So let me be straight . . . As a nail. Frank . . . As a guy named Frank. I left a town of nobody and nothing, all alone and abandoned. Literally crawled through a fuck-ton of food to make it through this tiny-ass hole that I may have been able to fit through when I was like . . . Eight. Got through a roller coaster of fucked-up shit and banshees screaming at me, feeling my life was gonna end at any second. Came through to the unofficial (unless you work for them, in which case, it’s very fucking official) headquarters of the Ostium Network, where hundreds of people – possibly as many as a thousand – work . . . Only to discover I’m all on my own again.
Well . . .
This is just . . .
Real. Fucking. Great.
I suppose I should look on the bright side. Right? Well, first I need to find the bright side. Before I was stuck in Ostium by my lonesome. Now I’ve got a whole fucking island to myself. Plus a goddamn mountain of rock. Is the rock of Gibraltar really considered a mountain? Or is it just a really pronounced hill? Well, I guess just hearing Jake’s imaginary voice – the voice of my sub-conscious – was enough to jump-start his whole shtick in my head.
Wait! Wait a second . . .
Okay, good. Seems like Jake’s not at home. For now. Only when shit’s going down, apparently.
Taking the good with the bad here.
So where shall we go first? Since we’ve got the whole fucking place to ourselves. How about some of those spots they didn’t want any of us non-specially trained going?
Sounds good to me.
We only got to see Ostium that one time. Really. When they took us through. To check it out. We went through. One by one. Using the special door in that special room. The one I ran to when I went after Steve. Trying to get him back. I thought there was just one of . . . Them. You know. Doors. Stargate thingies. Flux capacitor rooms. Whatever you want to call it . . . A transportation vessel. Bunch of fancy words for a door that took you directly to Ostium. The way the big wigs made it sound. With them letting us go through. What a big fucking deal it all was. This was breaking new ground. Bullshit etcetera, bullshit etcetera. You’d think they had just the one room to do it with.
Uh-uh. Apparently not.
After I stepped through into the Ostium Network with my life intact . . . Set foot on the great island of Gibraltar . . . After I did my whole song and dance routine of breathing fresh air, then looking for another living soul and not finding a single one . . . Then fully appreciating the utter fucking badness of it all . . . I took a few deep breaths. Got my shit together. And went back inside to have a look around. I was methodical. Going back to the point of origin. Where I came through. It’s a lot like the one I went through before. A room with a conjoined booth: window looking in so observers can watch anyone going through, or in this case, sending food and supplies through the special small hole.
And after that does it magically appear at the very back of that crazy pantry in Ostium? Because when I tried it I went on one crazy, fucked-up roller coaster of emotion and banshee bantering. As I already mentioned. Obviously the food passing through doesn’t get the . . . “Scenic” tour. So was that just for my benefit? My hindrance? Was that Ostium trying to not just fuck with me but completely throw me off track?
If so, why? What’s Ostium got against me? I know we don’t have the connection . . . The witty repartee . . . The “bro-ness” quality of Mr. Jake Fisher, but . . . We’ve got something, no? After all this time?
I think I’m reaching here.
But I made it through. In one piece. Mostly. I think with my sanity intact. Still checking on that.
So back to looking around. As I said. I want to be thorough about this. Because that’s how Jake would be. That’s how Jake would’ve wanted me to do it. I find more rooms. With doors. Lots more. I count up to 12 by the time I’ve searched the whole big building. All with unmarked doors . . . Do they all lead to Ostium? What the hell were they planning here?
I remember asking in class that day . . . What feels like a billion years ago now . . . About what the point of all this was. What Mr. Incognito running the Ostium Network wanted to get out of it. In my mind I was thinking: what’s the money angle; how’s this guy going to become even richer? And I – along with the rest of the class – was miss-directed and distracted, made to think it not important.
Well. Feels pretty fucking important now. Seeing all these rooms. How many fucking people did they want going into Ostium? Were they going to send us all in at the same time? Going through our most desired doors? Fulfilling our goals and coming back to tell about it.
