Absolution

Clara gazed at the pictures along the wall while she waited. When Greg came down the stairs, he saw her staring at the one of a young man with dirty blond hair and a swimmer’s body. He knew she would assume it was a picture of him.

“I’d tell you it’s not me in that picture. You may think me a liar, but more than likely you would ask…” He paused so she could.

“Then who is it? If not you?”

“My twin brother, John.”

“You don’t have a twin brother.”

“I did. He…died. In a car accident.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I was driving,” he said, surprising himself. He’d never told the story even to his friends. “We had gone to a bar for a friend’s birthday and he had too much to drink so I took the keys from him. I was being responsible, but someone else that night wasn’t. We were hit head on. John died before the ambulance showed up.”


John woke to the calling of his name. He sat up, stretched, then climbed out of bed. He came down the stairs and saw a young woman looking at pictures in the hallway. He’d never seen her before, or anyone in this place, but somehow he felt like he knew her.

“I’d tell you that’s not actually me in that picture. You may think me a liar, but more than likely you would ask…” He paused, letting her.

“Then who is it? If not you?”

“It’s actually my twin brother, Greg.”

“You don’t have a twin brother.”

“I did. He’s still alive.”

“That’s…. good?”

He smiled. “Yeah. It’s good. When the paramedics showed up, they went to him first. I guess we were both on the same time limit, but he got to stay behind.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Of course.”

“Do you ever wish he were here?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” John said, “It’s too late now, but he’ll find his own way.”


“We were pretty close,” Greg said, “Practically best friends. We did everything together.”

“Do you miss him?”

“All the time.” He fell silent. Thoughts rushed through his head. Of John. Of what happened. Of his parents. He began wondering where his parents were and then wondered how Clara got in the house. He began to realize he had never met her before but the feeling vanished when she spoke again.

“Come on, I’d like to show you something,” she said and walked out the front door. He followed her outside and into his car. The fact that she was driving never occurred to him.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“It’s a surprise.”

He didn’t argue. He looked out the window at the row of old oak trees that lined the road. The newly formed leaves were still wet with the morning dew. They drove in silence. Greg turned and looked at Clara. Taking her in for what seemed the first time. She had jet-black hair tied back in a pony-tail. Her bangs hid her forehead and stopped right above her blue eyes which shone brightly against her fair skin.

She noticed him staring and smiled.

“What?” she asked.

“Have we met before?”

“Here it is.” She slowed the car suddenly and turned onto a narrow road leading into the countryside. A short distance brought them to a small house with a red roof. It was his grandparent’s cottage.

“Here we are,” she said.

“And why are we here?”

“It’s a surprise, silly.”


“So where are we going today?” John asked as if they had been spending the past several months together.

“There is a place I would like you to see.”

“And where would that be? I can’t be bothered going out to the city again.”

“It’s actually in the other direction.”

“You said we weren’t supposed to go out there.” He paused. Their previous conversation floated through his head while his memory doubted every word.

“It’ll be okay,” she smiled.

He followed her outside and they walked along the dusted landscape away from the abandoned city. He was thankful for the change. He wondered why he never explored outside the city before. He was surprised that he felt nervous.

“Are we able to die here?” he asked.

“Why wouldn’t you be able to?”

“Well,” he paused, “because I’m already dead.”

“You look alright to me.”

“But you know I died.” Another conversation echoed in his mind.

“It’s the only way to leave that other place,” she said matter-of-factly. “Come on.” She waved him to continue and he followed obediently. He was curious.

“Are there ways to leave this place?”

She stopped at this and smiled, “This isn’t the last stop, silly. Let’s go.”

They walked along remnants of the road away from the city.


“Why are we here?” Greg repeated

“It’s an intermediary of sorts.”

“An intermediary for what?”

“Today? For you.”

He gave her a quizzical look, but she ignored him and skipped out onto the deep green grass of the field south of the little cottage.

“Aren’t we going inside?”

“That’s not where it is.”

“Where what is?” he called after her.

“The intermediary. Don’t you listen?”

He sighed, trying to calm his nerves before they fired up. She was becoming extremely trying, but he followed her out onto the grass and into the sun. He instantly felt its heat beat down on him. He suddenly felt obligated to see through whatever this was. He briefly looked back at the small cottage where he and John spent every holiday. Then he looked at his car. He couldn’t just go home. She had the keys. He turned just in time to see Clara disappear into a small grove of trees. He remembered those trees, but something about the memory seemed false.

“Come on,” Clara’s voice yelled.


They had been walking for hours. John didn’t know who to thank for the clouds blocking the sun so he thanked the clouds themselves.

“Are we almost there?” he called.

“Yes, yes. So impatient,” she called from in front of him.

He looked at her then as if for the first time. She had jet-black hair that fell straight to her waist which swayed side to side when she walked. He began to wonder where they first met when she abruptly turned and stared at him with her bright, blue eyes. A smile flashed across her lips.

“Here we are,” she said.

John looked around at the dirt-covered road and vacant landscape. “This is it?”

“No. This is just our turn.” She stepped off the road, onto the dead grass, and walked off in a straight line. “Come on lazy bones,” she yelled back without looking at him, “Unless you have somewhere else to be.”

He tried to think of where else he would like to be, or could go, but nothing came to mind. He still wasn’t exactly sure where he was. He sighed heavily and stepped off the broken road and followed her.


“This is it,” Clara said, popping her head out from behind a tree as Greg entered a small clearing in the trees. In the center was a stone well.

“A well?”

“No, it’s the intermediary.”

“The well is the intermediary?”

“Of course. Take a look,” she pulled him to the edge of the stone circle. He looked down and saw nothing.

“It’s empty.”

She looked inside then checked the watch on her wrist.

“Hmm, we must be a bit early. I guess we’ll just have to wait,” she said and sat down on the grass. She pulled up a few blades and began braiding them together.

“What are we doing here?” Greg asked.

“Waiting now. You’ll see. Just be patient. It will happen in a few minutes.”

He could feel his shoulders tighten as she said the words. He knew he wouldn’t like the answer but he asked it anyway. “And what are we waiting for?”

“For the intermediary, silly.”

He sighed.


“Here we are.”

John caught up to her and looked at the stone circle. “This is it?”

She hit him. “Don’t be silly. It’s inside.”

He looked down into the well and saw nothing.

“There’s nothing in there.”

She looked at her watch. “Hmm. Keep looking. It should be happening soon.”

“What’s going to happen? We haven’t done anything but walk all day and now we are standing at a dry well in the middle of nowhere.” He looked around at the brown fields that surrounded them. “I know there isn’t much going on in this place, but I’m sure there are better things to do than be out here.”

“Oh hush. Just keep an eye on what’s down there.”

He sighed and returned his attention to the well. He glanced at her when she sat down on the dead grass and began ripping blades up. She tossed them into the air but there was no wind to catch them.

“Keep looking.”

“I am,” he said and turned his attention back to the depths of the well.


Greg kept looking down in the well as she instructed. Nothing happened for a while and he was growing more and more irritated. Then he saw something move. Something was coming toward him. It took a moment before he realized it was water quickly rising. The well was filling up.

“Somethings happening,” he said.

