Dark Hollow

By:
Layne Partin

Part Seven:

Nina

Something awakens her from the deep river of sleep, some alien sound that causes her to sit up totally alert, the hair on her arms and neck stiffening. She sits in the darkness of her room, covers thrown aside, and listens, her heartbeat a slow murmur. In one hand she clasps the large silver crucifix that she has worn since last summer, since the night she saw the vampire. Outside her second-floor window the snow sifts down in hard little spicules, cloaking the world in white silence.

She relaxes slowly, her radar still up. She will never again trust the night. Nor will she fear it, though there are things out there in the black vastness that adults will never believe in. And somewhere out there, flying on the wind, the thing that used to be her friend Anaphor searches for her.

She is certain of this.

She lives in the estate of her millionaire father, in the huge manor that has housed three generations of Castles, and it is as well guarded as Fort Knox, she knows, but she also knows that high walls and electronic surveillance cannot keep out the supernatural. Only she can keep them out.

Only she can keep them from her parents.

The snow sifts down and down, chilling her as though she were standing next to the cold pane of glass; in the soft glow of her nightlight (her parents’ idea, not hers) she surveys the room, checking all the dark hiding places where childhood monsters are reputed to hide. But she is alone in her room; she senses no one, or nothing else there. The night ticks on slowly toward distant dawn. There is no darkness like the winter nights of childhood.

A capful of wind swirls the snow into lacy spirals and lashes it against the window with a faint ticking sound, but there is no dark shape hanging there, peering in at her, beseeching her with mesmerizing, infrared eyes, eyes that have glimpsed eternity and found it irresistible, and terrifying.

She shivers, pulls the covers closer to ward off the chill that has nothing to do with wintry nights, nothing to do with arctic air sweeping down from the far frozen cathedrals.

At last, satisfied that this is not the night that she has dreaded, and will dread for years to come, she lies back and pulls the covers up to her chin, her pale oval of face framed by hair as dark as the night against the virginal white of her pillow. She closes her eyes tightly and waits for sleep to begin its strange sifting arrival.

Her mind slowly unwinds and she falls asleep, the crucifix held loosely in her hand, and dreams again of that fateful night.

****

Nina hears the voice of her governess calling her, but in the firefly-infested gloaming it is a faraway sound, unimportant. Down here by the crystal clear stream, in the mist, she is playing hide and go seek with her new friend Anaphor. The shadows are gathering among the white pines, but there are only so many hiding places on the manicured lawn of the Appalachian Resort, and Anaphor wouldn’t dare cross the stream and go into the forest.

“Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty, here I come ready or not, she calls, and turns to hurry down the sloping lawn to seek her friend. She dashes around the first of the widely spaced pines--no Anaphor. So she darts to the next one, and then the next.

“Niiiiina!” The voice of her governess.

Nina ignores her, intent on this last game of hide and seek.

“Got you,” she calls breathlessly, poking her head around the last of the trees, the only place Ana could be hiding.

No one is there.

She looks around, a trickle of unease diminishing the smile on her face. Beyond the rustling brook, with its icy cold water, the forest is dark and mysterious. Surely Ana wouldn’t have gone there--

But yes, there, behind a huckleberry bush on the far bank of the stream, she catches a glimpse of Anaphor’s yellow dress.

“You crossed the brook,” Nina whispers to herself. “No fair.”

But her nimble little feet are already finding their way across the rushing water on the smooth round stones that dot the stream, jumping from one to next, as adroit as the ballerina she plans to someday be. She stops just short of the far bank, close to Ana now, close enough to see that she is indeed hiding behind one of the larger trees there, a big oak or perhaps a beech; it’s hard to tell in the uncertain twilight that is alive with the dreamy sound of cicadas. She feels the cool breath of the stream rising up to halo her with its wraithlike presence, and tenses to make the final leap into the ferns growing amid the moss-covered rocks.

The cicadas fall silent suddenly, and the air thickens around her, seems changed. Nina pauses, her arms prickled with goose bumps, and opens her mouth to call out when she hears a gasp of fright, surely fright, although there is nothing to fear in these woods so close to the Resort. No name comes out, and she catches her breath, aware on some deep primal level that she and Anaphor are no longer alone.

“Niiiiinaaaa!” Urgent now, laced with uncertainty, the voice of her governess. “Where are you?”

