“We see the light of those who find the world has passed them by,
Too late to save a dream that’s growing cold.
We realize that fate must hide its face from those who try
To see the distant signs of unforetold...”
--Recorded Wisdom of Before, vol. 1, Ch. 42
“This is your shortcut?” Diana said incredulously.
“Yes.” Mason said looking through the clear panel at the strange room filled with seats.
“What is it?” she asked peering around him.
“Tank, can you make this work?”
Tank was several feet away looking inside a panel in the wall that he had opened. It was a scene that repeated itself several times as they had explored the huge facility that was the Hub. It started with a screen in the security pod that he was able to make display a map of the facility. Mason had tapped an icon on the screen that looked like a bullet or small pod on a rail. Now that they had a destination he had them make their way into the enormous place. As they moved deeper inside the sounds of the raging storm outside quieted and they encountered a place like nothing any of them had seen before.
A relic of Before, the Hub was a series of interconnected areas that each seemed to have their own purpose. The center of it was a vast open shaft with several tiers both above and below. It managed to dwarf the massive bay where they had battled the Mechs. There were several other wonders here that Tank seemed to just understand. As they moved through the Hub he continued to activate various pieces of tek that helped them on their way. The stairs that linked various levels could even move so that someone could stand on them and move up or down to the next level. From lights and moving pictures, to the doors that slid out of your way as you approached, Tank turned it all on as they made their way deeper into the Hub.
As banks of lights came on one tier at a time they could see that each tier was lined with alcoves. These opened up behind clear glass walls with similar glass doors. Some gaped open while others would slide to the side with a ‘Shhshh’ sound when one of them approached. Tank enjoyed moving back and forth in front of these and watching the doors try and open and close. He would giggle as the doors half opened and then half shut trying to adjust to his movements. Mason finally had to prompt Tank that they were still heading to Mason’s short cut to get him to move on. Even then he did so reluctantly.
From the walkway that rimmed the shaft they walked past the many odd rooms. They saw that the rooms had been employed in a variety of makeshift ways. Some were set up as communal areas for eating or meeting. One appeared to be a healer’s chamber with several low beds and storage cabinets. They searched that area only to find that it had been completely cleaned out of anything of use. Several areas had their glass walls obscured in one way or another. Looking inside these they appeared to have served as living quarters, now long abandoned. Each tier was linked by the moving stairs that Tank had started up. Whatever the original purpose of the tiers and alcoves had been was now long forgotten. The Hub had been turned into living space for a large group of people. Now, the various levels of the Hub were in a clear state of rapid abandonment. When whoever had lived here left, they had done so quickly. It was something Mason had seen too frequently in his travels.
As they explored the abandoned levels they continued to follow signs with the same symbol of a pod sitting on a set of tracks. At each level these signs, when they could find one intact, directed them downwards. Mason continued to follow the signs downward despite Tank’s curiosity about each level and what new mysteries it contained. Mason kept the simple man moving along, continuously reminding him that the shortcut was just below.
Finally they reached the bottom level of the massive interior hall of The Hub. This level was different from the others. It was deeper than the ones above which had been uniform in the distance from level to level. This level was about twice as high as the others. From this ground level they looked up at the tiers that lined the shaft all the way up. The sheer scale of it was more than impressive from where they stood.
The layout of this bottom level was also different. One side of the area had a huge pod similar to the security pod in the entry bay of the Hub. This one appeared much larger and there were no stairs leading to it that they could see. Also, rather than smaller rooms opening up on the center, here there were many halls that led off from main area. Several were blocked off, but the ones that were not led to a moving staircase that led down another level. When they went down one of those stairs they had found the area that they were in now.
It was a long hall, or platform. There were several rooms that lined one side of the platform. As they looked closer they saw that they were more like cars than rooms. Each car seemed to be butted up against the floor of the hall as opposed to sitting on it. There was a gap between cars. Looking inside one Mason saw that the cars were larger than they appeared and continued below the floor of the platform as well as above. They seemed to be sitting snuggly in a large tube that ran the length of the platform. Looking down he believed he could make out single rail that the cars were sitting on. Each car had two sets of doors and many panes of clear walls so that you could see into them. Inside they were lined with seats in various configurations. Walking down the line of cars they were all identical. The last pod on the platform was in front of a large circular door that was closed.
