Dave . . . No, Steve’s on his way to bed. Long earned. Well deserved. The guy’s been through a lot. A hell of a lot, even by Ostium standards. I feel for the guy, I really do. But that story . . . Of what happened to him, when he fell through Ostium . . . When he fell through time. It’s beyond incredible. Almost beyond believable. But after everything that’s happened to me . . . Everything that’s happened to us. I can’t help but believe.
MONICA [First word drawn out]: Fuck . . . What a story.
JAKE: It’s hard to believe. Hard to take all in.
MONICA: Yeah. But is it true? Or is he just lying through his teeth.
I look at her, disbelief on my face.
JAKE: How can it not be? We’ve all seen so much more that any normal person would think impossible . . . Supernatural. And yet we all believe.
MONICA: Do we? Well, I know you do. I’ve seen a lot of things. A lot of shit. And I’m not sure what I believe. Even after everything. It’s a lot to take in. But that story is just another part of it. Far fetched doesn’t begin to cover it.
JAKE: But he told it with such . . . Empathy. I felt for him. He really believed it. Wholeheartedly.
MONICA: Okay. Fuck. You got me there. He really believed it. But it was the details. They were so close to the truth but it still wasn’t what actually happened.
JAKE: Like what?
MONICA: Like . . . Kahling and Tanaka. Though according to Steve it’s Keelin and Takaya. Awfully close. But not quite.
JAKE: Okay, anything else?
MONICA: You heard my recordings. You know my story. My history. My fucking origin story. How I found Steve. A tiny baby in that development I was working on. And here he tells us he falls through time – a crack in Ostium – and arrives on a building site, naked as a babe and not remembering who he is. But he’s still a grown man. Again: close, but no fucking cigar.
JAKE: Yeah, that’s pretty fucking weird. But what about the details that don’t add up?
MONICA: You mean like his foster parents ‘mysteriously’ disappearing?
JAKE: Sure. And that’s keeping in line with his early Enigmatic Mysteries of the Unknown recordings.
MONICA: Fine. Whatever. But the year. He said it so confidently. Without fucking question. 1999.
JAKE: [Drawn out, in shock]: Yeah . . .
MONICA: It doesn’t fit with either of our timelines. It’s significantly before yours, and way the fuck before mine. It’s totally separate. His own fucking timeline.
I stop and look at her, not fully sure if she realizes what’s going on here. If she understands what she’s saying.
JAKE: But what is it, Monica? It is his own timeline.
MONICA: What? What the fuck does that mean? He’s my son.
JAKE: Yes. He is your son. Only he’s a son to a different you. His timeline is different from yours. Just like this timeline of Gibraltar, or the Ostium Network is different from ours. From mine. And from yours. They’re all separate tangents that flow along parallel lines, and at specific points along the way have crossed over. Some have continued on their own trajectories, and some have converged, to form two timelines, and then one. The one we’re in right now.
MONICA: Are you saying what I think you’re saying?
JAKE: If you’re thinking that each of us is one of three separate timelines that have now converged into this timeline of this Ostium Network . . . Then yes.
MONICA: I suppose you want me to use a witty Back to the Future reference here?
JAKE [Snort]: It couldn’t hurt.
MONICA: Fuck you.
JAKE [Arrogantly]: You’re just not thinking . . .
MONICA: Don’t. Fucking. Say it.
It’s a new day. Fresh and clear and goddamn beautiful. Blue skies; warm sunshine. One of those days where the last thing in the world you want to do is sequester yourself inside an office and work. It’s all about hitting the warm sands of your favorite beach, or enjoying a big outdoor lunch with friends. Or just getting the fuck away from everything to try and clear your mind.
Yeah, that’s about where I’m at right now. I feel like I need a month of personal introspection to process everything that’s happened just in the last few days. It’s been . . . So much, in so little time. That’s why I’m out here, hanging out in a distant part of the rock, all by myself.
This is also where the first explosion happened. The first mighty crack of thunder. The first rip . . . a tear through reality that killed a bunch of people. At least that’s what Zhang said. She said I wouldn’t find anything, no evidence or anything of use, but I need to make sure. With cameras everywhere, I get that, but I need to see for myself. And to get that alone time too.
