Anna sat on the steps of what had once been a university’s campus. The buildings were neutral in color and noble in their abandonment. As if they didn’t require people to maintain their status as places of learning. Green, leafy tendrils had pushed and pulled and wrapped themselves around the small, red bricks of the old walkway. Anna had even seen the beginnings of trees — little sprouts — cropping up here and there. Just like back home, the earth was slowly reclaiming its space. She supposed that people could come and go, but the plants and trees would always find a way. They could outpace humanity. Trees especially seemed to have infinite time.
Lily, who never passed over an opportunity to nap, was dozing, belly up, with her little paws slightly bent. Early autumn sunlight warmed the back of Anna’s neck, and she relaxed into the stillness of the moment. Leaves had already begun to fall. David, from the Manhattan colony, had told her that winters could be harsh here. She knew he was worried about all the people under his care. Anna understood his concerns. Food and other stocks were low. There just weren’t enough resources to keep everyone warm and fed throughout the winter. She thought of the first colony at Jamestown. That first European settlement in America had resorted to cannibalizing their dead in order to survive the winter.
The little dog moved one paw feebly in the air, and the motion directed Anna’s attention to a man who had begun ascending the stairs towards them. Anna had been too absorbed in the morbidity of her thoughts to notice him before. It was Simon.
Simon and his ship had landed near the colony’s base only a few days ago. The Dies Infaustus was a small, brass-colored shuttle. Anna had taken a liking to the crew: First Mate Jacob Walden, Young Jerry, Joan, Fly, and the captain, Simon.
He took the steps casually, as if he hadn’t been specifically looking for her. As if they had both just happened to have the same idea to spend an afternoon on an empty campus in the middle of an empty city. She made a point of looking past him at the sky. He stopped a couple steps below her and followed her gaze. From where they were, the swirling purple-gray of the rift was visible, hanging low in the sky. The hole in the universe was constantly in motion, turning in on itself over and over again, like a giant ouroboros made entirely of gas.
“They tell me 8 million people used to live in this city,” he said.
“You mean there’s not a parallel version of New York where you’re from? There’s no side-world where, at this very moment, a different version of me is in my old house and my parents are still alive?”
“As far as I know, there are no parallel dimensions. My world is very different from yours. Our technology, in comparison, advanced far more rapidly.”
“So we must be like cavemen to you.”
“No, of course not. It’s just different. Unfortunately your world was an easy target. You were virtually unprotected, but you already know that.” Simon’s voice faltered.
Anna looked down at her dirty hands, lightly clasped together, and, past them, to her rust-colored boots. She knew how she must look to him, how this whole place must look to him.
“You’ve come to tell me this is goodbye.” Anna finally said, looking at him for the first time. “You’re leaving.”
“Not exactly,” he said.
He took the last few steps quickly and sat down beside her. They sat in silence for a moment. Anna could feel his eyes on her. She had the impression that she was being sized up. That there was a lingering question about her, and Simon was here to puzzle out the answer.
“Tell me, what does it feel like to travel through there?” Anna asked, nodding at the hole.
Simon shrugged. “It makes you feel insignificant.” He stopped, and shook his head. “No, that’s wrong. It makes you feel all opened up on the inside. Like the universe might be inside you, or you might be the universe, and then you realize that it doesn’t matter which is which, in the end. You’re just weightless.”
Anna didn’t respond, but instead they both watched the swirling of the rip in the sky.
Simon finally spoke again. “David told me I would find you here. You make him very nervous, you know. It was hard for me to figure out why at first, but then I realized it’s because you understand what’s happened to your world better than he does. Better than most people do, and I think I’ve figured out how. You and I, Anna, are very similar. You’re very brave, but you’re also very clever, which is why I don’t believe this runaway story you’ve concocted.”
Anna sat up straighter, but didn’t respond to the allegation.
“I think you’ve met someone from beyond the rift, and you’re looking for him now. In fact, I believe we’re looking for the same person, or thing, or however you would describe him.”
Anna looked up at the hole-rift-rip-tear and considered what Simon had said. She felt hot all over, and realized that her palms were damp. She wiped them on her pants before responding.
“And how would I have met this person, exactly? This person from beyond the rift.”
Simon leaned in close to her, like he was about to tell her a secret.
“How did he happen to come to the same small town on the same dying planet as you? That part is easy. That part is the simplest to explain. The world is different now. Anything can happen.” He smiled at her then. “You already know what’s coming next.”
Anna shook her head. Her eyes felt strange, though. Hollow and a little dry.
He continued. “We can really help each other out here because, the thing is, I’m looking for him too. I can take you well away from here. The places that are through that hole in the sky.” He pointed up at it for emphasis. “You can explore them with us. You can feel weightless too. All you have to do is help me find the dragon.”