I was married once, not so long ago. It’s been… seven years maybe? Who can really know? I know it sounds cliché but the few colorful years we eloped together were honestly the best years I’ve spent on planet Earth. Sometimes I think the only reason I’m still trucking through life is to keep her memory alive somewhere, anywhere before the Universe swallows it whole, then nonchalantly spits it out into oblivion. I’ve almost arrived at oblivion too, but I actually deserve to be there.
Let’s skip right to the meat of my tale, shall we? I know you don’t care about my personal life. I know you don’t care about my missing wife or my kid. You’re only reading this because you heard the reason they disappeared, my galactic adventures, and you don’t believe it’s true. You’re right I can’t prove it. All I have is anecdotal evidence. One crackpot versus the entire population of Earth: 12.2 billion people. That’s the problem with democracy by the way. Twelve billion people disagree with you but you are the one in the right. I’m even starting to doubt myself now.
But before I’m declared clinically insane I’ll let you in on my little secret. A slice of reality gone wrong, if you will. This was my final shift working for the United Earthen Aeronautic Federation (UEAF) as a cosmonaut. I wasn’t fired, per say. Let’s just say I was let go…
This is where my mania began.
“….10! …9! …8! …7! …6! …5! …4! …3! …2! …1!”
The party had achieved liftoff. Up, up, up and away; ascending through each layer of the atmosphere in a spectacular display of human ingenuity. Although it was a bit of a letdown that this time ‘ingenuity’ entailed shots of alcohol and horrendous middle-aged dancing. My inhibitions had reached critical levels but I made it through the rest of the night.
I had just arrived back on Earth following a successful three year trip to Neptune. Three years. I know that sounds like a long time in space but believe me, it could have been worse. Back when I was a lad a trip of that magnitude would have taken just over a decade. This was no more than a cheap scouting mission (well cheap by space travel standards). We all thought the Chief Director of the UEAF was going to send an unmanned probe but they said they needed someone on the ship in case of ‘unplanned and extraordinary contingencies’. I’m pretty sure that clause wasn’t in my contract.
So there I was. A cosmonaut in all his resplendent glory. For anyone else that would have been a perfect night. A fantastic night of eating, dancing, fraternising; all activities I wasn’t usually a fan of in excess. But that night was different in more than one way.
“So Charles, where’s your wife at anyway? I kind of assumed she’d be the first person you would have wanted to be here.”
I had been idly chatting with… that guy (I think his name was Steve?), Head of Bioengineering, for the last twenty minutes. We had already covered a range of exciting topics, from pneumatic hardware systems modelling to the mechanical extraction of biodegradable materials (okay those weren’t the real subjects we talked about but they were classified and just as technical). Now we were beginning to get personal. He was right of course, Michelle should have been there at least an hour ago. Usually she would have been at my side already, practically waiting on the launch pad to meet me. But as I said this night was different. I had been thrown a surprise party almost immediately after landing but no one had bothered to tell my wife? That was odd, and somewhat suspicious.
“Actually, I have no idea where she is right now. She could be in an emergency or something. Shiiiiitt, I better go and give her a call…”
“No worries Charles. Just let me know if there’s any trouble.”
I stepped outside onto the balcony of Mount Apollo Observatory. The view was exquisite. No matter how many years you dedicate to space travel the Milky Way always paints a marvelous picture. Instinctively I looked to where Neptune should have been… but I instantly chastised myself. Obviously it was much too far away to be perceived by the human eye. It’s not like simply being near an observatory gives you superhuman eyesight.
It was time to give my wife a call on the old cellphone. I noticed my wallpaper was the same one from three years ago. A picture of a smiling Michelle with Daniel, our son (two years old at the time), when we visited New York together for the first time. I thought this picture made her look even prettier than usual, the way Daniel’s azure irises met the hazel hues of her own. I could recall the photo was taken on top of the Empire State Building. Strange, I could have sworn we had agreed to stay in the hotel that day because of poor weather. Whatever, maybe I just had Spaaacccce Madnessss! like you see in those old space horror flicks.
Opening my contacts, I promptly swiped to where Michelle’s information would be. The motor neurons from prior to my adventure were still active apparently. But neither her name nor any of her contact details were listed. Had someone from the party tampered with my phone as a joke? It was possible but laughably unlikely.
I experienced an inescapable leap in thought to the worst possible outcome. Had something happened to Michelle in the time I was away? No. Someone at the party would have said something. She had visited the main headquarters of the UEAF once before and met a few of the people now at the party. Did she no longer care about me? Maybe. Had she found another man in the meantime? Three years without physical intimacy is a long time. Did our six year marriage, and our son for that matter, mean nothing to her?
