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?”

Follow the Ashes – The Attempted Coup

A soft breeze carried a curious blend of smells–campfires and diesel fuel–across the field. The skyline in the distance was a curious fusion of Medieval architecture blended with towering skyscrapers, curls of smoke drifting upwards from lovingly hand-crafted stonework chimneys.

Cas stood in the field, once again uncertain as to where she was going. What might be waiting for her. She was alone in the field, having just emerged from a tent moments before only to find the tent was no longer there. Wild grass swayed gently around her, patches of it rising up as high as her waist. Behind her, Cas noted, was a vast expanse of field whereas ahead there was at least signs of civilization.

Or perhaps, Cas thought, echoes of civilization.

The ashes were sneaky this time. More subtle. Cas spotted them finally as they drifted along a mischievous wisp of chimney smoke that had curled and weaved its way across the field.

“Very well, then,” Cas said to herself, curiosity renewed. “A trip to the city is in order.” She walked across the field, the grass bowing around her footfalls, bursts of wild mint and onion exploding up from the ground as she moved along. She quietly made a mental note to return to this field, if she could, once she had gotten some answers.

If you ever get answers, said an intrusive thought.

There was music, soft but still vibrant, spilling over from the city as Cas got closer. By the time Cas reached the city’s edge she could feel the songs, the rhythm of the music performing a pleasant dance with her heartbeat. The air was warm and rich with celebration, lantern-light and bright neon illuminating every inch of the road ahead.

Cas glanced along the length of road before stepping into the city, and once she was certain there was no one around she stepped onto the road. Immediately, seemingly from nowhere, a large crowd moved along the street and around her. Everyone was dressed in brilliant, vibrant clothing. Frills and accents flowed over her as people passed, hooting and cheering. A portly man bumped into Cas, backpedaled, and smiled.

“Goodness, Miss, didn’t see you there,” he said. He looked Cas over for a moment, clicking his tongue. “We’ve got to liven you up. Today’s a celebration!”

Cas realized then that the man was wearing a mask around his eyes. It sparkled with a mix of small gemstones and embedded LED lights that flickered on and off at odd intervals.

Considering her words carefully, Cas smiled. “Forgive my, ah, lack of attire,” she said. “What is the cause for celebration?” The crowd continued to move around Cas and the man, singing and dancing their way along the stretch of road as they went.

The man roared with laughter. “Not from around these parts?” he asked. “You’re in for a treat! It’s coronation day! The Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is being crowned.” He rifled around in his jacket pockets.

“Here we are!” He produced another mask similar to his. It was a soft, wine red velvet mask with flickering points like starlight. Cas smiled, realizing the constellation it formed was familiar.

“I’ve nothing to give in exchange for such a generous gift,” Cas said, though she still reached for the mask.

The man shook his head. “I’ll hear nothing of the sort. Today’s a day of jubilation and celebration,” he boomed. “Walk with me. Nobody should be alone on a day like today.”

Cas hesitated, and was met with another broad, toothy smile. “If it perturbs you so greatly, let’s make a deal of it,” the man said. “One mask in exchange for sharing in your company on this most auspicious day!”

“I think that sounds like a most pleasant exchange,” Cas said, accepting the mask. It fit her face perfectly.

The man nodded in approval. “Doesn’t do much for the drab gray affair you’ve got on, but it’s far from my place to judge,” he joked. “Come along! We’ll miss out on the food stalls if we keep lazing around.”

Cas followed the man, watching in amusement as he shuffle-danced his way along the stone-and-steel roadway. They turned, joining another roaming celebration on a larger street. Stalls and carts and trucks lined the sides of the street, vendors throwing food out to anyone who asked. The man raised a hand, shouting something Cas couldn’t quite hear over the surrounding din, and one of the vendors threw two brown paper bags.

“Try this!” he said, stuffing one of the bags into her hand. It radiated a pleasant warmth.

“Thank you!” Cas replied. “Forgive me, but I don’t believe I introduced myself. Cas.”

