Fuck. I never expected to talk this much. For this long. I’ve . . . I’ve got a lot to say. Apparently. But I’m getting close to the end now. To joining up with all too fucking depressing present.
Final lap now, ladies and gents and everyone in between. Come one, come all!
The meeting lasted for six hours. Food and drinks were brought to us. By the end we were all so fucking wiped we could barely make it to our beds. But the thought of supportive mattress and soft sheets was enough to get us home. I’d really hoped the man in the high tower – your head honcho – would be there. But no. Of course, I’m sure he was listening in.
We were on a precipice and only us on the island actually knew it and knew about it. We had to do things carefully and slowly from now on. So mistakes wouldn’t be made. Yeah, right. Mistakes will always be made no matter what, so long as there are fucking humans involved. When you play with fire . . . You get burned. Except in this case we were playing with time travel. Time travel was our fire. And we had no fucking clue how to control it.
But it was also so . . . Enticing. So magical. Yeah. Magical. That’s definitely an appropriate fucking word. There was definitely something supernatural about it. Out of this world. In the realm of the impossible. I’ve been to some truly incredible places on this planet. Spectacularly beautiful. I’ve seen fucking unbelievable things become reality. Grow and exist. I’ve participated in them. Played my part in the seemingly impossible. Made it possible. But this . . . This was something else. It was magical and enticing and . . . So very fucking exciting. The possibilities were . . . Endless, and they were all there for us. For the taking. Behind those doors. It was why we had all signed up for this. Agreed to abandon our current lives and start this new and interesting one.
The first hour of the meeting we just talked about all these special times and places we wanted to visit. Historical events. Moments from ancient times. Moments from more recent ones. Everyone had a favorite one, that special time they’d always kinda dreamed about visiting. This probably wasn’t the way the meeting was intended to go, but in a way we were all blowing off a little steam, having a laugh, and enjoying ourselves. So we got a lot of leeway. We’d earned it. Then someone started talking about the future. That started us all off on a new tangent. It was like Star Wars and Star Trek having babies and we were all riding in those gravitational waves in kickass future spaceships.
Eventually we started running out of steam. Quieting down. The heads took their cues and started bringing the meeting to order. Going over the great achievements that had been made and where we currently stood. As they spoke, a group of scientists were spooling up and activating the doors. We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but we knew what it fucking inferred. We broke out in a hearty round of applause and cheers and whistles. Then they started talking about consequences. The fact that not only would we be actually traveling through time, but we would have an effect on the time period we arrived in. There was no way not to. But the simple fact of us fucking being there was causing a change. As I said, we’d all read up and watched the time travel literature. Like . . . all of it. We’d been given specific class time for it. Yeah. Just like fucking study hall. So as soon as they brought up this poignant subject that we knew was as inevitable as their mouthing the iconic words “butterfly effect” within the next thirty seconds . . . They did it in twenty-two, incidentally . . . The famous Ray Bradbury story “A Sound of Thunder” popped into all our heads. It was almost a fucking reflex action. For me. Don’t know about everyone else. But there was a communal sense going on. Yeah. Kinda mystical.
In the Bradbury story, set some time in the future, there’s a company called Time Safari Inc. that will take people back to hunt extinct species. There are specific rules to be followed, otherwise the contract is voided. One guy steps off the path and when they all come back things are different. Subtle things. Little things. The language is different. The other guy won the big election. All because the guy stepped off the path and crushed a bug. Oh. Yeah. You guessed it. A fucking butterfly.
And now the heads are enlightening us about how the butterfly effect doesn’t come from that memorable story that they know we’ve all read and practically memorized – they caught me there, I’ve read it somewhere between thirty and fifty fucking times – but relates to chaos theory. A mind-numbingly complex concept summed up with the pithy phrase: if a butterfly flaps its wings in one place, hundreds of miles away a hurricane begins to stir. Yeah. Smacks mightily of bullshit to me. And I prepare myself for a long-winded lecture on chaos theory, and am delighted when it doesn’t come. Instead they talk about when it comes to time travel, there are rules that are to be adhered to. There’s nothing chaotic about it. We’re informed that in the next few weeks we’ll be receiving further training on this specific subject. But suffice to say, they continue, the goal of these “missions” is more one of observation than actual participation. To observe and witness the historical or future event, but never to take part in.
