The Thirteenth Traveler
by Dave Ervin
Table of Contents|
chapters: I, II, III, IV,
V, part 1; V, part 2; VI
Linklater’s experience over the terrain made him especially adept at ducking and dodging in all the right places. He turned wide here, jumped a jutting branch there and ended up right on Burbage’s heels as the men neared a fallen tree. This is where things usually got improvisational.
Sometimes Burbage veered left, sometimes right. Sometimes he hunkered down in a ditch, sometimes shinnied up a tree. And every time, every blasted time, Dean showed up with the dreaded gun.
The last time through, Burbage ran straight ahead and took a hard right toward the creek. Now, as he neared this point, Linklater slowed slightly, half-sure his target would repeat the move, but instead Burbage turned and stopped dead in his tracks.
This was a first. Linklater’s headlight caught Burbage in the eyes and the two men stood stone-still in the glow, facing off in the middle of the woods.
Burbage sucked in several heavy breaths as they stared at one another. Neither spoke for a moment, then Linklater approached slowly. He took the ID disk from his utility belt.
Burbage’s eyes pulsed wide with fear and amazement. Yet he stayed planted in place, chest heaving, awaiting his fate. “Who are you?” he said in a drunken slur.
“Don’t be afraid,” Linklater said. “I am an officer of the law. I’m about to hand you a device which will provide me with an identification. If you run, I will shoot you.”
Burbage instinctively turned and flinched to run but the blast from Linklater’s gun was too fast. It sent a bullet smoldering into the side of a nearby tree and once again Burbage stood frozen in place. He slowly turned to face the officer again.
“I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to get an ID,” Linklater said. “Hold out your hand.” Burbage extended a trembling, trepidatious hand and stood shaking as the officer stepped closer.
Linklater held his gun at a 90-degree angle by his head, scanning the surroundings for Dean. That was perhaps the worst part of the whole thing. Waiting for that kill-shot to strike. It was like walking into a room full of lightning and trying to avoid getting struck. He knew it was coming, he just didn’t know when or where from.
Linklater placed the disk in Burbage’s hand and closed the man’s fingers around the cold, flat glass. This was the furthest he had ever been along in his quest, and seeing Travis Burbage’s hand holding the ID disk sent his pulse racing. He couldn’t help but smile, and yet the fear of a sudden blast to the chest enveloped him like a shadow. He looked over his shoulder and up in the trees. There was no sign of Dean anywhere. Could this be it? Could he be this close?
The disk in Burbage’s hand glowed blue, and Linklater opened the man’s fingers for him. He pretended not to notice the trail of urine running down the man’s leg. He read the disk and took a scanner from his belt. He recorded the ID: Travis Burbage, Human ID 13597. He looked at Burbage and for the first time that night the two men made eye contact.
The wind picked up slightly, a moment passed between them. Linklater closed the man’s fingers back around the disk and allowed it to glow once, twice more. The reading would now show his death date. Perhaps today’s date. Perhaps his life’s work was done. He scanned the night once more for Zachary Dean. Once more, he saw no one. Should he dare take the extra moment? The extra peek just to see if he had nothing to fear? What would it matter?
If the disk showed tonight, then he would know it was over. Know he could shoot this clown and end it all for good. Yet if the disk showed anything else, it was all for naught again. The disk would only tell him the truth; it had no power to change the outcome.
All of these thoughts came in a matter of two seconds. All at once Linklater waved his gun in a 360-degree arc around his body, sure he would see his assassin waiting for him. But again, nary a soul. He landed back on Burbage, and eyed the blue light emanating from between the man’s fingers. What the hell, he had to know. Curiosity’s a bitch. He took the disk and eyed the reading:
Date of death: ...
A cursor blinked mockingly. He threw the disk to the forest floor and raised his gun in a flash. In the instant before he could fire, a shot of pain rippled through his body and threw him into a tree with a spin. He bounced off the trunk and fell to the ground hard. Thirty feet away, Zachary Dean stood over him with a smoking gun, eyes wild and unbelieving. Of course he did.
