The Musician, the Thinker, and the Shadow
Three men are walking down a long and dusty road: A musician, a thinker, and a shadow. They have a place to be, and not much time to get there.
Suddenly, a shot rings out, echoing off the gritty hills and gnarled trees. The musician shouts as his left leg crumples underneath him. Quickly passing out from the shock and pain, he whispers some hurried orders to the other two. The thinker holds the line, returning fire and drawing attention to himself.
Meanwhile, the shadow runs - no, he flies back up the road and ducks behind a boulder, cradling the wounded musician in his arms. His broad back is like a mighty shield, and his legs like wind. But he knows he is vulnerable, and lets a small sigh of relief squeeze from his lungs once he is behind cover. In relative safety, he gently lays the musician down on the ground and crouches next to him. With ease and delicate grace born of practice, he checks the pulse and wound of his dear friend. Cringing, the shadow stands. The wound is deep, but it will not be fatal. And there are bigger problems that need taken care of, he remembers as a chunk of stone flies off the boulder with a sharp crack. Apparently, his tall, skinny friend is not a very attractive target. He calls out for the thinker’s help, and his compatriot is there even before the name fully leaves the shadow’s lips. The two mighty allies turn to each other, a mix of fear and determination on each of their faces. They speak in rushed, choked whispers, sharing information and throwing together a foolproof plan. They draw away from each other, nodding. The plan is put into action…
In one swift motion, the shadow performs three seamless actions. Firstly, he draws his trusty sidearm. Then, he turns and peers over the boulder, instantly detecting where the enemy fire is originating from through instinct alone. Finally, he swings his arm in a large arc and pulls the trigger at just the right moment…
The sniper was dead before anybody knew what was happening. His scope was shattered and a slug of solid pointed steel was nestled delicately in his brain. Before the body even hit the ground, the thinker was there. The other two assailants couldn’t process anything before the swift motions of the lanky man disarmed them and pinned them to the ground. The fight was over.
After ensuring the musician was in a stable and comfortable position, the bulky shadow walks up to the little hill. He arrives just as the thinker finishes tying up the two surviving attackers. Just as he thought, they were part of the Flock. Even if they hadn’t been wearing those ridiculously colorful clothes, he still could have recognized this fact from a mile away. The way their eyes darted around, how they held themselves in the presence of others, even their smell. He knew these things all too well. They would pay for hurting his friend, but that was a job for the courts. Not for him. He’s already had taken his revenge, he realizes with a slight twinge in his stomach as his eyes fall upon the body on the ground.
He wonders why killing still bothers him. So many have fallen to his unfailing aim over the years, but he always regretted pulling the trigger. Even if they deserved it. Even if there was no other way. He shrugged, swallowing the guilt. That could wait, there was work to do.
He turns to the thinker and gives a small nod. The lean man understands perfectly, and snaps off to guard the musician. The shadow shakes his head, he could never get entirely used to his companion’s uncanny ability to disappear and simultaneously appear somewhere else. It put him on edge, it was just too...unnatural. Not like most other abilities.
The shadow stares down at the survivors. They squirm against the ropes and try to yell out through their gags, just like they always do. It’s not a new spectacle to him, so he gets to the point and delivers a precise yet devastating blow to the backs of their heads. The duo fall limp, and the shadow quickly gathers them in his arms. Throwing one over each shoulder, he starts the trek back down to the boulder. Why couldn’t he have gotten something like the thinker? Strength just turns you into the team pack mule. It isn’t much of a burden, and he wouldn’t want the responsibility in anybody else’s arms, but still…
He gets ready to carry three full-grown men to the capitol. It’s going to be a long day...
Chuck Bell woke up just as a dappled beam of sunshine broke over the windowsill. After spending a few minutes rubbing the dreams out of his eyes and stretching his long, burly arms, the young man vaulted out of his bed. He felt the warm floorboards under his feet and gave a contented yawn, watching the ever-growing beam of sunlight fill the cabin.
After throwing on a green tartan jacket that was hanging over a chair, he grabbed his axe from where it leaned against the doorway. There was no sense in making breakfast yet, he thought to himself. He wasn’t hungry. Swinging the axe onto his shoulder and adjusting to the familiar weight, he opened the door and stepped outside.
He grinned, recognizing the voice instantly. It was Laura Copperknek, his neighbor and childhood friend. The fiery-headed girl threw her arms around his neck and ruffled his messy brown hair.
