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Sunday, September 10, 2017

006 The New Aleph - Chapter Five

Nathan continues exploring Mebar, Paul arrives in Pan, and Aramis arrives in Hempstock.

NewAlephChapterFive




CHAPTER FIVE




Nathan chewed on his fried fish sandwich as he watched the sun rise behind the massive glass dome of the building where he used to work. He’d sort of helped to design it, had given suggestions on some of the types of rooms it would have. How to make delegates from other nations comfortable. Various sizes and types of meeting rooms for discussing various types and sizes of world problems.

Back then, it had been called the Worlds Hall. Not World’s Hall or Worlds’ Hall, though people had always got that mixed up. Federal-level agencies didn’t like apostrophes on anything. He didn’t know what it was called now, or who was in there, but he had a feeling they saw themselves as just as powerful as he and all his friends had once been.

He looked down at his sandwich. At least the food was better now. Almost impossibly better. That, and all the TAW founders being dead, were two huge bonuses to having been asleep for so long. It felt like he’d only been up for one long night of drinking, dancing, and flirting with women centuries younger than him. But despite the now-mild headache of the latter half of a hangover, he had a clear recollection of the sun going down, coming up, and going back down again.

He also had memories of wandering around the hills surrounding the city, checking out little pubs and restaurants and theaters. There were fifty-seat black-box theaters everywhere. He had wanted to find one performing some Shakespeare, something timeless, because then he could forget about where he was and when he was and what he had to do. He couldn’t find one, but he did find one place doing “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which he wasn’t super familiar with, but at least had that timeless quality. He remembered maybe about fifteen minutes while he watched it of feeling completely normal and having completely forgetting everything.

What was odd was that many theaters were performing episodes of TV shows he had heard of. Some of his father’s favorites. He’d seen theater marquees listing off episode numbers for “The Odd Couple,” “Rockford Files,” “Doctor Who,” and “Faulty Towers.” There was definitely a tendency toward US and British shows from the 1970’s.

After watching some of these, and realizing he couldn’t really remember what the shows were like—he’d watched them with his dad when he was really little—Nathan decided he was too drunk for black box theater. He’d then gone to one restaurant where an improv team had tried some jokes that weren’t really that funny. Failed riff on a vaudeville act or something. At first, Nathan had thought he might just be too out of touch or too drunk to get the jokes, but no one else in the place had been laughing either.

After a few hours resting in a hotel, he’d gone to a museum/art gallery where he’d spent at least four, maybe six hours trying to absorb as much as he could of the culture and history that he’d missed while asleep. Then he’d gone to a wine bar, to get a little hair of the dog, where a three-person band played a couple early songs by the Beatles, “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson, and “The Battle of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin. It was an odd playlist, especially since they were an acoustic group, but again it displayed that lean toward the 1970’s.

He’d gone up afterward and asked them about the song choice, and the frontman—or front-woman—had seemed embarrassed, as if Nathan were unduly complimenting them on being more creative than they felt they were.

“We’re just your typical, gray-market band that does twentieth-century Earth music.”

Nathan had frowned, feeling more out of place at that moment than any other since waking up. “Earth music?”

“Yeah.” The young woman had her hair bleached pure white and was wearing the quintessential skinny jeans of all the rockers that Nathan remembered ever seeing. She nervously reached around her shoulder to scratch her back. “You’re not a cop, are you?”

Nathan laughed at that one. “Oh, hell no. I’m about as far from a cop as anyone could possibly be, trust me.”

The woman shrugged. “Yeah. It’s a thing. Every year, a few new songs leak out onto the streets. Well, not ‘new’ songs, but you know what I mean. Bands like ours learn them and play them in dives, wherever people are cool and won’t tell anyone.”

“Is that a problem? People ratting-out bands?”

She frowned. “Had a buddy in school. He’s actually the one who taught me my first chords. He was really, really good, knew a ton of the more technical stuff from the early twenty-first century. But, he started doing gigs that were too high profile. Too many people knew about him. One day, he just disappeared. Poof. No one knew what happened to him. Most people think they send you off to the penal colonies if they find out you’re too deep in gray stuff.”

Nathan knew that even the most well-meaning people would fall to the seduction of power, or be overcome by others more comfortable abusing power, if there wasn’t proper accountability. Dawson was an idiot for ignoring him, for shutting him up, but she’d won. She and the others had established their absolute rule, been assassinated, and had their legacy of forcing humanity to be happier continue on for eight centuries. Of course, none of that explained why Led Zeppelin was semi-illegal.

He needed to learn more about what passed for history around here. Most of what he’d learned in the museum was that people had been fed some bullshit story about what Mebar was. He’d seen a metal door on display, with a sign next to it saying it was part of the huge generational spaceship that had traveled for two thousand years to the solar system Mebar. So that humanity could colonize the new planet Prometheus.

