The world turned white around me.
“Inspector!” The uni pressed down on my chest with both hands. “Hold on, Talys. The wagon’s on its way. Stay with me, man.”
The white flash faded, and it was dark again. What’s all this crap I’m lying on? It looks like an attic. It looks like Aunt Minnie’s attic in San Sebastian.
Oh, yeah. Warehouse, somewhere in the Tenderloin. What are you doing, Fitzsimmons? Quit pushing me down. We’ve got to go after the perp.
There was something on my tie. It looked black, and wet. I had just got that tie, too. Man.
There was a lot of noise. It was a roar. It was everywhere, not like it was coming from any direction. Fitzsimmons kept talking, but he sounded far away. His pushing down so hard on my chest made it hard to breath.
I’ve got to get up. Whoa! I guess I’ll just stay down here, then.
The inside of my mouth tasted like old pennies.
I let my head lie back. I let Fitzsimmons keep pressing on my chest. It was cold in here, this old warehouse. It was always dark here. And, let’s be honest, it’s San Francisco — when isn’t it cold?
I close my eyes. Funny. It’s dark, but there are flashes of light. They’re getting brighter, and hot. They’re so hot….
“Chris! Chris, wake up! Chris!”
The voice was distant, yet familiar. My face as flat on something wet and cold — not hot at all. It was raining, spitting, cold and windy. I pushed open my eyes. Flashes of color blurred everything, but as they cleared, it was dark.
“Oh, thank god.” I felt something warm on my back. Marissa was kneeling next to me. She must have been shaking me. “Are you hurt?”
“Turn over. Let me check you out.”
I tried to push myself on my back, but it was mostly Marissa manhandling me (womanhandling?) over. I felt her hands poke and prod my chest and stomach, my sides under my jacket.
“Any pain when I push on your ribs?”
“Only when you push on my ribs. Ow.”
“You may have cracked something. We need to — We need to….”
The blur in my vision started to sharpen. I could make out the dark sky as it spit rain onto my face. It was night. Night? What happened to the day?
I shoved myself up on my elbow. Marissa knelt next to me, still in her scrubs, sitting on her heels, looking off into space. I followed her eyes to see what she saw.
He stood on the edge of the circular stone platform, his back to us, looking out at the roiling black sea. Glowing colored glyphs slid about on his back, his arms and legs, sort of like fireflies, flitting at random.
The corpse. Standing. Moving.
As I shifted to push myself, my hand hit something hard on the black stone platform. My weapon. I picked it up as I stumbled to my feet. I cleared the slide and pointed it at the standing dead man.
“Hey, buddy! San Sebastian Police. Put your hands behind your head and turn around. Do it now!”
Yeah, the way I sounded, I would have ignored me, too, which is pretty much what naked guy did.
“Man, I’m serious about this. I said hands on your head!”
“This is my last warning —”
“The sky! Chris, look at the sky!”
I glanced at Marissa, still kneeling on the platform. She pointed out to sea, her eyes wide and her hand shaking. The sky spit little pinpricks of rain in my face were we were, but the cloud cover out over the ocean had cleared enough to see out, to see the moon.
What was left of it, anyway.
Instead of a blue-white ball, there were two massive chunks, as if it had been cleaved with the biggest axe in the universe. Trailing it was a stream of smaller bits — some big enough to see, others just shiny points, but still brighter than stars.
I almost fell down again. I almost dropped my weapon as my arms fell to my sides.
“We used to summer here.” The stranger spoke at last. His voice was calm and clearer than you’d think for spending days in the ocean. He looked off down the beach, to the burned ruin of what looked like some sort of compound. “It used to be a resort. Our guardians would take us there, my sister and me. We’d play in the ocean with the other kids. For a bit of time, we could pretend to be normal.”
“What happened to the moon?” I felt dizzy, still. It was getting worse. I felt sick. I was going to throw up.
“They had a hedge maze. A maze with an orrery in the center, made of wrought iron. Anyael and I would recite the names of the planets and spin them on their orbital rings.”
“Tell me. What happened. To the moon!” I pushed down my sickness and pulled the man around. His eyes were glazed and unfocused. I wasn’t surprised.
