Either the universe was attempting to drive me crazy or I was already out of my gourd. Somehow, an overnight camping trip had turned into a complete break with reality. A red-gold sun rose from the west in a tawny haze, glossing the blue grass of the highlands with a violet tint. Purple prairie dogs chittered in panic, running from camp as I stirred.
At least scantily clad barbarian babes on furry lizards hadn't yet showed up for tea and trail-mix.
I had no idea where I was or how I'd come here but I knew there were answers on this planet, somewhere. Anger began to crowd out the bewilderment I felt. I welcomed it for the focus it lent me. Some power had brought me here during my previous nights sleep. I needed to track it down so I could go home.
I returned to my dome tent and threw back the door flap. Inside, I gathered my windbreaker, canteen, backpack, and lingered over an old mason jar that was lined with paper, holding an Earth-type assortment of twigs and grass. There were fireflies inside that I'd caught the night before, making a sort of magic lantern.
I decided to set the fireflies free in the high grass outside, no use hauling them across the face of an unknown world. They'd probably like it here on the far side of nowhere. I turned and stepped back out. A tingle danced through my limbs, leaving paralysis behind. I was helpless though I desperately fought, straining mightily to move something. Anything. Nothing.
A golden blast of light flooded my eyes. When they cleared, I saw three bald-headed men in silvery suits fading in from nowhere. They carried complex devices that flashed and thrummed, tinting their chalky flesh green. They were mute--never breaking their austere silence, coordinating without word or gesture, only locking glances now and again. It had to be telepathy they were all tuned to the same station. I didn't have a psychic bone in my body, but I thought that if I cleared my mind of all background emotions, they might pickup my thoughts and talk to me. I thought it worth the effort. I concentrated for minutes. Finally, one of them heaved a tremendous sigh of irritation and turned toward me. His thoughts slashed into my brain.
Listen, Jeffrey MacDonald of Salem, Oregon. We have no wish to touch thoughts with you. We are here on a vital mission with countless realities dangling in the balance. A wave of dissolution is spreading across all contiuums. Unless we find the key element that has triggered the cascade…
It's me, I told him. I'm not supposed to be here, out of my world. I'm the anomaly. Send me back.
The Quantum Engineer stepped up to me. He waved his device before my frozen face and studied the readings. No, it's not you, he thought. Your absence from your own dimension has not affected it or any other. You are just not that important. I'm sorry. The thought contained no hint of regret.
Can't you send me back anyway? This is not my world.
That would be a gross violation of regulations. Non-authorized personnel may not be temporally or spatially translated without the proper permits, filed in triplicate, and affixed with the prerequisite stamps. It would set…too dangerous a precedent. However…
He dropped the scanner to the jar of fireflies that I held and became rigid with excitement. His thoughts spiked across the camp, drawing the others. I've found it…the trigger-element. He pulled the jar from my clenched fingers. Here is the contraband. Hmmmm. These insects have been mutated by toxic waste. They’re emitting an unknown type of energy as well as light. They appear to be feeding on time-space itself.
Well, that explained how I got here; the bugs did it.
The silver dude reached a quick decision. We must get these back to their reality before the omni-verse is irreparably damaged.And just like that, they were gone; taking my fireflies and leaving me trapped on this nameless world. The only consolation I could find was that at least the fate of uncounted civilizations no longer hung in extra-cosmic peril. Feeling returned to my body. I fell on my face and twitched in place a few minutes until a found the strength to climb to my feet and thrust outraged despair from my heart.
Eventually, having nothing else to do, I picked up my backpack, tied on the bedroll, then collapsed and packed the tent. My water bottle rode in its holster on my hip, opposite my Bushmaster, omni-purpose, belt knife with its built-in compass and hollow hilt, where I kept matches, hooks, and fishing line. People had survived with far less, I reminded myself.
I decided to journey west, into the wind. This way, I wouldn't advertise my coming to predators or prey. If something wanted me dead, it would just have to cross my trail and go to the trouble of stalking me. I owed myself this much.
I slipped on a pair of sunglasses and moved out. The day began to drag as I fell into a monotonous rhythm of plodding. Under the theory that time would pass faster if I ignored it, I set my mind adrift, clearing it of thought as I'd been taught in my weekly, Kung-Fu class. So far, I had mastered three kicks and a couple stances. In a decade or two, my teacher had assured me I’d get somewhere.