“Bertram Cornelius Andromedus the third, though I prefer my friends call me Bertie,” the man, Bertie, said. After a deliberate pause and a sly smile, he added, “You can call me Bertie.”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Andromedus?”

Bertie winked. “Eat! They’re not nearly as good once they get cold,” he demanded, pointing at the bag he’d given Cas before turning his attention to his own.

The bag’s top was rolled shut. A puff of warm, cinnamon-and-sugar sweet air hit her immediately upon opening it. She reached inside and retrieve some of the bag’s contents, which looked to be some kind of candied fruits. Bertie had already started indulging in his own, and so Cas followed suit.

“Delicious,” Cas said, enjoying each bite. There was a tartness to the fruit that was balanced out by the crunchy, sticky, sugary exterior to the treats. Before long she found her fingers meeting the bottom of the bag.

“Ah, but let’s not forget,” Bertie instructed as he flipped the bag inside out in a swift series of motions. He licked the bag clean, and Cas followed suit, smiling.

The party continued moving along, Cas and Bertie among the others, until it reached a towering building with three immense wooden doors swung open at its front. The crowds poured in, people from other streets joining the group Cas was in.

The chamber inside must have taken up much of the building, the ceiling so high above that artificial clouds drifted around in its recesses.

“The Room of Unity,” Bertie said. For an instant he looked somber, but just as quickly as his jovial demeanor had left it returned full-force. “It’s almost time!”

A bell sounded, resonating throughout the room and rippling across everyone within. The doors all shut slowly, and torchlight and spotlights illuminated the room so as to draw focus on a throne. Even without the lighting, it would have been difficult to miss as it stood high above the crowds.

A long, wide staircase lead to the throne, and two figures stood on those stairs. One was a man dressed plainly, in a gray uniform that looked familiar enough for Cas to actively try blending in with the crowd. The other was the picture of elegance, undoubtedly the Lady Imperious Regina. She wore a beautiful, sparkling sapphire gown that flowed around her slight frame as though she were standing in a rushing river.

“Good people of Junction,” the man said, his voice amplified to fill the air. “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!”

The crowd let out thunderous applause and cheers. Bertie’s voice, Cas was certain, could be heard over all of the others.

Someone caught Cas’s eye, however. A cloaked figure moved through the crowd, noticeable for remaining silent among the roar of cheering surrounding it. Cas followed behind behind them, keeping distance and careful to avoid being noticed.

The figure stopped at the foot of the stairs, still unnoticed by those around them. There was a glint of metal at their side, which was enough for Cas to leap into action.

“No!” Cas shouted. She leapt towards the cloaked figure, knocking them to the ground. The woman staring up at Cas, eyes full of fury, looked familiar. Before Cas could determine why, she heard a voice from behind her.

“No, no,” boomed a man’s voice. “This isn’t right at all. Let’s try this again.”

Before Cas could react she felt a jolt of something. It was harsh and sudden, spreading outwards from the back of her neck. She felt a dizzying, sick feeling as the world rolled and tumbled around her. She felt herself falling forward.

The grass was soft and smelled pleasantly of wild onions and mint as Cas fell onto the ground. She stood up, dusting herself off. In the distance ahead stood a curious city, a conglomeration of Medieval building styles and towering skyscrapers. She was certain she’d never seen such curious place in all of her life, and was once again left wondering where she was to go next.

Something small emerged from a hole in the ground. It squeaked, startled by Cas’s presence, and then took off across the field. Cas turned and watched as it ran, surprised to see the creature leaving a trail of faint, gray ashes in its path.

“Very well, then,” Cas said to herself. “I suppose I’m off to explore the fields then.”

Follow The Ashes: The Betweenways

Cas stepped beyond the door and winced. The air was stale and cold, the path ahead obscured in darkness. There was a subtle, familiar dull hum, barely audible. Cas hesitated, uncertain of her next step.

