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Monday, July 31, 2017

003 The New Aleph - Chapter Two

Soma Dan finds out about less-than-conventional resources that may be able to help her find her family. Paul finds out what plans the gray-skinned man has for him.

NewAlephChapterTwo




CHAPTER TWO


Paul felt horribly sleepy, but was forced awake by one strong, singular sensation: pain.

He had to wake up because of sharp, stabbing pain in his wrists. There was a smaller pain in his neck muscles as he lifted up his head to look at his wrists. He found them clasped in shackles.

He frowned and mouthed the word “shackles,” then realized he could feel the ground with his toes. He looked down and pressed down with just the balls of his feet and a euphoric relief rushed down from his wrists and all over his body. As Paul started to piece together what was going on, he realized that eventually his calves would start burning. Soon he’d have a choice. It would be the burning of his calves or the stabbing, tearing pain in his wrists.

“I used to try inflicting the torture myself. I didn’t like it. Messy, disturbing. This is easier.”

Paul lifted up his eyes again to find the hooded man with the gray face standing nearby. They were in a basement, on in the process of being finished, with framing set up against concrete walls on one side and stacks of drywall leaning against the other. There were a few work lights dangling from the exposed ceiling framing.

Paul didn’t remember coming in here very well. He remembered struggling and being hit in the head and then being moved, then just fragments of details. Just a mess.

Paul remembered hearing once that the way to keep a mugger from killing you was to talk to them, remind them that you were a person. He wasn’t sure if it would work with a kidnapper with gray lizard skin, but it was worth a shot. He said the first thing that came to his mind: “I don’t want to be here.”

“I had a feeling you wouldn’t open with begging for your life.” The man stepped in closer. Paul could see the texture of his face better now. It looked more like it was made from roughly cut stone, not from a reptile. And it really was gray. Dark gray. And the irises of his eyes looked like light blue stone. Sapphires. As he took in the sight, everything else going on disappeared. It was amazing and beautiful. If only the guy wasn’t torturing him.

He said the second thing that came to his mind: “Are you human?”

“I’m a bonded human. You’ve heard of preyvedes, then, obviously.”

“Pray-veeds?” Paul’s calves were starting to burn a little, but it wasn’t too bad yet.

The man leaned in further to put his mouth by Paul’s ear. “Comes from some old Slavic word. The preyvedes, that prey upon your needs. Heh. Sometimes they’re called spirits.”

Paul frowned. “Spirits. Like ghosts?”

“See, that’s the problem with this place!” the man walked away from him. “Everyone’s forgotten how the world is put together. People don’t want to know about the things that might be outside their precious, little cities. They’ve all forgotten. Well, at least in the big cities.”

“Hey, uh.” Paul cleared his throat. Now his calves were starting to hurt. He shifted all his weight from one foot to the other to let one calf rest. It worked. He figured he’d switch the other way in a moment. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The man came in very close, his nose almost brushing Paul’s cheek. “I heard you. I hear you. I know you’re hoping I’ll be nicer because you’re talking to me. That doesn’t work with me, unfortunately. There’s nothing you can do, extra, to remind me you’re human. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here for me—” he pointed to himself, “—to educate—” he pointed at Paul, “—you.”

“About what?”

“About the injustice of the Alephs. You’ve already started down the road. I’m here to get your feet moving more quickly. Soon, if we’re lucky, we’ll arrive at our destination together.”

He then kicked Paul’s feet out from under him and all of his weight fell down onto the fresh, momentarily-relieved wounds on Paul’s wrists. Paul screamed and sucked in air and felt his fists clenching and every muscle in his body contracting and cramping. His head throbbed from the pain and his toes scrambled to find the ground again.

He lifted himself back up, his calves were still burning, but some of the discomfort was gone because of the short rest they’d been given. And his entire body shook as the pain in his wrists faded again. “Please don’t do that.”

