It started in a plain, simple room.
Cas woke up, a dull thrumming pain behind her eyes her only companion. She lifted her head slowly from the cold metal surface, wincing against the soft white light emanating from the walls, floor, and ceiling. She blinked, and as her eyes adjusted she began to take in the room. It was a small space, and its only visible fixtures were the polished metal table she sat at and the polished metal chair she was seated on. A solitary streak of dried blood marred the table’s otherwise-immaculate surface.
The pain slowly subsided. Cas attempted to stand. The room dipped and swam around her treacherously. She braced herself against the table, palms flat against its cold surface. That’s when she felt it. A small piece of paper fell from her right hand as Cas spread her fingers, only to be pinned as her hand came to rest on the table.
Cas sat back down in the chair, gently closing her hand around the paper and pulling it towards her slowly. Carefully. She opened her hand and looked at the scrap. It was tattered, its edges abrupt as if it had been torn from something in a hurry for the sole purpose of conveying its message.
“Follow the ashes?” Cas read aloud from the paper. The thrumming pain returned, briefly, behind her eyes. Cas blinked hard several times.
There was a door now where two of the walls met. Cas hadn’t seen it before but wasn’t certain it hadn’t been there. The door didn’t emanate the strange, soft white light the rest of the room did. Cas gritted her teeth and slowly, carefully stood up. Absentmindedly, she slipped the piece of paper into her pants pocket. Each step felt like a chore, her footing unsteady as she walked around the table.
The door’s surface, Cas noticed, was a mirror. She stopped, surprised by her reflection. Dark brown stubble was all that was left of her hair that once, when left alone, curled its way down to her shoulders. She was thinner than she remembered, and dark circles traced their way beneath her eyes. Her outfit was plain, a gray uniform without any logos or emblems to act as clues.
“What happened to me?” she asked her reflection. She studied the door’s surface. Her eyes stopped on a spot that wasn’t reflection, but an imperfection of sorts. Something was smudged at the door’s corner, where it met the wall. That something, Cas noticed, continued onto the floor. Some of it, she noticed as she walked closer, was even suspended in the air in defiance of gravity itself.
Cas reached out and gave some of the substance an experimental prod. It crumbled perfectly, now a thin film on her fingertip where she’d touched it.
“Ashes,” Cas muttered to herself, rolling the ashes between her thumb and forefinger. She took the paper from her pocket and stared at it for a moment before replacing it again in her pocket. The ashes, she could see, made a broken yet clear path to the door. A splotch of ash rested on the doorknob as well. She grasped the doorknob, feeling the ashes break down and spread along her palm, and took a deep breath as she turned the knob. It didn’t resist, moving freely in her grasp. The door’s inner workings issued a quiet click, and it popped slightly ajar.
Cas pushed the door open, peering beyond its threshold. There was very little she could see outside of the room. A segment of metal bannister glimmered in the low light. There were, however, no signs that provided any further clues as to where she was. Cas took a deep breath and stepped out of the room.
Additional lights sprang to life, and the world became clearer.
Signs were anchored above each door, at each landing, indicated the exit was up above. Spurred on by curiosity, Cas stepped forward, further onto the landing, and looked down into the negative space of the stairwell. Impossible as it seemed, there didn’t appear to be anything at the bottom as if the chasm just went on forever. She glanced up. At a point some great distance above, the stairs broke away from the wall and hovered precariously over the void. A hatch was barely visible at their end.
Cas was snapped from her reverie by a low, stuttered hum. She turned around to face the room she’d exited moments before, and as she did the room went completely dark. Before she could process what had happened, klaxons blared to life. Red lights traced paths along the walls while the alarms echoed loudly throughout the stairwell.
Cas pressed her hands to her ears, but to no avail. She stumbled a moment, and stopped short of the railing. It was too much. She knew she had to do something. She looked towards the stairs downward, hoping for some sign of where to go next. She found no sign of the ashes. Perhaps it was a trick of the lights, but Cas thought she saw shadows moving upwards. Cas braced herself for another painful onslaught from the alarms against her unprotected ears, took a deep breath, and removed her hands from her ears. She focused, wincing against the pain.
There were footfalls, still distant and barely audible over the alarms, but they were growing gradually closer. A chill ran up Cas’s spine. Every nerve in her body screamed for her to run, and so she turned on her heels and did exactly that.
She followed the stairwell upwards. Her eyes darted to every feature they could soak in as she ran, hoping against odds she would spot even a hint of the ashes the note had urged her to follow. Her muscles began to ache as she willed herself to continue. As Cas reached a landing, she allowed herself a moment’s reprieve. She doubled over, hands on her knees as she gasped for air. As she righted herself, she could hear the footfalls growing louder. She glanced over the railing.
The shadows were moving closer, the figures who cast them now visible. There were three people, their faces covered by helmets and every inch of skin was covered by heavily-armored black uniforms.
Cas cursed under her breath, between gasps, before lunging up the next set of stairs. She continued onwards, spurred on by the way her pursuers seemed to be gaining on her. For each step she took, they seemed to take ten. She fixed her focus ahead, and felt her breath catch. She was only three landings away from the hatch in the ceiling, and quickly closing that distance. She stopped at the base of the final set of stairs. They were much narrower than the others and lacked any boundaries. One false step was all it would take for her to meet misfortune.
“She’s getting away!” shouted a voice from below. Cas glanced downwards. Two of the three who were pursuing her had stopped only a few landings down, waiting impatiently as the third of their cohort stood doubled over on the landing below them.
