Stories on the Bench

“And you know what they said next?” Aurora said, laughing. “It’s not just…” She stopped, noticing that Isabella was looking away, down the boardwalk. When Aurora reached out to touch Isabella’s arm, she flinched away. “Sweetie. Is something wrong?”

Isabella kept facing away, saying nothing, but her shoulders were trembling. She shook her head several times, violently.

“Isabella,” Aurora said, her voice shaking. “Please talk to me. Did I say something?” She didn’t know how to react to this. Isabella had never acted like this before. What could Aurora have said or done? She had just been sharing stories from the field, same as always when she got back.

“Fine!” Isabella shouted, pushing herself up from the bench and spinning on her heel. Tears were streaking her face, laced with the deep blue of her favorite mascara. “You want to know? It’s that sometimes, there’s more to life than just you and your Council and your adventures!” She kicked her foot at the ground, sending her sandal flying off into the grass.

“But, I –”

“Let me finish!” Isabella said. “You talk enough all the time. Talk about how wonderful your new ‘job’ is. How amazing all the people are. How you’re getting to do all these great, amazing things and that I’m the only one you can talk to about them because nobody else knows and wouldn’t believe you. Well, you know what? I have a life to!”

“I am not just your listening ear, your comfortable home to come back to, your pretty pair of legs to stick your face between. I have a life! I have things I want, things I need, and just like every person sometimes I don’t get either one. So sometimes I don’t want to hear about your amazing life. Would it kill you to – just once – come home again and ask me what my life has been since you left? What I accomplished? What I dreamt of while you were gone?”

Aurora tried to speak but choked. Her face flushed deeply until she could smell the iron in her nostrils. “I-I thought…” she began. But Isabella had spun around again and was walking up the path.

“No,” Isabella said, quieter now. “I really don’t think you did. Not even once.”

Sourceforming

“What do you see, Aurora?” Tass asked. They were standing in a desert. Somewhere on Earth, but he hadn’t told her where. Aurora wasn’t so conversant with deserts she could tell on sight.

“Sand,” Aurora replied. “Shrubs.” She squinted at the horizon. “Maybe a cactus?” That would mean somewhere in the Americas. They had been here all of ten minutes and she was already sweating through her clothes. Not exactly the best environment to give her patience with this kind of crap.

“That’s not what I mean, girl,” Tass said. He crunched his dark eyes shut – all four of them – and blew out swiftly through his teeth. Apparently sighing was universal? “I’m talking about the source. You see things differently. You always have. That’s what makes you enta viyan. Now concentrate on the details and tell me.”

“So,” Aurora replied, brushing the blowing dust from her face. “If I’ve always seen things differently, how am I supposed to know what to say? Sand, shrubs, cactus. Sky. Sun. Clouds. Wind. Dust. Your ugly face. They look like they look. Is there any chance we could do this somewhere more pleasant, by the way? I feel like I could list nouns quite readily in a forest or something.”

“It’s… simpler out here,” Tass said. “Fewer sapient minds. Details will be clearer. The source will be less… noisy.” He continued to stumble over words, probably lapses in the translator bauble he brought with him. Aurora tried to find it funny, but it was really just annoying at this point. Like he was talking down to her. “These details… will not be there all the time. In times of intense focus, or stress, or perhaps at the edge of sleep. The world made sense in a different way. You knew things you couldn’t, felt things that… you could touch. Control.”

Aurora stopped mid-jibe. That night in the truck-yard. With David there, running after her, drunk. Angry. Scared like she’d never been. The air… the cold… the flow of it. The energy in it. Her breath caught.

Now, she stared at the dust. The flow of it. Swirls, eddied, moving with the heat, with the chaotic patterns of matter and energy. Except no more chaos. Just like then. She wanted control then. She had grabbed it. In that moment, Aurora had understood something. The world had made sense. Then it had all gone wrong. She had wanted David gone… and then he was.

Damn it! Now all she wanted was away from this place. Away from this damned dust. Away from Tass and his irritating pedantics. And away from this damned desert inferno! Like then, she just wanted…

Control.

The air cracked. The wind howled, nearly knocking Tass down as air rushed outwards from her. Sweat flash-froze to her skin and hair. Aurora gasped as chilled, rarefied air replaced the scalding breaths of a moment before.

Aurora’s eyes came back into focus. For at least a hundred feet around, the air was clear and the sand was dusted with a fine coating of ice.

Tass opened his eyes and smiled his odd, toothy smile. “Very interesting. Now tell me what you saw.”

