Peter’s teleport brought him into being a dozen or so yards from the cabin’s entrance. It wasn’t a big thing; just a four walled, prefab box placed on the micro-island years ago to house the equipment and solar cells they used to monitor the bridge-scar the whale had left behind when it fled. It had never been intended for long-term habitation.
Peter sighed, then hitched his rucksack a little higher on his back. He already knew she wouldn’t be talked down, but he owed it to her to keep on trying. He trudged the short distance through the pristine sand, and knocked on the cabin door.
No answer. Not surprising, really. She was probably out again, frantically searching, as was her way these past nine months. He dug the spare key out of his pocket, and let himself in.
What he found inside was neither encouraging, nor surprising. The place was a mess. To the left of the door sat a small office desk, built around the mess of radio equipment, scanning gear, and miscellaneous electronics that had been the initial purpose of the outpost, now buried under half-eaten food containers and what had to be at least half a dozen empty liquor bottles. To the right, the small cot designed to give at least nominal comfort to whoever drew the month-long monitoring duty. The sheets were unmade. He suspected at a glance that they hadn’t been changed since he himself had done so on his prior resupply.
Peter took a deep breath, lowered his rucksack to the floor, and reluctantly prepared a garbage bag. He likely had some time before she came back. He could at least try and make her situation a bit more liveable. He spent the next half hour hard at work. The discarded rations and bottles were shoved into the garbage bag. The used clothes that littered the floor went into a duffel, replaced with a stack of fresh ones. He re-made his partner’s bed.
He was part way through restocking the cabin’s fridge when the sounds from the shoreline alerted him to a portal being opened. He continued his work. He’d just finished placing the last box of instant tortellini when Jacqueline Vance stepped inside. He turned to look at her. It wasn’t good.
Jackie looked as though she hadn’t slept in days. Or bathed. Or even bothered sitting down. Her hair was an unkempt mess, her skin a mottled mismatch of wind-dried and sunburned. There were shadows under her eyes, of the sort that only formed when one was worked beyond exhaustion. She barely even looked at him.
“Hi, Peter,” she muttered, trudging past him and pulling open the fridge he’d just finished stocking. She pulled out a box at random, and shoved it into the microwave without looking at the contents. Then, she moved to the computer.
“Been a while, Jackie,” Peter murmured. “How are you holding up?”
His partner grunted.
“I’m fine.” She tapped the power button on the computer case, before lifting a voice recorder from the desk, and speaking into it. “Expedition report number two hundred and sixty four. No signs of activity in areas B-12, B-9, or B-14. New landmass identified one hundred and forty eight miles south by southwest, no signs of habitation beyond native flora and fauna. Weather patterns consistent with projected range. Tertiary moon remained in a state of partial lunar eclipse for twelve minutes, eighteen seconds estimated. Report concludes.”
The microwave beeped. Jackie ignored it.
“You don’t seem fine,” Peter said evenly. No response. He leaned his back against the fridge. “James asked me to give you a hug from him, next time I came to see you. Says he’s worried about you. I’m worried too.” Again, he was ignored.
The computer finished powering on. Jackie shifted her attention to the keyboard, logging in, setting up tabs, eyes drifting over scanning data from dozens of machines. She started mouthing silently to herself as she worked.
Peter took a breath, and tried again.
“Come home, Jackie. Please. You can stay with my family while you find a new place. We’ll get you back on your feet. I’ve checked with Sarah, and she agrees. James and Bex would love to-”
“Did you bring any whiskey?” Jackie asked, pushing the computer keyboard away with a jerk like she’d seen a spider, then shifting from her seat towards the microwave.
“… No,” he answered. “I didn’t. I cleared out the last of your supply here, as well. It’s not healthy, Jackie. You know how many bottles I found empty?”
In response, Jackie only grunted. She pulled the now hot container of prawn tagliatelle from the cooker, and tugged the seal open with her teeth.
“It’s fine,” she muttered. “I’m heading to the mainland in a couple hours. I can pick up some more then.”
Peter resisted the urge to growl. This was Jackie. He owed her better.
“… How goes the search, Jackie?”
For once, his partner actually responded.
“Nothing yet.” She shrugged, pulling a disposable fork from a tub on a countertop, and ladling some of the pasta into her mouth.
“… That’s because Charlie’s dead, Jackie.”
It felt wrong. Here he was, trying to crush the hope out of one of his closest friends. But, if it brought her home, he’d do it. She went back to ignoring him.
