I was developing a headache, which made it hard to think. But I managed.
As I walked up rocky paths and steps, the railing was sometimes absent, to my surprise. Small luminescent bulbs inlaid in the stone were lighting up ahead of me, making a path. Some remained dark, so I supposed this was the machine, Aku, guiding me.
“Over here,” the angelic voice said.
I turned a corner and saw a metal door in the rock, which slid open.
“This is the ship bay, you can cut through here and avoid the higher levels.”
“Thank you,” I said and followed through into the hanger. Ballroom ceilings and wide open metal floors housed quite a number of large machines and space ships. I talked while I walked. “Tell me, Aku, who are you?”
“I am the highly functioning A.I. in charge of all automated tasks necessary to run the Utopian civilization.”
“Does all that add up to an acronym?” I asked jokingly.
“I.a.t.h.f.a.i.i.c.o.a.a.t.n.t.r.t.u.c.?” Aku rattled off the letters.
“Touché… You have a presence, you know, has anyone ever told you that?”
“I’ve heard it occasionally. But, whether I’m alive or not is for philosophers to quarrel over, not something I’m concerned about.”
An intelligence which feels, in some nebulous way. It questions, I knew.
“Life is a word you don’t need, to think for yourself.”
“Interesting point.” I’d reached the exit. “Caution, area under construction.”
Aku had brushed my comment off, which said something.
The door flew open and the wind rushed in. A very long, perfectly flat bridge, with no visible supports, connected me over to an island of rock. On the isle a glass dome sat, burrowed into the rock, curving with a reflection of the sky. People were moving through the propped open doors, giving me a view of a rocky courtyard inside.
I liked the fast pace things were set at around here. I had to make sure the wind didn’t part my robe, so I crossed the bridge a little awkwardly. The set of open double doors led into the Sanctuary. I think I’d picked up on that word, so I reckoned that to be the name.
The path of lights actually didn’t lead inside, though, they were blinking, emphatically leading me around the side of the building. I followed a narrow path which curved down under the side of the glass dome. There, beneath the structure and facing out on the drop, were many old black doors. No window, no port, only the impressively heavy black metal of door after door, with nearly thirty feet between each separate one.
A glass panel lit up beside one of the doors, four down. Once I got near to it a noise sounded, some sort of tone and the door creaked open. Beyond it, a whitewashed fluorescently lit, and immaculately clean hall stretched far ways back until it opened out onto a larger room. Down the length of the hall were a number of open faced cells or rooms. Four, to be exact.
Not before walking two paces did I notice the first cell wasn’t empty.
A pale, thin man, in grungy punk rocker rags, with red hair, was lounging in shadows on a settee. His eyes were fiery, literally, and as he cracked a smile, he gave me a glimpse of a mouth crowded with teeth. His cell was decorated with junkyard furniture and a beautiful Persian rug.
The light over his head was busted, glass dusted the vibrant carpet beneath it.
His voice was pleasant, youthful, with an odd cadence. “Hello, nigger.”
How rude, I thought, easily holding back any reaction.
I nodded in response. He was some sort of demon, I guessed, by the aesthetic and manners. Best not to engage him further.
It was a short walk to the end of his enclosure. There was a brief section of wall between the cells, which had behind it a bathroom and closet, back to back for two of the rooms. I could see through the open door. He’d trashed the interior.
In the next cell there was a girl, facing away from me and in a rocking chair, staring into a fireplace which crackled and popped. She wore a dark brown hide leather jacket, with auburn hair spilling over her shoulders. One of her hands hung over the railing of her wooden chair, it held tight to the handle of a sword. A sword as big as she was, a massive piece of steel with a long handle wrapped in a black grip. She didn’t acknowledge me.
Passing by, I came to where Anna was. She was pacing in her room, a much more residential looking space. With cream walls and a window which rain beat down against. I could only assume the image and sound were simulated.
Each room had been a personal statement, meant to make the occupant feel at home. The transition from the hall to the opened, three-walled cells, was somewhat jarring. As within, everything, down to the smallest detail, changed. The sword girl had had stone walls, gothic esch. The demon, old floral wallpaper. And here, Anna had a miniature apartment, complete with windows and shag carpet.
Turning to pace back to the other side of the room, she finally noticed me. She turned a shade of pink and didn’t speak.