She’s coming, Nina thinks, but she’ll never get here in time to save us from the monster. It will eat Ana up and then it will come for me. I should never have crossed the stream.

Nina Castle, always a precocious child, is also sensible for one so young, and so shrugs off the foreboding thoughts and prepares to leap to the bank and tag her friend, and then hurry back to the scolding she has coming. She lands on the springy loam amidst the ferns, catches her balance, and surges forward.

The yellow dress disappears just before she can make contact, however. So she peers around the tree, smiling in triumph.

“Got you--” Nina says, and the words die in her throat as a cold hand grips her heart and fills her with dread.

Ana is indeed there, behind the tree, her back to Nina, her yellow cotton dress bright in the gloaming. Her head is tilted back; her dark hair spills down her dress. A woman is standing over her, a woman with a pale, corpselike face and lips shockingly red, as thought she has smeared them in fresh blood. Her mouth opens; the teeth are startlingly white and long, tapered to fine points, a wolf’s fangs. Ana is offering her neck to the fangs, her posture one of complete submission, as though this were all some wonderful game. The mouth closes over the soft flesh there, seeking the blood just beneath the surface, the lifeblood that pounds through the big artery.

The woman drinks greedily, her hunger an obscene sucking sound that is too awful to comprehend.

“Ana,” Nina tries to say, but the word is tiny and lost in the vastness of the dark forest and the rushing stream.

But the woman hears; she lifts her eyes to Nina, and suddenly Nina is lost in the insanity of those awful red eyes that glow like coals of clever fire. There is something enchanting in those eyes, something that hungers, and Nina is powerless to look away. Hide and go seek is forgotten, the thin veneer of safety that is the Resort is forgotten; nothing exists except the hypnotizing rabid eyes.

Unbeknownst to her, Nina’s hand has clasped the tiny crucifix that hangs around her neck; with a mind of its own her hand snaps it free of its thin chain and brandishes the silver cross toward the monstrosity that is sucking the life from her friend.

The mouth, dripping with scarlet, pulls back from Ana’s neck, and hisses like a cat at the glowing talisman that charges the twilight with its wan power. The creature seems to recede from Ana, becomes a part of the shadows, and the night almost shivers in relief as Ana crumbles to the ground.

Awed, Nina looks down at the cross in her hand, realizes in a distant part of her mind that it is no longer a shiny crucifix; now it is a tarnished gray thing, robbed of power.

She stares at the cross for a long moment that is broken by the sound of her governess’s frantic voice on the other side of the stream, calling her, threatening to beat her butt.

Finally freed from the trancelike state, still feeling the hunger, the lusting, Nina looks at the crumpled form of Ana and screams out her fear to the night that has fallen around them.

****

“Nina? Nina! Earth calling Nina; come in Nina!”

Nina Castle pulled up from the sprint that had started out as a jog, the olden memory interrupted by Jason, her training partner and chief of security at the estate. She forced herself to a walk as Jason came puffing up beside her.

“Whoa, hon,” he panted. “We’re not training for the Olympics here; what’s the idea? We must’ve run twelve miles or more by now.”

Nina said nothing, just walked along, wishing Jason wasn’t with her, so she could run until she fell. But no matter how far or how fast she ran, she couldn’t escape the pseudo-memories.

And the thoughts.

Jason caught her by the arm and snatched her to a stop. “C’mon, Nina, talk to me.”

Nina turned angrily and glared at Jason; she liked him very much, but right now she didn’t want to hear his BS, which at times bordered on patronization.

“What’s eating you, Nina?” he asked, coming close and looking directly into her eyes. He was shorter than she, and looked chubby, but Nina knew that looks were deceptive. Jason Rider was one of the toughest men she’d ever known. “Ever since Hong Kong you’ve been distant, not yourself at all.

“Why art thou downcast, O my soul?”

Nina smiled in spite of herself. Jason’s love for Hebrew poetry, especially the psalms of King David, his hero, was one of his idiosyncrasies that she had always adored. She knew that he would fight to the death for her, and had on many occasions proved his loyalty to her and her family, which consisted of only her father now.

