I regain consciousness to pain. Only in certain parts of my body. My arms. My thighs. The side of my face. Okay. It’s localized. Localized to . . . The parts of me that are on the ground. What the fuck happened? Oh yeah, I dove through that rift and I didn’t know if I was ever going to open my eyes again.
I slowly do and everything is hazy at first. Parts of me are hurting because I landed and am laying on them. Plus it’s a gravel floor which is not helping. I gingerly pick myself up. The hurting parts start hurting less. Good. It wasn’t serious. Maybe a few scrapes and bruises, but nothing major.
Now, where the hell am I?
It’s dark. Not completely dark. Not full dark. But dark like the inside of a closet. Gonna need to give it some time to let my eyes adjust. Good. That’s a little better. I can see shapes now . . .
What the hell is this? I feel like I’m in that crazy eighties movie . . . Oh, what was it . . . Tron! There’s glowy outlines everywhere. But it’s not like I’m in some crazy computer game or a bizarre future. It’s . . . It’s Ostium. I see streets and buildings. But it’s like at night. When everything’s turned off. Except for the strange florescent outline around anything.
So it’s . . . Ostium Tron.
Oh my god it hurts. Everywhere. More than it should. What happened to me? I was . . . I was dealing with whatever the fuck was coming through that rift and . . . And then those hideous arms came out and grabbed me. The sizzling got louder. Everything got incredibly hot and loud . . . And then . . . And then . . . I blacked out.
And now I’m here.
I can tell it’s Ostium. That other Ostium. The one that was dark and with the weird glowing outlines. The one Steve was in, when he met that thing. He said he thought it was female, but it completely terrified him. I’m pretty sure that’s what was trying to break through those rifts each time. Come through to the Ostium Network and where we were. Was it coming for us? All of us? Or was it about the place? The Ostium Network? Did it want to get there? Did it know there was no one else there? That it was a place ripe for the taking? Or was it after Zhang? Or the whole quantum computing system they’ve got there?
Speaking of which: where the hell is it? I’m in a . . . Room. I think it’s a room. I can see the outline of four walls. And there’s the outline for a door.
Just tried opening it . . . No luck. The handle won’t even turn. So I’m guessing that thing put me here. Dumped me here . . . And left? Why? What did it want with me? If it wanted me and took me, why has it just abandoned me here? Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy to be alive right now. I’m just . . . Very confused.
So instead of trying to work out what the hell it was and why it’s gone away now, or why I’m in a lot of pain . . . I’m just going to delve into why I think it was coming after us. Yes. That’s what I believe now. I don’t think it was trying to get to the Ostium Network. Maybe . . . Before we arrived it was. Because I hadn’t pissed it off then.
Please allow me to explain . . .
This thing . . . I’m not going to call it a she or a he or a crone or anything . . . I just don’t know at this point, and from what I have gathered it’s clearly not human and attaching any sort of gender to it seems pointless right now. I’m just going to call it that: it. This thing feeds off of energy. Power. Or it needs it at least. Probably as food. Sustenance. Like any entity be it an atomic particle or a blue whale or a goddamn black hole. It needs to feed or it dies . . . Ceases to exist. And please, don’t bring antimatter into this right now. I don’t know yet where it came from or how it came to be . . . Anything like that . . . But it was coming along and saw Steve and wanted to feed. That’s why it came after him. It didn’t get him. It was still hungry. It saw him go through a door. Maybe it tried some doors. Maybe it tried all the doors . . . None of them opened. So then it tried making it’s own door. Opening a hole in reality to somewhere else. Somewhere not here. Just like I’ve done a couple times now. It takes a lot of energy. A hell of a lot of energy. But I’ve only just started doing it, so maybe it’s like your alcohol tolerance . . . Stay with me here . . . The more you drink, the stronger your tolerance gets. The more ostiums you open and create, the better you get at doing it, and maybe it requires a little less energy each time. A little less of your life-force, so you’re not left unconscious afterward.