Whatever was inside the panel that now held Tank’s focus must be some sort of control or power supply for the cars. As he was working at something inside the panel lights came to life inside the pods. With a little more effort he was able to get the doors of the first pod to open.
“What about that door?” Mason pointed to the large circular door in front of the last car. Tank stared at the terminal inside the panel with his tongue curled over his lip for a long moment. “I can’t fix that here.” he said simply.
“What about that other pod upstairs? It looks like a bigger version of the one where you guys stopped the Mechs.” C’er asked from where he was looking inside one of the cars.
“Alright, I’m done. What the hell are these things? How is this, a shortcut?” Diana asked tossing the remains of something she had found to eat into one of the gaps between pods. She still had Thumper strapped to her chest, along with the several weapons in the harness she wore. Standing with her hands on her hips she struck a pose of obvious defiance in front of Mason.
“I think this was called a train. These,” he gestured to the cars lining the platform, “are cars that drive across these tracks very fast. They link old places like this.” Mason explained.
“And you know this how?”
“I have seen these before but never in this good of a condition. And never where I had friend like Tank here who just might be able to make them work again.”
Tank beamed with delight at this.
They went back up from the platform and searched through the bottom level until they located a set of doors that led back behind the Pod. There was a corridor that led back and had several rooms connected to it. Each was in a similar state of rapid abandonment as the rest of the Hub. The corridor ended on a set of stairs that led up. At the top of the stairs the corridor continued and finally ended in a set of partially opened doors. Two bodies lay in the corridor just outside the doors. These remains were mostly skeletal, having obviously been here for some time. What was left of them was outfitted as soldiers as they were wearing helmets and some form of body armor. If they had weapons, those had been removed by someone. The doors had been braced or barricaded from the inside. There were scorch marks around the center of the two doors. It looked like these soldiers had been able to force their way in by blowing up the doors. This was further evidenced by a small pack next to one of the soldiers that was labeled “High Explosive”. Mason looked inside the bag, shouldered it and then looked inside the door. Who or whatever had been inside the doors had fought hard against the assault. They managed to kill these soldiers as they breached the door.
Just inside the doors, another body lay in similar condition. Stepping over the body they moved into the pod itself. It was similar in design to the security pod above where Tank and Mason had ‘befriended’ the Mechs. There were windows lining the far wall looking out on the lowest level of the massive tiered chamber. Inside the pod were several consoles lined with terminals and accompanying seats. In the center was a large black table. At the foot of the table was another deader. This one lay in a crumple as if it had fallen over the table and then collapsed to the floor as it decomposed. The skull of this body had a small hole in the temple and the opposite side was shattered. Upon the table was a wide, dark stain with a pistol just next to it.
“Looks like he vaped himself.” Diana commented. “That or he,” she gestured back to the dead soldier just inside the door with a bar of food she had started to munch on, “was a really good shot.”
“Either way, I think whatever was going on in this room could be why whoever was in here left so fast.” C’er agreed as he moved around the room taking it in. He stopped in front of another door that was recessed off to the right of the door they came in through. This door remained sealed. There was no handle or lever to open it with, only a pad with numbered buttons. He knocked on the door which resulted in a solid, dull thud. “Wonder what’s in here.”
Tank seemed enthralled by the table itself as they explored the room. As Mason came over to see what Tank was doing, he found out why the table had captured the giant’s attention. The large man had been looking along the edges of the table and when he found what he was looking for he shouted “Presto!” and pressed something.
A low hum emanated from the table immediately and cloud of dust blew out from under it. Everyone except Tank stepped back and leveled a weapon at the humming table. Tank simply straightened up from where he had been stooped at the edge of the table, which came to his mid-thigh.
