“Absolute silence leads to sadness. It is the image of death.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Toni slipped through the portal, and had enough awareness to realize she was somewhere outside before she collapsed on the ground, dizzy from the trip and the cloying odor of red wine once again filling her nostrils. Nearly gagging, she remembered in time to roll out of the way for Ace coming through behind her. He too staggered, and breathed heavily as he slumped to his knees.
The world slowly stopped spinning, and a fresh, earthy scent breezed Toni’s mind clear. She looked up. They were in a field of endless wheat, stretching on and on to the horizon. The outline of far-off mountains was like a faint bruise in the fiercely blue sky.
“Ha!” The laugh escaped her before she could stop it, and then she was on her feet and tugging at Ace’s sleeve. “C’mon!”
His face was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, but his eyes looked clear. “What? Where?”
“Just c’mon! Run!”
“But there’s no one – ”
And they ran. They raced through the field, strands of wheat whipping at their legs and the wind roaring in their ears. Toni didn’t know where the urge had come from, but she had never seen a field this big and wide and open before. There was no worries here, no responsibilities, no one to hurt or be hurt by – just the sky and the field. It was freedom. Running was freedom. So she ran. And Ace was beside her, still radiating confusion, but keeping up.
Even though Toni was much more fit than she had been a few months ago, she felt herself tiring easily. By the time she fell onto the earth once more, exhausted, the far-off mountains looked no closer. Ace went past her, slowing down at a strange gait, and Toni thought she could hear his prosthetics groaning from the strain.
Running was freedom, but it was also painful. Belatedly between gasping breaths, she remembered they had no water. Or food. She reminded herself of their narrow escape, and decided not to complain. Toni rubbed her sore calves, and looked around for Ace. The wheat was taller than she was while sitting, so after a few more labored moments, she stood.
He was a thin grey silhouette against the blue of the sky, looking for all the world like a pathetic scarecrow. It was wrong to laugh, even though Toni felt so good right now. Thoughts of family, friends, and those they had left behind…all were distant flutters in the back of her mind. The field filled her body and spirit with its totality, and again she noticed that there was nothing but wheat in any direction for as far as she could see.
Which wouldn’t be saying much if I didn’t have contacts in, she thought, and fought back another inane giggle.
Part of her knew she was probably in some sort of shock, given all that had happened, but another part just wanted to call it sheer relief at being alive. Still another part of her wanted her glasses. She hated contacts.
Toni rubbed her eyes now as she calmed herself down before walking over to Ace, who was still standing stark still a short distance away. Despite his wire-thin frame, he did cut an impressive figure, staring fixedly ahead with a rail-straight posture. Toni hadn’t the faintest idea what he might be thinking about, but rather felt as though she was interrupting something.
“You’re okay?” he asked after she had been hovering awkwardly behind him for a few minutes.
Toni moved closer so she was standing next to him. “Yeah. Nothing broken. Just bruises. You?”
“Same.” He showed her the underside of his wrist where dark spots bloomed on his grey skin, which looked silvery in the bright sunlight. She hissed sympathetically through her teeth, but he shrugged. “It’ll heal.”
There was a quiet pause. Toni glanced up at Ace’s face, which was strangely blank and unreadable. His solid black eyes gave no indication of what he was looking at, and even though there was a cool breeze, his white hair barely ruffled.
He had rarely looked so alien to Toni, and she suddenly felt very alone. Even more so than when at the place they had just left, where she had been judged for everything from her dark skin to her curly hair to her big, tall frame, and Ace had been her only source of companionship. Which really wasn’t saying much.
They had been on this mission for a few months now, and training for longer still, but they still felt like strangers. Ones bound only by necessity and secrecy. But maybe…Toni shot a glance at Ace’s ripped jeans, and saw the glimmer of his artificial legs peeking through. Maybe there was more.
“I saw your file the other day. Back at the base,” she said, trying to sound casual.
Ace stiffened, somehow even more rigid than he had been before, and his snakelike nostrils flared. “I thought those were supposed to be secure,” he said slowly, not looking at her.
Toni didn’t want Ben to get in trouble, so she lied, “Someone must’ve left it. I only saw the front bit. With your name and such.”
He didn’t look comforted by this, but she had already gone this far. “I didn’t know your real name was Arthur.” She waited for a reaction that didn’t come. “Arthur Cohen. It’s nice.”
Ace scowled, the familiar expression making Toni feel oddly relieved. “Only my parents call me that.”
“Where did ‘Ace’ come from? I mean, it’s cool, but if it’s not a family nickname…” she asked. He was still frowning into space, so she rambled on, “I mean, I only get called ‘Antoinette’ at home, when I’m in trouble. My family, friends – everyone always uses the shorter name.”
She then realized that Ace had never once called her “Toni,” and fell silent.
Just when the quiet was getting painful, he finally said, “Kids from elementary school. They saw my initials on our class drawings, and started calling me ‘Ace’ as a joke. You know, because I was anything but.” He seemed to make no attempt to hide the bitter anger from his voice. “I just ended up taking it for myself in the end.”
Toni was not ignorant of violent words being reclaimed by their victims; history was full of them, especially in her ancestral past. And she knew about the struggle Ace’s people, the Morsians, had with identifying themselves as their own culture on Earth, but she hadn’t realized how personal the battles were. Not until she met Ace. Not until she was “chosen,” and exposed to this whole new world of time traveling and portals, and alien prejudice and politics… How could she have known that her love of history would take her down this turbulent path of both discovery and desolation?
The warm breeze had turned into a cold wind (or was that her imagination?), and the field no longer looked inviting, but overwhelmingly empty.
But Toni still had to ask.
“Can…I call you ‘Arthur’?”
He finally looked down at her, perhaps searchingly, it was impossible to tell. Toni could see how tired and worn he looked, the shadows under his eyes, and the thin line of his lipless mouth. He looked as though he wanted to give up and go home as much as she did, but before she could ask – or apologize or cry or slap him or anything – he turned away, the strange blankness settling over his features again.
The word was like a vacuum, draining the air around them until there was nothing left but wheat and deathly silence.
So, this is something I’ve not done before. What you (probably) just read is an excerpt from a book I’ll probably never write. It’s an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for years, since I was in high school, but even though I have characters and plot bunnies sorted and notes made, I don’t think I’ll ever actually write an entire novel about it. Just in case, I’m not going to put too much information here, but that’s why I added so many physical and background details in this story than a middle-of-the-book chapter would normally warrant, for clarity’s sake.
Basically: aliens who can time travel (I swear I thought of this before I’d ever heard of Doctor Who), and there’s bad guys and political situations and species prejudice and lots of random historical trivia and human problems and high school and…well, you get the idea. So much research would be needed.
When I was brainstorming ideas for a story this week, though, this little scene wouldn’t get out of my head. It’s just the most recent of many I’ve had over the years, but this is the first time I’ve written one down in more than outline format. Who knows? Maybe I’ll make something out of this after all!