Football's an easy game--Hockey player
Hockey's an easy game--Rugby player
If it were easy, ballet would be called football or hockey--Baryshnikov

THE TEST
by Kellee Kranendonk ©2009

She'd appeared out of nowhere.

Ryan Patrick, goaltender for the Queenstown Quahogs, had been leaning on his hockey stick and watching the argument between his team captain and the zebra-striped ref. The sell-out crowd of twenty-four thousand had been roaring in the stands and somewhere a group chanted, "Need new refs." Ryan had known the call was questionable -- if his captain was getting a penalty for tripping, the other guy should have gotten one for diving.

Just as the captain had given up and skated towards the box, a shimmer had appeared over the artificial ice, near the hash marks. Either the goalie had just gone deaf, or the entire crowd had suddenly gone silent. Aware of a silence he'd never before heard in the Ajax Centre, Ryan had watched the woman emerge from the scintillescent mist.

She wore a long, red dress with sleeves pointed towards her fingers, a crucifix on a chain around her waist, and a beaded, mesh cap covering most of her hair. Reddish strands curled out around her face. She turned her frightened eyes on him as he skated to her, drawn by an invisible force.

"Strange knight," she said, holding her hand out to him. "Warrior."

Ryan's glove hand reached out to her before he realized what he was doing. He started to shake the catcher off, but then she disappeared. Looking into the glove, he saw a glimmer of gold.

* * *

Silence. Dark.

Ryan opened his eyes to moonlight. He heard the wailing of a cop car and sat up in his bed. He was home, in his apartment in Queenstown. Bright, frosty moonlight filtered through the window at the head of his bed, glinting off objects around the room: his goalie mask on the chair in the corner, trophies on a shelf, the mirror on the wall across the room, his watch on the dresser . . . and something else.

Memories of Teemu's penalty, and a troubled, raucous crowd flitted into his mind. Then her. The woman. Strange knight. Warrior. What had happened at the game this evening? He couldn't remember. A whole period and a half were missing from the memory slots in his brain. Or had he dreamed the whole thing?

Throwing off the blankets, he padded over to his dresser and picked up the clasp she'd dropped into his catcher. A gold circle, about the size of a puck, encrusted with some kind of tiny red stones - perhaps rubies or garnets - the clasp had two fancy, silver letters within it. C .M . Her initials? Had she been real?

He glanced at the clock radio on the night stand beside his bed. 1:45 A.M. He couldn't call Dani now. But he'd do it in the morning, after tomorrow's practice.

* * *

Ryan looked at his sister over the dining table in the restaurant. Scattered sounds of fragmented conversations, waiters and cooks, and Muzak filled in the background. The biting smells of coffee and someone's cologne subdued the aromas of spices and warm bread.

Dani stared back at him, an amused look on her face. She didn't believe him. He felt like jamming his goalie mask over his face, like he used to do when they were kids, in a weak attempt to hide his embarrassment from her glaring eyes. But, of course, he didn't have it with him. "It happened, Dani," he protested, and jabbed his fork into the charred lump of white meat they called chicken.

"I was at the game last night, Ry," she replied. "I saw Teemu arguing with the ref. I saw you skate over to them." She shrugged. "The lights flickered and went out for a second, but that's it."

Lights flickered? Went out? Ryan chewed thoughtfully as he mulled over her explanation. Twelve thousand people saw lights that flickered and died briefly, rather than the woman that one single goalie had seen? Was he losing it? A few pucks short of a freezerful?

"What kind of drugs were you on?" asked Dani, then chuckled.

Ignoring her, he pressed the light issue. "Why did the lights go out? How did they explain it?"

"They haven't yet." Dani drained the white wine from her glass. "Maybe there'll be something in today's newspaper."

"Don't you think that's strange?"

"I can get thousands of people to back me up. How about you?" Dani glared at him again. The look that told him exactly what she thought of a guy who stopped frozen rubber disks with his body. "I think you've been hit in the head one too many times."

