He thought these words slowly and carelessly as he strolled through the massive, glowing white doors into what was a world of stairs. Yes, stairs; thousands upon millions of steps, each one spanning a length of a meter and rising only by the inches. each step was maybe seven meters in width, allowing for comfortable movement. This was such because in the world beyond the stairs there was only darkness.
Darkness, that is, and the rest of the universe, spanning forever with small speckles of light where stars shone dimly. The time-keeper felt the rush of air cut off as the great doors closed behind him and he knew there was only one way left to go from here.
Up the stairs.
There was something different about this world. Coran could feel it in the air – it was unnatural. He knew it was obviously different by the stars all around him, yes, but there was something else – something hidden in this environment that made it incredibly supernatural from the world he'd just came from. True, he'd experienced a change in worlds before, but nothing this extreme before. This world – if it were a world at all – was something much more powerful than anything he had ever sensed.
He carried his weight up the stairs, dressed in a white, hooded robe. His fingertips were only barely exposed below the long, spacious sleeves, and only the tips of his longer, redder hair drifted at the hood's opening. His eyes were a fuller shade of green, and his skin was a more defined tan. His feet kicked and waved at the length of the robe and he knew that, along with the world around him, there was something new about his body as well. He felt invincible.
And that's how he knew there was something wrong.
"Where am I…?" His voice carried, though it seemed more a song than a question. "Is there anyone who can hear me…?" He was screaming these words, but, again, it was nothing but pure beauty in the world around him as he now began to sprint up the stairs. "Where the fuck am I…? Can anyone hear me out there…? Hello…?"
Nothing. That is, nothing until another door appeared from nowhere. He couldn't stop in time to avoid the door, and the weight of his body threw him through the door. Inside, he stumbled into a room, landing flat on his chest with a yelp.
"The world is much more real here, I should hope, Coran." A man said to him. The voice was so familiar to Coran that its owner didn't even surprise him when he saw him. It was the room that surprised him; it was his father's study, back in the world they used to live in. Back in Normality, as it were.
There were bookshelves at every inch of the wall, stacked with books in no organized fashion and no neatness to them. Books of science. Books of mathematics. Books of time-travel, as the science-fiction authors of Normality had envisioned it. The events that had occurred so recently and so often back in Normality had become so native to Coran that all of this – this world he was so used to when he was growing up – seemed so distraught, so queer.
And, of course, the man who stood from his desk and moved to help Coran to his feet was Steven Young. He was the exact image projected from Coran's boyhood memory, down to the very scruff of his five-o'-clock shadow. And, of course, Coran was not the least bit surprised to see him. When he got to his feet, he spoke as he brushed himself off. "It took you long enough." Even his voice had changed…
"I'm sorry. Usually I'll have pulled you out by then, I know, but I had other matters to handle." When Coran blinked, Steven Young's image had transformed into his mother's image and they were in her kitchen back in Denver, Colorado. She walked over to the counter beside the stove and brought him a sheet of paper with black ink written in a scribbled handwriting. "Dante was just here. He told me to give this to you."
"Did he now?" Coran asked, taking the paper.
I'm going on ahead. guns won't do you good where we're going.
ps. don't forget why you're here.
"Figures." He looked up to see John Ko waiting for his response, standing in the middle of his office at the pre-destructed Ajax Headquarters. To John, Coran asked, "What does he mean 'don't forget why I'm here'?"
"You're dead, Coran." John said in his gray voice. John smirked, "It seems Mr. Hatcher has a plan to bring your conscious being back into your body."
"What the hell are you talking about, John?" Coran asked sharply, looking away for a moment as a stinging, high-pitched signal pierced into his ears. When he looked back again, the ringing had disappeared and he was sitting at a booth in Barney's Pub with Jared Frost.
Jared took a long drink of orange juice from the cup in his hands and he smiled to Coran and gave him a slap on the shoulder from across the table. "Don't you remember, pal? You hit the ceiling of that well pretty hard. Ha – WHAM!" He took another drink and Coran just sat there, staring. "I know what you're thinking," he said. "You're wondering how it didn't count – how her efforts didn't work – and why you're still dead after all. Well, sadly, I'm not allowed to break that news to you. You'll find out soon enough. For now, you're dead, Coran, and you're here."
