It was the old, old story, he felt: handsome stranger comes to town, walks in on a feast complete with pretty (and pretty interested) girls, has a great time—and wakes up a night later about to be brutally sacrificed in order to save the village from a terrible drought.
“Seen it a thousand times,” he said out loud, trying to get more comfortable in his bonds.
“No you haven’t,” he answered himself. “Before this, you’d never walked more than three days from home.”
The priest came, carrying a horn. He sat down next to the stone.
“Sunrise soon,” he said, turning to look at the stranger.
“I’m aware of it,” agreed the stranger.
The priest lifted the horn. “We give the sacrifice a forgetting drink, if he wishes.”
“No, thank you,” said the stranger after a while.
The priest shrugged.
“I’ve had all night to wonder,” said the stranger. “What is the point? What is the point of killing a perfectly healthy young man who would be much more useful fathering strong children and fighting off wolves and catamounts?”
“Hopefully you’ve already done the first thing. Feast, remember?” Said the priest, raising the horn.
“Not much of it,” replied the stranger, smiling though he had begun to shake.
“Things are bad,” said the priest. “You saw.”
“I did,” said the stranger, remembering how thin the women had been, how easily tired.
“It’s how we’ve always done it,” said the priest. There was a sound like a gourd dropping. The priest sighed.
The sigh went on for too long; the priest folded over. A young woman stood over him, the butt of her hunting knife in her hand.
“Not anymore, not anymore,” she chanted while she cut the stranger’s bonds.
Two more women stepped from the edge of the grove. They looked at the priest, nodded at her.
“The sacrifice went well,” said one.
“No! Not a sacrifice!” snapped the young woman.
“Joke,” said the other, waving her hands.
“Time to go,” the young woman said, holding out his belt and kit.
He looked once over his shoulder, to see the two women gently lifting the priest; the woman tugged his hand over the hill. On the other side, the sun was rising.
“That is the most fine and beautiful sight I have ever seen,” he said to her. She smiled at him. “Like every one we get,” she agreed.
Although known commonly as “teleportation,” I prefer this 1950s usage, which implies a short, pleasant trip. Originally, it meant to ride your horse until it tired. Now it’s knowing your destination by orienting your mind to the beginning and extrapolating yourself to the end–a minor reorientation of perspective that changed the world.
Whenever newsheets downloaded the latest death tolls, my family took short trips down to a private North Carolina pine-forest island beach. We laid out a blanket and picnic basket and gave our daughter a bucket and a shovel–pretending we were the only people left in the world. The Atlantic lapped the shore as if time might stop. We didn’t experience that pang in the chest every time we snapped up a newsheet to find out who bombed who, who hung or decapitated in retaliation.
Vera, my wife, coped differently. She rearranged the world, moving the couch at different angles to the 3V as if the news looked better from a different perspective. In her green phase, all the upholstery was verdant with vines, leaves, and hanging gardens seen only when the light glanced off it. A spring of false optimism. Every tribe attempted peace accords. Negotiations murmured behind closed doors. We held our breath when the world’s leaders came out to say nothing had been resolved.
When news of jaunting spread like a virus, every man with a grudge and a bludgeon could appear anywhere within the limits of his imagination. War returned. Vera swapped green upholstery for red.
When our bank lost their reserves to mirror-shielded jaunters on whom automatic laser rifles had no effect, my mind was distracted and I jaunted home, afraid to tell my wife we were penniless and probably wouldn’t be able to fill our picnic baskets on our jaunts to the seashore. Only after we’d eaten dinner in silence–a minestrone with grated Parmesan–did I notice the furniture was green. The couch was repositioned to where it was before jaunting hit the world. Furthermore, news on the 3V had restored its era of false optimism.
Whenever Vera changed the upholstery to ashy blacks or desert tans, I jaunted back to an apartment of green upholstery. I won’t say that I’m jaunting to a saner, parallel universe or that I’m reversing time, perhaps stunting my child’s development indefinitely. I don’t know.