Nathan took another bite of his sandwich and turned slightly away from the Worlds Hall, or whatever it was called now. The sun was up and past the edge of the dome and in his eyes. He wasn’t sure if he would have done much better if he’d been on the Assembly, with all that power at his fingertips, but at least he’d remain aware of the dangers. That might be enough, but there was no way to know now.

The question of what kind of person could both have the wherewithal to obtain full hold of that much power and then not bow to corruption…that was a question he’d have to work on. It would be best of all to somehow get Mebar running under a democratic system, but that would first require finding the aforementioned ideal person and then getting them willing to give up absolute power right after acquiring it. George Washingtons didn’t come along every hundred years. And even General Washington didn’t have the temptation of a power that could bend the very fabric of reality to his will.

Around him, people began to come out of the apartment complexes and condo towers of the city center. He noticed a man a block or so from him in a suit, walking out to stand by the side of the road. The man spoke into his watch and then stood waiting.

He saw two more people do something like this. Nathan watched them standing there by the roads, waiting, with obvious curiosity.

He did get distracted as a young woman in a skin-tight jogging outfit exited one apartment with a medium-sized dog on a leash. She ruffled the dog’s floppy ears and took off down the sidewalk, her dog bounding alongside her and her ponytail bouncing behind her head.

She was maybe half a block from Nathan when an ugly, hovering…pill, the front and back covered in huge dimples, appeared from around a corner and came and parked in front of the man in the suit. A door opened and the man stepped inside it.

“Those things are ugly,” Nathan said just as the jogging woman passed by him.

She stopped and looked at the transportation device, which closed its door after the man sat down and hovered off down the road. It passed by another man waiting, who didn’t seem to mind that it ignored him, then stopped by the next person to pick them up. Nathan needed to get one of those wristwatches.

The woman smiled at Nathan. She spoke in the strange sort of mid-Atlantic accent that the upper class folks here in Helison seemed to have. “The way you’re looking at it, it’s like you’ve never been to a city before.”

Nathan shook his head. “It looks like a huge golf ball was smashed, then stretched out. Then…had windows put in it.”

She stuck out her lower lip. “They are pretty ugly. They say the dimples cut down on drag.”

Nathan frowned. “That’s…weird.”

She smiled and continued jogging. Nathan found himself staring at the back side of her shorts as she moved away from him.

He wasn’t proud of it, but his fixation on what he was watching compelled him to call out, “Hey, what’s your name?”

She turned around, jogging in place. “Valerie.”

“I’m Nathan. I may be in town for a while.”

She smiled and resumed running her route. Nathan decided he’d indulged enough for now and kept his eyes to himself.

Maybe he should get a dog.

First, though, he probably needed to get a place to live. He turned around and looked at the building behind him. It had a convenience store there on ground level, with a doorway off to the side of it that appeared to lead up to apartments.

He walked up and looked at the door. It had a funny little gear-shaped recess next to it, something he’d seen a few times during his night (and day) of drunken adventuring, but he wasn’t sure how it worked yet. There wasn’t any contact information on the door, or any signs around the building saying how to check for available apartments.

He decided to walk until he found something like that. He didn’t know if this city had any classifieds, Penny Ads, or Craigslist, so he was going to have to figure it out as he went.


***


Paul turned the lumpy, amber-like stone over in his hand. Irse had given it to him just before she’d left, recommending that he use it to get out of the world of Threshold without drawing any attention.

She’d said to throw it on the ground, so he did. It snapped like a firecracker and broke into a dozen little pieces, but those fragments flew outward in a weird way. They spread out and stopped, suspended in the air in an oval as tall as Paul. And the moment they stopped, the oval within them went black.

No, not black. It was a portal showing a dark stone wall. It was so dark compared to the impossibly-white walls of the room Paul was in that it had looked black. Paul stepped through the portal. The stone now before him looked like a door and had a plaque above it that said “PAN.” But he had no idea how the door opened. There were two little cut-outs on the floor, though.

Paul turned around. The portal was blocking his path to wherever this stone hallway led. Paul wondered what else was down there, but was also worried about Irse’s comment about “drawing attention.”

He looked at the cut-outs in the door and knelt down by them. He fit his fingers into them and pulled up, just out of curiosity. The door was heavy, but it did move. Brilliant light, even brighter than that from the impossible white room, still visible through the portal, bled in under the gap he’d just made.

Paul clean-and-jerked the door, lifting up to his waist and throwing it all the way up. It stuck up into the ceiling and Paul was bathed in mottled, glimmering sunlight. Before him was a wide, flooded valley with water moving at a calm, steady pace with patchy cloud cover above it. Tuffs of submerged grass were bent to the left and swaying in the flow. The half-moon clearing was surrounded by a wall of tall bushes about a hundred meters away from the tunnel in every direction. Here and there along this odd hedge were openings…and it looked like there were tiny little signs attached to stakes driven into the ground by each of those openings. It almost looked like Paul was standing at the center of a hedge maze. A huge one.

