Death would pass.
He had to believe it.
He had no choice.
Tarek stared at his hands. No more wrinkles, no more age spots. Two hundred twenty-three years erased, leaving his skin taut, flawless. Except for tiny scars scattered on his fingers. They let him keep those imperfections after he had insisted on his deathbed. Those thin, white lines an assurance he was still himself.
He clenched his hands into fists, digging his jagged nails into his palms. The Exemplian decree—two sentences drilled into the head of every man, woman, and occasional child—stabbed his brain, refusing to let up:
We are the privileged, made of the strongest energies known to exist. All Exemplians—Protectors and Guides alike—are humanity’s saviors, bestowed the honor of ensuring the human race survives across dimensions.
The only explanation Exemplians were entitled to know, according to Synod elders, Exemplar’s leading government branch. He didn’t understand how Creation Lab scientists brought people back. No one really did. “Science” was the answer given to anyone who asked.
But living again… Rebirth screwed with the mind more than death ever could.
His bunk, floating and as comfortable as a cloud, bounced every time he shifted with the urge to view his younger face. Just two feet to the imaging screen. Two long, endless feet. He hadn’t looked at his reflection yet, not in the three weeks since they brought him back. He appeared eighteen again, one scientist had said with a proud smile. Eighteen.
Synod authority wouldn’t allow him to wallow in his dorm forever.
Exemplians weren’t monsters, though; even those in charge understood how the mind fractured after rebirth. But they wouldn’t give him much longer. One month. They granted thirty days to come to terms with prior life and acclimate to the new one.
He wouldn’t take more time, even if his mind remained broken. Heterodox, the sector for Exemplar’s sullied, was his only other option. Demotion to that place meant no end. Same life until living ate away the very essence, turning a person into nothing but a breathing shell. Not working in some capacity for the Synod resulted in no chance to earn retirement from Exemplar, have his energy redistributed to another world to start over, forget all of this. A brand new existence elsewhere.
Death will pass…
If only it would pass faster.
A polite chime tinkled through his room. “Protector Tarek Montigue, you have a visitor.” His comp’s voice, the soft feminine tone he programmed to sound similar to his mother, invaded his depression.
“Who?” he asked. His own voice stunned him as it had when he first opened his eyes again. Not weak or watery, but strong, young, just as he remembered in youth during his last cycle—in his first life.
“Protector Farren Anders is requesting permission for entry.”
Farren. The boy who matriculated into the ERP, Energy Redistribution Program, at six, and then grew into the noblest, most genuine man Tarek had the pleasure of knowing. Most annoying, too. This would count as the twentieth time Farren had tried to come to him since his rebirth. Tenacious bastard.
Farren wouldn’t go away. And Tarek couldn’t hide forever.
He rubbed his face, the surprise of his smooth skin enough to cause his hands to shake. Eighteen… “Permission granted.”
“Very well, Protector.”
A second after his comp system complied, his door swooshed open to reveal the big, redheaded pain in the ass. Fuzz entered Tarek’s brain, like white noise, as it always did when Protectors were near one another. Guides detected each other in the same way, like a built-in homing device for those who shared the same abilities.
Still in his first life, Farren was about seventy, or close to it. But his face resembled a teen just out of puberty with unblemished skin not yet requiring a razor. No one from Exemplar kept track of birthdays. Another “privilege.” Age was inconsequential. Exemplians had resources to keep the body spry for much longer than humans living in other dimensions.
“Well, look at you, brother, not a death virgin now. Guess I can’t call you ‘old man’ anymore.” Farren sauntered across the threshold to slouch in the levitating chair opposite Tarek’s bunk. “Was it bad? I mean, is it as shitty as everyone says?”
Tarek tried to muster enough enthusiasm to smile. Death will pass. “Yes…to both of your questions.”
“Yeah, ah, sorry for that.”
Silence floated in the space between them, with only the soft hum of constant blips and ticks that came with high technology. Both men so obviously tried to find something to say. Neither succeeding.
Finally, Farren grinned. “You look good. Ladies aren’t going to see you as their grandfather now. Best get ready for some attention.”
“That’s the last worry I have at the moment.” Tarek gripped the edge of his bed. Faking normal wasn’t easy. Just one more week. Sleep. Stare at the wall and allow the black free rein over his mind. He had one more week.
“You say that now…” Farren wriggled his brows. “Anyway, are you still planning to mentor?” Farren’s grin disappeared and challenge lit his brown eyes. “Or are you going to practice all that stuff you preached to us and go back into the field?”
“I haven’t really thought about it.”
Tarek had spent the last hundred or so years mentoring Protectors in the ERP on how to cross dimension lines safely, read coordinates, handle their Guides…traverse all the confusion that came with “privilege.”
