“Mr. Welbourne, are you quite alright?”
Sam started, and looked up from the table he had been studying intensely. On the other side of the table sat the rotund teacher, Alan Loule, fingers laced together in front of him, studying Sam through his spectacles.
“I’m quite alright, Mr. Loule, thank you. What did you ask me?” Sam said, trying to focus on the conversation. It was hard; a conversation from a different world kept interrupting his thoughts.
“I was just saying that I do not recommend starting out on your own for your first project. You are months behind your classmates, and cannot be expected to make a decent showing with the amount of time you have left.”
Sam nodded, trying to look as if he was following the logic of the conversation, even though his train of thought was elsewhere entirely.
“I discussed this with your sister, mind, and I was under the impression that she would let you take part in her group’s project. I have seen some of their initial work, and their basic idea is very interesting. You would be well served by joining their group.”
Sam kept nodding, hoping to convince both the teacher and himself that he was participating in the conversation. Mr. Loule furrowed his bushy brows, leaned forward and said, “Mr. Welbourne, no one in this school would look down on you for accepting a little help, considering your condition.”
“Oh, I…” Sam trailed off, unable to string together a single sentence. How could he explain his situation? The strain he was under? How could he possibly explain his anger and experiences at night?
How do I explain that I might be going mad?
“I’m sorry, I’ve just been talking until now. Tell me, Mr. Welbourne, if you will not join your sister, what is it you want to do?”
Tapping the table, Sam thought on what to say. Should he confide in this teacher? He could not speak about the other world, but perhaps Mr. Loule could help with other ambitions.
“Mr. Loule, I have always dreamed of going to Mars.”
“To Mars? A very perilous ambition, Mr. Welbourne, Mars is a dangerous place.”
Sam shrugged. “Earth is a dangerous place, Mr. Loule, and I have recently been made aware that every place in the universe is dangerous.”
“That is true…” The teacher said, a slight smirk on lips, “Very well, Mars it is. I suppose the project you are planning would have something to do with the colonisation efforts, then?”
“I have some ideas, yes, but these are difficult problems that many clever people are working on. I’m not sure I can make anything significant.”
Mr. Loule laughed, shaking the room with his deep basun of a voice. “Ah, of course! Mr. Welbourne, I fear you are working under the impression that you must succeed. This is not the point at all; on the contrary! The goal is not to succeed, the goal is to try.”
The last part he said with a raised finger, making the point even starker. “Show us how you approach this task, what you have managed to do, and what you plan to do in the future. Take your idea out to play with; fail a dozen times – fail a hundred times, even – and you will have acquired knowledge deeper than any book could grant you. Here at Mimir Wells, the failures are often more important than the successes.”
Sam smiled at the teacher’s rhetoric. Indeed, if anyone knew how to fail, he did.
He exited the meeting moments later with the beginnings of a plan, and only a cursory idea on how to proceed. Other events quickly occupied his mind, and the nights events caught up with him in an instant. From the moment he had entered the other world, and to waking up again, he had been gone for 10 hours.
Now he was back in his flesh, the other him felt like a stranger. He could remember what he had felt, and what he had thought, but the experiences seemed so vague and distant. Like a he had simply observed the events, but not actually acted them out.
As he walked down the hall, he looked down at his right hand. So different, he thought. On Elhané, his hand was strong and powerful, laced with lifeweave that he could sharpen to an edge in an instant; or peel back the hand to reveal his new blaster. Here his hand was thin and weak, still pale and mostly transparent.
Ares saw the lifeforms around him and thought on ways to kill them, while Sam just wanted to avoid as much eye-contact as possible.
Who is in control? He wondered. If what Orca had told him was correct, then the unit had just as much influence on him, as he had on it. Ares was a product of his body, as was Sam. But if his body changed…
No, the idea was too terrible to contemplate. He would get Orca to keep an eye on him, just as he had instructed her to keep an eye on the sentinel who currently had control of the unit – a figurative eye, at least. He was pretty sure she did not have any actual eyes.
If it turned out he was turning into a freak, he would have to pull the plug.
