Eddie sat in the kitchen beside an open window, cotton curtains waving in a gentle breeze.
"Do you want sugar in your tea?" Gretchen asked. "Milk?"
"I don't know. I've never had tea. Sugar I guess."
Gretchen moved with more poise than anyone Eddie had ever met. She placed the tea tray on the table, poured two cups, and spooned sugar with such fluid grace, her every action was a dance. Her voice was a low sing-song, her expressions genuine, without a shred of pretense.
He didn't know what he'd expect when he came here, but he assumed magic would be involved—something that would blow his mind. Instead, he found a woman who seemed unextraordinary, yet absolutely unique in her naked openness.
Her house sat at the top of an island in the sky—the egg-shaped micro-planet that reminded Eddie of something out of The Little Prince. Gravity was normal here, and the house couldn't have been more ordinary—a small two-story home with a lush green lawn and a white picket fence. The kitchen smelled like raspberry preserves and ginger snaps.
She stirred his tea, then placed the cup in front of him. Eddie watched her, her fluid actions as mesmerizing as ripples in a pond.
He sipped the tea. "Very good."
"I'm glad." She took a sip from her own cup.
"This place is beautiful. How did you find it?"
"I have a knack for finding the rare and beautiful things in the world."
"But Tim doesn't?"
Gretchen frowned. "We'll get to him in time. For now, let's discuss pleasanter topics."
"Like Ruby Tanner. I understand you like her."
"You know Ruby?"
"From afar. She's a bright star. It's through her that I found you. Despite all my insight, you are invisible to me."
"But you can see everyone else?"
"All except you—and the other one. I can only see you through others, and since I can't watch the whole world at once, it's difficult to pinpoint your location. Your uncle has the same problem. You're an enigma."
Eddie set his cup down, placed his hands on the table (the bandaged hand shaking slightly) and stared in her eyes. "Who are you?"
"That's obviously not true."
"But it is, in a way. I've done nothing extraordinary in my life. I never led a revolution or taught anyone the way to spiritual nirvana. The only thing unique about me is an experience I once had.
She placed her cup on the table. "An extraordinary experience—something that happened almost by accident. It was the same experience your uncle had, although my story doesn't end with such catastrophic results."
She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. "I saw through the veil."
"To the other side."
Eddie cocked his head, frowning. "I don't get it. What? Like a near-death experience?"
She giggled, a pleasant contralto titter. "I was far from death. I don't think I'd ever been more alive. Not until that moment."
She took another sip of tea, leaving the thought unfinished.
Eddie watched her. She behaved as though they did this every afternoon, drinking tea beside the window.
"What happened to you?" he asked. "I mean, what actually happened to you? I'm here for a reason, right? There's something you need to tell me—something I can use to... I don't know. Kill Tim or something."
"You're impatient," Gretchen said, smiling.
Eddie held up his hand. "It was so important for me to come here that I had to lose a finger."
Eddie's eyes widened. "Excuse me?"
"You'll have to go back, too."
"I... what? No!" He stood up, knocking his chair backwards. "I don't understand. What am I doing here? I came halfway around the world for a cup of tea and pleasant conversation? I mean, you're very nice and the tea is awesome, but I assume we need to get to the point. Why am I here?"
For the first time, the wistful smile dropped from Gretchen's face. "Timothy Barlow has the power to kill all life on Earth. On a whim, he could turn the sun cold or knock the earth off its orbit."
Eddie blinked. "That's not good."
"What's worse is that he is insane. He's so obsessed with regaining his lost wife, he would sacrifice all life in the universe to get her back."
"How do you know all this?"
"Because of what I've seen."
"And what is that? Behind the veil? What does that mean? Who are you?"
"Sit down, and I'll tell you."
Eddie righted his chair and sat.
Gretchen leaned forward, her hand stretched out towards Eddie, two fingers extended. "Since we're in a hurry, I'd like to take a shortcut through my backstory. May I?"
Eddie gave her a quizzical look. He nodded.
"I don't know if this will work on you. I have the power to grant visions, but you are no ordinary person."
"Let's find out what will happen."
She placed the fingers on his left temple. The moment they made contact, Eddie experienced a flash of brilliance inside his skull.
When his inner sight cleared, he found himself in a cavernous laboratory, banks of power transformers two-stories high towered over computer terminals and lab tables. The computer terminals were ancient—big boxy cases with tiny monitors of green text on black. Researchers sat in gray lab coats, Gretchen among them, typing at the terminals or calibrating equipment.
At the lab's center, a round metallic frame rotated, the light around it shimmering. Eddie wondered if it might be another time portal. Gretchen's influence on his mind intervened. A wormhole generator, she told him. There's another generator in a lab next door. We are attempting instantaneous travel between two points in space.
I've never heard of this, Eddie thought. Where is this? When?
