Blue lights turned to red, bathing the laboratory in an eerie glow.
In their previous existence the walls had been an angelic white, though now appeared blood-soaked in the artificial light, giving Dr. Tallas Radagan an unshakeable morbid feeling. They had begun their descent into hell; or at least it felt that way to the pallid doctor.
Looking around the rushed set up of the makeshift lab, Tallas watched his colleagues prepare for the procedure.
The analysis expert, Dr. Arven, stood by the large bio-com unit, tapping commands into the wall console while reading from his clipboard. Every few presses initiated a series of interchanging tones from the wall-console, from which a large metal casing connected to the ceiling. Tallas followed the tube’s path, which led up beyond the ceiling, along the engine room above them, and returned in the far corner to join the main machine.
The long legs of Dr. Ihugov stretched out awkwardly under the corner bank of monitors, completing last minute checks of his equipment. He lay uncomfortably in his v-suit - a customised version of the brown metallic coveralls they all wore - his backpack grinding on the hard floor as he adjusted his position. The alhimoan's long flat shoes hid his webbed feet, though his scaled moss-green skin could be seen below his trouser hem.
Dr. Hammas, the youngest member in the room, moved delicately between her consoles as she checked various apparatus with an intense look. She glanced up briefly, and quickly looked away as their eyes met, appearing almost embarrassed. Despite his mood, Tallas found a weak smile pass his lips. He was fully aware that the Daan Dolian blood within him was to blame for a particularly attractive appearance, a fact that most women wouldn’t let him forget. Finding a mate, however, was the last thing on his mind right then.
The stocky scientist, Dr. Kessla, whom Tallas had only met the day before, worked back and forth between the two strange, balloon-like consoles hovering by the main machine. His square head and glasses reminded Tallas of an old lecturer, Dr. Elian Thewls Hedderson, though their present situation was a far cry from the Galamastra University. Kessla had been referred to as a specialist, and that his Outer Reach equipment would assuredly maintain a containment of the ensuring energy. Tallas grimaced at the thought of the specialist doctor’s foreign equipment not living up to their promise.
It was no secret that Tallas had been apprehensive of the procedure from the beginning, when the biological division heads of the Cyta Corporation had first told him of its delicate nature. Although if Tallas had learned one thing from his professional years, it was that the most dangerous theories usually yielded the greatest advances. That, or they caused the biggest catastrophes.
“Doctor?” a hard voice said beside him. He turned to look upon the sharp features of Dr. Ofslow. The thin man’s hollow cheeks, strong jawline and metallic sheen to his general sallow complexion – a product of his half-Zadi heritage - often reminded Tallas of a mechanoid. Or perhaps the resemblance was in the doctor’s cold and abrasive manner, often branding him as emotionless by some of his peers. A curt bedside manner, someone had once called it. “I said we're ready for you.”
Recovering from his thoughts, Tallas said, “Yes. Yes of course. Thank you, doctor.”
Dr. Ofslow's dour face was dark and heavy in the red gloom of the room. He held his stern look a moment longer, a thousand computations at work behind his hooded eyes, before turning to cross the room. No doubt he noticed Tallas' moment of hesitation and doubt, and he would be sure to mention it to their superiors after, no matter how well the procedure went.
As Tallas approached his screens - as if in response to his acquiescence to finally play his part in this - the low hum from Dr. Arven's console began to grow to a steady rumble.
His legs felt weak as he walked. He tried not to look at the robed figure by the wall, though he could feel the red shadow watching him. For a second he could swear that there were two figures by the wall, the unsolicited one a shadow of the past. On the occasions that he participated in procedures of unknown outcomes such as this one he would always see his brother Benedan at some point, screaming a silent reminder with his wide fearful eyes.
Sweat began running under his heavy suit. The blood-red room seemed a lot bigger and less suffocating before the experiment started.
A sharp clank sent a jolt up his chest. He turned to see that Dr. Ihugov had knocked his backpack against a frame as he stood up. The alhimoan’s large golden eyes showed embarrassment as he sheepishly looked around, a crooked smile playing across his pointed lips. Tallas breathed to slow his racing heart and flexed his shaken fingers. He wasn't sure what he had expected at that moment. Swallowing through a dry throat he tried to shake off the dreaded feeling.
A small sense of security washed over him in the familiarity of the light-screens as he came to them. At least these were something he could control. Although the Rhedonite holo-screens they had given him were a different model to what he had become accustomed to over the years, they would serve their purposes accordingly. These mark-IV’s, while (frustratingly) dial-core over ion-core, had less chance to interrupt Dr. Kessla’s equipment, as Advance-Doctor Coasja put it. Tallas’ concerns that the older screens would limit his own abilities were out rightly dismissed.
He swept a hand over his brown hair, which was verging on too-long and unkempt as always. A light sheen of sweat covered his hand as it left his forehead.
The electrical readouts came to life as he waved over the corner sensor of the bulky frames, and he was reminded of a time when their technology was alien to him. The thought of how green he was at the beginning of his studies usually brought a nostalgic smile to his face. But not this time. You didn't lose the flowers, you lost me.
If there was one thing that Tallas was good for, if he was ever at knifepoint and asked to pick a specialty subject, it wouldn’t be medicine related or to do with ancient artefacts; it would be in thinking about the past. The power of nostalgia, as he often thought of it, was strong with him indeed. It was a trait that, like nostalgia itself, was hard to shake off.
He found himself wondering, not for the first time, which of all the events in his life had led him to this particular moment in time. The College of Advanced Medical Applications certainly was a predominant factor. Amy was another reason, of course, but he reminded himself not to think about her. What happened to Juri pushed him in another direction, certainly. But really, once Tallas was first told the stories of the Gynen Crystals, and had finally seen one of the holy artefacts with his own eyes, his studies skewed irrevocably from then.
His theoretical and practical experience of the crystals was the reason they chose him for this experiment all the way out here, but a strange feeling deep inside Tallas told him that he was destined to be here, regardless. A siren’s song that had called out to him his entire life.
Dr. Kessla shuffled past his screens at that moment, faltering a step. The specialist was clearly unaccustomed to the covered backpack unit on his v-suit, though to his credit he persevered without voicing any complaints. He offered Tallas a nervous grin as he regained his footing, his glasses flashing a bright white reflection in the gloom.
Just how many people in this room actually know what they're doing? Tallas wondered.
He knew of, and had faith in Dr. Ofslow's abilities. The mechanoid-man had proven himself a brilliant scientist on many occasions, and Tallas had often been in awe at the older man’s startling intellect and work practices - once he had concluded that you were worth sharing his time with.
It disturbed Tallas that Dr. Kessla's specialities, and equipment, were so foreign to him, and he wondered where the corporation had actually found someone like him. Like finding someone who enjoyed throwing fuel onto a dragon’s face.
He had worked with Dr. Hammas before, and the woman had proved herself competent enough, though she carried herself awkwardly. While she was a brilliant biologist, her movements and speech showed a lack of confidence, and in Tallas' experience being unsure of your actions caused hesitation, proving fatal at the wrong time.