All stupid, stupid thoughts. I knew her better than she knew herself. Even her subconscious would in no circumstance allow her to abandon me, or miss our reunion.
But still, she wasn’t here.
When I returned to the fiesta just five minutes later my buddy was chatting up a pretty young lady from Biosecurity. I imagined the two biology nerds were a perfect match. I could have joined their illuminating conversation on the dire implications of residual waste mismanagement… but no, enough dawdling. I had been effectively dawdling for the past three years. Now was the time for action.
I waved goodbye to the UEAF staff and former astronauts I had been closest to before my solitary expedition to Neptune. I was about to embark on a much more frightening journey: to face the alarming prospect I could arrive home and find no one waiting for me. I gave my friend Steve (yes that was his name) a troubled look on the way out. He returned it with an even more concerned look of his own, as if the real Charles had been abducted outside and I was his evil clone replacement. But a tender rub on the arm from his new female acquaintance and he was back under the mesmerizing pull of Venus. I checked my phone again. 11:47PM, time to leave. Have a good one Steve.
The drive home was bizarre, but not only because I hadn’t been ‘home’ in years. Making my way through the insufferably dry but somehow cool Arizona desert, with its worn and jarring landscape used to give me all sorts of chills when I did my training runs at the Academy. Now it resembled no more than what it really was: a barren desert. In place of a dreamer’s paradise, where an endless expanse of dunes interspersed with the occasional phenomenal cacti formation made an ideal backdrop for the science fiction screenplays I was going to write while I was up in space (three years of solitude and yet I still didn’t manage to finish any of them), was this intolerable wasteland. I guess that’s what happens to you when you disembark planet Earth, everything slowly loses its luster until all you want to do is revisit the stars. It’s similar to the feeling you have when returning to America after a long holiday to one of those exotic Italian islands; everything you used to love seems bland and unappealing. Let’s hope that wasn’t how Michelle had begun to feel about me…
I approached the area where my town, the outwardly charming but inwardly struggling Byzantine Ridge, should have been. Usually I would have been salivating at the prospect of attending yet another unnecessary but fully appreciated welcoming party, but something was up with Michelle and now… now… the entire town had vanished.
No, seriously. It appeared as though the worst and most generic horror plot ever conceived had come to life, but the stark reality of being able to perceive nothing more than a ginormous empty plateau in front of me, not even a hole where the town should have been, was daunting enough to convince me it had completely disappeared from the map. This was the right area too. A left turn off Interstate 26, straight through the following three intersections, then a left turn onto Constantine Road. I had made this exact trip hundreds of times but not once had I witnessed an anomaly this odd and this soul destroying. Even worse, as I was still in the middle of unforgiving desert every point of the horizon ended either in sand dunes or unassailably large granite cliffs. Thus if my town was hidden somewhere nearby I would have caught a glimpse of it. But there was nothing much except sand in sight for miles. Three years…
Three years of what? That was the question. Maybe I did know Michelle better than she knew herself but that was always with me in the picture. And what about Daniel? The last time I’d seen him he was still a blank slate, a cute bald baby (“Just like his father!” was Michelle’s favorite joke. It wasn’t my kind of humor but I always laughed anyway). I’d figured Daniel was too young for three years without a dad to have any serious impact on him. Plus in a world of butchers, bankers and businessmen how many children have the awesome opportunity to remind their friends their own father was a cosmonaut? I really hoped he had friends.
A soft breeze began brewing at the base of the plateau (just like those old space horror flicks again, before the aliens land in their ‘UFOs’ and abduct the unfortunate victim with no reasonable explanation). I considered attacking the small graveled bank up to the plateau but quickly thought better of it when I heard something like a wolf howl in the exact direction I would be heading. So instead I stepped back into the car to check my GPS coordinates, as most fearless adult men would do in this situation of course. Helpfully or unhelpfully the GPS confirmed there was no sign of my town in the immediate vicinity. Although, there was a BYZANTINE RIDGE, POPULATION 3060 (APPROX.) fourteen miles east of here! Perfect.
I arrived at the site of my hometown, the ‘real’ one, at 2:01AM on the 18th of April, 2097. I want you to remember that date, because that’s when everything I thought I knew about our universe began to turn on its head. People I used to be on kind terms with would label me a variety of condescending terms in the years to come: ‘peculiar’, ‘ludicrous’, a ‘freak’; all because of that experience in a comparably infinitesimal portion of my lifespan. Oh, and if ever you happen to hear that Michelle or Daniel are somehow still breathing, please let them know it wasn’t their fault. I claim full responsibility for what happened there.
