Temron said he could tell by the sky that it had been a year on his Earth. Though, aside from being a bit taller and more muscular, Jack-o felt basically the same. The time had passed quickly for the boy, it seemed just a blink ago that he’d been sitting with Rona on the rickety spacecraft. Now, he thumbed through one of his new books as Temron searched for their next world using the small computer attached to the portal gate.
“Shouldn’t be much longer, be ready,” said the man without turning.
“Always am,” said Jack-o with equally as much emotion turning the page of his book.
His library had grown significantly since he first started collecting books. It sat on top of a small wooden sled with long straps that the boy could sling over his shoulders. During the couple times they had had to move camp, he would pull his books, as well as the portal gate’s equipment to the next site. Temron thought he was an idiot for wasting energy hauling so much extra weight for nothing more than the simple, love of reading. Even after all the time the two had spent together, Jack-o still never felt like it was a good idea to tell the man about his amulet—for that’s what he’d told Temron it was.
After the first few trips to other worlds, the boy decided his pocket wasn’t a safe place for the precious green stone anymore. After it had almost fallen out once, Jack-o found a length of leather in an old country town that was hauntingly empty. He wrapped it around and around the stone, knotting it in a few places before tying the two ends together. The loop was slightly too small for his head, he tugged hard and the leather stretched as it fell over his face and onto his neck. When Temron had noticed Jack-o’s new piece of jewelry the boy simply said,
“It’s my amulet, keeps me safe.” The man had replied with his usual disinterest, shrugging it off to childish stupidity as Jack-o knew he would. At night, after Temron fell asleep sometimes he would gaze longingly into the green stone. It would glow just enough for the boy to watch the world’s inside, people would dance happily, wars were won and lost, entire spaces were developed into new civilizations with living and breathing creatures right in front of his eyes. The longer he carried the stone, the more he felt he understood it while still knowing almost nothing at all. He had however figured out that as long as he didn’t read his books aloud it wouldn’t glow, which he’d decided also meant it wouldn’t take him into them.
Since he’d been with Temron he hadn’t once used the strange stone to travel, there didn’t seem to be any point. Not to mention, it scared him. Using the portal gate with Temron gave Jack-o the opportunity to search for his family and the Destroyer in other worlds; while being able to scour the pages of his books for any characters that may be his parents. Or even himself. It was why he really collected the books and read every moment there was no work to be done.
The more time that had passed with Temron, jumping into strange and sometimes unsettling worlds, the more Jack-o began to suspect that he may be a character in his own book. Like Rona and Temron, if he was living in a book before the man in the red cloak came into his world, he had no idea what the title was. For all he knew it wasn’t even a book about him, the Rae family may have been nothing more than townspeople in one scene. But he didn’t know what else to do. So, in every world they visited if he found a book, he threw it in his bag.
Jack-o felt the familiar vibrations of the gate coming to life, and before Temron even spoke the boy had bookmarked his page and closed the book.
“Let’s go,” said Temron. Jack-o was already standing behind him with his bag over his shoulders. Low purple light reached its glowing rays into his eyes, and just like the first time he’d seen the portal the boy found himself fixated on the center. It happened every time. Something about the eerily beautiful shimmer appearing out of thin air always encapsulated his mind.
“Where are we headed?” Jack-o said robotically without taking his eyes off the light.
“A couple hundred light years in the future, the world seems to be inhabited, hopefully they’re technologically advanced and not another reset,” he spat the last word like it was a bitter fruit on his tongue. Temron hated what he called resets, they were worlds where humanity had already become extinct or was well on the way to being so. Many of them seemed to have suffered similar situations to his own world, others suffered due to war, or overpopulation, and some worlds were completely unpredictable with eerie storylines. The most memorable, Jack-o had named Hitler world. In it, Germany won the war under Hitler and the result was far worse and far stranger than anyone could have ever imagined. The boy shuddered and shook the thought out of his mind.
There was something therapeutic watching the light slowly grow from such a small glow to the blinding portal it became. It’s perhaps why Jack-o felt so let down when suddenly, it was gone.
“What the-?” exclaimed Temron turning to the small computer. The boy stood there staring through the empty space into the world beyond, confused and unable to make sense of what was happening. In the book the portal never shorts out, Temron had many other obstacles to deal concerning his jerry-rigged gate, but never this. He moved his eyes to the man, watching him busily pound away at the keypad, trying to troubleshoot this new mystery. Inside his chest, Jack-o’s heart began to beat faster, and his mouth dried like he’d fallen asleep with it open on a windy night. Suddenly the lack of sound around him felt heavy, like a wet blanket, slowly being draped over him from head to toe. But it wasn’t until a light breeze picked up and the smell of sulfur took hold of his nostrils that he understood, it was too late.
“Temron!” he reached over and grabbed the man’s arm only to be thrown backward.
“Not now,” said the man firmly. Jack-o didn’t have time to try and get Temron’s attention off the computer to see for himself.
“The sun!” yelled the boy running over to the sled and slinging the leather harness over his shoulders. Temron turned suddenly and realized just as Jack-o had that they had greatly miscalculated how close they were to the dangerous rays of the sun.
“Jack-o the gate,” shouted the man running and trying to rapidly unhook the wires from the solar batteries.
“We’ll never get it in time,” said Jack-o, already pulling the sled away from the now vaguely visible smoke on the horizon behind him. It was lighter without the batteries and cables, still, the boy didn’t know if he would be fast enough to avoid the sun.
“We have to, without the gate we have nothing.” Temron was frantically looking behind him, they had minutes before the sun-scarred the land they stood on into golden dirt.
“Leave it,” yelled Jack-o looking behind him as his lungs began to burn. The smoke was thickening, things only burned on the very outside of the ray’s light. When the full extent and power of the sun touched down, the heat was so intense it simply vaporized anything it came into contact with.
“Temron, come one!” Anxiety was filling every limb in his body. The boy stared at the pile of books he’d been working so hard to collect, he wanted to keep the straps on his shoulders, keep pulling, for his family. For all he knew, they were just a chapter away. From his small library, he looked toward Temron, still attempting to break apart the portal gate and get it loaded up and ready to move. Sweat poured profusely from the boy’s forehead, he knew what he had to do. The man had waited for him once. Jack-o looked to his books the way a lover looked into the eyes of a love they knew was about to be gone, if not forever, at least for a time. With one more large huff, he threw the handmade leather harness to the ground and ran toward the portal gate.
Temron’s back was to him and Jack-o tackled the man. Angrily Temron flipped over and threw the boy to the ground. The man rose back to his feet and like a rattlesnake Jack-o swept his legs out from under him.
“We have to go, now!” the heat was starting to hurt his skin and the boy was beginning to have doubts if they would even be able to outrun the rays at this point. Temron looked up and met Jack-o’s eyes and the boy was sure they mirrored his own. Two desperate men without a home, about to lose everything, again. It was no more than a half-second before Temron nodded and both sprang to their feet. As they ran, both took one last longing look at the love’s they were saying goodbye to. And with empty hearts and hollow chests their feet beat away on the ground, trying to outrun the light.