William grew restless and he struggled to focus on the drone of information buzzing from the talking head that floated in front of him, a holographic projection tasked with guiding him through the program. It was talking about the magician war again.
By now he knew enough about the magicians to elevate to the next cycle, but the curators of the program wanted their participants thinking in lockstep; they did not tolerate a divergence of detail. His eyes wandered to the contours of the projected head and he tried to imagine the technology inside his alcove that brought the speaker to life. The floating head began speaking about human understanding of magic. William smiled at the irony.
Focus. His mind was calm. On any other day, he would have panicked at the thought of not being ready for the new cycle, or worse, to be caught distracted. But today, on his sixteenth birthday, he found he didn’t care.
Thuds of hardened leather on polished marble floors grew close, and he knew the warden must have entered his aisle, one of many that ran between hundreds of evenly spaced alcoves.
He’d learned a long time ago to differentiate between administration and elite by their footsteps. Phantom sounds of the clicking of expensive shoes invaded his mind, and he looked to his right to the adjoining, empty alcove where Trevor had sat. The clicking in his mind grew louder, and he squeezed his eyes tight as if he could avoid remembering. He couldn’t, and he watched a vision of Trevor being hauled away by men dressed in black suits, tips of white pocket squares peeking from their breast pockets. Behind them, a white haired man, broad and tall, followed behind with hands clasped behind his back, and the clicking of his shoes faded.
When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see the warden looking down into his alcove and directly at him. The warden wore combat fatigues, grey and white, with shoulder patches that bore the symbol of the regime - a human, standing with arms akimbo and legs spread, inside of a circle and a square.
He looked up and met the warden’s eyes, his own carrying a hint of defiance. The warden set his square jaw and glared, bewildered, and spoke firmly.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
William had no response. He continued to stare at the warden instead of engaging with the program. The warden didn’t ask again. Instead, he reached down and grabbed William. With a single jerk of a muscled arm, he was removed from his alcove and slammed face first to the floor at the warden’s feet.
As he brought himself to his knees, eyes downcast, he was grateful that the warden’s boots were not expensive and did not click. Punishment would be swift, but he would not be dragged away like Trevor, off to be lobotomized.
Searing pain shot through William’s arm as the warden stamped his brand. His skin blistered at the focused heat as it was lasered into his upper arm. It was over in an an instant, but the pain lingered with an intensity that seemed to grow. He’d never before been branded. It would be a black mark on his record, and he’d be unlikely to progress further than the second level cycles. So many years given to the regime - taken by the regime - thrown away in a moment of wayward thought.
William was tossed back into his alcove to re engage with the program, and he did so without hesitation. What was I thinking? It hadn’t been his first stray from the regime’s control. He thought of the piece of charcoal sitting in his satchel, and how from time to time he’d scrawl his name upon the base of the nearest skytower. He thought of his sneaking into the Quarantine to walk among the dead. But to openly reject the program and defy the regime, it was beyond foolish.
The talking head was still preaching. William tuned in, compensating for his behaviour by paying more attention than necessary.
“Scientists postulate that the magicians derive from an parallel universe, and that they’re world exists in the same space and time as Earth. Such theories would explain why they look like us, and talk like us. The universes may be so close that the environment and evolutionary pressures were not dissimilar. ”
William sat straighter and listened in earnest. This information was new, unlike the grand summaries of the war he’d been used to hearing. Possibly the regime was introducing new information at the dawn of a new cycle, an elevated step in the program. His excitement faded quickly as he reached to his throbbing arm.
The talking head continued. “The practice of magic, of course, is the most distinct of the departures from the same path of selection, natural or artificial, and it remains the grandest mystery from the war.”
Lecture stopped soon after, and William spent the duration of the day immersing in the practical application of the program. At birth he’d been selected for engineering, so the panel walls in his alcove were alight with complex equations, radiating electric blue. To answer, he would wave his hands in the air and manipulate them, drawing new lines of light on the panels. Occasionally, when not solving fast enough, numbers appeared in the top right corners of the panels and began to count down. Hurried streaks danced out his fingers as he raced against time and worked his way through the more difficult equations.
