Chapter 5: Glitches
More than my Guide.
Tarek’s brain replayed those four words for the past week, awake or asleep.
Redheaded, observant jackass.
Farren had to voice it—bring truth into the open and air it out. Make Tarek think about Lena more than he already did. He noticed how she twirled her hair while studying live satellite feeds from other worlds, biting her lip in concentration.
How she picked over the peas in her stew as they talked about nothing important in the cafeteria.
How her smile made his heart lurch when she spoke to others in the hallways or during training, always willing to give her complete attention to anyone asking for it.
Now wasn’t the time.
Lena sat next to him in Mateusz’s sparse office, her chin held high as she pretended not to be nervous. So brave, even when the next few minutes could bring them closer to death. Assignments remained confidential until the moment before a scheduled leave. Another rule unexplained. Another rule everyone followed without question.
Everyone, except Lena.
“This is insane,” she said to no one in particular. “Wouldn’t it make sense to tell us earlier, give us a chance to prepare?”
Tarek said nothing, his leg bouncing overtime.
“I must follow the rules just as everyone else,” Mateusz said, his face ashen and pinched. “And you will not be sent to any world not yet covered in your studies, I assure you.”
“That doesn’t answer the question, sir.” Lena subtly placed a hand on Tarek’s bouncing knee, calming his nervous tic. Where he was ready to leap from his chair, she kept her head—the usual lately.
“It’s a question I can’t answer.” Mateusz laced his fingers together and rested them on his desk, his gaze drifting to a hologram of Kendal smiling and tucking hair behind her ear. “I wish I could. I wish I knew where you were going.” He shook his head, and added, “I wish you had more training.”
Tarek’s temper almost snapped, but the last thing he needed to do was grip Mateusz up. Assaulting the ERP’s overseer would only make their situation worse. “We’re going because of you.”
Weariness dulled Mateusz’s eyes. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying”—Tarek leaned forward, his finger inches from his supposed friend’s face—”you agreed to this. You.”
“Agreed to it, yes.” Mateusz stood from behind his desk to stare out the glass wall giving a clear view of Cynosure bustle. “But…” He left his sentence to linger.
“Why?” Tarek’s fingers clenched the chair’s metal armrests so tight, his nails bent with the effort.
Mateusz bowed his head, quiet for a moment. Then, “I don’t have much choice but to agree with the woman.” He turned to Tarek. “Cassondra is my superior, too, my friend. When she demands, I must comply.”
Lena cleared her throat, her fingers now squeezing his overactive leg. “Like agreeing to send Guides to collect bad energy in Andor…in exchange for giving good?”
Mateusz flinched. “She has the elders’ approval.” He pushed his glasses up with the tip of his index finger, his gaze returning to outside happenings. “I can’t deny her anymore on that than I can on this.”
Brilliant. Just perfect.
“She’s a monster,” Lena said, her voice low as if she feared her words had the power to escape the room and find Cassondra’s ears.
Tarek said nothing to disagree with her. Cassondra was a monster, a human being who forgot empathy, compassion…a basic respect for life. He watched the hovercraft traffic zipping past the glass wall with Mateusz, gauging what little normalcy Exemplar possessed. People had to work, had to shop for food, clothes, tools to replace tools no longer working. Normal, seemingly just like any other world he’d been to where people lived for the sake of living.
Yet, one huge difference existed between Exemplar and the rest of the universe: other worlds believed they had one chance to be all they could. It would’ve been nice to experience that kind of urgent normalcy. Always living because dying never ran too far behind. What a lie.
A polite ding filled the pregnant silence filtering into the room, and Mateusz strode to his comp system. “Your orders,” he said, hitting a button.
Tarek’s normal: orders, all the time, life after life.
Cassondra’s hologram appeared, as translucent as the woman’s skin. Her languid gaze touched everyone in the room, stopping on Lena. “You will be going to Empyrean. Energy you deem worthy will come here.” No niceties, no false politeness, just straight-to-the-point commands.
Tarek sighed, his body loose with relief. Empyrean was Exemplar’s sister world, almost as highly evolved. Lena relaxed beside him, too, her shoulder slumping against his. He looked down at her and winked, causing her to smile as she mouthed, See?
Okay, so all the hours coming up with contingency plans if things went bad, the dark nights allowing anxiety to show him a slew of what-ifs, summed up to zilch. Not a bad thing at all.
Until the damn woman opened her mouth again. “And the energy you declare unfit for Exemplian life will be discarded in Andor.”
Tarek stiffened. “You’re serious?”
