Follow the Ashes – His Name Was Gavin

It was a dreary day, like many had been for the better part of a year. The rain drew trails along the outer panes of glass, any debris that had settled on their surface the night before burned away by the acidity of the rainwater. Bright, phosphorescent lightning bolts split the otherwise night-dark sky though it was only just past noon local time.

“Commander Cassiopeia.”

Cas snapped back to attention. She blinked, looking around to take in her surroundings. She was in an office, pristine and meticulously organized. She turned around. The desk behind her–her desk, she surmised thanks to a simple, black and white name tag–had a computer that looked in need of replacing, and an empty picture frame with a metal dog tag draped over it.

The officer who had entered wasn’t one with whom Cas was familiar. He stood at attention, and saluted when Cas acknowledged him.

“At ease, Captain Wilkins,” Cas said after returning the salute. “What can I do for you?”

Some of the tension left Captain Wilkins. “You’ve been assigned a new lieutenant, ma’am.”

Cas sighed. “I’d told them I don’t need a glorified assistant,” she replied abruptly. She paused, and considered her next words with care. “Forgive me. It’s been a taxing day.”

Captain Wilkins waved off the concern. “No apologies needed, Commander,” he said. “Keeping up with the protective coatings on the base to keep the constant weather anomalies has many of us a bit…Well, unfiltered I suppose. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Appreciated,” Cas said. “And is this new lieutenant here?”

Captain Wilkins nodded. “Just outside,” he replied. “Shall I bring him in?”

Cas acted as if she was weighing her options in her hands, prompting a chuckle from the Captain.

“I suppose so,” Cas replied finally.

Captain Wilkins turned and motioned to the new lieutenant. He offered a salute and left as the Cas’s newest cohort stepped into the room. When he entered, Cas blinked a few times.

He was slightly shorter than Cas. His hair, a raven shade of black, was swept neatly back and held with product. He was thin–a sign he did not come from money, and therefore had limited access to food. A bandage covered one of his eyes, and the other one probed at Cas.

“Commander Cassiopeia. Let me just start by saying what an honor it is to be assigned to you, and to such an important project,” the lieutenant said.

Cas nodded. “The Ellipse is proving to be quite an undertaking. I hope you’re not easily frightened by long hours, difficult problems, and insurmountable odds…Sorry, what was it again?”

“Apologies, Commander. Lieutenant Gavin Redford, reporting for duty,” the lieutenant, Gavin, replied.

Cas studied Gavin. “Do you have a brother, perhaps?” she asked. “Another relative I may have crossed paths with, perhaps?”

Gavin shook his head. He frowned. “I can’t say I do,” he replied, adding, “My condolences for your loss. I’d heard about your husband’s passing in the line of duty.” He nodded to the frame and the dog tag that rested atop it.

Cas shook her head. “He died in a skirmish over water reserves,” she replied. “Killed by some of his own men, no less.”

“Pardon my asking, but I had heard you chose to not seek the death penalty as is customary in such…events,” Gavin said. “Why is that?”

“A bit of a bold question on a rather heavy subject,” Cas said, a finger raised. “Perhaps we can talk about this once I’ve learned if you’re up to snuff for this project. What happened to your eye?”

Gavin smiled. “Cybernetic eye,” he said. “Still healing, freshly installed and everything. I had a suspicion it could come in handy. Time will tell, though, won’t it?”

Cas snapped sharply back to the present upon feeling the cold metal of Gavin’s cybernetic eye in her pocket. As her vision returned to focus, she realized she wasn’t alone.

“Raph,” Cas said. “It’s so good to see you. We’ve got a lot to discuss, and not much time to do so I fear.”

Raph saluted in response. Maeve and Bertie stepped into view.

“My dear friend,” Bertie said. “We’ve got far more to discuss than you could possibly imagine.”

Follow the Ashes – What’s in a Name?

A countdown timer initiated above the door, and it indicated to Cas that she had only one minute to identify herself. Elimination seemed cut and dry to Cas–a permanent end, and not some clever phrasing for another meaning.

“My name is Cas,” Cas said. “I was a Commander on…Damn it, what was it?”

An alarm sounded and the countdown jumped ahead by five seconds. “Invalid response,” said the computerized voice. “Authorized personnel only. Identify or face elimination.”

“Commander Cas, who solved the Rings,” Cas guessed. Five more seconds vanished from the countdown after another alarm sounded.

“Shit,” Cas muttered low enough that it was not registered by the microphone that awaited her answer. A dull ache permeated from deep behind her eyes. A hint of a memory drifted to the surface for a fraction of a second and then it fell away from her thoughts too quickly for Cas to have taken anything meaningful from it. She focused, and the pain intensified. She gritted her teeth against it, determined.

The memory of the party was so real once again, as if Cas was there in person reliving those moments. Bertie. Gavin. Raph.

Vittorio. The oily slick smile of his made Cas’s skin crawl, but she endured it. Meanwhile, an intense buzzing rang in her ears. The pain intensified further as Vittorio addressed her.

“The —- of —- hour,” Vittorio said, some of his words drowned out. “What —- honor ——– you, Com— Cas—-.”

“Damn it,” Cas muttered. The world shifted suddenly and she was back in front of the door. The pain had subsided but at the loss of her focus on the memories she had been trying to recall.

Again she thought back to the party, the pain even more intense as her body rejected the idea of remembering that night and, more specifically, details about herself. She pried at the little black box in her mind, and felt as it began to give.

