The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

The whir of the engine, so sleight I had to strain to hear it over the sound of the other cars on the road, was a comfort as I fled. It felt familiar, a sound that had formed the background to a thousand memories, and seemed to quiet the cacophony of thoughts, filled with memories that jabbered and capered about, each demanding my attention. The contradiction inherent in the comfort—how could this car, with its engine from another universe, be familiar to me?—was something I could ignore while it eased my anguish. But for how long? That thought too was there, lurking beneath these spiraling recollections, these multitudes I suddenly contained that seemed to be fighting to burst free.

I am David Aeida, I told myself, repeating it like an invocation. All of the rest, my garbled memories, the absent knowledge that the High Regent and even the Seeker believed I possessed, would sort itself out given time. Hadn’t the woman told me it would come with time? Meredith had as well. The memory of her false embrace arose in my mind, demanding my attention, though I tried not to think of it, to not replay the moment again and again. Though the memory had no context, it felt like an open wound each time I returned to it, and yet I was compelled to.

Could I trust her now? Who else did I have to trust? She was of the Order, as was I, and, in spite of the embrace, she was the only thing resembling an ally I had.

It took me some time to determine where I was as I drove, but eventually, as I followed the flow of the traffic, I spotted the ocean gleaming in the sunlight and a bridge spanning the bay leading back to downtown. There were mountains behind me to the north and at last I remembered where I was. Vancouver. The Lions Gate Bridge. After the bridge came Stanley Park, a forested peninsula spidered with paths, all of which gave the appearance of leading deep into some world apart.

I pulled off onto some street in the west end of downtown just on the park’s edge, leaving the car there and returning to the park on foot. Before I left it I did a quick search to see if there was anything of use. In the glove box I found what, at a glance, appeared to be a flashlight, though its weight and the feel of the material told me otherwise. There was a small, thin button along one side of its length that could be pressed into the object to activate, though I did no such thing, not wanting to attract any attention. The center console held a tiny box, no bigger than a wallet, with a few wires that extended from it. It looked as though it were a very small voltage meter, or something of this sort, though the box itself had no gauges, or even a switch or button that suggested how it worked.

I studied both tools carefully, unsure of what they were, hoping to spark some memory. When none came I slipped them both in my jacket pockets, thinking that I would ask Meredith what they were when I found her. The thought surprised me, nearly causing me to stop in the middle of the street as I walked away from the car. Was that my plan? Find Meredith. I remembered her words to me the day this madness had started: friends of convenience. Now memory told me otherwise.

I pushed those tangled thoughts from my mind as best I could and made my way to the beach where the sea wall path that wrapped around Stanley Park began. It was filled with people out for a stroll or a jog. I heard at least a half dozen different languages spoken, the strange voices and phrases seeming to mimic the babble of my own thoughts. The sun and the sea air seemed to restore me, at least physically, each step no longer an effort requiring concentration. I began to feel more of myself.

After half an hour or so I began to feel hungry and dizzy, so I found a bench and sat down, watching the passersby and, beyond them, the waves crashing against the sea wall. The rhythm of the sea, the pulse of earth, lulled me and I found myself drifting into sleep and had to shake myself awake. I could not let my guard down, even in this idyllic place. No one had followed me from the building as best I could see, but there was no telling how long the confrontation between the Seeker and the High Regent would last and who would emerge triumphant. Whoever did, they would certainly come looking for me. And I knew of nowhere to hide.

That last fact told me why I had to find Meredith, even if I could not trust her. So long as I was compromised, filled with these disordered half-memories, there was no chance I could fend for myself against the likes of the Seeker or the High Regent. I needed her, as terrible as it was to admit it. Worst of all, I had no idea how to find her in this vast city.

As I mulled these thoughts, the memories which had continued to bubble beneath the surface of my consciousness, evaporated and the void descended upon me. The terrible silence that followed, the ache left by the absence I could almost trace in my mind, landed like a blow. I had to stop myself from crying out, from rising to my feet in panic.

The woman’s face returned to me, calm and gentle, and I could feel her hand upon my arm as she whispered to me, “It will come.”

I am David Aeida, I told myself, trying to breath, trying to stop my hands from shaking. I am David Aeida. It no longer felt true.

As I tried to contain my panic, to stop myself from shaking, or crying aloud, or worse, a voice from on the pathway called out, “Hello David.”

I looked up, terror wrenching my stomach, and saw Meredith looking at me, waiting for me to say something. When I did not reply she walked over and sat beside me on the bench, neither of us looking at the other, our eyes instead on the sea as it crested upon the land.

——–

This is the seventeenth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. The complete work is now available for purchase. See Lost Quarter Books for more information.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

I was still disoriented by the cascades of memories assaulting me, trying desperately to cling to this latest revelation that had sprung forth, only to disappear into the ether, when a scream interrupted my thoughts. All my questions, whether Meredith and I had been lovers, the nature of her betrayal, and how I could have been in the other universe—for there seemed no doubt the palace where we had met was not located in this world—dissolved at the sound. Another scream followed—a woman’s voice—and I knew, with a terrible certainty, that I had to escape now or my life would be forfeit.

I summoned my remaining will, trying to push aside the constant buzzing of my thoughts, the lights ebbing and flowing like the tide in the corner of my eyes, and clambered to my feet. I stood above the chair for a moment, unsteady and feeling ill, before taking a lurching step toward the keypad. It seemed to take hours for me to cross the room to the door, each step a monumental effort from which I had to recover. My body still felt weighted by some obscene gravity—had I been transported somehow to another planet, I wondered—and my thoughts would not go quiet, leaving me to gather and orient myself from moment to moment.

Something like the aftershock of an explosion shook the room, sending me tumbling to floor. I lay cringing on the floor, waiting for the next rumble to overtake me. When none came, I regained my footing and went to the keypad, a burst of adrenaline washing away the numbness from my body, and entered in the code the woman had shown me. After a sickening pause, where I was certain I had been fooled, or simply dreamed it all, the door hissed open and I stepped out into the hallway.

It was empty and exactly as it had been when the High Regent’s people had brought me here. There was no sign of the pitched battle that I had imagined must be occurring between the Seeker and the High Regent. I closed the door to my prison behind me and stood listening, trying to gauge where everyone was and if there was anyone nearby. The corridor was quiet and dim, the building seemed to have gone absolutely still. I thought I could hear the traffic passing by outside on whatever street was nearest.

I tried to retrace my steps, though my recollection of that afternoon was clouded by all the new memories that had emerged, to the back alley, where I was certain the van I had been taken in would still be. I could use it to escape, although I was not sure I could trust myself to walk, let alone drive. Though my thoughts were still confused, unbidden memories paralyzing me at any given moment, my footsteps were steadier with each stride and my confidence in my chances of making good my escape soared.

My growing euphoria lasted until I came to the first intersection and made to turn down a hallway I was certain led to the back of the building, where I ran square into one of the Black Robes as he strode down the corridor. The force of our collision sent me to the ground, scrambling frantically away from him. He grunted in surprise and bent over to seize me by the collar of my shirt and, without breaking stride, dragged me stumbling along behind him. Surprising myself, I cursed him and my misfortune and he glanced down at me and laughed.

He led me to a room near the front of the building, where a wall pockmarked with empty window frames gave me a view of the foyer and the street outside. The sun was bright and I could almost smell the glory of summer and idleness that lay beyond. Such a life was not given to me though, for the Black Robe threw me at the feet of Seeker, who was crouched peering around a doorway from which I could see a corridor leading to a set of stairs.

“I have found the transgressor,” the Black Robe said.

“Yes.” The Seeker did not even glance at me, his alien eyes intent upon the corridor. “I fear they have killed Asdrubal.”

“Let us see them answer for it.”