Behind her, the door swung shut and clicked loudly. She turned and tried to open the door again, only barely surprised to discover it had locked.

“Only one way to go, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. Dim lights flickered to life as she turned back to face the room.

“More walkways,” Cas said to herself. The path she stood on forked into two staircases leading upwards where it met the wall. The twin staircases reached landings, then turned back towards the catwalk she stood on. They gradually, Cas saw, seemed to spiral upwards to a latticework of walkways. Beyond that, however, was too dark to see in the low light.

Both staircases looked identical, and so Cas chose one and started her ascent. As she made it to the landing, she caught a glimpse of something on the opposite landing. Motes of dust suspended in the air, she thought, or perhaps a trick of the light. She continued up the stairs, pausing on the next landing for a moment. Nothing above was visible yet, but she could hear faint noises drifting downwards. Cas tensed. It sounded almost like conversation to her. She continued upwards, slowly and ready to make a run for it if the need arose. Unfamiliar but not unpleasant scents made their way to Cas, further piquing her interest.

At the next landing, Cas could see flickering lights up ahead. She could hear the conversation clearer now, and it was punctuated with moments of laughter and warmth. In an instant, Cas let her guard down as she found herself entering a collection of makeshift tents and huts suspended over the catwalk intersections. People milled about, some pausing to exchange pleasantries with each other from time to time as others entered and exited the various makeshift dwellings. Some wore similar uniforms to the ones she’d seen earlier while others wore things ranging from simple outfits to ones showing off quite a bit of color and flair.

No one seemed to give Cas so much as a second glance, which put her further at ease. Allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, Cas approached a small tent. A series of levitating steps bobbed gently in front of the entrance. She pulled aside the flap covering the entrance – an old solar sail, Cas thought, from the feel of it – and entered. The first thing she noticed was that the tent seemed to be larger on the inside. Had she been her a day ago, she pondered, this may have seemed remarkable, or perhaps even shocking, but it seemed almost familiar.

The woman on the opposite side of the tent sat with her legs crossed beneath her. She was remarkably tall, her eyes meeting Cas’s gaze without having to look up despite being seated. She held a long, wooden pipe between thin, spindly fingers. A series of elaborate tattoos formed a mural from just above her eyebrows all the way along the top of her head disappearing along her neck. A series of eyebrow rings glimmered in the simulated candlelight.

She inhaled deeply, exhaling smoke that spun and twirled like distant galaxies.

Cas cleared her throat, unsure what to say. “Hello,” she ventured.

The woman smiled. “Expected you hours ago, darlin’,” the woman said. “But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Strange shadows passing over the visions these days. Everything’s thrown off by the sudden, new light.”

“Excuse me?” Cas asked.

The woman pointed with her pipe at a small cushion opposite her on the floor. “You’ve got questions,” she stated in a way one would observe the weather. Cas nodded, sitting down in a way that mirrored the woman.

“I’ve got answers,” the woman continued. “Well, I don’t, but…” She trailed off as she reached in between layers of her flowing robes. She produced three metal cubes, each one held between her fingers. Gingerly, she set them down between Cas and her.

Cas looked at the cubes for a moment. They were smooth, devoid of any noteworthy features, and looked to be made from solid metal. She glanced up at the woman and frowned briefly. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

The woman smiled, but said nothing.

“What is this place?” Cas asked.

The woman smiled again. “You’ve made it to the Betweenways,” she said. “Or perhaps you’ve returned.” She offered a sly wink, and Cas felt a touch of heat at the back of her neck and around her ears. These weren’t answers so much as they seemed like coy riddles.

“I want you to think long and hard, darlin’,” the woman instructed. “Then ask the Oracle Cubes the first big, scary question that comes to mind.”

“What is this place?” Cas asked immediately.

The woman clicked her tongue. “Give it a little more thought than that,” she said. She took another long pull from her pipe and exhaled. In a fluid motion, beautiful as a well-choreographed dance, she turned her pipe over and tapped it against her free palm. Replacing the pipe between her teeth, she rubbed her hands together, causing a fine dusting of ash to drift to the floor.

