Special 10 chapter preview of Blind the Eyes, the first novel in YA/Teen supernatural fantasy thriller series Gold & Silver.
Chapter 1: Trouble
Cadence speaks. Only I hear.
It’s ok though. I know she’s not a Dream. Not a wish. Not a daydream, ambition, or hope. That would be dangerous. But a girl who speaks only to me? That’s perfectly within regulation.
Following holy Tower regulation is the way to a long and safe life.
I don’t know where Cadence came from. I think she’s always been with me. She might be my friend (but she’s kind of a pest). She speaks when I don’t. Or won’t. Or can’t.
Like right now.
Technician Supervisor Kistr is chewing me out.
“Dispassionately.” Supplies Cadence, flitting just outside of my sight.
I resist the temptation to turn my head. The most I ever catch of her is a faint, pale flash as she ducks behind me. A private game of hers, no doubt. She’s always up to something, and somehow, always gets away with it.
“As evidenced by the droning voice and glazed expression.” Cadence continues, making a rude noise in my ear, and dissolving into peals of laughter.
It makes it hard to hear Supervisor Kistr as he warms to his task.
Cadence is wrong. Dispassionate is the opposite of the small man at the front of the room. Deliberate words filter past Kistr’s mask with exacting focus. Only the slightest tremble in his precise tones betrays him. That, and the dampness of his bulging eyes, his gaze elevated to another plane. They shine wetly with unseemly pleasure as he expounds on my sins.
Which is fine. Formal reprimands are to be expected - at least it’s not Retraining. It’s regulation. It’s for my own good.
I lack focus. I show signs of ambition - and worse - imagination. My youth is no excuse. Tower Injunction No. 3: An idle mind draws down destruction. I am a disease that poisons the group.
It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Accusations that have followed me since that day on the Training Floor.
Such a small thing, a moment’s lapse in concentration, as we recited the holy Tower Regulation.
I wasn’t resisting, when I said that Cadence had distracted me. She had been singing, something silly, nonsensical, but it had been enough to make my words falter, my voice dip in the chorused recitation.
It was all her fault.
When I said as much, everything went wrong. I was yanked from the trainee cohort and reassigned to Retraining.
I’m not ever going back.
“Yup. That place was no fun at all,” Cadence says. “Sooo boring! And all those grownups? …hang on, isn’t it just. like. here? Despaiiiiir~”
I shift my shoulders, suppressing the futile, but tempting, urge to swat her away.
Supervisor Kistr narrows his eyes at me and raises his tone as he continues. The words productivity and regulation figure largely in his speech.
“Betcha he’s bald under his fancy-schmancy hood, Mr. Grumpypants” Cadence breaks in, snickering. “Despaiiiir~ no haiiiir~ despaiiiirrrr~”
Cadence singsongs with great dynamic range directly into my ear, making me burn to give her a good kick. My legs are getting sore from standing, knees locked, and I desperately want to shift my weight, but don’t quite dare. To make things worse, the bottoms on this latest uniform are too loose. They’re edging past my hipbones, one anxiety-spurring inch at a time.
I squirm, ever so slightly, and get a warning glare from Kistr, who is coming up on the end of his rant, if past experience has anything to say about it.
I sigh, but carefully, so that my mask doesn’t flutter up and betray my frustration. I taste the sharp tang of blood, from biting my tongue to keep it still. Meanwhile, Cadence is losing interest in her little song. She now seems to be occupied with sucking the words in and out in a sort of humming sigh that it sounds like: (in)”~aaaAAAEEEiiirrrr~”(out)”~rrrRRRRRrrreeaa~”
No one ever blames Cadence, exasperating pest that she is, just me.
So I do my best to ignore that little troublemaker. But she’s relentless, whispering and teasing and laughing, always dashing just out of sight when I try to catch her out. And maybe it’s my fault after all; everyone else seems to be able to ignore her just fine. Not that she ever seems to go off and bother them.
It’s unfair, the way I catch all the blame. Like right now.
“…complete an additional two segments H-and-R. Daily.” Supervisor Kistr is finishing up.
I frown under my mask, careful to keep the upper half of my face blank so he won’t notice and increase my sentence for insolence. Whenever I resist, it’s ‘insolence’. Because of my ‘youth’. It’s definitely not because he’s a nitpicky old bully.
I’m sure Kistr’s well aware that I’m not a fan of the health and rec programming; he’ll have scoured my stats for the best punishment. Sorry, ‘remediation plan.’ Well, whatever. It’s not like there’s really any better way to spend time.
I suppress another eye roll. My effort is in vain; Kistr raises an eyebrow, seeming to see past my mask to the dissatisfied twist beneath. His eyes crinkle at the edges.
“Also, a nutrition increase of 15%.” He finishes, trails of moisture seeping from his eyes as his cheeks threaten to engulf them, with a grin so wide it escapes the upper edge of his mask. The effect is unpleasant, but not nearly so much as his punishment.
“Hah! You’re just a kid, of course you should get more!” Cadence snorts.
I stifle a shudder and ignore her. She’s not the one who’ll have to choke down an extra slurp of that dense, flavourless muck every morning and night. Although, on the bright side, every time they increase my nutrition allotment, it seems to dull her voice, at least temporarily.
I stiffen my back and let my eyes drift partway closed, making a conscious effort to look old, or at least older, and world-weary, as Supervisor Kistr eyes me. I make no response to his sentence. I am not expected to (although, I’m sure he’d have appreciated a little bow, or a few tears).
Cadence’s word irritates me, a not unwelcome distraction from Kistr’s beady-eyed inspection. Kid. It’s offensive - even more so than the supervisor’s frequent references to my youth, always with emphasis. Yet another failing, a shameful, inescapable uniqueness. I am the youngest in the room, by far.
The youngest to leave training (or rather, retraining), the youngest to join the workers, or so Cadence claims.
She says seventeen. I don’t know how she’d know; the Tower doesn’t record ages. Just roles. Trainee. Worker. Supervisor. Senior.
But it’s obvious I’m the youngest; I keep growing. My ankles and wrists jut scandalously past the wide sleeves and loose pants of my uniform. Exposed flesh is also against regulation, not that that gets me new uniforms any more often. I have to work at wearing mine out fast, so they can be replaced. Though I’m clumsy enough that I don’t have to work hard at it.
I’m on my fourth set of uniforms since leaving training. The gold band of protection at my forehead and the printed ID code on my back and chest haven’t even had a chance to wear and dull on this one. On many of my coworker’s uniforms, the band is worn so thin and dull that it scarcely stands out against the neutral beigey drabness of our uniforms, and the ID codes are wrinkled and flaking, not like my shiny black print.
No one else grows and changes here but me.
I have been a digital technician, a full Worker, for fourteen months. I spent only four months in training, and another two years in retraining, absorbing holy Tower Regulation and learning my Skill with machines.
Before that, I don’t remember. But I do know that people have been in training for up to six years, and have even been sent back, if their Skill or ability to follow Regulation is weak.
I don’t want to go back.
I was already taller than most of the others when I started on the training floor. My arms and legs are stretched by it, aching and bony, making me even thinner than the others, making it hard to move. You can see through the dusty tan - another mark of shame - of my stretched skin to deeper colours underneath, all shadows and movement. My hair grows faster too, passing Regulation length between trims, prickling around my ears and poking out the eye-opening of my uniform in violation of Regulation. Of course, it’s too dark as well, making the length even more noticeable, inky in contrast against the paler tone of my skin and against the bland uniform hood.
It started with kids. Trainees don’t know not to talk at the beginning. The others said I must have been forgotten by the Growers and left too long. Overbaked, singed, burnt around the edges, my skin and hair too full of colour, not even close to Tower-approved ashy paleness. Well, I wasn’t the only one that wasn’t perfectly pale.
The real trouble was my size. Where the others were half my height, or less, they were also faster and more coordinated. In their high whispers, they said I’d been grown wrong, dark and stretched and oversized.
Cadence said no, I was just meant to be this way. She said tall is better anyways, for climbing trees and stuff. Whatever that means.
She said other things too, but I knew better than to repeat them. She tells so many strange stories and uses so many funny words and pretends to know so many things, and I never know when she’s making something up. Like trees. And climbing. And kids.
My favourite story is weather; I try to imagine what she means, and sometimes even achieve faint images with Cadence’s help: rain like a shower that covers the whole ceiling, sun brighter than the brightest lamp. Wind is mystifying, though, and snow, that rarest of phenomenon…
But this part of me is wrong too, the part that wonders, the weak, unfocused part that is tempted to listen to Cadence’s ridiculous fantasies. The part that is fooled into seeing things that aren’t there, flashes of a place that is not the Tower.
So maybe there’s a Grower somewhere on the Training Floor that got sent back to retraining for negligence. As they should have been, for such a monumental failure.
It is not good to stand out.
Cadence says she loves not being the same, which is ridiculous.
If it weren’t for the Growers’ mistake, I would have been perfect. As it is, everything about me is too much, no matter how careful I am. Too tall. Too bony. Too dark. Too long. Too clumsy.
I would not be different from the others if I had the choice.
Being different is dangerous. Being different causes reprimands, and other nasty things.
Being different brings death.
“Liiiiieessss,” Cadence whispers, then chuckles, distracted by a new rhyme, which she proceeds to sing repeatedly: “No skyyyys just liiiies mad eyyyyes hates surpriiiiise~esss~~”
Supervisor Kistr wraps up his reprimand with a group chorus of holy Tower Regulation, watching me the whole time. After, I am allowed to sit.
I move too fast, eager to change position, and bump my thigh against the arm of my chair with a clatter. The skin burns, and I know it will bruise bright, invisible patterns under my uniform. Great. Even darker, more colourful skin.
The reprimand this time had been longer than usual. My screen has gone blank, and I tap the terminal to wake it. This prompts a sharp look from Supervisor Kistr.
I shift uncomfortably, feeling the rasp of the sturdy seat covering through the folds of my uniform. A wheel squeaks, high and thin, and I freeze guiltily.
It’s not that I don’t get it. Everything, even my dull work, can disrupt the fragile balance that the Tower so carefully preserves. My own mind or someone else’s could be compromised, the briefest hint of ambition to compete, an unguarded moment, the merest spark of imagination could prove the opening needed for a Dream to take control. And then it all ends.
I do know obedience to regulation is the only way. Tower Injunction No. 2: A controlled mind is holy. Work, or any activity, really, takes second precedence to maintaining stability.
It’s just, if the screen goes blank, it takes on the same drab hues as the rest of the console. And the chair. And the walls. Floor. Ceiling. Uniforms. Even, for many of us, skin tone. The gold net embedded in the light fixtures casts everything in a smudge of pale, muddy yellow. It all swims together, making me feel sick.
Hate is dangerous. Hate is not stable. Hate is a wish for change. A wish can disrupt the balance.
So I do not hate the blank screen. I simply avoid it as much as possible. I do not wish to work more, or faster, or harder than anyone else. I just do not let the screen go blank.
“Stupid screen,” Cadence says. “Stupid beige. Stupid gold. Stupid uniform. Stupid pasty people. Stupid work. Stupid stupid stupid.”
I flinch. I can sense Cadence’s eyes rolling. She openly hates the beige drabness of our world, and loves tempting me to go along with her. I don’t know how she gets away with it.
Cadence is grumbling in my ear: “Garbage-for-brains picking on you again. Not like he ever gets anything done, hiding out in his lame office. What gives him the right?! We should just walk out of here. What would he do then, huh? I bet even a Dream wouldn’t bother with him. No imagination at all!”
Cadence fumes for a few minutes, while I enjoy the silence. I can almost feel the air shift as she changes tack.
“We could take off right now. Go to the health centre. Or the recreation centre. He wouldn’t even notice, not that rule-bound twit.” She wheedles, bored and looking for a reaction.
Cadence keeps grumbling in the background as I type, only half listening to her.
I could leave. Kistr has gone back to his shielded office, and unless a reprimand is triggered, he won’t bother with me again today. No one else will care. But I have no great love for the health or recreation assignments, where the activities are nearly as mind-numbing as the work we are assigned to. I do not care to return to my room simply to sleep and find temporary freedom from the boredom. I can’t be bothered to leave my desk, much less abandon work and go.
“Play hooky.” Cadence chants, delighted with her latest nonsense word.
I rub hard between my eyes, sighing. Cadence is relentlessly loud and talkative and smug. I don’t know anyone else like her.
Although, I don’t actually know anyone else. That would be against Regulation.
An alert takes over my screen: time for a hydration break.
I sigh again, consider dismissing the alert, push away from my desk and stand, looking towards the hydration console at the far corner of the room.
There are people standing there.
At this distance, I can’t hear voices, but their heads are bent together. I shiver, repulsed.
Close contact with others violates Regulation and risks weakening the mind. Interpersonal relationships are to be avoided. (Cadence doesn’t count; she’s impossible to avoid. Trust me, I’ve tried.)
I look around, swallowing hard. No one else seems to be aware of this violation of Regulation. Even Cadence is silent, for once.
