The Interchange • August 10, 2000: 11:58 • Crossing the Border • August 10, 2000: 11:59 • Kwik Shop: August 2000 • Midnight • Torgus the Angel
NOTE: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
The trees have thinned considerably. The next electrical flash reveals only a handful of stunted shrubs, left behind in an instant, writhing and snarling.
A yellow sign, lit up like neon by a dozen pairs of headlights, flashes by:
Under this word is the black outline of a spiny something.
She looks over at Merrich. “What’s a—?”
Smack. Something hits the windshield. Merrich curses, gunning the truck forward. More objects thud across the roof of the cargo hold. Smack. Smackety-whack. There are greasy smears on the windshield—and a leg, torn off by the windshield wipers, which are going full blast. The leg, small but sickle-clawed, is whipped back and forth across the glass, still twitching. Crack. “Just had that window replaced last run,” Merrich sighs, glancing up at the small hairline threading across the glass.
The other drivers aren’t faring much better, their tires leaving slimy, green and black tracks on the road.
Something is clinging to the passenger-side mirror. Marissa turns her head and sees a pair of pale, bulbous eyes glaring milkily in at her an instant before the angry, scrabbling thing is shucked off by the downforce.
After a minute, the torrent begins to abate, finally subsiding to only the occasional smack.
“You had to deal with that every time you delivered to Robadu?” Marissa inquires.
Merrich shakes her head. “Nah. I think they’re just stirred up by what happened back there. They can sense it.” She jerks a thumb back the way they’ve come. “Sign’s usually farther along down the road…or on a different Channel altogether.”
Marissa is still pondering this when the road begins sloping up in a sweeping curve. As they ascend in slow loops, the blackness is shot through with threads of red and gold, as if the highway has entered a tunnel of mist and bog lights. Appearing suddenly out of the gloom are several huge signs spanning the entire roadway, listing multiple approaching exits.
CHANNEL A INTERCHANGE
A-10 Lincoln, NE, USA/WORLD2 (Keep Left)
1B Edmonton, AB
2B Norman, OK
3B Austin, TX
A-20 Talladega, XM/WORLD3
X Complex Midway
And then they have passed beneath the giant metal gantry. Lincoln, NE, USA. Marissa sits taut in the chair, peering ahead as if Lincoln, Nebraska were visible from here.
The highway arches over a dizzying vista of swooping ramps, multiple levels of soaring, curving freeway lanes looping over and across one another, down and down and down…
Now, the other trucks are shifting over to the right side of the highway. She still cannot tell Virgil’s rig from the others but can feel him watching as she and Merrich continue down the A-10, alone.
August 10, 2000: 11:58
As I mechanically set his ice water down, the young man looked up, adjusting his square-framed glasses, which were cracked in several places, repaired with tape. I paused, struck by the contrast between his pale face and blackened eyes, one of which was swollen and framed by a web of broken capillaries. Then I registered the rest of him and gasped involuntarily.
The left side of his face was a watercolor of fading bruises, and there was a gash along his hairline, with recent stitches. Healing scrapes and cuts decorated his neck and jaw with scabs. Peeking from between the mismatched buttons of his shirt was what looked like a compression wrap. His left arm was encased in a cast from shoulder to wrist.
He didn’t look like he should be anywhere tonight except recovering in a hospital unit.
“Well, hi there.” My shock must have been apparent on my face. “It’s not as bad as it looks.” His cracked red lips attempted a reassuring smile. “Had a bad fall about a week ago, but I’m on the mend. Just need to get a good meal in me.”
As he spoke, I found myself unable to look away from him, even as gasps and exclamations from around the room pierced my consciousness. A few people had gotten to their feet. Somewhere near the lobby, I could hear Trish’s voice, shrill and frightened, and still I could not look away.
Crossing the Border
The next sign is not so impressive:
WELCOME TO WORLD 2
DEPT. OF INTERDIMENSIONAL RELATIONS 5 MILES
STOP and REPORT
“Time for you to get out of sight, hon.” Merrich is slowing the truck. The highway has narrowed to a dark and lonely stretch, illuminated only by the infrequent bolt of electricity branching overhead. The landscape revealed in the flashes is strewn with rubble, smog creeping over hills of what appears to be the twisted wreckage of ancient machinery. “Beauty, ain’t it.” Merrich holds out a plastic water bottle. Sloshing in the bottom is about an inch of grayish-yellow liquid.
“Hope the hell this works,” Marissa mutters, taking the bottle. She unscrews the cap and downs it all in one gulp, then retches involuntarily.
Merrich reaches over to pat her knee. “Keep it down, buttercup, that’s all Virgil had left over from his slavin’ days.” Her face is grim. “Glad to see the last of it, you ask me.”
The knee Merrich is patting vanishes. Then the whole leg. Then the other leg. Marissa looks out at the side mirror and sees only her empty seat. “It’s working,” she says through lips gone cold and numb.
Ahead is a quadruple archway splitting the highway into four lanes. On the left, a single UPS truck rolls the opposite way, disappearing into the gloom. Beyond the arches are dozens of pairs of headlights, and the silhouettes of many people walking back and forth, arms waving in an agitated manner. In contrast, on the right side, only a few pairs of taillights can be seen, moving slowly but steadily forward. Marissa’s fingers are beginning to sting as if from frostbite.