“Initialization in progress, please stand by.” a warm female voice intoned from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Now everyone except Tank was looking and aiming all over the room as they sought the source of the voice. They stopped when they realized that Tank was clapping and had squealed in delight.
“Error... Memory Corruption...” the voice intoned smoothly. It then produced a set of garbled noises that were unintelligible.
“Ewwww, that doesn’t sound happy.” Tank said and started to tap on the surface of the table as if he was looking for something. Mason moved closer and watched as Tank wiped dust and debris from the table. He eventually found what looked like a terminal embedded in the table. As Tank began to type on a keyboard that had appeared on the table, Mason realized that the entire table was a screen. It was a larger version of the ones inside IT. The terminal was not embedded in the table but actually just displayed upon the table.
Tank typed away and every so often the voice repeated the same error statement. Sometimes it gave a burst of garbled babble. Finally it just repeated “Please stand by...” several times. Then blue lights erupted from either side of the table. They coalesced and images swirled into life, floating above the table itself in midair. “Frak me....” Mason sighed in wonder as Tank cooed.
“Safe mode enabled, limited access has been restored. Would you like to file an error report or request support?” the warm but incorporeal female voice asked pleasantly.
The swirling blue images resolved into a floating model of the Hub. They could see the different levels laid out in tremendous detail. The three dimensional diagram was all in blue except for a few areas. The hangar bay they had come in through was a yellow hue while the doors that opened on the outside world where actually red with a ! symbol blinking over them. There was a black image of IT sitting where they had left it in the kill zone. Diana looked at the floating images and traced her way down the path they had taken. She then saw a shaft that went down from the hanger and ended in another room. There were two images depicting the Mechs. One was green and the other yellow with a blinking symbol that appeared to be a tool of some sort. “Tank, look that’s where the Mechs are now I think.” she tugged at one of the patchwork pockets of his overalls and pointed across to the far side of the diagram to the Mech symbols. “They look so small on here. Almost cute.” she commented. Tank reached into the image and, as if he had taken hold of it, spun it. The whole image whirled over the table in a circle. Everyone else stepped back as if they expected it to fall over. Paying no attention to how everyone else reacted, Tank stopped the spin. He then moved the image so that the Mechs rotated around in front of him and Diana. “Awww, they are sleeping.” Tank cooed.
“Cute!? Sleeping!?” C’er huffed in exasperation and looked to Mason for support who only shrugged.
“Where are we?” Mason asked Tank.
“You are here.” the feminine voice intercepted the question. A red dot began to pulse towards the bottom of the diagram. Mason looked around the room for the source of the voice as if he expected at any moment to see a woman step out of thin air. Then he looked at where the dot was. He could see the bottom tier, the platforms that housed the cars and the pod that they were now standing in.
“Can you get us any food?” Diana asked. When they all looked at her, she responded with, “What?”
“My apologies but the food inventory reports are not accessible at this time. Please contact the office of supplies and logistics directly for more information.” the voice intoned. Then with a slight edge of annoyance, “And please ask them to update their status reports.”
“Yeah, we’ll get right on that.” C’er said. “Can you open that door?” he pointed to the door that he had found.
“The armory secure access door is showing no errors. Have you forgotten the access codes...again?” C’er swore he heard an air of superiority in the voice. Almost like an Older addressing a younger in that sweet, but ‘I am losing patience’ kind of way.
Mason walked over to the door and looked it over. “Armory, eh? Is there anything live in there that may be unstable or armed?” he was getting used to this talking to nothing concept.
“Standard procedure is to store all munitions in a safe manner. All weapons are unloaded or discharged. Munitions and energy cells are stored in separate lockers and explosives are all in an inert state.” the voice gave the impression of having passed a test with that response. Still there was a slight edge of smugness.
Mason drew his large pistol fired several shots into the door. When he finished the numbered keypad was a smoking ruin and several large holes lined the opposite side of the door. There was a metallic groan and the door slowly fell forward. It landed with a resounding thump on the floor, leaving the doorway into the armory beyond open. “Presto.” he said and stepped through the open doorway. He ignored the feminine protests about the discharge of high powered mag weapons.
