I think I might be dead. That was all I could think of, the first time I was here. Now I know better, I think, but still, I think I might be dead.
If I’m dead, this sure isn’t heaven.
Maybe I am dead. Maybe…
He was sitting on the floor, looking around.
In slow motion, I walked towards him.
He met my eyes, and smiled.
“Listen to me, Ara.” His voice floated towards me, like through a heavy fog. We were in the same room, but not. Like the memorial, the real world was there, just separate. “We don’t have much time. Save my research, but don’t let it get in the wrong hands.”
“I love y…”
I gasped, darting upright.
I immediately fell over again, crying out at the sudden pain in my thigh and ankle as I realized I couldn’t put weight on my ankle again. The world was so clear. This was the most awake I’d felt in days, and I was acutely aware of the gnawing pain in my stomach and the roughness of my throat. When was the last time I ate or drank?
Julian, Aaron, and Ellie were all standing in front of me, Aaron holding something that looked oddly like an air freshener can. I looked around, searching the room. Tari was sitting on the floor, a bandage wrapped around her leg, but Elliot was nowhere to be seen.
“Where-” I wasn’t sure how to articulate the words in my head. Ellie offered me a hand up, and Julian passed me my crutches. “Where did the man who was here go?”
“That was my father.” Aaron’s voice was cold, and his face was colder.
“Your- your father?” I felt like a moron. Elliot was Aaron’s father. Elliot had a son. Elliot was-
“Where is he?”
“He’s gone. He won’t be coming back.”
I paled. “Is he- is he-”
“He isn’t dead, he’s just gone. In that other place. Where you were.”
Elliot was gone. He was really gone this time.
A bead of warmth slid down my cheek, and I collapsed into the chair I’d occupied earlier, when Elliot was still here.
“Why do you care?” Tari asked. I didn’t look at her.
“He was my best friend,” I sniffled.
“Oh right, you’re old.” Julian nodded sagely, and I caught Tari sending him a disapproving glare out of the corner of my eye. “No, really, that’s kinda weird to think about. You’re like as old as our parents. You were buddies with his dad-”
“And mine. Remember?” Tari butted in.
“Guys, she’s grieving. How about you two go over there…” Ellie began to usher Tari and Julian away, leaving Aaron and I alone.
“He wasn’t a very good person. I don’t see why you’re so upset.” His voice was flat and bitter, his eyes cold.
“No, he...” Had he been a good person? Of course. Right? He’d stopped me from running away from the orphanage. I might have starved or died alone on the streets if it weren’t for him.
But then he left me in that other place, the sub-plane. He faked his death, kidnapped my friends, took over the Council and changed nothing- maybe he was right. Maybe people did change.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I mumbled.
That seemed to surprise him. “Well, you shouldn’t be. I lost my father years ago, one way or another.” He looked down at his fingers, tapping a familiar rhythm on the back of Elliot’s chair.
“Well, however you feel, I’m here for you. I- I know what it feels like.” I tried to blink away the tears, eyes glued to motion Aaron’s fingers, relying on the sound to steady me. “And I actually liked my father.”
“I didn’t always hate him. Growing up, he wasn’t that bad. He just got more and more distant as the years passed. Then he left.” Aaron chuckled without mirth. “I don’t think anyone believed that story about him dying in a car crash.”
Aspen had. I had.
“So, we should probably deal with the Council, right? Are they somewhere in the building?”
I shook my head, aching for the numbness of the sub-plane. “No. Elliot dissolved the Council. He was the only one.”
I laughed weakly. “There is no Council. No leaders. What are we supposed to do?”
“That- that’s a good question.”
“We could be the new Council! We could change things for the better!” Aaron and I turned to face Tari, leaning heavily on the wall.
I snorted, dismissing her suggestion “You have a cell phone, right?”
“Great. Call Cade, and tell him to meet us here. Give him the address or whatever. I have something I need to do.”
Elliots lab in the bunker was much smaller than his lab in our old apartment. Aaron offered to come with me when I asked him for the directions Elliot had given him, but this was something I had to do alone.
I rustled through cabinets full of research, skimming pages of careful notes to get some idea of what he’d been planning. They all seemed to be technical nonsense, until I found a synthesizing write-up, dated four years ago. I couldn’t understand the whole thing, but I skimmed the boring text for anything useful.
For most people, the base-plane is the same. It is our material world. We affect it, and it affects us. A simple relationship. But my research implies that there are other planes of being, possibly thousands of planes, that we have not yet begun to even think of, let alone occupy. I have found reason to suspect three main planes. The base plane, the sub plane, and, most exciting, I have recently begun to realize the plausible existence of a higher plane, similar in relationship to the base plane as the base plane is to the sub plane.