The Role of the Council

“So what do I do now?” Aurora asked. “Are we some sort of government? Are we superheroes, solving all the worlds’ worst problems? Ooh, is there some ancient adversary we need to constantly be on guard against?”

As usual, Raeth didn’t seem to fully appreciate her form of humor.

“What we do is nothing so grandiose,” Raeth replied. “We maintain a balance. We prevent disruption to the system. We study the source and the Builders’ legacy in order to perform both more effectively.” They checked the small device again at the next branch in the way, this time heading down the left route.

“Oh,” Aurora said. “So like, the boring sort of government.”

“Ha! I would hardly call it boring. It’s a very careful balancing act we perform. The Council maintains a relationship with hundreds of different civilizations on worlds with completely divergent versions of life and physics. Keeping them in check, controlling the flow of information and material… it’s all quite complex.”

“If you’re into that sort of thing,” Aurora mumbled. In a louder voice, she added, “So what will my role in all this be?”

“That remains to be seen,” Raeth said. “It will depend in part on what you can do. Enta viyane are very much a product of their worlds. In all previous cases, a world has been studied thoroughly to determine the effects that might become present. Earth wasn’t to be on the list for some time yet. The anomaly… warrants investigation.”

“So you’ve said,” Aurora said. “Does that mean we have no idea what I can do?”

“My observations are a start, as will be your testimony.”

Testimony. That would mean… God, she did not want to talk about that. Not to anyone. What if they decided she was dangerous? Did the Council have some sort of jail? Could she be… de-powered somehow? Questions she could ask Raeth. They might be understanding.

“How much longer are we walking?” Aurora asked instead.

Into the Source

For a moment, peace. A silence and calm Aurora had never experienced before.

But then, the Watchers came. From all sides, the whispers turned to shrieks. A thousand different voices speaking at her, into her. It was past the point of noise. The sounds echoed inside her mind, inside her brain, until there was no more thought. Just sound, then pain.

And then silence, again.

Aurora was suddenly shunted into memories of her childhood. Elementary school, then earlier. Things she had no business remembering. Playing in a crib. Then lying in a cradle. The memories felt like they were being yanked from her mind, perused, then shoved back inside.

Every part of her life replayed itself at rapid pace. The raw emotion of each scene came with full force, lasting just moments before the emotions of the next came to replace it. From childhood through to her training at the Dawning. All the way up to the screeching in the way. The attack that sent her here.

Just when she thought it was done, her mind wrenched and it started anew. Her life in fast-forward. Again and again. Aurora began to feel less like a person with each iteration. Instead, she was just a collection of experience. A deterministic reaction to a series of events. Seeing her past, the future seemed clear. Who she was, what she would become. There was no “Aurora” just… just…

Her body came back into sudden awareness as she landed hard on her back. Eyes, ears, skin, all came back into function in a rush of pain and pleasure. Vision stabilized into a white ceiling. A causeway. A dark figure stood nearby, out of focus.

Aurora realized she had just stopped screaming. Her throat was raw and she gasped for breath.

“Aurora? Can you hear me?” a familiar voice asked. Aurora tried to respond, but her mouth wouldn’t work. The figure knelt close, resolved into a face. Raeth, their expression creased with concern. They turned to someone nearby, out of sight. “She’s still alive. We need to get her to the Dawning. Now.”

The sensation of being lifted, then moved. Her wracked mind tried to make sense of it. Tried to compile her current experience while holding on to the revelations she had witnessed. So close to the truth. So close.

Tears dripped from her face as consciousness fled.

Sightseeing

Aurora gazed out at the landscape, presently drifting over the wilds of Africa. The windows of the causeways always amazed her. Presenting a viewpoint hundreds to thousands of feet in the air over the planet, they were a good way to become rapidly acquainted with a world’s features, climate, and habitation. Yet with all the worlds she had seen, she still came back to spy on primitive, little Earth. She would never forget the day she saw the Pyramids from so far above.

Wait. What was that? She started, then realized it was only the whispers gathering. Clenching her teeth, she prepared for the ensuing wave. There was no noise quite like the Watchers out in the ways. They were loud, but there was also more texture to them. Like if she listened a little bit closer, she might make out individual voices.

Of course, Tass said that it was all nonsense. That the “Watchers” were just a natural phenomenon. There were no more voices than there were in the waves of the ocean or the rays of the sun. Raeth, as well as many others, believed differently. Aurora didn’t always know which she preferred, but when she was out alone on the ways she strongly gravitated toward Tass’s state of mind. The idea of them being some sort of creature or sentience made her feel naked out here.

