The Shadow of the Sun: Chapters 1 to 5
The Shadow of the Sun:
By: C. B. Smith
Morning came to Milieu-Grand exactly as it had the day before, and precisely in the way that it had come to be the day before that, and with no difference from the morning prior to that. Morning struck Milieu-Grand just as it had every day for as long as anyone could remember. Slowly, darkness gave way to a steadily even growing light. No one took time to watch as the details of the street came clearer, few even noticed. Those who moved through the streets at this hour had done so for most of their living memories. Just as those who moved through the streets at the next hour knew the look of that time, and those who moved even earlier knew the look of that time as well. No one stood to watch the shadows give way, no one observed the growing light, they simply moved amid it. They did not take note of the change, they continued on knowing that it would take place, knowing it had taken place many times before, knowing it would forever continue to do so. The morning was exactly like every morning that had ever been known in the busy streets of Milieu-Grand.
People walked the streets with purpose and efficiency. Conversations were limited and hesitations almost non-existent. As if part of a tremendous single unity the dark shades of the day workers seemed to blend and swirl on the street. Yet, no person moved with any known connection to the next. Each person had their own purpose, their own destination, each moved without thought of those that surround them, without consideration or even observation for their surroundings. They simply proceeded with their own lives. They proceeded with their own lives, for it was pointless to be concerned with any others. Why worry about the actions of others when they knew their role, and they knew they must complete it; as they had yesterday, as they had the day before, as they would tomorrow, and for the rest of their days. In the torrent of continuous movement, amongst the solid tones of every shade black offered, there were small discrepancies. A yellow coat made its way to a tube station. A green jumper moved towards a substance distribution plant. The splashes of colour did not stand out though. Although at first glance they appeared to be different, they seemed to not fit in the scene of the street, within moments they as well became another part of the street’s movement. It was the organized chaos of people in transit, people always in transit, of one type or another. Even those that seemed briefly not to fit quickly became part of the shifting, the shuffling: the flow of purpose.
The surroundings, which went vastly unnoticed by most, had a strong similarity to those who walked by them. In perfect uniform, building after building lined the street. Their heights were even, their width and length varied only fractionally. Further along the street the slate grey walls may shift slightly. Occasionally a building may be higher or may be shorter. Some fronts were different, alleyways and darker areas existed here and there. Yet, nothing would stand apart. Nothing was noticeably different. Even the buildings of most importance could be determined only by their slight setting back from their street, their reformed fronts, or moving stairwells at their entrance. Difference was not required amongst those buildings. As the people on the street had their own individual purpose, the buildings did as well. They need not advertise what they do, nor encourage people to notice them. Those whose purpose was based within one of these buildings, knew the building they were walking towards. If ever, for a reason outside of their normal lives, they need visit another building, they would be told where it was, and they would be expected. This was Milieu-Grand, the heart of the entire city. It was the prime example of human capability and organization at their finest, coming together to create a series of streets and buildings which performed perfectly day in and day out. In the mornings, the street seemed to give off an impression of imperviousness; as if the entire zone would function just as it had every day, even if the people ceased to walk its streets. It took effort to consider that the people are responsible for the street, because as they flowed between the buildings, as they moved smoothly around each other with their thoughts only on their individual reasons for being there, it seemed that they were a piece of the street itself. Simply another thing built for another purpose that need not be advertised or declared to any other.
The cement streets met ridges at their edges. A secondary walking path would arise between the street and the buildings. Once it may have been intended to keep vehicles and people separate. But public transit was uncommon in the heart of Milieu, the zone was too compact, too organized down to its every resident, to create a need for people to travel any considerable distance to reach their purpose. Any other vehicle was even more uncommon, even Shadows did not drive down these streets during the midst of transit hours.
Perhaps, this could be why he stood there. The safety of knowing a Shadow would not pass by. The comfort of being able to so quickly blend in to the people that moved all around him. Or maybe, it was simply where his feet had taken him, as they did some days and didn’t others. It was not a matter that concerned him, where he ended up, when he got there. It was indifferent to him. His job was always the same, and he was always needed, wherever he may find himself, his purpose could be fulfilled.
The single character went unnoticed amongst the movement of everything. People did not bother to look, and would not take notice if they did. He was still, amongst a constant current. He was a piece of the surroundings more than a piece of the flow itself. He was moved around as appose to moving amongst. An obstruction, hardly noticed and easily avoided, a piece of the streets construct.
He stood with his back pressed against a grey stone wall. His mind was still clouded, but, it was slowly beginning to sharpen as he peered out between partially shut eye lids. A once fine uniform hung loosely from his shoulders. Its fit made it appear to have been made for someone else, but such a uniform is not often found in the hands of anyone other than its original owner. The way it clung to his form had degraded over time, as the body beneath had itself slowly degraded, ever becoming less of the impressive form it once held. Ale, ice, Lief and a life on and under the streets had changed his stature, decayed his health. His muscles had weakened and grown smaller, his posture had hunched, deep wrinkles had formed across his face. The life he once lived still left him stronger than most, but he now looked, and felt, much older than he actually was. He knew this though, he accepted it and he had long since given up on trying to change it. He knew what he was. What he was, what he had become, he knew was only the product of what he deserved. So he continued to wear the worn navy and black uniform. The emblems had long since been torn away. In places he had patched other material onto the jacket. In part to add padding, to better cope with the rough use he put it through. Yet he knew it took much more than his lifestyle to destroy the material of such a uniform. The patches were there; above all else, to make what he had once been fractionally less obvious. If it was still obvious to anyone he encountered however, he still remained indifferent. But it comforted him, to not see that perfect uniform hanging from his own bones. It helped him forget, it helped him not think about it. To have it appear as worn as he had become himself was a certain comfort, a strange confirmation of the passing of time, of the changing of his own life. He had spent much time in search of forgetting. His veins and his stomach had been filled many times by many substances in hopes of erasing just a little of what once was.
The man shifted slightly, subtly feigning a discomfort, but instead merely acquiring a new angle, a new direction by which to watch the passers-by. Narrowly opened eyes gave the impression that he was on the verge of sleep, as if a strong quantity of ice, ale or a potent slip of pills had lead him to fall against the wall. It appeared as if the last of his strength was gently holding him there, barely holding him there, until he would inevitably shut down from the world and fall upon the concrete sidewalk until removed. He looked like this, because he chose to. Carefully he had adjusted his position, had learned to relax his face but keep his eyes alert. Years of practise had taught him how to see through a clouded mind, had shown him how to look higher than he was, but never actually be as high as he was perceived. He was, of course, never without a high, but he was also never elevated enough to endanger himself, to slow himself. He had learned to look worse than he was, learned to look like nobody, like another person on the outskirts of their own life, waiting to get picked up by the Shadows or to pass on in a blur of intoxication. He had long ago learned that it is much safer to look like a mortal, than it is to look like a mixer. Better an addict than a Mixer.
Pupils still lightly dilated from the Murk running through his system, he absorbed the details of his surroundings. He traced the movements of any character that seemed even fractionally out of place: any person that may be searching for him, or someone like him. He searched, hoping for buyers, but weary of Shadows.
A hundred paces to his right he saw a woman step to the sidewalk. Without turning towards her, his eyes evaluated her. He measured her changing speed, and gauged her intent. She did not look unlike any other person roaming through Milieu-Grand, but he saw her eyes shift to him. Once, then twice, then there was a fingering of her waist band. He saw her hand fall to her side. Even from his distance, he could clearly make out two plastic cards held between her fingers, dark blue in color. He recognized the woman. He did not know her name, he did not know anything about her. He preferred not to. But he knew for what she searched, he knew her preferred mix.
Smoothly, imitating almost a stumble, as if ice had undone his balance, he fell away from the wall. He walked towards her with smoothness, but he assured his stepping was not even. He would be nothing more than stumbling mortal to anyone who happened to look his way. He crossed his left arm over his body. Undoing an unseen clip at the elbow of his right sleeve. Now twenty paces away he made sure not to look at the woman. He looked only at the ground , but he could hear her steps, slowing, different from those around her. He pretended to lean too much to his left, and then just as she came up to his side, he pretended to fall towards her. In the same moment he slipped an unlatched vial from his sleeve to his palm. She stepped away from the stumbling man, but not before first putting out her hand which held the two cards. All within a single motion the vial was placed in her hand and the cards were pushed up into his sleeve. They both continued walking.
Behind him, he could sense a slight shiver run down her. Their fingers had touched briefly in the transaction. She reacted as most people do: discomforted by the contact of another human being. The man was not bothered however, he did not fear a touch as much as most did. He continued on another hundred paces before once again slumping against a wall. He preferred the easier customers, those who did not desire the show before a transaction, did not care for the theatrical cover-up, those who simply walked by him and traded in stride. However, he could not be picky over the mortals whom found him. Often those more cautious paid much dearer.
Slumped back against a wall now he eyed the moving mass of people once more, searching for discrepancies, searching for differences, good or bad. The sounds of Milieu-Grand are easily put to the back ground. Footsteps and footsteps, all of different weights, different speeds, they blended together to an inundation of a single sound. Trained ears let him pick out what was out of place, allowed him to find the differences. He heard a gentle shuffle in the distance. Eyes, still partially closed scanned the street, finding the source. On the opposite side of the street from him, through the people, he saw a man wearing an oddly coloured brown suit. He noticed him instantly due to his hesitation. As if for a moment he was not sure of where he was going, unlike all those around him. The man who stood apart continued forward, crossing in front of the mixer, who eyed him carefully yet not exclusively. Back still pressed against the wall, the mixer turned his head slightly, following the man as he continued up the road. The man wore a hat, which was uncommon, yet not unheard of. However, the colour of the hat was wrong in some way. It was brown, similar to his suit, but deeper in colour. It appeared to be rough, textured almost, yet it still had the slightest shine, as if it were well cleaned plastic. As the character moved further and further away from the mixer, it was only the hat that allowed him to keep track of his movements.
He wasn’t sure why, but he was absorbed by this man in the hat for some reason. His movements interested him. He posed no threat, he was certainly not looking to buy, but something about his movements were different, intriguing. Just as the mixer began to shift from the wall, adjusting his uniform, preparing to follow this man, there was suddenly an out of place movement behind him.
His ears caught it instantly, thoughts of the man in the brown hat were immediately lost. The shuffle was much more concerning. He heard the same person again, quick half steps of an anxiousness, the scuffing of uncoordinated feet trying to move too quickly in the crowd. It was an agitating sound, the sound of urgency is never pleasing, it has a certain ring to it, a ring of uneasiness, of ill tidings sure to come.
The mixer knew what these sounds meant. Without looking in the direction of the sound he turned away. Moving quickly down the road, eyeing the almost identical fronts of the buildings closest to him, he saw an entrance portal ahead. A door set further in to its building, providing an alleyway just out of view from the street. He walked quickly towards it now, hearing the shuffling grow closer behind him. He had no desire for this character to reach him while they still stood amid the street. Quickly the mixer side stepped into the alcove.
Only a moment after he had stepped into the alley he heard the footsteps behind him, they had been moving faster than he had realized. The mixer spun around quickly, whipping the loose jacket around behind him, eyeing his pursuer. He took three swift steps backward. He took note that he was cornering himself, but he did not fear whatever was following him, he only feared the scene that it could create.
His eyes leveled with the man who had followed him now. The pursuer was obviously startled by the sudden turn around. After stepping into the alley and seeing the mixer’s quick movements he held up his hands, as if hoping to encourage calmness.
“ Whoa –wh – whoa whoa! It’s jus-just me. Just me. Just me!” stuttered the man.
He was obviously startled by the mixer’s sudden turnaround and backwards pacing. The mixer eyed the man carefully, he noted the slight jitter about his entire body. Without looking directly at it, he took note of the left hand hanging loosely by his side as his fingertips were pressing back and forth against his trouser leg. The right hand was held at his chest level, but seemingly without motor control. The thumb continually dropped in towards the palm as the entire hand shook with less than hidden ferocity.
The mixer eyed the man up and down, he then straightened his posture. He dealt with mortals, for they were who needed his services most of all, he provided Murk to those cut off from Lief, or those too addicted to it. This man was not just an addict though, he was falling to pieces. He was a post-terminal. Probably without any funds to pay for what it was he searched. The mixer pulled his jacket in tighter around him, and moved his eyes away from the man. He recognized the face, but only distantly, the man’s cheeks were concaved, his face unshaven, he was no longer whom he had once been. He was young, very young to be in that shape, but he was beyond help, he was not the clientele whom the mixer sold to.
Looking back towards the street he walked forward, passing by the addict.
Just as he passed beside him though the man suddenly burst into tears, reaching out and grabbing him. “No, No, No, no –ya-no, ya can’t, no, please Somes!” He cried as he grabbed at the mixer’s jacket.
With unexpected speed, Somes the mixer, reacted. The addict had grabbed his right sleeve, in one motion he brought that same arm up and around, forcing the post-terminals arm to an angle and then gripping the wrist, painfully thrusting it back towards him as Somes’s forearm came up to press against this addict’s throat, still holding his wrist.
Panic flushed the man’s face as his air was cut off and Somes looked him harshly in the eyes. “Do not call me by name when we are mere feet from the main road of Milieu-Grand. Do not ever call me by name.”
The man’s other hand, which as suspected, had limited motor control, grasped at Somes sleeve, trying to pull the mixer’s forearm away from his throat. Tears streamed down his face now. Panic had been replaced by a deep sadness. He was giving up; it was obvious in his entire body. He tried half-heartedly to pull away. It was clear to Somes in that moment, that if he was not going to supply, the man would probably prefer that he just killed him in that very alley way, in that very moment.
The demons that chase us when our lives are exhausted of Lief, how is it possible that our own minds could create a fate worse than our own demise? Somes thought. He pulled his arm away from the man’s throat, letting him slip to the ground while coughing dryly.
Empathy, pity, humanity, something of the like was building in him as he looked at the pitiful cowering form of the young man. Slowly, in a quiet voice he spoke, “How long have you been off?”
“Thra- three. Three. Three….” The man choked out between regaining his breath and choking on his own tears.
Somes shook his head, “You’re in a hard place for three weeks, kid. You need to get over this. Murk is too expensive, too dangerous for you to be so bloody dependant.”
The addict started shaking his head, not even looking up to the mixer.
Somes turned away once more, looking back towards the entrance of the alley. “I can’t help you…maybe you got a bad mix, when you’re taking opaque that’s the risk, and this is the outcome kid. Don’t ever come to me again looking like this.”
“No, No, No…” the man against the wall was crying hysterically now.
Somes shook his head, and moved away from his position standing over the man. He shifted away, not wanting to look at him anymore.
“Months. Months. Three months” The man finally choked out in between the heaving breaths of crying.
