepur, but its own Laepur isn’t draining away—if anything, it’s just flowing more smoothly as I wear it. It’s . . . renewing me,” he adds, clutching the sapphire in his hand.
“Why don’t we try the other side of the experiment?” he asks. “Let’s see if I can give you something.”
He unbuttons his worn flannel shirt and removes the necklace I’d given him on his birthday two years ago.
The sight of it stirs memories of its origin. I’d seen Alex admiring the colors of a handblown glass amulet on a trade blanket at a Rainbow Gathering. A blue flower above an iridescent spiral exquisitely rendered within a glass cabochon. I came back later and traded for it. I kept it secret until I found an antiqued silver chain to put it on, and a month later, I gave it to him on his birthday. I’m touched it’s still with him and don’t want him to part with it.
“No, Andrew, forget all that,” says Alex as he places the amulet on his bed. “You’ve adapted to this world’s basic matter, but this object holds some of my Laepur. See what happens if you touch it. If anything feels wrong, stop.”
He steps away, and I approach. I feel no resistance as I reach for it, so I grasp it in my hand.
It’s almost weightless and—
All my perceptions are overwhelmed by intense vertigo. My whole frequency shifts. I hear my snowself screaming inside me.
I’m having an incarnation seizure!
I close my eyes and will myself back from the verge of passing out. I focus on allowing the shift and plunge through my snowself’s scream. Aftershocks shudder through me, but then—everything stabilizes. I feel the amulet suffusing me with Alex’s mercurial essence. I open my eyes and see him studying me carefully. We’re still standing feet apart, but he feels much closer now.
This nearly weightless object is altering me somehow.
I take a breath and find I can inhale more deeply.
“It’s helping me breathe! Having astral matter so close to my chest is letting me tolerate the atmosphere more.”
Alex smiles broadly.
“Give me a moment,” I say as I tune into my body. “I feel like it’s . . . it’s also energizing me and it’s subtly—etherealizing me in some way.”
Alex beams and takes half a step closer. The outer edges of our fields overlap more harmoniously.
“It wouldn’t be safe to come any closer,” he says. “Still, just having this—” Alex clutches the sapphire again, “I feel more linked to you and to the possibility of change.”
“I want Jeremiah to come up here,” he adds. “He’s taken a huge risk too, and I’ve got something for him I think he’ll find valuable.”
I reach out toward Jeremiah telepathically, but he’s already felt the summons and is walking up the stairs. Moments later, he knocks gently on the door. Alex opens it and beckons him inside.
“Welcome to my oppressively humble abode,” says Alex bowing and inviting Jeremiah in with a sweep of his arm. “You’ve taken a great risk to bring Andrew here and make this possible, and I want to give you something.”
“Thank you, Alex. I’ve heard about you for most of my life. It’s an honor to finally meet you,” says Jeremiah, bowing.
“Ah, what a kind gentleman you are,” says Alex. “As kind as Andrew here, perhaps. I’ve been hearing about you for years too. And since you’re such an interdimensional traveler, I have something to aid your journey.”
Alex is the most animated I’ve seen him since his descent to the Lower Astral. He’s making an effort to assume his most charming persona, the pretend Renaissance dialect and formality he put on when I first met him.
Alex turns to a small, wooden bedside table, opens a drawer, and pulls out a folded-up map. Then, with a humorously ornate flourish, he passes it to Jeremiah.
“Something appropriate for a gentleman of advanced esoteric knowledge such as yourself—a traveler of other worlds and realms.”
Jeremiah unfolds the map and gazes at it with awed curiosity. It’s intricate with line drawings, text, and layered elliptical planes. The map bears a title in old Gothic font, “The Astral Planes.”
“I found it folded up in an old book, and I’ve been studying it,” says Alex. “I think it was created by a guild that helped me when I arrived here.”
“But I can’t take this from you,” Jeremiah says. “You’re going to need it.”
“I still have it,” says Alex, lightly tapping the side of his head with his index finger. “It’s safely locked away in my memory. I can draw up an exact copy if I need to. I want you to take it.”
“Thank you,” says Jeremiah.
Suddenly, Alex’s ears prick up, and he turns toward the window, looking concerned. Then we hear it too—a wail emanating from the street below. Alex peers out of the blinds. A sliver of astral light from an invisible moon reflects in his blue eyes.
“The Ravenous horde is growing. They’ve surrounded the building. They’ve never sensed such Laepur before,” he says, turning back to us, looking alarmed. “You need to get out while you still can, if it’s not too late already.”
Alex gestures toward the door and unlocks it for us. We step out into the hallway. I glance back at him, trying to think of something to say.
“Andrew—Go!” Alex urges.
We leave him, hurrying down the darkened stairway, our cloaking field wrapping around us as we cross into the lobby.
Before we exit the building, we look outside and see shadows elongating into menacing shapes. The pale faces of the Ravenous take on form, their eyes staring holes into the building. They are ringed all around it, blocking any avenue of escape.
Jeremiah strengthens our cloaking field before we open the door. The moment we do, their wailing turns into a collective shriek.
“We need to create a distraction,” Jeremiah says.
He turns his hand up and stares into it. A glowing orange ameboid shape begins to form on his palm.
“What is that?” I ask.
“It’s some of my bodily vitality. We need to draw them away from us. If this works, be ready to run.”
Jeremiah hurls the globule like a javelin. The moment it leaves our cloaking field, we’re hit by an electrical recoil slamming us back. The ascending missile becomes as bright as a dozen flares as it arcs up into the night. The effect on the Ravenous is explosive. Their shriek becomes ear-splitting as every Ravenous eye looks like it’s about to pop out of its socket as they track the trajectory of the Laepur projectile.
“RUN!” Jeremiah shouts.
We nearly throw ourselves down the stairs as the arc descends, and the ring of the Ravenous breaks apart to swarm toward it, united in rageful hunger. They congeal into a boiling mass of screaming faces descending on the glowing cell.
While they fight each other to feed, we race away from the building in the direction of the portal.
In moments, there’s nothing left to fight over, and they sense Laepur escaping. But we have a head start. The boiling mass turns toward us just as we’re rounding a corner.
“RUN! FASTER!!!” Jeremiah shouts.
His command shoots his energy through me as we race toward the portal. Horror of the Ravenous and desire to escape electrifies every muscle fiber in my body.
As we turn another corner, I catch a glimpse of the horde coalescing into a single organism, like a giant protozoa with multiple glowing nuclei. The monstrosity emits a shriek of caustic gas that crashes over us like a blinding shroud, filling the street in all directions. It’s a chemical weapon, entrapping us and scalding our eyes, skin, and lungs.
I can breathe only in staccato gasps. My heart is beating wildly, and every cell in me is screaming OUT NOW—OUT NOW!
Jeremiah shoots me some of his energy to keep me alive, but he’s struggling too. He’s straining to push the poisonous vapor away from our cloaking field. It’s doing something, but we’ve slowed, and the Ravenous are gaining on us.
“Can you—” I gasp, “create another diversion?”
The swarm is closing in when we reach the intersection of two wide streets and are halted in our tracks.
The portal is an evanescent thing, a plane of polarized light shimmering like a desert mirage. I feared we’d not be able to locate it again, but to my horror, its position is undeniable. All around it are a fierce array of Ravenous gatekeepers waiting for our approach. They’re sucking energy from the portal, and the whole thing is thinning like the membrane of a soap bubble a moment before it pops into oblivion.
Suddenly, Jeremiah steps away from me.
“Jeremiah, what are you—”
He decloaks, and the eye of every Ravenous shoots toward him.
Jeremiah dashes off to my right, and the swarm races toward him, leaving the portal unguarded.
“GO!!!!!” he shouts.
I’m terrified for Jeremiah, but his command compels me to act without thinking. I throw myself into the portal.
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I fall hard onto the rocky dirt sloping down from the tower entrance. The momentum of the fall tumbles me down to the mesa beneath the tower. I’m covered with red dirt, bruised, and scratched.
My lungs greedily inhale the oxygen-rich air as I struggle to my feet and search the moonlit mesa around me.
“Jeremiah!” I shout.
A wind howls back at me and dies down. Stillness. There’s no one.
“Jeremiah!” I cry again, but it’s futile.
I try calling his name telepathically, but it’s more a gesture of helplessness.
We had been a telepathic mutuality, but a blade of absolute disconnection has cut us apart.
He’s still there—alone in the Dark City—
I look back at the towering butte. The striations on the stone wall still form the outline of an arched doorway, but there’s no wind, only stillness. The portal is gone.
There’s nothing I can do to help.
I fall to my knees, stricken by guilt and regret so overwhelming that my empty stomach clenches and convulses with dry heaves.
My telepathic cry dissipates into the night. There’s no recourse, nothing to appeal to, just the mute indifference of the desert.
I crouch there, unwilling to move. Taking a single step into this new reality will be acknowledging it as real, which is not something I’m ready to admit. But every breath I take solidifies my presence in this world, and Jeremiah’s absence, whether I’m ready for it or not.
The silence is broken by the howl of wild dogs.
I’m shivering from the cold of the desert night. And now that I can finally breathe properly, I realize how dehydrated I am. The Lower Astral was sucking the moisture right out of me.
I need to move. He sacrificed himself so I would survive.
I begin walking back to the Mothership, hoping I might catch Jeremiah’s arrival out of the corner of my eye.
Maybe when I get back, I’ll find him waiting for me, I tell myself. With all his abilities, he might find another portal back.
But in my heart, I know I’m just dangling imaginary carrots to keep my body moving toward shelter.
He wants me to continue the metamorphosis and mission. He sacrificed himself for that. The only way to honor him is to keep going.
Finally, I see the Mothership’s silver hull glinting in the moonlight.
I reach into my jacket pocket—flashlight, keys, familiar oblong of plastic—I press it. The Mothership beeps twice, the lights come on, and its doors unlock.
I step inside, grab a water bottle, and begin chugging it. As the water courses through my body, I flashback to my Snowman-self and the feeling of rehydrating withered snow crystals. I down the whole bottle.
I feel the traces of Jeremiah’s presence still lingering. Then I think of something. I reach under my shirt. It’s still there, lighter than a feather, but solid—Alex’s amulet.
I open the bathroom door to see if the weightless amulet reflects in the mirror. It does. The swirled shape within looks like an iris or a spiral galaxy with a black hole at its center. I look up at myself. The person gazing back seems like a stranger. His darkly haunted eyes are piercing. Perhaps it’s a trick of the moonlight, but deep purple light outlines his form.