I made it to Byzantine Ridge just as the Moon had begun its descent from the zenith. Just like me the Moon was starting to get tired and just a little bit loony; but neither of us had finished our shifts for the night. Dawn would put us both to shame soon enough.
This time there was no plateau. The closer I approached the coordinates the more certain I became that my imagination hadn’t run wild, there was my town! I could instantly spot the characteristic peach-colored roofs of my side of Byzantine Ridge. Those were the suburbs on the outskirts of the town, while the majority of industrial and retail buildings were scattered about the center. The second landmark in sight was a glamorous velvet and gold chapel spire I could recall was only three blocks away from my street. On any other occasion I would have immediately sensed that something was off (and not just the insane fact that my entire town had moved!) but the optimist in me couldn’t see past the idea of reuniting with my two angels, no matter the extenuating supernatural circumstances.
Thankfully I hadn’t spotted much else out of the ordinary on my drive into the suburbs. I had perceived no foreboding fog, no werewolf tracks, no strangled cries for help in the distance. Actually the ordinariness was itself disturbing considering it seemed that next to nothing had changed in the past three years I had been gone.
Now, as I surveyed the surrounding neighborhood from the safety of my front porch, petrified with trepidation over what I was going to say to Michelle after the longest period of time we had ever spent separated from each other, I was reacquainted with the area I had cherished so fondly when we first moved in. Directly across the road from us was the convivial residence of Brian and Abbey, an older couple who we turned to for baby advice over and over again. Even the unbroken baby blue hue of their walls had remained untarnished. On our right hand side skulked an abandoned lot, now filled with an assortment of wild flowers (yet still abandoned) while to our left stood a slightly grander house than our own but as far as I knew had always been unoccupied. Michelle and I had always seen ourselves financially as essentially ‘the best of the worst’ in the neighborhood (compared to most residents who worked manual labor jobs for slightly above subsistence living) and it still looked that way. Exactly that way.
The customary three hearty knocks were produced from a trembling hand half mine and half someone else’s, until I found myself waiting patiently for my beloved to arrive at the front door. But too rapidly for me to counteract, for the second time that night I found myself thrust into an unwanted and uncontrollable vortex of wretched thought.
First came every husband’s worst nightmare: instead of Michelle I saw another man open the door, holding Daniel in his arms. He was tall, friendly, and of course he was buff. He told me Michelle had loved me almost as much as she loved him and had subsequently chosen to forget about me. In this scenario I collapsed to the floor in anguish.
The second vision was much more realistic. It concerned the eccentricity of the town’s mysterious relocation fourteen miles east of its former position, yet somehow entirely intact. In my mind the only possible (but rather unlikely) explanation was that some sort of national emergency had occurred which had provoked the national authorities to move my town and evacuate the residents. But in this scenario there was no Michelle soon to greet me.
The third scenario was in fact the real one, but most of all I wished this had been just another daydream…
There she was! And Daniel too! Michelle’s golden gaze was just as welcoming, her thin smile just as radiant, her long black hair just as luscious as she had looked on our wedding day. But equally as special was the little man in her arms. Daniel would have been six years old now. His stare was slightly more penetrating than Michelle’s and he seemed equally curious to meet me. However it didn’t look like he had grown much, if at all, in the past few years and he was as bald as when I had last seen him. All of this was probably explainable yet still slightly offputting from a father’s perspective. But I wouldn’t let that information ruin the precious moment: our perfect reunion.
Now that I thought about it Michelle also appeared puzzled. Happy, but not the same kind of happy I knew her for. Perhaps some kind of tragedy had befallen them in the time I was away. Yes, that vision a few minutes ago of a national emergency was looking more and more likely.
Each of us; me, the triumphant cosmonaut and her, the loving housewife; had been standing there frozen in time and space as if neither of us represented anything close to the people we claimed to be. Sadly this was all too close to reality. The moment Michelle spoke those first words I knew this wasn’t the same Michelle I had married. The two people in front of me were startlingly similar, but not the two angels I loved…
“Hi there stranger. What can I do for you?”
It wasn’t a joke unfortunately. Sitting on our couch five minutes later with a cup of tea (she sat beside me with her regular coffee, almost like old times) I found myself in the midst of explaining to her with increasing futility who I was and who she was supposed to be. Eventually we were both so baffled and exhausted I even considered the absurd conclusion I wasn’t the only one who had returned from outer space that night. My usually functional device calibrated to read Michelle’s mind appeared to be out of order for the moment.
