The portal materialized before she completed the level, and she had no choice but to drop everything and hurl herself through it.
Portals didn’t stay open long. If you missed it, you could be stuck forever, or worse—eliminated. She had always hated leaving a level unfinished, even more than the searing pain of the crossing itself. But these were the rules.
And if she wanted to stay in the Game, she had to follow them.
She recovered from the physical shock quickly. It got easier each time she crossed. But the new reality was unfamiliar and confusing, and she knew it would take her days or weeks to fully adapt, to figure out her new goals and a strategy to achieve them.
It didn’t matter what she’d accomplished or learned before, either. Each time she crossed, she started from scratch.
Sure, sometimes a few consecutive levels could be similar, and you would face familiar challenges, use the same skills and strategies, from one to the next. But true continuity was rare, and superficial similarities were treacherous, a cruel trick to get you to fail when you thought you had things under control.
More often, each new level was completely different from the last, and you had to quickly reconfigure, pick up new tools, and get to work. Finished or unfinished, it was better to wipe the last level from your mind. It didn’t gain you anything, and could be a costly distraction.
The Game was the Game, and there was no point in trying to figure out how it worked.
The point was to make it to the end.
The attack came unexpectedly, as it always did.
And as always, her response was fast and lethal.
Her attacker never really stood a chance. He slumped to the ground before he could make a sound, the crude, slow weapon slipping from his lifeless fingers. She towered over him, her arm and the side of her cheek bloodied where the man had shoved her against the rough brick wall, but her breathing already slowing.
She looked at the body at her feet. Long limbs, dark blond hair, a not unpleasant face. She almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
She had never seen the man before; couldn’t imagine why he would have wanted to hurt her, or how he stood to benefit. Yet she had no doubt that he would have killed her if she didn’t kill him first.
It was part of the Game. You didn’t know your opponents any more than you knew when and where the next portal was going to appear, and what it would take to get to it. You had to discover them on your own. You had to rely on your intuition, on what your gut feeling told you to do or not to do, whom to trust and whom to steer clear of.
And you had to take risks and make mistakes, lots of mistakes, and pay for them dearly, before you started getting it right.
But she’s been doing it for a while—she wasn’t even sure how long—and her instincts were sharp. At the first sign of trouble, she let them take over, like switching to an automatic pilot. There was no time to think.
Whoever wanted to kill you wasn’t going to wait.
It had been some time since her last crossing—enough time to find her way around, to figure out which risks she could and could not afford to take—and she was in bed with a man.
They had teamed up instinctively, wordlessly, when thrown side by side against the same challenge earlier, and stayed together without any explicit arrangements or declarations ever since. All she knew about the man was that he was still in the Game and determined to stay in it, same as she was; and that, also like her, he came into focus, rather than fell apart, when faced with a threat that could obliterate him in an instant.
But that was enough for her. And apparently, it was enough for him, too.
They had made love and now lay side by side in silence. Things were quiet, and for a few moments, she let herself give in to the illusion that this could last, that they could stay together, strike roots in this reality, no matter how frustrating or dangerous, and make a life for themselves here.
No portals to cross. No levels to complete.
“I’d been driving in a city, in rush hour,” the man said. And instantly she knew he meant his last crossing. “The portal appeared on the other side of the road, on the sidewalk. But they wouldn’t let me turn. They honked and screamed at me. I could see it wouldn’t last. So I just turned. I floored it. I went through two cars before I crashed through it.”
She swallowed hard. She wasn’t ready to share her last crossing, or the one before that. So she offered the last one she could bear to put into words. “I was putting out a fire. It was an old house, the walls ablaze, the roof ready to collapse. I almost didn’t notice the portal inside for all the smoke. I rushed in—” She trailed off.
They were quiet for a moment. Then he asked, “How did you know there was a portal?”
She felt her body tense, instantly suspicious. The portal looked different each time it appeared. Or rather, it didn’t look like anything at all, because it was not an object. It was an experience, a sensation. And knowing more configurations meant you had a better chance to advance to the next level.
“I just knew. I can’t explain it.”
That wasn’t entirely true. She had come to recognize the sensation. She could only describe it as a pull, as if something tugged at her, her attention and her body orienting to it without her conscious will.
They fell silent again.
“I know I have to play. I know there is no way out,” said the man. “But what is the purpose? What happens in the end? Have you ever wondered—”
“No,” she cut him off.
Of course she had, in the beginning. But it was no use. No one knew what the Game was really about. It meant something else to every player. And the point was to keep going, to make it through to the next level, and then the level after that, and so on.