What the fuck did they want out of it?
And that’s when a scary thought comes to mind. The kind that turns your blood cold. Yeah. It’s an expression. But I’m also fucking feeling it right now. During my immersion research I was very fucking thorough, as I said. Even watched a bunch of animated movies. Covered all my bases. One of them was called Monsters, Inc. About a company that employs monsters to go through . . . Yes, I shit you not: doors. I know! They go through doors and come out of closets to scare little children half to death. What do they get out of it? Power. Energy. The fear and terror is harnessed somehow and helps to power the city where the monsters live. Yeah. Pretty fucked up, I know. And this was a goddamn kids movie!
So is that what’s going on here? Are they getting something . . . I don’t know, metaphysical out of us going through the doors? Why have so many of them in Ostium, and have so many setup here to send us through. Why have that whole home base setup with all the fucking food.
[Sotto vocce] All the better to keep you fed and busy going through doors, my dear . . .
I don’t know. It does seem pretty fucking far-fetched. But there had to be some angle . . .
Oh wait! I got it. Clearly this was all going to be research for a new time traveling reference guide. No?
Talk about hands-on research. In-fucking-situ.
I don’t know if I’ll ever know the why.
What I do know is I’m in the right place to have any chance of finding out.
So let’s keep looking then, shall we?
I’m outside again. The sun still feels fucking amazing. Being in Ostium that long without it affected me more than I thought. I think Jake had some introspections on whether we’d be getting enough Vitamin D without the sun, or whether Ostium had figured out a way to replace that, otherwise we’d start feeling pretty weak . . . I don’t know. It feels glorious right now. And the sea air is just . . . Making me feel renewed. Full of life.
Okay, what were we doing? Right. Heading this way, which I think is . . . North. Along . . . Er: Line Wall Road looks like to Winston Churchill Road. Yep, kinda bizarre, thinking on it now, that the Ostium Network created this whole new civilization basically, on this island, but didn’t bother to rename the streets or anything. I mean, I guess the names they already have are fine, but as you can see, they relate to things like walls and long dead prime ministers. It just feels really fucking out of context.
So why am I heading this way? Well . . . I’ll let you know in just a second . . . And . . . Oh. Well. I guess that fucking solves that then. I’m at the edge of the island. A part where the land meets the sea. It’s a significant part. It’s where there’s a small dock, made to fit just one boat. A special, unique boat. The one that brought Steve and I here. A very, very . . . Very long time ago.
I had a hope . . . No. That’s not true. Or honest. I had a vague fucking inkling that I thought would turn out to be bullshit.
I was right.
There’s no boat. No sign of any boat, or anything being here in a long fucking time. The stanchions are bare and really crusted over with shit. I guess one has this short piece of rope that looks like something the Ancient Mariner was carrying around with him. No one’s been here or used this dock in a long fucking time.
Whelp. I didn’t expect anything. And that’s what I found. So . . . What’s that endearing saying? No harm, no foul.
[Sarcastic] I feel just fucking great now.
Moving on to the next clue of this truly fucked-up scavenger hunt.
Next stop is my old haunt. I know it’s pretty far from the dock, so I walk for awhile in search of one of those self driving cars. Doesn’t take me long. I hop in. The key’s in the ignition. I close my eyes and turn the key, count to ten, then open them.
There are lights! A good sign. I put it in drive and switch to manual, then step on the accelerator and the thing launches into life, throwing me back and almost out of the damn thing. I hit the brakes and stop, then put on my seatbelt. That would’ve been just fan-fucking-tastic. Falling out and breaking my arm or something. With no one around to help. Least I woulda known where the infirmary was. Not that I coulda done anything.
But we’re okay, for now. That’s the important thing.
I hit the pedal again and zip along through empty streets. It’s fucking creepy man. Even creepier than Ostium, if that can be believed. All the empty abandoned buildings. Both sides of the road. It’s like . . . It’s like they’re all staring down at me. Judging me or something. For what? Fuck knows. I’m just on edge. That’s all.
I hope that’s all.