Cas raised an eyebrow. “I’m lost, I think,” Cas said.

The woman smiled. “We’re all a little lost, darlin’,” she replied. “Go on.”

“The only reason I’ve made it this far is by following something I saw when I first woke up,” Cas continued. “So…I guess my question, then, is where do I follow the ashes to next?”

It started subtly enough. Fine lines moved along the surface of the cubes, beginning on one and ending on another. Faint lights emanated from within the metal, glowing in gentle hues of green and blue before giving way to deep purples and vibrant silvers.

The center cube jostled, followed by the one to its right rolling from one side to another and another. A humming sound began to build, and with a sharp snap the three cubes came together to form a short tower. Vibrant silver lines navigated the cubes’ exteriors, and upon a closer look Cas could see places where the lines vanished into the cubes.

The woman smiled once again. “The journey ahead of you will be long and not without its challenges,” she said. “And at its end, who is to say what you will find? Perhaps you will discover the truth? Or perhaps you will create your own truth.”

Cas considered this a moment. “That leaves a lot to interpretation,” she said at last, and the woman burst into laughter.

“The Oracle Cubes’ wisdom is one of databases and algorithmic predictions, darlin’,” the woman said. “But you’ll want to take those. That map should get you to where you need to be.”

Cas reached out to take the cubes. She flinched when the three cubes jostled suddenly, gradually combining and shifting until a thin, flat layer remained. Faint outlines now surrounded the original silver lines. Cas picked up the map and looked it over.

“I still don’t know where I really am,” she admitted, an edge of defeat to her voice. “Or what it is I should be doing. I’m just running from people.”

The woman produced a small satchel from in her robes, untying it with one hand while she moved her pipe into position with the other. She tamped down its contents with her thumb, a thoughtful expression the whole time. There was a soft popping sound from the pipe followed by a slow, serpentine curling of smoke. The woman inhaled, then puffed out a thin silver wisp that spiraled around her. The smoke snaked its way to, and then around, Cas before sharply changing directions and passing through the tent wall behind the woman.

Cas watched as the smoke didn’t seem to dissipate, lingering improbably.

“Speaking of running, perhaps you should resume doing so,” the woman said, her eyes darting to the back wall and then to Cas. “Right now.”

Cas became very aware of the sound of approaching footsteps. They were measured and deliberate, producing a crisp sound against the metal of the catwalks outside.

“Thank you for your help,” Cas said, leaping to her feet. She paused just before exiting. “I hope.” She pulled aside the tent’s wall and exited.

The woman’s focus, however, remained on the front of the tent. A single, glowing eye appeared in the dim light.

“Come to get your fortune told, darlin’?” the woman asked, smirking.

As Cas stepped out of the tent, her feet landed softly. Storm clouds rumbled in the distance as they drifted further away, the grass beneath Cas’ feet flattened from the rain. She glanced back to discover the tent, the catwalks, and the Betweenways were gone. Or, she considered, perhaps she had gone from that space. Pulling out the map, she tried to regain her sense of direction.

A small, blue-green dot blipped to life on the map’s surface. Cas took a step forward, and the dot mirrored her movement.

“It’s a start, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. “All right, then. Off I go.”

Follow the Ashes: Put on a Happy Face part 2

“Put on a Happy Face, Part 2: New Reasons to Smile”

              Cas was surrounded, an island amidst a sea of menacing emoticons. Some of the helmets even depicted knives, guns, and other weapons likely intended for her. One displayed, in minimal detail, a guillotine cleaving the head from a stick-person’s body. Cas glanced around frantically inside the helmet, trying to trigger something, anything, that would act as a saving grace.

              A hand closed around her wrist, and she heard only one word.

              “Run.”

              Without other options present, Cas found herself being pulled through the crowd seconds before it converged on her. She and the person who had rescued her, who Cas noted was shrouded in a number of layered, gray scarves and cloaks, moved through the crowd with improbable ease.