Linklater raised his gun and fired. The bullet ricocheted off a rock and shot down a ravine with a distant ping. He tried again, and the gun simply clicked and fell limply by his side. He felt his breath go short. Felt the urgent beating of his heart as it raced toward a certain point where it would slow and slow and slow...
Dean’s nose began to bleed and he hurried toward Linklater’s body. He laid his head against the officer’s chest and listened for a heartbeat. “Oh jeez,” he said. “I think I killed him.” Of course, the blood entwined, and the end of the world was set in motion.
Linklater could have predicted this. He knew it all too well. He had died as many times as he had attempted this assignment. And yet tonight felt somehow different. His pulse reached that crucial moment and he felt the familiar turn from adrenaline to exhaustion. Next came death.
It was in that moment that something changed. The sky began to swim. That was the only way to describe it. The firmament opened up before him, almost as if it were a quilt being ripped by an invisible hand, and a bold orb of light descended before his eyes. It lowered itself to his level and pulsed a slow and steady glow. The orb was small enough to fit into his hand and yet was the size of the whole world.
Outside of all of this, Dean helped Burbage to his feet. The two men breathed with some effort and walked off slowly toward a distant firelight, their campsite.
Linklater knew he had disappeared before their eyes, and yet he had not been transported to 2095 as was the custom. Instead he was watching events unfold as though he were perched in a tree. Perched in a tree at some great distance without the benefit of being able to hear. The scene played out before him like a silent film.
Dean and Burbage stumbled into camp. Two other men lay asleep in hammocks. A small orb of light entered the scene and exploded in a brilliant flash. When the light cleared, Dean and Burbage were sitting up from the ground, as though waking from sleep.
Burbage shook his head and glanced around. He appeared dazed, but unharmed. Dean wiped his eyes. He rose slowly to his feet and slinked toward the fire. He reached in a nearby bag and took out a black kettle. He began making coffee.
Neither man appeared to have the slightest notion that anything out of the ordinary had happened to them. Linklater recognized the vacant stares. Their short-term memory had been wiped clean.
The orb of light floating before Linklater’s eyes filled his vision completely so that the scene at the campsite was entirely wiped out. All he could see or sense was a bright pulsing life before him, vibrating and buzzing at the edge of his senses. Then he heard a voice. No, he didn’t hear it exactly; it was more like he felt it. The words it spoke were undeniable. “Your mission is complete, Malachi Linklater. You have exhausted the time thread.”
Linklater was unable to speak. He didn’t have to. His thoughts were echoed into the light. He communicated with the orb mentally, without the aid of a body. He doubted he even had a body anymore.
“Yes,” the orb responded, “that’s right. Your body is gone. You are like us now, light and thought. Essence only. As it should be. Your body was merely a vessel for your true self, Malachi. Your hard work is done. Welcome home.”
“Am I in the hospital? In 2095?”
“No. Your shearsuit did not engage its technology. It detected no living matter to transport. You have passed on.”
“Passed on?” Linklater could not grasp the idea. The overriding thought filling his mind at the moment was I didn’t stop him.
“You didn’t. You couldn’t have. It was fated for Burbage to live.”
“I don’t believe in fate.”
“No, you don’t understand fate. We all have choices, yes. We can alter the time thread slightly, yes. But to believe there is no great hand at work outside of all things is a great folly, Officer Linklater. You have expended every possible scenario along this particular thread. Your life’s work is done. You have passed on.”
Passed on? How could that be? Linklater was a traveler. He existed on a loop. This thing, this light that spoke to him, was it one of them? One of the future beings that originated from the line of the Thirteenth Traveler? Or was it perhaps some manifestation of God? Some being from the next life? Was there a next life? Was he perhaps stuck in the jump to 2095 and hallucinating all of this?
For a moment he felt very confused then all thought left him and he felt a great rush of wind race inside of him like the gale force in a wind-tunnel. His questions faded out and he felt himself join the light before him. He was separate from the light, one of a billion other lights, and yet part of the whole. And suddenly all was right. All was understanding.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Ervin