Taking a deep breath, I slip my hand into my hood and through my hair, scrubbing through the too-long mat of it, adjusting the drape of my mask to cover the strands better. The motion is calming; it clears my mind.
It’s OK. I don’t have to interact. I’ll just get my drink, finish up as quickly as possible, and get back to my console.
I eye the small crowd as I approach, a little breathless. Cadence is still chanting in the background. She doesn’t seem aware of how wrong it all is.
Four of them. Three men and - could it be? - one woman.
There are so few other women in the Tower, and such close contact with them is most definitely against Regulation.
Two of the men and the woman are standard Tower stock, small, pale and colourless, fading against the bland walls so that it feels like I could see through them if I looked hard enough. Even their eyes are pale.
The other is different.
He’s tall, maybe taller than me, even. It’s rare, but not unheard of.
That’s not what stills my steps and makes me stare.
“No. Way.” Cole breathes.
I agree. I’ve never seen anything like him.
Black hair curls out the opening around his eyes, long and dark, improbably catching the light and reflecting back glistening purple-blue highlights. His eyes are subtly tilted and bright gold - as gold and shimmering as the smooth band around his head. I didn’t know human eyes came in that shade. The exposed skin above his mask glows with a soft golden warmth that stands out in sharp contrast to his hood and mask.
I’ve seen tinges of colour to skin before, my own dusty-looking shade included, but never a deep, rich colour like his. And those eyes, lit from within, but dark at the same time; an endless pool of shining.
The colour of protection.
Maybe that’s why he dares to stand so close to that woman, looking down at her with bright eyes, arms almost touching. Could it be why the others all lean in close, closer than I’d ever seen anyone get to another person, since my time with those stupid kids on the Training floor?
He draws them to him, like gravity, like a magnet, his pull natural and right.
“Cole!” Cadence gasps, and I stumble, catch myself, glance up to meet the eyes of the golden man.
He is - they are - staring at me now, just a few feet away. I had been heading right towards the small group, drawn in unawares.
“Are you all right, Cole?” The golden man asks. His voice is liquid, deep and rich and smooth. I feel a spreading warmth that rushes from the pit of my stomach to heat my face.
He has no reason to know my ID. Did Kistr use my ID during the reprimand? How could he know?
My thoughts are scattered, memories distant behind the racing of my pulse, thundering in my ears, throbbing in my cheeks.
His bright-dark gaze draws mine irresistibly, his eyes upturned and fringed by long, dark lashes under a bold browline. I have to look up a little to meet it, tilting my head back.
He smiles slowly, creasing around the eyes, a softening and sharpening all at once.
It’s hard to breathe.
I blink, and the spell is broken.
He should not have spoken to me. It’s against Regulation.
I nod to him and the group, a brittle jerk of the head, all the while looking hard at the seam where the floor angles into the pale walls, and edge around them towards the hydration console.
“Would you like to join us, Cole?” The man invites.
Cadence sucks in a quick breath.
I almost make the mistake of looking up again, drawn by the warmth in his voice. You can hear the gold in it, a soft, glowy weight.
No. He shouldn’t be talking. He shouldn’t know my name. This is against regulation. It’s not right.
It’s not safe.
I shake my head, staring at the wall, resisting the pull. I can see his smile out of the corner of my eye, as he turns back to his group.
“He’s no joke, that one!” Cadence whispers in my ear, shivering. “Ravelwan is something else. You know he’s a transfer? Not even from this Tower! Bad news.”
Ravelwan? A series ID? There are more like him? …and how does Cadence know about him, anyways?
He’s speaking to the group in hushed tones, and I can’t help but hear as I pretend to study the hydration console’s display. My ears tingle, drinking in that voice, my head hot, skin beneath my mask flushed.
“…at the East stairwell…” He’s saying. “No, that’s too early. 10:30. It’ll be quiet by then.”
“I miss winter,” The woman pouts. “No one leaves their room after six or so; we could have all night at the club!”
Winter? The club?
The words don’t make any sense. Cadence refuses to explain, pouting. She wants to go, forget the consequences.
“Leave it alone. I’ll tell you later.” Cadence says. “Get your drink and get back to your station. Better yet, just skip the stupid drink.”
“Yeah, that hatch across from the elevators. What do you mean you’ve never gone that way? How do you usually get out?” One of the pale men is laughing at the other, while the golden man - Ravelwan - and the pouting woman whisper together.
Cadence drops silent at the word “out”, tensing, distracted.
“A way out…” She gasps the words, breathless.
That’s bad sign. It usually is, when Cadence shows an interest in something. Bad for me, anyways.
I feel a weight on my shoulder. Heavy, warm.
I stare, horrified, amazed, at the golden hand gripping my shoulder, the fabric of his uniform spilling back from scandalously exposed flesh, no glove. I am suddenly conscious of an enormous warmth radiating against my back, a slight breeze stirring the edge of my hood.
I am frozen. Immobile. Inanimate.
Cole, for once, is just as horrified as I am.
My heart has surely stopped beating. My blood is pooled somewhere in my feet, vast distances away from my head.
“Join us sometime, little flame.” He breathes in my ear.
The bright hand moves to my collar, scratching at the border where the drape of my mask falls loose and the bottom half of my hood hangs over the neckline of my shirt, slipping something inside with a soft crackling so that it is pinned between my clammy skin and the light fabric.
I don’t dare move a muscle as the warmth fades from my back. The blood that was pooled around my toes is shooting up all at once to heat my face, flushing my skin and drowning my thoughts. The rushing sound of it drowns out Cadence’s voice, muting the stream of what she calls ‘rude’ words.
I’m not sure if she’s scared or angry. I’m not sure if I am either. Or something else entirely.
All of a sudden, the only thing I can do is move, and I must move. No drink, no desk, no work.
How can I go back to my console, sit, focus on a screen? For hours more?
Without even processing the decision, my feet are taking me to the exit. To the corridor. The elevator.
I glance at the wall across from the elevator, at the faintest seam outlining a large square area that starts at knee height and climbs to the level of my shoulders.
How many times had I walked past it, not interested, unaware.
“The way out?” Cadence says.
I’ve heard that tone from her before. It’s a tone that sometimes creeps into her stories, the ones that start with “In the time before..”
We eye the seamed wall together, tracing the lines one by one, as if we can unlock it with our gaze.
Regulation forbids it.
But… The idea that there truly could be something more… More than the Training Floor, the work room and the personal rooms. More than programmed, mandated activity and health cycles, bland nutrition allotments, sleep, work.
A place where the threat of consequences wouldn’t be constantly pricking at the back of my mind.
Something new. Something unexpected. Like Cadence’s stories. What if they were real? What if even a fraction of the things in her stories could be found, just beyond that opening?
I reach for the hatch.
Chapter 2: Hatch
The elevator door hisses open behind me, and with it, all the air whooshes from my body. I gasp, head spinning, and snatch my hand back from the seam of the shoulder-height hatch. Cadence lets out a choked sound. It might be a sob.
A guard slumps in the elevator, his heavy, dark uniform rumpled. He’s eyeing me with a glazed expression, too much skin showing around his cheeks, as his mask hangs askew. A small woman marked with the 3-8 code of a care worker huddles in a corner, as far from the guard as possible.
It takes a focused effort to shutter my gaze, to slump and turn, casual, nothing to see here. No reason to take note.
I suppress a shiver and step into the elevator, selecting my floor from the lighted pad and holding position near the door. Floor 3 is highlighted. The Guard is taking the woman down for assessment. And then, probably, retraining. My teeth creak from the effort of holding back another shiver, every muscle tensing.
What was I thinking?
There is the Tower and nothing else. Only death.
Regulation protects us. The Tower protects us.
I am careful to avoid the disinterested gaze of the guard, as the elevator carries me down to my room. His breath rasps loud and slow in the confined space, a heavy, careless counterpoint to the woman’s light, fast gasps.
She is afraid, and therefore dangerous. The guard should have locked the elevator for a direct run. I can’t believe he was so careless as to let an innocent Worker on. Unless he didn’t think I was innocent…
No. It’s nothing to do with me. Stay calm. Almost there…
When I reach my floor, it’s a relief to hear the doors slide shut behind me, closing the danger safely away. I feel less safe when the outline of a large square catches my eye. A seamed hatch faces the elevator on this floor too, a match to the one I’d just left behind. I blink quickly, turn away, hoping Cadence won’t notice.
That was too close, that moment in the hall. I had been having… was it a dream? An ambition? A hope? A delusion, certainly. To think that I would even consider following those crazy people…
Whatever it was, it was not Regulation.
I am lucky to have the protection of the Tower shielding me. I will have to be more careful in the future.
I’ll be good; head back to the safety of my room, suck down my nutrition allotment and go to sleep early.
By tomorrow, I’ll be back on track.
The larger nutrition pack is turning my stomach.
Just the look of it, thick and milky, the same drab colour as everything else around here.
Drab floor. Drab health console. Drab recreation console. Drab walls, with drab spare uniform in its inset cupboards. Drab bed, when folded down from the wall.
I jab a straw in the clear plastic pack and raise it to my lips, stomach churning. Cadence makes gagging noises in my ear, revenge for, as she puts it, “chickening out” earlier.
“Mmmm,” She hums cheerily, “Sliiiimmme, nummmyyy sliiiimmme (gloop gloopy gloop).”
Then she retches noisily.
I tighten my grip on the nutrition pack. Gluey fluid spurts up the straw and into my face and hair, soaking my mask and plopping in goopy splotches onto my uniform, chilling my skin where it sticks. A sick-sweet stink rises from the stain.
Cadence laughs out loud.
I put down the pack on the floor where I’ve been sitting, back propped against the wall, and head to the sanitation closet.
Change of plans.
I’ll take a shower, then nutrition, then bed. The goop can wait.
Stripping off the now-sticky uniform top, I bundle it, along with my mask and the too-big pair of pants, into the wash hatch. They’ll be cleaned automatically, although Section 2 would look them over for any repairs or replacement needed before returning them. Maybe I’ll get a new set of uniforms that fit this time.
I step into the shower, and it turns on, sensing my presence. Steamy water fills the air with a heavy mist, drumming down on my skin pleasantly. A sweetly-scented spray hisses out of dispensers at shoulder height.
“Tell me Storm,” I say to Cadence. She’s a pest, but she does have her uses. This is my favourite story, and I’m due a little indulgence after all she’s put me through today.
“The air electric, crackles on our skin,” She starts without protest, the words so familiar that I could recite them myself, though never with the special magic she adds. When Cadence tells a story, it’s as if I can see it. I shiver with forbidden anticipation.
“The wind rises, whipping our hair in every direction, and filling us, stretching our lungs near bursting. It tastes of salt and pine and we can’t get enough of it. The sky is filled with clouds, enormous and dark, but each distinct; dark grey shifting and racing with deep purples and flickering greens.
“Lightening snaps from within the clouds, and also inside us, and we want to yell and run and dance and sing and fly. There’s a fierceness in it, in us. The rain comes, cold and sweet, and the wind blows it sideways swirling, so that we breathe it in with every breath, feel it on our face and arms, dashing from every direction. Thunder rolls, distant and deep, and when dad laughs, we feel it in our knees where he holds us in place, strong against the wind and the storm.
“Wild child,” he says, laughing,”my wild one.” And we want to dance in the center of the storm forever.”
As her voice dies, the glorious madness of the storm rolls back. The fury of wind and rain fades into the warm deluge of the shower.
Exhausted, all of the sudden, empty, I sink down on the floor and lean my head on my knees, taking shallow breaths to avoid inhaling water. Wanting something. Just… wanting.
The steam swirls up around me, silvery-white in the light, the patterns mesmerizing; tiny clouds scudding alone in an empty sky.
My lashes drift down, obscuring the vision.
Cadence is yelling at me from a great distance.
I’m not sure I care. I’m just so sleepy, and it’s so pleasant to stay here drowsing in the warm… downpour?
I pry open my eyes.
Huddled in a corner of the shower, hot water beats down on my head. My limbs are heavy, the air clogged with steam. The light seems so far away…
Cadence is still yelling, although I can only pick out my name from the roaring in my ears.
I flail at the door of the shower with one arm until the seal cracks and the stream of water shuts off.
I heave again, and manage to pour myself out across the threshold, sprawled with my head and shoulders against the cool, damp floor.
I’m suddenly nauseous, the spinning of the foggy air ponderously slow in my head.
The silvered light swirls and dances, and a light breeze raises the hair from my skin, deliciously cool. A wisp of gold entwines with the silver and I wander in the gilded paths of a distant land, a memory of warmth and light spiriting me away…
There is a great darkness. It is coming for me.
Silver flashes across my vision.
I surface from the dream with a gasp, heart thudding in time with the pounding in my head.
My stomach is churning in counterpoint rhythm, threatening a slow climb to my throat in revenge.
It’s too bright. Too cold. I shiver, lying in a puddle on the hard floor.