The man smiled and walked away. “You used to believe that the Alephs were good, but now you’re wondering if they’re all monsters. If they—”

“What are you talking about?” Paul had to take a few breaths after yelling out the question. “I don’t believe in the Alephs.”

“Seven?” the man’s shoulders fell as he turned around to frown at Paul. “You believe in Seven? I would have sworn you were thinking about the Alephs. Or at least the TAW.”

Paul frowned back in confusion. “How would you know what I’m thinking?”

The man ran his fingers across his stony cheek and smiled. “My strange complexion isn’t just for looks. It’s part of a package deal. You were walking along...not thinking about the gods of this world, apparently, but thinking about Seven, and believing that…”

The man smiled and held out his arms at his sides. “Yes, of course. How very old fashioned. Not the new gods, but the old ones. One of the big old ones. Not Allah or Jehovah or Rah, but…good old Seven. Oh! Yes, yes, you do believe that, don’t you. Yes, that Seven is the son of Jehovah…oh, excuse me, ‘The Name.’ The All-Sustaining-One. Forgive my disrespect. Three in one, yet no special name for the third part. And now…you’re worrying that he may actually be cruel. That he may plan destruction for some people. A few special people that he selects to destroy over and over again, for all eternity. I know. I heard that last part from you and couldn’t resist. Though I did, at the time, think you were talking about the Alephs. My mistake. But I knew I needed to talk with you. To tell you some things.”

The man picked up a two-by-four. He approached Paul with it, and Paul felt himself breathing faster. His heart was beating hard against his rib cage.

The man smiled, as if he could feel these things as well and was excited by them, and lifted up the board. He then stopped a pace from Paul and held eye contact with him. “I need to let you know that you’re right, and that you are, in fact, one of the chosen ones he’s set aside to destroy.”

The man swung with a yell and hit Paul’s left leg. Paul screamed, even though he didn’t feel the pain from his leg right away. He first felt the pain from half-falling into the wrist shackles again. Then there was an ache throbbing in his left leg. And when he tried to put weight on that leg, the aching grew to a sharpness that exponentially increased until he discovered an undeniable fact that he could not put any real weight on it.

So, all rest and relief came from his right leg. Suddenly, he realized that he should probably be praying right now. The thought was lethargic and unclear at first, but as the reality of the situation became clearer and clearer, the need to pray became desperate and intense.

The man threw the two-by-four clanking against the concrete floor and then he headed for the stairway. “Well, looks like you’ve got me interested enough to go back to some old techniques. Don’t worry. By the time we’re done you’ll be convinced I’m right.”



***



Soma sat in the chair Melody had been in about twenty-four hours ago. She was hunched over, looking down at the orange crayon as she turned it over in her hand. She was running scenarios through her mind, but none of them were any different from the hundreds she’d already analyzed and thrown out during the last twenty-four hours.

She was a homicide detective. A good detective. But it was nearly impossible to put theories together when there was no evidence to draw on. Soma had borrowed some CSI equipment from the station and spent six hours today going all over her house, looking for anything suspicious. Precision, multi-band scanners. Micro-trace aerosol analyzers. A new cell tissue collector that could find a single, tiny flake of skin in a room and compare it to a list of entered genetic codes.

Nothing. No one except her family had been in the house in the last seventy-two hours. There was no sign of struggle. No sign of anything.

She’d sent emergency messages to all of her family and friends, everyone she knew. She’d sent emergency messages to all of Alec’s family and friends. She’d sent messages to every parent of every child that might have had any interaction with either of her kids at school.

She’d spoken with nearly every grocer who worked at the market they visited twice a week. She’d spoken with the gardening company that trimmed the bushes around the houses around her block. She’d spoken with the managers of the transit system, asking them for copies of all security footage from every shuttle that had come within a kilometer of her house.

That last conversation hadn’t ended well. They told her she was talking about hours of footage from hundreds of shuttles, and Soma had made some threats, then she’d apologized. She’d left the offices with nothing, because she’d made an ass of herself and didn’t feel like she deserved to be helped.

