Soma finds Ignacio and Nathan tries to make it to the bridge world of Threshold.
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Mount Alanessa is a semi-active volcano. It spews very little lava—mostly out of a slow vent on the cold, north side—and not often. However, on the west face near the summit, fire almost constantly burns out of a gas vent.
This is the Red Flue. Very little grows in the area around it and nothing grows next to it. The rock is black from soot or white from the bleaching heat. The fire is not always intense, but it can erupt at any time with heat that would burn to blisters the skin of any person foolish enough to come near. Often, this is because a pocket of natural gas has broken free from an underground chamber and reached the surface.
Sometimes it is because a fire preyvede is being born.
In the middle of the night, on May eleventh, year M seven sixty-nine, while most people in the two mirror worlds of Pan and Prometheus were sleeping, one of the greatest eruptions of fire since the advent of the preyvedes burst out of the Red Flue. The tongues of flame twisted out, rippling in the air like any flame would. At first. They twisted together and, at the flickering tips of orange and yellow, lips peeled back over white-hot teeth of burning vapor.
The roar of the flame was joined by a roar of pain. The fire twisted around behind the mouth, forming the round shape of a head, but parting and dividing behind the shape into a mad whirl of what almost looked like hair.
More quickly now the flames wound around and around. Neck, shoulders, arms, torso, waist, legs. Then the screaming mouth drew in a breath, and a black cloud drew down over the figure and itself joined the vortex of formation. The smoke became fabric over flaming skin.
Then the eruption calmed, the torrent above the vent returning to a faint wisp of yellow and barely visible blue. And the figure sculpted from fire and clothed in smoke fell to the hard rock.
She opened her eyes. Eyes that still contained all the madness and fury of the fire that had created her. She breathed, and the heat and deadly gasses still present next to the flue did not bother her. They were hers. They had made her. She felt her strength and lightness and realized she had a body of flesh, not just fire. The fire had not transformed into flesh. It was still fire, but was contained within the flesh.
But those were just impressions. Thoughts. Shock and confusion. She pushed herself to her feet and looked out at a dense evergreen forest down at the base of the mountain she stood on. Beyond the forest was a lower mountain range covered in the gray haze of rainclouds. She could not see anything beyond the endless gray.
She folded her arms and looked down at herself. Her skin was a deep, earthy red that wasn’t drastically different from the olive brown it had been before, but red seemed to glow through from underneath. The thin, short hairs over her arm were the faintest blond. From her head the red flames had cooled into wavy, thick, jet-black hair flowing down all the way to her waist. The black clothing, a dress of heavy fabric, was cut in overlapping, swirling lines that looked like it had been perfectly fitted for her. It felt cool against her hot skin.
Then her eyes cooled and watered and turned to brilliant black-cherry red as the shock faded. The rest of her also cooled in that moment, as if just so the tears would not steam away. As if the need for them to run down her cheeks carried more authority than the reality of what she now was. The cooling matched that of her heart as shock was pushed out by a descending reality.
She was still Soma, but she was no longer human. That meant everything Ignacio had said was true. That mean Viki really was a powerful demigod. That meant all the fairy tales were true. That every living person in the world—in the universe—had their souls stored in tanks in Threshold, the hidden world of the TAW. That humanity had become the creators of a new universe.
Her husband and two daughters really had been erased. Culled from their tanks in Threshold.
It was all madness and theory yesterday. Now Soma stood near the peak of Mount Alanessa, on a world called Pan, reborn out of fire, listening to the rumble of the flue behind her and the whistle of wind before her. If she doubted any of this, she only had to look at her arms and her disbelief would burn away.
They were gone. They were dead. They’d been killed because of a clerical error. Mankind had become Creator, and now human souls could be erased by accident.