Cas walked briskly up the final set of stairs, careful to slow before reaching the top. The hatch was close enough she had to hunch. She placed a hand on either side of the wheel and tried to turn it. The metal was cold against her hands, and though Cas had a strong grip on it the wheel didn’t budge.
“Hurry it up!” shouted another member of the trio, now only a handful of landings away.
Cas cursed under her breath, wrenching at the wheel with as much force as she could muster. It still didn’t budge. She glanced down to see how little time she had left before being caught. On the landing just below her, at the corner of its door, was a small heap of ashes.
“Here goes nothing,” Cas murmured. She took a deep breath and leapt, only somewhat aware of how her act of acrobatics caused the three pursuing her to stop dead in their tracks. They gasped audibly as she soared across the void. She landed uneasily, falling forward. Cas used her momentum to reach the door, bracing herself against its plain frame.
“No!” shouted one of the uniformed people in pursuit.
“Stop!” shouted another.
She turned the doorknob. This door gave beneath the slightest pressure, and Cas tumbled forward as the door snapped back into place. Only, suddenly, it was gone. There was no door, nor a wall. Cas stood up slowly, eyes wide with disbelief.
The sun shined brightly in the beautiful, blue sky overhead. Tall trees, each one plentiful with a variety of different fruits, stood at seemingly random intervals. From somewhere Cas could no longer reach, there was a series of muffled expletives and the sound of someone pounding on a door.
“The boss isn’t going to be happy,” said one of the voices.
There was a drawn-out sigh in response. “Think we’ll be decommissioned?” asked another of the three.
“I’ve got a hunch,” said a third voice. “We don’t get paid for our hunches, though. Best get back to Command and give our report.” There was a muffled shuffling of feet away from the little, tucked away slice of paradise. Cas exhaled slowly, and when she breathed in again she savored the crisp, fresh air. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt a gentle breeze or the sun on her skin. The dull thrum returned behind her eyes, and Cas shook her head to dismiss it. Hazy memories that had begun to resurface plunged back down, again well beyond recollection.
Cas walked along at her own, relaxed pace, taking in how the bright colors were such a stark contrast to the building she’d just fled. The grass seemed impossibly green, and the wildflowers that jutted up here and there were fiery reds, dazzling sunsets of orange, and edge-of-sunrise purples. A small pond glistened in the warm sunlight. Cas became painfully aware of how dry her mouth was, and so she walked over to the pond and knelt down. She dipped her hands into the pond and cupped them together. The water was cold, but not too cold. She brought the water to her lips.
No water passed from her hands to her mouth. It simply disappeared. Cas furrowed her brow as she inspected her arms. They were completely dry. She reached down and tried again. She felt the water pass over her skin. She felt the cold leeching into her. And again, the water was gone before she could drink.
“Still working the bugs out, I’m sorry to say,” said a voice from behind the nearest tree. Cas jumped up, once again alert and ready to run.
A young man stepped out into the open, hands up in mock surrender. Everything about his appearance looked official—from the tie pin that bore an insignia Cas knew she’d seen before, but couldn’t place, to the way his hair was perfectly coifed and gelled so each strand had its proper place.
“The Conjured Conservatory,” the man said. His gaze scanned the room, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. Cas watched him warily, every muscle still tensed and ready to propel her away from the stranger.
“I admit the name was the product of my indulging a little whimsy,” the stranger continued. “The high-definition holograms coupled with focus-adjusted sensory cues make this place one of my finest achievements. It only fails under just enough scrutiny.”
He swung his arm back, and Cas watched as it passed through the tree he’d stepped out from behind moments before. It hit something, but not before passing through the bark and well into the heart of the seemingly sturdy oak. The tree’s image wavered, blotches of gray static intermingled with its otherwise perfectly rendered appearance, before it disappeared only to be replaced by a thin metal cylinder.
The man glanced at Cas and smiled. His teeth were predictably perfect, white and uniform. The only thing that stood out about him was his mismatched eyes. His left eye was a deep ocean blue, but his right eye was gunmetal surrounding a lens that adjusted in perfect synchronicity with its mismatched twin’s pupil.
“Who are you?” Cas asked. “Where is this?” She gestured to the world around them. The man eyed Cas, still smiling.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be wounded you don’t recall my name,” the man said, shaking his head. “It’s somewhat vexing, but a necessary evil. It means the Recalibration worked.”
The man directed his attention to a spot behind Cas for a moment, then back to her. “Your answers, I’m afraid, will have to wait,” he added. “We’ve run out of time for the moment.”
Cas turned around, only now registering that there was someone—or something—behind her. She was greeted by a flash of silver and a sudden pulse of blue-white. Her legs fell out from beneath her. The floor parted gradually, rising around her to form a makeshift cage. The grass and flowers fizzled, replaced by a shifting, fluid metal that lined up into bars.
Three people in uniforms like the ones who had chased her earlier appeared, and the man nodded to them in turn.
“You certainly took your time,” he said to the uniformed people. He returned his attention to Cas. “It’s a shame. You showed a great deal of promise right up until the point you didn’t any longer. Such a pity.”
The world rocked and lurched as another jolt tore through her, and as Cas slipped into unconsciousness she could have sworn she saw a swirling of ashes in the air around her.
Cas awoke in a small, plain room, laid out on an entirely uncomfortable bed. A dull, constant white glow pulsed from the walls, the floor. One wall of the room was absent, and beyond the opening was a vast space, dimly lit and adorned with a number of monitors and consoles.
And Cas could tell, despite seeing no one else around, that she was being watched.