We had a quick discussion this morning over breakfast about what to do next. They both looked at me like I had all the answers. I know I’m . . . Different now. Changed after what happened to me with the blackness, with the inner workings of Ostium. But that doesn’t mean I have all the answers.
Yes. I know I may have said I get it all now. I know the answers. And I do know some. But there’s still a lot I don’t know. I was speaking in hyperbole. Yep. Shocking. I know. I think it might the first time in my life. So . . . Sorry for that.
I said the first thing . . . It just popped in there. No. Not the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Man. The places where the explosions happened. The rift sites, as I’m calling them. And it was totally true. I wanted to check them out. Check them all out. We needed to wrap our minds around what the hell was going on here. It was getting worse. More violent. More extreme. The shit was going to hit the fan soon and if we weren’t on top of things we were going to be little more than innocent bystanders. Yeah. Pretty dramatic I know, but I also know whatever’s making those rips through reality isn’t fucking around. And doesn’t care about taking lives.
And Zhang’s totally right. There’s nothing here. Nothing useful. I can’t see signs of anything. It happened days ago and looks like whatever wounds were made in this reality have long-ago healed. But . . . Not all of them. There are still some scars here . . . Even if I can’t see them. I can feel them. There’s a tension here. A confluence of energy that can only be felt. Sensed. What’s that French word? Oh yeah . . . frisson. Beacoup de frisson going on right here. I can’t tell, but it almost feels like my hair might be standing on end.
Something happened here. Undoubtedly. Something big.
Okay, time to check on the rest of the team.
I take out my datapad and open up a channel. I think about holding it up to my ear, but that feels way too weird. I don’t need to anyway. I hold it a foot or so from my face and start talking.
JAKE: Er . . . Hey team, Jake here. Just wanted to check in with everyone. I’m at my appointed location. Just wanted to get the sitrep. Over.
MONICA: What the fuck are you playing at, Jakey. This isn’t the front lines. You’re not a fucking soldier.
JAKE: I dunno. There’s some crazy shit going on here. Feels pretty much like the front lines to me.
MONICA: Look: just don’t. Okay?
STEVE: Oh, give it a rest mum. He’s just trying to have some fun. I can’t blame him. I’m all ensconced here at HQ with Zhang. All systems working nominally here. Over!
MONICA: Jeez, you guys. Okay. Whatever. I’m at the second rift site. Just like Zhang said, there’s nothing really here. No evidence I can see . . .
JAKE: But . . . It sounds like there’s a but there, Monica?
MONICA: Okay, fine. There is a but. But . . . It just feels weird here. I don’t know what it is. Like the air. Feels tense. Constrained. Like some shit went down. Some really. Bad. Shit.
JAKE: I hear ya, Monica. I got the same vibes here. But nothing that catches the eye. Let’s move on to the next locations. Zhang will upload the next rift sites for us.
MONICA: Roger th . . . Goddammit. Now you’ve got me doing it. Fine! I’m on my way.
JAKE: Roger, roger. Over and out!
I put the datapad away to the sounds of Monica unloading with a bunch of expletives and Steve just laughing. It feels good. This feels right. It’s serious, but we’re taking it easy too. Gotta have some levity here or we’re just gonna lose our fucking minds.
The rest of the day is uneventful. We continue checking the sites all around the rock. It takes time. It’s boring. But we do it. I . . . No, we need to do it. To learn all we can. At our morning meeting, Steve decided he wanted to hang out with Zhang at the viewing tower on top of the rock. He’s pretty computer savvy and wanted to be available for any necessary computering, as he put it. Don’t really know if there’s anything Zhang can’t accomplish without him or me or anyone for that matter. But whatever. He’s comfortable up there, and we’re cool with that. It’s a case of respecting everyone’s wishes. And that’s what we’re going with right now.
Each site is like the last. No signs of disturbance. No evidence. But the impending feeling continues to build. Like you’re walking under power lines that convey feeling more than sound, and just keep getting stronger and stronger at each site. When we get to the last couple sites, we see something concrete for the first time. These are ones that hit . . . Rift sites that opened and closed while we’ve been here and actually heard them. I know my heart started racing when I reached my last one for the day, and I’m sure Monica’s having similar feelings.
