Life happens, or so the saying goes, as does work and writing and finding time to exercise. Organizing parties. Dozing off in the middle of the day. And so on.
I’ve certainly kept busy, and sometimes I am kept busy. Sometimes I find myself time to simply be, and sometimes I am reminded to simply be (or, with a gentle nudge and much love from my wife, I am told to simply be). It’s during the downtime of being that I find myself thinking about what I should be doing and what I could be doing, and how I’ve not necessarily gotten any closer to accomplishing those things. On the plus side, I’ve gotten no farther from doing so either. Instead, I’m enjoying the adventure of being a father to two fantastic children, navigating the adventures of marriage with my entirely remarkable wife (who supports my writing far more than I do at times), and so on.
So what’s next, then? What misadventures wait ahead?
There will certainly be more Follow the Ashes sooner than later. Still plenty of distance to travel before we reach our destination with that story.
Introductions to Amira, and her Quest, are probably in order. We’ll see.
Then, of course, there’s a small matter of things to do with ducks, and if that’s confusing to read I promise it was just as perplexing to type.
Those, however, are misadventures for other days. Today, instead, I’m choosing again to simply be and remember to breathe.
“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.
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.”
[Data transmission incoming…Receiving…Please wait…]
[Encryption detected. Reviewing codex library. Stand by…]
[Error. Decryption protocols have failed to decode the message. Please stand by – rerouting through decryption sub-routine Foxtrot Tango Alpha. Stand by…]
[Decryption Complete. Message received.]
[…Don’t forget to Follow the Ashes.]
[Follow the Ashes returns 3/1/2019]
“Put on a Happy Face, Part One: No Frowns in This Town”
The door swung open with only a gentle shove, giving way to a long, gunmetal hallway lined with windows. It offered nowhere to hide, which Cas considered both a blessing and a curse. No one could sneak up on her, but she would be spotted easily by anyone near the windows. She looked back to the artificial lake. The shore she had climbed onto was the only land she could see. Sheer metal walls flanked the water, and there were no visible doors.
Cas stepped across the threshold and into the hallway. The door at the opposite end was translucent gray, betraying nothing of what stood beyond it. Cas crouched down and made her way to the first set of windows. Slowly, with calculated speed and caution, she stood up and glanced out the window. The grass was sparse and patchy, islands of dull green amidst a sea of dry, cracked soil. The occasional tree slumped sadly. Their trunks were a uniform gray, giving them more the look of stone than wood.
It was the first slice of nature Cas felt certain wasn’t a trick of technology.
Cas saw no other signs of life outside and decided to continue. She crossed the hallway at a brisk pace, still wary someone could be watching her. The translucent gray door revealed little detail of what was beyond it. There was a row of doors visible on the opposite wall, each one with a light set at the top of its frame.
Smudges of ashes at the door’s edges compelled Cas to press on. She placed a hand against the door’s cold, metal surface and gave a gentle push. It swung inwards slowly, its hinges groaning as rust flaked away. Save for one, the lights above the doors were off. The solitary bulb that was lit shined a soft green.
Without a second thought, Cas crossed the small room and prepared to open another door.
“Stop! What are you doing?” demanded a raspy voice from behind Cas. She spun around, fists raised and wishing she still had the knife she’d taken from Maeve. An old man stood there, an alarmed look in his eyes. He held his hands out as if to show he wasn’t a threat.
“You can’t go out there without protective gear on,” the old man continued. “You got some kind of death-wish, lady? Two breaths of the air out there will leave you deader than a doornail.”
Cas breathe a sigh of relief. “Excuse me,” she said.
The old man shook his head. “Been longer than I can remember since we had a new arrival,” he muttered. He eyed Cas for a moment. His gaze seemed to be free of judgment and apprehension. He turned and shuffled to the wall next to the door Cas had entered. Several lockers lined the wall, each marked with a numeric code. The old man considered each of them before selecting one. He tinkered with its combination lock, then stepped back as the door popped open. A dull gray uniform, much like the one Cas was wearing albeit much dryer, sat folded on a shelf in the locker. A gray spacesuit was held above the clothes by a hanger. It was slightly less plain, bearing a small insignia on its chest that looked like a flame. Bands of red fabric circled the elbow and knee joints, with two parallel rings around the suit’s midsection.
