Wand Of Ash: The Proving
By Madison Woods
Casting a protective circle was much harder than I thought it would be. It took two solid weeks of rote training before I’d finally been able to produce the blue-green telltale shimmer. The difficulty wasn’t in the mechanics involved; that part I understood. It was in the seeing of it. If it couldn’t be seen, then the electrons weren’t excited enough. Atoms weren’t vibrating at a high enough frequency. It—by whatever definition was chosen to describe the phenomenon—wasn’t happening.
And then it did. There it was, in plain sight at the tip of my wand. Shimmer. As I watched in utter shock, it spread to a complete unbroken bubble all around me, glowing in glorious atomic excitement. All my dead efforts in the sand around me faded from view as the bubble grew stronger, then reached a visual crescendo and popped, leaving me standing slack-jawed, looking at Stella.
“Finally! And just in time.” Stella plopped onto the beach and stretched out her arms and legs. She laughed out loud while waves lapped at the shore. A perfectly choreographed tide was coming in, and it would soon erase all the evidence of my failures up to this point.
Stella had thought it was going to be easy to teach me. She’d demonstrated the first time on her palm with her index finger.
"It’s a pattern, see? Start here at the southwestern point. Go up to the north, then all the way down to the southeastern point, over to the west, then due east, and back to our origin at the southwestern point.”
Palm drawings hadn’t cut it, so we went to the big canvas. The beach.
Anyone can draw a pentagram, but only when the energy is raised to a certain level does the boundary become a physical barrier. Stella had the technical knowledge and brought the blood, sweat, and tears to teach me how, but she couldn’t even do it herself. She could muster enough to demonstrate shimmer only if she used the sleeve on her wand. Originals had the capacity to do it without one. I had managed at least my little bit without the sleeve, but if I passed my Proving, I’d get one, and it would be easier after that.
“Gloat if you want. That tiny little showing doesn’t prove anything,” I said. “It’s not going to be enough to get me past the Emperor.”
Stella sat up and dusted the perfect sugar white grains from her elbows and forearms. She studied my face a moment.
“You did it. Even I could see it. You saw it too, didn’t you? You’ll do it again.”
Yes. Marci Sauvine Dubois had seen the light. And it wasn’t only the shimmering light of a freshly cast circle that I had seen. My fate had been sealed with that pathetic demonstration. But I still had to graduate from Apprentice to Circle-Caster, and to do that meant I had to perform another casting at the assembly in front of everyone. The Proving.
“What if . . .” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “What if I can’t do it again?”
“Don’t think it, Marci. Thoughts have power. If you learned nothing else in the past two weeks, you should have learned that.”
Maybe her thoughts had power.
“I don’t think mine have enough.”
“Do you remember how easily your mother used to cast circles? I’ve heard stories of her. Many of the old journals reference her ability.”
I shook my head. That had been a long time ago. Soldiers had taken my mother away when I was only six, my grief and fear long since replaced with a passion for making machines work. The Engineers they’d placed me with had systematically weeded out any tendencies or memories of my prior life as an Original.
“My entire life has been lived according to one giant SOP. Standard Operating Procedures, Stella. Those don’t cover subjective procedures like this circle-casting business . . .”
She wasn’t listening to me.
“Your mother could have put my best students to shame. All she had to do was pinch her fingers together, and she’d throw a circle out in front of her like it was fishing net.”
Truth of the matter was that no one needed to cast circles anymore because the Engineers had brought us a miracle, a dome to cover our entire region, and now it protected us from the radiation. Of course they had wanted something in trade: a young, malleable, highly trained specialized work force.
The Engineers had managed a nearly bloodless coup d’état. And they’d done a good job training me and the rest of my generation to be their servants. Mechanics or computers? Those I could make work like magic, but that wasn’t what I had been recruited to do.
“Casting a circle is nothing more than guiding electrons. You’re Original stock, girl. You’ll do it,” Stella said.
Right. I couldn’t say it wasn’t in my blood, but because of my blood, I had better learn.
“Tell me again, why are we doing this? Your people came under the guise of bringing help and then forced us to forget our native knowledge. Now you want me to awaken it. What if I don’t want to? What if I can’t?”
“Were you given a choice?” Her voice took on a new inflection; that and the set of her jaw told me I’d crossed a line with my questions. I didn’t enroll in the guild by choice; I’d been drafted. Not to serve out of honor or respect, but because I was ordered. So, no. I didn’t really have a choice. But why did Stella’s people need to resurrect the Original arts after working so hard to quash them, and how could they teach with no Originals left to do so?
“What I don’t understand is how you can show me how to do it, you can see when I am doing it, but you can’t do it yourself. How do you know what I’m supposed to be doing if you can’t even do it?”
Birdsong warbled from the synthesizers in the trees to indicate the sun would be setting soon. Stella stood and dusted the rest of the sand off her legs. Her face softened again, worries over my defiance apparently eased.
“Come on. We have to change into our ceremonial garb. As for your question, I learned from books. Thousands upon thousands of journals kept by your people are in the Great Library. Those of us who were chosen to mentor the new guild members studied those journals and know each meticulous detail about how to cast a circle,” she said.
Journals by my people. Kept in their libraries.
I slowed a few seconds to let the words digest. She kept walking, oblivious to the wrongness of her statement. Until I’d been recruited, it had never occurred to me to question the relationship between Engineers and Originals. I’d been happy doing my work, and everything I’d needed had been provided.
We reached the paved pathway, leaving the ocean tides behind as the overhead light began to dim, and the tree lights came on. The sounds of birdsong hushed, replaced with quiet rhythmic night noises.
Stella had evaded the question as to why they were trying to revive the lost art. No sense in pushing the matter with her. After the ceremony, I’d be sent off with a soldier to protect from incoming assaults, and it wouldn’t matter.