But how could she tell Jason, or anyone else, that ever since she had left that bar in Hong Kong, in the ensuing months she had been assailed by the strangest notion that she was supposed to have met someone there, someone important, someone life altering, and hadn’t? Now, even more perplexing, as the days went by she was slowly, surely developing memories, like some strange déjà vu, of someone she’d never met, or known.

Someone whose name she even knew.

Nina shook her head. “Nothing, Jason. I’ve just been worrying about stuff, that’s all.”

She turned away, but Jason once again caught her by the arm and turned her to face him.

“That’s bull hockey, hon, and you know it. This is Jason, remember? You’re really hurting my feelings, shutting me out like this. As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O Nina.”

“You’re such an idiot,” she giggled, his concern for her touching, and she really did want to share her feelings with someone, didn’t she?
It was just that…

“You’d think I was crazy, if I told you,” she said, sighing and lifting her leg to him. He hoisted it to his shoulder; she grasped her ankle with both hands and slowly lowered her face toward her shin.

“Crazy? Are you forgetting whom you are talking to, Babe?” he asked. “This is the guy who swears he fought alongside King David in a former lifetime, remember?”

“Well, you got me there,” Nina replied, switching legs and slowly lowering herself again. “Do you know déjà vu?”

“Been there, done that, all over again,” Jason replied.

“What causes it, do you think?” The endorphins were kicking in, leaving her emptied out and relaxed. Her feet on the ground now, she locked her knees, bent slowly down and placed both palms on the macadam, held for a count of five, then straightened.

“Seriously, what do I believe?”

Nina nodded as they turned and started to walk along the rural road where the trees were beginning to put on their autumn wardrobes.

“I believe someone goes back in time, one way or another, and changes something, something minor, mostly, and creates a new reality for a person or persons, only the person remembers both realities.”

Nina stopped, startled, for a moment forgetting that this was another of Jason’s eccentricities: Time travel movies and books--anything on time travel.

But it was so close to explaining what was happening to her that she felt her skin crawling with goose bumps.

“You really believe that?” she asked.

Jason shrugged. “Makes sense to me.”

“Yeah, me too,” she murmured, turning to start a light jog again. “What say that, after Skirmish, we have a few drinks at the Aerie and discuss this farther,” she said over her shoulder. “And maybe, just maybe, I’ll tell you what’s on my mind. Last one back buys,” she added.

“Hang out the flag,” Jason whooped, breaking into a run. “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

****

“What shall it be today, jungle or desert warfare?” Jason asked in the Weapons Room. He loved this room with its vast array of weaponry, ancient and modern, and some that the world hadn’t yet seen.

“Neither,” Nina replied. Going into what they affectionately called The Museum, because of the seldom-used weapons of antiquity there, she led him to a glass case and opened it. Mounted inside were an assortment of wooden stakes and crucifixes and other oddities.

“What, are we going to be fighting vampires?” Jason asked.

Nina smiled. “Just wait till you see this new training facility. You’re going to love it.”

Jason shrugged, and Nina felt again the weird sense of déjà vu wash over her, so strong that she felt dizzy. That shrug…

“Whatever you say, boss.” He looked less than enthusiastic. Jason, like Luther, had his own ideas of training--and entertainment. For R and R Luther had been known to take only a coil of nylon rope and a hunting knife and disappear into the vast wilderness of the Ox Bow or the Bear Tooth Range for days at a time. Jason, not quite as intrepid, preferred more urban, though no less realistic, situations.

Nina handed him a large, ornate crucifix on a heavy chain, which he slipped over his head. “Holy water,” she said, passing him a water skein, “and, of course, a hammer to drive the stake”--she held up a stake and then thrust it into her belt--“through Monsieur Dracula’s heart.”

“I get to do the dirty work,” he grinned, hefting the hammer.

“Always,” she said. “Ready?”

“Sure, let’s do it.”

“They perfected this program while we were circling the world on the Icarus,” Nina said as she led the way down a corridor toward INVIRTER, which was only one of the many projects housed in the vast Castle Endeavors complex.

“Here we go,” she said presently, stopping at a door and punching a code into the keypad.

“INVIRTER?” Jason asked, reading the nameplate.

“It’s an acronym for Interactive Virtual Reality Training and Exercise Room,” Nina replied.

The door slid back, revealing a darkened room that felt vast. They entered and the door slid shut, leaving them in darkness.

