From The Dark Hug of Time
Lost in nightmare, Lilah Bay stumbled down a crowded street in a dark city.
She hurt all over. She was wounded in some mysterious way, her skull hurt, her ribs hurt, her legs hurt, her left arm hurt. Her head swam, her heart lay swamped inside her chest, her spirit seemed to have passed out or fled. She remembered no past and saw no future. Still she stumbled on.
Beneath her feet were the paving stones of the sidewalk. To her left were the blank walls of an unbroken line of buildings. To her right the narrow street, like the sidewalk, was filled with people trudging with her or pushing past her. Above her the sky was black and starless: she gave a look upward and saw nothing, until a random flash of firelight and then another showed the low feelers of cloud. Above her, above the low feelers, the ceiling was solid, a grey that was not quite black.
There was a constant noise of feet, and a chatter of voices uncaring and vague. A dozen smells mixed, none of them good, none of them horrible, blending in a choking smoke.
People pushed her and bumped her and glared at her as she stumbled onward. They spoke in no known tongue, and to be frank, Lilah was not sure they were all people in the strict sense.
She walked. Her feet kept moving: left, then right, then left, then right. People, or things that were like people, bumped past her. The smoke settled onto her skin and into her frayed mop of hair. The gloom settled into her lungs.
A man grabbed her arm. She was pulled through several people to the left and into a sudden alley. She spun left to face him. He was leering and pathetic, leering and lethal.
“You’re pretty,” he said. “I like chocolate.”
Lilah Bay brought her hand up, her dark brown hand at the end of her long, dark brown arm, and planted the base of her palm in his pasty pink forehead. He went down in a heap.
She looked at her hand. Great. Now one more thing hurt.
Someone was behind her. She whirled, ready again.
It was a man, a plain man in dark grey, but with a pleasant plain face. He had no beard, no mustache, not much reddish hair, little skinny glasses. He said, “You’re Lilah Bay?”
“Yes,” she said, for it was one of the few things she remembered.
“Would you like to come with me?”
She looked around. The alley was narrow as a corridor. The walls were covered in soot. No one was in it but them and the guy lying in a heap and a few furtive things on the ground checking him out. She met the man’s eyes. “Are you telling me I have to come with you?”
“No. You don’t have to.” He smiled apologetically.
“Okay, then,” she said. “Let’s go.”
He put out his left hand, palm down. He had a thin gold ring on it, a ring with a small purple gem. She put her left hand on his, palm down too. She also wore a thin gold ring, but with a pale gem, orange or pink or yellow. She stared at it: familiar but foreign.
They were gone.
. . .
They were standing in a hallway. It was a narrow, stuffy hallway, surely in the middle of the nth floor of a more-than-n-story building. It ran on ahead of them, two doors on each side and then, twenty meters away, a corner where it bent left out of sight. In the other direction it did the same thing, including that it bent left. Lilah took this in with one raised eyebrow. She looked at her companion, a man of just under her height, pale of skin and middle-aged, in some sort of nondescript business suit, including something like a cravat. She didn’t recognize the culture it came from or she would have called it a necktie. She opened her mouth, but, unsmiling, he raised an eyebrow at her. He stepped backward one step and put his hand on a doorknob.
They stood looking at each other. She closed her mouth. He put the key in his hand into the doorknob and unlocked the door. They went in, and he shut and locked it behind them.
They were in a small room with one window. It was lined with shelves everywhere that wasn’t the door out or one of two other doors or the window, which was large enough but set back in an alcove. In front of it was a wooden desk with a simple chair. It was half covered with books and notes and writing instruments.
In the middle of the room there was a light wooden table with four legs and four wooden chairs. There was one more chair, a dowdy old thing that looked very comfortable; it was filled to the brim with a shaggy grey cat. The cat gave them a dim look and then went back to sleep, not having moved any muscle other than its eyelids. They stood looking around, and presently their eyes met.
“You may ask,” he said.
“Who are you?” asked Lilah Bay.
“My name is Marius,” he said. “Martin Marius.” He smiled.
“That’s it? That’s who you are?”
“You may ask as many questions as you like,” he said. He stepped over to the cat, who looked up at him just before he plunged his fingers into her thick fur. He petted her, and added, “I’m not counting.”
“And you’ll answer them all?”
“I think so. Do you want something? Food? Drink?”
“Oh. Food. Dang, I could eat a big ol’ dish of—! Anything?”
“Well,” said Marius, “in this particular plane, you get more or less what’s on offer, but the food’s always good. Tonight I think it’s eggs and bacon. Do you drink coffee?”
“Coffee? Do I drink coffee?” She laughed. “Martin, Marius, what should I call you?”
“You’ll figure something out,” he said, picking up a gadget that sat in a sort of metal cradle on the table. He put it to his face so that one end was by his mouth and the other by his ear. “Yes,” he said to it, “two bacon and eggs, yes, certainly, fried potatoes would be excellent. Do you do fried onions and mushrooms? Excellent. And toast? Jam, yes? Excellent. And coffee. With cream.” He smiled at Lilah. “We have sugar here if you need it,” he said, setting the gadget back in its cradle.
“You didn’t tell them where they were bringing this feast,” said Lilah.
“They know,” he said. “So?”
“So what happened to me? I feel like I got the crap beat out of me. Where the hell was I? Where you found me?”
“That,” he said, “that was someplace across the universe from where you had been before, but now you are in an entirely different and much safer universe. Not a very large one, but a very safe one.” He paused, then added, “I can tell you anything you want to know about this place, I’m just not certain how much you would actually care to know.”
She looked at him for some seconds and then asked, “Why did you bring me here?”
“To offer you a job,” he said.