“Disconnection is no joke, Ares,” she had said, “While possible, it would almost certainly leave you with major damage to your psyche, if not death.”
He thought there must have been a way for the old Makers to disconnect without such side effects, but according to Orca this required very specialized surgery, which both he and the unit would have to undergo at the same time – with a major margin of error.
He exited the west wing of the building, walking out into the gardens, completely oblivious to his surroundings.
Preferably, he and the unit should be in the same location when this surgery was performed, but who could perform it – and how would he get himself to an entirely different world or vica versa?
It was a fool’s idea. If worse came to bear, he would just have to take his chances and make the disconnect from afar. He had been in a deathbed before; he could survive another.
He stepped on a rock that rolled beneath his foot and made him stumble. Out of his reverie, Sam took a few steps to regain his bearings. Looking around, he locked eyes with a figure peering at him from behind a nearby tree. A familiar set of brown eyes in deep-set sockets; rich dark curls framing the face.
Hesitantly he raised a hand, which instantly broke the spell that had locked their eyes together. The pianist boy turned on his heels and ran. “Wait!” Sam yelled, setting after him.
Running was hard. Just one night spent in Elhané with robotic strength made his current speed feel like walking pace. How had he ever managed to get anything done with muscles as weakened as these?
He jumped a small fence onto the grass, the soft stalks bending to his intrusion. Quickly he was past the tree, seeing the boy run around a corner of the school building. Lungs burning, he followed.
Getting around the corner, Sam only heard the scuffle of shoes nearby, but no sight of his quarry. He continued the chase, though he barely understood why he did so.
The burning sensation grew stronger within him.
Though strange, it felt right, and actually made him able to ignore the fatigue creeping up on him. His stride strengthened, feet becoming lighter. He was actually enjoying this. Accelerating, his breath calmed, turning steady and even. Could it be that he was better at running than he thought?
Turning another corner, Sam found himself at the fields. In the distance he could just spot a dark figure running in between the sheds. With power, he set off again, intending to chase down the prey once and for all. The surroundings zipped past, became blurry and faded. His vision focused in on that figure, counting every inch gained with each step he took.
How he would relish this victory. The prey would not escape, not from him.
Passing through the same sheds he had hid in between yesterday, Sam came around the corner. Eyes wide, intoxicated by the chase, he found… nothing. The open fields behind the sheds were devoid of any runners. Confounded, he searched the surroundings: no sign of anyone.
The chase was over, and he had lost. All the energy he had felt flowing through him dissipated in a puff of figurative smoke. Utterly deflated, Sam put his back to the shed and slid down until he sat down on the grass.
So tired… So god damn tired…
He must have dozed off. What felt like seconds later, his eyes fluttered open when his cheek began to hurt.
“Mr. Welbourne – Samuel – can you hear me?”
Sight unfocused, he tried to look around, but everything was covered in a heavy fog. “Samuel, listen to me. Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
“Mm-no… No, I’m fine…” He muttered, barely managing the words. As the world slowly coalesced into a recognizable picture, he found his world consisting of two tilted eyes with a pair of obsidian eyes. It took another few moments before his mind was collected enough to provide him with a name that fit those eyes.
“That’s right, Samuel. Can you stand?”
He felt very weak, but nodded anyway. Of course he could stand.
With help, he got up on his feet, leaning on her. “What.. what time is it?” He asked.
“Late,” she said, eyes narrowing to mere lines, “For your meeting that is. You do remember you had a meeting, right? With the student council president…?”
“Oh…” Mud still covered his thoughts. “Oh!” He repeated, suddenly very awake, and very keen to break physical contact with the pretty girl in front of him. With a few steps back, and help from the solid wall of the shed, he achieved his primary objective for the time being.
“Right, the meeting. I guess I missed that, huh…”
“No, we’ve got to make it. Can you walk? We need to hurry – there is no time.”
“Time for what?”
He got no answer. Instead she reached in and took hold of his jacket, despite his best objections, and dragged him along towards the school buildings.
