I wanted it to stop.
(People are very good at wishing for the impossible.)
When I became an Ophidian, they told me I shouldn’t hope to change my past, only that I should hope to save others from being put in my position. They told me I couldn’t make things run any differently. That was true.
They told me they had picked me up by chance. That sometimes an Ophidian finds you when you’re screaming by the wayside, begging for a second chance, blaming the world and screaming that it isn’t fair. That was lies. But most of them thought it was true.
“Receiving, just about. It’s a nightmare back here. Got static over on my end.”
“Lieutenant Galkin? Are you receiving?”
“I’m receiving? Receiving! Receiving over static!”
“Shit. Come on, Alyosha. Talk to me.”
“I’m receiving! Recei-”
“Do a job for me.”
I glanced up at the sound of his voice, masking my surprise by biting my lip. I hadn’t heard the door go, which meant he’d got one up on me again. I was letting my guard down.
“Maybe if you ask nicely,” I replied, twitching the corner of my mouth up into a smile. My guest sat down in the chair opposite me, picking up the bottle of wine and examining the label before pouring a serving into the empty glass. There was dirt on the cuffs of his white shirt, visible when his movements pulled the jacket up his arms. I’d never seen him wearing anything less than pristine, well-pressed clothes.
“I wasn’t asking, Galkin,” he remarked, bringing the glass up to his nose and inhaling, smiling at the aroma. For a moment, the lines around his dark face lifted, eyes flickering closed as he let himself take a second of enjoyment at the smell. They soon sagged back into the permanent marks of a man who had grown old on reports of the good dying young. Sometimes so young they’d not even been born. I’d never fucked up that badly myself, but it was only a matter of time.
Time. Now that was a word that started to lose meaning real quick, for an Ophidian.
“Tell me what you’re after, then,” I returned as the silence threatened to stretch on too long. He sighed, settling backwards into the chair and draining the glass. His eyes were bloodshot, his expression grim. It had been a long day for the Shadow, however he was defining days lately. He didn’t answer me straight away, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. I was good at reading people – had to be, to be in the corps – but his face had always been an impenetrable wall. The clock was ticking on the mantelpiece, and every little click of the second hand sounded louder than screaming in the silence.
On the table in front of me rested a silver serpent. About the size of a jam jar lid, circular, the intricately-detailed head biting down on the tail to form a ring.
“I can’t-” I began, my voice catching in my throat with damnable, shaming fear. I had looked up in my panic, and there was nobody in the chair, just the empty wine glass on the table and the impression of a man who had barely been there to begin with. I could have screamed.
I swore. I said words that would have made my mother spin in her grave, if she’d been in a grave right then.
Swearing wouldn’t help me, and I knew that. I stood up. My legs were shaking, my fingers felt numb. It was only luck that let me spot the scrap of paper resting in the chair where the Shadow had sat, not skill. Although I didn’t feel like calling it luck at the time. I picked it up, my fingers shaking.
It said ‘I’m sorry. Find the others.’
On the back, in far more shaky handwriting, was written ‘You are the last one.’ I swallowed down my nerves.
“Galkin? You receiving?”
“Yes! Yes, boss. Lieutenant Galkin here. They tried to make contact but-”
“I hear you, Galkin. Calm down.”
“Oh, thank God. I’m out in the tail end of nowhere, there’s static-”
“Irrelevant. Did you find it?”
“...Boss? I haven’t...”
“Then keep looking.”
There wasn’t much to leave behind.
The house wasn’t mine, I’d only been in it for the duration. One of the many safehouses kept by the Ophidian Corps, to shelter operatives who weren’t on active duty, in places and times free from the touch of the chaos we fought against. A home away from home.
Part of me wanted to take something. Food, maybe. Be prepared. But I didn’t have anything of my own except the clothes on my back and my compass, and there wasn’t much that would help me now.
Tick, tock. The clock on the mantelpiece thudded its merry way through the seconds. They cut through me like knives, every extra second I spent dithering. A nerve in my cheek twitched at every sound from the damnable timepiece.
I picked up the serpent from the table, the fingers of my right hand folding around it. I could feel the metal biting into my skin, cold and prickling. I’d seen them before, in pictures. It would leave marks, little impressions in my skin of the scales so delicately worked into the silver. It wouldn’t cut the skin, not immediately. The thing with this snake was that it didn’t need to bite to be poisonous.
It happened to Ophidians sometimes. It wasn’t an eventuality, though. It was a choice. The Shadow had made a choice, and I was the one who suffered for it.
I was the one. Not him.
How many years had he been watching other people do this? How many people had he destroyed? Did he care?
It meant more now, because it was my life he was destroying, or what was left of it.
I was an Ophidian. Everything of me was his in the end.
“I know you’re not listening, but I...
“I heard them talking.”
Four are lost. Two were found, one is left.
Is this your last move?
Even if you win the round, we take the game.
“They said we’d already lost.