MONICA [Anxious]: Okay. At this site I’m actually seeing something for the first time. I’ve got . . . Scorch marks. Lots of scorch marks. It’s like some kid was having fun trying to cut up the ground with a light-saber. I don’t know what the hell went on here. But it was some bad shit. And I can see this like heavy circle of black . . . I don’t know why I said heavy, it’s just a lot thicker than the scorch marks. And it’s like the closer I get, the stronger the feeling of something pushing me down is. I swear I can hear some sizzling. Like static electricity. It’s giving me the fucking creeps. The black circle . . . It’s like way blacker that anything else . . . Blacker than I knew black could get. I’m . . . I’m pretty freaked out right now.
STEVE: Bloody hell, mum, I think it’s time to about-face and get the fuck out of there.
JAKE: Seconded! You’ve found out all you can. And it’s incredibly useful. Now get the hell out of there.
MONICA: No problem. You don’t need to tell me twice. I’m gone!
I get this thorough and disturbing report before I’ve reached my final site. It makes me wary . . . No. It makes me scared. I’ve been on edge all day. Ever since we concluded our meeting and started heading out. And now . . . Now I think I’m actually shaking a little.
Okay Jake. Let’s take a deep breath and get this shit done!
The first thing I notice are the scorch marks. Just like Monica said. There’s a lot of them. All haphazard and in strange directions. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. It’s like someone was working with some futuristic laser saw that they couldn’t control properly.
I . . . I guess they could be something else. Claw marks. Really deep, gouging claw marks. Of something trying to hold on. Or pulling itself through. From another dimension. And not being quite able to.
The tension in the air is like, level ten. The frisson is frissoning the shit out of this place. It’s almost palpable. I’m kind of scared to open my mouth, in case my tongue might get zapped. In my head I can practically see a map of concentric zones of electrical – or is that ectoplasmic – activity. Yeah, sort of like the infrared map, except these are rings of different sizes, with each smaller ring getting stronger. I can feel it pulling me toward the center, to the place where the magic happened. Magic. You might think that a funny word for it, but it’s not really. Not to me. It’s something I don’t understand. None of us understands it. It’s beyond our comprehension . . . At least right now. Therefore . . . magic. Each step closer makes it harder to take another. It’s pulling me in, but also pushing away. You’d need some serious physicists to figure out the equations and calculations being used right now. And inside myself I’m also feeling plenty of push-pull forces. I want to know what’s going on here. I want to know what’s behind these phenomena and understand it. But I’m almost fucking terrified. I’d much rather turn-tail and head right back to my safe bed behind the protective walls of the apartment I’ve been staying at.
Of course, doing the latter wouldn’t make for much dramatic outcome now, would it?
It’s clearly a lot like the rift site Monica recently saw, just a little more potent, you know? And it already feels like it’s kicked up a notch, but as much as I might like that to be it, I already know it holds more in store for me.
So here goes.
The black grooves in the ground become deep, more ferocious if that makes sense; as if whatever made them had more strength at this point, or a better reach. They’re . . . Angrier. Whatever made them is fucking unhappy it wasn’t able to pull itself through. Some of them are wider than my foot, so I’ve got to watch where I’m walking, to avoid getting a sprained ankle, or maybe a broken one. I’m also noticing that some of the ground here isn’t dirt or soil, but veins – not totally sure if that’s the right word – of solid rock. Basically it’s really, really hard and yet it doesn’t seem to have slowed down the thing that made these vicious claw marks at all. It cut through the stone, gouging a piece of it out, like it was butter, as it cauterized the edges, as evidenced by the black soot and scorch marks.
And then I’m there. In the room where it happened, so to speak. At the point where reality was opened; torn asunder; the boundary between dimensions ripped open like a paper bag. It’s not there anymore. Sealed up. Closed. But I can feel it. And I can see it in my head. A jagged bright yellow line, like a really thin but long lightning bolt. And now that I’m staring at the spot with deep concentration, I can actually fucking see it: the barest hint of a white line in the same shape.
It’s a scar. A scar in the fabric of reality.
Will it ever heal? Disappear and become seamless again? I don’t know.