He also wondered how Dr. Ihugov had managed to secure himself a place in the room. The alhimoan's experience in infection-cancelling bacteria did not provide any reasons for him being there, as far as Tallas was concerned, nor his well-known studies into the changing densities of turbo-charged cells. Someone like that was only looking for trouble and to cause problems, and that was no one he wanted in the same room as him for a procedure like this.
It had been a long while since Tallas was in a confined lab like this. He missed the open-world of the excavation sites, and his own team, who would laugh and shake their heads at the clinical and procedural nature of this experiment, while they crawled around the dirt in a scientific scramble for their life’s meaning. A meaning for it all. While Tallas had never been a particularly religious man, his findings on the Gynen Crystals were the closest he had ever felt to a divine existence.
A golden liquid from one of Dr. Hammas’ apparatus popped three times in succession, their bursts sounding like tortured cries to Tallas. The thick glittering substance ebbed lazily, a rolling wave in a tiny ocean.
Another grimace crossed his face. He told himself he had survived worse than this, and that was true. It was dumb luck, with a little quick thinking, that he survived the attack from the ancient Sand Serpent they had disturbed on one cursed expedition. Although uncovering the nest of Akrilleii was burned into his memory as his most horrifying moment. The screeching jumping spiders had swarmed onto him and his team in a frenzy of bites and scratches, all while the thought of them laying eggs in their wounds terrorised him. He shook the memory away, although was not too comforted by his current situation.
Something buzzed by him at that moment. As the black ball circled the unit encasing the artefacts, Tallas found the probe-cam's low hum and controlled movements more of an irritant than usual. A second probe hovered across the far side of the room, appearing curious of a bank of monitors. Seeing Dr. Kessla’s darting looks and curious stares at the cams, it was clear that these were also unfamiliar to the specialist. Though no high-level procedure like this would receive clearance without the Seniors and Advances watching through the probe-cam’s eyes. That the buzzing spheres reminded him of the seeker-balls he played with as a child, another reminder of Benny, did not help his fears of the past reaching into the present.
Fingers moving through his screens, Tallas set his levels and checked the readings, now studying the crystal.
Within the glass unit under the main machine, the large translucent crystal was surprisingly calm, as if it were acting nice and allowing them to play with it. A younger Tallas would have taken that as a godly sign, but todays Tallas truly did not know what to make of it. The crystal emanated its usual faint aura that could never quite be seen when looking directly at it, but when looking to its side, out of focus or from the corner of your eye, you could see the aura was there. So powerful was the energy of the crystal that it couldn't be touched with bare hands, a reminder that it wasn’t meant for mortal men. Tallas looked on with a hunger growing within him, a dark curiosity that fuelled his ambitions. Fuelled everything. Meant everything.
He knew he was grimacing even before he saw his faint reflection through the electric screens. His eyes, usually jet-black, reflected as a glowing red, making him look demonic.
It was almost time now.
He felt his muscles tighten as he considered looking up. Looking up would mean this was actually happening, and if he didn't look up then they couldn't proceed. But waiting wouldn't stop anything. Tallas knew they had already come too far. He finished his preparations and looked up to find Dr. Hammas waiting, her normally shimmering blue eyes, now black in the light of the room, searching him closely, awaiting his confirmation.
“All go here.” Tallas nodded to the woman, keeping his voice even.
Half a heartbeat later Dr. Hammas began flicking switches and turning dials. The golden liquid popped and settled, shimmering idly. It built up again, forming a great bulge before popping in a shower of sparkles and settling to re-join the liquid.
A blinking light drew his attention to his alt screen, telling him to adjust his sensitivity levels. Check the lights, they’ll tell you what you need to know before you need to know it, his old teacher Dr. Paer’z’ritch reminded him once again. Dragging the left screen up to eye level, he positioned it between him and the main machine to better see the real-time updates. He would need to keep a greater focus now that his screens were separated.
“All readings are stable,” Dr. Arven said to the room.
“Confirmed,” Dr. Ofslow flatly replied, his eyes darting between his monitors and the main machine. “Begin the cypher phase.” He spared a quick look at Dr. Kessla.
The specialist doctor initiated his processes behind the clear divider of the main machine. Tallas had recommended that no one be that close to the crystal at any point during the procedure, though their superiors had insisted the opposite. If the worst were to happen then the specimen would be gone also.
He spared a look at the remains of the ancient carcass on the station next to the machine, and morbidly wondered if their own remains would look similar, if they were to be found after this experiment failed. He scowled as he told himself to stop being so pessimistic, or risk ruining the procedure himself.
He forced himself to focus on his screens, but he could feel eyes on him now. He couldn't help but look up at the robed figure. An icy coldness ran through him as he acknowledged the presence of the Red Monk. Standing by the wall, still as a statue, shrouded in heavy red robes, his face was hidden beneath a large cowl. The air around the monk was thicker, almost heat-hazed, as if he were emanating some sort of aura, like the crystal.
The thick robes brought a tortured memory back to Tallas. You didn't lose the flowers, you lost me. He turned back to his screens with a severe look on his face.
“Ready on my mark,” someone said. It must have been Dr. Ofslow.
Are we there already? Tallas had not realised the moment had come so soon, somehow hoping to fight off the inevitable with time.
Dr. Ofslow gave the command. Tallas studied his screens.
Dr. Arven pulled a lever on his thunderous device, creating a whining pitch which slowly died down.
Thumbing his pads carefully, Dr. Ihugov’s golden eyes watched the main machine intently.
Braced between his balloon consoles, Dr. Kessla held a hovering over a large multi-button, his fingers twitching.
Dr. Hammas stood by her bank of consoles, a grave look on her face. Her golden liquid popped once, twice, and steadied.
The monk remained as still as ever.
A hazy blue-white energy gathered over the main machine, charging the air around it, ebbing and growing. A moment later it erupted downwards in a thick beam, connecting with sensors that funnelled the energy into the casing. Through the glass unit Tallas could see tendrils of energy lazily reaching out, groping at the crystal, slowly taking hold as it strengthened, until the crystal was obscured in a wash of light.
The shimmering energy continued to grow; now reaching out beyond the casing, towards the scientists menacingly, looking for a victim. It reached inches away from a fear-stricken Dr. Kessla – his back against the partition as he stood motionless – before it eventually began subsiding back to the crystal. One of the doctors softly groaned with relief.
A rivulet of sweat trailed down Tallas’ face, though he dared not remove his hands from his screens to wipe it. He studied the energy through his left screen, where its electronic representation was monitored with dozens of checks. His readings told him its stability, condition of the crystal, energy permeation levels, along with dozens of other statistics, all running furiously in an endless stream that would be gibberish to the untrained eye.
Dr. Arven's wall console had shaken violently, and the doctor had to forcefully hold the lever in place the moment the beam formed. Though now it appeared to stabilise. The frequency of the vibrations was another indicator that told Tallas the procedure was going well.
So far so good.
Risking a brief glance towards Dr. Ofslow, he saw the man's eyes had grown heavier with concentration. Something about Dr. Ofslow’s scowl told him that there was a problem, and Tallas’ heart sank. He flicked his eyes between his screens and the doctor’s expression, trying to read both. Could the fusion be withdrawing? Perhaps the theories were wrong, somehow?
