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22

Story by Joe Sharcoff


Editor's Note: We inadvertently published an older draft of the story "22" by Joe Sharcoff in Tales of the Talisman, volume V, issue 1. We have reprinted it here, with the author's permission, as it was intended to appear.
Every neuron in my body turned to light as soon as I stepped onto it.

The object looked stuck in midair inches above the cement floor. With recurring dreams it finally woke me up, drawing me down two flights of steps to the garage. I had never seen anything like it, this long, flat ovoid of what looked like shimmering sapphire. Scared to hell, I froze. I didn't run or call the police or take pictures with my cellphone. Instead, I reached down to touch it. Where my fingers made contact, shimmering light gathered as if sensing me, sending warmth through my arm. In the center of my head grew a vision of surfing among the stars.

I knew right then this vision was an invitation. I knew that this object had fashioned itself after something I'd always thought was so cool, the image plucked from my mind, to make our meeting easier. My heart was pounding; I felt like I was still dreaming. Without thinking, I put my foot on the object to step aboard, and that was when I lit up like a star.

It was wonderful, beautiful; I began to know things as brilliance crystalized into meaning. I knew that here was an artifact not man-made, a conscious artifact called a Symmetry Angel, and that it came looking for a pilot.

I was speechless. Dream or no, I regarded it as one to get through this. In the wake of that light and info, questions surged through my mind: Why me? Why was this here? And did I have to go through this in my underwear? I'm a high school science teacher, middle-aged, recently divorced, in decent shape for a guy my age but hardly the young adventurer type. I wished I had some clothes, maybe also my house keys, my cell...

My sense was, if I walked away to get them, I'd never come back.

Completing my action—boarding the Symmetry Angel—triggered no more lights, and its steady surface ensured solid footing. My soles tingled upon shimmering contact. The rest of me had a light, almost floating feeling with a sense of impending fleetness in my gut. I let out a slow breath. Exactly how was this going to work? I wondered. Before I could step down to raise the garage door, the Angel began moving toward it.

A hole appeared in the door, a glowing incision opening just long enough to pass through. I thought, Oh God, if this is a dream, excellent special effects.

I now hovered above the driveway in the dark of an early summer morning. At three a.m., my Long Island neighborhood was quiet, void of teens and nosey neighbors. From the midnight of my mind, green lights sparkled, circling my curiosity as to what would happen next. This struck me as the Angel saying, Go. Embrace us.

"Up," I whispered, and the street dropped beneath me.

There was no wind, but I could feel the speed. Surprise fell away as I stared straight up into space, exhilirated, before terror began to rise.

My head spun. I was falling through darkness into bed. I thought, What the fuck, before nausea hit me like a wave. I ran to the bathroom and heaved, then heaved again before settling to the coolness of the tiled floor. For the rest of the night I laid there, deep in dreamless slumber.

The next morning I felt much better, in fact energized. But what the hell happened? Had I been sleepwalking, having one helluva dream? Was this because of my failed marriage, a wish to escape from reality? I hoped so; I needed to feel better. But the day was bright, I was soon in my car doing errands, and the whole thing began fading like mist under the sun, as even real dreams are wont to do.

Yeah, I remember those. I'd finally met and married a beautiful young woman, bought our dream home, planned for kids. I snorted with a soured laugh.

The following night I was relaxing with a novel when my cell rang. I didn't recognize the number, so I didn't answer it, at least not the first time. By the tenth, I was both curious and annoyed. "Hello?"

"Hello, Mr. Ash." The voice sounded artificial: half-woman, half-wind chime. It was pleasant, if formal, but clearly being mediated by a voice changer. I thought it might be my ex playing a cruel joke.

"Karen?" I asked.

"The garage. Look."

I looked at the phone, then dropped it as I flew down the stairs to open the inner door. My knees nearly crumpled, my vision went tunnel as I saw that last night had been no dream. "Oooh, God..." was all I could say.

"Does that mean you're pleased?" asked the sleek sentient artifact.

"What the hell are you?"

"Recall. Yesterday went well for a first time."