“Sheesh, we really need to get you a haircut and a new comb! You’re gonna blow away like a tumbleweed if you don’t take better care of that mane of yours,” Laura joked.
“I don’t think there’s a wind on this green earth that could knock me down,” he chuckled back.
“Maybe you have a point there.” Laura grew suddenly serious. “But you never know. There’s an awful storm coming.”
Chuck didn’t doubt it. Laura was an intelligent girl, and her cabin constantly whirred with all kinds of strange machines that she had thrown together from the scrap heap. She probably did have some kind of dial that told if it was going to rain or shine the next day.
“I guess I have to chop while the sun’s out,” Chuck replied offhandedly. His mind was already on his work, and he started to walk to the edge of the clearing that hosted the little village of Maplewood. Chuck had never left the village. He had been born there, and he would be perfectly content to die in the same place. Laura was the same way. Both of their parents had died in an Enforcer attack before they could even talk, so they were cared for by the few other people in the village: two old women who stayed indoors all day and the mayor. But mostly, Chuck and Laura had been raised by each other. Chuck had always been there for Laura, and Laura had always been there for Chuck. As far as they were concerned, they were as brother and sister.
Chuck reached the edge of the clearing. He let the axe fall off of his shoulder, catching it in his free hand. Laura stood back as he picked a tree and notched the trunk in the direction he wanted it to fall. It was a perfectly ordinary tree, one of the many maples that the village was named after. It rose out of the ground as straight as an arrow, the rays of sunlight setting the leaves alight and scattering green shadows in all directions. Perfect for trading, it would fetch a good price. Chuck placed the axe softly against the trunk, and then slowly drew the axe back. The lumberjack took a deep breath inwards, and then moved into action. Down came the axe, and it dug deep into the trunk. A good start, but this would take a while. He repeated the process.
Meanwhile, Laura watched him intently. She loved seeing Chuck at work, and felt strangely proud of how large he had grown. She could see the muscles work under his jacket as he swung the axe down and into the trunk for the second time. The muscles that had grown from years of physical labour and hearty eating. Laura thought back to all the times she had tried and failed to build a working oven, and when she finally succeeded just in time for Chuck’s sixth birthday. She used that first oven to feed him bread and cakes for lunch and dinner every day until the rickety contraption broke down. She remembered how she built a new oven and got right back to feeding Chuck without missing a single meal. She giggled a little to herself, thinking about how he probably didn’t even know the first oven had bitten the dust. Yes, Laura was proud of Chuck. He had grown from a hopeless little orphaned toddler to the village’s biggest source of labor, and therefore income. Without him, everybody in Maplewood would likely be starving right now.
Chuck glanced at the last chunk of wood holding the tree aloft. He carefully aimed his next stroke and threw the axe into it with all his might. The axe hit the tree and pushed against his hands. But his hands didn’t push back. they slipped right through the iron handle.
Thrown off balance, he clumsily stumbled and fell down. He sat up with a baffled look on his face. Laura looked over at him with a similarly shocked expression. Chuck never missed his mark. She knew something was wrong. She rushed over to him and helped the big man back onto his feet. He stared down at his hands, and rubbed them against each other. Then, he stepped over to where the axe was still stuck in the trunk, having not undergone a complete stroke. He went to grab it, and felt the cold iron against his hand, as usual. But then, he felt a sort of click rattle through his entire being, and his hand passed into the handle. He could feel the cold iron inside of his fingers. Startled, he pulled back, and the click rung clear through his being once again. He turned to look wide-eyed at Laura. She was grinning back at him. She knew exactly what had happened, and it was marvelous. Chuck had found his ability.
Laura grabbed Chuck by the hand, dragging him to the town hall at the center of Maplewood. She pounded at the door until a little man with greasy black hair and a goatee let her in.
“Oh, mercy, Laura. Whatever is so wrong with the world that it justifies bashing my door in at this ungodly hour?” The little man scolded.
“Cut it out, Mayor, the sun rose some time ago. You just sleep too long,” Laura snarked.
The Mayor started to whine.
“Hmmm, maybe it has something to do with the various stresses of keeping this town fed. The long hours I work, the late nights, and that’s not even mentioning the-” Laura cut the Mayor off mid-sentence.
“Chuck has an ability.” Laura nearly shouted, she’d been holding her excitement in for too long. She erupted into a frenzy of muddled explanations.