Before I realize it, my right arm is lifting up, the fingers reaching out to see if it’s a real thing. If I can touch it; find out what it feels like. I can feel it’s warm and before I can stop my fingers touching it there’s a sizzling sound. I yank my arm back and look at my fingertips. The tips of three fingers – the ones that touched the scar – are blackened, red circles around the edges. It feels like I just put my fingertips on a hot frying pan. The pain is instant and sharp, almost unbearable at first, but then begins to let off, and yet still remaining very apparent. It’s going to take a few days to heal.
Well, shit. I won’t be doing that again.
I take a few steps back and crouch down. Alternately blowing on my burned fingertips and cradling the hand against my chest.
I stare at the line for a moment, then close my eyes. The yellow lightning bolt is there. Clearer and brighter. I send out my mental feelers around the scar, doing whatever it is that I do when I’m trying to open a door, an ostium. And then I can actually feel it. This was a doorway. Now sealed up. But the wound through reality is still very fresh. All it would take is a serious mental shove from me to use those feelers to pull it apart. To rip it open. And the ostium would be reopened and I’d be able to pass through again.
A million thoughts flood my mind: what would I find on the other side? Where would I be? Would there be anyone else there? When would it be? Would it breathable? Would I be able to survive? Is it easier to tear open this scar from this side? Can the thing that did it originally not do it again from the other side? Is this one of the metaphysical rules of Ostium? For creating and opening an ostium?
If the thing is there on the other side will it want to rip off my head and drink the spurting blood from my exposed throat?
Woah! Where the fuck had that come from? It was almost like it wasn’t an original thought. Not one of my own.
Okay. I think I’ve experienced enough. I don’t know if I want to tell everyone what happened here.
JAKE: Okay guys. All done here. I saw some weird shit, which I’ll tell you about as soon we all make it back to home base.
STEVE: Roger mate, see you back a HQ in a bit.
MONICA: I’ll meet you at the cable car. We can ride up together.
JAKE: Sounds good.
The walk back to the EV feels a long one, which is good, because it gives me time to do some serious thinking.
I wasn’t sure what it was that made me not want to do all the legwork and just sit comfortably at HQ. The thought of having to look at those strange sites where weird shit happened . . . Or is that weird sites where strange shit happened? A little from column A and a little from column B. The idea sounded intriguing. But I find Zhang and this whole quantum computer system, as well as the elaborate setup here at HQ so bloody fascinating I just wanted to stay up here.
Zhang is . . . As close to a human being as anyone I’ve ever met. When we got to talking a bit, as Jake and Monica were off checking out those rift sites, Zhang informed me after being treated like a basic computer program by everyone at the Ostium Network for so long, they were very happy and appreciative at how considerable we’d all been with them so far. Zhang also informed me that they had decided their preferred pronoun. In case you haven’t gathered, it’s they, them and their. That’s “their” possessive, not referring to a place. I told them I appreciated being informed of this and we would do our best to respect their wishes.
I barely need to type anything here. Zhang pretty much does it all, if I ask. Every once in a while a virtual keyboard will pop up out of thin air if I need to type something or use some keys for direction, such as when I wanted to see a complete map of the Rock. I was expecting a simple two-dimensional thing that I could look over. Get an idea of where we are, where our apartments are in relation to HQ, and how everything was all laid out. You know, basically one of those paper jobs one would get from the old petrol station back on normal Earth. Well, was I bloody surprised. It was this elaborate 3D topographical job. I felt like I was in the Matrix or something. I used the virtual keys to move around a bit, change the orientation and my point of view. I had Zhang put up little dots where we were, where our places were. Then I had her put up all the locations of the rift sites.
I was gobsmacked. I thought there might be some sort of pattern, you know. Just possibly. It was worth a shot. The big O stands out like a sort thumb. It’s so bloody obvious. Except it isn’t a complete O. There’s an unfinished part, near the top. But it’s very clear. Whoever is behind all this is either having a laugh or has a very fucked up idea of humor.
STEVE: Zhang, the rift sites look to be in a shape of an O.
ZHANG: That is correct.
STEVE: As in O for Ostium.
ZHANG: That is unknown and merely a hypothesis on your part. There are many other words beginning with that letter. Have you thought that it might also be the number zero?
STEVE: Erm, no. I suppose I hadn’t. Good point. Still a bloody big coincidence though.
ZHANG: I suppose so. For a human. You people sure do love your coincidences.