              Cas started to glance back at the commotion over her shoulder, now what felt like a safe distance away.

              “Don’t,” commanded her rescuer without bothering to look back. Cas was forced to run faster as their pace quickened. They were no longer in the town’s center, and they rapidly approached its outskirts. The huts were sparse now, farther apart and interrupted by increasing stretches of barren field. A collection of fallen rock rested, gathered almost as if with purpose at the edge of a cliff.

              Cas realized, as their pace increased yet again, there were only two possible destinations. A sudden stop or along drop.

              “This is some sort of trick,” Cas said, though she was met with no response. She tried to dig her feet into the dry soil, but found no purchase.

              “I said,” Cas began to repeat, only to be hushed. Whoever had saved her from the crowd was hurtling forward at absurd speeds, Cas still in tow. In a fluid motion, only so few paces away from certain doom, the mysterious collection of scarves and cloaks reached down with their free hand and dislodged a rock the size of a grapefruit from the dirt, all while maintaining speed. A deafening crack split the air. A boulder situated at the center of the heap split down the middle. Its halves shifted inwards, revealing a dark doorway. As they passed through it, stone moved outwards past them and closed back in place. Only then did they stop running.

              The darkness was absolute, and Cas’ attempts to catch her breath were the only sound to be heard. A harsh red light pierced the darkness, moving swiftly from the ceiling to the floor. Something shuddered beneath the ground as the light went out, and the room was filled with a dull, white glow as lighting fixtures built into the walls sprang to life. There were a number of metal surfaces bolted to the walls, each adorned with a number of tools and displays in various states of disuse.

              “Thank you for getting me out of there,” Cas said. Before she could say anything else, her rescuer raised a hand to silence Cas before removing the helmet. Her rescuer was a young woman, eyes the color of a sunset moments before night blanketed the land.

              “Don’t thank me yet,” the woman said, her voice carrying a practiced coldness. “You owe me. Before we continue this conversation, I’d like you to take your helmet off so I’m certain I haven’t made a mistake in saving you.”

              Cas placed her hands on the helmet, hesitating. “How will you know you’ve made a mistake?” she asked.

              “This isn’t a good start,” the woman replied.

              Cas removed the helmet, tucking it into the crook of her left arm. “My name’s Cas. I’m sure you can tell I’m not from around here,” she explained.

              “Kaye,” the woman who rescued Cas, Kaye, responded. “Clearly you aren’t or you would’ve known better than to use outdated tech. The Speaker would’ve had you thrown from the airlock.”

              “The Speaker?” Cas asked.

              Kaye shook her head, the short shock of silver hair adorning her scalp swishing gently. “This used to be a bustling farming community,” she said. “Worked out nicely until the air filters started to fail. The short of it?” She pointed to the helmet Cas held.

              “Someone from on high in mission command sent a huge shipment of the things,” Kaye continued. “Easier to display something than go through the trouble of speaking, burning up valuable oxygen. The Speaker stood out as someone everyone could follow.”

              Kaye frowned for only a moment, the sadness sudden but fleeting. “That’s enough of a history lesson,” Kaye said.

              A panel in the wall between two of the tables slid open. An old man, bald and hunched, stepped into the room. He let loose a long, wet series of course, punctuated by clearing his throat and spitting. He looked up, his gaze meeting Cas’s.

              “Brought home a stray, did you? We’ve barely got enough air in here for us, and certainly not enough food,” the man snarled.

              “She’s not staying long, Rel,” Kaye said. “Have you finished what I asked of you?”

              Rel narrowed his eyes at Cas, then shifted his focus to Kaye. “You sure you want to be talking about that so freely?”

              Kaye shot a glare over her shoulder. “The Speaker set a mob on her,” she replied. “The last person who had that happen still lives here.”

              Rel furrowed his brow. “I pull my weight,” he snapped back. “And if you’re so inconvenienced by my being here, you can always kick me out. Leave me to the mobs.”