Somes looked at him at first in confusion, and then his eyes widened in understanding. 3 months. He was young, too young to be off Lief for three months, even if he only was on the murk.
“I’ll replace whatever you give me. Honest-honestly, I know a guy, a g-guy. I ca-ca-can get it back. I just need something. Jus’, jus’, jus’ something.”
Somes tried not to look directly at him now. “We all know a guy… Fuck, mate, I’m a guy.”
“Na-no, not that kinda guy, a guy, a a na‘nother guy. Clear cle-clear stuff, he has lots, lots So-sa- sir. I’ll get you back-ck. Da-double double.”
Somes already knew he was caving in. The kid was too pitiful; he was in too hard a place for his young age. Something must have gone seriously wrong for him to have lost his Lief allocations at that young an age. 3 months, it’s almost impressive he held out so long. Somes undid the collar zipper of his uniform and slid his hand inside against his chest, knowing what potencies were kept where. The kid didn’t need much. After three months, anything would help him. While he reached for the vial his eyes were held on the man, watching him as he still hadn’t managed to rise from the ground. Somes pulled a thin cylinder from inside his coat, slipping it into his sleeve before it was brought into the open, careful to never expose the illegal substance, even if they were in an unobserved alleyway.
The substance inside the vial resembled a thick cloudy water. Somes took a step forward towards the young man; he crouched slightly, offering sympathy as he held out his hand, only the tip of the vial visible. He watched the flickering of hope pass across the addict’s face as he realized he was actually getting what almost no other mixer would have ever offered.
Part of Somes was content with himself for helping. Another part was furious with himself, he could not give in to every sad story he was told. This world was filled with sad stories, each one worse than the last. Being charitable would be his end.
And yet he held out his hand, offering the vial.
It was then that he felt it. It first came up through the ground: a sharp and lasting vibration. Then he could feel it in the air, a sudden and intense pressure change. His mind only just had enough time to recognize that something was wrong when a violent and echoing boom abruptly echoed out from the street. There were distant screams, it was indeterminable if they were of pain or shock, but they quickly faded against the sound of the explosion itself, reverberating off the streets every surface. There was a distant, harsh, metallic crunching sound now, only noticeable since the initial roar had subsided. It was as if some steel structure of tremendous weight and mass had fallen down upon itself.
Without a second thought, he let the cylinder of murk fall out of his sleeve and onto the lap of the man still lying on the ground. He began walking cautiously towards the alley’s opening, peering down the street. Before he stepped back out onto the street of Milieu-Grand his peripheral vision took note that behind him, the addict, the kid, had not even bothered to stand, let alone find a respectable injection location. He had instead rolled, or perhaps even fallen onto his back. Struggling to roll-up his sleeve as he desperately attempted to inject the murk into his arm. He would probably take the full supply at that very moment. But, it was no longer Somes’s concern. There was something happening, something extraordinary happening, and he had to find out what it was.
As he walked out into the street he scanned the faces of the people that had once been moving so calmly, so swiftly. He assessed each face his eyes came across. All of them had momentarily lost their individual purpose, some now were awash with concern, others with curiosity, some even with panic. They looked down the street to his right. He cast his own eyes in that direction; distantly he could see smoke or some kind of cloudiness forming, a dusty substance of one type or another filling the air. Something within Somes, whether it was his nature or his training, suddenly encouraged him to look the other way. Looking back between the concerned faces, he saw a discrepancy, there was a break, an opening within the crowd, people had shifted away from something. Then, through the mass of faces and bodies all suddenly caught in confusion, he spotted the man in the odd brown hat, standing alone in the road.
By basic human nature, all of those around him had begun shifting towards where the explosion had taken place. It was far enough away that they felt no danger. Yet close enough, different enough, that it broke their concentration on their individual reasons for being on the street. Somes himself moved between them now, he traveled in the opposite direction, not towards the blast, but toward something else, towards whatever was happening with the man in the brown hat. Somes watched then as this man was pulling the hat from his head and laying it on the ground gently next to him. In a sea of confused faces, only that man’s was unsurprised, it was not calm, but there was no surprise. This was reason enough for Somes to move towards him. With increasing speed he began to move closer, stepping between the people staring past him, moving towards the man as he was now untying his coat, laying it down next to his hat.
The blast had done something; it had broken the focus of every person. Their own lives, their purposes, there simple minded certainty at what they were supposed to do had now disappeared. It was replaced instead with an all-encompassing ambiguity. When affected by a single unclear event, people begin to depend on those around them for how they should respond. Somes reminded him himself, he knew what he was observing now, he had seen it before. Their own personalities are diminished, their thoughts are warped, and the crowd mentality overtakes them. These people suddenly, without realizing it move and act as one. Each person leans on the person next to them for what to do, how to react; when their own purposes have been forgotten. Any action becomes acceptable so long as it is performed by those around you at that moment. It was visible on the faces of these people more and more as Somes continued to press through them, the mentality of the group was spreading like fever. Even those who had not originally heard the blast were walking onto the street and matching the unexpected behaviour of those already present. Suddenly it seemed that their only desire was to reach the origin of that horrible sound. People pressed closer together and moved faster, regard for one and other was ever lowering and Somes was caught in a flow that he was trying to move against.
Just when his efforts began to seem futile, everything shifted. A voice echoed out through the streets of Milieu-Grand. It was loud and resonant, its original source was clear despite its echoing through the street; the man who had removed his hat was speaking. He was not speaking to anyone in particular; he was speaking out to the entire zone. The voice was forceful and loud, yet it was not strained, it was being amplified by an undetermined means.
That voice is all that it took. People who were simply following one and other, moving towards the sound of an explosion, now suddenly stopped and turned. Everyone now moved with Somes, precisely in the direction that he had wished to move in from the beginning. The voice was something for them to focus on, it was an imposed purpose when they lacked their own. In the passing of a single moment the entire crowd had forgotten the initial boom and now they listened only to that voice.
The flow of people stopped and slowly they were all turning, all turning onto that one man in the middle of the street, that man who originally had seemed like a simple passing oddity was now preaching words which had consumed the greater population of Milieu-Grand. Everyone listened, and everyone was now watching.
Somes had a problem with words, he held little faith in them, he didn’t use many of them. He held belief and understanding only in what he could see and what he could hear without the influence of another’s thoughts. A person’s words can be manipulated, but in their actions and their face they are revealed. At this moment, while all others were becoming suddenly engrossed by the words of the man who once wore a strange hat, Somes was becoming engrossed by the man’s every action.
The crowd had naturally formed a great circle around the man, no one stood closer than 20 meters from him. Was it that they feared him? That they were uncertain of him? It was as if an invisible barrier had been created in a perfect perimeter all the way around him. Somes shifted through the crowd until he was at the very edge of the circle. Even he felt the pull of the crowd, the mentality of conformity, the suggestion that he should not push the limits of the imaginary boundary they had created. Instead Somes stopped at the invented edge, and he watched.
The man, already having removed his over coat and hat and set them next to a satchel he carried, began stripping off his clothing. He removed each layer and folded them neatly in a pile beside him, all the while he spoke, his words flowing past Somes’s ears, yet consuming the people around him. Slowly he unclipped his shirt and without looking at it, folded it into a perfect square. Then he undid his trousers, and folded those perfectly as well. Without hesitation he removed his under shirt, followed by his pants. Folding both perfectly and laying them atop the rest of his belongings.
Now naked, the man stood in the middle of the street, still delivering his speech. Somes tore his eyes away from the center of attention to observe the others standing in the circle. He noted their responses, but above all else, he noted their lack thereof; despite the fact that this person was now standing naked amid one of the busiest streets in the entirety of The City, these people appeared to not notice. Somes found some faces that appeared struck with lightly horrified expressions. But, beyond all else, they seemed engrossed only in his words. His actions were nearly passing by them. Somes was certain that some did not even realize he was naked before them.
This, beyond any of his own nature, now kept him from listening to any of the words the man spoke, he treated the voice like back ground noise, focusing on every other sound to avoid hearing the words themselves. He was observing the affect that it was having on these people, and he refused to become a party to that.
This naked man then crouched down in a vastly less than complementary position, but he did so completely without concern. He reached into his small packsack and stood back up. The morning’s light, now bright with a coming afternoon, caught the glimmer of what he had acquired, he stood holding the shiny object loosely in his hand. 9 inches long, a piece of flat sharpened metal, moved gently between fingers which were obviously stronger than their appearance. The man held a knife; a knife if there ever was one, but unlike one that even Somes had ever seen.
Somes eyes followed the blade with great concern, tracing every twitch of the man’s fingers as he moved. He anticipated some great action, exactly what the action would be he did not know, but he knew something would occur. The assumption that the knife would be the origin of the next major spectacle is why Somes found himself surprised when the man’s hand stilled. He came to hold the blade loosely at his side, completely relaxed. Only then did Somes let his eyes travel back over the figure, then he saw what was held in the other hand.
Lief. Lief is used by every member of the entire population, without exception, but it is never taken out in public. Its value is too great. The danger that comes with carrying such a substance is much too great. This, Somes quickly remarked, was no single dose either. This was not an average day’s injection. There were two vials, each almost twice the size of what Somes sold, twice what most inject from day to day. Even from such a distance, Somes could clearly see the indicator marks on the vial’s sides. They were full; unopened. Unopened and in Shade marked containers, they must be pure, there was no doubt.
Somes shifted slightly forward. Not risking breaking apart from the crowd, but the urge to steal that much Lief was incredibly tempting. The street value would be remarkable. The Murk that he could mix would cover his sales for weeks, if not months. Somes did not know what this display was. He had no idea what was happening, but Lief is Lief, and in Somes life, little else mattered.
Before he had the opportunity to advance that thought any further though, Somes watched as the man turned the vials upwards. His right hand, still holding the knife, came across to the vials he held in his left. He twisted the seal top off of the first dosage of Lief. The vial and the knife then traded hands. In the middle of Milieu-Grand, this man brought the vial up to his bare arm and pressed it against his injection site, draining the entire oversized dosage into his arm. As the last drops entered his arm and the container’s indicator turned green, he dropped the empty vial to the ground before him. The sound of the empty object hitting the ground seemed to echo for miles. Somes noticed then exactly how silent everybody was, the man had ceased speaking, and the entire street now stood in a stunned silence. There was no noise what so ever, except the gentle and hollow tumbling of a smooth and finely made metal vial, resonating the sound of each crack in the concrete as it rolled away from his feet.
Without hesitation, the man then opened the second vial, and injected it in precisely the same manor, dropping another emptied vial to his feet.
He’s dead. Somes thought with a strange sense of realization reaching him. There is no way that much Lief could be survived. This man stood, already dead, gazing blankly out at the spectators of his suicide. Somes, along with the entire audience of the suicidal man amidst Milieu-Grand, were now undoubtedly watching the last moments of his life.
The man shuddered deeply, the immediate and deep effects of Lief taking hold of him for a moment as a high, which Somes knew all too well, swelled over the man’s body. He closed his eyes for only a moment before resuming his sermon, even more loudly than before. He reached down once more as he spoke, lifting up a loosely bound stack of pages. While still speaking the words that Somes would not allow himself to hear, the man stepped away from the empty vials and his own folded clothing. He took two long steps backwards and then stopped once more. Turning in a full circle, preaching to all of those that surrounded him. He leaned down and gently, incredibly carefully, laid the bound pages at his feet.
There was a moment’s hesitation, both in the man’s voice and his actions, as he crouched placing the pages at his feet. Somes did not have the time to consider what it was that was creating the pause because the man quickly rose once more. Somes watched as he stood. Hesitation obviously set aside, his knees and then back straightened with purpose. He moved the knife from his left hand to his right, flipping it over as he did so, the tip of the knife pointing upwards. Then, at the same moment his back reached perfect posture and before anyone had time to anticipate it, he raised his own knife up high, and stretched his bare left arm outwards. Down he swung smoothly, the sharp edge of the knife coming down across his left wrist.
There was a gasp out through the entire crowd as shock rolled over them. It is one thing to watch death through the quiet and gentle undoing of an overdose. But now, as blood could be clearly seen on the blade of the knife, the scene had become all the more horrific.
As everyone else in Milieu-Grand stood in shock, the dead man then held his bleeding arm out straight in front of him. The knife had been dropped to the ground, and he now clutched the gash he had made tightly with his other hand. In no way did this stop the bleeding; it merely slowed it as it poured from his wrist.
After the gasps Somes took a moment to scan his eyes across the crowd once again. There were grimaces, closed eyes and surprise. But there was not a single face which seemed to have anticipated these happenings. The strange trance they had all been under seemed to be faltering now. Although the man continued speaking, Somes knew that at least some of the audience were disconnected from his words; disconnected from the mentality of the crowd enough to pin for the Shadows. This entire display would end quickly now.
Somes looked back to the naked man, he could not help but look, although he no longer knew whether he wanted to watch this or not. He had seen bad things in his days, through both his former life, and his current one. But blood, blood is a rarity, never had he seen so much at once, never seen so much coming from an single man. Even Murked made cleaner kills than this.
But no one could stop themselves from looking. Somes was not alone. He imagined that many people standing in that street had never seen a drop of blood before in their lives, but even they could not pull their eyes away from this character. He was the piety of this entire moment. He had become the only thing that appeared to matter.
Now, as the blood steadily dripped, the man moved his arm. He did not stand before them and bleed out. No, it was clear that his plan continued beyond even this. If nothing else, he was guaranteeing that the last moments of his life would be remembered.
For a fleeting moment, Somes felt a smile come across his face. Some distant part of him understood, in a strange way he could comprehend what this man was doing. He had no idea what the character had done in his years, nor how many first days he had seen. He had no idea who he was, and he was certain that no one among that audience knew either. But this, this moment he had created, this would echo his name through the entire city. In this single moment, no matter what else he may have done, he changed how he would be remembered. He made everything else irrelevant, and he took control of his end. He had more control over his life now, than Somes had seen anyone in this place ever hold.
Slowly and carefully, the man moved his bleeding arm in towards himself and then slowly moved it back outwards. His eyes were carefully tracking the thick trail of blood that was being created beneath his bleeding wrist. He made a slight change in the direction of his movement when his arm was fully extended, bringing it back into himself again at a different angle. Slowly he turned now, pushing his arm outwards at a different angle once again. It was as if he was creating triangles of his own blood around him. Still he spoke as he slowly turned. Creating his final mark on the world, a mark that surely would be remembered for long to come.
Somes subconsciously kept count. 8 triangles had been created once the man had made a full rotation. It was only then that Somes realized exactly how much blood he had lost. He could see the white knuckles of his right hand, but no matter how tight he may grip his self-inflicted wound, he was not staying the flow of his blood. Lief was all that kept him standing. Somes understood now why it was that the man had overdosed: he had known that the thickness of the Lief in his veins, the strength it would give his muscles, and the clarity it would create in his mind would leave him standing for much longer than usual as he drained the blood from his body. Despite the Lief though, Somes could see a shake in his body. A deeper paleness than even he had started with began coming over him.