The old man picked up the clothes, shuffled back over to Cas, and handed them to her. He waved to the other side of the boxish room. “Privacy curtain over there,” he said. “You’ll catch your death if you stay in those soaked rags.”
“Thank you,” Cas said. She took the clothes from the old man and stepped behind the privacy curtain.
“I’m sorry,” Cas added. “I don’t believe I asked your name.” She changed out of her soaking clothes and into the ones she had been given, appreciating the warmth they held.
“Not to worry,” the old man said. “I’m a second-generation Epsilon colonist, so I was given a number. Long. Not easy to remember. The youngsters call me Old Grim when they think I’m not listening, so I think that will do just fine.”
“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Old Grim,” Cas said. “I go by Cas.” She stepped out from behind the curtain, pleased to have found the outfit fit her well.
Old Grim had returned to the locker and was shuffling back towards her with the spacesuit. “Cas, hm?” he said. “I knew a nice young lady named Jocasta. You look a little like her. She had some dense curls on her head, though, and I think you’re a little taller.” He considered Cas for a moment before shrugging the thought off.
Cas took the suit and stepped in. As she pulled it on, it seemed far too large for her. It seemed to adjust, however, as Cas zipped the suit up. She paused, glancing towards the doors. “Are you the only one here?” she asked. “Forgive my ignorance.”
Old Grim shrugged. “Best you see for yourself,” he said, frowning. “This used to be a state-of-the-art habitation unit, back when I first got here.” He returned to the lockers, opening another one. He shuffled back to Cas with a helmet in hand.
“This one’s outdated, no doubt,” Old Grim said. He held the helmet out to Cas, and she took it. It fit loosely on her. The visor, she noted, allowed no light through. She could see nothing.
“There’s a small power button situated around where the helmet covers your left ear,” Old Grim said. “Press it.”
Cas placed her hand against the helmet and slowly guider her fingers to the area Old Grim had mentioned. She found a small, round depression, and pressed at it gently. The inside of the helmet flashed to life, full of brilliant color. A progress bar appeared momentarily, sped to 100%, then disappeared. The helmet’s interior display then switched to showing the world around Cas. Faint outlines of icons were overlaid on the world. Cas shifted her focus to one—a smiley face—and it gained clarity.
Old Grim offered a thumbs-up. “Looks to be working well enough,” he said. “Try looking at another.” Cas complied, shifting her gaze from the smiley face. It dulled, again a faint impression against the helmet’s visualization of the world around Cas. She shifted her gaze to the right, stopping on another dulled icon that turned out to be a frown.
“Excellent,” Old Grim said. “I think that should do it. I should explain the point of this little exercise, I suspect.”
Cas nodded, suddenly aware the gesture didn’t necessarily register with the helmet and spacesuit on. She offered, instead, a thumbs-up.
“The habitat’s atmospheric cycling hasn’t been working right for years, but this habitation zone has been deemed a failure,” Old Grim explained. “No help from above, so to speak. These suits, previously a novelty item, became our only hope. You communicate by way of guiding your eyes to an icon. It presents on the helmet’s outer display.”
Cas nodded. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it so you can simply speak to one another?” she asked.
Old Grim shook his head. “You’ll want to be cautious with questions like that out there,” he said. “Nowhere to go but forward at this point, and I suspect you’ve got plenty of forward-moving to do.”
Cas considered Old Grim’s words. “Thank you,” she said. “Why are you helping me?”
“I think you’ll end up helping us,” Old Grim replied. “First visitor shows up fifty years to the day from when this habitation zone was established? Maybe I’m just foolin’ myself. You stay safe out there, now. Not everyone you encounter is going to be so welcoming.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Cas said.
Old Grim gestured towards the solitary door with a green light above it. “Out that way,” he said. “Follow the dirt path along a ways and you’ll find yourself at the edge of town.”