1982. The same reality you come from. Houston, Texas. Watch.
Eddie watched. He took a position behind Gretchen's 1982 form, watching from just over her right shoulder. A man's voice: "Let's try it again, Blake."
A deep thrum began behind the rotating circle. A faint blue vortex began at its center, swirling like a hurricane of light. Violet and green threads weaved their way through the light, intensifying, churning, throbbing with power.
The walls hummed. The transformers buzzed. Gretchen stared into the vortex, as did everyone in the lab. For a moment, the science was forgotten.
"It's so beautiful," someone said.
Without warning, a transformer to the left of the portal exploded.
The resulting shockwave blasted everyone backwards. One man caught a chunk of metal shrapnel in his chest. He landed on his back, his lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling, blood blossoming on his chest. People screamed. Gretchen lay half conscious on the floor before the portal.
In the midst of this chaos, the swirl of light within the rotating portal continued to grow. It pushed beyond the bounds of the metal frame, its deep colors swallowing the ambient light. Gretchen lay closest to the portal. The churning threads of colors tangled around her limbs. She sat up, struggling to move away when the mad colors engulfed her. Everything went bright white.
The light faded. When Eddie could focus again, he found he was staring at the back of his own head.
It was Tim's apartment again, almost as Eddie had remembered it from his dream. The tiny portal for the rats was gone. In its place at the center of the room, a metallic frame stood, just tall enough for Eddie to walk through. Wires and hoses ran from the frame, and a row of power cells along one side pulsed with heat. Tim sat at his controls, making adjustments. Eddie stood watching.
A leather vest lay folded across the table. "You mind if I try this on?" Eddie asked Tim.
Tim didn't answer, fixed intently on his control board.
Eddie shrugged and pulled the vest over his T-shirt. "Fits perfect."
A rat stood on the table, sniffing inside a used cereal bowl. It grabbed a Lucky Charms marshmallow, sat back and ate. Eddie scratched it behind the ears with his index finger.
Tim frowned, turned a dial, then sat back. The portal whirred. The space within the metal frame did not go dark as it had for the rats, but it shimmered, distorting the light within.
"You ready to do this, Eddie?" Tim asked.
Eddie took a step back. "I don't know. I'm a little nervous."
"Don't be. The rats made it and they're fine, aren't they?"
Eddie watched the shimmering lights in the portal. "The rats didn't know what they were getting into, did they?"
Tim waved a hand, his attention still on the calibration controls. "Well, you know I wouldn't have subjected them to this if I didn't think it was safe."
Eddie grinned. "That's right. You are the Rat Messiah after all."
"You won't go back far. Just two seconds. That should be safe enough. Aloysius has done that dozens of times."
Eddie ran a finger down the rat's back. He turned to the wall. "You think your wallpaper will change?"
Tim looked up and grinned. "Banana wallpaper maybe? I doubt there's any reality where I'd tolerate banana wallpaper. But you can prove me wrong."
He pressed a button on the controls and the portal whirred. The distortions through the doorway became more pronounced, rippling up and down as if the walls were transmitting an ocean wave.
Tim stood up and brushed his hands off. "You ready?"
Eddie shrugged. "Guess so."
Eddie moved to the portal. He stood before it, watching the waves beyond the space. For just an instant, he thought he saw himself there. Then he wondered if he'd seen anything at all. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
He stood there, frozen in place. Finally, Tim cleared his throat. He waved a hand at the portal, inviting Eddie through.
Eddie reached a hand towards the opening, then yanked it back. He remembered what Tim had said. He could only go one way through the portal. Once his hand was through, he couldn't pull it back. He reached more gently and again, he saw himself there, the back of his head, the impression of a face, just beyond the portal. What did that mean? "This is so weird."
Every time Eddie considered walking through, he'd catch an impression of himself just beyond the portal. How could that be? He hadn't gone through yet. And if he stopped himself, what was he seeing. Finally, he resolved to do it. He tried to laugh. "Ha. It will be weirder for you. You get to hear me finish my sentence..."
He stopped. He couldn't proceed. Now, beyond the portal, he saw a storm of images. Himself in an infinite array of positions, all simultaneous, some Eddies turning, laughing, some screaming. They morphed together into one mutated, stretching, churning organism. He heard none of them, but their presence was unmistakable. Through the portal, potential realities blossomed before him.
Tim pushed him from behind. Eddie stumbled forward.
And then, Eddie ceased to be the actor in this vision. He was once again the observer, watching from against the wall. Tim pushed Eddie through the portal. Immediately, the room roared with churning blue energy. At the heart of the vortex, a tear appeared, as if Tim's apartment were a dark page and light now shone through a growing rip. Tim stood, awestruck, as the light engulfed him.
When the light became too bright to endure, Eddie found himself back in Gretchen's kitchen, a cup of tea gripped in his hands.
"So you see," Gretchen said, "Tim and I both saw the same thing. The only difference was that Tim's transfiguration destroyed the world as we know it."