As the sun seemed to reach its zenith, I paused for a break. I pulled my windbreaker off and tied it around my waste. A warm wind kissed my skin, rippling my sweat-stained T-shirt as I dumped my pack on the ground and sat on it. I freed my canteen and drank just enough to moisten my mouth and tease my throat. Having yet to find a river, I had to make my supply last as long as possible.
As I set the canteen back on my belt, an arrow bit the ground between my feet. The miss was obvious. If someone wanted me dead, that arrow would have thudded home and I’d be freakin’ screaming my head off. Resisting the urge to pee my pants, I decided that the best course of action was to brazen this out. The arrow implied a primitive culture and primitive cultures were known to respect bravery. That didn't mean that they wouldn't kill me eventually, just that I'd be honored while I lasted, before someone ripped out my heart and drank its blood to gain additional strength and courage.
I stood slowly and eased my pack into place while scanning the tall grass for signs of movement. They came; I found myself surrounded. Kneeling mounts climbed to their feet and their riders swung up, out of concealment, into simple leather saddles. There were six of them in all; women mounted on sky-colored beasts. The animals were reminiscent of llamas that were found of steroids and power lifting.
As the riders closed in, the inescapable conviction stole over me that I had become a prisoner in a Frank Frazetta illustration. The women were all breathtakingly beautiful and barbaric, scantily clad and armed with knives and bows. There was uniformity to them, the same pale-moon coloration, raven-black hair, and smoldering, blue eyes. Being but a mere man, I could not help noticing that none of the ladies were breast-challenged--centerfold material all. An old line from an Eagles song drifted through my mind: this could be heaven or this could be hell. I didn't know which, but I had the feeling I would soon find out.
The apparent leader of the group made a careful study of me. She laughed and turned to address the others. I expected to hear some guttural jabber but she spoke clear English, just like every exotic, alien woman I'd ever seen in a Star Trek rerun. Here was another mystery to solve.
"He's small," the lead rider commented. "Should we throw him back?"
"Do we really need another mouth to feed?"
"I don't know," another added. "I think he's kinda cute, for being outlander scum and all that."
The leader nudged her beast in the ribs and it advanced a few steps. She caught my eyes with her proud stare. "I will say one thing for you; you've got nerve, for a man. I half expected you to burst into hysterics when my shaft landed at your feet."
"Give me a minute," I said. "I still might."
She burst into laughter then extended a slim arm toward me. "I doubt it. Come on. We can't have men runnin' loose in the wild."
Our forearms locked as we gripped each other just short of the elbow. There was a great deal more power packed into her sensational body than I would have credited. In a moment, I found myself jerked into the air and spun around to land beside her on the back of the beast. I made a mental note not to make her mad at me.
"What is your name, outlander?"
Jeffery. You can call me Jeff."
"I am Unna, chieftain’s daughter." She patted her mount.
"This is Windchaser." It spat rudely and I dodged a foamy stream of spittle. Unna laughed, finding this a lot more entertaining than I did.
"Uh, what kind of creature is that," I asked?
"Have you no gohrras where you come from, Jeff?"
"No, not exactly."
"There are few that can match our breeds. Our clan has been perfecting these bloodlines for generations. Our ghorras are the strongest and swiftest in the plains. The far-clans come from the eastern reaches to obtain even our second best. The best, we do not sell."
"This must make your people very strong," I said.
"It is so," she answered, kicking Windchaser into motion. The other riders fell in behind us. "In all the world, we are respected, though not the most feared."
"And who is the most feared," I had to ask?
"You must come from a distant place not to know of the Dark Ones who steep themselves in the vilest of sorceries. Their evil is a stain on the land, a terror that spreads far from the cliffs of blood. If they were not so few, they would hold the whole world in an iron fist."
This sounded promising. Unna's people didn't have the means to get me home. That only left these Dark Ones. Whether true sorcerers or masters of an advanced science, they had power. I had to check them out.
As we rode along, I mastered the art of not falling off. Thankfully, the gohrras kept a smooth, even pace over the broken terrain. Still, I was using my legs in a new way. I knew I'd be in real pain soon.
I distracted myself from discomfort by drawing Unna out about her people and their customs. I learned that her people gave birth to few male children that were prized, protected, and allowed the run of the camp, but not allowed to leave it. Mature males were considered communal property and had little official say about what went on, though they were not without influence.