              “That’s not what I said in the least,” Kaye shot back.

              Cas cleared her throat, and found herself on the receiving end of two severe looks. “Excuse me, but I fear it rude to not share my name as I know both of yours,” she said. “I go by Cas.”

              Rel raised an eyebrow, an amused smirk revealing yellowed, crooked teeth. “Go by?” he probed.

              Cas nodded. “I have a number of questions I need answered,” she explained. “I happened upon this place by accident, but it now almost feels like providence. If I can do something to help with this Speaker, perhaps?”

              Kaye smiled, looking back to Rel for a moment. She pointed, again, at Cas’s helmet. “That’s an older model, and it doesn’t properly interface with the current network,” she explained. “The Speaker depends on everyone being on the current network.”

              “We’ve worked on one such helmet we managed to acquire,” Rel added, continuing, “In doing so, we managed to make a helmet on the network that can potentially override the Speaker’s command over the others.”

              “That sounds simple enough,” Cas conceded.

              Kaye shook her head. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s a battle of wills. Whoever takes up the helmet against the Speaker. He’s been in everyone’s head for so long it will be difficult.”

              Cas stroked her chin, lost in thought. “What do you think will happen if I succeed?” she asked. “Or if I fail? What would I need to do to best this Speaker?”

              Rel and Kaye exchanged glances, the small measure of hope on their faces gone abruptly.

              “Truthfully, we don’t know,” Rel conceded.

              “We’ve been holed up in this facility for years,” Kaye added. “The oxygen supplies are steadily running down, and we’re known by the Speaker. We had to come up with something to make living in the open safe again.”

              Cas clapped her hands together, causing Rel to jump. “If you have the means, I’ll find the way,” Cas said. “I feel like there is a wrong here that I must right.” She felt a fog at the edge of her thoughts. Where the fog only began to obscure the clarity Cas needed was a sense of guilt, as if there was something in this situation she should know more about. Something she was in some way, directly or indirectly, responsible for righting.

              Rel turned and disappeared back into the room he’d entered from, the panel sliding shut behind him. Kaye stood, not speaking, her eyes shut as if meditating. The panel opened again, and Rel returned to the room with a helmet in his hands similar to the one Cas had. The visor’s display was crisper, clearer, and devoid of the cracks and scratches the other helmets all seemed to be marred by.

              “I’ll trade you,” Rel said, a command more than a request. Cas offered up the helmet she’d tucked under her arm and accepted the one Rel had brought in. She lifted it to put it on, but was stopped by Kaye.

              “Don’t,” Kaye ordered. “Not until you’re leaving. The second you’re on the network, you’ll be visible to the Speaker, and he’ll be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leading the mobs right to us.”

              Cas nodded. “Any words of wisdom before I depart?” she asked.

              “Don’t die,” Rel offered, his words met with a sharp glare from Kaye.

              “I don’t have anything I think will be terribly helpful,” Kaye conceded. “Don’t let the Speaker in, no matter what he tries to convince you. Fight him, and fight him with all you have.”

              Cas smiled. “I’ll see you both soon enough, I hope,” she said. She turned and walked back the way she and Kaye had entered. A small, red bank of lights adorned the wall by the door in the false boulders she had come through earlier. She pressed the solitary button on the panel, and the doors slid open.

              As Cas stepped out into the field, she placed the helmet on her head. At first, its interior was completely dark. A thin beam of light shifted left to right across Cas’s field of vision, scanning across her eyes. She blinked away the pain, waiting patiently.

              The interior of the helmet illuminated fully, and the field outside came into view. A small, silver globe rotated in the upper left corner of Cas’s vision. It blinked several times, and a frown appeared superimposed over the globe for a fraction of a second. The town’s center was visible, but only barely, in the distance, and so Cas started the long walk towards her destination. She had no exact plan, but wondered if reasoning with this Speaker was an option. Failing, she considered, and being jettisoned from the airlock was not an appealing outcome.

