Have you ever wondered what your last earthly breath would be like? Will you take it surrounded by loved ones, in the heat of battle, or somewhere cold and lonely? Does your life flash before your eyes? Do you really see a bright white light? I was driving down the Newell Highway in a rental packed with everything my ex-boyfriend hadn’t thrown in the rubbish, and for a few moments I thought I’d found the answer to these questions. There was a rumble, it vibrated straight through my body like a freight train passing by so close you can almost touch it. I thought I’d hit another vehicle and, with my last conscious breath, I prayed there weren’t any kids involved. No lights, no memory highlight reel, just endless black.
It didn’t end there.
I came to in a white room that smelled like bleach. There was a cool cloth on my forehead and my shoes were missing. Absently I wondered why Heaven needed a sick bay, and what kind of weirdo would steal a dead persons shoes. My vision blurred, and my stomach heaved as I tried to sit up.
“Easy now, you’ll make yourself sick.”
The voice made me jump a foot in the air. A woman came into my line of sight, her violet-blue eyes startlingly like my own, though older and much more experienced. She smiled tightly down at me, pressing a hidden button on a cuff that was clamped around my wrist. I tried to ask where I was but my voice wouldn’t obey me, and all that came out was a strangled squeak, which was all kinds of pathetic. The woman glanced up with a sigh.
“You seem no worse for the wear.” She mused, tapping on a small handheld screen.
I opened my mouth to ask what she meant but she hushed me.
“Give it a minute, your body is still adjusting. The first Shift is always the worst.” She pressed a glass into my hands, and bade me to drink.
“My name is Beth. I know what you’re thinking, and I’m sorry but you’re not dead.” She put down the tablet.
She was silent as I snorted derisively.
“Just listen for a minute. Can you do that? It’s rather important.” Beth ran a hand through her already messy hair, gray strands spilling out of the loose bun it was wound in.
I didn’t have much of a choice, confined to bed, so I nodded and listened.
“You need to understand something very important. I don’t have a lot of time left, not now that you are here, and you aren’t anywhere near ready for what’s to come.”
A few hours later I still didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me, not really. My head was reeling from her announcement that I would likely never see my friends and family again and everything after that was a blur. Our family had a history of the women born into it disappearing. Beth was one, and now I was another. As she explained the history behind our family, anger bubbled inside me. First I’d been kidnapped, now she was feeding me bizarre fantasies about Greek Gods and curses and interdimensional travel.
“And so now, one of us is always doomed to walk between worlds, between times. Never settling down, never having a family, never having friendship or comfort beyond what scarce interference the Gods see fit to award. We’re given the name Chronians, as the only line Chronus has ever cursed so harshly has been ours. Because of the strength of the curse, over the years, some of the curses power has leaked into our family’s genes, mutating it.
Now, I guess the simplest term for what Chronians are, is witches.” She sighed in resigned annoyance as she finished telling me the history of the Chronians.
I was skeptical. Very skeptical, but it was hard considering everything that had happened in the last few hours. I could barely sit up without making myself dizzy, let alone comprehend an elaborate story that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When I could get out of bed Beth helped me back into my shoes (which were hidden down beside the bed) and took me for a walk.
“You are on board the airship Pleiades. It was once a pleasure cruiser that Anna, the Chronian before me, liberated from a rather nasty corporation when the Estate was destroyed.” Beth kept a hand on my elbow, both preventing me from falling over and bolting madly for an exit.
The Estate, as Beth described it, had been a gorgeous Grecian villa; verdant and calming, the perfect escape from the problems that exist for us. Beth said that it was Hyperion who had created it, he took pity on the original Chronian for her predicament as Chronus’ disagreeable temperament was well-known among the Gods. It was a sanctuary of sorts between worlds. I would have loved to see it. The Pleiades, however, was just as magnificent in her own right. At four hundred and fifty feet, including her tail fin, she cut an impressive figure. A swathe of repulsor panels lined her underbelly, which provided vertical lift, and her flat top provided a surface for light aircraft to land. A pair of massive engines were mounted at the rear for thrust. Her body curved down like the belly of an old ocean-going ship, with a pointed prow like that of a Victorian clipper, which opened into a large cargo bay by splitting into three separate hinged sections. Half her sides were glass, allowing natural light to flood the interior of the ship, the rear enrertainment decks fully enclosed in glass also, and her exterior was painted a bright white and decorated in ornate bronze flourishes and curlicues. We stopped for a while on the bridge, where she showed me the basic controls; speed, elevation, how to hover and land both vertically and horizontally like a normal plane, ignoring the fierce scowl I kept throwing at her. By far the coolest part was the denfense system, and my excitement over it made me forget about my anger for a few moments. The Pleiades could become practically invisible, and if there was the slightest chance of a collision could maneuver itself out of harms way. Beth didn’t know if it was technological or magical, but it had apparently been damned useful more than a few times.