My previous tests indicate that the connection between the base plane and the sub plane are as follows: the base plane can affect, but not see, the sub plane, and the sub plane can see, but not affect, the base plane. The possibility of a manipulatable third plane implies the possibility of power over everything we know. If a being could ascend to this “higher” plane, the world as we know it would become malleable.
As for travelling between planes, my lucky mistake, see lab book 34, in making a serum that can make warm-blooded beings “disappear” is actually the key to sending or receiving someone from another plane. If the serum is ingested, injected, or inhaled, the subject will be sent to the subplane. When sending rodents to the sub plane, I first lock them in a cage. By my laws of the subplane, they cannot escape in any way, even if the door of the cage was unlocked. Knowing their location, I could release a vaporized serum that brings them back. Someone on the base plane inhaling this serum observes no ill effects that I have seen thus far.
An interesting tidbit I have found implies that if a being spends more time in the sub plane than they have on the base plane, the sub plane becomes their base plane, and when brought back, they revert back to their plane. More testing on that to come.
I ignored the chill that gave me and I gathered the papers in the center of the room. Holding my breath, I doused the whole stack with all the foul-smelling liquids I could find in Elliot’s lab. I stood in the doorway, back to the lab, and took a steadying breath. I can do this, I told myself. It’s not what he would have wanted, but maybe what he would have wanted wasn’t really what was best for Justix. Maybe it would be best if this research never saw the light of day. Before I could second-guess myself again, I flicked on the lighter and tossed it inside, slamming the heavy, fire-proof door shut against the rush of flames and smoke as the chemicals from his beakers combusted, taking the overflowing pages of research with them.
I met the others back in the room I’d last seen Elliot. I fought to keep my face still, but it wasn’t as hard to do as I had feared. I knew, eventually, all the tears would come. But I wasn’t ready for them now.
“Well?” I snapped at Tari, who was sitting on one of the chairs, her other leg propped up on the chair facing her.
She faced me, looking exhausted. “Dad said he was on his way. I checked the GPS, and we’re still about a two or three hour drive from the city.”
I sighed. It was about what I’d expected, but still, I couldn’t wait.
The constant, pressing fatigue from the past few days had abated, and I felt painfully alert and aware of my surroundings. With that alertness came the sharp pain in my leg, my scratching throat, my pounding headache, and the gnawing pit in my stomach.
“I need food,” I announced abruptly.
I squeezed my eyes shut, fighting the blinding, tear-filled rage boiling inside me and pricking the corners of my eyes. I fought to control my voice, suddenly so angry at these people, who I’d risked everything to save, and were ignoring me. Did they realize I hadn’t eaten or drank properly in days? Did they realize I felt like I’d lost everything I’d ever loved, again? Did they realize I’d been half in a stupor for over a day, and I’d only been out of twenty-two years of that stupor for what, a couple days?
“I’ll go find some food,” I snapped. Ellie kept inspecting Tari’s leg, Julian fiddled with a bullet casing, and Aaron sat numbly in the corner.
The bunker was eerily silent. I stomped around as effectively as I could on one good leg, if only to alleviate the creepy silence. Even the elevator felt too quiet, too wrong, in the wake of Elliot’s death. I wanted to scream, to let out all the frustration, and sadness, and fear I’d bottled up since Aspen had told me the first time that my best friend was dead.
But he hadn’t been dead. I almost wish he’d died then, instead of betrayed me in the most fundamental way. And he wasn’t dead, even now-
I let out a crazed laugh as the elevator slid to a stop on the cafeteria floor. Karma, you horrible, beautiful creature. He’d left me there, in his “sub plane,” for so long. Now, how long would he be there? Since I destroyed his research, would he be there forever?
A chill slid down my spine as my spinning head began to put together the pieces of what he’d told me, and what I’d half-heartedly read in his lab before burning.
I burned the only thing keeping me in this world.
I fought the rising panic, struggling to breathe.
...if a being spends more time in the sub plane than they have on the base plane…
...they revert back to their plane.
This wasn’t over. I needed to get back to that lab and salvage what I could, before I started to slip again.
The last time I ran into a fire, I almost died.