For a moment he thought it might not be water because it was as clear as the air it replaced only somehow darker. It rose to the brim and stopped. He looked down through the water and into the darkness behind it. His reflection soon came into view.

“Now,” Clara said, popping up off the ground, “we are finally here, and with only a minute to spare.”

“For what?”

“Your choice.”

“What choice?”

“You can bring your brother back. If you want to.”

“What?” He looked up from the well and his throat caught.

“At the cost of your own life of course.” She said matter-of-factly.

He stared at her in disbelief. “But…”


“All you have to do is jump in,” she told John.

“Who would ever do that? I mean, yeah it’d be nice to be alive again, but not at that cost.” He stopped looking in the well and focused on her. “No one would make that choice.”

“Some do. But that doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you only have a handful of seconds to decide.”

“No,” he said, “That’s my decision. Consider it made.”

“Okay,” she said, “but I do have to warn you. Your brother was given the same choice.”

“What?”

“He has the same choice, but vice-versa. He can jump in the well and trade his life for yours. You may see him briefly depending on what he chooses.”

“That’s insane.” He ran back and looked inside. His reflection stared back, as if it had never left the water.


“So I jump in and he comes back?”

“Yes. You may even see him briefly.”

Greg looked at his reflection in the water. “He’ll come out of this well as if nothing happened to him?”

“All in one piece. Healed. Presto. Alive again. That’s the intermediary for you, but time’s running out. You have to choose soon.”

He stared down into the water. It was an obvious decision and his brother deserved it. He reached one hand in and watched it disappear into the blackness behind the surface. The water remained clear but his hand was gone beneath it.

A hand emerged a second later next to where his had entered. Its palm opened toward him. On it, written in ash, was the word Don’t. He stared at it. Then the hand rotated and the middle finger lifted from a clenched fist.

Greg smiled. “You’d hate me for it, wouldn’t you? Dick.”


“That should do it. Now, when will this be over?” John said.

“It already is,” both of the girls named Clara said in unison.

John looked over to see the girl had duplicated. He looked back at the well and found it empty again.

“Congratulations.” The girls said.

He shook his head. “Can you stop doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Talking at the same time.”

“Sure,” one Clara said. “It’s time for you to move on,” said the other.

“So it wasn’t real?”

“Of course it was real.” “Now it’s time to go.”

“Where are we going?”

“You are going on to the next place.” “And we are staying here.”

“What about Greg?”

“He will live his life.” “Until he moves on to his next place.”

“This place?”

“Whichever place is next for him.” “With your decision, he will likely skip this phase.”

John smirked. “Good. He wouldn’t last two days here.”


Greg jumped at the knock on the window. He looked up to see his grandfather waving to him. He was parked in front of his grandparent’s cottage. His grandma waved to him from the front door. He got out and stretched.

“What brings you by?” his grandfather asked.

He didn’t remember driving into the country and wasn’t sure why he had come out this way.

“Just thought I’d come say hi,” he answered, “Get out of the city for the afternoon.”

“Well you’re always welcome here. Come inside. Your grandma just made some fresh scones.”

Greg let his grandfather guide him toward the cottage. He glanced over at the field south of them. The open ground was filled with nothing but rolling hills of grass. A memory of a cluster of trees flickered across his mind then faded into nothing. Something about him felt lighter. He turned and hugged his grandmother before going inside.

Children of Changyang Mountain

His pack was heavy. The sun was high in the sky, midday, and Haaru had been walking since dawn. The ache at the base of his back had begun and his feet were calling for a short break but he ignored them. He knew his body well after years of travel. Another hour wouldn’t change anything. The forest shaded the sun’s rays from the path and a gentle breeze provided relief from the growing heat. He left the thin, mountain air a few days ago and his lungs weren’t yet adjusted to the dense humidity of the forest. They screamed they were drowning, but Haaru kept on until a new ache began.

He crossed a small stream and stopped. He squatted, letting the earth take the weight of his pack, and slowly untangled himself from the straps. He opened a small side compartment and removed a cloth bag containing his lunch. Roasted fowl, two pears, and a handful of mushrooms. Then he removed his wooden sandals, stained dark with oil and years of use, and tied them to the pack. He sat on a large stone and dipped his feet in a small pool beside the stream. The cool water sent a chill through his bones and permeated the heat still swelling his muscles. He let out a groan of appreciation and enjoyed the feeling for a few moments before turning to his lunch.

Haaru ate slowly despite feeling ravenous. When he finished, he washed the cloth bag and set it beside him on the stone to dry. He pulled his feet from the pool and laid himself across the large stone as well. He felt the warmth of the stone against his back and the cool breeze kiss his sweat-damp clothes. He rested. Sleep threatened to relieve his consciousness several times and he was ready to surrender to it. Then he heard the sounds of children. A faint echo of laughter in the air. Haaru opened his eyes and stared at the canopy above, watching the sky dance with the leaves, until he heard it again.

His muscles were stiff but no longer ached. He wondered if he had rested too long, but threw the matter away as unimportant. He grabbed the cloth bag and returned it to his pack. The laughter rang out again as he strapped his worn sandals to his feet, fitted himself back into the hulking pack and, with a grunt, relieved the earth of its weight. The laughter echoed again. A smile crept across his features. The laughter reminded his thick, cork-like muscles of his own childhood. When he would run endlessly, climb trees, swim for hours. More laughter and this time he managed to grasp its direction. It was away from the path, but he had packed food for several days before needing to return to the village, and he had a feeling this may be the reason he was here.

The trees were thin, no larger than Haaru’s thin frame, and the roots protruded from the ground leaving little room to move unhindered. The laughter grew louder and soon danced around him. He couldn’t see anyone, but he knew they were near.

“Hello,” he called out. Silence. “Hello,” he called again.

“Hello,” a muffled voice responded.

It came from a few paces to his right. He froze, slowly turned his head toward the voice, and saw an ancient set of armor leaning against a tree. Moss had covered its entire surface so it appeared as part of the forest itself save for the shape. The voice came from inside it.

“Who are you?” the muffled voice asked.

“I am Haaru,” he said, “and what is your name?”

“Shigeru.”

“Are you here alone, Shigeru?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you come out of there?”

No muffled answer came. A few seconds passed and the breastplate opened. The leather straps, now mostly moss, threatened to disintegrate at the slight movement. The boy emerged and the armor returned to its resting state. Haaru guessed he was nearly five years old. He had raven-black hair and looked half starved. Big brown eyes looked up at him.

“Hello Shigeru.”

The boy smiled politely. Haaru looked around but saw no one else. He looked up into the trees hoping to spot someone. The laughter had disappeared.

“Where are your friends?”

“Mishi is over there,” the boy pointed. Haaru followed the boy’s arm to a moss-covered helmet leaning against a tree. “And Koturo is there, and Jensai, and Mido, and Deku, and-”

Haaru placed a hand on the boy’s arm to stop him. The boy seemed eager to point out all of his friends, but all Haaru could see were sets of armor. Many were no more than broken pieces. All of them were consumed by the forest. Haaru guessed a battle took place here long ago. The bodies left unclaimed.

“How many of you are out here?” Haaru asked.

The boy shrugged as an answer.