The voice seemed softly everywhere. I was so scared, I could hardly think.

"You did well," said the Angel.

Forcing myself to focus, I did not like how I was reacting now. I asked, "What are you? Why are you here? Where did you come from?"

"You know what I am. I'm here because I need to be. As for where I'm from...you have no idea?"

"You're neither little nor green," I put forth.

The Symmetry Angel said, "Humanity's imagination has fashioned countless constructs. I'm like none of them, but if the concept helps, please, use it."

"You're rockin' my world. This changes everything..."

"We need to spend time together."

"I can't do this," I said, "not if it's real."

"No harm came to you last night. That will not change. And you can end this any time by simply saying so."

I was holding terror at bay by the thinnest margin, by sheer will, as I considered the Angel's words. If last night had really happened...there were no words to express the scope of this event. And if this was safe? I was trying to wrap my head around this. Certainly if this thing really wanted to abduct me, it could. I asked the Angel, "What do you want?"

"I need to train you, to complete myself and prepare both of us."

"Excuse me? Prepare for what?"

"I will tell you soon. You already have a lot to absorb. Let me first show you what I mean by training and preparation. Remember, you will not be harmed and can end this whenever you choose."

I needed to remember that. I needed to remember that last night my garage door had parted then resealed, probably at the molecular level, before I'd lifted windlessly into the air. This "Symmetry Angel" had unearthly power. I asked, "Can I, uh, set the pace?"

"For now. Embrace us, Mr. Ash. Embrace us as one."

They really do talk like that out there, I noted as I stepped aboard.

As I rose through the levels of my home, ceilings opening, floors closing, the Symmetry Angel told me that speed—and altitude—would respond to my comfort level. Once outside, I hovered several inches just above the roof. The Angel said, "You won't fall: you've acquired enough Symmetry charge. Confirm this for yourself."

Looking down, I wasn't about to jump. I inched one foot off the side, waiting for gravity to grab me. It was more like a seductive caress. Even with lifting my other leg, I drifted downward slowly, as if lolling underwater.

"Oh wow," I whispered, a smile curling my mouth corners. Suddenly I felt like I could enjoy this. Resuming my footing, feeling emboldened, I urged the Angel forward at the pace of a brisk walk.

* * *

I always loved teaching, but enlightening young minds can be intense as it is rewarding. That's why I love my summers off. It was a chance to catch up on reading, spend time with my nephews. This summer, however, was becoming pure gold.

By the end of that second night, I had been circling surrounding neighborhoods from a few hundred feet up, moving at the clip of a full run. It was fantastic. One time only I freaked (I thought I was going to hit a bird), which brought us to a quick stop. That made me queasy, so much so I got down on one knee. I asked the Angel, "Is this...necessary?"

It said, "Stop thinking like you have inertia."

"...what?"

"Next time, close your eyes."

It took me a moment to realize what I was being told and I remembered once being on an induced-motion ride, closing my eyes to keep from getting sick. With what this Symmetry Angel could do, that was its remedy?

It worked pretty well.

Pushing my comfort zone (closing my eyes when necessary), by week's end I was streaking through clouds. I was cheating a bit: landscape was not a dizzying blur the higher I flew, even at highway speeds. Plus, high up, I could soar in glorious daylight without being seen.

Training was becoming addictive.

The Angel monitored me, making sure I didn't build up more Symmetry charge than I could handle. As it was, in normal mode I had a near-perpetual grin on my face, looking a lot, I thought, like a virgin who finally got lucky. I couldn't help it; I had never felt so excited, so back on top, especially after years of marriage counseling and divorce proceedings all because—lo and behold—I was untreatably infertile.

I spent less time inside my big, empty house. I said hello to strangers, helped my nosey old neighbors with groceries. There was so much I wanted to do. I even said one evening to the Angel while a mile above the city, "I want to fight crime."

"You're barely aloft," it replied.

"Show me how to stun people by zapping 'em." I strained my eyes, hoping some long-range vision would snap into place.

"It doesn't work that way."

"Well it should. There's a lot of pain in the world. We could be doing a lot of good."

