D. A. D’Amico
On his second step, Sheng realized he hadn’t made it to Phnom Penh. He hadn’t made it to anywhere.
“Help me.” Niki hovered like a wraith beside him. Her lips moved, her thin features fluctuating with glossy, jaundiced light like a time-lapse animation, but Sheng realized it was he who’d stumbled.
He landed hard against the pavement. It shattered like glass, forming a circular depression that oozed radiance the color of fresh blood. Niki hit beside him. Her fingers clawed the pebbled asphalt, raking lines in angry shades of crimson.
The busy transport hub was suddenly empty, the streets of Tokyo deserted. Dozens of tourists, commuters, businessmen, husbands and wives, all gone.
Sheng’s anger vanished as well, replaced by cold terror as he glanced at Niki. Her blank, frightened expression told him she’d also forgotten about the fight.
“Where’s Cambodia?” Her voice trembled.
Sheng climbed to his feet. To his right, the Mori Tower loomed like a serrated ice carving, all harsh angles and glistening illumination. Maman, the bronze sculpture, stood in front of the placer interface, a demonic spider guarding an eerily silent city.
“We never jumped.” He stated the obvious as he helped Niki stand.
He barely noticed long distance trips anymore. The placer made it as simple as stepping through the low arch at one location, and walking out at another. But not this time. Something had gone wrong.
“I need to be in Prey Veng by tonight.” Niki’s voice broke, high syllables bubbling like helium as she glanced around. She clung to his waist, wrapping her arms around him with an awkward intimacy. “My mother’s expecting me.”
Sheng looked down at his hands, unsure of his own existence. The city felt wrong. “It’s different.”
Niki glared, as if he’d commented on their breakup. It’d been wrong to think they could still be friends, that they could be any kind of civil to each other. She’d chased him from the court, harassed him the whole time they’d marched down the busy street toward the square where the placer terminals stood. He’d tried to shush her. He’d tried not to notice the stares as she made a scene.
She’d bullied her way into the placer beside him, intent on arguing, even in Cambodia. He tried to ignore her. She’d pushed. He’d fallen. Then the world changed.
“Where’s the sun?” Niki squinted into the ochre sky. Pale light seemed to emanate from everywhere, dense and constrictive. It clung to the objects around them.
A flare of fungus-green light erupted from the platform behind them. Sheng spun. A tall white man stepped from the nearest placer arch, his expression blank, and his eyes unwavering. He burst into the air, as if a gigantic invisible hand had picked him up and tossed him across the city like a wadded scrap of paper, leaving a fading afterimage like a cloud of loosely wound springs.
A shadow of the man remained, gazing into the distance with an empty expression. Sheng reached out, expecting to pass his hand through the specter, but his fingers brushed ice. The shadow felt frozen, as solid as steel.
Sheng took a deep breath. His heart slammed his ribs, his body tingling as every nerve ached with a sudden urge to run. He felt submerged, deep underwater and struggling to reach a surface that moved continuously out of reach. Niki trembled beside him, her usually dark features pale. He didn’t like seeing her this way. Even if their relationship had fallen apart, he still cared about her.
“I don’t know what’s happening. I feel….”
She screamed. The world spun. Sheng’s insides dropped as she pulled him skyward, clutching him with a vicious misery. Her slender face contorted, and her long hair flailed the empty air. The Tokyo placer station dwindled. The city’s panorama shrank from a dizzying array of fantastic colored lights to a rainbow smear as they rocketed upward. Mountains and rivers, forests and lakes, shot by too fast for recognition. He could see the curve of the Earth.
Then they fell. Darkness ruptured, spilling diamond glare across the ground. City lights blossomed like exploding fireworks. Sheng slammed into pavement, and Niki crashed like a mallet against his chest.
The ground buckled, flexing like hot taffy. Sheng felt sick, like he was going to vomit. He couldn’t believe they’d lived; couldn’t understand any of the things that had happened. They should’ve been crushed.
They should be in Tokyo, or if the placer had functioned the way it should have, Phnom Penh. Not here.