"That's not funny, Dani." Ryan tried to act like the jab didn't cut as deep as it did.

"Excuse me." A stranger's voice came from beside them. "I don't mean to interrupt, but I believe you."

Ryan looked at the owner of the statement. Bald and wearing small, round glasses, a man dressed in a white shirt and black pants held up with suspenders, stood near the table. He leaned on a bamboo cane, his fingers wrapped around the curved handle at the top.

Smiling, the man said, "I'm sorry to have listened in on a private conversation, but when I first heard you talking it reminded me of something. If you'll come with me, I'd like to hear your story again."

"Don't do it, Ryan," warned Dani. "He probably works for The Daily Grind or some other rag mag."

The man cast her an impatient glance. "I assure you I don't work for any 'rag mag' as you say."

Ryan stood up. His meal wasn't finished, but he'd lost his appetite.

"You're not seriously going to go with him, are you?" Dani gaped up at him.

"The Quahogs are a minor men's league," he reminded her. He hadn't been scouted or drafted yet and maybe never would be, so he didn't figure it was likely the guy had any interest in who he was. "It's not like I'm a big NHL'er worth lots of money."

"So?"

"So what's the guy going to do?" He'd go with the guy, they'd swap stories and maybe he'd feel a little less insane. "I've been conked with the puck too many times, remember?"

"Yeah, but. . . "Rolling her eyes, Dani leapt to her feet. "I still don't think. . . "

Ryan pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, took a couple of bills out and tossed them on the table. "I'm a big boy now, Sis. You don't have to take care of me anymore."

"I'm sorry I don't believe you. It's just. . ."

Ryan put his hands on her shoulders. "I'm not mad. Really. I'll be fine. I'll call you."

Outside, in the bright sunshine, Ryan pulled up the zipper of his coat. A brisk wind nipped at his face. "Do you live close by?" he asked, hoping the man did, or at least had a car.

"Your sister was right to be concerned."

The hair on Ryan's neck prickled. How did this guy know Dani was his sister? "Look, I'm not worth much . . ."

"I don't want to hurt you."

"Then what?"

"I need you to do something for me."

"I won't sell drugs."

The man cocked his head to one side and frowned. "Drugs? No." He shook his hatless head. No tuque and no jacket and the cold didn't seem to bother him. "I just need you to cross the bridge."

"The city bridge?" Confused, Ryan asked the question as if it might gain him a worthy answer. But this guy seemed even more insane than Ryan felt.

"You don't remember the last time because I made a mistake. I went forward instead of backward. This time will be different." The man held out his hand as if he wanted Ryan to take it.

Ryan jammed his hands into his jean's pockets, took a step back and glanced inside the restaurant. He should have listened to Dani.

"You can go back in there if you want. But no one will ever believe you. They never do. If you want to see her again, come with me."

"Her?"

The man reached into Ryan's coat pocket and pulled out the gold, initialled circle. "You should have shown this to Dani."

Dani! Ryan blinked in surprise. Then he realized he'd said both her name and her relationship to him earlier. That's how this stranger knew who she was. A sliver of relief allayed bewilderment. "I would have if she'd believed anything I said. She just thought I was crazy and that wouldn't have helped."

"Let me take you to whom this piece belongs."

The image of the woman in red, medieval clothes flashed in his mind. The way he'd been attracted to her. Such a pretty face. He reached for the ring the man held.

Suddenly, time seemed to stop. The sky opened and mist descended upon them. Silvery mist like dew on morning grass. Even the snow glimmered.

Behind the man, the mist solidified into an arch. A bridge. Ryan glanced at the strange, bald man. 'I just need you to cross the bridge.'

On the other side of the bridge, through the mist, Ryan saw people gathered around a central figure. A woman, naked, tied to a tall pole. A goat bleated in terror. Then the smell of blood filled Ryan's nostrils. A man in white robes held a stick in his hand. He poked it around on the ground, then lifted it in the air. Blood dripped off its end and ran down its length. The goat no longer cried as the man pressed the stick against the woman's forehead, then drew it down the length of her body. She turned her head towards Ryan, her cheeks shiny with tears.

