Instinct had brought me here, though I wasn’t sure what instinct. All the information I had about the city was from Kieren’s stories. He had trained in Darkside the first two cycles of his training after requesting the most difficult location to assimilate. I’d asked him why he would want to train somewhere like Darkside. At the time we’d just met and hadn’t yet know if we were to be partners, so he never answered. Through the years, though, he had described his fascination with the timeline, and only much later did he admit that his former life was from Sideia, of which Darkside was a major city. He knew the city from those stolen memories from before, intertwining with the knowledge he’d gained while training among the streets.
As I made my way forward, I saw his words painted in reality. Night lay upon the town, but a deeper darkness existed even in the alley I navigated, brick buildings rising on either side of me, the smell of dank dirt, piss, and an overly sweet herbal smell hovering above it all.
Those that lived within the Darkside parameters lived without the rules of society. It was one of the few experiments existing that truly took anarchy to the level of play. There were no laws. There was no overseeing authority other than the authority eked out through power-grabbing, usually in the form of war. Kieren had spoken very little of his family on the planet or their role within Darkside, but there lingered a taste of Kieren’s familial power in the way he carried himself and in the way he occasionally spoke of those days.
To rule among these dark alleyways, among these lawless people, was to take aggression to an entirely different level.
The pain in my back faded as I navigated puddles, rodents, trash, and unidentifiable piles. By the time I finally found a main thorough way and paused to assess the scene, the pain was at a manageable level, though the back of my tunic was uncomfortably sticky. I needed a place to hole up and though I vaguely knew what the currency was thanks to Kieren, I wasn’t sure how to get it, and I wasn’t going to access my interface for the information. The search for my doppelganger had most definitely set off my location and I would rather not get another knife in the back.
Hiding just inside the corner of a side road, I surveyed the chaotic scene. There were Sideian individuals everywhere in various stages of dress. One individual walked by clothed entirely in purple from the hat on the head to the boots on the feet. Another wore nothing at all, all the bits hanging out and sashaying with the rumbling beat that came from somewhere unidentifiable. There were yellow capes and red dresses that were easily the width of several individuals. There was a small type individual with a hat that rose up as tall as the substantially taller individual walking alongside. There was a great deal of color that almost, but not quite, hid the tattered nature of the clothing and the dirty human-like faces. Above the crowd, levitating transportation vehicles zipped here and there, small or large seemingly dependent on the direction. The lights were the most distracting, laser lights of random colors filling the air, and what looked like human neon lights mounted on every building.
All the buildings were constructed of a hard type material that shone dully, the unyielding surface bouncing the piercing lights and overloading the sounds. Individuals yelled, some screamed, there was the rumble of a deep thumping music, and the smell was a mixture of body stink, exhaust, and something food-like that made my stomach twist in horror. I tried to find reason in it, an event to explain the number of individuals, or the loud music, but all seemed random, the flow and sway of bodies.
One thing I could tell, however, was that those entering and exiting the levitating transportation vehicles onto rooftop pads and bridges appeared cleaner and better dressed than those on the ground. There were flashes of jewelry, sequins, and elaborate hair as they disembarked, flowing underthings of rainbow colors apparent even from where I stood. The scene above was in direct contrast to the scene among the streets. As I watched from my hiding spot, I could see that the individuals above were not only Sideians but other species as well, which rocked my concentration for a moment as my mind tried to understand the situation. Timelines never intertwined. Experiments were strictly separated, and Sideia was an experiment, just as the human timeline was, and as such the only visiting species other than Sideians would be Collectors or Guardians.
The crowd above looked like neither.
I frowned, the memory of my abduction floating upwards into consciousness as I viewed the scene above. Clearly, someone had wanted to take me to this place, and I wondered who and why. Suddenly, an answer to that question is all I could focus on.