The remains on the table held no answers, yet. Dr. Hammas' golden liquid continued to bubble and pop in a controlled sequence, but did not show signs of aggravation. Maybe the procedure had-
A console erupted in a powerful burst, throwing Dr. Arven across the room and sending out a shower of sparks. Tallas turned against the blast, keeping his footing steady.
A disorientating ringing accompanied the sounds that soon returned, and he realised that the muffled boom that pounded was an alarm sounding.
Dr. Arven lay motionless with a blood splattered arm covering his face, and Tallas could not tell if he were breathing. Someone called out. A screen had disconnected from Tallas’ hand, but he did not need them to see that the machine was no longer sustaining the energy. He held his free hand over his eyes as he looked on at his damnation.
A howling wind blew from a hole in the protruding casing of Dr. Arven's console. Papers and apparatus swirled and crashed around the furious wind. Their own contained tornado.
Dr. Kessla sprinted across the room, and just as Tallas thought the man was fleeing he saw him shove Dr. Ihugov aside and frantically punch in commands on his console. The booming alarm grew louder by the second. Or perhaps Tallas’ hearing was improving.
A probe-cam fought against the wind as it wavered by, drawing Tallas’ eye through the maelstrom to Dr. Ofslow. The man was moving too, fighting against the wind, but, shockingly, he was moving towards the machine. Somehow the beam continued to flow from the ceiling machine, even though Dr. Arven's console had blown. But what was of greater concern to Tallas was whatever Dr. Ofslow was intending. He took another heavy step towards the casing under the main machine, reaching out to open it. What is he doing? Isn't anyone going to stop him? Would someone - the monk! Where is the monk? Tallas froze in place as he saw the empty wall where the monk had stood. He scanned the room frantically, but no red robes could be seen. The monk had left them when they needed him the most.
The silhouette of Dr. Ofslow stained the blinding light around him, his backpacked suit forming a large and surreal shadow. The insane man was opening the casing. He wanted the crystal.
Fear and adrenaline pushed Tallas forward, his legs stronger than ever.
Before he could reach Dr. Ofslow, a monitor to his right exploded in a shower of fire and glass, sending him spinning. He landed on his backpack with a burst of pain, coughing and heaving as the air was knocked out of him.
From his ground view Tallas could see Dr. Hammas lying across the room. Her cold dead eyes stared at him, calm in the storm. The serene face against the tumultuous surroundings flashed a childhood memory of his mother, and he could have cried right then.
A probe-cam rolled along the ground, inactive.
A fierce heat washed over Tallas as he saw Dr. Ofslow had opened the cabinet casing, and stood with his hands resting on the frame as brilliant light overflowed from the crystal in torrential waves.
Tallas could not comprehend the man’s actions. Without the crystal the beam would tear a hole through the room, and would likely rip through the hull, sucking them all into the infinite blackness of space. There was a reason why their Superiors insisted the procedure take place in deep space.
Pushing himself forward again, fighting the weight of his suit and the pain in his back, Tallas threw himself against his superior as the man reached towards the crystal. Both doctors fell to the ground in a heap.
Dr. Ofslow let out a hideous cry, and Tallas looked on incredulously as a black smoke drifted through the air. Dr. Ofslow had touched the crystal. His hands had turned charcoal black and were now flaking in the wild wind like burnt paper. His screams were a near match for the howling wind. The crystal, to Tallas’ great relief, was still held in place, sensors undisturbed. He hadn’t realised how close he was to knocking it out of place when he tackled the doctor. Ofslow’s screams were almost inhuman as his black hands fell away in a charred mess, a bone jutting from one of his stumps.
Tallas pushed himself to his feet, searched frantically through the storm - the blood-red walls now barely visible - looking for a way to stop the beam. Dr. Kessla was still pushing buttons on Dr. Ihugov’s console, but the alhimoan doctor was nowhere to be seen. Tallas hoped that the specialist would be able to stop this disaster before it was too late.
He knew that everyone else on the ship would be evacuating right now, not daring to enter the room and expose the uncontrolled energy further.
But where the hell was their supposed protector?
Small sparks flashed from Kessla's console, though he stood his ground. Tallas fought the wind and approached the specialist, hoping he could help in some way. But mostly he hoped to find that Kessla knew exactly what he was doing and was in the process of stopping the beam any second now.
“Kessla,” he called through the storm and booming alarm, but his colleague did not respond. He dared not touch the doctor while he worked for fear of interrupting an important procedure.
Another series of small sparks flew from the edges of the console. As they settled, the monitor suddenly exploded with a powerful burst that threw both scientists to the floor.
The room was dark and silent for a moment.
Regaining his senses - a light fixture fell from somewhere nearby - Tallas saw that flames now spat from the monitor’s casing, spilling further along the bank of consoles. The wind was no match for the flames, and the heat was instantly smothering. Dr. Kessla lay next to Tallas, splayed out grotesquely on his backpack. Glass shards studded his frozen face. Tallas dropped his head in defeat, his whole body weak with pain. He felt a stinging sensation. Reaching a hand up to his forehead, he saw it came back covered in dark blood.
A shimmer in the corner of his eye drew his attention, and he saw that the golden liquid from Dr. Hammas' apparatus had escaped and was now slowly spreading across the floor, moving towards him almost as if with a mind of its own. Ignoring the liquid, ignoring the deafening alarm and fierce wind, ignoring everything, Tallas rested against his heavy pack, regaining his pained breath, resigned to his fate. Flames began to spread around him, fighting to stay alive within the wind. Exhaustion overwhelmed him. The world began to fade.
He was shocked back to his senses as the sound of the energy beam changed. The machine’s funnel convulsed violently, threatening the inevitable. Tallas scrambled to his feet, almost falling back over in the process. He thought frantically. If he didn't act now, and act right, he would be killed along with everyone else on the ship. But with no way to contain the pressure, Dr. Ihugov’s consoles blown, Dr. Kessla out of commission, there was no way of possibly stopping the beam. Tallas squinted through the wind and flying detritus, looking for something, anything. Were there any other failsafe's implemented? Yes, but he was nowhere to be found.
Then it happened, and everything changed.
The funnel broke loose, throwing rods and cables out to join the maelstrom, and the beam disconnected from the sensors. It moved slowly, incinerating all it touched. Tallas remained frozen as the beam changed course to - towards him! The beam tore through the station beside it, devouring the ancient remains, and continued its path of destruction towards him.
His face contorted into the pained grimace of a person knowing he is about to die. In that moment Tallas saw the futility of his whole life and, he realised, he didn’t want to die. He still had so much he wanted to do - to see the people he wanted to see again. He didn’t want to die. But that meant nothing. Everything meant nothing now. Everything that had led him to this point had all meant nothing. What did it really mean for him to have been touched by the people that meant the most to him, if it all led to him being a victim of a magnificently failed experiment? His journey into medicine, which led to his path through ancient godly artefacts, had only been the beginning of his journey into death.