No, it’s not a trick. The Shadow Elixir and Lower Astral have changed me. I’m not physical in the same way anymore.
I feel the link to Alex tingling. He’s watching me from behind the mirror of his world.
I grasp the amulet in my left hand and close my eyes.
I summon Alex to come forward, and he responds immediately. Before any thoughts are exchanged, I feel a wave of empathic solidarity washing over me.
“I’m so sorry, man,” Alex whispers in my mind as his astral body solidifies. He stands next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder, our energetic fields overlapping in the darkness.
The glass amulet feels warm. It’s lit up like a projector lens, allowing Alex to focus his presence more vibrantly into this plane. The warmth of our solidarity infuses me. We move toward the back of the cabin so we can sit across from each other.
“Do you sense any trace of him anywhere?” I ask.
“Yes,” replies Alex. “He’s hiding in the city somewhere. His Laepur is weak, but he’s still alive. There’s some kind of presence helping him recover. Maybe it’s the Guild, but it feels—I don’t know—more etherealized or something. I’m not sure what it is, but he’s not alone—he’s being protected.”
I let out a sigh of relief. He’s alive, but he’s still suffering in that terrible place.
“The map you gave him—did you sense this was coming?” I ask.
” No,” Alex replies, “it just felt right to give to him. I sensed he had difficult journeys ahead but didn’t know he’d be torn from you. I’m so sorry, Andrew. I’m the cause of this. Coming to find me—”
“No, no, don’t do that, don’t feel guilty, ” I respond. “If anyone was the cause, it was me deciding to travel to the Lower Astral.”
“Andrew, please remember who you’re talking to. You’re telling me not to feel guilty while you’re sweating guilt like a diabetic caught with a mouth full of Skittles.”
“I know, I know. Of course, I feel guilty. Never said I didn’t. I am guilty. It was my idea to go to travel to the Lower Astral. That wasn’t your idea, and it wasn’t Jeremiah’s idea, either. At the same time, it all seemed inevitable, and Jeremiah thought so too. But what I think and what I feel pull in different directions. Intuition says there are reasons for this separation we can’t grasp. But my heart says . . . it was my choice that led to Jeremiah’s suffering . . . I just wish I could help him. Maybe once he recovers, he’ll be able to communicate.”
“Yeah, that seems possible,” replies Alex gently. “He’s in the same world I am. I’ve tried calling out to him. Maybe he’s aware of it, but he doesn’t have enough energy to respond. I’ll keep trying. He can come to my place if he can’t find a safer refuge.”
We lapse into silence, each of us probing the void for Jeremiah.
“Sorry, Andrew, I don’t think it’s going to happen right now,” Alex says somberly. “If anything, we might be distracting him from recovery. I told you, I sense a protective force around him, taking care of him. I think we should let it do its work.”
“OK,” I reply. “You’re the empath, and he’s in your world, not mine, so I trust your judgment. Do you sense anything else?”
“Yeah, you should stay in the Mothership. Something’s coming.”
“Could it be Jeremiah?”
“Doubtful. Sorry, Andrew, but I’m not going to lie to you. I think Jeremiah’s down for the count. He won’t be going anywhere for a while. But I also feel really sure he’s gonna pull through. He’s strong, and there’s something—someone—helping him.”
Alex’s mixed news feels like more of a weight than a relief. My eyes drift toward the windshield as though I might see him out there.
“Jeremiah seemed so powerful when I first met him,” I say, “but the more time I spent with him, the more I realized he’s as vulnerable as any of us—a traveler, fallen to a world not his own. As soon as we arrived here, I sensed the red desert held dangers for him. He probably sensed it too. I don’t know why I didn’t say something.”
“Probably because it wouldn’t have changed anything,” Alex replies. “It was his choice to bring you to the gateway. That’s what having skin in the game means. Time presses you to make choice after choice, and every choice has unforeseen consequences. Hollow folk usually drift with whatever current pulls them, but you’ve got a destiny that forces you to choose. Jeremiah chose to face Viealetta, knowing that if he survived, he would be permanently exiled from his world. Remember, he was the one who sought you out. He wasn’t exactly on vacation until he decided to go with you to the Lower Astral. You shouldn’t blame yourself—Jeremiah made his own choices every step of the way.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I reply. “I mean—I know you are. He came here to make an intervention, and he succeeded. But his intervention only succeeds if I do. And the stakes—he said this timeline is heading toward the extinction of the species. And somehow, it’s up to me to alter that fate. But I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m supposed to do from here. I guess I got used to him being the guide, and now—it’s just us. But as you would say, it is what it is.”
“Yeah, but follow Jeremiah’s example, not mine,” says Alex with a sigh. “I was given so much I didn’t appreciate. In my pain and confusion, I lost sight of what it was all about. I had glimpses of my mission, but there were always doubts. Then when I left you, I felt too lost and unworthy to return. Too proud to come back and admit I was so much worse off without you. And I knew you were better off without me. If I returned, I would have been an anchor around your neck, pulling you down with me. Whatever mission we could have had together, I’d already wrecked. At least that’s what I felt, but I was a fool, abandoning a challenging mission that probably could have been salvaged. I just couldn’t find a way to stop myself from being such an asshole to you, so I had to cut you loose from the anchor.
“I got what I deserved, returning here to the dark city. And yet you dared to come my world and bring me a lifeline. This amulet you’ve given me,” he adds, clutching it in his hand. “Meeting Jeremiah. The chance to observe your life and stay linked to you. I don’t deserve what you’ve given me. I need to find a way to help. Maybe I should join the Guild.”
“Alex, you’re helping right now. This would’ve been a night of despair if not for you. You’ve brought me hope that Jeremiah will survive. You’re still on the mission. You may be able to communicate with Jeremiah, maybe even give him sanctuary. You’re playing your part, your skin may be out of the game, but you aren’t.”
“Thanks, man. Yeah, I should go back. I have a vague sense of where he is in the city. Maybe I can find him. You’re right, all is not lost, not while there’s still anything I can do to contribute. I‘m going to take off. I’d hug you if I could, but just know that I’ll always love you.”
Before I can reciprocate, Alex withdraws, and I’m alone in the Mothership.
I touch my phone to light up the time.
Less than three hours have passed since we dug up the cash. The time we spent in the Lower Astral must not have registered here.
The time on my phone is just a number generated by computers on a network somewhere. Numbers that no longer count the moments of my life.
Strong winds pick up across the desert. Powerful gusts blast the hull of the Mothership with dust and rock the coach on its suspension.
I get binoculars from the back and climb into the driver’s seat to keep an eye on things. The temperature drops as the wind picks up, and I wrap a blanket around myself. I replay Alex’s words, his forecast of something fateful coming toward me. My mind is ready to spin up speculations, but I need to stay alert to what’s actually happening.
I focus the binoculars and survey the desert around the Mothership. There’s plenty of moonlight, and from the driver seat’s vantage, the butte’s gateway side is visible. My view is distracted by tumbleweeds blowing across the desert like poorly tossed bowling balls, bouncing over sagebrush and rocks.
Actually, the blowing weeds are sagebrush—they’re the dried-out skeletons of them. Such noble plants deserve a better afterlife than being tossed about by the wind until they crumble into dust.
Suddenly, one of the tumbleweeds blows right into my windshield. Its desiccated skeleton scrapes across the glass before a gust of wind whips it away into the night.
The image of the tumbleweed at eye level, inches from my face, lingers in my mind. It’s a complex structure—like a spindly brain of dried cellulose. Every part of it is bending, twitching, and trembling like a tortured animal.
Is someone I’m linked to being tormented? Is Jeremiah in agony? Someone is suffering—my mirror neurons are lighting up, reacting to pain in someone I’m linked to.
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I put the binoculars down and step out of the Mothership. My heart is pounding as I battle a fierce headwind resisting my every step. The wind is blowing up dust that hides my presence. I use my hand to shield my eyes and catch sight of a figure staggering against the force of the wind. I can’t make out who it is, but I feel their desperation.
I fight through the dust storm and see moonlight glinting off blonde hair and the outline of Jeremiah’s slender form.
How did he escape so soon?
Adrenaline surges through me at the sight of him, and I step forward as he staggers toward me.
Jeremiah’s clothes are different, and he’s wearing a backpack. He seems profoundly altered in some way. His head is bent to the wind, but then he looks up and sees me, his eyes registering surprise at my approach like he had no idea I’d be looking for him. He seems dazed like he’s seeing me for the first time.
I step toward him cautiously, sensing his disorientation.
“Andrew?” he asks like he’s not sure it’s really me.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Don’t you recognize me, Andrew? It’s me, Tommy.”
The name strikes me like a bolt from the heavens, the impossibility of it freezing me in place. There are tears in his eyes as recognition blooms in me.
“Tommy . . .” I say, stunned. “It’s really . . .
He swings off his pack and steps toward me uncertainly before dropping his caution and rushing forward to hug me tightly.
He’s sobbing now, and his body is trembling. I’m overwhelmed by the sudden intimacy and intensity of his emotions, but I return his embrace. I’m too carried away by his feelings to be sure of my own as the warmth of our bodies pressed together steadies us in the wind. He pulls back, tears streaming down his face.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, “it’s just that—I’ve hoped to find you for so long.”
My initial shock gives way to the overwhelming reality of his presence.
“Tommy, Tommy!” I say, my heart beating wildly. “Don’t be sorry. I’ve searched for you ever since the treehouse, but it never felt like we were in the same reality.”
“I know,” he says, “we weren’t. But now we are. At least, I think we are.”
He reaches out to grip my arm as if reconfirming to himself that we’re both actually here.
“This may sound crazy,” he says, “but can you tell me the date?”
I do. He’s taken aback for a moment, but then nods as if it’s what he expected.
“You’re from the future, aren’t you?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies, his expression lighting up with relief that I’m in touch with the strangeness that has brought us together.
“But how—,” I stop myself. If I ask one question, there’ll be a trillion more, and I can tell he’s been through something harrowing to get here. I get the feeling he hasn’t slept in days. Better to ground the situation in practicality.
“My camper’s right over there.” I point toward the Mothership. “Let’s get you out of the wind. And here, let me take your pack.”
“Thank you,” Tommy replies. I hoist his pack, and we walk silently for a few moments, struggling in the dust storm, till we’re at the camper.
“Please, come inside,” I say, opening the door for him.
