The Mountain of Glass, time irrelevant
Time to go home.
Those four words echoed over and over in Jon’s head until they were all he could think about. After these last few months away, he’d felt like a new person, like all of that mess back in Erus Province belonged to someone else. But now he had to go back to the future, and all the mess would be his again.
However, he had to say goodbye to someone first. Bets had become a good friend while he’d been in the Mountain of Glass, and he couldn’t leave without seeing her once more – if only he could find her. She’d been missing for hours.
“Hello, Jon! Are you full of excitement to see all your old friends?”
The speaker’s voice was young, female and cheerful, and for a moment he straightened, thinking he’d found Bets. But when he turned, he saw Bets’ redheaded sister Anne instead. He scowled. “Was that sarcasm?”
“Most certainly not!” Anne replied lightly. “Would I use sarcasm?”
Yes, definitely. But before he could say that, she carried on, “So mayhap there are troublesome elements to your return. But indeed, you shall enjoy seeing your old friends, for you are not the same as you were before. Besides, you shall have one of us within reach at all times, even if you do not see us.”
For a moment Jon thought of Bets, but immediately dismissed the idea. She was small and sweet and helpless, no matter what she thought of herself, or even though she now had some ‘fire’ gift that only she could see. Would such a thing help her against even one carrier determined to pull her into a Creature temple? Unlikely. For her own safety, Bets must never go to his time, he swore to himself. But to Anne he replied, “Is that so? Thank you, I guess. But I’m actually looking for-”
“Elspeth?” Having pronounced Bets’ tongue-tangling full name, Anne waved a hand vaguely to her left. “Head to your favourite peach tree, and you shall find her soon enough.”
“Thanks.” Jon gave the redhead a wary look over his shoulder, then headed over to the spot she’d mentioned. Anne had changed significantly since he’d first met her; even more so than he himself had. He’d changed on the outside, but she’d changed on the inside ever since becoming immortal. For the most part, she was now much, much easier to get along with.
Jon located the peach tree that had unintentionally become his and Bets’ ‘favourite’ to sit under, then plopped down in the grass in its shade, trying to think of the right words to say when he saw her. How did you tell someone that you’d never see them again?
But he’d been there less than a minute when he saw Bets wander into sight as if she didn’t have a care in the world. She wore a simple cream-coloured tunic typical of the Mountain, with a loose, full-length skirt similar to her own home time, but somehow it looked wonderful with her long dark brown hair and light green eyes.
“Where have you been?” he asked, his mood dropping even lower at the thought of leaving her forever. “I went looking and finally had to ask your sister. I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
Bets just blinked at him, her mouth opening as if she wanted to speak, but then closing again. She didn’t answer, so he got up and walked over to her. This close, it was clear how small she was – she barely reached his shoulder.
“I have to go home, Bets, and soon,” he said, his chest aching a little. “It’s…well, I can’t say, but I have to go. But I didn’t want to go without saying goodbye.”
Her face fell. “Simplicity said you’d gone back to where you came from.”
“You mean the inner mountain? I went to talk to Amaranthus about something, then when I came back, you weren’t here.” He’d mostly gone to see if he could get out of returning home (the answer was no) so it had been a wasted trip. “Where did you go?”
Bets got this funny look on her face, but Jon couldn’t place why. After a long silence she replied, “Oh, here and there. When do you leave?”
“Oh.” Her eyes glimmered a little as if with unshed tears, and she ducked her head. “Then I wish you luck, my friend. You do not need any…assistance?”
“Amaranthus has that covered. I think there are a few people back home who will help where it’s needed.” Jon sighed, wishing once more that he didn’t have to return, or that he wasn’t him. “Bets…”
“Yes?” She looked up at him wide-eyed.
What could he say? You’re so sweet, Bets, but if you knew what I was really like, you wouldn’t like me at all. You’d be happy I was gone. If you knew where I was really from…
“Thank you,” he said stiltedly. “You’ve been a good friend.”
Should he hug her? He should hug her, right? Jon leaned forward to do just that, but stopped himself at the last moment. He wasn’t in the habit of hugging friends, and she’d never indicated that she’d want him to do so. He quickly stood and casually scrubbed a hand through his hair. “So, I guess that’s goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” Bets echoed.