Cas nodded. She placed a hand against the door and prepared to push, only to pause. “Will you be safe if I open this?” she asked. She turned her attention back to Old Grim. He had shuffled back to the lockers and was holding what looked to be a breathing mask to his face. He nodded to Cas, who nodded in return. She turned back to the door and pressed.
There was a soft popping sound as the seal broke, and the door swung open. The sunlight’s warmth, though artificial, made its way through the spacesuit. It was strong, but not unpleasantly so. Sickly flowers swayed, drooped over, in the few patches of surviving grass. Cas closed the door behind herself and stepped forward. The trail stood out, despite being a dirt path in a landscape dominated by dried earth.
Cas followed the path along its few small hills and valleys. She took in the scenery as she walked, finding herself wondering what this placed had looked like in its early years. How beautiful, she thought, it must have been.
Small cottages became visible in the distance. Cas walked faster, spurred on by her curiosity. As she reduced the distance between her and the buildings, she saw the paint on their exteriors was cracked and worn, stained by dust and soot. She could see people here and there in the distance, each wearing a spacesuit identical to hers. Something, however, seemed different. She noticed how they all looked down as they shuffled about, clearly avoiding meeting one another’s gaze. She continued along the road, careful to imitate the shuffling gait and downward gaze of the locals.
The path grew into a street, then a cobblestone road as it continued. Cas hazarded a glance upwards. The cottages were closer, forming a manmade wall circling what looked to be the town’s center. Fragmented remains of a marble fountain stood at odd angles. What was once a man and woman pouring water from ornate pottery had been reduced to a collection of shattered limbs and leaking pipes. To the statue’s left, off-center by comparison, was a small, circular stage. Stone steps, pristine compared to the statue and the surrounding cobblestones, wound around the stage from the ground to its plateau.
There was a loud, tinny sound, unpleasant and jarring. Cas took a moment to identify what it was—an old recording of a bell ringing.
The townsfolk appeared one or two at a time at first. Then groups of four or so. The town center filled quickly, Cas suddenly stuck amidst the crowd. She focused her gaze downwards still, hoping to continue to blend in until she had time to observe more. The crowd parted, but Cas couldn’t see why. Gradually, two large figures carried a platform, its handles straddled on their shoulders as one walked ahead of the other.
There was a smaller person atop the platform. Diminutive, Cas thought. Perhaps even withered. The person’s limbs seemed loose within the confines of the same suit that fit snugly on everyone else
Without a word, the two carried the figure to the top of the stage, set the platform down at its center, and stepped away. Even the slight breeze seemed to fall silent.
The screen on the small figure’s helmet lit up bright green, then was replaced by a banana-yellow smiley face. There was a soft clicking sound all around Cas. She looked around and saw images cycling on the other helmets until, one by one, they all mirrored the figure on the stage. Thinking quickly, Cas shifted her gaze to the corresponding symbol on her helmet’s internal screen. The smiley face came into view as internal processes caused her helmet to hum and chirp. There was a sudden snapping sound, and the internal display flickered. The world around Cas had become pixelated.
On the stage, the withered figure’s helmet switched to a look of puzzlement surrounded by question marks. Others in the crowd had shifted their focus to Cas, their helmets displaying a variety of expressions from quizzical to concerned to, to Cas’s dismay as she found herself surrounded, anger. She looked frantically for a way out as the crowd began to close in around her.
Happy nearly-Thursday (or happy Thursday, depending on where you’re reading this from). Installment 4 of Follow the Ashes (spoilers: titled “Put on a Happy Face”) is coming along slowly but surely, and will likely be on time. If it isn’t, it’ll be up by Sunday. The goal is for it to be on time, obviously.
However! I have to say that this will be the last one for a bit. The reason? There is less than a month between now and the arrival of the baby known as Butterbean. I want to make sure I am doing everything I can to focus on preparing for that, which means taking a breather from Follow the Ashes. I do have some bonus material planned for when it returns to help take the edge off.
Meanwhile, expect the next installment soon. I hope it’s proving to be an enjoyable story.
Cas stared at Raph, both urging and daring him to elaborate. Raph merely shook his head in response.