The Seeker held up a hand. “Patience. They have an unbinder.”

The word sent chills through me, for somehow I knew the portent of doom they held. The Seeker and the Black Robe appeared unconcerned for the moment. They would be; being of the Travelers, it would take something monumental to inflict any damage on their person. The crimes the High Regent had committed were beyond measure here, I realized in a sudden insight. Not only had he transported himself and these others across the universes, he had brought a quantum weapon with him. We lesser mortals were not to possess such weapons, just as we were not to cross over, and to commit both acts at once was so unforgivable that the Society would ensure an example would be made of them.

Why take such a risk? For me, I realized, it was all for me. But what knowledge did I possess that could justify such an undertaking? I searched my mind, my fragmented and chaotic memories, and found nothing that could shed light on that. All I saw within was madness, barely contained, threatening to breach the dike of my carefully constructed being and overwhelm me.

The Seeker motioned for the Black Robe to take his place at the doorway and turned his empty gaze upon me. I flinched at his stare, wanting to turn away, but somehow was compelled to meet his eyes. They seemed to hold infinities.

“So you are with the Regent cult,” he said. “I did not know their infection had spread to this universe as well. What pitiful life did you lead here to cause you to fall sway to their fantasies?”

I swallowed. I did not know what to say but his eyes, his very being, seemed to compel an answer. “I do not remember.”

“Curious,” he said, looking me up and down, as though he had misjudged me and wondered how. “Curious. Why did you try to cross over?”

“I do not remember,” I said. Flashes of memories seemed to blur past and I tried to cling to the images, the scents, the words, but they all disintegrated at my touch. “They tried to get my memory back.”

“When time allows we will see what we can do on that front,” the Seeker said. I found no comfort in the offer. “For now we will deal with your compatriots. Any attempt to stop us would be unwise.”

I nodded, not bothering to tell him that, given I could hardly walk, I was not going to be thwarting anything.

The Seeker turned to the Black Robe and said, “Do you see anything?”

The Black Robe glanced back and shook his head. As he did something like a beam of light captured him and his body went rigid, his face contorting in agony. Moving faster than I had ever imagined possible, the Seeker leapt to the Black Robe and knocked him free of the beam, passing through it himself as he did. Both of them were left writhing on the floor in agony, their mouths open as if to scream or cry, but no sound came forth.

I stared at them in horror, wondering if these were perhaps their death throes. From the stairs above I heard a cry of triumph, cut short by a curt order from Osahi. I waited, but no other sound came from above. It seemed no one was willing to venture below to see if they had, in fact, delivered a killing blow, though the Seeker and the Black Robe remained contorted on the floor. Their convulsions gradually dissipated and the Seeker managed to raise himself to his elbow and looked up the stairs, which were still empty, before turning his gaze to me.

His visage was contorted by the agonies he was suffering, yet somehow remained without emotion, a terrifying combination, and I shivered to witness it. The beam, still visible, transforming the air it touched, divided the room, placing me on one side and him on the other, and our eyes linked through the shimmering air. He seemed unable, for the moment, to do anything and I, sensing my chance, got to my feet and made my way to one of the empty window frames, beyond which lay the foyer and freedom.

His eyes seemed to bore into me, though I could detect no change in their opaque lenses, commanding me to remain where I was. I found myself torn between competing compulsions: the need to obey the Seeker, and the sure knowledge that to remain here a moment longer would be to imperil myself. In the end it was the woman who decided it for me. The memory of her whispered encouragement propelled me forward. I had no idea if it had been her scream I had heard earlier, but I did not want her gift to be in vain. If it was important to her that I escape, then it was important to me.

As the Seeker watched, unmoving, I clambered through the window frame and made my way through the foyer and out to the street and the welcome glare of the sun. I breathed deep of the fresh air, luxuriating in the sensation of being outside. Parked on the street was the silver car I was certain the Seeker and the Black Robes had been driving when they had found Meredith and me in the apartment building. I walked around to the driver’s side and found the door unlocked and slipped inside.

From the outside the car had looked like any other car, but within the dashboard was unlike any I had seen, filled with gauges and screens I could make no sense of. There was no ignition, only a series of buttons where the stereo and dials for the heat and air conditioning would be. I pressed one, trusting my instinct, and the car started, ghostly silent, the engine barely humming. I pulled into traffic and drove away.

——–

This is the sixteenth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

When I awoke next the restraints had been removed from my arms and legs. I tried to get up from the operating table and nearly fell to the floor. Two sets of strong hands seized me by the shoulders and dragged me to a chair someone had brought into the room. I slumped into it, my legs jutting out in odd directions. My body felt leaden, my mind dull and vague, and I briefly wondered if I was still asleep, but dismissed the idea out of hand. This was no dream.

Two other chairs were brought into the room and De Vroes and Osahi sat across from me, their faces grim and strained. Their assistants, the man and the woman, stood on either side of me, ready to act should I attempt anything, though it was clear I was in no shape to do any such thing. The woman was absent, I was certain, though I had been unable to get a good look at the rest of the room as they had transferred me to the chair. Now I tried to focus on De Vroes and Osahi, but my eyes kept wandering and I found myself staring at nothing, my vision a blur.

“Let’s begin,” Osahi said. He had taken off his suit jacket I saw, revealing a finely tailored white shirt, with emerald colored buttons that gleamed. I became entranced by their color, seeing in them the same line of lights that had presaged the return of my self.

Before he could utter another word I announced to the room, in a voice heavy with sleep or drugs, “I am David Aeida, sub-Regent of the One True Church, and you are holding me against my will.”

Osahi raised an eyebrow. “Well, now. Do you know who I am David Aeida?”

I stared at him, confused by the question. I knew him. He was Osahi, the Regent Dick. I wanted to say that to him, but the words were choked in my throat.

“I am Toma Osahi, High Regent of the One True Church. You, sub-Regent, are under my command, and you will remain here until you answer any questions I may have, to my satisfaction. Do you understand?”

“You are acting in contravention of the protocols of the Church, and I will not answer to you,” I tried to say, but my reply was a stream of garbled, stuttered nonsense.

Osahi shared a glance with De Vroes, who leaned forward and said, “Tell us what you remember, David. You are not well. We might be able to help you.”

That was lie, I thought. I was just suffering from the aftereffects of the drugs they had administered and the procedure they had performed on me. I knew who I was with clarity and certainty. I was David Aeida, sub-Regent of the Watcher’s Order. I clung to that singular thought through the buzzing of so many conflicting others that threatened to overwhelm me.

“How were you recruited into the Watcher’s Order?” Osahi said bluntly, dispensing with any pretense.

I stuttered something out, not even sure myself of what I was saying. The High Regent frowned, leaning back in his chair to stroke his chin. I recognized him now: Toma Osahi, High Regent, one of three who administered particular sections of the Church beneath the Grand Regent. Osahi was in charge of the evangelizing projects, so I knew he was operating well beyond his jurisdiction here. I had no need to answer to him, for the Watcher’s Order answered only to the Grand Regent. Not that I was at all capable of such a feat, even had I wanted to.

“What were your responsibilities on this world? Why did you attempt to cross over into ours? What was your purpose?” These questions came from Osahi in staccato bursts, his frustration apparent.

“Your buttons are not the light. The light is in me. It is me. When I see it I will be whole,” I said. “This is not the impossible world. It is out there to be found.”

Osahi raised an eyebrow at my ravings and turned to De Vroes. “How long will it take for him to stabilize?”

The other shrugged. “He may not. Even if he does, it may take days until we know for certain.”

“We don’t have days,” Osahi said, biting off the words.

“I know. This was always the risk with the procedure. But he definitely remembers, that much seems certain. I think if we keep at it we may learn something.”