Once again she stood alone with Vittorio, the burning Earth visible through the massive windows ahead. Stars twinkled visibly all around. A couple stood out more than the rest at first, and as Cas focused and the pain only grew worse the stars grew into greater focus. A constellation formed.

“Cassiopeia!” Cas gasped, only somewhat aware of the blood that ran freely from her nose. “Commander Cassiopeia of Ellipse Datum!” She fell forward as the door opened, and the world righted itself.

“Welcome back, Commander,” the computerized voice said. “It’s been a long time. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Follow the Ashes – The Road Beyond Ruination

Cas approached the door and opened it. The Simulation Room beyond had not fully reset yet; trees and sky glitched in and out of realization with color schemes that did not suit them. The artificial Raph flickered in and out of existence like a ghost unable to manifest itself.

“Nothing for me out there,” Cas said to herself, uncertain if she was right but determined to press on to someplace new. She had finally gotten answers, but they left her with even more questions. Gavin’s death did nothing to help her.

She reached into her pocket and shivered when her fingers glided over the cold metal of Gavin’s cybernetic eye, still coated in a soft layer of ashes from immediately after his final moments. She withdrew her hand from her pocket and wiped it on her pants. She reached for the panel by the door and tried entering a different combination before opening the door. A small light panel above the door blinked red with each attempted combination, and each time she opened the door the same Simulation Room awaited her on the other side.

Cas noticed a separate panel to the left of the door. It was an older interface that lacked a touchscreen or mechanical keys.

“A key card reader,” Cas said “I suppose I should be surprised.” She ran the card key through the reader and waited with bated breath. The light above the door flashed red briefly. It flashed a second time, and then turned solid green and remained lit.

The door remained shut. The room shuddered suddenly, and Cas felt subtle rumblings of movement beneath her feet. She shut her eyes and focused, but struggled to determine which way the room may started moving. Almost as soon as the room had started moving, it shuddered to a stop.

The doors slide open and revealed hallway. The walls glittered a gold that, even at a glance, was clearly more than paint. The floors were carpeted with vibrant red carpeting. Cas stepped into the hallway. A grid of green light illuminated the ceiling. It moved downwards, scanning the corridor, and passed over Cas before she could step back.

“ID mismatch detected,” a computerized voice said. “Speak your name and business or you will be eliminated for trespassing. Have a nice day!”

Follow The Ashes – The Steep Cost of Failure

Cas stepped back, hand clasped over her mouth as she struggled to swallow the scream that threatened to rip loose at any moment. The world around her wavered and disappeared, the simulated memories no longer there. Replaced by the room with the overly extravagant desk and the window that afforded a perfect view of Terra below.

Earth, or what was left of it.

“I know you’re there, damn it,” Cas said, not bothering to turn around. “Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”

“It would have killed you, I’m afraid,” Gavin said, walking around the desk and into view. “Frankly, I’m quite surprised it didn’t kill you. I don’t believe you were meant to learn the truth just yet. There are still too many loose ends.”

Cas glared at Gavin, whose expression was unreadable as ever. “Can’t you just speak plainly?”

“If only I had the time,” Gavin replied, shaking his head. “A risk I had taken knowing the potential consequences. You’ll need to find the others. They’ll have been reassigned again now that your actions are coming together.”

“My what?” Cas demanded.

Gavin shook his head. “High Command knows what you knew, and what you did about it,” he replied. He reached into his shirt pocket and handed Cas a card key.

“You’ll need this,” Gavin instructed. “I’ll leave you with an old quote I’ve been fond of ever since we embarked on this journey you don’t yet fully recall. The risk I took was calculated, but man am I bad at math.”

Cas couldn’t help but smiled. “What do you mean, though?”

The sound was soft and faint, and suddenly was quite horrible. It happened slow, then suddenly. The iris of Gavin’s cybernetic eye flashed red, followed by a blinding light. The heap of ashes resting where Gavin had stood seconds before seemed so small compared to how much space he took up–both physically and personality-wise.

His cybernetic eye sat atop the ashes, staring at Cas though there were no longer any signs it was still functional.

“Probably not what I had in mind, but best not risk it,” Cas said to herself. She reached down and plucked the eye from the ashes, wiping it off before placing it in one of her pockets. She shuddered.

Something called out from somewhere partially obscured in memories she couldn’t quite reach. She bowed her head, her eyes shut, and silently offered up a prayer. It felt like a foreign gesture to Cas, but seemed appropriate all the same.

The Earth burned in the corner of her vision.

“I have to make this right,” Cas said. She turned her attention to the door, then glanced at the card key in her hand. “And now I know where I can start.”

Follow the Ashes – The Price of Success

It was a celebration that put all other celebrations to shame. Cas arrived early and still felt as if she had gotten there late, shocked by how many people were already milling about the dimly-lit room. Brilliantly colored lights played around the ceiling and glimmered up from within the floor. Simulated shooting stars passed through the air without bothering the partygoers.

Cas inhaled deeply, braced herself, and entered the chaos. She couldn’t shake the feeling something was off, but whatever that something was eluded her. Her silver dress shined brilliantly, her matching gloves held in place with micro-gravs – just enough give to look like they were slipping off without the hassle of having to adjust them.

It was not a look Cas enjoyed, but the communication was clear. Everyone was to look exceptional. There were stakeholders to please, to wine and dine, and to fleece for every penny they were worth. The Rings depended on it.

“The Rings,” Cas muttered to herself.

Someone tapped on her shoulder, and Cas spun around. Raph, Ismeria, and Gavin stood together, smiling.