Past all this the valley gradually rose up into hills covered with dark evergreen trees. Further out the hills were veiled in gray, where clouds reached down to the ground. Paul had spent his whole life in a beach city surrounded by desert. All this green was shocking.

He heard birds chirping. He smelled pollen. He looked at the wide, flooded river water with sunlight glinting off of it. He turned around and looked back into the dark tunnel and the eerie portal within it. He looked back out at the valley. He stepped out into the water with a bare foot and shivered. He let out a sigh, the cold of the water on his legs feeling so incredibly real. Everything that had happened to get him here: dying, waking in a white room, talking with Irse…all of it felt like some horrible dream he’d just woken up from. Still, dream or not, the tunnel remained behind him. Solid, stone, real.

In leaving that tunnel behind, he realized he was leaving behind everything he’d once thought was real. His soul was not a ghostly something that occupied his body, his mind. There wasn’t just one god. The world he lived in was not created by the Name. Everything was in question.

Except the cold of the water. He turned around, his feet sloshing in the river as he heard the rumble of falling stone. The door fell down and shut with an echoing THUD that sealed off the tunnel. As the sound reverberated across the clearing, Paul felt lightheadedness wash over him. Then he felt the ground moving away from him. He looked down to see if he was floating, out of some impossible, fantastic expectation, but what was happening was even stranger.

He had just grown taller. And his arms and legs were thicker. And his shoulders were broader. His heart beat hard and slow in his chest as he looked down at his hands and arms. He clenched a fist and felt a calm, confident strength. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. He was still wearing his bloody clothing, but now the shirt and pants were tight and uncomfortable on him.

“Holy hell.”

He took another step away from the now-shut stone door. The rock door blended in almost perfectly with the rest of the rock around it, making it hard to see where the door was.

Except for a poem that was carved into the door, which read:


Zeus hid fire

To keep men from finding ease,

But Prometheus, of the subtle mind, stole it to give to morals.

So Zeus fastened Prometheus, driving a post through his middle,

And letting loose on him the eagle, feeding on his imperishable liver

Which by night would grow back

To be eaten by day.



He looked up and realized that wasn’t the only thing strange about the rock wall.

He walked backwards, knee deep in chilly water, each step bringing what he saw into more clarity. The rock wall was carved out of the side of a mountain, a mountain that was part of a range that was tall and running alongside the valley for what looked like hundreds of kilometers in each direction. But the rock wall wasn’t just carved flat. It had a huge bas relief fashioned into it.

Paul’s mouth dropped open as he continued walking backward and looking up. The relief was taller than any skyscraper he’d ever seen.

Carved all around the base of the wall were flames. Twisted and lively, almost seeming like they were moving. Along the edges of the relief the flames parted to form boarders on either side. Between them was a man, a stone giant chained to the wall. His body was twisted and writhing in pain, twisted like the flames. A huge eagle had one talon clenched on his hip while the other tore back skin and flesh to make a hole in the man’s side. Through that hole the eagle reached its head in to bite down on his innards.

Eating his liver.

“Prometheus.” This was the doorway to the gateway world between the worlds. He knew where he was…sort of. He’d heard stories about a similar carving on a wall about seventy-five kilometers north of Jicheng, but there it was instead a strange rendition of the god Pan. Most people said it had been carved during the first decades that humans had come to Prometheus, using whatever lost technology that they’d used to come there.

But there were no photographs of it. Just eye-witness claims and drawings from thousands of people of every variety of credibility, all of them describing it as an optical illusion that only appeared under special circumstances.

It was supposed to be located deep within the Annuaki Valley, where travel was illegal. And, interestingly enough, this valley looked just like the one where the Pan relief was supposed to be located. Except that one was in a desert.

Which meant he was in Pan. Or…on Pan, if Pan was a different planet. Irse had said it was a different world, but Irse hadn’t explained things very well. It also meant that the tunnel he had just been in probably led back to Prometheus. The door to home had just shut behind him.

He stumbled back to the door and stuck his hands underwater to try and find hand holds for this side. He did, but when he pulled up, it didn’t move. He repositioned his feet and clenched his jaw and pulled with all his strength. Nothing. He fell back sitting in the river, sweating and catching his breath.

“Damn it.”

Paul caught his breath and decided to start walking left, downstream. Rivers usually led to bigger rivers and those usually led to cities. He put his hand into his pockets and felt the ten oblong, gold-plated coins that Irse had given him to help him get started once he made it to a city.