“You see, he was chopping down a tree and then he fell down and I was confused because I know that’s not like him at all so I walked over to help him and he tried to grab the axe again but-” Now it was the mayor’s turn to interrupt.
“Okay, okay, I get the idea Laura, we all know that our Charles can be a real comedian sometimes, but that’s no reason to…” Realization hit the mayor like a fallen oak. “Did you… did you just say that… Charles… OUR Charlie… has an ability?”
Laura nodded vigorously. Mouth gaping, the Mayor turned from Laura to Chuck. He was frozen in awe and disbelief for a minute, and then let loose a whooping shout that rang out of the little cottage of a town hall and could be heard throughout the whole clearing. He jumped and pranced and did a little jig. He laughed and hooted and wheezed until he was out of breath, and then he plopped down gasping into a conveniently placed chair.
“Cha-Char-haha, hang on. This is just so, so fantastic, just what we all needed. Okay, Charles? Is this true?”
“Uh, well, yes sir, if Laura says it is.” Chuck was still rather dazed and unsure about the whole thing.
“Ah, good. Good! Wonderful! What, um, what exactly… What can you do?” The Mayor inquired, eyeing Chuck curiously.
Chuck stood for a while until Laura gave him a sharp nudge. Blinking, he held his axe in front of him with both hands. The mayor was transfixed. Concentrating on how he had felt before, Chuck felt the click once again. The axe fell through his hands and hit the earthen floor with a hearty thump. The mayor jumped back, and his eyes nearly bugged out of his head.
“That-that’s exquisite! Charles, y-you are g-going to save us all!”
Chuck looked back and forth between the axe on the ground and the mayor with a distant look on his face.
“What do you mean, sir? When you say I’m gonna… save us. Save us from what?” Chuck inquired.
The mayor grew very still, and his grin drooped into a sullen frown.
“The truth of the matter, my boy, is that we have fallen into hard times. I’m sorry, I didn’t speak up because I didn’t want to worry anybody and there’s nothing we could have done, but the price of lumber has been dropping. Fast. And if… if the price doesn’t go back up soon, we won’t be able to get enough food for the winter, no matter how many trees you cut down.” The Mayor’s smile slowly returned.
“But now, we don’t need to worry anymore! Charlie, do you know how valuable someone with an ability is? You’ve got yourself a ticket out of here and and a clear path up the ranks of society! We just have to let someone who matters know about this development, and we might all be able to ride your coattails and leave this blasted town forever!”
Laura and Chuck blinked in unison and glanced at each other.
“Why would you hide something like that from us?” Laura cried.
“Do you really think I can help? I’m not complaining, but not being able to grab things doesn’t seem very useful,” Chuck puzzled out loud.
“Are you delusional? We could have started rationing and hunting!”
“I guess I could try…” Chuck bent down to retrieve the axe.
“If you just could have let us known..! It’s going to be a mild winter, we could have waited it out with some time to prepare!” Laura’s face was turning red with anger.
“Oops, I forgot to turn it off,” Chuck said, defying all known laws of physics to fail miserably at the simple task of picking something up.
“I could have set up snares, started to can fruit, gather nuts…” Laura started a long list.
“Er, oh. Cool.”
“...put everybody on a diet, get ready to plant crops for next year, and… Chuck, what are you… what did…”
Chuck had resolidified his right hand inside the axe handle, fusing it to himself. He tested the connection by gently shaking his arm, and then pulling at the axe with his left hand. It was stuck fast.
“I guess I can do, uh, this, too?”
“...And that doesn’t hurt?” Laura asked worriedly.
“Not even a little,” Chuck calmly reassured her. “It just feels like I’m metal where the axe is.”
The Mayor burst into a fit of giggles but quickly stifled them.
“Now that has potential!” he said. “Oh, thank goodness, I was starting to get so worried we’d be stuck here!”
Laura shot the Mayor a venomous glare. Chuck made a motion as if to place his right hand on her shoulder, but then decided to use his left hand instead. She calmed down and placed her hand on Chuck’s and closed her eyes, drawing a deep breath.
“Okay, what do we need to do?” Laura asked, determination sparking in her eyes.
Chuck was roused from a turbulent slumber by a flash of lightning outside his window. The following clap of thunder ensured that he was fully awake. Sighing, he slowly sat up and placed his feet on the thick carpet.
