The Parallax Train moves steadily onward. This is the latest excerpt from Chapter 18, which closes out this part of the story. It isn’t the end of the book, but it completes a good portion of the Hero’s transition from what he was to what he is to become. Enjoy. 🙂
Pratt stopped pounding on the door and heard the footsteps fade away on the other side. The room reminded him of Koren’s Training Room back on the ship, but this was different in a way that he couldn’t put his finger on. He shivered against the darkness as he searched for some perspective on the room’s size. No matter how far he searched, no matter in what direction he reached in, his hands never met a wall. However, his efforts always led him back to the same door he originally entered from. How is this possible? He thought as he threw up his hands several times in frustration. There has to be a trick to this place.
*Perhaps I can help?*
“Oh no.” Pratt thrust his hands into his pockets, searching for his injector. He remembered keeping it close by, but it was missing. “What the Hell?”
*They took it from you.* Pinchot appeared beside him, her smile as bright and annoying as ever. *I’m starting to like these walking hand bags.*
“You know, Pinchot was many things.” Pratt said, trying to adjust his eyes to the lack of light that was only pieced by what peeked from under the doorway. “But she was one of the least xenophobic people I ever knew.”
*That’s easy when you only know two of other kids on the Block, Jack. How do you know that she wasn’t a raging humanist under all her so-called military discipline?*
“You’re not using that word correctly.” Pratt turned his attention back to exploring the darkness. “Hell, you’re not even real. I should have given myself a double dose before leaving the crawler. I’m such an idiot.”
*Don’t beat yourself up* She told him. *After all, you have a four lane parking lot in your head and five cars are trying to park at the same time. Something’s bound to fall through the cracks.*
“Stop trying to help.” Pratt said. “There’s a reason why the High Master stuck me in here. It has to be a puzzle, but what’s the solution? There’s always a solution.” He looked into the darkness. “Perhaps, the puzzle is the solution.” He sat down on the stone floor and closed his eyes. “When I tried to fight for a way out, I got nowhere. I must try something else. So, shut up while I’m thinking.”
He closed his eyes and fought to clear his mind. For all her annoyance, his personal demon was right about one thing: he had allowed way too much to burden his mind. So, how does one go against their own nature? He always thought of himself as a Guardian, a Protector from way back. How does one change the habits of a lifetime?
He sensed light outside his closed eyelids. When he opened them, he found himself standing in a large courtyard that reminded him of a hacienda museum he had once visited in California, back on Earth. The row of brightly colored flowers that bordered the stone and wood overhangs were exactly as he remembered. But why here of all places?
He felt an old memory stirred in the back of his mind and slowly migrate to the front of his consciousness. As the memory coalesced, the scene before him changed. He watched a group of young boys, dressed in familiar school uniforms that he struggled to recognize, holding down a smaller boy while throwing punches and kicks. A red and yellow shoulder patch bearing a book and shield emblem caught his eye and made his breath catch in his throat.
“Oh no.” He groaned inward. “Not this. Not again.” He took a step forward and stopped. Why was he stopping? I should stop this, he thought, these kids are bullies and bullies are never to be tolerated. What did I do last time?
He felt disconnected as he watched younger versions of his parents rush past him, dressed in crisp white naval uniforms to break up the fight. The bullies were shooed away and the victim lifted, battered, bruised and bloodied, to his feet. Pratt cringed inward as shame filled him from head to toe. Soon, members of the museum staff came over with a first aid kit and tended to the boy’s injuries. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come out.
His father saw him and came over, crouching in front of him with small flecks of blood adorning the bottom of his jacket. “Jack, do you know what you did wrong?”
Pratt shook his head. “No, Sir, I wasn’t involved.”
John Jacob Pratt nodded and gestured toward the fight’s aftermath. “Precisely. You weren’t involved and someone got hurt. Jack, you must never allow an unfair fight to continue. We live in a world where the Strong prey on the Weak and it is up to us to defend those who can’t defend themselves. Do you understand?”
“But why me? Why do I have to put myself in danger for someone I don’t know?”
Pratt’s father sighed. “Because you are a Leader and that is what Leaders do. Your mother and I didn’t raise you to turn a blind eye to situations like this because it didn’t involve you. That boy was lucky that we saw him when we did. Never, ever, turn your back on someone in need. Am I clear, Mister?”
A shroud of darkness descended over him once again like a curtain separating the acts of a theater play. His eyes could sense the change in light, but after the experience on Planet Chaos, he wasn’t sure if it were real or just in his mind. He felt awake and aware, but how could he be sure?
“I know you’re watching me.” He yelled into the darkness. “I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I’ll find a way out of this cage.” The lack of an echo disturbed him greatly as he struggled to find some light to get his bearings from. Even the door he originally came in was gone. “A little light would be helpful, you know?”
He felt something slide across the stone floor and stop against his left foot. Reaching down, he grasped a small cylinder and picked it up. The cylinder was light, flexible and pointed at both ends as he twirled it between his fingers. He raised it to his left ear and shook it, feeling the smallest amount of liquid move around inside. A light stick? He became bored with the cylinder and began playing with it until he flexed it too far and he heard a crack and then a bright blue light.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He smiled. “It was a light stick.”
