Chapter 1: The Man of My Dreams
You are the man of my sister's destiny...
I was kidnapped... and was brought here... and my sister came to search for me...
And then... you two will meet...
“Please don't say any more. I don't think I want to know...”
I try and open my mouth to protest, make a weak attempt to grab his arm and stop him leaving. He interprets this as me needing more time to rest. Just as my sister did.
I thought... that I'd never see you again...
She doesn't understand my warning, she only sees that I am hurt and that she can help me, dear sister that she is, and she is ready to break my fall when I collapse from pain and hunger the next time I try to speak. By the time I open my mouth, I am in J.J. City, the underground settlement built by the prisoners. My sister has gone on ahead, to find our father, who we discovered has been imprisoned here. The man named Garian is still here. At first I am relieved that she hasn't followed him, but then he tells me that he is planning to follow her.
He thinks he can keep her from harm. He doesn't know any of the fate that awaits him, but still, he won't even listen. He doesn't understand that he holds any responsibility for his destiny, that he has been offered the chance to know it in advance so he can repair it. That he has been given a second chance that nobody else in the world will ever have again.
You two will meet, and then you will murder her. Over and over again. You will meet in different ways each time, and you will kill her in a different way, for a different reason, but it will always be your fault, because of your failure, your selfishness or ignorance. Sometimes you will mourn her, sometimes you will even fall in love with her before you kill her, but sometimes you won't even realise you killed her. There are times when you won't even learn her name. Sometimes her death will also be your damnation, other times she will die deliberately to save your life. Sometimes you might even find yourself a few steps closer to the truth before you, too, die in vain, never knowing that you have already died in that exact same way, in the same place, countless times before, and that you are already making the same first moves that took you to that place where you died.
I can see them all. Every single way in which my sister dies. The scenarios replay in my mind over and over again. That day when she came to rescue me, I heard her frightened voice and the sound of battle, his voice and the voice of the man Kurtliegen who had kidnapped me, who was going to kill me soon, I thought Garian had already gotten my sister killed again. I had seen the lifetime where Kurtliegen murders her and Garian is standing there, knowing perfectly well that it is his fault, that he could have saved her but failed. Sometimes I think he turns his back on her deliberately, and once I think he did it on purpose to see what would happen.
When I saw her standing there safe and sound, I was overjoyed at first, thinking that I had done it, I had found a way to stop her dying, but then I saw him beside her with that same light in his eyes. When she explained to me that he had helped you rescue me and he was going with her to finish off the mission I no longer care about, the same as all the other times, I realised it wasn't anything new, just a future where she dies slightly later on in the loop. Seconds later, I began seeing visions of that future, more vivid than ever, and the sheer rush of information made me collapse.
Even if I could close my eyes and shut out the visions, without them haunting my sleep in the form of nightmares instead, I won't. There is a way to break this endless cycle, this impossible time loop, and I will find it. Even though every vision of losing Kay feels as if a part of my body has been severed, I will keep on looking for that one chance for things to happen differently. Even though I can see every detail of her death when I am in the midst of a vision, the details slip away from me, and I can never remember enough to warn somebody next time. It is as if I am fighting against the tide of time. I will meditate until I can see clearly, even though it is draining the life out of me to use my powers constantly. That was what I was doing when they found me, why I was so close to death. I had already been fasting and meditating for two days solid, enduring constant visions of my own sister's death, when I was discovered hiding in the secret compartment in the ruins, otherwise I would never have been captured by a fighter as unskilled as Kurtliegen. By then, I had worked out that there was no point in escaping, as almost every future involves our futures intersecting in the ruins themselves. My captivity merely gave me more opportunities to meet her halfway.
Though I must stray dangerously close to death to have any hope of saving her, I must stay alive at all costs. I must communicate the danger to her, or at the very least, take matters into my own hands. Whatever it happens to be, I will take the action that frees her from this purgatory.
Even if it takes my own life.
Even if this entire Island must sink under the waves.
Even if it means I must speak to that man, whose face reminds me of my sister's death, who knows so little of his role and means so well that I can't even hate him properly.
Even if it means I must kill him, the man who she loves, and who loves her in return.