But still, he continued slowly turning, retracing the obscure image he had created now. Somes could not imagine what it was; it was a shape that would only be visible from above.
The thought then hung in his mind. Eight, eight triangles, had he counted correctly? He wished desperately now that he had paid closer attention. Could it be what he thought?
As Somes looked to the concrete, trying to make out the shape that was created, that was being retraced by the man, a great screech echoed through the air. It was a piercing sound that left the ears ringing for a moment afterwards. It was a sound that Somes found tenderly familiar. A Lighter had been fired. Looking back up from the bloody painting on the concrete, Somes returned his eyes to the man. A distinct black hole was strikingly clear upon his pale bare chest. The man put a foot back, trying to find his balance once more. He then fell down onto one knee. Still though, he spoke. A second black hole suddenly appeared on his chest. The mark visible a fraction of a second before the deafening sound of the Lighter followed. The man was choking on his words now, both bloody hands pressing hard against his chest as his mouth opened and closed, trying to suck air into lungs which had surely collapsed from the trauma. As Somes watched though, he saw the movement of the man’s lips. He was not gasping for air, he was trying to speak. Even now, as he was being terminated, he continued trying to speak whatever the words were which he believed to be so important.
Why was this character so obsessed with what he had to say? Was this entire display just an effort to have those words heard? Was his suicide an attempt to change how he was remembered, or was it more than that? Had Somes counted those triangles correctly, could it be? Suicide is not uncommon, love of Lief is not for everyone, and love of life is for even fewer. But this, this was no mere self-demise, this was a message, a message to someone. To everyone, even.
A third and fourth hole then appeared on the man’s chest, followed at last, by one that appeared in the centre of his forehead. The screeches of the lighter’s shots all seemed to blend together. Somes’s ears were left ringing as the man fell backwards. Collapsing at an awkward and obviously lifeless angle within the lines of blood he had created.
Opportunity is evanescent. It appears most often when one is not prepared. It does not wait; it rarely offers time for consideration. It is merely the coincidental combination of events which leaves one with a chance, a chance that can be taken, or can be left. But if left, the same opportunity will never come again. There were 8, there were 8 triangles. He knew it. And now, as the man’s dead body lay still and the lighter’s shots still rang in the audiences ears. There was an opportunity. For what, he could not be certain. But for a reason that was not clear to him, he felt in every ounce of his being, that he must take the opportunity which was before him.
And so he ran.
Without letting himself consider it any longer, tossing away any chance of regretting not making the move now that he had the chance. He sprinted as fast as he could manage, using every ounce of strength and energy he had reserved. It took only an instant to break away from the audience that still stood in astonishment of the scene they had witnessed. Somes broke free of the crowd, though the size of the circle they had created seemed immense, he did not hesitate, he couldn’t, he had committed now, he had embraced this chance, there was no going back. His patchwork uniform whipped through the air behind him with the speed of his sprint. In only a couple moments he reached the blood lines that surrounded the man. He did not slow his run. He leaped as high as he could over the first blood line, avoiding the substance at all costs, and landed in sprint, bring his hand down and scooping up the stack of bound pages the man had left behind.
As Somes jumped over the blood line on the other side of the man’s symbol he heard a lighter screech. He did not stop though. He felt no pain, his movements were unhindered, so he continued moving. He sprinted onwards, towards the crowd opposite where he had stood. Already they were separating, moving away from the scene. As many moved away from his direct path, he veered to right, just as he heard another Lighter screech. It took everything in him not to turn and look towards where the shots were coming from. But, with the quick change of course the crowd did not have time to open for him, and he was suddenly among them. No Shadow would fire on him here. They would not be held responsible for shooting down innocent civilians. Not with so many witnesses.
He used the strangers, still half entranced by all they had seen, as protection; staying close to them, weaving between them, until he could sprint into cover further down the street. He did not know where he was headed, it did not matter, he searched only for cover now, only for escape. He had to get out of Milieu-Grand.
He would escape. Disappearing, getting away, that was his most valued attribute. As he clutched the pages to his chest, he knew, that he would need all of the options available to him to get away from this scene.
He held the pages tightly, as if afraid they would dissipate there in his very arms. He was not sure what he held, he was not sure why he took it. But somehow, he knew that what he held was worth more than any risk he was taking. He could feel that this, whatever this may be, was far more valuable than his own life.
The classroom was simple, empty of any and all distractions. Walls of a slightly faded blue, to evoke calmness, Alexria correctly assumed, were kept completely bare. Chairs were connected to interactive desks as a single unit, all of which were turned off during the current lecture. The desks formed four rows of 5, even they were simple to a point of notability: three legs and single black surface. It was a multi-purpose room designed to meet any need the school may have: any class, with any professor, and any set of students. It was exactly like every other classroom that could be found within this building, and, Alexria imagined, any classroom of any school that there was.
The one and only break from the numbingly simple room, was the formulate window directly opposite of the classroom’s door. The window was not ornate, it was not there to be enjoyable to look at in any way. It presented the simplest possible scene. Currently, it showed a suburban zone, a general residential area. Every house was identical, and there were 2 trees, one visible on each of the two street corners the room depicted. Alexria was staring blankly at this image. It did not move, it showed no life, nor anything of any interest. Alexria even knew that it did not actually depict what was beyond that solid wall. It was, after all, a formulate window, it could show any image what so ever, it was merely a screen. The window was only there to try and prevent her and the other students from feeling what would surely be a stifling claustrophobia if the room’s simple walls had no break whatsoever. It was not successful. Alexria thought, as she peered at the window.
She could still feel the tightness of the walls, the proximity she held to the others in the room. Although the people did not bother her, the confinement did. She always felt confined. She did not know why, but in the last few months, even the open streets left her feeling trapped. As if The City was above her, ready to come falling down.
Despite the lack of comfort or interest she found in the formulate window, she still found it an escape from the dreary class. Lazily she traced the contours of each building, just like so many she had seen in her few days. She counted the doorways for the hundredth time and idly wondered who may live behind them. Even if the buildings were only the product of some window designer’s imagination, the thought of who could be within them, the endless possibilities of the lives they could potentially lead was a welcome distraction.
A bright flashing red suddenly came across her glasses. She had been too caught up in her own thoughts and had not noticed the appearance of red dots in the top right hand corner of her glasses. The dots would have been a warning that her lack of attention was being registered by the system. The flashing was the final warning, meaning the professor would be alerted of her low attention levels. Alexria lazily shut her eyes before returning her gaze to the front of the classroom.
The professor was looking at her with a stern and annoyed expression, “Alexria Younge” she began, arrogance filling each syllable, “You’re currently registered as a 4, while your activation levels are still well above 5. You are clearly absorbed in some set of thoughts which do not pertain to today’s lesson. You must come up to at least a 7 by 5 at the classes closing. Otherwise you’ll be sent to your Focuser immediately after class to rerun today’s lesson”
“Yes, Doctor.” Alexria responded with feigned concern.
“37 minutes remaining, you will need to be strictly aware to fix these averages by classes’ close” Without a moment’s hesitation the professor then returned her attention to the screen at the front of classroom and revisited her lesson.
Alexria watched as densely coloured shapes reappeared and began moving and editing themselves in accordance with the lesson plan. Labeled circles molded their way into squares and split into pieces. Then the square’s pieces changed into triangles and found their own new patterns. All the shapes and images on the board were meant to interpret the lesson and the teacher’s words in a way that would be of greatest assistance to Alexria’s own learning. The glasses that she wore were supposed to be set to translate the neutral images on the board into a scheme specifically designed for her own learning type. Every person in class had their own set of glasses, and every pair was set to display the lessons differently, designed to create a personalized and unique learning system for each individual student. This system, along with most of her school, utilized the most progressive ways to achieve optimal learning, which of course was the entire goal. A goal they achieved, usually. Alexria felt that they disliked her for this, she was a flaw in their system, optimal learning levels were proving difficult for her to achieve. Despite countless trials, the best programming for her glasses remained inconclusive.
She forced herself to pay close attention as she watched a circle slowly unwind, twisting itself into a double helix structure as all of the information that had been written upon it suddenly became different pieces of the strand of biological code. She could follow the lesson, she just had no interest in it. It all seemed incredibly irrelevant to her. It was Chemical Mathematics. The most advanced CM course offered in her school and a required course within her individualised curriculum in order to complete her standard education. The professor was going through the historical make up of Lief. A lesson Allie was confident she would never find useful in the rest of her life. Although she had not yet been assigned her direction for life post standard schooling, she was confident it would not be anything related to Lief composition. Although her father was a Lief chemist, she had never shown any interest in following that path nor any particular aptitude for it.
Distraction began to consume her again as her mind wandered over what the future may hold for her. It wouldn’t be long now, most of her classmates, she had gathered from the conversations she had overheard, had already been assigned their career choices. It’s most common to have two or three options. In some cases however, there is no choice, just a direction. This scared Alexria: what if she disliked what her future was supposed to hold. What if the career path given to her was something she deemed terrible? Their futures were all supposed to be gauged on their interests and strengths. That, however, scared Alexria all the more. She had not done well at displaying strengths; her years at standard schooling had already been deemed less than satisfactory.
She began tracing over each of the classmates that sat ahead of her. Glancing towards the board less and less frequently as she slowly became more distracted with them and less concerned about her attention levels. She studied each one of them slowly. Watching the back of the heads of those in front of her, slowly trying to find unique details in the white suits they all wore. She did not search for anything in particular; she simply searched for a difference. Something that would make them seem less the same, something which would even let one of them stand out. The boy in row four of column two, were his shoulders hunched? Was it her angle, or was he slouched? Perhaps he was just as bored with the lesson as she was. Maybe his thoughts were also somewhere else. What had he been assigned after school? Did he know? Was he happy about it?
She moved on, analyzing the face of the girl next to her. Her skin was porcelain white without blemish. She wore a look of concentration as she looked forward, seeming genuinely interested in the lesson at hand. There was even a smile. Without reason, the girl was simply smiling as she looked forward, seeming to truly enjoy being where she was. Alexria’s chest tightened with annoyance. Did this girl even care what she would be assigned to do when standard schooling was finished? Would she just walk through the rest of her life with that same smile, enjoying whatever it was she was told to do?
Alexria continued searching the faces and forms of her classmates. She wanted something, anything to tell her that one of them may feel even an ounce of what she felt. She realized that she seemed to desire for others to be discontent. That bothered her; she did not want to feel that way. She did not want them to be worried or unhappy. She just, didn’t want to be the only one who was…
As she swept over the class, a couple rows ahead of Alexria, her eyes met one of her classmates’ eyes. A girl was looking directly back at her, wearing what was surely a knowing grin. Alexria immediately diverted her eyes. Tipping her head and staring down at her desk. She then quickly looked straight up, making sure to focus directly on the lesson, trying to ignore the temptation to use her peripherals and see if the girl was still looking at her.
She focused into the professor voice again. The professor was now droning on about the creation of an Alternate Immune System and the AI vaccines used to create them. It was a discovery made sometime back in the early 22nd century. The exact dates weren’t clear. Anything that happened that long ago had come to be blurry in details, but that didn’t make the discovery any less revolutionary. It was the vaccine to end all vaccines, it was protection against almost any known disease that could enter the body, and for the first time, protect also against an autoimmune disease. It took many more decades for any of it to be perfected and turned into a maintainable compound, yet it began there. It was relatively interesting Alexria though, irrelevant to her own life, but interesting enough.
She struggled to maintain focus. Her mind quickly began to wander and she grew anxious trying to sit still. She looked down away from the classroom’s front. Her fingers were slowly rapping on the desk in front of her. She had been doing it without thought. But now she found distraction in it as she looked down. If she watched carefully, she could see the screen react as her fingers tapped it. It was not active, but she could still see the slight hue of colour around her finger tips if she pressed hard enough. She began carefully, pressing each finger against the desk, watching the tiny auras she created. 1, 2, 3, 4 she taped her fingers against the desk, slowly and precisely, she watched as each digit made its own tiny reaction on the screen.
It was curious, she accepted that she found little interest in that screen when it was active and meant to be utilized; yet, for some reason, getting a response from something that should not be responding to her at all was interesting. Her amusement was short lived though. A red dot appeared in the corner of her glasses and she forced herself to look back up at the professor.
The lesson had moved on from vaccines and disease prevention. The professor was now lecturing on pieces of what helped to make Lief what it was today. Basic vitamins and proteins were added at first, boosting the benefits of frequently injecting Lief. Then came the synthetic Human Growth Hormone, and then the SCRC, the Stem Cell Reproduction Compound. Alexria watched as the professor’s excitement grew while she described the “technological miracle” of reproducing stem cells and in turn letting the body repair almost any injury. Even this information, Alexria knew, was probably a couple hundred years old. The newest Lief compositions were not public information, the Shade did not want the exact balances to be attainable or distributable knowledge in effort to hinder murk production, as well as of course, to keep the public safe from any type of terrorism possibly affecting their daily injections.
Alexria’s fingers had continued tapping the desk even after she had looked away. She kept the same simple rhythm of one finger at a time. Starting from her index finger, she pressed 1, 2, 3, 4. She soon found herself glancing down again, relishing in the ability to create a reaction in something. She changed her movement then, laying one finger against the screen she slowly traced it downwards, watching the tiny trail of colour it momentarily left. She then slid another finger along beside it. Then, without warning, she suddenly pictured the desk as human skin. The image lasted only a second. But it could not be forgotten. As she slid her fingers slowly down her desk now, she could not help but imagine slowly sliding them along the skin of another person. It would feel nothing like that, she imagined. Certainly human skin would be more forgiving, it would be softer, maybe even warmer. Automatically she brought her finger to her own arm. Slowly sliding her fingers across the arm, although it was covered by the sleeve of her student whites, she could still feel the difference.
As discreetly as possible then, without really considering what she was doing, she pulled back the sleeve of her uniform, only slightly, but enough to expose just a little of her skin. She turned her hand over, and then slowly dragged her fingers over the inside of her wrist. She had never truly taken notice of the sensation, nor the softness. She could even feel the veins below her skin. But that whole feeling was hindered by the invisible plastic coating she wore. It was not usually noticeable, just a simple protection against any microbes that the body could come in contact with. Everyone wore it on exposed areas when they were in public. It was virtually imperceptible, but now as she strained to feel her own skin, nothing else seemed more noticeable.
A red dot appeared again, she forced herself to look back to the professor. “Imagine all of human kind rarely living past even a hundred years of age” The professor was stating with a look of alarm on her face. “It’s hard for us to conceive in this age. But there was a time when illness of one type or another would end most lives well before a century of first days.”