The beam tore through the floor as it searched for him. In the instant Tallas felt its incredible power close in, something large and forceful fell over him. Thick red robes covered his view as the world filled with a searing light, and burned everything into nothingness.
You didn't lose the flowers, you lost me.
The market was particularly busy today.
The desert sun shone fiercely in the mid-day sky as James Island made his way through the busying crowds. He waded through the multitude of species with a practiced ease, ducking and sidestepping, while careful not to push enough to cause a grievance.
The market heaved with the bellowing calls of hungry merchants vying for the attention of passing people. Bargaining and arguing and laughing, the languages and tonal range of the Sab Sina Market’s patrons roared as one glorious mess.
Hot spicy aromas bombarded James as he passed a stall with hanging meats, a short unkempt woman calling out to anyone who neared. James tried to mentally name all the animals he could see hanging, knowing all but two of them. He had gotten better.
A thankful breeze cooled the light sweat on his face as he pushed through the thick crowd. It had taken him a while to adjust to the persistent heat that smothered the city, which was considerable on an afternoon like this particular afternoon. He wondered if it was his body’s way of telling him that it wasn't accustomed to such heat. But by the time he figured that out it would be snowing.
James wondered why Tam, his foreman, had asked him to pick up supplies on such a busy day. But if it was one thing that James had learned in his time working for Tam the man it was how to follow orders, however insignificant they seemed. It was the least James could do for the man, he often told himself, after Tam took him in, gave him a job and a place to live, when James had literally nowhere else to go.
Thinking of the day ahead, James approached a fruit stall, the small transportable kind that tended to move around, known as a hamisoll. The powerful smells of the market were pushed aside for a moment by the sweet fragrances of the surrounding fruits. He made eye contact with the hefty woman behind the counter.
“What can I get you?” the stall vendor asked, her plump features turning into a practiced smile. Her silver-blonde hair was pulled back over her ruddy heart shaped face.
“How's it, Fen?” James leaned forward, raising his voice over the crowds.
A moment of puzzlement glazed over the large woman before her eyes widened with knowledge. “Oh fo'wshwai. It's you, dear,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “Sorry, I dunno where my mind is.”
Fen shook her head with an over-exaggerated frown. “Hyne’s Grace, these people are gonna be the death of me, I tell you.”
James grunted a laugh. “Yeah, it's a rough one today.” He pressed himself against the counter as a tall furred bulk pushed by him.
“Bless me if I survive tomorrow,” Fen added absently. “Anyway, how you been, dear?”
“Good, some.” James shrugged, smiling. He realised he was smiling too much, the way he did when he tried too hard to come across as amicable, and lessened the humour on his face. “Busy on the sites, you know. Still working on my contracts.”
“Busy, busy. You're always busy. Listen to me, sonny, you spend your life being too busy, you'll miss out on living. Take it from this old crone, you don't wanna wake up one day and find that you've missed your life.”
“Wouldn't want that now.” He didn't meet the stall vendor's eyes.
Breathing a rough sigh, Fen leaned closer to him as a browsing passer-by left her hami. “Why I'm still here is beyond me.” She rubbed her side with an overworked grimace. “I ever tell you of my prince?”
Before James could tell her that he hadn't, she had already begun telling the story.
“I weren't always in Tyken Town you know. Many years ago now, when I were a different woman, I shipped around a lot.” Fen smiled to herself, her cheeks almost consuming her small eyes, shaking her head at the memory. “For a moon cycle on Dadan next door, I had a prince in love with me. Tall as they make them, eyes you could happily fall forever in. And he only had eyes for me. Heavens above, how we were in love. With Daelthi's blessings we shared a magical life, for a while.” She cleared a wrapping off the heat dried counter and started wiping it down with a heavily stained cloth while she spoke, but now stopped to look at James. “But the war on Illis sent him away. As his Royal duty went. And, as it goes, it was his Royal duty that took him from me. They told me they have a statue of him on that moon he's buried on. Ain't never seen it for myself, though.” Her voice trailed off as she shook her head again.
As Fen's stories went, this one intrigued James, though left him with an uneasy feeling. “Why ain't you been to see him... his statue?”
“What for, lad? So I can remember him? I don't need no statue to remember him. To remember that he loved me. And that what we shared together was real. No, I had my time with him, and that's what I'll take with me. Doda's Will as is.”
James considered her words. “He sounds like a great man.”
“Aye, that he was, lad. That and something.” She smiled at the memory, but then her brows tightened. “Now take it from me. Don't go worrying too much about what’s in the past. We have those memories, and that's all they are. What matters is the now, and making the best of it.”
James nodded, filling in the silence with a weak smile.
Fen noticed another patron looking over her stall. “Oh how I could lecture someone as young as you.” She laughed to herself. “Pay no mind to me, sonny. Dollai F’yiolrai, as they say. Now, what can I get you?”
Resting his hands on the wooden compartment housing the displayed fruits, James said, “I'm partial to some of those blue apples I got from here before.”
Fen grunted a laugh. “Those went out of season almost when you bought them last, dear.”
James looked at her, lost for a response. Over the buzz of the crowd he picked out the clang of a hammer on metal, the armoury behind the market.
“I tell you,” Fen continued, shaking her head sincerely. “It's Sand Season now. Passion pears, plumlettes, grey melons, they're what you want now.” She gestured as she spoke. “I got some spiced doba's left over from last season, those’re the yellow ones, but you probably don't want them, dear. Too sour.”
“Yeah, that's right,” James said furtively, trying to smile and make his mistake appear in jest. “I'm still getting used to the seasons here.” He felt his brow ripple with sweat.
“Oh that's right, you ain't from around these lands, are you?”
“Well I've been in the city a few years now,” James said casually, attempting to focus on the fruit rather than looking at Fen.
“That right? What brang you all the way out here, then? It can't be for that errand boy job you've got yourself, now can it?”
James shifted his footing. “It's… a good job-”
Another large figure pushed James against the counter as he passed.
“Look, Fen, I- I gotta go,” James stammered, looking for his exit point among the crowd.
“But wait, dear.”
“Was good to see you. I'll come back round another time.” He crooked a smile as he left the bewildered Fen behind her fruit hami.
Concealed among the crowd once again, James attempted to put the interaction with Fen out of his mind, and replace it with the electrical store of his destination. He felt the calm of being alone again wash over him.
Tam had given him the rest of the day off after he brought the supplies back, which would have been a nicer gesture if James generally had other things to do. He spent most of his time away from work reading, a pastime he found he enjoyed shortly after settling into town. He would read whatever he could get his hands on, Tyken Town not particularly known for its libraries or archives. He mostly enjoyed mystery and adventure stories, the ones where the hero would overcome his own fears and limitations and learn what he was capable of in time to save the day and get the princess. He also enjoyed reading about the many myths and legends from Carnan’s rich history, such as the trials of the holy spirit Doda Daiden or the gigantic dragons that were meant to have ruled the land a millennia ago. He would also make the effort to read historical books whenever he could, wanting to learn as much about the worlds out there, and the planet he found himself on.