She was too close. He could smell the scent of her perfume – a soft pine, reminding him of his time in the forest. Fingers twitching from anxiety, he tried to tell her that he could walk on his own, and she could let go now. She did not listen to him.
“Stop wasting time, Samuel. This is important – gods, we should have done this yesterday after all.”
“Shut up and keep up,” she cut him off as they passed the fields and closed in on the school buildings, “I don’t want another word from you.”
He chose to keep his mouth shut after that.
Soon she got him through the doors of the main building, past the creepy school crest on the floor. It felt like the eye was watching him as he stepped over it, making him shudder slightly inside.
“It’s on the top floor. Hurry up!”
He nearly ran behind, while she simply walked briskly. How did she manage to walk so fast?
They were only up two flights of stairs when a loud gong rung. Sam had heard nothing like during his time here. The school had no clocktower, not even a bell.
Caught up in his own thoughts, Sam walked straight into Teslyn, who had stopped walking. “What’s–” A look on her face told him something was very much wrong. The blood had drained completely from it, leaving her pale as a sheet of paper.
“We’re too late… It’s starting.”
“What’s starting? The meeting? I’m sorry I missed it, but It isn’t the end of the world. It definitely isn’t your fault–“
She turned on him, eyes wide with panic. “No, no, you don’t understand. Oh gods,” she hissed, then looked around them. Once again she took a hold of his jacket and dragged him along, but this time she ran.
Extremely fast, Sam could barely keep up with the tempo. The burning sensation came again, but he had no mind to tap into it.
They ran down the hall, turned a corner, and came to a halt before a door just as a second ring of the gong went through the building.
“No, no, no, no… this is not happening, this is not happening,” Teslyn muttered, as she fiddled with some keys she retrieved pockets in her jacket. These were old-school, analog keys – no keycard or scanners were anywhere in the entire building. Sam’s thoughts briefly brushed the oddity, but soon returned to more immediate concerns.
“What is going on, Teslyn?” Sam tried again, but she was fully focused on her task. With shaking hands she selected a key and pushed it into the lock. She turned, the door unlocked with a ‘click’, and she immediately pushed it open and dragged Sam inside.
Nearly throwing him past her, Teslyn turned on the spot and slammed the door. With a flick she switched the lock back on.
“Now, listen to me very carefully Samuel,” She said, turning around and grabbing his jacket with both hands now, “You are not ready for what’s about to happen, and I don’t have time to explain, so just do exactly as I tell you, alright?”
He nodded very carefully. She was so close now. Her shampoo smelled of forest berries, the red ones, what were they called—
“First, whatever happens, you don’t make a sound. Second, you stay here; don’t you dare take a single step out of this room, you hear?!”
He nodded again. Her face was really close to his right now.
“And third: under no circumstances should you touch anyone.”
He gave her one more nod. What the hell was she on about?
Then the gong resounded through the school for a third time, and everything just stopped. It was not simply that Teslyn stood still, it was as if she had been frozen solid just as she opened her mouth to say something else.
Sam could not move either, no matter how hard he tried, but he could see as a shimmer appeared from the floor. It looked like a sheet of golden threads grew out of the floor and rose up in a vertical plane.
As it did so, to his horror, it sheared away Teslyn’s feet, then body, then arms, and finally her head. In mere moments it was as if she had never even been there.
The shimmering threads continued upwards, until they reached the ceiling and went through it. Still frozen, Sam could only watch as the world stopped making sense. Then the gong came again, and he was free.
He staggered forward, gagging as if he had just been choked. There was nothing stopping the flow of air, but his brain rejected reality completely, continuing to choke him as if he had returned to the days of sickness.
When finally he got a hold of himself, managing shallow, incremental breaths of air that his brain could accept, the whole room was spinning around him. Dizzy and hyperventilating, Sam lay down on the floor and tried focusing on a single spot on the ceiling.
What the hell is happening?
Soon the room stopped spinning, but not before Sam turned to the side and threw up his breakfast for the second day running. Once he got the last bit out, he felt well enough to stand up on his feet, regaining his bearings. Shaking, he got up.
That was when the screams began.