Joined: Aug 1900
Originally posted on MSPA
The forest breathed in with the lungs of a billion tiny lives and sighed with the voice of the wind. It lurked under the wings of countless alien birds and followed in the footsteps of stalking beasts; it fell with the dark rain in waves that beat down even the thickest of leaves and swelled in the flooding rivers. It seethed with life like a body with blood, every tree hiding a microcosm of its own, miniscule worlds played out in the lives of insects and under the shadows of branches. Nothing changed and nothing stopped to accommodate the newcomers. The forest breathed regardless.
Somewhere in the forest’s heart, deep in the shade of an ancient tree nearly as large as the colossal vine that was slowly choking it to death, a man collapsed in apathy. The myriapodal creature that had recently replaced his arm was spasming wildly in seizures that he could only half-guess the cause of and only half-cared about fixing. Arcs of electricity flashed off him and lit up the shadows like a strobe light, a fraction of an instant at a time. Mouthparts ground against one another, flecked with dark blood. The centipede tried to speak and was rewarded with what felt like his eyes liquefying and melting back inside his head.
The man considered getting up, but quickly came to the conclusion that he didn’t see the point.
“Gaurinn, I’m not thinking I can do this anymore.”
The centipede twitched and vomited blood on the moss covering the vine’s roots. He made a noise that went “hllaugh”.
Cailean turned his head towards to look at his partner, squinting against the sudden bursts of light. “Maowyn’s name even happened to you back there, Gaurinn? That man shoved his arm down your neck.”
“And now you’re a time traveler. And paradoxes. And time streams.”
Cailean let his head flop back down on the ground, crushing a small bug. He felt its death as a small tingle at the base of his neck and sighed. “Look at me,” he said. “Look at us. What happened to us? What happened to the world? I used to be a soldier. That was an hour ago. Or yesterday. I wasn’t very good at it. I could have handled the arm thing, you know? I could have managed being attached to you for the rest of my life. Let’s not pretend like that would be the worst thing to happen to me, right? But..” He trailed off and gestured vaguely at the canopy above with his remaining arm. Gaurinn moaned in sympathy.
“Time streams. I don’t even know what a time stream is. You ate a man’s arm. I have three arms now, Gaurinn, you count as two because you’ve got one inside you. That’s terrible. What am I going to tell people? ‘Hello, my name is Cailean Lachlan, no you’re saying the “lach” wrong, my arm is two arms and one of them is a centipede, please don’t pet him I think he bites.’ What’s that going to sound like? That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t make any sense at all. Aim somewhere else if you’re going to keep throwing up, lad, cleaning this armor is a nightmare.”
Gaurinn’s back arched and each of his legs twitched violently in a different direction. He screeched in agony as the arm’s nanites invaded every inch of his body, legs mindlessly tearing the moss up in clumps. What passed for his hands alternated between clenching shut and stretching out pleadingly towards the empty air. “Sshhhsssaavetthhthheetthhgghhkkk-”
“You have to breathe,” Cailean said, taking the cap off his flask. “Breathing is important. Pretend it’s happening to someone else and not you and you’ll manage, it’ll be over soon.” He gave the liquid sloshing inside a speculative look before dumping it out on the ground next to him, instantly annihilating an unfortunate colony of ants. His stomach clenched and subsided in quick succession. “Don’t think this stuff is working anymore.”
Gaurinn’s scream cut through the rainforest like a bulldozer, startling a flock of birds into exploding from the trees above in a thunder of flapping wings. A new wave of electric arcs shot into the air and incinerated the closest of the vine’s tendrils, leeching closer and closer to this new source of energy. Blood sprayed from between the centipede’s mandibles, soaking what wasn’t burnt. Vaguely worried, Cailean sat up and tried to support the agonized creature’s body, only managing to lift his head a few inches off the ground.
“Try to focus,” he said. “Try-”
“IAMMMGGGGHKKGGGOINTOSSSSAAAVETHHEWWOOOORLLLDDD, ” Gaurinn screamed, and infinity came crashing down on them both as the world blinked blissfully out of existence.
Quantos wasn’t dead, and this surprised him.