"Yeah, but where is here?"
Suddenly the entire world around him fell back into darkness and he was back on the staircase again; back in the world of starlight and dimly-lit steps. There were no physical beings around him – not that he could see, anyway – but there was a voice coming from all the nothingness. Perhaps it was only in his head, but it said, "This is what comes after death, Coran. Well, the world that comes after death if there's a chance for revival. In your case, Coran, the chance is almost guaranteed, but you're going to have to prove yourself worthy of living in this new world. In my world."
"What the hell are you talking about? This isn't a world at all!"
"Oh, don't get me wrong, Coran. This isn't my world at all – this is the prelude to a world where time isn't needed to save a life; where man's impossibilities are capable of being possible; where angels and demons are more than just civilians of Heaven and Hell. My world, Coran, is a world so far beyond your own world in its capabilities. However, it is still your world in some places – you just need to know what you're looking for."
"Who the fuck are you?"
"I think there are more pressing matters at hand than me, Coran. Watch out for that sword." His voice faded in Coran's ears and was replaced by the sound of a blade cutting through the air. A flicker in the stars reflected off the metal blade and Coran saw a woman clothed in a black rubber suit with fiery red hair and equally red eyes.
He had no visible chance to think, so he simply back-flipped to dodge the sword and, when he was back to his feet, a lightweight sword filled his hands. Against his knowledge, he knew how to use the sword and he parried the woman's sword from his head and swung again.
His sword cut across her rubber suit, tearing it open just above her navel and the cut very quickly reddened with blood. She stopped, saw the wound, and took a moment of pause before jumping…
… where she disappeared into the darkness. The invisible man's voice appeared in Coran's mind one last time and said, "Welcome, Coran Young, to The Realm of One-Thousand Shadows."
The Chaos Theory VII:
The Panic King.
"Well, shit." Morgan Jane groaned as she hoisted her body weight up to level with the retractable cablegun. She found a loose bit of copper piping in the vent shaft and set her foot on it to ease the weight so that, with her free hand, she could tamper with the cablegun.
In her headset, she could hear her sister Shana's voice whisper softly, "What's up?" She didn't answer though – they were both in quiet situations, and this was no matter worth her younger sister's involvement. With one quick jerk of the safety clip on the cablegun, her foot slipped off the copper piping and she resumed her rapid descent into the vent.
The only lighting in the vent was a single glow-stick she had cracked and thrown into the vent moments before. She squeezed the safety clip, slowing her to a stop; her feet only inches above the floor. She pressed button beneath the grip which sent an electric signal to the hook at the very end of the cable. A computer inside the hook registered the signal and straightened the three rounded points of the hook, dropping her the last few inches. She waited until the cable had hit the floor beside her to retract the cable into the cablegun.
As Morgan bent down to lift the glow-stick, Shana spoke into the headset. "I've found it. Or, at least I think I've found it."
"That's good," Morgan said, "just be careful – we should be coming by at any moment, and remember what Dante said; we don't want that to happen." She ducked and turned on her heels, turning on a stainless steel flashlight to illuminate the shaft. Her mind memorized her surroundings – memorized every drop and every loose pipe – and then she turned off the bright light again.
"Are you going to make the run yet?"
Morgan shook her head, "How much time are we guaranteed to take a rest before we do this?"
There was a pause. "Ten minutes. You want to take that time now? I don't mind; I've still got to wait for us to pass by."
"Yeah, I just really need to sit down a minute. I mean, I know that we can do this again if we must, but then we would have to figure out a back-up-back-up plan, and this was hard enough to think up."
"If Coran were here we could just…"
"If Coran were here, Shana," Morgan said slowly, "then we wouldn't even be in this mess. Now hush, I need a moment to myself." She pulled the headset from her ear and set it aside. She could still feel it buzzing as Shana continued speaking, but she didn't care. Right now, all that mattered to Morgan Jane was getting this done and getting it done right. The time-keepers were limited at the moment to only her and her sister, and that was a bit much for her to handle right now.
The entire future was practically at her fingertips, ready to fall away.
How old are you now, babe? It was Michael's voice, but it was in her mind.