“Great to see you Commander,” Raph said, smiling especially broadly.

“Color me surprised,” Gavin added. “I distinctly recall you having indicated you were busy and would not be able to put in an appearance.”

Ismeria chuckled. “You’re just pissed because we owe Raph money,” she said. “My apologies, Commander, but I figured you would prefer paperwork over partying.”

Cas shook her head. She couldn’t help but smile back. “Hardly appropriate, but you can square away paying Raph later. Of course I’m here. Speaking of being here, where’s…” She trailed off. A blank space where a name should be in her memory. Odd, Cas thought.

“Maeve is on security duty, per your command,” Gavin replied. “Or are you having a brain lapse? No need to pretend you forget her name when she’s not around.”

“Right. Of course,” Cas replied. “Excuse me, I believe we were instructed to mingle.” She excused herself, and disappeared into the crowd. Screens moved along the edge of the room. They showcased beautiful forests with opulent tree houses, Medieval castle-towns with modern amenities, and collisions of past and future.

“What amazing habitat offerings,” one guest said to another. “I can’t choose which I’d prefer.”

“Any of them are an improvement over old, sad Terra,” replied the guest’s companion.

“Terra,” Cas muttered to herself. She noticed she was being watched, so she turned around to move among the crowd and bumped into someone. He was tall and portly, dressed in a forest green suit with a soft blue vest visible.

“Oh ho, if it isn’t the favorite Commander. Good evening,” the man said.

Cas smiled. “Bertie. A sight for sore eyes. Join me for a drink and conversation, would you?”

Bertie nodded. “Of course, of course, but I’ll have to make myself scarce before long,” he replied. “I do believe your bosses hate the idea of investors being treated as friends.”

Cas intercepted one of the hospitality droids drifting among the crowd just long enough to take two glasses of champagne. She handed one to Bertie, who raised it in a toast.

“To your extraordinary success,” Bertie said. “You solved the riddle no one else could unpuzzle. An awesome feat.”

Cas hesitated. What, she wondered, had she solved that was so important. “Thank you,” Cas replied, raising her glass to meet Bertie’s.

There was a murmuring among the crowd, attention shifting to the entrance. Bertie shook his head, downed his drink, and offered a lazy salute.

“We’ll talk again soon, I’m sure,” Bertie said. “You’ve got a very important guest to speak with, I believe.” He walked away before Cas could reply. The crowd seemed to be moving away from Cas, she noticed.

“The Commander of the hour.” The speaker’s voice deep, its intent carried on murky undertones like a wave rolling off of a storm.

Cas turned around, and looked up. There was no mistaking Vittorio Prosseur. His head floated suspended in a Vitalis Solution in a globe, separate from his custom built body but quite alive. An enormous, cybernetic heart pumped visibly within a similar, translucent dome in the body’s chest.

“Doctor Prosseur, it is always an honor,” Cas replied. The words were foreign, but fell effortlessly from her mouth. “I assure you, of course, it has been a team effort.”

“Please, call me Vittorio,” Vittorio said. He placed a cybernetic hand on Cas’s shoulder, its palm larger than her head. “You and I are of a higher calling than most here. We operate on a level of skill and wisdom that’s…not always appreciated. Walk with me.”

The room was empty, save for Vittorio. The party seemed to have ended. The screens had turned off.

“I’ll admit, I would have never thought to reverse the Simulation Engines like that,” Vittorio said, standing at the largest screen in the room. “It was a very calculated move on your part. The losses great, but the gains? Let’s just say our profits have never been greater.”

Cas approached slowly, cautiously. This screen displayed a far more dreary place. Fires raged across a planet’s surface, seas boiling. Parts of the land were visible only as blackened ruin, storms of ashes swirling across them from time to time.

“You solved the problem of providing power to the Rings, Commander,” Vittorio said. “And all you had to do was burn up Terra like charcoal in an old fireplace.”

Cas felt her stomach drop as she realized the scene unfolding in front of her was no display.

“What have I done…”

Follow The Ashes – Fragments of Memory

Cas was aware something was different the moment she stepped into the control room. Fresh, modern, functional displays dominated an entire wall, lines of fiber optic cables tethering them to consoles below. The wall opposite from the door, however, is what captured Cas’s attention.

There was a desk that radiated luxury. It was the most low-tech piece of the room. The woodworking was impeccable, and it looked to be antique but well cared for despite no one being around.

Two trails of ashes ran parallel to each other as if to create a walkway to the desk, but instead went around it. Cas followed them, wary she was likely being watched. The path created by the ashes didn’t stop at the desk, but went around it and met their endpoint at the wall.

The display fitted into the wall was different, however. It didn’t display data streams or schematics for other rooms like the ones she’d previously encountered. This screen displayed a series of interwoven, concentric metal rings. Points of light were visible with windows showing hints of what was within the rooms beyond.

At the heart of it all was a planet, its surface visibly scarred to the point of not being habitable. Some points on the planets surface were still ablaze, the fires so large they were visible from this distance.

“This is a window…” Cas gasped, the realization settling in. She felt her stomach as it bottomed out. Dread mingled with familiarity, and Cas felt as if she had found herself standing at a precipice. Ahead was a point of no return–a sharp drop and a guaranteed sudden, final stop.

The desk featured one notebook, plain in its appearance but without even a hint of dust unlike the desktop which was covered in a fine layer. Someone had put it there recently, and deliberately.