It had been almost a full month since Chuck left Maplewood, and the weather had been lousy for most of that time. The rain hadn’t let up since it began. It only ebbed and flowed between light drizzles and torrential downpours like the one going on right now. Looks like Laura had been right. A storm had come, and it was mercilessly blowing Chuck around like a tumbleweed.
Chuck frowned at Laura's memory. He hoped that she was alright. He hoped he would see her again. But nothing was certain now. Ever since he had left Maplewood, Chuck had been lost.
A far off clock chimed six times. The sound was still rather new to Chuck, so it took him a moment to process its meaning.
“There weren’t any clocks in Maplewood,” he mused to himself.
“But at least we could see the sun.”
After their meeting with the Mayor, the goateed man sent out a message using the black radio which served as a hotline to the team of Flock soldiers responsible for monitoring and protecting the part of the woods Maplewood sat in. Before the day was out a small steamboat, the Crane, came down the nearest river to whisk everybody away to the thriving riverport city of Ravenhurst.
The two old ladies were the only ones who put up any active resistance. It was nearly impossible to coax them out of their cabin, and once they were out they hugged each other as tightly as they could and cried onto each others shoulders until they eventually nodded off in their room on the Crane. Once the good ship was docked, the two quickly and quietly emerged and disappeared into the foreboding streets and alleyways of Ravenhurst. The buildings rose so high that they flooded the entire city in shadow. The only light came from the many street lamps that were always blazing a reddish-gold.
Chuck was enlisted into the Army of the Discordant Flock, or ADF as he was ordered to call it, as a common footsoldier. Seemingly endless winks and nods and nudges told him he could go much further if he played along. Laura’s technological aptitude was quickly recognized, and she was sent off to some academy or other. Chuck and Laura barely had time to say goodbye to each other before they were escorted by scarlet-jacketed men to their new homes.
The mayor decided to become part of the crew who manned the Crane. The idea of travel must have appealed to him strongly after being stuck in the same small town for so many years.
The clock rang out again, marking 6:15. Time for tea. Chuck supposed it was just as well that the storm had woken him up a little early, since it gave him time to think. Such moments were far and few between lately. He put on his shiny new navy blue satin coat that was hanging on the wall and belted on a green pair of thick canvas trousers covered in loops and pockets. He opted not to look in the mirror as he left his room. He already had a pretty good idea of his appearance.
Chuck made his way through the extravagant gold-and-purple hallways to the dining hall. There sat a long oaken table lined with overly cushioned chairs. Chuck picked one at random, like he had been trained to do. Nobody else had arrived yet, it looked like he was early as usual. Chuck stared into the spacious fireplace that kept the room at a pleasantly toasty temperature. Then, the butlers came in.
The sharp-dressed assembly swooped in and deftly laid steaming teapots at precisely regular intervals on the table. They flung napkins across the table where they landed gently on coasters that were placed just before the clean white cloths landed. Then, ornamental teacups were gently yet swiftly placed at every seat. As quickly and silently as they came in, they left. Chuck grabbed the nearest teapot and filled his cup. A tiny plume of steam sluggishly rose and lingered near the ceiling.
Whooping, sing-songy, chanting shouts echoed through the hallways.
The best time for a little rhyme!
Good with a biscuit and a touch of lime,
Helps digest that bit of chyme,
Turn it into tasty slime,
It’s tea-time, tea time!
Chuck groaned. Here they come.
A swarm of brightly dressed individuals packed into the dining hall, howling and laughing like a pack of street dogs. Hands raced to be the first to the teapots, and a few were overturned. The screeching of those who got scalded was nearly drowned out by the lucky first-served blowing on their precious hot drinks and slurping loudly. Storm clouds of steam filled the room, clinging to the skin and filling the lungs while dispersing the flowery smell of tea throughout the entire space. Chuck saw a quick splash in the corner of his eye and turned himself intangible just in time for a cupful of boiling liquid to pass through his head. The water was free to pass through, but the dregs of the tea still hit him. They weren’t boiling hot like the water, thank goodness, but it still wasn’t a pleasant sensation. That was something Chuck had found through experimentation over the past month; for whatever reason, he couldn’t phase through organic matter. Laura would probably know why, he thought with a stabbing in his heart.
Chuck was puzzling on the problem of why exactly this was when the entire room went quiet.
The Captain had entered the room.
