Once again I was lying on the ground on the hilltop of the City of Ghosts. This time there was early morning dew on the grass, but that wasn’t what was causing the chill I felt. To take my mind off of my apprehension, I stared quizzically at my thirtyish-looking friend and had to ask, “So, you’re 2,000 years old?”
“Why, what’s wrong?” Dot pulled out a makeup mirror and made a show of scanning anxiously. Feigning relief, she put it down again. “As always, perfection.”
“Yes, about that always?”
Dot harrumphed. “Well, you’re at least that old too. I just don’t have to go through all the… messy bits.”
I laughed, relieved that we seemed to be okay, and also because I was a bit drunk. It had taken three more beers and a lot of talk before I was ready to consider a return trip. Thank God it was still early and the chairlift was closed. Even then, I walked up the path like a prisoner being escorted to the gas chamber.
Dot, in contrast, was filled with confidence. “Just keep it simple. Tell them what we discussed, and then get back here for the final stretch.”
I nodded. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
“But are you ready, sweetie?”
“Nope, but let’s go ahead anyway.” I drank the proffered water and swallowed nervously.
“Any last words?”
“Yes. If these are my last words, I am going to haunt you sooooo…” and the buzzing and the humming began to become a swelling in my head until they swept over me and…
…. I was once again in the receptionist’s office. The same demon glowered at me and I managed “Jennifer Hampton.”
“I knowwww,” the demon spat out. “I have an infinite mmmemmmorrry. Why do you think I am the receptionisssst?
“Because of your charming manner?”
“YOU’RRRRE LATE. You should not keep the Goddesssss waiting. Go rrrright in.”
As I walked through the doors I was anticipating the Friari again, but instead I walked into a scene literally from my nightmares. The same grotesque judges loomed in front and I was once again in the Hall of the Emperor.
When I came to myself again, I could see Dotty checking her watch. She was tapping her nails together nervously so I managed to give a cough and she turned to see my eyes open and my chest heaving.
She administered more of the antidote and then waited as long as she could for me to recover.
“Can I just lie down for a few… years?” I pleaded.
Dot shook her head. “Sorry, but the boat leaves in five hours. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the nice Chinese government expects you to go with it. They don’t seem to like it when people are not where they’re supposed to be. And people who aren’t where they’re supposed, well, they put them in places for a long time just to make sure they know where they are. And that’s if they’re lucky.”
I rolled over in the grass onto my back. “Last thing I remember, I was in the Hall of the Emperor.” I couldn’t control the shudder that ran along my body for a moment. “After that, it’s all still really hazy. I’m trying to remember what happened. When I’m up there… I have all these lives to help out and then when I get back, it’s like a door closed inside my head”
Dot started squirting water at me, showing no quarter as I tried to cover myself from the assault. “You’ve been up there for what should have been HOURS! I nearly lost you twice and I’ve so damned worried that I’ve been going nuts! In the time you had, Gabrielle would have talked her way right out of hell and heaven with a free meal thrown in! TALK!”
“Never mind that now, tell me what happened? What did they decide?”
“Give me a tissue.”
Grudgingly, she pulled a packet from her purse. “Only if you talk!”
“That’s all I did up there. I think I argued for hours.” I dabbed at my face with the Kleenex.
“Good. No guesses as to who you were channelling.”
Dot shook my head. “Never mind! Did they go for it?”
“I don’t think so.”
Dot was outraged. “They had to! There must be some sort of deal. They can’t allow the paradoxes.”
I waved with my hands. “I think, I remember them claiming what we want would create thousands more.”
“Those don’t matter because it would be putting things right.”
“Well you argue next time. What I remember now was worse than traffic court. Bad enough to have four VERY unfriendly judges, but if they don’t believe you in traffic court they don’t-
“-saw your ass in half?”
“But you did get some sort of deal, right? You are here, with only one ass, after all.”
“Remember complicated? Well, add on the fact I can’t remember half of it, and you spraying water isn’t helping.”
Sulking slightly, Dot indicated that I should continue. I took a deep breath and tried to sort out the hazy memories. “Okay. The crux of the problem is that, well, you were right. Whatshername…”
“Xena is my succubus and crazy as a bedbug. It’s been thousands of years and at no time did anyone come to help her. SO, there’s no previous time I or another version of me, could go back to save her. So they decided we have to deal with her soul the way it is, as it is now. BUT, and this is only after a lot of arguing…” My mind blanked again. I could feel Dot building up her frustration levels again but tried to ignore her and remember the last part. “Okay, I think it was agreed… that if I can get her through the tests, and she passes, they will resolve the paradox by freeing her soul to be reincarnated from when it first arrived and she wouldn’t have experienced any of the last 2,000 years.” I had no idea what I’d said and even less what it meant. Other than more trouble for me.