We reached the outskirts of the camp and Unna closed the last stretch of the journey at full gallop. I held on to her for dear life, sensing that all was not well. Ahead of us, several runnels of thick, sulfurous smoke crawled against the wind, hanging like golden tears in the weave of space.
"What's wrong," I shouted. I never got an answer. Unna rode before me in complete silence, absorbed by her fears. We topped a rise and descended into a shallow valley that was littered with hundreds of dead bodies. They lay everywhere, discolored blue, collapsed in the midst of their daily routine.
No one was armed. There were no spent shafts lying around. There was no evidence of anyone else's dead. The tents and wagons were still intact. There were no signs of battle at all. It was as if everyone had simply died in mid-step while going about their business. The smoke plumes rose from a bubbling cluster of hot springs.
Among the human bodies were the bodies of gohrras and other domesticated animals. There was only one thing I didn't see; the bodies of children. They were missing. The riders were grief-stricken but controlled. Their eyes were hard, and pitiless though brimming with tears. They held themselves in a fragile stillness with bloodless faces tight masks of tethered fury. Later, after the missing children were found, they'd have time to mourn. Not now. There was too much to do.
Unna spat as if some foul taste were in her mouth. "I knew something was wrong when there were no sentries hailing us. This is the work of the Dark Ones. They will pay. Blood calls for blood."
"Let's go," the rider named Morrna spoke!
"Not yet," Unna answered. "The Dark Ones will not harm our children on the march. They want them at the cliffs, victims for their vile appetites. The children will be safe for a while. Before following, we must build a pyre for our murdered people to keep their spirits from wandering the night forever.”
I took several experimental steps that swung me around to…stare death in the face. "Don't you think you should deal with that first," I asked?
They swung their heads to where I was pointing. The yellow clouds had turned, curving earthward as if directed by some strange intelligence. They had the look of bloated, monster worms from some nameless hell with red eyes and gaping maws that yawned wide.
"Things of sorcery, damn the luck. We need a shaman for this," Unna said.
"You got one handy?" I asked.
"So what do we do?"
It was a good plan, but it failed. I took a step and then…an electric tingle went through me. I couldn't budge. My muscles locked in paralysis and a golden light arrived. They were back. Three chalk-faced men in silver suits faded in. Bald and anemic, they waved flashing thrumming instruments around. They didn't seem to find what they wanted.
In frustration, one of them ambled over to me, glaring reproach. Jeffrey MacDonald, of Salem, Oregon. You must give them back to us. This game of yours endangers the skein of time and space. Have you no conscious? Have you no shame?
I would have shrugged if I could. What did these jokers want from me? They’d taken the stinkin' fireflies already. I had more important business at hand. The yellow smoke was much closer. One of the things was angling my way, grinning like an ape, and there was nothing I could do about it.
But I had forgotten a very important fact about most predators. They often have superior image resolution, but still see in shades of gray, tending to locate their prey by tracking movement. I’d had a cat once that would chase paper wads I’d toss, but ignore them once they stopped. I’d have to flick them into motion so he’d pounce and smack the holy crap out of them again. At the moment, the only things moving were the Quantum Engineers. They realized their danger too late.
The demon clouds attacked and the engineers fanned them with jade rays. Incompatible energies met, rending time and space, the mystic equivalent of a matter-anti-matter explosion. The Engineers imploded into collapsing dimensions as the cloud solidified into a rain of glassy-eyed yellow frogs.
The paralysis ended. Once more, I fell on my face--free.
I shall haze over the following days and nights as they pretty much were filled with tedious riding that toughened my butt until I became an almost adequate rider. And I can't say that I complained much when the women used me to assuage their grief in the cold of the night. I did what any man in my position would have done; I suffered their voracious appetites stoically, getting little rest.
The time came when we reached the red cliffs of the dark ones. We followed their tracks to a cavern system with a thousand ways in and out. The gals took out a couple sentries with little bother. Apparently, it had been quite a while since anyone had willing sought out the Dark Ones; they’d grown complacent and sloppy—-which didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous.
I borrowed a robe and put it on. Unna followed my example, and we led the party into the cold bowels of the earth. Our disguises let us get the jump on a couple more stranglers. Soon, four of us were camouflaged with the rest hanging back a bit, skulking in the shadows. I carried a torch I’d pulled off a wall.