“And I can’t... I don’t think I can do this.
There’s a place in the middle of everything that you can walk through, if you know how to get there. You have to pay a price, though. Not a tangible one, but it always hurts. It’s worse when you don’t start it, too. When you just have to walk straight through the middle of something the chaos has hold of and hope that this isn’t the end result of something, that maybe another Ophidian will be going in to fix it.
This time was harder than the rest. I’d Transitioned before, but I’d never done it alone. Not even a soul at the entrance to it all to direct me. There was blood this time. God, so much blood. I wasn’t a stranger to it, but it still turned my stomach. So much blood. I could feel it cooling on my skin, but it wasn’t mine. Not yet.
It’s a tricky thing, Transitioning. Because you’re walking through the everything, you have to stay dead on track or you can get so far lost that there’s no hope of anyone rescuing you. It’s not just scaremongering, that. I’d lost friends to it, more than one. Good friends. Even the very best can lose their way.
I watched my feet this time, not the blood. In my right hand I held my compass, now slick with congealing red. One eye was always on it, even just in the peripherals of my vision. The needle kept skittering from side to side, spinning between east and west as if north was a figment of my dying imagination. My fingers tensed, and the metal scales of the serpent bit into my flesh.
It was the easy thing to blame the Shadow. I’d been doing it near-constantly until I stepped into the everything. It was easy to pile all of the pain at his feet, make him the cause of it. make him bear the burden. Because he could have chosen anyone, but this time he’d had to choose me. And I knew it had to be someone. I just wanted it to be someone else.
Four are lost.
A flash of pain cut through my thoughts as I floundered, and I felt blood run down my skin, hot blood. I took my eyes off the compass needle for just long enough to regard it in horror. There were holes in my palm, where the blunt head of the serpent had slipped beneath the flesh and torn it apart.
When I looked back, the needle pointed straight. I thought that maybe I was already lost.
This time, there hadn’t been any instructions.
“Lieutenant Galkin? I heard your message.”
“Boss? Is that you?”
“It’s me. Nobody else can hear you. Did you find anything?”
“I... I’m close, but I...”
“If you find one, bring it back, Galkin. It’s important.”
“I- I don’t think I-”
“I’m not asking, Galkin.”
“Good luck. You’ll need it.”
I was terrified of the chaos, that primal, barely-sentient thing that wanted nothing more than to plunge us all into darkness. Tales of terror had been repeated to me over and over since I’d joined the Corps. As an Ophidian, I’d seen what they could do first-hand, and it had only reinforced the lessons.
But now I’d seen what the Shadow had done, too.
This was a game. Certainly to the chaos, although I didn’t know how much it was to the Shadow.
A game played with lives, Ophidian and not. A game played with time itself.
I wasn’t sure either of them deserved to win.
The needle took me back to when I didn’t want to be. To cold, hard snow, to the sound of gunfire, to the bitter winds of a Russia gripped by war. A war so primitive, compared to what I fought now.
Fire burned in my veins, a poison creeping its painful way up my arms from the serpent’s wound.
It was my fault, for choosing to be an Ophidian.
It was my fault, for running from my sorrow instead of trying to overcome it.
It was my fault, for taking the promises of the Corps at their word.
I walked through the snow again, retracing the steps that I had taken years ago, but that a younger me had taken only seconds before, temporally speaking.
It had brought me back full circle again. Back to where I’d begun. To when I’d first told them I wanted out.
My father had been holding a gun. Now, a serpent buried its scales into his flesh, covering the silver with the glittering red of fresh blood.
I watched my elder brother die again, his last word run, choked out around the blood in my native tongue. Listened to him drown in himself.
There were corpses in the snow, battle-torn. Frostbit creeping onto dead limbs.
The snow was thickening, then melting into red water under the heat of blood. It would be replaced, wiped clean with a fresh, white blanket from the sky above, hiding the shame of my motherland.
Light blossomed in the sky on the distant horizon, a second, fake sun. It had been the last thing I’d seen before I left with the Ophidian. Now, I could almost feel the heat from the bomb even where I stood.
I wanted to scream, yell this is your fault! at the sky in the hopes that the Shadow would hear it. but it wasn’t his fault. it was mine, for being young and stupid and naive and terrified, so terrified.
We were serpents, but we were not supposed to be like the one in my hand. The snake wasn’t supposed to bite another when its teeth were locked into its own scales, swallowing its tail. Futile, bitter, beautiful.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
I wanted it to stop.
I knelt by my father’s corpse. Now I had two silver serpents hooked around my fingers, covered in the blood of my family. I looked down at the compass in my hand. It wasn’t so hard to leave when I knew where to go.
“Well done, Galkin.”
“We’re not done yet, boss.”
(The game is mine.)
It was then that I realised that the Shadow hadn’t made the choice. That it had never been his to make.
He was playing a game and the chaos had set the rules. Time itself laid the board out in front of us.
He was just doing what he could. But even then, I didn’t know who should win.