“But what if someone from that time tries to communicate with us,” someone asks.
The heads inform us before we go through a single door, we will go through a rigorous immersion process, essentially “drowning” us in everything about the time period as regards culture, people, language, and everything else. So if one of us does end up in the very unlikely situation, we will be fully prepared.
And then we’re back to talking about our favorite times we want to visit. It goes on for another hour. All real polite and conscientious. Everyone getting a turn. But not too long into it, I ask the heads a question. I’m cagey about it.
“I don’t know if this has been on everyone else’s minds. And don’t get me wrong. I’m super pumped for this. Like all of us here. But . . . Why are we actually doing this? What . . . What does the Ostium Network get out of it?”
And for the first time – and probably the last – the heads were stumped by a question. Well. I don’t know if they were stumped. But they took longer than the average five seconds to answer the fucking thing.
“Ms. Chase,” the heads said, addressing me directly. I felt special. And for the first time . . . A little scared. Scared of them. I was scared of the Rock the first time I set foot on it. “Ms. Chase, that is a very good question. And there’s a very good answer to go with it. But for now, you don’t get to hear it. There’s an expression: ‘that’s above your pay grade.’ The question falls under this rubric. In time. At a later date. Everyone here will know the answer. When it’s the right time. So who here would like to be there on the day Julius Cesar is stabbed by his not-so-friendly senators?”
I never forgot that. Never found out either. Far as I know, none of us did. Still a fucking mystery today. But we were just all so excited to become fucking time travelers. We went through further training classes, all about time travel and its ramifications and what the Ostium Network rules and strict no-nos were when it came to traveling through. Oh, and most of this shit was – without a doubt – made up, cobbled together, and decided on the night before. It had that hasty unplanned feel that in most cases was just obvious. We pretty much knew if we fucked up, that would be the end. No second chance. We’d not be time traveling anymore. And we’d be kicked off the island. End of story. And none of us were going to risk that.
Until they did what they did to Steve.
Then we had a month to decide on where and when we wanted to go. We didn’t know who’d be going first, or second, or fiftieth. We were all pretty certain we’d get a turn. They’d done everything but promise this. It was why we were all fucking here in the first place. I took a while and couldn’t agree on a specific event. I just knew it was going to be around the turn of the twenty-first century. Some time before or after the year 2000, within a decade or two. I just fucking love the geeky pop culture stuff from that era. In case you haven’t noticed. They were okay with me not knowing exactly what I wanted to see and when; there were actually a few of us, but we all figured when it came closer to our time we’d decide then. So next was the rigorous research. Six months. Of reading. Watching. Listening. Absorbing. I did everything. Music. Books. TV. Movies. A million fucking commercials with some terrible jingles I will never be able to get out of my brain.
It was towards the end of the research period that I ended up chatting with one of the engineer developer sciencey guys one night. Don’t really know what the fuck he did, but the guy was involved in making something happen in Ostium, which was good enough for me. He started telling me about this infrared map he’d been developing for people going around Ostium. It was kinda limited in that it only worked in Ostium, not on the other side of any doors, so the higher ups weren’t really that impressed or interested in it. They saw its potential but weren’t really putting a high priority on it. But he was having problems making it work in Ostium. Like getting it activated. He wanted it to be so you pretty much stepped into Ostium and there you had the map and could go to any door and navigate yourself around the whole town. He was still really excited about it. Guess it did eventually work okay. So thanks for that.
I know I said earlier I didn’t remember where it came from, but this is a big part of why I’m doing this. My head is kinda foggy on a lot of this stuff and going through it all step by step is helping make things clearer. I didn’t remember the infrared map, so when I first experience I was as shocked as Jake was, and it wasn’t until just now that I remembered talking with this guy.
