It had been a long day.
Jon Smith stared at the neon sign over the departure gate, his mind a blank, waiting for the arrival of the next inter-zone tram. The red dots of light swam right-to-left across his field of vision.
....NEXT STOP << CROATOA.....
Jon blinked, refocused.
And stared at the sign with renewed interest.
It's not like he hadn't noticed before. Like everyone else, he'd seen the change in the train schedule when Salamanca in Croatoa had been put back onto the Green Line route.
He just hadn't paid any attention.
He had some vague memory of seeing headlines in the Paragon Times, but he rarely bothered with current news. He didn't take a subscription to anything, and when he was in the library, he was always involved in looking up something involving Paragon City's past, not its present, or future.
"You're working too hard, Jon," Dr. Myers had told him. "You never take any time off."
"Can't afford it," Jon had replied.
"Jon, you have no responsibilities outside of your job. You're pushing yourself to all hours of the night, and all weekend long, looking for something that you might never find. You *can* afford it. And you need to start thinking about it."
Jon had shrugged. "What would I do? Sit around watching TV? I don't even own a TV."
"Well, maybe you should buy one." Myers had paused, turned to look the scrapper full in the face. "Okay, that was facetious, but you do need to do something, anything for relaxation. Take up a hobby, or a sport. Go travelling. Get yourself out of the city." He raised a hand to forestall Jon's inevitable objection. "I know about your problems with how strangers treat you. But that's just part of your life, Jon. You have to deal with it wherever you go. And you can't remain a prisoner of the city forever, just because you don't want to face people."
"I've been outside Paragon," Jon had protested. "I went all the way to San Francisco."
"Great. That's a good first step. You've been there once, you're familiar with the place. Go back."
Jon had started to protest, images of metal detectors and clueless security guards flitting through his mind, but thought better of it.
They had dropped the argument at that point, Jon still unconvinced.
Bits and pieces of headlines caught out of the corner of his eye began to form in his inner sight. Salamanca, city of the University, and the Lake Monster. Croatoa, mysterious and eerie, home to creatures and men.....and women....as strange and unusual as Jon himself.
A vacation, he thought.
It's Friday night, he told himself....maybe he *could* take a short break, wander over to Croatoa, it wasn't far, if he remembered right. He walked away from the gate, missing the next tram, to gaze up at the enormous map posted on the false wall in front of the train station entryway. He searched for the new line, found it....a spur running far outside the city of Paragon, northwest of the city. Outside the ubiquitous war walls, out in the country. A place he could travel to without having to worry about Homeland Security, tickets, and inevitable arguments about his metal prostheses.
He didn't have to stay long....he could just run out there, walk around a bit, catch another train back to the city, and still have time to grab dinner before bed.
Resolved, he turned and ran back to the gate, just in time to slip between the doors of yet another tram.
The sun was only just setting, and already whispers of drifting mist were rising from the ground around the train station.
Jon stood on the platform, surveying the surrounding area uneasily.
Salamanca wasn't turning out to be what he had expected.
The town was pretty enough, what he could see of it through the darkening dusk. A typical university town, he thought, wondered briefly how he would know a university town if he saw one, pushed the thought aside as he did so many others.
He walked slowly down the ramp, onto the cross street.
Old-fashioned looking street lamps....you couldn't call them "street lights", they had so little in common with the brilliant neon and argon of Paragon street lighting....cast a vague, circular glow in pools on the sidewalks, dazzling the eye just enough to deepen the shadows between and beyond.
It was quiet....too quiet to be natural. The hustle and bustle of a small town seemed to be entirely missing. There was no point in looking for a night-life, even the abreviated one of Striga. There were no bars, no lighted windows, no loud music as he would have expected in a college town, no passersby hurrying on their unknown and unknowable errands.
In the distance, he squinted to see a pale greenish glow, then started as he realized that he recognized it.
He'd seen exactly the same ghostly aura surrounding the Ghost Ship of Talos Island and Independence Port.