By any right he should have been long since killed by at least one of the perils he’d overcome, he mused, staring thoughtfully into the goblet of wine in his hand. Being a time traveler was the sort of occupation that could list fatalities as one of its benefits. He’d lost track of how many times a bullet had missed its mark, the portal to the local hell had been too weak to suck him in, a dragon’s teeth had closed on the person next to him, the poison had been in the other cup. He was lucky. He’d always been lucky.
How long was it going to last?, he wondered.
“Is something troubling you, Quantos?”
The protector of the continuum startled out of his reverie and grinned apologetically at Dido, seated next to him on the lavish couch. She was the real Dido, the queen of Carthage, not the inexplicably popular 21st century singer or any of the other individuals who went by the same name. Her beautiful grey eyes were wide with concern as she gazed at him, rapt with attention.
“Only death,” Quantos sighed, swirling his wine. “In particular my own.”
“I thought you didn’t age,” the queen said, glancing briefly at the mechanical arm half-hidden by his coat. “What reason would you have to die?”
He laughed heartily in response. Royalty. “That doesn’t mean I can’t die, Dido. Plenty of other things could kill me other than time itself.”
“Surely not!” She protested, placing her slender hands over his. A ring glittered at him from her finger and she grinned slyly. “You told me you had your heart pulled out and lived. Were you lying?”
“Never, dear. That particular instance took place- or will take place, sorry, you have no idea how complicated tenses can get- in the 27th century, far in the future. If it happened here I would almost certainly have perished.” He took a sip of wine and reconsidered. “Well, if I didn’t slow the bleeding with my powers and move myself to a timeline with the appropriate medical technology, anyways. Otherwise it would have proven as fatal to me as it would to you.”
Dido laughed. “You, wounded? I won’t believe it until I see it.”
“Well, hopefully it won’t come to that!”
“I should think not,” said the queen, and she smiled at him as she rolled the hollow ring slowly around her finger, feeling its contents shift. “I imagine you’re as close to immortal as any man could be.”
“But that would be dreadfully boring, my dear queen. Now, on to more appropriate matters, weren’t you saying something earlier about this Carthage of yours…?”
Time is an odd thing to describe.
It’s an odder thing to travel through.
Gaurinn’s body felt as though it was filled with frozen stars, burning colder and colder inside him until he was sure he was dying of it, freezing to death in the middle of nothing. The indescribable blackness that loomed beyond him glared back with the infinite eyes of space and he tried to whimper before he realized that his throat had been frozen shut.
Rivers of liquid time flowed up and around him in a gyroscope dance, blocking his view of the terrible face of nothing. He didn’t belong here, no one did; this was the Space Beyond Space, the Time Beyond Time, the needle at the spire of All That Was. Mere seconds and hours, the petty divisions of mortal man, could do nothing to capture the essence of this place. They could only dilute its nature, only tarnish its beauty in rendering it comprehensible to the mundanity of the material plane. Infinity was a tangible concept and it wound itself around Gaurinn’s mind like a spool of fishing line. Cities rippled before him in the glittering skin of the time stream, crumbling to dust and rebuilding themselves in a perpetual loop; cities of bone and blood and flesh and stone. Worlds vanished into the cold heart of space, nebulae were born in the fires of dying suns and the first creatures to pull themselves from the primordial waters stomped their fins in the mud of their conquered land. He could have died again, it was so beautiful. The edge of his soul sang like a knife’s blade, infinitely sharp through the clouds of his thoughts and the sum of his miniscule mortal parts.
Reaching out a claw, he punctured the skin of the river of Time.
The world bowed; the curtain closed.
Quantos crouched in the ashes, cradling a handful of scorched dirt. A single green sprout grew from it, shining like an emerald against the ravaged grey earth. Its leaves quivered softly in the toxic breeze as the not-yet-a-cyborg held it up against the setting sun hanging red and bloated in the blotchy sky. Tears would have flowed down his face if he hadn’t been clothed head to toe in a protective suit thick enough to hold back the radiation of this future. Even here, there was hope; even here life would find a way to carry on.
A familiar sound reached him even through muffs designed to drown out the roar of radioactive wind: a sort of sustained ringing, like a glass bell in heavy rain, and he turned around slowly, careful not to disturb the sprout. A lone man stood before him on the charred ground, bathed in the overpowering glow of pure Time. His left arm had been replaced by a dark, writhing shape that Quantos quickly realized was the source of the energy leeching out into the poisoned air. Slowly it coalesced into a colossal insect, unearthly light streaming from its eyes and mouth and bursting out from between the cracks in its shell. A radiant face turned towards him and clawed forelegs spread wide in a cold and distant welcome.