“I have another question, Stella. How does the soldier I’m assigned to know he wants to work with me?”
She made a sound, not quite a laugh or a grunt. More a snort.
“He studied your bloodlines. He knows what you’re capable of.”
In other words, he wagered.
What would I protect him from – what kind of assaults? Surely someone sooner or later would tell me more. Seemed like information I’d need to know. And it seemed that this Proving only proved I could cast a circle. Didn’t say much on the quality of the protection against whatever we’d be facing.
A violent spasm gripped my stomach. I had to contend with that tightening knot, ease it somehow.
“I need more time to practice.” We turned the corner to the pathway of the guild housing. No answer.
“Stella? Until a few minutes ago, neither of us was even sure I’d graduate at all. Just doing one more circle would help a lot,” I said. Not that I really wanted to graduate anyway, but the consequences of failure scared me.
“There is no more time. This is it. You’ll pass,” she finally said.
“So, if somehow I don’t . . . do you think I could survive in the Interstitials?”
She stopped cold and looked at me as if I’d asked her to fly outright, her eyes darkening and boring holes through me to the back of my skull. Deciding the question didn’t merit an answer, she took a deep breath and ignored it as she lifted the gate latch to the dormitory and went inside. I followed and chewed my cheek as we weaved our way through the maze of hanging tapestries. With the installation of the sphere, there was no longer weather with which to contend. Solid walls were as unnecessary as shingled roofs. Rice paper, ornately decorated according to the artistic bent of the inhabiting tenants, was standard, but the guild used gauzy woven fabric for walls. We arrived at the changing room. It was empty, everyone else having already assembled at the Proving Grounds. My time was up.
Stella opened the double doors of an artifact chifferobe and rifled through the garments hanging inside. A pleasing scent wafted from inside the piece of furniture, mingled with the pervasive patchouli that marked the dormitory as belonging to the Circle-Caster’s guild. It would have cost a small fortune to have just one plank of real wood carried over the Interstitials by the caravans. Whole chifferobes must have cost a small fortune. I looked around the room. Each of the instructors had one of their own.
“We don’t have much time. Here.” She thrust an armful of gauzy fabric toward me. “Change into this.” She began to remove her own utilitarian khaki-colored sundress, before pulling out her own costume. I took each piece of my student’s khaki uniform off and folded it neatly before placing it on the plush-topped bench beside the chifferobe.
Wearing the luxurious fabrics felt strange. As a servant of the engineering firm, I’d only worn the uniform of that guild – more plain khaki. Stella bent over to dig around the bottom of the chest and pulled out a pair of sparkling slippers. They only barely skimmed the bottom of her feet and circled over the tips of her toes. She handed me a pair just like them, stretchy enough to accommodate a range of sizes.
After we’d dressed, she stepped back to inspect me.
“You look good. Magic is ninety-nine percent showmanship, you know.” She turned me around to brush out my hair before she quickly braided it into a dozen tiny braids. “The remaining one percent courses through your veins. Don’t forget that,” she added, as she tied the last braid.
I didn’t remember my mother dressing in flashy garb. She just threw out circles. Stella’s belief about appearance did nothing to strengthen my confidence. I wanted to feel more than pretty. I wanted to feel capable, capable in the same way I felt when routing signals for a client’s communication belt. But the feeling was uncomfortably absent.
As she set about tying strands of ribbon in her silver braids, my thoughts wandered back to the possibility of failure.
The rulebook stated that any student who didn’t pass the Proving would be branded and banished to the Interstitials. But I wasn’t the only one at risk; my instructor and the soldier who made the bad call of picking me would both also be thrown out the gates if I failed. City dwellers like me didn’t stand a chance. I was no caravan trader, and they were the only kind I knew of who could survive outside. Maybe a soldier had training in such an endeavor . . .
Enough! Get your mind off failure. Now. Think positive thoughts. Successful thoughts.
We arrived at the Proving grounds just as Carl Stoddick’s name was called.
“Wait here while I check the line-up,” Stella said. She walked to the front of the gate where the coordinator held a clipboard. He tapped the front and showed her the screen. She hurried back my way.
“You’re next,” she said and ushered me to the front of the line. Ambient lighting and simulated moonlight illuminated the grounds, and from there at the gate, I could easily watch the proceedings. The shirtless announcer wore royal purple Houdini pants and a white turban. No shoes. He stood at a narrow podium beside the Emperor and boomed out Carl’s name again. The Emperor sat in an oversized and ornate wooden throne, swathed in so much glistening fabric that only his eyes and pudgy hands showed.
Aromas of roasting sweet potatoes floated in from the vendor’s wagons, reminding me I hadn’t eaten all day. My stomach growled, and the knot tightened even more, but I watched in rapt fear and forgot my hunger as Carl left his instructor’s side and strode across the arena.
As he climbed the steps onto the platform, his soldier rose from a seat in the stands and walked across a path to the platform. The soldier turned to salute the crown and then stepped to the sidelines, giving the floor to Carl. From where we stood, I could see Carl’s forehead beading with sweat. Stella’s knuckles whitened as she gripped the fence. Of course, I knew on an intellectual level that all the Guild-Sisters faced high stakes with their students’ performances. But until I saw Stella’s tension reflected in her knuckles just then, it hadn’t really meant anything. My breath became even shorter at the thought of how much she depended on me to get this right.
The murmuring crowd hushed.
After paying respects to the crown with his Guild-Apprentice salute, Carl began his routine. He blew through the pentagram without a hitch and completed the space by drawing the protective circle to encompass the points of the star. At first, his circle’s perimeter only barely glowed at the tip of his wand, just as mine had, but instead of popping soon after an anemic struggle, his bubble intensified and stretched into a solid shimmering form that encompassed the entire platform.
