The day of the trial we arrived at the Ouroboros, sunlight shining from its infinite windows. Supreme Service agents led us through the site. It was a sort of knot in reality, looking a bit like a luxury shopping center designed by MC Escher. The streets branched and helixed into more dimensions than were supposed to exist, miles of territory shifting suddenly into view as you followed the streets’ non-euclidian curves. Nobody knew where it ended. If it ended.
Concern crossed Truman’s face. “Where’s Kaplan?”
“Who cares?” Elizer asked. “Do you really want to see that guy on HOMEFRONT?”
I shuddered. “Let me put it this way: if I have to lose, I’m glad it will be to one of you.”
Heidi gave me a thumbs up. “Good attitude, Rock. And you know what? If I have to beat somebody for this opportunity, I’m glad it could be all of you guys.”
Popper whistled for our attention. In his hand was a charred human femur. “The task ahead is meant to test your wits, your guts, and your thick heads. The artifact site is a half hour’s walk from this location if you take the most efficient route possible. Good luck on that front.” We chuckled.
As Popper continued, the agents began to distribute tiny pieces of paper bearing complex magical sigils. “These tabs of paper contain a microdose of lysergic acid diethalymide as well as a fully charged seal of Saturn. You will perceive emanant Other-natural entities as you travel. Tread carefully.”
Even before the effects of the drug started to come on the environment was overwhelming. Not thirty feet from where the Sergeant was standing, a street lined with a dozen consecutive tanning parlors intersected the ground at a 60-degree angle. Another street stretched upside down directly above us, a pack of coyotes raiding one of its boutique German butcher shops.
“Until the artifact is acquired you’ll be on your own. Per the rules of the ritual you’re allowed one clue: the ritual site is located somewhere that people go to forget.”
The clue was obvious and therefore maddening. ‘Clearly’ we were supposed to be thinking along the lines of drinking. Would this be a needle in a haystack situation, with too many bars and liquor stores to go through? Did the clue mean something else? Or were their expectations of us simply so low that I was about to screw myself by overthinking it?
Like I said, maddening.
“I’ll be waiting at the ritual site with the artifact. As soon as the first of you arrives for the Final Rite I’ll radio a signal to the base crew. They’ll activate a system of yellow flares at strategic points throughout the area. When our second and final participant has arrived, they’ll unleash the red flare to signal that the rest of you may turn back.”
“At least they won’t leave us to get lost out here,” Aaron whispered. There was something so phony in his voice. Smug, even. I pushed it out of my head. I needed to be more fair to the kid. He may have been phony, but he was an honest phony, right? The kind that’s too thick-headed to realize they’re disingenuous.
Well, so much for being fair to the kid.
“Uh-huh,” was all I said.
“Your packs each contain some basic supplies, a few stopwatches, and our best attempt at a map.” He gave us a few minutes to confirm the contents of our bags before continuing. “Mark your trails, cadets. If you get lost in there we’re not fishing you out.”
And with that he snapped the charred femur in his hands and an enormous sigh blew through the air. We poured out. Nine separate streets branched away within sight from our starting place, most of those verging sharply or gradually into the sky, each with other streets spiraling out from them. Within minutes I could see some of my classmates racing overhead, trying to rule out different possible paths as quickly as possible.
I set a stopwatch and strategized as I jogged. I saw some of my classmates diving into the turns, doubling back, hunting actively to find the ‘right’ route first. The acid was doing none of us any favors. Already, Elizer kept picking up his chalk, looking at it, then forgetting what he was doing.
No use minding them. My first task was to get the lay of the land and figure out the scale of the project ahead of me. We were looking for a target roughly a mile and a half from the starting location- a mile and a half on-foot, at least, disregarding any pesky issues of up and down. In my last marathon I managed a steady pace of a mile every eight minutes. I ran until the stopwatch hit the 12-minute mark, counting the number of branch-points along the way.
On my first sweep through, I passed through four patches that could be called intersections. The number of streets branching from each one varied but they all had at least five branch-points and one had as many as ten. Which meant if I took the wrong road all the way to the end the first time- something I had an 80% chance of doing- and ruled out every path as efficiently as possible, and ran into only a minimal number of branching paths, it would still take me over two and a half days to figure out I’d been in a dead-end, assuming I ran day and night at marathon speed. No good.
Turning back from my first run-through, I gazed at the storefronts for answers. The clue they’d given us was worthless. This was one of the highest stakes trials of my life and here I was trying to get into my teachers’ heads. It was like a bunch of army guys got together and asked themselves, how can we really make these stuff-shirted, egg-headed, neurotic cadets sweat in the worst possible way?
Duh, Rock. Of course that was what they had done. What did I know about the men running the academy, really? It was no secret Popper was disappointed in the lot of us. He complained constantly that you couldn’t teach what the Service really needed- that we were sheltered Frankensteins stitched together with red tape.
And then the impossible. A yellow flare launched out from a cannon nearby. Its light filled everything, yellow seeping into my vision even after I looked away. Panic settled in. We’d been released less than half an hour ago. Someone had managed to run almost directly to the ritual site. Could it be an inside job? Blind luck? Or had the real route been completely obvious, and I was too nervous to see it?