And that’s when it started punching holes through to the Ostium Network. Maybe it’s been punching lots and lots of holes to different times. Different Ostium Networks? Different iterations of it . . . Different tangents . . . Maybe it has something to do with the blackness and all the shit that’s been happening to us since Monica and I have been going through the doors of Ostium.
Yeah. That makes my head hurt too. You’re not alone there. I’m going to back off of that thought path for a bit. Put a pin in it, as they say. Yes. It’s a possibility, and we’re going to leave it at that for now.
I’m also pretty certain that whatever took over Steve and controlled him . . . Using the gun to kill those people . . . The ones that we were eventually able to save . . . It was all the same thing controlling him. And since we were able to stop it from controlling him and killing them, as well as doing the whole fucked-up Saw movie at the Fort Bragg house, it’s all been sort of reset. Steve has control once again over his faculties and is his own person. I don’t know if he realizes this. Need to tell him the next time I see him . . .
If I ever get to see him again . . .
I think it’s after me. I know . . . I know! You think I’m reading too much into this. You’re thinking: Jake, get off your fucking high horse and take a step back for a minute. But . . . As the old saying that I don’t where the hell it came from goes: hold the phone! I’m the one who opened the ostium and helped all those people escape. I’m the one who seriously changed its plans, at least in this timeline. So I can only come to the conclusion that I’m the one it’s really pissed at. I stole its chance at sucking up a beaucoup amount of energy and life-force, so now it’s coming after my ass. Makes sense. It came through to the place in Fort Bragg. Saw what I did. It came after us like a bat out of hell. I just managed to get us out before it got us. It . . . Fucking terrified both of us. And we just made it out alive.
It clearly wasn’t happy. Maybe it was able to tell where I went, where the ostium led to . . . The particular Ostium Network I ended up in. Maybe I left a metaphysical – or ectoplasmic – trail of breadcrumbs for it to follow and find me. Because ever since we got to that Ostium Network the rift sites have been coming sure and steady.
And then I tried to face off with it. Not knowing what it was, but maybe on some level I knew exactly what it was, but I had to face it to protect Monica and Steve and Zhang and I scared it at little. Doing that thing with my hands. And whatever that white stuff was that came out . . . Yeah, that sounds kind of wrong, but that’s what happened. I could make an ectoplasmic joke here, but I’m just not gonna, not with a ten-foot . . . Pole.
But it stopped it. Just for a moment. Made it pull back. Withdraw into its own space. And then . . . Then it saw who I was and grabbed me.
And that was the end of that.
And now I’m here. Wherever here is. Trapped in this room. Waiting, I guess . . . Waiting for it to come back and tear me limb from limb.
So basically the opposite of Beowulf waiting for Grendel.
And now I hear something coming.
It’s coming for me, no doubt.
I’m on the move. Don’t know where I am. Not sure where I’m headed. But I’m on the move. Military doctrine says to not stay put, to keep your boots moving, no matter . . . Yeah, you already know all that army talk was bullshit so I’ll just move right along. Literally! I know that thing’s gotta be here somewhere. The thing that got Jake. The thing that was chasing Steve, and then both of them before. The thing that scared the crap out of them before they literally dove through a door Jake made and saved their asses. It grabbed him and for all I know ripped his head off like tearing the cover off a book. No biggie, minimum effort. But I really don’t want to think about that right now. I can’t hear anyone or anything else around. Nothing sounds like it’s moving around here at the moment. So either it’s feeding on Jake somewhere, or it’s stashed him and is slowly coming for me. Neither situation is good for me, or for Jake. I guess the last one actually is ideal for him, so I’m just going to assume it at the moment. Assume Jake’s alive and that the thing is now looking for my ass. Yeah, I know what they say when you assume. But I gotta work with what positives I can here. It got him, stuck him somewhere, somehow knew I came through, and is now out for my blood.