Hours later, when the sun began to set and an orange haze settled on this city, the chimes began to sound. He sat back, exhausted, with sweat beaded on his brow. The panels powered down, leaving only inclined walls, seamless and obsidian black, and the floating head snapped out of sight. One of the now dormant panel walls shifted, forming itself into a staircase. He climbed out and joined the ranks of other participants as they shuffled in unison towards the Hub’s exit.
As he walked, he noticed he was the only standing straight with raised chin, and all around him participants bowed their heads, their faces sullen. He continued to rub his arm as if he could wipe away the regime’s sigil, but the mark would remain, a reminder of his surprising recklessness. At least the burning will fade.
“I saw everything.” He hadn’t noticed Jacob had join his side. He stayed silent, eyes fixed forward, and he kept his pace. On a good day, he struggled to bite his tongue at Jacob’s needling. On a day like today, when he needed respite and a place to think, he’d be hard pressed. But to his surprise and relief, Jacob said little else.
The boys made their way to the Hub’s bottom level and pushed through the crowd that had gathered at the exterior doors, emerging into the cold steel sterility of the regime’s finest city. To the east, at the centre of the city, skytowers soared into the sky, each exactly the same height as the next and evenly spaced.
Their Hub was built differently, constructed at the city’s edge. It stood only several floors high, but its width spanned several sectors on the grid. The building curved in the shape of an elongated arch, nestled against the border of the Quarantine. Western-facing walls were made of translucent glass, and participants had an unobstructed view of the ancient battleground and the fringe that lay beyond.
William had been gazing into the Quarantine for as long as he’d been a participant, and he blamed the view for his first moment of rebellion. For years he’d been instructed about the desolation within and forbidden from entering, but all he could think about was the silence.
He remembered his first time, and the stealth he’d conjured to avoid the camera globes mounted at every corner of the city. He remembered cutting through the border fence and finding his way inside, and his first walk amongst toppled buildings and broken cement. Serenity had washed over him, easing his mind from the reality of living in a world devoid of free thought and independence, where every moment of every day was planned with outcomes predicted. Thereafter, every now and then he would venture into the Quarantine as an escape from the program’s daily rigour, even for just an afternoon, or an evening.
Tonight, he would visit again. He’d decided to flee into the Quarantine the moment he’d been branded. Even if just for the night, he needed the escape to remain calm and find his balance. One brand isn’t so bad. Greater disciplines would be out of reach, but plenty still remained to allow for a comfortable life. If he wanted to ensure a future in the regime of any kind, he’d need to realign and get himself together.
“I’m going for a walk.”
The sandy haired boy next to him stopped, dropped his satchel to the ground, and placed his hands on his hips.
“What’s going on with you? What was that back there?” Jacob reached out and flicked the brand. William winced and pulled away.
“I don’t know. Got distracted, I guess.”
“Just drop it.”
“How can I drop it? You were branded, William. That means--”
“I know what it means.”
“Fine. What are you going to do about it?”
“I told you, I’m going for a walk. Want to come along?”
Jacob looked at him sceptically. They were not really friends as much as similarly aged teenagers, each selected for engineering, that kept pace with each other as they progressed through the program; but that was as close as anyone came to friends. The program demanded so much time and energy it did not leave much for anything but efficient progression. Archaic concepts like friendship were not encouraged.
“It’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Checked you out in the database after the warden branded you.”
William didn’t want to know what other information had been dug up in the regime’s centralized network. He sucked a breath and nodded.
“So, you coming?”
“Why not. You should have some company on your birthday. Lead on.”
The walk to his secret entrance to the Quarantine was not far. William led them south of the Hub, parallel to the Quarantine perimeter, to a complex of cubed buildings; low-tier residential units for unimpressive graduates of the program. Behind the complex were a series of hills and valleys dense with rusted equipment and broken vehicles, a graveyard of obsolescence that offered many spots to hide from searching eyes. Jacob did not ask any questions as he dipped along with William between the relics of human history that the regime hid from their cities and pretended didn’t exist.