Ugh. So awkward. But with nothing more to say, Jon quickly turned and strode towards the gateway that Amaranthus had specially created to send him home. Something about the original remnant gateway being removed? Who knew. Who cared.
He was going back to Erus city-state, 3004 AD, ready or not.
Elspeth watched as Jon disappeared around a corner, feeling as if a piece of her heart was going with him. Her chest physically ached, and she resisted the temptation to hang her head and cry.
He did not see you as a suitor would, she scolded herself. It matters little.
But it did matter, because suitor or not, he’d been her friend. As a formerly crippled bastard from Tudar Angland, she’d had very few true friends. If not for the way her legitimate half-sister Anne had defended her, her life would have been very poor indeed.
Very well. Mayhap she would cry a little, after all.
Just as she’d let out a shaky breath to do so, a familiar voice piped up from somewhere to her left. “You humans are so emotional. Don’t worry. No separation is permanent.”
Elspeth looked up to see ’twas the same Person who’d sent her on that wild goose chase some time earlier today. ’Twas no small detour either, since Elspeth had ended up on a barren island in the Other realm where she’d had to hide from villains, then had travelled to the twenty-sixth century where she’d endured a bloody, fire-filled battle, then had travelled on a flying ship back to the Other realm where she’d helped return the Eternity Stone to its true resting place.
Quite a dangerous detour indeed, and it had come from Elspeth’s mistaken belief that Jon had already left through a particular gateway.
He’s gone back to where he came from, the Person had said so casually.
But now the Person smiled at Elspeth pleasantly. At first glance she appeared to be the same sturdy, placid woman as when Elspeth had last seen her, but when she moved, her form shimmered as if revealing someone else hidden beneath those ordinary features…
Elspeth now knew well that the immortal People might wear human forms, but they were most certainly not human. Nevertheless, Elspeth felt a little cross with her, so her reply to the woman’s comment was sharp. “Oh? And how long might this separation be, pray tell?”
“Somewhere between three hundred and one thousand years.”
No, Elspeth decided suddenly. That would simply not do! She simply would not go for that long without seeing Jon again! So with that in mind, she turned and marched for the Hall of Treasures, or the Tapestry Room, or wherever Amaranthus might be.
They needed to talk.
“Simplicity has a tendency to tell you the facts, but without any surrounding context,” Amaranthus said some time later, his dark eyes crinkling with humour. “She has a good friend called Insight, and they do very well together. But on her own…”
Trying to hold back her impatience, Elspeth cut in, “So, I shall not have to wait a thousand years to see Jon again? Nor even three hundred?”
“She referred to the time between one of the locations you’ve visited and his place of origin. But as it happens, we have an assignment available in his home time, if you want it.”
She just about leapt with excitement. “I do! I do! What is it?”
Elspeth blinked at him, then scratched her head. “Uh…” What in the world was a security detail?
“I’ll explain it to you,” Amaranthus said, still smiling. “But there is a catch…”
Ooh, she thought a few minutes later. ’Twas quite a catch indeed, that she should arrive in Jon’s time many weeks before he himself left, and therefore before he knew who she was. As a consequence she would need to disguise herself, for Jon certainly had not known who she was when they’d met in the Mountain of Glass, which itself existed outside of time and even any normal part of Earth…
Elspeth? Her host’s voice came directly into her mind. You want to see your friend, but will you still want to see him if he looks at you as a stranger would? Will you still want to go if your assignment is not for Jon, or Jayel as he’ll be widely known, but for someone else entirely?
’Twas the second part that made Elspeth pause. She’d be assigned to look after one of Amaranthus’s people who lived in the terribly dangerous, Creature-ruled cities of Jon’s time, although of course that person wouldn’t know her real goal. She would not even be there for Jon himself. But still she replied, “Of course.”
“Then I will call your sister,” Amaranthus said aloud, “and we’ll get you everything you’ll need.”
Later, in the Tapestry Room, Amaranthus hummed as he moved along the tapestry’s vast length. He touched a thread here, a thread there, with myriad tiny images and text flickering with every movement. But then as he reached the end of the tapestry, near where it came to a decisive finish, he paused.
Here, the thick dark threads that represented the Creatures now wove into the main body of the tapestry itself. They choked out the fine white threads, seeming to turn them charcoal grey until the cloth grew darker and darker, with only the tiniest patches of light…
“Where is your thread, Amaranthus?” an inquisitive voice asked from beside him.
