Bleach, spray cleaners, green cleaner. What is a green cleaner? Organic bleach? This whole thing started when I decided to fix the disposal a few months back. I cleared out the cabinet, started to wrench on it, and boom. I was gone, just like that. It’s one thing to go on a trip when you expect it, but that first jump took me for a surprise. So here I am again, emptying the cabinet, addicted to the thrill, handling each item like a grenade, trying not to make a sound.
A cough erupts upstairs. I freeze, ears perked, preparing some half-baked reason why the cleaning supplies are laid out across the countertop in the middle of the night.
I bend down. The light from my watch reveals a disgusting mystery crust, black and dried, spattered across the off-white plumbing. I shimmy my legs into the cabinet. The light fades, dimming the water-stained particleboard beneath me. There’s a familiar smell of mold.
I reach out, my shoulder screaming from an old injury, and close the cabinet door upon myself. The hinge squeaks a threat to wake everyone up. Part of me wants them to wake up, to see if I disappear. Or have I just lost my mind? I think about it often.
I move the hinge back and forth, coercing it along, not unlike how I convince my youngest child to eat their dinner –come on, just five more bites, I’ll count them with you.
How embarrassing would it be if my wife came down here right now? Hi honey, what are you doing? Oh, nothing, just struggling to get my legs into the cabinet under the sink. You know, that’s the hardest part. The plumbing jabs my back so I arch down as far as I can. Good thing we took those yoga classes at the Y, here we go hun, get ready, I’m about to blast off into another dimension – no big deal.
The door comes to a soft landing against the wooden frame. Darkness. I close my eyes, knowing that I’ll no longer be Jacob Stuart when I open them.
I’m in space. Floating. Suspended and turning, like a string-puppet. My head is reeling with pain. The twisted metal of a damaged starship appears, scorched all over – a concrete-crisped worm on a summer day.
The problem with this whole thing is the time lag: first pain, then a dribble of memories, and the eventual mind explosion, a good explosion – a euphoria of recollection from another being. I haven’t figured it all out, but I’m here, in space – having assumed the body of Dr. Naroki, my part-time vessel – my escape.
An array of ghostly stars brightens the desert of blackness surrounding me. The ear-comm within my spacesuit hums as small champagne colored debris strikes my visor.
Sequences of static chirp in my earcom. The lag should wear off at any moment.
“Lunar Hammer, Lunar Hammer, Lunar Hammer, this is Praetor One, listening XYUS,” sounds off in my helmet.
“Praetor One, go ahead.”
“Lunar Hammer, lost visual on Dr. Naroki, requesting a thermal download of zone 84290.2, three-degree variance.”
“Praetor One, request approved, upload complete.”
A harsh tug pulls on me from behind – an inceptor wave. The wrecked ship drifts away, further, out of sight, gone. There’s no reference point to judge my speed – but I’m going fast. The gray hull of a massive ship appears above. A navy-blue emblem marks the ship – a triple-headed eagle constricted by a serpent: The Praetor One – Class IV destroyer commissioned to capture the Wyrenth King years ago.
The door closes upon my entry, and a whining sound, like a deflating balloon, pierces the chamber. Thick ruby-wheat metal outlines the large portholes throughout the room.
“Dr. Naroki, we need you immediately,” shouts a voice overhead.
Crewmembers scurry around me, each focused on removing a different part of my spacesuit. They move with precision, wearing an identical uniform: pure white bodysuits, skintight and flexible, with silver quilted patterns reaching their neck. Golden bangles tighten at their elbows, with faces hidden beneath ashen-blue screens. I continue to look around, hoping to find something that will spark my memories – all the memories of Dr. Naroki.
The portholes reveal thousands of star-fighters dancing in geometric war patterns, staying close to the Praetor One, swooping in interlocking halos. Yes. Star-fighters, the mech fighters, soldiers outfitted with permanent exo-skeletons.
Dr. Naroki’s memories wash over me – a library of intrigue; this is what keeps me coming back. Loose medical scrubs drape my body. The spacesuit, blackened and torn, hangs on the wall across from me.