Eventually, the boys found themselves in a nook between two hills and the skeleton of a tank, muzzle of its heavy gun pointed past the fence and into into the Quarantine. At the base of the hills, the ground moved down as if falling into a crater. William stood straight from his crouch, confident he could not been seen here.
William braced himself and stepped towards the border.
“What are you doing?” Until this point, Jacob had accompanied William on his walk without complaint. “I hope you’re not planning on going in there.”
“Relax. This place has been dead for ages. We’ll be fine.”
“We’ll be fine, Jacob.”
He turned back to the tall, linked fence, coils of barbed along its top. Large, square signs were interspersed every hundred feet and warned against entry into the Quarantine. Each bore the regime’s symbol.
One such sign sat at the lip of the leftmost hill that hid the nook. He placed a foot against the fence and another on the hill, and he shimmied his way up to the sign. When he reached it, he grabbed the bottom corners and lifted it away from the fence, revealing the hole he’d cut years before.
Jacob’s face contorted as he watched, trying to speak but only letting loose a grunt. William did not react. To him, entering the Quarantine now felt as natural as breathing, as if he’d trained himself over several years to endure a poison.
“I’m sorry Jacob. I’ve been here before; many times. It’s fine, I promise, but you can go. Thank you for coming this far.”
William looked up into a dark grey sky, like one giant cloud drooping over the city. A storm had blown in and the orange haze from the receding sun had all but gone. Far away, a streak of lightning flashed, and a roll of thunder reached his ears a few seconds later. It wasn’t loud enough to drown out the monotone preaching of the regime that continuously poured out from the loudspeakers placed throughout the city.
Jacob stared past William and beyond the fence, to the landscape of destruction beyond, made up of toppled skyscrapers, abandoned vehicles, and other relics from an urban vista lost ot the war. Several kilometres in the distance, the Rift rippled in the air, lingering over the Quarantine. It was dead, now only a monument to the past.
“You’ve been there?”
“More times than I can count.”
“And they don’t know?
“If they did, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
Jacob smirked. “Fair enough. I guess I could go a little further.”
Smiling, William turned back to his hole and dropped through, and Jacob followed soon after. The other side was immediately different, as if the fence had been erected at the brink of desolation, and the boys navigated their way down into the ruins, taking care not to disturb the ash and rock. Occasionally a drone buzzed overhead and William would motion for Jacob to lay still.
They continued in this fashion for a long time, making their way towards the centre of the Quarantine, where the Rift shimmered high above. Along the way, Jacob expressed his amazement at broken and dusty artefacts. William remembered being so amazed, but now it just made him calm. Gradually the scattered rubble grew into a maze of shattered infrastructure. He spread his arms and allowed his fingers to trace broken stone while he navigated obstructed roads, and all around him he saw neon streaks of graffiti.
The graffiti was everywhere, wildly drawn, like autographs of poets who desperately marked their place and their time, and he imagined them crying out: “Look! I was here!” Now, the poets were gone, forgotten to the passing of years, but their autographs remained. William swelled with joy as he imagined the poets learning that were remembered; then sorrow, as he reflected on his own life, bereft of such an opportunity.
He kept moving, eyes following the markings, and sometimes amidst the scribbles he saw smaller symbols, concise and uniform. The patterns made his mind wander and he imagined a recreated cityscape teeming with unshackled life that pulsed with creativity. With sadness, he realized the graffiti was all that remained of a past world of hope and freedom, and he would never understand, or appreciate, the meaning behind the symbols that remained.
“Do you feel it, Jacob?”
“Feel what, William?”
“Freedom, I guess.”
He signalled to Jacob to stop their trek, and they halted near a clearing at the centre of the quarantine, ringed by rubble but otherwise open, sometimes even patched with green. The rift lingered straight above. Jacob had never been this close, and he gazed, awestruck and terrified. They were was at the epicentre of the magicians’ invasion, the final battlefield of the war.