He kept his voice even, using every ounce of willpower to remain stoic. She controlled who went where. A pissed off Dimension Development overseer equaled a trip to a shitty world.
“I’m always serious, Protector.” She nodded to Mateusz, her hologram flickering. “See that they receive the coordinates I’ve sent you.” She clicked off before Tarek could utter another word.
“It’ll be fine,” Lena said. “It’s just distribution, not collection. Everything will be fine.”
Tarek heaved as logic warred with fear. Scientific glitch number one: a Guide’s body had to be present in the world they collected from. And Lena would be collecting from Empyrean, not Andor. So even though she would have to send “unfit” energy to Andor, only her energy would be dropping it off, her body safe with him in Empyrean. The shell needed protected. A dead body couldn’t host an energy, now could it?
But still… “Cassondra’s sending innocent people to Andor,” Tarek said. “People who don’t deserve a horrid next life.”
Lena shrugged, though her grim face belied the movement. “Simple solution, I’ll send them both here anyway, safe and sound, regardless of what Cassondra wants.”
“If you deviate from orders, Cassondra will notify the authority, and you’ll be marked Tainted,” Mateusz said, his voice elevated with concern.
Panic rode up Tarek’s spine, forcing him to stand, Lena following beside him. No, not that—never that. A Tainted sentence ended in two ways: years in a cell where sadistic bastards spent hours a day making sure the traitor relived every personal fear, or execution with energy sent to a lower-evolved world. Punishment to the extreme, as only Exemplar knew how to do.
Tarek shook his head. “We won’t deviate.”
“How can Cassondra prove anything?” Lena’s body inched closer to his, as if she needed his nearness. Good thing, because he needed her close, too.
“Warden Teenesee gives only two lives during collection, one strong, and one not.” Mateusz drummed his fingers against his desk, worry straining his brow. “It’s stated as law in the treaty.”
All worlds except Exemplar had Dimension Wardens who held energy of the dead. They usually cooperated, though the amount of energy given to Guides depended on the treaties that each Warden had with Exemplar. Usually being the operative word.
“I’ve read the damn treaty. But”—she glanced up at Tarek—”there are no weak energies in Empyrean, not really.”
“I know.” Tarek scooped her into his arms, giving in to the urge to touch her, wishing it’d be enough.
“We’ll be responsible for ruining a life.” Lena burrowed closer to him, her trembling hands splayed across his chest.
“I know,” he repeated, at a loss for anything else.
Truth of the matter was Empyrean energy was just as strong as Exemplar’s. Even the frailest person’s energy could further the evolution of a world. But one was always weaker, and this time, that one innocent person would suffer a life in Andor.
And if the Warden found out Lena sent one of her people there—no, she never would. “We can’t let Teenesee know,” Tarek said.
“Smart idea.” Mateusz tapped his bottom lip, rocking back on his heels. “Wars have erupted for less.”
Histories told of world wars, and nothing but death was the outcome, hence the treaties. But knowing Empyrean’s Warden well, she’d fight for every single person in her world. Every. Single. One.
“Yes,” Tarek said, holding Lena closer. “Definitely can’t tell her.”
Lena rested her cheek against his chest, her heat hitting him in his thrumming heart. “How do we go there…and lie right to her face? I don’t thi—”
“Exactly, don’t think,” Mateusz said, sympathy clouding his face. “Please, Lena, adhere to command or face consequences, your only choice.”
“I’ll beg if I have to,” Tarek said, hunching until he was eye-level with her. He prepared to get on his knees and prove himself if necessary. “This once. We can’t fix it now.”
She studied his face, her lips pursed and eyes hard. For Lena, right and wrong was black and white. There was no in-between. Thankfully, she nodded. “This once.”
“I’ll go to the elders myself. Just don’t expect—Damn it!” Mateusz slammed a fist on his desk, closed his eyes, and then opened them, resuming the calm façade he always maintained. “Open your portal here this time.” He spit out the coordinates. “And turn on your suit before you leave.”
Before Tarek could do it himself, Lena reached under his arm and turned on his contego suit. A soft whir vibrated through his skin, assuring him no weapon of any sort, whether a bullet or an angry animal, would puncture his body.
Lena wouldn’t have it so lucky. Science glitch number two: Guides never wore suits, the protective fabric making it hard for energy to release from the body.
“Leave it on, Tarek. Promise me.” Her eyes demanded he listen.
The suit became annoying after too long, the zing to the skin causing it to feel raw—main reason why Protectors shut it off once they felt an area secure. A mistake Farren had made in Andor.
He nodded, gathering her hands in his. “Promise.”