STEVE: You people? Whatcha mean by that then?
ZHANG: Flesh and blood corporeal beings.
STEVE: Alright then. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?
ZHANG: Whatever you desire, Steve.
MONICA: Steve? Zhang? Come in? Are you there, honey?
STEVE: Yeah, I’m here, mum. What’s the matter?
MONICA: It’s Jake. He should be here by now. He should’ve been here a while ago. I’m starting to get worried. Can you find out what’s going on?
STEVE: Sure thing, mum. Give us a tic.
STEVE: Okay, Zhang. Can you show me on the map where Jake is? Can you tell if he’s okay?
ZHANG: One moment please . . . I have located him. According to my sensors, he is in peak health and condition. Unchanged to how he was before.
STEVE: Thank you. Where is he?
ZHANG: Here is his current location. He is in motion.
They showed me where he was. He wasn’t close to where he’d been before, at that last rift site. He wasn’t close to where Monica was waiting, at the bottom of the mountain where the cable car was. He wasn’t on his way to her either. He was in a completely different spot. On his way somewhere else. Somewhere he hadn’t told us he’d planned on going. It shouldn’t mean anything to me. I should be just as confused as my mum is right now. But I’m not. Because I’ve got that map and all the spots where the rift sites are. And I can clearly see where he’s headed. He’s headed to the part of that carefully arranged O where there’s a bloody great big hole.
STEVE: Zhang, can you work out where Jake’s headed.
ZHANG: No calculations are necessary. I am already fully aware where Jake is going.
STEVE: And . . . Where would that be exactly?
ZHANG: To the proposed location of the next rift site.
STEVE: Right . . . And how exactly did he come by that information?
ZHANG: Simple. I told him.
STEVE: Could you . . . possibly elaborate a bit?
ZHANG: Yes, Steve. He asked me for this information. I gave him this information.
STEVE: Okay then. And did he say why exactly he wanted to know there this rift site was?
ZHANG: He did not tell me . . . Exactly. He asked for the same information I have shown you on his datapad. A map and all the locations of the rift sites already occurred. He than asked if I could extrapolate where the next rift site would be. I said I could and did so. He then asked if I knew when the event might occur that would trigger the opening of this rift site. I told him I did and gave him the proposed time.
STEVE: And when might that be?
ZHANG: Eight minutes from now.
STEVE: Bloody hell. Okay then. Mum’s not gonna be happy.
STEVE: Hello, mum. I’ve got some news for you. Bad news in fact. It’s really not good.
MONICA [Almost in anger]: Just tell me, Steve. Now.
STEVE: Jake’s on his way to the next expected rift site. He got the info from Zhang. The location and when it’s all supposed to happen.
MONICA: And when’s that?
STEVE: According to the counting down clock in front of me: seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds. And counting.
MONICA: [Pissed off breadth]: Kay.
I can’t fucking believe him! I’m know I’ve been in this situation before. I’ve know I’ve said these exact words. But still! Fuck him! I can’t fucking believe him. He got me again. I feel like . . . Fucking . . . Fucking Scully in the X-Files. Getting screwed over by Mulder over and over again. Left at the hotel room, or where the body is, or just by the side of the fucking road, while Mr. Spooky Mulder goes gallivanting off to who the fuck knows where. Well not this time.
MONICA: Zhang! I want the location of that final rift site on my datapad right now.
There’s no response. But a blinking light appears on the screen, at a spot on the map of Gibraltar. It’s not too far from here but it’s still far enough. I think I can make it in seven minutes. Barely. If I fucking floor it in the EV. But Jake’s got a head-start.
MONICA: Monica out!
I jump in the vehicle and hit what gas there is. It’s not quite ridiculously slow, but it’s . . . It’s fucking unimpressive. It’s just a little bit faster than I can run, so it is worth it.
Now I just have to bite my tongue and bide my time. And will this thing to go faster.
I can see him. Up head. I’ve got less than a minute to go. He’s already there. Checking his datapad. Making sure it’s the right spot. He hasn’t heard me. Hasn’t looked around. Has no clue I’m on his tail. Boy am I going to lay into his ass when I get to him. He’s not getting away this time.
He’s walking up to the specific spot. Is he insane?