Alexria tried to find shock in this, but it was not truly comprehensible to her. She had barely seen 19 first days. Seeing a hundred was too far away for her to find fear in that being all she once would have seen. She understood that such things are probably more troubling when you are closer to them, as oppose to 8 decades away. But, it was just hard to imagine dying so young, it was hard to imagine having such a different perception of young, the idea didn’t seem as terrifying as her professor suggested. A hundred first days is not much beyond mid-life point for most people. For some reason, that idea in itself troubled her. How much time she had left seemed to be a troubling aspect all on its own, not because it was limited, but instead because it seemed so remarkably vast. That was one of the gifts of her time though: SHGH, SCRC and AI Vaccines, proteins, vitamins and hormones in greater abundance than she could ever bother to memorize; Lief was everything the body needed, strung perfectly together into each morning’s injection. Lief was everything one needed to live a long and healthy life. That is what they told her at least.
The pieces of your life which you are born with, which you expect, which you have no reason to believe will ever cease to be, are the hardest to truly consider. Lief was a part of Alexria’s life as long as she could remember, it was almost as fundamental as the morning bringing light and the night darkness. It is hard to truly question something that was so fundamental. But, perhaps that’s all the more reason to try.
With that thought Alexria looked back down towards her fingers where they casually stroked her wrist. On impulse, she reached her hand further up the tight sleeve, to where she knew her skin would be free of protective covering because it was not meant to be exposed. She lay her fingers against her arm once more, 1, 2, 3, 4. She let herself focus on her fingertips, and imagine that the sensation of bare skin beneath them was the feeling of someone else’s skin. She reveled in the sensation, in the possibility of feeling another person’s skin like that. The thought was one she would never share, it was something no one else would understand. It was inappropriate, it was irrational. Contact with other people is dangerous, let alone contact with bare skin. But, the thought would not leave her. She went so far as to imagine that her fingers were not covered in their protective latex. Freely touching someone’s bare skin.
Her mind seemed to race beyond her control then. She was touching her arm so gently, yet it was consuming her thoughts entirely as the unmentionable fantasy came over her. Before she even realized what she was doing her eyes had closed, just a fraction, and suddenly she was no longer imagining touching someone’s bare skin, but instead she focused on her bare arm, and the idea of someone else touching her bare skin.
A deep shiver instantly ran over her body. Every hair stood on end and she felt her back stiffen. Air was suddenly sucked into expanding lungs in what was surely an audible gasp as she ripped her fingers away from her bare skin and adjusted her sleeve. Her cheeks burned red as she quickly scanned across the entire classroom, searching, desperately to see if anyone had noticed her.
To her relief, none of her classmates were staring at her as she originally imagined they all would be upon opening her eyes. No eyes seemed to be on her as she scanned around the room. Just as the initial embarrassment of her day dreaming had subsided, she then made eye contact with the pretty blonde sitting just ahead of her once more. The girl was turned back towards her again and the smile she wore instantly made Alexria’s cheeks burn with a fresh intensity. A mixture of shame, guilt and fear washed over her as she tore her eyes away from the girl and looked at the front of the classroom. Her eyes were not absorbing any of the shapes as they moved, she struggled to use every ounce of her concentration to avoid looking in that direction anymore. Her mind was nowhere near the lesson at hand. She fought to keep from squirming in her seat.
The tightness of the room’s walls suddenly seemed all the more confining. Her chest grew tight as she felt like every desk and student in the room was suddenly shifted closer to her. She was certain the walls were shrinking, the ceiling falling closer to her. It took everything in her to keep from hyperventilating.
Finally she gave up on peering forward and diverted her eyes back to the formulate window. It offered little comfort, but it was something that could be perceived as further away, she forced herself to pretend that the distance between her and the buildings depicted was real. She gave up all hopes of paying any attention to the class and instead focused only on calming her breathing and pressing away the feeling that the room was collapsing around her. As a red dot appeared in the corner of her glasses she frowned, but did not even try to turn forward again. She would need to meet with her focuser after class, but she did not care, she merely wanted to make it to the end of the lesson.
Alectum’s eyes were closed as he deeply inhaled through his nose. He filled his lungs with air and then held it in. Slowly he counted backwards from 10 before finally letting the air hiss out between barely opened lips. He shook his head back and forth, trying to shake away the last of the sensation he was barely holding at bay. He struggled to open his eyes, not wanting to leave the blackness of his mind, but he forced them open, blinking hard two then three times, revealing eyes of a deep black, matching the long coat he wore. The pupil and iris seemed to run together, both were of the same deep blackness making a sharp strange contrast between the whites of his eye and the iris. He fought off the desire to press his palms to his eyes, he knew this would cause redness. He feared he looked tired enough as it was. He was not willing to risk making that any more apparent. He blinked quickly again instead and then looked up. The haziness of the condition he had just pressed away was fading now. The street around him was growing in sharpness. He was re-grasping the world around him now. He should not let himself get this far along, it was irresponsible, he should not let himself reach that state of need. He was in control again now, although he knew he would not be for long. He knew his body, knew his mind, and he knew this feeling much too well. But that meant he knew he was still a distance from his breaking point.
Alectum stepped away from his vehicle. Tipping forward he fell into a quick pace away from the flat black Shadow transport he had just exited. He walked quickly down the street of Milieu-Grand. There were some civilians moving slowly down the road, obviously more curious than they should be. None stopped though, not willing to risk being approached by a Shadow officer. Alec could feel their eyes on him as he walked. But he did not bother looking, they were indifferent, he was confident they were unrelated to the situation he walked toward. His focus was ever increasing and each sense livened more and more in succession. He began to notice the smell of the air, the distant whispers of civilians and quick tones of other Shadows. Ahead of him in the street there was a towering light barrier, a large circle composed of a tight weave of red and yellow beams of light. From the street itself it coursed some 40 feet upwards. It was a completely concealed scene; no more civilians should see what lay beyond that barrier than those who already had. Alectum himself reached the edge of the wide circle next to one of its base projectors. He reached out without breaking his pace and let his wrist pass close to the projector. Just as the front of his foot was about to collide with the barrier the meshing paled and vibrated slightly, in recognition to his identification. Now permeable Alectum passed easily through the barrier and it quickly returned to its original state behind him.
A small tense man stood almost against the barrier wall where Alectum had passed through. He looked up with surprise as Alectum walked in. Quickly he jumped to a sudden attention, his body becoming rigid; one arm immediately went straight down, a thin film screen was held, still expanded and activated, at his side. His right hand had clenched into a tight fist and was brought up across his body, pressed against the left side of his chest. “Insighter,” the man said loudly, announcing Alectum’s presence. There was suddenly a silence within the entire crime scene. Every Shadow officer quickly turned towards him and straightened, holding one arm straight down and the other across their chest just as the first man had.
Alec looked the man, who had first spotted him, up and down, noting the white trimming’s on the man’s black overcoat. First level, he thought without bothering to conceal the annoyance on his face. Alectum reached out and took the film-screen from the man’s hand without yet acknowledging the salute. He glanced at the case file open upon the translucent screen for only half a moment before he looked back at the man and then out towards the centre of the scene. With an unmistakable splash of condescension, he spoke to the first level Shadow officer without looking directly at him “Where are the composition and damage reports from the blast?”
The man’s mouth opened and closed a couple times before finally stuttering, “Still-still with the Blue-coats, sir.”
“It should be open for review by now.” Alectum stated it as if it were that man’s responsibility to know why it wasn’t. “Get it. Bring it to me.”
There was a moment’s silence.
Alectum now looked directly at the young Shadow officer, “Now.” He stated as he let his blackened eyes meet the man’s. He watched with satisfaction as the man diverted his eyes, looking directly downwards as a shot of fear ran through him. Even Shadow officers hold fear for the black eyes of an Insighter.
The man spun on his heels and stepped wordlessly out through the meshing with great haste. Eyes glued to the ground before him, something between fear and shame buckled his posture as he moved away.
Alec walked forwards now. Every other Shadow officer there still stiffly held the salute. All eyes were on him as he moved, but none dared to meet his without need. Alectum stopped just short of the centre of the crime scene. There was a pale and limp naked body, awkwardly strewn across the ground in front of him. There were four distinct black holes in the upper torso and a single hole in the forehead. The dead man lay on his back, eyes gazing upwards towards a daylight which would soon be fading. There was an emptiness on his face which Alectum was all too familiar with.
Alectum’s own face was expressionless as he looked down “What sector is this?” he asked loudly without looking away from the body as he spoke.
He looked up then, quickly glancing over the people that surrounded him, taking note as various eyes darted to one man standing close to him
“T-2-4, sir.” The man spoke with confidence; a good sign.
Alec nodded, first at the man, and then to the general group, signaling their ability to stand at ease. The time for respect displays had ended, he hoped they would all jump to some purpose or another when he had given the signal, but most seemed uncertain as to what they should be doing. The entire scene assessment was already taking far too long. Countless tasks began flowing through Alec’s mind.
He looked to another man standing near the scenes edge with white trimming down his jacket “Call in a 6 hour full light to T-2-4. Call it in before darkness begins, I don’t even want this area to grow dim until after we have finished.” Alectum looked back to the body and then added, “Tell them not to turn it off until they have conformation from me directly.” Alectum didn’t bother to watch or listen as the man quickly responded and stepped out through the light meshing.
Alectum then looked to a woman standing near to him, “Shut down every flash-port on Milieu-Grand. In and out, no one glows unless they are wearing a black jacket.” That should have already been done given the circumstances surrounding this event, but he needed it to be confirmed
Alec then looked to the man who had initially responded to his general question, he eyed the mix of silver and black trim along the black Shadow coat. Second guard, he thought, idly wondering where the first guard was. He waited for only a moment in anticipation after looking at the man.
“Insighter Orfeo?” The man asked.
“As said” Alec replied. “What’s the shadow count in Milieu at this hour?”
“14, sir. Seven, now four on immediate scene. Three at the vent, and four on level security.”
“Are the three officers on the vent isolated to the blast location or doing full search of the system.”
“They’re isolated to ground zero, sir.”
“Tell someone to pin in for another four officers to start a sweep. I don’t anticipate them finding anything, but I do not intend to risk it.” Alectum wondered if the Second Guard noticed his transition of authority. He did not want to continue telling every individual what they should be doing. He’d use this man as his dispatcher.
“Yes, Insighter.” he replied as he nodded to another officer in the circle, delegating the task off.
“Get the Officer who lit this poor bastard up in here, as well.” Alectum added
“Yes, sir.” The man promptly replied nodding yet again to another officer. They responded to him quickly, Alectum liked that. He was young but the other officers held respect for him. “Permission to inquire, sir.” The man then added.
“Floor is open until I say otherwise, the formality is going to need to be dropped for the time being. Things need to move faster than such technicalities will allow.”
The man nodded, but still proceeded cautiously. “Sir, is out of line for me to ask why you are requesting the presence of the shooter?”
Alec looked down at the body, “Because he’s fucking useless with a lighter.” Alec hesitated, watching the other Shadow squirm for a moment. He then allowed the corner of his mouth to twitch slightly. On anyone else the movement would look like little more than a tick, but on Alectum’s hard face it appeared to be a suddenly warm smile. “Only looking for a first-hand account, no intention of reprimanding any of your men.”
Obvious relief swelled over the man and he grinned. “Yes, sir.” He hesitated a moment and then added, “it really wasn’t clean lighting either.” He said nodding towards the 5 holes on the body.
Alectum allowed the relaxed nature of the conversation to continue, the stress level was already much too high in this zone, “Whom am I speaking with?” he asked, without aggression.
The man instantly became pale at the realization that he had forgotten to introduce himself upon first speaking to the higher ranking Shadow. “Officer Aaron Ten, sir. Second Guard of Milieu-Grand, Sector 2.”
“Second Guard?” Alectum stated this as if he hadn’t already noted the fact by the colour of the Officer’s trim. “I’m sure you’re quite capable Officer Ten, but why is it not the First Guard I’m speaking with?” Alec had genuine curiosity as to the location of the primary Zone Commander, no matter what the man may have been doing, after something of this degree taking place he should have managed to glow here within a few moments.
“He was third on scene, sir, after only the shooter and a patrolling officer. But, currently he is in decontamination, sir.”
Alec raised his eyebrows in question. He already knew what the answer would be though. Although he hadn’t been made aware of the First Guard’s situation he had been made aware of enough of this situation to assume what had taken place.
“The red line surrounding the body, it is actual blood, sir. Officer Len, the First guard, was under the assumption that it was synthetic, as we all were. We had assumed that the opening of the Ulnar artery of the left wrist was theatrical and the blood was synthetic. He had touched the substance in an attempt to understand its degree of coagulation, I’ve been told. When the Blue Coats arrived, and an analysis was run, he was sent for full detoxification. He should be back by tomorrow’s first light.” Ten was obviously unhappy in needing to admit the flaw of his commander, but spoke of it purely informatively.
Alec had been informed of the presence of actual blood before he had arrived on scene. He had been told little during his short transit, but that was one of the facts. It was one of the cases curiosities that had demanded the presence of Alectum himself on this scene.
Alec nodded slowly at Ten’s words and then looked him in the eye, “Congratulations Officer Ten, you’ve been promoted to First Guard until this investigation ends. Len will report to me when he gets back from detox. Quite simply though, when the extraordinary happens, do not assume anything.”
Officer Ten was clearly taken aback by the sudden promotion, but he just nodded an acknowledgment. Alectum was glad he did not need to suffer through the man’s expressions of concern, or even worse, his thanks.
He was young to be the First Guard of Milieu-Grand, but Alectum had seen nothing yet to inspire any doubts. He knew that he would, surely, before this all came to end. But, Alectum Orfeo was not a man who often bothered to regret decisions, “Why are there no Blue Coats on this scene now?”
“They’re all at the blast, sir. Apparently the mechanism is bringing about some peculiar results.”
Alec nodded, again having received that tidbit of information before his arrival. The vent was still down, they’d want the strongest force possible there to get it secured and re-running. However, he could not bring himself to prioritize the vent above this scene. “I’m making this scene the primary, I don’t honestly care that the blast happened first, the two were obviously co-ordinated, and suspect number one is lying in a pool of his own blood. Call in another 3 Blue Coats for a secondary assessment of this scene.”
“Yes, sir” Aaron Ten then made a more distinct motion to another man in the circle.
Before Alectum or Ten could make another comment, a new character stepped into the circle. Alec instantly took note of the dark grey trim of the jacket before he even looked to the Shadow’s face. Grey trimming, the man was only two ranks beneath Alec himself. A long barreled lighter was slung loosely over the man’s shoulder, obviously this was the shooter. Alectum only then looked up to the man’s face, and was immediately struck with unexpected recognition.
“Orfeo, it’s been a couple ages hasn’t it.” The shooter smiled broadly as he slapped his hand gently against his chest in a quick salute.