“I SSSSSEE YOOOU, TRAAAVEEELLLEEERRRR.”
Quantos rose slowly, cradling the plant against his sheltered body. He didn’t know precisely who this visitor was, but he had a vague idea and it wasn’t exactly what you’d call comforting. There was only a single place that that energy could be coming from, and he was forbidden to go there under pain of death. “I see you as well, stranger,” he called back. “What’s your business here?”
The insect’s mouth gaped, spilling light under its blank, glowing eyes. “HOOOOLDER OF TIIIIME’S CONTIIIIIIINUUUUUUUM…” It took in a ragged breath that whistled with the air of a billion dimensions. “YOOOOOUUU WILL DIIIEEEEEEEE….”
The time traveler’s back stiffened visibly even under his suit and he braced himself on the lifeless ground. “No! It is not yet my time! I-”
“YOOUUU WILL NOT SPPEEEAAAK TO MEEE OF TIIIIIIIME,” the insect howled in emotionless rage. The glow in its eyes flared, blinding Quantos for a few seconds; when his vision returned, the insect’s face was suddenly an inch from his own and he was staring into a gaze that burned with the freezing fire of Time itself. He realized with sudden and terrifying certainty that the body before him was only a shell, playing the puppet to something that had no need to stoop to the level of a physical form. The voice he was hearing was of no mortal origin. As it sucked in breath to roar at him again he wondered if he had spoken his words too soon.
“IIIIII AM THE VOOOOIIICEE OF THE VOOOIIDD AND AAALLLL THAT WILL COMMEE TO PASSSSS. IIII AM TIIIIMEE ITTSSEELLFFFF, AHHHH HAAA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAA…. YOOUUU HAVE GRASSSPED ME BEFOOOORREE, YESS, YOOUU HAVE USSEEDDD MY BODY AASSSS YOUR OWWNN. YOOOUU KNOOOWW WHOOO I AMMMMM…” The creature’s body rose up like a striking snake, swaying in the ethereal wind. “BUT YOOOOUU ARE MOORRTAAALLL. YOU CANNOT KNOOOW ME TRUUUUULYYY, TRAVELER. YOU ARE A SSSLLAAAVVEEE TO DEEEAAATTHHHHHHHH….”
“I- I am aware of this-”
“YOU ARE SSOOO QUIICKK TO SPEEAAAKKK. DO YOU FEEAARR THE SIIIILENNCEE OF DEEEEAAATHHH, TRAVELERRR? DO YOU FEEAARR WHAT YOOUUU WILL BEECOOOMMEEE?...”
Anger was starting to build in Quantos’s chest. He didn’t care if this “time itself” was who it said it was, no one treated him like a fool and got away with it. “Have you come here to taunt me, then? Is that your purpose?”
The insect reared its head back and screamed with the sound of someone who has never heard laughter. “YOU PRESUUUMMEE TOO MUCH, MOORRTTALLL MAAAANNNNN. TIIMMEE DOES NOT STOP FFFOOORRR YOOOOOUUUU…” Faster than he could react, the insect’s legs lunged out and caught his helmeted face in an unbreakable grip. Swirls of smoke-like vapor dripped from the gaping mouth before him. “TIIIME AND TIIIDE WAIIT FOR NOOO MANNNN, SOOO THEY SSSAAYYY, HA HA HAA HAAAA HAAAAA. BUT YOOOOUUU ARE NOOO ORRDINNAAARRY MAAAANNNNN….”
“What are you saying?” Quantos yelled over the screaming wind.
“ALLL MEN MUSST SUFFEERR DEATH BUT YOOUURSS WILL KNNNOOW A PURRPOSSEEEE GREATER THAANN MOOOOSSSTTTT.” The insect’s voice rose over the deafening wind, louder and louder until his eardrums must have been ready to burst from the pressure. “YOOUU, QUANTOSSSS, WILL SAVVEEE THHE WOOOORRLLLDDDD.”
“How,” he screamed back, but it was already gone, and the time traveler was alone in the desert.
The gyroscope river gleamed in the face of darkness; all was quiet, and then there was light.