He didn’t need to turn to see dear Anne hovering at his side. I don’t have a thread, he answered simply. I am the light.
He felt her surprise and smiled just a little. “Or perhaps the darkness is the absence of me,” he said aloud. “You’re wondering about the tapestry’s ending.”
She didn’t bother to confirm what they both already knew. “Will these entanglements finally be resolved?” Then her lips curved, and an image of her sister flickered in her mind’s eye – along with a particular young man. “Although some entanglements are willingly entered into.”
Amaranthus already knew that Elspeth had spoken with Anne, and that both of them wanted a course of action. He smiled. “True enough, Anne. Now, let us begin.”
Chapter 1: Unpledged
Erus city-state, 3004 AD
Six months earlier on Jon’s life thread
Jayel spread out his arms and soared over the fluffy white clouds that were spread out like an arctic landscape far below him. To his left was a stunning series of rainbows, and to his right the darkness and scattered stars of the universe – physically impossible, but here in virtual reality the physical possibilities didn’t matter.
Hence the flying…because only the specially gifted could fly, and he wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t specially gifted, or even slightly gifted. And that was why he stayed in virtual reality, or VR as most called it.
Jayel’s nickname from his adoptive mother appeared in the air as solid text at the same time as he heard it, then quickly dissolved. He ignored it. First warnings were easy to miss. Besides, if Anni was calling him in VR then it meant that it was almost time to go to Centre, and he really didn’t want to do that. Not today. He didn’t want to go any day, but he especially didn’t want to go today.
Stubbornly he turned and dove straight down towards the layer of clouds. If he went through just here, then his private VR programme would have a deep underwater area based on a reef system. As he didn’t need to breathe underwater (since it was basically all in his head) he could dive right in…
This time his full name was accompanied by a flickering image to his right, and then Anni was right there, keeping time with him.
Once she was in the programme she looked as solid as his surroundings, and he pulled out of the dive with a sheepish grin. “Ma. Hi.”
“Didn’t you hear me call?” A moment later she shook her bright auburn head, the ever-present triangular mark of her Creature clearly visible on her virtual forehead. He didn’t have one of those. “Of course you did. Jayel, you have to go today. Your tutor told me that if you don’t at least show up to this Power Performance, you’ll have to repeat the year.”
His heart sank. The only thing worse than going to the East Erus Centre for Further Education would be going twice over. “Which tutor said that?”
“Mm…a woman. Myrani? Wirrano? I’m not sure.”
Jayel knew who she was talking about. That tutor was new, and her name was just unusual enough that it hadn’t stuck in his memory. “Fine. I’ll be right out.”
Anni’s figure vanished, and Jayel sighed heavily. In this fantastical environment, his exhaled air shot out in a shimmering blue and silver rainbow, which ended with the cheer of an invisible crowd and a burst of fireworks. That made him want to smile – then that made him cranky, because when he’d installed the comic aspect to this particular VR programme, he hadn’t intended its quirks to show up when he was genuinely unhappy.
By Auda, he wanted to sigh without an imaginary audience! Was that too much to ask?
“Evacuate,” he snapped, and the beautiful scene around him abruptly vanished. He could once again feel the cool surface of his personal VR set through the thin fabric of his socklets, and his whole body slumped at the reminder of his true reality.
He stood on the smooth, grey metallic circle that marked the personal VR set. Anni would be on the set in the living room, as she always said that having VR in her bedroom was too much of a distraction. But then she’d always been old-fashioned. The living room’s set could also connect to the public network, and why would he want to access to that? In VR he wanted to escape people, not talk to them even more.
Not two seconds later Anni poked her head around the doorway. In reality she was somewhat older and more faded than her VR image had looked, but her golden-brown forehead was now smooth and symbol-free. VR projected whatever version of yourself you wanted the world to see – even if ten years younger – but laws prevented any significant changes. VR was as good as life, and you had to be recognisable. And then there were the Creature marks…
“Do you want a ride?” she asked. “You’ll have to go straight to the performance temple, the tutor said, or you’ll be late. Don’t try to go to Centre first.”
