Warpt Factor – Installment 14

The room was so quiet the anti-grav thrusters in the tables could be heard clearly–something that, with a gathering so large, should have been impossible. Whoever had hacked the system to contact the Rigellian Palace remained cloaked in artificial shadow, their voice altered several times over.

Neither the Rigellian Supreme Leader nor the Ruklan Leadership trio spoke up, and so Izzy turned her chair and stood on it, waiting for it to adjust to the shift in weight so as to not fall off.

“Sorry, don’t see you on the guest list so maybe, I don’t know,” Izzy said, “Maybe just leave. Especially if what you said is true. You’ve done enough here, thanks. But no thanks, ever, actually.”

The figure on the screen tilted their head. “Forgive me, young woman, but I can’t say I’m familiar with who you are,” they said. “I am addressing the Ruklan and Rigellian leaders.”

Izzy huffed. “And I’m talking to you, creepazoid! Show your face and stop hiding behind boring, old spy tech.”

“Supreme Leader Rigellus, were you not pleased to have the defensive capabilities to keep the Ruklans at bay?” the shadowy figure on the screens asked. “Archbishop Geln, do you not recall your promise to topple the Rigellian Empire?”

Archbishop Geln has gone a sickly shade of green, sweat accumulating along his forehead.

“Fortunately, I was made aware of the circumstances of your collective…” the shadowy figure continued. “Well, failure is the only word that really encompasses it properly. Geln failed to lead the Ruklans to victory. As for you, Calvin? Perhaps you’re more clever than I thought, as you found the kill-switch I had built into the shielding equipment.”

The atmosphere in the room great significantly less warm and jovial, with many of the people at neighboring tables having hushed conversations.

“I bought plasma-driven shielding for the Capitol and the palace, these things are true,” Calvin replied. “From a reputable seller with Orion’s Blade.”

Geln didn’t speak a word, his face a mask of horror.

“As for you, child, perhaps you would do well to learn when you should speak up and when you should stay silent,” the shadow-shrouded figure said. “Eagerness to stand out can have unfortunate consequences.”

Geln let out a strangled gasp. “Give me another chance, please,” he begged.

The figure on the screen shook their head. They held aloft a modified comm-link–a very old model, modified from the look of it. They pressed a button.

Archbishop Geln fell the short distance from his seat to the floor, motionless upon landing.

“A pity,” the shadowy figure said. “I had such high hopes for our relationship once he had taken Rigel Six. Do take care, everyone. Remember that life and government are fleeting, unstable things, and one never does quite know when their role or their rule may come to a sudden end.”

The transmission ceased and many of the guests fled the room. President Kelran leapt down to the floor to examine Geln. CMO Carter ran past Izzy and began attempting to resuscitate the fallen Archbishop.

“What in the hell just happened?” Izzy asked. “Who was that?” Before she could register what was going on, her crew was by her side.

“Are you all right, Captain?” Brannigan asked, looking her over as if he expected her to combust at any moment.

First Officer deCourville rested a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “That was quite concerning, Captain, so I must echo Professor Everest on this. Are you quite all right?”

Izzy blinked, staring off into the distance.

“Thank goodness you didn’t immediately declare who you are, as you do,” First Officer deCourville added. “Whoever that is would have found out very quickly where to find us, I fear.”

“Yeah,” Izzy replied. “You’re right.” She got down from her chair and approached CMO Carter.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Izzy asked.

CMO Carter sighed. “Whatever killed him left no physical evidence of what it did. His heart stopped.” She stood, turning to face Izzy.

“It’s okay to not be okay right now, Captain,” CMO Carter said. “No amount of training truly prepares for this moment. When you see someone die, needlessly, for the first time. Wish I could say it gets any easier.”

“Thank you, Carter,” Izzy said. “Mel. I’m sorry.”

Izzy returned to Professor Everest and First Officer deCourville, who stopped speaking to each other in hushed tones when they spotted her.

“I’m fine, you two. Right as rain,” Izzy assured them. “What a dumb saying.” She shrugged, shaking her head.

“Time to depart,” Izzy said. “We’ve done enough here.” She turned and whistled sharply.

“CMO Carter!” Izzy shouted.

CMO Carter raised an eyebrow.

“Ship departs…” Izzy hesitated. “Whatever, just be aboard in the next hour, please. I’ve got a headache that could kill an AI and I need a nap.”

Calvin went to follow, but Prime Minister Todan stopped him as Izzy left the Grand Dining Hall, tracing her steps back to her room. She gathered her things and made her way back to the private hangar The Lofty Albatross where The Lofty Albatross waited. It sparkled with a newfound shine.