After holding the protective space for the required thirty seconds, Carl deactivated it with a quick motion from his left hand and stood at attention, awaiting his determination from the Emperor. I glanced at Stella. She looked relieved and mustered a tiny smile for me.
After the Emperor gave Carl his nod, the announcer took a package from the table beside the throne, sprinted down the steps to the podium and handed it to Carl, then returned under the canopy to await the next student.
Stella leaned over to whisper into my ear.
“That’s his iridium sleeve.”
Carl fumbled with the package a few seconds. He placed the sleeve on the handle of his wand and gave the Guild’s salute to the Emperor before exiting the podium, his soldier leading the way.
The knot in my stomach squeezed my lungs, and I couldn’t breathe.
“We’re up,” Stella whispered into my ear. My field of vision became constricted to a tight circle directly in front of me, and I could only see straight ahead. I tried to steady my heart, but the pounding was so loud, I barely heard my name called. Stella opened the gate and walked ahead of me to the podium steps, her silver hair and braids of rare-earth threads bouncing in cadence with her steps. I followed close behind and focused on the clicking of the metal disks on the bottom of her shoes, which helped drown out the sound of blood rushing through my veins.
You can do this.
I reminded myself that I could do it, over and over again, a mantra repeated with every step. When we reached the entrance to the platform, Stella stood to the side, and I climbed up alone. Instructors weren’t allowed to be within sight or earshot of the student on trial. I was on my own.
The soldier who had chosen me gave his salute to the crown and stepped back to the sidelines, following the same protocol as the soldier before. Now, if only I could mimic Carl. I swallowed hard before I gave my Guild-Apprentice’s salute to the Emperor. Taking a deep breath, I started.
North, southeast, west, east and southwest with a circle around—points on a diagram to represent the human body in a sphere of protected space.
Using the exact same measures and technique I’d used on the beach with Stella during that last successful exercise, I drew out the pentagram. When I was done, I waited to see the shimmer.
Nothing. There was none. Not even a glimpse of the magic I’d produced just two hours earlier. The butterflies turned to rising bile. Another deep breath. Again. This time, eyes closed.
Concentrate. North, southeast, west, east and southwest with a circle around.
Eyes open. Again, nothing.
A few members of the audience coughed quietly into their hands. One made a nervous giggle, and still others sounded slight gasps. I ventured a look back toward Stella and saw her leaning into the fence surrounding the podium, her head buried deep into her elbow. The soldier waiting on me had turned crimson-faced.
A student had never failed at the Proving. The only sound I heard was my own heartbeat. No one spoke. No one moved. Everyone waited. Finally, I ventured a glance to the Emperor. His face was livid, almost purple, and his hands clenched the railing in front of his throne. It was an insult to his position, to my instructor, and to my soldier, that I had not performed to par at this event.
The only thing he could do would be to follow the standard of operations. Engineers didn’t deviate from procedure. He stood to make the pronouncement, and I braced for it. From the corner of my eye, I saw Stella collapse.
“Fail!” He yelled, then turned to the guards standing behind him. “Take them, and mark this student.” I could hear him clearly from where I stood, even though his voice was hardly more than a furious whisper. The squeezing in my chest finally overtook me, and my knees buckled.
The guard pulled me to my feet and held my elbow. We waited as the soldier followed his guard down the steps first, stiff and precisely placing each footfall behind those of his guard, as if he expected a bomb to be planted somewhere along our path. Stella cried silently at the base of them, crumpled into a heap on the ground. Her shoulders heaved with each sob as another guard pulled her up and made her follow the soldier. She wouldn’t look at me.
My guard brought up the rear, and single-file, we walked through the exit under the stands toward the downtown quarters I’d never frequented before. The queasy feeling in my stomach finally won. I had to stop and vomit. Except for my guard, who stood by, the others kept going without a glance back.
Mark this student.
That awful phrase rang through my mind. It was the only thing I could think of, and every time I thought about it, my stomach heaved. In my lifetime, I’d never witnessed anyone else being marked and had never seen anyone who carried the mark, but I knew from folklore it involved a brand.
My knees buckled, and I stumbled, falling to my hands and knees on the fine, crushed gravel of the pathway. The guard, losing patience, jerked me to my feet without a word and propelled me forward to catch up with the others.
I focused again on the sound of the plates on Stella’s soles, and tried to drown out the other thoughts, the scary thoughts, that wouldn’t vanish from my mind.
Why brand a person destined for the grave? I’d never survive out there, so why bother branding me? To shame me even after death? If some passerby later encountered my body, maybe it would still be evident that I’d been put out for good reason.
“Heads-UP!” The first of our guards, the one leading the soldier, stood in front of a heavy wooden door and shouted through the bars of a small window to the other side.
I was so caught up in my obsessive internal rhetoric that I didn’t realize we’d left the alley. The door was opened from the inside by another guard who held a ring of heavy keys. He opened one of three other doors, each on a different wall in the room.
We entered the cell one by one, and my guard pushed the door shut. Metal on metal as the lock slid into the bolt made a noise that ricocheted through the halls.
The guard shook the keys and made them jingle at me as I looked out through the window.
“Hear that?” He shook them some more, a little harder. “Them’s the old-fashioned kind. Trickery can’t undo this lock.”
Engineers hadn’t gotten to all the improvements yet, so some technology under the sphere was still the Original equipment. At the R & D lab, the list of pending work-orders was so long, I’d never scrolled to the end. Prison door locks must have been at the part of the list I hadn’t seen yet. Low priority. I turned back into the room.
The soldier had lay down in the only bed in the room, arm over his face. I still couldn’t catch Stella’s eye. She stood not quite against the wall and held her nose with one hand, lifting her skirts with the other to keep them from brushing the filth on the floor. When I tried to catch her attention, she squeezed both eyes shut and tilted her face away. Stray tears slid down her cheeks when she did that, and each one felt like knives in my heart.