While Jayel’s Centre was an enormous building that could fit thousands of students at capacity, Power Performance was always held in the Other realm, the entrance to which wasn’t far from here. Jayel had been debating whether to head to the Centre building and ‘forget’ that Power Performance took place elsewhere, but now that plan was ruined. “No thanks. I’ll walk.”
“Have you eaten today?” she persisted. “You know you’ll feel better if you eat.”
Nothing would make him feel better. It was Power Performance. Jayel had no alter-power gifts, not even a teeny tiny one, and the twice-yearly entry into the Other realm was just a ritual humiliation for him. “I’m running late,” he answered shortly, ignoring the fact that he likely would need a ride. He’d go, but he wasn’t in a hurry to get there. “I have work right after, so I’ll see you tonight.”
“OK,” his mother replied, that usual worried furrow creasing her brow when she looked at him. “Maybe you can meet the new neighbours then. You know, the ones across the hall? They have a girl about your age – I think she’s seventeen too – and she’ll be going to Centre as well, as soon as they settle in.”
Jayel just grunted, grabbing his jacket then leaving with a nod of farewell. He hadn’t noticed anyone new moving in, not even across the hall, but then he only left his private VR sessions when he had to. Of course the new girl would be going to Centre – it was practically unheard of for anyone in Erus city-state between the ages of sixteen and twenty not to go. Most of the boring stuff was learned before the age of sixteen, like reading, writing, history and maths, and most of the ‘exciting’ stuff was learned at Centre.
It all came down to power and allegiances, and it would determine the course of your adult life. Shame he was good at the boring stuff, and that he had no Otherly allegiances. Not that he hadn’t tried to make any – none of the Creatures would accept his pledge. Not even one.
He sighed, and this time, no shimmering rainbow shot out to accompany the sound. Real life just wasn’t that pretty.
Jayel had held a little hope that the liftpod he’d chosen would be broken, but instead it smoothly took him forty-two levels down to his building’s ground floor in its usual two-point-three seconds. At this time of day everyone would be at work or in VR (or at work in VR) and so in spite of the area’s high population, his building’s halls and the roads were empty.
He’d just made it to the road when a large, shining silver vehicle pulled up in front of him. Hovering the usual two feet off the ground, it was completely enclosed, and its windows were reflective.
Jayel only knew one person who’d choose such an ostentatious vehicle, and it was the same person who’d built a fourth level onto their narrow penthouse apartment, making it noticeably larger than any other in their building, or even on the entire street. Not because they needed the room, but because he liked to show off.
Luca, also known as Father Dearest.
Dun dun duuuuun.
As if coordinated to Jayel’s mocking thoughts, the car door slid open to show Luca sitting inside, his long limbs comfortably slouched on the shiny pleather, and that ever-present smirk on his handsome face. “Get in, Jayel,” he said pleasantly. “I’ll give you a lift to the temple entrance for your performance.”
Jayel’s glance flickered over his father’s newly pale skin, with vividly contrasting black hair and bright blue-green eyes. Yesterday he’d been blond and golden-skinned. Eighteen months ago, he’d looked much like Jayel himself, with the same olive, easily flushed skin, dark brown hair and mud-brown eyes. But that had been before Luca had become a carrier…and everything had changed.
“Nice colours,” Jayel replied. “But I’ll walk. I need the exercise.” More like he really, really didn’t want to be in an enclosed space with this man, shared blood notwithstanding.
Suddenly Luca’s hand wrapped tightly around Jayel’s wrist. How had he got so close, so fast? “You’ll come in the car,” he said sharply, even though that hint of mockery never left his eyes. “I wouldn’t want you to be late. What will people think, Son?”
People would think that Jayel knew he was pledgeless and therefore that the performance was pointless. They’d think little of him, though what was new? But Jayel felt the manacle-tight grip on his wrist, and glanced at the cold faces of the car’s other occupants, and he knew that he’d never win.
He climbed in, and the doors slid shut after him. Luca didn’t introduce him to the others in the vehicle. He never did.
“I thought you were meant to be on that diplomatic trip to Dailan for another week,” Jayel found himself saying. “Maybe you should tell Anni you’re back home already.”
Luca shrugged. “Maybe a pledgeless wonder like yourself shouldn’t make judgements on what your superiors should do, hmm?”
Jayel flushed with embarrassment, and one of the others snickered. It was a woman, he noted briefly before averting his eyes: one with hair as yellow as a daffodil, and eyes to match. None of it was natural, of course – beauty was rarely natural here in Erus.
