The Thirteenth Traveler
by Dave Ervin
Table of Contents|
chapters: I, II, III, IV,
V, part 1; V, part 2; VI
Alone at night in a strange forest, Travis Burbage witnesses a terrifying scene. Meanwhile, Malachi Linklater discovers that he is engaged in an ironic mode of transportation: he may discover where his journey ends, but where did it begin?
Travis Burbage was sure about two things: these men had something to do with the light, and that was not good. Everything else was a little hazy, if not because he was drunk, then because he was all of a sudden in the middle of some sort of Twilight Zone.
The light had no apparent source; it simply hung in mid-air. It was brilliant and electric like lightning but hovering in a fixed spot. At first he simply stared, astonished, then he walked toward the thing for some damn fool reason. Now he stood perhaps twenty yards from it, hidden behind a tree, as though the light itself might have eyes and would not take kindly to a stranger in the woods. He hunkered down into the shadows, eyes glued to the sight and felt the first wave of fear pricking its way through his drunkenness.
He had turned to make sure the peak of his tent was still in sight when a sharp pinging sound split the air like a silenced gunshot followed by a pair of dull thuds. When he peered back around the tree, the luminous shape had transformed. It looked like some sort of rip or tear. Then it sucked in on itself and was gone.
The forest had fallen still. And when Travis’s eyes had adjusted to the dark, he made out the gray form of two bodies, rising from the forest floor.
And that was where he found himself now, trying to focus through this inebriated fog, wondering how the hell he got here and what the hell he was supposed to do about it. Pondering the randomness of life in spite of the fact he was rigid with fear.
The timeline of the evening just didn’t add up. A graduation celebration, a bunch of college guys shooting bull and passing out by the fire and, in the middle of the night, an unexplainable phenomenon calling him forward while the rest of the group slept. Why had it woken only him? Why was he compelled the check it out?
But all of these questions disappeared beneath the overriding thought: These men had something to do with the light. And that was not good.
Travis tilted his body slightly, so that he was completely encased in the blackness of the surrounding trees. He was cold, he had to pee. His head was swollen with beer. He could still see into the small clearing where the two men stood. In the stillness he could hear their whispered conversation.
“When are we?” the first voice asked.
“How the hell should I know? We’re in the woods. Could be anywhen.”
When are we? Did they say when?
The men continued to speak, but a rising breeze blurred their whispers into gibberish.
One of the men reached into his coat and pulled out something, which Travis could only assume was a gun. He held the object above his head and it lit up in a flash, a small blue light similar in brilliance to the rip light.
The idea that he would not return to camp was surreal. This was not how life worked. He had done everything right. He’d always been a good kid, college for four years, paid his own way, straight A’s. Now it was time to step into the real world, start a family and play out his adult life. When he imagined his future, he saw a wife and kids, a well-paying job. Not futuristic assassins descending from the sky and putting a sudden end to all his plans.
The man stooped down on one knee and placed the gun-thing into the ground. He looked closely at the gadget and read a series of numbers off to his partner. Apparently it was not a gun at all, but a device from which they were getting some sort of reading. So who were these two? A couple of time-traveling mapmakers? The thought was actually a small comfort. Mapmakers weren’t nearly as scary as assassins.
Then the second man shot the stooping man in the back of the head and all comfort left Travis, along with his liquid dinner.
The gunshot made no noise. The dead man fell forward, his head spraying blood and what was left of his face smacking like a dropped bowl of jello onto the forest floor. Then he disappeared into a vacuum of light.
Travis let that idea process in his mind. The man disappeared into a vacuum of light. Piss ran down his leg again, and he silently cursed himself for drinking so damn much.
The killer grabbed the device out of the ground and finished reading its output. “Oh great,” he said. He took a small bag from around his waist and pulled out several instruments. They were indistinguishable in the dark, but there looked to be three or four of them, each about the size of a small stone. The man laid them neatly on the ground and held his finger on the center object. He looked up into the sky. “Home,” he called. Nothing happened. He looked back down at the objects and cursed.
Travis was glued to the scene, every inch of his body rigid with the effort to stay still and silent. He began to realize just how cold he was; from the weather or from fear, he wasn’t sure. The gooseflesh on his hands and throat caused his body to convulse in an involuntary spasm. To his utter horror, the first tickling sensation of a cough crept up his throat. He breathed in the cool air and wet his mouth with saliva, trying to quell the sensation.
The man opened his hip-pack and emptied it out on the ground, apparently searching for some lost instrument. A squirrel danced past him, and the man blasted it into dust with his silent gun.
Travis swallowed and held his teeth tightly together. Throat itching, snaking its way up, chest starting to heave with the need to cough. You’ve got to be kidding me. Now?
The man shuffled through odds and ends of similar stone-sized objects and finally found the one he was searching for. He placed it on the far end of the line and began putting the other oddities back in the bag.