"We are. But we can end this, if you like."

Was that a bluff? I probed. "Then what would you do?"

"Approach the next candidate."

So, it had a Plan B. "But you'd have to settle for Number Two."

"The next candidate would be Number 23."

My mind flickered like a loose bulb. "I'm 22?" Silence. I asked, "What happened to 1 through 21?"

"Each left by choice, unharmed."

For my own focus, in seeing this to the end, I did not pursue this.

* * *

The end of summer was three weeks away. I wasn't sure yet how I was going to handle going back to work. I only knew I would never see teaching nor my students the same way ever again.

I seemed to be getting more from my workouts and wondered if that had to do with Symmetry charge. Far from being able to lift a thousand tons or anything, I was filling out my t-shirts pretty good with a tad more size to my shoulders and chest, while losing another half-inch off my middle.

The thought occurred to me: I should send pictures to my ex. But that life wasn't front-and-center anymore. I was soaring, baby. Literally.

The Angel was responding as if part of me. During high-speed twists and turns, a sleek, intuitive data exchange ruled. Motion sickness was history; time itself seemed to slow down. Even dreams of flying had not afforded such comfort and control. I knew there was no place on Earth I could not go.

North America was crossed in half a day. Leaving the West Coast behind, I dropped to just above the surface of the Pacific, slowing, wondering what would happen if I took a submerged spin. Revealed was an invisible envelope parting the water ahead. Prior feats were now clear to me as I burst free, returning to the air.

Breaking the sound barrier, I remained untouched by wind or shockwave. My curiosity finally overflowed in what I'd be able to do.

"You've barely begun," said the Symmetry Angel. "The stars can be yours. First you must strengthen your implicate will."

Zooming through the Himalayas, whipping up huge, swirling clouds of snow, I uttered my usual, "What?"

"Open yourself to the world. Attune like you and I do."

"You make it easy."

"My reach is limited," said the Angel. "Your training benefits us both."

Trying to sound remotely intelligent, I slowed and asked, "Are you talking about...awareness of a real implicate order? A quantum-level awareness?"

"Awareness and influence over wavefunctions, starting with electromagnetic basics. Gradually you will learn to do much more with forces, space and matter, harnessing extreme power."

"How the...what?"

Taking a break from world touring, I discovered what the Angel meant. Practice did involve something I'd tried as a teenager, a form of visualization, though now, focal depth was stronger with the Angel's support. Suspending me in my living room, it told me to relax, to feel my surroundings from within my body. By day two I succeeded, sort of. Following a tenuous shift in perception, when my mind got quiet, I hiccuped and nearly fried everything electronic in the house.

I was bursting. I needed to share these wondrous gifts.

I wanted to rescue earthquake victims, fly to a war zone and paralyze all weapons. I wanted to stop forest fires, foil terrorist plots and cure people of disease. I yearned, more than anything, to find and give comfort to every missing child on the planet. But when I spoke of these things, the Angel asked what would I do, how would I do it? It demanded details, showing me how lacking I was, not just in power but tactically. My shortsightedness was potentially deadly.

Those candidates before me: had they felt this way? Had they wanted to act, only to realize how much there was to learn? Who were these people? Why didn't they make the grade? Why was all this happening?

I didn't press it. The Angel wouldn't have told me anyway. Subvocally, I said to this teacher from the stars, Thank you for always opening my eyes. Thank you for bringing me life.

* * *

One sunny day, while lying nude in a stream flowing through a grassy Siberian valley, the Angel hovering nearby, I asked it, "What are you made of?"

It said in its formal, feminine, wind chime voice, "Consider it enhanced matter, mass with reconfigured physical constants."

Very impressive, I thought. "Can you be damaged?"

"Not by anything on Earth."

Cool. "What is your source of power?"

"I draw energy directly from the boundary vibrations of this spacetime."

Whoa. Pursue that later. I asked: "Who made you?"

A pause, then the Angel said, "The term will have no meaning for you without context. I will tell you very soon."

Well, I thought, it was worth a shot. "Would you answer this: are you alive?"