“We need to keep moving,” Raph said. “I am truly and deeply sorry, but there are things you cannot know for the time being. It’s for your own good.” He nodded to the catwalk behind Cas.
Cas glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting someone to have caught up with them. She realized Raph was only indicating the path they would need to take. “What if I choose to wait here?” Cas challenged. “What if I refuse to press on? Or worse, what if I refuse to let you pass?”
Raph pursed his lips. “I can only speculate,” he said. “Nothing good.” He stepped forward. Cas grabbed at the railings on either side and stood her ground.
“I have no reason to trust you that I can think of,” Cas said. “Though you set me free, this could all be some elaborate ruse to lull me into false security.” She studied Raph’s face, hoping for answers that he refused to speak to manifest.
“You don’t,” Raph said. “Right now, you don’t. I let you out and guided you away from the more heavily-surveilled areas, but we can still be seen.” He gestured toward the wall. It was only then that Cas noticed the otherwise-sheer metal surface was interrupted at odd intervals by small, translucent domes.
“Like it or not, we still have a way to go before we can really talk,” Raph said. “Or we stop here and now. Gavin will find us. I’m sure my punishment will be far worse than yours.”
The scars. Cas found herself fixated on the scars that traversed Raph’s face. “Were you punished before?” she asked before she could stop herself. She clenched her jaw, not allowing herself to complete the line of questioning though it still lurked in her thoughts.
Raph frowned. “If I answer truthfully, can we please proceed?” he asked. Cas nodded silently.
“Yes,” Raph said simply. “These scars are a reminder of another time I disobeyed orders.”
Cas stepped back onto the landing, allowing Raph to pass her. The catwalks clinked quietly with each step they took. The dull echo of their progress proved to be the only conversation for some distance as Cas followed Raph deeper into the compound.
The Facility, Cas reminded herself.
“I’m sorry,” Cas said. “That was rude of me before.”
Raph chuckled. “No need for an apology,” he replied, rounding another bend. “There will be a time when everything can be made clear. When you can have answers. Until then, however, we must press onwards.”
A small opening in the wall was visible, blocked from being viewed overhead by a small outcropping. Raph turned around and smiled. “Besides, I know you meant no ill will,” he added before turning and continuing ahead. Cas was taken aback by the comment. Clearly, she reasoned, Raph was someone who knew her. Who seemed to trust her.
“Don’t linger too long,” Raph called back over his shoulder. He was now some distance ahead, Cas realized as she was snapped back to the present. She sped up, and as she reached the opening to the concealed room, she realized she wasn’t looking simply a door. A wall had once stood there, its remains clinging to where the ceiling met the other walls.
Raph tapped at a spot on his chest as they entered the room. A powerful light sprang to life inside a panel of armor on Raph’s chest, illuminating a room like the one she had been in earlier. This one, however, was in a state of great disrepair. A large, cracked glass panel blocked where the cells had been. Only a handful of the consoles remained, and of those only a few had monitors that were still in one piece.
“Keep your wits about you, Miss Cas,” Raph said. He approached the consoles. Cas followed close behind. There was something to the quality of the shadows in the room that put her on edge. Maybe it was paranoia, but she was certain something was moving at the edge of her vision.
“What is this place?” Cas asked as she looked around the room.
Raph tapped at the console. “Better to show than just tell,” he responded, his words shaped by a hint of a frown. He stepped back and clenched his fists. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Raph struck the side of the console. A dull whirring emitted from somewhere beneath its surface, and a few lights blinked to life.
“That’s a step in the right direction,” Raph said. He stepped closer to the console once again and resumed tapping away at its surface. Cas watched as small points of light followed Raph’s fingers, tracing lines along the dusty surface.
The floor shuddered as something shifted deep within the facility. One after another, panels of lights in the ceiling flickered to life. They were dull, Cas noted, and some of them remained off. Raph nodded to where the large pane of glass was, and Cas turned to face it.
Birds darted around a peaceful meadow. A family of deer appeared in the distance, only partially visible amidst the trees. A small stream bubbled along its path.