Alectum did not return the smile but he regarded the man back without hostility and returned the friendly salute, “Dren,” he said, leaving a moment’s pause to gauge the man’s demeanor, “I should have known this was you.”
“You can still smell my presence, hey?” Dren’s smile grew wider now
“No,” Alec said stiffly, looking back at the body, “there just aren’t that many Shadows who need five shots with a long barrel in broad daylight before they can kill a man.”
The man laughed heavily. Officer Ten then began to speak with some hesitation “Insighter Orfeo, it appears you already know Officer Dren” It was clear now that Ten’s earlier question, regarding Alec’s reasoning for seeing the shooter, was not voiced because it was one of Ten’s own men, but instead because he feared he would be calling in a senior officer to be criticized.
“Yeah, he knows me.” Dren said to Ten while still looking at Alectum, “he was my lead officer for a couple Murk digs in Exos, a few lifetimes ago.” Dren looked the black jacket Alectum wore up and down now, eyes tracing the onyx trim, acting as if he hadn’t noticed the distinct Insighter black eyes. “Insighter these days? Not bad Orfeo, you’ve done well for yourself” Dren had adjusted the lighter slung over his shoulder twice since he had walked onto the scene. A discomfort was lying dormant in the man.
“You know Shadow work Dren, we all lose light eventually.” And according to his rank, Dren appeared to be losing it quite quickly, he had risen drastically in standing since Alec had last seen him. Alectum looked away from Dren, but kept the man in his peripherals to observe his responses. He feigned his attention towards the body that still lay before them, “Working Milieu-Grand these days?” The question was leading; Alec knew full well that Dren wasn’t in Grand, by coincidence he had read a report submitted by Dren from the Locke zone only 4 weeks past.
“No,” Dren said with half a smile, his expression suggested he was aware of Alectum’s knowledge, yet unbothered by it, almost amused by it. “I was driving through to my zone when the call came in, happened to be tightest to the scene with a long barrel.” Dren’s thumb and forefinger rubbed the strap on his lighter as he spoke.
“I’ll check in to see who diverted you” Alectum looked up directly at Dren again, “I’m not sure how they missed the fact that they assigned the worst senior shot in The City to light the man up. Might have been better off waiting” Alectum held no humour in his voice, but the lack of harshness coming from him suggested that it was meant to be a joke.
Ten smiled yet looked back and forth between his two superiors quickly, obviously feeling a degree of hostility in Alectum’s words.
Dren hesitated a moment, and then laughed loudly. As he laughed though, his eyes did not leave Alec’s.
“You say you were driving, Dren?” Alectum continued after only a moment of Dren’s display of fake laughter, “Locke is a fair distance from here, are you not using flash-ports these days?” He made a point to state Dren’s current zone, taking away any doubt the man may have about how much Alec knew. Alectum held suspicion over Dren’s presence here. Part of him wanted an easy explanation, the rest of him simply wanted the man to feel less comfortable when he spoke to an Insighter.
“Glowing is for the ancients like you Alec. I’m young, I’ve got lots of time, no need to use the flash-ports when I don’t need to.” Dren made a slyer smile this time. He stared Alectum down, he was testing him.
Alec was about to make a comment, whether about the mention of his age or the informal use of his first name, he wasn’t sure, but Dren cut him off before he had a chance. “This, situation, has made me more than a little late though. I will need to Glow now. But, before I head to the flash-port, I’d suggest you follow me to where I took the shot from, I imagine the view will be of interest to you. ” Dren nodded his head to one side suggesting Alectum follow him and walked quickly out of the scene barrier without waiting for a response.
Alectum looked to Ten, “On me, the Shadows we called in will still be a few minutes, there’s little delegation for you to do until then.”
Aaron Ten nodded and quickly followed after the two senior officers away from the scene.
They approached a building of no particular difference than those around it, some 200 yards away from the primary scene. Upon entering the building Dren informed them that lifts were also for 10 agers, in turn they climbed almost 30 flights of an unused old static staircase before coming onto the building’s dome top. This would be where Dren had taken the shot from. He led them along the edge of the dome, the roof wasn’t intended for ease of mobility. The three moved along the outer edge of the building at a slower pace than Alectum would have liked, until reaching the side of the building facing towards the orange and red meshing of the crime scene’s light barrier.
As they moved along the edge Alec took note of the lack of air motion; the vent must still be down, there would have been more air flowing up this high if it had been repaired. Already a dimness was settling in on the streets of Milieu-Grand, evening was coming soon. The crime scene was beginning to stand out even more than what was created by the restricted scene barrier, the full light that Alectum had ordered in was beginning to be noticeable. The excess light would prove helpful for them Alectum assumed, as Dren looked forward to the scene without saying anything else.
Even from their vantage point, as high as they were, it was virtually impossible to properly see over the top of the barrier. Alectum nodded back to Ten, whom understood the command without needing an words. Ten’s fingers moved behind his ear and he then spoke quietly, passing the command on to one of the Shadow officers on the ground.
The intensely coloured crime scene barrier suddenly came down. A growing number of Shadow officers were suddenly exposed surrounding the street near the dead man. Alec heard Ten behind him, instructing them to step away from the body, giving them a clearer view of the scene, but Alectum rose his hand up without looking back at the Second Guard. The Shadow’s on the ground did not need to move, the three were high enough that Alectum could already see exactly what it was that Dren had brought them onto the rooftop to see.
There in the middle of all of the officers, the blood pool in which the naked man was lying was suddenly just a small mark inside of something else; something much more important. The line of blood that had surrounded the man seemed random from the ground, perhaps even a strange spray pattern from the self-inflicted wound on his wrist. It was nothing more than a bizarre, even coincidental, perimeter created at varying distance all the way around the body.
From this height though, the spilt blood from the dead man’s wrist formed a distinct shape all around him, it was clearly a symbol. Perhaps not clear to someone who had not seen it before. But it was unmistakeable to Alectum. This was why Dren had brought them up here. Glancing back, Alectum noted that it was something Aaron obviously did not recognize immediately. Why would he, this should never be encountered in Milieu-Grand. Dren and Alectum offered no explanation though, they remained silent; the symbol was not a new one to them.
Dren headed directly to the flash-ports when they reached bottom of the building. Although Alectum was still wary about Dren’s part in this, he appreciated what the officer had just revealed to him. It confirmed the suspicion that led to Alectum being on scene in the first place; the force behind this scene was lighter even than it appeared. The symbol would have been revealed by skyeye cameras within a short amount of time, but Alectum could act quickly now that he had this information early.
The light barrier had been re-established before the three had even left the rooftop, and now as Alectum and Aaron stepped back through it both were pleased to see that there was a significantly higher number of Shadows on the site. Immediately one of Ten’s officer’s approached their new First Guard, Alec watched the interaction closely. Before the investigation continued any further Alectum needed to be comfortable with the Shadow officers he had working beneath him. Ten was young, inexperienced, and there seemed to be an air of fear about him. Alectum could not have that, he had no qualms over removing the man’s promotion and finding a suitable replacement.
Alectum looked down and moved his right hand slightly out in front of his body. He moved his index finger in a very specific pattern: suddenly gridding appeared across his field of view with a series of gauges along each side. The lines and gauges were translucent, allowing Alectum to look through the obstructions that had appeared, yet still see them. He tapped his finger quickly in the air. To anyone else he was looking down and erratically moving his fingers about, yet in his field of view each stroke and forward motion was important, each movement represented a command, continually he was activating one gauge or another. Satisfied then, he looked up and eyed Aaron Ten again. Countless readings suddenly appeared across the man’s body. There was a moment’s blurriness as Alectum focused on a slight abrasion of the skin of his neck, then his vision magnified, and he was capable of was inspecting the part of the man’s neck with a 300% closer view without moving whatsoever. The magnified view revealed the abrasion to be no more than a speck of dust, assumedly acquired from the climb to the rooftop. Relaxing his focus the magnification than ceased and he once again could see Aaron Ten’s full form surrounded by his statistics. Alec carefully analyzed Ten’s heart rate, the sound of which was now thumping in the back of his head with the assistance of enhanced and focused hearing: slightly fast, Alectum determined. A gauge in the corner of his vision presented Ten’s skin temperature; another monitored his blood pressure; another still measured his posture, the set of his shoulders, the angle of his head.
Alectum then found a smile, more genuine than he had felt in quite some time coming across his face. Aaron Ten is not afraid, he is not anxious; he is excited. Somewhere, in a distance place he could scarcely recognize, a sense of nostalgia tried to play in his mind. Alectum had once felt that way, Shadow work had once excited him: new case, a chance to prove himself, a chance to do some good. But, times such as those have long passed.
Content in what he had perceived Alectum looked down once more, quickly turning off the distractions of his octal screen, shutting down the gauges and graphs and returning to regular vision. As regular as vision can be for an Insighter, he thought idly.
Alec waited another moment for the interaction between Ten and his inferior to complete and then spoke, “Ten,” He said, gaining the man’s attention, “Hand pick three Shadows, coat colors are indifferent, but select those you deem to be most perceptive during human interaction. Instruct them to deliver the black letters by hand to any and every relation of our suicide victim. Warn them not to be surprised by anything, but assure that they take careful note of every reaction. After that I want you to head to the vent and receive the latest updates, personally.”
“Any update is live feeding to this scene already, sir” Ten pointed out.
“I realize that, but you’re working with an Insighter now, do not doubt the importance of individual reaction to information. I want you to hear it directly from the mouths of the investigating blue coats. Look through the data yourself, look through the bloody blast site if you feel it’s important to do so. The moment you’ve finished, go to the last known residency of the suicide victim. I’ll meet you there shortly.”
The moment the instruction was finished Alectum could see the question behind the lips of the young officer. He wanted to ask what Alectum would be doing, but he was smarter than that, he knew his place. He remained silent and nodded, quickly saluting. Alec nodded the salute off and Ten left in half jog. He recognized the new found urgency in the situation, but it was clear that his hurried pace was also a product of enthusiasm. He was pleased at being given new responsibility.
Alectum walked over to the blue coats now doing their detailed secondary analysis on the body. A young female officer was holding one of the empty Lief vials that had been beside the body. It was alit in blue as she scanned it, inside and out, recording every detail.
“When you screen the substance in those vials, it will not register as a regularly distributed Lief mixture. I want you to track any trace remains to try and get the composition as well as any trademark compounds. It will not have a clear source but run through probability factors, determine the most likely facility, the level within that facility, the room within that level. I need you to get as close as possible to the individual person who designed it. You will not get as much as I want, but get anything and everything possible, as quickly as you can possibly enter it into the system. “
“Ye-, yes sir,” stuttered the Blue Coat in sudden surprise at being directly addressed by an Insighter.
Alectum then stepped closer to the body while, scanning the entire group. “I need the first Shadow officer, of those here, who arrived on scene.” Alectum didn’t bother looking for a reaction. No one would hide the fact that they were quick to respond, they would be proud to present themselves. Instead, as he waited, he crouched next to the line of blood and looked pensively at the eyes of the dead man. There was much more to this man than the pale limp body that was currently marinating in its own blood. How much could he have revealed if his head had not been pierced through by a lighter. There surely had been things in those thoughts that people like Alectum had spent years trying to uncover.
A women with green trim quickly stepped over to him. She saluted stiffly. “Officer Tyler, Sir. Second on scene only to the Lighter, this is just outside of my regular patrol area.”
Alec nodded without even looking up at her, “I’m of the understanding that there was formally a fourth object with this man: two Lief canisters, one knife and … what precisely.”
There was hesitation, from the women.
Alectum looked at her now. Impatience was a familiar and obvious look on his face.
“That, that isn’t clear sir.” Her cheeks flushed.
“How is that not clear, Officer Taylor.” Alectum knew her name was Tyler, but he did not want her thinking he cared.
“When the first Shadow officers arrived on scene there was no other object. However, initial witness reports varied. Some say that there was something else. Others have no recognition of it without leading questioning. Most of the witnesses seemed confused about the entire event, Sir.”
Alectum knew this, as well. “The witnesses that did claim to have seen a fourth object, did they have an explanation about what happened to it as well?” The runner. Alec thought.
“That answer is also variable even within the group who claimed the object was present…” She stopped, as if intending to not offer anything else.
“Some claim that a runner, by appearance a Mixer, took this object, correct?” He encouraged.
The look on her face gave away that she was clearly startled by Alectum’s knowledge of the situation. “Yes, Insighter. However, after the Lighter shots were fired there was much excitement. Many people ran, in one direction or another, it is not entirely clear what took place.”
“What have the sky eyes revealed?”
Hesitation again. “The sky eye data has not yet been released by the Shade. It is being processed.”
Processed, Alectum thought bitterly but without surprise. He would be able to get his hands on it if he requested it, but they were not offering it to the general investigating Shadow population. Alectum had been warned in his dispatch that there was a potential break. Nothing had been confirmed, but the situation was not promising. The bag the man had carried was some 5 feet away from him. placed beside his neatly folded clothing. Within the bag, there was a sheath for a blade, and two slots for Lief canisters. Those three items could easily be concealed on his person, especially if, considering his odd hat, he was making as little effort as it appeared to remain inconspicuous. There had been something else within the bag.
Alectum stood up, and swept his hand across non-existent dust at the bottom of his jacket. “Officer Tyler,” He assured that he used her actual name this time. “I am requesting your personal opinion. This will not be recorded or filed, and you will not be held responsible for any inaccuracies it may hold. I want you to give me a description of what you believe took place as acquired from your interviews with eye witnesses. I do not want a probability report or references; I just want what you personally suspect, compiled through the witnesses whom you believed…” Alectum crossed his arms as he watched her deciding what he expected her to say in his mind before she spoke.
Her eyes flitted back and forth as she pulled from her memory the different pieces that would compose her own story. It was an odd request to her, that much was clear. It was rare to have someone ask what you thought in the Shadow profession.
Finally, she spoke, “There was a package, unknown in exact nature or origin, laid on the ground next to this man. It is possible that it could have been… pages of some sort. Just after the man before you was lit up, a man from the crowd, previously unnoticed and not appearing to be directly related to what had happened, ran from the crowd directly to this scene. He was in full sprint, and was not moving away from the man who had been lit, as anyone else who ran at this time did, but instead ran to him. He took the package that was laid near the man’s feet, and then continued running. He was fired upon. He did not run in a straight line, it was erratic, and he used the crowd as cover, the descriptions of his movements suggest he was trained. The description of his person, match that of a mixer. He was not attained, in fact he was not even seen by any officer other than the Lighter. He also has not been identified.”
Alec looked back towards the body and his eyes slowly closed at the women’s words, a painful expression passed over his face. He had hoped she’d doubt the witnesses. He hoped that she felt it was unlikely. But there was no longer any doubting what had happened. If she was willing to describe those happenings to such a superior officer, she had faith in what she said. But, she had no idea the weight that her words held. She did not understand how bad this was.
