The stars gleamed in her direction, in all directions, staring like eyes from those long ago. She laid on her back, lengthening her spine and feeling entirely aware of the jagged boards beneath her. The black landscape surrounding her felt like cozying into a homemade blanket on a cold winter night. That familiar breeze kissed her wind burnt cheeks in a glorious reunion. It played with her hair like a child, desperate for connection.
She knew that child all too well.
Surrounded by nothing but stars and the cosmos, her little sailboat teetered onwards, toward a place she never dreamed she’d be returning to. However, after a series of troubling occurrences, she reasoned that she had no choice but to confront the source.
It had first begun a month prior, while she was on a job in Maloura, the capital city of Dimension Three. She was tasked with finding a man named Adrien Callaney who was most often found in some underground bar in the Lower Ring. He was unimportant. The job itself, mostly insignificant. Most of them were to her. It was simply a job. And while, yes, she took pride in her high degree of showmanship, it never mattered at its core.
She was flipping her dark hood over her head when the feeling began. It was an emptiness, an all encompassing numbness in her stomach. Her chest. That’s how it started. Like being speared with a trident, the feeling pierced into her, like a droplet of ink being spilled recklessly into a glass of water. She tried her best to shake it off.
Dropping her chin as people of the lower classes passed her by, she ducked into the brick alley that held the entrance that would lead her to Mr. Callaney. Still, the feeling persisted. She furrowed her brow, sweating with determination and fear, trying her best to ignore the feeling. She lunged at the door handle but was stopped abruptly. The door was locked.
“A sailor travels down the stream,” a gruff voice sounded from the other side of the rotting wood.
She concentrated on his words, using them to subdue the terrible, spreading ache in her gut. As if she were reciting a poem she learned as a child or a nursery rhyme once repeated to her, she responded, “Chasing nothing but his dream.”
The voice returned, “A dark glint streak ‘cross his eyes.”
She smiled, a force of habit at the privilege of speaking the final line, “Pirate’s promise in disguise.”
The door opened to reveal what she had expected: an ordinary, dirty looking man who was tasked with being guard. It always made her laugh, the notion that a tavern so vastly infinitesimal would find itself so important. All pirate joints have this attitude. As absurd as it was, she loved it dearly. After all, people that take themselves seriously have as much power as kings if they wield it correctly.
However, the opening of that door was the linchpin. As if the scruffy bouncer had personally ripped the trident and all its jagged edges out of her chest, she collapsed.
When she awoke, surrounded by two busty barmaids with wet rags in hand, she was terrified. The color had drained from her face, leaving her ghastly in the least. Her hands shook, as if starved and imprisoned for days.
Whatever had come from that numb creeping in her gut was powerful. She didn’t understand it, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to. In fact, after that first incident, she denied it even happened and continued her mission. The fear that it might happen again, however, prodded at her skull like a parasite.
When the world went black, she had been thrust into a memory. It was painful and more realistic than any dream she could ever imagine. It didn’t last long and it wasn’t altogether logical, but it was enough to horrify her.
For just a moment, she was standing in her childhood home. She saw landmarks and knick-knacks long forgotten, and yet somehow perfectly intact in her mind as if she had just been there the day before. That crooked family portrait on the wall. The green loveseat, the constantly ticking clock. Worst of all, she heard the light tinkling of kitchen utensils in the next room and the bell-like laughter of a young girl. Her sister.
As soon as she had opened her eyes in that ghostly living room, it was over.
Of course, she had flashbacks when she was a child, but they only lasted a year or so. The aberrant return of them had deeply shocked her. It had been fifteen years since The Upheaval, and somehow she still spent every day with the terrible truth of it all playing on repeat in the back of her mind.
But on that day when the flashbacks returned, she did find Adrien Callaney. She reaped the information she needed from him and traveled through Maloura, into the Upper Ring to deposit said information to the right person at the right time. She did her job. She continued with her life, and refused to let her episode get to her. Or, at the very least, let it show on her expression. She had always been an expert at keeping a neutral face. So much so that she caught herself forgetting to smile on occasion.