We actually got a couple of very strictly guided tours around parts of Ostium too. We obviously didn’t get to open and go through any doors, other than the clock tower. We checked out the kitchen and bedroom and bath. They showed us that crazy pantry that was always super stocked with a ton of food. Seemed like it went on for miles in there, but the guy who developed it had been with us on the tour that day, so he was able to talk about . . .
To talk about . . .
[Jake softly:] What? Talk about what Monica?
[Monica anguished whisper:] Jake?
[Monica hopeful whisper:] Jake? Is that you?
[Jake softly:] What did he want to talk to you about, Monica? Something about the food?
[Monica quietly:] Goddammit, Jake. I know it’s not you. [Breath] I know you’re not fucking here. You just a goddamn figment of my imagination.
[Jake:] Maybe. I guess so. Does that fucking matter? There’s gotta be a reason I’m here. Talking to you.
[Monica quietly:] Of course there is. Because I fucking miss you. Because there’s a fucking hole in my heart where you should be. Because you sacrificed yourself, Jake. You fucking committed suicide. For me. And for saving the universe. Mr. Fucking High and Mighty. Till the very end. No surprise there.
[Jake:] So what were you going to tell me?
[Monica quietly:] I . . . I don’t remember. You fucking wiped my brain. Emptied my thoughts. I don’t even remember what I was fucking talking about.
[Jake:] Something about . . . Someone telling you something . . . About the food . . . In Ostium . . .
[Monica quietly:] Yes. [Louder with excitement:] Yes! The fucking food pantry. Thank you Jake . . . No. Not Jake. Thank you brain. For keeping it together. The pantry. With the food that never seems to end. But does, because it can’t last forever. Nothing’s infinite.
[Jake, cocky:] The universe is infinite.
[Monica:] Fuck you, Jake. I knew that. Which is why you were able to say it. Why my subconscious was able to say it . . . As for you. Look, imaginary Jake. Can you just shut the fuck up for a little while, so I can fucking think and figure this shit out.
[Jake:] Sure thing. Babe.
[Monica:] I’m gonna ignore that. Now what had that guy been saying? That the food wasn’t infinite. That was impossible. But it was a large pantry. With a lot of room. But at the very back was a special . . . Reloading door. That was it. A door connecting Ostium to the Ostium Network. To the Rock. It was small. Made for a restocking cart to be slid through and added to the back of the pantry. So it just seemed like there was never ending food, only it was getting restocked. From a door that led back to the island. He didn’t show us the door. The pantry had been fully stocked at that point and you couldn’t see a fucking thing in there, other than piles of food. But that little door was supposed to be there. At the very back.
[Jake, whisper:] Then what the fuck are you waiting for?
[Monica:] You’re fucking right.
Maybe I didn’t think this through? I just opened the pantry door and I’m staring at the mountains of food. It’s definitely not as much as that first time I saw it with everyone else. That was packed solid. And Jake and I have been eating through it for a while now. So it’s definitely less. There’s space.
Wait a fucking second. Has the Ostium Network been restocking this pantry through the special door? Logic says yes. Of course. What about us being untethered? Did that sever the connection? Who the fuck knows? I sure don’t. I’ve said it over and over. None of us knew what we were getting in to with Ostium. So the idea that it could become detached from reality was something that was never even hinted at by anyone. And we had many conversations about what the future of Ostium held for us. When I saw the reality on top of the water tower I just knew that that’s what it was. I accepted it and told Jake. Not knowing how or why this thing happened, just that it did.
And now here I am: about to go through what I thought was a back door. A secret way back to the Ostium Network. Back to the Rock. Thinking how fucking smart I was. But what if I go through that door and just fall into the blackness. Fall forever. Like spinning endlessly in space. Never connecting with anything. Was there anything that could tell me that wouldn’t happen?