“The only instrument that doesn’t work is the navigation. The nav-system’s programmed for a world you will never see and so Anna disabled it. If you need to travel your options are to find a suitable navigation system on-world or sync and add the co-ordinates manually. If you’ve never used a map before you’ll need to bone up quickly.”
After that there was a small armory full of things I could never have begun to imagine, then a galley, and a room that seemed like a lounge and library combined. We stopped longest in that room, as Beth explained what was kept there.
“This room is our Archives. The journals of all twenty-five Chronians, myself included, are here, as well as all the literature we have gathered over the years. The epicenter of our collection, however, is a grimoire. The De Vrai Grimoire (which roughly translates to Book of Truth, named by a fanciful French Chronian called Genevieve) is essentially a manual. It has all the things you will need; our family tree, a comprehensive collection of spells and rituals, and, perhaps most i8mportantly, a guide-book to the worlds and timelines you will travel through.” She let me browse the massive book, which sat on a stone plinth in the middle of the room, the stone seemed to hum and vibrate under my fingertips.
The first page was gilt, depicting a towering Yew tree that danced in an unseen breeze, actually moving on the page. The trunk marked with the Roman numeral for one, which looked like it had been burned into the wood of the tree. Each branch contained a name, blossoming from the branch in delicate script, followed by two dates; date of induction and date of death. My name swung gently from the top most branch, Beth’s name swaying just one limb below it.
Page two was a list of rules, the dos and donts of traveling through time and space. Most of it was common sense stuff like; Don’t get involved in local politics, limbs don’t regenerate quickly or easily, never lose the Charm, always refer to the Grimoire if unsure, don’t try to bring other humans back to the Estate/Pleiades and don’t fall in love. The latter because of the one before it, and there was supposed to be very little warning before a Chronian shifted through dimensions, or so I imagined.
“Two of the shelves by the desk contain the journals of almost all the Chronians before you, even mine. You don’t need to read them, but I found it helped connect me to what I was experiencing. The rest run the gamut, it’s essentially a well-rounded personal library.” Beth ran her fingers over the spines on a shelf close by tenderly.
I nodded absently and turned back to the grimoire. Next was a blank section thirteen pages long with a single heading ‘Guide Book’. A finger placed on the heading followed by the question, ‘Where am I?’ filled the blank pages with useful information about the universe I inhabited at the time. Accompanying each entry was a count of which Chronians had visited which time lines. It was rare for two Chronians to find themselves in the same stream.
The rest of the book contained spells and recipes, information and rituals, things that were both perplexing and alarming.
Beth gathered the book up and took me down a few doors to another room.
“This is, for lack of a better phrase, the lab.” She said, putting the book on a large table in the middle of the room.
The book creaked open on its own, pages flipping to settle on an entry near the back of the book.
“Before anything else happens, I need to transfer you the Charm. It’s your lifeline to this ship no matter where you are on this plane.” She searched around the massive shelves lining the room on all four walls, tossing jars and bottles over her shoulder which floated gracefully to the table beside the book.
I watched in stunned silence as she returned with an iron bowl and a silver knife with a prettily carved pearl handle. Into the bowl went things I recognized, like Bay and Frangipani, and things I had never heard of such as Elder and Orris. Beth took the knife and sliced a fairly deep cut over a small lump in her palm, a glint of deep black showing under the welling blood. She grabbed my hand and before I had even processed what was happening she had made a matching incision on my own palm.
“Hey!” I cried, cradling my hand against my chest once she let go.
“Sorry, but this is important. The Charm is a key to the Pleiades, a way to return to the ship from anywhere when you’re in danger. I’d have done it before but your hand will take some time to heal, and it’s hard to learn how to steer this boat with a bloodied fist. Trust me.” She mixed the herbs to a paste with our blood and smeared half on her palm. “This will call the Charm to you and embed it in your palm. That way you only need clench your fist and say the keyword to return, and ensure no one can take it from you.”
She held out her hand expectantly, and I gave her mine after a moment’s hesitation. I had little choice but to trust her. She slathered my cut in the paste. It stung like a bitch, and if I thought that pain was irritable then it was no more than a tickle compared to the agony that ripped through my arm when she slapped our palms together. She whispered in a language I didn’t understand, the air filling with the smell of sizzling flesh as the Charm burrowed its way from her hand to mine like a parasite. I choked back a scream and fought to stay conscious.