UNPARALLELED - Chapter Seven
Ted, just Ted, is about as normal as you get. Until one day he's not. After a traumatic near-death experience, he wakes up the next morning without—of all things—his reflection. Little does he know, that's not even the weirdest thing that will happen to him that day. (No, he's not a vampire, calm down.)
When we step out of Union Station in Chicago, there's already a car waiting for us along the curb. A man steps out the driver’s side door. He's got long dark hair, tied up in a ponytail that runs down his back. Thin glasses, a suit, plus a nice winter overcoat.
"Ella, Ted, this is Colonel Pae. He’s our regional director,” Laura says, gesturing to the man. We all shake hands.
“Pleased to meet you all.”
His voice is higher than I expect, and raspy, too. Like he’s just been yelling at someone for an hour straight. But the lines along his cheeks and eyes seem far too kind. He looks more like a non-profit executive or a doctor than a military leader.
“Let’s get moving. There’s much to do.”
Without further discussion, we pile into the dark blue SUV and head off across the river into the heart of downtown Chicago.
There’s a mysterious load of cargo taking up the trunk and entire back row, covered by a black tarp, so Orion, Ella, and I are all squished into the middle row. Not that I mind. Over the course of our long journey, Ella and I spent most of our time together. Talking, playing games, watching our favorite online videos. We haven’t had much of an opportunity to ourselves, though. I look forward to the time when we can be alone together, without running from mythological vampire slayers, or whoever these Erisites are.
But for now, I find myself content with the simple connection we share by subtly lacing our fingers together between us. The potent thrill of something new, of this fantasy made real, mixed together with the adrenaline of a flight for our lives, makes my mind drunk with emotion, and I struggle, minute by minute, to keep myself focused on what is reality, and what is simply a shadow of my imagination.
“So, Ted. Tell me a bit about yourself,” Colonel Pae says once we’re well underway. “Where are you from? What do you do for work or school?”
I’m initially caught off guard by his questioning, seeing as they seem to know a whole lot about me already, somehow.
“I’m from Torrance, California, but I’ve been attending UCLA since the beginning of this last school year. I’m studying applied linguistics with an emphasis in Arabic.”
“Wow, that’s really interesting. What made you choose that?”
“My grandma is Palestinian, so I grew up speaking a little Arabic. I’ve always thought it was a beautiful language, and I figured it would be cool to be a regional translator for the State Department or something like that.”
Ella gives me a look that tells me she’s never known any of this. My chest puffs up a little, but I force myself to settle my pride.
“That sounds really neat. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of exciting experiences doing that,” Colonel Pae says, as if we weren’t currently on a wild adventure, merely cruising around on a winter trip to the Great Lakes with an old family friend. “So, how did you and Miss Ella here meet?”
My cheeks turn red at the question. I’m not sure how to begin. Certainly not with the truth. I’ve actually been stalking her since I first laid eyes on her, but she only actually noticed me when I saved her life a few days ago. I look to Ella for support, but she just looks back at me expectantly.
“Well, we went to the same middle school. I think we first met in band, but—”
I’m interrupted by the clatter of gunfire striking the side of the car. Colonel Pae swerves the vehicle to the side, while the rest of us duck down for shelter. The high-pitched clang of lead on steel continues for another minute, during which time I notice that the sides and windows are armored with some kind of bullet-proof material, but then we turn down a side street and the clatter stops.
Laura and Orion both immediately draw their weapons and turn to look out the back window. I lift my head up, too, just barely, but the glass is nearly opaque from more than two dozen strikes to it.
“Where’s it coming from?” Laura asks over the growl of the engine accelerating.
Colonel Pae pulls up a map on the center console display and taps furiously on it while keeping his attention focused on the road.
“Two gray sedans, about one or two hundred yards back. They’ve been following us since the station, but I didn’t think anything of it.”
Laura rolls down the passenger window and carefully pokes her head out with her pistol ready by her side. We turn another corner, then head the wrong way down a one-way street for several blocks. There aren’t very many cars out, but we draw a few affronted honks from vehicles going the opposite direction.
“I don’t see them. I think we lost them.”
“There will be more.”
“How far away are we from—”
Colonel Pae suddenly slams on the brakes, sending Laura’s hand flying for the handlebar above her head. I turn back to the front and see a massive tanker truck in the process of jackknifing before us. It flips onto its side, then a moment later bursts into flame. A shockwave smashes into us, popping our tires and annihilating whatever was left of our windows.