That was the last thing she’d done today, just an hour ago. The trike she’d rented to be able to run around town quickly to do all this was sitting on her lawn, running down her account every hour she had it here. But she didn’t care.

There were a lot of things she should be upset about, but she was only upset about two things. One, that she couldn’t think of a scenario that made any sense, and two, that she hadn’t swallowed her pride and asked the transit managers for at least some footage.

If she told Travis how her day had gone, he’d be shocked at how much she’d done. He’d be impressed. That was just the way he was, but thinking about that made Soma angry. It didn’t matter one bit how hard she worked. It only mattered if she found them. She wasn’t doing this so that, in telling everyone how hard she’d worked, they’d understand that she’d done all she could.

Soma’s hands were shaking as she looked down at the crayon. She was holding the little stick of orange very tightly, but resisted the temptation to snap it in half out of anger. She refused to do that. She set it down on the coloring book Melody had been using.

She was alone and powerless.

“Soma?”

Soma jumped to her feet and fell backward against the sliding door. For a second she was afraid she would break through the glass. She looked up and saw Travis. She nodded, but he hadn’t asked her if she was okay yet.

“I’m fine. You startled me.”

Travis took a step forward. He looked just as exhausted as she felt. He looked down at the floor, then over at the coloring book, at the orange heron on the page. “Long day.”

She nodded. She wanted him to comment on how hard she’d worked, so that she could fly off the handle and cuss him out for getting his priorities all wrong. But he didn’t. He just stood there.

“I don’t know what to do. It’s only been a day, and already I can’t handle it. I can’t go—” Soma trailed off. She stood there with her mouth still open, her eyes on the floor.

Travis put his hands into his pockets and sucked in a breath through his nose. “I have an idea.”

Soma looked up at him. His eyes were red. It looked like he was fighting back tears. She frowned. “Are you…are you okay?”

He nodded. He took a step back and opened his mouth, then smiled, then frowned again. “I’ve been through something like this before. I just don’t like seeing it happen.”

Soma knew he was lying. But she played along. “What’s your idea?”

Travis pulled his left hand out of his pocket. It was holding a crumpled-up note. He looked down at it a moment, then extended it out to Soma. “I know someone who may be able to help. She knows…she knows some people who are very good at finding people.”

Soma studied his face. He wasn’t lying, but he was hiding something. “Travis, this isn’t another psychic?”

He frowned, looking hurt. “This is different. This isn’t some…paranormal stuff. Well, not exactly.”

Soma looked at the outstretched note. She took a step toward it, trying to see what was written without taking it. But it was folded, so all she saw was a name: Viki. “I’m not going to some witch doctor that’s going to spray holy water on one of my children’s items of clothing, then throw it up into the air and go in the direction it seems to land.”

A crooked grin snuck into the miserable, exhausted expression on Travis’s face. “No, nothing like that. But you will need to separate some things.”

“Separate? What are you talking about?”

“The spiritual from the…strange. The very strange.”

“Travis, what the hell are you talking about? Are you suggesting this Viki woman will summon Irse herself, to come and tell me where my family is? Or will she tell me to try and trick Irse? Fool the goddess of the five senses, and she’ll appear and grant a wish?”

The room felt silent. Travis didn’t answer. Soma chuckled. “I’m so crazy right now I’d almost be willing to try it.”

Travis pursed his lips and stepped forward and placed the piece of paper right in Soma’s hand. “This person can help. Contact her. Please.”

Soma stared right into Travis’s eyes. He was afraid. What the hell did he have to be afraid of? Unless…

“It was you.”

Travis’s face twisted up and he turned around. “I have to go.”

“You’re the one. He was seeing you.”

But Travis was already across the living room and out the front door. Soma took one more step after him before stopping.

“Coward.”



***



Paul had developed a system. After the hooded, gray man had left, he’d decided to try reaching up and grabbing the chains attached to the shackles around his wrists. It took grabbing on with one hand, then pulling himself up with that one arm, then grabbing higher up with the other, then so on until he had a solid grip with both hands and there was no pressure on his wrists or either of his feet.