“Thank you, Andrew. Should I take my boots off first?”
“No, no, don’t worry, there’s no carpet.” I flip on the lights and close the door behind us, the howl of the desert night muffling away.
The muting of the wind causes a moment of doubt, as if Tommy might have been a conjuration of the storm. I turn back and see him standing so close. Tommy, the one I’ve searched for ever since my near-death experience, is actually here. I take a deep breath and feel our bodies relax from the wind’s strain.
“The Mothership,” he says, gazing about. My eyes open in disbelief.
“How do you—”
“I read your journal,” says Tommy.
“You read my journal?” I ask stupidly. “How did you find it?”
“Not easily. It took three years of searching through obscure databases and archived web pages. It took so long, because for one thing, I didn’t realize we weren’t in the same time. Finally, I tried searching for specific words we said to each other at the treehouse, and that led me right to it.”
“Oh, ” I reply, staggered by the thought of Tommy knowing everything I confessed. “I see.”
“This is cool,” Tommy says, “this really is a mothership.”
He looks with wonder at all the decoupaged scenes of subcultures decorating the cabinet doors. His eyes land on a collage of Rainbow Gathering photos and he smiles as he studies it.
I should take him to a gathering.
“Well, make yourself at home. Water? Tea?”
“Tea would be great if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” I say.
I suggest a few, and he chooses a Dragon Well green tea and takes a seat by the table in the back while I put the water to boil. I offer him food, but he declines. The unreality of being together is still simmering between us, but discussing mundane details seems to calm the over-charged atmosphere. Even when I’m focused on preparing the tea, I feel his glow of grateful appreciation.
When the tea is ready, I place it on the table and sit beside him on the soft bench seat.
“Where should we begin?” I ask. “I have so many questions.”
“You wouldn’t be Andrew if you didn’t,” Tommy replies, smiling.
“Wait—you got that from the journal, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I think it was something Alex said to you at one point.”
Hearing him speak Alex’s name surprises me for a moment, then I feel grateful for Tommy so casually affirming his existence.
“I hope it’s OK I read your journal,” says Tommy, looking worried.
“Oh—of course, that was the idea of it. Only now—I guess I’m embarrassed about how much I confessed into it.”
“Embarrassed? Oh no, Andrew, please don’t feel that. It was beautiful. Reading it was like—like a life raft when I was drowning. But I’ve been worried about you because the journal ended so abruptly. I’m relieved to see that you’ve recovered from your Shadow Journey. How much has happened since then?”
“A lot, a whole lot—but, actually, what you read was only a few days ago,” I reply. “Yet so much has happened since.”
“Well, I wanna hear about it,” says Tommy, “but you’re the one who deserves to ask questions. I learned about your life from the journal. And—” Tommy hesitates and the color drains from his face. “I wrote a journal too. I guess it’s only fair that—” he hesitates again, and something stops him from continuing.
He looks down in sorrow. Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by compassion. I sense a vast history of suffering lying close behind him, but I’m not sure what to say.
“Tommy, you don’t—”
“No, no, it’s only fair. I read yours and—I wrote mine hoping someone would find it, but never imagined what it’d feel like if someone actually did read it, let alone you. There’s . . . some really dark parts. Things I’m ashamed for you to know about me, but—it has to be known, I guess.”
“Tommy,” I say, “we can take it slow. I can tell you’ve suffered, maybe terribly. I’ll hold off on my questions. And you can think about whether you want me to read your journal. There’s no rush. I’m just grateful you’re here.”
Tommy’s eyes fill with tears.
“Thanks man, that means a lot. I haven’t felt safe with someone in years,” he says, his voice breaking.
“I’m so glad, Tommy. We don’t have to talk about your past right now. You can ask me questions if you want.”
“Tomorrow morning,” he says, summoning resolve. “You can read my journal then if you want to. It will answer your questions. Or as many of them as I can answer, at least.”
I sense something unspoken in Tommy’s eyes. A seriousness of purpose stronger than his exhaustion and whatever he’s suffered. A mission. I feel compelled to speak what I’m sensing.
“You’re here like Jeremiah, aren’t you?” I ask. “To create butterfly effects and prevent the extinction.”
“Yes,” Tommy replies.
Time stretches out as the moment resonates with déjà vu. Tommy studies me.
“Jeremiah,” he says, “something’s happened to him.”
He sees the confirmation in my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Well . . .” I start, unsure how to respond, “You know, all these years, I’ve wondered why I never told you about him when we first met. But maybe I held back because you’re not supposed to tell someone about another version of themselves. I wonder—maybe Jeremiah—”
I’m thinking aloud and stop, realizing I shouldn’t say what I was about to. Tommy reads my silence.
“Maybe he’s gone because I’m here,” he says. “Maybe two versions can’t meet? I’m so sorry, Andrew.”
“No, no, no, please don’t be sorry,” I reply. “Jeremiah is on a difficult journey, but he’s still alive. None of us are in control of what’s happening. This is destiny unfolding, right? For me, it’s not just an idea—it’s a physical force I feel in my bones. And your eyes tell me you feel it too. The mission. So there’s nothing to apologize for. Everything is unfolding the way it has to.”
“Thank you, Andrew. Thank you for understanding. I can’t tell you what it means to share this mission with you. I know Jeremiah told you about the extinction . . . I’m sorry to tell you it’s real. I lived through it. We need to do something to prevent it. But I’ve no idea what that something is . . . unless it’s the metamorphosis itself.
“I see it in you,” Tommy continues. “As different as we are, we’re two of a kind, aren’t we? It’s why we had to find each other. And we both know what’s at stake. We can face it together now, can’t we, Andrew?”
“Yes, of course we can, Tommy.”
Tommy reaches out to hug me. He holds on, resting his head on my shoulder.
“Thank you, thank you for being here,” he says, still holding on to me. “I couldn’t have faced this one more day on my own. I’ve needed to find you for so long. Thank you.”
Our hearts start beating together, but Tommy pulls away.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Sorry to drop so much emotion on you. I just—”
He stops, takes a deep breath, and centers himself.
“OK, I’ll be calm now, I promise,” says Tommy with a composed smile. “Maybe you can tell me what’s happened since your last journal entry.”
“Tommy—,” I say, “I will tell you, but you don’t need to—you don’t need to be calm or contain your emotions—I want to feel them with you. Please don’t be sorry for anything—I’m grateful for your presence and your feelings. Share anything you want.”
“Thanks, Andrew, that means a lot. I guess I’m so used to just burying everything. I wasn’t always like that. I mean, it all started—well, you’ll understand when you read the journal. But please, tell me what’s happened to you.”
So, I tell him, which takes quite a while, of course. Our rapport calms as I narrate, and Tommy asks questions, especially about my journey to the Lower Astral, the exchange of objects with Alex, and what happened to Jeremiah. I end the story with the tumbleweed and seeing him approach. The circle closes, bringing us back to where we are.
It’s late, and though he’s so present in the moment with me, I see Tommy’s physical exhaustion. I’m exhausted too. When I suggest sleep, he readily agrees.
It only takes a minute for me to set up the sleeping platform, then we lie down next to each other and crash into sleep.
9 A Great Turning Point
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Sometime in the middle of the night, I wake up in my dream body and find Alex kneeling beside me, his hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, Andrew, sorry to invade your Dreamtime, but I need to tell you some things.”
He’s still wearing the sapphire amulet I gave him.
“I’m about to summon the Guild, Andrew. The time is right. You’ve awakened a sense of mission in me. Also . . .” he hesitates, “I think Tommy is the ally you’ve been looking for. It’s pretty amazing he found you. I also think it’s time for me to stop watching you from behind the mirror and for both of us to move on—”
“Andrew, I’m not abandoning you. Our link will remain strong, but we need to focus on what’s next. I sense the Guild working on something parallel to the mission you share with Tommy. I may learn things that can help. And if you summon me, I should be able to reach out. But give it time. Focus on Tommy. He needs you more than I do right now.
“I sense a lot about what’s going on, more than I care to say,” Alex continues. “I don’t know the details, but he’s really been through hell. He’s trying not to burden you with it, but he’s suffered terribly, and you need to be present with him and the crucial mission you share.
“I also think you and Tommy deserve privacy. It’d be too weird if I was watching all the time. I’ve seen enough to know this is a great development for you both. While you slept next to him, I saw your energy fields harmonizing. I think just being around each other will accelerate the metamorphosis.”
I feel the truth in what Alex is telling me. Even though my heart wants to rebel, I know he’s right. I’m not in Alex’s world. If he can find allies who are, I should support that.
But suddenly, I feel wracked by guilt. I was so absorbed by Tommy’s presence. I didn’t give a thought to how it would seem to Alex.
“Andrew—,” Alex puts his hand back on my shoulder. “Stop, please. There’s absolutely nothing for you to feel guilty about. You’ve sacrificed so much to help me. Please. Give me a chance to do the right thing for once. You deserve the space to be with Tommy. You need someone physically present in your life, and I’m happy for you. And I’m not just saying that—I am. It’s what I’ve always wanted for you. This is a great blessing for both of you. You’ve already saved my life more than once. Now you need to let me go.
“But don’t worry, I’m not disappearing on you. I’ll be here if you really need me. It’s time to end my self-isolation and start working with allies while you join forces with Tommy. Think of us as supporting each other while we go forward on our parallel journeys. Trust me, I see more into time than you can. This is a great turning point for all of us, a new beginning.”
“Alex—I love you. I want you to be part of my life, and I want to be part of yours.”
“You will be, Andrew, I promise. I love you too. Now and forever.”
He hugs me and then puts his hand on his heart.
“You’ll be right here,” he says. Then he bows his head and disappears into the shadows.
After he withdraws, physical exhaustion submerges me back into sleep.
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When I wake up, brilliant sunlight fills the Mothership. I’d forgotten to close the blackout curtains before we fell asleep.
Tommy lies beside me, as beautiful as a vision. Though I’m careful not to disturb his sleep, he senses I’m awake, and his dazzingly green eyes blink open. They reflect wonder and awe as he looks around the Mothership and then at me.
“I’m really here,” he says.
“I thought I might wake up and be—well, back there again . . .”
Tommy reaches to touch the back of his head.
“It’s gone—the swelling,” he says with surprise. “I had a terrible concussion not too long ago—not too long ago in the future, I guess,” he adds, laughing. “But it feels completely healed.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I say.
“You and me both,” he adds with a smile.