Chapter 2: Burning Girl
Sleep takes me again and I am told what to do next. I see her burn. She is standing on the peak of a mountain, chanting over a scroll with her eyes closed, some kind of ancient Lavian spell, the kind that haven't been used for centuries except by the Ninja inner circle. I can just about see the words on the scroll. The language is the most archaic form of Lavian, of which I speak only a small amount, but I have been learning a lot more lately, from being forced to translate the Diary of Wouda and from my own research into the curse of this Island whenever I am allowed time alone in the Library. I can just about see the words 'silver to inferno'. I don't understand the significance of these words. While I ponder them, and the reason why my sister is on such a mountain and chanting from such a scroll, she bursts into flame before my eyes. She looks almost serene as a tornado of fire engulfs her form, as though she had planned this to happen. Mercifully, the fire grows too large too fast for me to see much of what happens, and then she is gone. I see him reach inside the ashes and pick something up. Once again, I know she has died because of him.
The shock wakes me up and I am possessed with the usual desperate energy that spurs me onwards. Bruno asks if I am okay and offers me a bottle of Jalapeno Juice, but he backs away from me when he sees the look in my eyes, flames as dark crimson as those that engulfed my sister's form. Nothing else scares the six foot tall armoured white tiger-man, who runs one of the prison's organised crime gangs, except for Bilan. The prisoners on this island are the most hardened criminals, the kind who wouldn't be safely contained in any other prison, but they are mostly terrified of me, even more so than my sister. I am whispering to myself in ancient Lavian as I walk purposefully out of the hidden entrance to J.J. City, realising that I look like a madwoman. I do not discourage the fear, as it keeps the less savoury prisoners from going near us.
I sometimes wonder if they have learned to associate us with the coming of Bilan. As I kick aside the warning sign from in front of the obvious fake electric fence and step into a filthy, decaying cemetery that hasn't been maintained since the first prisoners' carcasses were thrown into it, I am reminded of the many times my sister was possessed by Bilan. The first time I ever saw my sister die, she had been absorbed by Bilan. Garian had been there just in time to fail to stop him, of course. You can set your watch by him, provided you want your watch to always be half a minute fast. Back then, I didn't blame Garian. My sister had refused his help throughout most of her ideal, maybe too long for Garian to have a chance of saving her in time. It wasn't until I saw it happen a few more times and realised the pattern – that Garian himself was the pattern – that I saw it as another of his long list of failures to save her. He followed a trail of blue roses from one end of the Island to the other, holograms she left behind for me to follow, through the ruins, the cemetery, the three towers and ending on that mountain top. Through the medium of those holograms, I watched her slowly lose her battle for existence, genetically erased a fragment at a time. It was there, at the gate of the cemetery, where the broken, distorted holograms began, the ones with the interference and the overlapping images of Bilan, as he even intercepted the last link we had between each other. By the time I actually reached the place where my sister died, there was no sign of her. The roses were gone. Even Garian was gone.
I soon realised I was following the exact same trail, but without the roses to guide my way. At least if she wasn't sending holograms, she probably wasn't in any distress yet, unless something had happened that stopped her from using her communications equipment. Bruno had told me that she was going to the Copper Castle. That was before I fell unconscious for two hours, though, and the Copper Castle wasn't that large. If she really was taking the same route as usual, I would be able to reach the Silver Castle before she arrived there. She was faster than me but I had the advantage of knowing exactly where I was going.
The Scroll. I had to find the Scroll that I had seen on the pedestal and hide it before she could reach it.
The door to the Silver Castle is already open when I walk up to it. Someone had locked the side door, barring my access to the steps, which meant I had to take the maze route through the front door, via the Carbon Floor. I don't like it on the Carbon Floor, but compared to the nightmares that haunt me, those ghosts are nothing, so I open the door without a second thought and step into the darkness. The door slams shut behind me, leaving me alone with the low, industrial hum of the Carbon Freeze Chamber and the red and blue back-lighting of the exit signs and the labels on the plinth. It feels like a macabre museum exhibition, a display of Kurtliegen's personal trophies.
You're too late, I hear. I spin around, knives drawn, my eyes instinctively fixing on the statues. They stare motionlessly back at me. The noise seems to be coming from somewhere near DeBose's statue.
He's got the scroll. He's going to bring it to her. He won't want to tell her what it does, but the bird will blurt it out at the last second. She'll snatch it off him and start the ritual...
“Who are you and what do you know about my sister?” I answer.
Oh, I know everything that happens here. Not because I have your powers. Just because I've seen it before, and I've got a better memory than the other morons. You won't be able to do what you came to do. Not this time around.
“What do you-” I begin, but then I feel her death cry echoing through my mind. The force brings me to my knees and I scream uncontrollably.
