Kendall heard the alarm beeping. He lay in bed staring at the ceiling as it came on. It was different, though, yet still familiar. What was up with that?
That’s not my alarm clock.
“Mister Blackthorn.” Aku’s voice came out of the blue to Kendall’s right. For a moment, he reminisced about setting Aku to call him by his last name. So much more official, it reminded him of where he was.
“What?” Kendall belatedly asked. He threw the covers off, trying to wake up.
“You told me to notify you of any space distortions in your lab.”
Kendall rolled himself out of bed, whacking his head on the bedside table as he went.
“Gah, fuck.” He grabbed his phone from the nightstand. “What’s the visual?”
Aku answered from the device in Kendall’s hand. He climbed to his feet and started for the exit from his sleeping quarters. “No visual or audio. Kendall, have you tampered with my equipment?”
Stupid sentient robot. I hope your crap shorted out, he thought.
“No, it must be interference from the rune or something. Open the windows.”
The blinds parted and the glass slid into the wall, crisp air flowed into the room with the twilight outside. The sun was eternally beneath the horizon.
“Has your technique succeeded then?” Aku asked.
“I don’t know, shut up.” Kendell had his hand on the door, its glass surface was darkened, as was the entire wall which faced his lab on the other side.
“Full mute,” Aku said.
Oh yeah, forgot I could do that. Stupid robot.
He shoved his way through the door and just as the brightly lighted ceiling of his lab flickered on, it went out. Kendall stepped through the threshold, the only light in the dark room came in through the tinted glass wall, on the opposite side of the room.
“…Aku?” He checked the phone in his hand, it was off.
“Afraid not,” a foreign voice filled the laboratory. The door behind Kendall wooshed and locked with a click. The phone clattered against the floor.
There was something in the room with him, something uninvited.
He backed into the door and tried to push it open, but it wouldn’t give. Worth a try. He put his back against the glass wall and started inching towards where he remembered his workbench was.
Everything he could do to defend himself had to be pre-prepared. He wasn’t prepared for this.
I’m not prepared.
“I can see by the pant-wetting look on your face that you’ve taken this all the wrong way,” the voice said.
Okay, fuck this guy. Kendall had known this could be a possibility. Fishing techniques could go awry, he just had to identify the threat to handle it.
“Let me get the lights, Kendall.”
Every candle in the room flickered to life and Kendall froze where he was. Ceremony candles, for Ashmedai’s summoning.
God, I hope Ashmedai didn’t do this.
Kendall knew it wasn’t Ash as he saw the two figures standing erect in the darkness. He scurried behind his workbench as they appeared.
The first man occupied the center of the room, a naked black guy with hanging head framed in dangling dreads. Thin and muscled, tall and looming. The second, an Indian dude in a black suit and tie, and blood red shirt, had to be younger than Kendall. He couldn’t make out the age on the naked one, his face was shrouded.
Kendall was twenty-four, nobody younger than him was in Cobb’s program. They couldn’t be competitors, why would one be naked if that was the case?
No, that can’t be it. The naked one is in the center of the room… in my rune?
“Wh-what is this?” Kendall asked the suit, the source of the voice.
“I might ask you a similar question, Kendall. What are you doing here?” Kendall had stuttered and stopped, not expecting an answer jeopardy! style.
“Uh, you-… What is this?!” he restarted.
“I mean here you are,” the suit went on as if he hadn’t heard Kendall, “struggling to prove yourself at a University where you can study anything, as long as it brings results. You choose Law, an attempt at efficiency, a Utopian ideal mind you, and yet you drown in inefficiency.” Is this… monologuing? “It’s the regulations, the rules, and stipulations which choke out your chances, Kendall. Your attempts at making good of ghosts and demons, things from below, are wasted. All because you can’t look deep enough.”
“I- okay. Fine,” Kendall had his hand on a stack of cards, behind the computer on his desk, “but what is this?” He flicked his wrist and they arrayed in his hand. He could do this.
The intruder cracked a grin as he saw Kendall take the cards in hand. The futility. “If I may finally get to that. This, is your lucky day, friend.”
Out in the daylight, Porter found himself surrounded on all sides by people again. Not so many that he felt anonymous, just so few as to make him feel alone when he shouldn’t have.
He followed the crowd off the packed street and down into a well-lit transit tunnel. They merged into a greater flow of people who were walking towards one of two passages. From one people exited and into the other people entered. Porter experienced sudden vertigo from looking into the passage.