“You want anything to drink?” I ask. “You should hydrate in case you’re still recovering. I’ve got water, tea, yerba maté—”
“Maté!” Tommy says as if it were the name of an old friend. “Definitely mate. I haven’t had it in ages. Thanks. But I’ve got to tell you something first. Alex came to me while I was sleeping.”
“Really?” I reply, feeling suddenly elated. “What did he say to you?”
“He thanked me for saving his life,” Tommy says.
“You mean when he—”
“Yeah—,” Tommy says, “before he met you. But there’s more. He told me how happy he was that I found you. He said we’ll be good for each other. He promised to do whatever he can from his side to help our mission. There weren’t many words, but the feeling was great, like a blessing.”
“That’s—so great, Tommy. I’m so glad he reached out to you. He came to me too.”
“Meeting him gives me hope for the people I’ve lost,” says Tommy. “Maybe they’re somewhere else too, and I’ll find them one day. Or they’ll find me. But for now, I’m just happy to be here. Compared to where I’ve been, this feels like heaven.”
“Well,” I say, smiling and getting up to make the maté, “Enjoy the feeling while it lasts. I’m sure by the time we get on the road and refuel at a truck stop, you’ll realize we’re definitely not in heaven.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Tommy says as he stretches his legs out over the end of the sleeping platform. “But I’m gonna try to enjoy this feeling while it lasts. I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
“Hey, if you don’t mind, I want to step outside for a minute and feel the sun on my skin,” he adds.
I open the door for him and when it closes, and I’m alone in the Mothership, I stop and do a reality check. I try to calm a nervous feeling that Tommy won’t be back.
What if he’s just a wish-fulfillment hallucination? Maybe I’ll have an incarnation seizure and wake up in an alley as the Snowman. Or maybe when Tommy stepped outside, there was another time displacement, and he’s gone.
But then I see his green backpack resting against a cabinet—so physically solid and dusty from the desert. I touch the rugged nylon and feel Tommy’s essence radiating from it. The door opens, and sunlight streams in around him. I let out a sigh of relief. Outlined by brilliant light, he looks like a vision, but when the door closes, I notice he looks worried and vulnerable.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Nothing. I just—” he laughs, even as he still looks upset. “Well, I guess my feeling of being in heaven wasn’t meant to last. When I stepped outside, I remembered my promise.”
“The promise to let you read my journal,” he says, going to his pack. He opens it and reaches inside.
Everything in that pack is from the future.
But what he pulls out appears to be an ordinary thumb drive. His expression is downcast as he passes it to me.
“You’re a journalist, so I’m sure you travel with a computer.”
“Yeah, I’ve got two laptops. One is a spare in case of a breakdown.”
“OK, well, this should be compatible. I saved it in an old format.”
“Tommy, whatever’s in here—don’t worry about it, OK? You know lots of embarrassing stuff about me from my journal. I’m sure—”
“Well, don’t be too sure, Andrew. This will change how you feel about me. I—there were things I had to do to survive that I’m not proud of . . . ”
“I understand,” I say, grasping the thumb drive tightly in my hand. “I mean—I don’t really understand because I don’t know what’s in here—but I appreciate your trusting me with this. Whatever you wrote, Tommy, it’s precious content. Just think about it from my perspective—this is testimony from the future.”
“If you want to call it that,” he replies. “It’s more like a future with no future. I wrote this hoping someone would read it. Now that moment is here, but . . . Oh, and the journal isn’t complete. A lot happened in the last couple of days I haven’t had time to write about.”
“OK, well then it’s good I’ve got two laptops,” I reply. “While I’m reading, you can write up what’s missing.”
“Yeah. I’ll do that,” says Tommy. “It’s my duty to complete the record. It’s going to be tough to write—but—never mind, I’ve got to stop doing that—”
“Doing what?” I ask.
“Selfishly focusing on my feelings,” he replies.
“Selfish? There’s nothing selfish about that, Tommy.”
“There isn’t?” Tommy asks, looking genuinely confused.
“No, of course not,” I reply. “It’s not selfish to have feelings. It’s human. You’re supposed to have feelings about doing difficult things.
“I’ve got plenty of feelings about spilling out my own secrets where strangers could find them,” I continue. “Of course, we’re going to have feelings about it. What counts is that we persevere despite those feelings. And I have a hunch, I’ll tell you more about it later, that our journals might be crucial.”
“Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Andrew. Thanks for saying that. The shame—I guess it’s all vanity, not wanting to be seen as what I’ve become and had to live through. But there’s no other option. We’ve got to tell the truth as best we can. Maybe it’s what will create the right kind of butterfly effect.”
I pour out the maté. Tommy thanks me, but he becomes grim and silent when I bring out the laptops.
I want to reassure him that reading his journal won’t change how I feel about him, but I stop myself, realizing I have no idea what his journal actually contains.
The moment feels solemn, and we let it pass in silence.
The silence continues as I read, and he writes. We studiously avoid eye contact, giving each other space to focus on our screens.
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I can’t even begin to describe my intense reactions while reading and rereading almost every sentence. Tommy was right—it did change how I feel about him, but probably not in the ways he expected.
When I finish, I take a moment to think about what I want to say. He gives me a worried look over the top of his laptop.
“Tommy . . .” I start slowly, “you’re right. Your journal does change how I feel about you. I feel . . . even more admiration for your courage and skill in adapting to one horrible situation after another.”
His eyes open wide with surprise.
“But it’s also filled me with darker feelings too.”
His worried look returns.
“No—not about you. It’s Kyle. That vile, psychopathic GMO you had to deal with. I want to see him punished, and I want it to be cruel and unusual. I want to—hurt him. I guess I couldn’t win a fight with him, but I’d like to try. Maybe if I snuck up behind him with a baseball bat,” I say, half-jokingly.
Tommy laughs, his face lit up with relief at my reactions.
“Well, I can relate to what you’re feeling about Kyle,” he says, then adds more seriously. “I’ve had my own violent thoughts about him. But I’m not proud of those. I was brought up to be nonviolent, and that’s still what I believe. So I’m glad I never acted on my feelings.
“And—well— I’m curious to know how you’ll feel about Kyle after you read the next part. I just need a little more time to finish up.”
“Please. Sure. I’ll catch up on my journal as well.”
Tommy sets to work. But when I open my document, I find it difficult returning to the distant past of two days ago. It seems like another lifetime. So instead, I reflect on Tommy’s journal and try to numb my feelings about his three years of sexual trauma.
I need to contain my emotions. Tommy is an empath, and if I don’t, he might read my horror at what he was put through as revulsion about him.
So I think about it in a detached way, and call up from memory the research I did on sexual trauma after Alex divulged his history with it.
Tommy’s boundaries have been terribly violated, trapped with an abuser for three years. Now he’s cooped up in this tiny Mothership with me, and I’m attracted to him on top of that. I need to be mindful not to intrude on his space.
I was so exhausted last night, I didn’t even think to ask if he was OK sleeping next to me.
I’ve got plenty of money. Tonight, I can book a motel room for us with two beds. Maybe two rooms.
He survived by disassociating from the trauma. But he’s in a safe place now. The dark feelings he’s bottled up will need to be let out—
OK, Andrew, stop, that’s enough. You can’t anticipate everything. Just let things unfold. You’ll know when he needs more space. Focus on your journal.
We keep working with few interruptions. It’s early afternoon when Tommy finishes.
“I’m done,” he announces, shaking out his hands and sitting back from the laptop. “You can read the rest now if you want.”
“If? Of course, I want to. I need to.”
“OK,” Tommy replies. “I told you it’s pretty dark, but—now that you’ve read the other parts, I want you to know how it all ended.”
“I will read it, but afterward, we should get out of here,” I say. “This place is—it’ll be too disturbing for me to be here another night, and we can go anywhere we want. You know about the C-notes I got from Jeremiah?”
“Oh, right,” Tommy replies. “Money. Wow, I’ve completely forgotten about money. It’s had no meaning to me for years. I guess I’ll have to start thinking about it again. But, hey, I can contribute—I’ve got a bag of gold coins in my pack we can turn into cash somewhere. And I’ve got other stuff with me that can help with finances.”
“That’s great,” I say. “Since money isn’t a problem, I thought we could get two motel rooms tonight.”
“But why would we do that?” he asks. “Don’t you stay in the Mothership? Why motel rooms?”
“Oh, well, given what you’ve—I mean, I just want to be careful about boundaries,” I say.
Tommy gives me a confused look.
“Like, boundaries with me?” he asks.
“Yeah. I mean, you’ve had yours invaded so much I thought you might want your own space.”
“No!” he replies almost desperately, “No, I don’t need my own space, not unless you do. I like the Mothership. Can we stay in here?”
“Yeah, sure, of course,” I reply. “I prefer the Mothership too. I just didn’t want to—”
“Andrew—I appreciate the consideration, but I’ve been trying to find you ever since we met at the treehouse. I want to be with you. I don’t need any special boundaries unless you do . . .” Tommy’s expression darkens with worry, “Oh, yeah, sorry—of course, you’ll need boundaries with me—I’ve been desperate for a friend for three years, and now you’re stuck with this super needy person. I’ll try to—”
“Tommy,” I cut him off gently, “Please don’t worry about that. I’ve been lonely myself, and your energy is—you’re great to be around.”
“Really?” he asks.
“Yes, really,” I reply. “I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
“Thanks, man, it’s hard for me to tell. After three years of isolation—I guess I’ve lost my social skills or something.”
“No, you haven’t,” I say reassuringly. “You’re just a little out of touch with how likable you are. Who wouldn’t be after living alone with a manipulative psychopath for three years? But, hey, listen, how about some lunch? I’ve got lots of veggies and stuff. I’ll make us something.”
“Why don’t I cook for you?” says Tommy. “I’m a pretty good cook, and I’d rather you got caught up in my journal.”
I readily agree, and Tommy sets to work as I start reading.
I get a short way into it, and I’m having a profoundly bittersweet experience. Reading about the trauma inflicted on him is heartbreaking. It’s enough that I need to pause in places and look up at the radiantly healthy person working in my tiny galley. Despite everything he’s been through, there isn’t a scratch on him. All that suffering must be inside of him somewhere, but out of consideration he keeps it hidden.
It’s like the first time I saw him building his treehouse with those teal-colored power tools. It’s a pleasure watching him work so quickly and efficiently—yet every movement so graceful that nothing seems rushed. And it’s satisfying to watch him go through my galley cabinets to find what he needs and use my familiar utensils far more skillfully than I ever could.