Cas opened the notebook, her eyes drawn to the writing immediately. She snapped it shut and set it back down on the desk again, looking away.

“This is another trick, isn’t it?” Cas said to the room. “I know you’re watching me, Gavin. Just show yourself and explain this.” She gestured to the notebook and waited patiently.

No response came.

Her patience failing, Cas reopened the notebook and confronted her own handwriting. It was unmistakably hers, but she had no recollection of the thoughts on the pages in front of her.

Progress is slow and time is limited. We work endlessly, foregoing meals and sleep in favor of solving the final hurdle – how do we make the environments on the Rings permanently habitable? I cannot seem to solve one problem without creating another. Too many factors to consider.

Cas turned the page and continued reading.

We have received orders on a means to meet the power needs of the Rings, but few details have been relayed. Gavin remains optimistic, always pointing to that unsettling eye of his and saying how he’s got an eye for spotting wins. I suspect he means to be charming and conversational. I have little time for such pleasantries. There is something deeply concerning about the solutions – they present more questions than answers. Meanwhile, the various themed living quarters seem to be failing one by one. Their inhabitants are unaware they live in simulated realities, and so they scramble to survive. I cannot intervene or the integrity of all we have worked for will evaporate, and the entire project will inevitably be terminated.

Cas paused, her eyes shut tightly for a moment. A dull pain rolled from the base of her neck along the top of her head. She breathed through it, opened her eyes, and continued reading.

I’ve been running equations with Raph’s help. Maeve continues to complain that she is being under-utilized. Word, however, is that we are expecting a visit from much higher up. The name Vittorio has been mentioned, and if that rumor is even remotely true then we must work with haste and care.

“Vittorio,” Cas repeated aloud. “Why do I know that name…”

Vittorio’s visit went as expected. He focused largely on profitability and problem-solving, and only provided half-answers and misdirecting questions when asked how we would be improving upon meeting the power needs of the Rings. He left without joining the staff for dinner, his personal spaceship destined for a private planetoid somewhere far from here. Gavin continues to speak highly of the progress, but I cannot shake the feeling things are not as they appear. I need to have a contingency plan in place should there be difficulties ahead.

Cas turned the page. The very edge of the next five pages was all that remained, and the ones beyond that were blank.

“Rings…” Cas muttered to herself. Her eyes shot open wide as a rush of memories hit her. Maeve. Lieutenant Ismeria. Raph.

Gavin.

Blinding pain erupted behind her eyes, the world spinning around as she fought off a wave of nausea. She fell to her knees, her fists clenched so tightly that her nails drew blood from her palms.

The footsteps were soft, deliberately so, and measured.

“This has finally accelerated,” Gavin–his voice now unmistakable–said. “And yet you are nowhere near ready.”

“Go to hell,” Cas spat. The world rocked and lurched one final time, and Cas’s vision went black.

Follow The Ashes: Splinters of the Past

Cas remained still as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She could see the shape of a small tent in the distance. A small light from within the tent cast Raph’s shadow against the cloth wall.

“I know you’re watching me, asshole,” Cas said to the darkness.

“Not very nice of you, but I’m hardly surprised by your hostility,” Gavin replied, his voice echoing from all around. “Given how busy you’ve been, how could I not keep an eye on you? You’ve caused a lot of problems.”

Cas massaged her temples. “I don’t feel like playing games with you,” she snapped back. “What did he mean when he called me Commander? Who are you people and why am I here?!”

Gavin’s laughter was quiet enough that there was no way Raph could hear it, but loud enough to ensure Cas heard it loud and clear.

“Asking the big questions now,” Gavin said. “Perhaps you should investigate and see what you learn on your own.”

There was a shift, small but perceptible, in the atmosphere, and Cas could tell that Gavin was gone. At the very least, he had stopped watching for now.

Cas sighed, considering her options. Talking to Raph could very well be part of an elaborate trap, as he had helped her escape Gavin before but showed no signs of recognizing he did as much. She steeled herself for the worst, took a deep breath, and walked towards the tent. Raph’s silhouette indicated he was sitting with his back to the door, hunched over something. Cas cleared her throat and watched as Raph turned around. He poked his head out of the tent’s opening seconds later.

“Yes, Commander? Didn’t expect you so soon. Is all well?”

Cas considered her words with care. “At ease,” she said, and Raph seemed to relax a little. “Let’s say I am testing you. Care to answer a few questions?”

“Of course, Commander,” Raph replied. He stepped out of the tent. “Ask away.”

Cas paused, wondering what a good starting point would be. “This is all artificial,” she said gesturing to the field around them, pausing to point at the trees before gesturing towards the sky. “What purpose does it serve?”

Raph smiled. “An easy first question, Commander,” he said. “We are here to rigorously test the simulated environments before they are deemed acceptable for population. We evaluate the quality of each simulation and pass those evaluations on to high command.”

Cas nodded. “And from there?”

“Well above my pay grade, Commander,” Raph replied.

“Good answer,” Cas lied. She decided quickly this was not a line of questioning worth pressing and moved on. “Have you seen Gavin?”

Raph raised an eyebrow. “The Lieutenant? Not since you sent him off on his special assignment.”

“Special assignment?”

Raph blinked. “You wouldn’t tell me and he kept very quiet about it, unlike his usual routine,” he replied. “Highly classified from the sound of it.”

Cas nodded. She considered her options as she didn’t know what would or wouldn’t raise red flags. “All right. Good answers so far. Last question.”