William did not pay attention to the rippling air overhead. Instead, he faced a large slab of limestone that seemed to have fallen from high above and buried itself into the ground without breaking. It was a clean slate, and he would add his own autograph for the ages. The signature would be his and his alone, a memory of his own to add to the lost stories in the quarantine.
He dropped to one knee and unstrapped his satchel. He reached inside and dug around until he found the piece of charcoal that he’d used to mark his own graffiti on the regime’s skytowers, an act that, if caught, would have sent him for lobotomy. As it happened, the steel walls were not good mediums, and the charcoal markings had quickly blown away in the winds that swept through the city without relent.
This slab of stone would be different. He dreamed that his mark would last for years. It would be only the smallest of chinks in the Regime’s order, but it would be William’s own, and he imagined himself standing beside the poets and yelling along with them “Look! I did this! It was me!”
He stood, clutching his charcoal, and approached the stone, but when he stood directly in front of the smooth white surface, he felt suddenly very small. For all his bravado, he couldn’t rise to his moment, and he couldn’t think of anything to draw or any graffiti to tag. He tried to will himself through the block, and he raised his arm and touched the tip of the charcoal to the stone, but his hand just shook. He found he did not have anything to say. The poets of the past had stories to tell, but he had nothing. He was no poet. He squeezed his eyes, bared his teeth, and screamed out into the vacant surroundings, his voice echoing back.
Jacob startled but said nothing, though he trembled and kept glancing overhead.
William decided that if couldn’t say something for himself, he would borrow the words. His mind played back to the graffiti he’d passed on the way, and neon scribbles flashed in front of him in rapid succession, so fast they became blurred together into a hallucinated light-show. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the flickering images froze in his mind, and a single symbol pulsed before him. It was one of smaller etchings, concise and uniform, and different from all the others. It appealed to him for a reason he could not articulate.
He smiled, his vision filled with the blank stone canvass in front of him. He slowly traced the lines of the symbol that lingered in front of his eyes like an optical illusion. Thick black lines began to take shape on the stone. He took his time. The symbol itself was relatively simple, but he was methodical, wanting to ensure his mark on history was perfect.
The second that he had finished the symbol, the charcoal residue solidified and began smouldering. He fell backwards in shock. Jacob looked on in horror. The symbol sunk into the stone, then began glowing orange. William could only watch, astonished. A high pitched whine began to fill the air. He scrambled to his feet and ran. Jacob followed. Seconds later, the glowing orange symbol lit ablaze like the sun, and the stone tablet split apart with a crack that could be heard for miles, distinct from the thunder that continued to roll through the sky.
William covered his ears at the sound and fell to the ground, out of breath and confused. He turned his head towards his canvass and saw only fractured rock. But among the remains, a piece of stone was perfectly preserved. It was the area on which he had drawn the symbol. The symbol was no longer glowing, now just faded graffiti, another forgotten autograph. In his peripherals, he saw Jacob pointing to the sky, mouth open with screams unheard.
Sirens began blaring before William could make sense of the situation. To his knowledge, never in the last four years had the Regime caught wind of his presence in the Quarantine, but the symbol and splitting stone had drawn their attention.
He lurched to his feet, grabbed Jacob by the arm, and began to run with all the speed he could muster. Jacob scampered along with him, his face set in shock. They didn’t run fast enough. Spotlights began sweeping the area, appearing with the suddenly circling helicopters, locating the boys with ease and tracking them as they ran.
At last, William saw an opening within a fallen structure and pointed. Jacob looked and nodded, and they dashed to the side and slipped into the opening. Once inside, they collapsed to the floor, breathless. William rested his head back against the cold concrete. It was no use. They couldn’t escape, and they’d spend the rest of their lives lobotomized and serving soup to the elite atop their skytowers. It was not the birthday he’d wanted.
“Come with me. Now.”
William’s eyes shot open and he gasped, startled. In front of him stood a woman, tall, grey haired. She looked withered, but not from age. Exhaustion, maybe. Her skin was taught over high cheekbones and her lips were pursed.