[Jake, softly:] How do you know if you don’t try?
But is it worth the risk? Worth the sacrifice?
[Jake:] What do you think?
What do I think? I think you sacrificed yourself, Jake. You did it. And now you’re fucking dead. Was that worth it? Huh? Was it fucking worth it?
[Jake:] Least I did it with a smile on my face.
[Slowly, thinking] What did you say?
[Jake:] Least I did it . . .
[Yelling:] I know what you fucking said! I’m . . . I’m thinking about it. Processing it. As you would oh so eloquently put it. I don’t know if you did it with “a smile” on your face, but you were sure keeping it together. No crying or shouting. Just telling me what I needed to do. When I wanted to bring you with me, you told me no. It couldn’t be that way. I had to go. You had to stay. Them’s the rules.
[Jake:] I accepted my fate.
Yeah. You knew what needed to be done. You made your decision. And you stuck with it. You . . . You let the blackness take you.
[Jake:] I accepted . . . My fate.
Is that because you knew something Jakey? Something you never told me? Something about what the blackness does to you?
[Jake:] I accepted my . . . Fate.
You could control it, after all. You were the one in charge at times. The fucking puppet master. Getting stronger each time it seemed. And that last time . . .
[Jake:] I accepted my fate.
That last time, maybe you knew you might survive. That you had a chance. A fucking fighting chance. And you took it.
[Jake:] I . . . Accepted my fate.
Well . . . Now it’s my fucking turn. To accept my fate. Whether it takes me and spits me out the other side . . . Whole, or breaks me up into little pieces and ending me . . . I need to accept my fate.
So I started pulling out all the food. I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick job. There was a lot. A LOT. As I might’ve mentioned a couple hundred times. At first I was stacking stuff. Neatly. Probably how Jake would’ve done it. Keeping it organized. And the reason for that? Well, like anything you take out and keep stacked and organized: because it needs to go back in neat and organized, which is much harder to do and takes a lot longer when it’s in one big unruly pile.
But this was a one-way trip. I never had any fucking plans to put all this shit back in the pantry. Once I had this thought, there was no more stacking. The food went everywhere and anywhere. I started feeling like a burrowing mole. As a path opened up in front of me, I dug deeper. Some cans were falling behind me. Rolling around. Sorta blocking my way out. But I didn’t fucking care. I was moving forward. With the goal of getting the fuck out of here.
Minutes past. I started to get a little claustrophobic. All these boxes and cans and cartons all around me. The way out closing up like a pit of quicksand. But I knew this couldn’t go on for fucking ever. There would be an end. There would be a source. As soon as a I thought this, I started hearing a humming.
Getting warmer literally. I could feel it in the air now. Not much. Just . . . A difference. A few degrees. I was approaching something that didn’t seem “normal” for Ostium.
And then I was there. Relief poured over me like a bucket of cold water. But just like when you break through to a secret place, you don’t sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done. No. You keep fucking digging. You keep going until that hole is big enough to let you through. And you get the fuck inside and satisfy that raging curiosity within you.
I swam through the food. Sweeping armfuls of it behind me. Climbing on it. Crushing it beneath my feet.
I was against the far wall now. The whole thing felt warm. Unnatural. I cleared more space to give me some moving room. I found the secret door way low down. It reminded me of something. What was that? Oh. Huh. Yeah. That book. It. By that Stephen King guy. Horror writer. A really fucked up book. Especially when the kids were having set with each other. Who the fuck writes that and thinks that’s okay? And who the fuck publishes it! But there was this scene. With the evil terrorizing the town. It’s lair. In a secret, hidden place. With a tiny door. An unnaturally tiny door for a menace so huge and terrifying.
That’s what this door was reminding me of. It didn’t seem the right size. I guess it was enough for pushing food through. Didn’t make it fucking right. And this is my ticket out of here? How the fuck am I gonna fit myself considerable voluptuous self through that teeny-tiny door.