Captain Eddington trotted all the way to the end of the table, and shoved the unfortunate Private sitting there to the side. Eddington sat down, and calmly drank the tea that the Private had recently poured for herself.
“Thank you, Private,” the Captain said pompously. The Private nodded, trying to keep on a strong face in spite of the fact that she had landed in an uncomfortably hot puddle of tea. The red-cheeked Captain Eddington drew in a deep breath for what seemed like an hour, and then bellowed, “‘Tis good tea! Drink up, me laddies and lasses!” to which the confusion of half a minute ago resumed. It wasn’t long before a spilled teacup sent a little ripple of steaming tea towards Captain Eddington’s pudgy hand, which was sitting on the table. He gave a yelp of surprise, and then turned red-faced to the horrified soldier whose cup had been overturned. The room went silent once again.
Eddington raised his ham-sized hand to the top of his head, and plucked out a twiggy silver hair from the unkempt bush that perched on his scalp. Prizing it before his index finger and thumb, he held the hair out in front of him. He puckered up his lips and gently blew onto the strand. It started to glow bright white and the air around it began to ripple. The Captain dropped the hair, and it fell sizzling onto the table. Then, it jumped onto the unfortunate soldier’s coat, setting it alight. The poor man sputtered and made a high-pitched wail as he quickly tore the coat off of his back, threw it onto the ground, and stomped out the flames. Captain Eddington started chortling, and everybody in the room followed suit.
Chuck shook his head. How could people like these soldiers, these petty, stupid lunatics on impulse-fueled power trips, be the ones that governed life here and throughout the land? He couldn’t believe that he had once looked up to the ADF as protectors of freedom and happiness.
Chuck had about given up when he heard a vague shadow of a whisper in his ear.
“If you want to leave this place, check the pocket on the back of your right knee. When you’re alone!”
Chuck nodded, his heart beating out of his chest.
Tea time ended as abruptly as it had begun. Everybody raced out of the dining hall, leaving the terrific mess behind them without so much as a backwards glance. Chuck decided to linger in the dining room this morning, to see if he might be able to catch a few lonely moments to check his pocket as the voice had instructed.
Once again, the sharply-dressed butlers waltzed into the room. They split into two teams. The first occupied themselves with picking up dishes and wiping off the table. The other team, led by a spindly old man with a bushy white mustache and an eyepatch, got to work cleaning the floor. They did this in a curious way; the elderly butler tapped the top of the table and each of the chairs. Meanwhile, a line of butlers grabbed the edge of the rug that covered the dining hall floor and yanked it away in perfect unison. Chuck didn’t catch on to what was happening until it was too late, and fell with a thump on to his rear as the ground was yanked away from beneath him. The butlers either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and kept pulling. Chuck hurriedly and clumsily crawled to the edge of the rug and toppled onto the white tile floor that had been sitting patiently underneath. Surprisingly, the furniture stayed put as the carpet slid underneath. With the upmost efficiency, another squad brought in a new rug and slid it effortlessly under the furniture. Chuck was baffled, he knew that the table alone must have weighed hundreds of pounds. The one-eyed old man must have some Ability, he slowly realized. One that let objects slide past each other without friction.
Chuck had never witnessed somebody with an Ability at work before coming to Ravenhurst. Now it seemed that people with Abilities were everywhere, breaking nearly every rule of nature he had ever known. Chuck had to get used to seeing the unusual and adapting accordingly or he wouldn’t last long.
Somebody cleared their throat. Chuck looked up to see one of the butlers tapping an impatient foot at him, then gesturing towards the rapidly approaching new rug. Chuck jumped to his feet and rushed to the raised marble hearth of the fireplace. The rug was laid down all around and stomped flat while the butler with the eyepatch tapped each of the pieces of furniture again. They appeared to sink into the luxurious carpet ever so slightly. Seeing that everything was pristine and without a trace of the cacophony of a few mere minutes ago, the butlers rushed out of the room in clean little lines to leave the dining hall empty once again. Chuck listened for a moment to ensure that the room and all the surrounding hallways were empty before reaching for the pocket behind his right knee. His fingers brushed against something smooth and cold. It buzzed lightly when he touched it. Giving one last glance around, he closed his fist around the object and pulled it out.