He walked slowly, cautiously, forewarned, down the middle of the street, as he used to do when he first arrived in Atlas Park. It was just as well that he did. An odd-looking bush, maybe 4 feet high, green stemmed with orange foliage, shivered in the wind.....when Jon suddenly realized that there was no wind.
With another shake, the foliage dropped away, and Jon was face-to-face with a nightmare out of a child's Halloween dreams.
Perched on top of splindly limbs even thinner than Jon's own, a jack-o-lantern face grimaced at him, as the thing threw itself on him, clawing and spitting. Jon popped his claws. The struggle was thankfully brief, and Jon was about to take a deep breath when a second such "bush" from across the street threw itself at him.
Breathing hard, staring down at the things at his feet, he resolved to give the orange-and-green shrubs as wide a berth as he could.
Belatedly, he activated his hyperstride ability, knowing that it would offer him some security, and the ability to outrun almost anything he might run across.
Walking slowly with hyperstride running was difficult, but possible.
It quickly became evident why the town was so quiet, as Jon crept through the streets. Almost all the streets were lined, at one point or another, with the orange bush things. Tall brown-furred animals, walking upright like men, strode through the town as if they owned it. Delicate figures dressed in black congregated in groups, whispering to each other in some language he couldn't understand. They looked human enough....but Jon gave them a wide berth as well.
At a couple of points, the different groups mingled. Jon paused to watch....and saw that they were fighting each other, at times to the point of unconsciousness....or perhaps death. He moved on quickly, before he was noticed.
The narrow lamp-lit streets of Salamanca were a nightmarish battleground.
The University buildings were closed for the night. A few students stood on the campus, inside a ring created by police sentry robots, the same as the train stations all across Paragon City.
Jon passed by the knot of kids, the girl reading alone, chose one boy about to walk away from the campus perimeter.
"Hey..." he called softly.
The boy started, looked Jon up and down, poised for flight.
"No, it's okay," Jon said quickly. He reached into his pouch, pulled out his Hero Corps ID. "See? I just want to ask you a couple of questions."
"I haven't done anything!" the kid protested.
"I know....this is my first time here, can you tell me what those bush things are?"
The boy looked at him as if he'd sprouted a second head. "You really are a noob, aren't you?" He glanced up and down the street. "Okay....they're called Fir Bolg. Supposed to be transplanted from Ireland or something, I don't know much about it."
"....and the animals I see walking around?"
"Tu...Tuatha? Look, I gotta be goin', it's getting late, I gotta get home before it gets any darker."
"Okay, yeah, sure, thanks for the info." Jon watched the boy slink down the road, his head swiveling from side-to-side, obviously over-alert even from the back.
Salamanca. Croatoa. City of mystery.
Land of death.
He continued walking, cautiously, through the small town, avoiding anything that moved, and some things that didn't, such as the orange bushes.
As he made his way back to the train station, he noticed a break in the town's outer wall. Salamanca wasn't like Paragon....there were no glowing zone walls here, just an 8-foot-high stone barricade, which looked as if it might have been standing there for a hundred years....or two hundred. Curiously, he passed in front of the station, stood in the opening.
Beyond the wall was another world.
Within a hundred feet of the stone rampart, a knotted thicket of trees clutched at each other, leaning as if seeking support. There were breaks in the forest, but not many, and in the growing dusk he could make out very little in the reflected light from the few Salamanca street lamps behind him.
More of the....Fir Bolg?...were visible, in their more active manifestation, as well as the two-legged animals, the Tuatha.
Jon glanced to his extreme left, along the outer wall, and seeing nothing, looked to his right, about ready to give up and take the train ride back to Steel Canyon.
Something else caught his eye, and he hesitated.
Peering through the darkness, he could see still more of the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha, and that greenish glow of the ghost ship. Something dark and large....very large....loomed through the night, towering well above the city wall, but despite his efforts, even calling on his cybernetic monocle, he wasn't able to make it out.
It seemed to be a building of some sort, he thought....and froze as chills ran up and down his spine.
Something about that building....