As the truck pulls into the station, a Darphinian in a black uniform with a badge that says DIR approaches the driver’s side. “Manifest?” He holds out one hand.
Merrich hands him some papers stapled together. “Just delivering a shipment of Tumblurs to Lincoln from Darphina, as you can see on there.”
The officer nods, scanning the document. “Step out and open the back, please.”
Marissa can no longer feel her feet. She has not even glanced into the cargo hold during the ride here, and through the cold fog of her dwindling consciousness wonders what they have been hauling. Now the truck creaks as someone climbs into through the rear doors. “Got ’em strapped down awful tight for a routine delivery,” the officer observes.
“Yeah, well last time a box of ’em came loose and got smashed,” Merrich replies from outside the truck. “Came outta my paycheck.”
“Open this one.”
There is a metallic sound, some rustling, then a clink.
After a minute, the truck bounces lightly as the officer hops down. “You’re good,” he says. “Just be aware there may be some delays on re-entry.” A plume of frosty air hangs over the passenger seat as Marissa exhales, then labors to pull another breath into her tightening chest.
“So it seems. What’s going on, anyhow?”
“Some shit went down in World One. No one’s quite sure what yet. Some kind of explosion. Everyone’s either being turned back or diverted to World Three.” The guard reappears, waving the gate open as Merrich climbs back into the cab. “You, uh, might want to hit the truck wash,” he adds.
“Affirmative.” As soon as the floodlights are behind them, Merrich unscrews the lid off a thermos and shoves it in Marissa’s direction. “Drink.”
Hot steam floods Marissa’s frozen nostrils. Coffee. She lifts the thermos with both hands and gulps, scalding her tongue and slopping some down the front of her shirt. In the passenger-side mirror, a ghost has appeared. As she drinks more of the rich, black liquid, the ghost solidifies into her own pale reflection, blue-lipped and shivering. Now, her normal color is returning, and the feeling slowly returns to her hands and feet. She hasn’t tasted coffee in ten years, and as she finishes the last drop, her throat is tight, but her eyes are dry. “Coffee…no wonder they don’t allow it in Robadu.” The last of the enchantment washes away in a flush of warmth.
“Hang on.” They are approaching the end of a wide, swooping runway, similar to the one off DimCor but about ten times larger. And then they are airborne once again, flying through darkness for only a second before a patchwork of city lights opens up below them.
August 10, 2000: 11:59
“So, what looks good on the menu tonight?” My customer was looking up at me expectantly, fiddling with something on a chain that disappeared into his collar. A lot of folks were on their feet now, pointing at the windows, and someone screamed, but my gaze was trapped by his.
“Shit,” I said softly.
From above, below, from all around, there came a turning, not heard but felt, as of some vast and terrible wheel slowly groaning into motion. My knees felt like rubber; my ticket pad fell to the floor as a great collision of air masses reverberated inside my skull like a distant quake that has not yet reached the earth’s crust. Without having to see it myself, I knew what they were seeing beyond the windows.
The storm clouds had swollen and spread, wreathing the entire city in a bizarre, lightning-etched ring, billowing higher at frightening speed. We were cut off from the rest of the world by a vast cylinder of stormclouds.
And, finally, the thing in my head delivered its new forecast.
The towering zodiac of clouds was mutating into one impossible mesocyclone, colliding with the stratosphere, preparing to birth a monster. Lincoln, Nebraska was about to be erased by the most massive tornado the world had ever seen.
My face had gone numb. There was no time to call the WFO. There was no time to do anything. In a few minutes, there would be nothing left of any of us.
Kwik Shop: August 2000
The truck circles lower, and then they are on the ground, motoring down 48th with the deep shadows of the NFMA sliding past on the right. It’s night, and off to the west, storm clouds are escalating. Marissa stares up the driveway to where the factory sprawls in darkness, as if it has been waiting all these years for her return. Her heart swells with a longing to go right up to those dark windows again, like so many times before…but wait. On this night, behind one corner window, a dim light burns.
“Uncle Karl,” she breathes, having no way of knowing if he is really there, but knowing all the same.
“They still gonna want to hire more workers, now that you’ve just destroyed their biggest vendor?” Merrich’s voice brings her back to the here and now.
“Yeah. Turn right here.” If she remembers correctly, there is a Kwik Shop, just off 14th and Magnolia. “They’re going to want to hire even more than before.”
“Because Robadu still has all those wonderful raw magical resources. They can still ship in all those crystals, those metals, but now they’ll need labor over here, to do the work DimCor’s slaves used to do.” And right about now, she thinks, Good old Uncle Karl is making the case for exactly that. “Once they figure out another freight system. I’m guessing they’re not big fans of the UPS anymore.”
“Dang, that’s brilliant!”
“Thanks.” And, if Marissa’s memory serves, Uncle Karl has a persuasive way about him. “Pull in here,” she adds, pointing at the Kwik Shop.