Augh, what the hell? The whispers were spiking up. Her ears went from ringing to hurting. She could barely hear herself think. They had never been this loud out here. That only happened when someone was seriously abusing the source. Doing that on the ways was suicide! Why the hell was she drawing so much attention?

Aurora closed her eyes and tried to focus through the sanity-rending shrieks in her head. She had to make herself small, unseen. Let them pass on their way, whatever they were. Just let them pass and…

A sudden shove from behind sent her toppling off-balance. A moment later, she was lifted up and flying through the air. Straight into the window.

Straight into the raw source.

Why Always Purple?

“Purple,” Aurora said. “I can’t help but notice that everything you’re giving me to wear is purple.” She looked over the pile of tights, robes, jewelry, along with a few unidentifiable bits. They weren’t all quite the same shade, but all undeniably purple.

“It’s rather important,” Raeth said. Their face was flat and unexpressive, except for the very edges of their mouth. That always meant they were hiding something they found amusing. Did any other members of the Council see Raeth as such a prankster? “It’s the only way to be seen with any level of respect on Oic.”

Aurora sighed and yanked off her well-traveled boots. For some reason, Raeth always waited until right before to tell her about a new world’s customs. It’s possible they wanted to teach them to always be prepared for the unexpected. Aurora found it more likely they just liked to see the look on her face.

She started shedding her clothes, even as Raeth did theirs. Ever since Galavaria, it seemed a rather moot point to hide or turn their backs on each other. As usual, Aurora tried not to stare. Raeth’s world was – had been – close enough to Earth that their body was mostly human. But damn if they weren’t pretty in some very unique ways.

Stripped down, Aurora reached for the petticoat-like object that most resembled an underthing. She was fiddling with it for a while, trying to find which way was right-side-out, when Raeth held up a hand.

“Not quite time for that, yet,” they said. “First, we need to apply the dye.”

“What?” Aurora said. “For my hair?” That’s what she got for thinking it couldn’t get any more ridiculous.

Raeth could no longer keep a straight face. Their smile broke open until a laugh. “For starters.”

All Parents…

“I’m so happy to finally meet you!” Mrs. Pedersen said. “Isabella’s been talking about you so much these past few weeks.” She was blonde, tall – just an inch shorter than Isabella – and somehow managed to make a flannel shirt and an apron look like modeling high fashion. Aurora had been given warning but, damn. Isabella’s mom was hot.

Aurora awkwardly extended her hand. “It’s great to meet you, too, Mrs. Pedersen.”

“Sabrina, please,” Mrs. Pedersen said. “There’s no reason to be formal here.” Her handshake was gentle and brief. “And aren’t you so adorable!” She gave Isabella a sidelong glance and a knowing smile. “My daughter always has had wonderful taste.”

Isabella flushed and looked down at her feet. It was probably the most flustered Aurora had ever seen her. Huh. Good to know Isabella could get embarrassed sometimes! Of course, everyone’s parents seemed to have that preternatural ability.

Sabrina’s face turned suddenly serious. “Now I do have to ask you what your intentions are with my daughter,” she said grimly. It was Aurora’s turn to be taken aback, even though Sabrina’s mouth was clearly holding back a laugh.

“Um, well,” Aurora started. “We just started seeing each other. I don’t really…” She looked desperately to Isabella who had recovered from flushing enough to shoot her mom a dirty look.

“Just as long as you take her to bed when you’re both good and ready,” Sabrina said. A good-natured laugh punctuated the outrageous statement, even as she turned back to the stove. “Heaven knows Isabella could stand to get some tension off her shoulders!”

“Mom!” Isabella cried, turning a deeper red than Aurora had ever seen on anyone. Sabrina was unphased.

“You are staying for dinner?” Sabrina asked. “Thomas simply must meet you as well.”

Aurora hoped Isabella’s father would be a bit… lower key. She looked to Isabella with one eyebrow raised. Isabella gave a half-shrug.

More to look forward to, then.

Children and Regret

“I just don’t see why anyone would ever want me, Nancy,” Helen said. She threw another crumpled tissue onto the pile, even as more tears and mucous ran down her face. “Victor wasn’t… wasn’t that…”

Nancy pulled Helen close against her side. “Now don’t you start thinking that way, Helen,” Nancy said. “You are a queen among women. You got yourself to school, paid your way through, got a doctorate in all that computer stuff that we here don’t know nothin’ about. You’re smart as a whip and you’re a catch for anyone.”