Osahi nodded and turned his attention to me. “There is no point in trying to hide anything from us. We will find it out given time and I will ensure that we have it. Now tell me, what was your purpose in the Order?”

I shuddered as he spoke. One of the lights, still hovering, just visible, near the edge of my vision, burst into fluorescence. I saw, in an instant, an entire audience with the Grand Regent. I knelt before him, receiving his blessing and welcome to the Holy Order. He had a special mission for me, he said, one of utmost delicacy, which would require the ultimate sacrifice. I am a regent for my true body, I told him, you may do with this flesh as you must.

He thanked me and we were joined by two of his attendants, people I did not recognize, but who I instinctively knew were Acolytes like De Vroes. I followed them to an operating table. Strangely, my perspective on these events was not my own, it came from a place near the operating table, shrouded in darkness. There was something there, almost visible, but I could not bear to look.

Was this dream or memory? As I asked the question, I snapped back into awareness and saw Osahi and De Vroes staring intently at me.

“What do you remember?”

I was given no chance to answer the question, for an alarm began to shriek, echoing throughout the building.

Osahi leapt from his chair, his face gone white, sweat forming on his upper lip. “The Seeker,” he said, to no in particular. His words seemed to paralyze the others and they all stood looking up at the ceiling, as though it might reveal the proper course of action.

“We have to get you out of here,” De Vroes said, breaking the reverie.

“There’s no time,” Osahi said, his composure returning with a shake of his head. “We’ll have to make a stand here.” He turned to me. “How many men were with him?” When I did not answer immediately he grew furious, stomping across the room to loom over where I slumped in the chair. “Answer me. Your life is forfeit here as well. How many men were there?”

“Two,” I managed to say, my voice the barest of whispers.

Osahi nodded, his eyes distant, as though he were performing some sort of calculation. “Come on,” he said, heading for the door and punching in the code. De Vroes followed on his heels and the two assistants grasped me by the shoulders to carry me out.

“Leave him,” De Vroes said. “He’s not going anywhere, and the Seeker may not know he’s here yet.”

They dropped me back onto the chair and hurried after Osahi and De Vroes, sealing the door behind them. The pulse of the alarm seemed to recede, though I knew the volume had not changed. I was simply less present, my jumbled thoughts and memories surging over my consciousness again. I seemed to be both floating and sinking into the chair simultaneously, inhabiting two distinct states of being in the same instant.

The panic I knew I should have been feeling at the news that the Seeker was here failed to arrive. It seemed a distant concern, as opposed to a particularly sharp memory of a sunlit walk down East Main Street toward downtown. I passed by a small bar called the Whip and, at a whim, stopped to have a beer. I sat on the patio watching the passersby, the girls in sun dresses, the hours slipping away.

The cessation of the alarm, and the ominous silence that followed, returned me to my present self, and I realized that I needed to escape this room, that now was my opportunity. It surprised me that they had left me unattended. The Seeker had to be here for me after all, in spite of what De Vroes had said.

This room, though, I remembered something about this room. The plastic sheeting walls and ceiling and floors, they were shields against the Seeker. The room from my audience with the Grand Regent had been the same. He could not track me so long as I remained here, but that mattered little now that he had found this building. Eventually he and the Black Robes would find their way into this room, it seemed to me. And if they did not. Well, it was not as though I wanted to remain the prisoner of the High Regent.

I tried to force myself to stand up, to no avail, my body would not respond. It seemed to take a force of will even to blink or breathe. What had they done to me?

Outside the door I could hear loud voices, sounding dim through the walls, and I ceased all my attempts to get up, my face going flush at the thought of being discovered trying to flee. Perhaps it was better to remain where I was for the moment, I told myself. But the woman had shown me the code. My thoughts were sluggish, piecing things together in agonizing slow motion. This might be the distraction she had intended me to take advantage of.

As my mind warred at itself, one thought compelling me to rise, the next to remain inert, further shouts and some muffled crashes reached my ears. The origin of these noises was unclear to me, but I thought it unlikely that it was coming from directly outside the door. I imagined a battle between Osahi, and his followers, and the Seeker, and his black robed minions, taking place from room to room above me, until one side lay vanquished, their blood staining the floors. I wondered what weapons they might be using and could not remember. Swords, revolvers. There was a blank where the thought should be.

The gap troubled me for some reason and, as I worried at it, another flash of memory blinded me. I saw myself walking down a narrow corridor, one I had traversed endless times. The building it was located in would not come to me, but I knew it was a massive and forbidding structure. A mansion or a palace. Why I was there and where I was going—those details were absent, all context stripped from the memory, leaving only this precious shard. The smell of the place, a hint of lavender and ostentation, was heavy on my nostrils now. The feel of the carpet beneath my feet and the cool recycled air were palpable to me, left here in this hot, miserable place.

As I walked down the corridor I encountered someone—a woman, whose face was obscured somehow. I blinked, trying to bring her into focus, to no avail. We embraced, a lover’s embrace, passion and desire coursing through me. But not her. I could feel her distance from me, and I understood—this was the exact moment of my revelation—that she would betray me. As we disentangled from each others arms, I looked into her eyes to see if her treachery was visible there. But her face was emotionless, masked with an expression I knew only too well, for the obscurity of memory had dissolved, and it was Meredith staring back at me.

——–

This is the fifteenth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

I felt adrift, unmoored from all sense of myself, awake one moment and unconscious the next, unable to distinguish between the two. De Vroes appeared from time to time to check on my vitals and to administer further drugs, plunging me further into this disorienting sea of darkness. There were storm is the distant murk, filled with vague flashes of light, creeping across the periphery of my vision. The lights were blue and green, edged with gold, shaped into a line of thin circles with frayed edges, that went bright and dim and bright again. They were above and then below, always on the very edge of my vision, no matter how I strained to catch a clear glimpse. Within the circles of light I was certain I could see images and details, but no matter how hard I tried they would not come into focus.

I lapsed into a deeper reverie, and awoke sometime later to find myself alone still strapped to the table. My body ached from being constrained in one position for so long, but it was a dull pain, distant from my other sensations. I could not seem to feel the table or see the room properly, it was as though I was floating in another dimension only tenuously connected to this one.

The woman stood over me, though I had not noticed her enter the room. Perhaps she had been there all along. Her face seemed more familiar now; I knew that I had seen her somewhere before, though I could not yet place where. The memory was so tantalizingly near I could almost feel it, as if the thought had gained substance. She leaned in so that her face almost brushed against mine and I could feel her breath upon my lips, as her eyes sought my depths.

“What do you remember?” she whispered.

It was not a demand, as Osahi and De Vroes’ questions had been, it was an entreaty and I felt compelled to answer. I tried to summon my thoughts, to command my memories forth from the void where they had been imprisoned. The void remained, a place of darkness, empty and showing no signs of anything being hidden there. Just as I began to despair and to stutter forth a reply to her question, the lights became visible again at the bottom corner of my eye, growing brighter and larger, until they burst forth at the center of my vision, unfurling like a flower going into bloom. They took form and shape and became memories, thoughts, my being, all of myself returning at once in a blinding torrent. It was so fast, such an assault that I found myself gasping for breath.

“What do you remember?” she said again, putting her hand on mine to calm me.

Everything, I wanted to say to her, but was unable to. There were multitudes within me, bursting to life, with the promise of more to come, but there was no sense to it, no coherence. An image here, a scrap of conversation there, familiar faces without names. It was all too much, I did not have the means to process it at once. The woman squeezed my hand and said, “It will come.”

“I know who I am,” I said, finding my voice at last, for I had seen myself in amidst all the other recollections and at last my self-image had footing.

“Yes,” she said. “Who are you?”

“David Aeida,” I said with conviction. “I am David Aeida, sub-Regent of the Watcher’s Order.”