“It’s beautiful,” Cas said, drawn to the glass. A field mouse scurried up to the glass and stopped, eying Cas. The floor shuddered again, weaker this time. The lights flickered, and the animals briefly became transparent. The trees shifted and twisted unnaturally, branches briefly suspended by nothing. The grass and sky inverted colors. Cas felt her heart sink.
In an instant, the simulated environment returned to the way it initially had been.
Raph’s footsteps were quiet as he approached and placed a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I should have explained first,” he said. “This is the prototype for what you saw upstairs, which in turn is a prototype for the functional version. Formulated Installations of Reality.”
Cas stared at Raph for a moment.
“It’s hard to explain, but I needed you to see this,” Raph said, the pace of his speech rigid as if he were reciting something. “It’s important that you question everything. Don’t let your guard down for a minute.” He paused, and something else blinked in the reflection on the glass. It was brief, but long enough to catch Cas’s attention. She spun around to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.
One of the little spheres from the wall rested on the floor, a dull red light visibly blinking at its core, visible through its outer, translucent layers. Cas took a quick step towards it, landing hard on one foot as she swung the other towards the device. It was deceptively light, and once her boot made contact it shot out of the room and down into the vast expanse of catwalks.
“We need to press onwards,” Raph said, a panicked look on his face. “I fear our time together is short, and there was still much I needed to cover. This is bad.” He motioned for Cas to follow, and Cas did so without question. The door at the opposite end of the room was tucked into the wall slightly, blocked by a honeycombed forcefield. Each portion of the forcefield was a distinct color.
Raph motioned for Cas to stop. “These old security features,” Raph muttered. “Keep an eye out. I’m certain we aren’t alone.”
As if on cue, a dull beep emanated from the space the highways of catwalks crisscrossed. It was followed by another, and yet more. The camera-orbs appeared, rolling into the room along the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Points of light traced along the floor, moving with slow deliberation towards Cas and Raph.
“We have company,” Cas said. She glanced over her shoulder. Raph was tapping at the panels one at a time. At some point in entering each combination, the honeycombs flickered bright red and Raph recoiled in pain.
Cas looked back at the entrance. There were significantly more orbs. They rolled over each other, their progress slow.
“They don’t seem terribly dangerous,” Cas said.
“They’re mapping the room,” Raph said without bothering to look. “Anything out of place will be encapsulated and incinerated.”
“A detail you could have lead with,” Cas said, backing up. She kept her eyes on the camera-orbs. She could hear Raph tapping away, cursing under his breath with each failure.
Something caught her eye beyond the glass wall. Raph tapped a green panel, and the simulated grass turned slate gray. The brown honeycomb drained color from the trees’ trunks, the red and orange claimed their leaves, and the blue drained the sky. He tapped a second brown honeycomb and recoiled. All color returned to the simulated environment. The thing Raph had called a Formulated Installation of Reality.
“Let me try,” Cas said absent-mindedly.
Raph met her gaze. “Getting it wrong is quite unpleasant, you know,” Raph cautioned.
“It seems that way,” Cas replied. “We’re running out of time. I have an idea. Let me try it, please.”
Raph stepped aside, allowing Cas to take his place. She tapped a blue panel and the sky faded. She tapped orange, red, and yellow honeycombs, and the leaves on the trees went gray. She tapped the brown and green, and the trees and grass went completely dark. A single, golden panel lit up in the center of the barrier. Cas took a deep breath, held it, and pressed her palm against the golden panel. A silver light flashed across the barrier, and it vanished. The world beyond the glass disappeared completely, replaced now by a plain room. Metal poles stood where trees had been, and small, simplistic robots slowed to a halt—they were all that was left of the animals.
The glass blinked, then broke down and slid across the floor.
“Very clever, Miss,” Raph said appreciatively. “Let’s make haste. There’s an old habitation unit not too far from here.” He walked towards where the glass had been, stepping over its powdered remains and into what had only moments ago looked to be a picturesque meadow. The beeping of the camera-orbs grew closer and louder, their number having increased significantly. Cas crouched down as she stepped across the threshold, scooping up some of the substance.