I stood on tiptoes to see out the window of our door and through the window of the second door. The door guard sat in a chair between the two doors and peeled a fruit with a small knife. He’d cut off a chunk and push it to his mouth. After a few bites, he looked up. When he saw me watching, he smiled a toothless grin and puckered his lips in mockery.
Turning back into the room, I slid against the door to the floor and covered my face with my hands. After a deep ragged breath, I looked at Stella. She and the soldier were quiet, suffering their own private anguishes.
“I’m sorry, Stella. Sir, I’m sorry.”
Except for fresh sobs from Stella, no one answered. We were all going to die. It was my fault, and there was nothing I could do about it.
After I don’t know how long, the lock began to rattle behind me. Someone pushed hard on the door, shoving me forward onto my hands and knees. I stood up and got out of the way. A man wearing a black pinstripe suit stood there with his hands on his hips. He looked at each of us and frowned in turn. The toothless fruit-eating guard was behind him, mocking his stance and grinning.
“It seems we have a mess here,” said the well-dressed man. He pulled on his goatee and studied me. “First things first.” He snapped his fingers, and two more guards quickly came to the doorway. One of them stepped inside and took me by the arm, but when I saw the red-hot branding iron the other man held, I balked.
“We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way!”
My eyes widened at the toothless guard’s excitement. He tossed his leftover fruit to the chair and took the iron.
“You don’t really intend to do that, do you?” I said. No, he couldn’t really mean to do it. What would be the point? I shook my head and backed up, nearly tripping over Stella.
“Elroy, come give the young lady a hand,” the well-dressed man said from the doorway. Turning to me, he shook his finger in my face and said, “If you persist in this struggle, the iron will have to be held in place longer.”
Elroy beamed as he handed the iron back to the other guard, then he and the other guard lifted me off my feet and carried me horizontally out the door.
“Strike while the iron is hot, right? Right. Hurry, miss. It’s going cold,” Elroy cackled.
“No! Please don’t do this! Stella, help me, please . . .” My begging degraded to crying, and no matter how hard I tried to twist loose, the guards held my head in position with an iron grip. Before they’d lifted me, I’d seen Stella. She had her eyes shut tight and her hands over hear ears.
Her measures might have prevented her from seeing what was happening, but nothing could have drowned out the smell of my hair and flesh burning or the sound of the scream that erupted from my throat as they placed that iron into the upper center of my forehead. At first, I couldn’t even identify the noise as coming from myself, but it did. I realized it was me just as the lights went out.
Before consciousness fully returned, I heard voices. At first when I opened my eyes, I thought I’d been blinded. Then a few narrow shafts of light filtered in from the corners of the container where we were held. It was only dark inside this place; my eyes worked just fine.
I’m not dead, either.
The roar of an engine, smell of exhaust, and being jostled by a bumpy ride clued me in to the fact that we were in the back of a truck.
“Where do you think they’re taking us?” It was Stella, talking quietly to the soldier.
“Outer reaches. We’ve been on a straight road for at least ten minutes now. The roads in any other direction would have turned by now,” he answered. His deep voice sounded resigned.
“We’ll die out there,” I said, not fully awake yet. My forehead itched, and I reached up to scratch before remembering what had happened. When I felt the sticky goo smeared all over my skin, I remembered and jerked my hand back for fear of making it hurt. For the time being, the pain was gone, thanks to whatever salve had been applied to the wound.
Neither of the two answered me, but they kept talking to each other as if I’d neither spoken nor existed.
“There’s a check-portal on the far end of the south side,” the soldier said. “I think that’s where they’re bringing us.”
Stella didn’t say anything for a while. “But there’s no support out there. No food, no UV protection. Nothing can survive out there,” she said finally.
“I guess that’s the point,” the soldier said. “But in reality, rogues do live out there . . . and they’ll be very glad to see us.”
“What do you mean?” Stella asked.
“Nothing. Just nothing.” He changed his tack. “The guards dropping us off will give us enough water for a day or two. It’ll give us time to figure out what to do.”
Water for a day or two would only serve to prolong the inevitable. I knew that. He knew that, too. But Stella sounded hopeful.
“Good. We’ll figure something out.”
Neither said anything to each other thereafter. The only sounds were the creaks and rattles as the truck bounced farther down the road. I kept quiet and thought about what the soldier had said. If they were to put us out of the check-portal into the interstitial wasteland, we’d be as good as dead. Just as dead as if we had been hanged, except death would come slowly this way.
Gears ground as the truck came to an abrupt halt, throwing us to the front wall. Stella and the soldier ignored me so effectively, I wondered if I really existed at all. Neither even seemed to notice they’d landed in various measures on top of me. They just extracted themselves without so much as saying “excuse me” or “pardon,” or otherwise acknowledging that they’d touched me in the least.
The heavy double doors at the back of the truck creaked slowly open on rusty hinges, and the flood of light blinded me. The guards jumped into the back, grabbed us by the arms, and threw us out. The beautiful fabric of Stella’s skirt clung to the rough edges of the truck, and it ripped when she pulled away, leaving a wide strip hanging on the bumper.
The truck had been backed into the portal, front end still inside the biosphere, now-opened tail-end facing out into the interstitial spaces. When I’d left the lab to join Stella at the Guild housing, it was the first time since very early childhood that I’d been beyond the four-block area of work that had become home. And this was the very first time I’d ever been to the edge of the sphere.
Heavy film curtains pressed in on both sides of the truck, effectively making a seal to keep interstitial air out of the biosphere. The two guards, done with the chore of tossing us out, slammed the backdoors of the truck shut and began struggling to get to the biosphere side of curtain. After pushing and heaving and inching through, they disappeared. The truck engine roared to life again, and I grabbed hold of the end of Stella’s fabric that lay on the ground next to me.