“It will come,” she said and smiled, releasing my hand. I closed my eyes, trembling, tears threatening to burst forth. It felt so good, was a relief beyond measure, to know with a certainty who I was. The feeling of dislocation, of not being myself, of my face and thoughts all being false, had gone, replaced by this sort of jagged madness. But as the woman said, it would come, the pieces would find their proper order.

I tried to speak, wanting to express my thanks to her, for helping, even as I wondered why she was and why I trusted her so absolutely. I knew her, that was why, though I could not recall her name or how our paths had crossed. That did not explain my trust though, for she was here, in league with subversives, intent on thwarting the Grand Regent. I wrestled with my mind, trying to find some memory, however slender that would shed light on this apparent contradiction, but none was forthcoming.

As I opened my mouth to talk, she put a finger to her lips and gave a shake of her head, nodding to the ceiling, suggesting we were being monitored. She leaned in close, as though to give me a kiss on the cheek, and whispered in my ear, “Remember.”

As she said it she glanced toward the door and then walked over to it. My eyes followed her and I watched as she stepped aside, giving me a clear view of the keypad, and typed in the code. The door hissed open and she walked out, at the same time as De Vroes walked in, the two of them sharing a barely acknowledge glance. De Vroes turned and watched the door shut, ensuring that it was locked, wanting to be certain she was gone before proceeding.

“You’re awake I see,” he said, turning his attention to me. I tried to speak, but my mouth was dry and my tongue heavy, and when I tried to talk my words were slurred and garbled. De Vroes paid no attention to me, turning to the counter, filling a needle with another of his elixirs. He peered into my eyes as he injected me and said, as I began to blink and drift into that unsteady darkness, “What do you remember?”

 

——–

This is the fourteenth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

His name, he told me, was De Vroes, though I doubted that was the truth. He had begun with questions which, when my answers proved unsatisfactory, led to him calling in his companions from the van. They held me down on the operating table, strapping me in, while he injected me with a blue serum. I could feel its effects immediately, a tightening of my muscles and a loss of equilibrium, so that at various times I felt as though I was standing and about to fall down, others as though I was floating above the table where I lay. De Vroes peered into my pupils to assure himself the drug was working and proceeded to ask me the same questions again.

I do not know what I said in reply. I babbled and muttered, raved like a lunatic, spoke endless untruths. This perplexed De Vroes and the other two to no end. They injected me again, with no change in my answers, and did various readings of my body’s responses, which only left them more confused. I was as baffled as they were, for I had lost all command of my faculties. My awareness was shuttled aside by another, and I was forced to watch as something within me spoke things that were not in my own thoughts.

De Vroes came to same conclusion, having exhausted his patience with his questioning. “There are two possibilities,” he said to the others, “He is a Mask, or he has been made not to know.”

“Why would they strip his mind?” the woman said.

“Intriguing isn’t it?” De Vroes said. “We will find out soon enough.”

They all left the room, leaving me strapped to the operating table, the effects of the drug slowly dissipating, my mind gradually returning to me. As I lay there, trying not to dwell on what might happen to me upon their return, my thoughts turned to my newfound ability to speak this strange language, a language from another universe. I had spoken it with ease, even my unintelligible ravings had largely been in that unfamiliar tongue, and now I found my thoughts were being formed in it, English slowly receding to the background.

Was this, I wondered, a sign that my memory was returning? It seemed clear that it must be, yet no other memories came with the return of, what I assumed to be, my native tongue. But was it? De Vroes had said I showed no sign of having crossed over from whatever universe they came from, but Meredith had said that we had come here together. Who to trust? De Vroes and the Regent Dick had plainly been surprised to discover that I was native to this world and had no reason I could discern to lie about it, so it seemed obvious that Meredith had led me astray.

Something had been done to me, that much seemed clear. My ravings suggested a defense mechanism, put in place to guard whatever lay below it in my mind. Add to that my multiple amnesias and the constant sense I had of dislocation from this body. It was not my own. The thought left in despair and I pushed it aside. Some disconnect had been created within me and I had to find out what it was and who had done it. It seemed an impossible task.

De Vroes and the two others returned while I was in the midst of these thoughts. The woman, who had been present during the procedure, and who I had begun to suspect was a hallucination, was with them as well, though I hardly noticed her. My attention was on the black orb that entered with them, floating beside De Vroes, near his shoulder. As it came closer I saw that it was not black, but rather the same deep violet color of the Seeker’s eyes, absorbing, not reflecting, the light. The orb was making a sound like a rasping breath being drawn in and out, a being in its last moments. Like myself. I began to struggle against my bonds.

De Vroes set up a screen on the counter, angling it so I could not see, and tapped away on it, glancing from time to time at the orb. His two assistants set to work on the table, cranking it until it stood almost perpendicular to the floor and the orb descended to my eye level. I turned away from it, wincing at the thing’s breathing. Was it somehow alive? The woman gave me a grim smile, as she checked my bonds and told De Vroes all was ready. The other woman had gone to stand in the corner where I could not see her. I felt her presence behind me though, it was palpable, her watchful eyes taking in the whole scene, her silence weighing on the shoulders of the three who busied themselves in their preparations.

When everything was set up to De Vroes’ satisfaction he turned his attention to me, standing behind the orb where had a clear view of the screen, motioning for his assistants to stand on either side of the table. He began to ask me the same questions as before and I answered them as I had when the Regent Dick had been asking them, with a mixture of truth and evasion. I really did know nothing about the Church of the Regent and the Grand Regent, presumably its leader. Nor did I know anything about the Society of Travelers or Seekers or any of the rest, beyond what Meredith had told me, and I did not trust anything she had said.

This time De Vroes paid little mind to what I said. When he asked me—“What is your involvement in the Watcher’s Order?”—he did not even look at me as I told him I had never heard of such a thing, his eyes intent on the screen. What did I know of the purge of the High Regents and what had my involvement been in it?

“How could I be involved in something over there if I’ve never left here?” I said to De Vroes, who did not even bother to acknowledge my question, continuing to ask me more specifics about the Watcher’s Order and whether my attempted return was somehow involved in its machinations.

“What is your purpose here?” he said again, having gone through all the questions he had asked before.

“To live and die like anyone else.”

He pursed his lips as he studied the screen, glancing up at his subordinates to say, “Get Osahi. He will want to see this.”

The man left and returned a moment later with the Regent Dick, still resplendent in his suit. “What have you found?” he said, as he entered the room.

“He’s been scraped. He really does remember nothing.”

Osahi nodded, putting a finger to his chin. “Could it be a tamp?”

“It’s possible,” De Vroes said. “We’d need to go in. See what we can find.”

I looked from one man to the other, feeling very much like a frog about to be dissected. They paid no attention to me, Osahi taking a moment to study the readout on the screen De Vroes had set up. I thought I could sense the woman behind me, leaning forward from her corner to ensure she did not miss a single nuance of what was said.

“Do it,” Osahi said, glancing up from the monitor.

“There’s a risk. We may lose him in the procedure.”

I felt lightheaded as Osahi considered this. “No. We need to know what he knew and why they tried to bring him over. How soon can you begin?”

“Within the hour.”

“Good,” Osahi said, turning to leave the room. “Complete the procedure as soon as you can. I fear that we don’t have much time.”

“You think they will find us? There was only one woman with him.”

“Something went wrong clearly, but the more time we give them, the more time they will have to counter us. Whatever this man knows, it is important. The Grand Regent will respond with all the resources at his disposal. I do not need to remind you how considerable those are, or how meager our own are.”

“No,” De Vroes said. “I will start within the hour and we will be done in three, four at the most.”

“Good,” Osahi said. He punched in the code to open the door and paused for a moment on the threshold.

