The dawn woke me. It was one of those cliche moments where I didn’t remember where I was. Then I did. I was in a fucking cemetery. I drag myself up into a standing position. Use the tombstone to do it.
It hits me again. Almost end up on the ground again.
I feel a million years old. New aches and pains I didn’t know I could have. Fuck I feel old. My fifty-six years on this planet are catching up with me, Ostium Network enhancements aside. But then that’s what I get for spending the night on the very hard ground of a fucking cemetery that was never supposed to be here. Like I said before, nothing like this was every talked about or discussed, at least not with me. Not in any of those many, many hours of classes. It would’ve been covered somewhere. Orientation at the very least.
So what does this tell me? That all those fuckers at the Ostium Network have been lying to me all along? Well, that’s true anyway. But about this? Lying to all of us? No. I don’t think so. In fact: I know so. This cemetery may be kinda outta the way when it comes to the topographical layout of this town, but we wouldn’t have missed this. We couldn’t have missed this. Not something this big. And I know it’s got a lot of . . . Unexpected new members, shall we say, but the space is still laid out like a cemetery. It’s not like they expanded it or anything.
So what does that mean then?
Pretty obviously, really, dear Watson: this isn’t the same Gibraltar or Ostium Network or whatever the fuck you want to call it. It’s a different one.
Yeah. Pretty fucking heavy.
So what does that mean . . . Exactly? Things are going to be the same here. Like they were before. And also not the same. Different in some way. I haven’t seen anything – yet – that tells me it’s a different Ostium Network. I mean . . . Fuck. My goddamn journal sounded right. Still the same.
If . . . If a different me had recorded that entry. Used slightly different language. Word choices. Phrasing. Would I have been able to spot it? Recognize that shit?
You know: I like to think so.
No. I fucking know so.
So. It just means there was another me here in this other Ostium Network. And this other me was real close to me. So we’re just going to take that as a given.
But . . .
But this isn’t another door . . . Another place that Ostium takes you to. This is the Ostium Network. It’s not just some place you visit. This is where it all started. The be all and end all. Ground Zero. Patient X. Fucking Typhoid Mary.
Yeah. That last one was a stretch. Learned about that during some random historical reading. For fun.
So where the hell is everyone? Why does this feel like I just went through another routine Ostium door – even though I never did by myself – and found everyone mysteriously gone on the other side. WTF?
I don’t know. I might never know. Let’s file this one with all the other Ostium-related unanswered questions.
So what’s the cemetery got to do with all this?
It’s a glaring difference to my Ostium Network. The one where I used to live. The one where . . . Steve lived. Until he didn’t.
In this one he’s dead.
So where does that leave my Steve?
[Sad/anguished, said slowly] Oh shit. He’s . . . If he’s still out there. In Ostium somewhere. Behind one of those doors. He can’t get back. And . . . And if he somehow does. If that miracle somehow happens . . . He can’t get . . . Here.
And . . . [wracking breathing] . . . I’m never going to see him again.
God. Fucking. Dammit.
I could . . . I could start attaching significance to everything that happens to me. To the events that come into play in my life. The choices I consider and make. The decisions that lead me to oh so new and interesting places. I could attribute some higher power making all this shit happen. But I know I’d be lying to myself. In every way possible.
I’ve come this far. I’ve survived. On my own. I’m not going to start lying to myself now.
So what can I get out of being here? What is there to gain? How can I make this fucking worthwhile?
Well . . . If I had the choice of being stuck in Ostium or the Ostium Network, I’d choose this place any and every time. Everything is here. Somewhere. Like I said: this is where it all started. Where it got developed. Where we first started learning. Where the first time-traveling towns began. The first ostiums.
It’s all here.
I just have to find them.
And the good news is, I know my way around.
I’m starting to fall into a routine. Here. It’s been a couple days. I got plenty of food. Enough to last a lot of lifetimes. I’m staying in my place because . . . Well, I guess I could look around for a better pad. More room. Fancier amenities. If such a thing exists. But I don’t really need to. I’m perfectly satisfied with what I’ve got. I was before. I am now. Don’t need anything more. Except some company. That would be nice. But I’m not exactly holding my breath on that.
I’m doing a lot of walking. Feels great to get some exercise. The weather continues to be just wonderful. The air fresh and clean with a good dose of brine. I’ve started doing some reading again. I’ve still got that ridiculous ebook library on my datapad. Also it’s still connected to the local area network here, so I’ve got access to everything just like usual.
Yes. I did try contacting and messaging a bunch of different people and departments. No takers. No responses. I knew it wasn’t going to be any other way.