“Lilah Bay,” he said, “you had a job. Do you remember it?” She looked confused, and then something changed. She remembered her job, or at least the basic idea. The outward sign of this was her eyebrow, her left eyebrow, arching. “Anyway,” he said, “there is a need, and with a need comes an opportunity, and with an opportunity comes a need.” He laughed a little nervously. “And simply, you are the best candidate. Because this job is like your last job, only more so.”
“How is that?”
“How much do you remember?”
“I’m working on that,” she replied. “Okay, the cat?” She looked at the cat. The cat opened her eyes slightly and gave Lilah a look of love and total knowledge. “Your familiar?”
“Yes,” he said. “She is called Theodora. Do you not have a familiar?”
“I don’t,” she said. She got a very cloudy look.
“You had one once?”
“I’m sorry,” said Lilah. “I don’t remember. That’s funny. Add it to the list.”
There was a triple knock at the door. Marius went over to it, waited a beat, then opened it. There was no one in the hall, just a tray on a trolley. He pulled it in, shut the door, rolled the trolley to the table and began moving plates, cups and samovar onto the table. Lilah watched him, then joined in. In moments they were finished, and they stood looking at the feast. It looked great to her. It smelled great.
“Many hands make short work,” he said.
“Whose hands made all this?” she asked. “Do I want to know?”
“I’m not sure I know,” said Marius. “Does it bother you? Shall we eat?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” said Lilah. They sat down and for a minute she was all about coffee and bacon and toast and eggs and hash browns. Presently she remembered herself. She took a breath and sat back from the breakfast. She raised the cup to her lips. Marius met her eyes: his were a pale blue with a kinship to a pale green, while hers were the color of rich soil or dark roast. He smiled, which seemed to be something he did in many situations. She said, “What do you know about me?”
“What do you know about yourself?”
“I know I don’t like to play games.”
Marius set his coffee down and raised his hands a little in surrender. “I only ask,” he said, “because it will help me tell you what I know of you to know what you remember of your life.”
She stared at him, then said, “Am I dead?” He didn’t know what to say. She went on, “Is that what happened? Is this some sort of afterlife? Because I’m sure this isn’t paradise, but with coffee this good, and onion rings? Really? It sure isn’t much like hell.”
“You are not dead,” said Marius. “And you would know about Hell, because as I understand it, you’ve spent some time there.”
She appraised him for another long minute, then raised her eyebrows. “It’s coming back to me.”
“All in one go?”
“No,” she said. “Just bits.” She finished her cup, and he refilled it from the samovar. “I was trying to find things out,” she said. “That was my job. I was an investigator. What was I investigating?” She spread some sort of berry jam on her right triangle of toast. “More than one thing,” she mused. “There was something funny about it. All these twists and turns and—!” She took a bite of her toast. Her eyes lit up. She put it down, had a sip of coffee, and met his eyes. “Time,” she said.
“And magic.” Marius smiled. Lilah sat back, took up her toast, had a bite. She said, “Folks get in all kinds of trouble.” She laughed. She took a drink of coffee, but when she set the cup down, she wasn’t smiling. “All kinds,” she repeated. “I can’t remember exactly what kinds. I was supposed to stop people from, you know, doing things—!” She gave Marius an accusing look. “You just sit there and listen, don’t you?”
“I’m very sorry,” he said. “It’s my nature. I shall try to help. Do you remember the people you worked with? Back on—was it Padva?”
“Padva,” said Lilah, trying it out. “Padva.” She took up her cup, but just gazed into it. She raised her eyes to his again. “Yeah,” she said. “I do remember some of those people.”
“Do you know what happened to them?” he asked.
“Not all of them,” she said, gloomily.
“Some of them?”
“Well,” said Marius, sipping coffee and looking away, “I know some of that, not much. Just tidbits, really. But,” he said, meeting her eyes, “it wasn’t a nice story. They weren’t nice tidbits.”
“And do you know why those things happened to those people? Why—?” She ran out of words and took a breath. “What were we investigating?”
“I don’t really know.”
“You don’t really know?”
“All right,” he said, “I don’t know. Something to do with time. Well, as it happens, you were part of a group. A squad. A cell? No, not a cell. A, um, service. I’m searching for the right word.”
“A team,” said Lilah. “I think I was sort of the junior member.”
“Ms. Bay,” he said, “you were not ‘sort of the junior member.’ You were sort of the strongest member. Of the team. Obviously, because others are gone, gone in unfortunate ways, but you are here.”
“Ms. Bay,” said Marius, “you are barely here because you could not be quite squashed. Now you may think I know more than I actually know, and I actually know very little, but I do know that your team had enemies and that they were very capable of squashing most of the people they were ever likely to meet. But they met you.”
“Mister Marius,” said Lilah Bay, “I am not that formidable. I am not.” Marius just raised his eyebrows, put his hands out to the side in a small gesture of surrender, and smiled. “I am not!” said Lilah. “I’m just—!”
“Just a small town wizard,” said Marius. “Just an ordinary magical detective from a minor little planet. Called Padva. You know it’s called the First Tertiary World, don’t you? Do you know why?”
“It’s of the third class?” Marius just laughed and shook his head. “Look,” Lilah said, “why don’t you tell me about this job? This job you’re advertising to me? Is this an interview or something?”
“No,” said Marius, “it’s not an interview. More of a job offer.”
Lilah looked at him. Then she took a piece of bacon and said, “I’d need to know more about the job before I took you up on that, or not.” She ate the bacon, holding his eyes.
“Then you might consider it your first job to remember what your last job was.”
And that is the opening of The Dark Hug of Time, my time travel mystery story. Want to read the rest? For FREE?? Just email me at…