“I cannot be discovered here or all is lost,” he said, looking from face to face in the room before stepping outside, the door hissing shut behind him. There was a long pause as De Vroes and his two assistants stared at the door, the weight of the moment clear on their faces.

De Vroes turned to look at me and said, “Let’s begin.”

——–

This is the thirteenth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

At some point I drifted from consciousness and when I awoke I had been released from the chair and my clothes returned to me. I was alone in the room, curled uncomfortably in the corner, as far from the operating table and counter as possible. The room was dark, but when I sat up, trying to work the kinks from my neck, the lights clicked on. The lower part of my back was still in agony from the injection I had received, pain radiating from it at the slightest motion on my part.

I ignored it as best I could, forcing myself up onto my unsteady feet so that I could investigate my surroundings. I went to the door first, confirming it was locked, and studied the keypad, quickly realizing I had no hope of figuring out the code. Instead I turned my attention to the counter where I saw several needles of various sizes and a machine, not unlike centrifuge, filled with empty vials. A screen was connected to it, providing a readout of some sort, but I could make sense of none of the numbers or measures.

As I squinted at the machine, trying to get a better sense of what it did, the door hissed open and the doctor entered, along with another man. Though his features were unfamiliar I had a very strong sense that this was the stranger who had been present while the doctor performed his procedure. I was disappointed that the woman was not with them, for she was the one who I wanted to speak with. The doctor sealed the door and they both approached me warily, unsure of what to expect.

“David? That is your name?” the stranger said to me and I nodded. “Good. We have some questions for you.”

“And why would I answer them?” I said, throwing my head up in what I hoped was a gesture of defiance.

“I think you’ll find your stay here more pleasant if you do.”

I shrugged as if I could care less. Unlike the doctor, who was dressed more or less as I was, the stranger wore a powder blue suit that put me in mind of a grandee at some eighteenth century court, ostentatious and encumbering. It appeared to me to be a uniform, clearly signaling his position to all who laid eyes on it, though I had no idea what authority it represented. Clearly he expected me to be familiar with it, judging by his manner.

“And what do I call you?” I said.

“My name is not important,” he said with a smile.

“Dick it is,” I said in reply, surprising myself and him.

“Very funny,” he said. “Are we through with the juvenile games?”

“When I am, you’ll be the first person I let know, Dick.” I had no idea where this bravado was coming from, for I felt none of it.

He looked at me grimly. “I am not a patient man, so I will ask you these questions only once and I expect helpful answers. You are from this universe and you have never left it?”

“To the best of my knowledge,” I said with a smile.

The man glanced at the doctor who said, “It’s like I said. The results were very clear. His spinal fluid has none of the markers from a crossing.”

“What is your involvement in the Church of Regents?” the man said, turning his attention back to me.

“First I’ve heard of it, Dick.” I said.

He smiled thinly. “I find that doubtful, given that we saw you in the company of one of their agents.”

“It’s the truth. Besides, you don’t even know who I was with.”

This seemed to take him by surprise and he glanced at the doctor, who said, “I saw her in the market.”

“Probably,” I said, smiling at them both. “But you don’t know who she is. Just like you don’t know who I am. And I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m clearly not what you expected, so maybe you’ve got the wrong man.”

The man laughed, though there was no mirth in the sound. “Yes, the Seeker just happens to be following the two of you wherever you go. What a marvelous coincidence. Do you really think you are the only ones with Society contacts? We know who has crossed over to this side. We know you tried to cross over there. And you speak the language of the Church. Do you take us for fools? The Grand Regent has badly overestimated us, just as he has greatly overestimated his own importance to the True Faith.”

I shrugged my shoulders, looking past the two of them. The situation was growing more absurd by the moment. I was answering the man’s questions as truthfully as I could, but my honesty could only sound evasive to them. I was not about to admit that I had no memory of who I was or what had happened, though they might get it out of me eventually if they were as willing and persistent as they let on. It all depended on how valuable I was to them. Given there were two groups—that I was aware of—along with whoever Meredith was allied with, who wanted me in their possession, I decided I was valuable enough they wouldn’t try anything too extreme.

“Sounds like just the sort of thing a heretic would say, Dick,” I said to him.

I could sense him trying to choke back his fury, but it was not to be contained. “I did not cross over here, at considerable risk to my person and my standing, with the damn Society willing to burn the very ground we stand on, to be insulted by the likes of you. You are exactly what is wrong with the Church. The Grand Regent may only value loyalty and servility, but I work for a higher calling.”

He was out of breath by the time he finished and he did not wait for a reply, storming from the room, ordering the doctor to see that I provided some answers as he went. As soon as we were alone the doctor smiled and said, “You should have been more compliant with the High Regent. He is not used to dirtying his hands. I am though. So let us begin.”

——–

This is the twelfth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

Awareness returned slowly. I was lying upon the table, my body in restraints. I felt distant from myself, as though I were standing in another room viewing the scene through a window. Someone was moving around me, passing from the operating table to the counter and back again. An implement of some sort was picked up or set down, and felt myself wincing in response. I opened my eyes, but I still could not see and when I attempted to move my body did not respond.

“Did he have any ID on him?” The voice sounded very near, just off to the left of my head. It was a man’s voice but I did not recognize the speaker.

“Yes. Joseph Aurellano. I have Aleksandra and Martin looking into it. I doubt they’ll find anything. The Order is very thorough about these things.”

That voice I did recognize. It belonged to the man who had intercepted me in the market. He was standing by the counter doing something with whatever implement he had moved earlier. Desperately I tried to recall what had been lying on the counter when they brought me in, but all I could see was his face looming over me, his eyes on the needle he was inserting into my arm.

“It makes one wonder how we ever found out about him.”

“Too good to be true, you think?” the first man said. He moved from the counter to the operating bed, hovering over me.

“Did you see who he was with?” the stranger said. It seemed clear that he was in command.

“Not really. A woman. Whoever it is, she won’t have her own face.”

“Does he?” As he spoke, he gestured toward my prone body. My awareness seemed to expand a moment later, though I still could not see and only dimly hear. Yet I could visualize both men studying me from above. The first man, the doctor, I thought, was holding something in his hands though I could not quite make it out. As I watched him, bracing myself for whatever was to come, I became aware of the presence of a third person in the room standing off to the side, near the door. It was a woman and she watched the proceedings with a skeptical eye.

“No,” the doctor said. “Near as I can tell he is the man he was when he was born. If anything was done to him it was by someone far better than me.”

“Strange that they would send someone here on their own face.”

The doctor grunted, busy with whatever implement he had at hand. I felt something pierce my spine where it met my buttocks and could feel the doctor’s careful, guiding hand pressing it deeper. I screamed, no sound emerging except in my mind where it echoed loudly until the pain drowned out all my senses and I lost consciousness.

The doctor was speaking when I came to. It felt as though only a few seconds had passed, though I had no way of knowing for certain. Time seemed as distant and mercurial as my body. He had begun to slowly retract whatever had penetrated my spine and the slow burn of agony inflamed my thoughts.

“We’ll know soon enough,” he said. “What do you want done with him in the meantime?”

The other man considered this for a moment. “Let’s wait until the results are in before we do anything. You’ll have to keep him in here or the Seeker will be on us.”

“Yes. I’ll just keep him under.”

“Good. I’m going to let the others know about our progress. Keep me informed.”

A moment later I could hear him entering the code for the door, which opened with a hiss of air. A satisfied beep announced when it had been sealed again. The doctor did not look up from his task, moving from where I lay to the counter where he busied himself with some equipment. He hummed as he worked while I tried again to move. My body still did not respond, though it ached from whatever had been done to me, a throbbing pain that showed no signs of subsiding.