Cadence is crying, great hiccuping sobs.
I feel bruised and stiff. The air is too thin, too empty.
I drag my arms in, intending to hold my head together, to keep it from bursting. Something crinkles under my hand.
Squinting through the throbbing pulse currently trying to eject my eyeballs from my skull, I examine the object. It’s damp and smudged, a folded bit of yellow paper, drying in ripples.
I crack the edges apart and peel it open. There are three lines of slanted text. The heavy ink is fuzzy, but still legible.
“You are meant for more. Join us.
10:30 pm. The door across from the elevators.
I’ll be waiting.
Under his name is a scrawled device, a check mark? Or perhaps the letter V, flourished ends wrapping back across the note. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
The earlier events of the day wash over me, heating my skin.
The reprimand. The group, huddled together in conversation. The golden man, his touch, slipping something under my collar.
His note. His message.
I start to melt, and harden again in an instant.
I must destroy it.
I suck in the cold, empty air, push up from the floor to lean against the cool wall, feeling my racing heart slow.
My fingers are icy. Water drips, drop by ponderous drop from the fixtures, condensation building, building and giving in, falling.
I focus on the sound, waiting, breathing in a gasp of relief with every rounded drop as it breaks finally against the floor. I pull my knees to my chest, wrap my arms around them for warmth.
Yes. Destroy it.
Regulation demands it. I am Digital Technician Cole 3-5. I am a Worker of Tower 3. I want to live; I must remain safe.
I will follow Regulation.
“Why?” Cadence’s voice is soft, and so very young, all of a sudden. So fragile. So alone.
My heart aches to hear it. I shake off the weakness, fighting for focus.
Why follow Regulation? To live safely. To live. Following Tower Regulation is the way to a long and safe life.
“Don’t do that!” Her voice is fierce now. “Don’t hide behind their training! Why do you want to live? Why do you want to be safe? What do you have here? What do you have that’s worth living for?”
I don’t know what to say to her. It’s a ridiculous question.
She gets like this sometimes, and I just can’t understand her. Why would I need something to live for?
Not dying. Not feeling pain. Being safe. That is my whole purpose. Our whole purpose.
The Tower’s purpose.
“There’s more.” Cadence says. “There can be more. Family. Friends. Beauty. Sensation. Pleasure. Love. Freedom.”
They lead to death. They are weakness. They invite destruction.
“No, they give meaning. Your life means nothing. Better to seek beauty in a dream and die than continue to live like this.”
I don’t know anything about beauty. I don’t care about freedom.
I don’t need love.
“Cole.” Her voice is pleading, broken. “We did, once.”
I’m done with this, this momentary weakness.
I will destroy this note.
I will dress, finish my nutrition allotment and go to bed.
Decided, I push up off the floor, fighting off a wash of nausea. I drop the note in the toilet and flush, hesitating hardly at all.
My stomach swirls with the paper as it circles the drain, shrinking and clenching in on itself.
Taking a firm grip on myself, I leave the sanitation closet and pull out a change of clothes from the cabinet. I reach for the remaining nutrition allotment, and raise it to my lips, but lingering queasiness makes me shove it away.
Fine. I’ll just sleep it all off and get back on track tomorrow.
I lower the bed from its compartment in the wall, climb under the sheet and close my eyes. The light automatically shuts off after a few minutes.
“Cole…” Cadence prods in the darkness.
“Cole, you can’t just keep hiding. It’s time.”
I can ignore her. I can ignore all of it. I know what to do.
Don’t get involved.
But Cadence is persistent. She won’t give up either. Maybe I can put her off somehow, distract her. A moment’s thought, and it comes to me.
I pull up a clock on the display console beside the bed.
It’s only 9:30. It would be safe. Well within the protection of the Tower. But maybe enough of an adventure to get Cadence off my back.
“Yes. Just a little trip, Cole. You know I don’t really want anything to do with that Ravelwan anyways. Let’s go on our own.” Cadence is eager now, hopeful.
But I’ll be fine. I have no hope. Just a plan.
I swing my feet out of bed and pad across the floor. The nausea seems to have faded, but my heart is pounding.
I’ve never been out of my room this late.
I slide the door open slowly, peering into the hall, before edging out and closing the door behind me. Softly.
There’s no one in the corridor. Even if there were, being out of your room in the evening isn’t quite a violation of regulation.
Being in someone else’s, of course, definitely would be. I pause, frowning, at each door along the corridor, listening for movement.
I hear the whir of a health cycle coming from behind one, the hum of scheduled recreation behind a couple others, as I prowl towards the elevator, but nothing more.
Finally, I press my ear against the outlined hatch across from the elevator, barely breathing, straining to hear the slightest sound. Waiting for an excuse.
“No one’s there.” Cadence says, making me jump.
It’s all an act. Foolish Cadence hadn’t been paying attention, but I had. The scored lines bordered a smooth, featureless expanse of wall.
With no doorknob.
There had been no depression, no handle of any kind. A simple enough trick; I’ll try the door, it won’t open, and Cadence will have to give up and let me get some sleep.
I take a deep breath and reach out ton the hatch, swiping from one edge to the other in an exaggerated show. Nothing happens, of course. No doorknob; no way to open it.
“No,” Cadence says, her voice rising as she catches on to my game. “Try harder! It has to open!”
There’s nothing to grab hold of, nothing to make the hatch open. I give the door a solid shove where the knob ought to be to prove my point.
The hatch springs out slightly from the wall, and I leap back from it, tripping myself in the process. From the floor, I can see a slim edge of darkness, where the panel pivots outwards, and, unthinking, reach out to hook my fingers around the exposed edge of the little door. A slight rasping sets my teeth on edge as the door swings wider, showing a dim, dusty space behind the wall. Leaning in, I can see a small crawlspace that runs off to one side in a narrow channel.
“Hurry up!” Cadence hisses, startling me. “Someone’s coming!”
She’s right; I can see the shadow of someone just about to step out of a door on the right. Without a second thought, I dive through the opening and pull the wall panel closed behind me.
It’s dark. The usual lights, with their gold netting, are absent, replaced by a faintly luminous strip outlining the hatch from the inside. The air is cool and musty, and I have to hold my nose to from sneezing.
I hear footsteps approach, and, panicking, crawl further from the door, sliding as quietly and as quickly as I can through the dark tunnel that runs off to one side. It opens out in a sudden, painful drop to cold concrete.
I’m sitting on a small platform.
Stairs climb and drop into gloom ahead of me, one to each side, and I can see the faintly glowing outline of doorways above and below at some distance. A matching glow is at my back; full height, this time. I lay my head against the icy back of the door and listen, holding my breath.
It should be safe. I’ll open the door slowly, just in case.
The handle turns, but the door resists. I persist for a few minutes, shoving silently. I want to kick it, but I’m afraid of the noise. Panting, I let go and slide down.
“Locked,” Cadence says. “Obviously.”
But I can hear the worry behind her tone. I scuff my feet in the dusty concrete and let my head fall back against the door.
I should be afraid — the gold in the Tower lighting offers some protection, and I clutch for my hood, pulling it back up from where it had fallen during my panicked scramble — but this darkness is strangely peaceful.
Pressing a hand against the wall, I find it icy, the texture rough and porous. It’s gritty against my palm, and a dark, damp smell rises off of it. I run my hand along the surface. The whispering dry scrape sends chills down my spine.
It’s new. Different. Strange.
“Fascinating,” Cadence says. “You find it fascinating. You like it.”
I recoil at her quiet accusation, stung, snatching my hand back to the warmth of my body. My palm tingles from the rough cold of the walls. I can hear nothing but our breath and the beating of our hearts. Fast, the twinned rhythm racing.
I feel no such thing.
I feel nothing.
This was a terrible idea. I wasn’t feeling well. I made a mistake.
But an alien thought intrudes: if I could, would I be able to bring myself to slide back that door? To expose this quiet, cold world of darkness — mine! I think fiercely, irrationally — to the cloying sweetness and light and hum that I’ve always known? Even Cadence’s voice is hushed.
It hardly feels like a decision.
Up or down?
“Down, of course! That’s the way out!” Cadence says.
So then. Up it is.
We’re not leaving the Tower. I’m not that sick. I’m just… not quite ready to go back.
I start to climb.
Chapter 3: Bell
It’s the music that I notice first. I haven’t heard music in decades, not real music. But there it is, the delicate, far-off trickle of refined piano played early in the day, in a large and well-appointed hall.
My feet swing beneath me, in time to the gentle tune, and for a moment it feels odd to kick my feet, dangling below my wide skirt in their neat stockings and polished shoes so far from the floor; so unspeakably odd to see my own fingers, small and smooth, tapping daintily against the neatly pressed table linens.
A shadow hovers over them, a faded silhouette of withered hands clawed against white sheets, tubes snaking in cruel counterpoint to the bulging veins. My shoulders hunch at the passing ache of arthritis as the gnarled fingers quiver. My mother reaches over to press my small hand and the vision ripples and fades.
Her warmth is alarming, and unexpected, somehow. I look up into her smiling face, smooth and unblemished - so young, why does that seem odd? - and across at my father, frowning near-sightedly at his menu, although of course he’ll order the usual.
Sunday brunch at the grand old hotel downtown, a longstanding tradition. My entire childhood, we never missed a week. But no, of course that’s a silly thing to say, for I’m not more than six or seven myself, hardly grown, and there are years of glorious freedom ahead of me.
Though, of course, I feel very grown-up, dining grandly in the hall. Not just anyone has such advantages, and not for long… but what a strange thought that is, now. There’s no reason to believe that anything should change.
And yet, in this moment, their closeness, their warmth and love feels unspeakably precious and rare. My heart aches, although I have never been apart from them, and tears gather hot in my eyes.
The mouthwatering aroma of bacon and eggs frying, fresh fruit and fragrant dark tea and coffee mingle with scent drifting from the lavish stands of fresh cut flowers. I draw the menu towards me, propping it open on the table edge to scan the list of decadent offerings.
Crisp waffles with cream and fruit. Golden pancakes, or crunchy French toast, drizzled with maple syrup. Bacon and eggs. I picture for a moment an unappetizing bottle of thick, offwhite liquid, with a long tube poking out, but shake the thought away, confused. Milkshake? Not for breakfast, surely!
The music has shifted, the gentle strains in the background jumbled and jarring, drifting from distractingly loud and violent down to creeping near-silence. Such questionable taste, this modern music! Father says jazz is the devil’s music.
Frowning, I close the menu, startled to see a small, ribbon-bound box sitting tidily behind it. “To Miss Suzannah Bell” says the cream-coloured tag, in elegant cursive.
My mother is speaking, her voice lost in a violent crescendo of discordant music. Her eyes are warm, though, and my father, his arm draped casually over her shoulder, is twinkling at me above his carefully oiled moustache. He does so enjoy finding the best presents. I suppose it must be my birthday. Fancy forgetting a thing like that! Am I really eight now? Somehow I feel so very much older than that…
I pull one end of the satin ribbon, and the top and front of the box drop to reveal the most lovely, delicate little doll. No larger than my hand, it is flawless, and dressed to the finest detail in precisely the outfit I have on, the ribbons and lace a perfect match.
The hair and face, I consider ruefully, are not quite an honest copy; her curls being much tidier, shinier and in all ways more appealing; her face an absolute delight, with sweet porcelain features and the most gleamingest black eyes.
I turn to thank my parents, but stop and wrinkle my nose. Surely the hotel’s standards have been slipping of late. A horrid whiff of decay seems to be drifting from the nearest stand of plants. But here is our meal now, sweet and savory scents drowning out the faint swampiness in a wash of fragrant steam. I shift my attention to the meal, sitting the doll up on the side of the table to stroke its shining curls and run my fingers idly along its stiffly starched dress as I eat.
Something shifts under my finger, and I glance up from my plate. Several faint lines angle across the doll’s face, and as I press, darken. The head of the doll splits with a grating whisper and slides apart into a fan. A pin lost in the curls at the back of the head seems to be holding the delicate, sharp slices together. Equal parts fascinated and revolted, I drop my fork with a clang and pull the doll to me, tipping it to examine the clever toy. Expecting to see some wonder painted on the slices, or perhaps a hollow cavity inside, hiding another gift, I peer down into the doll’s head.
Each slice is unexpectedly dark, save the thin rim of porcelain on one side and fringe of hairs along the other, an empty, flat darkness with no shimmer of paint or reflection of light bouncing off of rough and unfinished inner edges. Frowning I peer closer, and a sudden wave of dizziness washes over me. The reek of decay is stronger now, the violent dissonance of the piano crescendoing as the doll slips from my fingers, dropping towards the carpet so very far below. I reach for it, horribly slow, the floor and the falling doll more distant every moment. I cry out, expecting to hear the fine porcelain crack and shatter any moment now, but the sound is drowned out.
Blinking, I find myself staring at an opulently painted ceiling and a dark, angular structure. As I squint at it, my mind reorients the perspective to identify the unusual view - the bottom of my chair, I realize suddenly. My mother rises in the distance, elegance itself trailing away towards the ceiling, giant-like, and my looms up beside her.