Alarms were blaring on the laboratory floor, and I gritted my teeth against the headache they brought. I planted my crutches, swung, balanced, planted the crutches…
I reached the lab, out of breath, to find the door swinging open and the fire barely smoldering inside, over half the room reduced to charcoal black. That was fast. Sweating, I stopped to breathe, staring at the lab in horror. I’d done this. In my rage and grief I’d lost my head, and now…
Blazes. I wanted to kick a wall and scream and cry. But I stood there, boiling over, staring at the lab and hating myself. Finally, I relented and turned, balancing on my crutches and weakly kicking the wall with my good foot. I almost fell over in the process.
“Who’s there?” I heard a click.
Slowly, I turned around, hands raised above my head, to find a single Council guard, no more than ten feet away, gun pointed at my chest. I had one knife, still slightly bloody, tucked in the waistband of my pants. I’d left the other one somewhere in the scuffle.
I couldn’t reach for the knife without him seeing, and relying on my crutches would make the throw sloppy, anyways. I was trapped.
“It’s you, isn’t it? The girl Bryce wants?” I swallowed. He didn’t know Elliot was dead, and I didn’t intend to tell him.
“Yes. It’s me. Mr. Bryce is, well, an old family friend, okay? And I, so, I got into some trouble, and he was just worried about me.” I tried not to wince. The story sounded fake even to my ears, and I cursed myself for being such a horrible liar. I should have spent less time with knives and more time lying. Lies seemed to be the far more useful skill right now.
“Right.” He didn’t sound convinced.
“Yep, that’s all, we’re good now. Just great. He just asked me to come down here and check out his lab for him, because, you see, you ran off during that, uh, practice skirmish, and now his lab is on fire and so I think he maybe might think you did it?” I shifted nervously on my crutches, watching the line between the man’s brows deepen.
“I’ll go talk to him now. Clear up the misunderstanding.” He reached down to grab the box by his feet, setting down his gun in the process. Even if he didn’t believe a word I’d just said, he obviously didn’t think me much of a threat. That was a mistake on his part. With a grin that felt wrong and fake on my lips, I dropped my crutches and slid forward on one leg, knocking away his gun and pulling out my own knife in the same moment.
It wasn’t my most graceful, but my knife was at his throat and his gun was sliding away down the smooth hallway. I steadied myself, breathing shallowly, trying very, very hard not to accidentally cut him. I wasn’t sure how to kill someone by cutting their throat, but I didn’t want to kill him. What if I slipped, and cut an important artery or something?
He had to know I meant business.
“What’s in the box?” I fought to keep my voice steady, but it wavered slightly.
“It’s Bryce’s emergency box,” the guard told me through gritted teeth, eyes on my slightly shaking knife. “He instructed all his employees to make this box the number one priority if his lab was ever in danger.”
Bless you, Elliot. Even if I burned his secrets to the ground, like a weed, he’s unkillable. Maybe this box holds the power to bring Elliot back, someday, and to keep me here.
I switch the knife to my left hand, keeping it by his throat. Not taking my eyes off him, I reached for the box, then thought better of it. I stepped back, towards the gun, kicking it even farther away while scanning him for additional weapons. His waist holster was empty, and I didn’t see anything else.
I gestured at the box with my knife.
“Pick up the box and start walking to the elevator. We’re going to the fifth floor.”
The box was deceptively small for its contents. Inside, packed in wrapping paper, were a series of small transparent plastic vials, in half of which sloshed a dull blue liquid reminiscent of the syringe Elliot had given me so long ago. The blue vials were marked with only (A), and the other half were clear, printed with (B). Besides the (B) liquids were a funnel and several aerosol cans.
Beneath the vials sat a large notebook, which I flipped through cautiously as Tari glared at our prisoner, escorting him to the clinic with the others. The notebook contained a copy of the same sheet I’d found earlier, and similar entries expanding on his notes. Tucked between the last page and the back cover was a letter, addressed to me in Elliot’s furious scrawl.
Ara- I don’t have much time before you arrive, if everything goes according to plan. I’ve left this letter as a precaution, should things go wrong or you do something rash. If you’ve found this, you cannot mock me for my preparedness, for I will have turned out to be both right and very, very wrong. Apologies, I [dawdle]. This box contains two of my most advanced experiments in this study, both of which you are now familiar with.
The serums can be imbibed, they do not need to be injected directly into the bloodstream, contrary to my beliefs at the time of my giving you the first dose of the (A) some years ago. Taking one tablespoon of the clear serum (B) every two weeks or every time you begin to feel the symptoms should keep you grounded on the base plane. (See page 24 for listed possible symptoms, though I am sure you are quite familiar with them at this point). Only a year at this dosage should be needed to keep you from returning to the sub-plane by yourself, but only after another twenty-two years will your base plane revert back, if my research is to be trusted. I would wait another five years before risking a venture to the sub-plane, however, just to be safe.