“He’s dead,” he repeated, hating himself. “The Whale took him, and he’s gone. There’s nothing out there for you to find. Just his bones.”
No response. Jackie returned her attention to the computer.
Peter swore to himself.
“He wouldn’t want this for you,” he tried. “You know that, right? It’s killing you. You’ve been searching for nine months. What have you even fou-”
“Nice talking to you, Peter,” Jackie murmured, not looking at him. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Don’t try and shoo me away, Jackie. I care about you. Come hom-”
Jackie waved a hand, and Peter blinked away, held in limbo for the few seconds it would take to return him to New York. She wondered briefly if he’d bother trying to return. She could always send him back again. Nine months wandering the scapes of that other world, tearing open portals between dimensions on the daily, had done wonders for her powers. She’d outlast him easily, and he knew it, unless he was willing to burn through some of his precious stockpiled energy to force the issue.
A few minutes passed in silence, just the lapping of waves against the shore outside. He didn’t bother teleporting back. She returned to her work.
“My son’s alive, Peter,” she said to no one in particular. “He has to be.”
Peter blinked back into being in Jackie’s office, that wide section of floor space kept perpetually clear to allow for easy use of portals. He swore, then grabbed for the flask about his belt. If she wanted to make him push for this, he would oblige. He gave the contents a shake to see how much he had, unscrewed the cap, and lifted it to his lips.
Then he stopped.
What would it change? She wasn’t going to listen, and pushing any further would just drive her deeper inside her shell. He couldn’t even blame her. He’d been much the same when James was lost. The only difference was that her son had never made it home.
‘And that was your fault.’
He threw the flask across the office with a yell. It knocked a picture off the wall, its precious contents spilling out across the floor.
Through the clear glass of Jackie’s office windows, he saw one of the interns staring in at him, a look of shock sitting clear as day on the young man’s face. Peter glared at the kid until he went away, then tried to force himself back to calm.
“We were so. Fucking. Close.”
The portal snapped open in near-silence, besides the sounds of new waves and winds crossing the divide from a different shoreline. The boy who stepped through the aperture did so with trepidation. Things felt wrong on this side; subtly so. The sand had a different texture beneath his feet. This ocean had an unfamiliar smell to it. Seaweed and saltwater. The night was too dark here, the planet’s solitary moon providing nowhere near the light needed to navigate comfortably in the absence of the sun.
His companion looked around him through his eyes, and provided an assurance. This place was roughly as it remembered. He wasn’t sure whether that should comfort him.
The boy steeled himself. He wasn’t here for familiarity, nor comfort. He was here to speak to her. He glanced back through the portal, towards waters beneath which, he knew, his companion watched and waited. It cared for him. He knew that with every fibre of himself. That was why he had to do this.
Across their shared space, his companion reached out one more time. Gentle. Plaintive. Childish, in a way. It hated when he left it on its own.
He met its touch, and offered reassurance.
‘I’ll be back soon. I promise.’
Reluctant acceptance. The hope that he wouldn’t be gone too long.
He snapped the portal shut between them with a thought, and shuddered. He hated this part; the disconnect; being alone inside his head again. Around him, the world changed. Just a little. The night air grew chill. The sand beneath his feet grew a fraction rougher. A hundred tiny protections afforded him by his companion, all severed. He was on his own now. Something about that felt very isolating.
He pushed his focus back to the task at hand. The sooner he was done here, the sooner he’d return. He panned his gaze about the shoreline, and, nestled in the gloom, he found the cabin.
He stepped forward, bare feet crunching quietly in the foreign sand. Closer to, the place had a light to it, the faint glow of a computer monitor half visible through a fly-screen doorway. There was a figure slumped in front of it, not moving. He felt his heart catch a moment on catching sight of her. He shook himself.
Another silent portal brought him inside the cabin, the interior lit momentarily by a flare of brilliant indigo, before returning to near black. He gazed down at the figure by the desk. He had to snicker, just a little. She’d fallen asleep against the keyboard, an open word document flickering on the screen as page after page of j’s scrawled themselves across it.
She was a mess, he realized. This place had a different odor to the outside air. Petrified food and liquor, harsh against a nose that barely recognized the smells. Her hair was matted. A part of him pointed out he could hardly judge. His hair was a mess now, too.