But to be Paired with a Guide again and redistribute human energy—souls, as others from different worlds described it—across dimensions?
Teaching was one thing. Practicing it turned into an entirely different animal.
He pushed from the bed and stretched, his body aching from hours of immobility. First stop, food. Next, who really knew? Should he go back into the field?
Hell, could he?
“I happened to have intel that might persuade you to get back into the game,” Farren said, interrupting another awkward silence. “Be the great Tarek Montigue we all read about in our histories.”
Tarek turned from his food hydrator to see Farren’s somber expression. Or was it sympathy? Worry? Finding the student pitying the teacher sat like stones in the gut. “I was never great at anything,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Disagree.” Farren leaned forward. “Do you want to hear it?”
“Have you listened to anything I’ve said?” Farren stood, solemnity replaced with fervor, his pale, freckled face bright with it. “Something…huge has happened.”
Tarek’s body jolted as if someone had pumped his nervous system full of adrenaline. Excitement. A welcomed shock. Most Exemplians far into first cycles and beyond rarely cracked a smile, or found anything disappointing. Life became predictable for most, stagnant.
Privilege. Even thinking the word created a sour taste on his tongue.
But one occurrence remained a mystery that gave the heart a punch and reminded the brain that life had its merits. “A new energy,” Tarek said.
New energy, a first cycle of life, was an event that hardly ever transpired in this frustratingly perfect world. According to scientists, evolution made it harder to bring life into Exemplar since people tended to live over and over again. To birth a child carrying new energy inside and no knowledge of prior lives…a miracle at its most basic, extraordinary level.
Farren was a first-cycled new energy. Second- and third-cycled Guides flocked to him, begging to be Paired with the Protector. Farren chose his Guide himself—the day Tarek deemed him ready to cross lines. Tarek barely remembered the beginning of his own first cycle, but the anticipation more than likely felt by multi-cycled Exemplians then probably mirrored the exhilaration he experienced now.
“Yes, exactly, born only three months ago. And…” Farren stepped forward. “She’s a Guide.”
If Farren acted this enthusiastic, she was an infant Guide already inducted into the ERP. An irregularity, for certain. Parents didn’t usually offer their children for service until the age of six when the rare birth happened. Exemplians usually volunteered for the program at the start of their second cycle, a first life in Heterodox enough of a nightmare to want something more.
But the new Guide would need Paired with a Protector she could learn from, and then travel across world lines with once she was ready to collect energy.
Yes, she’d need someone.
Someone like him.
His heart raced, the breakfast he hydrated seconds ago forgotten. “I…I don’t think—”
“Mateusz put your name in the hat, man.” Mateusz Fuchs happened to be the ERP’s overseer—and Tarek’s mentor when his mother offered him into the program as a boy. “Rumors say elders have agreed with him.”
Sweat dribbled down Tarek’s temples and soaked his thin shirt. “I…ah…”
“Tarek?” Farren set a hand on Tarek’s shoulder and met his gaze. Even though the now technically older Protector was tall and broad-shouldered, Tarek towered over him by at least four inches and overshadowed him in width, especially with this younger body. “You understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes. Yes, I understand.” Nothing in this world was as addicting as being near the chaos and light and vitality of new life. A drug, really. No word in the Exemplian language even compared to that sort of euphoric glow one felt when near it. People wrote stories about it, even created songs and holographic art.
“So? You’ll do it, right? Show all of us you’re worthy of the pedestal?”
“I didn’t ask for the position.” Tarek moved away and snatched a piece of toast from the hydrator, only to throw it down on the table beside the machine. “Never wanted it.” His heart expanded, almost hurting. Thump, thump, thump.
“Whether you asked for it or not, the position’s yours. Now the elders are rewarding you. Don’t tell me—hey, you’re not really thinking about saying no, are you?”
Tarek analyzed the crumbs on the table, the bits creating a haphazard, abstract pattern. His stomach twisted, shrank. Death will pass.
Then it did, like fog dispersing with the midmorning sun. This infant, this new energy, shocked his system enough to get it to work again. He kept his gaze on that crumb pattern, his insides on fire, electric zinging through his veins. “I would never say no to such an honor,” he said, his voice quiet on the outside. Inside, a scream reverberated back and forth, his brain dull from the noise.
A loud hoot filled the dorm, causing a smile to sneak to Tarek’s lips. Yes, Farren still knew how to live. The main reason they became close years ago. “Well, holy shit, brother!” Farren said. “You know what this means?”
Tarek faced his closest friend, a brow raised, his skin tingling. “Enlighten me.”
Another hoot, louder this time.
Farren brought Tarek in for a quick hug, clapping his back so hard the action no doubt would leave marks, and said, “It’s time for you to come back