Raph offered a polite smile. It was only at this point that Cas realized what seemed off about him. He had none of the scars she was used to seeing on his face.

“First thing that comes to mind when I give this command,” Cas said. “Follow the ashes.”

The stars went out, and with them all light left the wooded area. Cas couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and suddenly she felt very alone.

The room lit up, the metal poles that stood in place of trees her only company. The walls were covered in endless data streams, the information moving too rapidly for Cas to process. The only detail she could focus on was a solitary word present on each wall.

“Rebooting.”

“Just another simulation,” Cas muttered to herself. She looked around until she spotted a door. She walked over to it, absentmindedly allowing her hands to graze the placeholders for trees and shrubs as she walked. She half-heartedly acknowledge the presence of ashes on the door handle before she opened it, stepping out into a control room.

A series of panels stared down at her from their lofty posts along where the wall met the ceiling.

She hesitated, however, when she spotted an envelope propped up against one of the consoles. It was plain and unassuming, the only markings on it her name in swooping, elaborate script. Not just Cas, however.

Sharp pain rolled over Cas as her vision grew dark. She tried to muscle through it, and when she felt herself getting the better of whatever was happening she noticed the envelope was gone.

The door on the opposite side of the control room was slightly ajar, and so Cas approached it, opened it, and crossed the threshold without hesitation.

She needed answers, and she was determined to stop letting them slip between her fingers.

Follow The Ashes: Familiar Faces, Familiar Foes, Familiar Places

The door threw Cas forward into the room beyond, slamming shut behind her. She turned around to discover a featureless wall emitting a dull, white glow. The room was entirely plain, save for a simple, metal table and a simple metal table with one polished metal chair standing next to it. A dull hum resonated from all around.

A door, its surface like a mirror, occupied the space where two of the walls met. No soft, white light came from the door.

“Back to square one, I see,” Cas muttered to herself. She approached the door and saw her reflection staring back at her, as she expected. The surface of the door wavered, revealing a familiar face wearing a familiar smirk. A cybernetic eye glistened and blinked. Cas gasped, stepping back, and the door vanished.

There was a soft crackling sound accompanied by a soft inhale.

“You’ve been very busy, Cas,” Gavin’s voice said from all around. “Very busy indeed. Yet here you are, back where you started. Or are you?”

Cas clenched her fists, ready for a fight. “Why don’t you say that to my face, coward?”

Gavin’s laughter surrounded Cas as it echoed within the small room. “Temper, temper. Short a fuse as ever, Cas,” Gavin taunted. “I would be a fool to approach you in such a state. Oh, no. We’ll talk at a distance for now, I think.”

One of the walls disappeared, and beyond the room was a lush, sprawling forest.

“A trick, I’m sure,” Cas muttered.

A soft breeze rolled into the room, and with it the aromas of fresh rain, pine trees, and a hint of campfire smoke.

“A very convincing trick,” Cas said as she stepped into the forest. Tall grass waved gently. Numerous stars twinkled above in a cloudless, pitch black sky. Numerous trees stood tall and proud, their leaves vibrant, warm hues of near-winter autumn. Cas reached out and touched a tree, surprised to feel bark and not metal.

“There had to be a baseline to build the simulations from, naturally,” Gavin’s voice said. It was softer now, no longer amplified by the size of the space Cas occupied. The room behind her had vanished, or perhaps the wall had closed again.

“Where are you?” Cas demanded. “You can obviously see me, so why not just show yourself?”

“In due time, I assure you,” Gavin replied.

Cas inhaled deeply, eyes shut. She exhaled slowly, turned, and started walking in the direction of the campfire smell.

Wisps of smoke drifted gently through the air. A faint, warm glow was visible in the distance, casting curious shadows on the trees and along the grassy field. Cas walked towards the fire cautiously, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.

Anything more suspicious than a real, live forest among the endless catwalks, strange places where the past and future seemed to converge, and the simulations of places Cas was certain she had been once before.

“You’ve been very busy,” Gavin said again. ” Fixing your past mistakes.”

Cas froze, suddenly tense. “What did you just say?” she demanded.

Gavin chuckled, a sound deliberately amplified to roll across the forest like thunder.

“You heard right,” Gavin said. “Fixing your past mistakes. There should have been a familiarity to the things you’ve encountered.”

Cas fell to her knees, a sharp pain suddenly present just behind her eyes. “What the hell are you doing to me?”

“Nothing,” Gavin replied flatly. “You did this all to yourself, but that’s a topic for another time. You’ve still got plenty to do before we can discuss that. Until then, Cas.”

There was a soft, metallic sound, followed by only the gentle breeze rustling through the trees and rolling along the grass.

Cas waited, and the pain slowly seemed to subside. She slowly stood up, every fiber of her being aching slightly from whatever had just hit her.

The glow of the fire seemed far closer now, and so she willed herself to continue.

The fire was bright and its warmth pleasant, even from the modest distance from which Cas watched it. She could see a solitary figure, hunched over something by the fire. The wind picked up ever so slightly, casting just enough light over the person’s face.

“Raph!” Cas cried out, running over. “Thank goodness you’re okay!”

Raph blinked, his expression blank. “Is this another test of yours, Commander? I must admit, I’m a little confused by it but I suppose I’ll play along. Yes, I’m quite adequately all right. I’ll turn in now. Your turn to keep watch.”

Raph stood quickly, turned, and walked away. A chill wind blew through, extinguishing the fire. The stars still twinkled pleasantly overhead.

Cas felt the hair on her neck stand up. Someone or something, unseen in the cloak of the darkness, was watching her intently.