My head started to pound. The ground was wobbling beneath- no, wobbling with my feet. I would slam my foot down and it felt like the ground would fall away beneath it, only to rise up and strike my other knee. Breathing wasn’t getting hard so much as foreign. And it brought the smell of brimstone. Eyes started growing on the street.
Now, I’m not going to front with you: the people that know me would tell you that I’m a square. I don’t even like to drink coffee if it’s an option to just get a good night’s sleep instead. But I could tell you without a moment’s hesitation that more than just the acid was starting to kick in. Those sigils they had us ingest were doing something heinous, summoning hateful eyes and whispers into the air. Stupid, I heard. Fumbling and stupid and weak.
Stupid was right. Stupid head games. I staggered to my feet. My knee was screaming, no, singing? A loverly pack of half-way people were giggling and clinking mimosas at a nearby cafe. I tried to stagger past but their table followed me, the way the moon follows you while you drive. It was like their little scene fit in wherever I looked, their faces made of bloody paper and marmalade spilling from their mouths.
“It’s all a tangle, isn’t it dear?” asked a man, no, a demon, his paper face shaped like an origami stork, his polo shirt filled with swollen muscles.
“What’s a girl to do, all scared and without any clues?” asked another demon, a paper bulldog with gloved human hands and a top hat. “Who’s to say they didn’t make a special little hell just for you, luv?”
My chest was tight. Some demon spell? An effect of the acid? Maybe it was just my own panic. I grabbed the baton from my bag. “Ggrrrrah!” I screamed. The baton was fully extended with a single swing. The demons skittered back with my approach but I was able to grab the stork-man by the beak. It crumpled in my hand, leaving a rusty residue.
“Cut the hellraiser act.” The demon stork yanked back against my hand, something rustling out of the crushed tip of his beak. “You!” I began to fold his mouth back into place. “I don’t know if you’re inside of me, or outside of me, or what, but you can say something useful or you can bother someone else.”
The demon hissed. “You passed a RadioShack on your first run past here.”
RadioShack? The sergeant had said something. “He will send a radio signal.” Of course. The faculty wouldn’t design a challenge around a riddle. They’d design it around a trick. They wanted a soldier, not a student. Popper was at the site and Popper said he’d send a radio signal, which meant there was a transmitter at the ritual site that I could track down. That must have been how the first person had done it, someone who’d been paying attention right out the gate. Someone who was fast.
No time to wonder who. The demons followed me as I rampaged into the RadioShack, their chairs and tables gliding on origami wings. Once inside, free from the looping geometry of The Ourobouros, I could almost pretend I was inside a normal store. I just needed to focus on hunting for equipment rather than on the snide catcalls of the paper demons. Within a few minutes I was able to jury-rig a crude directional antenna, hopefully one powerful enough to lead me where I needed to be. Thank God for Engineering 104.
I tuned in. I listened around. There wasn’t just one, but two signals I could make out. Popper and, presumably, the radio my counterpart had put together to find him. They weren’t far, and I detected nobody else pulling a similar trick. I’d have time.
The signal came from one of the streets that stretched out into the sky. Air hung above and beneath it like a twisted concrete ribbon. Unfortunately gravity twisted along with the streets. I could feel the light pull of the competing gravity overhead. As I ran towards the intersection I veered too close to a wild curve and fell sideways nine feet, right onto the concrete.
My body rolled, knees striking a fire hydrant with a force that rattled my tailbone. I fumbled for a nearby rock and tossed it to test the gravity. It went up a few feet too high, and again fell sideways back to the stretch of road I’d been running down. The demons cackled but I paid them no mind. I just had to follow the signal, and keep an eye out for sudden drops.
Someone on the faculty had a cynical sense of humor. Probably Glass. “Somewhere people go to forget” turned out to be a store boasting ornate granite headstones. Eight or nine just like it lined the street, perfect to delay cadets even if they did interpret the clue. I took a deep breath before entering. Inside was waiting someone who had been preparing for this while I chased wild geese. They’d been steeling themselves, trying to anticipate my identity. They may have even known the final test already.
They were waiting when I opened the door. I threw my rig down: the antenna, the battery, all of it. Seeing Truman surprised me. Offended me, if I’m honest. This kid had figured out the trick before I had? But the plexiglass case Commander Popper held blew me away. Inside was an extra-hefty steel flashlight, over thirty inches long, the word “TRUE” carved into its side. The Torch. Torchbearer had been dead for years of course… but if they could just give the Torch to someone else, why had they waited until now?
“Hey Atlas,” Aaron said. He was blushing. No, not that. He was flush. Anxious. “I knew it would be you.”
“I wish I could say the same.” This was ludicrous. One of us was going to be Torchbearer, the beacon of truth? There was no way Truman had figured out the trick to tracing this place before I had. In fact… Looking around, I didn’t see an antenna setup similar to mine anywhere in the room. What I did see, poking out from under the zipper of Aaron’s pack, was an ear piece.