This thing sounds fucking noisy. Which is crazy, because I know how damn quiet they actually are. I never really heard them when I was here back when there were people all around living and doing things. Now it sounds like I’m driving a fucking big rig.
I then recognize the building, even though it looks kinda like all the others. I hit the breaks, letting out a nice echoing screech. Nice and loud. It feels better than the sound of the EV, and nothing else. Somehow. Maybe because it’s real fucking loud and I made it happen.
I step up to the door and realize something incredibly stupid: it’s locked. The way we usually got in is with a special chip they put in our wrists. They said it wasn’t really to track us or anything, but the look in their eyes said it was definitely for that. But it also had a unique bio-signature to each individual person. So I just needed to wave my hand in front of the panel and . . .
Good. It still works. That’s really good. I was going to have to try and kick the fucking thing down, which wouldn’t have been easy. It looks tough.
I step inside and notice the smell right away. Dusty. Stuffy. Empty. Feels like it’s been abandoned for a while. Not lived in. But then I pick up other scents. It’s me. Subtle hints. My perfume. My shampoo maybe? Coffee.
Oh god, coffee!
I charge into the small kitchen. I can hear the high-pitched humming of the fridge.
Oh god, yes! There’s power. Hopefully that goes for the entire island. If so, living here for the indefinite period just got a lot fucking better.
Fifteen minutes later, I have a French press full of fresh divine-smelling coffee. Yes. I know. I’m the tea addict. Proclaiming my love for coffee is sacrilegious. Anathema! But that’s partly because I knew I couldn’t get any in Ostium. Tea. Yes. By the buttload. Because it was necessary. And tasted just fine.
But coffee . . . Oh, be still my heart. It has no important or redeeming qualities, other than it smells heavenly, tastes almost as good, and makes me feel on top of the world! I fill a mug – my hands know where to go to find one – and add sugar, which also looks fine.
I take a sip. Gasp. Then another. Then five more in quick succession. My lips are burning. My throat is on fire. But like I said: I’m queen of the fucking world!
Soon the first mug is empty and I’m filling another. Then I take my trip down memory lane, my heart running ahead of me due to nerves but also due to lovely sustaining caffeine.
Everything looks just like I left it. Furniture. Trinkets – what little I’d been able to acquire. My bedroom is the same.
Clothes . . . Clothes! I have my entire wardrobe again! Holy shit-snacks. This day just keeps getting better and fucking better.
I take that as a cue and hop into the bathroom, turning on the water. In eight seconds it turns scalding. I adjust the temperature, strip down, and hop in. My soap and shampoo are there, right next to the conditioner.
Twelve minutes later I come out feeling even better, if that’s possible. I put on some fresh jeans, a tank top and hoodie. Gosh, this feels so great.
I grab my mug of coffee from my bedside table and as I’m about to take a lukewarm sip, I stop. Then put the mug down; almost dropping it. Right next to it, looking slim and innocent, is my datapad.
I’d totally forgotten . . .
No. Another lie to myself. I’d just given up hoping to ever . . .
I pick it up and it comes to life. It’s been comfortably lying on the charging pad for a very long time. The battery is full. It’s connected to the network. I’m able to do all the usual stuff. But there are no recent messages. Not since . . .
[Deadly scared] Oh . . . Shit . . .
[Frightened] The last message . . . was received on August 3rd . . . Ten. Years. Ago.
What does this mean? I can’t have been gone that long. It’s fucking impossible. It’s been what weeks. A month. Two months at the most. But still feels more like a couple weeks. No more. It just . . . It just doesn’t make any fucking sense. How? How?
I guess . . . I guess that explains the stuffy feeling of the apartment.
But the coffee . . .
Maybe it wasn’t as great tasting as I thought . . . No, it tasted fucking great. Must’ve just had it well sealed or something.
Wow. This is . . . A fucking mind-trip.
Could really use Jakey at my side right now. For comfort. And to science this shit out somehow. Try to make some sense of it. And make a bad pun or joke.
Damn. Not much to be done about it now.
I switch to the journal setting and find my last entry.