“Sāwel, the glorious Father Sun in the center. Then swift Saumya across his glowing face. And Shyukra, the bright morning star. Sanchuniathon, our beloved home —”
I grabbed the back of his head, a handful of his wiry hair, and all but shoved the barrel of my weapon into his mouth. He resisted, and looked at me, the first time he really acknowledged our presence.
“What happened to the damn moon!”
He looked me in the eyes. I could almost see the glaze come off his. I had his attention now — and something told me that I really, really didn’t want it. He was standing there naked, I had a gun to his face, but I felt exposed.
“It was an attack. Eleven years ago here. Not so long for you. The Mawyt Wryt, we call them. They found a way… here. They spun an asteroid up fast, about a third the speed of light. We had ships, several, with missiles. They managed to change the asteroid’s trajectory — but they moved it to hit Ia’eh. It was the only way to save Sanchuniathon.”
My arms dropped and I stepped back. I couldn’t hold my arms up anymore. I heard Marissa stand and felt her huddle up next to me. She was trembling.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Ia’eh faced the other side when it happened. That’s the only reason even this much remains here. The other side of Sanchuniathon… the other side is just black. Here, it rained stones, over a year. It let up after awhile, and the smoke clouds finally cleared. Mostly. We still get showers every few… months. Months.”
“My god.” Marissa’s voice was soft, but it startled me. “Is this another world? Somewhere — not Earth?”
“It is Sanchuniathon. Was.”
I looked up at the sky, at the remnants of the moon — of Ia’eh. It looked just like ours. Well, other than.
Lightning flashed, distant, just enough to make us both jump and lighten up the platform.
“Oh, my. My. Chris. Give him your jacket.”
“Give him your jacket. Please.”
“Well — look at him. I mean. Don’t look at him. He’s —”
The naked man looked down at himself. It was the first time I think that he realized that he didn’t have any clothes, even though he was standing in a cold spitting rain on a black stone platform.
One of the glyphs moved from around his back onto his chest, a gray-green one, then down his arm to the palm of his hand. He held out his hand, as if showing it to us. A black film began to slide off the glyph, covering his arm, spreading across his chest, abdomen, his other arm, down his legs. It covered him up like a body stocking, ending at his neck and wrists, covering his feet like shoes. The glyphs were still there, though, visible, not covered by the film.
It was only then that I realized that Marissa was trembling from the cold. She was only wearing a pair of hospital scrubs. I pulled off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
“So, what gives? You’ve already seen him au naturale.”
“Yes, but he wasn’t… standing up then.”
“Oh, well. That’s completely different.”
The man stepped across the platform. He moved slowing. For a moment, I thought he was going to fall over.
“We need shelter. I need to get to… I need to get home.”
“What about the — the whatever. The flashbang you did to get us here.”
He shook his head. “I don’t have it in me to do that again yet, I’m afraid. I don’t have much left at all.”
He continued on toward the edge of the platform, to a console of some sort mounted on a pedestal. There was some sort of track up in the air running by the platform, held up by towers. In the dim light, I couldn’t see how far they went, but I suspected they ran up and down the coast. Or used to. It looked as if the towers down toward the compound had been taken out by whatever destroyed the resort.
The man reached the console. He leaned against it, and I thought for a second that he was going to pass out. Instead, he felt around the edge of the console, gripped something and pulled up. The top flipped open like a laptop. Marissa and I stepped over to see. I held my weapon at my side, ready. Just in case.
Inside the console, it was hard to see. The only dim light came off the broken moon and the stranger’s faintly glowing moveable tattoos. He reached inside, fiddled a bit, and yanked out a cable. Little wires stuck off it, like roots.
Slowly, several of the glyphs on his body began to glow brighter. The lines between the glyphs, invisible until now, began to glow as well, the lines running down his arms, across his hands and into the cable. Within a few seconds, I almost heard something like a hum, or perhaps felt it through my feet on the platform. The light above the console sputtered a time or two, then grew steady, though weak. The console itself began to glow with multiple colors. Up the coast, another light sputtered on, and down the line, too, toward the ruin.
I could see the tracks then. They hung in the air, attached to the towers holding the light. They looked like train tracks, just suspended above the ground rather than on it.