“…So you’re sure you can’t remember me at all? We first met in Lucky 7 Casino in California, the year was 2083. We were wedded four years later and have been married ever since. Your favorite color is tied between fuchsia and emerald green. You like sport, mostly tennis, but don’t have a favorite player. Most importantly, the only person you do, and quite rightfully have ever loved more than me is Daniel, our six year old son. Are any of these statements true? Please say you can remember something about me.”
The person supposed to be my wife inspected me with an uncharacteristically glum expression, presumably searching me for an answer to our twisted predicament. On the other hand for the first time in years I found the memories gushing from my sockets in the form of human tears.
For a moment there was a slight glimmer in her eye but I couldn’t tell if it was confirmation or a tear, nor whether the reaction was genuine. “Yes, the ones about me are true but no, I don’t have any of memory of being with you.”
Just as my heart crash landed to the floor a deafening screech went off in the distance. Whatever the sound was, I would have guessed it originated from somewhere near the center of town. Michelle and I bolted to the front porch to check out the disturbance. The sky above us was ablaze in a magnificent but intimidating spiral of red and purple splayed in all directions. There were horrifying screams in the distance however it appeared that none of our other neighbors were brave (or stupid) enough to investigate. This was no nuclear holocaust, or at least no human holocaust to my knowledge. Otherwise we would have been incinerated already. Plus the screech, what was that? There was something mysterious going on here I hadn’t been informed of on my descent back to Earth.
“What the heck is going on Charles?” Her voice had an authentic eerie quality to it. If Michelle did turn out to be a psychotic space android at least she feigned her ignorance well.
“You tell me. Look, you’ll probably think I’m an absolute idiot but I need to go and check out what’s causing all of this, for my own sanity.”
In a world with no trace of the real Michelle (and what about Daniel, was he real?!) I wasn’t sure I could bear the possibility of spending another ten years reaccustoming myself with ‘timeless’ Michelle, if she would even accept me. Thus risking my life to investigate the screech seemed justified at the time. That was the first of many mistakes I would make that night. Little did I know I wouldn’t see Daniel or Michelle ever again.
So I ran off into the abyss before she had the chance to lecture me with the inevitable “There’s no way you’re leaving me and Daniel alone like this!”. I zigzagged my way through the seemingly deserted streets of Byzantine Ridge with only the slightest idea of the destination I was heading to: the marble clocktower on Gemistus Boulevard (assuming it was still standing). From there I would be able to survey the ongoing chaos then work out my next move from the relative safety of a high vantage point. The disturbing cries in the distance hadn’t ceased yet and periodic meteor showers had commenced on the outskirts of the city. Worst of all were the occasional earthquakes which helplessly flung me to the ground every couple of minutes. It was almost as if Byzantine Ridge was being attacked from two angles, one invasion from the air (natural or otherwise) and one from beneath the crust.
I did pass through a couple of roads I recognized on the way into town: Heraclius Avenue, Damascus Road, Isidore Alley; but mostly I was relying on my poor geography skills and a largely defunct mental map of the suburbs to guide me to a destination I wasn’t sure still existed. So of course it wasn’t long before I had the painful realization I had been running in circles, at which point it was time for a new plan.
Though I had done the best I could to preserve my ego from the absurd and extraordinary nature of the events of the past few hours there was one thought I couldn’t keep away: how was everything connected? (1) There was the surprise party immediately following my landing, which was practically unprecedented for the UEAF. (2) The mysterious migration of Byzantine Ridge to where it was now. (3) The Michelle I loved was missing. Her replacement, ‘Timeless’ Michelle, appeared to be the same person but without any memory of me (I still had plenty of questions for her). (4) The disaster going on I hadn’t even begun to grasp the implications of.
Somewhere in those four events was an answer I had a hankering for but probably didn’t really want to know. If I was to speculate I would guess I had entered some sort of apocalyptic parallel universe. Despite the improbability it was possible this was the same Earth but transferred to a point in time before Michelle had met me. Yet that wasn’t consistent either considering Michelle and I had moved here together. To be honest all of this reality defying logic was a bit too much for me to handle. It was time to crack on and solve this enigma through practical measures.