And I’ve started visiting the old haunts. All the places I went to before. For a couple of reasons:
One: I want to see what they still look like; if they’re exactly the same as I remember them;
Two: I want to see if anything is different about them; since they’re part of this other Ostium Network, what might’ve changed in comparison to mine?
And Three: What can I learn from them? Is there’s something altered? A detail. A clue. A fact I didn’t catch before. Something that can help me understand. Comprehend better. And . . . Ultimately, get me the fuck outta here.
I’ve encountered and overcome a lot of hurdles in my time. In my life. In Ostium. So when I start hitting them again. Here. In the Ostium Network. I’m not surprised. I’m not phased. I keep going. Because I don’t give up. Even when I feel I’ve exhausted every fucking angle. Part of me keeps going. Keeps trying.
I visit the classrooms. I visit the offices. I visit the rooms of my past. I check out every location I can remember I’ve ever been to in the Ostium Network. I find datapads. Lots of them. Datapads aplenty. And not a word of worth on any of them. Not a sentence of sense. Not a tidbit of . . . Temerity? T-usefulness?
Jack shit basically. Whoever Jack is. It’s all stuff I already know. Or didn’t really need or want to know. Lotta stuff on the classes I took. A lot of personal stuff. Thoughts and ideas about time travel. About a favorite time to travel to. Some interesting thoughts, actually. But nothing useful. Nothing moving me a crucial step further. Just lots of ideas that keep everything in a holding pattern. Nothing moving forward.
And a whole lot of people lusting after each other. Women after men, women after women, and everything in between you can imagine. There was no outright “no sex” policy, or a “avoid fraternizing at all costs.” People like people; people like to fuck other people. You can’t stop that, no matter how much you might want to, and I’ve definitely seen humanity try like those religious nuts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But it’s still another thing to be reading peoples’ very personal thoughts.
Ahh, my eyes!
Yeah. But I had to check them all. Had to be sure. For all I knew, one of them could’ve somehow belonged to someone high up in the echelons of the Ostium Network. Maybe even mister head-honcho himself. Nah, not him. That guy wouldn’t leave something that valuable hanging around. The Ostium Magna Carta for anyone to get their grubby fingers on. So maybe something then.
Nope. I don’t know if it’s because of this particular place. This Ostium Network. Did things like recording crucial pieces of information on your datapad just not happen here? Did they happen in any version of the Ostium Network?
So . . .
So I need to untangle that thought a little. Really wish I had Jakey here to bounce my thoughts off of. I’m sure he’d be happy to offer up a lectured paragraph or ten. But if his resurrection were unlikely in Ostium, it’s a million years beyond that here.
This idea of multiple Ostium Networks. Multiple iterations of places in time. It was certainly discussed in a number of the classes on traveling through time. None of them cohesively linked up with whatever the engineers and scientists and specialists were doing in Ostium. And none of us asked. We were too . . . What’s the word . . . Gobsmacked by everything. There were some things I would question and ask for more info on, more specifics. But this . . . This conceptualizing was WAY beyond me and my ken. So I kept mum.
Wish I hadn’t now. Wish a fucking lot.
So let’s try and bring it down to our level.
You have your straight-forward time travel shenanigans. Your linear, chronological type. Your Marty McFly traveling back and finding his mom has the hots for him which really fucks with the space-time continuum and he starts to go all invisible man. That’s the one that gets covered in a lot of books and movies and pretty much all of pop-culture. Bill and Ted did a great job, especially that bit when one of them wants something and then it appears because he went back it time and made it happen, but you don’t have to see it, the item just appears.
So that’s your straight-forward variety of time travel.
The other one, as I understand it, is a sort of parallel universe one. A tangential one, if I’m using that word correctly. I think I am. Which is that each time a choice is made; a decision decided on, multiple time-lines begin from that point. One in which the decision went that way, and one in which the choice went the other. The two are separate and from then on individual. And I think the two can never meet or cross over each other. I think. It’s all pretty high-brow theoretical physics for me. All this. So in this scenario Marty McFly can go back and have a grand old time with his mother – if he wants – and not cos of any problems with the space-time continuum . . . Well no. That’s not right . . . Exactly. If I’m following this right in my head . . . No, there won’t be any time problems with his timeline because the tangent happened after he traveled to his past and messed with it, starting on its own course, while his actual timeline where he resides is perfectly fine. I don’t know if I made any sense there. It doesn’t really sound like it. To me. But I think I kinda get it, at least. The timey-wimey stuff still gets messed up but only on specific tangents.
So this Ostium Network is on a different time tangent to the one I originally came from. Yeah. That’s it. And so everyone is gone in this one. In mine . . . Well, who knows what happened after I went through and fucked-up their game plan. But people should still be there. Here, it’s a different story. Apparently.