She pulled her head out of her hands, staring into the darkness of the area. "I don't know." It was an honest answer – she didn't know what day it was, what time it was, what year it was. September… that was the only answer she could come up with when she even began to wonder what her birthday was.
Where are you from?
"Neb—" she stopped herself, shook her head, and said, "Houston. I'm not from Nebraska City; I'm from Houston, Texas." She couldn't help herself; she smiled, proud of her answer.
Why are you crying?
At this question, she cracked; she had been trying not to, but now the tears flowed freely. She backed her head against the wall of the vent and whispered through silent tears, "Because I want to go home."
Why don't you?
"Because you need me."
She stopped everything – held her breath, controlled the tears – and squinted in the darkness. "Because you're becoming one of them."
One of what?
"Them. An Ajax. You're no longer thinking like a time-keeper; you're letting the power control you."
"You're wrong," Michael said from beside her in the darkness. At first she thought it was her mind playing tricks with her until she felt the warmth of his hand against hers. "I'm still here. I'm still a time-keeper, just like you."
But his presence did not faze her. She still did not believe it was really him, and for this she shoved his hand away. "What will happen to you then?"
"I w.l& fa#l fo. !y m.t.e.'s po.er, b-t yo'll e the one o save $e in the &n."
"He will fl$ !o the power of time and b-ome o!#$ssd. It will $ h#m."
Time is fluctuating… Morgan thought. I know what he's saying, but it's not what I'm supposed to hear… Why? "And what about Dante?"
"His f#re is always !$ging." Michael said plainly. "There# no tell& what will ha& to him#e e$d."
"What about my sister, Shana?"
"She wil# as #ell."
Morgan turned and guessed where his eyes were and she looked into them. "And the world?"
"It will no $$$hange is to come very soon."
"I see," she sat up against the wall again. "And what can I do to stop all this?"
Michael laughed. He laughed until he had faded back into nothingness. Morgan knew what it meant. She knew what he meant…
"Where the hell am I?!" Coran screamed, still jumping. The water had slowly risen to just above his knees, so the jumps were lifting less and less with each effort. But he could see something; some box-like object hanging only maybe six feet above his head, and he thought for a few moments that maybe…
"Good morning, Coran."
"Hello. Who are you?"
"The question isn't 'who am I?', Coran; it is 'who are you?'"
"'Who am I?' Wouldn't you know who I am?"
"I do know who you are, Coran; the question is for you to answer."
"You're not making any sense."
"Be whatever your opinion is, Coran, you have a predicament on your hands. In this well, there is a single trap-door that will allow your escape. Find that door before your time is up, or more than one life may be at risk by your tardiness; yours included, of course."
"How much time do I have?"
"That's the question you have to answer, Coran. Time has always been with you, Coran, but even something as omniscient – as trustworthy – as time can be deceiving."
"Who the fuck are you?!"
"I've allowed a light at the peak of this well, Coran, but with each passing moment, Coran, your heart becomes darker. Wouldn't it be ironic to die in the darkness you have sought after?" … "Good luck."
Sounds. A roar, followed by silence as a powerful downpour of subzero water flooded down his back. At first, his body was forced to the floor, but then the pressure of the water pulled him off the floor urgently. He thrashed violently for something to grab onto to regain control, but found nothing for what seemed hours.
He turned upward, gasping for a breath to scream with. A blinding light, and then…
Silence. Nothing but the darkness he had sought after.
When he came to, Alren was holding him. Here, in The Realm of One-Thousand Shadows. Alren smiled to Coran, resting him against the floor as he stood. "Just don't come after me when you're able to move again. Trust me, Coran, there is no future for you if you go where I'm going."
"Where...?" He tried to ask where his brother was going, but his vision blacked-out on him and his head fell back against the floor and he became unconscious.
Alren crouched down beside Coran and kissed his brother's forehead. "I love you, Coran. I'm just so sorry this all had to happen. But don't worry; I'm taking back what is ours again." With those words, he stood, turned, and approached the Doors of Light and entered the Stairwell of the Faythe. At the top, he knew where fate would bring him, and he knew everything he would need to do to save the world.
He was going to take back what was theirs. But first things first; he would have to rid himself of this new parasite…
"Security breached. All personnel to Hall H-12 for inspection."
