1979, Northeast, MD
Elesea moved with silent swiftness, following the faded outline of the vehicle that held her target. Her loose fitting pants and tunic left freedom for movement. The lack of wind or air prevented the light grey fabric from the sound of rustling as she moved.
Through the veil, the car was almost invisible, but stood out against the still trees it passed by. Elsesea feared the vehicle would change pace at any moment. The relative change in size and space between Midian and Reality was not consistent. Currently, Elesea could run through Midian and keep pace with the vehicle speeding along the highway in Reality. At any moment, proportions could change, but for this particular stretch of land it was fairly simple.
The Architect had impressed upon her the importance of following the driver of the car, Suzanna, on her journey back to Baltimore. He’d made it clear her mission would require the assistance of others, that this was beyond her ability to complete alone. He’d said the involvement of others she trusted should occur before she crossed the river into Havre de Grace, but nothing more.
“The Harbor of Grace. That’s a great name for a place. Somehow I don’t think that this will be as peaceful as it sounds. Otherwise I wouldn’t need help,” Elesea mumbled to herself as she jumpped a stump, struggling to navigate the terrain of Midian and watch the car in Reality.
Bashi sighed loudly. He rolled his eyes and glared at Hyoi.
“Your patience is commendable,” Hyoi said, not looking at his partner.
Bashi spoke through a yawn. “Hyoi, this is crazy. The Architect is a myth, a bedtime story. No one talks to bedtime stories. I think Elesea may be a little touched in the head. This is crazy.”
“I trust her.”
“Everyone can be trusted until they show that they can’t be. I was chatting with Reality’s Easter Bunny yesterday. He said there’s amazing coffee in the land of Seattle we should try. Don’t worry, you can trust me.”
Hyoi did not reply.
“What exactly did she say?”
“She said that she was bringing someone to meet us. Someone in whom we would find a common mind. She also said that she believed that our help would be needed.”
“And she said that we were supposed to be standing on this particular hill, next to a river, at dusk, waiting for her to show up? There are a lot question marks. I don’t like it.”
Hyoi again did not reply. He kept his eye focused on the horizon.
“Are you sure this is the place?”
“She said that she would be along after sunset.”
“Why are we hiding in the trees?”
Hyoi did not respond.
Bashi dropped into a cross leg sitting position, sweeping the swords at his waist behind him as he crashed to the ground.
“Bashi, you cannot see through the trees if you are sitting down,” Hyoi said annoyed, still not breaking his focus on the horizon.
“I don’t need to see, you have lookout. Let me know if you see anything OTHER than Elesea coming down the road.”
“She will be with someone.”
“I have a theory. You want to hear it?”
Hyoi did not respond.
“Good. My theory is that the real reason we’re here, the truth of the matter is, the facts are – you don’t believe in the Architect either. Rather, you are smitten with Elesea. That’s why we’re here. You have a crush.”
“Any feelings that I may or may not have are not impacting my judgement.”
“Hyoi and Elesea, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” Bashi said, playing with a pebble in the dirt.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious who she is bringing?”
“A little. But very little. I don’t like it here. Something feels wrong.”
“If you don’t want to wait with me, then leave.”
Bashi laughed. “And leave you by yourself? Who’s going to look after you?” They had been a team longer than many Malacandrians had survived one cycle of living. They knew each other enough to know that neither would ever be alone.
Hyoi pointed off into the distance at a pale glow moving through the valley. “That’s got to be her.”
His orders were specific. Stop the driver of the car before the car made it past the river. He didn’t know why, he didn’t need to. He had been given a specific instruction that he should end the human’s existence. With a smirk Mander mumbled to himself, “Ours is not to reason why…something, something, something.”
He stood on a hilltop across the Susquehanna River from where Hyoi and Bashi were waiting. In Midian he hadn’t seen them hidden behind the trees. Now in Reality they were visible. He was focused on the distant movement in the dark. A lone vehicle cruising along the road as it twisted through the rolling countryside.
He had practiced remaining in Reality for many years. Even still, the nostomonia, the pull to return to Midian grew exponentially the longer he stayed. Still, at times it would reach to the a level of strong distraction.
He shook his head to clear the growing fog. From the corner of his eye he saw what he needed to disguise the elimination of the target as an accident.
Squeeaaak, thump; squeak, thump.