Dotty clapped her hands together. “If she gets back the last two thousand years of incarnations, then so will you!”
I goggled at my friend. “You understood that?”
Dotty grasped my hand. “It’s great news, better than you know. You did good, honey. I knew you could do it.”
“What planet are you from? Don’t answer. Please don’t answer.” I stood up and stared off towards one of the pagodas on the next hillside for a moment, and was grateful that Dot waited. Eventually I spoke. “Look. Forget all the stuff about timelines. I don’t understand it and I’m not even sure I ever did. What’s really bothering me is…” I started again. “I get that I have to bring Xena in for judgement, but how? I’m supposed to get a figure from my nightmares here? Assuming I manage it, and do it without screaming or vomiting, or… then how do I get,” and I shuddered, “a shapeless blob… mindless flesh, to pass those tests? I can’t even bear to think of it, her, touching me. It’s been bad enough when it was forced on me.”
Dot came up from behind me and gently put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s the point. You’ll be in control for once. It won’t be forced on you.” I shrugged off the hand and moved away.
Dot sighed and added. “And I was thinking, when you’re on the spirit plane, maybe you’ll have access to your previous lives. If you can find any of your previous memories of her, maybe you can use them to sort of shape that blob into something close to what she was.”
“Dot, That Thing.”
“I hate it. I’m scared of it.”
“Hey, if I had a succubus drooling all over me since I was a kid, I don’t know how I’d handle this, you know?”
“But, how can I…?
“Look. You’ll like the person. REALLY, like the person.” I coloured at Dotty’s heartbreaking grin. “And if it all gets straightened out, right back to where it went wrong, you’ll be fine. A lot better than fine.”
“So I just lie back and think of England, right?”
“Sorry, kiddo. I wish there was another way, but you have to earn the good stuff.” she handed the water bottle over to me, “only half now, and I’ll give you the rest once you have her.”
I grimaced, stared at the bottle resentfully and then drank from it.
“Honey, Just try to remember the person, try to think of any memory that stayed with you. No one else can do this. Hold onto her. This isn’t just about strength or even brains. This is big time God stuff and mortals can’t change that without faith. And Love.”
“Don’t forget stupidity. Why else would I be drinking the Kool-aid right now?”
Dotty showed me an even sadder smile than before. “Because some part of you still does have faith. And definitely there’s love.”
The drugs were already working as I lay back. Tried to focus on the memory of that first woman, the one on the pirate ship, of the pain when the urn fell from her hand. Part of me did not want to do this, and I struggled with it, closing my mind to anything but the memory of the woman who fought back.
Then I felt the tingling beginning from my feet. But even in death, I also felt the fear. I struggled not to fight the sensation as it crept slowly, terribly slowly, along my body. I could hear myself panting slightly, hyperventilating really, as it reached my chest and then continued upwards. As it reached my forehead I fought the sleep, fought it until I was aware of a shape drifting down from the trees.
Now was the hard part. I reached upwards and felt a hand dangling in the sky, and gulping, pulled it down towards myself. Pulled it closer… I felt the sensation of something lying down beside me, felt a body length all along my own body and I almost panicked and released the hand. But I took another breath and then scooped my hand underneath the invisible form and tightened my grip on the hand. There was a moment of struggle, but then the entity turned and almost enveloped me in its malleable flesh. I felt Dotty pouring the last of the water down my throat and I gave a shudder. Even as I felt my own death once again, I held on and fell into darkness.
I came to in a greater gloom, still holding onto the creature. I could see nothing and hear only my own breathing.
“If I’m dead,” I thought, “How can I still be breathing?”
“BECAUSE,” a familiar and frightening voice above me stated, “WHETHER YOU ARE DEAD OR ALIVE, OR ANYTHING ELSE, IS NOW OURS TO DECIDE.”
My heart dropped at the tone, only to be slightly relieved when I could somehow see that the Goddess was also with the Four Judges. I was lying in front of the Bridge of No Way Out still being swathed by the creature of my too many lost nights. At a nod from the Goddess, I pried the creature from me, and even as it resisted, pulled it up along my upper body and managed to stand. The thing was not light and as I worked its pliable mass, it made a crying sound that set my teeth on edge. My flesh crawled as well, but I was eventually able to hoist it into my arms and then face the bridge.
The judges shook their heads, two with some amusement. “YOU CANNOT CARRY HER OVER THE BRIDGE. SHE MUST STEP THREE TIMES, JUST AS YOU MUST.”