“Dr. Naroki, we need you immediately,” the overhead voice is quick, “Dr. Naroki, we need you in the medical bay, now. I repeat, Dr. Naroki, we need you in the medical bay.“
The crewmembers rush me out of the room. I notice a sinister vessel in the distance. It is beyond the defensive wall of fighters, shrouded in a matte ox-blood hull.
The crewmembers place me on an auto-pod, pull silver bands across my chest, and enter coordinates on the receiver.
“Dr. Naroki,” says a crewmember, directing their focus at me, “this pod will take you to the Medical Bay per Commander Wirn’s request.” The crewmember, him or her or it – I have no clue, presses a button, and sends me racing away atop the auto-pod.
The monochromatic corridors are empty, aside from tiny robots that speed past me. The auto-pod moves me through a flickering hologram that reads, “MEDICAL BAY,” and continues past the open doors.
The autopod comes to a quick stop. “Dr. Naroki,” says a diamond-headed giant in front of me. I struggle to release the safety bands across my chest, and for a moment, I give up entirely and sit there. But in the name of dignity, I continue, figure it out, and stand to my feet. I glance at the creature’s nametag, “CMDR WIRN.”
“I heard about your troubles, my sincerest apologies.” The soft voice does not match its enormous features. Its towering shoulders are meters above me, with limbs that hang low enough to tie my shoes. The head is irregular, and those eyes – opaque like pieces of sea glass. Those eyes are a problem. I have no clue where the thing is looking. Just blank. Is it polite to stare at its eyes while it talks? It’s making me uncomfortable.
“I assure you,” continues the giant, “your compensation for this mission will now be three-fold.” It turns on its heel and walks further into the medical bay. I jog to keep up.
“We’ve captured the Wyrenth King. Our initial scans verify the Keys to Davar are within the beast. It is under heavy sedation, and Dr. Jacan and Fitrad are preparing now.” How did they capture the Wryenth King? The King! How long have I been gone? My jumps are consistent – I climb into that cabinet every night. Have many years passed since my last jump? Weeks had passed between jumps before – but never years. I continue walking behind the giant and keep my mouth shut. We stop at the door labeled, “Surgery 003”.
“This is our one chance to save the Alliance,” continues the giant, “As you know, this will give us the information we need to travel inter-dimensionally. It’s our only hope. The Wyrenth have positioned a fleet outside of Terra Zeta, threatening to destroy the palace. They are demanding their King, but we are willing to sacrifice a great deal for the information inside of that beast. Please hurry.”
The giant pushes the door open and steps aside. A violet hue shines across the medical bay floor, and the stench of rotten garlic hits me. I step into the darkened room, paces away from a hideous creature stretched across the room. That must be it – the Wyrenth King. The creature’s eyes are like bloodied arrows within crystal balls, placed atop a bulbous mass. The sides of its thick head open and close, revealing a chasm of webbed mucus. I stand and stare. Someone is talking to me, but I cannot hear them – I can hear them, but I refuse to believe this creature is in front of me, right here, right now – and the time lag from my travel is still fuzzy. Unbelievable.
“Please excuse the lighting, Doctor. The Wyrenth, as you know, live in total darkness. We are trying to emulate its natural environment as much as possible.” The man is securing a metal framework onto the head of Wyrenth, stabilizing the beast, his wrench turning at a frantic pace. The metal apparatus presses into the Wyrenth’s skin, revealing what looks like the gills of a decaying mushroom with a network of veins underneath. Three massive tentacles extend further into the room, supported by a network of platforms, secured by golden ringlets, much like the crewmembers’ bangles in the entry chamber. Razor-thin wires lay atop the Wyrenth’s head. The wires slump over the creature’s side and hang above the floor, disappearing beneath the garment of a hooded figure sitting a few meters away. Strands of iridescent hair lay motionless against the bunched folds of dark velvet cloth – an Oracle. How did they convince an Oracle of Intha to be here – without any of its sisters?
The Oracle turns towards me, its face obscured. A hiss like a snake comes forth, followed by a cold voice, “we need to hurry.” The room flashes, my vision blurs, and in an instant, the lag of interdimensional travel falls away. I am Dr. Naroki – Imperial Surgeon of Sector 7, Master Archivist, and Honorary Historian at the Chantul Society, bio-technological hobbyist, amateur interdimensional traveler.