Finding our way to the children proved easy. We followed the sound of chanting. It grew louder and louder, guiding us to a natural cathedral with a roof covered with inverted limestone spires. At the center of the space was a ring of robed men. They controlled the children with leashes, facing into the center where a blood-encrusted altar waited. The great rectangular stone had deep grooves carved in it. The channels were designed to draw fresh-spilt blood off the altar to a hex carved in the rock floor.
On my world, the pattern would probably have been a pentagram or maybe some other kind of star shape with mystical significance. Here, they used a diamond within a square that gave birth to four cardinal point triangles. I didn’t know if this referenced the four winds or the four corners of the world. It wasn’t really important. The main thing was, we’d gotten here just in time.
As the four of us in robes worked through the crowd, keeping our face covered, the first sacrifice was tossed struggling onto the gore-splattered altar. One of the Dark Ones threw back his hood, revealing a shaved head and deep-set eyes. He grinned silently, doing a descent impression of a skull. An opening in his robes showed a bare chest and a necklace made of black claws.
He chanted as he lifted an obsidian knife high over his head. The thing had the look having ended many lives, and the large crystal in the pommel glowered with a sour lemon light. The weapon radiated an aura that stirred primal fears in my heart.
Another of the mad priests stood beside a coal-filled brazier. He dipped his hand into a red pouch and withdrew a palm full of yellow powder. The chanting swelled, gaining strength. The powder went into the fire, producing a small WHUMP sound and a pale sulfurous cloud. The hazy air told me that this burning had been going on for a while.
Those closest to the brazier were swaying hypnotically, lost in some private reality I didn’t want to share. Even those further away were slurring incomprehensible words-—unless they were supposed to sound like that. I kept my breathing shallow, knowing that I couldn’t waste time. Obviously, some dangerous narcotic was being used, possibly an opiate. The sooner we got this rescue accomplished, the better.
Unna went toward the brazier. I sensed that she intended to over turn the thing, maybe setting a few Dark Ones on fire; just the distraction we needed. With two of the woman, I hastened toward the High Muckity-Muck. No one seemed to find it odd that we were approaching. I attributed our success to the fact that everyone was pretty well buzzed. I was glad to take any advantage that offered itself; we were still badly out numbered, even with our reinforcements hanging back out of sight.
The two ladies with me broke off to get near the captive children, leaving the one on the altar to me. The high priest glared at me for spoiling his big moment as I reached him. I smacked his face with my torch and sent him reeling back with a burnt and shattered nose. Dropping the torch, I scooped a terrified little boy off the altar, tossing him over a shoulder while throwing back my hood to see better.
Those I’d waded through stared at me for a moment in blank incomprehension. Their confusion deepened as a rain of burning coals fell over them, igniting their robes. The strange powder sprinkled over the coals acted as an accellerant. The rest of our company chose that moment to attack the back of the crowd. Writhing, flaming bodies hemmed me in.
I scrambled atop the altar to better survey the chaos, and noticed that the rest of children were headed away, toward the surface. In fact only the kid and I were in immediate peril.
But I hadn’t counted on the panicking crispy critters trampling each other atop their own hex sign, release fresh blood and lifeforce into the mix. The smoky air twisted and rippled. It thickened like congealing amber, taking on substance. What’s this, I wondered, another demon taking shape?
The high priest almost caught me unaware, leaping up, lunging in from the side with that weird dagger of his. Bending my knees, leaning back, I avoided a slash across my throat. After collapsing onto the altar, I rolled onto my side and I fired off a kick into the Dark One’s private parts.
When the kid I held suddenly stopped squirming, going slack, I realized that I had inadvertently stunned him with a knock to his head. Well, I’d never said I was experienced at this do-gooder stuff. The little guy should just be glad he was still alive. That was more than the high priest had going for him. He doubled over, and I snatched the knife from his hand, using the blade to puncture his heart. I shoved him away to die elsewhere, and dragged myself upright again.
That’s when I noticed that the demon thing hung in a hole in the very fabric of space, with most of its vast bulk elsewhere. Its long fuzzy arms ended in scythes that swept through the Dark Ones, carving them into bloody chunks and flipping body parts up into its gaping maw. The thing was hungry. Things had just gone from awful to incredibly awful.
I yielded to stupidity, knowing that intelligent fear might prevent me from acting and saving myself. I leaped from the altar, over fallen charred corpses, dodged a swipe from the demon thing, and flung the ceremonial knife into the roof of its mouth. The blade pierced its sinus cavity and lodged in its brain. The creature shrieked like a steam whistle, falling back into its hole.