But Jayel didn’t counter his father’s nasty (but true) comment, or even ask why an attractive, fashionably dressed woman was here in his car after a long trip, when Luca hadn’t even spoken to his own marriage partner in two weeks. Anni and Luca didn’t have a traditional marriage contract, not even here when ‘traditional’ could mean almost anything.
Luca acted like this because he was a fiend. End of story.
Into the silence Luca said suddenly, “You may think I’m harsh with you for the sake of it, Jayel. But that’s not it at all. I want more for you than this pointless, weak life.”
Jayel didn’t answer that either, even though he’d have loved to counter it. He’d heard it many times, and there were some arguments you just couldn’t win. Like, ‘can you please just let them kick me out of Centre for incompetence, like they clearly want to?’ The answer was always no.
“Before I was a carrier, when I was still called Luke, I was like you,” Luca continued. “Unpledged, miserable. One of society’s rejects, and aware of it. Like you, I refused to change…until one day my eyes were opened. I was no longer afraid of the Creatures, but instead I understood what they could do for me, who they could make me. Now I’m a city councillor, answering only to our patron Creature Domitian himself.”
Argh, not this story again! Luca loved to talk about himself, loved to make it sound like he had so much control over the lives of the ten million other Erusian citizens. But he didn’t. There were eleven other councillors, then Chairman Tybalt, then Domitian – and even their city-state’s patron Creature had to work in conjunction with the ruling Creatures of the city-states around them. No man was an island, and all that. No Creature, either.
So even though Jayel had been determined not to speak, he found his head snapping away from the rapidly passing city scenery, back to his father’s unnaturally bright eyes. “You answer to Chairman Tybalt, who answers to Domitian,” he retorted. “And Tybalt holds that position for life. Or has that changed in the last two weeks as well?”
Instead of being offended, Luca just smiled. “The future is full of possibilities. But for you, boy, your future is as empty as your present unless you become pledged.”
“It’s the Creatures’ fault,” Jayel countered, as he had so many times before. His neck was hot with embarrassment as he fixed his eyes on his father’s. “Not mine! Ma took me to every single Creature temple the moment I was old enough to pledge my allegiance, and not one of them wanted me. Not one of them showed up!”
Throughout Erus and its neighbouring city-states there were permanent doorways into the Other realm where the supernatural, immortal Creatures lived. The Creatures were beautiful and powerful beyond human capabilities, and most humans were pledged to one of them from a young age. Parents would take their child to the temple – the doorway for each individual Creature – in order of preference, and if that Creature appeared to them then it meant that the child had been accepted and could pledge his allegiance. The Creature would then bestow gifts of power, beauty, strength as it chose…physical gifts, but also supernatural ones.
But when Jayel had gone to the temples at age six, they had remained dark and silent for him. Even Domitian, Erus’s ruling Creature who needed pledges to remain in power, ignored him. None would appear, not even Sarassius, Anni’s Creature. He wasn’t very high ranked, but he still didn’t want Jayel. No one did. And now, eleven years on, no one wanted a boy without allegiance…
“You didn’t go to every temple.”
“What do you mean? Of course we did.” In desperation Anni had even offered him as a carrier – basically allowing a Creature to share his body so it could access the normal realm – but still he was unwanted.
Luca just smiled at him, his light eyes seeming to change from blue to green and then back again. “Think about it. Who would Anni have been too afraid to go to, but who could have been the one to help you? Perhaps the only one to overlook your mark.”
Jayel could only think of one Creature Luca could be referring to. The White Prince. He (it?) was one of the most powerful Creatures in existence, more than Domitian and maybe even equal with Audaline or Gerak, but he was also the most unpredictable. Most people didn’t risk going into his temple because far too many never came out again. Or so the stories went.
Just then he realised what Luca had said. “What do you mean, my mark?”
“The one your birth mother left you with when she abandoned you,” his father replied silkily. “The one that means you’re rejected everywhere you go. But the White Prince wouldn’t reject you.”
Luca was talking nonsense, Jayel decided. “I’m not going to the White Prince,” he declared, ignoring the remark about being abandoned since it was probably true. “I’m not suicidal.”
Luca shrugged. “The highest risk brings the greatest reward. Perhaps he would even make you a Prince of the Air.”
