The black suit’s breathing became labored, snapping Will out of his memory. He wasn’t being careful enough; the void liked to play tricks on people’s minds, and it was too easy to lose yourself when there was nothing to pull you back.
Without a doorway open, the void between worlds was shadowless. Will and the black suit had been avoiding looking at each other too closely. Without shadows to define them, faces began to look…off. Will glanced at the anchor, unconscious and slung over his shoulder, and shuddered.
It was hard to say whether they moved through the void, or if it was the other way around. It was hard to say if moving between worlds took hours, or if it was instantaneous. Even sound seemed to behave wrongly in the void; you practically had to shout to be heard a few feet away.
Will hated the void. But then, everyone hated the void. It wasn’t the kind of place a person went to to keep their sanity.
The black suit released a breath and Will looked in his direction, though, not directly at him.
A pinprick of real light appeared in the air in front of them, returning shadows to the world. Slowly the light grew into a circular doorway. They had reached the next world the anchor had jumped from.
Will let the anchor a shove. He floated gently through the void until the new world’s gravity took ahold and pulled him through the gate. The man flopped to the ground. Will watched his prone form closely.
The dust from his landing flowed around him, eddying around his hands and heads despite the lack of wind.
Will growled. This was the third wrong world they’d tried to take the anchor to.
“No good, then?”
The black suit’s voice was still calm, but even he sounded tired after the constant sliding.
“He must have been sliding between worlds for months before he was dragged there. Can you find his trail?”
The slider held his hand out and the dust around the anchor began to ripple. The swirls slowly started to change into a new pulsating pattern. Eight circles surrounding a larger rounded square. The suit ripped his hand away from the pattern with a sudden breath.
“Did you get it?” The suit said between breaths.
Will closed his eyes, recreating the pattern in his head and letting it ripple out. “1033. Positive.”
“That’s the smallest one yet. Let’s hope it’s the last.”
Will grabbed the anchor and pulled him back into the void.
With a flick of the suit’s wrist, the doorway closed, and the void became shadowless again.
The memories came faster this time.
“Tread softly. We’ll get you out of here.”
Rumor stared at the guard through his draping hair and the glowing bars. His double had stopped bothering to come along at mealtimes, but this was the first time a guard had tried to talk to him.
“You should be able to see it by now.” The guard was doing his best to go through the motions of delivering Rumor’s meal, but if he wanted to talk he wouldn’t be able to get away with that for long.
Rumor could see it. The world was starting to break. It was the only way he could describe the things he was seeing floating in the air. Rumor didn’t think the others could see it. If they could, they wouldn’t be so calm.
“How long do I have?” Rumor’s voice croaked through his dry throat.
“That depends on you. Your home is waiting.”
The guard couldn’t delay any longer. He slid the food into the cell and latched the slot closed behind it.
Rumor stared at the food and began to eat, nibbling at the loaf of bread.
The thought of going home had barely crossed his mind since the early days. Without Kaliope, the concept seemed hollow. There wasn’t anything waiting for him at home.
He saw his reflection in the glass of water. He didn’t look like himself anymore. His mouth was almost completely hidden by a beard that covered his entire neck, and his eyes barely peered out from behind his thick hair.
He didn’t recognize himself. It wasn’t just the hair either. His face was smooth beneath the beard. He’d had dimples, laugh lines too, but whether it was the food he’d refused to eat or the months of joyless days, they were gone. His eyes looked darker, deeper, and his skin was pale.
He didn’t know how long he had been here. 90 Books, give or take, but with nothing else to do he didn’t know how long it took him to read one. There was another one on the bed now, but the words blended together when he tried to read it.
The bread was nearly gone. Rumor looked at the other options on the tray; there was a full meal there, but he ignored what was left and finished the water.
He stood up to take his tray back, and his clothes cascaded around him. They’d fit well when he first arrived. Now he barely managed to keep them from failing off. Back home, he never would have let himself get this thin. Rumor needed muscles to do his job. But this world didn’t need him to have muscles.
This world didn’t need him to be Rumor.
But then again, his own world didn’t either. It had managed to continue without him. If it had been destroyed or recycled, he would have been pulled back. It was the way of things. He’d heard more than a few people talk about the sliders being forced back into this world, along with anyone they took with them.
Maybe Rumor didn’t have to go home. Maybe he could afford to lose the muscles and let his powers fall out of practice. Maybe he could throw that blank mask into a lake and never worry about it again.
Maybe he could just be Will.
A new door opened up and Will pulled himself back to the present. He didn’t say a word before he gave the anchor a push.
The dust rose with the impact and gently settled around him.
The suit nodded. “We can go home.”
The doorway closed and a new one opened almost instantly.
Will stared at the circle of light. It felt like Home. A smile wormed its way onto his lips.
“How long do you think we’ve been gone?”
The black suit shrugged.
“No more than a couple of weeks. I worked the dilation as best as I could, but they were flowing a lot slower than us.”
Will sighed. “Things can’t have gotten too bad. Thanks for the lift.”