Chapter 14 – A Dream Within a Dream

IMG_3733He wiggles it, shakes it. Laughs at it like it’s a novelty.

‘Ha, wow, you are right! Jo-lo’s arm is fine. It repair itself.’

‘Maybe,’ I say, turning away.

The slash across my back is no longer there, either. I run my fingers along the place where the tear should be, half-expecting to find blood, but there’s nothing but smooth, cold skin. I can feel myself shimmering, flickering somehow. Like I’m not really here. A dream within a dream.

‘Maybe it was that woman,’ Jo-lo says, stroking his elbow. ‘That one with the knives for arms. Maybe she sent us here.’

‘I don’t think so,’ I say.

But I think of her, just for a moment. Not now, but the way she used to be. Her dark, streaming hair. Her staccato laugh. Her sweet, velvety voice before she sacrificed her tongue and her limbs to the Assassins. I suppose, in our own way, we all made sacrifices for the war.

Beyond the dark cave of roots we are in, I can see light. I try to peer out, but the roots continue to slither. And when I reach out to part them, they panic and weave tight into one another, sealing the light out completely, leaving us in the black.

‘We have to find a way out of here,’ I say. ‘Any ideas?’

Jo-lo begins to say something but before I can hear it, I am gone. We both are. There’s nothing but the swimming darkness and a blinding, suffocating feeling that reminds me that at some point in the far future, I am going to die.

Chapter 13 – An Ordinary Arm

IMG_4277When I wake, it’s in the cold and dark. I’m on damp dirt, a weave of silvery roots arching over me. I can hear the sound of water, gushing, dripping, gurgling. A forest? I think.

Kroma, where are we? 

Beside me, a few feet away, Jo-lo is on his back. He looks peaceful, his eyes shut, as if he’s only sleeping. I sit up, watch the rise and fall of his chest. He’s alive, at least, I tell myself.

Kroma, can you scan him? Are his vitals okay?

Something rustles in the black, behind the trees, and I leap to my feet. Again, I look down and for the second time today, my gun is gone, holsters empty. I swear and search around me, assuming it’s tumbled out in the fall, but it’s nowhere to be seen.

I pace one way, then another. The glistening roots twist and churn for a moment, baulking at my presence. Finally, they settle, as if deciding I’m not a threat.

There’s a shuffle behind me and I turn. It’s Jo-lo. He’s standing now, rubbing his eyes like he’s just woken from a long, sweet sleep. At the sight of him, I almost fall to my knees, gasping. Almost.

‘What this place now?’ he asks. ‘Where you take us, lady?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say and like a dream, those huge coils of red and orange come back to me. ‘But I don’t think this is real. It can’t be. Something’s not right.’

Jo-lo frowns, his face scrunching up and for a second, he looks like the confused child that he really is. ‘What you mean? This is just another planet, no? Isn’t that what you do?’

‘Yes, but … this isn’t real,’ I say again. ‘This place. I don’t think we’re really here.’

He lets out a string of laughter, a bellowish yelp that doesn’t sound like it would come from a scrawny little boy. ‘Why you say that?’ he asks.

‘Because of your arm,’ I say, pointing at it. It hangs by his side, like nothing out of the ordinary. Like it hasn’t been sliced off just below the elbow. ‘In this place, it’s still intact.’

Chapter 12 – The Inbetween

IMG_3733The vortex races over my head, surging into the air, and lets out an enraged howl. I glance down just for a moment and glimpse the black, winding river of Idris II, and finally the universe catches on, and we’re gone.

There’s a sharp flash and now the darkness of space. It envelopes and swallows, steals us away, sets us free.

I hug Jo-lo tighter as the fall tears at me. My head swims. My limbs feel as if they are coming undone, unravelling from my torso like loose strings.

Between us, his loose arm rests, pressed in the gully between our bodies, bloody and severed neat. I want to grab it, to tuck it into my belt or my uniform for safety, but I’m terrified that I’ll actually lose my grip on it … or him.

My chest bucks and threatens to cave in on itself and all of a sudden, I can’t breathe. I’m hanging, suspended, like a poor bug in a web, and no matter what I do I can’t seem to move, even though I know I’m still falling.

But something is different now, the black seems to be shifting in bursting patterns, the distant stars are burning bright and melting together, like something from those old-school kaleidoscope realities.