Chuck held his hand out in front of him, and opened his fist slowly. When he saw what lay on his palm, he nearly dropped it in shock; it was a small white bone. Suppressing a gag, Chuck noticed a thin black cotton thread tied around the ominous thing. He opted to hold the bone at arms length by this string. As he watched it dangle, he saw that it was pulling gently against the thin thread. Chuck felt as if it was being tugged in the direction of the gaping hallway. Almost without thinking, he started walking in that direction.
Meeting a fork in the hallway, the bone drifted unmistakably to the right. Chuck followed skittishly. He wasn’t sure that this was such a good idea; he could wind up late to whatever hellish training exercises were planned for this morning. And he knew from witnessing the punishment of others that being late was never tolerated. But then he remembered the whisper he had heard at breakfast. It had promised him relief from all… that, and everything else! No matter how risky this was, he had to try.
The bone jerked suddenly towards a door, and Chuck opened it to find an ordinary broom closet. Puzzled, he shrugged and stepped inside, closing the door behind him. The bone dropped straight down, no longer pulled by any force but gravity. Swift, marching footsteps flew past the door and faded out of existence. As the bone slowly turned and pointed back towards the door, Chuck left the closet and was greeted with the same hallway, as empty as before. The bone yanked Chuck in the direction that he had been going before, and he broke into a run. Chuck couldn’t help but show a big, goofy grin. Any inhibitions he had moments ago were gone; whoever was doing this obviously knew what they were doing and had taken all kinds of precautions. The prospect of escape was so appealing, and seemed so close! All he had to do was follow this peculiar compass!
He turned another corner, and ran straight into Captain Eddington’s round belly.
“A-ha! Hello, my lad! Where are you going to so speedily? Your morning exercises, I hope!”
The red-cheeked Captain’s eyes fell and fixated on the bone, which was turning confusedly.
“Hullo now, what’s this?”
He raised a pudgy finger to give the pale bone a poke. In response, the macabre compass swung around and whacked him briskly across the knuckle with a resounding crack. The Captain snatched his hand away and started to howl in pain and shock. As the ruckus reverberated through the claustrophobic hallways, the bone frantically pulled Chuck forwards and past the injured man.
Captain Eddington caught his breath and whipped around. His scarlet coattails swished through the air behind him as he bellowed out a call to arms:
“Everyone! As of this very moment, Mr. Charlie Bell is a rogue! A deserter! A traitor! A rascal! A scoundrel! A bone-loving son-of-a-bureaucrat and a sorry excuse for one of my Lads! Pursue him! Catch him! Harm him if you must, I really don’t mind! EXTRA SUPPERTIME TEA TO WHOMEVER BRINGS ME HIS FINGER!”
At this last reverberating holler, the labyrinthine building erupted as doors were ripped open all throughout it and excited chatter filled the halls. A strongly-built man burst out of the door nearest Chuck. With a maniacal grin, the soldier tore off his coat with a dramatic flourish, revealing his left arm to be made entirely of shiny metal. Reeling back, he readied a punch. As the glimmering fist flew towards Chuck’s face, the lumberjack had to stifle a little grin. The arm slipped through Chuck’s head, and the stocky man was thrown off balance. One sidestep and a solid right hook later, and the cyborg was on the ground, out cold. Chuck got lost in his own head for a moment. He had never actually fought anybody, and he was shocked how easily that encounter had been. Sure, that soldier had made a dumb mistake, and Chuck had the element of surprise with his Ability. But it was still rather heartening how easy the thug had gone down. And it felt good. Kind of like swinging his old axe against a stubborn ironwood tree…
The bone yanked against its cord frenziedly, and Chuck snapped out of his musings. No time. He sprinted through, too quickly to be recognized by the confused soldiers that were now prowling the hallways. We weaved right, left, straight, down some stairs, right again.
Chuck ground to a halt. His eyes darted all around, and he began to feel like a trapped animal. He could see a few of the more observant soldiers beginning to recognize him. They started to quietly dash in his direction, not wanting to alert others who might steal the low hanging fruit. Chuck helplessly checked the bone once again, carefully. It was still pulling straight towards the wall.
“Hold on a moment…” Placing his palm against the wall, he felt a surge of hope.
Cold. Pure. Solid. Steel.
Not a very daunting obstacle to someone like Chuck. But completely impassable to anyone else.
