One moment Beth was standing in a destroyed building on a futuristic Earth surrounded by her companions and the next she was tumbling alone across the a sheet of darkness thinner than a slice of paper and vaster than the sea.
She hit the ground hard, tumbling sideways from one shoulder the other, as dust and smoke clouded and vision and choked off her breath.
Her mind stopped spinning a few moments after her ears did and she was able to make out the sound of heavy gunfire and explosions echoing through the frosty air.
“What…where am I?” she asked, spitting dirt out of her mouth and tasting blood on her lips.
“The real world.”
The man who spoke wasn’t a cyborg anymore but he was unmistakably the same one Beth had been talking to in Gamma City.
He was also lying.
Around her, Beth heard the sounds of warfare and the whispers of a narrative in the distance.
They were at the Battle of the Bulge.
“Belgium? What? Why are we here?” Beth asked, brushing herself off and shaking her head to make sense of the sudden change of venue. She noticed as she did that didn’t hurt as much as she probably should have. From what she could remember, the cyborg had tackled her like a missile and knocked them both from one world to another. The tumble along the ground had left her sore and a bit battered but that was vastly better than the splattered mess an impact like that should have produced.
“Because we weren’t going to have productive conversation in a fantasy world,” he said. “Henry knows what the world is really like but he’s always turned away from it. I mean I can only imagine how much he’s tried to shield you from it. You look like you didn’t know anything about this until just recently, am I right?”
“How do you know my father?” Beth asked.
“We were roommates in college. Friends even, for a time. He knew me as Kevin Biers, but I don’t suppose he ever even mentioned me, did he?”
“Kevin? Wait, you’re the friend that went traveling with him and Mom? The one who got lost in the Unread?” Beth felt like it had been a lifetime ago that she was sitting in the library with her parents and her father was explaining the perils of traveling to other world. Kevin had been one of the object lessons in things that could go wrong.
Something was weird though. Her father said he’d never found Kevin, but he’d been battling de Rais patron for years.
“I was never lost,” Kevin said. “This is where I belong. This is my home. And I am far from the man Henry Candler once knew.”
A shell exploded a short distance from them. Beth felt the sound more than heard it. The blast didn’t injure her but she still tasted the blood on her lips from her fall, which came as a shock. She wasn’t invulnerable in this story.
Or was it that the Unread portions of a war story allowed for more incidental damage without forcing a traveler like Beth out from their pages?
Beth tried to reach out and suggest that the cut on her lip was the result of her biting on it a little too hard. Not so much of a change as to make the cut go away, but enough to diminish its impact.
She heard no response.
She knew she was in the Unread. She could feel the course of the narrative. Sense the desperate struggle of the forces on both sides of one of the last major European battles of the second world war. She knew what was going to happen in broad strokes, but she couldn’t touch on any of it.
And with a sinking feeling, she knew why.
She wasn’t interesting in books on war. And she wasn’t a history buff, for as well as she did with her school work. This wasn’t a story that connected with her and so she couldn’t connect with it.
She really was lost.
“You are understanding I see,” Kevin said, smiling at the expression of shock that froze onto Beth’s face. “This is not the kind of world we change. This is the sort of world that changes us. Not just you and I, but everyone. Throughout our history the most important moments, the days that defined the centuries around them, all happened here, on a battlefield. Some were grand spectacles like this one. Others were inglorious little skirmishes, but this is where truth was forged, and will always be forged. To the victor goes the future, and the earth reclaims the vanquished.”
“That’s not true at all,” Beth said. “History is about so much more than the wars we’ve fought.”
“Those are your father’s words,” Kevin said. “His exact words. Said a thousand times I imagine. Meant to comfort the child you are and the child that he was. But ask the men who are bleeding their last out there if there is a more important moment than this one? As their breath draws short and the cold comes to claim them, how many do you think would say a trade deal or a pretty painting is more important than the futures they are losing?”
“One thing being important doesn’t mean something else isn’t,” Beth said.
“You do not understand what death and misery are yet,” Kevin said. “Our history is written in the blood of those whose suffering it is built on. And that is why you are going to help me end it.”
“End what?” Beth asked.
“Everything,” Kevin said. He paused, turning his back to her to face the sun as it crept below the horizon. “This world, and all other worlds, were built from a flawed model. In the face of death, there can be no peace, and no justice. The scales can never be balanced because those who deserve recompense can never receive it. Evil that is done can never be undone. Instead it compounds itself, each ill deed begetting the next, in a cycle that leads to destruction and holocaust over and over again.”
“And that’s why you want to destroy everything? That’s what de Rais is for? To destabilize the real world by putting something impossible into the real world it can’t reject?”
“Exactly so,” Kevin said. “If the world can be destroyed, then it should be. Otherwise we will never be able to start over again, never be able to begin with a truly fresh start, never be able to build a future that’s free from the agony we’ve already endured.”
“That’s wrong in every way I can imagine.” Beth said. “I will never ever help you make it happen.”
“Of course you will. How else do you think you’ll be able to save your mother and father?”