175. The Long Way Home

For someone who goes to such great lengths to avoid danger, committing honourable Subaru might seem a little out of character.

Just as Claire had suggested, only losing one of our group was a more than reasonable price to pay for surviving a very unpromising situation. Count yourself lucky and move on with your life, would be my advice if someone had asked for it.

And yet, I didn’t like it. Claire had almost known things were going to end up like this, she even gave me the long goodbye. It was like she was doing me a favour. It rankled.

There’s something about getting an unwanted gift and then being expected to be thankful that has never sat right with me. Imagine if you left someone house-sitting while you went on holiday, and when you came back, they had redecorated as a surprise.

They didn’t ask you, and the new look was their taste, not yours. Would you thank them?

When they got upset at your lack of gratitude for what had taken them a great deal of effort (the mirrored ceiling in your now black and red bedroom wasn’t easy to install) would you assure them you were hugely appreciative of their wonderful unasked for gift?

No, of course not. It’s a massively presumptuous and inconsiderate thing to do. If you want to buy me a shitty jumper for Christmas, that’s fine. I’ll pretend to like it. But if you take the money out of my wallet to buy me that jumper, fuck you. That isn’t a present, that’s taking the piss.

Taking control away from someone is a power move, even when it’s done unconsciously. The gift they’re really giving you is the gift of feeling obligated.

I didn’t doubt Claire’s intention to do the right thing, but it’s no coincidence they pave the road to Hell with those things.

My death was quick if not entirely painless. At some point, I hope to be able to take an injury without bursting into tears, but then again, I don’t necessarily want to experience so much pain I get used to it. That’s a lot of nipple clamps.

A sharp twinge burst into an explosive bloom of agony. A spasm wracked my body, and I heard a scream that seemed very far away, but recognisably in my voice. Then darkness.

I opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by more darkness, except here I could see myself when I looked down. Dressed the same but no signs of cuts or gaping wound. In my hand was a glowing sword.

If Jenny had stuck that in my hand before I died, she must have moved very quickly. It was almost as though she knew what I’d do before I did. But that was very unlikely, I told myself.

I looked around. Not much to see. No exit.

The other problem with my time travelling escapades was Checkpoint Yuqi. Before I could get back to the past, I had to deal with the gatekeeper. And she probably wasn’t going to be happy to see me.

“Hey!” I called into the endless void. “Can we get this over with? I have things to do and only an infinite amount of time to do them in.”

“Why are you here?” whispered the non-existent wind. “All alone, without your girlfriend to save you… Shame. I was looking forward to a rematch. You, I’ve already beaten, and beaten, and beaten.”

Why is it people always assume if you have a strong girlfriend you must be the weakling? I have my strengths. Probably.

“Open a door to the past, Yuqi. I know what to do, now.”

“No.” Yuqi’s disembodied voice swirled around me. “We had won. We had won, you piece of filthy excrement. And now you want to do it all again. No. No. Nooooo.”

“Yeah, but don’t you want the good ending.”

“That was the good ending!” screamed Yuqi. A flicker of blue electricity crackled to my right. “You think you can save everyone? Naked girls at your feet, clinging to your thigh, is that what you were hoping for, Colin? That’s not how this works. You aren’t repeating the same loop over and over. Don’t you understand? Only you get to relive the past. Everyone else is left to complete their own timeline. You just left them to their fate.”

“You’re lying,” I said, although I didn’t sound very convincing.

This was something I had already considered, although I’d tried very hard not to. What if jumping back in time didn’t make the universe stop and rewind, what if it I just jumped into a parallel universe and started a new one?

I could have left Jenny alone with both me and Claire dead. That Jenny’s life would go on while I restarted my life with another Jenny in another universe.

Which brings up an even more pressing issue. Is it considered cheating if you fuck the same girl over and over in different parallel dimensions, or is it incredibly romantic? Only Stephen Hawking knows for sure, I guess.

Like I said, I had considered it, and had decided it couldn’t be true. Partly because it was so uncomfortable to think I was simply abandoning the others every time I went back, but mainly because there was one constant in each time loop other than me.

“If there were multiple timelines, how come there’s only one you?” I said to Yuqi.

There was no reply from the void.