Chuck put the bone back in his pocket and blasted head-on into the wall. With a jolt in the pit of his stomach, he realized that the steel wall was actually a steel pillar. He shivered as it leeched heat off of his skin and he plunged downwards. He felt like he was suffocating. It was cold and dark, and all Chuck knew was that he was falling. But, in a fraction of a second, the descent was over, and he felt his legs buckle against the ground with a hollow thump. Wood. He groped through the dark metal around him. In front was the same kind of wood that was under his feet. Same to the left and right. Chuck turned around and felt out behind him. Wood. Panicking, Chuck felt all the the walls once again. He pressed his hands up as high as he could reach, jumping. He felt all the way down to the ground. Wood. Wood all around. No escape. Chuck had escaped an army and fallen into a coffin.
A flash of lightning made Laura Copperknek jump, knocking her out of a daydream. She looked over at the clock hanging on the wall. 5:45 AM. She groaned to herself. Once again, Laura had stayed up all night. She never meant to, but it seemed to happen so often these days…
No matter. She could sleep later. Now, there was work to do. Urgent work. Work that needed to be done before tomorrow morning, when the Operation would begin. Yes, the Operation. She couldn’t bear to think exactly what that meant. Now, she needed to focus. Not much time…
Laura adjusted the desk lamp that illuminated her station with amber light and pulled a toolbox filled with glass lenses of varying sizes from under her workbench. Focus. She pulled out a complicated, twisted mass of black metal, not unlike a tree. She stood the contraption up on her desk, and started fitting lenses into its many branches and twigs. Laura crunched numbers in her head. She had to get this just right. Precision was key. And she couldn’t get precision without focus.
Laura drew a deep breath. Focus. Focus. Focus. With her left hand, she swiftly pricked her upper right arm with a needle. Wincing slightly, Laura pushed the plunger. Focus.
Laura’s arm went numb almost immediately, and she made a note of the time. Good. Focus. She placed her numbed arm under the array of lenses and scrutinized it. Her eyes methodically searched back and forth for the right spot… There. She carefully yet firmly pushed a pin with a copper wire attached into the skin. On her left shoulder, she placed a sticker with a similar wire tracing out of it. Her left hand deftly traced the wire back to its source; a control panel on the wall. Before she could think too hard about what was coming, Laura slowly turned a knob clockwise. She watched the markings on the dial carefully. Slowly, slowly. A sharp stabbing sensation suddenly seized her shoulder where the sticker made contact. Laura winced and tensed up. But she hadn’t gone far enough yet. Laura kept turning the knob with a face of stone. There. A hiccup forced its way past her lips as her diaphragm spasmed. She quit turning the knob. Her shoulder was burning more intensely now, and a few sparks flew past her eyes. It was getting hard to breathe. But she couldn’t turn it off yet. She fixated on the clock, blinking away tears. One. Two. Three...
Time crawled. Laura felt fire flying through her, forming a river of energy between the needle and the sticker. Her lungs were exploding and her heart was pounding, caught in the stream of heat and, curiously, chill. She shivered uncontrollably.
Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty. That was it. Laura flipped a switch, and the burning subsided. She gasped for air as her lungs calmed and came back under her control. Laura gingerly removed the sticker. She took a piece of ice from a small red insulated box that sat in a corner of the workbench, and placed the cooling object on her injured shoulder. After a few moments of soothing cold, Laura investigated the burn in a small mirror. It wasn’t too bad. The skin was puffed up and reddened around the location, with a more localized spot of yellowish-white blister. She rubbed a bit of gel onto the problem area, and felt instantaneous relief. Laura tried wrapping a bandage around her shoulder when she quickly remembered, with a flip of her stomach, that she still needed to remove the needle from her arm. The burn there was worse, but not by much. There was a small speck of blackened skin around the puncture. That was to be expected, though, so it didn’t worry her much. Laura placed some gel on there as well. Securing bandages was a clumsy ordeal with a numb arm, but she managed. She was slightly annoyed to find that her arm had regained its full range of motion right after she finished patching herself up. Whatever, it meant she had gotten the dosage right.
There was one test left to do. Laura had to wait and see if all this would pay off. She had to see if all the theorizing and sneaking around and late nights of painful experiments were worthwhile. But she needed time for the changes to take effect. She needed undisturbed time. A nap. Laura realized how tired she was as a weight fell on her shoulders and eyelids. She stood up from her bench and lay down on her cot. She passed out as soon as her poor head hit the pillow.