Inside the armory was the clearest evidence that whoever was sheltering in The Hub had evacuated rapidly. The room was lined with shelves with a large table set in the center. The back wall of the room was a rack lined with rifles of several varieties. A shelf below that held several pistols laid out in orderly fashion. The other shelves where lined with several crates that were all labeled. Once crate had a red cross on it and inside there was several healer’s kits. Mason made note of several cases of grenades of all types among other sets of explosive charges. One shelf housed several smaller back cases each with its own label. Some of the labels understood, and others made little or no sense to him. He would have to ask Tank to review them and see what these things were. For now, Mason was sure that they had plenty of supplies to get them through whatever it was that they would face.
Several hours later Mason sat down across from C’er. The younger man was sitting near the table and idly flicking the floating diagram, setting it to spin back and forth. Mason quietly watched the closest thing to a friend he had these days. C’er seemed engrossed in his own thoughts, possibly even his sight. Counting the rotations of the holographic map, Mason waited for what he sensed was coming. After a few more spins, he was not surprised when C’er looked up, piercing blue eyes drilling into him.
“Do you know when?” C’er asked the simple question that was loaded with meaning between them.
Mason looked over towards the armory and watched as Tank handed some sort of device to Diana and pointed to the controls upon it. She turned it in her hands and then exclaimed “Shut Up!” and shoved the giant playfully. That only resulted in her being pushed off balance as the larger man did not move in the slightest. The sound of her laughter echoed out of the armory and fell upon the two men.
After a moment of silent understanding between them, Mason broke the silence.
“What is it like for you? I mean...what was it like?” he asked.
“The ‘seeing’ you mean?”
“Yes. More the knowing, I think.”
C’er took a breath. “I don’t think I ever tried to describe it. The Scribes did not ask. It was as if to try and understand it would banish it.” His eyes grew distant as he spoke. Almost as if he now saw the past more then he saw future.
“You remember what I was like when we met?”
“You were...erratic. There was no seriousness to you in any way. If this world was something other than it is, you would have been funny. Instead you were kind of scary.”
“Candid as ever.” The young man laughed. “I never told you much about my life before then have I?”
“I never asked.”
“No. You didn’t.”
The boy followed the cart as it moved along the rutted path. The Out-Wall was full of small places between the stalls of the sellers and the carts of those who made the trip in from the wilds to get the needful. It was easy for a small boy to slip in and around the big people and, when no one was looking, get the needful for his own. This cart was rolling slowly because its owner had loaded it with many and much. It trundled and swayed down the rutted track, its burden shifting and swaying. The boy waited to see it. He knew it would happen; it was just a matter of exactly when. That was the trick you see, knowing the When of a thing. Sometimes the boy got lost in the Now and missed the When. Like the other day when that seller turned to yell at the other youngers who tried to take what was their needful. The boy knew the seller would turn away, but he got stuck in the Now when he saw the other youngers and he missed the When of it. He made the mistake of trying anyway. The seller was quick and grabbed his hand just as he was trying to pull it back with his prize. When the seller raised his huge sharp to cut off the boy’s hand, the boy made sure he saw the When and not the Now. Another seller would yell at the other Youngers who had turned their eyes on his needed. Just as that When occurred the boy knew he needed to jerk his arm hard and run. Run like...well, run like something that runs real, real fast. There was the yell, the Seller with the sharp looked around and the boy jerked his hand, which came free and he ran. So it happened from time to time where the Now took over the When. But he would not let that happen this time. He watched the cart and waited for the When.
“So what is your plan little one? Jump up here and club me and take it all for yourself? Or grab what you can in your hands and make like the wind?” The voice was deep and rich. The boy looked at the older who sat atop the cart. ‘Scribe’ was what the other youngers called these ones. They came in from the mountains now and again. They traded strange things the boy had heard called ‘books’ for their needed and then were back off to the mountains. They had a fort up there, the others said. With huge walls. Much bigger than the Out-wall. One girl had said to stay away from them because they like to take youngers up with them and throw them off the walls. She said that a great pit of bones was at the bottom of that wall. That no younger who ever went with a scribe ever returned. Another boy had said she made that all up. She was trying to scare the rest of them away from trying to take anything needful from the Scribes so that she would have them all to herself. The boy was not sure which of those stories was right.