From the night before I learned about Steve and went into Ostium for the first time.
[Different voice, reading entry]
They said they’re very close now. Almost ready to send someone through to Ostium. I don’t know who it’s going to be. But not me. That’s for sure. I still haven’t decided when or where I want to go. And last time I talked to Steve he was in the same boat. The kid’s so goddamn excited. But who can blame him. I am too. We all are. So they won’t be sending him in either then. Will it be one of the few who are certain what they want? I wonder if they’ll keep us informed and up to date? On how the person does. I’m guessing the person won’t be going for very long, it being the first time and all. Whoever it is – they gotta know by now – must be petrified. And over the moon at the same time. What a trip it’s going to be. Historical. And if they’re going back in time: then in every sense of the word. Today was a low-key day. Work-wise. We’re all pretty much ready. Except for deciding the when and the where. I’m starting to think I want somewhere in the late 1980s or in the 1990s. Maybe the fall of the Berlin Wall. That would be pretty cool. Or be there at the death of Lady Diana. Just to see if it did all happen as they said. Or maybe check out some of President Clinton’s sax playing. Hah! No thanks. It’s hard. I know I’m going to get lots of opportunities to go. To different times and places. They’ve made that clear to all of us. So long as nothing goes wrong. But I want that first time to be special. Yes. I want losing my Ostium virginity to be fucking special, alright? Jeez. I sound ridiculous. Bet I’m not the only one sweating over this though. Okay. My eyes are getting droopy. Time to put my head down and get some shut-eye. Maybe during the night I’ll have some magical dream that’ll make it all clear for me and come morning I’ll know exactly where I want to go. Only time will tell.
Once I’m done I can feel the wetness on my cheeks. I’ve been fucking crying. Wow. Didn’t expect that. But this is from so long ago. And I was in such a different place. Such a different frame of mind then. So fucking hopeful and excited about the future. And then They fucked it all up and changed everything.
Okay. Deep breaths. No use moping over it. Fuck all I can really do about it now.
I put the datapad back and grab the mug and head downstairs. After cleaning things up I head out the door and back into the EV.
Time to do a little more sight-seeing.
I’ve got no plan at the moment. Just driving around kinda randomly. Sort of a trip down memory, but also feeling like no one’s holding me back and I can go where the fuck I want. Go through whatever door I want. No one telling me no, I can’t go that way, not allowed. Access fucking denied. Well . . . Not any more!
And then I see a building I’ve never been in before. I remember . . . I remember wanting to go in. Not because I wanted to find out what was inside, but because I just wanted to be allowed. I didn’t want to see another mysterious stranger giving telling me I wasn’t allowed. Like a little fucking kid.
It’s a pretty big building. Multiple floors. No clue what it is.
But I’m about to find out.
Park the EV and hop out. There’s a door. Here’s hoping it’s unlocked.
Bingo. Let’s see what’s behind door number . . . You know what. I’m just gonna not finish that thought.
So what have we got here? A sort of entryway. Closets. A kitchen. Kay, guess they mostly do their own food here instead of going to one of the [sarcastic] truly fabulous eateries in town. And now we’ve got a . . . Wow . . . A fucking game room. What the fuck? Foosball, billiards, even fucking air hockey! What the hell is this place? They never told us about anything like this. It was all work and study and more work and more study. With very little fun time. If I knew this place was here . . . Well, I don’t know how much I’d be here, but I’d at least like the option.
Damn. This place is fucking huge! Who would you need a place like this for? It’d have to be for a big group. Like a . . . Like a . . . [Quietly] I think I know what this place is. But I’m not gonna say yet.
It doesn’t take me long to find the stairs. When I make it to the top I’m not surprised by what I find: a big open floor filled with bunk-beds in two perfectly straight rows; a clear walkway in between them. At the far end is a closed off room where I’m certain I’ll find a bathroom much like a college dorm: toilets and showers.