Sue turned off the wipers as they rubbed against the parched windshield. The road was finally dry after leaving Philadelphia ninety minutes ago in the middle of a downpour.
The rain had been just one thing on her list of concerns. It was late, after ten. The defroster had been fighting to keep the windows free of fog the entire drive. She had the seat pushed back to leave room for her seven month baby bump, which meant uncomfortably stretching to reach the steering wheel.
“At least the traffic is fairly light,” she through to herself. Every so often headlights would appear in her rear view mirror, and after a few minutes would pass her in the fast lane. Lights from traffic travelling north on interstate 95 would wink into view briefly before passing by on the other side of the median.
“It’s been a peaceful drive,” she thought, assuring herself. The Delaware radio station that faded in and out was playing a James Taylor song.
She sang along, drumming on the wheel. “I just want to stop (stop) just to thank you baby, I just want to stop (stop) to thank you baby, how sweet it is to be loved by you.”
At this rate, she would be home by midnight.
The truck sped down the highway toward the long bridge, and didn’t show any sign of slowing.
Mander ran down the hill and began to calculate the gyrations necessary to get inside to cab of the tractor trailer. Matching pace with the tractor trailer in Midian, he looked forward, and estimated where the driver side door would be when he jumped. He focused his energy at a specific space in time that, when opened, would allow him passage across the Veil to where the truck was.
This was something that Mander had been practicing. Few could cross the Veil, even with the help of a Lamina. As far as he knew, he was the only creature that could cross the Veil at will. “Spend enough time with the Tinker and it is incredible what one can learn,” he thought to himself.
Ahead of him, there was a brief blink of light and a ripple in the air. As the truck neared the narrowing of the road, before crossing onto the steel grate transition to the bridge, Mander took two long strides and jumped toward the driver and steering wheel.
The truck driver let out a startled yell. In the small space between his arms and the door there was an abrupt change in the air. A chill sent goose bumps up his arm, and he was knocked sideways across the seat of the truck as Mander struck with full force.
Tires squealed as the truck swerved sideways before Mander could regain control. The side of the truck scraped along the guard rail before righting itself to the center of the two lanes on the bridge.
The driver wore a navy blue button up shirt with “Troy” embroidered above the left pocket. Mander looked at him with an evil grin, displaying his pointed teeth. “Troy is it?? Troy, you should leave.”
Troy attempted a reply, “No way in he-!”
Mander let go of the wheel, reached across, opened the passenger side door, and pushed with enough force to send Troy sailing out of the opening, and over the guard rail. Troy splashed into the river below. The truck jumped the curb and scrapped along the guard rail again. Mander left the passenger door swinging and slamming back and forth, and regained control of the truck.
Interstate 95 was busier than she’d expected. She passed the rest area that occupied an open space between the two strips of highway. Cars and trucks appeared in the opposite lanes every minute or so. Headlights blinked in and out of the rear view mirror, momentarily blinding her vision. She drove under the sign that read “T. J. Hatem Bridge ½ mile”. A glance into the rear view mirror showed a large car or van alone in the distance. Other than that, she was alone again.
Then, suddenly, the high beams of a tractor trailer in the oncoming traffic blasted light into her eyes. She held her hand up to shade against the glare. The headlights began to swerve and then dropped abruptly.
It took her a moment to comprehend that the tractor and trailer was pointing directly toward her, breaking into the grassy median and dropping into the dip in the middle. Pain stabbed her heart as panic filled her veins.
“Should we head into the valley?”
“No, not yet. We will wait for Elesea to get closer.”
“She is close enough, Hyoi.” Bashi waved his arm, the dark grey sleeve accenting his gesture.
The blurred movement that was Elsea kept speeding up and slowing down, shifting side to side to stay in a particular spot, relative to the transparent vehicle below.
And then she was gone.
“Did she just jumped into Reality!?” Hyoi said with shock.
“If she just crossed… This is going to break so many rules. This is bad. This is really bad.”
Her eyes locked on the truck with shock.
The truck tore through the median, the bumper ripping up grass and dirt, scattering it across the road and into Suzanne’s car. She crushed the pedal and sped forward, hoping to pass by before it crushed her.
Following the clods of green and brown, the nose of the tractor bounced up and out of the ditch. She could read the words “Peterbilt” clearly as everything shifted into an adrenaline induced slow motion.