It’s like being on the other side of a door in Ostium. With everyone gone. And none of us ever found out what the hell the deal was with all that. Were all these people all of a sudden being zapped into nonexistence? Being sent somewhere else? Another timeline perhaps? Something. It never made sense. But thinking they were all being obliterated. Atomized. That just didn’t feel right. Too much. Too far-fetched. Even if that was the road Jake kept sending himself down.
So is it the same deal here? In this Ostium Network? But this isn’t a door in Ostium. This is separate from that. A level above it. A step before it. Without this place, there is no Ostium, so it can’t be that.
But thinking back to that cemetery . . . There were an awful lot of headstones there. It was a thriving place of the dead. And compared to my Ostium Network where there was no such place, it was . . . An impossibility. So maybe they had something big happen here. Before . . . Ostium took its first victim. A sickness maybe. Something they couldn’t control. Couldn’t predict. And people started dying. A lot of people. For some reason. And there wasn’t anything they could do about it. They couldn’t bring in outsiders to help. No doctors or military or whatever they thought might help to solve the problem. And they couldn’t send everyone out either. Send them back to wherever they came from. It needed to be contained. And if they didn’t understand what was going on they couldn’t afford to send people back to the real world.
Maybe it was contagious, whatever it was.
And that’s when the scary thought drops into my mind like a stone into a pond: what if it’s still contagious and still here?
I’ve never been one to shirk my duties. I thrive on facing things head on. Facing fucking reality, no matter how real it might be.
I’m stuck here. There’s nothing I can do about it. If there’s some shit in the air here that’s gonna kill me, then that’s that.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy myself as much as I can. Which also means taking care of myself too.
Which leads me to something I haven’t talked about before. Something the Ostium Network did let us know about shortly after we started working here. And it’s something I’ve never heard anyone – man, woman or other – ever turn down.
Honestly, it pretty much makes up for them taking our implants away as soon as we got here.
I’m going to need a moment before I start talking about this.
And a drink.
I didn’t notice it till yesterday. In all my time in Ostium. Being with Jake. Being that way with Jake. Going through all those doors. Facing oncoming death and blackness. Being scared shitless. No. The thought never came into my head. But yesterday I saw a number of the spots had returned to my hands. They look like biggish moles. One looks kinda gray. Mostly they’re brown. Nothing really alarming. Perfectly ordinary for someone who’s spent their time on this lump of rock hurtling through time and space for over fifty-six years. Yes. Some call them . . . [Said distastefully] Liver spots. I’ve never been a fan of that term. But they are a normal sign of old age.
And honestly, when the Ostium Network said they really wanted me . . . At my age. I was shocked. Really shocked. But I still wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity like this, especially not if I got to work with my son. It wasn’t like it said “must be able to lift over fifty pounds” on the application. So I knew I’d be okay, and the sheer excitement I got from the mystery surrounding the job, and by how much they wanted me, meant I could never turn them down or look back.
And I didn’t.
By the way, I can totally lift fifty pounds. Sixty even!
And so a month into our training, one by one, we met with a doctor, and had a specific procedure explained to us, and were given the option of saying yay or nay to it. Like I said: as far as I know, no one ever said nay.
In the time I’m from, which is coming in on the end of the twenty-first century – I don’t know why I’m keeping this number secret, but it’s a little something, a little increment, a tidbit that only I know and you don’t – longevity and health has made some great strides, and it’s now fairly common for people to make it to a hundred years of age. How they get there and what sort of health they’re in physically and mentally remains to be seen.
So I met with the doctor. A young, vivacious looking sister. I figured it was another routine check-up. We hadn’t been poked and prodded enough when we first arrived, so now it was time for a little more sadism. But she sat me down in a cushy seat at her desk and told me about how the Ostium Network had made many advancements in many fields, including that of health and longevity. As an employee for the Ostium Network, there were certain procedures available to me, if I wanted them. Then she started spouting a bunch of medical jargon and I felt like I was back in class. She said shit about telomeres a lot, whatever those are. At the end she put it in nice clear terms: if I chose to go through all three of the procedures, I would come out the other end looking and feeling twenty years younger. And there were no side-effects whatsoever. Other than my peers being shocked at how fine I would now look.
I said sure. I was already fully aware of the number of young people employed by the Ostium Network. What better way to level the playing field? Am I right?
It took three hours. Some painless injections. Some medications. Then ninety minutes in a special chamber that filled with this goo. I was fitted with a breathing mask. Stripped down to my birthday suit. And got comfortable. Fortunately, the goo was warm. It was pretty relaxing actually. Took a nice nap and they woke me when I was done.