Whether he’d meant to or not, Luca had stated Jayel’s greatest desire. Out of all the powers that the Creatures could grant to their pledged, the most powerful and valued gift was that of flight. It was so rare and honoured that only two students in the whole of his Centre had it, and less than a dozen people in the whole of Erus. Those humans who were gifted in such a way were also honoured with the title of ‘Prince of the Air’ – and the door would open to just about anything they wanted in life.
Jayel desperately wanted that kind of honour, but he knew he’d never get it from the White Prince. “More likely you’d never see me again,” he replied flatly. The car pulled to a halt as they reached the outer colonnades of the Power Performance temple entrance, and the door slid open. “Thanks for the ride.”
Luca caught his arm as he went to climb out. “Father.”
Jayel dipped his head in reluctant acknowledgement. At least Luca didn’t want to be called the informal – and affectionate – term ‘Da’. “Father.”
Luca made the vehicle wait just long enough to ensure his son actually walked inside the temple, then allowed it to pull away. Ten seconds passed and he didn’t take his eyes off that building – not until the doorway disappeared from sight. Then he let out a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding.
“If you dislike it so much, then why do you keep offering him rides?” the woman asked coolly, raising one perfectly shaped yellow brow. “You can see he’d happily decline.”
“Because he dislikes it even more,” Luca retorted. “And I will not tremble before anyone, let alone him. You should know that, Mother.”
His mother exchanged a meaningful glance with the third occupant of the vehicle, a good-looking young man in his early twenties. “And the part where you tried to send the boy to old Veritas?” she asked Luca. “Was that also to show your disdain, son? Because the timing is fortuitous, to say the least.”
“Why’s that?” Luca asked idly. He studied the young man briefly, noting that he was dark-eyed and had black hair that had been shaved almost to his scalp. The mark of a convict. He was also extremely handsome, but in this era of genetic engineering, that was no surprise. And because this young man was with Luca’s mother…of course he’d be handsome.
The other two exchanged another glance, and this time his mother nodded to the young man. “You tell him, dear Basir. It is such an interesting challenge.”
Basir, AKA shaved-head-guy, finally met Luca’s eyes. His expression held a little something Luca recognised – ruthlessness, and perhaps a complete lack of conscience. “What my master Lilith allows me to tell you,” Basir said in a flat voice, “is that the Tiger has graciously given us terms for your continued occupation of Erus city-state, even in the midst of his upcoming empire.”
“The Tiger’s empire isn’t guaranteed,” Luca retorted. “He’ll need my support among others’, and I will give it. But I need more than just occupation. I need to rule in my own right!”
Lilith waved one pale hand dismissively. “Technicalities, my love. Erus will be yours, but only if you meet the Tiger’s terms.”
There was a long pause. “Destroy the White Prince,” Basir stated finally. “The Tiger allows no competition.”
For several moments Luca couldn’t speak, and for him, that was saying something. Destroy the White Prince. Really?! That explained why Lilith hadn’t wanted to give the bad news, and it wasn’t that the White Prince was her own father. She always hated for Luca to be unhappy.
“Creatures cannot be destroyed!” Luca burst out. “We know this better than anyone! If the Tiger doesn’t want me to have Erus, then tell it to me straight rather than this…foolish, impossible quest! And I shall go to-”
“ENOUGH!” Lilith hissed. Suddenly she was right next to him, her features having morphed briefly into their true, less symmetrical form, and her sharp nails dug into his knee. “Do not speak against the Tiger, my son! Or even my love for you will not save you!”
Luca blinked at her for several moments, and finally her nails unlatched from his flesh one by one. He’d spoken in such a way before – worse, really – but her reaction hadn’t been so extreme. “Has the Tiger really gained so much strength, then?”
“Yes. And the offer to destroy the White Prince wasn’t made in jest. Do it. Take out the Tiger’s greatest Creature enemy, make it so he’s as good as gone from this world, and you will have a high position in the Tiger’s empire for life. Is that understood?”
“Understood,” Luca answered finally. His mind was ticking away – how did one destroy a Creature? Or failing that, how did one remove a Creature? It had never been done before… “But what if I can’t do it?”
“Then you get nothing,” Lilith’s latest boytoy said in that same emotionless tone.