So that’s why I gotta keep moving. I stop every couple minutes or so. Listening. Waiting . . . Perhaps waiting for the inevitable. But I did what I had to do. I wasn’t going to let him dive into this thing head first by himself. Risk his life again and leave me waiting and wondering. No fucking way. I’ve also got another card up my sleeve. A certain kickass little gun. Yeah, I know you’re yelling: “Well, how fucking convenient she should be carrying that right now, in this precarious situation, when she really fucking needs it.” But here’s the thing. Ever since I left Ostium through that crazy tiny pantry door I’ve been carrying that piece. Haven’t left it at my place at any point. It’s been in easy reach in a pocket or tucked into my pants the whole time. Because since then I haven’t known what’s going to happen next for a single moment, so I’ve always been prepared. When I dove through that rift I wasn’t thinking, aw, shucks, too bad I didn’t bring that little ass-kicker, or geez, sure happy I packed that piece today. It’s been in my possession the whole time, and for good reason. Haven’t had to use it yet; haven’t needed to. But I’m sure as fucking happy I’m carrying it now. And yeah, that’s right, it’s in my hand; the safety’s off, and is ready to zap anything that comes at me. I’m ready as fuck to face down this thing, whatever the fuck it is.
So I keep stopping. Waiting. Getting ready for something to come out of nowhere and then be right in my face. And then I turn down a street and sorta recognize myself. Yeah, I know, in this place it’s next to impossible. All the buildings look sort of the same, and there are no numbers. But I’m remembering the shape of the road; the way the streets go off it and at which points. Something in my head is making sense of it. So I go with it, trusting my intuition, like Jakey so often likes to do. I turn down a street, then make a right turn down the next, as soon as I can. Then I’m running down that street straight to the clock tower. Door number one. Except there’s no number on it. And here, in this fucked up alternate Ostium, the actual clock tower just reaches up into the darkness and I can’t see the top. It just sort of . . . disappears. Great. That’s real comforting.
Then I’m at the door, gun held to the side of my head. Trying to steady my breath and listening again. I’m looking back behind me, not moving. Trying to take it all in without giving away my position. And then I see movement. Something is out there. Looking for me, I’m guessing. It could be looking for Jake too, but since it grabbed him and dragged him into this place, it doesn’t seem likely.
I can’t hear it, but I can see it moving. It’s too far away. But then I hear it speak. It instantly raises goosebumps all over my body.
CREATURE: Where are you . . . Little one. I know you came through. I can . . . Smell you . . . I can . . . Feel you. I’m coming . . . For you.
Then it moves out of sight. I wait. I hear no more words of encouragement. Good. That’s my cue.
I turn the handle and step inside the clock tower, no clue what I’m gonna find on the other side.
I look at my surroundings. I don’t have much space in here, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. I move all the way to the back wall, farthest away from the door. I could try hiding behind the door as it opens, but that thing is going to just know and it’s not going to help at all. At least this way I’ve got a couple extra seconds as it comes at my throat, after dealing with whatever it’s been doing since it left me here. I’ve got no weapons. Nothing to protect myself with. Just my bare hands . . . And my feet. Let’s not forget I can deliver a mean kick when I mean to. Didn’t do all that soccer in high school for nothing.
I watch the handle as it turns and tense up, ready to launch myself at it. Those extra few seconds may mean the difference between life and death for me.
The door swings open and I let fly!
I twist away and face-plant into the wall. It’s not fun, let me tell you. I peel myself off the black stone and look at my visitor.
JAKE: Monica!? What the hell are you doing here?
MONICA: Happy to see you too, soldier.
JAKE: Er . . . Sorry, I’m happy to see you. Genuinely. I just . . .
MONICA: Never expected to see me again? Alive?
JAKE: Er . . . Yeah, kinda.
MONICA: Thought you could pull the old Mulder trick one more time?
JAKE: Huh? Oh . . . You mean leaving you back there?
MONICA: Yep. Kinda want to smack you upside the head right now for that.
JAKE: That’s . . . Totally warranted. But I don’t think that would be the best decision right now.
MONICA: Why? Because we’ve got that fucked up thing coming for us?
JAKE: Yeah, sure. But also because I know it’d really hurt.
MONICA: Also true. How do you wanna play this?