I slipped into the crowd without worrying about being noticed, the flashing lights helping to mask the blood-soaked tunic and my bloodied appearance in general. I felt a hand immediately, a small hand reaching inside my tunic. I grabbed at the wrist, holding tight as I pulled and turned. The thief appeared young, with large brown eyes and a bald head. A scar slashed across the right side of his face, puckered at his cheek and splitting his mouth. He grinned, a lopsided, grotesque grin, then expertly twirled out of my grasp. He disappeared into the crowd. I shifted, taking my staff out from where I’d put it in my holster, grasping it with my left hand though keeping it closed, and then proceeded through the crowd. The tiny hands were everywhere, patting at me and crawling along my skin, but I had nothing of value and after a moment, the hands disappeared. Clearly, they had gotten the message that I had nothing and left me alone, but the thieves gave me an idea and I eyed the side of a building. These people pushing and pulling at me were as destitute as I was, and probably as desperate. But the people overhead were clearly of a different class and of different timelines.
The opportunities I needed lay above my head.
When I came to another alley, I turned, stepping out of the crowd and into the stench. Among the people, I hadn’t noticed the smell but caught in the more claustrophobic alley, it was overwhelming, and I gagged.
“No deep breaths here,” I said to the wall, securing my staff once again and studying the sidewall made of some strange material looking a lot like brick. There might be security measures along the wall, discouraging individuals from taking the rooftops, but curiosity drove me forward, reaching for the first handhold in the bricks and pulling myself up. I expected a jolt, razor-wire, something to stall my progress but I made it to the top of the building in moments even with the wounded shoulder, refusing to look down to see if anyone noticed my ascent.
Catching the ledge, I pulled myself up slightly, toes on a small line of jutting building, the wound in my back protesting with a tear that I ignored as I peaked over.
The roof was flat, but not without obstacles, two Guardians in black standing on either side of a glass doorway. The presence of Guardians further spiked my curiosity and I felt something tighten in my stomach, the memory of Rushielian and a woman’s voice telling someone to take me to Darkside prominent in my thoughts.
Shaking, I took a few deep breaths and looked around, surveying the best way to gain access to the doorway. Partially hidden by a dome of glass, I pulled myself up and over, lying on my back for a moment and looking up at the sky above. The level of light pollution hid most everything, but one or two stars shone brightly through the mist.
I rolled over to my stomach and pulled myself across the roof, keeping the glass dome between me and the two Guardians. Surprise was the only way that I would beat the two. My first thought was to break the glass, either of the dome or the doorway to distract the Guardians long enough to slip by; however, that would alert others to my presence and I discarded the idea. I was going to have to fight my way past.
Easing the staff from my back, I elongated it with a flick of my wrist and without thinking, relying on instinct, catapulted myself up and over the glass dome. I took the first Guardian by surprise with a heavy whip of my weapon, knocking him unconscious with an impact to the side of his head.
The other Guardian, also male but shorter and slight turned in surprise though already moving, attacking me with knives that appeared in both of his hands. The Guardian was unfamiliar, his fighting style was not, and I crouched low as he went high. It had been a long time since I’d fought one on one with another Guardian, but the rhythms were the same and we exchanged blows, mine across his back, his to my stomach. He wanted me to double over but I’d learned the hard way not to double over on a punch, and went the other way, bringing my leg up and catching him in the jaw with my foot, a jarring blow that made his head fall backward.
Already the fight had taken too long and I crouched low bringing up a right hook that caught him across the face. He blinked as if in surprise and then slumped to the ground.
Hand throbbing, I eyed the two Guardians and decided to leave them where they were knowing they wouldn’t stay unconscious for long. I had only moments, so quickly I eased inside the building and crouched low to take in the scene. I stood on some kind of deep walkway that led to a wide staircase lit by several hanging chandeliers. In the shadows, I crept closer and looked over the edge of the walkway to where a large group of individuals mingled. I bit back a word as I caught sight of the now familiar figure of Master Cynthe speaking to a larger, older male Sideian. Shadowing her were two Guardians and as I looked away, I caught sight of four more Guardians in black. They were guarding two other individuals I didn’t recognize other than they held the aura and personhood of Master. One was tall and large and very pale, bald head tattooed with swirling blue suggesting that once upon a time he was T’nGali. The other was slight, barely bigger than a human child, with long green tentacles flowing from the back of the head and into the crowd. Neither Master I knew, but that there were three Masters along with their Guardians left room for a lot of questions.