I can taste the rising intellect within me—sour grape. Dr. Naroki’s memories are palatable. An intoxicating whirl from childhood to university and beyond. I grasp it, retaining it all. I move faster, think quicker, and speak as I walk towards the beast, “The pre-scan shows a composition of 2mm accuracy, threshold holding. Coordinates as follows, X: 108.6, Y:80.4, Ring: 103.45 – pitch and roll may be difficult on this one.”
I grab the scalpel and move it across the Wyrenth’s flesh like a miniature katana. Multiple layers of membrane fall away from its head – pockets of clumped mucous ooze forth. “Fitrad, how are we doing?”
“I’m projecting an underwater cavern into the beast’s mind now, much like its home world, everything is fine,” she says. Fitrad is guiding the Wyrenth through a dream-like state. She is the mechanism to obtain the secrets we are after. I continue slicing away layer upon layer.
“Prepare the subquet wires,” I demand of the man who secured the beast’s head before my arrival. The Keys are in view – five symmetrical stones, pulsing. “Fitrad, you have to hurry,” urging her to find the secrets.
Fitrad responds to me with an indiscernible utterance – her focus undivided.
I continue talking as I work, “This is it. We must keep the Wyrenth stable. Keep an eye on the vitals. The final incision is complete.” I clamp the membrane upon the previously sliced layers and fix the subquet wires onto the stones. A guttural moan comes from Fitrad – wisps of smoke lift above her. The Wyrenth King’s eyes move, searching the room with evil intent.
“Fitrad! What’s going on?” I ask.
Its eyes are locked upon mine as it flexes in rapid succession, arching upwards and slamming against the surgical tables. The golden ringlets, holding its tentacles in place, scream under the assault.
The copper taste of blood enters the room as Fitrad lifts her arms, and violently mirrors the beast’s spastic attempt to free itself.
A metallic “ping” rings out, and I drop towards the floor—a barbed tentacle swings above me, impaling the assistant – Dr. Jacan’s torso. The man’s gurgling pleas for help fade as the Wyrenth King’s tentacle curls around him.
I crawl atop the blood-soaked ceramic floor towards Fitrad, hoping to release her from the trance and get her out of here. Another “ping” lets forth, and another. The beast is free. “Fitrad!” I can see her. Sitting, calm and still, draped in her velvet robe. She looks towards me – her eyes devoid of interest, like a stranger passing another on a cold winter morning. The Wyrenth is upright – its tentacles supporting its massive head. The beast opens its mouth – a labyrinth of shards. It lurches forward, attempting to devour her. A cloud of vapor appears around her – a crackling sound like thunder erupts. The beast’s head disappears within the cloud – the tentacles still writhing about the room. I run towards the exit, push open the door into the medical bay, and look back to see a bundle of wires lying on the ground – Fitrad is gone, the beast where she had been.
Tentacles unwind and snap towards me like a bullwhip as the Wyrenth howls. I dodge, back away, and run through the empty medical bay. Where is everyone? The emergency alarms resonate through the hallway, “IMMEDIATE EVACUATION, PROCEED TO BAY C-22.” I run out of the medical bay – into the corridor where the auto-pod had dropped me off, amongst a group of crew members heading towards the escape pods.
“Think there’s enough for all of us,” I ask an unmasked crewmember as we run.
“Hell, no!” The man’s brow slants upwards as peals of laughter spring forth. He seems to be enjoying this a little too much. I push my way forward, moving the blonde-haired dimwit out of my way, and turn the corner. A few more left – I jump into the closest escape pod, press the initiation sequence, and send it away.
The escape pod’s windows reveal the Praetor One surrounded by multiple Wyrenth warships – the defensive starfighters now gone. I’ve had enough – this was too much tonight. Parts of Jacob Stuart from Earth are beginning to take over. Flames leap from the front of the Praetor One as minor explosions brighten my view of the Wyrenth warships, their hulls covered in quills. I stare for some time, transfixed on the light show, then lower myself across the thin pad extending across the escape pod’s floor and close my eyes. The Wyrenth King – who would have thought we had captured that bastard. Commander Wirn mentioned they had the palace as hostage – yet she commanded us to go forward with the mission.