Although she was able to ignore it on that day in Dimension Three, the feeling soon returned. It was only a week later. Then a few days later. There was a small period where she was having them every day. Each memory, entirely unimportant and encapsulating. It didn’t matter what she was doing. If she was lucky, the feeling attacked her in her sleep. A harmless nightmare. Most times, however, she wasn’t. Like a shocked child after witnessing a great event, she fainted. Every time, without fail, as if she were a prisoner of her own mind.
Now, she laid with her back pressed against the narrow deck of a sailboat she bartered off of a shopkeep in Daeran. It was important to her that she traveled to this dimension in an unremarkable, unrecognizable ship. If anyone had tracked her, she wouldn’t have the strength to deal with them.
The ship lurched in staccato. She was getting close. There wasn’t a single ship around and although that didn’t surprise her, the loneliness did bring her comfort. She hadn’t told anyone where she was going, let alone the reason why. She couldn’t explain it, but she knew the flashbacks were leading her towards home. Her first home. Dimension One.
She took one last look at the stars above her before getting to her feet. She barely had to do any work on the majority of the journey there. Navigating this particular route was like walking through her house blindfolded. She knew its corners, its paths. She had the map ingrained in her memory. Though she had only traveled this route once, it was enough to scrape it into her head. She would never forget the first time she felt the galactic breeze hit her cheeks.
The ship jumped with a sudden urgency, forcing her to grab onto the railing. Rope and equipment slammed into one another with a great crash.
“Here we go,” she muttered to herself.
Before she could grab the sails, a familiar voice sounded from the other side of the boat. “Kaura?” From inside her bag, she saw the small screen of her holophone light up. “Kaura!”
She carefully inched her way towards the nose of the ship, praying the strengthening wind wouldn’t ambush her. “Now is not a good time!” She yelled in its direction.
“What are you doing?” The feminine voice rang.
With both hands desperately clinging to the rail, she stretched her leg as far as she could to the other side. Her toes barely grazed the bag’s handle. “Come on,” she said through gritted teeth. The wind was whipping her loose hair in her eyes and mouth and sending the boat itself through a true test of its durability. One more try, leaning farther than before and slightly tipping the nose as a consequence. With a risky flick of her foot, she nicked the handle. She quickly kicked it into the middle of the ship and rummaged through it for her holophone.
Upon surfacing the small circular device, a projection of her friend’s upper body appeared. “Kaura, answer me!” The friend yelled. “What are you doing?” She was Serena, the first mate of the renowned pirate ship known as the Diowen. Serena was half Human, half Elian. The Elia were from Dimension Seventy-Five. Their facial proportions were that of an exaggerated doll. Large eyes, skinny button nose, and small lips. Their chins came to a point. Their skin was fair and often had blue or purple undertones.
Serena had the same exaggerated features, though slightly lessened due to her partly Human genome. Her cheeks were constantly rosy, her eyes large and purple. Her lips were always situated somewhere between a smile and a pout. She was beautiful.
“I’m fine. I’ll be there later today like I promised,” Kaura responded. She was barely paying attention to the image of her friend, and was instead directing her sails away from the dimension entrance.
“I can’t tell where you are,” the voice huffed.
“Why are you calling, Serena?”
The pixelated form crossed its arms and contorted its face in an angry way. “You have to stop being so short with me.”
“You have to stop calling me unexpectedly,” Kaura slyly responded. Her eyes flicked a smile down at the holograph, before focusing on the task at hand: keeping the boat in the air.
After a moment, the half Elian sighed, saying the next as if entirely unbothered by the mysterious aura surrounding Kaura. “I was just checking up on you. You know the captain is very eager to see you.” She dropped her calm persona, quickly readopting her usual bubbly one. “Listen, I’m not actually sure if today is a great day to see him. He would never tell you this, but he’s hurting. I’m honestly not sure why you chose today of all days. He might be… unresponsive.”