I started to back slowly away. I’d just barely taken down the two Guardians outside. I wouldn’t be able to beat six Guardians and I most definitely wanted to avoid the Masters’ attention. Crouched in the dark, contemplating the situation, the decision of what to do next was taken from me, glass shattering from above, the dome imploding inward as a dozen or more individuals fell from the sky, all of them dressed in gray with black masked hoods over their heads. The new arrivals held guns at ready and when they hit the floor, they started for the Masters. The Guardians moved, weapons appearing in their hands as they took on the attackers. Screams echoed, Sideians shoving each other out of the way as they ran. The music screeched to a halt and somewhere something let out a smell of smoke and brimstone.
I watched, warring with myself, feeling that I should help but not sure who to help. A rather large part of my psyche believed that Master Cynthe had something to do with my abduction, which pushed me towards indifference when it came to her safety. Along with that small detail, there were a lot of Guardians, a lot of attackers, and I couldn’t see what help I could give even if I was sure of a side.
I returned the way I came, staying to the shadows, pausing at the door to see if there were more individuals in gray outside. Seeing nothing, I sprinted across the rooftop and let myself down the side of the building, retracing my climb from before. I kept alert for anyone following but the commotion was enough to hide my retreat and I made the alley floor without problems. There I paused, trying to make sense of what I saw. Clearly, Master Cynthe, along with two other Masters, were meeting with Sideians. And then there were the attackers. Who were they and why had they targeted the Masters in the room?
I shook my head, running a palm across the front of my face as if to gain insight through physical contact. Nothing had made sense for a while and I added what I just witnessed to the growing list. The alleyway was a short one and I went to its entrance, looking out over the crowd, mind still on the matters above. I had no destination and I withdrew from the corner back into the alley to think on my options, glancing again up towards the commotion going on above my head.
“Hello, ladybird,” a heavily accented voice said from behind me, causing all the hairs on my arms to stand up.
Putting a hand at my back as I turned, I face a trio of medium built males, all wearing orange and red, bright blond hair spiked above faces painted gold. The color scheme was obnoxious, but not out of line with the rest of the people on the main thoroughfare. The large knives in their hands, however, were very much not part of most everyone else’s ensembles. It also appeared as if they knew how to use them, holding the knives at an angle, low to their hips.
Keeping my stance loose, but not liking the scenario, I tried for a smile.
“Hello.” I glanced at each one, meeting dark eyes, pulling out my staff and extending it with a button, blades extending on either end. “You should move on.”
They exchanged looks. The one in the middle took a step forward, creating a triangle between him, the other two, and the wall behind them. To the right of them and the left of me, individuals passed by without a glance. I doubted even if they did look over this way it would have made much of a difference, but the distraction would have been nice.
The front one grinned, showing gold teeth. “No. We don’t think so.”
I would have won easily. I knew how to fight within tight quarters, and even without Kieren playing off of my moves, I easily unarmed two by striking the wrist of the one on the right, and with a twirl, downwards and up with my staff, the wrist of the one of the left. Nursing sore wrists, those two goons stepped back, the leader moving into a crouch that exposed his entire upper body to a quick stab downwards across the shoulders. My strike caused him to stumble towards the ground where I caught him with a knee into the chin. He failed backward, falling to his back.
I should have won, but at some point, in the brief time it took me to disable the three, four more showed up, shadowing the entryway to the alley, one of them holding what looked like a human pistol with additions. My mind quickly clicked through the different options. I could go up the wall and be caught exposed to the gun fire that would surely come, or I could back into the corner and try to take out each one at a time. Neither option had a high rate for success and with the gun, there was little I could do
With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I focused inward, making the decision despite the likely consequences. I had already broken several Guardian rules and justified breaking another one to save my life.
I closed my eyes to establish Origin and Destination.
Nothing was there. The strings of energy, the field of operation that always hovered just outside of my awareness, imprinted upon entrance to the Master Realm and which was as easily accessible as breathing, was entirely gone. The feeling was very similar to the way my interface felt when Tirius had used the device to shut down my access.
I was dead.
Without that resource then, and with nothing to lose by trying, I decided on the element of surprise, running straight for the four individuals. Their faces did, indeed, contort into surprise, the one with the gun just barely raising it in response by the time I gained them. But I was slight, much smaller than the four, and instead of barreling into them as Kieren would have likely done, I veered towards the brick wall, and using the wall for momentum, leaped, hitting the shoulder of the one on the right and vaulting over his head.