Alec turned towards her; he locked eyes with her and portrayed enough intensity that she did not dare look away. “Set up a net, well beyond Milieu-Grand. Put Shadows on every form of public transit. Determine the exact distance that could be covered by any human on foot since he was last seen, then double that distance. Triple the patrols in that entire area and have stationary Shadows on every street corner, major or minor pass way, back alley and alcove. The Shadow force will not rest tonight.” Alectum reached his hand out and held it 6 inches above her right wrist. He bent his hand inwards, using his middle finger he tapped his own wrist then, registering and saving the Officer’s personal contact information. “I will send you a full profile of who this man is within the hour. Sky Eyes should give us at least close to a full facial recognition. Pass on the information I send you to every Shadow officer working the net as well as to the Shadow Blocks in the two closest neighbouring zones.”
Alectum hesitated a moment, realising how much he was laying upon a single officer of a relatively low ranking. He glanced around and quickly spotted a Shadow with Red trim not far away, he motioned the man over. “You’re going to delegate off whatever your current task is and instead help her set up a net, I’m requesting another 50 Shadows, all to be placed under the control of both of you. Utilize them the best way you possibly can. If you need another officer, if you need another 50 officers, send the request to me, you will receive them. This is maximum priority. I am confident that the priority of this supersedes the importance of anything you have ever done.”
The Red coat spoke up as the woman sprinted away to get mapping screens, “What about flash-ports, only Milieu-Grand is shut down. If you’re expanding the search area that far we’ll need to shut out most of Milieu.”
“Flash-ports are indifferent, he isn’t going to glow. They were turned off to restrict movement of possible key witnesses. Whoever the man we are searching for is, he knows better than to glow. If he does, then our search is surprisingly easier than anticipated, every port and toll will be on watch for his description within thirty seconds of me determining his exact ID.”
The man nodded without hesitation and ran off to help the Green Coated woman with the net.
Alectum scanned the Shadows one last time, assuring that none were idle. There was enough of a hierarchy present that he knew they would quickly be told what to do. Confident that things were proceeding as they should be, he turned on his heel and walked stiffly away from the body and straight out through the meshing.
As he paced down the middle of the street he began to feel that familiar shiver begin in the base of his spine. He could feel the coldness fighting to rush over him. He pushed his hands into his pockets and squeezed his fists incredibly tightly, fighting off the sensation. He exhaled long and hard through his nose and felt the feeling slowly begin to slightly fade.
Darkness was growing around him now as he neared his Shadow Transport. He activated his octal screen again. Quickly tapping in a command, he saw his vehicle ahead of him briefly glow along its upper edges, a strange black light which passed from back to front, and then it lifted up six inches from its resting place upon the spheres by which it moved. Closing his octal screen now, he reached his right hand up and taped at the skin behind the back of his ear various times. There was a gentle humming as the transmitter in his inner ear was being connected. He had made a direct pinning, it was only moments before he heard the line open up. There was silence on the other end, waiting for him to speak. Alectum exhaled quietly, preparing to speak the simple words that had been so long feared by him, and many like him. What he was about to set into motion was something he had long suspected he would live to see, but always hoped he would not: “Dawn is breaking in Milieu-Grand”. He said quietly but firmly. The call ended and the silence of the street once again returned.
She was late. Luxen glanced to the wall, and he carefully analyzed the minute hand of an old clock which hung on his wall. He knew the clock was inaccurate though, the few of those old mechanical clocks which remained in The City were always incorrect. He looked away from his clock to the precise glowing digital numbers of the time stamp beside it on the wall. She was supposed to have been here at least 7 minutes ago now. However, he did not anticipate her being on time. She was not a typical school girl, that much had grown clear to him. It stretched beyond her tardiness. It was something that reached deep into the confines of her mind, of her thoughts, into the reason for her coming to him in the first place. Whether by her nature or by the hand the world around her had decided to deal, she had somehow ended up different.
Luxen looked back down at his desk. He slid back and forth through the digital file he had open on his desk. Screens rushed by much too quickly to be absorbed as he let his pupils guide a continuous turning of the pages. His desk was assuming on some level that he was searching for something, but Lux knew that he had given up searching for anything in this file. Whatever the problem was with Alexria, it would not be found in statistics and background information. Instead he let the pages flip by, passively hoping that some anomaly would suddenly become apparent, but with no actual expectation of that happening. It never would; she was too precisely normal on the surface, too average at the first glance. It had taken even Luxen time to realize how remarkably different she was from anyone else he had ever encountered. What that difference was, what had caused it, and how to fix it: was a trying problem, but one he still hoped to find a way to resolve.
He sat perfectly still in the dimly lit office. Only his pupils moving back and forth as he sifted through her file. In the background he could hear his old timepiece still ticking. It was showing the correct time at the moment, but Luxen knew this wouldn’t last. He had tried to fix it before, slowly removing every individual piece of the mechanism to find which was not running smoothly, trying to determine which piece was letting the clock slip behind. The pieces were foreign to him, the mechanics were old, there were no electronics what so ever, it was unlike anything he had seen before. But, fixing things was what he did. He had spent his life assuring that people were working the way they were supposed to be. Assuring that they were ticking in the right time, moving at the right speed, assuring that they stayed within the confines of the clock face, moving in the direction they were intended to.
He did not find the problem with the clock though, its reason for running just fractionally too slow was indeterminable. Every piece seemed to be working perfectly, every gear turned smoothly, the weight was precisely accurate, the screws were tight, the wheels greased and unhindered. There was no problem to be found, yet the clock was still imperfect.
Luxen realized then that he had been absorbed in thoughts of the clock, he had stopped looking at Alexria’s file, it was no longer scrolling back and forth on the screen. Just her intelligence and performance scores were open before him, perfectly contradicting each other. 97th percentile in overall intelligence, but every performance review had passed her by only a fraction. Every part of her seemed to be running perfectly, yet she was not ticking the way she was supposed to.
Luxen glanced to the time stamp on the wall, 12 minutes. 12 minutes late. Another focuser would probably drop any pupil this consistently inconsistent. However, too many had dropped her before him. Too many had pushed this girl on. Of course, this was why probably part of why he was asked to take her on at all. That was who Luxen was: even the most difficult could be mapped, could be adjusted, could be made to tick precisely the way they were supposed to once they were in his grasp. But, despite this, even he had not yet found her track.
The door opened then without any warning, the lights instantly brightened to full illumination. Almost harsh clarity filled the room as it reached full light while she walked in. His eyes moved quickly as he watched her walk in; absorbing every detail, absorbing every movement as she stepped. He could feel her eyes searching for his, as they always did, but he did not meet them. Instead he simply observed, searching for something of difference, searching for an inconsistency. Luxen often set the lights to come on when those he was focusing first entered the room. The sudden brightness seemed make everything clearer for a moment, each detail sharper. Hoping to reveal what could perhaps have been disguisable to eyes grown comfortable to the excessive detail of a fully lit room. He counted her steps as she walked, observed the tight hemming of her clean white trousers at the ankle, and traced them up as they loosened slightly around her body. Student clothing, simple whites, and designed for comfort with no place to conceal even the smallest item. Alexria was short yet slim, the student whites held tight across her hips and tapered in along a flat stomach before reaching the full yet subtle curve of her chest. The whites were loose enough to avoid being provocative, yet tight enough to make all movements and actions clear and unrestricted. Her attire helped him observe, it allowed him to notice each muscle as she slid the chair back from the desk and lowered herself casually. Such comfort, such confidence, it was aggravating to him. Luxen had spent many decades focusing, he had seen people of every type. Since AC focusing, he had been assigned to people of even greater ranking in The Shade than himself. But, no matter how old they may be, no matter how high in the Shade’s hierarchy they may be placed there was always fear in them when they sat before a focuser. Adults with twice Luxen’s age and exceptionally higher Shade standing would struggle to walk up to his desk and sit with the lack of concern she portrayed. Anyone would struggle to appear nearly as relaxed, to breath as evenly, to smile as innocently as Alexria Younge did every time she stepped into his office. Alexria acted as if she was sitting in a chair she had long known before an old friend, not sitting to be analyzed by a man who could change her entire life in any way he deemed fit.
Finally Luxen let his eyes reach her face. Her features were well proportioned, a small nose with full lips, soft cheeks and a gentle jaw line leading to a slender neck. Perfectly white and even teeth were exposed as her smile created the slightest dimples in her cheeks. Perfectly even eye brows of a deep brown matched long hair that was loosely braided hanging over her shoulder. He carefully analyzed each inch of her face before meeting her eyes. Long thick eye lashes fluttered bashfully over big and strikingly green eyes. Eyes that were busy with observing all of their own, eyes that followed Luxen’s the entire time he spent taking in every detail of her. It burned him to know that she probably learned more about him by merely following his eyes, than he could from following her every moment.
Finally, he matched the smug smile she wore, “Alexria, good afternoon.”
“Doctor Ricci.” She greeted him as she crossed her legs.
“How has your day been?” He asked passively. He stopped concerning himself with her motions; he knew that no hidden gesture would be found now. She was always too composed in conversation, her mask fit too well to be seen behind.
“It’s been.” She replied in exhale.
“Nothing exciting to share?”
“Nothing you don’t already know. 4’s and 5’s in chemical mathematics. I know I need to focus more.” She looked away from him now. Her eyes searched back and forth over the room, observing each detail.
“I know what your scores are, Allie.” Lux touched his fingertips against the corner of her open file and slid his hand across the desk, turning the screen back to its dark brown, as if to hide the fact that a screen was there at all. He lay one elbow on the desk and rested his cheek against his index and middle finger. “Knowing your scores doesn’t help me, though. I am much more concerned with why you have them. Again, might I add”
“You turned off your window,” she observed, looking with surprise at the black rectangle of his wall where a depiction of outside usually sits. “We aren’t allowed to turn them off at home. Why isn’t yours on?”
“Some simple privileges of my work I suppose. I can make the environment as appropriate as I see fit.” Lux replied causally.
“I know you can, Dr. Ric. But, why did you?” Allie uncrossed her legs and then crossed them again to the other side as she leaned back slightly in the chair. She sat almost as if it was her gauging him, not at all the opposite.
Lux looked to the black rectangle himself, staring absently at it. “The stillness of it all bothers me sometimes. It’s too fake, I prefer to see the outside world while I’m in it.” Lux replied with honesty. His reasons for turning it off had been split though. He also knew Allie’s quick distraction with windows.
His response still made her smile though, despite the half-truth. Not smugly, as she usually smiled, but quite genuine. She seemed to appreciate the answer.
“I think I agree you know.” She said thoughtfully.
Lux perked instantly at her words. Personal depictions were a rare thing from Allie, let alone a unique, and maybe even honest one.
“There’s something about windows: knowing that they aren’t actually showing what is beyond that wall, but are there for a purpose. Something about that, it bothers me.” Allie replied slowly, seeming to consider each word.
“For a girl who has a higher concentration score with the images in those windows than anything else in her life; that seems to be an odd statement.”
Her smile held strong at his joke. “Yes,” she said “I do tend to get caught up in the windows. But it’s not for what they show. It’s for what they are trying to show.” She looked down quickly and then met his eyes again. “It’s just that rooms seem too small without them…”
“I can turn it back on if you like…”
“No, don’t.” she interrupted before he managed to finish. “I like having it off, it’s kind of… relaxing.”
“Why else don’t you like the windows Allie?” he asked with genuine curiosity, trying to urge the girl to speak more.
“No other reason. They just aren’t real.” Her reply was distant, it was clear that her mind was somewhere else.
“Well they’re as real as any screen, aren’t they?”
“And who’s to say that any screen is real…”
Luxen nodded, understanding her thought process and then proceeded slowly “Why else Allie, what is it about that false aspect of the window that bothers you?”
She smiled and leaned forward now as she spoke, meeting his eyes again, casually, almost lazily, as she looked at him. He could see though, something indistinguishably real about her words. “The windows” she began slowly “are the only escape from most rooms. Yet the image they show is only ever what someone wants me to see. The windows are a false comfort, they’re not actually an escape at all, just another way to keep us from escaping.”
Luxen met her gaze and tried to control any emotion from arising on his face. She was gauging him, she was measuring him more than he had even realized. Was that an honest comment from her, or was she toying with him? Suddenly the look on her face seemed as if it may be less genuine and more baited, as if she were trying to make him bite by saying something that was flirting so closely with being dangerous. Was she trying to create a reaction, was she testing him? Lux watched as her usual smile began and grew at the corner of her mouth, consuming the genuine image that had been there. That smug smile had returned, ever present just beneath the surface, it was a part of her that seemed to run even deeper than just the mask which she did not remove. He held her gaze though. Whatever she was doing, whatever game she may or may not be playing, he knew he could not back down from that stare. If he did, he would never hear another genuine word from Alexria Younge. Whether the statement had just been made to evoke a response in him or if it was actually an exposure of her thoughts remained indifferent, it was still more than he had contracted from her to this day.
Lux considered for a moment, and then stepped forward down the path she had created. The path she had surely hoped would set his footing uneven. “Why Allie, would anyone intend for you to see a pedestrian street?” he referenced the formulate window image that she had been distracted by during chemical mathematics today, but most formulate images were of something similar to such a street.
Allie hesitated now. She broke the stare and let her eyes wander, tracing their way slowly across the room and back to the black rectangle.
“For the same reason that you want me to see nothing at all, maybe”
“And what’s that reason?”
“It’s your window. How should I know?” she snapped, suddenly staring at him again.
They sat with eyes locked on one and other harshly. Fire behind both eyes, hers of rebellion, his of intrigue, both of words they want the other to say.
“I told you why the window is off. The stillness bothers me.” Lux replied with patience
“I believe that’s part of the reason…but, what about the rest Dr. Ricci?” Alexria tilted her head slightly as she asked the question
“The rest?” Luxen was becoming increasingly less comfortable with the conversation.
“When trying to evoke focus in a girl easily distracted, removing a distraction is obviously important, isn’t it?” He replied with diplomacy.
“Obviously,” she rolled her eyes and a more bemused smile spread across her lips before adding slyly, “I think, trying to keep us from being distracted, is the reason that the windows are there at all.”
Luxen watched her for a long time. He observed her as she looked back at him. She appeared so ordinary, average. She blended in perfectly to every other student, but there was so much more behind those eyes than he could possibly render. Finally, he stood up. He walked to the wall at the far end of the room, directly opposite his desk, where the teaching screen was placed. He turned it on and the various images of the lesson plan appeared.