He injected me again, this time in the shoulder, and the void descended for a time. When I emerged from it the doctor was still humming, busy at the counter, though I had the sense a great deal of time had passed and he had left and returned. He paid no attention to me, not even glancing in my direction, his focus solely on the device on the counter. I could see him more clearly than before, though my eyes still would not open. It was the difference between dream and waking, though surely this was some manner of dream, for I was standing watching him intently from the far corner of the room.

“How is that possible?” the doctor said to himself, turning to look at me. As he did my point of view evaporated and I returned to the operating table, my vision reduced to intuition and insinuation.

“Who are you?” he said in a wondering tone.

I had two revelations almost simultaneously after his question. The first was that the words he was speaking, as well as his earlier conversation, had all been in the language the Seeker had whispered his threat in. Yet, somehow, I understood every word. The second was that the woman remained in the room—had she been here all this time?—silent and watchful, awaiting the outcome of whatever tests the doctor was running. She was the key to my predicament, I understood. If I wanted answers I would have to find a way to speak with her.

——–

This is the eleventh part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten (Part Two: The Church of the Regents)

“Not a word,” the man said, his breath moist on my ear, as he guided me through the crowd toward the warehouse door. He had removed his hand from my throat, but the gun remained pressed against my back. I craned my head as we went, trying to catch Meredith’s eye before I disappeared. It had only taken an instant for us to be separated and the man to intercept me, though it felt as though minutes were passing with each breath. I caught sight of Meredith as we came to the door, frantically scanning the crowd trying to find me and I opened my mouth to call out to her.

“Don’t even think about it,” the man said, grabbing my arm and brutally wrenching it, causing me to gasp in pain.

He shoved me out the door just as I thought I saw her catching sight of me with my assailant, a look of horror on her face. That was the last I saw of her, for as we stepped outside the back door to the van was thrown open and two others emerged, seizing my arms and dragging me within. The first assailant shut the door behind them and got into the front passenger seat just as the van started to drive away.

The sudden motion of the van sent me tumbling forward onto my stomach and one of the two kidnappers jumped on top me, pinning me to the floor of the van as the other tightened a plastic zip tie around my wrists. When I was secured to their satisfaction they sat on either side of me watching with some amusement as I struggled to turn myself over. I ended up with my back against the metal divider that separated us from the front of the van, creating a rear compartment sealed entirely from the outside world. There were no windows and the only light was provided by a square bulb at the center of the roof. It was also the only furnishing, the walls and floor bare metal.

The van took a left and then a hard right and began to pick up speed, spilling me onto my side in the process. After I had righted myself again I turned my attention to my captors. One was a woman and the other a man, both blank-faced and nondescript. By the set of their shoulders I guessed they were capable of handling themselves in a way I clearly was not. Neither of them so much as glanced at me, nor did they say anything to each other.

I tried to think of somethingto say to break the silence, perhaps draw them out and determine who they were. I had to assume they were a new entrant to the field of those interested in my lost self. The look on their faces told me that conversation would not be advisable, and nothing came to mind that would lead to any fruitful discussion on the matter of my kidnapping, so I kept my counsel for the moment. The van took some more turns, but I stopped paying attention, having no sense of what direction we were going.

Our journey did not last long, no more than fifteen minutes by my best estimate, each more agonizing than the last. The grim silence and emotionless expressions of my assailants felt more and more ominous as my mind, left to its own devices, began to imagine the increasingly elaborate torture I was about to be subjected to. The woman, perhaps sensing my growing distress, looked at me from the corner of her eyes and smirked, the mocking grin vanishing when the man saw it and glared at her, both resuming their stony countenances. I had a sudden, desperate urge to urinate, my bladder aching and my legs trembling as I fought to keep control of my body and avoid that final humiliation.

I was so focused on my fear of soiling myself I failed to notice the van had come to a halt, until the woman got up to the open the door. The man dragged me from its confines, not caring when I hit my head on the roof. We were parked in an alley outside a bland suburban office building whose windows were dark. I thought about crying out to see if anyone was nearby who might help, but both the man and the woman seized me firmly by the arms and the thought made me cringe, knowing they would not hesitate to inflict some damage upon me. The driver and the man who had taken me from the market fell in behind, no one speaking as we entered via the loading dock, someone inside buzzing us in.

As with the van, the building’s interior had been stripped bare, even the doors had been taken from their hinges, leaving only empty rooms and bare walls. There was the odd bit of refuse inexplicably left behind that hinted at the former life of the place: a pile of keyboards in a corner here, a cubicle wall in the middle of the floor there, and a box full of pens and staplers thrown at random in another room. These accoutrements of a mundane past only added to my growing sense of horror as we moved into the center of the building near the elevators, which stood open-mouthed and leering at our passage.

The wrongness of the place was confirmed as we came to a room that did have a door. It was heavy looking and impenetrable, having clearly been added after the building had been gutted, no doubt by its present occupants. A keypad was mounted on the wall beside the door and the woman punched in a code, the buttons producing odd tones as she pressed them, to unlock it. Air hissed out as the door slid open and I was dragged within.

The atmosphere in the room was of a hospital, arid and sterile. The floor, the walls, even the ceiling, had been covered with what appeared to be a thin plastic sheeting. However, it did not feel thin or plastic as I stepped on it, it felt as though I was stepping on nothing, an absence. That sensation, eerie and indescribable, was soon forgotten as I noticed the operating table at the center of the room. I went stiff at the sight of it and my two keepers had to drag me to it.

They forced me to sit on its edge, holding me there as I tried several times to get up. It was very thin, made from a kind of plastic that was almost translucent, contoured to match the shape of a body. It was designed to be laid upon face down, with metal restraints ready to be snapped in place over the arms, legs, waist and neck. There was a crank mechanism at one end, apparently allowing the table to be flipped so that either side of the patient could be accessed with ease.

“Breath. Slowly.” the woman said to me and I realized that I was hyperventilating, my whole body shaking in terror. She and the man looked on unconcerned as I struggled to regain my equilibrium, their arms crossed over their chests, ready to respond to any aggression on my part in a moment. Behind them was another man, the driver, or the one who had caught me in the market, the fourth person not joining us in the room. He busied himself at a nearby counter, which I had failed to notice earlier, drawing some fluid into a needle.

“I’ll need you to take your clothes off,” he said, as he tapped at the needle to get an air bubble out. I did not respond, staring straight ahead, hearing the words but not understanding them, a catatonia seizing me.

“Very well,” he said and waved a hand at my two keepers. They took hold of me again, forcing me down on the table. I fought against them, a frenetic energy seizing my body, which still felt numb and distant from my person. They kept me in place as the man injected me, reflexively patting my arm where the needle pierced my skin. I continued to struggle, kicking out blindly, trying to strike one of them, but they avoided my blows with ease until I could feel my body beginning to slow, my control of its functions slipping.

Blackness descended over my eyes, like a blind being drawn across them, and a loud hum rose in my ears. I lost all feeling in my body not long after, though I could still somehow feel the man who held my arms recoiling from me and hear as he said, “Damn it, he’s pissing himself.”

I wanted to laugh, but oblivion seized me.

——–

This is the tenth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten

The tension did not leave me as the platform disappeared from view, replaced by a checkerboard vista of streets filled with house, stretching on for what seemed an endless distance. The people around me on the train seemed to press closer and closer, especially after the next stop as more passengers got on. I shuddered at their inadvertent touch, wanting to shove back at those whose arms and backs were pressed against mine. My life is in danger, I wanted to cry out. The dull and distant expressions on everyone’s faces told me how that would be received. I would just be another of the train’s discomforts that had to be endured.

My phone vibrated in my hand, a text from Meredith: In the next car. Did you get on alright?

Yes. But the Seeker saw me, I replied.

Her reply, instantaneous, hinted at her anxiety: Did they get on the train?