Their apparent lack of concern should be relieving, but something feels wrong. My body is limp and nerveless, the angle of my vision too high. The hall feels cavernous and empty, although just moments ago it was so lively. The crash of the piano has subsided into to a ringing silence, as if I’ve gone suddenly deaf, the scents formerly wafting through the room vanished as if they had never been.
My parents hold out their hands to me. No, past me; the arms are extended in my direction as if to take my hands, but the angle is too high.
The warm, late morning light shifts, blinking suddenly to stark, blinding whiteness in a flash like lightening, silhouetting the long bones beneath their skin, darkly skeletal shadows against the glare. Even as I gasp, the light fades again to golden warmth, skin rapidly reassembling over the raw structure beneath. My heart stutters and seizes, breath caught in my throat.
A pair of flawlessly pale and smooth arms reach back towards them in stiff, unbending unison, and then a small, tidy figure with enormous bright curls flits over and past me to take their hands.
They turn to leave.
I call to them soundlessly from behind a tiny painted rosebud of a mouth, panicked now. What dream, what nightmare is this?
Distantly, my mind snags on the thought and pauses, churning. Dream. It must be just a dream. But instead of relief, terror wells in instinctive response. Yes, it’s all just a dream - it must be! - but a dream with no waking, no escape.
I struggle against leaden arms - if I could only pinch myself, shock myself awake, close my eyes and open them to my own, real life! But my eyes are frozen, wide and staring, my out-flung limbs a dead, cold weight dragging me down. I am trapped in a fragile shell, immobile and helpless. Left behind, abandoned.
The small, golden-haired figure lets go of my parents’ hands, and my heart breaks to see them again after all these years, so young, so healthy and unaware in their short-lived happiness, even if it is an illusion. The ghost of years between us creeps back into my mind and memory. So much loss. So much pain. I want to forget. I want to go back.
The monstrous creature turns and stalks back towards me, glittering eyes malevolent behind her expressionless porcelain perfection of a face. The delicately fanned segments of her head, grown so large now, have slipped back together without the slightest hint of their former, grotesque separation, but for a thin grey line running just at the top of her forehead, parting the hair to show a bottomless gap where the skull curves to the perfectly arched fall of her hair.
Something squirms in the darkness and overflows, trickling down her porcelain forehead and oozing along the angled line to her painted brow, where it pools in the socket of her eye, a gathering oil slick of tears. They overflow, streaking, no, pouring now over the smooth cheek, faster, spattering with acid heat across me as she looms in that flawless replica of my own starched dress.
The sole of her shoe rises to blot out the light.
Chapter 4: Morristu
He nearly stepped on the body during morning rounds.
The small room was identical to every other on Floor 18, Tower 3’s Care Ward, except for one thing. In this one, instead of a peacefully sleeping or groggy, just-woken senior tucked neatly into the bed, there was a corpse.
The white body was draped across the floor beside her cot, limbs flung wide and crooked, thin night clothes sunken into the oddly depressed torso. The face was a horror; not only the expression, what little was discernible, but the form itself. The floor beneath had deep cracks running from wall to wall, as if hit by a great, blunt force.
On further examination, the corpse’s skull, ribs, and the long bones of both arms and legs appeared to have been crushed, with deep, bloodless lines cut across her face as if someone had tried to unravel her head in a single, unbroken strip like an apple peel. A faint swamp-sweet stink of decay hung in the air, despite the fact that the body had to have been quite fresh; Senior Bell’s display panel showed that Morristu, the night attendant on duty, had checked in on her not two hours past.
The Day Supervisor edged gingerly around the body, bits of tile crackling underfoot. The cool roughness of the wall he pressed against was a reassuring reminder that it was not he, after all, lying dead this morning.
Observations completed, he gratefully escaped the room. The Day Supervisor was not known for his imagination, but it didn’t take much to picture himself in the dead woman’s staring eyes and crumpled face. The Tower did a good job of keeping its citizens safe, but even its painstaking control was not enough to prevent the occasional tragedy. And, he brightened at the thought, likely this death hadn’t even occurred on his watch. Hardly any chance of a reprimand and, if he was lucky, not much of a delay either. He could be back on his rounds in no time.
Of course, an Inspector had to be called. Protocol demanded it. The Day Supervisor sent the request and summoned the Night Attendant, Morristu, from her bed on Floor 12. Both waited in wide-eyed silence beside the shattered body on the cot. They didn’t have to wait long.
Inspector Haynfyv was a stickler for protocol, a resolute upholder of the Tower law and a most thorough and successful member of Tower Security. His inquisitiveness, dedication and passion for his job was both suspicious and unhealthy, practically inviting down destruction. But some sacrifices must be made for the good of the Tower and all who sheltered within its protecting walls. Besides, no Worker was accustomed to give more than a passing thought to the business and health of another.
In any case, the Inspector’s eagerness to do his civic duty brought him fairly dashing up the dusty service stairs to the Care Ward on Floor 18, much to the startlement of the Day Supervisor and Night Attendant, who had their backs to him as they waited, facing the elevator. But, shrugging his peculiarity off, they showed him to the remains, waiting in the hallway as he stood in the doorway.
Haynfyv’s eyes widened at the sight of the shattered figure sprawled across the floor. Catching sight of the pale faces of the ward staff, he quickly schooled his features to a more sober, controlled aspect, as befitted his station.
“Your report?” He asked, quite politely, trying for detachment and managing only a faint impression of constipated discomfort.
The ward staff were unfazed. Protocol, they were prepared for. Unseemly interest in one’s work might be a dangerous and regrettable personal failing, but hardly worth interesting oneself in.
The Day Supervisor nodded to the Night Attendant, Morristu. The small woman shook, her gaze fixed on the floor, as she peeled off her glove one finger at a time, and held back her loose sleeve, exposing her delicate, blue-veined forearm. A slightly raised ridge cut across her inner arm, less than an inch from where the web of veins wove close to the surface.
The Inspector, whose distinctly sturdy and fitted uniform included tight cuffs just below the hands, fumbled one-handed with the fastener at his right wrist for a moment before baring the skin. The slight rasping noise of it sent shivers down Morristu’s back, putting her in mind of scuttling insects. Morristu was altogether too delicate of a specimen, and the Day Supervisor, noticing her hand tremble, suppressed a small smirk of superiority beneath his mask.
Inspector Haynfyv held his sleeve back with one hand, not bothering to secure it back with the uniform tie, and thrust his wrist a few inches above the Night Attendant’s, palm down.
A blue light blinked at one end of the matching ridges as Morristu’s Care Ward worker surveillance chip uploaded a complete log of her activities and patient health metrics over the previous 48 hours. When the light blinked out, moments later, the Inspector thrust his arm at the Day Supervisor, who, slightly discomfited, also raised his wrist to be scanned.
Statements collected, the Inspector motioned the ward staff back and, standing in the open doorway, slipped a slim rod from one of his many pockets. Touching it briefly to his wrist, he proceeded to raise it towards the ceiling, braced between thumb and forefinger.
A line of light rayed out from the device, swept rapidly across the room and vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared. A scorched scent filled the air briefly, before the narrow vents at the perimeter of the room whisked it away and resumed misting their customary sweet scent into the air.
The Night Attendant and Day Supervisor stolidly averted their gazes throughout this procedure.
“Your cooperation is appreciated.” Inspector Hayne announced, tucking the scanner neatly back into his pocket.
The Day Supervisor nodded stiffly at this and turned to continue his rounds. Faint stirring and distant babbling could be made out behind the pale walls of the corridor, lined in doors spaced several feet apart down both sides. He was a good half hour late on his morning rounds, time that would have to be made up. He placed his hand on the next door. It slid open with a faint whirr, releasing a puff of disinfectant and body odour under the omnipresent sweetness of the Tower’s ventilation system.
Night Attendant Morristu yawned, unaccustomed to being up so late in the morning, and turned to return to her bed. The Inspector reached out a hand towards her, as if to stop her.
She jerked away reflexively, shrinking against the opposite wall of the corridor. Direct bodily contact was highly regulated according to Tower law. Even the Care Ward staff, accustomed to the necessary, unwanted intimacies of caring for those too incapacitated by age to care for themselves, were actively protective of their personal space.
Inspector Haynfyv pulled back as well, startled, cursing under his breath.
“Ah, no. No, I didn’t mean to…” He cleared his throat, brow furrowed, and muttered something that sounded like, “Five again…”
“I’d like to ask you a few questions.” Haynfyv said. Morristu blinked, raising her arm again, wrist pivoted outward, but he waved it away. “No, no. Nothing wrong with the scan. Just something I’m trying out, you understand. A certain technique. It’s really very interesting…”
Haynfyv trailed off as Morristu slowly straightened, edging out from the wall as she eyed the Inspector with great suspicion.
Inspector Haynfyv cleared his throat again, thoroughly uncomfortable now. He would much rather be in his office, combing the reports for any revealing details, or even on assignment out on the streets. A women witness, no less; it made him distinctly uncomfortable. A good thing the Tower made sure there weren’t too many of the creatures around. But he had been dying to try a new investigative technique out: suspect interrogation. He’d found it mentioned in one of the old records. This really was too good a chance to pass up, but perhaps… Yes, perhaps he ought to wait until a better opportunity presented itself… Haynfyv started to raise a hand in dismissal.
The elevator fortunately arrived at just that moment. The doors sighed open to reveal a slight figure in a rumpled uniform rather darker and heavier than the Inspector’s. Tufts of sandy hair poked out around his thick hood and poorly-fastened mask.
Inspector Haynfyv sighed with relief and turned back to the Night Attendant.
“Ah, excellent timing! Guard Serov here will assist you in disposing of the… remains. He will then escort you to Floor 3 for further assessment.” Haynfyv announced. He turned on his heel to catch the elevator just as the door slid shut, masking Morristu’s sharply indrawn breath.
Chapter 5: Flight
Cadence and I are alone in a world of near-darkness. Dying.
At least, I’m sure I’m dying.
I’m dripping in a cold sweat. Heart racing, about to burst. My muscles quiver on the verge of collapse. The breath rasps in my throat, tasting of blood and pain.
Cadence doesn’t seem to be having any problems, but I can’t spare the energy to check on her right now.
I realize now why the Tower didn’t bother prohibiting use of the stairs. The assigned health cycles never prepared me for anything like this. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve scraped and bruised my shins and elbows on these stairs. The burning in my legs competes with the fire in my lungs for attention.
My room is on Floor 12. I counted eight glowing outlined doors before losing track. I could have passed as many as a dozen by now, and I’m just starting to realize that I can’t remember how many floors there are in the Tower.
“32,” Cadence pipes up cheerily, sounding not the least bit winded. “And you’ve climbed ten levels so far, so you’re already halfway now! Cole, this is so awesome! Can you believe how clear the air is in here?”
I would strangle her, if I had the energy. As it is, I can barely summon the will to raise a hand to the next step, panting. Pause. Now my knee.
My palms are scuffed, dust-caked and probably bleeding. The knees of my pants are wearing through; a small concern compared to the sharp pains shooting through the joints. If it weren’t so dark, I’m sure my vision would be tunnelling towards black.
As it is, I’m not entirely sure I am conscious right now. I have been climbing this stair for an eternity, and will continue on for all time. I can’t remember why I started and I don’t have the will to stop. I am a machine, set to continue until the parts wear out.
The thought of retracing my steps is more than I can take. Besides, I’m not at all sure how to tell which floor is mine on the way back.
Cadence snorts. “Not going to be a problem. You’re being ridiculous. Get over yourself. A little exercise is good for you. Weakling.”
She singsongs “weakling” up and down in the darkness, faking echoes to her own words.
I’m sure I can’t hear her over my racing pulse and ragged breaths. (Jerk.)
I’ve stopped trying to look up, stopped searching out and struggling towards the next outlined doorway, the next platform. My world has narrowed to the next few inches of darkness.
Heave. Scrape. Pant. Heave.
When I reach the last door, it’s not so much a surprise as a revelation.
I press forward dumbly against it for a moment. Pause. Press again. Swing my head round, shuffle sideways in a crab crawl until I’m back facing the door.
Stairs stretching down to a faint outline behind. Door ahead. Walls.
I made it.
I draw a deep, rasping breath and start coughing.
My tongue is buried under a blanket of dust. I curl on my side against the door, and listen to the sound of my heartbeat slowing, receding.
I can hear something in the distance. Something beyond the door. Sharp, high calls, piercing and far off, behind a faint drumming that rises and falls like one of Cadence’s less inspired songs, like breath. In and out; strong and faint.
Sweat stands out on my skin, icy now. My clothes are soaked. I’m shaking from terror, or something like.
Cadence is entranced.
“Seagulls.” She breathes in awe and delight.
The word means nothing to me. I have no interest in meeting the source of that alien sound.