Told you that would happen. Not much time left, now. Listen, I'm not going to pretend I'm your friend or that I give a damn about your quest, but our interests are going to lead us in the same direction. This has to end. He has to die. I'm going to finish this.
“This never ends,” I spat, my head still spinning. The voice sounded like his. No, a mockery of his, as though he really was the casual murderer he sometimes appeared to me. I could even see his face in the liquid carbon, where murderers are executed.
Seriously, I know a way. I can fix it so that he goes away, you and your sister can leave together and never come back to this place, no complications. I just want the same thing: him dead, and me leaving.
“It's ending...” I gasped, feeling the white mist spread over me, like a lucid dreamer rudely awakened, “It's just going to happen... again...”
Don't let go. Don't forget this conversation. I'll be there when you come back, and the plan will already be in motion. I'll tell you exactly what you need to do...
Chapter 3: Let's Meet In Our Dreams
"Code 8446. I repeat, Code 8446!"
"Code 8446... means to terminate the mission... I wonder what happened?”
I heard her confused whisper, then watched her look around, first to scan the environment for threats again – maybe she felt something watching her, or maybe it was because everything in the swamp was constantly trying to kill you, even the safety platforms kept trying to suddenly move away when you stood on them – then to ponder the sudden change in her instructions. I already knew what she would decide. Even if this hadn't looked like a version of a dream she had already seen before, she knew her sister's mind well enough to know that she would not abort the mission now. Not without at least knowing the reason beforehand. Even then, with her sister in danger, Kay would need an exceptionally good reason.
She looked around in time to see the creature bursting out of the water almost on top of her, like a demonic crocodile. As soon as she registered it's existence, she teleported away, but the time it took for it to pounce was shorter than the fraction of a second that a hand-teleporter took to fully phase someone out. She half out of phase when she was dragged down into the water. There was no struggle. The thing that caught her didn't kill people in the same way that crocodiles did. Crocodiles killed you the ordinary kind of dead.
I woke up screaming. Mercifully, that was never a dream that lasted long. It was over too quickly. It was the one death that I was never guilty about not being able to prevent. I wasn't responsible for what happened earlier than I could have hoped to arrive in time to witness. I wasn't the one standing there on the other side of a safely locked cabin door, casually watching Bilan escape into the ocean, completely ignoring the Lavian mini-submarine directly behind Bilan.
The dream fulfiled its purpose of confirming where I am. It was verified seconds later by frenzied swearing in strong-accented Rajeen, and the slamming of a door somewhere close by. I know that it means Kurtliegen is panicking, and he only cares about one other thing apart from the Diary. Incompetent Warden that he is, he leaves the door unlocked when he panics. I apply just the right amount of force to the concealed door, its stone weakened by five hundred years of erosion and the artificial entropy of this broken timeline, and it falls away. I don't wait to see if the Warden is really gone, but keep on running in the opposite direction to the one he has almost certainly gone. He will run to the Bilanium mines, where he will find that all his ore has been stolen. There, he will catch a glimpse of the thief and he will set off in pursuit. That's where it will begun, but I was told not to meet him there. Instead, I take the elevator down to J.J. City. The place is deserted when I arrive. Bruno is already dead, most of his followers along with him, JJ's entire gang has mobilised to co-operate with their leader's emergency plan, anyone not involved has fled somewhere they believe is safer or has barricaded themselves inside some of the more secure structures. Inside JLAR's, the secret passageway has been opened already and people are hiding inside it. As instructed, I take the sewers, then emerge inside Deadman's Castle, next to the laboratory.
Doc is still there, monitoring his equipment as though nothing else in the world matters, even the immanent destruction of everything he is working on. When he spots me, he has already thrown three beakers of acid at me and tried to hit me with a large biomedical textbook. I remember him watching my sister fall into the vat, and I remember the look of avid curiosity on his face, so I don't spare him.
Garian will arrive three times, he told me. The second one, he will be waiting for, right on time. He will knock them into the vat of Bilanium, in the same way that Garian once let my sister die. The third one will arrive early, but his plan to escape revolves around him being able to meet with the third later on, so he can take their place. It is the first one, the one that comes late, that can't be relied upon to die. He will be dying, his cells decaying, in the same way as Garian, and he can't sit around and wait for people who are late. By the time the first turns up, it is always too late.