Despite what he said about being needy, he seems completely self-contained. I hate to agree with Kyle on anything, but he was right when he described Tommy as “low maintenance.” Manners and extreme consideration are implicit in his being. As quickly as he works, he makes little noise, and it’s relaxing to watch him.
I shouldn’t make comparisons, but it’s impossible not to. His company is so different from being in the Mothership with Alex.
I’m used to stepping on eggshells, nervously aware that something I’m going to say or do will set him off. There was never an if about offending Alex, only a when. And on a bad day, there were multiple whens.
Tommy, like Jeremiah, harmonizes perfectly with his surroundings. He’s a totally unselfish person who’s constantly worried about being selfish! It would be hard not to get along with an empathic people pleaser.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I still feel like I did when I first encountered him at fifteen.
I want to be like him.
And yet . . . I have become like him in some ways . . . we’re close to each other in the metamorphosis.
Suddenly, I’m reminded of something I’ve barely had enough breathing space to realize.
I’m not fireskinned!
That transformation had been just a part of the total disorientation I felt coming back from the Shadow Journey. I didn’t see it as lasting, but more like another weird identity shift. I still haven’t fully accepted it, but now it’s filling me with a joyful sense of new possibilities.
I should get some short-sleeved shirts and shorts!
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But then I read more of his journal, and it’s like being slammed in the back of my head. My adolescent emotions are forced out of me by confrontation with Tommy’s suffering.
I need to focus on helping him recover from the trauma. He’s doing an impressive job of containing it, but it’s still in his eyes, hiding in plain sight.
I steal glances at him while he’s focused on his task, and the pleasure I was taking watching him cook shades with more careful observations.
Though his cooking is as quick and graceful as his carpentry, his work on the treehouse had a playful aspect that’s been replaced by a sober and highly efficient professionalism. He’s become an expert worker who uses skilled labor to bury what he’s feeling. He moves so quickly it’s easy to miss the underlying pain, the spontaneous sense of fun that’s been stripped from him, replaced by dutiful precision in getting things done.
I keep misreading him because he’s so exceptionally beautiful. He radiates health and vitality, and that makes the suffering harder to see. It’s when he’s focused on a task rather than on me that it becomes perceptible. And even then, it’s easy to miss because it’s more of an absence than a presence. When he worked on the treehouse, every action, no matter how efficient, also expressed his joyful appreciation of life. But now, the efficiency expresses a disengagement with his emotions. And what he’s actually feeling . . .
Suddenly, it’s as if I’m Alex for a moment, empathically able to read even Tommy’s most buried feelings.
What he’s feeling is shame about what I’ve learned from his journal. He’s been through so much, but he’s actually only eighteen, and fears I must see him as degraded by what he had to do with Kyle.
And then I get another hunch.
He’s not even hungry. He’s cooking because he assumes I am, and he’s using work to cope with his dark feelings.
“Hey, Tommy, I just finished your journal. Can we talk about some things?”
“Sure, but lunch is almost ready,” says Tommy affecting a casual smile. But now I can see it’s more a product of consideration than what’s happening inside.
“Actually, now that you mention it—it occurred to me to ask you something about lunch.”
Tommy seems bewildered by my serious look, combined with a question about lunch. So, he turns off the gas range, puts down the spatula, and sits to give me his full attention.
“Earlier, I asked if you were interested in lunch, and your response was, Why don’t I cook for you? But were you actually hungry at that point?”
“Not really,” Tommy replies. “I’m not a big eater in general, but I was excited to cook for you and do something useful.”
“I had a feeling something like that was going on.” I respond. “It’s a small thing, but sometimes little stuff can reveal larger patterns.
“You weren’t feeling hungry but you figured I was, because I brought up lunch. But actually, I wasn’t hungry either,” I say. “I just thought you might be and didn’t want to be a bad host.”
“That’s pretty funny,” says Tommy smiling. “We were thinking about each other, and neither of us thought to ask if anyone was hungry.”
“Yes,” I say. “It’s funny and a paradox, so maybe we’re onto something.”
“OK,” replies Tommy. “I think I understand—if we both try too hard to be unselfish, then nobody’s feelings get taken into account.”
“Exactly,” I reply. “You’re a feeling type, but you constantly discount your feelings in favor of your conscience, your sense of what would serve others—the mission. Right? Several times you wrote—my feelings don’t matter. Sacrificing your feelings was noble in those terrible situations where you had to keep the mission going at all costs.
“But lunch isn’t a survival situation. Sacrificing your feelings for the sake of others is altruistic but not always healthy. It neglects an obvious fact. You’re a person too, so if other people’s feelings should be considered, so should yours.
“When I was about thirteen, my parents had a graduate student over for dinner. At first, everything he said sounded idealistic and altruistic. But as he kept talking, I felt his grandiosity. After a while, my dad wanted to stir the pot, so he suddenly asked the grad student, What’s your purpose in life?
The student didn’t hesitate for a second.
To serve others, he replied.
OK, well then, what are the other people there for? My dad asked.
The grad student was totally stumped by the question.
“My dad confronted him with a paradox that exposed the narcissistic flaw in his worldview. He was supposed to be the hero, the great giver, serving victims. With that setup, he assumed a superior relationship to everyone. This kind of person becomes a social engineer who wants to do everything for everyone else. But it’s actually a power trip aimed at taking control of everybody else’s lives. For their own good, of course. To the grad student, everyone else is a victim who needs the great benefactor to take care of them.”
“Am I like that?” Tommy asks.
“No, no, of course not. You’re genuinely altruistic, not just a power tripper like that guy. You said it in your journal—you don’t want to have power over anyone. You were forced to play power games to deal with a psychopath, but that was never anything you wanted. The only thing you have in common with that guy is an asymmetrical view of yourself versus others. You completely discount your feelings and interests for the sake of others. But if their needs are worthy of consideration, why aren’t yours? See the asymmetry? Aren’t your needs just as valid?
“When it comes to cooking lunch, whether anyone is hungry is quite relevant. And anyone includes you. You’re not in a desperate survival situation at the moment, so there’s room to consider your feelings.”
“Thanks,” Tommy replies.
He goes quiet for a moment, and I can see his mind realigning.
“Yeah, you’re right, Andrew. I never thought of it that way. From now on, I will try to consider my own feelings. Here, I’ll start now,” he says with a grin. “I wasn’t before, but now I am hungry. How about you?”
“Starving,” I reply. “I guess explaining all that burned up a lot of calories, and whatever you’re cooking smells fantastic.”
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Tommy gets up to resume cooking. In minutes, he places two plates heaped with colorful stir-fry on the table, and we dig in.
I’m amazed by what he’s conjured from the mediocre ingredients in the Mothership.
“This is the greatest stir fry I’ve ever eaten,” I say with perfect sincerity.
“Oh, come on,” says Tommy, “I didn’t even use a recipe. I just improvised and threw a bunch of ingredients together.”
“OK, stop with the false modesty. You admitted to being a good cook earlier. Just look at this,” I say, picking up a piece of perfectly cut red pepper with my fork. “Every vegetable looks like it was sliced by a master sushi chef. I make stir-fries too, but they’re more rough-and-ready, thrown-together. This is like a work of art.”
Tommy laughs, assuming I’m exaggerating.
“But listen, on another subject,” I say, “I’ve got an idea about our next destination.”
“Really? Where?” asks Tommy.
“Tucson?” says Tommy, looking uncomfortable. “That’s near the Biosphere. Why Tucson?”
“Because that’s where my friend Jason lives,” I reply.” He’s a legendary computer hacker. So if anyone can create a legal identity for you, he can.”
“Legal identity? Oh, yeah, right, didn’t even think about that,” says Tommy, as the reality of his situation comes over him. “I haven’t even been born yet. I guess I’ll need a fake ID or something.”
“I’m sure Jason can come up with something better than a fake. Something that’ll hold up if we get pulled over or need to get on a plane. Eventually, I’m going to need a new legal identity too. And every few years, we’ll need replacements that advance our dates of birth to match how we look.
“If we want to fly below the radar, we need to be careful about appearance. When I traveled with Alex, we got a lot of second takes. Protoelves attract attention. And you—your eyes—you look like some kind of mystical being.”
Tommy gives me a confused look.
“I do?” He gets up to view himself in the bathroom mirror. “I’m not seeing it. If I put on a baseball cap and a tie-dye shirt, I’d look like a normal hippie teenager. Which isn’t far from the truth. Mystical? You’re the one who looks mystical.”
“Me?” I ask.
“You don’t see it?” Tommy asks.
“I mean, I know I look unusual to a degree,” I reply.
“Andrew, I might be a time traveler, but you look like one. I think people will see me as a smiling, friendly kid, but you seem like a young wizard from the Renaissance who’s been pouring over secret books for days on end. It’s a really cool look, but it doesn’t exactly blend in. You’re the one who’s gonna need sunglasses and maybe concert T-shirts or something. But—who cares if we draw a little attention? Is anyone looking for us?”
“Well, not that I know of, so—maybe I’m just being paranoid. Mystical?”
I go to examine myself in the mirror. Part of me expects to see a bulky snowman and not this stranger with long, dark hair, prominent cheekbones, and . . . some kind of uncanny glow.
“Seriously, Andrew? You don’t see that? No one is going to look at you and see a typical American teenager like they will with me.”
Damn, he’s right. I’m the one who looks strange. Tommy’s wholesome glow and charm can disguise who he really is anytime he needs them to.
“OK, well, maybe we should both wear sunglasses and concert T-shirts,” I say. “But that’s a minor consideration till we get you viable ID—a driver’s license would be ideal.”
“Well, I’m sorry to say I don’t know how to drive,” Tommy replies. “I got a couple of lessons in a pick-up truck when I was fifteen, but that was a long time ago.”
“I’ll teach you,” I reply. “There’s nothing to it. Of course, you don’t even need to learn how to drive, so long as you’ve got the license—anything less in the way of ID will draw more scrutiny. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I trust Jeremiah, and he wanted to teach me cloaking skills. He seemed to think there was a need to stay hidden. So we should do what we can to blend in, starting with getting Jason to create a legal identity for you.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Tommy replies. “I’m probably just naïve. I grew up in the sticks, hidden away, and then I was stuck in the biosphere with a psychopath for three years. So, besides the legal stuff, I’m sure my social skills could use some work to help me blend. Do you want to go there right away?”