“We failed,” I say aloud.
“I’ve got it,” says a voice. I jump at the sound. Whose here. My eyes meet the indifferent face of Fitrad.
“You’ve got it?” I ask as she leans against the contours of the escape pod across from me. “What do you mean, you’ve got it?” Fitrad pulls her hood from her head, revealing a sprawl of crimson tattoos branching from her eyes, accentuating her sharp jawline. She closes her eyes. You damn creepy oracle – ignoring my question.
“Fitrad, how are –”
“I didn’t ignore your question,” responds Fitrad. A tick of pain hits my left eye- a whisper enters my mind: I can read your mind, you simpleton.
“You can read my mind?” I brush past that, pretending not to care. “Well, regardless, what do you mean you’ve got it?” I ask, hoping to get to other questions, like how she got off the ship alive.
“Teleportation,” says Fitrad – yet again ignoring my question but answering the one in my mind.
The tick of pain enters my eyes again. I know how to enter the delta dimension. I’ve got the secrets of Davar. You will be taking me there, Jacob Stuart.
“Wait. What do you mean, Jacob Stuart? Who is that?” My hands shake.
Fitrad lunges out her hand and places it upon my head.
My head jerks back and smacks the kitchen sink’s underside. The thud bounces inside the cabinet, a dampened declaration: welcome back to earth.
The memories of Dr. Naroki drain out of me. My pores burn – an invisible congealed sweat, frothing inside the blender that is interdimensional travel.
The memories will be back tomorrow, at least in some capacity, but they are gone, for now. It usually takes a night’s rest to restore any recollection of the experience.
I lay my hand flat against the cabinet door. The squeak from the hinge is loud again, but I don’t care – exhaustion has won at this point.
I shimmy out and stand. My joints pop in an off-beat melody akin to old people’s clapping hands – the wrinkled, veiny ones lined between the Sunday pews.
My fingers glide over the lump on the backside of my head.
It’s time to get upstairs, slip into bed, and get some rest for tomorrow. Wednesday. The worst day to be a car salesman, the day I’m inevitably paired with the tire kickers, the shouters, the whiners, and the beat you over the head until I submit to the whiskey in my keyboard drawer negotiators.
The carpet on the stairs is worn thin, the pink foam padding showing in spots – another project I should knock out soon.
I hang on to the railing, afraid of myself – afraid that I may open my hand and lean back. I can imagine the tumble, the pain, and the eventual disability check. I have yet to decide if it’s worth it, maybe one day, but for now, this ascent is my willing acceptance of the day ahead.
The bedroom’s door handle is cold. A wooden percussion from downstairs breaks the silence.
A shadow, quick and definite, passes along below me, at the base of the steps.
“Where are you, Dr. Naroki,” says an unfamiliar voice. “Jacob Stuart. Or whoever you are. Show yourself.” The words are like smooth amber, convincing my feet to move, involuntarily, down the steps.
The figure appears – short and hooded, “Jacob Stuart! I told you that you would be taking me to the delta dimension, and now we are here! You must take me to the Wyrenth. Where is their city? Where is their capital? That is where they hold all of their secrets.” The voice continues, becoming louder every moment, “It is time for my people, the Intha, to rule! The Alliance must pay for their gloating. They must pay for their undeserved reign!”
“Who are you?” I strain my eyes towards the figure, hoping to find something that stirs a memory.
“You fool. You know who I am.” The figure pulls down their hood, revealing tattoos across her pale skin. “Would you prefer that I call you Naroki or Jacob?”
“I don’t know who you are. How do you know my name? My name is Jacob Stuart.” I know this has something to do with my secret under the kitchen sink, but my memories are blank. I search my mind and come up with nothing.
“You are Jacob Stuart, are you? The traitor. The shapeshifter.” The tattooed face woman pulls a dagger from her cloak and walks up the stairs. I fall backward, upon the landing, outside of my bedroom. “Demon!” The woman jumps toward me. The dagger is a blur, both of her hands firmly against its hilt, moving downwards towards my chest.
The bedroom door thrusts open.