A groaning, rattling roar starts somewhere far below, shuddering upward, carried on a wave of air that races nearer, forcing me towards the door.
Suddenly, I’d much rather meet these ‘seagulls’ than whatever monstrosity is now surging behind me.
With quivering muscles, I strain upwards, sliding along the doorway until I feel a handle — a protruding bar, this time — and press.
The door flies open, snapping at its limits and bouncing back before the onrushing air presses it away again at full extension.
The thought of roaring and shrieking dangers is wiped from my mind in an instant.
I have discovered light.
In the instant before I curl in on myself in anguished pain, a brilliance unmatched by any I have ever seen overwhelms my senses.
I must have more!
But for the moment, all I can do is rock with my head in my arms, tears streaming from my eyes.
“Cole,” Cadence’s voice is hushed. Awestruck.
I edge my lashes apart, still huddled in a ball.
I see myself lit from without, a tangle of radiance and shadows, color and texture with a depth and a range that I had never imagined existed. Each finger rimmed in light, translucently red as I flex and unclench my hands, allowing that light entrance.
It’s so warm.
I’m sitting in the doorway. An expanse of textured material stretches out before me. Past that, a raised edge and…
Cadence sighs in happiness.
Colour. All colour. And somehow, light and color at the same time.
White light, so bright I can hardly look at it, wreathed in warm tones of gold and red and purple shading to blues and grays. Ripples and movement above and below, the light shifting and sliding. A channel of brightness falling just on me, curtained by a shivering rush of water from the sky. Air moves, casting icy drops against my face. Wind.
It is… impossible. More than I have ever known, and yet somehow terribly, painfully familiar.
Overwhelming and intense and there.
“Sunset. That’s the sun. This is what it looks like at the end of the day.” Cadence is saying, but her words are distant, dry information compared to a scintillating reality. There are dark, still things out there beyond the edge, framed against the riot of light and colour.
“Towers,” Cadence explains, absently.
The other Towers? But I count more than five…
Past the towers, the sky stretches along, rain rolling back to leave a cool stillness, sky above and below divided by heaped blue forms in the far distance; the movement above a slow swirl, the movement below a steady rocking shimmer, darker, fading into a formless, muddy mass swathing the towers in murk.
The towers, some small, almost lost in the roiling mass, others as tall or taller than my own, so many more than I had ever heard of…
The thought slides away in the face of that brilliance, still shifting, still moving. A glorious whirl of gentle movement, sliding and rocking and shimmering. Dark things move in dizzying patterns in the sky-above, emitting the high pitched cries I’d heard earlier. Seagulls, then.
Some are quite close - one swoops out of the sky and lands on the low rail that runs along the edge. It too is a marvel of shape and texture, colour and motion, brighter than I’d first thought. I hardly notice that my feet have brought me near, until it launches itself in a sudden flurry.
It leaves something behind in its wake…
“Feathers,” Cadence puts in, absently.
They are… floating. Drifting on the air, so slowly, so lightly. Swirling, dropping and then rising again.
I lean on the rail, transfixed. What would it be like to be carried by the air like that, cushioned, suspended in the warmth of that brilliance, in the ordered riot of colour and motion, swaying, dancing, spiraling on invisible currents?
I can feel it, feel the air buoying me up, feel the gentle warmth embrace me.
I am flying in the sunset.
The colours paint patterns across my skin, dressing me in vivid crimsons and deep aquamarines. I turn lazily, moving easily through the deepening shades.
Sky-above is banded in ever-deepening waves of colour; Sky-below a dark mirror in motion in the distance, but nearer… Directly below, as I turn, is the sickly-dim mass that cloaks the feet of the towers, dense and muddy with creeping yellows and browns, crawling towards darkness.
I twist away, seeking out the light.
It’s getting darker. The brilliance is fading.
I realize suddenly that the air is no longer raising me up, that I no longer move at will.
I am sinking, picking up speed as darkness rises to meet me. Air rushes against my body, stinging my eyes and stealing my breath, stealing my warmth.
I can’t see anything. I can’t feel anything, except the wind of my fall, and I am falling. The cloying stink of decay rushes in. The ground is rising to meet me in the inky distance, and once it does, I will not be. There is hunger and greed and dark pleasure in the darkness, waiting for me.
I am horror, and even that will soon be gone.
I am despair.
There is a sound, far away and indistinct, but it pulls at me, tearing at the edges of my despair. I focus, concentrating what little I have left on the sound, a lifeline.
Cadence. She’s so far away, so far, but I’d know her voice anywhere, and I can almost make it out…
But there is no hope. I can’t fly.
I’m not a seagull. Not a feather. Not embraced by the wind and light.
“Cole!… Can’t fly… …you…can’t… fly!”
Even in my last moments, she can’t help harassing me. Taunting me. Of course I can’t fly. Of course… I…
I can’t fly!
And by extension; I wasn’t flying! So this was all a dream… Again despair crashes down on me.
Dream and die. Tower regulation was my salvation, and I abandoned it.
This terror is nothing more than I deserve.
This is my due, what I earned by listening to Cadence and reaching for something more.
I feel the end getting closer. It’s too late for anything.
Too late for regret.
One traitorous thought lingers, here, so close to the end.
At least I got that one moment of wonder. That storm. That glorious sunset. That light. That freedom.
That moment was mine, and mine alone.
And the impact comes.
And I shatter.
The force of my fall snaps my neck back, wrenching my limbs and bursting my head. Blood and bone part ways in a violent collapse.
And yet, still I am.
I think. I know myself. Though I am bonelessly limp, I ache in each drooping limb.
I am a mass of bruises and scrapes, a collection of pain, but I am.
Pressure forces my shoulders and knees upwards, and I dangle helplessly from these supports. Something shifts beneath me, and my head rolls up and to one side, supported on a warm and resistant surface. Heat radiates along my side.
A distant rumble fades in and out of buzzing static.
I sense questioning. Concern. Amusement.
Finding that I do indeed continue to have a body, I make an effort to open my eyes.
A failed effort.
There is a jolt; pain swells and subsides.
I sense roughness, a hard surface. The warmth withdraws as my body settles on cold ground. Indistinct sound, far away.
A voice? Why can’t I hear?
This time I manage to pry my eyes open, just a crack. Searching through my lashes, a figure wavers into focus, dark, but outlined in a blurred corona of brilliant light.
The form fizzes, fades and disperses, and the world is silent.
I blink once and drift away.
Chapter 6: Blotches
Morristu was a slight young woman, pale and delicate, prone to troubling, but thankfully only periodic, bouts of interest in her subjects in the Care Ward. Her tendency to show a surfeit of regard for the elderly was the primary reason she had been switched to the evening shift. The nutrition mix provided to elderly Tower citizens ensured that they slept soundly - and dreamlessly - through the nights, and no little portion of the day at that. As Night Attendant, Morristu made sure each patient in the ward slurped down their evening allotment, and then spent the long hours remaining of the artificially observed night - the ward, like all the upper of the Tower had no windows - monitoring health feeds and pacing the halls. Her sixteen months as Night Attendant had been nearly flawless, as Guard Serov observed on her records. Not a single dream death, a statistically-normal five natural deaths, and only two formal reprimands for excessive solicitousness observed while supplying nutrition to her wards.
The guard swiped from Morristu’s professional record to glance through her personal stats. Nothing out of the ordinary since she had been reassigned to nights. Perfectly correct health and recreation habits observed prior to her shift, regular nutrition intake, long and undisturbed sleep during the day hours. The odd inconsistency observed prior to her reassignment - unexplained wakefulness, subpar health and recreation logs, low nutritional intake and suspiciously high colour - had been entirely corrected. Morristu had been a model citizen - as he’d expected.
Serov smiled widely, eyes glimmering above his mask. He reached up and casually unhooked it, letting it hang askew and showing teeth. Night Attendant Morristu jerked and shrank back against the cold wall, shivering. The Assessment Room on Floor 3 had the same regulation paint as the rest of the Tower, but managed to look even more drab, if that were possible. Scuffs and gouges along the wall and door made her shudder. Even more alarming was the presence of the three large windows on the far wall. Sickly-looking yellow-tinged fog swirled against the grimy glass. Morristu thought she could smell it. Damp and sour and musty, a thickness in the air. The subtle sweetness of the Tower ventilation system was absent, as if this floor had been entirely abandoned to the broken world outside its walls. A world she was desperate to forget
Morristu paled even further, nearly disappearing against the wall. Her eyes were dark, shadowed with exhaustion and fear. The Guard were not well liked as a rule; their heavy uniform, thickened bodies and darkened skin were a constant reminder of the dangers outside the Tower, of the poisoned world that they alone moved in. The world she had chosen to abandon.
But it was more than that. More, even, than the subdued twinges of an animal instinct not wholly suppressed by decades of sterile existence. Something about this Guard in particular. His hidden smile and flat gaze, the way he kept his arms in close to his body, hands held in front an incongruously delicate posture, sent ice trickling down her spine. She had tried so hard to forget, to leave it all behind.
The horrific work of disposing of those shattered remains, and subsequent interrogation after a full shift was wearing on Morristu. She wanted nothing more than to fall into her own bed and leave it all behind. Running away had always been her problem.
“You are being committed to provisional reassignment due to mismanagement of nutrition.” Guard Serov announced abruptly, pleasure clear and menacing in his tone. His voice was oddly high and smooth, oily.
Morristu stared at Serov, her mind racing. Reassignment? Wasn’t that excessive given the circumstances? After all, despite the best efforts of the Tower, the occasional dream death was an unavoidable reality, particularly among the undisciplined aged citizens, with their failing health and drifting minds, not to mention the shortcuts taken in the shielding for their floor…
She cast an anxious glance at the walls and window again, noting this time that, although some gouges were disturbingly deep, no shimmer of gold dust, wire or net presented itself. The view through the window was likewise suspiciously bland. No screen or film was visible. Unthinkable that this floor should be so unshielded!
Morristu wet her lips, hesitating to speak, but bursting with the urge to escape. She remembered the words, whispered in shadowed corners so long ago, then cheered under kaleidoscoping lights, over thumping beats and shimmering tones. Words of safety. Words of rescue.
“I request–” Her voice cracked, and she paused, swallowing hard. Serov’s smile widened, rippling past the edge of his mask. Predatory. It wasn’t the first time she had made her plea to him.
Morristu squeaked and looked away, fixing her eyes in horrified fascination on the swirling smog outside the window.
“I request visual review of the alleged mismanagement.” She finished in a whisper, glancing back and away from Serov as she finished. The toothy grin had vanished, lips pinched in a tight smile, white-lipped with control. His dead stare was fixed on her, eyes heavy-lidded, as if with boredom. Something squirmed in their depths.
“Certainly, my dear,” He replied, unconcealed hunger plain in his pitchy voice. It fairly buzzed with anticipation. “You are entitled to a comprehensive briefing as a Citizen of the Tower. We value your contribution and have only your best interests at heart.”
The words were rote, but Morristu felt none of the relief that she had expected. Been told to expect. Not like last time. Not like when he had taken her away from it all. Not like when he had taken her back. But now he played the stranger.
“Regrettably,” Serov continued, gesturing tightly with an elegant turn of the wrist. “I do not have a working display port on hand in this location. However, I would be delighted to contact Retraining and let them know that you will be late. We can take our time with the review. If you’ll just come with me, there is a display port quite near here.”
Guard Serov took Night Attendant Morristu by the arm and pressed her toward the door. She cringed back from his touch; his grip tightened in response.
He was taller than her by several inches, and made no accommodation for her height or pace, so that Morristu stumbled to keep up as he dragged her down the hall. His skin burned through her thin uniform sleeve, the smell of him, so close - too close! - sharp and bitter over the musty air of Floor 3. He was headed toward the elevators and - hope flashed through Morristu - back to safety. But instead of pressing the elevator call button, Serov headed toward the opposite wall, towards a door set so subtly into the wall that it nearly vanished.
Serov paused in front of the door, shoving Morristu against the wall with one arm and leaning in on her heavily. She squeaked in panic and squirmed, but the pressure only increased as he glanced up and down the hall, before pressing the door in and to the side and shoving her through into the darkness.
Morristu stumbled forward in the gloom, catching herself against a damply gritty wall that scraped her palms. She clung to the wall, crouched and trembling.
The stairwell. It had been so long.
“Yesss,” Serov’s voice hissed in the darkness, his form blocking most of what dim light radiated from the outlined door. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, little mouse? You went back to your cage so readily. Tell me, did the hidden paths still call to you in your neat world upstairs? Was it regret? Did you think you had us fooled? That you could just go back; that the Tower would take you back?”
“I never,” Morristu started.
“You did. I can smell it on you. Little rebel. Little deviant. What made you stop meeting your little friends, hmm? Your little family? Why did you beg to return?” Serov moved closer, looming over Morristu.
“No, I didn’t, I don’t…” Morristu cried, “I don’t want that! That broken world, that danger. I was young. There were… things… people… but I left them! I left it all! I chose the Tower! The Tower protects me!”