Oh, hell no. I hadn’t unlocked ‘the trick’ they were looking for a cadet to stumble upon. I just overthought my way into coming in second in a game that was rigged from the beginning.
No, not second. Not yet.
“I’m sure you’re curious about the final rite…” Commander Popper began.
I wanted to scream, but I had to play it cool. I focused my indignation on Aaron, keeping my face still. “Yes, commander.” Aaron refused to look me in the eye. “Exceedingly curious.”
“Well, cadets, we’re gonna do this one the old fashioned way. Seems the Torch wants to see you kids duke it out.”
“Director, may I ask something?” I asked. The paper-faced demons began to rustle and hiss.
“Have you made your peace with God?”
“You intend to trick the power of capital-T-Truth, director.” I nodded towards the dangling earpiece. Sweat trickled down Truman’s neck. “I don’t think it will go well.”
The director’s gaze darted to Aaron’s hastily-zipped pack. His eyes went dead save for a slight twitch on the right. “Very astute, cadet. We apologize if you are offended that we would not leave the allocation of key strategic resources to magic flashlights… Or little girls.” That stung. It’s shitty to admit it, but my blood pressure spiked. And he could tell. “We are not here to learn an important lesson, cadet. Sensitivity training is over. Everybody got the trophy. Now we are here to achieve this academy’s mission. Understood?”
Aaron’s eyes kept darting over my shoulder, then towards his peripheral, and back again. Taking the easy route here had weakened him. He’d been trapped with the commander through the entire onset of his demonic acid trip. Popper wasn’t one for reassurance or small talk. Looking at them now, it was clear Popper scared Truman witless. The boy looked like he wanted to jump right out of his skin and into someone else’s.
I looked the director in the eye. “I am ready to satisfy the requirements of the artifact’s rite, sir.”
“Perfect. Then declare that you surrender.”
“The fight’s over as soon as one of you surrenders. That’s all the artifact needs. So, surrender.”
The director’s mouth was a firm, angry line. I couldn’t play into his expectations. I had to let his boy drop the ball first. Aaron could barely look at me, cheeks burning with shame and resentment. I closed in to whisper in his ear, “You deserve nothing.”
A sharp cry. Then, he swung at me. He was fast but I was ready. I blocked his fist with my shoulder and swept his legs. Then I ran out the door.
He came through. I was waiting. My baton struck the back of his skull but Aaron barely noticed. I swung again but he lunged after me, catching the baton in his hands, again absorbing the force.
His shirt shifted up as we struggled for my baton. There, on his skin, was an array of sigils we’d studied at the academy, a complex interweaving of 3 pentacles of the moon with two of Mars. It was the state-of-the-art in spirit channeling tech, the standard defensive array inscribed on all Supreme Service agents. His skin could probably stop a small bullet with that ink.
“Jesus!” I whispered. “They really did everything they could do to tip things in your favor.” He was supernaturally tough and naturally plenty strong, but he was tripping bad and still just a person. “How did it feel, letting the commander almost talk you out of a real fight?”
“I didn’t want it like this,” he grunted. He jerked wildly at my baton but didn’t let go. “Stop! Stop!” I wasn’t doing anything. Something only he could see- something flying directly above my head seemed to torment him. I twisted my baton and my torso in one smooth motion before letting go. He twisted with me, then went tumbling away, my baton in his hands as he skittered out into the street. I walked after him.
To his back was a charming fountain nestled between a Korean grocery store and a patio winebar. On the other side of the fountain was empty air. There weren’t any other streets for a good ninety feet in either direction. One wrong step could lead to a nasty fall.
Aaron’s eyes were dilated and still fixed on some point above my head, his face this knot of fear and resentment. He really wasn’t a bad kid, even if I did want to keep hitting him. Maybe he was ready. Maybe he’d listen to reason. “Surrender, Truman. If you really don’t want this- if you want this to go to someone who’s earned it, if you want it to mean something- you can surrender.”
“This is me earning it,” he roared. He came at me, a baton in each hand. I leapt back. Plan B wasn’t going to be kind, or pretty. I tried to lead him around the fountain but he ran right through it, splashing me and soaking himself. He swung for me. The baton in his right hand missed, but the left jabbed me straight in the jaw, bad enough that I could feel it in my neck.
Still, I ran. I had one last gambit. I darted underneath one of his arms and over towards the patio wine bar by the edge of the street. A wooden deck hung off the edge and into blue sky. He barreled after me, thoughtlessly following up the steps, across the walkway and over the side. As I leapt over the side of the deck, I hooked one arm around the railing and clung on for dear life. Aaron’s hands were full.
He went tumbling over the deck’s railing full speed, hanging in the air for an eerie moment as he passed between two gravity vectors. Then, slowly at first but quickly gaining speed, he hurtled towards the streets below.
Aaron whimpered when he landed. There was nobody else around to hear it, but the cry of surrender was known. The Torch shattered its plexiglass cage and flew into my one free hand.
Next Chapter: (2.2) Faye West