The mewling mass of flesh in my arms began to struggle and I could feel myself ready to give up. The painted smiles on two of the judges became even broader and I shoved the helplessness down as far as I could. No, there had to be a way.
I thought of Dotty’s suggestion and tried again to focus on the memory of the woman this entity had once been, hoping to get it to be more help than the hindrance it was. There was a dark shape forming about the body, but the body itself remained shapeless and inhuman. Something told me that only the soul within could change its actual form, and with nothing left of the person, this was all the soul could be. I concentrated again, seeing the clothing, the leather, the bracers and they began to coalesce about the arms and torso. I reached out, experimentally and found I could touch them, and they seemed real.
I closed my eyes and concentrated only on the outfit. The thing struggled even more as it found itself clothed, though it hung on her, loose in every position. I clutched the body with one arm and found I could squeeze my hands and wrists through the bracers and gauntlets. As I’d hoped, the thing was so pliable there was enough room for me to fit.
The thing squirmed uncomfortably as I squeezed into the boots with all the enthusiasm of someone trying out a pair of live squid shoes. That gave my some control over the movement of the thing, but not enough.
Another memory struck me and I imagined a whip attached to where the hips should have been. When the whip obligingly appeared, I took it and wound it tightly around my waist. I still felt like cringing where the form touched mine, but I tried to focus on the job at hand. Crossing the bridge in three steps.
As soon as the right boot touched the bridge, the pond below came alive and became its namesake, a river of blood. A sickly sweet smell arose from it and the red liquid seemed to swirl hypnotically, drawing me towards it. The body I was squeezed against also seemed to be pulled into it and it took all of my strength to take the first step. Then another. The draw into the water seemed like a kind of gravity increased by a dozen times but it was finally broken when I felt our boot touch the other side. There we both collapsed. None of the judges seemed satisfied, but we had crossed and I didn’t give a damn at that moment about anything else.
I lay down and rested for what seemed like seconds, panting, before the Goddess appeared before me. “You do not have that much time.”
Mindful of my body somewhere on another plane, I nodded. “I know.”
With Her help, I managed to stand and tighten the whip around our waists once again. The stairway seemed mountains high and the steps far greater than they had been before. I heard my own panting and wondered if perhaps only the succubus had to make it on one breath. The Goddess shook her head, knowing my thoughts. “Both of you must make it to the top on a single breath.”
I nodded and began the ascent. The weight of my own body, much less the thing’s, seemed to drag on me. Thigh muscles seemed to groan, as well as my lungs. But I pressed on. I slipped once and had to return to the step to ensure we touched each of the 33. At some point, I lost count and it seemed as though we were still less than halfway though I knew that couldn’t be. I was trying to hold my breath, my lungs aching and I knew I was not going to make it. I almost sobbed as I realised that I was never going to be that woman, the one that was unafraid to kick ass, to change the world, when I felt a memory, or was it a thought, one that said to me, ‘You can do this, Gabrielle, you can. One step at a time.’
Was it a memory, or was I hearing some small part of the woman who had been my partner so many lives ago? The formless blob in my arms was still just so much dead weight but I held onto those words and pushed myself, pressed myself, one more step and then another and one more and one more and then the last step. The hardest of them all, and I was done. Drawing in wind so quickly it hurt my throat.
The Goddess was there, and she was speaking to one of the judges, the one with the largest scroll. “You have a protest?”
“YES, THIS IS NOT AN ACTION BY THE ONE TO BE JUDGED. THIS IS NOT RIGHT. IT IS A MOCKERY!”
The Goddess looked to me before responding. “There is still one trial to be undergone. You will have your say once it is completed as to whether they have failed.”
I gathered my last morsels of strength as we walked along the avenue of the carved figures. Except now they were no longer stone. They hooted and called out to us, mocking our stumbling gait towards the last trial. When we got there, I looked to the stone I had to balance on. It was higher than I remembered and the top was no longer worn but pointed. The succubus chose this moment to thrash about, as if reading my thoughts of the impossibility of this final test. There was no possible way I could balance while clasping the unthinking thing. Even the slightest tremor and I would fall and we would both have lost. There had to be a way. Something, somehow…
“I can’t do this alone. I need, I need,” and I thought back to when I had heard that whisper on the stairway. The thought that came from somewhere and yet was so much from my own heart. Could there be something still inside this shapeless flesh?
The Goddess again heard my thoughts and shook Her head sadly. “2,000 years, little one. No one and nothing could survive that.”
I shook my head. “She still came to me. As terrible and awful as those visits were, she still came to me. There has to be… I have to believe, or else…” I gestured at the stone. The Goddess nodded and we once more tightened the whip about the waist.