“Yeah, we probably should,” I reply. “A ranger could roll by anytime, and I’m not even sure if we’re camped here legally. We should make a beeline to Tucson. Oh, and by the way, your social skills don’t need any work—you’ve got enough adaptability for a dozen socially-skilled empaths.”
Tommy laughs and sets to work speedily cleaning up the galley.
I check the signal on my phone. Even with the Mothership’s external mast antenna and signal-boosting tech, the service is spotty. There’s one bar, then none, and back again. I wait for a minute or two, and while the bar is up, I shoot a text to Jason to ask if we can visit.
His response comes almost immediately.
“I assume you know about this note addressed to you,” Tommy says casually as he stacks the clean bowls in the kitchen cabinet.
“Note?” I ask.
“Right here,” he says, leaving the cabinet door open for me.
I go over to see what he’s talking about. There, placed in the center of the cabinet shelf, I find a piece of paper. It’s rolled up like a scroll, with my name written across it. I feel an intense pang of guilt. I’ve been so wrapped up with Tommy that I haven’t been giving thought to Jeremiah.
When I lift it, I realize there are dense objects inside. I remove it carefully and unroll it on the table.
Inside are Jeremiah’s two vials—the Healing Elixir and Shadow Elixir—and his amulet—what he called a Navigator.
He must have placed these when I was busy packing cash into the floor safe.
On the inside of the paper are a few handwritten lines:
“Just in case I don’t make it back, and you do, I want you to have these. I wish you well. Good luck with your metamorphosis and mission. In haste, Jeremiah.”
I examine the Navigator. It’s a silver disc inset with what look like small cabochon gems but might be lenses or controls. It’s surprisingly lightweight—metallic, but lighter than silver. Perhaps it has more astral matter than ordinary metal. I try it on, and it fits perfectly within the longer chain of the amulet Alex gave me. Like Alex’s gift, the Navigator is imbued with the essence of its bearer. I feel it shifting my energy and giving me vitality. It’s another catalyst. I put it beneath my shirt.
I study the vial of Shadow Elixir warily. I’m intimidated by it, afraid to even touch it in case of residue on the surface, even though I know that’s highly unlikely. Next to it is a faceted, green vial. It refracts light in a way that suggests aventurine quartz rather than glass.
I feel intensely guilty as I realize how much Jeremiah could use his healing elixir and Navigator to survive in the Lower Astral.
I roll both vials back up in the scroll of paper and stow them in my safe.
When Tommy isn’t feeling so overwhelmed, perhaps these things, the amulets, and elixirs can be shared with him. Perhaps they would act as metamorphic catalysts for him too.
Then I feel another wave of guilt. Again, I’m focused on Tommy, when I should be thinking about the one who sacrificed these treasures.
The Ravenous were swarming toward him. Even if Alex is right, and he’s being helped with recovery, he’s still injured and trapped in the Lower Astral.
The thought makes me feel physically ill.
I stand up suddenly from where I was kneeling beside the safe, and Tommy looks at me with concern.
“I need to go out there and say a prayer for Jeremiah before we leave here.”
“I understand,” says Tommy. “I’ll say a prayer for him too.”
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I walk a couple hundred feet toward the butte and fall to my knees.
I have to do something for Jeremiah. There must be a way to make contact.
I close my eyes and grasp my hands together in a desperate prayer.
Jeremiah. You sacrificed so much to initiate me. I seek to be worthy of your help. Please recover and find safety. I will always love you and be grateful.
As I focus my intention, time seems to suspend, so I’m not sure how long I stayed that way, but eventually, the energy of my prayer dissipates. I unclench my hands and let my arms fall limp.
I open my eyes, and there, glowing before me, is the Origami Boy. But Jeremiah isn’t the one beneath his luminous form. It’s Wen. His eyes are mournful and compassionate.
“Jeremiah is still alive,” he says. “We’ve taken refuge in an abandoned building. He’s been weakened by the ordeal, but he’ll recover, and he has me as a helper and guide. I need to get back to him soon, but we agreed I should attempt to reach you.
“The Ravenous have lost Jeremiah’s scent, and once he recovers, I know a way of escape from the dark city. There are other astral planes we can journey toward. But I’m so sorry, Andrew. The portal you passed through, the one that could allow a physical body to crossover, is gone. Jeremiah is unable to return to you.”
“For now, I can reveal a secret I discovered in the Lower Astral. I found the remnant of the man who causes the extinction. His name is James Vaughn. His mind has unraveled, but I saw into his memory enough to piece together what happened.
“Vaughn’s will to power desperately sought a way to conquer death. This led him to genetically engineer a mutant he named Kyle. He planned to harvest Kyle as a new bodily vehicle he could inhabit to escape his aging body. He made Kyle his adoptive son and heir, assuming his technologists would find a way to transfer his psyche into him by the time he turned twenty-one.
“Once the switch occurred, he would have a new legal identity as his own twenty-one-year-old heir, allowing him to retain control of his financial empire. Vaughn expected to become a new lifeform, freed from the bonds of a single body. Once that occurred, he planned to develop brain-computer interfaces that would allow him to upload his consciousness and escape the organic altogether.
“When he received a terminal cancer diagnosis, desperate experiments with psyche transfer were tried between captive human subjects. But the materialist science involved failed to do anything but create massive brain damage in all those they experimented on.
“As cancer spread through his body, Vaughn devised an even more desperate scheme. He programmed an AI to create a species-destroying virus with a time fuse that would be triggered by his death. He thought this Sword of Damocles held over the human genome would create an evolutionary pressure that would force the discovery of a workable transfer procedure. But it didn’t, and when Vaughn died, the Whip was unleashed.
“His morbid attempt at metamorphosis failed, but the evolutionary pressure created by the virus resulted in an experiment he never anticipated—Biosphere 3.
“His heir, Kyle, survived that experiment and became the seed crystal sent to the past to create the branching.
“Dark elements serve the larger pattern we are woven into. The weaving of this pattern separated you from Jeremiah. All we can do is to keep playing our parts.”
I’m staggered. Wen waits patiently, giving me space to take in his revelations.
Suddenly, I realize something unrelated to them.
“Wen, you told Jeremiah that terror of what Viealetta might do to him would likely cause you to retreat from his timeline. But you didn’t retreat. You stayed with him, didn’t you? That’s how you’re able to be there for him now.”
“Thank you, Wen. I will always be grateful for your courage and loyalty. You watched over me when I was young, and you stayed with Jeremiah in his time of greatest need.”
“And we ‘re grateful for your will to continue,” Wen replies. “I will try to reach out to you again if we can find any way to help your mission.
“Goodbye, Andrew. For so long, I’ve wished to communicate with you and contribute to your journey. May fortune bless you and your crucial mission.”
Before I can respond, Wen vanishes.
I walk back to the Mothership to tell Tommy what I’ve learned.
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We talk through Wen’s revelations for a while.
“I feel a little more compassion for Kyle,” Tommy says. “His own father raised him just so he could steal his body. What would I be like if I had no mother and was made for such a terrible purpose? Made by a man so evil he was willing to destroy the species rather than have it live on past him . . .”
We reflect in silence for a while before we head out.
Later, as we’re cruising down the highway, I notice Tommy looking out the window with wonder.
“Wow, never thought I’d see anything like this again,” he says. ”The world before the plague, with everything up and running. The cars are all older models to me, but they look so new. I never really appreciated how well society functioned until everything fell apart.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “I take it for granted. Most people do. I’ve been hearing about looming global catastrophes all my life. When I listen to the news, it always seems like the world is about to blow up. But meanwhile, stores are open, and when you step out on the street, everything is rolling right along. The band plays on, and they’re serving drinks on the deck of the Titanic.”
“Well, right now, the deck of the Titanic seems pretty cool compared to what I’m used to. But I—” His expression darkens. “I know how this ends. It’s hard to focus on the band when you’ve already seen the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.”
“I understand,” I say. “You’ve lived through it. But now we have a chance to change that, to shift the collective and hopefully create an alternative to extinction.”
“I want to believe it, Andrew. But I’ve lived out the future of this. So, to me, the wreckage feels . . . inevitable.”
“I can see why you’d feel that way,” I reply. “But you’ve also lived the impossible. You’re living it right now by being here before the extinction. We need to get past what seems inevitable and work toward the impossible.”
“Thanks,” says Tommy, “I needed to hear you say that. I just wish we knew how we’re supposed to prevent extinction. Maybe we need to find a way to stop Kyle’s father.”
“I think action that direct would immediately split the timeline,” I reply. “Jeremiah made a convincing case for subtle means. He said we need to shift the collective psyche of the species. Even if we stopped the Whip, the collective psyche is still bent on destruction. It would just find another way.”
“Right,” says Tommy. “Jeremiah’s advice is coming back to me from your journal. He said we should work through alchemical means. But I have no idea how to do that.”
“That’s what I said to Jeremiah,” I reply, “but we know two key parts of it. The first is the metamorphosis itself. As it continues, we become more anomalous parts of the collective psyche. This is the seed crystal effect Jeremiah talked about. The second part is the butterfly effects we set in motion.”
“Like what?” asks Tommy.
“Well, it could be almost anything, but an example that comes to mind is our journals.”
“Our journals?” he asks. “I mean, your journal had a big effect on me, and you read mine, but to be a butterfly effect, it has to reach out beyond us, right?”
“Yes,” I reply, “but that’s doable. We both had the sense or hope of a few other mutants finding our journals, not just each other. What if we paste them together and post them online somewhere. Maybe some other mutants will figure out the right search term, like you did, and discover them. And then maybe it would have a butterfly effect on them.”
“Sounds possible,” says Tommy. “But I knew specific words to search for. Actual things we said to each other. If we’re trying to create a butterfly effect, why make our journals so hard to find if we’re trying to reach out to people? Why not make them easy to find or even advertise their existence? We could also add evidence. I never followed the news that well, but I do know some world events that will happen in the next fifteen years. Suppose we add a list of them. As more and more of those come true, our journals will get more attention.”
“But, if we did all that,” I say, “it would violate alchemical means. It’d be like trying to assassinate James Vaughn before he creates the Whip. It could split the timeline. A butterfly can’t be a sledgehammer. If we want our journals to have a butterfly effect, we have to be subtle. I think we need them to be in a between-and-betwixt zone.”
“Between and betwixt?” Tommy asks.