“Where are your parents?”

The boy shrugged again.

“Where is home?” he tried again.

“Changyang.”

“Changyang,” Haaru repeated. He was filled with sadness and relief all at once upon hearing this answer. “How did you get here, Shigeru?”

“Orders…sir,” the boy said, uttering the second word as an afterthought.

“Who’s orders?”

Shigeru stood proudly and answered, “General Xing.”

“General Xing,” Haaru repeated the name. He had guessed correctly. These children were his reason for entering the forest.

“How long have you been here?”

“A long time,” a voice called from behind them. Haaru turned to see another boy sitting on a pair of grieves that more resembled tree roots than armor. It was one Shigeru called out earlier. Mido.

“How long is a long time?” Haaru asked softly.

Mido sighed and laid down across the remains of a breastplate.

“We’ve forgotten.”

Haaru looked to his left to find a young boy with autumn hair tied in the traditional top knot.

“I see,” Haaru muttered. Several boys had revealed themselves. Each sitting or standing on the remnants of a set of armor. Many of which were not included in Shigeru’s eager introductions.

“How many of you are there?” he asked again.

None answered. Haaru decided it was time. He bent his knees until the pack rested on the ground. He dug through stacks of parchment, each bound tightly between bamboo planks, until he found his brush, ink, and a stack of blank pages. He sat on the forest floor and arranged the ink and parchment.

“Would you mind telling me your story?” he asked as he dipped his brush in the ink and held it before the parchment. He looked up to see they had all gone. Every child had disappeared without a sound. The breeze rustled the leaves and the sunlight danced on the forest floor.

“Shigeru?”

His only answer was the sounds of the forest.

Haaru remained seated with his brush at the ready. As the light began to fade, he built a small fire and prepared for a long night. He pulled several lychee berries from his pack and ate them. Their floral aroma filled the air. He finished, cleaned his hands, and continued to wait as the forest grew dark. His eyes grew heavy but he fought the continuous pull of sleep. He held his brush ready, patiently waiting for the children to return.

He began to lose the battle against his body. His eyelids slowly rose and fell like the waves of the sea. His body twitched and he jerked himself alert upon realizing his lapse. He rubbed sleep from his eyes and found Shigeru standing before him. The other boys were there as well, and behind them perhaps a hundred more could be seen in the moonlight that penetrated the canopy.

“We will tell you our story,” Shigeru said. The boyish tone was no longer present.

Haaru gripped his brush and nodded for the boy to continue.

“Let me first answer your question. There are 147 of us. A relatively small company, to be sure, when speaking of the indomitable army led by General Xing for his eminence Emperor Jiangxi. I, Shigeru Matsushi, am the captain of this company.”

“The fiercest warriors of any battalion.”

“Quiet Mido,” Shigeru chided the boy behind him.

Mido crossed his arms and glared at Shigeru’s back but remained quiet.

“My lieutenant speaks out of turn, but he is correct. We were the highest skilled warriors within the Emperor’s army. Yes,” Shigeru saw the question in Haaru’s eyes, “we are well aware of our current situation. We were monsters of men when we entered battle though we were not quite men in the eyes of many. We have not been children since before we were taken, but we prefer this form.

“I lived on an island beyond where the Yangtze empties into the sea. The General’s men came and took me from my village along with several other boys. I later realized these men were expected as no one protested our abduction. Jensai is the only one here who also came from my village. We were all gathered in this fashion. Stolen from our homes. Most of us merely four or five years of age when we were taken.

“After weeks of hard travel, we were left at a fortification near the peak of Changyang. It was there in the bitter cold we trained. General Xing himself would lead our education when he was in the region, which was often, and it was during his training when we lost most of our brothers. He taught us how to be ruthless, how to end the life of even someone you called a friend, so we learned to live together without forming bonds beyond those found in battle. Our numbers shrank as our training progressed in the harsh conditions of the mountain. Two attempted escape, but there was nowhere to go and they were quickly hunted down. We quickly learned to accept our new lives or accept death. We grew as cold as the snow that never ceased.

“Every day mirrored the one before. We would all wake before sunrise, sweep the snow from the courtyard, spar with fists, then with wooden swords. Before lunch we held a tournament of iron swords. Single elimination. The first cut deciding the winner. The champion would be given an extra portion during lunch. We all desired this as the meager meals we were given served the purpose of providing heat more than it did sustenance. When General Xing visited, he would be the judge of these tournaments and would determine the victor of each fight. It would be many cuts before he made his decision.

“Our afternoons included training on horseback and ranged weapons. No tournament was held in the afternoons. The last hour of the day was reserved for strategy and held inside. We would all go to bed battered and bruised. Many of us with new scars forming. We never left the mountain except to train in different environments.

“Maybe ten years passed this way. Time was lost to us. Known only by the slow growth of our bodies. We became young men and skilled warriors. Then our first assignment was given. General Xing appointed our positions. Ten lieutenants were each given thirteen men. I was given full authority as captain and would fight alongside the remaining eight as an elite unit. We were sent as an advance party to capture a command post west of the Hongshui river. We attacked at night. It was a small fortress but held a garrison of three hundred men. We lost two men but had taken the fortress by sunrise. We spared three of our enemy, the customary number when gathering information, and tied them to wooden posts hammered into the courtyard.

“Two days passed before General Xing arrived. He quickly filled the garrison with his men and questioned the prisoners before issuing our next orders. He never provided more than our next assignment. We performed dutifully and never lost another soldier. Even when fighting outnumbered eight to one. Rumor of our company spread among the enemy as well as among the other soldiers under General Xing until even the emperor learned of our company. We did not know at the time, but this was something General Xing had gone to great lengths to prevent. We wish he would have succeeded.

“The end of the war drew near after three short years. We had conquered the last outpost and had it prepared for the General’s arrival where he would command the final assault. He arrived behind Emperor Jiangxi whom we were not expecting. Many duties must be completed during the transition of command within a fortress, and we were not yet clean from our fighting when he called us for inspection. We delayed these duties and presented ourselves at full attention in the courtyard for the emperor. He examined every one of us without a word before disappearing into the high chamber with General Xing.

“The next day our orders came. This time we were to gather intelligence without attacking. A scouting mission. The change in tactics was strange, but we were advancing on the final stronghold so we thought nothing of it. It was not our place to question the general. Besides, it was a six-day journey and we were eager to leave the emperor’s gaze.” Shigeru paused and looked at the forest surrounding them. “We were ambushed here. Not by our enemy but by the emperor’s personal soldiers. Our rear guard had spotted them a day prior, but betrayal had not dared enter our minds. We were only concerned with our next assignment and were thus ill-prepared when they struck. But we were not fully caught off-guard. We fought for a full day and night. We slew five for every one we lost, but their numbers were great and eventually overcame our last man. We were left here. No rituals provided for our bodies. Not even those fit for a common peasant let alone those for a warrior of our status. We were left to rot with the heat of each day, and we have remained in this forest since.”

Haaru finished writing Shigeru’s account. The night had begun to fade but the sun was still a few hours from rising. The fire was mostly embers. Haaru’s eyes had resorted to the filtered moonlight to guide his brush sometime in the night. He placed the brush beside the ink and laid the final sheet of parchment out to dry, habitually placing the recently dried sheet onto the stack beside him.