It died on its feet, coils, whatever, and the yellow stone on the knife exploded with a searing incandescence that blinded me. I kept running, hoping I was going the right way. I bounced into someone who was just a blur and came away with something cylindrical in my hands. Miraculously, I kept my feet moving, carrying me on. In the back of my head, a voice kept telling me to haul my butt out of there. I obeyed.
My eyes cleared and I debated stopping for a nervous breakdown; the caves were no longer around me. Instead, I was in a chamber filled with high tech equipment and more of the silver guys. And in my hands, I held the firefly jar once again. Apparently, I’d taken it from these guys after all; just not at the time they’d accused me of it. The demon portal must have shifted me temporally as well as spatially. It was the only explanation that seemed to cover the facts. The energy released by the dying demon must have destabilized the tear in space, and imploding, it had dragged me in here.
I can tell you, I was beginning to feel more than a little like the pinball of the gods.
I broke out of a hallway, through an open arch, into a courtyard ringed by monolithic towers. A vast metropolis sprawled away. A monorail sped by along the crest of the builds, glinting in the light of a giant red setting sun. I stopped dead in my tracks, frozen by reality that subsumed my own. What was the point of running? Where did I think I was going in this world?
I decided to return to the silver guys, give them the damned fireflies and the kid. We’d all probably get sent back to our respective homes. Sure, they’d wanted to leave me on Unna’s world before, but I doubted they’d put up with me being here, especially with my propensity for attracting disaster.
The kid on my shoulder was squirming again. I set him on his feet and he promptly kicked my shin. Hopping on one leg, clutching my wound, the firefly jar fell. It shattered and the insects swirled up into the air, free. I tried to snag some of them but was hugely unsuccessful. They fled, dwindling like lost hope. Now, I’d be luck if the silver guys didn’t ray blast me out of my socks.
Grimly, I revised my plans. I scooped up the kid once more and ran back into the building I’d just left. The demon portal might not yet be completely closed. Maybe, if I found the right spot, I could get back to Unna’s world. If I wasted much more time, that option might be lost.
This time, the room I’d come through was filled with the silver dudes. They consulted their machinery and readouts with a high degree of agitation in their body language, not even realizing that I was back until I hit a flickering waver in the air. I prayed that the third time would be the charm.
My plan nearly worked. I got out of the high-tech world, but didn’t really go anywhere, caught in some kind of inter-dimensional limbo. It was dark as a black hole’s gullet until… A small pulse of light bloomed on my chest. One of the fireflies clung there, offering me courage with its feeble glow.
I don’t know how long I drifted in nothingness. My time sense elongated. It seemed like hours, but mere minutes might have passed. Then a current came. The firefly dwindled into the distance, a tiny star I soon lost track of.
The kid and I were flung headlong into an opening iris of yellow light. The next thing I knew, Unna was there, picking me up, crushing me to her spectacular bosom. The other girls were finishing off the last of the Dark Ones, leaving only a minor priest.
I later learned that he’d been forced to reopen the demon gate and get me back. Unna had promised him his life for this service. She smiled sweetly as she snapped his scrawny neck with a brittle CRACK. Unna had lied.
We left the caverns and reclaimed our gohrras. Riding toward the prairie once more, my hands shook from the adrenaline still in my system. I drew deep centering breaths, feeling the weight of immanent doom still breathing down my neck. Unna noticed my brooding.
“We have won our battle and slain the vile ones, Jeff. Are you not pleased?”
“Well, sure. That’s all good stuff. But I’m just wondering if the silver guys were right. We can’t see it yet, but there’s a good chance that countless infinite realities out there are dying one by one because of me!”
She shrugged. “So what? Everything dies eventually. My people call it the circle of strife. Death brings forth life which brings forth death which brings forth…’
“Yeah, I get it,” I said. “You’re saying don’t worry, be happy, because I can’t fix it anyway.” Strangely, my heart did grow lighter. Even if the omni-verse were going down the drain a piece at a time, I had this moment and possibly days more, maybe years. How much time is required for an infinite array of universes to implode? How many angels can dance on the head of a ball-point pen? They were questions my children’s children might discover long after I was dust.
Unna reached over and took my hand. A lusty gleam hung in her eyes as she leered at me. “I know a way to make you feel better, but we must wait until tonight, until the children are asleep.”
“Well, sure. I’m up for that. There’s time,” I prayed that it were true .