The message blared from the intercom amongst the sirens and flashing red lights as Shana and her sister Morgan ran down Hall H-11. On Shana's back she held a very unconscious Alren Young, but she did not complain about his weight as he was the lighter of the two Young brothers. On Morgan's back was Coran. His unconscious weight was pressing hard against her, but she was the stronger of the sisters and did not mind. Frankly, the adrenaline rush as the cabin doors all around her tore open was enough to fuel her to do this for years…
"Coran," Morgan said between breaths, "I know you're not with me right now, but I want you to try your hardest to wake up. If you can hear me, wherever you are, Coran, I want you to wake up!"
The hall was completely white from floor to ceiling, lit by long tubes of bioluminescent lighting, and it was filling very quickly with a deafening clash of all the different sounds around them. The scariest of all sounds, to Shana, was the clear shouting amongst the Ajax soldiers as they shuffled about their rooms gathering weaponry and suiting up to fight their intruders. Little did they know how close they were to their targets.
"We've got to find a more discreet way out of here, Morgan." Shana shouted over the noise. As they ran, she could see inside the bedrooms of the soldiers. She could see beds and dressers and closets and windows; everything so human. But that was just it; they were human – they were no more powerful than she and her sister, but they were somehow seen by them as more superior.
What scared her was how inhumane these humans were trained to be.
And now the panic was beginning to set in. Over and over, Shana could see her and her sister laid out on these polished white floors. She could see the blood blooming out in puddles around their bodies and she could see the two brothers they saved splayed out in the open; vulnerable, edgy.
This triggered her worst-case scenario state of mind, where everything around her looked like a potential weapon she could use to save them. It was here that she began to notice how hollow the floor beneath them sound as they moved. It was here that she remembered the incident when she had been reborn…
Shana Jane opened her eyes, feeling the tingle in her body as her nerves awoke. She could feel cool sweat droplets at her hairline, each slowly connecting with another as she sat up. She was in an ugly white robe – a hospital robe – and she could feel an intense pain in her leg that caused her to grit her teeth and lay back down. Cramp.
What happened to me? Shana asked herself as she tried to ease the growing pain in her leg. Where am I?
She felt a pinching in her wrists and she sat back up when the pain in her leg had subsided. She had an I.V. needle in each wrist, and she very quickly tore them out. Tiny bubbles of blood rose from the two new holes by her hands, but she didn't care. She wanted to leave. Now.
Shana tossed two blankets off her body and rolled her feet to hang over the edge of the bed. Everything was slightly blurry as her eyes adjusted to the bright lights all around her. The room was completely white, and mostly empty, and the floor was cold beneath the touch of her toes. Her bare feet lay solidly on the floor and she pushed the rest of her body weight off the bed, only to fall forward and bang her head on the cool white floor.
From where she lay, she could make out the red light of a recording security camera looking back into her eyes. She squinted and her vision locked onto its lens. She then cocked her head and the lens clicked and fell to the floor and broke.
Did I just do that? No, I didn't. Shana thought as she pushed herself to hands and knees. Right?)
"Wrong." Shana said beneath her breath. She shifted Alren's weight to her right shoulder – the stronger side – and cast out her left hand. The metal base beneath the linoleum floor ripped up, opening a hole in the floor. Shana took Morgan's arm and pulled. The two sisters fell on the floor, sliding like baseball players at the home plate into the hole. As they were offered into the hole, Shana reached out again and pulled the floor closed again, sealing it all back into place as if it had never opened.
They just so happened to have landed at an emergency exit hatch, but there was something wrong already and the sisters noticed right away.
Beyond the glass exit doors, there was blackness. There were stars… and there were planets; planets that were so close to their location that Morgan felt she could just reach out and touch them. This new discovery disregarded and replaced her thoughts toward her sister's new psychic display of abilities – nothing else could possibly be as curious as this.
"Oh, Shana…" Morgan said dazedly, reaching out to press her fingers to the glass. Behind them, Coran and Alren started to fidget from where they sat against the wall. The red alarm lights still flashed and the intercom still told its message of the intruders, but the noises were faded. Everything around them seemed to stop as Morgan and her sister gawked at the new environment.
Shana also pressed her hand to the glass. The door was locked, so she leaned in closer, pushing her whole weight against the glass. "Where…?"
"… where are we?"