“Tell me, traveler,” Shigeru said, “how long have we been here?”

Haaru considered their account. Unsure of how to answer. “It has been three hundred years since Emperor Jiangxi was alive.” A soft, collective gasp rustled through the forest like a soft breeze. A low murmur began to spread among them. Shigeru made a simple hand gesture and the forest was again silent. Haaru believed the boy must have been a great leader to evoke such discipline with a simple movement.

“Three hundred years is a long time. Yet you are the first to speak to us.”

Haaru sealed the ink and began cleaning his brush. “I have traveled many leagues and have seen many things. I have encountered several…incidents…that frighten most people, but I know there is a truth behind them that the common man would discolor with his imagination. Many times they do so unintentionally, because they are afraid or are unable to believe what their senses show them to be true. They believe reality is supposed to work within a set of rules. They do not realize there is more than one path that leads to truth.” He combed the wet brush and set it down to dry.

“And you walk several paths?” Mido asked reproachfully. This time Shigeru did not reprimand him.

“Possibly,” Haaru said. He examined the dead fire with a stick. Making patterns in the embers and ash.

“Why did you ask for our story?” Shigeru asked. A hint of command still in his voice.

“I want to share it. Spread it among those who will listen and let history know a truth that was buried by a powerful man.”

“You defy an emperor’s decision?”

“I face no retribution from the dead. However, it is not the emperor I am referring.”

Shigeru contemplated his words and asked in a low tone filled with warning, “You dare bring shame to our general?”

The other 146 children standing within the forest shifted their weight simultaneously. It was slight, and barely noticeable even when done in unison by so many, but Haaru’s skin prickled at the sudden hostility. He did not fear them and convinced himself he would not falter even if they had the means of harming him. Shigeru was the only one who did not change his stance. Haaru saw him at last for who he was. A true commander who possessed the loyalty of his men even beyond death. An allegiance he shared equally with every one of them.

“I only wish to tell a truth hidden to allow a favorable legacy. You are not aware of how history has treated your general. He is regarded as a great strategist. Able to predict his enemy’s intentions. He could capture a stronghold by simply willing it. Your account replaces the fertile soil where his legend has been left to grow wild. With your story told, the world would know the truth that he was just a man. Still a brilliant strategist, but ruthless. A man who built a reputation on the backs of kidnapped children.”

Haaru surveyed the sea of children as best he could without removing his eyes from Shigeru’s. They were still on guard. Ready to attack but waiting for the order.

“Do you not want your story to be told? Do you not want to be remembered?”

Shigeru made a swift movement through the air with his fist. The children relaxed. Haaru found himself doing the same. He sat, expectant, awaiting the answer.

“The only home we’ve ever known was Changyang. Our lives before our duty are merely distant memories mixed with dreams. We fought well and obeyed every command our leader gave us. We only served the emperor through our general. The world knows a figurehead does not win the battles they never see. Our legacy lives within General Xing’s.

“Tell us,” Shigeru continued, “since you claim to know of those from our time. What happened to our general?”

Haaru finally relaxed. Their reason was a twisted love for their general.

“He lived a long life while serving his emperor.”

“How did he die?”

“Honorably.”

“In battle?”

Haaru sighed, “No. It was after his final defeat. They say the new emperor attempted to retain him as general of the new armies, but he refused. He chose a warrior’s death.”

The sea of children stirred but the forest remained silent. The sun was preparing to rise and the first birds began to chirp, but the sound did not sway the heavy sadness among them.

“Thank you, traveler,” Shigeru finally said, “you have done us a great service. We have been plagued with uncertainty about those we left behind. General Xing and his personal guard. We feared he too had been defeated by treachery. We are glad to hear he served and died well.”

“Is there more you wish to know?” Haaru asked.

“No. Three hundred years has undoubtedly changed the world we knew. I think it is time we finally departed for our next assignment. Before we are gone, I must ask again. What do you intend to do with our story?” Shigeru glanced at the pile of pages. Haaru placed the final page, having dried some time ago, onto the pile and straightened the stack.

“I have told you my intentions, but it is your choice to make.”

Shigeru gestured, sweeping his arm as if it were a command, and Haaru understood the meaning behind it. He slowly gathered the stack of parchment and hesitated, looking to Shigeru who offered a firm smile, then placed the pages on the dying embers. The parchment smoked slowly before igniting. The flames roared, emitting an intense heat before settling down to a steady smolder. The ink burned bright gold with faint shades of blue-green. Within minutes the parchment was nothing but ash and ember. Haaru could not help but feel a tinge of sorrow as he watched specks of ash lifted into the air only to fall back to the earth like snow.

“Thank you,” Shigeru said. His hand rose in the air and with a sweep he issued his final command.

Haaru watched as a fog lifted through the forest floor and slowly filled the trees. The children did not move but were soon lost to his sight within the thick air. Then, just as quickly, the fog dissipated even without the warmth of the morning sun. They were gone. Haaru sat alone in the forest listening to the sounds of morning.

He rose despite the protest of his body. The lack of sleep made his blood beat thin, but his mind was too active for rest. He returned his brush and ink to his pack and put out the embers with a bowl of water from the stream. A long day’s journey was ahead of him. He would need rest before he made it to the village, but he once again shouldered the massive weight of his pack and began walking carefully through the forest.


Haaru woke on a straw mat. He had arrived late in the evening and was surprised to find he was expected. The village elder had decided to wait for him despite Haaru insisting he would be gone several days. The elder had waved his protest away claiming she was awake anyway and decided to pass the time by waiting. Haaru was too tired to argue and happily accepted the offered room. He had given himself a few hours’ sleep during the day but still had plenty to regain when he finally settled down.

He must have slept as a stone. The sunlight was strong. Children were playing outside. He left his pack in the room and went to find the elder. She was watching the children as the men and women of the village were busy with their tasks. Haaru sat beside the elder and waited for her to begin the conversation. The morning air was still cool but would soon be stifling. He could feel the humidity rising with the sun.

“I have already told everyone the forest is at rest,” she said.

“There was never any danger,” Haaru offered.

“I was not as troubled by the sounds like the others. I had grown used to them after all these years. I feared them as a child, but age often brings clarity, or faith, and I knew there was no malice lurking within the trees, but it was an unnatural matter. We are glad you happened upon us.”

They sat and watched the children chase each other around the well. Haaru tried imagining the old woman as one of them. This village was old and had known of the unrest in the forest. They knew spirits had gathered within the trees. They simply avoided venturing too far in and never without sunlight.

“I must thank you again,” the elder said, “I know our payment was insufficient for your trouble.”

“It was more than generous,” Haaru interjected. It was enough to keep him fed, which was all he ever needed, and it only cost him some sleep. “Thank you for your hospitality. I will be leaving before midday.”

“So soon?” The elder finally looked at him. “You must still be tired after traveling the forest.”

“I am plenty rested to begin again.” He feet still ached from the long days of walking and his body would benefit from a full day’s rest, but he feared the allure of comfort. He needed to keep moving. There was a legend told about a village near the southern border that caught his ear several weeks ago.