Gravel sprayed everywhere as they put the truck in gear and gassed the engine. The fabric ripped off the bumper without budging me one inch. Once the truck had cleared the portal, the curtain made a hissing sound as the two sides sealed down the middle. Stella’s fabric was still in my hand. I held it out to her, but she turned away.
What good would a shred of fabric do anyway? None, probably, but I kept it anyway. I wrapped it several times around my waist and tied it off, then looked around. Stella and the soldier were dusting themselves off and taking in the new surroundings, too. Soldier walked over to the portal and ran his hands down the center seal, then around the edges. He kicked it before he turned to come back and picked up the six canteens that the guards had thrown out. He hung one over each shoulder, and when he reached Stella and me, he handed two to each of us.
For as far around as I could see, there was nothing but dry, bone-colored ground littered with tiny rocks of the same color. Some mounds in the distance were also of the desolate shade. No sound existed, but there was a faint odor of decay and rot. As the dust from the truck’s take-off settled, the smell dissipated.
After being dumped, our shock began to fade, and it took only seconds for to notice the sunlight burning our skin.
“Cover yourselves,” commanded the soldier. I looked around but didn’t see anything to use as cover. He had lowered the brim of his hat to shade the upper half of his face and stuffed one hand into his pocket to pull out a kerchief which he wrapped over his nose and mouth like a bandit. His long sleeves and pants covered the rest of his skin. My and Stella’s arms and faces were exposed, but our ceremonial garb covered our bodies down to our ankles.
Think! What to do?
The fabric scrap . . . that would work! I untied it, then tied one end around my neck and began to wrap it around my left arm. There was enough to completely cover that arm and still have room to tie it off after covering my hand. I looked down at my own skirt next. Lifting it to my teeth, I tore into it for another strip to cover my right arm. Stella saw what I was doing and began ripping strips from her skirt.
“Damn you, girl,” she said between her clenched teeth. “We wouldn’t be in the fix if not for you.”
She brushed her own hair down over her face and started wrapping her own arms. We also wrapped our ankles down to the tops of our feet because our scant shoes didn’t offer much coverage. Once we were done, we looked around for the soldier. He’d wandered off, inspecting the area. We walked to where he was standing, about twenty-five yards away from the portal. What had at first looked like abnormally long hills turned out to be piles of junk.
How fitting. We’ve been thrown into the interstitial trash heap.
“Where did all that come from?” I asked.
“That’s what’s left of the old quadrant before we erected the sphere and renovated. A bunch of useless junk,” answered the soldier.
I started moving in that direction, but the soldier’s sudden touch on my arm surprised me.
“Wait,” he said. “Rogues live in the interstitials.”
“Is that what you meant back in the truck?” Stella asked. She adjusted the wrapping on her arm where a gap had formed. The skin had already begun to redden and would have blistered if she hadn’t caught it in time.
“Okay, so if other people can survive here, why not us?” I asked the obvious question. They both looked at me like I’d said something crazy.
“You.” He put his hands up as if warding me away. Face red, his voice trembled as he spoke. “You shouldn’t even be talking to us. But since we are here, and we face a common predicament, we will make the best of it. Engineers do not live in places like this. I’m not staying here.” He slapped at his face and then looked at his hand.
“What was that?” I asked. He studied the palm of his hand.
“It’s a damned mosquito. An insect. You wouldn’t know what that is, thanks to us.”
Stella and I both crowded his hand to see the mosquito. Nothing living, apart from humans and the few other life-forms that had been modified to cohabit with us, existed under the spheres. I couldn’t remember ever having seen an insect before.
He wiped his hand on his pants and put it back into his pocket, out of the sunlight.
“There are things to eat here, just not much, and unless you collect the insects and eat them, very little in the way of protein.” He scanned the ground in front of us, looking for something. With a slight nod of the head, he indicated a bump on the ground in front of us and walked over to it. He kicked it with his boot. “I need to survive long enough to make it to the entrance portal on the eastern end. The Sister and I,” he motioned to indicate Stella, “can go back in at that point because we’re not the ones with the brand. What you do is of no concern of mine. But,” he said as he bent down to pick up something from the ground he’d disturbed. “These will keep you from starving for a while.”
Stella made a quick glance back at me before she made a step toward the soldier. I joined her in looking to see what he held in his palm. It didn’t look much different from a rock. The size was about the same as a walnut, but a darker shade of brown. He threw it down and put his hand back into his pocket before the sun burned it more.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Chukkar root. Desiccated now, but still better than nothing. You won’t be able to chew it. Just break one with a rock, and hold a piece in your cheek for the day.”
“My name is Stella.” She offered her hand to the soldier. “This is Marci,” she said. Apparently, she’d forgiven me. Maybe I could do something in return to make myself feel deserving.
My mind turned to the heap. Bound to be useful parts in that pile. I thought maybe I could build something to help us avoid the burning sun. Maybe there were things in all that junk I could use.
“I’m going to rummage through the junk,” I announced. “My profession before being thrown into the Guild was a programmer, and I tinkered on the side with mechanics. I was good at that.”
“I’ll go with you. And I’ll raise a protective shield around both of us,” she said.
“I’m going too,” the soldier added. “I won’t leave the Sister alone.”
“Okay, all three of us, then,” she modified.
Stella set about casting the circle while we waited. Hers wasn’t as brightly hued as my sole successful circle had been, but it would be better than nothing. Once the pale shimmer was in place, we walked to the pile.
She protected all three of us with a half-assed circle when I, with the potential for so much more, couldn’t raise a space for even one. I tried not to think about it. We could dig through the junk in peace, and at least the bugs couldn’t go through the force field of her circle.