“I know,” she said, keeping her eyes locked on the expanse, her hands absentmindedly tying a knot to keep the sails in place. “Please, if anyone can soothe that man, it’s me. It’ll be okay.” She looked down at the small figure of her friend, “Now will you let me go?” Under her breath, she added, “You damn near got me killed.”
“What was that last part?”
“Nothing. I’ll see you later!” Kaura began reaching down to shut the projection off.
“Wait, wait wait!” The shrill voice yelled. But wait, she did not. The image of Serena flickered away, and Kaura was back to sailing. She nudged the disc back into her bag and took a deep breath. It was time to confront the dimension entrance.
Entering any dimension was no smooth sailing, literally. However, a living dimension was always easier to enter than a dead one. That’s what Dimension One was: dead. It was long decayed and deceased.
A large, rocky force surrounded each Dimension, with varying degrees of danger mixed in between. It acted like an atmosphere, holding rubble and meteors all throughout. Traveling between the dimensions itself was like space travel. Although it held that cosmogonic mask, it was more like traveling between space and time, between the material and ethereal. This made each dimension more or less like a planet. A version of Earth that developed quite uniquely from the rest. It also made each entrance the risky tunnel that brought a ship back to the physical world. Kaura never understood the science of it, really. But she didn’t need to. All she needed to know was how to man a ship. Luckily, she was quite good at that.
Slowly, carefully, she directed the sails back into the entrance’s field. She wiped a hand of sweat on her coat and heaved, holding tightly to the ropes just in case things went awry. Squeezing her eyes shut and bracing for impact, she entered the force. One lone sailor in one lone (and quite small) sailboat, hurtling through an atmosphere.
The sails rippled and screamed as the wind tore along them. Debris was stinging her face, coating her eyes and nose. The sheer force of the storm sent her to her knees, but she held tight. She dropped her chin to her chest, furiously blinking her eyes to regain sight.
Suddenly, in a moment of weakness, her sails were blown viciously to the side. The boat whipped to the right, causing the thing to spin wildly out of control as it hurtled towards her home planet. The noise of fragments stabbing into the hull was deafening. She yanked the ropes, putting her weight into it and feeling her muscles rip from the adrenaline.
Despite her attempt to regain control, the ship was thrown in all directions, flailing and plummeting fast. If she couldn’t grab hold of the sails soon, she would crash land. Panic pricked her skin as regret flooded her cheeks. She should have never come. This was a terrible idea. She knew better than to put herself in this kind of danger––and for what? Some stupid feeling? Some unexplainable, illogical hunch?
She felt herself letting go of the ropes, as the wind shook her like a rag doll. When she opened her eyes, her hands swung to meet the whipping rope. She clasped on, like a baby desperately clinging to the pinky finger of her father, and leaned far back, her shoulder blades colliding with the splintered wood. She grimaced at the sharp prickling of the wood, but persisted. Using her legs to propel her backwards, she was able to straighten the ship.
The usual comet-tail of searing energy surrounded the nose of her little boat. So much for returning it to its owner. Quickly, it was approaching the troposphere of her origin place. Tears were ripped into her hairline from the sharp dust bouncing off her skin.
Suddenly, almost as if under the command of some god from above, the boat jolted to an obedient stop. Her body was flung through the air, her chin hitting the front pulpit. She groaned, picking herself up off the ground. She spent a quick moment brushing herself off, wincing when she felt the newly bleeding cut on her chin. The little sailboat continued to slowly descend.
She stood tall in the middle of the deck, and looked down upon the wasteland her home had become. What were once neon cities were now nothing more than gray. Caked and cracked masonry attempted to climb up a nonexistent skyline. Dust and insulation fluff danced through the light breeze.