If he could get started. He’d worked at a mid-grade watch building shop, keeping the gear fabricating machines running. He had no idea if people here made watches that way, or if they wore watches. Or if they even bothered telling time.

He reached the opening in the hedge that was downstream of the now-sealed tunnel door and stopped. There was a little sign next to it, and it said: “To Chrysoprase. Keep your left hand on the left side to avoid getting trapped. Have a wonderful day!”

So it was a maze. He stepped into it, then stopped. Curiosity made him turn around to look at the rock wall where the carving had been.

The relief was gone. Or indiscernible. He took one step out of the maze, and he could suddenly make it out again. One step in the maze, his eyes could no longer find it.

He sighed and headed into the maze, his left hand on the left wall. “Not even close to the strangest thing I’ve seen today.”


***


What Nathan was looking at didn’t surprise him, but it was still a strange experience seeing it. An older woman glanced at him as she walked past, coming from the bland buildings he was looking at.

There were six buildings, almost identical, all about six stories tall, all pretty close to each other, but at least they had some brick fa├žade work to keep them from being too boring. Though the brickwork was dulled by lichen. A handful of people walked or biked around the area, going about their day, carrying bags of groceries or other things. The whole complex was surrounded by a two-meter brick fence that was covered in lichen and vines.

It looked like an 1800’s insane asylum. Sort of. Trees here and there. Patchy, brown grass. Benches. Concrete tables with chess boards inlaid in two different tones of granite. Or, two different tones of concrete. Maybe it was closer to a cheap college campus, though in Nathan’s opinion there wasn’t a lot of difference between one and the other.

Nathan walked through the wide gate and down the brick-bordered path. This was the HNM Center, the place where the poorer people could get Housing, Nutrition, and Medicine. This was what Dawson had been talking about. This was her justification for trapping humanity in her new universe forever. State-offered services like this were the kind of thing that Nathan and people he’d worked with had fought for decades to have set up in the United States. But there, they’d had the problem of figuring out how to pay for it all. But, when you’re a god, you don’t have to worry about things like budget negotiations or the laws of thermodynamics.

In addition to the half-dozen apartment buildings, there were a handful of service buildings scattered around the complex as well. Right by the gate he’d just entered was a quaint little brick building with a faded sign out front labeling it as the housing office.

He went toward it, then stopped. He pulled out his “Aleph key” pen that Irse had given him. He’d already found out that, to get any of the apartments in the city, he needed fraction, not shekels. And only good jobs that paid good money included fractions in their salary. Exchanging shekels for fractions was possible, but it was a time-consuming process requiring going through a licensed currency exchange…which would most likely result in grabbing the attention of the authorities. There were also black-market currency exchanges he could use, which would most likely result in grabbing the attention of criminals who might try to capture him and auction him off to the authorities.

That left him either going miles outside the city to find somewhere cheap to stay in or going to the HNM Center. He stepped between a tree and the brick wall to keep himself out of direct view and pulled out his pen. He pressed the button on the side of the pen to bring up the glowing screen and looked at his identification:


- NAME: Nathan Alvarez Sanchez

- DOB: 25 Nov M753

- H: 175 cm

- W: 71 kg

- E: Br

- H: Br

- HOME CITY: n/a

- ADDRESS: n/a

- ACCOUNT BALANCE: ₪9,999,843


Everything was basically right, except for the birth year. He was frustrated by the fact that he didn’t know the specific reason for when “M1” had started. He’d done the math and figured out it was thirty-three years after he’d arrived in Mebar. And he was one of the later arrivals to Mebar, so he’d have to do some digging to figure out what had happened thirty-three years later to justify restarting the calendar on that year. He had a couple guesses, though.

The answers would be somewhere in Threshold, and Irse had told him that the Aleph pen could get him in there. But she’s forgotten to tell him how. It was already on his list of things to ask her when he saw her again.

He turned the pen off and stuffed it back in his pocket and headed in the front door of the housing office. He almost laughed as he entered. It looked like every other dull government building he’d ever been in. Worn laminate flooring, pealing veneers on cheap furniture, yellowing walls, spider-webs in the corners of the ceiling, all the usuals.

A middle-aged, tired-looking woman with frizzy red hair resided behind a counter in the lobby. As she noticed him enter, her mouth moved in a way that might have been some sort of half-hearted smile. She was slouched up against the counter with her head leaning on a hand and didn’t move as Nathan came up to her.

She also didn’t turn off the audio program she was listening to. The man talking on the program sounded very excited, and it was coming from a squat, wooden, radio-ish box sitting on a counter. It had a couple dials and displays and buttons on the front and a flat antenna made up of three loops of wire sticking up out of the top. Nathan studied the styling of the radio as he listened to the guy talking.