Concentrating, he could hold on for only about a minute before his fingers became too tired and he’d have to lower himself down to the toes of his right leg. After the first few times doing this, the strain had been so much and so strange, that he’d been unable to even open his fingers once he put his weight back on his leg.

He avoided looking down at his legs, though. His left was swelling horribly from the broken bone. Its foot was twice as large as the right, and all sorts of shades of purple, blue, and blue-green. He didn’t even know bruises could turn green until now.

But he did what he had to do. He would stand on the toes of one leg as long as his calf could last, then he would climb up and hold on to the chains with his hands. Back and forth, one after the other. All through the night and the day. The endlessness of the cycle and the pain had pushed him through cycles of determination, rage, total despair, and exhausted sorrow. By this point, though, he was nearly numb.

He didn’t know how long he’d been down here, but as best he could tell it had been at least a day. He’d actually fallen asleep while still holding on tight to the chains above him, which shocked him. He couldn’t tell if those stretches had lasted two seconds or twelve minutes, but he’d always end up waking up when his hands were too exhausted to last any longer.

He’d tried humming songs to pass the time and to lift his spirits, but it hadn’t helped much. The only thing that helped was trying to remember passages from the Remnants. This would usually lead to him thinking of Susie. It would make him terrified one moment, then sob with sorrow over the idea of never seeing her again. Sometimes he’d think of his argument with her, and it would make him angry. Partly because her vision of a cold, calculating god that could destine some people for destruction seemed to have a lot more evidence right now.

Strangely, though, debating her points back and forth in his head helped pass the time better than anything else, not that Paul knew what he was waiting for. He was doing this when the gray man walked back down the stairs.

He caught Paul in hands-gripping-chains phase as he came down. He saw it and frowned. “No. No, no, no. That’s cheating.”

Paul had spent a lot of time thinking about how he would talk with this guy when he finally reappeared. But he was also very angry. “Are you going to kill me or what? All you’re doing is boring me to death.”

The man walked up to him and stopped, studying Paul’s face.

Still angry, and very tired, Paul glared back. “No pun intended.”

The man shook his head. “Won’t kill you until you’re ready. I’ve been listening in on your conversations with yourself, and I agree with some of it. I’m curious about this woman you keep bringing up, though. Does she really believe The Name is as cruel as it sounds like she does?”

“If you asked her,” Paul began. His breathing was becoming uneasy, because the gray man had reached behind a stack of drywall and retrieved a long-handled sledge hammer. Paul cleared his throat and tried to steel himself up. “She’d say you’re misunderstanding her argument.”

“So, you’re arguing in your head with a misunderstanding of her argument?” The man set the head of the hammer down on the ground, less than a meter from Paul’s feet. He leaned on the butt of the handle like a cane. “That doesn’t make much sense.”

“No, you’re misunderstanding my understanding.”

The man shrugged. “I heard what I heard. It sounds like I am definitely one of these souls destine for hell. Wouldn’t you say?”

The man lifted up the hammer, holding the handle by the middle. He then swung the butt end of it in sharp, light thwacks against Paul’s fingers. Paul was too angry to care about the stinging pain right at that moment.

The man then smiled and brought his rough, gray face right next to Paul’s. “Am I a damned soul? I’d say your god did a fine job building such a demon. Wouldn’t you?”

The man then struck Paul’s right hand with the handle so hard that Paul had to let go. His fingers clenched up, numb and unmoving. Paul frowned at the man as he swung again and did the same to his other hand.

Paul sort of caught himself on his right foot, but lost his balance a moment and had the shackles catch his wrists. But, because Paul had been so careful in keeping pressure off them all night, the skin had healed just enough so that this was no longer excruciating. It was sharp and painful, but bearable.