“Well, what’s the matter little one? Cat got your tongue?” With this the Scribe held up an actual cat by the scrape of its neck and let out a booming laugh. He set the cat down on the cart as he laughed.
The When was coming...
The cat turned and glared back at the scribe in the indignant way that cats have. The boy watched the cat as it moved up onto the cart and looked around. The boy moved first, leaping forward. A half breath after that the cat leapt on a pack to the back of the cart that had not been placed as carefully as maybe it should have. The pack tipped over the edge and began to fall. The boy ended his leapt both under its path and when it would be right where he could snatch it out of the air. The When had become the Now. He reversed direction because he saw a when where the Scribe would catch him if he went forward. He did not want to end up in a pit of bones! The boy made it to the edge of the rutted road and almost to the ditch that ran along its side. The When exploded in his sight and he jumped a second before a lash swept under his feet. He laughed to hear the curses that the scribe bellowed. That was how it happened again. The Now took over for the When and he never saw that the slither would be there when he got there. It was a big and fat one that was hiding in the ditch. He landed just next to it and before he regained his feet he felt the slithers sharp fangs sink into his shin. The boy howled in pain and fell back from the slither dropping the pack that he worked so hard for. He cursed the Now even more as he landed against the legs of the Scribe. As the bite of the slither did its work, and the world dimmed around him, his only thought was how did the Scribe catch up so fast?
The Boy awoke in a warm, comfortable bed. His head was pounding and his leg was tingling like it did when he sat on it funny. He tried to lift his head but it was too heavy.
“There you are little my little seer.” The voice of the Scribe was a booming whisper that reverberated the boy’s head. It was if the man could not, not be loud.
“C…er?” the Boy croaked in a dry voice.
“Well, close enough.” The Scribe laughed his not quiet, quiet laugh.
“You gave Tigger here a heck of a fright.” The boy followed the man’s gesture to the cat. It was curled up between his legs making a contented buzzing purr of a sound.
The When took over then and the boy saw many things. It was a flow of images and he was carried on the current. He was pulled along with the flow of the When as if he had fallen into a fast moving stream. He struggled to stay on the surface, but was constantly pulled back under. Each time he resurfaced he was in a new place, a new When. That When would flood into him and then he would be pulled back under and carried onward. All the while he was struggling to get back to the surface. Each surfacing revealed to him many When’s and he reviled at it. It was repulsive and at the same time it all had already happened; a future memory of things to be. The forward looking mnemonics showed him a life in this monastery fort among the scribes. He saw himself grow and learn with these men alongside other children. He saw the cat, Tigger, curl up in a dark corner and exhale its last breath. He saw this man before him leave on his wagon looking older and more haggard and never return. There was a yard here where he would train his body and his mind. He felt the sting of a small stick on his legs as the Scribe who was training him told him to empty his mind. The man said to let his body do what it knows and not what he thinks. He saw himself lift his leg before that same stick landed the blow the next time. That Scribe then lay dead in a pool of his own blood before the gates of the monastery. He was surrounded by many dead Raiders. He saw Scribes and children alike die as Raiders dropped down from the walls into the same yard where he had trained. The Boy felt anguish and heartbreak in ways he did not understand and that at his current age he could not accept. He felt the sting and stank of acrid smoke as the last Raider crawled towards him. This man had killed two of the other Raiders just before they would have killed several of the children. He had been injured in that fight and now lay bleeding and crawling towards the Boy. A Scribe came up behind the crawling man and raised a spear for a killing blow. The Boy felt an understanding he did not grasp and he saw his older self stop the blow by simply raising his hand. He looked down on the man and saw something in his dark eyes; a calm in the center of all the Whens. As if he was a raft on which the Boy could ride the currents of the When. He would feel rooted in the now, more than ever before in the presence of this man.