“Wrong.” Serov’s voice was gleeful now. “The Tower protects nothing, and least of all you, little deviant. It’s time to pay the fee. You’re mine now, mine to play with as I will. And I’ve a mind to run some more tests. See, I’m not entirely persuaded that that poor old lady didn’t die of something else, you know. Mighty strange markings. But I’ve had a thought about that. I think I know how that kind of damage is done. Want me to show you? Special just for you, I’ll do a very… thorough… review.”
“No! No, please! I— I have information! I can give you names! Meeting places! Just don’t… Just, please, I… I can take you there! Please, let me take you there… Just—“
Serov’s hand closed fast on Morristu’s throat, choking off her cries and bouncing the back of her skull off of the cold wall. Morristu saw stars dancing through the darkness as a roaring filled her head. She felt the scraping of his rough-gripped gloves grinding her loose mask against the delicate skin under her chin as he drew back slightly, allowing her to gulp down the musty air. His glove was cold against her burning skin, elbow pinning her against the wall, thumb and forefinger tracing bruising lines along either side of her neck.
“They were going to get rid of you, you know.” Serov breathed into Morristu’s ear. “All of you. Women. Unnecessary. Useless. Unpredictable. But I always liked your kind. So soft. So noisy. So lovely. So foolish. So… breakable. No. I don’t want your… intelligence. I have better uses for you.”
Serov was practically on top of her now, pinning Morris with a knee and one hand, the other drawn back, waiting. Daring her to scream again. Daring her to struggle.
Morristu remembered then. Things lost in the soporific fog of Tower life, looming from the haze in disjointed flashes. There had been men out there that had been fascinated by her too, and she by them. Touch, smell, sensation. Freedom. Pleasure. Wonder.
Fear. No control.
She had run from it back then, trading the pleasure for safety. She couldn’t run now. She drew breath to scream.
Inspector Haynefyv passed Guard Serov in the hall of Floor 3, absently raising a hand in acknowledgement as he mulled over the latest case.
Something had seemed off, but all the reports looked clean. Neither of those care workers had failed in their duties; every moment of their shifts scheduled and accounted for. Perhaps a little negligence in the nutrition allotment? But after all, the old ones were only there to die. What did it really matter whether the death came for them a little earlier and a little harder than nature intended? There were so many more important, more interesting, things for a Tower Inspector to concern himself with anyways… But still, it was a chance to try out that technique. Haynfyv’s fists clenched in anticipation.
Suspect interrogation. You actually talked to them, face to face. Fascinating. The things people used to do… Such a shame, though, that it had to be a woman this time. So uncomfortable. And something about that little night attendant was bothering him.
She had seemed to unremarkable at the time, but in hindsight, she seemed far too responsive, too alert. Too afraid. And the look on her face when that guard showed up. Terrible. Although, he himself had never thought much of the man. Creepy little bastard. Far too eager about away assignments and terribly sloppy with his reports…
Hang on. Hadn’t that been…
Inspector Haynfyv paused, spun and stared down the hall after the guard.
“Hey! You! Hang on! Anything come out during the disposal?” Haynfyv called.
Serov turned at once to respond, though he was by this time some way down the hall.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Serov reported in oily tones, flapping his gloved hands lightly at chest height. Something dark spattered off to stain the wall. “All cleaned up and everything back where it should be.”
“ And which room…” Haynfyv started to ask, before being interrupted.
“Apologies, Inspector. I’m afraid Night Attendant Morristu has already been remanded to the reeducation centre. She was so very… eager to please. I’m sure they’re well underway with her retraining.”
“Retraining?” Haynefyv was startled. “I requested the suspect be held for interrogation.”
The word escaped his lips before he could think to hold it back. Haynfyv cringed as the guard looked up at him, brow furrowed.
“Ah, never mind that. The point is, I didn’t order the suspect to be sent to retraining.”
“Really, sir? How strange. I was sure that’s what the chart specified. Perhaps, when you have a chance to review the report…?”
Little turd, trying to push his negligence on me, Haynfyv thought. Still, I had my doubts about wasting an interrogation on a female… He waved a hand in weary dismissal.
“I’ll do that, Guard Serov. I’ll do that. And perhaps, in future, you could double check your orders as well before taking action. I would… appreciate… being informed about any additions or alterations to my cases while they are still under my jurisdiction.”
Serov ducked his head respectfully, folding his hands in against his chest, hiding his expression. Haynfyv waved the guard off irritably.
Really! The one time the scruffy little man performed his duties with any efficiency, and he’d not only gotten it wrong, but had the gall to try to shift the blame!
Serov turned to go, but Haynfyv gazed absently after him for a few moments more. Serov gave him the oddest feeling, but he couldn’t quite place it. Must be his general untidiness — the guard uniform was spattered in dark blotches, and a salt-sharp odour drifted in his wake. Haynefyv ought to submit a formal reprimand. There was no excuse not to have uniforms cleaned between excursions — it had been days since the last one, after all.
Yes, he should submit a reprimand. If he remembered.
Chapter 7: Secrets
My eyes open to a world I have never seen.
The air is sharp, icy, clear. Like my mind.
Everything feels more real, more present. A fog has lifted that I never knew was there. The light - what light there is - is hard-edged and silver, scattered above me and collected in an enormous shining disc against a deep and welcoming dark. I raise myself, grit scratching my stinging palms, every muscle aching. Black silhouettes against the glittering sky mark the few towers taller than my own, and in the far distance, the irregular outlines of mountains across the water, mirror still, a net of stars shimmering on the surface of the inlet. It is mine alone, my own perfect paradise of hidden night.
It is glorious.
And with a shock, I realize I am alone. Perfectly, completely alone, as I have never been. No minders, no trainers, no workers, no supervisors.
No one to give me words. No one to supply the knowing behind simple experience. Mountains. Inlet. Moon. Stars.
These words, these things, belong to Cadence’s stories, not to me. I turn, clutching at the empty night for her, my companion, my own. The night is still beautiful, but now the head-spinning beauty seems cruel. Mocking.
Where has she gone?
The dream. That had been a dream, hadn’t it? Floating, flying. Falling.
But I’m still here. Did Cadence sacrifice herself for me? Was that who I felt, there at the end? That voice on the edges of my consciousness, that supporting silver presence?
I feel empty. The loss of Cadence…hollow.
Stillness echoes inside me.
I turn my back on the beautiful, horrible night, turn back, stumbling, to the door to home and safety, foggy-dim security.
I abandon this empty freedom without a backward glance. The door snaps shut as I feel for the first step in the darkness.
“That. Was. Amazing!!” Cadence crows in my ear.
Thankfully I fall backward instead of forward. The ache in my tailbone barely even registers as I stare wide-eyed into the dim stairwell.
“What?” Cadence asks.
Stupid. Stupid girl.
Where were you?
Where did you go? You’ve never gone before.
“What are you talking about?” The excitement in her voice is shifting to exasperation. “You just reconnected with the freakin’ universe, and you want to know where I go when you sleep?”
I wasn’t asleep.
“Yeah, well, not the whole time you sure weren’t. Of course you couldn’t manage to keep your eyes open for the good part! Who was that? You just about kicked it there at the end, you know.”
That wasn’t you?
“What, saving your skinny butt? Nope, I was praying my face off right about then.”
I scoot forward and feel for the next step. Crisp, crystalline alertness is draining from me into the cold, concrete steps. The sharp pricks of scabs cracking compete with the burning ache in my muscles as I move. The darkness seems to heighten every sensation.
It’s a long way back to my room. I have no idea how much is left of the night, but I am screwed if I don’t get all this grime off and these scrapes covered before work tomorrow. Or today. Whatever.
Cadence keeps chattering as I feel my way down the unending stairs, keeping careful count of the palely outlined doorways as I go. The words ‘silver’ ‘hot’ and ‘amazing’ keep repeating. I think she might be in love with our mysterious, probably-not-even-real stranger.
Who saved me from a dream.
Which isn’t possible.
So he definitely doesn’t exist.
Cadence ignores this line of logic almost as thoroughly as I ignore her chattering.
Finally. I’m definitely almost positively certain that this is the doorway to my floor.
Taking a deep breath, I reach for the handle, remembering as the icy metal chills my hand that it’s locked. I’m about to turn and look for the crawl-space tunnel, when the handle shifts. I tighten my grip, turn, pull the door open a crack and peer into a headache-inducing golden glow.
The good news? This door opened.
The bad news? Not my floor.
So not my floor.
I have never seen anything like this before in the Tower. The gold-threaded lights are familiar, but the condition of the pitted, gouged walls, the grungy, trash-littered floor… There aren’t nearly enough doors either, and the corridor is so short — I can see where it turns, not twenty feet away, way too soon…
“Get back,” Cadence hisses in my ear. “Someone’s coming!”
I can hear the footsteps now, not ringing, but shuffling, detritus shifting and scattering under a heavy, slow tread.
I edge the door shut, holding my breath until the gap is sealed.
This place is wrong; I shouldn’t be here. I want to run, but I’m too afraid, and my body is hours past worn out, every muscle and joint competing with shredded skin for my attention.
The shuffling step is faint behind the door, but getting closer. Closer.
I hold my breath, pulse pounding.
Cadence is silent. Or maybe praying. Since apparently she does that now.
I resume breathing, cautiously. Edge back from the door.
I must have lost count and gone too low… or maybe I’m still too high up? I can’t go back to the top and count again… My throat tightens, eyes dampening in misery and desperation. There’s no way…
“Too low,” Cadence whispers.
Someone catches me, warm hands at my back.
“Whoa! Look who decided to join us after all!”
It’s too dark to see, but I think I’d recognize the touch of those big hands, that liquid voice anywhere.
“Ravelwan!” Cadence hisses. My heart stops. Stutters. Starts up again in double time.
Him. The golden man.
A high pitched voice titters in the darkness: “Look at that! You scared the kid! Better keep those hands to yourself, Ravel.”
I feel the vibration of his laugh. Other voices murmur in amused agreement, and now I hear the rustlings of light uniforms, soft slippered shoes on the stairs. How could I have missed so many? How could there even be so many, moving about the Tower at this time of night?
I turn toward the hidden stream of people, and Ravelwan’s arm moves with me, slipping around my shoulders as I turn.
I flinch away, the shock of his touch meeting the exhaustion of my spent body. My knees feel like rubber. Ravelwan’s arm tightens around me, his hand catching at my scraped elbow. Shooting pain shocks me upright, keeping me from fully collapsing to be trampled under the feet of the shadows flitting through the dark.
Cadence is freaking out, but I can’t spare her any attention just now.
“Go on ahead. I’ll catch up soon.” His voice is low and clear. Commanding.
The soft rustling pauses while he speaks, resumes without comment when he is finished, the soft movements fading down around the next corridor. It’s just the two of us now. Well, three of us.
I think Cadence is hyperventilating. Or maybe that’s me. He’s ignoring it either way, which is awfully nice of him…
“So I take it you got my note?” He asks.
Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to need an answer; I’m not having much success getting one out.
“I can’t tell you how very pleased I am that you came to meet us, Cole.” Ravelwan continues, his voice warm and heavy.
It’s hard to focus. I try to shrug his arm off, and this time he loosens his grip. I step away, feeling for the cool solidness of the wall. Leaning against it, I let the cold seep into my burning skin, draining the heat from my head until I can focus on his words.
“I knew you’d come,” He says.”I needed you to come. We need you with us, Cole. And you need us. I’ve been watching you. You’ve never been out, have you? You’re going to love it, Cole.” His voice is excited, intense. His hands are gentle, reaching out to stroke my head, shoulders, arms. “There is so much more than this, this strangled existence that the Tower allows you. You were made for more than this. I can’t wait to show you how much more.”
I let him coax me from the supporting wall, simultaneously drawn to, and terrified of his words, his presence. His voice, his nearness, his touch.
It’s all wrong, dangerously, fascinatingly wrong, violating everything I’ve ever known was right. Safe.
This could kill me. This temptation, this allure. I’ve already had one close brush with a dream today; I won’t survive exposure to a second.
He’ll kill me.
“Escape,” Cadence breathes in my ear.
The word echoes in my head, quivering down through my body, vibrating tensed muscles into action. My heart clenches as my feet carry me, unwilling, away up the stairs, stumbling, catching shins against hard-edged steps, but surging onward.
“Cole!” His voice follows me, hurt, confused, demanding, compelling.
And falls silent with the scrape of a door sliding open. A beam of light bounces off the wall as I turn the corner to the next flight of stairs, while his footsteps thud lower as we both flee the light.
Too close. No matter what, the Tower can’t know of anything that goes on outside of its light. We’d been exposed to too much. Too dangerous. I don’t know what they’d do to me. One thing was certain, it wouldn’t be good. I have to get back to my room and get cleaned up before anyone…
“Anyone else…” Cadence pipes up.
…Anyone else finds out. Like that cold eyed Guard from earlier. Somehow, I feel like his attention at least would not be good.
“Welcome to the world of secrets.” Cadence says.