Soma chuckled as her eyes continued to produce water to drip off her nose and chin, drops that flashed to steam the moment they touched the rock below her feet. She was partly ashamed at herself for finding it amusing, partly horrified at…everything. She knelt on her knees, facing the forest, thinking of her daughters’ faces. She saw them smiling. She saw them sleeping in their beds, full of dreams. She saw her husband laughing. She saw him holding her hand when she was afraid about something. She had never been in love with him, but he had been kind. He’d kept her strong, even though he’d never been in love with her either. He’d always been there.
Soma hunched forward over her knees and cried, drooling on clenched hands as she screamed, her throat going raw. She shivered as she cried and coughed, calling out her children’s names. Her wailing was drowned out by the dull, constant rumbling of the Red Flue behind her, which offered no warmth.
“End of the line!”
Nathan snapped awake in his seat on the cramped train car. The word JICHENG glowed in blue letters over the stairway leading down to the train platform.
Groggy and grumpy, Nathan stood up, grabbed his small bag from the overhead shelf, and stepped out of the train. He was blasted by brilliant afternoon sunlight and hot, dry air and the deep, rolling hum of the train. It was hovering just inches above the old, wood floor of the platform. So much stimulus at once immediately knocked the sleepiness out of him. On a very old wooden plank suspended over the platform were Chinese characters, probably saying the name of the city. Everyone around him moved with purpose and bland expressions, on their way to jobs, homes, whatever.
Yawning, he walked to a railing and looked out over the city, nestled in the open end of a wide box canyon that looked like it was mostly otherwise filled with pine trees and sage brush. The train platform was up on the side of a hill, so he had a nice view. He turned a moment as the train’s hum rose in pitch and it took off with surprising speed, leaving the platform suddenly silent. It sped up even more as it moved from hovering over magnetic things in the ground to hovering under the magnetic things suspended from a row of pillars that drew a pointillist line from the city to the horizon.
He had to admit that super-fast maglev trains were cool, but they still didn’t count. Not futury enough.
Unlike Helison, this city looked a lot different from when he’d last seen it, eight hundred years ago. The older buildings were in the center of the city, bits of them visible through the forest of metal and glass skyscrapers. They were all very “ancient Chinese” in design, with their terraced stories and sweeping, tiled roofs. Jicheng was supposed to be the city that represented East Asian architecture and culture, which was funny because it had been designed mostly by Keane Milton, a White gal who, like Nathan, had lived in Los Angeles most of her life. Nathan didn’t know if it had ever been populated primarily by Asian folks, but from the variety of hues and shapes in the faces around him at the moment, it wasn’t now.
But, there’d be time to muse about the misplaced intentions of city founders later. Nathan was more concerned with what was a hundred-K north of here, up in a draw along the west side of the valley.
Soma felt cold almost immediately after starting down the mountain. She was wearing both a dress and a heavy coat, both of the same black material, so she pulled the coat tight around herself and put its hood over her face as she walked bare-foot over ice-cold rock. Her feet seemed to have built-in callouses, so it didn’t hurt walking like this, but the ground leeched all the heat out of her.
Her teeth had been chattering for almost an hour by the time she stepped out of a dense spot of dark-green fir trees and into a clearing of tall grass. She stopped as she saw a tall, bald man wearing heavy, dark-green canvas clothing standing in the center of the grass.
His skin was mottled orange and red, so he was probably the same kind of creature Soma was now. He was smiling, with his long, slender arms folded and his fire-orange eyes staring at her.
Soma cleared her throat. As she spoke, she was relieved that her voice was the same. “You’re waiting for me, aren’t you.”
He nodded as she walked up to him. He fell in to walking alongside her before reaching into his jacket and pulling out a pair of slip-on shoes. His smile grew as Soma stopped and stared at him.
He chuckled as Soma snapped them out of his hands and put them on, hopping on one foot as each went on. Soma then stood there and sighed, warmth and relief rushing up from the thick, soft soles. “Thank you.”
He nodded and held out a hand. “I’m Ed.”