“Where are we?” Niki clutched her abdomen, grimacing as she tried to stand. Sheng held out his hand, and pulled her up. She squeezed his fingers, her hands as cold as ice. “What’s happening?”
A tall structure of latticed steel towered over them. Lit with pinpoints of light from red LEDs, it flanked a long building with a roof designed to look like the sails of a ship. Behind, the squat arches of placer interfaces sat like open mouths.
“Kobe,” he said. “We’re at the Port Exchange.”
Niki whimpered. Sheng squeezed her hand. His mind spun, dizzying confusion churned his stomach, but he needed to be strong. They’d been tossed nearly five hundred kilometers in a matter of seconds—not a big deal in a world where placers could instantly move people and materials anywhere on the planet, but they hadn’t traveled by placer. Something, some power, had picked them up and flung them through the air.
“I’m sorry.” Niki stared into the distance at the tall buildings along the waterfront that appeared to be made from frozen silk. Windows flexed as if in a strong breeze, disgorging a faint pearly fog. “I really am. I should have just let you go.”
“No,” he said. “I… should have made it easier for you.” He’d almost said he shouldn’t have left, but it was too late. The papers had been signed. She was no longer his wife.
In the last few months her chatty exuberance had turned into incessant nagging. He knew it’d been a reaction to his dwindling presence, but it hadn’t stopped him from finding more and more reasons to be away from home; business in India, then Canada, Poland, Iran, almost anywhere. A rift had opened between them. He knew it was his fault, but he’d watched as if from a distance as everything fell apart.
The placer flared. A chubby Cambodian girl popped into view, and just as quickly shot into the air, her shadow remaining like an ice sculpture. A Japanese businessman in an immaculate five-piece suit burst in, and then another. Both men launched upward almost instantly, arms and legs hanging limply behind as if they were rag dolls.
“I want to go home.” Niki dropped like a sack of apples onto the granite edge of the placer platform. She put her head in her hands, and Sheng could hear her softly sobbing.
He should’ve gone to her then. He wanted to, but an awkward barrier still existed between them. They were no longer the same people they’d been before they’d traveled to Tokyo for their divorce.
He hopped onto the platform and inspected the placer arches. They didn’t appear any different from others he’d seen, but he’d never really paid attention. It was a machine to go from one place to another. He wasn’t a mechanic. He never cared about how the machine functioned.
The carbon-graphene shell on the closest arch had seen better days. There were numerous small dings and tiny abrasions along the silvery-grey interlaced surface. Inside, he saw only a dark tunnel that somehow looked deeper than the meter depth of the arch. The device appeared active. The green bars signifying throughput were on, and the destination video showed a gaily lit image of Seoul, Korea.
He stepped through.
A wave of dizziness passed over him, a tight pressure accompanied by an unpleasant déjà vu. He should’ve walked easily from the Kobe placer platform to the Seoul platform in a few quick steps. Instead, he stepped out a meter from where he’d started. The placer hadn’t done anything.
“We’re dead.” Niki peered up at him from the bottom of the platform with glassy eyes, moist from crying. “The placer killed us.”
“An accident? Malfunction?”
“We never made it out the other side. It ate us up. The placer murdered us, turned us into ghosts—no, fragments of ghosts.” Her voice rose. Her thin features contracted even more as her gaze skittered nervously through the plaza. She looked every bit the ghost she thought herself to be.
Sheng didn’t believe it. He didn’t believe in phantoms, especially not spirits who could feel sick and scared, and who could contemplate the nature of their existence.
“No, it can’t be.” He tapped his chest. “I feel alive. I’m breathing, I’m speaking… I am not dead.”
As he spoke, the placer arch flared. An old Chinese woman arrived. Her wrinkled face appeared as brown and worn as the bricks lining the platform.
“Hello!” He spun, positioning himself right in front of the old lady. Her gaze remained fixed, the dark pebbles of her eyes unfocused. “Can you help us? Please.”
Her body swayed. Sheng lunged just as a tremendous force pulled her into the air. His hands struck her shoulders, and she mowed him down like an American football player making a tackle. He tumbled off the platform, hitting an ornamental cherry tree that shattered on impact, scattering in an icy spray.
