The Last Journey of Chiron Baxter
by Ada Fetters
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Before I could say anything, the room around me brightened. The walls and ceiling blew away like clouds. Pale asphalt and broken glass reflected the sunlight so fiercely that I could hardly look at them. The air around me smelled like baking resin. I turned back to Lupin but my quantum mechanic had faded into the crowd around me.
Silhouettes swam to either side but did not come into focus unless they were almost near enough to touch. They plucked at my clothes to draw my attention to invisible vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses. I followed their pointing fingers but only saw the clear blue sky. They gently admonished me not to knock my head against a nonexistent corbel jutting from a wall I could not see.
All I saw were bracken and brambles and the occasional crumpled beer can. When the people around me pressed my wrist or brushed my cheek with their own, the contact felt like a stream of cold air running over my skin. Where was Lupin when I needed him?
“Admiring the stained-glass cherubs, Chiron?”
A figure nearby me raised a languid hand. He was tall and angular and held his long neck at an angle that reminded me of a crane. His eyes were so deep-set that they looked hollow. The features reminded me of Aroyo Ira, my nemesis of great political power and prodigious psionic ability, but the uncanny impression from him was even stronger than it was from Lupin.
What was missing? In my nemesis’ presence, my heart kicked in my chest. Adrenaline sharpened my vision. Colors snapped. Contrasts flared. My thoughts sped up to keep pace with his machinations. Simply put, we challenged one another.
Most psionics were intense but easily distracted. Their plans and passions shifted from moment to moment. Aroyo Ira played a long, deep-laid game. He picked thoughts out of the minds of spies and officials alike, then used what he knew to strangle an interplanetary government before anyone realized what he was doing.
In our younger years we had driven one another at a killing pace: I’d upset his plans to twist entire solar systems to his bidding only because I understood the terrifying extent of his brilliance. As a time-traveler I knew that we were going to live and die for one another, but Aroyo Ira kept me guessing as to how that would turn out. He was endlessly inventive in his attempts to destroy me.
I looked at the person in front of me and felt nothing. Compared to the memory of my nemesis, the version in front of me was just a collection of features stretched over bone.
Nevertheless, for a moment I was tempted to think that Aroyo Ira had engineered this. He was remorseless enough to drive his victims to madness if they stood in the way of his plans. Certainly my confusion would delight him. Yet while he could read the thoughts of others and use the information toward his devious political schemes, he could not cause people to hallucinate. Nor could he break the laws of physics. This felt more like a fever dream than one of his machinations.
Dry grass crackled under my feet. I stumbled over a hidden chunk of asphalt. Aroyo Ira asked, “Are you mute and blind?”
This was not the Aroyo Ira whose conversational maneuvers used to crush my pride so effortlessly that they were works of beauty. The jibe was too obvious. There was no feint to see if I’d give away how much I knew, no dry chuckle meant to imply he knew my head better than I did.
I turned my face upward without seeing the vault or flying buttresses of the cathedral that he took for granted: I was blind with my eyes open. A silvery aircraft with back-slanting wings passed high overhead. Frozen vapor left a contrail high above the power lines that exceeded my reach. The people in that jet airplane were headed to their destination at hundreds of miles per hour while Chiron Baxter was grounded.
“What’s Madeline doing here? You’re not supposed to see her yet.”
* * *
The way he said her name meant much more than my abstracted knowledge of an old superstition from a patriarchal society. Yes, there she was, another bright figure against the shadows in a white dress all over beads and rhinestones. She turned a vapid expression in my direction, then squinted at me so that her nose and the corners of her eyes wrinkled. She put her hands in her short, curly hair and scrunched it so it stood out around her head.
During my interval with a very strange mirror, Madeline had been stuffed into a dress and made up like a doll. Her wrinkled nose and tightly-shut eyes as she scrunched her hair made her frustration obvious, but her morning was a placeholder for a series of occasions that came to me like the sudden recollection of a recurring dream. Whoever kept doing this to her always insisted that she go without her thick glasses because that would make her look prettier. In doing so they reduced Madeline’s world to a myopic blur.
Unlike the oddly intimate word chatoyance that had repeated in my mind, Madeline’s experience was completely out of place in my head. I was not psionic. I was observant of my surroundings, but that was all. I hadn’t even registered minimal ability on the PStandard and Aroyo Ira never let me forget it.
Either my sanity was gone for good or I had caught a glimpse of the cogs in the machine.
Madeline produced a pair of glasses and shoved them onto her face. While her eyes were distorted by the thick lenses, her expression itself was focused. A competent expression was much more attractive to me than a vacant one, but that was beside the point. I did not know her, I could not remember her, and I did not need yet another person feeding me my lines. I needed to get away from these people and reclaim my Chronochassis. Maybe without the pressure to see what the others saw I could understand what was going on.
* * *
I turned and pushed my way through the scrubby pine trees. The distorted voices of the others rose in alarm, and I picked up speed, glancing around for the glimmer of my ten-pointed star on the ground or tangled among the clumps of small, bright berries. My boots skidded on what felt like loose gravel, and my horizon abruptly expanded into empty air.
Too late, I saw that the retaining wall was gone and the asphalt had crumbled to chunks held together with rebar and grass. Whippy branches slithered through my hand. I fell outward in a cloud of dead pine needles and small stones.
I hit the concrete below and rolled over with a burst of pain so intense that jagged blue-white lines etched themselves across the sky overhead. High-pitched ringing filled my ears. I thought I was seeing time crack apart to show me the crazy-making force outside it before the catastrophe localized itself to my body, specifically to the arm I’d used to break my fall. It was twisted palm-out and remained that way despite an abortive attempt to right it.
The return of the ringing in my ears convinced me I would not use that arm any time soon. I was lucky to have survived my attempt to break free from the party: a fall from that height should have broken my back, not my arm. The physics of the world were wrong, the injury was wrong, but I still had to grit my teeth and deal with the aftermath.
I would have realized the truth of the situation sooner if I’d trusted the evidence of my own eyes instead of allowing the shades of people I knew to pull me into their story. I had met the architect of this world, but it took landing outside the narrative for me to see it.
Dandelion seeds drifted across my field of vision. I turned my head on the hot concrete and traced the floating seeds back to the strip of grass in front of a row of narrow, peaked houses opposite the overpass.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Ada Fetters