She took the hand. He squeezed hers with medium pressure. Out of habit, Soma squeezed back hard. “Soma.”
He resumed walking. Soma followed. He pointed at her head. “You have black hair. That’s pretty rare.”
Soma reached up and touched her hair. She twisted it around her fingers absently, her eyes on the ground, often looking at the shoes. Now that the distraction of being cold was gone, her mind could wander. She felt light, free. It was extremely strange, because she felt like she should be sad. She was, but the crushing sorrow she’d felt this morning was…different. It was still very tangible and real, but the paralysis and panic were gone. The urgency that had brought her to this point was gone as well.
The gaping hole in the center of her, left by her family, was definitely still there, though.
“Your eyes are unusual as well. If you ever visit Sun Rocks, you’ll have all the men fighting for your attention. Well, those that are past the Curse, anyway. Otherwise only the fire preyvedes will even be able to tell.”
“Some call it the Thirteen Year Curse. We all return not being able to see colors very well. We can usually only see those of our element. That’s probably why all the trees and the sky look gray to you right now.”
They left the clearing and walked back into the shade of the forest. Soma looked around, seeing brown and orange in the dry fir needles covering the ground, but also the infinite varieties of green in the trees, the sapphire blue in the sky, and the faint violet in a few little flowers blooming alongside the path. “Everything looks normal.”
Ed’s forehead wrinkled up. He squinted at her. “You were birthed out of the Red Flue just this morning, right? We saw it flare up, so we knew we had a new one.”
He looked upset. “It usually takes about five years for people get past it. It takes that long for people to accept what caused their deaths and to settle into their new life.”
“Well,” Soma’s back straightened out as she quickly ascertained a theory: “Coming out of that fire was very…cathartic. If you knew what I’ve been through—”
Soma stopped herself. She remembered that Viki had told her they normally fogged people’s memories when they made them preyvedes. She realized she may not want to tell everyone about her special treatment.
Fortunately, Ed misinterpreted her hesitation. “That’s normal. Some memories will come back, others won’t. Just don’t tell everyone how quickly you lost the Curse. It will make some of them jealous. But, if you ask me, I think you got those dark, ruby eyes as some sort of gift from the Alephs because of how quickly you knocked the curse.”
They walked along the path is silence for a while. Ed apparently was here to answer questions, but he didn’t volunteer any sort of orientation.
Soma might have to pull one out of him. “So, where are we going?”
“A little settlement call Banks. There you can clean up, get new clothes if you want. You can head to the fire preyvede commune from there.”
Soma’s eyes were still on her sandals. “Will water preyvedes be at Banks?”
“Yep. All four elements.”
Soma readjusted her cloak, feeling a bit warmer. She knew what she needed to do next.
Soma spotted the over-sized tent right on the boarder of the commune’s tent city with the forest, right where everyone said it would be. There was a wooden door built into the side of the tent with IGNACIO’S painted on it.
She sighed in relief and sped up toward it.
But just before she was about to knock on the door, a tall, gangly man with gray-blue skin burst out of the door, almost knocking her over. She remembered him vaguely from the dream. He ran past her in a blur, his head stooped forward on his long neck to look down at a holographic screen projecting from a pen. It looked just like the one Viki had used to figure out what had happened to her family.
“Excuse me, I—” Soma started, but the man was oblivious to the world.
He charged through the knot of tents, Soma following. He finally stopped once he reached a clearing with a large brick fire pit in the center. He kept looking at the pen’s screen, muttering to himself: “Gotta be a glitch.”
As Soma approached him, his head snapped up to look at her, then returned to looking at the screen. He took a few more steps away from her, shook his head, and stuffed the pen in a pocket.
His head remained stooped as he looked up at the sky, making him a couple centimeters shorter than he should be. He put his hands in his pockets and just stood there.
“Excuse me, may I have a moment to talk with you about something?”