JAKE: Play . . . This?
MONICA [unimpressed]: What’s your plan, braniac, for taking down the big beastie?
JAKE: Er . . . I . . . I don’t really know. I was going to face it and . . . Do whatever came naturally.
MONICA: Were you going to try to talk sense into it? Talk it down from ripping out your throat?
JAKE: Yeah, sure . . . Maybe . . .
MONICA: Fucking typical!
JAKE: But I was also going to try to do something . . . With my hands. Like I did before. When I made it stop.
MONICA: Yeah. I saw that. It looked like some Gandalf badassery. Pretty impressive. You think you’ve got enough in you to do it all again and put a stop to it?
JAKE: I don’t know. All I can do is try.
MONICA: Yep. That’s right. Fortunately, I’ve got this nifty gun to help out.
JAKE: Is that like the one Steve was using before when he was going through the doors after those men?
MONICA: I think it’s crazier than that. I think it is the exact gun, and somehow we now have two of them. I don’t really get it. It’s all timey-wimey stuff, right?
JAKE: Sure. But I’m glad you’ve got it. And . . . I’m glad you’re here with me right now. To face down this thing.
MONICA: Awww, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. Thank you, Jakey. It was on my tail before and I think it’s about to arrive. You ready?
JAKE [breath]: As ready as I’ll ever be.
CREATURE: I have . . . Arrived . . . Come meet me . . . My pretties.
We step out of the dark room into another dark room. But it’s all really familiar to me: the rooms of the clock tower, where Jake and I have spent a lot of time. And then just me by my lonesome. Seeing it in this darkness; it’s still really disturbing. Just ain’t right. And then there’s the thing standing before us in the doorway. That also ain’t right. On a major fucking level. I think Steve was right: it is female. Or some sort of female, but definitely not of the normal human variety. It’s hunched over; frail and decrepit. But I know this is part of its act. It’s smoke-screen. It’s subterfuge. It wants you to think it’s old and weak and helpless. That it needs you to help.
All the better to get you with its big sharp teeth . . .
I ain’t falling for that shit. Jake isn’t either. He’s standing next to me; arms at his side; hands splayed open, ready to try and do whatever it is he did before.
I told Jake one last thing before we stepped out of the other room: follow my lead.
The gun is held by my side. The thing is looking at us. It lifts its arms a little. The jaws open, as it begins to talk. A single word comes out:
CREATURE: Thank . . .
Then I whip up the gun and shoot it in the face.
Jake is there, my partner in crime, raising his hands and willing them to do what they did before. The white mist appears and shoots toward the thing. It’s bright and vibrant in this dark place and feels . . . Comforting. And again . . . Badass.
The thing is pushed back. This two-pronged attack has taken a toll. It drops down to one of its knees. The soiled cloak it wears hiding its lower form. I assume it has knees. We watch and wait. It stays that way for ten . . . Twenty . . . Thirty seconds, then slowly stands back up again.
I fire again and Jake follows up. Same attack. Same amount of power. This time there’s a different result. The thing doesn’t drop down. It pulls back a little, hunching into itself, then straightens once more. The attack didn’t take as much of a toll this time.
We need to hit it with something stronger. But what?
And then a thought comes to me. A totally, fucking stupid thought. But . . . What have we got to lose at this point?
JAKE: Yeah Monica?
MONICA: We need to do something.
JAKE: Yeah, but what?
MONICA: We need to . . . Cross the streams.
JAKE: What? . . . Oh! But how?
Now I look at him. Not giving a shit about that thing before us trying to end out lives.
MONICA: Follow. My. Lead.
I snap my head back at it and start pumping the trigger, firing repeated blasts into its form. As I do this, I side-step closer and closer to Jake. He gets the idea real quick, his hands raised; the white whateverness spilling out his fingertips like you know what. Soon we’re touching each others’ sides, bringing out hands closer.
Jake brings his palms together forming an arrowhead. The expelling beam becomes thicker and more solid; more defined.
