Out of Time
It felt like something out of a dream watching her pick the tears from her eyes by dabbing it with a stained napkin. Stained because of the mascara which was rubbing off on it. She was so lifelike, so incredibly real, yet any sonic vibration would bounce right off her and reveal the truth inside. She was empty.
A footprint on the beach. Or at least that's what I thought she was, but there was something bigger behind it, something alive.
She was a moment stolen from time. A present. A memory.
"Mnemonic or eidetic? Definitely not eidetic..." I thought out loud.
She was a whisper underneath the fire. Through tears she looked at me. Somber like the last ray of morning sunlight on a cloudy day. A face like the Earth's moon: pale and somehow shivering. Her eyes grey like a clear evening. She wanted to be left alone.
"Why are you crying?" I asked and I wondered how much of me she was seeing. "Where do you think you are?"
"Lady Terrance's wake," she answered and suddenly there was movement in the booth behind me. Unintelligible voices and half-remembered conversations and people without faces. They'd all been dragged into existence, shaped by thought. There was consciousness in every atom, awareness in all matter.
The glass felt cool and clean and every surface in this world felt the same because it was made of the same stuff. Stuff dreams are made of.
The ballroom had come to life. A memory summoned into existence at the woman's whim.
"Who are you?" I asked but she had disappeared. She was sentient, that's all I could gather. She was aware of where she was, past present and future, where the glass people were merely part of the charade. And she could control it with her mind, whenever it didn't control her.
The ballroom had come to life, but sadly there was little to no dancing. They had mainly gathered in groups to talk gibberish at each other, listening to the same piece of music over and over again.
The glass people moved without walking and then a tray of cocktails nearly knocked me off my boots. A drink shattered to the floor and the very liquid within crystallized upon impact, turning to dust at my feet. The ghosts never even knew I was there. But that would soon change.
Then I found her again, almost in passing. In fancy dress once more, surrounded by a bullion of guests, schmoozing and drinking brandy and scotch in garbled conversation near fake fire.
She wasn't crying anymore, but she clung to her drink as if it was the only thing worth holding on to. She was alone in a crowd, until she saw me and she recognised me, like I knew she would.
The Forgotten listened to her stories and laughed at her jokes. Except they didn't have faces, nor any mouths to laugh with.
And I watched her and I watched everything, wondering who they were, or better yet, who they were supposed to be.
"Penny..." I gasped, while trying my best to evade the people around me.
Her name hung in golden letters from her neck and I assumed it was there for a reason. A neck adored by many. But it wasn't just her beauty that attracted the men to her, like moths to a flame, distracted by her resounding presence. There was something else about her I couldn't put my finger on just yet.
"Why this place?" I asked her. "Why these people?"
Of all places in the universe why bring this castle back to life?
And she stopped to think about it for a second, as if she hadn't thought about it in quite some time. Ages perhaps. Seconds or centuries, but probably both.
"Because it's all he knows."
It's not just a copy. It's a flawed copy. Memories are subjective, dare say biased. I was seeing whoever he thought she was seeing. Whatever he wanted to see. Wanted me to see.
The memory of this place and these people had been distorted over time, lost and forgotten, diluted, tainted, altered, like all memories are.
But never before have memories been given such presence, such physical form, before. There was a psychic connection, a link, a signal, that could lead me to the source.
Despite all her sagely sadness, she wasn't real. But what is real? Memories can't have memories. Or else they'd be alive. Is that my new definition of life? Does that mean forgetting equals dying?
She was alive. This was just a remote manifestation, channeled through the looking glass, call it an astral projection if you will.
"Listen to me!" I begged her to listen while she shyly took a zip from her glass. Sand was pouring down her throat. "Time is literally running out! There won't be anything left! The whole universe is dying and there is only one way to stop it."
The laughter around me became more and more distorted, their movements blurred and slowed down, and when I moved closer to Penny they looked at me without eyes. Without souls. Then they laughed again as if nothing had happened. Over and over again, on an endless, torturous loop.
Somehow, they were listening...
How many times had they been summoned here to re-enact this moment? They were literally in a state of constant flux, hot to the touch, compressed with so much energy, as if the glassblower was still working on them, and in a way he still was. They were glowing. Burning. Changing.
Remembering changes memories. With new information, new links forged, new associations, different interpretations of events and different focus. Secrets and other things you didn't know in the past when revealed in the future can change entire aspects of a single conversation. A single word. And in this world it could change reality.
And these people were changing as we speak. In a constant state of being overwritten, replaying the same moment over and over again, like actors forced to redo a take. But they weren't even actors. They were extras in the play of life, consigned to the background, specifics lost in time, they have become whatever they needed to be to fill the gaps.
Like the shadows. The darkness in this place wasn't the absence of light. If I had shone my flashlight at it the shadows would've still been there. The places where the host's memory failed him. Absence of knowledge, not light. His mind filled the gaps with the predictable and the familiar and comfortable lies.
I followed Penny from room to room. She kept to herself mostly, moving through the crowd of admirers like I did in her wake, too shy to be touched, clinging to her drink as if it would calm the caged storm inside her.
Every room held a different scene, like walking from one chapter to another. A castle full of memories, in which any given room could become any given moment in time, restricted to the castle's private history.
Moments recorded by the mind's eye. Visual images converted into electrical signals and interpreted by the brain. Everything seen or smelled, every sound, stored as samples. Snatching a present out of time and making a copy of it to be kept forever.
This time we were alone again. At least, if we didn't count the coffin as a person. The round chamber was lit by small candles. The touch of their perpetual flames didn't even scold me. Nothing was real.
Not even the gravity really held me down to the floor; whenever I jumped I didn't go up. Everything beneath me moved down, playing along to my expectations.
I was loving this. I placed my hands firmly on the lid of the coffin. What next?
"What did you mean when you said everything is dying?" Penny asked. "The universe is dying..."
"And I can save it. This isn't real, Penny. This is make-believe."
"Don't say that!" she shushed me. Again there was this fear that someone else might be listening. She was shaking, almost too nervous, too aware of every sound, and I saw the outline of a door hidden in the black woodgrain behind her, yet she hesitated to open it. Why?
"What's in there, Penny? What are you so afraid of?"
"I'm afraid of him. Only him. Only ever him. This is his castle. His birthright."
Finally it was becoming clear.
"He told me he saved me."
Saved. Stored. Imprisoned.
"He's locked himself inside the astronomy tower for over a thousand years and he hasn't set foot outside it since."
"I can't remember."
Seconds or centuries.
"You have to take me to him. It's what he wants. He knows I'm coming. He's been watching me since the moment I got here."
But then I realized that's what she had been afraid of.
"He's waiting for me, isn't he?" I asked and she closed her eyes and cried.