Follow the Ashes: A Tale of Two Rulers

Cas paced, piecing together what the curious man in equally curious clothes–no, more a costume, really–had told her.

“So your name is Bertram,” Cas said. “And this is the second time we’ve met, correct?”

“Bertie to my friends, and I like to think of you as a friend,” Bertie corrected. He added, “Third, technically, as I did knock you unconscious prior to the reboot that lead us here. Sorry about that, by the way. A necessary evil.”

Cas stopped, turning to look at Bertie. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Reboot?” The rest of what Bertie had said processed.

“Hang on, you said you knocked me unconscious?”

Bertie offered a half-hearted smile. “It’s complicated and we haven’t the time for me to properly explain,” he said. “You’ll remember some day, I hope. Meanwhile, do you understand why I’m just approaching this in such a forward way?”

Cas nodded. “I have an assassination attempt to stop, but I have to do it right or Junction will be decommissioned. I feel as though I should know what that means, but…” She trailed off, a dull pain creeping in behind her eyes.

“Easy does it there,” Bertie said. He patted Cas on the shoulder. “The celebration is winding through Junction towards the Room of Unity. Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is preparing her remarks there.”

“And Gin of Datum Junction is moving to the Nexus of Unity to make her way to assassinate Regina,” Cas said. A brilliant starburst of agony erupted, her vision briefly going entirely white. Cas faltered, steadying herself.

Two faces drifted across her vision, afterimages imprinted against the backdrop of the field she and Bertie stood in.

“Are you all right?” Bertie asked, the concern on his face both apparent and sincere.

“There’s more to all of this than just a murder plot,” Cas said. “That’s all very old-timey Scottish play, but I remembered something more to it that I’m not sure I should know?”

Bertie scratched his head. “Forgive me my confusion, but I’m not certain that’s how memories work. I hope I didn’t administer too high voltage a jolt.”

Cas frowned. “We’ll return to that point of conversation later,” she said. “I have two lives to save.” She took off across the field before Bertie could respond, unaware someone else was crossing the field towards Bertie from the opposite direction, also watching her intently.

The crowds were dense, and Cas had to navigate them with great care. She stole a spare mask from one of the many people enjoying a tall glass of potent-smelling alcohol and donned it, its sparkling features hiding her own quite well. She feared she would be recognized by someone and stopped, but somehow she found herself at the doors to the Room of Unity. Guards stood posted at either side, their smiles warm but their grip on their weapons sent another message entirely.

“Early arrival, I see,” said the guard to the left of the door, her eyes sparkling in the LED lighting. “I understand, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed with joy. Just a few minutes and we can let you in.”

Cas hesitated, a dozen possible responses sprinting through her thoughts before she settled on one. “I can hardly contain my excitement,” she said, offering a polite bow of her head. “I waited all day, hoping to get a good vantage point from which to see the Lady Imperious deliver her speech, as it’s…” She paused.

“It’s the anniversary of my arrival in junction,” Cas said at last.

The guards leaned towards each other, and a whispered conversation ensued. They opened the doors, just barely.

“In you go, but don’t tell anyone,” the guard to the right of the door said, her smile warmer than the false torchlight. “Joyous Junction Anniversary to you, deary.”

“You have my deepest gratitude,” Cas said, rushing through the doors.

The Room of Unity was dizzying in its size, but the focus was clearly on the throne at the heart of the room. A dozen or so guards surrounded the small, square dais, all heavily armed. Their attention wasn’t on Cas, however, but the numerous doors along the walls that had started opening to allow the many people in who had previously been celebrating their way toward the Room of Unity.

Cas knew time was short, but how she would achieve the outcome she knew she needed to occur wasn’t a thought she’d managed to come across.

“Damn it,” Cas muttered to herself, the crowd filing in around her. She was as close as she could get to the throne’s dais without encroaching upon the guards’ space, but she couldn’t quite remember where the cloaked figure would appear. There was a cloaked figure, wasn’t there? There almost always was under such circumstances.

Time seemed to slow as Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus was announced, and Cas caught sight of the cloaked figure at the edge of her vision.

She watched herself call out that something was wrong, only for the cloaked figure to be taken down by the guards.

At the same time, she also saw what happened when the cloaked figure succeeded.

“Regina,” Cas muttered. “Gin.” She blinked hard, slapping herself on the forehead.

“Gin!” Cas shouted, her voice carrying over the din of the crowd. Both the Lady Imperious and the cloaked figure froze, their eyes suddenly fixed on Cas.

They spoke simultaneously, their words not the same but their voices identical. The walls went white, and a large message appeared high above the center of the room.

“Error Located,” the message stated. “Initiating repairs…”

Cas was thrown backwards at startling speed, the Room of Unity racing far from her view as she hurtled through Junction and back towards the field. Aromas of food and drink and diesel rapidly gave way to wild onions and flowers.

She awoke in the field, standing at a simple, silver door. Once again, Cas was alone. She found herself puzzled, having lost a chunk of time without realizing it. Had she come across the door and gotten lost in thought over whether it was safe to proceed?

A telltale smudge of ashes occupied the door’s handle. Cas sighed, hoping that her time spent in the field–however long it may have been–had been well-spent. She opened the door and walked through, unaware of the message above her in the sky and equally unaware of the bustling city far behind her.

It was both a Medieval castle and a remarkably sleek series of metal spires, and it was alive with celebration. The Feast of Unity Day had commenced.