It wasn't as if James had many friends to spend his time with either. He mostly kept to himself on the construction site, though he was friendly with his colleagues and generally well-known around. He enjoyed the company of a particular colleague, Sam Hawkings, another human, very honest and open, very sure of himself, which was what James admired about him the most. He would definitely look into becoming better friends with Sam in the future, James often told himself.
A group of men standing by an apothecary hami caught his eye just then. Dressed in weather-worn light armours and loose fitting clothes held tight with thick straps, their large non-sheathed swords hung low from their belts. On their way to or from an exciting, dangerous, no doubt important mission. It troubled him to see people with weapons so casually worn, as such a part of their everyday life. What kind of a people would need their swords by them in a marketplace? Hunters, soldiers, mercenaries, he guessed, as they didn’t look like any Lawmen he’d ever seen, though they usually carried rifles.
James had thought he'd seen almost every type of person in his time in the city. If he didn't know much about the world outside of Tyken Town, he at least liked to think he came across a lot of what there was to see of it within the city borders. The surrounding land was home to the canarrians and canthians, a race of desert people who had supposedly lived on Carnan for centuries. Notable by their maroon skin and blonde hair, which turned silver with age, they frequented Tyken Town and other major towns and cities, though most preferred to keep within their smaller desert villages and hillsides. Along with what he would call the common species in town - sebscillion's, bahkschim's, and bo'breih's - James came across many others on a daily basis. Looking up in the sky one afternoon he had once seen the aftermath of a small battle between several ships. He remembered the slowly evaporating explosion streaks and smoke trails against the faint purple sky, and someone near him talking about a fatal miscommunication. He was even present when an impressive twenty-foot luminous blue glob attacked a part of the city, its thick rubber-like existence demolishing buildings in its aimless path, before eventually being destroyed by a bombardment of Red Guards and Ep-Sec squadrons. The smell of burnt - James only knew it as ‘the big blue blob’ - lingered in that district for several days afterwards.
Pushing his way to the edge of the crowd on one side of the market, he gave himself more room to move and much needed air. He ran a hand through the sweaty underside of one of his toughlets, the metal bands of compartments that stored various tools and equipment along his forearms, letting the air cool his hot arms.
The dull orange sign of the electrical store flickered lazily in the distance, and James could now smell the hot sandwiches from the eatery opposite. He noted the warped wooden bench that he and Tam had once sat on and ate mixed meat sandwiches - Lowen Lo’s, they were called - the first time Tam had shown him around the markets. Looking back, James barely recognised the person he was then. He let the memory fade by looking up at the sky, the way he did to remind himself that his future was out there, and the past did not matter.
A wine merchant ventured out from his hami, spouting many offers and promises of fine stock. James declined the scruffy man's persistent pleas as he'd learned to do, and moved on without causing offence. Big smiles as always. He heard the wine merchant approach the next passer-by before his fourth step.
Wading through the rowdy crowd outside, James made his way into the dimly lit electrical store. Roughly square shaped with a domed ceiling, the store had a dusty smell that reminded him of rusting electronics, partly due to some of the older devices and mechs around, which were mostly for display. One of which, a defunct mech – a blocky humanoid shape with large shoulders and thin arms and legs – lay in the corner, hollow eyes watching the customers in its inactive bliss. James had often wondered if there were security cameras within the eye sockets. The owner of the store, whom James had become fairly familiar with from all his visits, was a wiry gangly man with strong veiny forearms and long dirty hair named Erry Boscida, whose dark sun-burnt skin gave away his canarrian heritage. Erry was speaking with a short sebscillion woman right then, so James looked around the shelves while he waited. The welcomed cool air in the store, from a softly humming unit somewhere, felt refreshing on his face and armpits, making him realise just how hot he had been. He picked up a handful of power screws, the ones he kept running low on, from a shelf container and continued to peruse.
A low roar came from the monitor in the corner. James guessed it was showing a sport of some kind, though its volume, the only sound in the store besides the air unit and Erry and his departing customer, was too low to determine which.
“What'll it be?” Erry’s gravelly voice croaked as he approached.
“Hi, Erry. I'm here for Tam's order. Tam Borral?”
The store owner studied James with squinted eyes. “That's right. You're one of Tam's. 'Sai, how goes it?”
Been coming here for over a year now, and he still doesn't recognise me. “Going fine, Erry,” James nodded, smiling. He also nodded too much, he realised. “How's business?”
Erry Boscida shrugged spectacularly and frowned. “What can I tell ya'? If it ain't the Judges raising my prices, it's these raal-brained know-nothing freshlings opening up their cheap hami’s all over the place. And don't expect them to help when you go running back to them with a burnt-out power coupling or synthetic drive-core. If they're even still there when you go back.” He spat out a grunt as he snatched a hammer off a shelf and started wiping it with a faded cloth.
“So same old, then,” James said lightly, familiar with Erry's rants.
Erry shook his head dismissively, wiping the vines of loose hair from his face. “You kids...” He replaced the hammer. “So I've got your order back here.”
He brought out a small sack from behind the counter, which made a loud clanking sound as it dropped onto the unit.
“And these power screws,” James said, raising them. Erry nodded without looking as he wrote roughly in a small pad, James noting the extra-long nail on his little finger. His hand was shaking as he scribbled, a sign of old age, although James knew from the dark splotches on the backs of his hands that there was another reason for the shakes. Likely a form of Hoodro’s, the skin condition that could be fatal if left untreated for long periods, common among some canarrians and canthians. James hoped it was a mild case, as he didn’t want to think of Erry as being ill or in pain. Tam’s father had a similar condition, although his was a strong case and had to visit the specialist doctors in Victory City on several occasions.
James inserted the stubby screws into a compartment on one of his toughlets, the clanging of screws ringing in the quiet store until he clasped the partition shut and rendered them soundless. “Oh and Tam asked if you had any spare B-splinters.”
“Burnt out all his ones again.” Erry shook his head once again and shuffled into a back room, shoulders hunched and arms swinging with purpose.
The hum of the corner monitor grew as a crowd roared with the fuzzy sounds of celebratory trumpets. At this Erry came shuffling back, scraggy hair flapping as he looked up at the monitor.
“Aaooooh! There it is!” He shoved a fist in the air as he bobbed over to James. “There it is, sonny. That Calvin Fisskle does it every time. My money were on him from the start, I tell ya. Who'd you have?” He dropped several thin rods onto the counter with a shaky hand.
James searched for the words, debating how to tell Erry that he didn’t know what he was talking about, but found that none came, and so ended up just looking at the old man awkwardly.
Erry was taken aback. “You do watch 'em, don't 'cha? Just coz they don't show 'em on the major channels here in town don't mean you can't find a cast to see 'em on.”
“I ain't familiar with this one,” James admitted.
Erry frowned, looked at him incredulously. It was a look James was all too familiar with. “What you mean? How can you miss 'em? Ain't no one never seen a Jump Race before.”
“Well I ain't from around here, remember?” For once he had a good reason for not knowing something, as Erry knew he had moved to the city only two years earlier.
“But still, sonny. Just where'd you come from that you ain't never heard of a Jump Race?”
“Well... far from here.” James was the one to frown now.