“Chemical Mathematics. We had to rerun the lesson eventually. Glasses out.” Lux watched as she reached to her side pouch for her glasses. He had to bring the conversation to an end, Allie had been clearly trying to say something, but until Lux understood it, he did not want to continue talking along a path she had created, let alone a path which held the potential to be as dangerous as that one did.
Lux organized the lesson plan upon the screen as Alexria adjusted her glasses. As he glanced through the lesson’s timeline he could not help but feel annoyed. It felt almost degrading to him, to be teaching a youth. Luxen was a well-established Focuser, to be doing this was below almost anyone in his profession, let alone for an AC. Focusers were members of the Shade assigned to people in countless levels of society. A Focuser is designed to keep people on track, to assure they are appropriately functioning in society, not to rerun Chemical Mathematics for students.
Most Focusers work daily routines, doing spot checks on the perfectly normal, or weekly meetings with those whom are in high-risk for becoming troubled. Some people, however, need more than this. When someone’s life has slipped away from what it was intended to be: when their ice or ale consumption has grown too high, when their Lief usage has fluctuated suggesting involvement in the Murk trade, or even when someone is flagged as a potential danger to the society Focusers such as Luxen are assigned. A Focuser is feared within The City, people are cautious around them, careful to act on their best possible behaviour. A meeting with an AC focuser, sends chills down a grown man’s spine. If anyone is assigned to meet with an Anti-Chaos Focuser, then they know that their entire life is about to be monitored, that their every action will be analyzed, and that they run the risk of having their entire lives drastically changed. And yet Luxen was tutoring Chemistry.
Lief is the most commonly used control method of the Shade, those who are not properly performing their societal roles will have their weekly Lief supply lowered. This is usually more than enough to smooth the wrinkles that may have been forming in their lives. AC Focusers oversaw this, assuring that they did indeed improve. In rare cases, if people proved to be less compliant, greater measures are taken. But, it rarely steps beyond that point, Lief supply alteration is usually more than enough to bring any member of Society into line. Lux had been Focusing for almost 2 ages now, and had been an AC for more than one of those. He has developed methods and talents that have advanced him quickly through the Shade and at a young age. Few AC focusers were as young as Luxen, he had not yet seen three ages, and yet had already been assigned to cases of greater importance than most people even knew existed. Luxen’s reputation preceded him throughout his entire division of the Shade, he was rarely assigned anything but the most difficult of cases: Shadow members who had been corrupted by work, Lief workers who had been caught manipulating or stealing their supplies. Essential members of society with drastic issues, people that only the best could make tick. Yet, here he stood, helping a school-girl who struggled to focus…
Luxen understood that the girl’s father was of some importance within the Shade, a Lief chemist of some high regard and Luxen also understood that this girl had a very unique record, but still, to be working the position of a school focuser re-running lessons, was not something he had any desire to be doing. School focusers do checkups and tutoring, they adjust student’s glasses and learning methods. They do not limit Lief supplies, they do not even get to converse with any Shade level above C2. Luxen was an expert placed in a beginner’s job. Despite the assurances his assigner had given him, that the girl was unique, that she was particularly broken, he still could not bring himself to feel satisfied with the assignment. His annoyance with being assigned to the position had come to make him quite bitter over the peculiarities of this case. His other current clients, were vastly more appropriate to his ranking than this girl was, yet, he still had not resolved her. The only thing that kept him here at all was simply that she could not be figured out, Luxen tried to reassure himself, but he doubted even his own thought. Could he ask to be removed from this case, did he have any choice in this assignment?
Many cannot be fixed, Luxen had encountered them before. This does not mean that the focuser has failed, it only states that they are not a member of society with problems but instead they are a problem for society. In which case the problem is still resolved, but the solution is…harsher. Luxen had no intention of declaring that situation with Alexria, it was virtually unheard of for a school aged civilian to be deemed a problem to society, but he had come no closer to resolving her case. He could not declare the issue unfixable because he could not even find the issue. And so Luxen stood, without verbal complaint, teaching chemical mathematics to someone with only 19 first days, more or less because he was too stubborn to admit defeat.
Allie had adjusted the magnetic tails of the glasses behind her ears and she now watched with patient indifference as he droned through the lesson she had not paid attention to during class. Sliding objects and concepts back and forth across the screen he paused occasionally to ask questions which she always answered quickly. The girl was smart, there was no doubt in that, she just chose not to utilize her intelligence. The time passed slowly as the lesson progressed, neither student nor teacher had a desire to be there, yet they complied with what they were supposed to do and continued through the session. 50 minutes after Alexria had first arrived in the office the visitation bell went off. Somebody was waiting outside of Luxen’s office to see him. He was slightly annoyed that he had not been pinned before this person had physically arrived, that was unorthodox. With only a small portion of the lesson remaining, Luxen chose to ignore the visitor. This was one of his privileges as a Focuser, normally not acknowledging a visitor is considered unconventional, but for a Focuser it is important to not break the concentration during a session.
Then, the visitation tone sounded again.
Luxen was immediately very surprised, ringing twice was not something that people often did, but moreover, all of Luxen’s doors were set to not tone more than once for a single individual, no matter how times they may attempt to activate it. He was eyeing the doorway with curiosity now, when above the entrance itself the identification tags lit up; three bright red lights. Whoever was outside Luxen’s office was acting under C3 leveled orders. Whoever it may be, that ID tag guaranteed that it was not a casual visit. It was not even a visitation that Luxen could choose to ignore. He reached up behind him without looking away from the doorway, with a quick couple of motions he had paused the screen, stopping the streaming of the lesson. He looked away from the doorway and to Alexria, offering an apologetic smile. Alexria glanced at him but then back at the door, already having removed her glasses, probably relishing in the sudden distraction. She watched the door with a curious fascination.
Lux moved swiftly away from the lesson and to the doorway, a certain uneasiness had found its way over him, but he knew that there was most likely no reason to feel that way. Luxen stood very still as he tapped the pad next to the doorway, letting it unlock and slide open.
Outside of Luxen’s office stood three Shadow officers. Luxen, could feel his eyes widen slightly as he looked at the three deep black jackets. He concentrated then on controlling his reaction, looking instead at the details: one of the Shadow officers wore a white trimmed jacket; the others were trimmed in deep green, varying rank, he could not remember the standing of a Green trim. Three males, all eyed him carefully, one looked over Luxen’s shoulder, eyeing the office.
Luxen struggled to fight off the affect the Shadows were having on him, but he could still feel the cool shiver run across the back of his neck. “At your service.” Luxen said with appropriate compliance. He had worked with many Shadow officers, interacted with them relatively frequently compared to an average civilian. But a Shadow is a Shadow, and no man stands before them in complete comfort.
“Luxen Ricci?” One of the Shadows asked.
“As spoken.” Lux replied, but he knew without doubt that these men did not need confirmation. They wore their certainty of his identity on their faces. Luxen stepped to the side, motioning the three Shadows inside.
They stepped into the office in single file, all three looked throughout the room as they walked, it was clear to Luxen that they were carefully observing this entire meeting. They all stood at relatively casual positions just in front of his desk. Allie had swivelled her chair around now and was watching the Shadows. One of the green-trimed looked at her and nodded, “Ms. Younge,” he said in acknowledgment.
The men had obviously been prepared for the fact that that Luxen was in session, they had probably pulled Allie’s file before even walking into the room. But they had not hesitated over interrupting a focusing session?
“Mr. Ricci,” the other green-trimmed Shadow spoke now, “I’m sorry for your loss.” As soon as the words were spoken the white trimmed Shadow had pulled a black, grooved envelope out from the inside of his jacket and laid it gently, face down, on the desk, sliding it towards Luxen.
The envelope was unmistakeable, and Luxen had no doubt over whose name it contained.
“Your father’s days have ended this afternoon. We understand that you have not been in contact for some years, but, as the only living relative the Shade thought it was still best to notify you.” One of the Shadows spoke, Luxen did not glance up to see which one.
He was silent for a moment, staring with his mouth clamped tightly shut at the black envelope on the desk. “I understand”, he finally managed to say.
“You may also like to know that your father has left you almost his entirety, in his will.”
Luxen looked up now, composure worn well on his face, “I wasn’t aware that my father had anything of value of which to leave me?”
“In this line of work Mr. Ricci, we find that value is quite relative. Although the credit amount does not total much, there are some unique items which may hold emotional value to you and we assumed you would like to collect them…personally.”
Lux looked back and forth between the officers, the Shade was not well known for its concern with emotional value. He nodded polite acknowledgement all the same.
“The address of his last residence is within the envelope, we hope to see you there at your earliest possible convenience.”
‘See you there’. Three Shadows of varying rank are not assigned to give a simple notification of death, and Shadow officers certainly do not wait at the deceased residents for family to arrive?
“Sorry for your loss, sir” the white trimmed Shadow added. The three men turned on queue and walked back out of the office in single file. Each one maintained an air of practised polite apology about them.
Lux tore his eyes away from the envelope and looked at Allie, probably with more emotion on his face than he desired her to see. She was looking quite attentively back at him, a simple and sad frown lay on her lips. It was oddly clear to him that she was portraying a certain sympathy for him.
For some reason, Luxen found himself taking comfort in her eyes, comfort in that gaze which was usually so judging, but now had turned to some kind of subtle condolence.
It was then, while he was staring at her, that he noticed the silence in the room. Luxen looked up to find that his old clock, had stopped ticking.
Darkness offers no comfort. The night does not sing songs. The emptiness is so vast it threatens to let all you know forget you, but it does not offer to let you forget all that you know. There was only darkness before him, only a great unyielding night. A night that has no end, has no sound, has no song. The dark holds nothing that light should not yield, but the dark itself is something to behold. Light cannot be cast upon shadows, just as every flame offers no shade. The darkness is either consuming, or fought. You cannot live in harmony with the black, just as you cannot live in harmony with water. You can immerse in it, you can let it flow over your body and cloud your eyes. But as it fills your lungs, you either let it consume you, or fight for air. As the darkness poured over his body, he did not fight for light. Tybalt did not fight for life. Can the night itself drown you? Can the lack of anything, and the presence of only unknown, be enough to let you, yourself, become a lost existence? The space between life and death is so slight in the darkness, so miniscule that the bravest men feel the fingertips of the ones they loved. The only separation lies somewhere between one’s own thoughts and one’s own heartbeat. All that fills the night are his own thoughts, his own heartbeat. Emptiness feels like the heaviest weight, and the lack of anything seems like it is trying to constrain his own efforts to breathe.
The beam he clung to had a chill deep within the metal, had a chill that begged the body to let go. Yet, letting go, offered only further emptiness. Offered only a step closer to everything he did not know. Tybalt rose slowly, shifting his weight to his arms he placed both feet against the cool hard metal in a crouch. He let go of the false safety he felt by holding the beams edge and slowly, he stood. He stood in a stillness that should not exist, a lack of movement that was terrifying. And in that stillness he stepped forward. He put one foot afore the next, sliding the inside of his sole against the unyielding edge. The next foot moved, as if in reaction to the first. One foot, after the next, he slipped slowly deeper into a night he did not know could have more depth.
The hollow cries of those he once knew were the only sounds that surrounded him, hollow cries that existed only within his own mind, backed only by the steady beating of a heart, which proved he himself was still alive. Days come to an end, for each and all: whether it be by the night itself, or whether night is just what follows, all ends in blackness, all ends in an empty night.
He did not gain confidence as his feet continued to pace forward. He was not assured by the continuance of the metal his feet were planted on. He moved only because he had to. He kept moving only because it was required, because if he returned without having walked through the black, then the blackness of the end would be all that awaits him. Like an echo spoken years ago, the great crushing sound of steel still rang hollow in the back of his mind: the pained screams of Anjuls falling to their death, the screech of one steel beam as it carved its way down through the next. The hollow booming sound of a force unstoppable, a force unknowable, a force that no-one had anticipated.
On he walked, continuing into the night before him. Each step offered the coldest of comforts in the possibility that from it he could fall into the darkness and the sounds of those fresh memories would stop. If he spent this night in a well lit room, then he was certain that every time his eyes closed it would only be the same scene. But instead, he stood in darkness, a darkness so powerful that he could not tell if his eyes were open or closed. And so with each step, he relived the daylight hours. With each step he was watching the entire sky collapse, and beam upon beam which had once held up a piece of heaven, fell upon itself. Gravity, with no mercy on man or metal, pulled everything down to a distant grave on the earth. All disappeared into a smoke so thick, it made even this darkness seem like an evening as it first dimmed.
Go he had said. March in great numbers he had said, to the far end of the 11th sky, and there you are needed. God’s own words had guided them. God’s own words were all they had ever followed, and this day, they had followed them to their death.
His feet, somehow without prompting from his mind, took him forward. They took him forward into a depth he did not wish for, did not ask for, and yet, needed to enter. Like a lamb born to be slaughtered, walking only through the gates it was offered, the only gates it knew, and the gates that would lead it to its end. A lamb conceived and born into this world for a sole purpose which was its own demise. He was an Anjul and Anjuls walk through heaven, no matter how dark heaven may be. He was an Anjul, a Shepherd of the Lights, and nothing would keep an Anjul from their purpose, no matter even if the numbers of those Lights meant an inescapable death.
Through each individual toe Tybalt felt the biting cold of the metal, but beyond that, he felt the sturdy strength. A strength that once would have comforted him, assured him that the paths God lay cannot be broken. But now, they only reminded him of the way that metal felt the day Heaven’s pathways collapsed upon themselves. God had not lied, they would be needed there. But their need only came after half of them had fallen out of the sky. Each toe reminded him of how strong the beam he had walked on seemed to feel. It was only a reminder of how safe he had been, as he watched fire undo sky, and steel undo steel. Taking with it a hundred, no, a thousand foot holds, which he himself could have been using, which so many had had been using, which just as easily as it did them, could have left him falling downwards into the emptiness beneath the day. The emptiness which was now all that those Anjuls, people he loved, would ever know.
He found his body slowing its forward progress on the beam and his mind sluggishly registered why. There was no steel directly before him; there was only more emptiness. In understanding, he hammered his feet hard against the steel, creating as much thrust as he could and then jumped, up and outwards into the air. Just as his forward movement slowed and his drop began his hands reached out to grasp the vertical steel beam he knew would be there. He did not grip tightly as his feet came to be placed flat against the almost smooth steel, instead he let himself slip. In a controlled slide he followed the beam as it cast downwards, 10, 20, 30 meters, to another pathway which he knew would eventually form. The bare skin of his hands burned with all too much familiarity as he used the steel to slow his fall.
Well trained knees bent easily as the balls of his feet made contact, absorbing the impact of his fall. Without hesitating he turned and began running along heaven’s pathway once again. It was not a choice, it was his nature, it was something that had been conditioned into him from his first days. He followed this new beam onwards, ever further into the night.