Jo-lo stirs and I notice his mouth moving, muttering something in his strange language.

At the edges of my vision I begin to see long wisps of colour. Oranges and reds twisting like giant ribbons of light that I have never seen before. They flare out towards me and even though they’ve taught me, back at the Academy, to be composed, I’m panicking. What is going wrong?

Out of nowhere there’s a bright, white zap of light. I feel a thundering iciness wrap around me. My head stabs with pain and I can’t think. I’m tumbling towards something else, not into the corridors but somewhere else. What is this? I want to shout. What is happening?

Something back there, beneath the piercing pain, my mind races. A solar flare? A black hole? An artificial gravity zone? Or even some trap that Kendrick has set up for me?

I wonder if it’s the Assassin Ships, somehow on our tail, but something tells me, no. This is worse.

My body feels like it is stretching and contracting and even though I’m holding on, I feel myself slipping. Just as we race through another wave of orange, Jo-lo opens his eyes and begins, although I can’t hear him, to scream.

Chapter 11 – Chase II

IMG_4278Kroma, what the hell are you doing? I scream, my eyes fixed on the Assassin ships. You’re sending me straight to them!

I know, she says, just keep going! 

I curse her and moments later, I see them. Looming on the horizon, the edge of jutting cliffs. They are the colour of red, dropping away into god knows what. The perfect platform.

The vortex seems to breathe in life and it bulges and howls, whirling and expanding.

Above us, the ships begin to retreat  in a wild panic, terrified that the thing is going to spring up and snatch them out of the air and and twist them into nothingness.

But I know what it’s doing.

I run towards the cliffs. Jo-lo is barely conscious now. Blood has seeped all over him, but he’s managed to keep hold of his severed arm and is muttering unintelligible words to himself — or to me, I can’t tell — every now and then.

I glance back and see that the vortex is sweeping around in an arc, calculating my path. It knows where I’m going and it wants to cut me off, to grab us both just as we get there.

It knows, I think to myself. How is that possible, that it knows what I am? 

I bound forward and see that I’m almost there. The cliffs are rising in my view and I scramble up their rocky slopes, leaping for the top.

‘Hold on, Jo-lo!’ I shout.

Are you serious? Kroma cries, aghast. You can’t take him, he’ll never make it! 

Well, I can’t leave him here! I snap and before she can reply I hit the edge of the cliffs where a raging river of black water gushes below and I pull Jo-lo into my body, and jump.

Chapter 10 – Chase I

IMG_3724The tunnels shudder. From somewhere outside and above, I hear a roar as the ground explodes. Behind us, the vortex blasts through the passageways, sucking them up, sending rock and sand hurling.

Jo-lo is sinking in my arms, growing heavy and saying something to me I can’t hear.

In the back of my mind, early learnings drift back to me … from some alien planet, they came? Spreading across systems … hitching rides in ships … eating up worlds.

I half expect to see ladder leading up to a box and a door but instead the tunnel begins to slope and lift upwards and I burst out onto the sand. The heat stabs through me but I ignore it and keep running.

Seconds later, the vortex erupts behind me, exploding out of the tunnels and expanding to twice its size, a freak of a whirlwind. Sand whips around us, pelting against my skin like slicing splinters and I’m blind, but I keep racing forward anyway.

I make it over one dune before I start to feel the whole thing pulling me back, tearing the air out of my lungs, darkness descending from above.

I’m heaving for breath, inhaling sand, lost now even more than I was before. I run to keep the wind at my back, but something in me, not Kroma, whispers, you can’t outrun this thing. It’s only a matter of time.

And suddenly, I’m a child again, clinging to my father in the midst of some great gale. I hear the endless smashing of glass and … when had this been … ? Where? A glass castle of some kind, I remember, but that’s all I can recall … and now it melts away, sliding towards the periphery … a memory for another time.

Kroma, I need direction, I shout in my head.

For a moment there’s a deathly pause and finally she says something about cliffs opposite the location of the suns and I pause for a moment and double back, crossing the same ground that I just snaked through in the tunnels.

I tell Kroma to activate one of my adrenalines, then another and another, and I feel the breath of life sweep into me as I sprint across the dunes into the light, Jo-lo lolling in my grip.

And just above me, on the horizon, I see them. The Assassin ships. Three of them, in a steady line, waiting to engulf me.