“Whew, it’s cold in here,” Jason shivered. “No wonder you dressed us warmly. Where are we, Transylvania?”

“You got it,” Nina said as the darkness gave way to light. “Welcome to Castle Dracula.”

Jason gasped. And little wonder. They stood in the courtyard of an immense castle that towered high over them, looking dark and foreboding in spite of its antique white walls and red tiled roofs. Snow drifted down from an ashen sky and in the distance, glimpsed beyond the high walls of the courtyard, dark, serrated mountain peaks shrouded with lowering clouds reared up to the sky, exaggerated, no doubt, for effect.

“We have one hour,” Nina whispered, her hair stirred about by a cold wind, “to find the Prince and kill him.”

“What happens if we don’t find him in an hour?” Jason asked, seemingly mesmerized by the panoramic scene.

“He finds us,” Nina said. “And we join the ranks of the undead.”

“Ooh, spooky,” Jason replied. “If this is virtual reality, they’ve taken it to whole new heights.” He was scanning the tops to the battlements, almost feeling eyes on them. “It feels real.

“Yeah, it does,” Nina agreed, looking up at the main castle, which dominated the skyline. “Amazing what an army of computer geeks can do with unlimited time and resources. It’s not exactly the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise, but pretty darn close. Oh, and by the way, we get to test it.”

“You mean it’s never been used before?”

“Not by anyone besides the geeks.”

“Okay, what do we look for?”

“I’d say the crypt,” Nina said, grasping the handle of the immense front door and pulling it open.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Jason murmured as the great door creaked open and the interior air, smelling long unused and slightly corrupt, wafted out. “When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect. He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.”

They stepped into the foyer and the door creaked shut behind them, the sound echoing off the cavernous walls of the great hall that opened off the foyer. The tall, narrow windows on each side of the hallway were heavily draped, allowing only the barest minimum of light to seep through. Everything, the furniture, the drapes, the wooden floor, was swathed in a thick coat of dust and the silence hung heavily, like something alive.

“Impressive,” Jason said. “This place is huge; where do we even start?”

“How about right here?” a voice said behind them.

Startled, they whirled around. Nina gasped, for the apparition standing between them and the door was indeed a vampire, just not the Prince Vlad, Son of the Dragon that they had envisioned, that Nina had asked the geeks to design. No, this one looked far more menacing than Bela Lugosi playing Count Dracula in a movie, far more real. He was tall and gaunt, dressed in denim overalls and a nondescript shirt, with muddy brogans on his feet. His face was hatchet shaped and as pale as milkweed. His lank hair was swept back from his face, and his deep-set eyes were mesmerizing insane rubies; one glance into them and one was swept into eternal longing.

Namer; his name is Namer, and I have felt his fangs brush the skin of my neck like the fangs of a cobra, Nina thought, her hand seeking the crucifix that lay between her breasts. He is far more deadly than anything we could have imagined, because charms do not work against him.

Aloud, she said, “Computer, end program.”

The apparition chuckled, an evil sound. “Nina Castle afraid; now there is something to behold. Come to me, Little Nina; I wait for you. Time has sealed the rift.”

For long seconds that could have been much longer, they stared at the vampire; time and space meant nothing.

And then the vampire and the castle dissolved around them and they were standing in semidarkness once again.

Jason, looking as if he had just awakened from a dream, glanced around. “That’s it? I thought we were supposed to kill him.”

Nina shrugged, her heart beginning to slow. “Must be a glitch in the program,” she said, going to the exit and hitting the switch that opened the door. In the hallway, after the entrance had hissed shut behind them, she said, “Forget the Aerie, let’s go to a redneck place and get smashed, what say?”

Jason, annoyingly perceptive, looked at her closely. “You okay, you look kinda peaked?”

“Fine,” she said.

Jason, however, didn’t look convinced.

****

They met in a bar called The Red Mule. Jason, sipping on a beer, looked up at Nina’s approach, announced by whistles and catcalls from the guys playing pool.

“Wow,” he said, impressed at her attire, a mini skirt and leather jacket. “You’re really vamping it up, eh?”

Smiling, she sat down opposite him and laid a thin attaché case on the table. The barmaid approached and placed a cocktail napkin in front of her. “Whatcha havin’?”

