Chapter 2: Everything
Guides in their energy form captivated him.
They glittered like stars, even in a bright room, their energy zipping like comets every time they moved. So many colors—red, green, blue, gold—turned the most depressing place into a light show worth taking the time to watch.
Science. The entire phenomenon added up to science.
Tarek stood at the glass wall in front of the training center, forgetting the reasons why the beauty existed. Guides held his rapt attention, as they always had.
On the right side of the enormous room, Guides lay on levitating cots while an instructor strolled between the rows, her lips moving with direction Tarek couldn’t hear. But he didn’t need to hear to know what she said. The Synod held secrets from Guides not matriculated into the program—like how to separate energy from the body. Once her lips stopped moving, each of her students seemingly fell into a trance as their energy surged from their mouths.
Seconds later, the room transformed into a multi-colored sun. Those lights would one day have the power to absorb energies from other worlds and redistribute it. Exemplian privilege at its best.
Four advanced students sat along the far wall, strapped to chairs. Energy floated above them while they struggled, their mouths agape in screams. Guide energy in its truest form was almost toxic to other Guides. The static crinkling in their heads during a normal encounter—that built-in homing device—magnified by thousands.
Tarek empathized with them, their training intense. Some Guides described the feeling of energy separating from the body as flesh ripping from bone.
Thankfully, he had it easier. Unlike Guides, Protectors could perform their ability, opening dimension lines and traveling through them, as soon as they were old enough to lift their hands in the air. Yet, ending up in a safe place wasn’t a guarantee for the untrained, some worlds so low on the evolutionary scale that humans couldn’t survive the elements.
That thought shifted Tarek’s attention to the other side of the room. Mateusz sat in the middle of a small circle of Protectors, teaching them how to read coordinates and convey that information to their fingers. The atmosphere crackled and split above students’ fingertips, most with their eyes squeezed shut in concentration.
Tarek shook his head, avoiding the reflection of his younger face on the wall. He braved a single glance, right before he left his dorm this morning: blond hair without any silver, gray eyes no longer dull, smooth skin without a hint of wrinkles, strong jaw. His revitalized face another gift from science, exactly like the bursting sun in the training center.
Sometimes knowing all the secrets wasn’t worth the responsibility that came with it.
Mateusz glanced up, catching Tarek’s stare. The older Protector waved, and then spoke a few words to his students. All hands came down, the coordinates blinked off, and the atmosphere closed, leaving the Guides’ energy ghosting above. After one last instruction, Mateusz exited the training center, the open door allowing the screams from the restrained Guides to follow him out.
Tarek’s mentor was almost a foot shorter than his six and a half feet, with a slight frame. Yet, Mateusz’s small stature was a lie. He was one of the best Protectors in the ERP, hence his advancement to overseer.
“You look fit, old friend.” Mateusz smiled, rocking on his heels.
Tarek grinned, his mood lighter since Farren gave him a purpose, one that would begin today. “Fit enough, I guess. Ah…thank you, by the way.”
“You deserve the chance.” Mateusz paused, clearing his throat. “Let’s get on with it, then. Big day for you.” He headed for the Creation Lab, Tarek right behind him. “Kendal sends her love. She wants to see you after your Pairing. No excuses.”
Kendal was Mateusz’s woman. Beautiful, kind, and had treated Tarek like a son when he first came into the program. She still did after all these years and through two lives of her own.
“I’ll make it a priority,” Tarek said. His heart rate accelerated the closer they came to the hydro-lift. She’d be there, in the lab. His purpose.
No last name existed in her file—none that he could find, anyway.
The lift descended deeper into the authority building, where most branches of the Synod had headquarters. The middle floors housed lower-level Synod members—Tarek’s home since his mother offered him into the program. Most left housing after second or third cycles to live somewhere else in Cynosure, the capital, needing an escape from everyday Synod life. For Tarek, Synod life was all that existed.
As they glided downward, Tarek peered at his oldest friend. “Who are her parents?”
“Pardon?” Mateusz slipped off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with the edge of his shirt. He had refused to correct his vision, always saying the one imperfection made him feel human.
“Her parents. No one is listed in the file you sent.”
“Oh, yes, well…odd story, that one.” Mateusz put his glasses back on.
Silence. He ended the conversation as if Tarek hadn’t asked a question. A tactic Mateusz used often when evading a topic.
Not this time.
