I’m running through the racetrack, searching for Joe. Mac’s voice rings out ahead – he sounds angry, challenging. No sound of swords clashing, though. I race down the escalator. Mac’s at the bottom, moving and swinging through some crazy kata. But he doesn’t have the calm a kata brings. He’s moving with fury. I run up behind him, calling his name. Mac turns blindly, snarling, his katana slashing towards my neck.
Richie stands alone at the bottom of the escalator, listening to the slow beats of his own heart. A red fog billows into the room. In the distance, a scream is building.
A voice whispers, “That’s a terrible place. Come to me, you’ll be safe.”
Richie stands on an open, sandy beach. Warm sun shines down out of a blue sky streaked with flocks of sea gulls.
A few feet away is a stranger in his late twenties, with sun-bleached brown hair and friendly eyes. “Welcome. My name is Matthew. I’m here to answer any questions you have, and help you make your choice.”
Richie backs away a step. “Are you Ahriman?”
Matthew shakes his head. “No.”
Richie considers for a moment, and then accepts the denial. “But he’s real?”
Matthew winces slightly. “Yes. Very real.”
“Are you an angel?”
“Me?” He chuckles. “No. I’m an Immortal.”
Richie inspects the figure in front of him. Grey flannel shirt, white pants cut-off below the knee, barefoot. Nowhere to hide a sword. “I don’t feel a buzz,” he challenges quietly.
“That’s because there’s no Quickening.”
“I thought all Immortals had a Quickening.” Richie glares suspiciously at the stranger in front of him.
“Only when we’re alive, Richie.”
Richie clears his throat, runs a hand over the back of his neck, and rubs the tense muscles there. He tries to speak, fails, and clears his throat again. “So … I’m dead then?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Richie’s shoulders slump. He mutters bitterly, “Congratulations, Richie Ryan, you’re Immortal! You get to live forever, or until Mac chops your head off, whichever comes first. Offer void where fucking prohibited.”
The two men are in a workshop. Pieces of metal are twisted and fused into pleasing shapes. Dust motes dance in the sunlight that streams through the window. Matthew turns to inspect the room.
Richie gasps out, “Tessa! Is Tessa here?”
A pause. “No, she’s not.” Matthew’s voice is weighed with regrets.
“Then this isn’t heaven,” Richie responds with certainty and a touch of despair. The sunlight dims, throwing the room into shadow.
“Rich…” Matthew pauses. “Mortals and Immortals, we’re different. This place … it’s not for them. But it’s not Hell.”
Richie shakes his head. His weight settles forward as he warms up for an argument. “So where is it then? You said you were going to help me make a choice. What kind of choices can I have? I’m dead!”
“You can choose your destination. If you choose to, you can be reborn on earth, as a pre-Immortal infant, without any memory of your former life. Your presence will hold back the Gathering, and once you pass your First Death, you’ll be able to influence the course of the Game.”
Richie looks queasy. “Why would I want that? The Game’s a pretty fucked up thing to live for.”
They stand in the rectory of a church. On one side is a simple wooden desk. On the other is a table with a chessboard, set up for a match.
Matthew glances at the chessboard, as if for inspiration. “No, Richie, the Game is important. Who we kill, who we spare, and the reasons why … it matters, more than I can explain right now.”
He steps closer to Richie, voice intent. “But. If you are tired of the Game, if you need a break from it, you could remain here, for as long as you need.”
Richie looks around the rectory dubiously. “Here?”
Matthew’s tone is pure patience, but his eyes laugh. “Well, probably not here. This is a safe harbor, betwixt and between. It can look like whatever you need it to.”
Richie glances around the room and focuses on the table. A steaming teapot is there. He whispers to himself, “He made the world’s crappiest tea.”
Richie turns his attention back to Matthew. “So, if I take a break from the Game here, I get to remember my life?”
“You would remember everything, eventually,” Matthew promises.
“And then what? I play tour guide to the after-life?” Richie assumes the perky posture of a docent and uses both hands to direct Matthew’s attention to the chessboard.
Matthew grins. “That’s one of the better descriptions I’ve heard. Yes.”
They are in a dojo. The walls are adorned with peeling paint, weight racks, and swords. A musk of sweat and floor wax hangs in the air.
Richie moans, “Does it always change so fast?”
The corners of Matthew’s eyes crinkle. “No. When you settle down, it will.”
Richie nods, and then looks Matthew up and down. “So. How long have you been here?”
“Time’s a little complicated, but … when my head left my shoulders, there were American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.”
“Whoa, that’s a long time! That’s like, back before I was even born!” Matthew startles, and then satisfies himself with a nod.