A man stood at the peak of a long-extinct volcano, gazing out over the horizon. A pale blue sun was rising in the west, bathing the area in rays of burning light and lacing the distant peaks with halos of diamonds. The indigo night was fading, draining slowly away from the morning. Quantos pulled his thermal cloak tighter around him as a bitter wind picked up and tore at him with fingers of ice. Crystals had already begun to form on the few hairs left exposed to the mountain air.
He didn’t even bother to turn around this time. The sun’s rays burst over the mountain range like a crashing wave, bleaching his surroundings and forcing him to squint against the burning white snow.
“I DIIIDDD NOT LEEAAAVVEEE,” the voice of the void mocked humorlessly. “YOOUU ARE THE ONNNEE WHO HAS COME TO MEEEEEE.”
“I’m not going to do this with you again, whoever you are.” Quantos called angrily over his shoulder, blindingly pale in the light of the sun.
“YOU NEEEDD NOOOTTT DO ANNYYYTHHIIIING BUT DIIIIEEEEEE.”
“You keep saying that!” The cyborg yelled, whirling around furiously. The insect-armed man was there as always, burningly radiant in the glory of the time stream. He could have been lifted straight from the wasteland, for all that he had changed, though this time Quantos thought he could just barely make out the hard glint of metal under the waves of freezing light. “You keep saying that and you won’t tell me what it means!”
The insect’s head tilted twenty degrees to the right and stopped abruptly, like a hand on a broken watch. Its mouthparts clicked together softly. “YOOOUR UNDERSTANDING IS NOT REQUIIRREEDDD. YOU ARE HELLPLESS IN THE HAAANNDDSSS OF DEEAAATHHH; EVEN NOW THEY ARE CLOOOSSSING ON YOOUUU… I HAVE WATCHED ALL MEN DIEEE. YOU ARE NOOO EXCCEEEPPTIIOOOONNN. BUT YOU AMONGST AAALLL THE OTHERS MAY SEERRRVEE ONE FINAL PUURRPOOOSSSEEEEE…”
“No,” Quantos said, shaking his head and backing away. The heel of his boot hit something buried in the snow and he stumbled, flailing his arms for balance. “I- I will not bow to your plans! How could my death save the world? I don’t know what you’re trying to trick me into but I want no further part in it! I want out, do you hear me? I want out!”
The insect’s gaze was the coldest Quantos would ever know.
“YOOUU DO NOT HAAAVVVEEE A CHOOIICCCEE,” it howled, and he know beyond all shadows of doubt that it was telling him the truth. “YOU HAVE NEEVERR ONCE HAD A CHOOOIIICEEE IN ALL YOUR LIIIFFFEE. I AMM YOUUUR LACCHHEEESSSIISSS, I HAVE MEASURED OUT YOUR LIFE FOR AAATROPPPOOOSS’ BLAAAADDEES TO CUUTTT. YOOU ARE BOOUNND TO YOUR FAAATE AS A FISH TO ITSSS HOOOKKKK. I SEE IT EVEN NOOOWWW, WOUUNND AROUND YOUR THROAT AND WAAAIIITING FOR THE SHHEEAAARRSSSSSSS...”
By this time the cyborg had sunk to his knees and was crouched half-buried in the snow. He didn’t have the strength left to lift his head as he whispered, “I don’t believe you.”
“YOU DON’T HAAVVE TO BELIIIIEEEVE ME,” the insect said. “YOU OOOONLY HAAAVVE TO DIIEEEEE.”
A lower-class shopkeeper poured himself a sixth glass of scotch and gazed unsteadily out the window at the darkening sky. It was getting late, he thought blearily. It was time he should be getting home.
The gyroscope of Time rippled. The stream split itself in two.
Quantos was familiar with chaos theory.
He had to be, as a time traveler. He’d seen it in action personally dozens of times; you crushed an ant and Rome was never founded. Any minor change could offset the entire course of a world’s timeline, or any major one could end up having no effect at all. The butterfly and the hurricane. It didn’t seem at all odd to him, then, that the event that was about to take place was necessary to prevent the destruction of the universe. He had seen what would happen if he was not here to set the course. He had waited the entire span of Time to stop that from happening.