“I won’t stop asking,” Tarek said, his voice soft. No need to be combative, as that would seal Mateusz’s lips tighter than a locked door. Something he’d learned over the years.
Mateusz viewed the happenings on each passing floor as if he’d never witnessed the activity, still silent.
“Mateusz? Please. I’ve a right to know.”
The older man sighed, his thin shoulders slumping.
Yes! Seeing that familiar body language never grew old. Tarek won the silent battle, a feat not too often accomplished.
“She’s from Heterodox,” Mateusz said. “At least, her parents are—were—citizens there.”
Mateusz could have jabbed him in the chin and the surprise wouldn’t have been as strong. Heterodox citizens giving up their child, a miracle, to the government they despised? Unheard of. At least he now understood Lena’s missing last name. Having no surname wasn’t uncommon amongst the Heterodox population.
Tarek gripped the railing to keep his watery knees from collapsing. “Are you certain?”
“Never more certain of anything in my life.” Mateusz offered him a weak smile. “We were shocked, to say the least.”
“They… She… Why?” A coherent sentence failed to escape his mouth.
“They wanted freedom. What better way to gain it than sacrificing a new life to service?” Mateusz’s gaze focused on the lift’s transparent wall. “Both were only in their first cycles. Just…a peculiar decision for Exemplians so young.”
“They bargained with their child?” Tarek asked. Stupid question, since the answer was obvious. The only chance a Heterodox citizen had at leaving Exemplar was offering their services in the beginning of a new cycle, or bartering with the Synod. Both decisions ultimately lead to a clean break from this world.
Mateusz nodded. “They have already been assigned a home in Abrogation, and their aging process hastened.”
Of course they would go to Abrogation, the sector where retired Synod members went when they chose to leave Exemplar for good. No more scientific intervention, no more attempts to keep the body young. Old age, death, and then energy transport by a Guide to a world of their choosing.
“They didn’t ask for time in Cynosure? Time to spend with their child before training starts?”
“No.” Mateusz hesitated. “They were given the option, but declined.”
Tarek had nothing left to ask, too stunned.
Finally—finally—the lift stopped. The Creation Lab, which took the entire floor, consisted of white: white walls, white floors, white hallways leading to white doors, white computer systems, Exemplians in white robes working at white desks. Only three weeks had passed since his last trip here. Not long enough. All that white invaded his sleep every night, until he went blind with the memory of it.
Breathing became impossible, his lungs protesting every time he attempted to pull in air. The lab’s colorlessness wasn’t what turned his lungs to stones, though. He had never seen an Exemplian under the age of six. And now he’d be Paired with an infant.
His mouth went dry. “I’ve never—what if she doesn’t take to me?”
“She’s a babe, only a few months old.”
Tarek stepped back into the lift. “Who will care for her? I don’t know how to—”
“She has a governess.” Mateusz tipped his head toward the farthest door to the right, guarded by at least ten Protectors all wearing their protective contego suits. “You can do this. Out of everyone in this forsaken building, you can handle it.”
“I don’t want to fail her.” There. He admitted it, the niggling fear snaking through the excitement, the honor.
“And because of that, you won’t.” Mateusz stepped across the threshold. “Now…I’m going in there to see this child.” He faced Tarek. “I hope you’ll be beside me when I do.”
With Mateusz, everything turned into a challenge.
Tarek straightened his shoulders, pretended to have confidence riding his spine, and followed.
The bleeps and buzz of scanners swished around them as the machines checked their security clearances. Next came scrutiny from a high-ranking Protector, Winston Candell, who was captain of the Synod authority, one rank below the authority commander.
“State your name.” Winston drilled Tarek with his dark gaze, his tone calm.
He knew who Tarek was, but protocol was protocol. And not a soul living in this world with an ounce of sense refused a direct command from Winston Candell. “Tarek Montigue, intended Protector to Guide Lena…ah…” No last name!
Winston stared at him for a few, uncomfortable moments. Finally, the left side of his mouth curled up. “Right on, big man.”
Winston spoke low so no one else heard, but the captain’s quiet support eased Tarek’s jumping nerves. “Thank you, Captain.”
“Let the intended pass,” Winston said. To a chorus of “Yes, Captain,” he blocked Mateusz’s path. “Not you.”
Mateusz lifted his chin. “But I—”
“Not. You.” Winston shook his head, the barest hint of tattoos showing on his dark skin at the neck of his suit. He never backed down. If Mateusz tried to push the issue, he’d be against a wall, humiliated and at Winston’s mercy.