Wrong, he thought.
It was a compressed space tunnel, which would take him to the next city over. It was only about twenty feet long yet somehow it went for miles. Something about it hurt his eyes when he paid too much attention to it, though there was nothing visibly off that he could spot. Consequence of knowing what distorted reality looked like, he guessed.
Porter closed his eyes and followed the flow of the crowd, trying not to get a headache as he walked through the tunnel.
When he reached the other side he let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
Need to get out of this crowd.
He worked his way closer to the wall, where he could move a bit faster than everyone else. Once up the stairs and above ground he took it all in.
The primary level streets were beautiful, with brightly colored trees at every corner and art where the walkways became grass and parks. Where the roads and paths stopped and building fronts began there were numerous automated shops. He’d been away so long, he’d forgotten just how perfect it all was. Eight years of duty, but he still thirsted for more; to get away from this.
There’s something seriously wrong with me.
Lunch! Porter remembered again. He hated that the two thoughts were so closely connected.
He walked across the plaza to an open front shop, where the smell of fresh pizza was thick. Out on the patio, iron tables sat only a few people enjoying a morning meal. Pizza wasn’t really breakfast food, but Porter didn’t care.
The storefront had a counter, with no room behind it for an attendant. Instead, there was a wall with menus and small doors at the base. A glorified vending machine.
“Cheese pizza, two slices,” Porter said on approach.
“Right away sir,” came a voice from somewhere close.
A tray with his order came out of one of the doors. Porter took the food and sat alone, eating slowly. Nobody had told him to check in with the University right away, and he didn’t intend to. In fact, he was pretty sure the only person who would care if he never showed up was Christopher.
Still weirded him out. He was a teacher now, of all things.
Porter’s eyes widened with an epiphany.
I’m a… Professor?
He’d been so pissed about the injustice, the idiocy of taking him from the job where he flourished, that he hadn’t realized.
Realized how spectacular this was.
Having forgotten about food all over again, he got up from his table and started off with a maniacal grin on his face.
When Anna jolted back to life, from some far away place, she wasn’t where she’d been a moment ago. One second she’d been in the android warehouse, now she was sitting on the floor in the middle of a-
No… no, no, no.
It was a binding circle, a large rune written and embellished with burning lines of chalk on the hard black floor. She was in the center, left with very little room to move. She stayed as far from the perimeter as she could, scared to death of the penalty for crossing.
“Hello, Anna.” A woman sat across from her on a floor mat, just outside the circle. “My name is Megan.” She was a twenty-something Asian girl, who could only be described as cute. Inside the small room, there was only Anna, the circle, a single door, and Miss Megan.
“Why?” Anna asked. “Why am I in a rune?”
“You, if willing to adapt, could have escaped a physical binding, Anna. I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I’m afraid your human status has been revoked.” There was sympathy in her voice… no, pity?
Anna gaped, looking into Megan’s eyes for some sign of a lie.
“Your human status. Do you know why you were removed from your parents, Anna, two years ago?”
“I… my father messed up. He, uh… I woke up and I was on fire, the house was on fire. It was his fault…. My burns don’t heal because they’re magic.” Anna repeated the words she’d diminished that day to, long ago. “My mom didn’t want me anymore,” those ones, she’d tried to block out.
“Your father, do you know exactly what he did?”
“No, they tried explaining but I didn’t get it back then. I’ve changed a lot since then,” Anna said.
“Mhm. Well, you see, he did it to you.”
She’d known. She’d always tried not to think about it.
“Did what?” She couldn’t keep the horror from her tone.
“Your father had proposed a new technique of Imbuing. When he was denied any human test subjects he… Well, the technique was supposed to allow not for giving qualities, but drawing up essences. I understand that you’ve studied metaphysics some, do you understand?”
“Please, spell it out for me,” Anna said, though she was drifting.
“You were changed at the fundamental level, your soul was expressed in Elemental qualities, Anna. You could have gone either way, staying mainly human. Legally, free will has to be assumed, of course. So you were put on a watch list.” Megan leaned in a bit. “But your metaphysical nature has become dominant, you… made the transition. Your actions were dictated by your nature, Anna, mainly your primary element. Wind. That’s why you were trying to escape.”
Anna had tuned her out, her eyes were locked on the door. She didn’t need to hear this, she was dropping down the rabbit hole on her own. She’d done wrong, and the consequence was beyond anything she could have imaged.