“Double Evan Williams, chilled, straight up, and a beer chaser,” Nina said, glancing around. The place smelled of beer and cigarette smoke and vomit mostly covered by sanitizer. “This is perfect, just what I’m in the mood for,” she added.

The barmaid, looking impressed with Nina, went off to get the drinks. The sound of George Strait singing about a cotton dress swishing was coming from a jukebox in the far corner.

“What’s in the case?” Jason asked, nodding toward the attaché case.

“You wanted to know what was going on with me, you got it,” she said. “What, you thought it was going to be simple?”

Jason took a long pull on his draft beer, sighed deeply. “Man, that’s good. Simple? You?” he said, tilting his head and looking at her, bemused. “I’ve known you what, ten, twelve years? Ever since you were fifteen, and you’re a lot of things, but simple? No way. In fact, I’ve always thought you were one lady who needed to lighten up.”

The barmaid approached and placed Nina’s drinks in front of her. Nina held up a finger, lifted the shooter and tossed off the bourbon. “I’ll have another,” she said, taking up the draft beer. She took a sip, opened the attaché case and extracted a fifty-dollar bill. Handing it to the barmaid, she said, “Let me know when we use this up, okay?”

“Sure,” the girl—she couldn’t be a day over twenty-one—said. “My name is Laura. I’ll be right back.”

She left.

“I think she likes you,” Jason grinned. “You sure impressed her, knocking off a double bourbon without even a grimace.”

Nina seemed not to hear him. The bourbon was warming her stomach nicely, giving her that old rainy day feeling that always made her think of—

“Do you believe in vampires?” she asked, turning her gaze to Jason and taking another pull on her beer.

Jason gave her an odd look. Considered. “I take it you don’t mean night owls who like to drink blood.”

The barmaid returned with Nina’s bourbon and another beer for Jason. “There you go. I’ll be back to check on you; just wave if you need anything before I get back, y’hear?”

“I’ll have one of those,” Jason said, nodding toward Nina’s bourbon.

Nina waited until Laura had left. “No, I mean bon-fide vampires, like the one in INVERTER,” she said.

Jason shrugged, and once again Nina felt a goose run over her grave. “I’ve never really thought about it, I guess,” he said. “But did you know that in the Book of Proverbs, chapter 30, verse 15, the word horseleech, which is ‘alukah in the Hebrew, is claimed by some to refer to a demonic ghoul or vampire?”

“Really?” Nina looked relieved that Jason was taking her seriously. “I knew you loved Hebrew poetry, but I didn’t know you believed in God and the Bible.”

“One is proof of the Other,” Jason replied dismissively. “Tell me more about these vampires.”

Nina took a sip of her bourbon, set the shooter carefully on the table, and then opened the attaché case again. Extracted a sheet of paper and passed it over to Jason.

He took it, glanced at it, then at her. “It’s a page from your flight log.”

She nodded. “Read it.”

Day 16, Oct. 21

Everything has gone smoothly; we’ve only had to stop once for fueling. The Icarus has performed even better than we could have hoped. But today we had EMI problems and had to make an emergency landing in a remote part of the Appalachians, somewhere in Kentucky.

The strangest thing is, I was expecting this, but for whatever reason I should have been, it did nothing to dispel a sense of foreboding that has held me in its grip for the longest time. Ever since Hong Kong, I have had the feeling that I was supposed to meet someone, someone who was to accompany us on this trip, someone important, but I didn’t, also that this was the penultimate day on this trip, a day that would change everything.

After landing, I had the guys set up a perimeter, according to procedure, and I patrolled the large clearing, feeling eyes on me, feeling my skin crawl in anticipation of—

What??

Nothing happened. We spent the night onboard, and the engineers

repaired the ship. Next morning, we resumed the flight.

But the dreams…and the memories

“You’re having déjà vu?” Jason asked, handing her back the Xerox copy. “Very strong déjà vu, I take it?”

“What I’m having are like memories, like two different sets of memories,” she replied, sipping the bourbon. “Out back of that bar in Hong Kong, there was a guy fighting with a whole gang of men, giving a really good account of himself, so much so that I hired him to be one of our bodyguards on the flight.” She shrugged helplessly, took another drink of beer. “I remember it, but it never happened. How’s that possible? It’s weird, so weird, but I even know his name.