“Who are you?” He had trouble getting out the words.
“We need to go.”
The sirens kept blaring, and he now heard dogs barking and yells from their masters as they searched the Quarantine. He had little choice.
“Ok. Let’s go”
“William.” Jacob’s spoke softly.
He stood and brushed himself off and looked at Jacob. The boy was falling to pieces before his eyes. “It’s her or them.”
The sounds of barking dogs and yelling men grew closer.
“Choose quickly.” The woman’s voice was stern, but not scalding.
“We’re just kids, in the wrong place and wrong time. They’ll believe us, I know they will. We can start the cycle tomorrow and complete the program. Please.”
“Are you so naive?”
Jacob shrunk at the woman’s rebuke. He didn’t respond, but crouched against the wall and pulled his knees close, frozen with indecision.
William thought he heard the scuffling of feet on concrete and knew the searchers had entered the structure. He walked quickly to the boy and grabbed his arm.
“Jacob, let’s go, damnit.”
The boy did not fight and rose to his feet as William’s pulled him up. The woman turned swiftly and made her way through cracks in the stone. The boys scampered after her, fleeing from their pursuers.
As they moved deeper, the light that seeped inside began to fade, until William, Jacob, and the woman became consumed by blackness. William reached out to brace against the stone walls and orient himself.
“I can’t see.”
“Shhhh.” The old woman’s response was not comforting.
He saw a flicker a motion in front of him, and a white light sparked a few feet from the ground. He then saw the woman’s fingers trace a pattern in the air. A small, glowing symbol began to drift in front of the now visible woman. The symbol began to swirl until it coalesced into a ball of radiating light. A corridor revealed itself, and the woman beckoned as she made her way forward.
William did not move. His mouth gaped in astonishment and he clutched the stone around him, terrified.
Jacob’s instincts had been correct, and he cursed himself. But Jacob was too frightened to gloat, his face white with terror. The woman peered at him but did not answer. She beckoned again for the boys to follow through the corridor. Faint sounds of yelling men reached his ears. The regime had not yet abandoned their search.
“Are you going to kill us?”
William he steeled himself in the face of the magician, seemingly trapped. He nodded, and pushed forward into the corridor behind the woman. Jacob did not follow. He held his breath, censoring his growing frustration with his companion.
“Jacob, we need to go now.”
The boy finally spoke, colour returning to his face.
“She is a magician!”
The woman watched, her eyes twinkling in the glow from the symbol she’d inscribed, now orbiting her body.
“If she wanted us dead, we’d be dead. The regime is coming for us, Jacob. I think we should take our chances with her.”
Jacob’s shoulder slumped and he stifled a sob. He pulled his tunic straight to flatten the wrinkles before shooting William a scornful look.
“Going for a walk, huh.”
William squinted and pursed his lips, but took the comment as a good sign. He turned and met the magician’s gaze. She seemed so human. A hint of a smile curled at the corners of her lips and she disappeared through a toppled elevator shaft. They hurried after her without a word.
A long time passed as they navigated their way through the fallen skyscraper. The woman seemed confident in their path, as if she’d walked it many times before. The sirens eventually grew faint, and the air became cooler. William thought they were travelling downwards into the earth, and it wasn’t long before his suspicions were confirmed. The walls changed from stone to compacted dirt and moss.
He broke the stillness with a question.
“May I ask who are you?”
“You may ask. I may not answer.”
“Ok. Who are you?”
The woman didn’t respond. He sighed, desperate for an explanation.
“Why were you here, at this spot, and this moment?”
“You’ll have your answers soon enough, young one.” Her words were clipped, but she did not seem impatient. William got the impression that she intended to speak with them eventually.
She spoke no more, and they made the rest of the journey in silence. After a tiring amount of walking, their journey ended in a small opening barely larger than the standardized apartments in the city. William saw a bed ,and an empty desk, and a large map spread over one side of the room. It wasn’t an ordinary map of scroll and ink. This map hovered above the table, vertically, projecting the depicted landmass in three dimensions. He did not recognize it.