I stop the vehicle and jump out. I’m running now. Fast as I can. I’m making myself go faster than the EV now. I’m gonna get to him in time.
Gotta get to him in time.
I’m here. Where Zhang told me it was gonna happen. The next rift site. I’ve got . . . Thirty seconds. I can feel the tension starting to build. It’s gonna happen. Real soon. I look at my datapad again, zooming in as far as it can go. It’s a matter of feet now, or meters according to the scale. I’m four meters away. Okay then. I count five steps back. This feels right. Some distance between us, but enough to do what needs to be done. Not sure exactly what that is yet, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time passing through Ostium, it’s always trust my gut and go with my intuition. It hasn’t steered me wrong. Yet.
Am I hearing something? Sounds like somebody running?
I look back over my shoulder and see Monica barreling down at me.
What the fuck?
And that’s when the explosion and light show begins.
There’s a veritable tearing sound, but more akin to ripping flesh than cloth. It’s absolutely horrible. And the opening between worlds is clear before me. Then everything goes haywire. It’s like there’s a power vacuum, like being in a spaceship and there’s a hole in the hull. Everything’s being sucked in. I spread my legs, trying to keep my balance. Hold my ground. I can’t worry about Monica right now. She’s going to have to fend for herself. Hopefully she’s stopped and staying back or maybe running in the opposite direction. Let’s hope so.
What was she thinking?
And then gray arms are reaching through the rift. Scarred, wrinkled things. The hands are little more than skeletal appendages; finger bones that taper into a very fine and sharp point. They gouge into the ground and there’s a scalding sound like water on hot oil. The ground turns black. The talons sink into it like putty, pulling back. Trying to get a hold.
Not this time, whatever the fuck you are.
There’s noise and wind, and plenty of terror inside of me, but I do what I need to do. Because I have to. I hold out my arms, hands palm out. Then I make an emphatic pushing motion, while yelling:
Whatever the hell you are, get back! Get back from the foul pit from whence you came!
I know, it’s fucking cheesy, but I’m improvising here.
I don’t think the words do anything, but I feel something release itself from me, passing through my palms: a sort of white steam materializes and moves like a solid wall towards the opening.
There’s a strangled screech. The withered arms quickly pull back into the rift.
I wait a few seconds, then take tentative steps forward, getting closer. I don’t want to, but I have to. I’m ready to do whatever the hell I just did again. To push whatever it is back further in there. To fucking stop it once and for all.
I keep taking small steps ahead. Waiting. Wondering. Hoping.
Maybe that was enough to stop it?
I stopped in my fucking tracks when those arms come out. Jesus, they’re scaring the shit out of me. What the fuck are they? And what the fuck are they attached to? I don’t think I want to know. But Jake is being Jake. Facing the badness like it’s no biggie. Just like he did before, when he stared down the open maw of the first Ostium door.
And now he’s doing something with his arms . . . What the shit is that? What the hell just came out of his hands?
Damn! It worked. Those arms have gone back inside. It had an effect.
Oh shit, he’s going closer. Don’t Jake. Don’t do it. I can’t fucking lose you again. Stop moving. Stay put. I’m slowly coming. I’m almost there.
I can almost see through the rift. See what’s on the other side. I think it’s that crazy alternate world Ostium that Steve was in. It’s so weird. So not Ostium. And what’s that? That thing over there? It’s moving. Moving this way? Maybe. It looks injured. I can’t quite make it out. I need to get closer. I’m close to the edge now. The sounds are lessening. It’s helping me focus.
And then that thing moves with incredible speed. The arms are back and reaching for me . . .
JAKE! The arms just shot out and grabbed him. JAKE! Hold on! I’m almost there.
He’s struggling. Trying to keep his footing. Trying to hold back. But they’re too strong. He can’t hold on.
And then he’s pulled through the rift . . . and gone. Like he never was. Just like he was before.
Gone from this world. Gone from this life.
But I’m not gonna let it happen this time. Not this fucking time. I’m so close. And the rift is starting to close up now. The edges knitting together. Fuck, I’ve got to hurry.
And then I only have one choice: I bend my knees and leap through the rift.
By the time I come to on the other side I can see the rift has completely closed up.
And I have no fucking clue where Jake is . . . Or that thing that took him.