The alley was beautiful, dark and cold. Zack stepped through it and looked up at the sky. Stars shone overhead, glimmering with an immediacy that suggested an absence of atmosphere. It looked like the sky of a space station, one large enough to have a city. The alley was perfect, with just the right combination of narrowness and twistiness to be atmospheric but without the cramped quarters that Zack was familiar with from the many times he’d worked in alleys like these. His only complaint was that it was too clean. None of the grime from foot traffic, litter, or good old fashioned air pollution had settled into place, confirming Zack’s suspicion that he was on a space station.
“It isn’t fair to judge every warrior by the same rubric. The strength of some is speed, the strength of others is physicality, the strength of others lies in their venom. You are weaker than most Sthenite warriors, though surprisingly fast for a human. But is speed sufficient? What will your greatest challenge be? Can you clutch victory from death and defeat?”
“Who’s there?” said Zack, looking over his shoulder. The alley was darker now. A familiar set of four notes chimed through the air, notes he always associated with old clocks. He turned toward the voice, reaching into his green trench coat and drawing his Purcellian Striker Pistols.
“You’re sure about this alley, then?”
Zack passed a storefront and paused. Why was the storefront wrong? He looked at it, and saw an analog clock ticking away the seconds next to a digital clock that flashed 12:00:50. It wouldn’t be long until the analog clock caught up to the flashing time.
Another set of notes passed through the air, four notes that seemed to answer the first four. It was strange to hear a break between them. Were they part of the same notes playing, or was there just a delay?
Zack turned left, ignoring the store.
“You’re alone,” said the voice. “You have friends. Have they abandoned you? Betrayed you? Or have you finally reached a place where they can’t save you? Your strength lies in webs of community. Will you finally get in a problem so deep that not even the most generous friends will be able to help you in time? After all, they can’t be everywhere you are all the time. And what sort of stranger would help you out without even knowing who you are?”
Four more notes echoed through the alley.
“You’re not sayin’ anything I’ve not thought about before,” said Zack.
“Then why do you keep going into alleys? You know what they say about people in your kind of work and alleys.”
“Lotsa work to do,” said Zack. “Long way to go yet.”
“There are miles to go before you rest,” said the voice. “And you won’t be able to help everyone you try to help. How can you when you can’t help yourself?”
“Did you help Azar?”
Zack winced, and everything went dark.
“That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a mental block like that. I suppose it’s possible for one to form through your own willpower, but it’s unlikely. Do humans possess such technology?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Zack.
“Then tell me about Azar.”
“I don’t know WHO you’re talking about,” said Zack.
Why did the storefront open onto an alley? That was the problem.
Zack turned and walked back to the alley, finding it closer than he expected. The clocks were nearly at the same time. A final set of four notes chimed, finishing the musical phrase, just a few seconds before midnight.
“Midnight is different in your mind,” said the voice. “It’s the turning point of the day in Chala’s mind. But for you… why fifty seconds later?”
“Chimes don’t end at midnight,” said Zack. “They end after midnight. Thirty seconds, a minute maybe, but never right at midnight unless you change the chimes to start before midnight arrives. There’s a clock on Veskid that rings, used to listen to it all the time. I timed it out to fifty seconds. I should go to Earth some day, visit the original.”
The chimes started ringing, announcing the arrival of midnight. Zack opened the door of the store and stepped in.
“Wait, who are you?” said the voice.
“Zack. Or Tzak, if you need me to be a Sthenite.”
A doctor’s office was inside the store, looking out of place after the clocks he’d expected on the storefront. Zeta, the Doctor that helped the asteroid racing federation, waited behind a desk.
“Hello again, Tzak.”
“Hi,” said Zack. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
“I can’t help you,” said Zeta, shaking his head. “No appointment, and no medicine here. Should’ve taken a different route to find medicine.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” said the voice.
“I don’t know what’s happening, but I feel like this is where I should be,” said Zack.
“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I don’t know why this… this has never happened before, you’re supposed to be alone.”
“I’m not alone,” said Zack.
“No, but I can’t help you,” said Zeta. “I have a little time before my next appointment though, I might be able to administer another brain scan.”
“I don’t need my head examined,” said Zack.
“Right there with ya,” said Nectra, leaning in to Zack’s field of vision from the side.
Something was wrong.
“You’re not here,” said Zack.
“Yes I am,” said Zeta. “Are you okay?”
“I hate to do this to you, this looks important,” said Nectra.
“Stop,” said the voice. “No one is supposed to interfere. This is delicate. It’s meant to be solitary.”
“Hey, you okay?” said Nectra. “Zack, your eyes are… and your voice is weird, too. Snap out of it, okay?”
“Nothing’s wrong with my voice?” asked Zack.
“If you say so,” said Nectra. “But I’ve waited too long. You’re comin’ with me.”
Nectra put her clawed hand on Zack’s arm and suddenly he was in the cave. The Overseer of the trials was gone, and there was no trace of an alley, clocks, or chimes.
“N-” he said, feeling very ill.
“I think the air’s a little weird down here,” said the shangmere, smiling. Zack took a slow step back, but Nectra yanked his arm forward and spun his wrist behind his back.
“This way,” said Nectra. “We’re gettin’ out of the crazy death cave. And then, once we’re both safe and sound away from the flying snake people, I can kill you.”