We shield our eyes as glass flies everywhere. For a moment, none of us move while a roaring wave of heat surges past us, crackling with angry pops and snaps. The taste of burning oil is acrid on my tongue, and I can barely see through the billowing clouds of black smoke surrounding the car.
Before any of us can gain our bearings, the gunfire starts up again, and this time, there’s only the battered frame of our SUV to shield us. Sparks fly as bullets strike the ceiling and ricochet off the pavement.
I feel like a rabbit surrounded by a pack of wolves with no hope of escape. Bursts of detonating fuel snap at the road ahead, while our attackers press forward behind us. There's nothing but concrete walls to our sides, leaving us with little options but to take cover and hope that a miracle suddenly presents itself.
Laura, Orion, and Colonel Pae manage to let off a few shots, but the sheer volume of incoming gunfire forces them back behind shelter. There must be at least ten or twenty attackers, though I still can't see past the black haze in the air. Whatever hope we have of escaping is quickly fading.
"Come here!" Colonel Pae shouts over the chaos.
He holds his hand out towards us and pulls back the right sleeve of his coat. Underneath is an ornate gauntlet with primitive figures carved into its golden frame and miniscule sapphires lining the edges. In the center, though, there's a large reflective plate of silver. Like any other mirror, it refuses to show my reflection, but what I see instead is unlike anything I could have ever imagined.
Deep, cloudy pools swirl about its surface, merging, separating, almost intentionally aimless, as if guided by some invisible hand, or as if sentient in their own right. Each cloud contains, what seems like, an entire universe condensed into a single, living fluid, while the mirror itself contains countless numbers of these clouds that drift infinitely downward out of sight. It's enchanting, and, even despite everything happening outside, I find myself fixed in place, mesmerized by the sheer power emanating from the gauntlet.
I’m reminded of the gunman back at UCLA, of all things. I remember a ring on his hand. A ruby set in gold with exotic and ancient patterns engraved into the metal. The markings are similar to each other.
Colonel Pae snaps me from my stupor. He's been saying something. The others have all locked arms with him and are staring at me expectantly. I follow suit, not sure of what I'm doing, and instantly find my stomach pulled forward, towards the gauntlet.
At first, it feels like I’m falling, like the floor’s been pulled out from underneath me. But then I realize I’m not actually moving—rather, I’m weightless, and my surroundings are shifting, pulsing, rapidly moving from one milky cloud to another. All of this takes place in less than a fraction of a second, but it feels like I’m living a hundred lifetimes as I shift through each burst of light.
Then, like simply moving from one room to another, we all appear around a rectangular dinner table in the middle of a darkened kitchen.
I look out the window. We’re located within what appears to be a suburban cul-de-sac, but there’s something off about our surroundings. The vehicles parked in the driveways look foreign and exotic. The houses themselves are built in an architectural style I’ve never seen, not even in film or fantasy. And from our position on top of a prominent hill, I can see all the way to a downtown region situated by a large lake. There are humble skyscrapers of silver and glass, and glittering lights that shine through the dusky air. Imposing, but nothing compared to the assertive structures that cut through the clouds in Chicago.
“Where are we?” Ella asks, saving me the trouble.
Colonel Pae rolls his sleeve back down and stands up. “We’re in Chicago,” he says, moving towards the window. He looks around in all directions, like he’s searching for something, or someone. “And also not Chicago. Not the one you know, at least.”
After a cursory inspection of our surroundings, he moves over to a closet door along the opposite wall and feels around the top trim.
“What’s happening, sir?” Laura says, leaving the table to join him. “I’ve never seen them behave like this before.”
“Clearly, there’s something important they know that we don’t. They probably saw something with the Veritas.”
“Is it him, do you think? Why go out in the open for one person?”
“I have a theory.”
Clearly, this word means more to them than it does to me or Ella, because Laura’s eyes widen, and her expression seems to evacuate the air from the room.
Colonel Pae must find what he’s looking for, because he presses down with one finger and takes a step back. There’s a soft hiss, and the closet door opens to reveal an armory of lighted weapons that seem straight out of fiction. He takes one that looks like some form of an assault rifle, and hands another each to Laura and Orion.
“You think it’s him?” Laura says, accepting the weapon.