Nothing else. Nothing more.
She had teamed up with other players before. But these alliances were necessarily short-lived. Everybody crossed to the next level alone, through the portals visible and open only to them and no one else. Even if you and your partner made the best team in the Game, it was almost certain that you would never cross paths again.
So it was better not to get involved. Attachment was a trap. If your portal appeared, there was no time for goodbyes. You better be on your feet and running to reach it before it blinked out of existence. You can bet that your partner would do the same, no matter how much they enjoyed your company or valued your skills.
“I have to go,” she said, getting up. She had misjudged the man.
He didn’t try to stop her when she left.
Every level meant a different path, a different life.
In one, she was a scientist. It took three decades of tedious, all-consuming research, but she and her team were finally close to a breakthrough. The pattern of data suggested a molecular switch that could stop the renegade signaling pathway responsible for a large family of cancers.
In lab on the weekend, her graying hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and her usually steady hands trembling with anticipation, she loaded the sample into the microscope. If the pilot experiment worked, millions of lives could be saved.
Including her own.
The pull of the portal was strong.
She was momentarily blinded, the room around her dissolved to white. A wave of vertigo knocked her off the chair. Before she knew it, she was on her hands and knees on the linoleum floor, crawling toward the invisible outline.
When her faculties returned, she had a moment of panic. Her eyes darted about her—at the familiar supply cabinets, the shelves stacked full of reagents; at the microscope on the counter, the first sample ready for inspection—searching for something to hold on to, something that would stop her from reaching the portal.
Not yet. I need more time. Please.
But she had no choice.
For the first time in a while, she crossed howling in frustration instead of pain.
Crossing from level to level did strange things to her memory. Sometimes, she could recall the last few lives in vivid details, even long after she crossed, no matter how hard she tried to forget. Other times, her past existence was only a fog, a half remembered reverie, nothing but a tangle of vague impressions of faces, voices, and events.
Only the nagging sense of loss was a constant, a connecting thread. It felt like sand in her eyes; like heartburn.that never quite went away.
But loss of what? What had she lost? She didn’t know. Each time she came close to remembering, the answer eluded her.
It was infuriating.
Doggedly, obstinately, she’d been trying to fit the pieces together. Her own secret objective.
Sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.
Once, she had just bought a house and had been painting the walls in warm shades of yellow and green that made her think of running barefoot across a meadow on a hot summer day, a distant memory somehow tucked away in a deep corner of her mind. The wet paint glistened on the walls and the hardwood floors echoed with her footsteps as she crossed the empty rooms to the kitchen to clean her paint brush.
She could almost see the green expanse of the meadow, feel the hot sun on her face, the soft grass under the soles of her feet. She could almost hear the low hum of insects in the hot, sticky air.
And voices. Laughter—like a handful of pearls spilled onto a glass tabletop.
But when had she been there? How many lifetimes ago? And was it her, running barefoot on the grass? Or was it a memory of someone else, someone she knew, someone close to her?
The sunlight danced on the wet wall and, for a moment, she looked down into the face of a little girl, the brown, sparkling eyes smiling at her; felt a small, clammy hand in her own, pulling her, wanting her to follow.
“Mom, come on.”
She gasped, the memory hitting her like a train, splitting her open.
The girl was already several yards away, her dark brown ponytail bouncing up and down, bare heels flashing against the green, dissolving into the blinding sunlight.
She reached out and stumbled after the girl.
Wait for me—
The portal opened directly in her path and she fell through it like a rock, the house and the glistening paint on the walls instantly gone; and all but her deepest memories obliterated as her mind was ripped from one reality and thrust into the next.
A portal appeared.
What happens in the end?
She heard the man’s words as if he was still lying next to her. How many times had she wondered the same thing?
Her body was already positioned to run, her feet ready to carry her towards the portal.
Go. Go on! You can still make it.
But something was different this time. Instead of leaping ahead, her mind lagged behind, resisted, her thoughts turning in slow, painful circles.
Not yet. I need more time.
There were no portals leading back—only forward. Always forward. A straight line. An arrow pointing towards whatever came next. Cruel and unforgiving.
The pull of the portal wavered. In a moment, it would be gone.
But what if it wasn’t a line? What if it was a circle, looping back—a way to find the path that was once hers, to regain what was lost?
The thought snapped her back and gave her momentum. And instantly, her mind and body were one and in flight, hurling through space, racing with time.
Copyright © 2021 by Vera Brook
[ 2075 words ]