Luca pouted, drumming his fingers on his quickly healing knee. That, he decided, simply wasn’t good enough.
There had to be a way.
Tarie’s new apartment was in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood; firmly middle-class and close enough to the city limits that from her view on the balcony she could see the green hills edging the urban jungle. It was practically countryside, right? It was all a matter of perspective, and by all things good, she was determined this new life would be good too.
But then compared to where she’d come from, what could possibly be worse?
“Number forty-two-F Eastern Way,” she said aloud, setting her palms flat against their high balcony’s clear protective barrier. It gave a little under her hands as she studied their surroundings curiously. She’d never lived on the edge of a city like this. Sure, Erus was half the size of Memrys city-state, but she’d never expected to see so much lush life from her own home. It made something inside her tingle with excitement, made her gift spring to life at the back of her tongue. She swallowed and pushed it back. Not now. “It’s quite nice, right?”
“It’s not as big as our last place,” her sister Lydia muttered. Younger by five years but considerably taller, the girl had struggled with the move from Memrys where they’d been born and raised. But then it hadn’t been Lydia’s fault that they’d had to move.
“It’s still nice,” Tarie said a little defensively. “And completely furnished.” Considering that their belongings at their old home had been torched, that was lucky.
“All the furniture is used, and we’ll have to clean everything,” Lydia contested. But she still wandered off to look through the apartment, her long-haired baby cavy Brownie cuddled in her arms.
“What do you think, Tarie?”
She turned to see her father there, smiling at her a little anxiously. “I haven’t seen all of it yet, but I expect it will be fine, Da.” But then she would never complain. They hadn’t complained at having to move. Well…not that much. After what happened to Ma, anything else seemed minor in comparison.
Tarren Filat nodded. He was short and sturdy with deep brown skin and almost-black hair like Tarie’s own, and she’d been named after him. “We were blessed to have such a place on short notice, and already furnished,” he said, echoing Tarie’s earlier words. He held out a shiny blue packet. “I got you something. A little gift to welcome you to our new home.”
Tarie took the packet of sweet jelly worms with a wry smile. She’d loved the sweets as a child, and her father had never quite grasped that her tastes had changed. After all, she was eighteen now, and chances were that she’d be graduating from her new Centre and maybe even finding a partner in the next couple of years.
But she wouldn’t take that joy from him, and every time he handed her a jelly worm packet she would eat them with the knowledge that her father loved her as best he could. Anyway, they weren’t too bad if she ignored the slimy texture. She used to love it, but now it brought to mind memories that she’d rather not have.
“Thanks, Da. I figure it’s got to be a good place. After all, it’s on the ‘Way’, isn’t it?”
He got her joke. Most people wouldn’t have, but then most people weren’t followers of the Way, a system of belief that didn’t mesh well with the Creature-dominated city-states. It had got them chased from their home in Memrys; that, and what she’d done.
Tarie popped a tangy sweet into her mouth and sucked on it as she wandered through the apartment. It looked very much like the others in the building, three levels with about ten small rooms, and was accessed via the forty-second floor.
That meant they were one of the top apartments, and shared an entry hall with apartment 42-G. She remembered the address specifically because of the fancy metallic plating on 42-G’s door. It had looked like Rhodium, and that was expensive. Probably too good for the neighbourhood, to be honest.
But Tarie did note that her new apartment was smaller than the one back home. Back there, they’d been on the eightieth floor, and they certainly hadn’t had any decent view from their windows. Their garden had been restricted to their balcony, just like it would be here, she supposed. But what a garden it had been.
She wandered through the apartment, noting the slight wear and tear of the appliances and the wall-coverings, and debated what they needed to make it feel like home. More plants, of course. Updated wall-coverings, or some fluffy blankets for their beds…
“Brownie needs a new enclosure,” Lydia announced, walking back into the room with her little pet tucked under one arm.
“What’s wrong with the one we brought with us?”
“It’s too small, and Brownie doesn’t like it.” Lydia looked down at her pet, tousling his long, silky brown fur. “Isn’t that right, Brownie?”
Tarie thought that the cavy didn’t have an opinion on anything besides his next meal, and that Lydia was trying to take some control over her new, unstable environment. Also… “You know that’s his butt you’re stroking, right?”