“Will you at least stay for some tea?” the elder asked.

“Tea would be delightful.”

He had tea with the elder and listened to the stories she offered. He listened attentively and answered what questions she had the confidence to ask. She never inquired about the children of the forest. He sensed her reservations and also her respect for him.

He was used to admiration or fear. His work often drew either suspicion or reverence. His results always earned him respect. He was aware of the stories that surrounded him, but he also knew that these were created by the very people who made demons from rabid foxes.

The elder was beyond believing him to be more than he was. Her company was refreshing and he enjoyed their time together. When the sun was overhead, he gathered his things and hoisted the pack from the floor. The full weight settled on him.

Haaru had mastered the art of farewell throughout his travels. He followed the sun as it crawled across the sky then he turned south in the evening light. The legend he had heard turned over in his head. It involved a pair of sisters. He caught himself guessing at its true origin and turned his thoughts away so as not to cloud his expectations. He would wait until he heard their story.

Scoreboard

Jennifer remembered when the site was first discovered. No one knew who created it or how it worked. Several top agencies from countries around the world looked for those running the page, but nothing was ever discovered. The site continued as if on its own. No one could access the algorithm it ran or figure out how it gathered the data it used to make its judgments. Many claimed the data was freely available online, but that theory quickly vanished after infants were found on the site before their birth certificates were signed.

It was a ranking system. It had every iota of information about every single person on the planet. You could find your name with a quick search. If your name was Jimmy Smith, you could narrow it down by address, phone number, parents’ names, date of birth, education, job, age, or whatever you can think of. The site had every detail.

Jennifer had been fifteen years old when it consumed the world. It permeated every aspect of life. Social media lost its appeal rather quickly when people realized they could get any information they wanted from the site aptly called verity.com. The world changed within a few years to what it was now. Jennifer was young enough to adapt quickly to the change but old enough to remember what it was like before.

She was trying to remember what her parents were like before the change when she heard her name called.

“Jennifer?” an older voice repeated in the waiting room.

Jennifer rose and let the little old woman guide her back to a conference room where two men and a woman, all in suits, sat at a table typing into tablets. They stopped talking when the old voice announced her.

“Welcome, have a seat,” the woman said. Jennifer promptly obeyed and sat quietly as they finished their notes from the previous interview. Then, without warning, the first question broke the silence.

“Why do you want to work for this company, Ms. Whitley?”

“I believe this company is a place where my talents can excel and mutual growth can be expected.” She’d rehearsed several hundred answers to the basic questions.

The three interviewers never looked up from their screens except for an occasional glance. These happened periodically and only when they were either asking a question or receiving her answer. They never stopped typing. She began to wonder if she was wasting her time, but she answered every question in turn. It wasn’t until the end when they asked the question that was expected but never easy to answer.

“What is your ranking, Jennifer?”

She checked her watch and quickly answered. “Three point five point eight point three two eight.” She had the Verity app installed on her phone so it displayed on her smartwatch. Just above the time, her current rank was displayed. Right now she was ranked 3,504,896,328 out of 9,742,531,082. Ranks changed at any time. No one knew why. Even after decades of research there was no apparent reason as to why ranks changed. No one knew what they were being judged for or who was judging. They just knew their rank and desired to climb higher.

“Top 35%. Not bad.” The man in the middle shrugged. He hadn’t bothered to look at her but kept his eyes glued to his tablet as he continued to type.

“Thank you,” was all she could think to answer. She was used to a follow-up such as What have to you done recently to try to increase your rank? or When was the last time your rank fell more than one hundred levels? but just asking for her number was apparently their final question. She thought it strange since she was sure they had her number pulled up on the tablets in front of them.

“You will hear from us soon.”

Jennifer rose and thanked them for the opportunity. She kept an eye on her number as she left the building to see if it would drop. She felt the interview had not gone well and expected a drop in ranking to be proof that she wouldn’t get the job, but her number remained the same as she made her way through the city park toward her apartment.

“You know, it’s not good to be tied to that thing twenty-four seven.”

The comment didn’t register until she had almost passed the one who said it. She paused and looked up to see an older man, maybe mid-sixties, sitting on a bench. He was looking at her over the rim of his glasses. He had lowered the book he was reading.

She smiled and slowly placed her phone in her purse. “Thanks for the reminder. It’s just…I just had an interview and was hoping to hear something.”

“How long ago was your interview?”

“About ten minutes ago.”

“You think it went poorly?” He placed a marker in his book and closed it.

“I don’t know. My ranking hasn’t changed.”

“Ah,” the old man smiled. “You think any changes will be the result of how the interview went. That’s a little superstitious don’t you think?”

“Is it?”

“Perhaps not. No one really knows how that thing works, which is why I gave up on it long ago. Expecting a job offer only ten minutes after an interview is a little much though.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, “You stopped looking at your rank?”

“You will never find happiness comparing yourself to others.”

Jennifer glanced at her watch. Not to look at the time, but to check her rank. It was more habit than intention and she caught herself realizing how much her number influenced her decisions and even her daily routines. The old man was smiling at her when she looked back up.

He offered her a seat with an open palm. “Give yourself a break from the numbers. If only for a few minutes.”

She hesitated but accepted and sat down next to him. She glanced at her watch again but quickly covered it with her other hand.

“So you never look at your number?”

“Never,” he said.

“How? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“The curiosity fades the longer you go without. The numbers don’t really matter because they don’t do anything productive. They just allow everyone to believe themselves superior or worse off than others. We all formed our own opinions about that before the website came along. The numbers just made it seem like there is validity to our place in the world. We don’t have to make our own judgments anymore. They are made for us and we can just accept our place. A little sad, don’t you think?”

“What’s your name?”

He looked at her over the rim of his glasses again. “So you can look up my number?” He took off his glasses and set them down with his book. She smiled ruefully.

“Tell you what. I’ll give you my name if you promise not to tell me what my number is.”

“Deal.”

“…and you have to go twenty minutes without looking at any screens. You’ll sit here and have a conversation with me.”

“Deal,” she said, amused.

“My name is David Wilburrough. Age sixty-four. I think I’m still the only Wilburrough this old,” he chuckled.

She pulled out her phone, popped open the app, and quickly found one sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. His rank was 53,267. She stared at him wide-eyed. The phone remained in her hand.

“No,” he caught her before she could say anything. “A promise is a promise. Now put that away and tell me about your interview.”

She put her phone away and, to keep her word, put her smartwatch in her purse as well. “You aren’t the least bit curious?”

He smiled. “If I gave into any curiosity now, I’d be caught back up in the game in no time. I’m fine how I am. Now, about that interview.”

“They didn’t seem much interested to be honest.”

“No one seems interested in anything when their eyes are glued to the screens in front of them.”

“How’d you know they were using tablets?”

“I didn’t. I just assumed. It seems everyone uses them nowadays. If I were you, I’d just wait for the decision to be made before torturing yourself with the possibilities of what they think. You can’t read minds, and worry won’t change a thing.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Usually is. I find reading helps.” He lifted the book as he said it. “Helps keep your mind away from the worry without adding to it. Do you read?”

She had to seriously think about the last time she read a book. “I used to,” she finally answered.