              She trudged through the field, her eyes stopping on the broken, dried and dead remains of what looked to be more than just tall grass. Specters of cornstalks still stood in perfect rows, their color and life long gone from them. Spiraling vines lay blackening on another mound of soil. The land itself did not appear dry or brittle. Cas found herself wondering what the field had looked like before.

              A small image of a book blinked into her field of vision, its pages opening to reveal fleeting images of vibrant farms surrounding modest huts. A stream carving its way through the farm-town, disappearing beneath the cobblestones before emerging from the top of a fountain in the heart of the village. A gentle breeze swept through, drifting ever higher until it reached the clouds and beyond. For a brief moment, fans were visible in the metal ceiling above the colony.

              The fans shuddered to a stop, and with that the view returned to the current field. Cas furrowed her brow, quick to return to a neutral expression when she realized her visor mirrored the expression.

              “Curious,” Cas muttered. “I wonder.” Her vision was temporarily obscured by the interior of her visor displaying a series of images rapidly, starting and ending with a sad face. Cas shook her head, blinking against the after-image of what had been shown to her.

              “Best keep moving,” Cas reminded herself.

              A crowd had formed at the edge of the village, flanking the main throughway. All eyes were on Cas, who hesitated at the edge of the road. A cursor appeared superimposed on the scenery within Cas’s visor. It flashed a few times before something spoke through text.

              Enter, and present yourself, the words read.

              Cas blinked, but maintained a neutral expression. “Are you the Speaker?”

              The cursor blinked again. The name you speak of is a familiar one, but not one I have given myself, the Speaker said. I have many names. Come to me, and I shall share my names and so much more.

              Cas felt herself compelled forward, each step reluctant but seemingly inevitable.  She found herself approaching the dais in the center of the village, atop which the Speaker waited on an imposing throne-like seat.

              Join us, won’t you? Join our happy village and be free from the difficult existence that is your rebelliousness. All it takes is just letting go.

              The inside of Cas’s helmet flashed and indicated to her the visor was displaying a smile.

              “No,” Cas spat back.

              The villagers moved in, surrounding the dais as Cas felt herself compelled to step up and join the Speaker, the smile still present on her visor.

              My family, my children, we have added one more to our ranks on this day, the Speaker said, now clearly addressing everyone present. The smile on Cas’s visor grew into a manic grin, and she felt the sides of her mouth tug themselves into a matching expression of glee.

              “No!” Cas shouted, her voice seemingly muffled by the helmet.

              Take this newcomer in and teach her our ways, commanded the Speaker. Give her lodging and shelter, so she may never need nor want anything else ever again. She is one of our own now.

              A blackness crept into the corners of Cas’s vision. She continued to smile. She felt a warmth roll over her, and with it an inexplicable sense of peace. She was, she began to realize, where she belonged. She was home.

              Home, she thought again as her vision darkened further. Something flashed before her eyes as if a light in the darkness, and Cas snapped back to her senses. Her visor displayed a smile, but the mouth changed to an ‘x’. Villagers looked to the Speaker, then to Cas, their expressions suddenly a mix of confusion and rage as they attempted to process this.

              Fret not, my children, the Speaker said. Even without a voice, his words seemed to come across as slick as oil.

              The faces turned placid again, and Cas’s vision grew darker still. She felt a wave of panic hit her, followed by another forced wave of joy. Peace.

              No, she thought. This is wrong, she told herself.

              If she couldn’t convince them to see the truth in a face, she thought, perhaps something else. Cas thought for a moment, before her thoughts drifted back to the images she’d seen earlier. She picked one and focused.

              There was a series of confused looks exchanged among the crowd when a fan appeared, still and unmoving, on Cas’s visor. Others mirrored the image accompanied by a question mark.

              Dismiss such thoughts, demanded the Speaker. They serve no purpose beyond distraction from the peace and freedom I offer.