Chapter 8: Mori
I hate this. Sitting here, day after day, smothered under the numbing influence of the Training floor. Bathed in the yellow glow of artificial light, cocooned in an endless rhythmic routine.
I feel like I’m the only one awake, though this room is full of trainers and trainees, even a couple former workers, back for retraining, their bodies broader and skin smoother than ours. They share the dull, empty stare of the other trainees. The trainers at least seem to be able to focus, to have some will and consciousness. It can’t be only the dullness of our daily routine.
I’m suspicious of everything here. The bland food, a liquid diet of flavourless, thick goop that the trainers administer twice daily, observing and adjusting until we grow and smooth out to blend with the herds of grown Workers. The sweet-smelling clouds that hiss out of air vents and disperse into a light haze throughout the Training Floor, the corridors, our tiny rooms.
I hate it all. You’d think I’d get used to it, that it would fade into the background. Sometimes I forget for minutes, hours, whole days… and then a stronger whiff of it brings all my revulsion to the fore and I can hardly stand it. I’ve learned to force down the meals while they watch, and then purge it all out later. It seems to make a difference. My head feels so much clearer, my body lighter, eyes sharper. When the trainers murmur their lists of regulations and have us mimic the simple tasks of a Worker, I learn faster than any other trainee. They don’t seem pleased. That’s fine, I can slow down, play dumb, mimic the dull movements and incomprehension of the others and let my mind wander. I imagine an alien world, a fantasy of danger, joy and freedom.
In the world I escape to, I am very much smaller than I am now, and I live with two people - Workers? - they’re full size, anyways, but sharp, like I am. Their eyes focus; they see me. They smile. Laugh.
We are together in a small, dim place, very unlike the large, open spaces of the Tower Training Floor. The air is thick with a yellowish fog that they try to shut out, covering over doors and windows whenever we return to the small place that we all live. Together! There is a single room that the three of us eat, sleep and play in. And what food! What play!
A Trainer is leading a recitation of holy Tower regulation, and I mechanically recite along while letting my mind take me away to that other world. There, we have food that you have to cut and tear and chew, but it has flavour and texture. The taste makes my mouth water and my stomach churn. One of the Workers, a woman, she prepared it, taking parcels and strangely coloured things that we would collect from the outside and turning them by magic into wonderful things.
In my world, we have our own language, and we have names, not ID and title, but actual individual names. I called the woman Worker Kachan and the man Tochan. They have a name for me, too. I reach for it, straining.
No that wasn’t quite right. Funny, most of this world I escape to comes so easily, but every so often there are pieces that I just can’t get a good look at. Mori… it’s more like a title, like Trainer or Worker, it’s what all of us are called, Kachan and Tochan and me…
“Trainee Mori!” The Trainer repeats himself, bending over to get a better look at me. “Remember Injunctions One and Three! Dreams lead to death. An idle mind draws down destruction!”
I jump a little in my chair, startled. I must have forgotten to drone along to the Regulations. I’d have to do better. I mumble an apology and focus for a few minutes until I feel like I’ve gotten back into the flow of things.
It was so much more fun to learn things in my world. Kachan and Tochan would repeat things for me, just a few times and then I’d know it, and we’d move on to something else. They show me how to do things and take me places, new and different places.
It’s hard to see much on the streets when we leave our home; the fog is so thick that you can barely see the outlines of buildings, jutting up on either side, and you have to be almost on top of the little stalls where we buy the materials that Kachan makes our meals from. Tochan wants me to climb a building with him. He says you can see past the fog if you go high enough. We try, but in my world I am very small, and the steps seem huge. I get tired too quickly, and he gives up and carries my home.
That’s another thing. In my world, we all touch each other a lot, casually, like it’s no big deal. Tochan hugs Kachan and me, they hold my hand when we walk outside, carry me when I get tired. There’s something called ‘tickling’ that I love and hate at the same time. It makes me laugh until I can’t breathe.
Kachan says there’s another way to see past the fog. It’s dangerous, but she says I should see. Just in case, I should get to see. She seems sad. Tochan says it’s best to go just before dark. Easier to get away. Prettier. We’re all afraid of something, but I’m not too sure what.
Kachan helps me dress in dark clothes, tight-fitting, sturdy pants, heavy shoes, a thick coat. We wear a lot more clothes than anyone I’ve ever seen in the Tower, even the Guard. The fog is even darker than usual when we get outside. Tochan says hurry, hurry so we can still see it. He pulls me along at first, sweeping me up to carry me, even though I’m really getting too big to be carried, so we can go faster. Kachan is having trouble keeping up. She says to go on ahead, to ‘catch the light’. I don’t know what she means…
I leave my world reluctantly. It’s always a welcome escape from the boredom of the Training Floor, but rarely so exciting! The Tower Regulation recitation has ended, and the Trainers divide us into groups by type of work. Today I’m training as a Section 2 Cleaner. We use tools to wipe solutions along floor and walls, and go through piles of laundry, looking for signs of wear before bundling into machines. It’s tediously slow, like all the work they have trained us in. If you go too fast, make too many mistakes, or stop working, the Trainers come over and start retraining the skills until you can go at exactly the right speed. Apparently this is calculated to keep your mind and body occupied without being too exhausting. I’m faster and smarter, though. Once my body settles into the rhythm of wiping, scrubbing a long-handled brush along surfaces in a smooth pattern, I slip back into my world.
Tochan is holding me in his arms, moving quickly through dimly lit streets. The fog is thinner here, and I can see more of the buildings on either side of the street. They’re further apart, and I can see higher, higher, to where they end and there’s nothing above them but light. My eyes widen as I stare at the emerging sky. It’s so high, the air now so clear. We leave the last of the buildings behind, and the road ends here. Tochan puts me down on the shifting surface of the beach and keeps his hand on my shoulder. We gaze out over glittering waves at a far shore and distant mountains painted in the crimson glow of the sunset. I have never seen so far, or so clearly.
The fog blends with the cloying miasma of the Tower in my mind, both a distant reality next to this glorious vision, and one I wish never to return to. There is nothing so beautiful or so glorious as standing here in the salt-clear air beside my father, the dipping sun warm on my skin, the wash of waves on the shore soothing as my father gives me the words, the keys to this amazing world. But even in the midst of my wonder, a shadow falls upon me.
Darkness is coming. Darkness to all my worlds, the Tower and the Home and all of Me. I widen my eyes, staring out across the waves, trying to hold on to the light. But now the beauty burns and destroys. I’m losing everything else but the golden light, the touch of my father ripped away. Salt and sweet mingle in the air and burst as hot blood pours down my face and I feel a terrible wrenching.
At the last, the long-forgotten cries of my father mingle with the screams in the Tower.
Chapter 9: Temptation
Inspector Haynfyv dreaded his visits to the holy Lady of the Towers.
Her Worship Maria Ashera, Mayor of the Towers of Refuge, provided guidance and shelter to the Citizens from her gilded suite at the top of Tower 3. As chief of the Council of Guardians, First Mother to the Citizens and the Breath of Tower Regulation, all work Division Managers, Inspectors and Guards reported directly to the Lady Maria.
Haynfyv much preferred to submit his reports remotely to Her Worship’s office. He found her presence absolutely overwhelming and never failed to leave it with a persistent migraine. She positively shone, the silken gold of her hair matched by her glowing gaze and mirrored in the gold-lined walls and gilt-threaded finishings of her suite. Her kindness and care for all her charges were legendary; her sacrifice for the safety of every Citizen and her unflagging concern for their comfort and well-being unparalleled in the history of the Towers. The sweetness of her scent was matched only by her tone, her every word honeyed so that they stuck in his ears and clogged up the workings of his mind.
Haynfyv preferred a clean and well-ordered mind, the better to flick through facts, identify truths and pursue mysteries at full speed. He liked nothing better than following the trail of an obscure lead or exposing an errant Worker’s lack of appreciation for the great gifts of the Towers of Refuge.
Haynfyv eyed the lit button for Floor 33 with impatience. It felt like the elevators moved slower every year. There was no helping it; Her Worship summoned and he must answer.
Still, it was a rare thing to be called alone to Her Worship’s chambers. Haynfyv had never seen her without the mitigating influence of a half dozen inspectors and guards at least. He considered idly what she might want. It had been months since he had last been Outside, weeks since he had even been to another Tower in the complex. More and more it seemed that guards were taking on all the Outside assignments. Perhaps he’d mention something to Her Worship about it.
It was dangerous, of course, going Outside, terribly dangerous, but there were only so many possible assignments within the Tower, and rarely any with the slightest hint of challenge to them. Take that crumpled old bag of bones this morning, for instance. The Bell file. Textbook. The old ones, their resistance to the suppressants in the nutrition was always high, their minds notoriously suggestible. Those timid care workers would never dream of trying anything, and their personal monitors reported as much; not a single hair out of line…
The door sighed open and Inspector Haynfyv stepped out of the elevator into the gorgeous opulence of Her Worship’s private suite. Distant music trickled out of hidden speakers. Real, old music, not the automated background noise of the recreation programs.
Even the air here was different, alive with the scent of real flowers, sweet, but not the artificial sweetness of the suppressant infusions piped through the ventilation systems. The gold-laced ceiling lights were replaced with standing lamps, toning down the brilliance of gold-lined floors and walls, and casting shadows over the complicated, old-fashioned furniture placed lovingly throughout the rooms, so alien next to the bland and hard-edged utilitarianism that populated the rest of the Tower.
Well, and why not? With this much gold around, one could afford a little luxury, a few small daydreams, without risking too much. Come to that, Her Worship could probably dream her days away without being touched.
It occurred to Inspector Haynfyv that, here in this place, he could afford to indulge in a few small fantasies himself. His steps slowed as he reached for some inspiration, and then faltered as he realized he couldn’t summon so much as an ambition. Well. Perhaps just a little hope. If he were able to choose his own assignments, to go where he would, try out all the lost techniques and technologies of the past…
But Haynfyv rounded the corner and came upon Her Worship herself, reclining in glittering majesty on an ornately carved chaise. The Lady Maria’s bright eyes were disconcertingly clear and fixed on him. All ambition was wiped from his mind in a moment.
How could he have forgotten Her? And yet, it came back to him that this momentary realization had struck him unnumbered times in the past and been forgotten again.
Although Her Worship’s term in office dated back to the first days of the Towers of Refuge, her figure was that of a young woman’s, her shapely form barely obscured by diaphanous swathes of glittering fabric, her heavy golden mane framing entirely unmasked and flawless skin that no line or mark had ever dared mar. First mother indeed! This was a woman in the prime of her youth, with beauty and allure that men would kill for. Would die for. All the conditioning and suppressants in the world couldn’t hide that.
Haynfyv flushed as he felt himself respond to her, feeling at war with himself. It had been years, decades, since men and women had had those kind of relations, and yet it felt as if the world had spun and reverted to the dark days. The Towers had made such things obsolete. This, this woman, had made a new world, one that neither needed nor allowed lust. Haynfyv swallowed hard and forced his eyes back up to her face.
“I have come, Your Worship,” He said.
“My darling Inspector,” The Lady Maria purred, and Haynfyv found it suddenly very hard to focus past the flaming heat of his skin.
“You have my gratitude for taking the time away from protecting us to meet with me,” She continued. “I do apologize for interrupting your critical work, but I desired very much to see you in person, and to offer my personal thanks and commendation for your excellent performance. Your commitment and resourcefulness in pursuing your duties has come to my attention. I understand you have gone so far as to uncover the techniques of the past in order to pursue your investigations…”
Haynfyv floated in a perfumed cloud of praise, drifting in and out of quite improper speculations and daydreams. Realizing that it had been some moments since Her Worship had ceased speaking, he cleared his throat thickly, and searched for some sort of appropriate response.
“Your gratitude is most appreciated, Your Worship,” Haynfyv began, and paused, willing his mind to settle. “But most unwarranted. This humble worker offers service as your Regulation allows. If any benefit is found, it is only due to your most gracious and wise rule.”
Her Worship made a graceful little moue of irritation at this, her face quickly smoothing to its customary tranquil beauty.
“Your humility and devotion to our beloved Regulation is most befitting. Your excellent services have not gone unnoticed. I hesitate to place an additional burden on such a valued Citizen as yourself, my dear Inspector, but if you would permit me to further rely on you?”
The dear inspector’s jaw hung slack as he absorbed this unaccustomed praise. Her Worship didn’t seem to actually require him to hold up his end of the conversation, and continued in dulcet tones without waiting for his response.
“You are aware of the grievous conditions outside of our Refuge, of course? The sad state of those poor souls that lacked the capacity to take ahold of the protection we so yearned to afford them? The unutterable pathos of their desperate desire to cling to some mythic notion of freedom that prevented them from seeking the salvation of the Towers at the time of Dreamfall?”
Inspector Haynfyv managed to make a low noise that he was pleased to think managed to convey a suitable awareness of the sad state of the foolish Street-dwelling creatures.