“Never too late to pick it back up.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You can begin with this.” He offered her his book.

“I couldn’t.”

“You can. I’ve read it several times already, and I have another copy at home. It’s one of my favorites. Take it. You might find something useful in it.”

She reluctantly took the well-worn book and offered her thanks.

“I know it’s only been about ten minutes, but I actually need to be on my way. My granddaughter’s birthday party is this afternoon and I can’t be late. How about you start that book to keep yourself from checking your phone for the rest of your promised time?”

She smiled. “A promise is a promise. It was nice meeting you David.”

“The pleasure was mine…um…” he smiled in a poor attempt to hide his embarrassment.

“Jennifer,” she offered, “Jennifer Whitley.”

He nodded to her and tried again. “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Whitley. Enjoy the book.” With those words he scampered off.

“Have fun at the birthday party,” she called after him.

She was alone again and had to resist from checking her phone. She opened the book and flipped through the pages until she found Chapter 1.

She read for a long time before she was interrupted by a ringing from her purse. She pulled her phone out to see it was her sister calling. Jennifer assumed she would ask about the interview and didn’t want to talk about it just yet, so she silenced the ringer and returned to the book. She found she couldn’t focus on the pages anymore and quickly gave up and put the book in her purse.

She checked her phone again. Her own number hadn’t changed, but she was more curious about the rank of sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. She quickly found him again and noticed his rank had shot up by over two thousand. She wanted to go find him and tell him the good news. Then she remembered he didn’t know his rank and didn’t want to. He would never know that he was in the top fraction of a percent in the entire world. She was sad for him but also inspired. He lived his life exactly as he wanted to. He probably never believed himself to be better than anyone. Perhaps that was what made him better than everyone.

Jennifer rose from the park bench and started her walk back to her apartment. She called her sister on the way to fill her in on the interview. She never checked her watch as she spoke with her sister. She didn’t check her rank after she got home and made dinner or even afterwards when she started reading instead of watching TV. All the while, her rank slowly increased as time ticked by.

Prototype

Mathias followed his detector over the ridge of scrap to find the target, but it was not what he expected. Before him wasn’t a Viper II or a Leo IV, it was a small shell rummaging through the junk pile. It was one he didn’t recognize, which put him on edge instantly, but there was something about the machine that he couldn’t quite place. It was the strangest sight he had seen in a long time. Perhaps that is why he didn’t kill it right away. Instead, he chose to observe it. Gathering intel on new series was vital in any scenario. The little machine hadn’t noticed him and his detector hadn’t picked up anything else in the area.

Byron caught up to him and quietly readied his rifle putting the small machine in his sights. Mathias placed a hand on the gun and shook his head. Byron gave him a quizzical look and Mathias pulled a comm unit from his pack and typed a message.

‘Never seen this model before. Observe.’

Byron took the unit and typed a message back: ‘Copy. New series?’

Mathias shrugged. Whatever it was, he was sure it wasn’t good. They watched it for an hour before Byron messaged Mathias he was going to rest for a bit and to wake him should anything happen. He retreated down the scrap-heap a few steps and found a comfortable piece to rest on. With his dirt stained jacket and boots, he blended into the rusted landscape. Mathias could feel the grime coating his own clothes and knew he was also invisible to the human eye as long as he remained still. He even thought he might be invisible to the scanning eyes of the machines as well. He smirked at the thought, knowing that such thinking would surely get him killed. He checked his detector again to make sure no other machines were nearby.

He observed the little machine for another hour. The entire time the little machine was simply digging through the scraps. Mathias began to wonder what it could be looking for, or if it even knew what it was doing. Perhaps it had malfunctioned. It stood at roughly three feet, had a spherical head, bulky rectangular body with large square feet underneath, and thin, hydraulic arms that were so disproportionate that it almost suggested it wasn’t constructed to hunt humans. This thought scared Mathias into shouldering his rifle. He intended to observe the machine a little longer before making it a permanent addition to the scrap piles. But, he thought, if it is malfunctioning, perhaps we could capture it for analysis.

Linda would go crazy for an operational unit to plug into. She was always asking for one. Complaining that they could never bring her anything intact. Stating she could learn more from a live unit than one thousand fried ones. Maybe today was her lucky day.

The little unit stopped rummaging and held a thin piece of metal in its similarly thin fingers. It brought the piece in front of its lenses and scrutinized it. Then the machine let out a laugh that made Mathias freeze. Adrenaline rushed through his body but he remained frozen. He had never in his twenty-four years scavenging heard a machine make such a noise. Mathias kept his eyes glued to the unit below as it giggled again. Then it held the piece of metal aloft and swung it through the air.

The arm moved in a swift, flicking pattern and the box-shaped unit stepped forward. “Fight me you coward.” The words emitted from the spherical head. Mathias almost open fired when he heard the them but soon realized the words were not directed at him. They didn’t seem to be directed at anything. The little unit giggled again, then swung the metal shard through the air. “You cannot beat me,” it echoed. Mathias dropped his rifle and stared at the machine.

Byron was beside him once again. The noise had surely stirred him from his nap. They were used to only the wind when scavenging on the surface. Anything else usually meant a tracker hunting them down, which meant a fight.

‘What is it doing?’ Byron typed into the comm unit.

‘It seems to be’ Mathias paused, thinking for the right word, then typed, ‘playing.’

Byron gave him the confused look he was expecting. A look that could not hide the tinge of fear.

The little unit kept swishing the thin piece of metal through the air and talking to itself randomly. Then they heard the rattle of a tracker through the rubble. It had a distinct sound. Metal on metal as it raced over and through the scrapyard. They both instantly shouldered their rifles. Mathias peeked at the detector. His eyes fixated on the screen as the noise rumbled in his ears. Finally, a green dot appeared from the north. A tag appeared next to the dot. Leo IV. Mathias nudged Byron and showed him the screen. Byron nodded and they both readied their rifles to the north. A Leo was too quick to outrun. They would have to destroy it.

Mathias glanced down at the little unit then had to look again. It was looking toward the north also, but had placed its thing arms atop its head and was rapidly moving from side to side, as if it were quivering.

He looked back toward the approaching Leo. He could see the landscape shifting, bulging as the hunting machine made its way through the sea of metal. It was nearly upon them. Mathias felt lucky the Leo had to exit the scrap in front of them and into the small valley where the unit was playing. Lucky that they had high ground.

The raging machine burst forth from the pile of rubble and was aimed directly at the small, quivering unit below. To Mathias, the next few seconds seemed to extend themselves allowing him to see and assess everything. What he saw was the Leo unit emerging from the scrap pile in front of the small unit. It was already swinging one of its large paw-like limbs. Mathias knew too well the force behind such a swing. He’d once seen a man get caught by one and it had cut through the man’s waist as if it were simply air. The swing would have cut right through a human’s chest, but was too high and missed the little unit. The Leo soared past it. As it skid across the dirt and readied itself to leap again and destroy the little unit, Mathias open fired. Byron quickly followed suit and they were able to destroy it before it was able to fully change its momentum. It fell to the ground and became another fixture among the scrap.

He turned his attention to the little unit, which was now looking at them.