He turned his whole body to face her, glaring at her like she was some sort of oddity, then frowned. “Yes? What do you want?”
The slightly awkward rise and fall in the pitch of his voice brought back clear memories of her conversation with him in the dream. She took a step toward him. “You told me to come to you for help if I found out my family was dead.”
His mouth cracked open, but his eyes squinted, as if he was considering this. Finally, his eyes widened. “Oh. Okay. You’re that woman, then. You gave Aramis quite the headache.”
Ignacio flared a nostril, looking up a moment, then sauntered over to her. “You didn’t kill yourself, did you? How’d you get here?”
He frowned. “From whom?”
“Viki Akhmatova. An Aleph working at Helison University.”
Ignacio looked down and shook his head. “Don’t know her. I’m kind of behind on who all the Prometheus Alephs are.”
Soma studied the man. He was awkward and nervous, and he knew something. Or everything. If he had a black pen like Viki’s, it probably meant he was an Aleph as well. She had a feeling it was unusual for an Aleph to also be a preyvede, though. He might be an outcast. The fact that people said that all he did was sell gray market “mazai gadgets” reinforced that theory.
Soma made a decision. “I’m after something important. And I need your help.”
“Crap. Now where is it?”
Nathan flicked out the kickstand of the dirt-bike he’d bought just hours ago and stepped around to the back of it to pull the saddlebags off and throw them over his shoulder. Standing by the bike, he turned and again stared at the blank, rock wall where the door was hiding. There was a clearing cut in a half-kilometer-wide, half-moon around the cliff-side, where nothing but a few short weeds grew.
He’d just remembered that the relief carving, which was somewhere on the rock wall at the center of the clearing, only appeared during the day when it was hot. There was this obnoxious process of waiting for a silvery haze of a mirage to appear on the clearing, and you were supposed to walk out and step onto the mirage, and it would transform into real water, and then the carving would appear. All these stupid puzzles were meant to hide the narthex door.
But it wasn’t hot right now. It was night and it was chilly out, so no magic relief carving. Without the carving, it would be time consuming finding the door. With the carving, it was marked and centered between the feet of Pan. And there would be some overly-dramatic poem about Pan taken from the Homeric Hymns written on the door. It would still open without the carving being visible, just as long as Nathan could find it. He walked out into the clearing, headed toward the center as best he could estimate.
He sighed and cursed as he reached the rock and put his hand against the rough surface. Wherever it was, it was seamlessly integrated into the cliff face. He could just walk along, trying to lift up from the ground at every point all along the whole length. Which, was probably what he was going to have to do.
He threw the heavy saddlebags to the ground and squatted down by the rock. He stuck his fingers under a shallow overhang near the ground and pulled up. Nothing. He shuffled to the right and tried again. Nothing.
He went a few yards, feeling ridiculous and glad no one was watching him. He paused to stand up and stretch his back, then crouched down and continued. He got maybe a dozen yards from where the saddlebags were laying, then decided to walk back over and go to the left of them.
And, fortunately, the rock gave a little on his third try.
“Finally!” He walked over, threw the saddlebags back over his shoulder, and squatted down at the point where the door was. He dusted his fingers with dirt and griped the overhang and grunted to lift up with all his strength.
Which was the extent of the security system: “Make the door really heavy.” That way, only people like TAW and Alephs with augmented bodies could open the door. The door would only let human fingers lift it. Machines wouldn’t budge it.
He got his legs straight and grunted as he readjusted one hand at a time so that he was holding it with more than just his fingertips. Then he yelled and threw it up all the way into the pocket above the doorway. It would hold there for about ten seconds.
He stepped into the dark hallway and reached into one of the bags to get a flashlight. Fortunately, he found it quickly and pulled it out just as the door fell and slammed shut behind him with a singular boom.
He clicked the light on and whistled, hearing it echo loudly up and down the long, dusty tunnel. He headed inward and toward answers only this bridge world of Threshold could give him.