“What the hell?” comes from behind me. I turn and see my wife squinting in the light-filled hallway, holding a shotgun neatly in both hands. The blast from the gun sends the woman back.
A toxic smell, sulfuric and strong, hangs in the room. “What have you done,” says the woman, her body limp and contorted along the hallway wall. “You have no idea what you have done. My sisters will come. They know the secrets now. They know how to get to your dimension. This is not over, Jacob Stuart.” Her last words hang in the air.
“How does she know your name?” asks my wife while clearing the gun with a quick thrust.
“Yeah, hold on a second,” I tell the officers. I walk a few paces into the kitchen, holding the phone against my head. The ringtone continues.
A snort comes through the phone. “Hi, Jacob. What is it this time?”
“Hi. Yeah. Hi Bob. Hey, I’m sorry Bob, but I’m not going to be able to come-“
“How did I know you were going to say that Jake?” says Bob, pausing for another long snort. “It’s always something with you, isn’t it? I’m going to deduct this from your draw for next month.”
My fingers strangle the phone. Fuck you, Bob. I’m two months behind on my mortgage, someone tried to kill me, and I don’t need your condescending bullshit right now. I take a quick breath, “no problem, Bob. The thing is, I had a break-in last night. Someone broke into our house, and Cathy shot them dead.” I stop for a moment, allowing Bob an opportunity to express some sympathy. Nothing. “It was some tweaker,” I say, “at least that’s what the cops told me. She had a knife-“
“Hey Jake, listen,” interrupted Bob, “I have to get going. A customer just rolled in. Tell me about it later. You better be here tomorrow.”
“Ok. No problem-” The dial tone deafens my words.
I walk back towards the three officers at the front door. “Sorry, guys. I had to call into work and let them know I’m not going to be making it. You know how it is.”
The tallest of the bunch walks away with the bald one, leaving behind the mustached cop, “the coroner should be here any minute. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine now. The adrenaline has worn off, and I’m pretty damn tired,” I say with a forced smile.
“Do you need medical assistance?” asks the mustached cop. That’s about the tenth time someone has asked me that since the cops got here. Are the bastards trying to get rid of me or something?
“No. I’m good. Were you able to pull any ID, or anything from the woman?” I say.
“There wasn’t anything on her.” The cop pulls out a small notepad from his shirt pocket, “Have you done anything recently to provoke anyone?”
“I don’t see how anything I’ve done has any link to this. I lead a pretty normal life. I go to work, come home, wash, and repeat.”
The officer’s radio buzzes something unintelligible. “One moment,” he motions his finger in the air and heads out front with the other cops, “I’ll be right back.”
I make my way back into the kitchen. The cleaning supplies are across the countertop. What time is it? The coroner was supposed to be here an hour ago.
I grab for another cup of coffee and notice the conversation on the front porch quieting to a whisper. I take a sip and lean against the wall, just out of the cop’s sight.
“Do you think he suspects anything,” says the deep-voiced cop – the tall one, I think.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“The command confirmed that the Praetor One has fallen. That is a huge setback for them,” says the deep-voiced cop. The Praetor One, why is that so familiar? I take a sip of coffee.
“Good,” says the mustached cop, “When will the extraction team be here? They are flying in from Fort Bragg, landing in Vallejo, and then driving here. What is that, about two hours altogether?”
“Yeah, two hours sounds about right.”
“Have you confirmed the woman is dead?”
“I have. I’ve gone up five times, at least.”
“How the hell did they manage to kill an oracle?”
“The time distortion must have messed with her abilities, but I’m not sure. Maybe it was a fluke, but damn if we aren’t lucky.”
“What are they going to do with him?”
“They’ll probably continue to use-“
Tires screech, car doors slam, “Where the hell is she?”
“Inside, sir. Upstairs.”
I walk back into the kitchen and place my mug onto the counter, next to the green cleaning solution.
“Mr. Stuart,” says a new voice from outside, “My name is Mrs. Akyildiz, and I’ll be taking-” The squeak from the cabinet’s hinge distorts the voice.
The frayed particleboard, invisible in the darkness, is sharp beneath my fingers. A perfect mixture of bleach and mold attacks my nose as I tilt my head forward and close my eyes.