Time moved forward, slowly, a millimetre at a time. Ryan's fingers closed on the silver and gold circle the man held. Snatching the clasp out of the man's hand, Ryan pushed through the congested, pearly air toward the bridge, drawn, unable to stop himself. Then time lurched, rushing ahead, catching up with itself, and Ryan reached the nebulous bridge.

* * *

Flames licked hungrily across sticks and straw piled beneath the woman's feet and reached high around her knees. Each time the fire seemed about to go out, red-robed figures tossed handfuls of straw, and more sticks, onto it making the flames dance higher and higher. The stench of scorching flesh, mingled with horrified cries of pain, filled the air in smoky clouds. The crowd watched with satisfied smirks, and cheered with each moan. Anguish gripped Ryan's heart and tears streamed down his face.

"You weep for this . . . woman? This witch?" asked a voice beside him.

Ryan turned to see a tall, bearded man standing beside him. His long, dark hair, matted and greasy, fell to his shoulders. His eyes glittered with disdain. Of course I do, Ryan wanted to shout. So should you. What was wrong with these people? Why didn't they feel anything for her? "What has she done wrong?"

"She claims to have visions. She speaks of strange, masked warriors in chilled jousting arenas. Have you ever heard any such nonsense? Tis of the devil, and you wish to foul yourself with her sinfulness?"

Ryan turned away, unable to accept this way of life, confused by the depth of his emotions. Sadness and compassion he understood. But not the anger that was beginning to seep into his soul. If it was his sister, his mother . . . but she was not. She was a stranger to him. A beautiful stranger whom I love. Ryan tried to comprehend the emotion that began to strangle every fibre of his psyche. Barely aware of his actions, he rushed towards the woman on the pole. Strong hands grabbed him, held him back as he struggled to be freed, to free the tortured woman.

Finally, when the screams stopped, Ryan stopped fighting. The hands let him go, save one on his shoulder. He looked to find the bald man standing beside him, leaning on his cane. Ryan asked, "What's happening? Why did you bring me here? What am I supposed to do?" A thought tickled in the back of his mind that this couldn't possibly be happening, and yet Ryan knew it was. 'The lights had flickered and went out for a second, but that's it.' Impossible and yet, somehow, possible.

"Save her."

Glancing at the still smoldering, scorched body, Ryan shouted, "I can't bring her back to life. Can you? Can you save her now?"

The man shook his head. "No, I can't. I can neither do a thing, nor tell you what you must do. Only you can save her." With his free hand, the man reached out, took Ryan's hand in his and squeezed, gently but firmly, forcing the netminder to open his fist.

Glancing at the golden clasp with the initials C. M. , Ryan latched onto a single thought: Goalie. I'm a goalie. This isn't happening. I'm a goalie.

The man pushed Ryan's hand up slightly, as if trying to tell him something about the ring without speaking. Then he turned and walked away.

Closing his fingers over it again, Ryan watched as the man faded a little with each step until he vanished. He shook his head, trying to clear it. This couldn't be real. Yet if it wasn't real, why did he feel so raw and full of grief? I'm a goalie, he thought as if the idea would keep him connected to his own reality. He turned toward the blackened body lying on the ground.

He went to her and knelt before her. The clasp in his hand began to glow. Startled, he raised his head and looked around, needing someone else to see, to confirm what he was seeing. But everyone had gone. The place was silent, empty. Not even a stray dog or wild bird remained.

Then, suddenly, he heard a rustle. Turning his head, he saw a young, frightened-looking woman running toward him. The hood of her cloak pulled over her head, partially hiding her face.

When she reached him, she knelt and pushed the hood away from her face. "You must go," she whispered. "Quickly. They are coming for you."

"What are you talking about?" He looked beyond her but saw no one.

"They say you are as evil as she." The hooded woman pointed to the burned body. "Do you wish to have her fate?"