Paul regained his balance on his foot. The pain from his fingers began to cut through the numbness. He closed his eyes, then opened them to see that the man was kneeling down by Paul’s toes. Paul couldn’t hold back his anger anymore. “Would you just leave me alone!”

“Oh, now you start with that stuff!” the man looked disappointed. He choked up on the hammer and let the head drop and bounce off the concrete. He studied Paul’s toes. “I’m trying to decide. No, I know what I’ll do.”

He lifted the head of the hammer just a few centimeters above the big toe of Paul’s right foot, then he let it fall.

It made no sense, but the pain that shot through Paul’s entire body as the cold metal landed on his toe was worse than everything else. In a way, worse than when the man had broken his leg. His gut filled with nausea as the pain throbbed up his leg. After sucking in a breath from shock, Paul growled out a yell.

The man looked up at his face. “I should tell you. I’m going to keep you alive for weeks. I’ve studied Medieval-Earth techniques very intently. I’m very careful, so there will always be something like this. Something that redefines pain for you.”

The man then dropped the hammer’s head onto the two smallest toes of his right foot. The pain made him almost black out. He willingly lifted up his foot and let his wrists take up all his weight. He wanted to scream, but now felt too weak. He wanted to be angry, but was too tired. Through the pain he felt sweat beading up on his forehead.

The man stood up and looked him right in the eye. “Oh, come on. Don’t give up just yet. Don’t you want your god to have me take your place? You’re not one of the damned ones, are you? You can keep your theology if you want. Just realize that he will save you, but put me into pain like this forever. I’ll keep you alive for days, weeks, whatever. But your god will keep me alive forever! In greater pain than you’re in right now, on and on and on. He won’t even need to feed me to keep me alive. He’ll use his god magic to do that. But he’ll save you. Your little god, hiding you away from the bad men like me, while he tortures us forever.”

Paul heard the words through the pain and nausea. He heard them and they made him angry. Extremely angry. But not at the man or at The Name. He was angry with Susie.

The man frowned and backed away a little. “What?”

Paul glared at him. “Her stupid ideas. Those stupid books she keeps reading. You know what I want? I want you to be saved, so she can be wrong!”

The man folded his arms. “That doesn’t even make any sense. If I get saved, I’m saved, right? Wouldn’t I have to be not saved, then not be tortured for all eternity for her to be wrong?”

“Whatever! Just shut up! Just because you have to hear everything I’m thinking, doesn’t mean I have to hear everything you’re thinking! I’m not going to hate you, so get over it! I’m not going to hate The Name either! Right now, I just hate Susie’s stupid ideas.”

The man stood there with his arms folded. The head of the hammer rested on the ground and the butt of the handle was leaning against his leg. He started chewing on his gray, stony lip. Then he shrugged. “Well, doesn’t look like I’m going to get anywhere with you.”

Paul let his head drop and eyes close and tried to ignore the pain in his wrists. He actually let himself think about the pain in his toes to do this. “Whatever.”

“Guess I might as well let you go.”

Paul didn’t open his eyes. He heard the clanking of keys coming out of a pocket, but didn’t trust this guy enough to really believe he was going to let him go. A moment later, however, he felt himself collapse on the cold, hard floor.

He breathed deeply, not even noticing until that moment that being chained up like that had restricted his lungs. Everything in his body seemed to calm down. He felt his heart beating heavy and slowly and a cool looseness wash through his muscles. A restful heaviness. Unfortunately, this had the effect of making him start to hope that he’d get out of here. He started to really want to be let go. But he didn’t believe it.

The man, looking down at him, sighed. “You’re right. I’m not. Just kidding.”

The man, smiling, picked up the hammer, swung it around, and smashed it right into Paul’s head.

Everything exploded around Paul. He tumbled to his side and felt the universe around him crumbling. His head hurt in a way that was beyond anything he could understand. Like the pain from his toes, but magnified and spread out all across the side of his head and face.

Then everything was white and the pain was gone. He merely felt exhausted and was shaking on his side.