“Damn it, they washed you,” Izzy muttered. “They washed my ship with blood-money from being awful.” She let out a strangled scream, covering her mouth halfway through.

The Lofty Albatross’ crew was waiting on the bridge of the ship when Izzy boarded.

“I’ll be in my quarters,” Izzy grumbled.

“Captain,” Professor Everest said. “A word, please? Just a moment of your time, we promise.”

Izzy hesitated at the doorway, turning around. She realized she had missed seeing CMO Carter, but it looked like the Lofty Albatross had gained a crew member after all.

“Go on,” Izzy said.

“Well, we did some talking, as we do,” Professor Everest said. “This one especially.” He pointed at Fontaine but didn’t allow enough time for a response, the Cicardox already clicking his mandibles in frustration.

“General consensus is we find a nice make port and unwind for a bit,” Professor Everest said. “You’ve certainly earned it, Captain.”

Izzy frowned. “I did no such thing,” she said. “If anything, I deserve to be thrown into a black hole far away from an inhabited system. By a robot so a person doesn’t get stuck with me that long.”

“That was…specific,” CMO Carter replied.

“Someone is dead because of me!” Izzy shouted.

First Officer deCourville stepped forward, both sets of hands clasped behind his back. “Captain, what you did today…What you achieved? You brought peace to two warring factions, and in doing so you uncovered something far more insidious at play. We’ll have to report the details back to Spiral Reach, but…”

First Officer deCourville hesitated. “You’ve earned a measure of rest first before we tackle filing the various reports needed.”

Izzy offered a half-hearted smile. “Very sweet of you, First Officer,” she said. “Guess I’ll leave it up to you three. Give me a heads-up when we’re there, okay? Like, more than a five-minute warning.”

“Of course, Captain Warpt,” First Officer deCourville said, offering a salute.

Izzy returned the salute. She turned to leave the bridge. “If you guys need anything, not that you’ll need anything of course,” she said before she departed. “If you do though, my door’s always open to you, my crew.”

Warpt Factor – Installment 10

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances, then returned their collective gaze to Izzy.

“We will not rest until we are given what is owed to us,” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This war, thanks to the anonymous gift of weapons and armor, shall ensure as much.”

Izzy wagged a finger. “It’s a lot of shiny guns and ways to keep your people safe, but you didn’t once think to question where it came from? And if there’ll ever be a bill that comes due later?”

President Kelran smiled. “That is a matter we have already begun to address,” she said. “Our payment is the removal of Rigellians from power, which we find most agreeable.”

Izzy frowned. “Why’s that, though?” she asked. She turned to face CMO Carter. “You’re familiar with this. Explain, please.”

CMO Carter shook her head. “We don’t have the kind of time necessary for such an explanation, Captain Warpt,” she replied frankly.

Izzy tapped the tip of her nose with her right index finger, her eyes focused on a point well beyond the confines of the Citadel.

“Is there a comm-link in here I could use?” Izzy asked at last. “I promise this isn’t me just trying to buy time.”

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances once again, a muttered conversation going on among them.

“Out of the question,” Archbishop Geln snapped.

“And do you agree with that, Prime Minister Todan?” Izzy replied sharply.

Prime Minister Todan laughted, a soft and sinister sound that chilled the room.

“I will allow it,” Prime Minister Todan said, waving one of her hands.

A panel at the base of their collective thrones swung open revealing a screen and controls. It was rudimentary, and undoubtedly not the one used by the trio above, but Izzy knew it would suffice. She approached and began tapping away at buttons. The screen betrayed little of what input was being entered, and Izzy only paused her feverish typing to look up briefly.

“Sorry, total dummy moment,” Izzy said. “Any chance someone could tell me the signal to contact the Rigellian…” She glanced back to CMO Carter again.

“Supreme Leader,” CMO Carter provided.

Izzy winced. “Not a great start with that title,” she said.

“This young woman is wise, as I have been saying the same for years now,” Prime Minister Todan said. “Sol Nebula Gamma Foxtrot is the code you’ll need.”

Izzy entered the information provided and the communication link began to reach out. “Bingo!” she cried out. “Big thanks to Prime Minister Todan, the real star of these efforts so far.” She winked at Todan, and the color drained from Inar’s face.

“We’re all going to be executed for this,” Inar muttered. He leaned toward CMO Carter and added, in a whisper, “Prime Minister Todan is often referred to as Lady Death. She is quick to anger and does not allow for second chances.”