              The Speakers words seemed to fall flat, however, as the image continued to spread throughout the crowd. The Speaker’s helmet switched from its peaceful expressionl to one of rage in an instant. It flickered briefly, static marring its form.

              Suddenly, without warning, there was a rumble that shook the world around the village. It had started high up, and spread slowly to the ground. Another followed, and then another still.

              No! Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!

              “You fear it,” Cas replied.

              You…do not know what…you have d-on3…… The Speaker’s visor became a blur of static, the face intermittently popping back into existence before dissipating just as quickly. The helmet sputtered and sparked before giving off a loud popping sound. A plume of smoke poured forth from just beneath where the Speaker’s helmet covered his face.

              And a gentle breeze blew the smoke away.

              One by one, the other helmets deactivated. The villagers stood in silence as if awaiting their next command.

              Cas inhaled deeply, holding her breath as she removed her helmet. The air didn’t sting her lungs as she had feared it might. There was no foul odor to the air, save for faint stench of burned out electronic components, and she felt no pain as she finally drew breath.

              “It’s safe now, I suspect,” Cas said. “Take off your helmets. Breathe.”

              One by one, the villagers listened. Immediately in front of her, a young woman with deep red hair appeared from beneath a blackened visor. Then a boy with vibrant blue eyes. Each person looked at their neighbors like they were seeing them for the first time, smiling pleasantly all the same.

              “I told you I wasn’t making a mistake,” said a familiar voice. Cas turned and spotted Kaye trotting towards the dais with Rel in tow.

              “You got lucky,” Rel barked back. “Admit it.”

              Kaye leapt up onto the dais and offered Cas a crisp salute. “I knew you could do it,” she said. Cas felt a chill up her spine. More familiarity, and another sudden bout of pain just behind her eyes to push down any recognition she may have had for the moment.

              “Thank you for your faith in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This place?”

              Kaye reached over towards the speaker and tugged at his helmet. There was a dreadful cracking sound, followed by a pungent stench as it separated from the Speaker’s protective suit and ornate robes. Two hollow eye sockets stared from a largely bare skull, its jaw slack in a rictus grin.

              “Whatever was in this,” Kaye said, “Whoever. I reckon they’re still out there. This poor soul may have been smiling, but not with anything behind it I fear.”

              Cas frowned. “I’ll have to find them, then, and learn why they did what they have here,” she said. “More answers to seek.” She sighed.

              The villagers had begun to mill about, talking with one another. The conversations were reluctant and awkward, but gradually grew less so.

              Kaye clapped a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “Walk with me for a moment or two,” she said, her tone more of a request than a demand. Cas nodded, following along. They left the village behind, following a faint, dusted-over stone pathway. It wound along, going over foothills and dipping into shallow valleys that Cas had missed previously. It ended at a sheer cliff, which seemed to stretch upwards endlessly. Cas reached out and touched the stone, and the stone’s image wavered beneath her hand to reveal a plain metal surface. A solitary door rested at its center, adorned with red text reading “Emergency Exit: Authorized Personnel Only”.

              “There’s not likely much more for you here, Cas,” Kaye said. “In time, perhaps, there may be, but I reckon you’d best be on your way now.”

              Cas felt a brief pang of sadness and wondered why, but as quickly as it occurred it seemed to drift off.

              “I suppose you’re right,” Cas replied. She offered Kaye a crisp salute, which Kaye returned. Without another word, unable to find the right thing to say, Cas turned and opened the door. It swung open with a rapidity she expected, and she spun back in time for the door to snap shut behind her.

              The room she had entered was plain, save for a bank of monitors along the righthand wall. A small bank of consoles sat beneath them, their keyboards closed off beneath protective glass locked in place. Another door, similar to the one Cas just passed through, adorned the opposite wall, and on it was a smudge of gray.

              Cas sighed, a battle between uncertainty and certainty that she was continuing along the right path as she approached the door.

              “Suppose all I can do for now,” Cas instructed herself, “is continue to follow the ashes.”