My heart sinks and I start to give up. There’s just no way. No. Fucking. Way. It’s over. I really am stuck here. Well and truly fucked.
This is the end of the line for me.
[Jake, softly:] Do you really want to live forever?
What? What the fuck does that mean, Jake? You’re quoting fucking Conan the Barbarian at me? How in hell is that at all helpful brain? What are you trying to tell me, subconscious? No point in being deep and inferring and allegorical. I’m at my fucking wit’s end here. Just fucking say it, don’t spray it!
[Jake, softly, cockily:] I fit through the door.
Did you? Did you now, Jakey? Well, fucking bully for you. Ain’t that just a fucking walk in the park. [Sarcastic:] So glad YOU could fit through the door. But that doesn’t exactly help my fucking predicament now, does it?
Great. Just fucking great. A really fucking great time to develop an immediate case of “cat got your tongue.” Right when I could really use a helping . . . Wait. Wait a minute.
Wait a fucking second!
You fit through the door. You. Jake. Not here. Not this fucking door. Back in that cave. That place . . . The fucking . . . The fucking skull cult. I remember. You knew all that shit about it. Knew where we where. What the skulls were. Then there was the little tunnel. WAY too fucking small for you or I to fit through. A small woman. Sure. But not us. And yet . . . And fucking yet . . . You crawled through. You made it to the other side. You . . . Fit. Just like you said.
Ostium made it so you could fit.
Ergo . . .
I make more space. Clear away more redundant food that I never want to look at or have to deal with again.
Eventually my fucked-up shrine is all set up: the cans and cartons and boxes all bowing down and praying to the sacred door I kneel before. I take a breath and hold it; that always seems to be Jake’s goto thing.
I reach out for the handle and stop. For just a moment. My brain screams at me: WHY IS THERE A FUCKING HANDLE ON THE INSIDE? Great question. Right now I don’t give a fuck. If I don’t start getting this door open and making my way through, this whole daydream is going to go up in smoke and I’m going to have to crawl back through all that food.
I don’t want to do that.
I refuse to do that.
I turn the handle and yank on the door.
It opens easily.
On the other side is blackness . . . No. Not just blackness. There are sparkles of something in here. But it’s still fucking blackness. I wait and count slowly to five. I hear nothing. No screams. No sounds. Fucking good enough for me. I start crawling through the stupidly small doorway. Knowing it’s too fucking small for me. Feeling really fucking stupid for even trying. And doing it anyway.
My head goes through easy, but my shoulders hit the sides of the doorway. I let out the breath and take in another: a much smaller one. I turn my body, going in one shoulder at a time. I start moving again. The darkness seems to move again. Shy away from me somehow as I come closer to it. Maybe it’s waiting for all of me to be inside before it pounces?
Next it’s my stomach. Then hips. I take shallow breaths. Trying my darnedest to keep calm. To keep it all together. I curl my body upwards, bringing one hip through, then the other. Ever so slowly. I don’t know how I’ll deal if I get wedged in anyway. And then all the questionable bits of me are through. It’s just my legs and feet that I drag in, bringing myself to a kneeling position.
And I’m praying to the shrine from the other side now.
With a very shaky hand I reach out and grasp the door handle that’s also on the inside of the little door, and slowly pull it closed.
It closes softly, then gives a whumpf sound, sealing me in on this side.
I let go of the door handle in terror, knowing my chances of ever finding it again in this darkness are small.
I get to my feet and turn around. I still can’t hear anything. For shits and giggles, I try bringing up that infrared map. No dice. Nothing happens. No surprise, I guess.
My eyes are open but I’m not really seeing much. Occasional fireflies of light. They all seem really far away. Like twinkling stars that you know are thousands of light-years in the past. I turn my head, looking in different directions. No chance. All looks the same. I feel something give a mental tug from over there. Don’t know what it is. But it feels right. Feels okay. Feels sorta safe.