"Not like you." I opened my eyes, not knowing what to make of that. The Angel resumed, "There are existential dynamics—holons—operating on levels you have no awareness of. In time you will understand."

I propped myself up on my elbows. "Now that's the kind of talk that fascinates me yet scares the daylights outta me." I felt the question bubble up inside. "Why do I trust you?"

"I've given you no reason not to. I give you what you need."

This was true. The Angel had proven very reliable in terms of my safety—even apart from it, with lingering Symmetry charge—in letting me have some control... in dropping hints of what was to come. But...was "it" alive? Hell. Why did it have to have a woman's voice...

Raising my face to the sun, I kept my mind's eye on the unknown prize.

* * *

It was time. Three days before I had to go back to work, I wanted to go higher than I ever had before. Wearing only my favorite jeans and a white buttondown, neither the freezing cold or the thinning air bothered me as I ascended. In seconds, the crisp blue of Earth's atmosphere was giving way to endless space black.

Into the ocean of space, I was finally dipping my toe.

The Angel shimmered with internal, sapphire light. It explained how it set the illusion of breath wafting through me, and how pure energy vitalized my body, making me shimmer too. Beautiful Earth turned below. I felt proud that I had been able to reach this height, literally, before summer ended. I'd pushed myself; I wanted the Angel to know its search ended here, that ol', shimmering Mr. 22 was the best guy for this job.

While passing over the Malay Archipelago, its feminine-chime voice asked from the center of my mind, What do you see when you look at your world?

The feeling welled. There were so many things I could've said, I ended up saying three words: Home. Love. Potential.

Now look into deepest space.

Awe and excitement filled me as I peered between the stars. The longer I looked the more stars appeared, before the wavelength shifted to the highest end of the spectrum. My eyeballs felt radiant.

The Angel asked, What do you see?

My vision had been honed to perceive what only the mightiest Earth telescopes could see: the edge of the familiar universe. Here lie the farthest celestial objects and structures, as well as the most powerful explosions in space, second only to the Big Bang. Bright bubbles of intense radiation were flaring in the infinite dark.

I said, I see what our scientists call gamma-ray bursts. They're colliding neutron stars or supermassive suns collapsing into black holes: no one really knows. I corrected myself. No one on Earth, anyway.

The Angel said, Humanity's speculations keep afloat an obsolete paradigm. What is occurring has nothing to do with stars. Those bursts reflect purposeful, intelligent activity.

That broke my long-distance focus like a cold slap to the brain. "What...?"

Consider them sparks, said the Symmetry Angel, friction points generated by immense field interactions designed to subvert spacetime. This entire universe has been under assault for eons.

Those words jammed me up. No thoughts could go through. For the first time to feel secure, I had to sit on the Angel to grasp what I was being told.

It said, Your scientists recently discovered the effect of this attack.

What are you talking about? I asked.

You call it dark energy. It's expanding spacetime and accelerating. This is deliberate. What you see near the cosmic horizon are the warning signs.

North America was passing beneath me, 300 miles down from my naked, dangling feet. I was numb to its grandeur. I asked, Why is this happening? Who, or what, is doing this?

Think of dark energy as foreign mass commandeering the body of the universe and using it to make more foreign mass, explained the Angel.

You're describing a virus.

This is apt. Refer to the entity responsible as the Phage. Centuries from now, your science will discover that all material structure—from cosmic to subatomic—will be forced apart by vacuum expansion in under two billion years. Nothing will exist except rampant dark power: energy for the Phage.

I cradled my forehead in my palms...

The Angel said, Spacetimes seek symmetry. That principle will be overwhelmed. This universe will evaporate, and the Phage will move on to the next.

...I kept whispering, "I don't believe this...it eats universes..."

It first cultivates them. After a universe is born, its natural laws are allowed time to work, and are sometimes tweaked, to produce a viable host. Once this occurs, accelerated expansion is ignited.

...I had to take charge before reality shut me down. I asked, I'm going to the cosmic horizon, aren't I? I couldn't stop shaking.