Turning his thoughts to the rest of his surroundings, he could not imagine anyone living this small hole below the earth.
“Is this your home?”
The woman crossed the room, her strides long and graceful, and sat on the bed with a thud, as if unloading a heavy weight. She looked at William.
“Home? No, this is not my home, but this is where I survive.”
“Survive? You survived the war?”
“Yes, but it was no war.”
His face scrunched, confused.
“There are several square kilometres of battlefield above our head, and a tear in space and time, that say otherwise.”
The woman’s lips curled slightly, a vestige of a smile.
“You know much.”
“The regime mandates that the program contains a full account of the magician war, so that order may be preserved: We must remember the most important moment in human history.”
Even now, Jacob found an opportunity to show off. But the woman was not amused. Her small smile disappeared in an instant, and she hissed.
“Ah, the regime, with their closed minds and machines. Spare me.”
“You lost; the regime won. Humans won.”
The woman screamed with hatred. The boys shrunk away from the woman, scared once more. She noticed and bent forward to rest her elbows on her knees, hands clasped and head bowed low.
“I am sorry. The pain is still too near.”
William’s face was stone, and he had no sympathy to spare for a magician. Still, he did not enjoy seeing the woman’s despair. He sought to change the subject, but more to ease his own discomfort than the woman’s.
William pointed at the hovering map, still not believing the magic before his eyes. It appeared to be made of paper, or perhaps vellum, and through it ran shadows of pinkish light. The projected landmass also seemed to derive from light, green energy that coursed outwards. He marvelled at the intricate details of the map that no pen or printer could ever create. The program’s holographic documentaries had not done magic justice.
“Where is that?”
The woman raised her head and briefly looked at him before glancing at the map.
“That is Aeyu.”
He looked blankly at the woman.
“That’s not a real place.”
“I assure you it is real.”
“Right.” William’s let the word drag out and squinted.
The woman did not flinch. She kept her eyes on him as he slowly started backing up towards the door through which they’d entered, signalling to Jacob to do the same. He had no intention of staying down here with a magician speaking of imaginary places.
The woman, though, was quick and clever. She flicked her wrist and traced a red symbol in the air. It faded from sight as quickly as it appeared. Nothing happened. William cocked his head, then turned and sprinted for the door. He travelled two steps before crushing his body into a barrier he could not see, then crumpled to the ground, winded. Jacob crashed down next to him.
His mind reeled and his vision was spotted. The woman appeared above him and bent over, looking directly into his eyes as he stared up at the ceiling, disoriented.
“It is it your birthday?”
He rolled onto his side and grunted. “What?”
“I asked if it is your birthday.”
Exasperated. “Yes, it’s my birthday. How’d you know that?”
The woman crouched beside him, and he studied her face in detail for the first time. He had thought her an old woman, but now he saw she was barely middle aged. By human standards, anyway. Her greying hair was braided and swept over her left shoulder, and an elongated, silver rune was tucked behind each ear. The lines of her jaw were sharp and her cheekbones high.
“The ability to speak with Aeyu manifests at sixteen years of age. Children are eager for the day to arrive, for that is when we depart for study of the runic language and the ability to write it. It is a great tradition.”
“Speak with Aeyu? You just told me Aeyu is a place.”
He could not make sense of the woman. Now sitting and rubbing his head, he stated the obvious. “I am not a Magician.”
The woman smiled in earnest.
“We shall see.”
William glanced up, taken aback. “What?”
“For now, it’s important for you to know that you cannot go back.”
“Go back where?”
“To the Regime, of course. To your Program. To your family, and your friends, if such a thing exists any more, and to your so-called-life. Today was a turning point from which you cannot return.”
He pulled himself to his feet and steadied himself, still woozy from the impact with the woman’s barrier. When he found his footing, he placed his hands on his waist and stared at the woman, defiant.
“And why is that?”
The woman stared back to William, and he could feel her conviction.
“Because if the regime learns who you are, they will kill you, and they will kill everyone you love. Make no mistake.”