He frowned, then reached up and touched the side of his head. He was sure there would be a crater there, or at least pain when he touched it, but he just found his ear and hair and everything where it was supposed to be.

He looked down at his left leg. It was fine. His wrists were fine, though there were blood stains on his sleeves. But no blood on his skin. All his clothes were the same, looking grimy and soaked with sweat.

He coughed, his lungs raw, and the sound didn’t seem to resonate in the room. The room that was pure white. All around him. The floor, walls, and ceiling all glowed a soft white. It had a strange, detail-free quality that was unnerving to look at.

He looked at the wall behind him and saw that it had features. Gauges. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. Some were semi-circles with a needle ticking back and forth. Some were scrolling lines of numbers. Some had oscilloscope-like waves or bars moving across. A lot of them were frozen. Some of the gauges had dials or keypads under them.

He stood up and walked over to them. Each had a label underneath. A lot of the labels were terms he didn’t understand, like “MSG STABILITY,” “NHI ACTIVITY,” or “CHERENKOV LEVELS.” Those had values that were fluctuating very slightly.

He felt his head go light as he read the labels under some that were at zero and not moving. Ones like “HEART RATE,” “BLOOD PRESSURE,” and “NEURAL ACTIVITY.”

He backed away, then looked to the side. He realized that his eyes had adjusted a little to the brightness in here and he could now see a doorway on that wall.

Hearing nothing but his own echoless breathing, he walked to the doorway, which was just a simple arch cut out of the featureless, glowing white wall. Once through it, he found himself in a long, straight hallway. He couldn’t see an end looking down either direction. There seemed to be arch doorways cut out along both sides at regular intervals.

But he couldn’t actually see the doorways from this angle, because there were no shadows anywhere and no differences in brightness on anything to allow for the doorways to be visible. He only knew there were doorways all along the sides because, right above each one, was a plaque with a name engraved on it.

Paul’s heart froze still for a full second as he looked at the plaque above the doorway he’d entered the hallway from. The doorway leading to the small room he’d appeared in right after having his head smashed in.

It said, “PAUL FREDERICK STEVENS – M748”

Paul fell to his knees and clasped his hands behind his neck. Moments went by, then he felt his lungs stubbornly suck in a full, deep breath, because for a moment he’d stopped breathing.

“What the hell is going on?”



***



“Ahh!”

Nathan reached out, feeling like he was falling, hitting his arms and shoulder blades against hard things as light exploded in his eyes and a hiss faded from his ears. He couldn’t tell which way he was falling, or if there was any air coming into his lungs. The panic slowly faded and his limbs felt weak and his body felt heavy.

He moaned as he went limp on the ground. The ground was hard. It was down. The hard ground was down. Concrete. His eyes closed to escape the pain of the light piercing through the back of his head. His fingers felt along the surface he was laying on. Rough. Rough and cold. Damp in spots.

Trash. His fingers touched a thick piece of glass. He grabbed it and pulled it toward his face. As it drew near, the sound of his breathing reflected off of it and into his ears. The hissing in his ears faded further. He heard his breathing and the sound of a city. Clapping footsteps. Doors, opening and closing. Jingling keys. Jostling bags. Clicking bicycles. Humming sounds he didn’t recognize.

His eyes cracked open. The trash was from a broken bottle. He saw white, cursive writing on the green-tinted glass. A Coca-Cola bottle. He frowned. Coca-Cola shouldn’t exist anymore.

He shut his eyes again tightly as the pain returned. His body curled up into a fetal position as he coughed a couple times. Dull pain in his lungs and throat. Light pain. It faded as he resisted the urge to cough. But his throat went tight.

“I’m awake.” The words out of his mouth were mumbled and sloppy. Like a gentle, firm push, clarity moved all the confusion and shock aside as Nathan realized where he was and remembered where he’d been. Dawson’s big, muscled goons had put him into stasis. Forced to “sleep” for however long the TAW Founders saw fit. For months or years or decades, whatever they felt like. Maybe they told his friends he’d committed suicide. Maybe they told them the truth. All they needed to do was get him out of the way.