Niki ran to his side. He leaned on her for support as he caught his breath. “Do you still think we’re dead?”
“I don’t know what to think.” She stared back at the placer as if she thought it would launch another old woman at them. “And where is everyone? I only see people exiting the placer. The streets are empty.”
She pulled him off the platform, still holding his hand. Her fingers were cold, but Sheng didn’t care. The intimacy felt comforting. He’d almost forgotten how it had been between them.
“We’re still alive.” He said it forcefully, pulling her a little closer. She moved against him, slipping into the crook of his shoulder just like old times, as if the fighting and bitterness hadn’t happened. “But I think we’re stuck in between.”
“Transfers. We’re between placer points,” he said. “I think our bodies are in the machine. They’re either on their way, or already at their destination.”
He’d noticed they’d traveled from the Tokyo placer platform to the plaza in Kobe, both terminals in line with their destination. It seemed too specific to be random. There had to be a reason for it, and he thought he knew why. The placer converted matter to information. Then it transferred that information to another station to be reassembled. Sheng didn’t know specifics about the process, but he pictured it something like the old 3D printers: image in, object out. The only part he couldn’t explain was how they remained aware.
Niki doubled over. She screamed. Sheng grabbed her as she fell, and felt himself wrenched upward. The lights of Kobe shrank. Rainbow spirals filled his vision. A searing hot spray stung his flesh, and then they plummeted.
Niki slammed into steel grating that puffed like fine powder under her body. Sheng landed against a large red beacon light that smeared like strawberry jelly over his body. He gasped with the pain.
“You okay?” He ached all over, sore but intact, as he helped Niki to sit up.
“It felt like something tried to pull my insides out.”
Sheng gulped a couple of deep breaths, trying to control his rapid breathing. They’d landed on a circular lozenge of steel about three meters wide, a pedestal suspended above a turbulent ocean. Waves, frozen like tufts of cake frosting, rose around them in peaks that seemed poised to rip the platform apart. Behind him, scaffolding towered into the darkness above. A painted steel plaque on its side explained in Japanese that it was a placer relay point.
“It’s happening again!” Niki shrieked as she clawed at her abdomen. Sheng held her close.
They launched into the air. Sheng struggled to hold on. Crisp darkness crushed them. An icy, almost unbreathable breeze, surrounded them, forming flakes and crystals on the exposed surfaces of their skin. Strange, subdued lighting filled his vision from the edges, flowing inward as they plunged. It felt like falling down a well.
They hit gravel. Sheng’s body bounced. He lost hold of Niki as he tumbled across an unfinished road, crashing violently against a parked truck that exploded into finger-sized square chunks, scattering like domino hail across the empty street. He staggered to his feet, bruised and exhausted. Nothing moved along the deserted highway.
Lime-colored light erupted a few blocks over, the same radiance they’d seen in Tokyo and Kobo. He turned. Niki squealed. She doubled over. Her body flew upwards, spiraling out of sight.
“Niki?” His voice fell flat. No sound echoed from the squat buildings.
The gravel squelched like marshmallow as he ran. Frantic, he shouted her name. The flash must have been an incoming jumper, and since they’d been shunting between placers, Niki had to be there.
He couldn’t lose her, not now. He shouldn’t have let her go. He knew that now. He could feel it as strongly as the phantom tug threatening to turn him inside out. The divorce had been wrong, an overreaction. He hated what they’d become, but it’d been his fault. He could fix it. He could be stronger, as strong as she needed him to be.
He turned the corner. A small park sat at the end of the street, a blob of green among the bland brick buildings. Three placer arches glowed with sickly orange light as if burning from within. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Niki huddled like a lost child at the foot of the nearest arch, her head hidden in the crook of her knees. She glanced up as he sprinted towards her.
“I’m here.” He reached for her.
She started crying again. He didn’t blame her. He was close to tears himself.
She sprang into the air. He snatched her wrist. His arm twisted violently. He yelled. The world spun. Bands of absolute blackness gave way to splotches of fiery light, and they fell.