I barely made it, stumbling on the awkward jump and slamming down hard, twisting my ankle with a searing pain that radiated up my leg. Ignoring it, I pushed myself into the crowd at a hobbling run. Behind me there was a shout, a voice telling everyone to move, but I stayed focus on the path ahead of me, losing myself further and further into the crowd of colorfully dressed individuals. I stood out in my black though, so I deftly snagged a brightly rainbowed scarf from someone who wasn’t paying attention, hurriedly covering my head and shoulders as I continued to run. A velvet purple hat was next, placed over the scarf, and then a yellow and red shawl that smelled like rotten fish, which I wrapped around my waist in a poor resemblance of a shift. I bent over, still hobbling with a steady throb of pain in my ankle, but my height was now lower than the top of the crowd.
I slowed to a meandering walk.
I had no direction. The individuals around me moved in a sea of bad smells, bright colors, and loud voices. They joked and snorted, puss coming from mouths, pock-marked skin underneath layers of grime, a throng of the decrepit enjoying their world as they knew it. I wandered among these groups, listening to their different voices talk about what appeared to be the mass murder of several individuals. Why there was a celebration of murder, I couldn’t discern, though Darkside had its own rules and ways. I wished for Kieren’s input. Knowing Darkside as he did, he would’ve been able to tell me what was going on, at least to a degree. I was clueless, trying to stay out of everyone’s way and out of their notice.
Beyond the occasional glance, I succeeded, seeming to also lose my pursuers. As I moved with the crowd, letting the mass of bodies take me, I noticed the crowd starting to thin. Straightening to my full height, I adjusted the shawl around my waist, trying to ignore the poof of stench that arose with the movement. I’d made a rooky mistake, not blending into the crowd immediately, wearing my entirely well-sewn black outfit among the color and poverty, walking purposefully through the crowds instead of wandering about randomly. I’d stood out as an easy mark, as someone not of the area, and further, as someone with money.
I’d been stupid and I was lucky that I’d come away with only a swollen ankle, which was already starting to heal. It was the tired that dragged my steps, that clouded my mind. Tired and hungry and frustrated and clearly not making good decisions. Surveying the area immediately around me, I tried to surmise what kind of neighborhood I had wandered. The crowd continued to grow smaller and soon I was of only a handful of individuals walking down the wide street. On either side, the buildings were spreading apart, growing squatter and more warehouse-like, and as I walked further into the area, I took a random turn on purpose, isolating myself from the remaining Sideians. I couldn’t judge the time, though I figured it was somewhere in the early morning hours, the temperature reaching towards uncomfortably cold, and I studied the structures around me.
Commercial buildings, I thought, as I caught sight of signage naming some shipping company. I needed a place to rest, that tiredness pulling down at my bones, and I needed to explore the reason for not being able to travel, though I had a suspicion it had something to do with the knife wound in my back, now closed over and nearly healed. The buildings all appeared to be empty, no lights shining out of the few windows, the sound of my own step the loudest sound in the area. Distantly, I could still make out a low thump, but the rest of the night had settled down into quiet. In a way, it was eerily silent, as if no life existed at all, but that was likely my own imagination and I tried very hard to shake the feeling of doom that crept along with me. Too much had happened, and I realized, even as I surveyed the buildings for the perfect mark, that I was not processing all the events. I held them, in my brain: the abduction; the manipulated timeline; the breaking protocol and leaving the realm; the fight of fellow Guardians and masked attackers. All those things had happened, yet it felt like they had happened to someone else, somewhere else.
I wondered when it would all hit.
I hoped that I would be somewhere safe when it did.
Picking a two-story brick building off the wide road, I peeked into the one window that was next to the double door made of a metal I couldn’t identify. The warehouse was a little more run-down than others, with a decided feel of neglect, and I hoped that was the case, though I couldn’t make out anything through the window.
I tried the door. Maybe another cottage scenario, but it was locked. The windows were inaccessible as well, a line of solid glass along the top of the building. I could pick the lock, but I preferred not to, especially because I had no kit with me. Kieren was that good; I was not. The roof was flat, and I decided on trying that way before looking for something else. My ankle felt considerably better, and my shoulder no longer hurt, so it was an easy climb, the brick allowing for toe and finger holds as I pulled myself up and eventually over the lip of the roof and onto the flat rough surface. I’d hoped for a door, access, but the roof was smooth except for the occasional pipe jutting upwards.