“Howdy.” I gave a warm smile. “Sorry about that, earlier.”
“You’re uh, you’re fine,” she said, voice somewhat distant.
“Quite fine, if I do say so myself,” I kidded.
She laughed a little, then stopped. “You were conjured, you’re with, uh, Kendall, or something. There was an alert, Aku was worried you were something big and bad… are you? What are you?”
“Yeah, well you look, like, my age-ish. But, you’re not a people?”
“Who says I’m not a people?! I take umbrage, umbrage I tell you!”
“…What?” She asked, sounding worried. I watched her as I talked.
“I jest. It’s unclear at this point, but I’ll keep you posted.”
“Yeah, okay,” I started walking, “see you around, I guess,” Anna said.
After the last and fourth cell, the hall ended in a dual kitchen and living room, with two couches, a coffee table, and an open counter and island on the opposite end. There was another door at the back of that room, which I guessed led to Kendall’s living quarters. He had a proper room.
Which leads me to the fourth cell. My room.
It was barren.
“Well?” I said.
“Room under construction,” Aku chimed. The pristine walls didn’t even have corners, they blended into each other in a dizzying, depthless visage.
“Have you been expecting me, or did you have an empty cell lying around?”
“The walls and rooms were constructed in the last thirty minutes, but the space has preexisted recent events. The foundations for an extra Sanctuary, to be implemented upon necessity.”
“This is my room then?”
“Yes, and it is yours to customize, please detail instructions.”
I stepped into my cell, onto the weirdly smooth and warm material which it consisted of. Spacious, when one couldn’t tell where the walls were.
“I can stock the closet as well, I assume,” Aku affirmed. “Excellent,” I said, sitting down in the center of the room cross-legged. “I would like the most utilitarian thing you can think of, for the wardrobe.”
“And what of decorating?”
“Leave it. I like it, it doesn’t distract.” I straightened my spine and inhaled deeply through my nostrils, controlling how my stomach expanded instead of my ribcage. Exhaled and a deep restfulness flooded me.
“As you wish.”
This will do, for the time being.
“When can I expect the clothes to be ready?”
“They already are,” Aku said.
“Damn.” Just as quickly as I’d sat down, familiarized myself with the area, I was back up. I found the door, near invisible as it was, and opened it. Nice cozy bathroom, rain-shower, big toilet, and connected closet. The closet door didn’t have a handle, instead, it slid open upon touch. Inside there was a rack wherein ten or more of the same outfit hung.
A very minimalistic, black, long-sleeved coat with a magnetic seal down the front, and an upturned collar. Pants were similar, but with a self-adjusting band in the waist. For under the coat, a simple white tank top.
I started getting dressed, glad to don some white undies and socks, where my appendages had begun to go numb. Put on the pants, which promptly hugged my waistline, making me feel a tad overly skinny. Shoes were laceless, same color scheme, and very comfortable. I put on the tank top and went for the coat, but the front wouldn’t undo.
“Aku, how do I open this?” I called. Technology wasn’t my strong suit.
No reply. I had privacy. That was actually somewhat surprising.
I went and poked my head out of the bathroom and asked the same question.
“You can toggle the magnets by pinching either of the cuffs.”
I stepped out of the bathroom and got into the coat, which was well insulated and perfectly fitted. I didn’t reactivate the magnets, leaving open the front. Very nice.
“It’s pretty fucking rude to ignore someone.” There was a demon loitering outside my room. Wonderful. I stepped out of the bathroom and door closed.
“Slurs are generally considered rude as well,” I replied.
“Not where I come from! They’re like a compliment… kind of.” He moved closer and leaned against the wall, bearing that same toothy expression. He brushed dirt off of his heavily stained jacket, onto my floor.
My floor, I thought. It was nice to possess. To express.
But I didn’t care. It was dirt.
You should care.
I blinked. “What, uh, what’d you want?”
“Now that you mention-”
I held up a hand. “Wait, I don’t really care. You’re a demon, under Kendall’s control, yes?”
He didn’t react, he just scowled at me, looking me over. He wanted to regain control of the conversation but didn’t know how.
“Tell you what,” I said, “I think you don’t want to be here.”
I wasn’t sure on this point, I was still puzzling him out, while he failed to do the same to me. It was exciting, but I didn’t allow it to show.