“You said someone betrayed you, but how did they do it? Even if someone told the masters you could go back in time, how would they be able to do anything about? They can’t travel back. They can’t tell their past selves to wait for you on the mountain range where you’ll appear and capture you.”

“What are you saying?” hissed Yuqi from behind me somewhere.

“I’m saying it had to be someone that could travel back, like you could. Like I can. We have the power, so could someone else. Maybe the person who gave us this ability.”

“No,” said Yuqi. “He isn’t here.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t him. But whoever it is, they had to go back and their actions had to affect all timelines. That’s not very likely. Makes more sense if there’s only one.”

Was that true? It sounded right, but I was winging it, trying to convince Yuqi. It didn’t really matter what the true nature of time was since there was nothing I could do about it. If I had left numerous Jenny’s to carry on without me in numerous separate existences, so be it.

The important thing was to get Yuqi to let me go back and make sure I got it right this time. No fucking way was I doing this shit again.

There was silence. Was she thinking about it? Had she gone? Was she preparing to attack?

I lifted the sword and readied myself. I hoped the Crouching Tiger flying-about-shit would work for me as well as it had for Jenny.

“Think you’re so smart, don’t you?” The voice came from behind me, the breath blowing against my ears. The hairs on my neck rose from the static. “Think you know better than everyone else.”

I turned around. She was standing there, a mass of tentacles, two large eyes, and one horn flickering like a light about to need replacing. One horn. Jenny had cut the other one off. There was only one Yuqi; this one. There was only one Jenny. I would get back to her.

“No. I don’t think I know better than everyone else. I only think I know better than you, Yuqi. I have a plan. You have a plan. Which one do you think we should go with? Me, the guy who’s got us closer to a way out than anyone else? Or you, the one stuck here for sixteen years, acting like a mental?”

Yuqi widened her eyes and glared at me. She opened her mouth and the stars gleamed at me. Then she began laughing. And kept laughing, which was disconcerting.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, a little annoyed. I was going to go easy on her, you know, because she was a chick (deep down). But she really deserved a damn good thrashing.

“You,” she said, still giggling. “Think you know it all, then go ahead. Show me.”

A door of white light opened beside her. Then another opened on the other side. Then another, and another. Soon, there were dozens of them.

“You want a way out? Here, all the exits you could ever want. I’m sure they all lead to the same place, no need to worry where you might end up. Go on, prove me wrong.” Her laughter rolled over me in waves.

I hesitated. Was I really wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. Which of these doorways would take me to where I wanted to go?

“Can you see through these portals?” I asked.

“What’s the matter? You sound scared, Colin. Oh no, what if you aren’t perfect, however will the rest of us cope?” More laughter. Sure, we were on opposing sides, but there was no reason to be so mean.

“You don’t know what’s through any of these doors, do you?”

“No,” said Yuqi. “I won’t know until you go through. Exciting, isn’t it? I can’t wait!”

The sarcasm was even more irritating than the torture. Fuck it. I chose a door at random and stepped through it.

I expected to find myself falling. There was a slight sensation of vertigo, like when you’re lying in bed and suddenly feel everything drop away, but that was all.

The world came into focus around me. I was standing on a wall. Battlements of a castle. It was night. The sky was black and filled with stars. I actually recognised them—the tiny ones like swirls of glitter, the patterns made by the larger ones—I had stared at them enough over the last few months. I was back in Flatland.

In my hand there was a wooden sword. I had carried it here with me somehow. I checked my pockets. I found a plastic crucifix and a vial of blue liquid.

“There you are,” said a voice from behind me. I turned to find Claire standing there in an elaborate gown. Only she was older. A woman. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I didn’t know what to say so I just flapped my lips wordlessly.

“And why are you wearing those clothes. I don’t think I’ve seen you… Oh, God, this is it…” She covered her mouth with her hand.

She was a lot prettier now. Her nose didn’t seem quite so big; perhaps she’d grown into it.

“I don’t know where I am?” I said. “Or why you aren’t dead.”

She lowered her hand. “You’re home. Or it will be, one day.”

“Oh.” I looked around. It was a huge castle. “What’s it called?

“I don’t know,” said Claire. “You’ve never been bothered to name it.”