But somehow I don’t care.
Lanterns on a line, dipping low enough to the water that we have to either hug the warehouse wall (with its windows of deeper night where the moon can’t get) or the crumbled concrete shore of the plaza (with its scorched memorials that remind us of too much). Rena tells me to choose which side tonight.
I can’t decide in time; we wind up in the middle. Rena lifts the electric line with the oar while Powell and I paddle with our hands. Slow passage while heat lightning vibrates behind the clouds. Powell doesn’t look at me. He hasn’t hesitated when he got to choose.
Goosebumps up the back of my arms, a chill like a pinch on the back of my neck: we’re in. We don’t paddle, just let the current tug us on. It might not work, might be another wasted night. Only two nights left of the week we paid Rena for.
She clatters around under the woodslat seat, comes up with a cassette tape, plastic case yellow as antique ivory. Clicks it into the openface player, slaps play. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” echoes tiny off the ranks of basalt going up on either side of the water like steps or arena rows. All the tapes in Rena’s shoebox squeak and warble; all are singers who knew what death would take them. We hope to ride some echo of their courage.
And the fog does part, and we do go through, into open water, where the moon is like a low ceiling, its reflection like a shivering floor. Night inverts to day and we’re back where we started, but we’re back years before the end.
We climb up uncrumbled stairs to an unruined plaza. Within six hours, one of us will melt like fog back into our future, our life after all this is gone. The other will just melt to nothing, to nowhere.
I look at the stranger crowd, the stores, the shining cars. It’s been twenty years since ice cream.
Behind me a splash, shouts.
Rena drags herself out of the water. Powell oars away.
“I’ll get the boat back,” she says. “I’ll wait for him. If I’m not here, you wait.”
She pulls a soaked roll of old money from her pocket. “Meanwhile, I’m going shopping. Want anything?”
I try to remember which flavor was my favorite.
Nathalie lives in the same apartment building and works at the same office as Odette and Michèle. All she knows of them is their names.
Odette wears riskyspex most of the day. She tightrope walks across intersections, dodges computer-generated avalanches, battles pirates down city sidewalks. She arrives at work exhilarated.
Michèle prefers busylenses. They deliver emails and rss feeds. The sides of buildings become spreadsheets and letterhead for her invoices. The journey is just an extension of her job.
Nathalie puts on happyglasses first thing. An overlay of singing bluebirds and bobbing balloons is just what she needs. If she is about to walk into a tree or building they will direct her around the danger.
(It’s just as well cars drive themselves. All the drivers are wearing glasses of one kind or another.)
Nathalie goes to a new café for lunch. Animated vegetables blur around the edges, pixelate, then blink out altogether. An announcement whispers over her earpieces.
“This café is a no-augment zone. Please enjoy the company of your fellow patrons.”
Her happyglasses are transparent for the first time in, well, ever. Nathalie looks around, discombobulated. She bumps into a chair, and pauses. This would not have happened if her glasses were working.
She turns, about to leave, when she sees the two other diners. Odette sits in a corner, keeping a wary eye on Michèle, on Nathalie, on the waiter, out the window, then back to Michèle, who is drawing something complicated on a napkin. When Nathalie walks to an empty table she sees it appears to be a production schedule.
Salad. Sandwich. Nathalie is eating a last sliver of carrot when the other two rise to leave. None of them have said a word beyond ordering. “Wait,” she calls.
Odette spins. Michèle turns more slowly, looking up from the napkin she still carries.
“Let’s walk back together,” says Nathalie. “It could be fun to talk.”
“Why?” says Odette, backing toward the exit. Her glasses opaque as she stands in the doorway. She spins, dodging imaginary projectiles, and darts down the sidewalk.
Michèle just glances at Nathalie, then shakes her head slowly and leaves. Once outside, she moves numbers here and there with practiced fingers.
Nathalie looks around at the empty café. She has never felt lonely before. She pays, and leaves.
When the waiter cleans her table, he finds the glasses she has left behind.