“That doesn’t really sound like déjà vu,” Jason frowned. “Usually, it’s like, ‘I’ve been this way before,’ when you know you never have, or something to that effect.”

“You haven’t heard the best yet,” she said, finishing off the bourbon and looking for Laura across the hazy barroom, which was filled with the comforting sounds of Garth Brooks singing Two Pena Coladas, pool balls clacking off one another, talking and laughter. Laura spotted Nina looking her way and started for their table with Jason’s bourbon.

“I need another bourbon just to tell you the rest,” she murmured. “You’re going to think I’m crazy yet, have me committed. Of course,” she added as Laura stopped in front of the table, “I’ll deny everything, and by the time I get through with you, you won’t remember any of it.”

“Ready for refills?” Laura asked. She deposited Jason’s shooter on the table; he at once tossed it off.

“Same all around,” Nina smiled. “And whatever’s your poison, when you get off.”

“Sure, thanks,” Laura said. “If y’all are still here, we’ll have one together, huh?”

“I’d like that,” Nina said.

“I’m sure she likes you,” Jason said, watching her walk away. “Nice butt, too. Are you switching sides on me?

Nina ignored him. Pulled another Xerox from the attaché case and handed it to him.

“Search Intensifies For Missing Girl,” Jason murmured. He slowly read the news article, reread it, and then handed it back to her. “Someone you knew?”

Nina nodded, thinking about the incident, which had lost little of its clarity over the years. The mouth dripping scarlet, the awful sounds of the parasitical taking

She shuddered, crossed her arms over herself and rubbed them absently.

“Here ya go,” Laura said, taking their drinks off a tray and taking up their empties. “Sorry to take so long, but it’s starting to get busy, plus we’re shorthanded. You like a job, you could do really well,” she added hopefully to Nina. “Your looks, you could go home with a couple hundred bucks a night or better.”

“I’ll let you know,” Nina said. She took out another fifty and handed it to Laura. “Keep what’s left of the first one and start us another tab, okay?”

“Sure,” Laura smiled. She started to say something but the bartender yelled at her to get her ass in gear. “Gotta go,” she sighed and left them.

Nina took another belt of bourbon, a sip of beer, and then said, “Yes, she was a friend of mine, or rather, an acquaintance, since I’d only just met here when she disappeared.”

“You were there,” Jason said, stifling a burp.

“I was there,” Nina admitted. “I saw her bitten by a vampire.”

Jason looked doubtful, his eyebrows raised over his mug.
Feeling slightly inebriated by the bourbon, Nina plunged ahead. “I have a bunch of documented cases of real vampires here”— she tapped the attaché case—“but the hell with all that; let me tell you, Jason Rider, of my own recent experiences of hunting a vampire.”

Jason tilted his head, fascinated. “You’re serious about this stuff aren’t you?” At her nod, he said, “I have to tell you, if it was anyone besides Nina Castle, I might say, ‘yeah, sure, humor the nut,’ but I can hardly wait to hear your story.”

“Like I said, I met someone in that bar in Hong Kong, and I hired him to be one of our bodyguards. His name was Talon.”

She proceeded to tell Jason the tale as she remembered it, and it was like relating a dream that she had just awakened from, one that had lost little of its lucidity. When she got to the part about the timeslip, she saw the excitement in his eyes, excitement that he couldn’t contain.

“YES!” he nearly shrieked, raising his mug and stabbing it at the ceiling. “I knew there was a way! I knew it! Can you find this place?”

Nina stared at him until he slowly lowered his glass and looked sheepish. “Sorry, boss, I got carried away; you know how I am about time travel. Finish your story.”

“Well, that’s about it,” she admitted. “We went through the portal, or whatever it is, and found Namer. Talon pulled him out of the cave he was sleeping in and I stabbed him.

“I think, because I have no more alternate memories after that. It’s like that was the moment that changed everything, like we stopped him from doing something that he was supposed to do.

“So, Mr. Time Travel Expert, you tell me what happened? Did we change the past? If so, how do we fix it, or can we?”