Tarek intervened before that happened. “It’s fine, Mateusz, just procedure.”
Mateusz’s cheeks burned red, but he wouldn’t lose it; he never did. “Of course. So…we’ll see you in thirty days’ time, then?”
Tarek nodded. “Tell her no parties.”
A smile leaked through Mateusz’s controlled fury. “I’ll be sure to deliver the message, my friend. And…good luck.” He returned to the lift, back ramrod straight.
Once the lift ascended, Winston moved forward. “Ready or not…”
Deep breath. “Right.” Tarek followed him to the door still surrounded by authority, their suits glowing with subtle green light. The stronger Protector pressed against the access panel, and the door opened.
Tarek almost fell to his knees.
The only people occupying another white room with two levitating beds were Creation Lab overseer, Avery Laken in her pristine, snowy robes; an old woman wearing a tattered, threadbare dress; and an infant, swaddled in a blue cloth and sleeping in her withered arms.
Despite the distance, Tarek could see the child’s face clearly. Love, instant and powerful, swelled his heart. As if she cast a spell, this tiny being, so innocent and perfect, healed parts of him that he hadn’t realized were broken. Desire to protect her seared his skin, the feeling instinctual, feral.
He wiped the corners of his mouth, and saying nothing, he moved toward her. Lena.
A distant swish, as if the door were miles away, echoed with Winston’s departure. The old woman smiled at him. She said words he barely heard, only catching “My natural beauty,” as Tarek stumbled closer. He traced a shaky finger down Lena’s cheek, her rosebud skin soft as silk.
“She’s…” What is she?
Simple answer: she was everything.
Avery moved in between him and the old woman, a plastic smile on her empty face. She always looked devastated, tired. Tarek wouldn’t wish her burden on anyone. The responsibility of overseeing Pairings, rebirth, and energy retirement would be a weight not many could stand tall under.
“Protector Tarek Montigue,” Avery said, voice flat. “Do you accept the task of protecting Guide Lena, whose surname has yet to be given, until death finds one or both?”
He held her gaze, his resolve absolute. “I do.” His voice rang clear, strong.
“And do you vow to transport her across dimension lines and protect her body while she performs her Guiding duties?”
Fear curled into his gut, prickling his skin, danger that came with the job never more acute in his mind. “I do.”
“Very well, then.” She clicked her comp stick, and a holographic deed floated in front of him. “Seal your oath.”
Tarek touched the hologram, and the deed became tangible long enough to burn his fingerprint into the document.
When it disappeared, Avery pointed to one of the beds. “Make yourself comfortable.” She then gestured to the old woman and the other bed. “Please, mistress.”
The woman placed Lena, who still slept, on the table and kissed the infant’s forehead. “Treat her well, Protector.”
“I will.” Tarek never took his gaze off his young ward as the governess left the room. New life, life this young…no, not a drug.
“Your bodies will remain in slumber as your energies meld,” Avery said. She came up to his bed and pressed circles on his temples, his forehead. The flat surfaces sent mild electric currents through his skin. The feeling was comforting, pleasant. “The process will take approximately thirty days, perhaps longer, depending on how well-matched your energies are.”
He already knew the spew; this wasn’t the first time he’d been Paired. His first and only Guide, Roderick, had been well into his sixth life with a plan for retirement. They had spent almost a hundred years together before Roderick went to Abrogation. When the Guide had died, their bond severed. The ache it caused still reminded his heart now and then.
The only new happening this time around was the potent emotion raging in his body, unlike the dutiful obligation he felt toward Roderick. This was no duty. This—this—was privilege.
Avery moved from him to Lena, pressing smaller circles to her head. “Once you both wake, you are hers, and she is yours. Do you understand?”
With every fiber of his being. “I do.”
“Good.” Avery moved toward the door. Before she slipped through the exit, she said, “Sleep well, Protector.”
Soothing currents pulsed from the circles on his head, sending magic throughout his entire body. His eyes grew heavy, but he forced them to stay open, watching Lena sleep. After a few moments, no matter how hard he fought against it, oblivion began to win the fight over awe.
Then she opened her eyes, renewing his desire to stay awake. Her dark gaze studied him as he admired her.
“Hello, little one.”
She burbled and fussed until the circles attached to her soft skin lulled her back to sleep.
Before he followed her lead, one last thought resonated in his mind: Everything.