He will be able to buy time. He can delay the process for fifteen minutes, long enough for me to get into position, for the third Garian to be weakened and for Kay to escape the Island. By that time, I will have met the first Garian and killed him. I must meet the third Garian at the cemetery gate and pretend to co-operate with him, and that I have been sent by Kay. Measures have been taken to make sure I am the strongest life form that can be used in Garian's capture system, so I will be fielded in the last battle.
I am one of the rare individuals that cannot be held by a Rajeen Bounty Hunter's capture field. It is partly why I am allowed to go into active service, even though I do not have a particularly outstanding combat record and I am too valuable as a clairvoyant to be expendable. Most life forms that can't be captured will actively resist capture or immediately be rejected, but it is impossible to tell that a sentient being who voluntarily enters a capture field isn't being held by it. People such as me are often sent on missions that may put me in direct conflict with Rajeen, as a Bounty Hunter will usually attempt capture.
Using the scaffolding that leads from the prison library, I climb onto the rafters above the laboratory, where I lie in wait for Garian. He has failed to notice me in the shadows. I watch him walk up to the vat of Bilanium. He speaks to the large blue bird that follows him around, the one I have been told to avoid at all costs. I move in closer, ready to kill.
"You will die each time my sister does," I whisper, before plunging in the blades.
His body falls to the floor below. Staring down, I see that my sister is nowhere in sight. I wonder if she already fell, or if the events of this Garian's life failed to happen earlier, before that life was cut short. I wonder how Garian can exist at multiple times and places at once, going through the motions of their fates, when all the others involved in those fates are slowly fading out of existence. The dreams no longer make any sense; I simply stare into a nonsensical storm of unrelated images, a carousel whirling at nightmare speeds and flinging off every passenger before breaking down. Everything is trying to happen at once, fighting, killing and consuming each other, as if fate itself has become a raging beast.
The bird darts back, quicker than expected. It looks flustered. I dart out of sight again but the bird isn't even looking in my direction. It looks down.
Bilan is there, below me. I don't stay to try and figure out why Bilan could still be here, after I have already seen a shattered exoskeleton and Garian wiping corrosive green ichor off his blade. A needless battle with Bilan would be suicide, so I clamber out through the other exit, towards the JLO Headquarters. It has already been destroyed. I run out of Deadman's Castle, through Death Valley, towards the port.
He is waiting for me. Kay is there. My sister is standing before me, and nothing is stopping us from leaving together.
"I have a message from him," says the man who calls himself 'Carbon Garian' but doesn't seem all that different from any other Garian to me, "'Let's meet in our dreams'."
I vaguely wonder who 'he' is. My sister seems satisfied, although she doesn't speak to me as we board our submarine together. She looks exhausted. I probably look worse. I'm not sure what to say; she probably has no idea what happened to her, not being trained to deal with such matters, and the Government doesn't like it when I reveal things about the future that I'm not supposed to.
The dreams have stopped. I look at her face and I no longer witness her death or see Garian's face. Surprisingly, I don't see anything at all, no matter how hard I concentrate. Her fate is a completely blank readout to me, like a person whose future is entirely in flux, who has reached a point in their life where anything could happen, or when nothing of import will happen, or...
Or the feedback when I'm not focusing on a person at all.
I catch the flicker of her image out of the corner of my eye. I bring my knives up to defend myself but I can't attack her, even a false image of her, until the facade melts away and I see Bilan standing before me.
Fighting Bilan is something I've always secretly wanted to know if I could do, but I would never be insane enough to try unless I needed to. Keeping his claws away from my vital organs and making sure none of his acidic slime splashes on me takes up all my attention. I can't sneak in any attacks, only a desperate defence. There isn't much time left to think about where exactly I made a terrible mistake, only that I did. Maybe I should have paid more attention to people who weren't called Garian; which Kurtliegen was lying dead on the floor, which Bilan broke into the laboratory and consumed all the remaining Bilanium. which Kay I last saw at any point, alive or dead, before she arrived at the harbour.
I start to wonder which Tracy I am, who has just condemned herself to a fate worse than death and doomed the entire planet. Who, despite trying to end all this, has only made things even worse.
Something thuds into my chest and a burning agony fills my entire body. Everything starts to go dark. For the first time, I pray that I will just wake up in my holding cell again.
My prayers aren't heard.
Chapter 4: Trial and Error
The sea and the sky are stormy. Spume froths above the dark waves. Lightning tears apart the sky.
I watch the small yellow submarine as it is tossed around on the waves. The storm does not seem to bother it, but I know it is being watched. I can see the figure watching it. A hungry, predatory gaze. It skims across the tumultuous surface of the water as if nothing was there. Its claws click and flex.