“I don’t think the private beef industry is really going to pick up any more than it already has. It may be a lot higher quality than HNM beef, but people are really only ever eating it at restaurants or when they go camping. Those are both luxury contexts for a product that—”

The woman looked at Nathan, a flash of something like self-consciousness crossing her face as she punched a button on the radio, killing it. “Too early for money talk.”

“So.” Nathan cleared his throat and smiled. “You…own any stock in…in beef? In the beef market? Industry, I mean?”

She shrugged while she turned one of the dials. Text flashed past on one of the narrow displays. Nathan was both surprised and relieved to hear that she had a strong Scottish accent. At least some of subtleties of Earth’s diversity had survived the transition. “Help you with something?”

“Yeah, uh. I’m looking for—” Nathan resisted the temptation to reach for a wallet he wasn’t carrying. He then resisted reaching for the Aleph pen, having already found out during the previous night that everyone thought it was some sort of prank or prop. And anyway, shekel transactions were paid using iris scans, not anything like a pen.

The woman turned her eyes toward him just a second before punching a button on the radio. “A place?”

The radio came to life again with music and a very professional-sounding radio voice saying, “Previously on ‘The Lower Empire…’

“Yes! A place.” Nathan smiled and relaxed his arms at his side.

The woman nodded and reached for something behind the counter.

“…Keizer Brusilov had just discovered the true identity of who had, in fact, raped and murdered his sister. But his list of allies, anyone who might help him seek vengeance, was much shorter than it used to be.”

“I only need it for a little while.”

“Ah, shit!” The woman punched the radio again, turning it off. “I started the wrong episode. If he’s looking for the ‘true’ murderer, that means he already found out Lord Anderson isn’t the one, obviously. Do you follow the show?”

Nathan shook his head.

“It’s very good. If you can, you really have to catch the stage adaptation of season one. It’s fantastic.” She found what she was looking for behind the counter. She pulled out what looked like a thick drink coaster and set it on the counter in front of Nathan. In the center of the coaster was one of those gear-shaped recesses that were on all the doors all over the city. “Just touch your watch there. It’ll assign you one of the singles and give you your cleaning detail for the week. If you forget your detail, your watch will remind you. If you go two weeks without doing your detail, you’ll be locked out of your place and you’ll have to come back here.”

She finally adjusted her posture so she could turn her face toward him. “Come back on a day I’m not working, if that happens. It’s a lot of paperwork getting you back in.”

“I guess I could just make life easier for everyone and do my cleaning detail.”

She smiled. “You’d think that.”

Nathan frowned at the drink coaster with the gear recess. “Um…what if I don’t have a watch?”

She reached behind the counter again. She dug around for a second, looked up at Nathan with just her eyes and set a metal-banded watch down on the coaster. “You look like you’d look good in gunmetal.”

Nathan picked up the watch. It was heavier than he expected, which made it feel more expensive than it looked. And it looked like a perfectly normal analogue watch that had been worn every day for years. The lens over the face had been re-polished to perfect clarity, making it stand out starkly against the scuffed, scratched up metal. It had quartz movement and big, clear numbers on the face. He stuck out his lower lip and nodded approvingly. “Nice.”

The woman’s eyebrows went up. “It is nice. Most of the second-hand ones are usually more banged up.”

Nathan smiled. “I’m guessing really nice watches usually cost a bunch of fractions.”

“And get stolen.” She pointed at him without looking at him. She twisted a dial on the radio one click and started up a new episode. “Take my advice, stick with the HNM watch. Nobody’s gonna mug you to steal something they can get for free.”

Nathan nodded and turned to leave as he put the watch on. He stopped as he saw a tray by the door with a hot/cold water dispenser next to it. The tray had paper cups and tins of tea and dehydrate coffee. Next to that were a few small glass jars labeled sugar, powdered creamer, and monkey spider crystals.

“He killed my sister! The fact that we’re friends only makes the crime worse!”

“What the hell are monkey spider crystals?”

“They give an extra kick to your coffee.” The woman again looked at him. “Where are you from, anyway?”

“Far away.” Nathan resisted asking if “monkey spider” was a brand or if there really were spiders that looked like monkeys out there. He’d rather not know.

The woman shrugged.

A thought hit Nathan. A tiny bit of curiosity. He’d figured that food would get better tasting the longer people were here, but the food was too good. That fish sandwich had tasted like it was real fish. But there were no “real” fish here. All the artificial flavors and other wizardry of the TAW had been able to make foods taste close, but never perfect. That fish sandwich had been pretty darn perfect.

But it was still a fish sandwich, which by definition were still a little nasty and drowned in mayonnaise. The one thing Nathan remembered that they’d never even got close…was tea. Especially Earl Grey, with its very mild citrusy hints added to the black tea leaves.