Erry considered him for a moment, and slowly nodded, still not fully understanding the man in front of him. “I see. You're an itchy one, young man. You know that? Doda knows, sometimes I wonder just what you know.”
James gave a weak smile. He picked up the B-splinters and dropped them into the sack with the rest of the tools. “So do I.”
He thanked Erry and left the electrical store, not looking back.
A rumble thundered above as a shuttle pod crossed the bridge outside the store, casting animated shadows for a moment as James joined the crowd. Pushing his way through, he now saw they were watching a large screen hanging from the bridge, showing the race that had just finished.
As James thankfully left the Sab Sina market his eyes found the misty blue of the distant mountains between the buildings. He had only ever been as far as Toolin, the nearest town, and only twice at that. He watched the mountain peaks fade into the orange of the lower sky, and felt a longing deep within him. A great longing that crept to the surface every so often, more so lately it seemed. The overwhelmingly intense emotions and desires to change his life - for something, anything real - often came without warning or precedence, as they did now. James would often feel like releasing everything he had into a big jump, to soar through the sky, towards those mountains, as far as he could go. To just take a big leap and soar away from everything, like a rocket. He would jump away from the city, to the mountains, or the next town, or imagine what the Hath-Ba spaceport across the land would be like, and spend some time by the ocean. Sometimes he would just jump upwards, to slowly reach the tranquillity of the clouds above, getting away from everything, if only for a short while, before falling safely back to his life. When a situation became awkward or uncomfortable he wished for nothing more than to be able to just jump away from it all. He could almost feel the air rushing against his face.
A large adboard hung between two buildings further on, the choppy video showcasing the benefits of Tygal Travel, the company most responsible for transporting people around the planet, and even off it. They had the ability to go anywhere they wanted, with all the technology to do so. They were gods, to James.
He turned away from the adboard and the mountains and found he couldn't look at anything but the ground.
He intended to make his stop back at the construction site brief, not wanting to engage in any further interactions with anyone for the day and wanted nothing more than to dive into the book he was currently reading, The Legendary Rise of Canaan, a historical book with particular emphasis on the various myths and legends of Carnan.
The framework of the parking station tower they were constructing currently stood at four of its intended five levels. James watched the dozens of workers scattered around the framework as he approached the site, redirecting his path to walk around a stack of girders. A motorised drill rang loudly in the afternoon air over the knocks and buzzes of the various equipment at work. James felt a warm sense of comfort and familiarity as he walked through the site.
Motors whirred as a stomping worker mech moved by a stack of concrete slabs near the foundation wall. Its large blocky arms loaded the slabs onto a loading trolley, the eye bulbs on its small head flashing its status. James held his gaze a moment longer, still uncertain of the few mechs they had labouring on sites. He had had little interaction with mechs, although he felt a strange distrust for them almost instantly. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of what was going on in their heads. James thought it strange that an entity could exist for a specific task and not have any other purpose. He considered them mindless slaves, and was troubled by the thought.
He was bombarded by the hot gravel and mud of the cement mixer further away, maintained by a rotund canarrian who appeared disinterested and indifferent in his task. James knew that the worker, known as E.J., had spent most of his life in construction, and felt that he understood the large man’s weariness.
An old firion co-worker, Gherrwassi, passed by him, wiping his brow with a furred forearm. Long silver-streaked hair was curled over his intense cat-like eyes as he noticed James, although he did not give a greeting. James wondered if he was busy, or perhaps in a foul mood, although the firion did not usually say much to him, anyway.
Hearing the click-clack of the rock mill to the side of the tower, James instinctually thought to get to work, before remembering that he was technically off duty. As soon as he could finish his task. He thought about Waterman and Placaldo by the rock mill, likely complaining about something - the heat or the new hours or size of some of the rocks - while trading playful insults with each other the way that veteran site workers often did. They might even be in the process of playing a practical joke on another worker, as Waterman especially was known to do. James himself was the victim of a prank involving the communal sink and a cooling fan just the other week. He smiled at the thought, and looked forward to hearing about their day, and their complaints, when he saw them tomorrow.
Tam was out for the day, he knew, and so when he approached the work station by the foreman’s small office building he searched for someone to hand the sack of supplies to. Among the clutter on the table he noticed various work orders, contract documents, a stained field order agreement form, and the big blue folder of daily reports. A cup of what looked like iced berry juice lay next to a large set of keys.
As he looked around, wondering what to do with the sack, Helena Jositt rounded the building and approached the work station. The contract architect carried coloured binders on top of the hefty design booklet that was always with her. She paused minutely, glazing over James for a second before blinking and shaking her head.
“Oh, hi, sorry didn’t see you there. My mind’s all over the place. I thought: who’s this guy now? Anyway, how’s it, James?” A mouthful of teeth showed in her big smile. There was a slight gravely undertone to her light voice, a sign of tiredness.
“Hey, Helena,” James responded. “Tam’s out for the day, right?” He knew that Tam was away, although he asked the question as an easy route of conversation, which was preferable to any awkward silences or more personal talk. Although right then he knew he should have begun with a pleasantry instead of getting straight to business.
“Right, he’s overseeing the set-up of the big fancy new site in First Hold.” Helena laid the binders and booklet onto the table, curling a stray lock around her ear and adjusted the band that held up her wavy sun-dried hair. She looked up and smiled, her tanned heart-shape face gleaming with a light sweat, thin lines under her heavily lidded brown eyes. James knew she had been working longer hours lately to finish a series of updated designs for the parking station tower top, although he was secretly glad of it, as it meant that she was more likely to spend time on site, and he enjoyed her company whenever they happened to meet. “So what’re you up to?” She asked. “Or are you just feeling the wind?”
“Just dropping off a supply order for tomorrow,” James said, holding up the small sack. “Was wondering who to hand them to.”
Helena nodded dismissively, pressing her hands against her lower back and letting out a sigh. James noticed the widening gap between the buttons of her white blouse as she stretched and decided to look away before she noticed him looking. “Give ‘em here,” she said, extending a hand. “I can drop them in Tam’s office before I head out tonight.”
He brought the sack up, and then held his hand back, raising an eyebrow. “I dunno about that, handing over sensitive Rimas materials to a freelance contractor. What would old man Rimas say if these ended up on a black cast or in the high markets in Rio?”
Helena showed another big toothy smile. “He’d probably say as much as he has to say about anything else. How do you know I wouldn’t keep them for myself to use in the construction of my own space craft, with which I can use to make my escape?”
James smiled too, happy that his playful joke was well received and reciprocated. “A spacecraft out of a few screws, bolts, and wedges? That’ll be a nice trick. I could use your services sometime.”
Helena raised a thick eyebrow. “You couldn’t afford me.” Although her voice was still pleasant, her smile had lessened considerably and she now looked at the sack of supplies rather than at James. He reeled internally, hoping for a better response from his not-so-subtle flirting that he didn’t realise he was doing.
“But I guess I can afford to take the risk,” he said, and handed her the supplies.