I concentrated, my eyes shut, speaking as carefully as I could. ‘Xena, find me. Listen and be still. Don’t move, please stay still.’ The creature groaned and tried to shake itself lose from me but I held on tight. I approached the stone and placed my right foot on it. I closed my eyes again and deliberated on the memory. And for a moment I saw a face, eyes of clear blue and a mouth that quirked slightly in a sad smile, and I lifted my left leg from the ground. I continued to concentrate on that smile, those eyes, and then opened my own eyes to stare at the characters on the wall.
Hold on, love. Stay with me.
The count began. “ONE.”
Hold me, Xena, hold on tight
It’ll be alright, for both of us. Just hold onto me and I will hold onto you and
We toppled over and I closed my eyes, feeling as though I was now comforting the very thing that had made my life one of fear. Above me, I could hear the Judges arguing. “THIS IS A SHAM!” The other added angrily, “A PUPPET SHOW.”
“No,” said the Goddess firmly. “You all saw what happened. The spirit within has survived. Somehow, impossibly, it has survived and made this possible. We all saw, and we all know they have earned this. Look at your records, look at their histories and say that these two have not earned this. This is the way it was supposed to be and how it must be.”
I held my breath and felt something changing. The figure in my grasp was shifting. It was becoming firmer and there was colouring, veins; muscles were forming and I began to be squeezed out of the boots and bracers but the roaring in my ears began again and it grew so loud I pulled my hands to block it out and…
I was sitting at a control panel with what seemed like hundreds of complex dials and indicators, LCD’s reading out numbers I couldn’t begin to understand. The roaring had not diminished, but now it was an engine sound, coming from all around me.
I turned to my left, and seated at the other console, was her. The woman from my memories. Beautiful beyond those memories and brimming with life, staring at me with the same concern, with the same half smirk on her lips.
We were both wearing pilot’s uniforms, but I was completely unfamiliar with anything else about where I was.
“Problem, love?” my partner asked cheerfully.
I frantically searched for any memories of this new timeline and there were none. I could only wish that they’d come and my only hope was to stall for time. But first I had to get away from the one person who might know something was not quite right. “Ah, need a bit of air.” I gestured to the rear of the cockpit. “That okay?”
“Hey, if you’re tired, I’ll do the flight check if you want. I’ll even do the take off.” There was that smirk again.
Looking about the completely foreign control panels, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that would be a good idea.’ Outwardly, I shrugged and forced my face to look as nonchalant as I could. “Maybe.”
Immediately the expression across the way changed to one of real concern. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“No, I just thought, maybe you’d like to, this time,” I said lamely.
“But you NEVER… are you sure?” my supposed partner said incredulously. Then her expression shifted again. “Unless you think this means you can drive the truck as a trade. ‘Cause that’s not gonna happen.”
“No, look, I just need a bit of air…” I rummaged around my memory for a name, anything, but still came up with nothing.
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
I tried, “Trust me, I’m just, I just need a little air.”
“Okay. Sure, you wanna do the stewardess thing, go ahead. You know where I’ll be.”
She leaned over to grasp my hand and I almost pulled away, but instead let the warmth of the gesture touch me.
I pushed through the cabin doors and stopped behind the curtains, wondering what I would find behind them. I peered through the gap, racking my brains for what I was doing here. I’m a pilot, but my partner is a woman? What airline hired two women pilots? And this isn’t a small plane. Hell, I don’t even know the names of the types or sizes. Or was it makes? How could I be a pilot?
Through the curtain I could see it seated over a hundred passengers and all the seats seemed to be occupied. Occupied by women mainly and children, all of whom seemed to be Oriental. As I scanned the faces, I had my first flash of a memory; of painstakingly cutting their photos and placing them in documents I had created. Forged. Oh God, I’m a slave smuggler. This is NOT an improvement, I railed at the Powers That Be. This new Jennifer is NOT getting away with this stuff.
I strode into the aisle wondering how I could turn this nightmare around when all conversation stopped and their eyes turned to me. New Jennifer or not, I wasn’t used to this attention and it stopped me cold. One woman ventured to say, “Is there anything wrong?” Seeing the trepidation, I said the first things that came into my head which, incredibly, was, “No, we’ve received clearance from the tower, we’re just doing our check and we’ll be in the air in a few minutes. Everything is fine.”