Because he'd felt compassion for her, questioned what she'd done to deserve this treatment, they were now going to burn him? He'd heard the stories of witch burnings hundreds of years ago. Never did he think he'd ever experience one. How can this be possible. He looked at the hooded woman. "But why are you telling me?"

Pointing once more to the dead woman, she said, "She looked as all women do beneath their clothes. Twas not her fault what happened. She was my friend." Tears welled up in her eyes. "Please go."

Ryan could hear the murmur of the crowd now, but where was he supposed to go? How was he going to get back home? The cloaked woman sprang to her feet, pulled her hood back over her face and, looking toward the clamour of the crowd, backed away from him.

Then the clasp in his hand grew warm, as if reminding him it was there. He placed the gold circlet in the dead woman's charred hand and got to his feet. "Wake up, Ryan," he told himself.

Scintillant mist appeared, thin at first then growing thicker. The corpse stirred. Fog curled around them. The bonds around her charred wrists and ankles fell away from her limbs. The mist formed a nebulous bridge. Then he remembered - the same one that had brought him here. Suddenly the woman stood before him, her flesh renewed.

Although Ryan was aware that a hush had settled over the two of them, and part of his mind wondered what had happened to the angry mob intent on killing him, he could focus on nothing but the woman before him.

"Strange knight," she said, touching his face. "I saw you in my dreams. You are my warrior."

Your dreams, wondered Ryan as the mist swirled. I'm a knight? Chilled air eddied around them. Cold. Winter. Ice. No, not a knight. I'm a goalie. The realization brought with it the fear that if he didn't cross the bridge and return to his own reality, he might get stuck here, only to die here. Wherever here was.

Taking the woman's hand, Ryan headed for the bridge. An angry roar broke the silence and swelled behind them, but neither looked back. As they stepped upon the arch, the glistening mist swirled around them, its icy fingers pulling at him. Voices surged around him. Lights flickered . . .

* * *

The ref's whistle shrilled, stopping play. The man with the orange band on the arm of his zebra-striped shirt skated toward Ryan. Standing, puck in his catcher, the goalie glanced at the time clock. Only eight seconds left in the third period.

With the face-off in the circle to his right, Ryan crouched into position. His captain won and shot the puck down the ice. Ten men chased the black disk, but before anyone could get a shot on goal, the buzzer sounded. Players on the Quahog's bench leapt over the boards and jumbled with the players on the ice, congratulating each other. Then they swarmed Ryan. They'd won, and he'd gotten a shutout.

When the excitement died down, Ryan skated off the ice with the others, and for the first time noticed his teammates' jerseys. He glanced down at his own but didn't recognize the logo on his chest.

"Ryan," called a female voice, not Dani's.

He looked up and saw a red-haired woman standing outside the locker room. "Great job tonight." She smiled at him.

"Thanks," he said, wondering how she knew his name, yet sensing that he loved her.

She frowned. "Is something wrong?"

Before he could respond, his coach walked by. "First star, Ryan," he said and, with a smile, entered the dressing room.

Ryan looked back to the woman. Dressed in jeans and a red t-shirt, she also wore a gold, circular brooch inside which were the initials C.P. "Ryan?" she asked, looking into his eyes.

He realized she was peering through the bars of his mask and he pushed it onto the top of his head. Then he heard the announcements for the three stars begin. Shaking his head, he turned away from her and headed back for the ice.

"The first star, Ryaaan Paaaatriiiick!"

He skated out onto the ice, looped and as he headed back, raised his arms in the air and tossed his stick into the crowd. In the seconds it took for the fan wearing the same jersey to reach out and snatch the stick, Ryan lived a lifetime of memories. Images from his past charged through his mind like a winger with the puck.

The red-head was his wife, Cayleigh. He remembered meeting her, dating her, marrying her. He remembered playing for the Queenstown Quahogs and being drafted by the newest NHL expansion team, the Kanata Knights. He remembered Cayleigh, always there wherever he was, sharing his excitement, his sorrows, his wins, his losses, just as she was here tonight.