My finger graded a trail down the convex of what looked like a discarded auto hood. As I’d suspected, the whole debris pile was covered with a fine layer of bone-colored dust; that’s why it looked so much like part of the landscape.
I found a piece of something suitable to sit on and began sorting the rest of the junk in front of me. One piece after another landed in the new pile, the smaller items sorted into a separate pile to more closely examine later. Soon, I had a small hill of scrap beside me.
“What exactly are you looking for?” The soldier asked.
“Anything with the capacity to generate an electric current. An old generator would be nice. Maybe something with contact points that aren’t too corroded.” I looked up at him to find a smirk on his face. “I think I know how I can cast a protective space using my own technology, not magic,” I said.
“Why would you waste time with that? Stella seems to be doing fine,” he replied.
I looked up at Stella and couldn’t keep the disdain from my voice.
“If you haven’t noticed, it’s not easy to cast a circle using magic. Look at her.”
He studied Stella closely, and I saw his eyes scan her face, noticing the set of her mouth and the slight tremble in her wand hand. He didn’t say anything.
“She’ll exhaust herself soon if I can’t get something made. That’s why you’ll only find Originals guarding the army.” I knew that much, at least. “The Sisters have learned how to cast, and they can if they have to, but only the Originals are suited for it. Well, except for me, apparently.” I plucked one more dust-covered artifact out of the pile and set it aside. “Once I get the caster built, I’ll try to make something that’ll condensate what little moisture might be present in the air around here.”
“Hmph. Well, your priorities are in order. Carry on, then,” the soldier said. As if I cared what he thought of my priorities. I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want to die, either.
When I dusted off the next item in the pile for inspection, I noticed the colors were still bright on the discard label. The marking still looked fresh, even though several years had passed since it had been tossed onto the heap. That one I put in another spot because I didn’t see a use for it, but the labels interested me. Next item, same thing. Dusted it off, and the colors were in fine condition.
“Hey! Come see, soldier,” I called, again forgetting my plan to not speak to him. The protective shimmer of Stella’s circle wavered and dissipated. She looked like she needed a break.
“Sit here, Stella, and rest a little while.” I sniffed the air and slapped at a bug that had already landed on my neck. The little bastards must have been watching for the force field to cease shimmering. “What is that awful smell?”
“I can’t smell it,” the soldier said. “What’s it smell like?”
“If that’s your first time inside a circle, it messes with your senses sometimes,” Stella told him. Her nose wrinkled. “Whatever it is, the smell is rank. Egads, that’s awful.”
“I’m sweating a lot, but surely I can’t smell that bad already. It sure as hell isn’t bothering the bugs. Anyway, look,” I looked up at them. Soldier looked around uneasily but finally glanced down to see what it was that had me so excited. I picked up one of the still dusty artifacts and wiped away the dust layer to expose the label.
“Yes, they label everything before discarding,” he said. I wanted to wipe that sardonic smile from his face.
“You don’t understand. See the colors? Notice how bright and fresh they still look? Know why that is?” I asked. Neither answered my question or even feigned much interest. Stella was tired and still had her nose wrinkled, so I overlooked her lack of enthusiasm. Soldier man had no such excuse.
“They’re bright still because the UV light hasn’t faded them – get it?” Still no response, although I could see it in his eyes, the wheels beginning to turn. Finally, he got it.
“Is it the dust?” he asked.
“Yes, and if the dust is helping the junk, it surely ought to help us,” I said. Picking up a handful from the ground, I trickled it onto my scalp where the sun had been burning it since we arrived.
Stella sighed. “Too bad we don’t have any water right now. A paste would be so much easier to spread,” she said.
“You mean mud?” the soldier asked. He chuckled. “I know how to make some mud, but you won’t want to use it.”
The clatter of metal on metal rang out over the junk pile, and the soldier jumped into a defensive position. Stella crumpled at my feet, her hand brushing past mine without grabbing or even attempting to stop her fall. She let go of her wand on the way down, and I caught it, holding it as if by doing so it would somehow help matters. I couldn’t figure out what was happening.
Why did Stella fall down? The sound was loud, followed by a dull thud. It was that thud that caused her to fall; I’d seen her eyes fly open wide when whatever it was hit her in the back. The sand beneath her began darkening. She was bleeding. I knelt beside her and held the wand in one hand while I tried to lift her with the other and see what had happened.
“Stop it, Marci,” she said. “Felt like a fucking cannonball hit me. Didn’t you see it?” She swallowed and coughed. “Look. I mean, listen to me . . .”
Everything else disappeared from my focus. I didn’t know where the soldier was, what he was doing, who had hurt Stella, or if we were in danger. None of that mattered.
“Use my wand. It’s the sleeve, the iridium sleeve. Don’t lose it. You’ve already proven you can do it.” Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath but never exhaled. Her breath just kind of stayed inside, and she stopped breathing. Her head rolled back. I shook her, but she didn’t open her eyes.
“Stella! Don’t you dare leave me! Stella—” The soldier grabbed me by the arm, jerked me to my feet, causing me to drop my mentor. Blood and mud clung to my sleeves, but I managed to hold onto the wand.
“Stop! What are you doing?” I tried to stay with Stella, to help her to her feet so she could come with us and get away, but the soldier pulled harder. He pulled me backwards, my heels digging easy trenches in the top layer of dust.
Three mud-smeared rogues, reeking of filth, came from a cavern inside the junk heap. While two dragged Stella’s body into the shelter, one began digging the blood-soaked soil with a shovel, putting it into a bucket. We turned and ran back to the portal. None of the rogues chased us, only the relentless sun and insects.
“What just happened?” I asked. It was hard to breathe and talk at the same time. My lungs hurt. “Oh God, I’m going to have to go back for Stella. We can’t just leave her.” I grabbed his shirt sleeve.