“Quickly,” Mathias risked a whisper, “gather what you can from the Leo.”

Byron looked at him and nodded toward the little unit.

Mathias nodded and gestured Byron toward the still smoking Leo. They both descended the ridge of metal and parted ways at the bottom. Byron toward his objective, and Mathias toward the little unit.

He slowed as he neared the boxy figure. The lenses in the sphere followed his movements. He noticed the unit was still quivering slightly.

“What are you?” Mathias whispered. He looked around them to make sure nothing else moved nearby. “Answer quietly,” he added.

The little unit stopped quivering. “Are you a scavenger?” it said.

“Quiet,” Mathias whispered sternly, then answered, “yes, we are scavengers. You know about us?” He couldn’t help but shake a feeling of dread welling in his gut.

“Father used to speak of your kind,” it said at a slightly lower volume. It wasn’t low enough for Mathias’s liking, but he let it continue. “You are fighting against the progress.”

Mathias pointed at the Leo, where Byron was picking through the remains, and said, “That is not progress.”

“That is what protects us,” the unit said.

“What do you mean ‘us’.”

“The real humans. The ones still working.”

“What?” Mathias caught himself from raising his voice. “How can you count yourself among the humans beyond the wall?”

“You mean within the wall? Of course.”

“But,” Mathias couldn’t understand, “How? You aren’t even human?”

“Of course I am. I was part of the proty type test that father was in charge of. He said I would become the next type of human. The first one, and everyone else would follow me.”

Mathias felt his head spinning. The rumors were true. “How did you get out here?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” the little unit said, “I was talking to Father when they poked me. Then everything went dark. I woke up outside the wall in a pile of machines. I’ve been wandering for a few days now. I’m terribly hungry sir. Do you have any food?”

Mathias stared at the little unit. Byron had finished scavenging parts from the Leo and now stood beside him. No doubt he had heard their entire conversation. “What is it?” he whispered into Mathias’s ear.

“I don’t know, but we need to get it to Linda. It was an experiment beyond the wall.”

Byron nodded and Mathias turned back to the little unit. It stared at him with its mechanical lenses. They were void of emotion yet he couldn’t help but feel the fear and hope hiding behind them.

“Come with us,” Mathias whispered, “We have food back at our camp.”

He offered his hand to the little machine. One of its thin, metal arms reached out, hesitated, then finally took his hand. They turned and headed back up the scrap-heap. As he helped the small machine navigate the metal landscape, Mathias couldn’t help but remember his son.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Andrew.” The machine said.

“Nice to meet you Andrew,” he replied, “I’m Mathias.” He stared as the little machine struggled along with its box figure and wide, metal feet. His heart sank. He didn’t need to wait for Linda’s examination to confirm what he already knew. This little metal box contained the mind of boy. A boy who had once been human. Now trapped inside a rusting piece of metal. Used and discarded like every other piece of trash that littered the surface.

Behind the Veil

Benjamin Stratford sat down at the kitchen table and wiped sleep from his eyes. His mother, Anne, promptly set a plate of breakfast in front of him that consisted of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and a large banana-nut muffin. His favorite. His father, Daniel, was reading news on a tablet while an identical plate of food gradually grew cold in front of him. Ben grabbed a fork and dug in.

“Thanks mom,” he said between mouthfuls.

“Of course.” Anne sat down. All three of them seemed identical in age. The only thing separating her son from her husband was a short beard and a few grey strands of hair. She watched her son eat, then turned toward her husband and said, “Daniel dear, I’ve got my work orders already. It seems I’m back at it tomorrow. They don’t give us a single day to ourselves, do they?”

“What’re you talking about?” Daniel said, his face still engrossed in the screen. “You had twenty years off work.”

“Where did the time go?”

“Are you saying you want another one? They won’t let you. Not until you work at least ten years.”

“I know.”

“Work will be good for you.”

“I know, but enough about that. Today is Ben’s big day. Give him some advice Daniel.”

Daniel put down the tablet and looked at his son, who had just stuffed half a pancake in his mouth. “Good luck son. You’ll do great.” Ben grinned.

Anne rolled her eyes. “Really?”

“Hmm?” Daniel was already scrolling on the tablet.

“You’ll be late for work,” she said and pulled the tablet from his hands. Daniel got up, gave his wife a kiss on the head and left.

“He loves you.”

“Sure,” Ben said as he mopped up the remaining syrup with his last bite of pancake.

Once he popped it into his mouth, Anne grabbed the plate and set it in the sink. “Ready?” she asked.

“You don’t have to take me.”

“I know. I want to. It’s your big day. You’ll be off to work tomorrow as well. What are you hoping for?”

“I don’t know. Something easy.”

“Come on Ben. You must have some idea by now. What have you been doing these past two years?”

He shrugged.

“With that attitude, you’ll end up pushing paper like your father.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I just want you to be happy.”

They got in the transport and sat facing each other for the ride to the Academy. Everyone in his class would graduate today and move on to join the rest of the world. They would all be assigned positions in society and start working tomorrow. Tonight, in accordance with Statute 6057, he and the 49 other students will be given the procedure to halt their aging. They will become like everyone else.

Ben watched his mother looking out the window. The sunlight reflected off her pale skin. A few strands of her short hair hung across her forehead. On the outside, she seemed younger than the girls in his class. She was definitely less concerned about other people’s opinions or about following every protocol to the letter.

Ben touched the transport vidscreen and pulled up a few articles about the procedure. None of them detailed how it was done. They only suggested relaxation techniques to use prior to the event.

“How does it work?” he asked without looking up from the articles. He kept searching. Like he had the past three months. He’d only glanced through several hundred articles out of millions. He was starting to think that none of them would provide any different information.

Anne looked over at him. “What dear?”

“How does it work? The procedure?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest.”

“What was it like when you went through it?”

“I don’t remember much. I was given a shot. Then it was over.”

“That’s it?”

“I think so, but that was thirty years ago. I don’t really remember the details.”

The transport stopped and Ben continued glancing through articles until he saw his mom waving in his peripheral vision. He looked up to see she was waving back at his friend Max.

“Jeez,” he muttered. He opened the door and stepped out.

“Good luck dear,” Anne called after him.

“Bye mom,” he said as the door closed and the transport darted off.

Anne stared out the window as she was sped back to her home on the edge of the city. She was overtly aware that she had just lied to her son for the first time.

Ben headed toward the front doors and Max fell in beside him.

“Dude, your mom is a babe.”

“So is yours.”

“Dude…” Max paused, then took several large strides to catch back up. “Not cool.”

“Says the guy who greeted me by saying my mom was hot.”

“Well it’s true.”

“Shut up.”

They entered the Academy’s main hall and wound their way to the terminals where they would get their assignments for the day. They found two open that were next to each other. Ben entered his code and a small slip of paper popped out of the terminal. It was smaller than a regular schedule. He grabbed it and read: Report to Stadium Omega. He looked over to see Max staring a similarly small printout.

“What does yours say?” he asked.

“It just says go to Stadium Delta.” Max looked up at Ben.

“Mine says Omega.”

“That’s weird. Why would they split us up? The entire class can easily fit in one stadium.”

