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.