The message ready, quite simply, “Reboot successful.”

Bertie sat on a tree stump, a snifter of something exquisite in his hand. He swirled it, appreciating notes of caramel and tobacco, aware of his guest’s impatience.

“Why so sour, Gavin?” Bertie asked, taking a sip of his drink. “Was this not what you had hoped to observe? Junction is restored.”

Gavin’s robotic eye zoomed in on Junction, a series of statistics displayed only for him to see.

“She successfully defragmented your living hard drive,” Gavin said.

“One Regina, one Junction,” Bertie replied. “A pity she won’t remember until later. She saved thousands of lives.”

Gavin nodded

“Are you certain you don’t have time to pause and enjoy a drink?” Bertie asked. “It’s been so long since you last visited this sector, after all, and it seems like things are heading in the right direction for a celebration.”

Gavin shook his head. “Not yet, no,” he said. “There is much to be done still. Things are accelerating, but her memory remains as stubborn as ever. I have much to do before she and I can meet again.”

Bertie sipped his drink again. “Do you think she knows you pursue her through this twisted maze of memory?”

“How poetic of you,” Gavin said as he turned to leave. “No. But I continue to be careful to keep an eye on her.” He tapped his cybernetic eye, offered a quick wink, and disappeared, leaving Bertie alone on his tree stump.

“Such strange behavior,” Bertie mused to himself. “But then again, what do I know of siblings.” He shrugged, returning his attention in equal measure to the city in the distance and his drink. Both brought him warmth and comfort.

Fireworks dazzled brightly in the simulated night sky above Junction, its people celebrating as one.

Follow The Ashes: An Attempted Coup, Take Two

Cas walked along the field, the tall grass swishing gently at her sides. There was nothing particularly striking about the landscape–the occasional boulder here or tree stump there, but otherwise it seemed like there was nothing, and an abundance of it extending far into the distance.

“Question everything,” Cas muttered, thinking back to her time with Raph. “Well, what am I looking for here? How do I proceed?” She sat down on a tree stump to pause for a moment. There was a sharp clicking sound, followed by the click-click-clicking of gears. The stump rose up, lifting Cas just high enough her feet weren’t touching the ground. Before she could react, the field in front of her lowered into sharp decline into darkness.

“Oh, shit,” Cas said as tilted forward, dropping her down the ramp. She fell into the darkness. Every muscle tensed as she focused on not screaming. She landed on something smooth and continued her descent, sliding along without control nor any light to allow a guess as to what her destination may have been.

Cas’s downward journey ended as suddenly as it began. She fell forward onto something soft, face-first, and groaned quietly.

“I should hope I don’t experience that again any time soon,” she muttered to herself.

The room exploded in blinding white light. Cas shielded her eyes, wincing in pain. There were footsteps very near. Someone pulled Cas to her feet and bound her hands behind her back before shoving her away. She landed on the soft surface of the floor, and waited.

“Who sent you?” The voice was strangely familiar, but Cas couldn’t place it. She hazarded opening her eyes slowly, the sting from the shift from absolute darkness to blinding light still lingering. The room was less harshly lit, and outlines of several people–blurred, but gradually coming into focus–surrounded Cas.

One leaned forward and snapped in front of Cas’s face. “Who sent you?” she demanded.

Cas blinked. The woman wore a simple gray jumpsuit, a patch sewn on above her heart depicting a phoenix rising from flames.

“No one,” Cas said. “I was lost, and found this place purely through bad luck.”

A man, remarkable in how average he was, stepped approached the woman. “Ma’am, the footage shows our guest wandering the Stratofield outside of Junction proper,” he said, adding. “She’s clearly lost, if not perhaps even clueless.”

Cas narrowed her eyes at the man. “Yes, thank you for vouching for me, a stranger who is also obviously a buffoon,” she snarked in response. “And what is Junction, exactly?”

“Junction’s the reason we’re down here,” the woman replied. “If you’re not with them and you weren’t sent by them, you’re about to get put to work. we need all the able bodies we can get for this mission and you look capable enough.” She extended a hand to help Cas to her feet, then smirked.

“Hang on a second,” the woman said. She reached into a pouch on a small belt around her hips and produced a thin strip of metal that gave off a dull blue light. The woman squeezed the piece of metal between her thumb and index finger, and Cas felt whatever had held her hands together behind her back as it fell away.

“Thank you, I suppose,” Cas said, massaging her wrists where she’d been bound. “If I am to aid in whatever it is you need of me, perhaps some details could be provided. Is that fair to ask?”

The man looked nervous, but the woman shrugged. “You’re here, like it or not, but I don’t see how having some intel on what you’ve gotten yourself into could hurt,” she said.

“Call me Gin,” she said. “Good a name as any. You got a name, newbie?”

“Cas,” Cas replied. “Also good a name as any, as I’m not even certain if that’s my name.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Gin replied. “Don’t need to know your past. Walk with me.” She offered Cas her hand again, and Cas accepted. Gin pulled Cas to her feet effortlessly, turned, and walked towards a large opening.

Cas followed, finding herself on a long catwalk flanked by modest dwellings.

“Welcome to Junction,” Gin said. “Datum Junction. Or Neo-Junction if you ask the Stratodwellers. Sometimes they even call it Dead Junction when they don’t realize we’re still around, walking among them.”

Cas attempted to take in her surroundings while also focusing on Gin as she spoke. The technology of the houses looked very modern. Display panels in place of windows, each capable of going fully transparent on command. Doors opened and shut based on the approach or departure of the homeowner.