I stayed there, lying on my back, staring at the stars, arms tired from the constant climbing. Cold, exhausted, discouraged, and hungry, I went through my options. I had no desire to initiate my interface, even if I could, knowing that it was tracked somehow. But did it really matter? I could survive, find a way into the building, find food, but without the ability to Travel, what was I going to do on Darkside but survive? I had no way of contacting Tirius. No way of contacting Kieren. And no way to go anywhere. Did it matter if I was tracked, picked up, and brought back to the Citadel? It would be bad for me, I knew that, especially as I had run away from the situation. But what was I going to do otherwise? Lie on a random roof and freeze under a cold night sky?
As if an answer, I felt the familiar pull and tug of an Arrival. I let it happen, not moving, not tensing. They’d found me again likely because of the very same thing that was causing my inability to Travel.
“What are you doing lying there?” a very familiar voice said, the tug on my awareness an instantaneous thing.
I turned my head only, expecting a ghost, or an image, or something other than my partner standing there, dressed entirely in black per usual, green eyes assessing.
“How’d you find me?” I asked, though I surmised the answer.
He held up a hand device.
I nodded, looking away, closing my eyes. “I could have used your Arrival a little while ago,” I said into the air.
“It took a while to pinpoint the timeline.”
I smiled at myself, at the situation. I opened my eyes and slowly sat up, curling my knees around into a cross-legged position. Kieren still stood where he’d Arrived, watching me with something that I thought might have been concern. I couldn’t be for sure though. “You’ve come to take me back then?”
He nodded. “You ran. They want to know why.”
“I wanted answers,” I replied.
“Here?” he asked, sweeping a hand to encompass all of Darkside.
“An accident. I didn’t mean to Travel here; it was the first location that popped into my mind during a very stressful moment. Honestly, I didn’t even know I knew the timeline location. And they did something that made it so I can’t Travel.”
“The tracker,” he confirmed.
“And they sent you because they knew I wouldn’t fight you.”
He shrugged, broad shoulders under black rising towards his ears and then falling slowly downward. It was such a curious movement. “They thought I could reason with you, yes.”
I shook my head. “You heard my story, and you don’t think it strange that some guy shows up at that exact time? And more than that, you don’t find a small amount of strange that the Archivist, The Archivist, is on the run too?” I paused and looked down at my hands still stained with blood from my shoulder wound. I decided right then not to tell him about Master Cynthe and the other Masters, or about the attack on them. Shaking my head, I looked up. “No. Something is going on, something that is bigger than us, or Tirius, or Master Ral. Something is going on and I wanted answers, so I left to see if I could find them. They shouldn’t have taken away my archive access.”
Kieren stood staring out over the warehouse rooftops. He didn’t answer me, neither did he indicate that he’d even heard. I sighed and then got to my feet, brushing the dirt off the shawl I still wore draped around my waist. At some point, I’d stopped noticing its noxious smell.
“Well, let’s go then. Take me to your leader,” I said, walking towards Kieren who slowly returned my gaze, but sideways, his eyes slipping away each time they met mine.
The outfit, however, caused a raised eyebrow.
“It’s been an interesting night,” I said as way of an explanation and then undid the shawl, took off the velvet hat, and slipped out of the scarf. The bright colors pooled against the black rooftop.
“They just want to talk with you,” he said evenly.
“And they know I’d go with you.”
Again, the shrug.
I studied my partner. Kieren took orders and rarely did he ask questions, it was one of the things that made him such a good Guardian, but the set to his shoulders, his weight along the balls of his feet felt wrong, at odds with the quiet night. “Why are you here, really?”
“Because they’ve asked me to get you,” he said.
“And you do as you’re told.”
“Because it is my duty as a Guardian to bring you in.”
I blinked several times and then nodded slowly. “Right. Then, I suppose we should be going.” I’d stopped right in front of him, looking up as I always had to, spying the scar that ran along the underside of his chin. It was white now, finally healing from the puckered red that had marred his usually smooth skin for cycles. I felt like touching it, putting my finger on the white tissue, running my fingertip along the puckered skin. Instead, I put my hand out. “Let’s do this, then.”