“She’s dead. No use.” He hunched over, shook off my hand and put his hands on his knees. After a quick look back at the junk pile, he slid to the ground and rested his back against the outer wall of the biosphere we used to call home.
“We can’t just stay here at the exit. We’ll rest a few minutes, then follow the rim eastward. Clockwise. That’ll put us in shadows soon.” He took a few more deep breaths, and we rested. Then we began walking.
Soon enough, as he’d said, the shadows of the dome cast a darkened path alongside the rim. It was no cooler, I still sweated, and the shade did nothing to stop the mosquitoes from attacking any skin that showed. The sweat made my flesh moist, and an idea came to mind. I patted on a fresh coating of the dry powdered dust, and it combined with the sweat, which dried to a film that surely made a horrendous sight but served as an effective barrier to keep the insects at bay. I figured it would do the same tomorrow against the sun.
“Good God,” the soldier snorted when he finally looked back and saw what I’d done. After a few more minutes of fighting off insect bites to his neck and hands, he grudgingly began applying dust to his own sweat.
After hours of walking, taking short breaks to rest and drink sips of our water, we emptied the first of each of our canteens.
“I wish I’d thought to take the Sister’s before we left,” Soldier said. I didn’t answer. I was exhausted and hungry. They’d only left us water, and I was grateful for that. But no food. All day, I’d seen nothing that could be eaten. Only more of the same barren landscape with distant junk piles was visible through the wavering heat.
As the day wore on, our breaks became longer. I hadn’t spoken much to Soldier the whole day; most of my effort had been on keeping up with him. But what had happened earlier to Stella didn’t rest easy on my mind.
“What was it that killed Stella?” I asked. They looked dirty and smelled rotten. I wasn’t sure at all if they were human.
“Rogues. I should have known it from your descriptions of the smell, even if I couldn’t smell it myself.” He coughed. “I thought surely I’d be able to tell if they were that close. Oh God, I was wrong, so wrong.”
Shadows from the dome stretched into shadows of the evening. Absently, I looked at the wand. Stella wanted me to have it. She had faith I’d know how to use it. I ran my finger absently through the dust on the biosphere’s wall and thought about what Soldier’s words.
They believed in a different God than my kind did. His God was jealous and petty, ruling over even the tiniest details of a person’s life by inflicting consequences to every act. His was a formulaic, mathematical world. I’d lived in and adapted to that world pretty much for all of my life, but I was never able to believe in their God.
I remembered enough from my earliest life to know that our God was present in every aspect of life, from the smallest grain of sand—even these barren, lifeless sands of the interstitials—to the farthest reaches of the as yet unexplored universe. “Matter neither created nor destroyed,” held meaning on a mundane level and encompassed how we perceived birth and death. Both were simply changes in form. I sighed. Knowing that didn’t make losing my mentor any easier. Even if she was an Engineer and I an Original, we had the closest thing to a friendship I’d ever known. Work had been my entire life, there’d been no time for socializing, and Originals had been discouraged from having a life apart from work.
“We’ll stop here for the night. Another day’s walk should bring us to the south entrance,” he said. He took a sip from the last canteen and threw the old one down. “You’d better ration what’s left of yours. I’ll ration mine, too, so I can leave whatever I have left of it with you.” He sat on the ground, stretched his legs out in front of him, and leaned his back against the rim. “In a few minutes, we’ll gather some chukkar roots to carry with us tomorrow.”
“What is this?” My attention perked at the sight of a trail going down the side. It was not the one I’d just made.
This looks water-created.
Soldier roused himself enough to watch but didn’t stand. He leaned back on one arm and watched while I traced the zig-zag path back to the source.
“Ah-ha! I knew it. Look,” I showed him the trail and traced it again to show him the tiny pinprick hole about shoulder high off the ground. He stood for a closer look.
“They get holes sometimes. Part of homeland maintenance duty includes going around the inside perimeter checking for such things,” he said.
“Maybe that’s what it was before. Now it could mean life or death,” I told him. “We just need supplies.” I folded my arms over my chest and looked toward the junk heap in the distance. There were probably other rogues besides the ones we’d encountered.
“We have to go back to the heap,” I said. Soldier looked at me, then to the pile and swallowed hard. I watched as he surveyed the running mound of junk that stretched back the way we’d come and continued ahead.
“Are you sure you can’t cast a circle?” he asked. “Without it, we’ll probably meet the same end your friend did back there.” He nodded in the direction we left my friend.
“I did once.” My hand reflexively wrapped around the cool metal on Stella’s wand. “I can try, I guess.”
Shaky and weak-kneed, I knew the odds of getting it right this time were slim. Stella’s wand weighed more than mine had because of the ornate inlay that covered half its length to the sleeve, but the weight gave it more substance in my hand. I felt its balance and studied it for a few seconds.
Just as I’d done before with her coaching, I drew out the pentagram. Even as I traced the first rays of the diagram, I could tell it wasn’t going to work. No shimmer. There should at least be a little disturbance, something to cue me that the electrons were excited. It came as no surprise, then, when I finished the routine, and nothing had happened.
Without looking at the soldier, I pocketed the wand again and took my hand off it completely. I couldn’t bring myself to even touch it. I wished I had left it with her body. The soldier didn’t say anything, for which I was thankful. Instead, he took a deep breath and started walking toward the heap. I followed.
“What exactly do we need? I want to get in quickly, take what we need, and get out,” he said.
“Something long, metal, concave. If we can’t find that in one piece, then we’ll have to join pieces together and make something. A conduit and one flat piece would be perfect. Oh, and a jar or cup, or a tin can to catch the water.”
“All right then. Let’s get this show on the road. You watch my back. I’ll gather the stuff,” he said. We headed for the pile, but something still bothered me.
