The room was bright, perhaps a little too bright. The space was difficult to define, stretching as it did perhaps only a few dozen feet or perhaps to infinity. The undefined whiteness made it impossible to tell.
The five of us sat in a group of comfy armchairs, somewhere in amongst the brightness. Clay very ostentatiously wore sunglasses, but the rest of us just ignored him. There were other groups scattered about, but far enough away from us that we felt we had our own space. There was a sideboard with refreshments that was within a few steps, no matter which grouping of chairs we used. Coffee and cake were always provided while we were waiting. It was all very civilised.
“So…” Ty broke the silence. “How are we all, then?”
It was unusual for so many of us to be here at the same time. We didn’t often overlap by that much. Sylv was missing, but then she’d been wildly out of sync for a few turns now, so none of us had seen her in a long time. I had only been away for a relatively short time, so had caught up with the others.
Witt was sipping his coffee, and Sand nodded at me to go first, so I spoke up.
“Oh, you know, same old, same old. It’s not as if we haven’t all been here before, is it?”
Clay snorted. “Oh dear me, Em. All the infinite variety of the cosmos at your fingertips, and your reaction is – same old, same old? Not getting jaded in our old age, are we?”
“As if you don’t complain about the monotony and repetition at every opportunity,” I said. I really wasn’t in the mood for Ty’s analysis of our lives, or Clay’s digs today, not after the experience I’d just been through. I wanted to take the opportunity to relax and just be, for a little while. I found it restful here, and the interruptions of the quiet by the others irritated me.
Sand looked upset. “Now, now,” she said, waving her hands in a placatory gesture and making the wide sleeves of her robe flap. “Let’s not argue. We get so little time to be together like this. Can’t we all just get along?”
Clay shook his head despairingly. “Sand, Sand, Sand – always so desirous of avoiding confrontation. I often wonder how you survive out in the world, with that attitude.”
“There’s no need to be mean,” Witt said. “It takes all types of personalities to people the universe, as you well know.” He reached out and patted Sand’s arm. “Don’t mind him; you know he likes to pretend he’s better than the rest of us.”
Sand gave Witt a watery smile, then glared at Clay. “I’ll have you know,” she said to him, in the strongest tone I’d ever heard from her, “that I was actually very successful this time around. Fame, fortune, frolics – the lot. Made a rather lovely change from the norm.”
Clay gave her a slow, brief round of applause. “Well done, you!” he said, as if speaking to a child. Then he swept his hidden gaze over the rest of the group. “Anyone else got any tremendous achievements to report?”
“Well, actually…” Ty began, but Clay didn’t let him finish.
“Oh, here we go,” Clay said. “How did I guess that’s why you asked the question in the first place. Go on, then, dazzle us!”
I rolled my eyes in annoyance. This looked likely to turn into some kind of ridiculous game of one-upmanship, in which I very definitely would not be able to compete. I slumped lower in my seat.
Ty looked taken aback by Clay’s attack, but didn’t let it deter him for long. “Since you ask,” he said in exaggerated tones, but was again prevented from telling us what he wanted to say.
This time, it was Witt who interrupted. “Don’t look now,” he said, in an urgent undertone, “but there’s a newbie coming our way…”
A collective groan went up from the group and we all tried to look very busy and important. It didn’t work, though; the sound of wooden clogs approached and then there was a figure standing in our midst. The newcomer presented as female, her face alight with enthusiasm beneath the bald head she shared with the rest of us. Her skin was flawless and she almost shone with newness and joy. The cloth of her robe was pristine, and so white that it practically glowed, even with all the brightness surrounding her. The freshness of her aura and appearance made me feel very old and grubby. Instinctively, I brushed at the crumpled material of my own robe, to no avail.
“Hello!” Even her voice sounded new. It was clear and bell-like, ringing out into the potential vastness of the room. Clay winced and adjusted his sunglasses, studiously ignoring her.
Of course, it was Sand who relented and finally acknowledged the newcomer’s presence. “Hello,” she replied, her own voice soft and almost welcoming. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
I had to give Sand credit for graciousness, at least. It was more than I was prepared to offer. Clay snorted, presumably at the inanity of Sand’s question, but the girl’s smile grew impossibly wider and she nodded eagerly.
“Yes!” she said. “How did you know?”
Clay’s hand shot to his mouth, and he turned slightly in his seat, to hide his muffled laughter. I was suddenly very glad for his sunglasses; if I had been able to catch his eye, I think I would have lost control myself.
“When you’ve been around the block as many times as we have,” Ty intoned with all the solemnity of a lecturer, “you begin to get a sense of these things.”
“Oh!” the girl said, her eyes wide and admiring. “You must all know so much. I’m only just starting out and I don’t know anything. It’s all so exciting, though, isn’t it?”
Her enthusiasm and naivety were almost physically painful. If it wasn’t bad enough to have to deal with the bickering of my old friends, now I had to put up with this, too.
“You’ll learn,” I said darkly, but of course she misinterpreted my meaning.
“Oh, yes!” she said, nodding again. “I’m sure I will. I have to admit I’m a bit nervous about my first trip out. There’s so much to see and do, it’s all rather overwhelming.”
“It’ll go by so fast, you’ll be back here before you know it,” Witt said. “And then you’ll be an old hand, just like us.”
“Besides,” said Sand, “when you’re there, you won’t remember being here, so there won’t be any of the pressures you’re feeling now. You’ll just have to get on with it as best you can, and things will come naturally to you as you go along. It’s all quite well designed, really.”
I kept my thoughts to myself. Well designed was definitely not how I would describe my most recent trip on the merry-go-round of existence. I wasn’t about to share with experience with the others, though. Generally, we only told each other about the enjoyable ones and the successes. Nobody liked to admit to having a miserable time; there was the sense that perhaps you were somehow to blame, and it was uncomfortable discussing how things could sometimes go wrong. I decided to keep with tradition and let the newcomer go ahead to her first trip with her vision still unblemished. Maybe it would be fantastic for her, and the lesson that all of us had to learn eventually about the realities of the game would be delayed for a while. I found myself hoping that would be the case for her, that she would get the chance to enjoy the world before it inevitably disappointed her. Still, I supposed the good would not seem so without the bad to compare it to, and that was an appropriate thought to have in my head when the announcers called my name.
“Off I go again, then!” I said, levering myself out of the depths of my armchair and trying to muster some enthusiasm of my own.
“Good luck!” the shiny new girl said, her dazzling smile transferring some lightness to my step as I moved towards the door.
“See you on the flip side!” I heard Witt call out, and then I was entering the portal.
The door closed behind me and the light began to dim. I felt my sense of my interim body and self start to disintegrate, and I fervently hoped for a more enjoyable next life than my previous one. Anything had to be better than a dung beetle, surely.
Darkness descended, and life began anew.