Then Jake’s beam and my laser blasts do the impossible, but exactly what I hoped: they connect, then wrap around each other, forming a blasting braid. It’s . . . Pretty fucking awesome.
This new beam is stronger and brighter and just kicks the shit out of the thing.
We keep it going for a whole other minute and then I stop. Jake does the same. The silence is very noticeable.
The thing is on the ground. Smoldering. Smoke comes off it in small columns. The smell is . . . Soot and cinnamon, with a hint of . . . Rosemary? What the fuck?
We slowly walk toward it. Not the best move, I know. But we need to be sure we stopped it. We need to be sure it’s dead.
We reach it, and I’m stopped in my tracks. Jake is too.
It’s . . . Shaking. Shaking because . . . It’s crying. The sounds are definitely feminine. It’s a girl crying. Sobbing.
I should think this a trap. A ploy with its last ounce of strength to get back at us. But . . . No. The sounds, the emotion. It’s all so real. What she’s been through . . . It’s too much.
She never deserved this.
I don’t know where this thought came from, but it feels right. It feels true. This creature is a young girl and she’s been through so much and hasn’t deserved any of it.
I look to Jake and see tears on his cheeks.
JAKE: You’re crying.
My eyes widen in shock.
MONICA: I am? You are too.
He touches his face and seems just as surprised as I am.
Then we look to her. She’s speaking words now. The words of a young woman. But ragged, strangled Such . . . Sad . . . Words.
CREATURE: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. For everything I’ve done. So, so, so sorry.
MONICA: We can’t leave her here.
I don’t know if he didn’t hear me, didn’t understand what I said, or just wasn’t willing to comprehend.
MONICA: We can’t leave her here.
He looks at her for a while and then at me. Weighing. Deciding.
JAKE: Are you sure?
MONICA [breath]: No. I’m not fucking sure. But I know it’s not right to leave her here. Like us, she has a story. I feel something happened to her. For her to end up like this. We owe it to her to help her. To give her another chance. Just like I gave you another chance, and you gave me another chance . . .
JAKE: And Steve got another chance.
MONICA: Yes . . .
JAKE: Okay. [Accepting] Okay. Shall I . . . Carry her?
MONICA: No. I’ll do it. She can’t weigh much, anyway I’m stronger than you. But I need you to open an ostium and get us back to Steve and Zhang and our world there.
I throw the woman over my shoulder. It feels like I’ve tossed a wet raincoat over my back. Barely anything. We step outside the clock tower into the street. I look to Jake, he nods. This’ll work for him. I wait for him to do his magic.
I’m so fucking tired. I can barely stand up. That power, that life-force I shot out has left me an empty husk. But I don’t have a choice. I have to do this. For Monica. For that thing . . . No, that woman. She deserves just as much of a chance as the rest of us.
We’re outside now, and I debate leaning against the black wall, but I don’t. I don’t want to show Monica how exhausted I am. I’ll just worry her. I’ll do what I always do: I’ll make it work.
I have to.
I take three deep breaths, then close my eyes and imagine the Ostium Network. Our Ostium Network. With Steve there, and Zhang. And our apartments. Our few personal things we’ve started accruing. The familiar feel of the place I’ve come to know. It’s a lot easier this time than last. I let those thoughts and feelings flow through me. Enhancing the image of place in my mind, giving it life and substance.
Another breath and then I . . . Open the ostium.
My eyes spring open and I see the doorway before me. It’s not huge. An oval with shaky edges that bend in and out. It’s not great. Not impressive at all. But . . . It’s enough.
JAKE: You first. With the woman. I’ll be right behind you.
Monica looks at me. Thinking. Weighing her options. Wanting to send me in first. She’s seen through my facade and knows I can barely hold myself up. But she’s got the woman. She doesn’t have a choice.
JAKE: Don’t worry. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.
Then she looks me right in the eye.
MONICA: You better fucking be.
I can’t help snorting. This helps.
Then she leans in and gives me a quick kiss.
She turns and slides through the haphazard ostium. I watch and wait, making sure both of them get through with no problem. Then they’re gone and it’s just me.