Nathan grabbed a cup and opened the tin of Earl Gray to grab a satchel and put it in the cup. As he poured steaming hot water from the red spigot on the dispenser, the curiosity that had inspired this experiment slowly changed into apprehension. He really missed good tea. All the drama and confusion and insanity aside, he really wanted some real tea. He fiddled with the watch, finding a stopwatch built into it. He started it with a beep.

“You time your tea with a watch?”

Nathan frowned at the woman. “How else do you know if it’s ready or not?”

She snorted and shook her head.

As he watched the water darken, and caught a whiff of the aroma, his apprehension deepened almost into fear.

There was no way it was going to taste right. It was impossible. The TAW could never replicate that level of subtlety. You didn’t rescue humanity from extinction by creating a new cosmos without losing a few things. It was the cost of survival.

He waited, listening to the high fantasy radio drama going on behind him: “How can you be worried about stability? How will my nation respect me, how can they follow me, if I won’t demand justice? You saw what she looked like.”

Nathan’s head started to ache as he watched the time. Maybe humanity wouldn’t want to be rescued from the prison the TAW had built for them. If it wasn’t flawed the way he remembered, it might be impossible to convince them to leave.

Three minutes had passed. He lifted up the cup to his lips and took a sip. Rich aroma flooded his sinuses as citrusy goodness filled his mouth and went down his throat. He was shaking now, and his eyes were watering up. It was perfect. It was cheap, stale tea with way too much bergamot, but it was real. Real, not some fabrication of arrogant men that had turned themselves into gods.

He set the cup down and leaned against the door frame, feeling weak. He was crying, maybe from the memories of real food and real drink and the wonderful realization that he had access to it again. Or it could have been because he was absolutely terrified.

“Where the hell am I?”


***


“Jasmine Avenue! Jasmine Avenue!”

Aramis’ mind seemed to stick to the loud words that drifted past her. She wasn’t sure why, then she snapped awake and almost jumped out of her seat.

Other people on the bus looked at her as she noticed they hadn’t stopped yet. She calmed down. They were still approaching the wide cross-street.

The scenery had changed drastically since Aramis had started the trip at four in the morning. By the Banks train station the roads had been dirt paths surrounded by evergreen woods. But the train didn’t make it all the way south to Hempstock, so she’d got out at North Station, which was surrounded by little farms with irrigation piping standing idly out in fields. There she’d got on a bus and drifted off to the rhythmic trotting of its multiple legs. The one thing that was the same throughout the whole trip was the Alanessa river running along the left side of either railroad tracks or street, though it was must wider and deeper here.

The road was now stone-paved with two lanes and hard concrete strips down each lane to handle the tough feet of the buses, which had to handle any terrain. Between this side of the road and the river were shipping offices and businesses all the way to the bank.

Past the river was the dense downtown of Hempstock. Buildings were crammed together in a seemingly chaotic tangle, little order put into the arrangement of the streets. The densest part wasn’t very big, just a triangle of land formed by the Alanessa meeting the Thyme, the third side boarded by an ancient wall. Each side was only about a couple kilometers long, but there was a lot going on in that triangle.

On the right side of the road, hills rose up and away from the riverbank, the green slopes covered in houses that became larger and more beautiful the further up they went. Those hills were mirrored on the other side of downtown, past the bigger Thyme river, by other hills similarly dressed with slightly denser, slightly less rich housing. But still really nice.

All of this made for a downtown that was surrounded by the affluent, who got to look down upon it from their lofty dwellings. And here, on the bus, the other passengers and the driver seemed to be looking down on Aramis as she struggled to get her heavy tool cart to follow her down the aisle without running over feet or banging into knees. That, and having her bulky clothing bag draped across her shoulders, made for awkward and slow going to the door.

The bus stopped and she made it to the stairs leading to the door and stumbled out of the bus, the metal wheels of her tool cart rapping on each step behind her. Once she was out, the driver hastily pulled the lever to close the door and the bus rattled off down the road on twelve low, stubby legs moving with an insect rhythm. It resembled two ants marching single-file, carrying a tall, angular lozenge together on their backs.

Aramis took her bag off her shoulders and set it on the tool cart, wrapping the shoulder strap around the cart’s handle, and set off south down Jasmine Avenue’s sidewalk toward the center of Hempstock. After she crossed the bridge, which looked too streamlined and modern compared to the neighborhood she was approaching, the sidewalk became cobblestone and her going became very loud. The tool cart’s wheels clattered behind her, echoing off the wood and stucco buildings packed closely together. Hopefully no one was trying to sleep-in this morning.

She’d been to the city a few times before, but not enough and not recently enough to have very good bearings. She remembered that she just needed to take the first diagonal street coming off of this one to get to where she needed to go, but every time she came here she got confused by the road layout and the repetitive patterns of the buildings.