And they were totally fucking right. I looked in my mid thirties and I couldn’t believe it. I felt awesome. Just great. And like I said, everyone had this done to smooth away wrinkles, energize muscles and look a little younger and healthier, even if they were in peak physical condition with looks to boot. Steve shaved off a year or two. But I was one of the “elderly” few who turned the clock back a lot. There were a lot of heads turning my way after that.
After it was all done and I was dressed back in my now looser fitting clothes, the doctor sat me down again and explained how this wasn’t a temporary thing. That the process could be done repeatedly . . . Indefinitely.
I don’t think I fully processed the true meaning of this statement until . . . Perhaps now? Maybe because I didn’t believe it? Maybe no one did, but did it anyway? She’d just said, basically, that we could all live forever. If we wanted. We could become immortal. The caveat was that we always had a choice in this; it was never chosen for us. This wasn’t going to be an immortal existence doomed to never be able to die. When one wanted to kick the bucket willingly, they certainly could. Not to mention, all the other “common” and “popular” ways some choose to end their lives or have their lives ended for themselves.
I was told that the best and most effective treatment was an hour “goo bath” every six months.
A paltry price to pay for looking this fucking badass.
I’d surpassed the six-month mark. Was closing in on a year actually. So it only made sense some of my body’s cells were now starting to feel their age.
The first question was: did the goo bath exist in this Ostium Network and was it still working?
The second question was: did I still want to?
Fuck yeah! Was the resounding response to the second one. Answering the first question took a little longer as I had to remember what room the goo baths were located in what building. I did find it pretty quick. Everything was running like normal. And, fortunately, I’d had the procedure done enough times to know the actual operating of the bath was something even I could handle. In a few minutes I had everything powered up and running, and the purple filling up just right.
When it was ready, I set an alarm, stripped down, and like Goldilocks, stepped into the just right goo with the respirator running and got comfortable. I didn’t sleep this time. Didn’t trust that nothing would go wrong. When the alarm went off, I was up and out of there and going through cleaning procedures according to protocol.
Before I put my clothes back on I checked the full-length mirror which was simply required in this room. I looked thirty-six again and amazing. Like before. I couldn’t help winking at myself.
The doctor had told me there were some more severe procedures that could increase the aging retraction to up to thirty years, but with there were potential side effects and irregularities. That last word had me steering well clear of that risk. Twenty was just fine for me.
And then I was back in my familiar apartment, after a nice long hot shower, with a steaming mug of tea, contemplating on the next steps I could take and making the nightly journal entry.
Before I looked at entering the world of buildings and offices and locations I’d never been before in the Ostium Network, there was one last place I hadn’t been that I have to make myself check.
His place isn’t too far from. I haven’t forgotten where it is. Some things you can’t forget. But is far enough that it’s a bit of a walk. I take the EV and I’m there it minutes. It takes me twice as many minutes to leave the vehicle and make it to the door. Then I’m stopped in my tracks.
The door is half open. What the fuck? It’s just like mine, with the ID pad. Just like all the others along this street. All those doors are closed. How comes this one isn’t? I step into the doorway, pushing it open. It doesn’t make a sound. Good. I go inside and take slow steps, keeping as quiet as possible, and listening for anything. Or anyone. I enter the living room and then I just wait. Five minutes pass. Then ten. Then fifteen. In all that time I keep perfectly still. I hear nothing but my own breathing.
I relax then. Check out the other rooms just to be certain.
I’m alone here, as I expect to be.
Then the emotion washes over me like a wave I can barely stand up against.
This is where he lived. Where he was. His smell is here, in every room. In his bedroom, his bed is still unmade. I’m unable to stop myself from smelling his pillow. That starts the tears. I look in his closet, where his smell is even stronger. More tears come then and I just let them fall.
In the living room I sit on the single couch and have a long, good, healthy cry, feeling the sobs wrenched from me and thrown away, not wanting them back.
More time passes, and I’m able to get myself back together. I feel my hand reaching over to the lamp on the small table next to the couch. I’ve sat in this exact spot many times with my lovely son. Beneath the lamp is a framed photograph of us. It got taken not long after we arrived at Ostium and we asked to have prints and each got one, along with frames. We keep them in the same spots in our respective apartments. Some might think it kind of sappy. It was Steve’s idea. I thought it was beautiful and was really touched by the gesture.
Except my hand’s not finding the photo. I turn and look and beneath the lamp is . . . No photo. There was a photo there before. Most fucking definitely. I can still see a thin layer of dust on the table. Where the frame was are marks and grooves in the dust. Tracks indicating the photo has been taken.
What the fuck?
Someone’s been here.
And for the first time being back in the Ostium Network, where I thought I was all alone, I start to feel afraid.
And that’s when another loud fucking boom happens.