That brings me to the blue vials, which I believe you may recognize. Those are to be used to send someone, or yourself, to the sub-plane. Use them wisely, or not at all. If you go to the sub-plane, do not move from a confined space, and ensure that you have someone to spray the clear serum for you.
I love you, Ara, and hope you never have to read this.
I crumpled the note in my fist. Blazing Elliot, with his blazing foresight, his blazing plans, and me, left in the ashes, alive again only because of him.
Blazes, that hurt.
With a scowl, I returned to the cafeteria, almost relishing the soreness in my thigh from all the movement. I downed two helpings of cold chili I found in a fridge, barely stopping to guzzle down water.
Full, I laid my head on the counter, pushing back my thoughts and praying for sleep.
Sleep never came. Not very surprising, considering all the sub-plane induced sleep I’d had in the past forty-eight hours. No sleep, just memories, good and bad. Elliot giving me a hand-drawn target for my birthday when I was twelve. That time I’d punched a kid for making some racist remark about my heritage. I’d been lucky I hadn’t had my knives on me at the time, or I would have been in far bigger trouble. More distant, memories of my father. Playing Jikati, the Faren game, with him on the living room carpet. Listening to his fast, melodic Faren dialect as he yelled over the phone at- at my grandmother.
I blinked. It had never occurred to me before, to leave Justix in search of possible family. I’d known, of course, that my parents had been planning to move here for years, but the paperwork was only finalized after I was born, and she was dead. My father had run away from the pain and his family, raising me in a strange country. Until the Council shot him, on the street, in broad daylight, for something he didn’t do.
“Sitara Lynn-Parks!” The bite in Aspen’s voice would have caused a tiger to balk. In seconds, she had me wrapped in a tight embrace. “You had me worried sick, running off like that and not calling just after I found you again.”
“I- I’m sorry.” And I was.
She tsked. “You’re lucky Cade called me, or I’d still be thinking you were dead in a ditch somewhere.”
[or maybe a scene where she cries here?]
“Elliot’s not dead,” I blurted out, unable to hold it in any longer.
That caught her off guard, and she stood, stunned, for a second. Then, she turned her head slowly side-to-side, as if she expected him to be standing right there. “Where is he?”
“He-” That was a difficult question to answer. “It’s complicated.”
Aspen raised her eyebrows, and I could tell she was thinking about my odd methods of coping with grief. I gritted my teeth and dodged her gaze.
“Well.” Aspen tactfully switched the topic. “Let’s see how that leg of yours is healing.” She looked down at my leg, and back at me, a dangerous look in her eyes. “How’s that bed rest coming?”
“Uh…” At that moment, I recalled the room full of Council soldiers, some with possibly dangerous injuries, and Tari with her bullet wound. “I think we might need your medical expertise elsewhere.”
She snorted, but let me lead her to the elevator.
They were all there. Elliot was gone, of course. Vera left, and Micah was lost in the bombing. But I was there, and Aspen, and Cade… and Tammy.
I’d never been particularly close with Tammy, but she’d been Elliot’s girlfriend for a year before the bombing, and I’d known her almost as long as I’d known Cade. She’d been an avid member of our seven-person rebellion.
I saw her standing near Aaron, and the puzzle clicked together. Now that she was beside him, I could see her light freckles on Aaron’s nose, though his hair was more like Elliot’s blond than her curly brown. Elliot Bryce and Tammy Kent must have gotten married.
“Mommmmm.” A small girl, probably about five years old, was pulling on Tammy’s hand. “I’m bored.”
Tammy patted her daughter’s blonde curls absentmindedly, reaching down to murmur to her something I didn’t catch. The whole thing was disconcerting.
I looked around, taking in all the familiar faces, noting the absences. Aspen was in the clinic with Ellie, looking over the guards, but Aaron had disappeared from his mother’s side.
“Where’s Aaron?” I asked.
“He went to retrieve my bus.” Cade nodded towards the elevator. “He’ll be back in a few hours, I’m sure.” He looked around the gathered people, the remnants of our long-dead revolution, plus Julian and Tari, and gestured at the chairs someone had brought in from another room. “Now, it’s time to discuss politics.”
I looked at my seat, then the door.
“I’m not interested in politics.”
No one questioned me. I’d never been an idealist. I’d just wanted the Council gone. Now that it was, the people with the grand ideas for the future could figure it out.
I left the room where I lost Elliot with a single empty chair.