My actions were dictated by my nature. Why did that disturb her so much?
“While you were in stasis it was determined. You’re officially classified as an Elemental Spirit, primary wind, tier one substance,” the woman said.
“I’m not human?”
“I am so sorry Anna… But, this is not the end.”
“How’s that?” Anna squinted her eyes. The only light coming in through the open door made them blur with the residual tears.
“I am glad you asked!” She spooked a little as Megan flipped from somber to chipper. She felt nauseous and angry, looking at the forced smile on her face. “I’m here to give you your options, and to tell you about what this change means for you.”
“You mean they’re not going to give me to some student to put my soul in a sword or some bullshit like that.” Anna didn’t swear in conversation much. She honestly didn’t care anymore, though.
“Well- well, you have options.”
“Oh my god, that’s one of them?!”
“Calm down. First things first.” Megan pulled a folder from behind her back and laid it out on the floor between them, careful not to let it touch the circle. “Your main element is wind and your secondary is fire but is extremely unstable. Your scars are actually a manifestation of your unhealthy relationship with your secondary element. It says here, you’ll find that you are in some cases fireproof… Your tertiary element is water, but is more of an emotional connection and not a physical connection. And your final element, earth, is virtually non-existent, but is connected due mostly to the natural relationship between the four.” She flipped through a few pages which Anna noticed had graphs. They graph souls? “Big plus side, though,” she closed the folder, “your mortal coil is not so mortal anymore.”
“Your body no longer primarily exists on the physical plane. The official term is Immortal, Anna, unaging. You’re free from the inexorable death that tier zero beings face. But not, of course, immune.” Megan said. “So, now you have a choice to make, with the life you have.”
“But I can’t just stay where I was?” No matter how much she hated the idea of staying trapped on that world, it was safe. It could be happy, sometimes.
“No, you can’t. There was a council held and it was determined that you’re too unstable to remain part of the civilian masses. You have two choices. One, you can take your chances with the afterlife and we can banish you.”
“That’s like assisted suicide?”
“You would still be you, you’d just end up… somewhere.”
“So hell, probably?”
“No, you could go to any reality, but most likely you’d end up in a more abstract one. You could just as easily end up in heaven, we can even attempt to guide your departure. If you’re overly concerned about the state of your soul, though, I might not recommend that option.”
She was concerned, mainly because she had never been before.
“I… won’t do that… which means… I have no choice.”
“If you feel that way.” Megan flipped to the back of the folder and slid it around. There at the bottom was a dotted line. “Sign here, a hundred year contract and at the end, you receive a massive power infusion.”
“I want to be human again,” Anna said weakly.
“You aren’t, and you’ll probably never be. But that’s not such a bad thing, Anna. You aren’t human anymore, but if you sign here, you could eventually become something else altogether. Spending eternity in a state which makes you happy, ruling over and guiding nature maybe?”
“All I have to do is sell myself, and pray I don’t end up a monster by the end of a hundred years.”
“I can personally promise you that won’t happen,” Megan said it so sincerely, but there couldn’t be anything there but a lie in those words.
Not human. Something else, something unstable.
“I’ll sign.” What choice did she have?
Her name appeared on the form in beautiful cursive, written in blood.
Anna wanted to cry again. A stocky man in cloak and robes stepped through the doorway and snapped his fingers. The circle faded away.
It was that easy.
They were holding me over the abyss, she ealized. It only became more obvious as she got on her feet and looked past the man and through the door. She recognized the view from countless books she’d read, many of them written by students and professors. She walked out the door and into the adjoining hall, sadness gripping her as she drew near to the glass.
The Holy Summits, a range of grand mountains which crested like islands on an ocean of white. The sky was so low you could touch the heavens, the clouds rolled off the grey peaks to fill the space between the wildly placed masses of stone. A host of white buildings dotted the mountains, placed on and within their tops like observatories under the eternal twilight. The horizon was a deep orange and red. The sun never fully rose, here.
This was the University, and Anna’s home was not even hidden among the stars overhead. She was in a different universe. Far away.
They’d brought her here not because it was easier, it was because they knew she’d sign. The council had decided where to move her, like chattel, and had given her an ultimatum she’d fear. There never was a choice. She was a resource to them, not a person. It was only logical of them. The cause and effect, from the day she’d woken swathed in flames, to this.
There is no choice.