She placed the sack next to the keys and picked up the cup of juice, almost spilling the contents as she did so. “Don’t worry you can trust me,” she said with a wink, the playfulness returning as she took a sip, still watching him. She had to raise her voice at the end as an electric saw came to life somewhere further away, the whirring motor almost drowning out her last words. Her southern accent was more prominent when she shouted, and James tried to remember where she said she had come from. Somewhere south of Medropon, around Corefield or Memassi. One of the Silver Sands regions, anyhow.
The wink made him smile again, and internally he reflected that he wished he was better at conversing beyond pleasantries and jokes. Even if the thought of honest and deep conversation frightened him. He took the time to think of his next words as the saw buzzed, while Helena took another sip of her juice. After the saw stopped he took a small step away from her and said, “Good to know. I’ll leave you to it; looks like you’ve got a lot to get through.” He nodded towards the work station.
“Aye,” she said with a loud sigh. “You know me, stuck to this place while they need me.” She placed the cup down slowly with both hands and picked up one of the coloured binders, James taking this as a sign she was done talking.
“Enjoy your juice,” he said, and then wondered why he had said it, wishing he had said something better.
“Thanks,” Helena said as she sat down, pulling blueprints from the binder. “Enjoy your work.”
He nodded and left her, not wanting to explain that he actually had the rest of the day off. He had realised a while ago that, having spent so much time with his own company, he shared little details about his activities with others. There was also a danger of sharing too much with other people. Perhaps he preferred talking to people like Helena who weren’t often around, someone he could keep within the boundaries of small talk and none of the deeper getting-to-know-you talk.
His thoughts went to the history book he had in his chest, and of reading it in the park as soon as he could. He found his personal chest by the corner wall the workers used as a communal space, by the mounts of rubble and discarded bricks on the west side of the site. Sitting on a small bench by the basic wooden chest, he moved a spare shirt aside to pick up his book. He closed the chest lid and stood up, stretching out his back in a similar way that Helena had. Shifting the square book between his hands he looked over the various mythological beings depicted on the cover, and felt the warm and reassuring feeling of spending the rest of the day stuck in its pages, out in the park by the Togg’s Tale, enjoying the serenity of his own company. He wondered if he would see Annabel coming in or out of the tavern too. Or he could always go in to see if she was there. Maybe have lunch there too, whether she was there or not.
He left the construction site thinking he would make the most of his half-day off.
Walking towards the nearest shuttle pod station in East Belam’s Way, it took James a moment to realise someone was calling him.
A hand grabbed his shoulder, turning him roughly.
Large blood-shot eyes met his. The old man had a bony face, rough pocked skin, dirty wind-swept hair, and reeked of sweat and dirt. There was an uneasy quiver to his demeanour, causing James to repel from his sudden closeness.
“A man who knows his fate is a man who can control it.” The older man’s voice was strained, yet not unpleasant, with a shakiness that made James think of someone unwell. “Aye, so it is. Tell me, young man, do you want to know how you’ll make your riches, or when you’ll meet your beloved who’ll rob you of them? Eh he he.”
James reeled at the harsh odours bombarding him. “Sorry, another time,” he told the beggar. Many were known to trick you, play a game or provide a service of some kind in exchange for coin. He found it best not to humour any of them.
A wild laugh left the man's cracked lips, his eyes widening. “It's you! It's you, sir! I know it!” His laugh turned into a bout of terrible hacking coughs. “I - I know you, don't I? Yes, yes I do. But... How are you here?” He paused to look over James, a moment of confusion contorting his face into an ugly scowl, showing yellow stained teeth. “You are here, aren't you? But of course you are. Old friends met again. Aha!”
“You’ve me confused for someone else, old one. I'm afraid I don't know you.” James took a step away, trying not to appear rude, but the man persisted. A hand shot out and gripped his upper arm, causing him to almost drop his book.
“Now I know it's you. Why would you lie? Of course it's you. My once guest, met again. Well you've grown some since, but it surely is you. Your hair was shorter then, aye.” The strange man hesitated, then nodded, determining that James was indeed the person he thought he was. “I see it, so I do. I see all now. Can’t help otherwise. ‘Tis a curse, aye, so it is. One of many.” He shot his head to both sides, and then leaned in closer, eyes glaring wildly like he was about to share the secrets of the universe. “I can tell you what you want to know. Everything you’ve been yearning to know. I can tell you! For…. Some spare coin. For an old friend, would you? For old times' sake? Times have.... well, they sure ain't what they used to be. Eh he he.”
Though hearing the distant sadness in the man's troubled voice, James now saw through the act of a beggar at work. “I'm sorry; I've no money on me right now.”
“No, but of course... Of course.” The old man’s shoulders sagged, but then he straightened, hopping on the spot. “But it is you. You were in my castle. With your...” He shook his head furiously, attempting to shake the memories free. “A bountiful feast it were, too,” he added, his voice softening. “Oh yes, but weren't they all back then?”
“That they were,” James told him, and turned from the beggar, his thoughts already back to the book in his hand. He had only taken a few steps before stopping again.
“James Island!” the man bellowed, sending a shiver through James' core. “That's you, isn't it? Prince James, as I recall. Your majesty.” He performed an awkward bow, almost stumbling in the process.
James stood frozen a moment longer before turning. He studied the strange man in front of him. Everything about him was dirty and weathered, the look of someone who had spent many seasons travelling and sleeping rough. His dark green eyes could have showed intelligence in them once, but were now dulled with a weariness that hinted at a troubled soul.
“Now I'm sure you've the wrong man. I'm no prince.” The words passed his lips and James wasn't sure if he believed them himself. He didn’t want to know how this man knew his name. Perhaps he did have some sort of preternatural gift. “Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta get going,” he added, gesturing with the book. He lowered his hand, not wanting to draw the man’s attention to the book and have him possibly ask for it. Finally allowed to walk away, the beggar was soon by his side once again.
“You don't remember? Did it happen to you, too? No. No, Henry. That was you. But maybe master failed him too. Oh but it's been so long.”
James watched with a frown, fighting the odours and the strangeness as the poor man spoke to himself. A broken soul in hopeless desperation. He increased his pace in the hope that the beggar would give up.
“Yes, that's right,” the stubborn man continued. “You and your father. You don't remember your visit? Oh but what world was that? What a world it was. What a world it is now, I ask you? Hah!” He circled James, a jerky bounce in his step, energised by his search for memories.
“Afraid I can't help you there, friend. I can tell you if you think I'm a prince, then you've got me confused with someone else.” James mentally searched for the nearest shuttle pod station, regardless if it connected to Medro Park. He would just get to the nearest station and leave this itchy man behind.
“But you are James Island, are you not?” Wide bloodshot eyes watched him intently, a desperate hope behind them.
It took a moment for James to answer. “Aye. I am. But I ain't never seen you before in my-” He searched for the words. “Please, I really must be going now.” Ahead of him was an alleyway which he was sure would lead to the Belam South shuttle pod station.
As they entered the alley the man let out a frustrated growl. He spun James towards him, grabbing his arms tightly. The force of the hold made him drop the book.
“Why do you lie?” The beggar spat, his voice becoming a hideous snarl, a wild look blazing in his eyes. “You think I'm crazy. Unless it did happen to you. Do you see the hood, too? Do you taste the blood? Tell me!”
