Tumbling through the blackness, Jack’s hands meet something hard, and he stops.
He is curled; his intestines are scrunched up inside him like a folded piece of market meat at the back end of a slicer.
As he adjusts himself to the lack of light in whatever he’s in, wherever he is, wood grains ingratiate themselves to his face in little rice splinters of grainy annoyance.
Still, his foot feels warmer than the rest of him, so he pushes out with strangely naked toes against what he assumes is a small wooden door.
He uncollapses backward out of a series of cabinets, in a darkened room smelling of pungent, moth-eaten silk and mold. Beside the recognition of those scents, the deep flavor of decay mixed with simplicity and a spicy hint of opulence floods him instantly.
His current location is an abandoned tatami room.
But he isn’t in Japan.
He isn’t naked, either.
Jack pulls himself to his feet, getting his balance by rolling his shoulders as he notices his surroundings more and more with each needless breath.
“It’s an exercise in futility that has a meaning…” they’d always said such things at the Time Agency training course sessions… “…in order to shield your mind, to train it, you must trick yourself into the realization that you’re no longer in the waking world, and at the same time, provide an anchor there. Breadcrumbs. Use what tools you can. And above all, remember to breathe.”
His arms and body dangle a black and white striped Mokufu kimono, full of holes. He pokes his fingers through the ragged voids, noting the reddish stains there, some bright and fresh as new paint, some so dark as to be ancient. On the hem he lifts up to the dim light surrounding him, there is a little embroidered man hanging from a gnarled tree with a two-headed coin in its boughs.
All is hidden behind the stripes.
Suddenly a shadow falls over the room; the sound of slow plodding, heavy and near, echoes from everywhere.
The soft sliding of a plain shoji door into its envelope of wood.
Dragging across many doorways, as though several robbers are sacking the place and have all stopped to gaze on his lovely good looks.
A single hairy paw rounds the last sliding door.
Then a shoulder and neck. The huge head bobs back and forth at a disconcerting wobble, like the frozen ghost of a botched hanging.
It’s almost in the room.
A bedraggled… albino… furry… Ailuriform? Jack thinks, as his eyes follow the track of the other claw. There’s crusty blood everywhere, stuck to its matted fur like a layer of filth.
And oh yes, it’s dragging a naked body over the softly creaking floorboards.
A body with blue eyes.
Jack’s eyes grow so wide they dry themselves. His face stinging, he throws himself in silence about the room, clamoring for any route away from the giant panda dragging a facsimile of himself behind it.
The thing hasn’t quite seen him yet… but that Beamos head is swiveling nearer… where? WHERE?
There! He sees it… dusty, in the right upper corner of the room, partially concealed.
He bolts for it.
His feet crunch sick against the wood slats that comprise the floor.
The panda’s head flies about like a madling at the dinner bell; its fangs drip dark blood.
As it raises one great sharp-clawed paw to strike, Jack dodges the swing, falling, in his favor, closer to the neglected door and crashes against it, his fingers curling and twisting on the door catch.
It is then that he forgets to breathe.