I take a few breaths, then will my aching legs to move and shuffle myself to the ostium. It’s damn hard. I’ve got to keep it solid in my head, and do this whole walking and going through it thing. It seems too much. Not just one thing too much. Two things too much. Why do they both have to be so hard? I shouldn’t have to do either. I should be able just to go back into the clock tower and sleep. Sure. Why not. It’s right there. It’s all black and weird, but there’s a floor. I can sleep on the floor. In fact . . . I can sleep on this floor right under my feet. I can just collapse on down until there’s no more falling and then I can close my eyes and just sleep for . . .
No! No. I can’t do that. I need to get through the ostium. The image in my head has grown hazy, almost blurry. I force it to snap back, but it’s not perfect. Sort of there and sort of not there at the same time. But I’m completely out of juice and it’s the best I can do right now. The ostium is still in front of me. Just a couple steps to go. I force one leg in front of the other. It’s like lifting concrete. But I get it done. And then I’m there. I can’t quite make out what’s on the other side. It looks right. It matches what’s in my head. But it’s also kinda of fuzzy. Unclear. And then with my last ounce of strength I lean forward and fall through the ostium.
We’re through. Both of us. I’m on my knees, and I lay the woman down softly. She’s barely moving, but she’s breathing. That’s good enough. I get back up and look back at the ostium . . .
. . . And watch it close up. Gone. Nothing. And no Jake came through.
The tears spring to my eyes again. And then they’re running down my cheeks. Then I’m yelling a bad word at the sky.
STEVE: Mum, is that you? Are you back? Are you and Jake back?
MONICA: Yes . . . And no. I’m back. I brought her back. To help her. But Jake . . . Jake . . . Jakey didn’t make it back.
It’s all I can say. I drop the datapad to the ground.
Then I’m by the woman, lifting her up. Shaking her awake. She’s barely conscious. But reacting a little. I slap her face twice: one side, then the other. This does the trick and her eyes spring open. She’s not really aware of where she is, or who she is it seems.
MONICA: I need you to get him back! I need you to get him here right the fuck now!
She stares at me, confused.
MONICA: Do what you need to do and get him here. Now!
Then her eyes clear a little. She looks at me. Then she looks at the spot where the ostium was before. She looks around. She understands. She looks back at me, scared. Finally, she speaks.
WOMAN: I . . . I can’t. I don’t know . . .
MONICA: You do! You do know how! You did it! Lots of fucking times.
WOMAN: No . . . I don’t know where he is.
MONICA: He’s back in that fucked up place we all were before.
WOMAN: No. I feel that place. He’s not there anymore. He’s gone from there.
MONICA: Then where the fuck is he?!
She looks back to where the ostium was. Shakes her head in that same way again: to one side, then the other.
WOMAN [Quietly]: I. Don’t. Know.
I’m up. Walking around. Wanting to do something. Then I stare at the same spot she kept staring at. Thinking. I look up to the top of the rock. Where I know Steve is. My son. Talking to Zhang. Trying to find out what the hell is going on here.
MONICA: I gotta do it. I can’t just leave him.
I turn back to the woman.
MONICA: Do it! Open an ostium!
WOMAN: A what?
MONICA: A fucking door. Open one up!
WOMAN: To where?
MONICA: I don’t care. Anywhere. Anywhen. Just do it.
This time I pull the little gun on her.
MONICA: Just. Fucking. Do. It!
WOMAN: I . . . I don’t know if I can.
MONICA [Anguish, pleading]: Just. Try!
She nods. She turns. And then there’s a look of incredible pain and sadness on her face. I can barely watch, then I can’t. I turn to the space we’ve both been looking at and I see an ostium start to open. Small at first. The size of a dinner plate. I walk up to it. It starts to grow. When it gets to the size of a tire, it’s good enough. I turn back to her.
MONICA: Thank you.
Then I dive through the ostium and I don’t care where or when I end up.
No matter what it takes.
No matter how long it takes.
I’m going to find Jake.
And I’m going to bring him back.