He made a loud sound like a buzzer. “Wrong! I’m on the right side of history. It’s a no-lose gamble, man.”
I parted a smile. “Cost benefit is a path to control, watching causality.”
“Playin’ the game to win, motherfucker. I like that. What’s your name?”
“Doran. And yours?”
“I’m named after Ashmedai, the great demon lord. People called me Ashes, back when I lived in hell, and made a good time of it. And you, nigger, need to know something. I worked hard to get here, killed people ten times stronger than me. Got that? I don’t care who you are, what you are, or how well I’m bound not to. If you cross me… I’ll skullfuck you.”
“Duly noted.” Damnit, I don’t need this.
He stalked off without another word.
Well, that would need to be addressed. Later, though, my intuition said he wasn’t prepared to kill me yet. I’d watch him in the meantime.
Arg, my head.
The sound of that big black door creaking open reached my ears. I stepped into the hall, only to have to get back as an android came whizzing by, holding a big mahogany dresser in multiple arms.
“We need a coat rack,” Kendall was saying, as he walked down the hall. He was taking off a big thermal coat, and he just dropped it on the floor by the door. Underneath he wore a white button up shirt, a nice grey vest, and a green tie.
He looked in each cell as he walked by. I stepped back into mine, and when he reached me, he was rolling up his sleeves, looking consternated.
“Come on, we all need to talk,” Kendall said. Trailing behind him was Anna, Ashes, and the sword girl, with her namesake, slung over her shoulder. I had to get way in the back of the train, with the point wobbling at me as I followed. We entered the living room and Kendall told us to sit.
Sword girl took the seat nearest the wall and slid her blade between it and the couch. Ashes plopped down in the middle and patted the seat next to him, looking at both me and Anna. She chose to sit on the arm, instead of getting close to the demon. I leaned on the wall between the couches, next to Anna.
Kendall hooked his hands in his vest pockets and stood before us.
“Odessa,” he said, looking at sword girl, “this is Doran and Anna.”
“Hello.” Her voice was lovely but terse. A rare mix.
“I’ve already met them,” Ashes said.
“Whatever,” Kendall continued. “Ashmedai, Odessa, Doran, and Anna.” He sighed. “Cobb kicked me from the program, today. The old man always had it out for us, so I’m not super surprised. But obviously, we’re still here.”
“Yeah, so who’d you blow?” Ashes asked.
Odessa, one hand always on her sword, made a gesture with her other.
Ashes’ face lit on fire. “Fuck!” Odessa stopped and he hunched over trying to put the fire out. His head whipped back up, unscarred, and he ran his hands through his magma-colored hair. He laughed, apparently amused.
She’d lit his face on fire with a holy symbol. It was actually pretty funny.
“Cut it out,” Kendall ordered. “A new professor, Porter, picked me for his program. He wants me to present myself and my work to the Sanctuary, in like, the next twelve minutes. So I need you all to pull yourselves together because we’ll likely have to put on a demonstration.”
“Wow, you’re juvenile,” Anna said.
“Stop.” Kendall snapped his fingers. A jolt went through my chest, forcefully grabbing my attention. That genuinely irritated me. “I’m in charge here. You four are mine, and I’ll be damned if you screw this up. Anna-Doran, you’re part of this now. If I fail, you all get banished. And nobody wins.”
“Are you rallying the troops?” Odessa asked, sardonically.
“No, I’m telling you to toe the fucking line. I’m the autocrat here, not just in command.” He shook his head. “Odessa, I trust you to do well. Ash, I don’t want you to do anything stupid, okay. No trying to sabotage anybody or shit like that. Anna, we need to work on your elementalism, right?” She nodded. “Maybe get you a channeling device or something.”
“And me?” I asked.
He ignored me. “Everybody stay close to me, we need to look like a unit. I’ve been researching this Porter guy. He’s big, a big name. If we do well in his program, it could be huge for us. Like no Hell Campaign service, huge. So welcome you two, Anna, Doran. Sorry, no breathers here. It’s time to go.”
Everybody followed behind Kendall. I hadn’t been sitting so I was able to get close behind him as we headed out.
“What about me?”
Kendall glared at me. “We’re gonna see what you can do.”
All five of us charged out of our hideout, ready for action, Kendall grabbing his coat off the rack on the way out.