“Right,” I reply. “Like between-and-betwixt fact and fiction. We should make the journals easier to find, but we need to allow room for doubt and not include anything that will seem prophetic. No evidence. We also have to be sure they can’t be traced back to our legal identities. So we’ll leave out last names and alter any details that could be traced back to us. We need to stay below the radar and—” I stop as an idea dawns on me.
“Actually, I know the perfect place to post them. Someone my parents met when they were at NYU. An older mutant who’s got an eccentric website with all kinds of weird content. Even his name is strange—Jonathan Zap. He’s been a mentor since I was fourteen when my mom asked him to talk to me about my paranormal experiences.
His website, zaporacle.com, gets a fair amount of traffic, but most of the content leaves you wondering which parts to take seriously, and which are there to stimulate your imagination. So, the whole site is intentionally in that between-and-betwixt zone already. And he does include some content he didn’t write. I remember reading some haunting poems he posted by someone named Jack Savage. I go there mainly to use the free oracle, the Zap Oracle, he created. If we put our journals on his site, they’d be accessible, but also in a state of fact-or-fiction ambiguity. He can just say that these journals were given to him, and readers can decide for themselves if there’s anything to them.
“Now that I think about it, the night I first met him, he gave me a book he wrote. I read it then, which was a long time ago and before the accident so my memory of it is vague, but it had to do with evolutionary transformation—it even has metamorphosis in the title. I should probably reread that.
“So he ought to be receptive to the idea of our mission. He knows about the accident and that I was left severely fireskinned. I could show him my healed skin to prove that the metamorphosis is real. If we can convince him of what’s at stake, maybe he’ll understand the need to protect our identities. Would you be willing to talk to him?” I ask.
“Andrew, of course, I’m willing to try anything that might work,” Tommy replies.
“If we reach the right mutants,” I point out, “it may not matter who they think wrote the journals. Everybody knows the world is in extreme peril, Whip or no Whip. Being reminded of what’s at stake could get them to take the butterfly effects they create more seriously.
“Old World alchemists lived their lives as if all their actions, even mundane ones, altered the fate of the cosmos,” I continue.
“That’s true for us and for everybody. We want to remind people what’s at stake with their choices. Everybody is a butterfly effector.
“I see,” says Tommy.
But then his gaze turns inward. I can tell he’s getting intuitions, so I remain silent to give him space for those to unfold.
“So, if our butterfly effects work,” Tommy resumes, “and the Whip doesn’t happen fifteen years from now, then The Friends, the people I grew up with would live on in that reality. And there would have to be still another version of me, a fifteen-year-old Tommy who lives on in the trunk timeline without the Whip or the biosphere.”
“I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right—there would have to be another version of you,” I reply.
“Well,” says Tommy, “I hope his life is less traumatic than mine. It seems like it would be, he’d get to finish growing up with The Friends.”
“True,” I reply. “If our work succeeds, we’d be giving him a different life than the one you experienced from the age of fifteen on. But we should be careful what we wish for other people. His life could be less traumatic, but that could make it less in other ways too.”
“You mean the metamorphosis?” Tommy asks.
“Among other things, yes. Trauma was a crucial catalyst for your metamorphosis. You had to evolve to survive the Whip and the biosphere. A less traumatized Tommy could also be a more human and ordinary one. I’m sure he would still be a great person, but he might not have your abilities and insights and might not metamorphose. We don’t know what the future will hold for him, so we shouldn’t fall into the fallacy of parents who think that the safest and most secure life they can create for their offspring must be the best one.
“But if our work succeeds, you’d have an offspring of sorts, another version who’d be the same person as you until age fifteen, when the timelines diverge. Just like there’s another version of me still living his life on the elf planet. Jeremiah is another version of you, but you and he split before birth, though his life was similar to yours up to the age of fifteen. But the version that would live on in the trunk timeline is you until fifteen. Just as the other Andrew was me until eighteen. I know—it’s a lot to wrap your mind around. But right now, I think we should focus on our next steps. That other version of you will exist only if our mission succeeds.
“The next step is that we have to get you ID. Tucson is too far to make it there at a reasonable hour tonight. And it’s better to deal with Jason earlier in the day before he gets into party mode. So let’s keep an eye out for a good camp spot.”
Tommy nods, and I give him my phone to search for any music he’d like to hear. He finds that a lot of his favorites don’t exist yet, but he sets up a classic rock playlist and then seems thoughtful as he studies the view out the window. I drive until I notice national parkland appearing alongside us on the satellite map. The sun is low on the horizon, and the time feels right to set up camp.
I pull into a secluded campsite as a spectacular sunset illuminates the desert landscape with warm colors. I kill the engine, and we step outside.
Like rays of magical creation, streaks of rose and orange light transform the landscape into a magnificent painting. The vision repaints itself moment-by-moment as colored striations of rock emerge from the shadows. The light reveals the deep colors of Native American blankets and earthenware pottery.
“Beautiful,” Tommy says, his expression filled with awe. He stands in reverie as the rays of the setting sun fall on him.
“Until today, the only sunlight I’ve experienced for years was filtered through thick, laminated glass,” he says. “This is amazing.”
Tommy’s eyes close in grateful appreciation of the sun on his skin. He’s a new creature on this Earth, a temporal anomaly illuminated by the rays of the setting sun for the first time.
Somewhere, another version of him, the one native to this timeline, floats in the warm, wet darkness of his mother’s belly, waiting to be born.
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The next day, the desert sun is high in the sky as we pull into Jason’s apartment complex.
“I can never quite get over the weirdness that Jason, who is from Manhattan like me, chooses to live in Tucson, of all places,” I say.
“What’s so weird about that?” Tommy asks. “Lots of people like more sunshine.”
“Yeah,” I reply, “except most vampires appreciate sunlight more than Jason. He lives in the dark, surrounded by screens and way too much air-conditioning. Bring a hoodie or something—his place is usually freezing.
“I’ve sometimes wondered if the unwelcome sunlight is the point of Tucson for Jason,” I continue. “It’s usually so bright and hot out it makes his indoor, digital life seem like a reasonable adaptation. He doesn’t even go outside to shop for groceries. His only connection to the physical world, what he calls the IRL, is whatever gets delivered to his door.”
“IRL?” Tommy asks.
“In Real Life,” I reply. “Oh, and I should prepare you. Jason is—well, difficult would be a polite way of putting it. He’s really not a bad guy, at least not to me, but he can come off as quite abrasive. But it’s nothing to worry about,” I add as Tommy pulls a hoodie from his pack. “People at NYU called me the Jason Whisperer. I’d often be asked to intervene if they needed him to be more reasonable. Well, you’ll see. Just don’t let him get to you.”
“If he’s not a genetically-engineered psychopath trying to have sex with me, I think I’ll be OK,” says Tommy, giving me a dazzling, I-can-handle-anything smile.
Jason buzzes us in.
As we step off the elevator, we see Jason’s huge, bulky form filling his doorway.
“Ah, Mr. Andrew, aren’t you a sight for blood-shot eyes. And this must be Tommy, the young runaway you’ve smuggled across state lines. Come in, come in.”
Jason gestures toward a sofa and a coffee table dominated by a large bong and hookah, then bolts the door behind us.
“What can I get you guys—Red Bull? Vape? Bong hit? Adderal? I’ve also got Vyvanse if you’re feeling high class.”
“No thanks, I’m good,” I reply.
“How bout you Tommy? I saw your eyes light up when I said bong hit.”
“No, I’m good,” replies Tommy. “My day’s been weird enough already, but I appreciate the offer. Thank you.”
Jason sits across from us in a giant-size gaming chair that looks like it’s meant to support every part of your body, just in case of a 5G rocket launch. We’re in his combo living room- workstation, his desk surrounded by a semi-circular arrangement of six monitors mounted above a backlit, color-shifting gaming keyboard.
Jason studies me with even more than his usual intrusive scrutiny.
“Holy shit, Andrew, you look younger than when I first met you. People could mistake me for your father.”
“No, Jason,” I try lowering the register of my voice while giving him an intense look, “I am your father.”
“That was the worst Darth Vader voice in the history of mankind,” he replies flatly. “You look—”
“Jason, it’s not me, it’s you. You just don’t take care of yourself. I’m doing the same stuff I always have—vegan diet, supplements, organic skin care products—you should try it.”
” Yeah, right. Anytime I’m ready to be a completely different person, I’ll give you a call. And what about you, Tommy, you look like you’re what—fifteen, sixteen?”
“Eighteen. I’m on a vegan diet too. Works great.”
“OK, so officially, you’re eighteen, got it.”
“Jason,” I say, giving him a serious look, “he really is eighteen. This isn’t about harboring underage runaways.”
“So, what is this about? You said you wanted to talk to me face-to-face about something.”
“Right, I’m just trying to respect your security protocols. Don’t digitally communicate anything confidential, even on encrypted apps. I do listen to you, Jason. Anyway, we need something done, and you’re the only person I know who could pull it off. It’d be a great favor, but it doesn’t have to be pro bono. I just came into a substantial sum of money, so I can pay for your time and trouble in cash—”
“Cash? What are you a drug dealer now? Part of some sort of organic supplements cartel or something? Pay me in cash for what?”
I take a deep breath, recalibrating myself to Jason’s interruptive style that never lets me get a complete thought out.
“I need you to create a new legal identity for Tommy.”
Jason raises an eyebrow.
“Nothing illegal is going on, Jason, but I’m also going to follow your compartmentalized, need-to-know protocol and not explain the details.”
“OK,” Jason replies, “so supposedly eighteen-year-old Tommy here needs a new legal identity, but there’s nothing illegal going on, so I can commit about ten felonies creating a false identity for an underage—I mean absolutely, legitimately eighteen-year-old kid—with a completely clean conscience.”
“Exactly,” I reply. “We haven’t done anything illegal, not yet at least, but I realize I’m asking you to do something that is. But committing ten felonies is like a quiet afternoon for you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Jason replies, “only I like to know everything about every felony I’m involved in. Does this have anything to do with your article about the Amish? Rumspringa or whatever it’s called? Are you trying to liberate an Amish kid? I don’t want the Amish mafia coming after me with pitchforks.”
“Look, Jason. I know you can sniff out secret info from thousands of miles away, let alone when it’s in your living room asking for a new identity. So, yeah, obviously, there are all sorts of strange things going on here, but I can’t tell you, and it’d be better for all concerned if you don’t know. But we’re not up to anything illegal. So far, we haven’t even committed a misdemeanor.”