“So, what if I see someone?” I asked.
“We’ll smell them long before we see them,” he said.
Still. What was I supposed to do if I saw someone? By the time we last saw them, Stella had gone down, and it had been too late. Maybe we’d get in, find our parts, and get out before anyone noticed we were there.
We walked away from the rim toward the pile. Every few steps, we stopped and tested the scent of the air. Nothing. Finally, we stood close enough to see the outline of some discard labels on the items, but there was still nothing, so we moved in to begin our search.
I stood on guard while Soldier rummaged.
“What about this?” He turned toward me and held up a sheet that looked like it could have once been the back of a bench-top appliance.
“Yes,” I started to tell him. Then, before I could finish my answer, a movement from inside the pile caught my eye.
He spun around, and I reflexively grabbed the wand from the deep pocket. How had they sneaked up on us without their smell alerting us? Without thinking about the pentagram, I held the wand and imagined the circle surrounding the soldier.
It worked, but I didn’t understand how it worked. The shimmer was very much in place around both of us. The surprised look on the soldier’s face was priceless. He smiled and resumed his search for the next piece we needed for the condenser I wanted to build.
Beyond the protection of the shimmering circle, I could see two rogues making excited gestures at each other. One held a slingshot with the bands drawn fully back, while the other seemed to be trying to make him fire. The shooter released the ammo pocket.
Just as he fired the slingshot, another presence joined us inside the circle, a man wearing a hat, with a patch over one eye.
“Don’t mind me, I’m here to help,” he said. Trying to figure out who he was, and at the same time, watching the projectile fly toward the soldier, was a confusing split of my attention. The soldier, trained to remain oblivious to attempts made on his life, still sifted through the junk. The shimmer deflected the projectile, causing it to fly back and hit the shooter in the forehead, dropping him to the ground. The other rogue made obscene gestures and shouted at us before dragging his comrade back inside.
With one eye on the soldier, whose back was toward me and vulnerable to the stranger, and the other on the intruder standing next to me, I struggled deciding what to do. If I stopped focusing on the shimmer, the protective circle would dissipate. If I didn’t pay attention to the man, what difference would my shield make? How had he just walked through? Obviously, the barrier worked when the rogue fired the slingshot toward the soldier.
So how did he just walk in?
Soldier finally managed to loosen the pipes he had been wrangling. He turned toward me and held them up so I could see. I nodded quickly at him and looked back to the stranger.
“Did you see that man?” I asked the soldier.
“What man? I saw the rogues . . .” he answered. “Let’s get back to the rim. Dark will be falling soon, and we need this to work tonight.”
“No, not the rogues. There was another man. He walked right through the shimmer into the circle with us.”
Soldier studied my face.
“Stress can do things like that to a person, and God knows you’ve had your share of stress today,” he said, measuring his words. “Do you think you can hold the protection until we’re away from here?”
He didn’t believe me. Stress. He thought I’d been hallucinating.
“Yes I can hold it, dammit. That man was real, Soldier. There was someone else there with us besides the two rogues. He spoke to me.”
“Really? What did he say?”
I could tell he was humoring me.
Soldier had done a good job gathering materials, so we were able to get the condenser assembled and put it into place just as dark fell. In the morning, thanks to the hole in the skin bleeding out moisture-rich air, we would have at least a little bit to drink in the morning. If we were lucky, we’d have enough to put some in our flasks.
We had settled as comfortably as possible on the ground next to the wall. The biting insects had given us some respite the last few hours, but now they’d returned in force. Only stars lit the sky, no moon tonight. My throat was dry. Soldier’s was hoarse when he next spoke.
“Good job on casting the circle,” he said. “How’d you do it?”
This time it was me taking the deep breath. I didn’t really feel like talking. Not only was it uncomfortable physically because of my throat, but I didn’t understand how I was able to do it.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Don’t mind me. I’m here to help.
The words of my hallucination lingered in my mind as I drifted to sleep.
Soldier woke me in the morning at dawn.
“When the sun comes up, it’ll burn your skin faster than it did yesterday when we were in the south. Go on, and wrap yourself now.”
I covered my body and checked the water assembly. There was enough to drink our fill but only a little to carry with us. Soldier was quiet. He got up and kicked over the nearest chukkar pile and brought the root back to me.
“Gather a few of these before daylight to keep in your pocket. You have about an hour. You’ll have enough water here until someone inside finds the leak and repairs it. Doubtful they’ll ever put me back to soldiering, so who knows? I could go into maintenance, and if so, I’ll make sure it doesn’t get repaired.”
“Wait a minute.” I pocketed the root and dusted off my hand. “What are you talking about?” He looked eastward, avoiding my face.
“I’m going on alone from here.”
I couldn’t say anything, and I couldn’t think anything, either. He continued with instructions.
“There are other things you can do to survive out here. You’ll need to plaster on more mud because the sun will be stronger on this side during morning hours but will be more diffused by afternoon than on the other side. Don’t waste your drinking water; use your own water for making mud.” He gathered the two canteens that were his, one empty and one full, and slung them over his neck. I stood there watching, still speechless.
“And don’t forget – you have your magic now. Use it.” He saluted and without another word, turned and walked eastward.
“What the fuck?” I raised my hands in the air. He didn’t look back or bother to answer. Didn’t slow even one step.
What. The. Fuck.
Three words were all I could think, playing over and over in my mind until the soldier disappeared around the curve. Finally, other thoughts began to edge in.
Food. I could live on chukkar roots for a while.
Water. That was okay for a while.
I remembered my hallucination, when I’d finally managed to protect the soldier.
Don’t mind me, I’m here to help. A hallucination? Perhaps. But the possibility existed that he was real. Finding the answer became my mission.