She sifted it through her hands as she walked, moving fast to match Raph’s pace and keep ahead of the camera-orbs.
“Sand,” she said quietly to herself as the last of it sifted between her fingers. Something dark was left behind on her palm. She closed her hand, dragging her fingers across it. It smeared gray and off-white against her skin.
“More ashes,” Cas said.
The beeping intensified. Cas glanced behind her and saw the camera-orbs had picked up speed, now rolling after her. Cas started to jog. The room turned out to be a long corridor, mercifully free of obstacles. Cas and Raph only had to change course slightly to avoid the occasional tree-posts. The camera-orbs seemed to be pursuing them with purpose now, rivers of glass and metal splitting into individual streams to track Raph or Cas speicifically.
“What’s at the end of this?” Cas asked. Her legs had started aching some distance back, and she saw Raph’s pace had started to slow as well.
“Another control room,” Raph panted.
As if in response to their plight, the floor seemed to angle towards their destination. Cas and Raph ran faster, aided by the shift in the room’s configuration. The sound of metal on metal grew closer as the camera-orbs reached the hill as well.
“They’ll overrun us soon if we’re not careful,” Raph said.
Cas shook her head. “I have no intention of dying here,” she replied, pushing herself to run faster.
“The strange thing,” Raph said. “I don’t recall any of the older environments being advanced enough to handle shifts in terrain. The programming hadn’t progressed that far yet.”
Cas faltered briefly, her stride broken for a split second. She glanced back and spotted a crack in the floor. The paneling was uneven, shifted downwards like the surrounding floor but at a more severe angle. Scanning the floor ahead, Cas spotted more cracks and damage to the floor.
“Watch your step!” Cas shouted to Raph. A doorway loomed ahead, large enough that an airplane could pass through. Raph came to an abrupt stop, having maintained a few paces’ distance ahead of Cas.
“Look out!” Raph shouted. Cas stopped with only inches of floor left. A significant portion of the floor between where they stood and the exit had broken away. Nothing was visible at the bottom of the chasm – only darkness.
The camera-orbs had nearly closed the distance and were still rapidly advancing.
“We need to jump,” Cas stated decisively.
Raph stared down into the pit, then looked back at the robots. “Certain death or possible death,” he mused. “I trust you. Tell me we can make this jump.”
Cas raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t the time for me to question why you trust me,” Cas replied. She turned on her heels and sprinted back the way they came. In a flash, Cas slid to a stop only inches away from the camera-orbs. She turned again and sprinted back towards the chasm. She leapt forward, gliding through the air like a seasoned ballerina executing a flawless grand jete. She landed on the other side, rolling forward to a kneeling position.
Raph offered brief applause. He ran back, forced to stop sooner than Cas as the oncoming wall of robots had moved closer still. He ran, huffing and puffing as he did, and leapt. Cas ran towards the gap, knelt down and grabbed Raph’s arms as he collided with the edge.
“Don’t you dare let go,” Cas demanded. “I still want answers, especially now.”
Raph nodded. Cas pulled at Raph while Raph carefully walked his way up the small portion of wall between him and safety. Raph fell forward, breathing heavily.
“I always knew you’d be the death of me, Miss,” Raph joked. “Thanks for that.”
The wall of camera-orbs continued to advance, nearly at the gap. “Don’t thank me just yet,” Cas said. The orbs rolled up to the chasm and stopped. They formed a neat, even line. Another orb rolled up onto the first layer, and then another.
“They’re forming a chain,” Cas observed. “They’ll be upon us before long.” She watched the chains of robots continue to grow. Something else caught her eye, however.
“Perhaps we should continue on, then,” Raph suggested.
“Hang on,” Cas said. “I’m curious. Something’s happening.” A dull, steady creaking sound was only barely audible over the din of beeping noises. The camera-orbs began to lean forward, high enough to reach. Raph leapt to his feet and started a slow but steady retreat when a loud crack filled the air. The camera-orbs heaved up and back, the floor falling away from beneath them. They disappeared from sight in an instant.
“That,” Raph said, pointing at Cas. “was luck.”