“I want children, though, Nancy!” Helen said. “And I want to be with someone who does, too. Victor wanted them more than anything. I still want them… want him to…” Sobbing overtook her words.

“There are other ways to have children,” Nancy said. “There’re thousands of kids out there who need a good home. It’s not your fault Victor was so stuck on usin’ his own seed that he walked out on you. You got a lot to give. You’re just gonna find it a different way.”

Helen drew back, her accent slipping back in sudden anger. “Now don’t you speak badly of Victor, Miss Nancy. I love that man. He still loves me. He got every right to look for what he needs in life. Same as me. Same as you.”

Nancy flushed and stood from the couch. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Here, let me go get some more ice tea.” She took the empty pitcher into the kitchen with quick, short steps.

Helen stared out the window at the setting sun, listening to the cicadas, roaring out for their mates to make the next generation. Her sister was right. She had a lot more to offer the world than just children. But why couldn’t Victor see that? Why had he…

The problem was her thinking too much right now. Helen called to the other room. “Do you have anything you could slip into that tea while you’re in there, Nancy?”

Middle School Dating

CW: Boy pressuring girl during date


 

“It’s been a fun night, Dave,” Isabella said. “But I really need to get home.” It had been fun. Movie and dinner was classic. David was a good guy. Great sense of humor. Isabella was pondering whether a second date was in the running.

“Hey, baby,” David said. “It’s still early. Don’t you wanna hang with me some more?” He leaned in close, smiling that beautiful, dopey smile.

“It’s a school night,” Isabella said. “I promised mom I’d be back before ten.” Despite her easy tone, her heart rate accelerated. Please let this guy be different. Please.

“Aw, c’mon,” David said. “I just bought you dinner. Don’t you think you owe me at least a little… more time?”

Damn. Was there any single boy at this school who wasn’t a creep? Isabella wriggled a hand into her purse, grasping the can of mace and hoping she didn’t need it. Home was just a few blocks walk from the restaurant. Her mom was on speed dial if it came to that. One more chance.

“David,” Isabella said. “I’m serious. I need to get home. Okay?”

With a deep, dramatized sigh, David flopped back into his chair. “Yeah, okay. Damn, Icy. See why they call you that. Frigid as they come.” He shoved away from the table, sending glasses rattling. “See you around.”

Isabella released pent up breath as the boy hurled his way out the restaurant. Why did all the hot boys wind up saying the same things? And why were all the hot girls straight?

Maybe dad was right. Isabella just shouldn’t bother dating until high school. Maybe by then some of them would have grown some brains.

The Council Librarian

Raeth’s eyelids drooped for the third time that night. It was likely time to turn in. There would be no new revelations here. They had read this book three times already in the past. Somehow, it felt there was something lurking there.

“Another late night, Councilor?” a quiet voice asked from behind.

“Mekil,” Raeth said. “I’m sorry. I had meant to return the book sooner.” They closed the tome and raised it up for the librarian’s talons to take. Mekil handled the book as gently as a child, or in her case one of her eggs.

“I have no concerns, Councilor,” Mekil replied, adding a well-humored click. “You are always careful. That is why I let you take the books from the study areas at all.” She used her lower hands to wrap the book carefully in a silken sheet, no doubt brought for that specific purpose.

“I just… think better here,” Raeth said. They stood up and stretched, triggering a series of popping noises. Mekil jumped, startled, as she always did, then clicked at herself.

“As you always say,” Mekil said. “I do not fault you. I prefer my own study, as well. Did you find anything new? This is your third trip through this treatise, I believe.”

“Not a thing,” Raeth replied, busying themselves by dimming the office candles for the night. “The text is extremely arcane, almost as if in an obscure sort of code. Yet it has…” They paused, as if deciding whether to continue.

“The only known references to a world disappearing from the Web,” Mekil finished. “I have tracked your reading well, Master Raeth. I know your purpose.”

“My pointless obsession, you mean,” Raeth said. “Gatrama is gone and nobody knows how, or where, or if it is truly destroyed. I mean no offense, but your books offer very little.”

“I know well their limits,” Mekil said. “Much as I love them, they elude me in most things.”

“One day, we’ll know,” Raeth said. “We’ll have studies enough, seen enough, to have surpassed the creators of those ancient words. Then we can know for sure.”

“So may it be,” Mekil said. “Good night, Councilor.”

“Good night, Master Librarian.”