“Ah,” CMO Carter said. “This surely will end well.”

A round, anger-reddened face, framed by a receding gray hairline and a dense beard appeared on the screen. “You have the audacity to make contact as your troops storm the Palace.” He blinked as he seemed to register he was not speaking with the trio of Ruklan leadership.

“And just who the Hell are you, young woman?” the Supreme Leader demanded.

Izzy grinned broadly. “An exceptional question,” she said. “Gold star to you, Mister Supreme Leader of Rigel Six. I am Captain Izzy Warpt of the Lofty Albatross, flying under the banner of Spiral Reach Academy. We have come to de-escalate this situation.”

The Supreme Leader’s face reddened considerably more. “You should be stopping the lunatics with whom you are currently company! This is all their doing!”

“A fine thing to assert from your palace, as you continued to subdue us with excessive taxes while preventing us from voting,” President Kelran said.

“You’re not true Rigellians, and so why should you have the right to vote?” the Supreme Leader barked back.

Izzy rolled her eyes. “Listen, buddy,” she said. “Supreme Jerkface. I regret to inform you that I have an ace up my sleeve and so you should probably try to check that ‘tude at the door.”

The Supreme Leader narrowed his eyes. “Or what will you do?”

Izzy smiled. “Terrific question,” she said. “The longer answer is that nameless benefactors, which is a bonkers term since we’re talking a ton of death machines being gifted out of the blue, included an easily accessible list of the goodies they sent to the Ruklans should someone need it.”

Izzy paused for dramatic effect, leaving her crew looking particularly concerned.

“And so upon looking through that list of goodies, I found one that really grabbed my attention, pulled it in, and said it was up for a good time if I was,” Izzy continued.

The Supreme Leader leaned forward, his face looming larger on the screen. “And just what the Hell does that all mean to me? I’m safe in my bunker.”

“Party-pooper,” Izzy replied. “Short version of the answer, since that seems to be what you wanted, is that the Ruklans were provided with a secret, end-it-all kind of weapon, and it’s near here. I just happened to unlock it.”

“You did what?!” Archbishop Geln howled, leaping to his feet. The other two maintained their composure, though a hint of sweat made an appearance upon President Kelran’s forehead.

“Just in case you’re not sure why the good Archbishop here definitely just soiled himself,” Izzy said. “Sorry, by the way, I know that’s a total overshare. Where was I? Right.”

Izzy raised a finger and dramatically positioned it over a large, red button on the console’s control board. “There’s a Magnetar-Heart Warhead. I’ve got it primed and ready to go, so unless you four feel like maybe putting aside your differences for a bit I might just feel crazy enough to see what happens if I detonate this big, bad boy.”

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.”

Stories ahead

It’s the start of a new week with a new month just days away, so I wanted to start something new as well. No, I’m not just talking about the EVO planner I caved and bought.

(I’m an Oracle, by the way – we’ll see how well this Oracle utilizes this planner, I guess.)

However!

In the spirit of new months and trying new things, I wanted to announce the beginnings of Fantasy Fridays and Sci-Fi Saturdays! This Friday kicks things off with the next installment of A Puzzling New World. As for Saturday? Next Friday and Saturday?

Those are surprises.

I promise they’ll be worth it, though.

And! Most amazing of all, so long as I keep with it, is there will be a regular schedule.

I’m very excited, and I hope those of you who have been kind enough to follow along (and maybe some more folks, I hope) will enjoy where these stories are going.

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.”

[Message Received]

[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]

Follow The Ashes: Put on a Happy Face…

“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.

Follow The Ashes – Into the Belly of the Beast

Cas sat on the slab of metal made up to look like a bed by way of paper-thin sheets and stared out into the space beyond the small room. A series of monitors jutted down from the ceiling, hanging just above their corresponding consoles.  The monitors were dark but didn’t appear to be off. Every few minutes, if Cas tilted her head just right, she could see bursts of text shift across the screen.

She stood up and approached the opening to the room, cautious to not step too close. She glanced out into the larger space, and still she saw no one. Continue reading

Follow The Ashes: It Begins…

It started in a plain, simple room.

Cas woke up, a dull thrumming pain behind her eyes her only companion. She lifted her head slowly from the cold metal surface, wincing against the soft white light emanating from the walls, floor, and ceiling. She blinked, and as her eyes adjusted she began to take in the room. It was a small space, and its only visible fixtures were the polished metal table she sat at and the polished metal chair she was seated on. A solitary streak of dried blood marred the table’s otherwise-immaculate surface. Continue reading