Whatever the case, he was awake now.

He took in a deep breath, knowing the air belonged to the TAW. Owned by his colleagues. Made by them and offered by them however and whenever they saw fit. Crafted by the saviors of humanity. He pushed his clumsy, shaking body onto hands and knees. He took another deep breath. It felt almost like recovering from being sick or from a horrible hangover, but the headache wasn’t too bad.

Now on his hands and knees, he celebrated the accomplishment for a while longer. It was something after sleeping for forever.

“Gotta celebrate the small things.” He waited for the dizziness to fade. He clenched his jaw and grunted and pushed himself up to his feet.

He opened his eyes. The world around him wobbled. He took a step to the side and leaned against a dumpster. He was in some sort of alley. He heard street noises behind him.

He turned around and saw a dark figure silhouetted against the brightness of the street. Small, short, just a child. But this wasn’t really a child.

Nathan laughed. “Hey Irse.”

She stepped forward. Nathan could make out features of her face now. She was wearing her favorite form, that of an eleven-year-old child. Dark, Indian features. Hair to the shoulders, the eyes just a little too curved to be a boy’s, the jaw a little too square to be a girl’s. Loose pants and a thin-fabric V-neck shirt.

“Good morning, Nathan. How was your sleep? No one has been down that long before, so I’m curious what the experience was like.”

“I don’t remember.” Nathan opened his mouth and stretched the muscles of his face. It felt odd to speak out loud and clearly. “I was hoping that I was back on Earth. This…feels like Earth. Exactly like it. I never did stop noticing the plasticy-ness. And I didn’t think the TAW would let their precious Prometheus get this dirty.”

Nathan looked around, frowning. He looked up the sides of the buildings on either side of him. One was concrete with lots of mirrored windows. The other was brick. Both had wear marks and chips and scuffs where graffiti had been sandblasted off. And the air smelled a little weird. He never remembered smelling anything so subtle here before.

He again turned to Irse. “But, seeing you is proof we’re still in Mebar.”

Irse nodded. “I was worried about the cognitive damage that could have been caused by being asleep for eight centuries. But you seem fine.”

Nathan’s eyes went wide. “How long?”

“Eight hundred and two years. How do you feel?”

Nathan took a step back. He looked at the ground, at a stain in the concrete from some unknown something spilled at some point. He looked at his hands, at the dirt on them. “There’s nothing there. I feel like I went asleep a day ago and woke up with a really bad hang-over. Why do you even need to ask? Don’t know you everything I’m experiencing all the time?”

Irse’s eyes narrowed. “Everything external. You may think your answer doesn’t help me, but it does. Speaking of help, do you need any? Mebar is not the same as it was when you were put in stasis. They hadn’t even finished transporting everyone over.”

“Help? I don’t know. Do they use money now? Do they use cash? Do I need a credit card, or a chip embedded in my neck?”

“Or a bar-code on your forehead?” Irse smiled.

Nathan gestured at her. “When did you learn jokes?”

“it’s not a great joke. I’ve missed you, actually.”

“That’s…kind of creepy. Sort of.”

Irse held a relaxed smile as she stepped forward and held out a fancy, but very simple pen. It was all black but with crooked veins of gold running across the surface. Nathan took it and looked it over, pulled the cap off. It was a fountain pen with a gold tip. “What is this?”

Irse nodded. “Press your thumb against the fountain tip. You don’t have to press very hard.”

Nathan did, and the pen changed color from black to a deep maroon. The gold veins turned a bright silver. “Whoa. Why did it do that?”

He turned it over. On the cap, rising out of the pocket clip, was a small black button. On the other side was engraved: “PROPERTY OF MEBAR OPERATIONAL AFFAIRS. Possession of this pen by unclassified personnel is a felony and grounds for incarceration.”

Nathan smirked. “Huh. Funny.”