I told her they had not, my hands shaking as I tapped at the phone. My face felt flush and feverish, my forehead damp with sweat. There was a knot in my stomach, clenching and unclenching. I began to worry that the other passengers were watching me, noticing my distress, and wondering what was wrong with me.

The phone vibrated again. Good, Meredith said. We’re riding to the end of the line. I glanced up at the transit map above the door and counted the stops left—five it appeared—and tried to focus on my breathing. I relaxed, ignoring everyone around me, being pushed and pulled as though I was adrift at sea, without purpose.

My mind would not stay quiet for long, the lingering glance of the Seeker resurfacing in my thoughts. What had he been thinking in that moment? If I had to guess I would have said that he was indifferent to my escape. There was patience there, a knowledge of an inevitable conclusion. In due time he would run me to ground. I felt that inevitability as well. Even if we managed to slip this particular chase, we would have to stop at some point and he would find us again, just as he had this morning. There seemed no point in running, which made me wonder why Meredith was. She would know how hopeless our situation was. Unless there was something she was not telling me.

After the second stop the train dropped from its perch above the streets and entered a tunnel. The closing off of the view only served to deepen my despair, so that by the time the train had reached the end of the line I was prepared to simply wait upon the platform for the Black Robes to come and seize me. Why prolong this misery further? I did not know who I was, could not begin to understand the situation I found myself in, and I had no hope of escape.

Meredith sensed my desperation when she found me in the swirling mass of people entering and exiting the train. She grabbed me by the arm, pulling me forward. “What’s the matter?” she hissed in my ear.

Why run?” I said to her, paying no attention to where she was leading me. “They’re just going to find us again, right?”

Yes,” she said. “But we can’t face them here.”

We can’t do anything to stop them, can we?” I said, shrugging off her arm and stopping. “The men with the Seeker are trained, aren’t they? They can handle us easily. The Seeker too.”

Meredith turned and looked at me and for once I saw her true face, lined with worry and doubt. “Look,” she said, “this is bad. There’s no doubt. I don’t know if we can survive. Maybe if you had your memory back. Maybe. But we can’t do anything here. Our only hope is to keep moving and wait for our chance.”

What chance is that?”

I don’t know,” she said. “But we have to try.”

She turned and walked away, heading toward the harbor front where a small ferry was docked. “Come on,” she said, not even bothering to look back to see if I was coming. Her bluff had the desired effect and I set off after her. What else could I do after all, but try and hope that my memory returned to me in time?

The ferry took us across the bay to the north side of the city. We disembarked at a busy pier, filled with restaurants, bars and tourist shops all housed in a single complex that looked out across the water at downtown. Meredith led me through the complex, glancing at the various food stands as though she were deciding what she wanted to eat. Behind the dockside building was a former warehouse that had been converted into a farmer’s market, crammed with produce stands. Even though it was early in the morning the place was filled with people.

We joined the flow of people as they moved through the stalls, Meredith seeming to be in no rush, which I found strange given we had only a five to ten minute lead on the Seeker, assuming he had taken the next train. She glanced at her phone as we went, nodding to herself, and said to me, “There might be someone here who can help us. Keep your eyes out for the glassworks. His place is beside it.”

I nodded, joining her in looking from side to side. We came to end of the warehouse and turned to go down the next aisle. There was a door open to the street and a grey van was parked at an odd angle outside, hazard lights blinking. Something about it seemed out of place to me and I stopped for a moment to study it. A busy cafe occupied that corner of the warehouse and people crowded around, as they waited for their coffee and pastries, or deciphered the handwritten menu on the chalkboard above the stand.

Just as I started forward, pushing the van from my mind, a large group of people came around the corner, cutting into the flow of traffic and separating me further from Meredith, who had her eyes on her phone. She hadn’t noticed that I stopped, and I was about to call out to her, when a hand was clenched around my throat and what felt like the barrel of a gun was pressed against my back.

You’re coming with me,” a man said.

——–

This is the ninth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten

I lay still for several moments as I tried to judge whether I was still in the midst of a dream or truly awake. My utter exhaustion, and my sense that I had not slept at all, decided it for me. It was impossible, I thought, to be this tired in a dream. The smell of instant oatmeal and coffee reached my nostrils, stirring my stomach and driving me from bed. I found Meredith in the kitchen, sitting at the small table eating the oatmeal she had prepared.

 

“Coffee’s on and there’s more porridge. Might be cereal too, if that’s more your thing. Eat quick, we don’t have much time.”

 

I nodded, not bothering to reply, my mind still mired in a fog. After I had finished with my breakfast she handed me a toothbrush and toothpaste, still in their packaging. I stared at, wondering how she could have known to bring it with her yesterday.

 

“I picked it up first thing this morning,” she said, by way of explanation. “If you want a shower be quick. I want to be out of here in the next half hour.”

 

We were out the door before eight, Meredith alert and watchful as we went down the stairs, while I still felt groggy and unable to fully awaken. We arrived at the Ivanhoe’s entrance just as a vehicle pulled to a stop in the loading zone out front. Even in the dim morning light, clouds heavy with rain obscuring the sky above, I could see the stern faced Black Robes. I gasped aloud, the fog in my mind lifting in an instant, though it was replaced by a terrified paralysis that left me standing exposed in the foyer.

 

The arrival of our hunters had not escaped Meredith’s notice; she shoved me against the wall as she dug into her jacket, pulling out the two buttons we had used yesterday. I reached out to take one from her, but she brushed my hand away and set them on the floor by our feet. We stood by them for several agonizing seconds as I watched the Black Robes get out of their silver car, before fleeing back down the hallway to the building’s rear entrance and into the alley. With Meredith in lead, we ran to the narrow lane that cut between the buildings opposite the Ivanhoe, crossed the street, and cut through two more apartment complexes.

 

The ground sloped sharply as we went and I nearly tumbled headlong into Meredith, catching myself just in time. There was a wooden slat fence behind the apartments, running alongside the alley atop a retaining wall, leaving a steep drop to a pathway below. Meredith did not break from her loping pace as she came to the fence, pulling herself up and over in one smooth motion. She dropped down to the pathway below, disappearing from my sight. I stopped as I came to fence, which rose up well above my head, unsure of how to get myself over it in this body which felt so unfamiliar.

 

“Come on,” Meredith hissed to me from where she crouched, the urgency in her voice doing nothing to alleviate my anxiety.

 

I glanced over my shoulder to assure myself that no pursuit had arrived and saw only a woman, in a faded pare of pajamas, watching me with some curiosity from her balcony. That spurred me to action; I clambered up the side of the fence, awkwardly swinging one leg after the other over and sliding down so only my fingertips were touching its top. At that point I let go, landing heavily on the ground and stumbling backwards, wrenching my ankle in the process. Meredith stared at me, amazed at my clumsiness, and shook her head before starting down the alley at a trot.

 

We emerged onto another sleepy street and Meredith slowed her pace to a brisk walk, pulling me up alongside her so that we looked like a couple out for morning stroll. I felt as though people were watching us from every window and balcony, each parked car filled with black robes waiting to signal to the Seeker. I could not resist looking around to confirm my suspicions.

 

Meredith squeezed my hand hard, causing me to grimace. “Stop it,” she said with a glare. “Just look straight ahead.”

 

I forced myself to follow her orders, keeping my head down and my eyes upon the square of concrete just ahead of my feet. We walked to the end of the block and turned the corner onto another innocuous street, this one ending at a large apartment complex that ran for most of the block on the street that ran perpendicular to the one we were one. There were no cars or people about, the only sound reaching my ears the hum of traffic somewhere in the distance, but the calm seemed deceptive, a trick of nature designed to ensnare me.