I open my mouth to cry out but I cannot make a sound. I am not used to this face or its jaws. I am not in control of this body.
"See, I'm not the only person who can't make the slightest bit of diffence, whatever they do," whispered a voice.
I whirled around, drawing my knives. It is not my true body but I have the same reflexes. It is his voice again. No, not him exactly, but one of them. Like the other, he has no scar, there is some of the same possessed madness in his eyes, but there is something else as well. He casually leans on a wall that doesn't exist, suspended in the blackness. There is a smile on his face.
"It didn't work out in the end after all," he whispered, "There was a miscount. One more of us existed than he remembered."
In the haze, I see him run along the deck towards the Captain's Cabin. He fumbles with the keys but unlocks the door. Drawing his sword, he forces his way in, but he never comes out... I hear Bilan's victory scream and see the emerald flash of power as one capture field is drawn inside another.
"You never even reached the Island," I whispered, "No wonder he didn't find you."
"It doesn't matter anyway. That was never the way to get things done. You can kill and devour as many others as you like, destroy anything you can get your hands on, but you'll still be back on the boat the next day," whispered the fifth Garian, "All I've been doing is trying to win a battle to see who exists for the last ninety seconds before the end of the world."
"Answer a question for me," I demanded, "Do you truly love my sister?"
"More than anything. I dream about her every night."
"Do you understand that, in every single one of the dreams, she dies because of you?"
He shrugged, "She dies because of this island. We all do. It isn't my failt you've become too focussed on watching your sister and I to see that. Our bond of love will last forever, but, do you know what? This thing that is happening to us on this island, it will last longer than forever. Soon, there'll be nothing left over of any of us," he said, "I can't stop your sister from dying over and over again. I'm sorry for that. I can't even try any more. I only really care about finding the way out of this place. Don't you ever considering just trying to find a way out? You can see the future - didn't you know how messed up this place was, before you even set foot on this Island?"
"I knew something was wrong with the way time worked, here," I admitted, "That is why I was sent specifically. They didn't care about that. They only cared about the Diary of Wouda, and getting it back before someone tried to use it to create another Bilano. But I... I only ever cared about the fact that my sister is on this Island..."
"You know, nobody ever sees it from Bilan's point of view. He doesn't even have a family, and he's only trying to grow, and make more of himself. He came here of his own free will right from the start. I wonder if he's the only person who has any idea what he's doing here," said Garian, tilting his head in a curious gesture, "Some versions of me like you better than Kay, you know."
"May I ask you another question," I whisper, looking at the space directly above and to the right of him, "Where did the bird go?"
"What, Jack? You know, I have no idea," he shrugged, then turned on his heel and wandered off across the surface of the dark water. He draws his sword. I see the world flicker, and then I see the world through his eyes. It is an arena, a pit of blood and sand. Everyone we have ever met, one after the other, stands before them, and he cuts them down with his sword in endless battle.
This is something he has to get through on his own, I realise, not part of my own world. His story was never my own. I close my eyes and try to remember something...
My sister, about to fall down into the vat of bilanium. Hanging onto the edge of the balcony for dear life. Garian offers a hand, begins to talk to her in a soft voice, and recognition blooms on her face...
Then the bird says something. Garian looks over to him. Kay's face hardens and she looks at him too. Garian and the bird argue. By the time Garian looks over again, Kay's grasp gives way and she falls...
... Then my sister again, on the peak of a mountain above the Silver Castle. Garian is about to die in battle with Kurtliegen. Kay comes to his rescue. He begins to argue with Kay for a moment, the scroll in his hands, then suddenly the bird says something. Kay looks over to the bird, then nods, recognition on her face. She begins chanting, then the flames rise...
... And I am running through the ruins below the Island again, trying to escape from Kurtliegen. I can feel that something has happened to Kay. Garian appears through the gate. He trades something to Kurtliegen to make the Warden leave. I ask him what has happened to my sister. He is about to answer, then the bird orders him back again and whispers something into his ear. Garian walks up to me, begins to explain what is happening, and...
As the bird flaps his wings, fate explodes into chaos again, before unravelling and flowing backwards...
I wait for them there, at the ruins, this time. It is fitting that this nightmare will end in the same place that it started. Garian and Jack begin to discuss what excuse they will give to me this time. After a while, Garian steps forward but I continue walking forwards, ignoring him. I throw the knife...
I'm going to get it right this time...