Where those words came from I couldn’t have told, but as several of the women translated what I had said, a relieved babble broke out. Several of the women stared at me with something in their eyes that I had never seen before. Gratitude, respect and even a little adoration. I was trying to understand what I might have done to deserve this when a small figure ran down the aisle and grabbed me about the hips. “MOMMY! Look!” the little girl yelled into my side, pushing her drawings into my hand. I looked down at the dark head and felt my heartbeat at a rate I’d never felt before and my hand brushed through the hair in wonder. It seemed to be a trigger because I was overwhelmed by memories. A whole panorama played through my mind. Of this child. My daughter. Cassandra. Well, adopted, but definitely mine. And my partner’s. Alex. That was her name. Alex. And as the pieces flew together I was filled with more than memories, I became swollen with the purest joy. I quickly hoisted that dear figure into my arms to hide my face as I began to laugh and cry simultaneously. I had turned away from the passengers and was unaware of the person who approached from behind.
“So what do you think of this side of the looking glass, Alice?”
When I turned my head, a familiar face was in front of me and I let her join in a very wet hug. More pieces fit into place in my mind and I whispered into her ear, “Dite?”
She replied in the same manner. “Yeah, well, lately I prefer Aunty Dotty.”
I let her go and grinned as she took a tissue and wiped my still falling tears. “Aunty Dotty. Pretty close.”
She shrugged. “I prefer to think it’s just right. You didn’t answer the question, Jen.”
“I thought, for a minute I thought that these women, that we were slavers.”
Dot hooted. “You’re kidding! Nope, just you trying to help out. Again.”
That’s right. All these people were dissidents, widows of dissidents, a few reporters, lots of kids who weren’t legal in the wonderful New China. Many of whom were going to die until we fabricated a tour of the former Soviet Union. Supposedly going to Bratislava. Of course, none were the people their visas stated and none would remain in Slovakia for long.
So many memories were still flooding my mind, but all of them, I owed this person. “Thank you.” I said. “You kept your promise.”
“Only seems fair, because you kept yours,” she said slyly.
“My promise?” I asked
“The promise of who you were supposed to be.”
Cass was tugging at me so I put her down and gave her a stare and glanced meaningfully at her empty seat. She frowned and grumpily headed back. Dot and I followed. I had to know something. “So… do you just leave now? Find someone else to help??”
Dot snorted. “After two thousand years? What d’you think I am? The Incredible Hulk? The Littlest Hobo? I’m Aunty Dotty, your wacky relative who drops in to help and occasionally kid sit.”
“But all you’ve done, how can I…” there was a spell of dizziness, a sense again of that door closing. And I knew what it meant. “I’m not going to remember anything that happened, am I? My other lives, my old life?”
She shook her head, but the smile never left her face. “Your soul will. And that’s enough.”
“Is it? After all you’ve done, meant to me for all those years, Dotty…?”
We were taking Cass back to her seat and I seemed to have lost my train of thought. “What were we just talking about?”
Dot had the strangest expression on her face. A smile of such mixed happiness and sadness that I tried to think who might have died. “The usual. How much you love that nutcase in the cockpit and how you had to get back.”
I chuckled because she was probably right, but her expression still worried me. “Did I miss something? Is anything wrong?”
“Nah. Everything’s just the way it should be.” And she gave me the strangest little kiss on my cheek before sitting down and belting herself in. “Though,” she added in her more usual tone of voice, “next time you guys take a vacation, maybe you should actually take a vacation? Not end up transporting an extra hundred and fifty people home with you?”
I gave her another glance, but I knew when Dot didn’t want to talk, she wouldn’t talk. So I turned to my little monster instead. “Cass, you stay buckled up until when?”
“Until you or Mum or Aunt Dotty says it’s okay to open my laptop.”
I kissed my sweet baby and said, “I love you.”
My daughter kissed me back and said, “I love you too.”
Dot tapped me on the shoulder. “I think you had a plane to fly.”
That’s right. And what was I thinking? Alex was about to do my checklist? Alex was about to do the takeoff? She knew better than that! Sure, takeoffs were easy, anyone could do them. Basically all you need is enough space, the right speed, lift the nose and Alex was certainly competent enough to handle it. But no one took my chance to lift off into the sky. Not even the person I loved with more passion than I could sometimes hold in my body.
As I turned to leave, my daughter turned to all the people in the plane and loudly announced, “My mommy has to go because she’s the pilot.”
The woman on the other side of her aisle said quietly, but firmly, “Your Mommy is also a hero.”
Fighting back a very unheroic blush, I left them behind and pushed through the curtains. I unlocked the cabin doors and stared at the love of my life. The perfect yin to my yang. For some reason I thought of the lives we led, the power, the passion and the future. The grin was threatening to break my jaw, so very firmly, I put my hand on the chair and told her, “What the hell do you think you’re doing in MY seat?”