Elesea saw the truck cross the median and made the next move without consideration. She pulled the coin from a hidden pocket and tossed it in front of her.
Lamina were rare, but this coin had been handed to her, pressed into her hand by a short creature in a dark brown cloak. She’d attempted to follow him, but after turning a few corners, he was impossible to find.
She watched the coin land and focused her jump to place her squarely in the middle of the growing round portal that had torn the air open in front of her.
The jump through the Veil had been timed perfectly. She’d landed inside the passenger seat next to where Sue was frantically trying to avoid being crushed by the oncoming sixty thousand pounds of metal.
Elesea threw her arms around Sue as the tractor smashed into the rear panel of the car. Debris flew everywhere. The sound of tearing metal and crumpling plastic was deafening. The car spun, sliding toward the shoulder and away from the incoming trailer. Finally, it stopped with a jolt when the front end smashed against a guard rail post, setting the horn to a continuous blare.
The truck tires caught on the ground and squealed on the pavement, bringing the tractor to a halt. The sudden stop blew out the tires on the cab and trailer, tipping the load sideways. The diamond shaped warning on the side of the tank read “Extremely Flammable.” It landed on the road. Liquid spewed from gaps torn in the side.
She jumped through the smashed windshield and ran toward the truck as the driver climbed up through the passenger side door, now open to the night sky. The driver lightly sprang to the ground and landed with a splash in the growing pool of liquid on the road.
Her left hand reached across and drew a long dagger sheathed to her side. Her right hand grabbed the hilt of a sword that was strapped to her back.
Sue began to refocus. Muddled, her head pounding with pain and fear, she picked up details, like pictures being flashed before her eyes. The back of her car lying spread across the road. Axles. tires, chunks of mangled frame.
The license plate still attached to the bumper, the bumper rocking back and forth in the fast lane, bumping up against the tanker.
The van that was once in the distance behind her, now rambled slowly through the grassy median to get around the tractor and fuel tank it had been towing.
The cab of the tractor was tipped over. Black fuel gushed from its tank. The liquid flowed across the road, and mixed with the liquid gushing from the belly of the tanker trailer, rushing closer to meet the gasoline that gurgled from the fuel tank of her own car. She noticed the truck driver pop up from door the sideways truck and land on the ground, seeming untouched by the crash.
She couldn’t move. The steering wheel was pressed up tight to her chest. She tried to reach the seat belt, but she couldn’t wriggle her hand between the steering wheel and her pregnant stomach to release it. The door was jammed shut, the handle wouldn’t release.
She looked again to where the driver of the truck had been, but instead of running away, he had stopped. She could see that he was standing still. Cast in shadow, his features were blacked out. Another figure walked slowly away from her and toward him.
Mander’s head shifted to watch the van screech to a stop as the three passenger jumped from inside.
The good Samaritans ran fearlessly toward the car, feet splashing in the fuel that had now covered all three lanes of road and the shoulders beyond.
“Elesea, this is not meant for you,” he said, coldly. He dropped his hand to his side, releasing a small object, and a flame shot up from the pavement. In a flash, exploding fire leapt in all directions at once.
Without hesitation, Hyoi and Bashi exploded into action.
The tanker truck had just veered to the left and crossed into the grass strip between the lanes. Elesea had obviously seen the same and moved into Reality to somehow intervene in the crash.
The partners sprinted down the hill. Bashi’s hand flicked forward and the air shimmered in front of them, allowing them to effortlessly pass through the Veil and into Reality.
“Remind me to ask where you found a Lamina!” Hyoi yelled. Without another word they split up, Hyoi moving to the right toward Elesea, Bashi running toward the car resting at the side of the road.
Hyoi heard a voice speaking to Elesea a brief moment before the entire scene erupted in an explosion of flame. Hyoi had just reached the edge of the road when the driver of the truck jumped backward and vanished. He watched as his friend Elesea seemed to lift briefly into the air and fall again to the pavement. She flared into a brief flicker of bright flame before disintegrating. Hyoi screamed in pain, but there was nothing to be done.
The fire flashed backward and took the tractor trailer in a blinding explosion. It shot under the three passengers of the van, immediately consuming them and continued onto the van where the explosion lifted it into the air and set it back down with a shattering of screeching metal.
The inferno raced across the road toward her.