The horizon was devoid of even the smallest sign of life. Gray. Nothing like it had once been. Sunsets were like rainbows, evenings like sapphire. Even storms were a beautiful royal blue and black. Until they weren’t. The bits of grass that prevailed within the concrete cemetery of a city that once was were entirely blackened. Any trees or shrubs were reduced to the same. It almost felt like the muted landscape was slowly, quietly reaching its skeletal hand out to cocoon Kaura into its aura of forever death.
As the boat leveled, she peeled her eyes off the desolate view of her homeplanet and reached for the anchor. As she slowly lowered the chain, she tried her best to clear her mind. Breath in. Hold. Out. Again. Staring out at the expanse almost paralyzed her, like the second her feet hit the ground, she’d never have the courage to get back on the boat. Or, maybe the opposite would happen. Maybe she would get to the bottom of her rope ladder only to climb right back up.
However, when her feet did hit the ground, nothing spectacular happened. Not like she had secretly hoped. Though she knew it was unrealistic, she had been crossing her fingers for some piece of serendipitous clarity.
Slowly, she began wandering through the cracked path that had once been a road. Sticking out from piles of rubble, she jumped at the sight of a Human arm. Dried blood trickled out from the edge. The arm itself looked as if it had just been crushed, only moments ago, save for the blood stain. When Dimension One was destroyed, it took everything with it. Every single living thing perished in a matter of days. This included the decomposers.
The porcelain-colored arm bothered her. Her eyes stung and her heart punched her rib cage in fast succession. The fingers looked like they wished for something to hold. Could’ve been her…
She squeezed her eyes shut and shook herself out of the trance. She continued onwards. Pieces that used to be homes, churches, schools… Most of the useful or intact relics had already been plundered. She’d be surprised if she came across anything worth saving. But that wasn’t what she was here for anyway.
As she walked through the wasteland, she came across the entryway of a tent, its fabric lightly waving in the desolate breeze. Rubble seemed to rise behind the shifty entrance. It was a patchwork of a building.
“Hello?” Kaura called into the entryway.
“Must be for scavengers,” she muttered to herself. She puffed out her chest and straightened her back, putting one hand on the handle of her scimitar. Into the building she went.
The inside was dark and about how she imagined it, based on the outside. The walls weren’t linear. Jagged bits of concrete and brick stuck out like a concave crystal. The ceiling was tall and covered in hanging relics. Plant holders, lights, cracked chandeliers. The walls were dressed in tapestries and rugs, as was the ground. One flickering lightbulb illuminated the room in staccato.
Like church pews, tables holding various objects lined the walls. Kaura walked the main aisle and felt her hand tracing the edges of the pieces she came across. With each flicker of light, she felt her heart beat, encompassing her chest.
A few tables away, her gaze was caught by a sapphire gemstone, glistening in the moments of illumination. It was a necklace, and although it was a bit grimy, the intricacies of the silversmith work was stunning. It looked ancient, nothing like jewelry did even when she lived on Dimension One. The chain was bulky and weathered. The sapphire was cradled in a delicate ring of silver, holding it in dainty hands that curved like the branches of a birch tree.
She took the amulet in her hand, rolling it over in her palm and rubbing the grime off the gem with her thumb. A small smile crept onto her face. It was a singular piece of ancient beauty amongst a world of destruction. It was hopeful.
The moment didn’t last long. She felt her skin spike with sweat as that terrible numbness spread through her chest. Scrunching her nose and tensing her muscles she grunted as the feeling attacked the whole of her.
Like a ship getting blown far off course in a matter of seconds, her body was shocked. The feeling filled her up, starting at her chest but quickly spreading to her shoulders and legs. She felt it creeping up her neck and into her skull, an unforgivable vermin. The edges of her line of sight were caving in, a black aura surrounding the world. Slowly, the blackness took over and she felt herself stumble into a table. A crash. Finally, nothing.
By Kathryn Smith