“Well,” Jason said, finishing his beer and setting down the mug. “There aren’t exactly any rules set down in stone, you know. We don’t even know that time travel is possible, although we do know that it isn’t impossible; Stephen Hawkins and Kip Thorne and their colleagues proved that. And I myself, of course, believe it to be possible. But what intrigues me is that this kid goes through a timeslip, into the past, most likely, because there was only wilderness there, right?” At Nina’s nod, he continued, “and when he came back, three days had passed, when he’d only been gone for a couple or three hours. Right?”

“As closely as I can remember, that’s what he said,” Nina agreed. “But you have to realize, this is like remembering a dream, so memory could be faulty.”
Jason waved away the suggestion impatiently. “But the arrow was only gone an instant, and came back months later?”

“Yes, and that doesn’t make sense to me.”

“So it seems like in both instances, boy and arrow actually go into the future; however, if they went into the past, that means that time moves slower in the past, and when they came back they didn’t come back to the same when, if you will. Therefore the arrow makes perfect sense.”

Nina finished her beer and looked around for Laura. “Okay, Einstein, enlighten me. How does it make sense?”

“Well, let’s assume that our theory is correct, and the past moves slower that the present or future. And the farther back one goes, the longer he would be gone, like the arrow; follow?”
“Not really.”

“More of the same?” Laura asked, taking up the empties.”
“No,” Nina said, rolling her eyes and sighing. “I’ve had enough bourbon. How about just a beer?”

“Same for you, sir?”

“Yeah, sure, cold draft it is,” Jason agreed, stifling a belch.

“Now,” Jason lectured when Laura had gone to get their drinks. “Suppose the timeslip is stable; you took a step into it and went back, say, a hundred years, but the arrow, traveling much faster, goes much deeper, say two thousand years, and then reverses its flight and comes back through; that’s why so much more time had eclipsed.”

Realization dawned in Nina’s eyes. “Jason you’re a genius! All I have to do is go in a bit faster and I’ll go back farther than we went, and can be waiting for us when we come through! Of course!”

“Now wait a minute, Babe,” he cautioned. “This is all purely conjecture. I don’t want you to go traipsing off into the past without me.”

“One thing I didn’t tell you,” Nina said. “The vampire in INVERTER? That was Namer, not the one I had the geeks design. And remember what he said: ‘Come to me, Little Nina; I wait for you. Time has sealed the rift.’

“That was the vampire you’ve been chasing?” Jason looked startled. “What did he mean, time has sealed the rift? What was he doing here, if he ceased to exist? Now I’m confused.”

“Let’s drink another beer,” Nina smiled, patting his hand. “And try not to worry about it. Tomorrow is another day.”

“Tomorrow we go time traveling.” Jason asserted happily.

“No, I go time traveling,” Nina said slowly. “If anyone goes back at all.”

****

I came too far, Nina thought, staring at a youthful Talon, the face so achingly familiar, and yet strange to her. How much do I tell him? Is it really Talon?

“You are Talon,” she said as his eyes appraised her with a cold, calculating perusal. His hand kept feeling for something close to his heart, something that wasn’t there.

A crucifix.

Nina stepped back and did a swinging back kick, hoping she wasn’t wrong. But the youth in front of her moved like lightning, caught her ankle, turned her, pivoted, and in the same fluid movement kicked her other leg out from under her. She landed on the gravel drive and leaped to her feet, assured now.

Talon was staring at her in amazement.

“Yes, you are Talon. Would you like to know where you learned to do that?”

He could still only stare at her, and in his eyes she saw his desire to be far from her.

Nina held out her hand and he took it hesitantly, but his grip was strong and sure.

“My name is Nina,” she said.

There was no response to the name, and she thought, Of course not; he won’t meet me for many years, if he ever does.

At that moment someone came out the door of the house behind Talon, crossed the porch and stopped by the steps; a woman, barely more than a girl. She was beautiful, tall and lithe with shiny red hair, and obviously pregnant.

“Honey, is everything all right?” she asked as Talon turned toward her. “I have a bad feeling.”

“No, baby girl, everything is fine,” he assured her. “I’ll be right in.”

He turned to Nina, slightly flustered, and she didn’t need to be a mind reader to know what was on his mind.

“Goodbye, Talon,” she said, forcing a smile. “Maybe some other time.”

Nina turned away, head bowed, and began the long walk back to the portal.

He’s happy, and they’re going to have a child. I cannot ruin his life, nor change his past. I must return to my own time and forget I ever knew a man called Talon.




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