It had been years since the voice of the void had last spoke to Quantos, during which time he had finally become aware of what its words meant. He didn’t bother to question its timing (the Denny’s? Really?), knowing it would lead to nothing but frustration. He’d put this moment out of his mind for as long as he could, but he couldn’t avoid it any longer. This was the time, and he was going die to save humanity. There were no complaints left in him to voice.
He just wished he knew why this particular butterfly had to be a car.
The rampaging machine was bearing down on him with the impossibly delicate grace of a dancer, frozen in time. Its left front tire hung in the air like a ballerina afraid to go en pointe, the gravel hanging in the air swinging strands of pearls. Every detail of the scene was painted in remarkable clarity: the layer of dust on the vehicle’s hood; the oblivious face of the driver with one hand trapped in the act of scratching his stubble; the thin gold ring on his left hand glittering from the steering wheel; the crucifix suspended in the air from a chain around his neck. On the sidewalks onlookers had not yet realized what was about to happened and were locked immovably into their mundane tasks. A man was picking another’s pocket; a woman was fixing her dress and looking over her shoulder at her young daughter following close behind. Expressions in the crowd ranged the entire spectrum of human emotion: rage to joy, sadness to excitement, fear to lust, and everything in between and otherwise. Quantos wished that he had the time to forgive each and every one of them for playing their part in his imminent demise.
Overcome by emotion, he bowed his head and stared down at his hands. The one still made of flesh was covered in tiny scars and burns; minor deformities he could have long since had repaired but had to preferred to keep for memory’s sake. Memory. It had always been so important to him before. What else did he have left when time itself was nothing but a tool to him? What proof did he truly have that he had ever set foot on this ungrateful earth?
What use were memories to him now?
He looked up again and was surprised to find himself completely unfazed at meeting the gaze of the Voice of the Void, standing patiently in the middle of the frozen crowd like an angel of death. For once, it was completely silent. The insect could have been just one more piece of scenery trapped in the time-delay field, if not for the fact that its sides were gently rising and falling, almost imperceptibly drawing breath. Watching. Waiting.
There was nothing left to say.
Quantos looked back at the man behind the wheel. He probably had a family, the cyborg thought as he rested his hand on the dial on his arm. A family that would suffer during his time in prison, though truthfully he wasn’t entirely sure what this era’s standards were on vehicular manslaughter. Cyborgslaughter. He laughed.
His butterfly waited, two tons of steel hanging in the air.
As his fingers tightened on the dial and the squeal of tires on asphalt began, Quantos could have sworn in the fraction of a second he had left that the light in the insect’s eyes went dark
and an instant of eternity passed.
Gaurinn awoke to the sound of small talk and clinking glasses.
His entire body felt as though it had been hit by three trains in a row followed by a stampede, and he was positive that somewhere along the line someone had lit his exoskeleton on fire and forgotten to put it out. The familiar tingle of electrical currents had been replaced by an odd hum that resonated deep inside his shell, making it increasingly difficult to stay blissfully unconscious. He came to the conclusion that if someone approached him at that very moment and offered him a return to oblivion at the cost of both his hearts, he would gladly accept and thank them for it.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever got your name?”
The familiar voice spurred Gaurinn to lift his aching head off the glass counter he was laying on, which he immediately regretted. Neon lights were too much for his abused eyes to handle; he hissed sharply and buried his face under his claws. It had not been a wise decision on his part to ever consider waking up.
“Ah, Gaurinn, you’re awake! This is Gaurinn, he’s a very large bug and he’s two arms now, he used to only be one but he ate someone else’s. You can pet him if you want but I think he might bite. Gaurinn, this young lady is from an entirely different planet, imagine that. She’s been telling me all about the weather there. It rains green!”
The centipede’s vision shifted from unreasonably blurry to merely inconveniently fuzzy and he became aware that that an indecently violet woman wearing a fluffy white coat was seated on a bar stool next to his conjoined host. She smiled and gave him a polite little wave with one of her tentacles.
“Cailean.” Gaurinn’s mouth felt as though it was filled with partially dried glue. “Cailean, where the hell are we.”
“Ooh, he talks,” the violet girl said, blinking a third of her eyes.
“Unfortunately,” Cailean agreed. “Could you just give me a minute here, love, poor lad’s been out of it for a while.” He mimed knocking back a drink and winked before turning away and lowering his voice.