A couple minutes later, she is striding back to the waiting truck, capping a Sharpie and folding the page with the NFMA’s want ad into her back pocket, the rest of that day’s edition of the Lincoln Journal-Star wadded up in the trashcan between the pumps.
The small story on the Local page never even registers her attention, which is occupied with much larger matters than some “Mystery Patient” sneaking out of Bryan LGH. The young man, found one week ago in an empty lot near Burkhardt Street, had been bleeding and barely conscious. Bryan reported he suffered several broken ribs, a shattered eye socket and concussion, and a broken arm, along with numerous lacerations. He carried no identification and refused to speak. Late last evening, his bed was found empty.
“What a unique dinner item.” The young man was studying me instead of the menu. “Is that a la carte?” As he spoke, he began to pull out the object on the chain, while peering up at my nametag. “Sorry, I’m a little nearsighted. How do you pronounce your name?”
Suddenly, the west windows filled with a blazing crescent of fire spanning the entire wing. A giant, orange sunrise.
Next—a white flash, a deafening roar like a bomb exploding, then everything went black. There were terrified screams. Back in the galley, something shattered on the floor.
Just as suddenly, the lights came back up. “What the hell was that? Lightning?” one guy asked shakily. “More like an explosion!” another guy replied. “Where? There ain’t no fire or nothin’,” a woman said. “Never mind that! What about the sky?!” someone else wailed.
I gripped the back of the booth to steady myself, my vision doubling momentarily.
And then: The shadow of inexorable death was suddenly gone, as the forecast returned to its former state. Without seeing it, I felt the steady breakup as the freakish belt of wall clouds dissipated, scattering along the front of a normal low-pressure system. Some windshields would need replacing. A few roofs would need reshingling. Some basements were going to flood. But no tornado, Biblical or otherwise, was coming tonight.
When my head cleared, I blinked in surprise. The booth where my customer had been only seconds ago was empty, save for a strange object lying on the seat. It was a crook-shaped piece of blue-black metal, with a spiral on one end, encrusted with dull, black crystals, attached to a chain of the same metal. A faint wisp of smoke rose from it, and I saw that it was hot and slightly melting the vinyl of the seat. I used a fork to pick it up and dropped it in the glass of ice water I’d brought out, where it hissed as it cooled.
Ronnie walked out to the middle of the dining room. “Everybody okay?” Several shaky voices replied in the affirmative. “All right, then. Just trying to keep everyone on their toes with all the earthquakes and explosions.” There was nervous laughter as the tension abated and people began to speculate on what had happened. Some were already questioning whether they’d really seen the cloud phenomenon. Such a thing was impossible! Ridiculous!
From the rising conversations, it was obvious no one but me had seen the giant orange sunrise. That fire that had filled the windows, the same as it had twenty-eight years ago on my zeroth birthday, that heatless glare of orange no one else could see…it had seen me, too. The catastrophe that had been imminent a minute ago—had been stopped. Cold. By what?
“By the angels,” I whispered.
I looked around the restaurant, at the dirty tables, the new customers streaming in (most of them having stumbled over from Skeeter’s Pub, oblivious to the frightening weather minutes ago), the waitresses zooming this way and that. There was no sign of the owner of the strange necklace. I headed for the office to put the thing in the lost-and-found. But at the last second, I stopped in the break room instead, and slipped it into a pocket of my backpack.
They’re out there, I thought. They’re out there and it’s like in the hospital, like in the garden, they’re protecting me. I paused at the door of the cramped break room. From what? Why me?
The door bumped against me. “Tor—what’re you doing?”
I looked up to see Ronnie, a questioning frown on his face. “Ronnie, something’s out there—”
“Can you see the shitstorm in here?” He was already walking away. “All hands on deck, Tor.”
Had it all been a dream? I touched the strange metal chain peeking from the pocket on my backpack. I bent to look at the rear wall of my cubby. The blank wall, where my photo—our photo—had been taped.
Not a dream.
I returned to the dining room, where a little brush with total annihilation hadn’t slowed down anyone’s appetite and more hungry drunks were crowding into the reception area. By and large, the apocalypse appeared to have been an isolated incident.
Torgus the Angel
A part of me was dying, as we prepared to destroy that agent of the Nameless—him, and You along with him.
Sometimes we don’t see things clearly, until it’s too late—such as the first time the magi of World Two devised a secret portal to bring the Nameless across the border, in a sincere bid to end the famine and disease sweeping the land, to stop the growing violence and bring world peace. You did Your best to warn them, as You were born to do. But in the end, You were forced to tell Noah he needed to build a boat, and we were forced to bring flood and fire.
Likewise, when You were reborn in ‘72, we knew the engineers of Earth were at it again. But their devices are once more hidden from us, and without You to intervene, we could only wait and hope we would not be forced to repeat global cataclysm.
But as we began to tighten our circle of anguish about Your city and the storm began to manifest, Damballah drew back, took careful aim—one final bid, before all hope was lost.
I told her no (ah, though to do so tore at my heart); were she to miss her mark, Your “customer” would likely have escaped back to World One, taking You, and all of Your vast power, with him. Were that to happen, well…well. It didn’t, and that is all that matters now.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.