The familiarity of cold steel within darkness began to slowly rise up through his senses as he moved forward. His mind began to silence. The sound of screeching metal and crying Anjuls, two sounds blended to one and the same, began to be pressed out of the darkness and emptiness returned as his mind silenced. Even that sound, that most painful memory, as fresh as it was, found a place to hide as he devoted himself to the task at hand.
His pace began to quicken. He was no longer carefully placing each foot before the next in an extreme painful labour. Now his knees bent and each foot lifted as he ran into the night along the narrow edge. Ever faster he ran, leaving the images of people he knew behind him in the dark, as his body became an extension of the pathways themselves, jumping, rolling and vaulting over each obstacle. He increased pace to reckless speed, careering through the darkness, knowing that what waited for him could not possibly be more terrifying than the memories he was trying to leave behind.
At a signal unrecognizable to anyone other than an Anjul, he suddenly jumped forward into a handspring along the narrow beam. Launching himself feet first off of the pathway and up and out into the unyielding blackness. Before forward momentum was even lost, Tybalt reached out before himself and his hands grasped, at perfect distance, a whole new vertical beam, impossible to be found with one’s eyes, yet somehow exactly where he knew it would be. The momentum of his run was still with him as he now gripped the beam. Again he did not pause before continuing, Anjuls learn quickly not to hesitate, he began climbing upwards. The ascent was made easy from years practise, and now with muscles fueled by supressed emotions he moved upwards without even noticing the strain in his arms and shoulders or the beating of his heart. He climbed at an exerting pace, until finally stopping and swinging his body around the beam to the opposite side, his feet coming to rest perfectly on an adjoining horizontal beam. Now, a hundred meters above the last pathway he had vaulted from, he began running again, sprinting down the new path.
He knew nothing but his senses, his mind was empty but for the tracking and controlling of his movements. Subconsciously he counted his every pace. His foot slid along the beam’s edge at intervals to feel the ridges engraved into its surface. Their spacing, their thickness, their frequency somehow told him everything he needed to know: the distance until the beam ended, when he would encounter the adjoining ones. He acted without deliberation; he was running on nothing but an acquired instinct, his muscles already knowing everything they must do. He focused only on heightening his every sense as they strained to pick up the signals he needed to control each movement. To guide his body through the sucking darkness but still move with unyielding speed. Jumping suddenly he anticipated the disappearance of the path he was running, he jumped out to his left, and landed safely on a beam as it ran parallel to him. The action hardly broke his pace as he dashed on through the night.
The instincts of an Anjul had completely taken over; he had at last quieted his own mind, and become focused on only his destination, on his immediate purpose. It was nearing now, he knew he was getting close, and in turn the inevitable happened: he heard the humming begin.
It was a distant sound, so quiet at first that it could hardly be noticed. But at that instance, every thought and emotion he was supressing came rushing back over him. During the explosion, it had been the screeching, the metal upon metal; the song of heaven collapsing upon itself to the rhythm of Anjuls crying as they were knocked from their perches among the beams. Anjuls crying as they fell through an unforgiving sky, to disappear in the heavy smoke as it began to fill the air. After that though, after the sudden blast and the terrible noises amongst it, in that awe struck silence that seems to follow any great noise that was when the humming had begun.
It began as any epic symphony does, with the gentlest instruments playing first. The almost unnoticeable sound of the smallest wood winds, and then it began to grow, the strings slowly started, as a tempo begins to take form. The falling of the sky had taken the lives of many Anjuls, but it had also done something much worse.
The Lights had been set free.
There is always a hum during the day. It is the natural sound of Lights when they are aglow, when they are feeding. But it is controlled, it is subtle. The sound that came after the 11th sky had fallen started as that same hum, but quickly, whether it was because their mass or their individual intensity was increasing was impossible to tell, but the hum quickly began to take the form of a roar.
The symphony of the Lights was always fluctuating, as if trying to reach a climax that was forever, just out of reach. The sound grew louder and then dropped away, always getting stronger and then dropping back to nothing more than the wood winds in constant play. The roar it reached always made the lull seem quiet, even though each one was louder than the last. Even the quietest instruments had grown resounding as their playing was joined by hundreds more, the second lines, and then the thirds. The quiet hum which had begun as a single distant flute was now dozens upon dozens, all before the brass had even begun. This is how the Light’s worked. One encouraged the next, their own sounds acted as their incentive. The hum had become a war all within itself by that point, note chasing note, each new line fighting to be heard. In came the brass and bass drums with strength so grand that it seemed to be felt reverberating up through the steel beams themselves. Hum matched hum, Light matched Light their roar raised upwards towards a ceiling that seemed to not exist.
Every Anjul, no matter how shocked they were by the sudden explosion, by the sudden falling of the sky, was present enough to have started running by then. The blast had damaged the Light’s confinement. The great composite pillars they were kept in had broken away, and set free clouds upon clouds of these, both the bane and purpose of every Anjuls existence. And so the Anjuls ran. The Lights would soon need to be shepherded, they would need to be controlled, but at that moment, they simply needed to be outrun.
Every Anjul that had not fallen within the blast was now trying to outrun Helios himself. Sprinting at speeds many had never dared try for before because now their lives were moments away from becoming nothing more than another note. All the Anjuls were already moving at their fastest possible pace when the last of the brass came in, the baritones and trombones came through with such strength it was deafening. Tybalt remembered the deafening sound reaching his ears, it seemed so close behind him that there was no doubt what had caused this new increase. That had been the sound of Anjuls meeting a fate much grimmer than just falling from the sky. The sound of Lights as they fed. It was the sound of the Lights catching up with the slowest of the group of running Anjuls, continually gaining on them, continually gaining on Tybalt himself. He knew he was slower than the others, he knew that he himself would soon be a note indistinguishable from each he now heard.
That was when, and he knew that was why, he had lost her.
At the symphonies finest upwards turn he could feel the vibrations starting to itch his skin. The tiniest biting, so small it can hardly be noticed, but together it became a shivering that raced across his body. It was then, when the symphony filling his ears grew even louder at the inclusion of his own presence, that she had changed course. She had not fallen behind to become sheet music already played, no, she was faster than that. She was fast enough to escape. Instead she had leapt from the pathway her and many other Anjuls were running, to one some 30 feet below. Landing in a roll and then running she left him, she left them all, sprinting perpendicular to the direction every other Anjul ran. She was no longer running away from the music, but instead running along its side.
There she ran, far enough ahead that he could see her, and far enough away that he could never reach her. As she ran away from the other Anjuls, she let herself quickly become the closest to the hoard of lights, attracting their attention by becoming their nearest meal as she ran in a different direction. Then, she began to whistle. That whistling sound, so high that few thought it could even be done. That whistle she had spent countless nights trying to teach him. The sound that every other Anjul needed a call to create, she generated through only her lips, pursued as if kissing goodbye to her final moments. With her sound, with that note that was filled with more sadness than any before it, the shivering began to leave his skin. While every other Anjul tried to escape the lights, she called them to herself, using the sound the microorganisms were conditioned to, she distracted them in mass.
The sound of her whistling began to be choked out as a base note came in. He watched her light up with a brilliance that must have left cracks in the pathway she stood. He watched her light up, calling away the music that had been so close to making him another sound. He slowed and came almost to a stop as he watched her form begin to give way. Nothing more now than the brightly glowing shape of an Anjul, she tumbled down upon herself in a pain that he could never imagine. Her whistling continued until there was no way left for her to make her own sound. And the lights turned her into music. He stood there, watching her turn to light, until there was little left of her to watch. He stood long enough that a new, gentle vibration began across his skin, and suddenly a rough hand grabbed his arm and pulled him forward, forcing him back into a run.
There in a symphony never before heard, by Anjul or simple man, he had watched the Lights take her. He had been forced to watch her give herself to a song that no one wanted to hear.
Now, alone in the darkness that quiet, distant humming was the most painful noise Tybalt could imagine. It was nothing more than whispers in an empty cathedral compared to the music which had overtaken her early in this day. Still, its familiarity chilled him to a depth he wish not visit. But, he was an Anjul, and although, he did not desire for it, he must continue. As the quiet humming started now, he reached to his chest where a slim silver whistle hung. Bringing it to his lips he exhaled into it that pattern any Anjul learns from birth. Although he himself could scarcely hear the whistle, the humming around him responded quickly and grew louder as it followed him running along his path. Continually he called them and continually he ran, until the humming was growing thick enough, that a gentle light was visible all around. The path was of utmost importance now, as he whistled he was calling in his own undoing and out running it was the only thing he needed concentrate on. The light grew ever brighter as he ran, a day forming amid the dark as the vast number of freed Lights just in his immediate vicinity became clear. Only a handful compared to the horde that had chased the Anjuls earlier, but still many more than should be gathered from any single shepherding run.
He chanced a look to his side, distantly through the darkness he could see another daylight forming, and then another further still. Other Anjuls doing precisely what he was, each would be whistling, each would be running for their life. Coming from different directions throughout the 11th sky, all of them sprinted in to one single point with death in the form of daylight close upon their heels. Forward they all sprinted, continually growing closer to one and other as their paths neared their axis. Each wove among the pathways now clearly lit in the growing flow of the Lights. It was just visible ahead now, the pillar 48:16. An Anjul stood at the base of the great composite column, crouched low anticipating the others arrival and the danger in their tow. The pillar had been reformed just within the last hour, it was ready, waiting to be sealed. The one Anjul stayed waiting for the other four to make their sprint in and fill the cylinder once more so that it could be closed.
The vast size of the pillar became more and more apparent as Tybalt ran closer, it was one of the main light confinements of the 11th sky, the last one to be repaired. Finally now, he was at the last intersection of beams. The pathways around all pillars form a square, with two feet of space gapping between steel beams and carbonate pillar. Tybalt glanced at the other runners to confirm their timing was the same. Reaching the final conjunction, he pulled the whistle from his mouth and leapt from his beam, to the opposite side of the pillar. Simultaneously, the three other Anjuls all jumped, in the air around the pillar they passed within mere inches of each other, landing on their opposite’s pathway and staying as low within the sky as possible.
There was a loud and sharp screeching sound as the Anjul waiting at the pillar now let the auto calls rip both upwards and downwards into the cylinder. With the individual Anjul’s whistling stopped, the sound of the auto calls suddenly attracted the vast number of Lights they had herded in. Four individual swarms became one mass of blinding lights, as they rushed, unknowingly back into their confinement.
All five Anjuls stood quickly now, they leaned in to the pillar from their individual paths and gripped the great sliding ring that would seal the last remaining opening of the pillar. 5 Anjuls, 10 hands, 60 fingers gripped the steel that overlapped the perfectly clear Polycarbonate, and began pressing the great ring upwards. When it reached almost the point of sealing the Anjuls all stopped. Few straggling Lights still were glowing dimly in the air around them. An Anjul reached for his silver clad call, and whistled it loud and hard. As the last of the Lights began to swarm around him, someone else lit up another small automated call and dropped it down through the crack remaining in the pillar. The Anjul stopped whistling, and in turn the small swarm rushed down into the cylinder after the call, and 58 fingers pushed the ring the last few inches sealing the pillar.
All of their hands were placed against the pillar, each one seemed to be looking without seeing as the Lights dimmed and darkness formed once again. Next to him, an Anjul moved their fingers to overlap his, and then each other Anjul followed in suit. All of them linking hands, still pressed against the great pillar, they prayed:
The Lord is my Shepherd;
as I Shepherd beneath him;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to move forward in Great Darkness;
He leadeth me to sing in Great Silence.
He restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me along his paths of righteousness,
For his name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,
With thy call,
With thy light,
With thy staff; thou comfort me.
Thou preparest a pillar before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou closeth this, his great day;
Surely goodness and mercy should follow me,
all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
All five Anguls leaned back from the pillar just visible to each other in the last of the Lights’ glow. Across the square Tybalt could see the wet cheeks of one of his fellow Anjuls. Tears shimmered gently in the dying light. Only then did he realize he could feel his own tears drip from the bottom of his cheeks.
The Anjul next to him gripped his hand tightly. “She is with the Lord now, son.”
Tybalt nodded a simple acknowledgement.
“Alcerli awaits. We should return now. Tonight’s work is done” Spoke the oldest man among the 5 Anjuls.
Tybalt nodded slowly without looking up.
“Wait,” one of the female Anjuls suddenly said. “There is something I want you all to see. Something below, it isn’t far.”
The Anjul who had gripped Tybalt’s hand, and the oldest Anjul, looked between each other and then nodded. “Quickly” the old Anjul said.
At full speed the 5 ran a path led by the young female Anjul. Together the Anjuls moved like a flock, feet thrum in unison against the steel as they sprint through the night. Very shortly, Tybalt realized that the darkness was dimming. The area ahead was lit up. The Anjuls all came to a stop just before stepping into the brightly lit section ahead of them. It was night, the Light’s should all be quiet, the signals which excite them were meant to be silenced, yet for an unknown reason they could clearly be heard here. God was keeping this section alight, while the rest of the sky was dark. Tybalt had seen it before, it is rare, but it happens. There is no explanation ever given, it is merely God’s will.
Clearly visible now, the Anjul that led them looked back, “Come down, what I want to show you lies beneath.”
She then jumped to the nearest vertical beam and her form was well lit as she slid downwards, not stopping until hundreds of meters below she reached the bottom of the sky. Each Anjul followed thereafter, jumping through the sky to the same vertical beam she had taken and then controlling their fall to the bottom of Heaven. At the bottom layer, the sky is a tight weaving of horizontal confinements all filled with the Lights. As the last Anjul arrived below the one leading them began picking her way across the confinements, always looking downwards.
“It’s here,” She finally said, stopping almost in the middle of the alight section, “help me move the Lights.” Another Anjul moved out to the rounded tube she stood upon. They left only a foot between one and other as they crouched down and pressed their hands tight to the polycarbonate. Sensing the Anjuls, sensing potential food, the Lights within the tube responded and began swarming to where each Anjul had place their palms. The Lights could hear the heartbeat of the Anjuls, the blood that rushed through their hands as they touched the walls of their confines. As the lights swarmed to either side, the foot of space left between the two Anjuls was thinned of Lights just enough that it was possible to look down to the world below.
Tybalt and the others moved forward, not getting too close as to avoid attracting the Lights back towards the small gap they had created and clouding their view once again. Far down beneath the sky, the shapes of humans could just be made out. There was a strange ring below them. It seemed to be quite high, but from directly above it was hard for the Anjuls to determine. The ring was a weave of bright light, red and yellow in colour. Within this ring was a concentration of humans all dressed in a deep black. In the very centre of the great ring and surrounded by countless black clad humans, the Anjuls could see a symbol, even from this height, roughly painted in a harsh red. It was a symbol, that they had all seen before many times, in many places, and drawn in many different ways. A circle with 8 uneven triangles pointing outwards all around it, this was the symbol of the Lights.