Sweat beaded up on Travis’s head and trickled down his nose. Surely the sweat would reach his mouth and the cough would escape. He wiped the bead away with one shaking finger, terrified the sound of his jacket moving against itself would betray him. Indeed, the slick, wet sound of nylon on nylon seemed much too loud and, to Travis’s horror, the man looked up from his now crouching position. Immediately a flashlight-like instrument glowed from the side of the killer’s head and he scanned the forest slowly back and forth.
The man took a step toward Travis’s hiding spot. Travis inched back closer to the body of the tree. The flashlight passed by, touching the very edge of his boot. Did the killer see it? Could he tell what it was? The boot was green and caked in mud. It likely blended into the forest floor, but could he be sure? If he did see it, the man made no sign.
It took every bit of willpower Travis had not to cough. The terrible itching and tickling causing his throat to tighten and contract. He held his breath as the sweat continued to bead down his face. He dared not move his arms again.
The man stooped, touched the center object and then each of the runes in the line shot a blue laser-like light about ten feet into the air. It formed a pyramid of light coming to a point in which another lightning-tear was beginning to form. “Ho—” The man began. Then a terrible thing happened: Travis hiccupped.
His hand shot over his mouth and the cough that had been threatening escaped without heed. The man shot to his feet, the pyramid of light snapped out and the forest went black.
Travis thought of his friends back at camp. They would never see him again. I don’t know, officer, he was here last night when we passed out drunk, and then he just up and disappeared. Didn’t even take his car. He thought of all his future plans, humble enough: wife, kids, career. And how suddenly and randomly they were evaporating.
He took two steps around the tree, impressing himself with the silence and calm with which he moved. The man’s flashlight snapped on and again began scanning the surroundings. Travis saw the man lift his gun shoulder high, holding it with both hands like a cop.
Then Travis ran. Without heed to how much noise or commotion he was kicking up, he ran. If only he could get back to the campsite, Zachary Dean had fallen asleep in his truck. He kept a gun in his glove compartment. Surely four of them could take on one, even if this was some sort of assassin from another time. Only Travis was completely disoriented at this point. Was he even running in the right direction? Where was the fire? Where was the peak of his tent?
He ran as fast as he could over the dark and treacherous ground, dodging limbs and jumping roots. He moved with the cunning of an animal, relying on instinct more than vision, but with all the grace of the lumbering clumsy drunk he was. The beer sloshed in his stomach and his throbbing skull felt as though it were being bashed in with a hammer at every step. But still he ran.
Then the whizzing sounds started darting past his head. One of them seemed an inch from his ear, another blew the collar up on his jacket. He looked over his shoulder and saw the assassin no more than fifteen feet behind him.
Travis caught a glimpse of the man as he took yet another small object from his pocket. This one seemed smaller than the ones he had laid on the forest floor and Travis feared it was some sort of weapon.
The man fired one last shot that clipped off Travis’s shoulder and sent him tumbling down a small decline into the bed of a creek. He landed on his back, coughing and gagging in exhaustion and pain.
Blood oozed down his jacket from a small hole in his shoulder. It was the sight and not the pain that nearly caused him to pass out. The bullet had only clipped him but to Travis it might as well have been a bull’s-eye to the heart. He had never been shot before. He was a math major.
He lay on his back, paralyzed by dread. The assassin stepped toward him, raising his gun and pointing it directly at Travis’s temple.
The killer stooped slowly and laid the object he was holding at his own feet, keeping the gun aimed at Travis’s head. He took Travis by the hand and opened the tightly clenched fingers, splaying them out, palm up.
Travis could hear the man’s heavy breath. He could see his eyes. They were like swirling pinwheels of light. His hair was white. He was dressed in a black body suit with utility packs on his waist and chest and legs. He took the object from the ground and placed it in Travis’s open palm. It was a small black disk, the size of a large coin, only it felt like cold glass.
The man began to close Travis’s fingers over the disk when a twig snapped in the dark. The man’s flashlight shot on and he snapped his head up in the direction of the sound. He rose to his feet all at once and a loud thunderous crack filled the night as the assassin was blown back into the trunk of a dead tree. He grunted and breathed sharply through his teeth. He raised his gun only to have it fall limply over his finger.
Travis looked up, amazed to see his friend Zach standing at the bank of the creek, holding a smoking gun.
Travis ran toward his friend. A hot knife of pain shot through his shoulder, and he went straight to his knees. Zach raced toward him and tripped down the incline into the dry creek bed. On his way down, he gashed his leg on a protruding branch and rolled to within inches of the assassin’s crumpled body.
The dying man grabbed Zach, and Travis used his last bit of strength to pull his friend away from the killer’s grasp. Travis and Zach stumbled backwards as the assassin reached out his hand and whispered the last words he would ever speak. “Give me... the disk...”
Travis would have gladly thrown the thing at him and split town, but before he had the chance, this man, too, was sucked into a vacuum of light. The darkness and silence that followed was like a lead weight.
Travis and Zach stared for what felt like an hour at the place where the dead man had once lain. Then, without speaking, they turned and headed back to camp. Travis, in an absentminded daze, slipped the black disk into his pocket.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Ervin