“Yeah, OK, I get it. This isn’t exactly my first need-to-know-basis rodeo.”
Jason swivels around in his chair and picks up his battered, air-gapped, sticker-encrusted laptop. It’s the same one he’d stripped of wireless functionality when he was a teenager.
“Alright, new identity. Haven’t actually done one of those, but I know the drill. And just so you know upfront, this will take me a couple of days. Not because the job needs that many man-hours but because I happen to have a lot on my plate right now. Also, this type of work needs to be meticulous and should not be rushed unless you’re in a rush?”
I shake my head.
“Great. A crappy job might take an hour or two, but you know I don’t work that way. If I’m going to make a new identity, it’s gotta be state-of-the-art—bulletproof. And luckily for you, I just got a refill of all my prescriptions.
“OK, new identity. One thing I do need to know,” he turns his attention to Tommy, “is anyone looking for you. Do any government agencies have you in their crosshairs?”
“No, not at all, ” replies Tommy.
“He’s actually completely clean,” I add. “No official record of him anywhere.”
“What? How’s that even possible? Did you drop here from another planet?”
“I was raised in the woods,” Tommy replies, “a little commune, totally off the grid, homeschooling, no social—”
“Wow, so you’re like that kid who was raised in the woods to be a super warrior—Andrew, what was that movie called?”
“Hanna,” I reply
“Yeah, the movie is actually based on Tommy’s life,” I say. “So is the series they made from the movie. But remember, you’re a veteran need-to-know rodeo pro, so you don’t even want to know about that. The less you know, the fewer black helicopters circling the apartment complex. Can we stay on task? I thought you had a lot on your plate.”
“OK, OK, whatever. I just needed to make sure no agency is looking for you. If we’re really starting this clean—”
“There is no if, Jason. He really is that clean. I’d tell you if he wasn’t.”
“OK, great, I believe you,” Jason replies. “In that case, you’re the perfect candidate for a new identity. So, might as well keep your first name—it’s a pretty common one. Any reason not to?”
“No,” says Tommy, “no reason at all.”
“But, your last name, which I don’t need to know, of course, is history. Make sure you don’t have anything on you, ever, especially a device, that has your old last name. So, what would you like your new last name to be? Wait, don’t even say it aloud. Write it down on this piece of paper. And make sure it’s not the last name of your best friend or anyone you’ve ever known.”
“I’d like him to have a driver’s license,” I say, “but now they’re embedded with chips and holograms.”
“What? Did you think I was going to 3-D print him a fake ID or something? When I’m done, legitimately eighteen-year-old Tommy here will be able to walk into an Arizona DMV and walk out with the real thing. He’ll be able to get on a plane and even apply for a passport. I’m not interested in doing something half-assed. This is going to be a state-of-the-art new identity. Bulletproof. Have you ever been fingerprinted or had your genome mapped?”
“No,” replies Tommy. “Maybe in the future, I will, but not so far,” he adds giving me a look.
“Great. What I need from you guys, in the next day or two, is a fictive couple-page life history for Tommy. Where he grew up, what schools he went to. Stick as close as possible to places, religious affiliations, interests, etc., with which you’re already familiar. But not so familiar that it’s traceable to you. The history doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just an outline, the basics. Obviously, you need to be able to remember it backwards and forwards.
“And try not to get picked up for anything while I’m working on this. You’ve got the camper, load up on groceries and go straight to an RV park or whatever on the outskirts of town, and stay put. I’m going to write out instructions on how you can securely send me the history, even over leaky campground Wi-Fi. And you’re a photographer—send me a couple of headshots of Tommy through the same pathway. When I’ve got everything together, I’ll call and ask if you want to hang out. Any questions?”
Jason stands, and we do as well.
“No, I think you covered all the bases,” I reply. “Can I give you some cash upfront to cover expenses?”
“Don’t worry about it, Andrew. I’m not exactly hurting for money. I’ve got enough to buy this whole apartment complex. I probably will. Just haven’t found the time. Time and romantic relationships are the only things I’m short on.”
“Well, thank you, Jason, this is life-saving help.”
“Thanks, Jason,” says Tommy. “You’re helping to give me a new life. I know you’re taking risks, and I deeply appreciate your help.”
Tommy reaches out to hug him, which catches the big guy by surprise, but he doesn’t resist. When they break apart, Jason, for the first time since I’ve known him, doesn’t know what to say. Tommy’s affectionate sincerity has left him moved and speechless. I take advantage of his stunned state to give him a hug too.
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Back outside in the intense sunlight, I feel curious about Tommy’s impression.
“So, what did you think of Jason?”
“I like him a lot,” says Tommy. “Seems like a really nice guy and super smart. I didn’t find him difficult. But I did get the feeling he’s attracted to you.”
“Yeah,” I admit, “part of what makes me the Jason Whisperer. But we worked through all that early on. He knows I’m not available and accepts me as a friend. He acts flirtatious, but it’s just a game. He’s more into porno than people.
“I owe Jason a lot, and I try to repay the debt as best I can. He helped me gain entry to the first subculture I ever wrote about, which got my whole photojournalism career going.”
“What do you do to pay him back?” asks Tommy.
“I play an important role in his life. I’m the one person he can talk to about non-computer stuff. He sometimes calls me his therapist. But he also likes to joke around, and we share a subversive sense of humor.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re there for him,” says Tommy. “He seems isolated and lonely, and I know what that’s like. Maybe we can visit him again when the new identity is finished?”
“Sure. He’d love that. Maybe we can even get him out of his lair and buy him dinner.”
Back in the Mothership, I search the web for off-the-beaten-track campgrounds. I locate one in the outskirts of Tucson and book a stay. Then I set my GPS for the nearest Whole Foods and start driving there.
Tommy looks dazed as we step inside the store.
“Since you’re such a great cook, maybe you should pick out some produce and anything else you want.”
“Yeah, sure, this is amazing,” he replies. “I’m used to working with what I’ve grown myself. There’s so much to choose from.”
We start filling a cart, and I study Tommy while he carefully browses the produce. He’s assuming an upbeat tone for my benefit. I can tell he’s actually highly stressed by the overstimulation—especially all the people moving around us. Nevertheless, he’s keeping it together and pretending to be delighted by the bewildering variety of choices to hide his anxiety.
Like when he was cooking, I see a bit more of what he keeps hidden when he’s engrossed in a task rather than taking cues from me. He’s far more complex than the way he seems at first glance. Moment-by-moment, he’s adapting himself to what he thinks I need, but there’s nothing deceptive about it. He’s used to containing his pain and paranormal aspects to keep them from disturbing others and has probably been doing that all his life. I need to help him feel safe enough to let some of that out.
Tommy’s relief is obvious once we’re back in the Mothership. Instead of talking, I find Tommy’s classic rock playlist and put it on shuffle to give him space to recover from the over-stimulation while we drive to the campground.
It turns out to be a real find called the El Pais Motel. It has a strip of motel rooms, but it’s mostly a campground for home vehicles. I learned from the website that it’s run by a mother and daughter who refurbished a wreck of a 1950’s motel and decorated it with cool, mid-century stuff. Everything, even the ashtrays in the outdoor lounge area, are 1950s-era futurism. There’s a pool with a projection screen above it to show late-night movies. Inside what they call the Clubhouse is one pink and one blue-tiled 1950s-era bathroom, as well as a kitchen and period-furnished lounges.
It’s pleasingly quirky and even a little bit dreamlike. Chickens wander about the property, and Tommy seems delighted by them. The Mothership is docked near the open chicken coop. A basket of homely-looking free eggs is on a counter in the outdoor kitchen.
After we take in the surreality of the El Pais, we go for a walk.
The motel is on Benson Highway, once the main route into Tucson until they built 10 West in the Sixties. Now it’s declined into a ghost strip, with a few places selling old tires and a Mexican food truck called El Taqueria Rapido.
We pass row after row of 1950s cinderblock motels in various states of extreme disrepair. The only other pedestrian we encounter is a homeless person pushing a shopping cart loaded with tattered possessions. He doesn’t look in our direction while he performs a solitary and angry monologue. It’s a reminder that some parts of this reality aren’t all that different from the Lower Astral.
Although Tommy is making efforts to be cheerful, I can tell he’s struggling with something. As we walk, he grows silent, unable to keep up the pretense. It’s like all the trauma he’s experienced is coming back to him, and he’s finally beginning to feel it. I don’t want to see him suffering, but I’m also grateful he trusts me enough to stop hiding his vulnerability and pain.
I ask him to sit with me under the limited shade afforded by a scraggly tree. I sense he’s trying to gather his thoughts, so I give him some space by looking around. The ground is strewn with trash, some of it forming into amusing found-object collages. To lighten the mood a little, I point out one of them to Tommy. The torn flap of a cardboard box has pictures of limes and chili peppers around the words, Turn Up the Heat. Lying right beside it is a weathered plastic big-gulp cup that says, Stays Colder Longer.
“Yeah, that is pretty funny,” he says, smiling weakly.
“If something’s troubling you, Tommy, you know you can talk to me about it, right? We’ve read each other’s journals. You know all my worst secrets. But—” I stop myself, realizing that I’m almost demanding that Tommy tell me what he’s feeling when I shouldn’t be intruding. “Actually, I’ll be quiet. You seem like you need your own space.”
“It’s not that I need my own space, Andrew. I’m grateful to be here with you and not in the Biosphere with Kyle. I’m sure I’ll get used to the overstimulation in a day or two, but—I just can’t help seeing everything from the perspective of the only future I know. I want to believe another future is possible, but . . . everybody I’m seeing here is doomed unless we can make some kind of difference somehow, and I’m just so afraid I’ll fail all of them and—”
He stops, his eyes filling with tears. His expression is haunted, and I can feel the tragic intensity of everything he’s been through overwhelming him. It’s not anything I can talk him out of. It just has to unfold.
“Tommy—” I want to give him a hug, but stop myself, remembering his sexual trauma and my mixed motives for wanting to hug him.
He seems to read my repressed intention and maybe more. He reaches out, pulling me into a tight hug.
As he rests his head on my shoulder, we merge in a way that’s more physical and emotional than what we experienced at the treehouse.
It’s warm and flowing, like two hearts beating in a single body.
Eventually, we separate.
“Andrew . . . we’ll figure it out,” Tommy says. Then he gives me a smile that lights up the endless horizon of unformed possibilities lying before us.
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