“I don’t know. You want to meet up before the ceremony and waste some time at Dizzy’s? Could be our last chance.”

“See you there as soon as I’m done with whatever this is.” Max waved the small slip of paper.

“Good luck,” Ben said before heading off toward his own designation.

It only took him about ten minutes to get to Stadium Omega. It was similar in shape to the other Stadiums at the Academy, but it was mainly used for music concerts, which Ben found strange since he barely passed the basic required courses and never touched a musical instrument again.

As he stepped inside, he saw a lone chair sitting in the center of the stadium. Next to it was a table where two men in medical scrubs were conversing. One of them saw him enter and motioned toward his friend who turned around and waved Ben over.

“Good morning,” the larger man said, “You must be Ben. My name is Peter. I’ll be administering your shot today. Garrett will be assisting me. He is completing his training. I hope you don’t mind. Have a seat.”

Peter gestured toward the chair. Ben didn’t say anything but complied. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but Peter started talking again.

“This will only take a few minutes. Garrett, would you mind prepping young Ben.”

Garrett walked over and lifted the sleeve of Ben’s left arm and wiped the skin down with some chemical that left the spot cold. It gradually grew numb. Peter turned back toward Ben. He had a syringe in one had.

“This will only take moment,” Peter said before inserting the needle. He pushed the shot into Ben’s arm, then withdrew it. Garrett pressed a cotton ball to the area the needle vacated and taped it to the skin.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Garrett smiled.

“No,” Ben forced himself to reply, “So I’m free to go?”

“We just need to observe you for ten minutes,” Peter said, “Garrett will check your vitals a few times to make sure everything is okay. Then you are free to go.”

“Okay, but….but….” Ben slipped into unconsciousness before he could finish his sentence.

“That was quick,” Garrett said casually.

“Good. I hate waiting for it to kick in. Open the arena and I’ll hook him up.”

Garrett went back to the table, which was actually a large interface, and booted up Stadium Omega. The stadium’s walls and floor opened and a large mechanical apparatus assembled itself in the middle of what had been the music hall. Peter grabbed a pair of shears from a table full of surgical tools as it rose from the floor. He cut away Ben’s clothing until Ben was fully nude. Then he pulled two of the apparatus’s arms down and fitted them around Ben’s wrists.

“Lift him.”

Garrett fiddled with the interface and Ben was lifted out of the chair. Peter fitted two more arms to Ben’s ankles.

“Good to go.”

Garrett typed in the sequence and Ben was lifted higher while the remaining thirty-eight mechanical arms whizzed around him, scanning every molecule as his unconscious body was manipulated into every possible position it could form.

Peter and Garrett watched nonchalantly.

“What are you doing after this?” Garrett asked.

“I don’t know. I might check out the new holo-film across town. I hear they’ve created a new environment program that utilizes the theater so you actually feel like you are there without physically plugging in.”

“Interesting. They showing anything good?”

“Not sure.”

The apparatus finished scanning Ben’s body and lowered him back onto the chair.

“What do you want?” Peter asked.

“I don’t care.”

“You played assistant today, so you pick.”

“Fine. I’ll take the head.”

Garrett grabbed a bone saw from the table full of surgery equipment. Peter removed the chair from underneath Ben since the machine held him in a sitting position. Garrett stepped behind the floating body and began cutting into the skull. He pulled the scalp away and tossed it to the floor away from the operating area. One of the arms of the apparatus picked up the biological matter. Another scanned it before the first disposed of it while a third arm wiped the blood from the area. Garrett then pulled away a large section of the skull and threw it across the stadium where it was swept up by the apparatus. He cut as much away as he could until on the base remained. Then he stepped away.

Peter stepped in and began cutting at the base of the spine. He removed sections of skin and muscle as he worked his way upward until the spine was fully exposed. He was careful not to sever any vital nerves.

“Scan,” Peter said, and Garrett tapped the interface. The apparatus used several arms to scan the exposed spine and open nerves.

“Scan complete. All nerves accounted for.” Garrett announced.

Peter then proceeded to cut the nerves and everything else. Blood pooled underneath Ben’s floating, unconscious body. Arms weaved in and out wiping up blood around Peter’s legs as he worked. He switched with Garrett about halfway through. Garrett continued the work until the spine was completely separated from the body.

“Grip,” Garrett called. An arm came down and Garrett inserted it between what remained of the skull and Ben’s brain. He fitted a clamp to the top of the spine, inspected his work, then looked over at Peter. “Initiate.”

Peter typed in a sequence and the apparatus pulled the body away. The brain and spine hung in place as the now empty vessel was taken away to be scanned and disposed. Arms raced around the room cleaning up the biological matter until it was spotless. The brain and spine, what remained of Benjamin Stratford, hung in the center of the stadium. Blood dripped evenly from the tip of the coccyx. Each drop wiped away milliseconds after hitting the floor. They waited. Each wondering how long it would take.

The apparatus whirred into motion. Body parts were being pulled out from hidden compartments. Freshly made mechanical pieces. 8,468 pieces were assembled in front of the floating brain and spine. Within minutes, a replica of Ben had been created.

“Lace him up,” Garrett said.

Peter made his way over to the new body and, working from the bottom up, began attaching each nerve ending to its corresponding mechanical counterpart. It was tedious work. Hours passed before he finished.

“Cap him,” he said tiredly.

Garrett got up and traded places with Peter. He slowly merged the spine and brain, now fully connected to the fabricated body, until the brain nestled into its new home. He carefully closed the skull compartment and ruffled the synthetic hair for good luck. It was a routine he picked up as he learned the job. He entered the final sequence and the apparatus completed the process by scanning the new body one last time. Garrett placed the chair beneath Ben’s new body before the arms pulled away and disappeared behind the walls and floor. The stadium was once again what it had always been. One of fifty places within the Academy that held school events.

“Okay. Wake him up,” Garrett said.

Peter stepped up to the only table in the room. The interface had gone dark. He pulled a second syringe from it and went over to Ben. He injected the shot into Ben’s arm and Garrett placed a cotton ball over the area and taped it there.

Ben’s eyes fluttered open. He looked around. He squinted in the light. “What happened?”

“You passed out there for a few hours Ben,” Peter explained, “It’s common and nothing to worry about. The shot is a shock to the system. About eighty percent of people go into a hibernation mode for a while as the solution goes to work.”

“How does it work? What does it do?”

“That’s classified I’m afraid. Even we don’t know, but you need to run along. You wouldn’t want to miss your job assignment.”

Garrett came over and handed him a slip of paper. He took it and looked it over. It read: Report to Ceremony Hall. 

Ben left Stadium Omega with a dull headache and a metallic taste in his mouth. He made his way to the Ceremony Hall. He walked in to find several of his classmates already there. Many of the viewing seats in the hall were filled with parents. All of them the same age as he was. He looked over the crowd of people who could easily be his peers. He found his mom waving to him. He waved back and took his seat to wait for the remainder of his class to join them. The entire time he waited, he couldn’t help but think about the procedure. He couldn’t remember anything after the shot. Just like his mom had said, but something in him wondered how it worked. For the first time since entering the Academy, he hoped he would be given a job in Research. Where he could find the answers no one else seemed to wonder about.