A ribbon of tar blossomed into the shape of a river, ordered patches of green to either side. They impacted the water, and it folded around them like thin sheets of clear plastic. Sheng surfaced, the shifting mass congealing around him. Niki floundered. The plastic stuck to her in clumps like discarded confetti. She struggled against the flaking shreds until he reached in and pulled her out.
“I can’t take any more.” She clung to him as if he might fly away.
“You might not have to.” He pointed, leading her over the unstable surface and onto shore. “We’re here.”
He felt heavy, completely destroyed by the constant shifting of location and perspective. Seeing Niki, her eyes rimmed by black, her face smudged and swollen from crying, hurt him more than the meteoric crash landings. He wanted to lie down and curl up around her, keep her safe, but it was more important he get her back to the real world.
The grass snapped like icicles under their feet, tinkling like crystal as they marched through the park and toward the placer terminal. It sat just beyond the site of the old Royal Palace, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Phnom Penh. The gold and tile roof, with its spires and white painted columns, was a welcome sight.
“If our bodies are here, doesn’t that prove we’re already dead?” Her voice trembled. It sounded as if she didn’t want to find out.
“Not if it’s the way this is supposed to be.” Sheng squeezed her hand. He’d been trying to make sense of it all. “I keep wondering if this happens to everyone.”
“That they die?”
“That we all have some kind of out-of-body experience when we travel through the placer,” he said. “It makes a twisted kind of sense, I guess. Our bodies are taken apart by the machine. We don’t really exist for the split second it processes us out to the next terminal. We’re essentially….”
“Dead.” She said it with such finality that he stopped, leaning down to look into her eyes.
“It’s essentially instantaneous, a fragment of a second….”
“But we’re still dead, lost souls with nothing to hold us down.”
“No.” He could feel a push, a pulsating tug like the force of blood pumping through his veins. “Call it what you want, but we’re not lost. We’ve been headed this way since this all happened. Our bodies want us back.”
She looked so frail and vulnerable. He leaned in and kissed her. She pressed against him, holding on with a crushing intensity.
“I’m sorry.” He kissed her again. “I should never have pushed you away. Forgive me?”
“Just take me home.”
The wrenching pull increased as they stepped onto the platform. The churning in Sheng’s belly matched the creepy aqua illumination surging through the arches like steam, and he wondered what they’d find. Were they really just passing through, or had something catastrophic happened to leave them separated and alone?
“I’m afraid to see.” Niki hung back. Sheng held her hand, leading her forward, unsure of what they’d find.
“I can’t tell.” He inspected the wide portal from both ends, but the hazy bluish light obscured the interior. The pull from inside felt intense, like a wind tunnel. A tremendous vacuum tore at them, and Sheng fought to keep Niki from slipping away. “This has to be it. It’s where we’d have come out, and it’s where we’ve been headed. Go, step in.”
“Wait!” She hung on when he tried to guide her through the arch, her lips trembling, and her hands as cold as ice.
“I’ll be right behind you.”
“I know, but….”
“It’s trying to rip me apart. You have to go, now!” The force had grown stronger. He could barely hold on.
She hesitated, her voice rising against the rush of wind. “What if we forget? What if you’re right, and this happens to everyone when they pass through a placer? I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to go back to the way it was, the way we were before.”
It’d occurred to him more than once. If bodies died as they moved from point to point, and if such things as souls existed, then this experience wasn’t new. It may happen every time. Nobody remembered, certainly not Sheng, but Niki was right. He didn’t want to go back to the way things were. He didn’t want to give her up, not again.
“Then we’ll go together.” He pulled her close as they took their first step into the machine. “Hold my hand. Hold on tight and don’t let go. I’ll never walk away from you again.”
D. A. D’Amico has had over fifty works published in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Shock Totem…. He’s a winner of L. Ron Hubbard’s prestigious Writers of the Future award, volume XXVII, and he’s also begun self-publishing collections of his work (“Through Starlight, Dying” is currently available on Amazon, and autographed copies from his website). He writes sometimes with his twin brother, Dean N. D’Amico, who can also be found in this publication. D. A. D’Amico’s website is: http://www.dadamico.com, or find him on Facebook at authordadamico.