“Lieutenant Galkin, this is Ophidian Home Base. Do you copy?”
“Pull back, abort mission. It’s too dangerous for one operative.”
“I know. But I won’t.”
“Dammit, Galkin, it’s taken us this long just to conta-”
I had reached out in the centre of the everything, mid-Transition. I had taken my eyes from my compass, and now I walked in a time that was not truly part of the world, but lost outside it. I realised, now, that I had never lost friends to a bad Transition. That it was difficult to go wrong when you knew where you were going.
The Shadow had gone to all of them before me. Left me until last, until I was alone. He had come out at a loss.
My hand had come out of the nothing, burning with the taint of chaos. I had stolen from them, they who lived in the heart of everything, who saw our every footstep and licked their lips at the thought of our deaths.
It was only a matter of time.
My hand was bleeding again, dripping blood onto three serpents that clacked against each other on my fingers. I’d lost too much blood already, and my head was light. The world spun, but it was tough to tell if that was a natural effect of the everything, or my mind turning over in dizziness.
I realised now that I had made my choice years ago, when I had run from my dying family on the snowy fields of Russia.
What I walked up to now felt like it was built in a world years after my time, but was more likely just built from the everything itself. I could feel the churning in my stomach that came with the end of a Transition. My feet scuffed against something cold and heavy, and I looked down to see another silver serpent. This one was too big, though. I bent to pick it up with my left hand, and pulled. As it lifted, so did the trapdoor that connected to it. I walked inside.
The room I walked into was empty, concrete walls lit only by the glow from the screen set into the far wall. On it, a silver serpent twisted around, scales rippling. Underneath it, the words four are lost. In my hand, three rings of metal snakes chinked against each other, and the four became a two.
I could have ended it all there, if I’d wanted.
On the wall, a clock went tick, tock. When I looked for it, I couldn’t see it. my grip tightened on the silver, and blood pooled in the cracks beneath the scales. I could feel the chaos, shuddering underneath my skin. Anticipating.
My eyes went to the compass, resting above the snakes. I took a deep breath, and caught the distant tang of petrol fumes from above. Trying to keep myself from shaking, I placed the compass on top of the keyboard. My radio hissed at my side, and I turned it off with the flick of a switch.
“Fair play, boss,” I murmured. He’d tried. I wondered how much of the war he’d had a hand in, to make sure I ended up in the lap of an Ophidian.
I turned and left the bunker. Outside, the sun was starting to rise. It was the real sun, warm and bright, not the lost light of a war I never could have won. He had manipulated, but in the end I had chosen to be an Ophidian. I had chosen a path that people had told me would end my life eventually.
All people died one day, I thought.
The Shadow had chosen me, but only because he would have had to, one day. In a way, he’d protected me, trying all the other avenues first. Losing all of my comrades to the chaos.
He hadn’t wanted to fight this battle. With my blood dripping from my fingers, splashing on the concrete floor, I knew how that felt. I wondered how much taint his body carried. If his blood had darkness swirling inside it, too.
I took a step forward. The snow crunched under my feet.
It was only fair.
I could feel another heart. The heart of everything, and I knew that I could Transition even without the compass, if I had wanted to, if I had wanted to be lost. The enemies of the Ophidians and the Shadow were the same, but perhaps we fought them from within, and not without as we claimed. Maybe we were the enemy. Those we found would otherwise have been screaming by the wayside, screaming that it wasn’t fair, and would, one day, have been Ophidians themselves.
He was just as monstrous as the chaos. We all were.
We had all chosen to be Ophidians. And despite the warnings, we had all done it because we wanted to find a way to wind back our own clock. We saved those oblivious innocents, with the selfish hope to save something that was also part of ourselves. But no. We had given that up, when we chose to be Ophidian.
There was clarity, now. I knew exactly what it meant.
‘Seven Silver Serpents are the symbols of the Ophidian Corps.’
‘But we have enemies. Four are lost.’
‘If we lose another, they have won. But you must not pick them up.’
‘To save a Serpent is to lose yourself.’
To lose a serpent was to save ourselves.
There was no such thing as victory. People would suffer if one side won. Innocent people. And we were not the innocent. There was a third path, though. I could draw this war out, into an endless, bloody stalemate. I could condemn the Ophidians to a war everlasting, unwinnable. I could doom the Shadow to watching even more good men die, before they were even born.
I couldn’t wear those lines on my face. I couldn’t be responsible for that.
It was the coward’s way out. But I was dying. In the long run, I think the world, and Time, won.
Without my compass, I Transitioned.
“No response. Can’t raise the radio.”
In a cold, dark room, the Shadow smiled a humourless smile. Time cracked and bent around four serpents, and shivered around three bright points of light.
“Thank you, Galkin,” he whispered, his voice very tired, very heavy. “I knew it would be you. I’m sorry.”
I had been wrong, after all.
The game was his.
(The game was mine.)