Skating off the ice again, this time he saw her speaking to another woman, a team mate's girlfriend. It had been her first time coming to a game with him. "No," said Cayleigh. "I've never seen the lights flicker like that before. It was strange."

"The lights flickered?" asked Ryan, not remembering.

"Yeah," said the girl whose name he didn't recall. "Right when Mike got that penalty. Don't you remember?"

"Are you okay, Ryan?" asked Cayleigh. "You're kinda goofy tonight."

"I'm okay," he said, pulling his mask off and, shaking his sweat-soaked hair. He smiled. "First career shutout."

* * *

Aleeus adjusted his glasses and looked at the screen on the wall of the ship. "You see, "he said to his older, more experienced colleague. "It can be done." Volgral nodded thoughtfully, then entered notes into his hand-pad. Finally he looked up again. "Perhaps humans are not so fragile as they once were. Perhaps they are becoming stronger."

"They are definitely interesting test subjects," said Aleeus. "But tell me, Volgral, why is it that I could not bring the woman to the man. Why did I have to bring him to her?"

Volgral frowned and tapped his finger on his pad. "Human time is linear and it is not within their ability to accept that time can be anything else. When you took the woman, Cayleigh, from her time period, nothing else existed for her. But for the man, Ryan, a past did exist."

"Even though it was not his past."

"Not his history, but it was his race's past."

"I understand."

Volgral smiled and ran his hand over Aleeus's bald head. "You have passed your tests, young one. You will become my apprentice in the sciences. Do you have any more questions?"

"Why did he weep for a woman he did not yet know?"

"Humans are compassionate. Perhaps more so than they wish to be," said Volgral.

"Hence, their fragility?"

Volgral considered the question. "A single reason of many. But you must realize, Aleeus, once Ryan crossed the bridge he began changing his own future. He wept for one he loved, though he did not yet know it."

Aleeus studied the still on the screen, a little of his own empathy stirring within him. "Are we not harming their way of life, their psyche's, with our testing?"

"We would not do it if we were, I assure you. If you are to be a scientist, Aleeus, you cannot become an activist. You can march with me and the other scientists, or you can march with those who wish to protect the humans from nothing more than the harm they cause themselves." Volgral looked at Aleeus, his eyebrows raised, obviously waiting for the young scientist's response.

"Just one more question, magnus."

Volgral nodded and Aleeus put his finger on the screen, on the young goalie. As he drew it back Ryan, and everything else in the picture, moved back until there was a clear view of Cayleigh.

"Will she have memories of her own time? She accepts this as her time, yet can she live in it properly?"

"She can. Memories of her old life will come to her in dreams. She will have a knowledge that others do not. In time she will draw her own conclusions about why this is so."

"Then we can teach them to live outside of linear time?"

"Perhaps. I have not gone so far into the future to see that. It is not wise to travel too far into one's own future. Or one's past. We can only work as quickly, or as slowly, as our subjects will allow us."

"And it does not harm them?"

Volgral shot Aleeus a look. Aleeus quickly looked away. As it was unwise to travel too far in time, so it was unwise to question the teachings of the magnus.

"Come, studere. There is much you must learn yet."

Aleeus placed his hand on the screen and it went dark. Then he turned to follow Volgral. As he did, he shed his human form. Glasses, clothing and walking stick blended, becoming as one with his fleshly body. Flesh turned to light and energy. Now he looked as Volgral did. But Aleeus did not prefer his natural state as Volgral did. Perhaps one day when he was as old and wise as his magnus, it would be acceptable for his race, the Lucere, to choose the forms they wished. Until that day he would hold his energy form except when experimenting on Earth.

His last thought before he entered the room where several humans were being held was that, linear time or not, the Lucere were not so different from the humans.

x x x

A neat little merger of sci-fi and fantasy, this debut story by Kellee Kranendonk caught my interest. I hope you liked it as much as I did. Tell me so on our BBS. -GM

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