“I’ve never seen them out in the open like this, ever. Not even during the Manchurian Campaigns. There’s only one thing that’s that important to them.”
Colonel Pae moves over to Ella and I and offers us each a smaller handheld weapon, like a pistol. I stare at it hesitantly, mindlessly. When I don’t respond, he simply places it on the table in front of me.
“Sorry,” I say, coming to my senses, “but what’s happening? What are you talking about? What’s Alexandria?”
Laura comes back to the table and sits beside me, taking my hand with a motherly look of compassion, though I can sense the urgent energy in her tensed shoulders and tightened brow.
“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “This must be a lot for you. I really wish we had more time. I can explain some of it now, but then we’ll have to ask you to trust us again. Okay?”
I want to say no. I want to go back to Los Angeles and have Ella teach me how to surf. I want to pretend like none of this has happened.
But another part of me, the part of me that thrives in fantasy and is perpetually driven by curiosity, draws me onward, prompting me to nod in agreement.
Laura places her rifle on a vacant chair and leans forward with her elbows on her thighs. I feel like we’re around a campfire, and she’s about to tell us a ghost story.
“Remember how I told you about the Athenians? And about the invasion of the Macedonians? Well, there’s an old Egyptian account that tells of the invasion, how the Gods moved their weapons across the sea, weapons with power far surpassing that of the Veritas or Tempus, securing them from the invaders and hiding them in an unknown tomb, one that could only be opened by a descendent of Zeus. Most likely, Athenian intellectuals and politicians fled their homes and escaped across the Mediterranean, bringing their technology with them and taking refuge in what would soon be known as the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Our theory is that they built some kind of repository for their research and weaponry so that they could later rebuild their military might and take back their lands, giving it some sort of genetic seal for security. Anyways, as history shows, Macedonian influence later extended all the way to Egypt, and we believe that as a result of their conquests, those Athenian intellectuals were either killed or driven away, leaving their weaponry behind as relics.”
“So, Alexandria?” I prompt.
Laura nods. “Once the largest city in the ancient world before the Roman conquest, home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and,” she says, adding emphasis, “home to the Library of Alexandria, the global capital of knowledge. We believe the Ptolemies built this library around the Athenian tomb to protect it and study it in the hopes of someday accessing the power contained within. And although the library was eventually destroyed by time and by war, its ruins are still within the city’s Royal Quarter, their exact location known only to a select few.”
“What does this have to do with me?”
Laura looks to Colonel Pae for support, but he’s back at the window, looking towards the fading light on the western horizon.
“Our assumption is that the Erisites were able to see that you have something to do with the Athenian tomb, or that you will, at least, and they’re trying to prevent you from accessing it.” I squint my eyes in confusion. “Accessing it? I thought…”
And that’s when everything comes together as one in my mind, and I finally understand what they’re saying.
“We think you’re a descendent of those Athenians. We think you may have the power to access their tomb and recover their ancient knowledge. At least, the Erisites think you can, and I’m willing to wager that in this case they might be right.”
I don’t know what to say. I look at Ella, but she just stares back at me with wide eyes, hands folded on her chin, waiting for my response. I cling to the sight of her, holding on with every bit of strength that I possess so that I don’t slip away into the dark pits of panic and confusion lying just beneath me.
“Now, obviously the choice is yours. You’re welcome to stay here in this safehouse until we figure out what’s going on and stabilize the situation, both you and Ella. You’ll be safe here indefinitely. But,” she adds as she stands and grabs her rifle, “we could really use you in Egypt. If what we suspect is true, this centuries-long war could be on the verge of tipping back in our favor. We could defeat the Erisites and usher in a new era of multiversal growth, with an intellectual revolution, the likes of which this world has never dreamed of. The choice is yours.”
She takes the pistol from the table and offers it to me.
The whole thing sounds insane. It sounds more like something Ella would do. Never Ted. Ted is a quiet, reserved, nobody from Nowhere who went to Nowhere High and dreamed of being something he would never have the guts to be. Ted is a mere shadow of the person Laura and Orion and Colonel Pae expect me to be, and are now asking me to be.
But then again. Ted no longer exists, right? No reflection, no Ted. Thanks to Tantalus.
I stare at the pistol, at the glowing blue barrel with its slender grip, fashioned by some mind beyond the realm of my reality. And with the faintest of grins, I reach out and take it.