 

Meredith seemed unconcerned and she led me by the arm down the gravel driveway leading to the complex’s car park at the same easy, maddening pace, my whole being crying out that we should be running, though where I couldn’t say.

 

Sensing my distress, Meredith said, “They don’t know what we look like and they didn’t get a good look at us yesterday. So just don’t draw attention and we’ll be fine.”

 

How this could be possible when the Seeker had, as befitted his name, unerringly found us, after we had lost the Black Robes in our mad dash yesterday, I could not say. But I forced myself to relax, I had no choice but to trust her for now. The driveway curved around the building, alongside it was a patch of indifferently cared for grass extending to some overgrown bushes and trees that crowded over a thin path, worn by many feet. It was that path we set upon, turning from the driveway, passing through the natural gateway provided by the shrubbery.

 

On the other side we found ourselves at a stairway that descended to a busy street below. Two stone Victorian lions looked out on the passing cars at the bottom of the staircase, their visages worn away by the passing years. I ran my hand along the nearest as we passed by, wondering what magnificent building had once sat atop the staircase, of which no remaining signs could be seen. It felt as though we had passed from one world into another.

 

At the end of the block there was a bus stop with a large shelter to provide cover from the rain and it was here that Meredith went, ducking within and handing me some change, saying, “Make sure you ask for two zones.”

 

I stared at the coins in my hand dumbfounded. “What are we doing?” I said.

 

Meredith pulled a cell phone from her jacket, glancing at the display. “We have time.”

 

“How do you know?” I said, nonplussed. “What if the bus is late?”

 

“It won’t matter,” she said. “We have time.”

 

Before I could interrogate her further an elderly woman stepped into the shelter, nodding at both of us. Meredith smiled in return and turned her attention to the road, watching for the bus, glancing every now and again down at her phone. I caught a glimpse of the display and saw the outlines of what I thought was a map, the gridlines of the city apparent. The colors and outlines on it were strange and it seemed as though there was a map imposed on another map, a city upon the city in effect, which I could make no sense of.

 

The minutes ticked by as we waited for the arrival of the bus, traffic ebbing and flowing on the road, a few more people trickling into our shelter. Though Meredith continued to exude calm, it had no effect on me. I kept waiting for the arrival of the Black Robes, for the Seeker to appear behind me as in my dream, and the voice, mocking and precise, to cut into me. None of that occurred. The day remained ordinary and we appeared ordinary within it.

 

When the bus pulled up, lurching to a stop, I felt no relief, my agitation blossoming within me as we started on the next leg of our journey. This was no way to escape a dire threat, it seemed to me. Meredith looked unconcerned, staring at the road ahead, the phone returned to her pocket. When I felt as though I couldn’t breath any longer, I turned to her and said, “How are we supposed to get away from these people taking a bus if they can find us wherever we go?”

 

She considered the question, her eyes darting around to see if anyone was paying attention. “They will find us, but it takes time. Remember, they haven’t got a good look at us yet, they don’t know our names, or anything about our lives here. They have to rely on the Seeker and he is an imprecise tool.”

 

“How do they not know what we look like?”

 

“They don’t. They never do. That is why they have the Seeker.”

 

“But they saw us yesterday,” I said, my voice going louder than I had intended.

 

Meredith glared at me. “But how good of a look did they get? We were running, so it was obvious who they should be chasing. But could they pick us out of a crowd again if we were acting normally? I don’t think so.”

 

“So why did we run yesterday?”

 

“Because you looked back,” Meredith said, standing up to get off the bus. As we disembarked she glanced at her phone and a small grimace passed across her face, vanishing by the time we were on the sidewalk. A metro line crossed directly overhead of the bus stop and Meredith headed for the stairway that led to the station.

 

“Why not use the buttons again?” I said as we went up the stairs.

 

Meredith glanced at me. “You mean the crevice? They were expecting us too. That’s why I left them in the hallway. It should take them awhile to figure out that we weren’t in the half universe.”

 

“But it didn’t,” I said, my voice catching.

 

“No,” she said, glancing at her phone again as we came up into the station. “They’re very close now.”

 

The metro station consisted of a long platform, raised above the street, with tracks running on either side. It was filled with morning commuters, bleary eyed and grim faced, peering at their phones or staring off at nothing. Nobody gave us so much as a glance as we weaved through the crowd, finding some empty space toward the middle of the platform. Meredith pulled out her phone and winced at what she saw there.

 

“Take out your phone,” she said under her breath, not even glancing over at me. “Act like you’re doing something with it.”

 

I did as she said, scrolling through my text messages, pretending I was looking for something. A name caught my eye as I went. Laila. Meredith had mentioned her. I opened her thread and began to read.

 

“Now, pay attention,” Meredith said, moving behind me and turning so our backs faced. “Whatever you do, don’t stop looking at your screen. They’re going to be here in a second, so if you notice them, don’t stare and don’t run. Just keep looking at your phone, and when the train comes get on it.”

 

I nodded and felt myself go flush, for she could not see me with our backs to each other. My palms were sweaty and the phone felt heavy in my hand. I stared blankly, uncomprehending at the words that had passed between myself and Laila.

 

“It’s better if we’re not together,” Meredith continued. “So I’m going to go stand farther down the platform. It will take them longer to find us that way. Don’t look for me. Don’t worry about me. Just get on the train when it comes.”

 

I let out an unsteady breath as I felt her slip away from behind me, moving down the platform to my left. A train arrived behind me and, by reflex, I glanced up as the line and destination were announced. The crowd swirled around me as people got on and off the train. I tried not to look at anyone as they brushed past, a blur of faces, all without expression. Somehow they all seemed sinister for it, malevolent in their ignorance. It was an effort to force myself to breathe.

 

A low murmur, passing along the platform like a wave approaching the shore, alerted me to the arrival of the Black Robes and the Seeker. I closed my eyes and bit my tongue, anything to distract me from the overwhelming urge to turn and see where they were. The screen to my phone had gone dark and I turned it on again, going back to Laila’s messages, forcing myself to read them, to think about what they said. I forgot the words as soon as I read them, the murmur growing closer, until it was very near, right around me.

 

My every instinct was to look up and see the threat I knew was approaching, but I did not, keeping my eyes trained just above the display of my phone, so that I could see to the platform’s edge. The Seeker passed in front of me a moment later, drawing stares from many in the crowd. He went slowly, glancing from face to face, meeting all the stares that he drew. Just as I thought he was going to pass by, to keep going down the platform, he stopped, lifting his head, as though testing the air for a scent.

 

Where, I wondered, was the damn train? The Seeker stayed where he was, glancing around, his head cocked expectantly. Though I wanted to look around myself, to see where the Black Robes were, to see where Meredith was, I forced myself to stay as I was, utterly still. I did not even look at the Seeker, staring intently at my phone, only his legs visible in my sight line. He took a step forward and I nearly sagged with relief, until he stopped again. I thought I saw him raise his hand, as though to beckon someone to him, but I dared not look up to confirm.

 

Two trains arrived, almost simultaneously, and the platform became a mass of confusion, people pouring off and on both lines at once. The train in front of me was full already and I pushed my way forward, panicked that I wouldn’t be able to make it on. I did not even look to see if the Seeker, the Black Robes or Meredith joined me as I shoved my way on, drawing a few looks of ire from my fellow passengers.

 

When I was safely on I allowed myself a glance out at the platform and saw the Seeker in the midst of the crowd looking at the train, at the very car I was in. My heart went still and I tried to will the doors shut and start the train moving. For an agonizing moment our eyes met and lingered, the door still open and the train still. An announcement broke the spell, both of us glancing toward the speaker at the sound. The doors hissed and slid close and the train lurched forward, carrying me on and leaving the Seeker behind.

——–

This is the eighth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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