Cas offered a smile in response. “Shall we press onwards now?” she asked.
They arrived at a single door set in the wall, with a simple doorknob. Nothing elaborate. Raph grasped the doorknob and turned it, breathing a sigh of relieve.
“These old parts of The Facility have been decommissioned for so long,” Raph said. “Honestly, I’m grateful there are so few upgraded sections.”
“The disrepair certainly worked to our advantage,” Cas admitted.
Raph shook his head. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.
Cas chuckled. “Was that a joke?” she asked.
Raph considered his words and smiled. “I suppose it could pass for a moment of levity, yes,” he conceded. He stepped through the doorway, and Cas followed.
“More catwalks,” Cas said. One catwalk was held aloft from one end of the room to the other. Several smaller catwalks branched off to doors. The opposite end of the room looked like the room Cas had woken up in, imprisoned. Nothing beyond the end of the catwalk was visible, as the lighting ended just before that point.
Cas walked ahead, her hands on the railings. “At what point will you tell me more?” she called back to Raph. “I would certainly appreciate it.”
One of the orbs appeared ahead of Cas as she reached the center of the room. This one looked different, Cas noted. A lense shifted over its surface in a familiar way, and as it rolled away Cas realized what the odd apparatus had done.
It had winked at her.
“Show yourself!” Cas demanded. She heard Raph’s footsteps stop.
“Is something wrong, Miss Cas?” Raph asked.
“There’s nothing wrong at all, is there Cassandra?” Gavin said, stepping into the light. His cybernetic eye was back in its place.
Cas tensed, a searing pain shooting through her. Her knuckles went white from how tightly she gripped the railing.
“Little details hurt,” Gavin said. “Big ones could kill you, Cas, my dear. Come along. There’s no report of this little excursion, nor does there need to be.” He glanced past Cas to Raph and smiled.
“This will be a little less pleasant for you, I’m afraid,” Gavin continued. “That could have been avoided if you had just let Ismeria watch over her.”
Cas worked through the pain. “What are you going on about?” Cas demanded.
Gavin took a step forward.
“Cas!” Raph shouted. “Look here!”
Cas turned, facing outwards. The void below was dizzying, but Cas refused to allow Gavin a chance to catch her unaware.
“I’m sorry,” Raph said. “I didn’t think we would have enough time. It looks like I’ll have to take a raincheck on giving you those answers.” He produced a small disc from a pocked on his uniform and threw it onto the catwalk.
Cas saw the look of triumph fall from Gavin’s face, replaced by intense rage.
“You know there will be consequences,” Gavin said, taking another step forward.
“Cas, you need to run,” Raph said. “Help those who can’t help themselves, and accept help only if you are certain you can trust the person.”
“What are you going on about?” Cas demanded.
“Above all else, don’t forget,” Raph continued. “As a wise person once told me, never forget this. Follow the ashes!” He pressed a button on his gauntlet and the disk emitted a bright light. Cas watched as Gavin jumped backwards, off of the catwalk. The world heaved beneath her, then fell away as the metal of the catwalk was reduced to ash.
Cas tumbled downwards into the darkness. As she fell, she fought to focus so as to prepare herself for what might await at the bottom of her fall. Even if it was her death.
Something shone dimly below. Cas fought to stop turning over in the air and tried to focus. She saw spots glimmering along a moving surface.
Cas braced herself for impact, held her arms tightly at her sides, and shut her eyes. She hit the water feet-first, plunging deep beneath its surface The cold hit her hard, and she gasped before she could stop herself. She fought her way to the surface. Small waves moved along the water’s surface. Not far in the distance, Cas spotted a small stretch of beach. She swam to it as quickly as she could, throwing herself onto the ground.
Nothing was visible above.
“Now what do I do?” Cas asked herself. She stood up, brushing the sand off as she did. There was a rusted recess in the wall, just at the edge of the beach, and in that recess stood a door. I
“Restricted area,” Cas read on the door’s surface. “Sealed habitation zone. No outside influence permitted.” She considered the words.
“Sounds like an invitation,” Cas said. She stepped forward, placed a hand on the door’s surface, and pushed.