Though he didn’t have to, he took my hand in his own, long fingers wrapping around my smaller ones in an easy embrace. His hand was cold, icy, uncomfortable.
Arrival was disorienting, but I kept my feet and immediately opened my eyes, taking several deep breaths to steady the dizziness. We’d arrived outside the Citadel, the stone walls just visible in the distance, the ancient wood behind us in all its twirling darkness. I wondered at the location, taking in the scene, glancing at Kieren who barely shook his head.
Master Ral waited for us, along with two Guardians and another Master I only recognized as being a Master because of the royal blue robe he wore, a formal robe that I only knew by description. Tall, very thin in the draping robe, the Master wavered back and forth as if moved by an invisible wind. Entirely without hair, dark eyes stared out from a triangular face.
“These two, then, Master Ral?” this other Master asked in a soft, pleasant voice with a lilting accent I didn’t recognize.
Master Ral nodded once, then turned to look at the two Guardians. I didn’t recognize them, which was not entirely unusual because Guardians numbered in the hundreds. They were also a lot older, a male and male pair with graying hair pulled back into low cues, lines at their dark brown eyes. They wore their black uniforms and stood at attention with rod straight backs.
Everything happened very fast.
Kieren’s grip tightened to a painful degree as the Guardian on the right pulled out a handheld weapon I had never seen before.
Travel is never pleasant. There is always the feeling of dissociation while Traveling, and then the dizziness and sometimes nausea on Arrival. That time, it was as if my body was being torn apart. Pain jolted across every piece of my existence, pulled in all directions while simultaneously being turned inside out. There was a screaming, that was me, but wasn’t me, and then a tearing of reality.
Then just as quickly resumed.
Pressure and falling.
And then Arrival.
I threw up.
On my hands and knees in the sand, panting in the strong wind, distantly I was surprised I had anything to throw up. I’d not eaten anything since the soup in the cottage.
“You okay?” Kieren asked from somewhere next to me. I opened my eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight. Around us, dunes of grass stretched in three directions and a sparkling sea was in the fourth. It wasn’t warm, the wind a biting thing, and I wondered if I was going to ever Travel somewhere with a pleasant temperature.
“Surviving,” I answered, looking over to where Kieren lay on his back, staring straight up. “You?”
“Yeah,” he said, then rolled over, pushing himself up. Sand clung to his skin and clothing, bright flashes in his black hair.
“You expected that,” I said, not asking.
“Yeah,” he repeated, then looked around. “I did. I didn’t know how to tell you, they were recording everything, or at least Tirius said they were going to record everything.”
“Tirius. You’ve talked to him then?”
Kieren looked over and caught my gaze, holding it steady. “Yes, right before he died.”
His words struck me, the sudden thump of reaction somewhere in the vicinity of my solar plexus a physical reaction. “Died?”
“I went to see him in the medical unit after you disappeared, to see if I could get some answers. He didn’t say much, just that I needed to protect you at all costs and to know that everything we do is recorded by our interface. Then we talked about random things. He told me about his time as a child growing up in the human timeline, his first mission as a Collector. Interesting guy, that Archivist. I went back a day later to ask more questions and the administrator on duty said he had died during the night.”
I studied his face. “You don’t think so, then?”
“Did you see any wounds when we picked him up?”
I shook my head, sighing deeply. “No. But, there could’ve been something we missed.”
Kieren stared at me. “You really think so, after what just happened?”
I pulled my knees towards my chest, putting my forehead down against them. “No,” I said to the sand. “No.”
“Come on, the house is over there,” Kieren said, and I looked up at his words, first to look in the direction he pointed and then to look at him.
“You know where we are?” I asked as I gained my feet, pushing up a bit slowly and unsteadily.
Kieren rattled off the coordinates, though he put a hand up. “But, before you ask, it can wait. You look and smell terrible. Let’s get you cleaned up and then we’ve got to get the tracker out.”
I ignored the tracker comment. “And food? Maybe a bed?”
Kieren laughed. It was a golden sound that warmed my numbness. “Yes. And food and maybe a bed.”
I followed him across the sand, grass sharp in the wind, steps slow and difficult, but truly, I would have followed Kieren to the end of time for food and a bath. I kept walking, one foot in front of the other, moving forward as I always did.
Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020