James called out, feeling the harsh brick of the alley wall as he was pushed against it. “What’re you – hey, let go of me.”
Sweaty breath was on him. “You want to ignore me, like the rest. But I won't go away. No, you underestimate me, like all the others. Like all the others!” With a fierce cry the beggar pulled James to the ground, shaking and clawing at him.
James tried to get a hold of the wild man, throwing his arms out while shielding his face from his attacks.
“You should be my friend,” the beggar shrieked. Dark spit jumped from his mouth as he lost control. “We still can be. But you need to be like me. I'll make you see.” A sweaty hand curled around James' neck and squeezed hard.
Fighting for breath, for a hold on the man, James’ eyes watered as his head grew hot. He swung an arm up instinctively, his toughlet connecting with his attackers jaw. The wild eyed man spat out a stream of blood as he re-tightened his grip. James reached a desperate hand out as he felt the strength leaving him, searching the ground for something, anything. He thought of his book but could not see it, and doubted it would do much harm to the man anyhow. His fingers soon found something hard, and he managed to play it into his palm. With a wide swing the rock found the man's temple, sending him reeling sideways. His head slammed into the wall with a sickening thud.
James kicked his way to the opposite wall, choking back the breath finding its way through his bruised throat. The beggar lay against the wall, a thick red trail slowly streaming from his bruised temple. Cold eyes still stared at James. What had moments earlier been an angry crazed scowl was now a frightened, almost peaceful expression.
Steadying his breath, James stared at the lifeless body in front of him. The life he had just taken away-
A blinding white light explodes in James’ mind, and the world changes, becoming a dead land of black rock and vast mountains. Desolate hills and valleys stretch out on all sides of the horizon. The scorched sky is somehow made of flames, dark smears moving fast like storm clouds, as if he is under a dome of fire. Tortured screams and distant howls echo all around. A severe stench of decay and death fills his lungs and he gags, struggling for breath as the suffocating heat burns his nostrils and mouth, fighting back the urge to vomit. He feels like he’s being burnt from the inside. There are surely hundreds of rotting corpses around him but he can see none. Sweat falls into his eyes, blurring his vision, and drips to the dead rock, sizzling in wisps of black smoke. Trying to wipe the sweat only smears charred dirt over his face. Several feet ahead is a cliff edge, and he steps towards it without knowing why. His legs ache, every step pained. Something dark flies overhead, howling a shrill screech, though he fails to focus on it beyond its large wingspan. He stumbles, no strength left in his legs, snatching his hand from the ground as it burns him, and lands on his back. His shirt slowly burns away and his skin begins to blister. The pain overwhelms him. Feeling the hopelessness of it all, he cries, a fierce emotional moan, begging for mercy. For his life. As the pain threatens to overcome him completely, he sees a dark blur forming within the flames above. It wavers in the haze and grows, becoming the form of a man. A hooded figure, shrouded in heavy dark robes. It grows to encompass the sky, becoming the dark world, and grows further, its legs fading, becoming a torso and then just an enormous hood. The face, if there was one, was hidden within. He feels an immense wave of hatred and aggression like he has never felt before, never thought possible, emanating from the hood. The hood slowly rises, revealing an impossible darkness beneath. As James gratefully succumbs to the cold darkness within, he spins, inverting in on himself, and is thrust back into the reality of Tyken Town.
His back cracked hard as it found the ground. Between the residual pain in his head and the sudden pain in his back, his mind fought to adjust to his situation. He realised that he must have been in the air just then. Trying to regain his breath and fight through the pain, the image of the dreaded hood still burned in his mind as he stared up at the slice of familiar purple sky. He gagged and spat, feeling like the death and decay of the fire world had entered his mouth.
Suddenly realising he was lying next to a dead body, James jerked away from the corpse. The body of the man he had just killed. Even now the man's eyes seemed to be watching him. That serene look still on his face. James checked himself, expecting to see severe burns on his hands, but they were just scratched and dirty with dried blood. No indication that what he just experienced was real.
With great effort he managed to get to his feet, shaken and bruised internally and externally. He rested his hands against the alley wall, not trusting his legs just yet. Sounds eventually registered with him as he watched the world beyond the alley. No one had seen anything or even realised that a life was just lost here. He vaguely noticed that the day was dimmer now, but did not think to wonder how long he had been laying there.
He finally mustered the courage to half-turn towards the dead body. The beggar’s cold dead eyes were still somehow on him, as if he would continue to stare at his killer for all to see. A sensation to vomit came over him. The next thing James knew he was running, out of the death alley, aimless for a long while, running just to get away, to take back, ignoring everyone around him, and eventually finding himself in a direction towards home.
Tyken Town was slowly ushering in the hazy night as James stepped off the shuttle pod station near his house. The journey went by in a dim blur, James numb to everything. He had no idea how long it had been since he… since the alleyway. After a brisk walk through his residential area, lit now by the softly humming hover lamps coming to life, James made his way down the path to his home. While he had managed to hold back the tears on the public shuttle, he now sobbed softly.
James had never felt so relieved to see his small house as he approached the single storied building. He studied the large windows either side of the door, suspicious of any movement behind the tinted screens. The plate beside his front door beeped as he brushed his card against it, and he inattentively tapped into the keypad with shaking fingers, succeeding on his second attempt. His heart jolted when he saw the bloodied smears his fingers left on the buttons, and he frantically rubbed at them with his shirt, which just served to spread the dirty blood even more.
Slamming the door behind him, James felt the warmth and sanctity of his home embrace him. He stood against the door, absorbing the silence, his heart unable to stop racing. The pale light from outside cast ominous shadows around the open spaced room.
He threw his toughlets onto the sofa and crossed the room to the kitchen, where a frantic scrub in the sink saw to the removal of the blood stains on his hands. A moment later he stood watching his trembling hands, the silence of the room threatening to envelope him.
A blue light caught his attention and he turned to see his personal terminal flashing, signifying a new message. The console lay on a unit by the wide chairs in the lower portion of the room that was a foot beneath ground level. The apparent normality of such a familiar everyday event shook James out of his trance. His mind working again, he briefly wondered if it were sent earlier or just now received, and with a shiver wondered if the message was in any way connected to the man he'd...
Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to shake the thought away. The dead man's eyes continued to stare at him beyond his fate. The vision of that terrible burnt world… that hooded thing… the endless darkness beneath its hood… James had never experienced anything like it, and he wished he could shake the memories away. For the first time in his life he wished he had fewer memories.
He tried washing the day away with a shower, hoping to clean the blood off his soul. As the cleansing water washed over him, James slid to a crouch and cried as hard as he ever had before.
Perhaps if James had known that it was the last time he would sleep in his bed, he may have done a few things differently. Maybe if he knew that it would be his last night in his house, he might have packed a few possessions that had become dear to him. Or perhaps he might have gone to sleep sooner, eager to leave, happy to be finally taken away from what was now his home. Though as it was he lay curled up in bed, trembling with dark thoughts and images haunting him, sobbing softly, letting the drowsiness of sleep eventually take him, and slept for the last time in the only home he had ever known.