“Gaurinn, look, I know you haven’t exactly been around lately but I think for everyone’s sake it would best if you’d kindly figure out what you’re doing and then stop. The last place we were in, the bees talked.”
“Is…” It was incredibly difficult to focus on anything that was being said. “Is that martini glowing?”
“Is that what this is?” Cailean looked briefly down at the drink before continuing. “I saw things, Gaurinn. I saw things you can’t even imagine. Everything was full of stars, we haven’t stopped moving in… Maowyn, it’s been days. I can’t even keep track anymore. I don’t know how long ago that business with Quantos was. We’ve been everywhere, Gaurinn. I spent four hours getting a tattoo of a koi. That’s a kind of fish apparently.” He pointed with the glass to somewhere on his lower back.
“Cailean Iunno what the fuck you’re talking about but stop it, you’re making my head hurt. More.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Dimly, something that sounded like smooth jazz played in the background and someone dropped their glass.
“….D’you say something ’bout Quantos?”
“Don’t you remember? That was the only bit you were awake for. You were, uh… really loud. Loud and angry. We went to that mountain, remember, it was colder than a witch’s tits and you were going on about fate, and threads, and Quantos was there you told him he was going to die, and you were TIME ITSELF and…” He trailed off at the look on Gaurinn’s face. “Look, I’m not lying to you. It was right after we were in that jungle. You exploded and we ended up in this… place… It was days-”
“Get t’the fuckin’ point.”
The soldier glanced back at the violet girl, who was now engaged in conversation with a shadowy person of indeterminate gender sitting opposite. A small pile of glitter rained down out of his hair. “Last few days, every once in a while you start shaking and we move somewhere else. It’s been slowing down lately, we’ve been here the longest out of any of them. I think… I think it has something to do with that arm you ate. When we were in that place you had this light all about you, and it was there for quite a while but it’s been getting duller and duller ever since. Like it’s uh, wearing down, see?” He downed the rest of the martini in one gulp. “Listen, I’ve been trying really hard not to think about what’s happened to us.”
“Well, that’s not unusual or anything,” Gaurinn grumbled. Not without a fair bit of pain, he gathered enough energy to slowly raise his body off the counter and twist around to look at himself. “Am I… shinier?”
“A bit, yes.” Cailean said distantly. “Doesn’t look bad on you.”
“Fuck off.” The centipede’s legs began to tap on his sides, poking at himself. “So I’m Quantos’ arm. Fucking brilliant. How did that-”
There was a bang and a flash of green light, and a violet young woman turned around to find that her erstwhile guest was gone.
The gyroscope turned. The river’s twin streams collapsed back into one.
“-miserable oh god where are we.” Gaurinn narrowly resisted the urge to throw up again, noticing that the strange mossy area they’d found themselves suddenly in appeared to have already been done that favor. “What the fuck happened here?”
“Oh, we’re back,” Cailean said disappointedly, eyeing the empty glass in his hand and swirling the last few drops around. “This moss is still warm. We must not have been gone that long.”
“Gone- we were here?”
“Before you decided we shouldn’t be anymore. This is the next, er, round. A forest.”
The centipede’s claws poked at the blood coating the vine’s leaves, which even now was quickly being absorbed into the plant’s surface. “Was this me?”
“You threw up for about five minutes straight, by my guess.” Cailean got to his feet, supporting Gaurinn with his free arm. He began to make his way around the colossal trunk, resting his elbow on the rough bark for support. “I thought you might be dying for a bit but you were fine after a while. Sort of, anyway.”
“Didn’t you feel that with your super crybaby powers or something?”
The soldier shrugged, knocking a low-hanging branch out of the way. “One of the places we went was some kind of metal building. A woman there told me it was called a laboratory. She said that you were- look, I don’t remember most of what she said, she was going on and on about you. Something about nano… nanomachines, there we go. You’re… not really alive anymore, I suppose? You were… built, again, somehow… out of…. something…” Cailean was making gestures with his free hand that did absolutely nothing to clarify his words. “And the uh, blessing doesn’t really… work on-”
“Cailean,” Gaurinn said, “You’re adorable but you’re about as useful as a wet piece of paper.”
“I’m starting to wonder if I could even argue with that,” Cailean said, and fell straight down into what looked like a nest of giant leathery eggs.