For the first time in near enough a year, the boy was suddenly self-conscious. He glanced around himself for a mirror, and found one sitting above the sink. He tiptoed over to it, and looked himself over in the dark.
His hair was slick with oil and water, hanging down about his shoulders in a loose, unintelligible tangle. He was pretty sure he’d been supposed to keep his hair tidy in the past. Impressions were important. He leaned in close, trying to see as best he could in the bare light of the computer screen, and began awkwardly trying to give himself a haircut.
It wasn’t going well. The powers he’d spent his months gleaning and refining from his companion were not suited for such a small scale task. He’d focused near exclusively on things that allowed him to fight, or move, or defend himself. None of it was really suitable for hair. He found a spell eventually, an amber spark that, when rendered down as small as he could go, made for a serviceable cutting tool. He set to work, shearing lock after lock of damp, slime encrusted hair into the sink where it sat in a clog atop the drain.
Then, he squeezed himself some hand soap, and started lathering it through what remained of his rough-shorn hair.
It was as he leaned down beneath the tap to rinse himself off that the woman finally awoke.
“Mmh. Who’s there?”
The boy started, flinching upright by instinct, only to crack the back of his skull against the faucet.
He let out a yelp of pain, and a stream of muttered swearwords that had, by this point in his isolation, become the primary part of his vocabulary. In a haphazard fashion, he ducked behind the short table at the centre of the cabin.
A fluorescent globe flickered on above him, flooding the room with too-white light. When the woman spoke again, she was awake, her voice alert.
“Whoever you are, you have five seconds to show yourself before I attack. Five. Four. Three-”
The boy let out a frustrated sigh, and showed himself.
The woman stared.
“Charlie?” she breathed.
“Hi, Mom,” he mumbled, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment. “It’s been a while, huh.”
His mother didn’t speak. She barely even seemed to breathe. She moved forwards. He took a half step back, but it didn’t matter. He was pulled into a hug regardless. He winced. He hadn’t wanted this. He’d feared that it would just make leaving harder, but no. Instead, it was just uncomfortable. Constrictive in a way that had once been comforting. Nevertheless, he hugged her back.
“… Missed you.”
“Am I dreaming?” his mother asked. “… No, no, this feels real. I’m-I’m lucid. I’m awake. How did you get back from there?”
“Same way you did,” he muttered. “I made a door… Please let go of me.” His mother didn’t seem to hear him, so he reluctantly allowed a few more seconds of contact, before trying to shrug her off. She clung on all the tighter, so instead, he teleported. The world snapped briefly in and out, and he was deposited on the shore outside the cabin.
It was better out here. Able to feel the waves lapping at his toes; the sand beneath his feet, unfamiliar as it was. Why was it all so disconnected? He sat down in the surf, and waited for his mother to collect herself. It didn’t take long. He was staring at the moon again when she opened up the door to join him. She had tear-marks on her cheeks, deep shadows under her eyes.
She didn’t come too close this time, at least aware enough to have registered his discomfort. She kept her distance, squatting in the sand a half dozen feet away.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice quiet.
‘None of this feels real anymore.’
He didn’t say that. Instead, he gave her the only truth he could.
“I’m okay, Mom,” he murmured, gazing out over the water. “I came back here so you’d know I was okay.” he took a deep breath. “But I’m not staying.”
“What?” his mother scoffed, either unable or simply unwilling to comprehend it. “Of course you’re staying. You’re home. I’m never letting you be taken away from me again.”
Charlie took a while to answer that. He drew his knees up against his chest, gently hugging them. Why was it so hard to meet her gaze?
“I don’t-” he hesitated, trying to find the words. “I don’t belong here anymore, Mom. The moon’s too dark. The sand’s all wrong. Even hugging my Mom is gross. It doesn’t fit anymore. I’m not staying, and I’m not coming back… I came here cuz I want you to stop searching for me.”
To her credit, his mother kept her calm. She didn’t shout, or beg, or demand he change his mind. Instead, she chuckled, wiping a few stray tears from her eyes with her shirt sleeve.
“Where will you go?” she asked.
“Back where I’ve been. With my friend. It… It cares about me.”
Jackie nodded her head a few times, and sniffed, tears still gently streaming down her cheeks.
“You know I’m not strong enough to let you leave, right?” her expression gained a touch of sorrow. “But I’m more than strong enough to make you stay.”
Charlie looked away from her right then. It hurt, somewhere in his chest.
“… No you’re not.”