It was too early for afternoon shoppers and too late for morning commuters, so at least the streets weren’t full of people. Lots of people were still out and about, wearing long, heavy coats. Men wore fedoras, even though last Aramis had heard they were supposed to have gone out of style ten years ago. Apparently, that was only for women, who now mostly wore knitted hats or well-styled short hair.

Aramis came to a lamppost standing in the center of a five-way intersection. It had various arrows tacked to it, all pointing down each street, the arrow pointing at her saying the bus stop was down the way she’d come.

One arrow, pointing to the right, the first diagonal street, said “Kettle Square,” so she went that way.

She ducked under a towel drying on a line stretched between two windows. The buildings around her, a mix of houses, apartment, and shops, were between two and five stories tall, with gardens on top of most of them. She looked at each one, at each building and each arrangement of plants on top and each little pocket park nestled in between buildings here and there. She looked at everything carefully, partly so she could learn her way around and partly because it was all lovely.

Aramis frowned as the buildings around her, on average, were getting larger and larger. Now most were about four or five stories. It seemed maybe she’d never been to this part of town before.

She passed under an archway and entered Kettle Square. It was a big, open area encircled by taller buildings with fancy shops in their first-floor units. There were benches and narrow trees all around, with a fountain in the center, and people scattered all over. Most sitting, reading.

And the square wasn’t actually square. It sort of looked like a tea kettle when you looked at it on a map.

Aramis had her eyes in every direction except where she was going when someone yelled at her: “Excuse me, miss.”

She frowned and tried to see where the voice had come from. It had come at her from a couple different directions, echoing off the stone and stucco of the buildings surrounding the square. Then she saw a chubby, uniformed woman charging toward her and figured that was the source.

“Yes?”

The woman was wearing a light-blue uniform and a dark-blue helmet and looked very impatient. And she was pointing at Aramis’s tool cart. “You better have a permit if you’re going to be selling anything from that out here.”

Aramis frowned, confused, and shook her head. “No, I’m not selling anything. I’m looking for Cedric’s Machining.”

The women frowned, staring at Aramis for a moment. Finally, she pointed to the farthest corner of the square. “Over there. Make it quick.”

Aramis nodded and went on. Before going around a narrow stand of trees, she looked back at the police officer. She was standing in the same place, looking around with an expression of both boredom and suspicion.

Aramis navigated around benches and trees, then moved around that large fountain in the center. There were two terraces to the fountain, with a bronze sculpture at the top with three women standing back to back, facing out. Water poured out from something each held in their hands. One seemed to be squeezing a piece of fruit, another seemed to be emptying a sack, and Aramis was on the wrong side to see what the third was holding.

By the time she was past the fountain, she thought she could make out her destination. There was a rusty, metal sign hanging above a doorway with a large gear as part of the design. A couple moments later she could make out the words as “CEDRIC’S MACHINING.”

She turned around to see if she could now make out what the third women in the sculpture was holding. She still wasn’t at a great angle, so wasn’t sure. It looked like she was holding a dog and slicing its throat. The water was pouring out of the cut.

While being grossed out by this, she ran into someone.

As she lost her balance and struggled to not fall to the ground, she let go of her tool cart, which for a moment seemed to hesitate over whether it wanted to fall forward onto its long side or tilt back and right itself. Aramis ended up landing hard on a knee, then grumbling as she stood up.

With the loud clanking of the multiple tools contained within the wooden box, her tool crate decided to right itself and stand up calmly, waiting. But the person Aramis had run into was not calm. He was a big man, a young and attractive man, standing with his hands held slightly out away from his body, looking at her with his brow furrowed.

Aramis turned to face him. “I’m sorry about that. I got distracted.”

“You fucking touched me.”

Aramis took a step back. “I’m…sorry. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“And what the hell is in that box, anyway?” He pointed at her cart. “Why would a water whore need luggage?”

Aramis narrowed her eyes. Most people were ignoring the scene. It wasn’t their business, and minding your own business was extremely important business in Hempstock. Still, some were watching. Some watched while trying to not make it too obvious they were watching.

She stepped toward her cart. “I’ll just get out of your way.”

But the man kicked her cart hard, knocking it over. The cover snapped open, sending drill bits, punches, counter-sinks, clamps, files, chisels, and plyers spilling out over the cobblestones. Some of the smaller ones fell down into the cracks between the stones.

Aramis went to her hands and knees beside the mess, trying to pick everything up as quickly as possible.

The man only looked angrier now. “You stole that, didn’t you. Little fucking water whore probably thought she didn’t get paid what she deserved, so she stole some man’s livelihood. Trying to pawn it off now?”

Aramis didn’t look up. She was too busy putting the tools away. She wasn’t afraid of him hurting her. She was strong, and even if he pulled a weapon on her she would still be able to take care of herself. The fountain was close enough that she could use the water in it very effectively. But it would look very bad. How was she supposed to get a job at a place that was fifty meters from where she’d beat up some random person?