As quietly as he could manage, he crept forward, pressed tightly against the outer surface of the stone wall, hoping against hope that the non-human inhabitants of the forest's edge wouldn't notice him.
He reached the corner of the wall. If his sense of direction wasn't entirely confused by the fog, the train station was in the southwest corner of Salamanca proper, and this was the southwest corner of the surrounding wall.
The building stood only a little way southwest from where he stood, but he would have to forsake the cover of the masonry wall to get a closer view.
A rough dirt road ran in front of him. He had to cross it to get closer to the building. In so doing, he skirted close by a truck patch, a ragged fence built from scrap lumber edging it. Peering over the fence, he saw very little....it was late in the year, most of the crops must have already been harvested.
Except for a handful of huge pumpkins.
Seeing them, Jon couldn't help thinking of the grinning jack-o-lanterns that had attacked him just outside the train station.
At least they didn't jump up and assault him, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he passed them by.
By now, he could make out the large building. It was a wooden barn, a huge one, maybe thirty feet tall, and almost as wide, subsidiary outbuildings snuggled against its outer wall.
He stole warily across the intervening dirt track, slipped inside.
No doors covered any of the openings any more. No windows were visible. The cows, the horses, were long gone, the bales of hay to feed them missing, even the odors of their occupation no longer detectable. Only the bare dirt floor, bits of hay here and there, and some large wooden and plastic crates, some open, some closed, the open ones quite empty when he peeked inside. There was very little sign of the original purpose for the building, and even less evidence of its most recent usage.
At the back opening, he slipped into the lean-to shed that nearly spanned the back of the barn. More of the same. A few of the Fir Bolg standing around outside, another crouched high in the rafters, peering out what might have been a window at one time. Jon moved on, unnoticed.
Exitting the side entrance of the lean-to, he saw a man, a perfectly ordinary-looking farmer, hacking at a large field stone with a hoe. "Hey...." Jon called softly. The man looked up at him, then returned to his labor.
"Excuse me....." Jon said, a bit louder.
The man ignored him.
"I don't mean to intrude, but....."
Tang.....tang.....tang.....the regular rhythm of metal hoe blade on rock continued, uninterrupted.
Sighing, Jon decided to come back in a few minutes and try again.
There was an intervening open area, completely bare of anything except grass, between the barn and lean-to he had just left on the east, and a pair of silos just to the west. To the south was the twisted barrier of the forest, to the north, the dirt road. There was no sign at all of the farmhouse that once had stood between them.
Jon stopped in mid-stride, shocked into immobility. Cold chills danced along his spine.
He had to remind himself to breathe.
Shaking, he turned his head, surveyed the empty plot of ground.
How had he known that there had been a farmhouse between the barn and the silo? There was no sign that such a structure had ever existed.
And yet, he did know.
He was certain of it.
He couldn't possibly know that....he'd never been to Salamanca, or any part of Croatoa.
That he knew of.....or remembered.
Forcing himself to move again, he began walking back and forth over the empty spot, searching for he-knew-not-what. A cursory search turned up nothing, so he went over it again, kicking his feet through the thin weedy grass, then bent over, brushing at the blades with his fingertips, sweeping right-and-left as he went.
It was on the third pass that his boot finally contacted something resilient.
He bent over, ran his fingertips through the grass, parting it, until he found, mostly buried under both soil and weeds, a broken bit of cedar shingle, the uneven edge charred and blackened.
Gripping it, he pulled, ripping it from the soil, shaking loose dirt and grassy debris.
Brushing as much as he could from the rough surface, he peered at it, monocle whirring with the effort, trying to see with only starlight and the faint glow of the Salamanca street lamps that crept over the surrounding wall. The side that had been uppermost, facing weather and the depredations of the vegetation, yielded nothing.
When he flipped it over, he saw something that didn't match the grain of the wood. Peering closely, he finally decided that someone had used a sharp or pointed object.....a nail?.....a penknife?.....to make some shallow scratches in the wood. He finally made out crude letters, a series of straight lines joined awkwardly.
They formed a single word: Jonathan
Copyright terraforming.com, November 26, 2012