Richie taps his toes on the floor mat. “And if I … wanted to get a message back to someone on earth, could I do that?”
“No. Or at least, I’ve never found a way.” Matthew’s voice peters out, distracted. He takes a breath and starts again. “Fitzcairn is still looking. If you stayed, you could work with him on that.” Outside the window, a street lamp flickers. Matthew searches Richie’s face. “Why? Who would you send a message to?”
Richie stares into the corner, where a door leads to a darkened office. “It’s Mac. My teacher, Duncan MacLeod. He’s one of the good guys. And … he didn’t mean to do this. Ahriman tricked him. Mac’s gonna be ripping himself apart. If I could get him a message, let him know I’m OK…”
“And what about you?” Matthew interrupts.
“Huh?” Richie shakes his head, confused by the question.
Matthew’s lips flatten. He pins Richie with his eyes and presses, “Were you ‘one of the good guys’?”
They stand in a small, windowless room. A guitar stands in one corner, a desk with a laptop computer in the other. The walls are covered with bookcases, and the bookcases are full of leather-bound volumes. A soulful blues tune leaks in from beyond a closed door.
Richie runs his eyes over the Chronicles. His lips move as if he were counting to himself, or praying. Finally he replies, “Is Carter Wellan here? Or Alex Mills?”
“No. Carter was here for a time. When Haresh arrived, they moved on together. Alex went back.”
Richie absently replies, “Too bad. I owe them both an apology. I guess, . . .” Richie sighs. “I tried to be a good guy.” He pauses for a moment, lost in memories and then bleakly adds, “I didn’t really think things through . . .” Richie shifts, unable to hold still, and rubs his eyes. Finally he blurts out, “Things just didn’t work out like I planned.”
Snapping his attention back to Matthew, Richie demands, “Is that what this is all about? Am I being judged? ‘Cause you got no right.” He snarls, “You don’t know what I was going through!”
Matthew listens, waiting to make sure Richie is done. Then he replies gently, “Nobody’s perfect, Richie. Really. No one is. You forgave your teacher so easily. Perhaps you could save a bit of it for yourself.”
Richie shudders, ungrounded emotions pulsing through him. He takes a deep breath and lets it out without saying a word. A guitar wails in the distance.
Matthew continues briskly. “But you are right. The only person qualified to judge is you. If you feel that the life you just lived is worthy, is the best you are capable of, then you can choose to move on.”
“Move on?” Richie asks warily.
“Yes, to a life on another world.”
“Well,” Richie asks, “what’s it like there?”
Matthew shrugs, a self-deprecating smile on his face. “I don’t know. I’ve never been, and no one has ever come back to tell me.”
Richie snorts. “Some tour guide you turned out to be.” He pulls himself out of his normal slouch into an upright stance. “So, let me get this straight. I’ve got three choices.” Richie holds up one finger. “Option one, I stay here to be a tour guide.” He adds a second finger. “Option two, I get reborn back on earth as a baby, and have a whole new life.” A third finger is in the air. “Or, if I feel like I just lived the best life I ever could, I can move on to another world. But you got no idea what that one’s actually like. Right?”
Matthew considers for a moment. “Yes, those are your choices.”
Richie seems more animated. “OK, now we’re getting somewhere! I think I can do better, if I get a second chance. Definitely.”
The two men are on a ridge overlooking a pine forest. The clearing they stand in ends abruptly a few feet behind them. The ridge drops away into a sheer cliff, with a single outcropping hanging over the chasm. For a moment Richie hears the clash of swords and very faintly, Mac’s gentle voice, instructing, instructing, instructing. Tears sting his eyes and he blinks rapidly. The sounds fade. Richie’s lips curve into a smile. A fresh breeze ruffles through his hair.
The smile grows on Richie’s face as he checks out the view. “And I’ve got a lot to live for. You know, things I never tried, places I never went to. I want to see the Grand Canyon. No, I wanna put, like, rockets on a motorcycle and jump the Grand Canyon!” Richie spins around enthusiastically in the grass, his hand showing a bike’s path against the blue sky. “And you should try it, man. ‘Cause, this place is nice and all, but 25 years? You need to get out more!”
Matthew walks toward him, smiling. “You could be right, Richie. Good-bye.” He holds out his hand.
Richie shakes Matthew’s hand automatically, and then looks up with startled recognition in his eyes. “Matthew?”
“You always were the brave one, my friend,” Matthew says to an empty beach. The sun dives down in the western sky, casting his shadow far out over the waves. “Maybe this time I’ll find the courage to join you.”
In the darkness, a baby starts to cry.