No, said the Symmetry Angel. Only the highest Ascendants are there. You are a novice.

'Ascendant'. Hearing this, hearing I was not alone, brought a great calm. Who made you? I asked, knowing this time I would get an answer.

The Angel said, I am an instrument of the Second Benevolence. Designed to protect this universe, I require a natural, conscious being for mutual transcendence. Because you are conscious, this must be your choice.

Choice. I wondered about my predecessors. What happens to me? I asked.

When ready, you will be escorted far from Earth. With me beneath and always with you, you'll join another Symmetry Ascendant for further training, especially in how to counter Interceptors. These are instruments of the Phage for finding and ending life. Earth and nearby worlds may soon be targeted: the Benevolence wants a human being, someone who lives in the neighborhood, to help protect it.

Interceptors. I asked, When would we leave?

The Angel said, In eight years.

A weight lifted from me. I had time, I needed time, because in no way did I feel ready to tackle anything like this. I couldn't even comprehend this! I asked, How long would I be gone?

Unknown. You could be returned to Earth or moved on for further training.

When you told them this, is this when the other candidates quit?

Most did. Some quit after first contact.

Where are they now? I was thinking maybe I could speak with them.

Most are dead, said the Angel. The rest are living their lives as before.

Dead! Why? Could a person's life ever be normal after this? I said, The rest must be very strong individuals to resume an ordinary life.

They chose, said the Angel, to have their memories altered.

My jaw dropped. Did the others choose to die?

No. No longer in training, they resumed aging and died naturally over the four centuries the Benevolence has been seeking an Ascendant from Earth.

I was numbing out again. While you're training me...I'm not aging?

Said the Symmetry Angel, The more we become one, the more slowly you will age. The oldest Ascendant, as example, is over one billion years old. In many ways, we will both change as our attunement grows...

* * *

...Welcome back.

I don't know how long I blanked out. A few seconds? A few hours? I didn't know how long I'd been oblivious, sitting on a godtech Angel at the threshold of the universe. I only knew I wanted freedom unparalleled and absolute.

I wanted to be free of the Angel. The ultimate bolt from the blue, this was all a dream way beyond the dreamer.

I fought to stay present. I said, Tell me...the First Benevolence...

The First was nearly consumed in open confrontation with the Phage. With the creation of the Symmetry Angel, the Ones who survived were reborn as the Second Benevolence. Now, in addition to 'outside', counteroffensives can be projected within space and time.

I wanted to go home.

The Angel said, Be mindful: this will not be a life defined by battle. You will be free to explore, to know wonder and beauty, to discover that even what an Ascendant sees is only a glimpse.

I said, Listen. I have to get back to real life. I need time to think about this. Is this acceptable?

Of course, said the Angel. The Benevolent Ones understand.

They do? Were they listening? Had they been watching my training and progress all this time? I was going to ask, but instead, taking a sweet glide back to Earth, I wondered if this should be the dream to walk away from.

* * *

The next whole day I stayed in bed.

Ordinary life was afloat in a sea of unreality. I watched TV, slept, cried, watched more TV, hoping this would settle me. Thoughts flashed. I'd look around my room, stare at my hands, trying to visualize the space inside atoms. My mind was pinned by that unimaginable entity of dark energy devouring everything I was aware of. Everything. Everything. Terror licked at the back of my throat.

Then I thought of the Angel and the good guys, and how I had been so honored, even if I was not exactly their first choice. It helped me go back to sleep.

I don't remember any dreams.

A few days later I was back at work, and that routine anchored me like nothing else. After two days of meetings, classes began, and with most of my students being seniors, I'd have the earliest schedule. As I watched and greeted the baggy pants, tank tops and belly shirts drifting in, again I wanted to cry.

I heard my voice ask how everyone's summer had been. I heard it brief them on what was expected of them, and on how their final year in high school was for planning exciting and rewarding futures.

My hands tensed, but I did not clench them. Count your blessings, I reminded myself. Count every one every single day. Breathe. Then make your decision.


Story copyright © Joe Sharcoff
Page copyright © Hadrosaur Productions

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