Emerging from my contemplative bubble, the escalating chaos around me accentuated the abominable nature of my situation. According to the sullied street sign in front of me I had found my way back to Damascus Road. Now there was a ghoulish plume of beige colored smoke arising from somewhere near the dead center of Byzantine Ridge, quite close to the clocktower actually…
As any distinguished cosmonaut knows ‘A captain without a ship is stranded, a captain without a crew is foolish, a captain with neither ship nor crew is as useless as cosmic dust.‘ Yes I was stranded. Yes I was foolish. But I was not going to become cosmic dust. Once again I weaved my way through the suburbs (nearing the retail section of town), this time using the smoke as a waypoint. But as always seemed to be the case before I could get there I encountered more drama. There was a sound emanating from my back pocket I didn’t recognize at first, until I realized I was receiving a phone call!
I quickly checked the screen: DATE: 04/18/97 TIME: 03:41AM CALLER ID: ????
The voice I heard had alternating shades of panic and tranquility in it, as if the caller was in a dire situation but was forcing themself to accept a tragic fate.
“Hey Charles? Charles! Something’s gone awfully wrong. Don’t worry about me, I think I’m safe. The other version of me you met is actually the real me, well a clone of me, but with altered memories. Same with Daniel. The real Daniel has been separated from me but they’ve assured me he’s also safe. Just worry about yourself. You need to find out what has happened on your own. I can’t help you there. But stay safe. Please stay safe!”
Before I could interject the call ended with three sustained, agonizing beeps. I could have called the number back but I had the feeling whoever or whatever was in charge of this madness would have cut me off with zero hesitation.
But that was my Michelle alright! She and Daniel were alive! Although I bet she was coerced into telling me that they were safe. Shit. At least I had someone, well two someones, to live for again. Neptune was another world away from what was happening to me now.
In an inexorable existential crisis of question on top of question on top of question, that simple answer, my family, was the only one I needed to continue. If my life had become a space horror film this was the point where the protagonist fights against the odds– just to get eaten by a mutated mantis from Venus. But seriously, if I had already reached my lowest point there was nowhere lower for me to go, things could only improve from here. Well that was the logic of a naive optimist anyway…
Joining Gemistus Boulevard was the road I was on now, Divitiae Avenue. This was a unique connecting road which ran through every major set of suburbs, the retail sector, and ended in the industrial sector. It also happened to be the wealthiest street in Byzantine Ridge. This was the first place Michelle and I considered when looking for a home but even the average property here was well out of our price range. Although the present Divitiae Avenue looked more like a hellhole than a haven. There were abandoned vehicles scattered in strange patterns all over the place. Brilliantly designed abstract houses had been reduced to trailer park status hovels. A repugnant inky mold (with a stench not unlike vomit) filled every square inch it could get to. Imagine the standard wreckage following a tornado, then magnify it by ten. That was the fallout. But there were no bodies; human, animal or otherwise.
My best move was to get out of here as fast as possible and head towards the cause. That brought to mind another popular saying at the UEAF: ‘The closer a man approaches death and survives, the closer he approaches the truth.‘ Short and simple, but it resonated with many of us, and we held it dear every time we attempted the daring escape from Earth’s atmosphere.
As soon as I caught sight of the clocktower I raced ahead to take cover inside. What used to be polished marble was covered in a mixture of flaky embers and that inky mold which had become increasingly common now. There were large cracks in its exterior but altogether the tower had survived the elements remarkably well for a structure composed mainly of archaic materials. I was half expecting to meet a band of starving townspeople inside, huddled around a campfire whispering in hushed tones to one another, but it seems that was only a product of a rowdy imagination. For now I was alone.
As I stepped into the vestibule chamber I was really greeted with a ravishing view of the most flamboyant, almost sickeningly grandiose entrance hall I had ever seen. Diamond studded this, ruby encrusted that; priceless piece of art here, priceless antique there (and they were all authentic!). Wave after wave of meaningless opulence really, and not what one expected from a simple clock tower. There was a good reason I felt sickened rather than excited by the collection I saw here. While modern day Arizona was known for its gem manufacturing (for all you history dunces out there: when naturally occurring gem supplies ran out in 2051 we switched to producing them artificially) there was a significant wealth disparity between the residents of Byzantine Ridge none of us talked about but always lay dormant in the back of our minds. Seeing this selection of abundant and rare 100% real extravagances discharged several pangs of guilt through my conscience, as if I was the owner who at any time could sell every one of them to out-of-state buyers, donate the money to the city council, and cure the town’s lasting impoverishment.
Considering I wasn’t the owner of much more than the clothes on my back at the moment all I could do was admire the lengths this peculiar individual had gone to in order to create a spectacular entrance hall, then move on. I proceeded to the marble staircase (this time untarnished by ash or mold) winding presumably to the very top of the tower. Then I began to climb.
TO BE CONTINUED…