“I have the greatest regard for your work in extending the compassionate hand of the Towers to these poor lost souls,” Her Worship purred, drawing herself up and slipping her legs over the side of the chaise to the floor in a graceful flow of flesh and fabric that quite distracted Haynfyv from his consideration of exactly which part of his duties had involved extending a hand to the wretches of the Streets, compassionate or otherwise. He preferred to consider the curve of the Lady Maria’s hip, traced by a sheer, fine-woven net of gold. She advanced toward Haynfyv in a shimmering fall of fabric, moving to grasp one of his dark gloved hands in both of her fine small white ones. She peeled the glove off to trace his callouses, glancing up at him through heavy lashes. Her nails were painted with gold and filed to points, like a great golden cat. Haynfyv trembled at her cool touch.
“My heart breaks for my children,” She whispered in his ear, leaning in to him. Tears welled in her tawny eyes and slipped silently down her flawless cheeks. Haynfyv wanted to weep with her, to hold her close, to destroy anything that dared make this beautiful goddess unhappy.
“Won’t you defend my children,” Her Worship pleaded tearfully, and Haynfyv silently pledged himself, body and soul to her defence and any cause she cared for.
“There is a sickness, an evil, that infects my children,” Lady Maria said. “A cancer that has invaded from Outside and poisoned us. Find the source. Round up the infected and cut off the routes of infection. Bring any that will be healed to me and destroy the root of the sickness.” She leaned into him bodily now, whispering the words, their power at odds with her delivery. “I authorize complete access; go wherever you need to and do whatever you must to accomplish this for me. You have complete clearance to every room, floor and Tower, to go and come from the Outside at will, and to take in or out anyone whom you see fit. I beg your forgiveness for exposing you to such danger, but I have no one else to turn to. Will you do this service for me, my child?”
Inspector Haynfyv basked in the blessing of his goddess, shivering with fervour and shame as she slipped a cloth of gold from her shoulders and wrapped it slowly, oh so slowly, around his waist and across his torso.
“My sign to you, my child,” She breathed, hands resting lightly on his chest. She pushed him lightly away. “Go now and be my agent of blessing and protection.”
Haynfyv stumbled away, hand clutched unconsciously in the cloth at his breast, delight, awe and astonishment a fizzing counterpoint to the baser sensations churning deep within. He rested his forehead against the polished gold of the wall when he reached the elevators, just for a moment, to cool down. When the doors slid open, he moved to enter without looking and collided unpleasantly with a very grimy Guard Serov.
“All right there, Inspector?” Serov said. He had put his hands out to steady Haynfyv when they collided, and continued the unwelcome connection, fingering the edge of the cloth of gold. Haynfyv batted Serov’s hand away, repulsed, and wrinkled his nose at the sharp metallic scent of the man.
“What are you doing here,” Haynfyv demanded, moving to block the odious little man from gaining further access to Her Worship’s sanctuary.
“Oh, ‘bout what you’ve been up to, Sir,” Guard Serov smirked, eyeing the Lady’s sash, “Man’s got his needs after all, don’t he?”
“The likes of you has no business…” Haynfyv started. Serov was waving a tablet under his nose with great condescension. A tablet with a formal summons to Her Worship’s suite.
Haynfyv growled, low in his throat, and pushed past the smaller man, careful not to brush the precious sash against his filth. To think that the Lady Maria would be left alone with that lowly Guard…
Haynfyv’s blood boiled. He reached out, intending to stop the doors closing, but was too slow. His last sight of the glorious chambers of his Lady was the hooded gaze of Guard Serov, a twisted smirk on his lips beside a carelessly unhooked mask, and his hand tucked in the opening of his uniform jacket, stroking a darkly gold glimmer beneath.
Chapter 10: Notes
The world of secrets.
Cadence’s teasing comment resonates in my mind from yesterday, echoing in a previously undiscovered hollowness inside of me.
Between aching muscles, scabbing patches of skin, and the shivering buzz of adrenaline, I barely slept. I pry myself out of bed, inch by teeth-gritting inch, reduced to a shuffling mass of trembling rawness. The struggle to dress myself brings tears to my eyes, but I fear missing work for any longer.
I can’t afford a visit from the care aides. I shudder to think what would happen when they show up to investigate a cold and find my palms and knees abraded. My behaviour yesterday was thoroughly in contravention of any number of regulations. I need to get back on track.
“Or we could just go…” Cadence pouts. She’s not impressed by my pain. She tends to think I’m a hopeless weakling at the best of times.
“And boring.” She adds with a huff.
Sometimes she really doesn’t seem to have the strongest grip on reality. It’s like she lives half in the world of dreams herself, and forgets all the danger, all the realities that I have to live with. The protection of the Tower that I depend on, the routine and regulation that keeps me safe. I shudder, remembering that dizzying fall into darkness, that hopelessness, caught in the mesmerizing grip of death…
“Stupid.” Cadence says crisply. “You didn’t die, dimwit. Last night was amazing!”
I resent her for reminding me. It had, of course, been beautiful. Astonishingly, heart-shakingly, mind-bendingly glorious. The light, the openness, the movement. Flying… and although I had fallen, that silver presence, there at the end, that had stopped the fall. Saved me.
It had been a dream, and dreams lie. Dreams cannot be trusted. Dreams lure you in with promises, the promise of your hearts desire, of everything you could hope for, of fantasy and fiction, and then as soon as you think you’ve found paradise, they turn on you and crush you.
How much of last night had even been real? Maybe there had been no end to the stairs, maybe that whole revelation had been a lie. That light, that space…
It couldn’t be real. I had just gotten into an unguarded, exposed pocket of the tower or something…
“It was real. You know it was real. You remember.” Cole pleads.
It wasn’t real. There’s no way it could have been real.
I lean against the wall to eye my morning nutrition allotment through gritty eyes. On the one hand, some of this hollowness might fade after breakfast. On the other, my stomach is flipping slowly in revolt at the prospect of being expected to perform any sort of useful service in the foreseeable future. Plus, I’m in no hurry to crack the stiff, new scabs on my hands for the mere purpose of feeding myself.
Still, it’s going to be a long day. I weigh my options, deciding that muscle ache is preferable to cracked scabs.
Reaching out with both arms, I pincer the container between my wrists and shrug my way far enough down to get the straw to my lips. The first sip is bliss, a wave of numbness that loosens all the tightness and dims the shrieking pain to a distant murmur. The dizzying spin of my thoughts - light! pain! silver! Ravelwan! touch! danger! secrets! - whirls in slower, wider arcs, calming to a gentle ripple. Cadence’s voice fades along with it.
I know what I need. Stay safe. Follow regulation. Keep to the routine. Get up. Eat. Go to work. Eat. Sleep. Follow the prompts; the Tower takes care of the rest.
So that’s what I do.
Suck down the bland nutrition packets. Sit at a desk, typing slowly, stiffly, careful to keep the scrapes and scabs hidden from view. My supervisor is pleased that I am no longer pushing the limits. Take breaks as prompted, careful to keep my gaze on the floor, careful to walk routes that keep a safe distance between myself and others - especially! no, don’t even think about it - and back to work. Run an activity cycle to work through the distant aches. Sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Don’t think, just repeat.
But the notes keep appearing. On my chair, tucked into the corner of the hydration unit when I take a break, propped against the door of my room, once, shockingly propped on my bed when I was slow returning after work.
He’s trying to break the cycle, to break my resolve. He’s not so bold as to start something in person, although he lingers as long as he can without drawing the attention of the supervisor whenever he takes breaks, starts from his chair whenever he sees me move.
The notes are different every time, but all the same. They turn into a refrain that haunts my days.
Cole, break out. Be free.
Cole, adventure is waiting.
Cole, you were made for more.
Cole, join us.
Cole, we need you.
Cole, I need you.
Cole, I’ll wait for you.
I start to dispose of them without reading them. They jar the routine, tempting me to break my gaze, to open my eyes wide and see beyond the haze. They make my face warm, my heart beat, my mind wonder. They make Cadence nag.
“Not him! I don’t like him!” She’ll say, and it helps. It helps cool my skin and slow my heartbeat.
It’s the only thing she says that helps. She still nags about breaking the routine, about skipping meals and staying up and maybe trying that hatch again, that one across from the elevators that I carefully don’t see twice a day.
But I’m getting really good at drowning her out. At drowning all of it out. I think the Tower is helping me. The lights seems yellower, the air more sweetly thick, the nutrition allotments larger and headier. If I keep my eyes half closed and my ears tuned to the buzz of the lights and my mind stolidly occupied with plodding through my days as slowly as possible, I can control the temptation, the deadly allure. I can stay safe.
Except at night. At night, I dream.
Nothing specific, nothing clear. Oddly, nothing dangerous. Not like the bright-edged hyper-reality of that night, that night that could not have happened. But not nothing. Definitely not nothing.
When I close my eyes, I am not alone. Dim shapes and colours move. At the centre of it, a smudge radiating brilliant silver-white light. Sounds, indistinct, as heard through a wall, like someone in the next room is shouting, or has a rec cycle turned way up. I feel like the sound is attached to the silver light, to that distant, indistinct shimmer that grows every night. It’s starting to look like a silhouette, and Cadence chatters about it all day, and it’s getting so hard to drown her out.
So hard that I lose focus, and Ravelwan finally catches me alone, returning from work one night.
I had forgotten the shocking heat of touch. His hand on my shoulder, his breath in my ear, that radiating warmth at my back. I would jump, but every muscle is disconnected, frozen in place, missing the spark of motion.
“Cole.” He whispers, and I shiver, flashing back to the terror and exhilaration of that dark staircase, that night of wonder and horror. “Cole, I’ve missed you. We’ve missed you. Where have you been?”
I manage to shrink away from Ravelwan, resting my shoulder on the wall. I glance at my door, inches away, miles away. If I could just cross those vast spaces, I would be safe again. But once in my room, nothing but Regulation and training would stop Ravelwan from entering, and he’s already broken critical regulation simply by touching me. Somehow, I doubt a door would prove a true barrier against him now.
Cadence is dithering, debating herself in a frenzy, trying to work out an escape route. No luck, despite her usual sharp creativity. Even though work has just ended, no one else seems to be moving in the corridor. I don’t know if he’s managed some sort of elaborate scheme, or if he’s just taking advantage of a rare opportunity, but Ravelwan has somehow carved out a moment away from the Tower scrutiny, and with it, overturned all my rigour and protections, all my resolve.
Adrenaline pushes back the Tower-supplied fog, sharpening my mind, widening my eyes, speeding my pulse as my skin heats against the cool wall. I’ve avoided this feeling, this uncertain thrill for so long, and now all my determination just seems so distant and vague.
Abandoning all caution and good sense, not to mention Cadence’s panicked pleas, I turn my gaze to Ravelwan. Those golden eyes, mesmerizing, a wild creature, entirely focused on me. They crinkle in a smile, and I feel my face move in unfamiliar ways in automatic response. He’s reaching out again, a hand on my shoulder, another stroking lightly down my arm, and it’s horrible and it’s amazing and I can’t think to make it stop, to remember why exactly it should stop, and I’m still caught in his gaze. He’s been speaking for some time now, drowned out by the torrent of Cadence’s outrage and the roaring in my ears. He pries me softly, steadily away from the wall, propels me towards the elevators, I break out of my daze enough to start catching his words.
“…going to love it.” He’s saying. “Like nothing you’ve ever imagined. So much more than the Tower could ever give you. I can’t wait for you to be free of all the lies.”
“No… Not like this, not with him…” Cadence is moaning in horror.
She’s really overreacting about all of this, I think dreamily, floating down the hall. It’s going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. I want to know. Whatever it is that Ravelwan has to show me. After all, he’s worked so hard to reach me. Just for me, he’s gone to all that effort to sneak notes, to catch me here, alone…
I frown, distracted, and my steps falter. Ravelwan’s pressure increases for a moment, then releases. He steps ahead, lifts my chin with one hand, stoops to catch my gaze. My breath stops, caught in the liquid wonder of his eyes, so focused, so deep, so intense.
“You want this,” He says.
I want this.
“You were made for this,” He tells me.
I was made for this.
“Don’t look, don’t…” Cadence shrieks, her voice cut off as he brings his face even closer, hands gentle on either side of my face, fingers edging past my mask, threaded through my cropped hair, and all I can see is gold.
“You’re going to love this.” He says, and I Believe.
He is right. I have wanted nothing as much as I want to please him, to discover whatever mysteries he has for me. I’m not surprised when he steers me towards the hatch across from the elevators, not afraid in the darkness when he moves me down the endless stairs, surely, quickly, dizzyingly down and around and around and in the distance is only more darkness. He supports and guides me, and I believe I can go on forever like this, into cold darkness, with the memory of that golden liquid heat wrapping me in calm surety.
Finally, an eternity later, our journey ends in a door. Ravelwan lifts my hand, places it against the door, his own covering it so that I am caught between ice and fire.
“Welcome to Freedom.” He whispers, and the door opens.