I start walking towards it. My feet make a wet squelching sounds. Like I’m walking through mud. Sure fucking glad I can’t see what it actually is. I keep a steady pace and feel the pull becoming ever so slightly stronger. Okay. Guess that means it’s kinda far away. But I am getting closer.
Just when I start to relax a little and feel things are going my way for a change, I hear the first moan.
That’s when my legs start moving faster. Like on a treadmill. When you mash that plus button to go the fuck faster.
The moans start multiplying. Then I see whisps of white in the darkness. Like strange afterimages on your retina. They grow and start to take shape. Ghostly faces.
I’m running now. Like a fucking bat out of hell. The pull within my mind is still there and getting way stronger now.
I’m breathing heavy. Because I’m out of breath and tired. But also because I’m fucking terrified!
A flash of white. Something pushes me to the side. My legs almost become tangled, but I manage to keep my footing, then run even faster. Where whatever the fuck that thing was touched me is a burning sensation. I don’t have fucking time to look and see if I’m hurt.
Then it or another something hits me from the other side. I’m kinda ready. Lean over with the push, then spring back up. Now my left arm is hurting like my right. Burning. A cold burn. Like when you stick a bare body part in snow for too long and frostbite starts considering taking up residence in that body part.
God. I sound just like fucking Jake.
That gives me more time. I don’t know how. Or why. Maybe saying his name? But nothing attacks me for a whole twenty seconds.
Getting much closer.
Then I get walloped from the right side again. This time I’m not expecting it. I go down. I try to roll. I land on my elbow. Hard. Hurts like a bitch. I moan. [Record a moan here] Right along with those scary ones. Adding my own pain and suffering. But I roll well. Jump back up with bare seconds lost.
Then I’m running for dear life. The sounds are getting louder now. There are screams. It makes me wonder if there will soon be teeth. I’m not gonna wait to find out.
Then I can see the end ahead. Another tiny fucking door. With a glowing outline. There’s only one way I’m going to make it through alive.
I’ve got to be fucking fast.
I’ve got to be fucking perfect.
I duck left, then right. Trying to throw off those fuckers coming after me. Then I’m just about there. I tense my legs. Bend them. Prepare. Then dive. My hand is out in front of me. Reaching. As soon as my fingertips touch the doorknob I begin turning it. By the time the rest of me makes contact with the door – we’re talking one to two seconds here – the handle is fully turned and the door is thrown open by my weight. As I pass through I let go and tuck myself into a ball. I fall and roll, not hitting the ground so hard this time. I don’t have time to look and see where I am. I spread out my arms and legs to stop myself. Then I’m crawling back to the tiny door where things are starting to come through. I flip myself around, going feet first. I don’t want to have to touch any of it.
The things grasp at my feet. I distract with one foot, while the other pulls the door closed. Then I’m slamming the wood with both feet. The ghostly transparencies get pulled back inside and the door is closed.
I lay down and take deep breaths. Trying to calm down. Trying to clear my head.
I count slowly to a fifty. That helps. A lot in fact.
Then I carefully get to my feet. I’m in one piece. Nothing’s screaming in pain. That’s a good thing. I look at my forearms where that thing or those things touched me. The skin is gray, like it got badly burned, or instantly turned to frostbite. Huh. Okay then. Well. We’ll deal with that shit later.
I look around me and see a room I’ve never been in before. But it’s still somewhat familiar. Because it’s of a particular design. A design I only ever saw in one place.
The Ostium Network.
I’m back on the independent Rock of Gibraltar.
I’m back . . . Home. Just like I wanted.
There’s no one in the room. I look through the glass at where I presume there’s a control booth. There is one. It’s also empty.
I start jogging, leaving the room, going to the next, and the next, and the next, and . . . You get the picture.
Eventually I end up outside. On the street.
Above me is a clear blue sky. A warm sun shining down. It feels fucking glorious.
But I’m not really appreciating it right now.
Because I’m back on the Rock.
Part of the Ostium Network once again.
And I’m totally fucking alone.