The quiet seems . . . Thicker somehow up here. It’s probably more about what my brain is doing than what’s physically happening, but still . . . It’s heavy on me, pushing down. Almost palpable. I take a couple deep breaths [deep breathing sounds] and start slowly walking down the central walkway. Each bunk-bed is an exact mirror image to the one either side of it and the ones across from it: two stacked beds; two bedside tables. Along the walls where I first came in are closets that each bear name plates, just like the beds do . . . Names belonging to their owners.
By the third bunk-bed I recognize a name: Tanaka.
An unstoppable image slams into my mind, almost knocking me over. I rest my hand again the bunk-bed, steadying myself, as the memories come unbidden . . .
The starship. Being with Jake. Walking along a hallway of doors. Getting into an elevator. Jake called it a turbolift or . . .gah . . . Spacevator. He said Bridge and it magically took us there. And there were consoles. And beeps. And other sounds. And a screen showing distant stars. And a body. Private Tanaka. Hanging over the console like a . . . Like a piece of forgotten laundry . . . Like a child’s coat left on the floor of the playground on the last day of school. Not important. Unwanted.
I’m stable again. Able to walk. I keep going down all the way to the end. This place should fucking stink. Of sweat. Of men. Of soldiers. Of dudes doing dude things. Eau de testosterone. But it doesn’t. It’s stale and dusty and abandoned. Like my place.
Like no one’s been here in ten years.
Once again I have to ask . . . What. The. Fuck?
I head back downstairs and leave the building. I’m done with this place. For good. Got no plans to ever come back.
Good fucking riddance.
And in case you’re wondering: yes, they’re all there. The names. To all the bodies we found on the other side of the doors in Ostium.
Even fucking Sergeant Harris. Honestly, I’m kinda surprised he was bunking with the rest of the guys. With one of his rank and stature, he should’ve had his own place to shack up. Wonder if that was an on high decision for him to be with his men, or his own choice.
Just another one of those things I’ll never know. And don’t fucking care about either.
You know . . . I’m really fucking hungry. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything. There was the coffee . . . And before that? I just don’t remember. So why don’t we go visit one of the Rock’s two fashionable and very chic restaurants. Ostium Network approved of course! The one I’m not going to is called . . . And I kid you not . . . A Little Piece of Heaven. Yep. Those Ostium Network peeps sure had a sense of humor about them. But wait till you hear the name of the place I’m actually going to . . .
Ready for it?
Are you sure?
I’m warning you!
It’s pretty fucking bad!
Okay. Here’s goes: The Cut of the Gib. Yes. I shit you not. Fucking terrible, I know. But it was closer to my place so it’s where I tended to go more often than elsewhere.
Back in the self-driving EV, I turn it to automatic and select the name from a list of places. It’s the second one down, because you tend to want food first and foremost, and other shit second.
It takes less than five minutes and I’m there. No problem finding parking. [Sarcastic] Big surprise.
When I get to the door I turn the handle and pull. It doesn’t move at first, but there’s a little give. It tells me it isn’t actually locked. I spread my feet apart, brace myself, then give it a good yank. It lets out a gasp of air and opens, like a long human sigh. The inside has been sealed . . . Probably for around ten years. I wonder what that means for the food? If the electricity has been going the whole time, we may be in some sort of luck. I dunno.
Speaking of which. It’s totally fucking awesome there’s still power in this place, but who’s paying the bills? What does it run on? Hydroelectric? Tidal? Fucking nuclear power? It’s a question I never asked, but now kinda wished I had. Just to know . . . In case this place goes into meltdown or something. You know. That thought is just too fucking depressing. So I’m just going to ignore it for now. Stick it in the back of my brain and pretend it’s not there. Like I’ve done with so many other things related to Ostium . . .
The place smells clean and untouched, but different . . . Not stale and dusty. Maybe that door was keeping the place hermetically sealed somehow. I go behind the counter and into the kitchen and hear lots of humming from fridges and freezers. I open heavy metal doors to a cloud of icy air and racks of meat and foods; some frozen, others well cooled for over a decade apparently. Most of them appear to be vacuum sealed as well. I grab a heavy pack of what appears to be Teriyaki chicken. The label tells me that it is and the expiration date on it is . . . Twenty fucking years from now. What the hell? Do I dare eat this stuff? It says it’s okay. What kinda shit have they been doing here? I was always wondering where the Ostium Network got their food from exactly. Have they been specially making this stuff for like fifty years? There’s no “package” date, so for all I know, this shit could be a hundred years old.