Her sister glanced down at her pet, then scowled. “Of course I know.” But she still turned the animal around, then resumed petting his fluffy head instead.
Just then their father walked in.
“Brownie needs a new enclosure,” Lydia told him. “The one we have is broken.”
Tarie raised her eyebrows – in less than a minute the thing had been upgraded from too small to broken – but Tarren nodded, seeming unbothered. “You can order another one through VR. You’ve got your own login.”
“VR’s broken too.”
Tarren glanced at Tarie, and she just shrugged. “I haven’t checked it yet. But didn’t the relocation agent say VR could take a couple of days to update?”
That turned out to be the case. Half an hour later Tarie had tried everything to get the worn-looking VR circle to switch on, and it still seemed as dead as a piece of concrete. “You could go to the local shops and use their public VR,” she suggested. “Isn’t there meant to be something close by?”
Tarren shrugged. “Or you go to the local depo, Tarie. You’re eighteen, you keep telling me, so you can take your vehicle.”
She’d been taking her self-driving vehicle out alone ever since she was twelve, and it was a perfectly normal thing to do. Still, she hesitated just a moment. Going out in public could be safer than VR since in real life, her allegiance wasn’t written on her forehead…but it could be more dangerous, too. If she was hurt in real life, she was really hurt.
But Tarie wasn’t the type to let fear hold her back for long. She decided it would also be a good chance to see her new city, or at least this tiny corner of it. “Alright.”
“Would you get me a new book too?” Lydia asked, sounding a bit less cranky. “One of the Bridie series.”
Tarie cringed. Bridie was a romantic series for younger teens, which of course meant it was hated by older teens. She’d glanced through a story or two, and while they hadn’t been badly written, she’d found them mushy, idealistic and silly. “Can’t you wait ’til the VR’s up here, then order it in your name?”
“Come on, Tar’,” her father teased. “Are you afraid someone’s going to hack into your public VR session, then make fun of you for your reading choices?”
“Really?” Tarren raised an eyebrow.
Tarie sighed, her shoulders slumping. She knew she was being silly, because the chances of a VR hack were incredibly low. “Fine. Bridie it is.”
She grabbed her light jacket – specially tailored for her petite size – then took the nearest liftpod down to the large foyer that they shared with twenty or so other apartments. It was empty except for a green-wall covering one side of the room: the sort with dozens of tiny plants growing from dozens of tiny pots. It was a touch of life in this urban jungle, and it made her smile. Although, the plants did look a bit wilted. She wondered if she could water them or if it would be done automatically.
The wall opposite the liftpods was covered in old-fashioned apartment dropboxes. They were the sort that people could post small items to, and which were meant to send an alert when something was delivered. They didn’t always, though. Tarie’s family had had one in their old home too, but after the third time someone had left a bag of turds in their box, they’d just stopped using it.
Tarie located box 42-F right next to the green-wall. Like the others around it, it was faded and its metal surface slightly dented, a reminder of the building’s age. It would be locked, she mused, and they’d need to have their DNA keyed to it on the low chance that someone actually wanted to send them something worthwhile.
She pressed at the release hatch curiously, not really expecting any result, then let out a soft cry of surprise when the box’s door suddenly swung open. The interior was packed with rubbish – ancient, empty drink containers, crumpled plexi-paper, and what looked like fast-food drone cartons. They must be broken, she decided in disgust, else they’d have returned to their respective restaurants.
“Great,” she muttered. “The lock must be broken, so someone’s using it as a dumping ground.”
Tarie emptied armfuls of the waste into the foyer’s nearby rubbish compactor, trying to be grateful that at least it wasn’t smelly. It was all dry rubbish, the sort that looked unpleasant but didn’t actually do any damage.
But just then she spotted a little blue velvet bag, right on the bottom of the box. It was about the length of her hand, narrow and flat, and when she picked it up it was light enough that at first she thought it was empty.
But it wasn’t empty. She tipped the contents into her hand, revealing a decorative knife that she studied in confusion. It was pretty, she decided, with ornate swirls carved into its surface and a squiggly starfish-like shape on its hilt. But who would have left it here?
The same person who rushed off and left their apartment furnished, and their mailbox full of rubbish, she concluded. She brushed her thumb curiously over the starfish shape, wondering at its spiralling legs that in hindsight reminded her more of a spider, and-
…then everything changed around her.