Sue’s head clearing, she was able to take in several events at once. The driver vanished. The female figure walking toward the driver was consumed in an instant. There was another figure at the edge of the road that seemed taken with surprise and grief as he crouched to protect himself from the heat. The three people from the van had also been taken suddenly in flames. They were writhing on the ground, screaming in pain, their bodies melting into black ash.
Sue struggled again against the seat belt and the handle of the car door. A glimmer of light from the corner of her eye slid between her shoulder and the seat belt and cut it free. A second flash of light sent the car door spinning through the air. After that, she remembered only the blinding glow from an engulfing explosion, and the safety of a cool shadow.
Bashi had arrived at the car to find the woman in the front seat, held fast by the seat belt and pressed tight against the steering wheel, struggling to break free. Without thinking, he drew a short sabre and slashed the belt with a precise stab, never touching the woman.
A surge of heat and sound covered them both. He reached forward and yanked at the door with every bit of strength he could exert.
Hyoi and Bashi stood again on the same hill where they had waited just moments before, but this time in Reality, fighting the effects of the nostomonia. They wouldn’t leave until they were sure that the person that Elesea had been trying to protect would remain safe. They would investigate why later.
Bashi tried to catch his breath. His light blue pants made of loose fitting cloth that tied at the waist and stopped just below the ankle, smoldered at the hem. The shirt was one piece of thin cloth that hung loosely in tatters to just below the waist. The short sleeves were baggy and frayed at the edges with marks of char and dirt stains.
Hyoi’s eyes were filled with tears. He stood, silent.
Bashi looked at him, troubled by the emotion that his stoic friend normally portrayed. “What is it, Hyoi?”
“Elesea,” he whispered softly.
“You know even now, she is beginning again in Malacandra.”
“Bashi.” He paused and took a deep breath to cleanse his thoughts. “Outside of you, she understood me more than any other. We were much closer than friends. She will never be the same that she was.”
“I’m sorry, Hyoi. I didn’t know.”
“I know. I never told you. I felt it was a sign of weakness to… To embrace another. So human. We spend to much time here.”
A black 1970 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight with white walls pulled up at the edge of the flares and cones that blocked the wreckage and the roadway. A stocky man with a receding hairline pushed open the door of the car. His white hair could barely be seen above the roof of the large vehicle.
Wearing faded jeans and a tattered shirt, walked with slow deliberation toward Sue, who sat at the back of an ambulance. He paused to pick a small object, examined it, and then continued to walk across to her. She was leaned forward, her hands around her belly. Her eyes were closed. The stranger was unsure if she was awake or asleep. Reaching her, he leaned in, and spoke into her ear. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and showed her something. From their perch, Bashi couldn’t tell what.
The woman stood. She and the stranger walked back to his car, together.
Hyoi sighed, “She is safe, we can return.”
“I don’t have the Lamina. We can’t get back home.”
Hyoi stood in silence, feeling even weaker than he had a moment ago. “This is why the coins are kept secret. They are dangerous.”
“Where is it?”
“At the edge of the road in the burnt grass. Actually, I think that man with our target just picked it up.” Hyoi didn’t say any more. His face filled with concern.
The man opened the door for Sue. He closed it and turned in a circle, examining the area around them. Then he drew his arm back and threw the Lamina into the trees, directly at Hyoi and Bashi.
After crossing back into Midan, Hyoi and Bashi continued to watch the activity through the veil.
“Bashi, I think that the man that was driving the truck and started the fire, I think that he was one of us. A conculous from Malacandra.”
“You do realize how crazy that sounds, don’t you?”
“Yes, and yet I think I know who it was.”
The newspaper stated that only three people had been killed in that crash and the ensuing explosion. The reporter said in his article that Suzanne had been found after the explosion some distance from the car, and had no signs of being affected, but the area surrounding her on all sides had signs of burning and scattered pieces of charred remains from the car. The remainder of the car that hadn’t been shattered from the original impact was found upside down in the weeds beyond the guard rail, presumed to have landed there after being thrown during the explosion.
A man had shown up shortly after the wreck, clinging to a piece of drift wood. The night watch at a marina on Water Street called an ambulance, and the man was taken to Harford Memorial Hospital. Police reported that he claimed that he was thrown from the tanker truck, from the top of the bridge. Severe bruising, four broken ribs and a broken leg matched the damage that would occur from a fall of that height. He was held for psychiatric evaluation and placed on suicide watch.