Back in the Chair
Tara's been travelling for a long time now.
The end was a message in a bottle, locked in a chest, left behind in an abandoned castle at the heart of a forest. Tara leaned back in her chair, watching the leaves slip by, and smiled. The carriage was making good time along the roads, rickety as it was and uneven as they were, and the breeze carried the faintest smell of woodsmoke in through the quarter glass. Overhead, she could hear the coachman grunting commands to the horses from his perch, and beneath her she could feel the thrum of the wheels turning over beaten earth. The trees were tall and uniform, blurring into one as they rushed past her window; they stretched out in every direction, as far as the eye could see. It was like a mirrored corridor in a parlour trick, reflecting itself onwards forever.
She had been travelling for a long time now. Beyond these woods – and, despite how infinite it seemed, she knew the forest would eventually come to an end – there was a message she had to find, a secret hidden in some dusty and forgotten antechamber. She wasn’t sure what the message was, exactly, but she knew it was important. Why else would she have come so far to find it? It was the goal of her quest. The climax of her pilgrimage. The end of her journey. She had been travelling for...
Well, she’d been travelling since...
It had all started when...
Outside, the trees flickered.
The end was a crumbling temple, secluded on the quietest corner of an alien planet she had never seen. Tara leaned back in her chair, watching the dark slip by, and smiled. Somewhere out there beyond the starship, amongst all the distant specks of light that pinpricked the deck window, there was a world that she and her mother were going to call home. It was a faraway place, further than anyone had gone in living memory – but on that planet was an ancient monument, a decrepit shrine so important that they had abandoned everything they had ever known to fly off in search of it. She had been aboard the starship for as long as she could remember, ever since she was a child, but soon they would reach their destination. The temple was the most important place in the universe; it was where they would stop travelling at last. She had been travelling for a long time now.
She sat up, suddenly uneasy. There was a rumbling beneath her feet, not the steady lull of the engines but something sharper. The tang of exhaust that sometimes filtered through the flight deck was gone, replaced instead by the thick stench of burning wood. Why did the temple matter? The thought struck her, unbidden. Why did they need to reach it so desperately that they had thrown themselves out into the empty chasm of space?
“Mum?” Tara called out behind her. No response. She started to rise from her chair –
And the stars outside flickered.
The end was an X on a treasure map, some lost island deep in uncharted waters. Tara leaned back in her chair, watching the waves slip by, and frowned. No, this wasn’t right. There was damp and mouldering wood all around her, and she could hear the waves lapping against the hull of the boat, could feel the sway of the deck and smell the salt in the air and see beyond the porthole the vast expanse of ocean, stretching out in every direction for as far as the eye could see like a mirrored corridor in a parlour trick, reflecting itself onwards forever - but it wasn’t right.
She strained against her seat, tried to pull herself up and found she couldn't. Her arms ached. Inside her head, an entire lifetime reverberated – the names of the crew and the ports they had visited and the way the first mate’s smile made her feel like...
She had been travelling for a long time now.
The ocean flickered. And the world went black.
Tara woke up.
She could make out very little – only the vaguest outlines of shapes, dimly lit from a narrow window to her right. The space in front of her glimmered with a black sheen, like ink smeared over a mirror. She found she was sitting down and, legs shaking with exertion, rose from her chair. There were memories in her head that didn’t make sense, people and places and times that couldn’t possibly co-exist: aliens and pirates and princes, all melted together. As she stood there, clutching her arms to her chest, the memories slipped away into the dark. She felt empty without them.
Shaking her head, she moved over to the window. It was a tiny thing, nothing like the beautiful open view she'd had from her horse-drawn carriage... no, from her mother’s spaceship... or the old boat...
She shook her head again, more violently this time. Her hair was damp with sweat. She looked out of the window and for a moment all she could see was herself, pasty skin and manic eyes. Then the reflection blurred, and she could see the world behind it.
The landscape was desolate, torn and shredded, a wasteland of sodden mud and thick clouds of ash. Here and there small spires of shorn metal protruded from the mire of dirt and rock, half-formed structures that might once have been buildings. The sun was low on the horizon, dull and monochrome through the smoggy air. Shadows rippled like dust over the barren, clotted wilderness.
“What’s happened?” she whispered, aghast, her voice hoarse from lack of use. "What happened to the world?"
She spun on her heel, almost tripping in haste. The wall with the strange glimmer was no longer blank – a man’s image was projected across it, smiling. He was tall, smooth-skinned, his figure coiling and curling as the projection wavered. He had a wine glass cupped in one hand.
“You – you aren’t real.” She glared at him.
“Is all this?”
She glanced back at the window for half a heartbeat, then looked away with a shudder. The man took a sip from his glass, his arm distorting oddly across two dimensions.
“You’re wondering how it came to be like that," he said to her. His voice was deep and relaxed. "But to tell the truth, I’m not sure it matters. It's simply how things are now. That’s all that's important.”
Tara felt unsteady on her feet. She had been travelling for a long time, now. She stumbled, caught herself on the edge of the chair, and half-sat half-fell back into it.
“I... I was going somewhere.”
“Yes, you were.” His smile was wide, teeth gleaming. “So many places. A forest, a planet, an ocean... All those different stories. Tell me, which did you prefer? I’m sure I can adjust a few parameters accordingly.”
Her vision swam, and she struggled to focus on the hologram in front of her.
“I don’t understand. Was it all...?”
“A projection, like me? Or a dream, if you like. Something to while away time until...” He paused, affected a moment of deep thought. “Well, forever, I suppose.”
“But when do I get to stop? When does it end?”
The man jerked to one side momentarily as the projection glitched, his features distorting. Then he was back, poised and still. He seemed confused by her question, his brow furrowed.
“End?” he shrugged, and the world behind him flickered, the empty room replaced by the dunes and valleys of an arid desert -
- by the sprawling canopy of a rainforest teeming with life -
- by a railroad that ran off over the horizon, crawling with engines -
- by him, sitting across from her in her horse-drawn carriage. He still had his wine, cradled in slender fingers.
“The end,” he told her, “is wherever and whenever you want it to be.”
And he was gone.
Tara leaned back in her chair, watching the leaves slip by, and smiled. For a short while she had dreamt of a strange man, but then she had woken up, and the dream had faded. She could barely remember his face, and had already forgotten what he had told her. They were making good time along the roads, and the breeze carried the faintest smell of woodsmoke in through the quarter glass. The trees were tall and uniform, blurring into one as they rushed past her window; they stretched out in every direction for as far as the eye could see, like a mirrored corridor in a parlour trick, reflecting itself onwards forever. She watched them pass. She had been travelling for a long time, now, and she still had such a long way to go.