Marissa stepped over as the man closed the console and began pressing the flickering lights on the console.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know if I can get a car here. I don’t know the condition of the track up the line, or if there are any cars left on it. I may not be able to generate enough power to get it here and back. It’s our best option now, though.”
I stepped next to them. The console sputtered, not working all that well, the lights flickering. Gauges and displays had some sort of writing on them that I couldn’t read. It certainly wasn’t English. It was some sort of script with small loops above a line and longer loops and hooks below.
Marissa almost touched the console, moving her finger along a line of script.
“Is this Sanskrit?”
“No. There are similarities — Kothar once speculated there may be some connection, but he could never find one. He concluded that the similarities were just coincidences.”
The man stopped fiddling with the lighted displays, and gripped the edge of the console. I thought he might fall over. Marissa put her hands on his shoulders, catching him, but he stood, waving her away softly.
“Who’s Kothar? A scholar or something?”
“He used to be. Now, he’s…. I should probably not say anything else.” He held onto the console as he lowered himself down to sit on the platform.
“You might as well sit. It will be a while before the car gets here. If it gets here.”
I stood in the spitting rain, staring down at the man with glowing glyphs dressed in a black film that covered him like a film. I’m not sure how long I stood there. I’m not sure I was even conscious, at least not until Marissa touched my arm. She pulled me gently down, and we sat together next to the man, getting what shelter we could under the console.
Sometime later — don’t ask me how long — I felt a rumbling in the stone of the platform. A few moments later, I heard a rattling as the elevated track shuttered. The man in black stood, so Marissa and I did, as well.
Up the coast, I saw a single light moving toward us. A few moments later, a single car, suspended from the elevated track, rolled closer. The brakes squealed and rattled, vibrating the track and the tower holding it next to the platform, and the care came to a stop.
The man forced open the sliding doors — the electric motor that operated it must have been fried — and we climbed in. The inside of the car was dim, lit only by little safety lights running along the base of the seats. It looked like a subway car, with hand rails running along the top and short seats along each side. The man flopped down in a seat. He looked as if he were about to pass out. I stepped next to him.
“Where is this car going?”
The man looked up at me. His eyes were blank. I got the impression that his face would normally be impassive, that nothing I said or did would have phased him, but now, I could just barely make out a tremor at the corner of his mouth. My arm moved, my hand on the grip of my weapon.
Marissa moved in front of me, pushing me back before turning to the man.
“Look, this is all — this is a lot for us to take in. We don’t — we don’t know what’s going on. Where we are. We don’t even know your name. I’m Marissa, Marissa Goodchilde. This is Chris, Christopher Talys. What’s your name? Can you tell us that much?”
He looked up at her with the same blank distance he’d shared with me. There was still a tremor on the side of his face. I had initially taken it as aggression, the prelude to action, but it now seemed to be just plain exhaustion. I could understand that.
“Balthazar. I’m… Balthazar Zayn.”
“Hi, Balthazar. Look, we’re going with you. We’re happy to go with you. We’d just like to have an idea, some idea of where we’re going. You know? Just some idea.”
He continued to look at Marissa’s face for a moment, then slumped. He shifted around on the seat, his back to the window, and hauled his legs up.
“We’re going to a city called Kaphtor. It’s the capital — used to be the capital of this region. It used to be…. Look, you need to sit down. The car won’t start back until you’re sitting.”
Balthazar turned his head away, his eyes closed. Marissa said his name a few times, then felt the pulse in his neck. He shuffled a bit when she did, but then settled down.
“He’s passed out. I think he’s going to be all right, but I don’t know.”
I nodded. I waved my arm at the seat across from Balthazar, and Marissa sat down. I sat next to her. A moment later, motors on the roof the car hummed, the track clacked and the car began to move up the suspended track, back the way it had come.
The look on Marissa’s face was empty, her stare distant. She was in shock. I suppose I was, too. I tried to say something, anything — make a joke, say something obvious, even, but nothing came out. Marissa clutched my jacket closer around her. I put my arm around her, and she settled against me.
I tried to stay awake, tried to look out the windows at the dark sky and the angry sea, but my eyes kept dropping. Marissa trembled against me. I held her tighter, and at some point, drifted off to black.