But I’m fucking hungry. Starving. I’m gonna try it. But I’m also going to keep close to a bathroom.
In less than ten minutes I’ve got electric burners going and I’m frying up that chicken in its own sauce, as well as steaming some vegetables. Fifteen minutes later I sit down to eat with a bottle of wine I find. No worries about that being bad, though it does give a whole new meaning to the term vintage.
The meal is . . . Fucking delicious. Everything tastes heavenly, even though this establishment isn’t A Little Piece of Heaven. I find a complete untouched five-layer chocolate cake that I snag myself a hefty slice of, along with some fresh coffee which also smells and tastes . . . You guessed it: heavenly.
Then I sit and relax for half an hour. Letting the food go down, as the saying goes. But also making sure my stomach and bowels don’t decide to stage a coup against the rest of my organs. I haven’t felt this full in a long time. Not since . . . What was that little town closest to Ostium called? Camarillo? Carillo? Covelo. That was it.
My moment of revelry is broken by a loud noise . . . It sounds like a crack of thunder, only more echoing. Not right in some way.
I leap outta my seat and burst out the doors. The sky above is still a beautiful blue, not a cloud in sight. I’m looking around for . . . Something . . . Dust, smoke, fucking gas . . . I don’t know. Some sort of origin to that nasty sound. But I can’t see anything out of the ordinary.
What the fuck?
When enough time has passed that I’ve deemed my body and all its internal organs alive and well, I use the facilities, and then I’m back in the self-driving car, trying to decide what the last stop of the day should be before I call it and head for home. I’m checking the locations menu again, scrolling through alphabetically. I’m working through the C’s and stop when I see a word that just doesn’t fit. It’s not part of the great Ostium Network jigsaw. It’s a word I just never expected to hear or ever read in this context.
No one has ever talked to me about a cemetery in relation to Ostium or on the Rock in any way. Not from a teacher. Not in a class. Not in conversation with friends, acquaintances, or strangers. There was that “story,” that “urban legend” about the guy who wanted to quit. I think I talked about it in a recording. One of the teachers told us about him. How he jumped in the water and just started swimming. Is it true? I don’t think so. What I do know is that he’s the only case of someone dying here. From what they’ve told us. With the number of people we had on the island, yeah, sure, a cemetery just makes sense. People are going to fucking die. It’s the one sure thing in this life . . . Right? Right? So you need a place to stash the dead. Unless there’s something They never told us. A big fucking something.
I hit the button and then I’m on my way to the Ostium cemetery.
It takes a while. At the far end of the island. A good fifteen minutes by self-driving vehicle. I could’ve done it in ten on manual, if I’d known where I was going. It’s not big. At least not as far as cemeteries go. But I’m shocked as soon as I step through the open gateway. There’s a least fifty tombstones here. All simple bright white stone, looks like marble. All with the person’s name on it. No other details.
I get flashbacks of walking through the barracks as I study the tombstones, seeing names again. And then I see familiar ones that stop me in my tracks.
[Quietly, emotionally] Shit. They’re here. They’re all here. I recognize other names too. Lots of them. Not just the security team. But scientists. Coworkers. Classmates. People I saw and worked and talked with almost every day here.
Now . . . All buried and gone.
Then I see two more tombstones at the end of a row, next to each other.
That’s when I start shaking uncontrollably. I fall, just catching myself from mashing my face onto the top of the tombstone. It’s Steve’s that’s holding me up right now. I’m hanging over it. Slumped over the tombstone of my dead son.Like a piece of laundry. A forgotten kid’s jacket.
It’s not until later. Much later. On my long and cold drive back to my home, my cheeks still wet with tears, that I realize the image I evoked, slumped over the tombstone of my dead son.