“Turn it on.”

He pushed the button. A square, holographic screen appeared above the pen. It showed a photo of his face.

“Oh. I forgot something.” Irse held out her hand and dropped an oddly shaped piece of multi-colored stone into Nathan’s other hand. It was heavier than it looked.

Irse nodded toward it. “That’s for if you want to spend any time in Pan and prefer to avoid going through Threshold. Security there is unpredictable, and you don’t want them to find you. That is a key pen. It will give you back-door access into Threshold, if you ever do want to go there. It also lets you give yourself whatever monetary balance you want in a bank account. But not fractions.”

“What’s a fraction? Aside from…the obvious definition. The math one, I mean.”

“You’ll need them to buy anything of value. You can try and exchange shekels for them, but that will probably draw too much attention. You can sell ink feet as well, but that will draw even worse attention.”

“DA ink, right? Why is it measured in feet? I thought we finally got rid of the imperial system.”

Irse looked behind her. She looked worried. “I don’t know. The ink is used by the pen’s menu to create items, not just change things with DC paper. Alephs only receive one foot of ink every day, for five inches of written text. Each pen can only hold thirty feet total. But you’re TAW, so your pen will refill completely every night.”

Nathan looked through the menus on the holographic screen. He remembered having devices like this when they were building Mebar’s worlds. The menus weren’t this organized and deep back then, though. This one had categories for weapons, food, vehicles, and even buildings. A category for bodyguards made him uncomfortable, reminding him of some heated arguments he’d had with some of the other TAW. He didn’t open that category. He glanced through the others.

Each item had a different ink cost, most things costing multiple feet, with food being the main exception. A revolver cost ten feet, the same as a bicycle. A two-bedroom house cost thirty feet, but a ham and cheese sandwich only cost an eighth of an inch. “We used to just be able to make whatever we wanted. Why’d they tie it to the ink?”

“A lot of reasons.” Irse looked at the ground, then turned her eyes up at Nathan. “You remember the GCL. The TAW didn’t ignore everything you said. After they put you down, most of the papers they added there put limitations on everyone in Mebar, including the TAW and the Alephs. It’s going to take a while for you to get up to speed. I wish I could explain everything to you right now, but I can only stay so long. There’s another situation where I need to intervene.”

Nathan nodded, then realized he was starving. “Well, hey. Before you go I do want to know one thing.”

“What?”

“Why now? Why wake me up? Dawson made it sound like they’d just keep me sleeping forever.”

“It’s complicated. The short story is that there’s an investigation going on concerning the Essesin, and that allowed for a backdoor. The first I’ve had since you were put under. Remember, I can’t override the Founders’ orders, even if they’re dead.”

“Dead?” Nathan’s legs felt weak. He looked at Irse right in the eyes. “I thought that was impossible.”

“There was a loophole. They were assassinated in an uprising not long after you were put to sleep.”

“Huh. Is anyone left?”

“You and five others, though most of them are no longer mentally stable. One of them has split herself into two people, so technically there are seven of you left. Well, technically eight, because Shiro is alive, but technically not in Mebar.”

“That’s a lot of technicalities.”

“Yes, it is.” Irse looked over her shoulder at the street behind her and then folded her arms. “I have to go. You should go out and explore, write down some important questions, and I’ll be sure to come by and visit you soon so I can help answer them. Other than that, welcome back, TAW Nathan Sanchez.”

She stepped away, then stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “Oh. I should warn you. No human living in Mebar knows the truth about what it is, so be careful what you say to people.”

Nathan took a step toward her. “Wait, what? You said there were…seven of us left. Do you mean “no human” except the TAW members?”

Irse resumed walking and spoke without turning around. “Shiro knows, but that’s why I said ‘in Mebar.’”

Nathan chased after her, but she stepped around a corner and out of view. “That doesn’t make any sense. Did they all forget or—”

He stepped out onto the street, looking down the sidewalk that Irse should be walking down, but she was gone.

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