That’s how it would be remembered. The fact that the police officer hadn’t stepped in, and was probably ignoring the scene, implied that the law would not be on her side.

The man stepped closer, standing over her. “What? Not going to defend yourself? You a whore and a coward?”

“I’m a machinist.”

“The hell?” he laughed. “I thought all you little water girls either come here to make men your slaves or to go work at the casinos. You think you’re better than all the others or something?”

Aramis finally looked up. She’d misunderstood the situation. He wasn’t alone. He had two friends behind him that she hadn’t notice before. She scrambled for ideas. Some way to get out of this situation. “I couldn’t do that work anyway. I didn’t get dished out the best looks.”

He knelt down. Aramis didn’t like the look in his eyes. “Don’t need looks for some work.”

She held his gaze, not flinching and hoping she didn’t look as worried as she felt. “Please leave me alone.”

He shook his head. “You already touched me. You’ve probably already enslaved me anyway. Used that bond magic to make me do whatever you say.”

Aramis went back to picking up tools.

She jumped to her feet and stumbled back as she felt his hand touch her chin.

Her blood was boiling now. Her hands clenched in fists and her breathing went fast. She could feel her sense of touch reaching out to the water in the fountain. The water felt as close as his hand had been to her face. She desperately wanted to make the water turn into ice and become even closer to his face. At very high speed.

“Hey, don’t complain. You’re the one controlling me now.” He was still kneeling down by her tools and smiling at her. His two friends were smiling. Aramis wanted to do one of two things: Run, or beat these three idiots to within an inch of their lives. She couldn’t do either, because she needed this job.

This was the only machinist shop that she had a lead on. The owner knew her and Ignacio, and had come out to the commune multiple times to sell them new tools and buy parts. If she didn’t get this job, she was screwed. And he was the only person she knew of in the whole city who had any semblance of a belief in Seven, though he wasn’t practicing. He would at least be able to let her know if there were any Remnant study groups meeting nearby.

The man kneeling by her tools shook his head. “Only one way for me to break the spell.”

Aramis looked at him. His snide smile locked on to her as he took an expensive micrometer out from the open tool crate. He turned the delicate, precise instrument over in his hands, waiting. She calculating her options. She had to put them down, get her tools, and run before the police could come up with an excuse to grab her. Losing the job sucked, but she absolutely could not afford to lose her tools. Maybe she could go to another city, one that didn’t have as many bigoted creeps.

She took in a deep breath and forced her body to relax. Lowering her chin to guard her throat, she slid her left foot forward. “Please leave.”

All three of them laughed. “Listen, girl, you—”

One of the friends in the back was shoved forward by someone and sent tumbling across the cobblestone like a sack of potatoes.

Then the other friend was shoved in the other direction, more upward than outward. After landing on his arm pretty hard, he recovered quickly, getting back to his feet while nursing his arm to face whoever had just attacked.

He and the one holding Aramis’ micrometer turned to face a tall, muscular man with a mess of kinky brown hair and furious, black eyes. He looked very strong, but not strong enough to have thrown either of the men as easily as he had. Only water or stone preyvedes could show that kind of effortless strength, and he couldn’t be either because his skin was coffee-brown, not gray, blue, or green. But somehow he was that strong. He reached out a hand toward the man holding Aramis’ micrometer.

The man frowned. “What?”

“Give me the micrometer.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ll break your nose if you don’t.”

The creep stood up and handed him the tool. He then kicked Aramis’ tool cart over again, spilling even more contents out this time. He smiled at the strong man, who then jabbed his fist into his nose, knocking him backward. It was a very subdued hit. An effortless punch, leaving the creep’s pride more wounded than his nose.

His hand over his nose and his eyes red, he tried once more to stare down the dark, strong man, then shrugged, cursed under his breath, and walked off. His two friends followed and the people pretending to not be watching stopped pretending and went back to not watching.

Aramis let out a huge sigh of relief and returned to picking up her tools. The man who’d rescued her held out her micrometer. She looked at it, then looked up his arm, noticing first the muscles of his shoulders showing through his jacket, then at his tone, solid neck. Usually, men were only this gorgeous and cut if they were stone preyvedes, but on occasion you found a regular person who was really good at working out.

She half expected him to be smiling, the sun shining behind his hair to give him an angelic glow. She’d sort of hoped for it. Being rescued by a dashing hero on her first day into the city would have been a nice bonus. Instead, he just looked frustrated and tired.

She took the micrometer. “Thanks.”

He nodded. “I’m Paul. And, I think I need to apologize.”

“Why?”

“You’re Aramis, right?”

She frowned. “How did you know that?”

He shrugged and looked behind him, at Cedric’s shop. “I think I stole your job this morning.”

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