Laura’s dreams were vividly painted. She dreamed of all the things she had kept throttled and bottled over the past weeks since leaving Maplewood. The things that would rip her to shreds if they escaped from their cage. She dreamed of Chuck, and the old ladies. She dreamed of the Mayor, and how he had jumped at the opportunity to rip her world apart. She dreamed of trees and fish, about axes and boats. Fire bursting out of an oven. Smoke crawling out of a chimney. The smell of hot bread. She saw lights blazing through dark streets, and terrible people. Terrible, terrible people. And she dreamed about escaping from those people into the arms of something even worse. She dreamed of books, great dusty tomes, and of bathing in a lake of their words. Diagrams and charts were laid out on her brain. Diagrams and charts that showed how she worked, and whispered cryptically about what made her Laura Copperknek. Things that she knew were nothing but the absurd lies of men who frantically tried to hold on to the words of others. Lies that she could still learn from, since they held a spark of universal truth and relevance.
Sun was filtering through the window when Laura was woken by the pounding in her skull. She pulled the blanket over her head and curled herself up. She cradled her head in her hands as tears streamed down her cheeks.
“It’s activated,” Laura whispered to herself.
“That’s a good sign. It’s going right. It’s following the plan.”
All the same, she wished it didn’t have to hurt so bad.
She lay in bed crying hot tears for what seemed like hours. She felt the most alone that she had ever been as she muttered regrets to herself subconsciously. But, deep down, she was excited. If she could pull this off, she could free herself from the decisions of others. She could be free, to make her own choices. She could get away, for real this time!
Slowly, the headache disappeared. Unsure of herself, Laura slowly threw off the blanket and sat up. The pain flared up again for a moment and a dark tunnel surrounded her vision, but then it all went again. She felt… fine. Deceptively normal. Time for a test.
Laura focused inwards, and felt a crust encasing the inside of her lungs. She breathed in deeply, and the crust broke off and turned into dust. The motes whirled around in vortexes and pools inside of her for a moment, and then the crust reformed. Laura giggled. It tickled! She hadn’t expected that. Not that she was complaining.
Laura regulated her breathing. The crust stayed firm. She scrunched up her face in concentration, and the crust once again dislodged itself and turned to dust. She willed it to move upwards, and it did. She willed it back down, and it responded accordingly. She made it spin and dance around at a thought. When she stopped focusing, every particle returned to its place in the crust.
That test was over. So far, everything had exceeded Laura’s expectations.
Time for the next test. Laura controlled the motes so they detached, and the exhaled them through her mouth. The air in front of her shimmered slightly, and then stopped. She couldn’t see anything unusual, but she had a vague sense of a cloud hanging in front of her. With a thought, she made it move. She put it under the cot. She felt the cloud become surrounded by darkness. Next, she moved it to the window. She sensed light, and heat. She pushed the cloud against the glass, and felt the smooth surface in her mind. She pulled the cloud back to her and breathed it back in through her mouth.
Test successful. Expectations met and, once again, exceeded. Time for the final test. This was an easy one.
Laura drew in a deep breath and held it. She looked at the clock, and counted the seconds. Before, she had been able to hold her breath for almost two minutes before having to give up. If this had truly gone off without a hitch, she should be able to hold on for much longer now. Surely enough, the second hand whipped around the clock once and she wasn’t even lightheaded. Another minute passed. She had broken her record, but she could easily keep going.
Three minutes. No doubt, Laura had succeeded, but she wanted to see how long she could go.
Four minutes. She felt a little dizzy now, but it wasn’t too bad.
Five minutes. A little worse, but still trivial.
Six minutes. This was the longest she was expecting to be able to go without air.
Eight and a half…
Eight and three-quarters…
Laura was starting to feel the strain, but she could make the next landmark.
Nine. She quickly breathed out and in, and was sufficiently refreshed. She didn’t even need to gasp.
Once again, Laura’s expectations had been surpassed. She knew that she could have gone longer if she really wanted, but boredom had struck before suffocation. Laura made a note in her head; a lungful of air supplied her with 9 minutes in a non-crisis situation at a complete rest, with instant recovery time.
There was more to what Laura had done to herself, but she needed to save up power for the Operation in the morning. Laura’s stomach growled. She had missed breakfast and lunch. The motes were supposed to increase her stamina, too, but they couldn’t do that on an empty stomach. And dinner wasn’t for another hour… She wished her captors would let her build an oven.
Nothing to do but tinker around, like she was supposed to do.