The light stick’s glow did little to push back the darkness, but at least he could get some perspective on his situation. After several attempts at exploring the room, he found his way back to the center, where his thoughts went back to the vision he had experienced. Not acting to stop the fight always weighed heavily on his mind. He could have stopped it. He was bigger and stronger than the other boys, but his lack of investment in others hampered his ability to empathize with the plight of others. It wasn’t a question of being mean; it was simple preoccupation with his own affairs.
“Those who come here, come to learn.” The High Master’s voice startled him from his reverie. “What have you come here to learn?”
Pratt couldn’t see him, but the Locknar’s presence was undeniable and close. “I didn’t come here to do anything but accompany Koren in his ritual. There’s nothing for me to learn here.”
“Are you so sure?” A light appeared on the other side of the room, prompting Pratt to move toward it. The light became an open doorway, adorned with circuitry that hummed and blinked in time with some unseen rhythm. “You are preparing for a path which you have not set out upon yet.”
“God, I hate riddles.” Pratt stopped short of entering the doorway and threw his hands up in the air. “That’s it. I quit. I didn’t ask for all the stuff that’s come down on me. All I wanted was to finish my service and go back to Earth. I didn’t ask to be the Galaxy’s Soldier of Fortune.”
“We are not always given a choice as to our destiny.” The High Master’s voice echoed around him. “Yours is a journey that seeks its own end. To that end, you must prepare yourself for what is to come.”
“I’m just a man.”
“A man, yes, but a man with a purpose. Embrace your role and live the life that you were always meant to live. Enter the Doorway to find the answers you seek.”
“I really hate riddles, but being stuck in a dark room without a way out is no picnic either.” Pratt stepped through the doorway.
And found himself standing back in a room that was oddly familiar, yet out of place on a Locknar planet. Rows of broken wooden benches with what looked like silhouettes burned into their backs, rested on either side of him while an elaborate altar lay behind him as he turned to study his surroundings.
“What the Hell is this?” He said. “Where am I? More damned riddles.”
He walked to the rear of the room, past stained glass windows until he reached a door that led to a smaller room with one double door exit and two large windows on either side, their glass panes painting everything in reflected kaleidoscopes. He walked up to a window and looked out.
Pratt’s breath caught in his throat as he looked out on a world filled with devastation and destruction as far as the eye could see. Piles of rubble that used to be buildings and homes cluttered broken and cratered streets in all directions. Overhead, Signiferian ships moved in slow battle lines, their weapons firing in bursts at unseen ground targets, the explosive fireballs rising high into the atmosphere. Questions filled his mind as he went to the exit and pressed in the panic bars. The double doors opened without protest.
His nostrils were assailed by the sickly smell of burnt flesh as he stepped outside and descended a set of large concrete steps to the street level. His senses told him that he wasn’t on Mitalum, or anywhere close to the M42 Nebula. The sky was too blue, the ground too brown, the buildings too…human. Wait a minute, he thought as he turned around and stared up at the resolute remains of an old catholic church, its Neo-Gothic architecture and rooftop crosses presiding over the chaos below.
He reclimbed the steps to find a tarnished dedication plate set into one of the church’s cornerstones. “St. Matthew’s Church.” He read. “Established 4/16/2015. Blessed are The Meek.” He straightened up. “I’m back on Earth, but how? And when?”
The world slowed to a crawl as missiles appeared on the horizon and detonated on top of the enemy ships, each explosion a mushroom of death and destruction that bathed the planet in a wave of light and heat. A shock wave shook the ground, then another, and then still another until Earth itself convulsed in a death rattle that brought everything left standing down in a shifting pile of debris that rained down around him. Eventually, cracks appeared in the ground and Pratt realized that he was watching his home die. Mercifully, darkness fell around him before the scene completed.
“You chose to reject your destiny.” The High Master appeared beside him. “As a result, Koren failed in his bid to expose those in the Hegemony, our peoples exhausted themselves with years more of fighting while The Signiferians gathered both their forces and strengths, and eventually no one was strong enough to resist them when they came in force.”
“The Signiferians said I had the keys to something that kept them away until now.” Pratt said. “How could they get around that?” He didn’t wait for an answer as the realization struck him between the eyes. “I quit. I quit and went back to my old life. Somehow they got me back in their custody and found what they were looking for. Is that what you’re getting at?”
The High Master remained silent for a long time, not answering the question. He placed a clawed hand on Pratt’s forehead while chanting. Pratt felt warmth spread across his head before the hand was removed. “I have managed to remove the disguise that your tracking device employs. It is possible that your body’s immune system could attack and destroy the device successfully, but I would not expect such results with optimism. In the meantime, the device will not transmit with any degree of reliability. It will not last forever and I have left a suggestion in your mind to let you know when your time is running out.”
“In other words, no one’s holding my leash right now.” Pratt nodded. “What about your healers?”
“If there was time, I would gladly recommend it.”
“I understand.” Pratt said. “About a lot of things. Now that I’ve committed fully to this destiny of mine. May I ask you for a small favor?”
“How about turning on the damn lights?”