“Dead Junction?” Cas repeated, curiosity piqued. “This seems a bit too lively to have been labeled as dead.”

“You’d think that, right? And I can’t fault you for thinking that way,” Gin said. “Makes sense.” She stopped, turning around on the catwalk. She gestured broadly at the homes and people.

“You’re looking at one of the last pockets of our society,” Gin explained. “The Imperious family, wealthy and endless in their ability to overlook their least cared-for people, ceded control of the oxygen pumps to the power barons. Rich goons running the power plants that keep the lights on in Junction. They keep the party going, sure, but there’s a cost. Only so much power to go around.”

Cas considered this. “And so it’s diverted from here to keep things moving there,” she thought aloud.

Gin snapped her fingers, pointing at Cas. “You got it,” she said. “They make sure the lights stay on there and, hey, if part of the less important population suffocates in the middle of the night it’s not a major loss.”

“That’s monstrous,” Cas replied.

“A strong grasp of the obvious,” Gin said. “We’ve tried reasoning with the Imperious family, but haven’t made any progress. Tonight’s the night that’ll change.”

“How so?”

Gin tilted her head to the left, then to the right. “Good question,” she asked. “Let me answer with a question of my own. Ever overthrow a government?”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Not that I can recall, and I suspect that’s a detail of one’s life they would remember,” she said.

“I’d hope so, or you must have a pretty damn intense life,” Gin said. “Anyway, you’re here and you’re going to help assassinate the Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus tonight. The coronation ceremony has already begun, a long party in the streets before they arrive at the Room of Unity.” Gin laughed mirthlessly.

“If I refuse?” Cas replied.

“You’d be dooming the rest of these people to untimely deaths,” Gin said. “I’d ensure your survival just so you knew what you did. One death versus hundreds. That sit well with you?”

Cas tensed. “I have no choice, then,” she replied. “What role will I play?”

Gin stared at Cas for a moment. “That’s it? No other questions?”

Cas looked around. There was little effort by the many people watching from their homes to hide that they were watching the conversation between her and Gin. Many of them looked anxious or afraid.

“No,” Cas replied.

“One death over hundreds of murders it is, then,” Gin said. “You and I will be there to see this through while a handful of my most trusted soldiers will keep Junction’s guards busy.” Gin turned on her heels and continued forward. The catwalks sloped gently upwards, stopping at a tall building that reached into the earthen ceiling.

“The Nexus of Gathering,” Gin said. “It’s directly beneath their Room of Unity, and how we’ll arrive to the party in time to put a very early end to Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus’ reign.”

They entered the chamber. Gin paused at the doorway, retrieving a hooded cloak and two pistols.

Cas froze as Gin donned the cloak, her face shrouded by artificial shadow upon pulling the hood over her head. Gin held out a pistol, which Cas reluctantly accepted.

“Something wrong? Or have you had a sudden change of heart?” Gin asked.

Cas shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused. “There’s no way I’ve met you before, is there?”

Gin shrugged. “I’ve lived in Datum Junction since I was a child,” she said. “Never met an outsider until today, so I’d say no. Don’t know you. Never met you.” She pointed upwards.

Staircases lined the walls, crossing overhead before winding their ways back to the walls. Points of artificial light were barely visible high above.

“Better get moving,”

Gin approached the stairs along the left wall and started walking up them, not waiting for Cas.

“Suppose I should follow.” Cas began to climb the stairs, pausing for a moment. Gin moved with purpose, the pistol at her side. Cas glanced at the identical pistol she’d been given. It looked simple, almost primitive, compared to some of the tech around them.

“Hurry it up or we’ll miss our chance,” Gin demanded.

Cas climbed the stairs faster, ignoring the dull ache beginning in her legs. Above, she could hear a crowd cheering. The door they arrived at was concealed in a pillar. Gin pushed it open silently, disappearing into the room beyond. Cas followed, and was immediately swallowed up by the crowd on the other side. Brightly colored clothing and masks everywhere.

“Good people of Junction!” boomed a man’s voice. “It is my great honor to present the crown to our beloved Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus. May she watch over us and guide us to continued prosperity for one hundred years or more!”

“Now!” Gin shouted over the roar of the crowd. “They’ve spotted me! Do it now!”

Cas looked to the stage ahead, targeting Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus with the pistol she’d been given. Cas froze, unable to process what she was seeing.

The woman on the stage – Regina Andromedus – looked exactly the same as Gin.

There was a loud crackling sound and a blinding pain. She fell forward hard, and the world went dark.

A deep, warm voice said something Cas could barely hear. “This didn’t go as it should have either. Third try’s the charm, yes?”

The field was empty, stretching out far in each direction around Cas as she staggered to her feet. A dull ache pervaded the back of her head.

“What the hell happened?” Cas asked.

“An excellent starting point,” boomed a warm, familiar voice. “Asking questions.”

Cas spun around, fists raised. A portly man stood where Cas was certain no one had been seconds before, dressed in an elaborate, garishly colorful outfit. He offered a polite smile.

“There isn’t much time,” the man said. “Very little time indeed. We must get it right this time, so I’ll need you to listen to me and do exactly as I say. I know that’s asking a lot, but can you do that?”

Cas winced, the throbbing pain in her head rearing its ugly head again. She squinted through the pain, and when her vision refocused she noticed something out of place. A smudge of gray-white among the bright colors.

Ashes.

“Something tells me I’ll want to hear what you have to say,” Cas said. “What is it I must get right?”