The feeling that he had just lived many lives at once dawned on the boy as he slammed back into the Now. Only now when he looked at the Scribe he saw his death. He knew one the man would be killed, alone in a dark gully aside the road where his cart, laden with supplies was raided by several men. He looked down to the purring cat and the image of it letting out that last breath stole his breath away. The scribe looked to him in a sort of awe, somehow understanding.
The boy lived many of those Whens as they came to him in the flow of time. The Scribes came to defer to him in all things. They kept several of their order around him at all times, looking to record whatever he said. As he grew he learned all that he could from them. He harnessed the When in the training yard, learning to see what it would show him so that he could react before opponents moved. These demonstrations furthered the awe of the Scribes. They redoubled their efforts to capture the When from him. As he grew the Boy felt his mind slowly slipping away. The constant submersions in the When made him watch friends grow old and die. He was forced to live with that grief before it was necessary. He fell into the game of trying to create randomness and chaos. The Scribes became the target of the pranks and random humor that he found entertaining. Sadly they offered only brief respite from the constant pull of the When. It became even more appealing to him the more that they treated him as a god among them. Through all of it he found himself looking to the day when he knew he would meet that dark eyed man.
The one who would stop the flood.
Who would be his raft in the currents.
C’er paused and looked back over to the armory where Tank was trying to hide behind a small rack that was about a third of his size. Diana scanned around the room wearing some sort of strange goggles. She was pretending not to see him. Then he told her to do something on the goggles. She exclaimed and pointed to him. It was clear that she was able to see him the entire time. Whatever he was showing her with the goggles, she was playing along to the great enjoyment of the oversized man.
“So to answer your question...It nearly drove me insane. Watching people you care about die before your eyes, but knowing that it won’t happen just yet....It does something to you. The Scribes made it worse by trying to pull it from me and to record it all. They didn’t understand what it was doing to me. Sometimes I wonder if it would have changed things if they did.” He looked back at Mason. “I have come to realize that certain things become fixed. Time is like a great river with many competing currents. Sometimes you don’t know what current you are in, or how it moves you. Other times it becomes so locked in place, there is no way of changing it. You just have to ride that current for all that you can.”
“So you saw me and how I would come to be there and meet you?” Mason asked
“Yes. You were like a boat coming towards me down the river I was drowning in. I knew if I could get aboard, that the currents would not matter so much anymore.”
“And now you only see the When as it becomes fixed, unalterable?”
“Yes. Somehow you are the center of too many things. I think something is driving you through the currents, fixing your course. It calms down the flood of my sight and I can control it much more. I can see things when there is no other course.”
Mason looked back over to the armory. He seemed to be processing something. Thinking about how to explain something. Just as he was about to speak, the incorporeal female voice interrupted him.
“Unauthorized access detected, Entry Bay 12.” Mason and C’er looked up at the holographic map of the hub. The Hanger that they had entered through was now awash in red lines and pulsing. Suddenly the image of it zoomed in and they watched as three trucks came to park alongside IT in the killing zone.
“Security is in override status.” She informed them all pleasantly as they watched more than a dozen Raiders step out of the vehicles and fan out around IT. The imagery was incredibly clear and they could see an assortment of weapons carried by the men. Tank and Diana came over to the table and watched the spectacle. Diana had the odd looking goggles pushed up on her head now and a dark look fell over her grey eyes as she watched. As one of the men approached IT Tank said “I wouldn’t do that if I were you...” in a sing song voice. Not able hear the warning the man reached out and tried to knock on the side of the vehicle. He never completed the act as the second his hand touched IT, his body erupted into convulsions and smoke began to pour out of him. The rest of the men leveled their weapons at the vehicle. In the end, they stood helpless and watched as the man’s convulsions finally ripped him away from the vehicle. He fell to the ground smoking and utterly dead. “I told you so...” Tank finished in the same sing song voice.
The men immediately turned away from the vehicle and spread out. Some moved towards the large doors that the Mechs came out of, while others moved to the stairs.
“Looks like we are going to have company.” Mason observed.