Sounded about right. From what she was saying, I had leaped forward and this was my own future. Which could prove handy. She already knew what had happened to get us here. I must have succeeded in bringing her back, and she could tell me how.

Which would be a paradox, but what would time travel be without one of those?

It’s the sort of thing sci-fi writers love to put in a story and then never bother to explain. Like just pointing out the possibility of a paradox is enough.

A boy is visited by his older self in a time machine, who teaches him how to build a time machine. He grows up, builds a time machine, goes back and tells his younger self how to build a time machine... so who worked out how to actually build the machine?

The gap in logic comes from the limitations of our puny brains. The same reason we can’t visualise infinity, or grasp what could have existed before the big bang, or understand what God is. The architecture of our minds can’t sustain the concepts, even though we can recognise they exist.

It didn’t really bother me. As long as Claire could give me a cheat sheet on how to sort things out so I ended up with my own castle, I’d be happy to go with the flow.

“You told me this would happen one day, that you’d visit me on these castle walls.” She stepped closer. “God, you look so young.” She reached out a hand towards my face.

I flinched backwards. “Easy, tiger. I already have a girlfriend. I do still have one, right?”

Claire laughed. “Sure. You think you could time travel your way out of her clutches?”

That made me smile. I didn’t know if this was real, or only a possible future—my knowledge of time travel from books and movies suggested all sorts of possibilities—but it was nice to think there was a good ending out there, if I could find my way to it.

“So we all died, did we?” asked Claire. “That’s why you went back that last time?”

I was glad to hear this would be my last time. “Don’t you know?”

“No. You always refused to talk about it.”

“Really? I would have thought I’d milk it for all it was worth.”

She laughed again. There was none of her usual uptightness. “You changed after that. A little. We tried to get you to tell us the full story, but you were adamant.” She narrowed her eyes and stared at something above my eyes. After a few seconds I realised she was trying to read me.

“Still can’t get through that wall.”

“What wall?” I asked.

“I can’t read your mind because you won’t let me. You’re the only person who’s ever been able to do that. I bet there’s a lot of interesting stuff back there.”

It was my turn to smile. “Interesting. Yeah. Not the word I’d use. So, are you going to tell me what I need to do?”

She shook her head. “You made me promise not to.”

“Why would I do that?”

She shrugged. “I’m just following orders.”

I’m sure I had my reasons, but still, what a dick I am. “Can I have a clue?”

“When have you ever listened to anything I’ve had to say?” She said it with no animosity; she was being playful. I’d never seen her like this. The irony of her words made me laugh. Ignoring her was what had brought me here.

I looked over the battlements. There was a courtyard below. People and small fires; voices and laughter drifted up. “I guess knowing this is possible is enough. I just hope I can find my way here.”

“We’ll wait for you,” said Claire. “Always.”

The sword in my hand began to glow. Caire seemed to become less tangible, although maybe it was me who was fading. She raised a hand to wave goodbye. She looked so happy.

Was it a dream? A delusion? It was hard to tell. It didn’t really matter.

I closed my eyes for a second. When I opened them, I was surrounded by glowing doors. One of them had to be the right one.

I stepped forward and lurched like that last step you thought was there but wasn’t. I staggered and landed on my backside. I was on a beach, a familiar one. Nekromel. This is where Wyndam had dropped us off, but I was alone and not wet. What was more surprising though was the sky. It wasn’t a white sheet, it was blue. Or at least bluish-purple.

I stood up and looked around. Nothing else seemed out of place until I climbed over the rise. Instead of flat scrubland, there were acres of wheat and corn. Dotted around, I saw people working the fields.

This was definitely a different Nekromel to the one I had known. I didn’t know what I was doing here or where I was supposed to go, so I set off for the only place I knew of and hoped it was still there.

It took a couple of hours to get to the shack. I knocked on the door and a young man I didn’t recognise answered. “Yes?”

I didn’t know what to say. “Does Loran live here?”

The young man who was around my age, although bigger and tougher (which pretty much sums up everyone my age) looked at me strangely, then he turned and shouted, “Loran, someone for you.”

A teenage boy came running to the door. He stopped when he saw me, confused.

It was definitely Loran, but he was a kid. I was in the past. Way, way in the past.

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