“The sooner you leave…” Mateusz pressed a hidden button on the edge of his desk, causing the glass walls to darken. “And I promise to do what I can to stop this…this lunacy.”
“Thank you, friend.” Tarek nodded to Mateusz as the older man left the office, and then focused on Lena, her sherry eyes drowning in worry. “My turn to tell you it will be okay.”
She swallowed. “I know. It’s just… I’ve never…” She pointed up.
“Yes, well, last part of your training covers it.”
“Lot of good it does me now.” Some color came back to her cheeks as she glanced up. “Does it hurt?”
He kneaded the small of her back, loosening the tension bunching there—and creating fire against his fingertips. No. He shook his head. “Think swimming through fog. If you can jump off a hundred-foot cliff, you can travel through a portal.”
She snorted. “That easy, then?”
He smiled. “That easy.”
She slid her hands from his chest to wrap around his waist, her cheek flush against his glowing suit, torturing him in the best possible way. “I trust you.”
He had to bite his upper lip and look to the ceiling to prevent kissing the top of her head. Damn you, Farren! Damn you. He let go of her with one hand and lifted it in the air. “Ready?”
“As I can be.”
He searched his mind for the coordinates, a slight hum coursing through his body and traveling to his elevated fingertips. Once the information clicked, the atmosphere split and crackled. Air gushed from the tear as their feet left the ground.
“Don’t let go.” As soon as the warning left his mouth, the portal sucked them in. Traveling through world lines mimicked the sensation of being in a vacuum, silent and compressed. The few-second trip constricted every part of the body, but almost in a pleasant way, as if swaddled in a velvet cloth.
And just like that, they landed in paradise. Paradise as Tarek always believed it to be.
He reached behind to unclench her hands, massaging her stiff fingers as he moved back a few paces. “Lena?”
“Are we there?” She kept her eyes slammed shut. Her face so white, the veins in her forehead resembled an ancient road map.
Tarek continued his gentle assault on her fingers. “Open your eyes.”
“I…” She squeezed her eyelids tighter until the skin against her temples crinkled.
“Do you still trust me?”
“Of course I do.”
He turned her to face the villages. “Then open them.”
Slowly, Lena raised her eyelids, and gasped. “I’ve read about this place, watched satellite feed, but…” Tears brightened her eyes. “It never seemed real.”
“Exactly my reaction the first time,” Tarek said. The first time, the second, the fiftieth…
Villages hovered in the sky, dotting the landscape into infinity. Buildings sat next to each other in every town in a sort of abstract symmetry, tall and squat, muted and spectacular. Bursts of yellow, red, or green painted one, while directly beside it was a salmon-colored structure. That pattern of no pattern repeated itself over and over.
Tarek nodded toward the music wafting down to them from the closest village. “Hard to believe, but it is. Real, I mean. Sweat and muscle built these towns, and animals aren’t spliced with other species or created in labs.” He clasped her hand because at that moment, not touching her made him feel empty, as if a part of him were missing. “No book or hologram or even live satellite feed can show it properly.”
She laughed, even as tears trailed down her cheeks, catching him off guard.
“Are you all right?” he asked, stopping himself before he brought her knuckles to his lips. What’s wrong with you?
“I’m more than ‘all right.’ I’m perfect, utterly perfect for the first time ever.”
“What?” She glanced up at him, absently pulling their joined hands to her heart.
He swallowed, his attention on their hands, absorbing the sight as fervently as their connection, the touch surpassing skin and racing straight to his chest. “You’re always perfect.”
Surprise widened her watery eyes, but then she smiled, enveloping him in her color. “I… Tarek?”
“Right. Well, then…” Tarek looked away, not ready to answer her questions, whether voiced or silent. He led her toward the flesh-colored drawbridge leading to Teenesee’s keep. “Just remember we’re here to work. And”—he waved to a few farmers mining emerald stones from the fields, Empyrean’s natural power source—”I don’t know what you’ve dug up during your pilfering sessions in the archives rooms, but Teenesee isn’t exactly fond of energy collection.”
“I hardly blame her.” Lena copied his actions, smiling at unsmiling Empyreans in the fields. This world happened to be the only other world with a population who understood the multi-dimensional universe—and not a soul living here enjoyed that knowledge. “This world doesn’t need any help evolving. They’re essentially giving away resources to avoid a war.”
Tarek nodded as they drew closer to the keep, his nerves shooting up. “So you have educated yourself with a bit of truth. Good.” He stepped onto the drawbridge’s smooth surface, keeping Lena’s hand firmly in his.
“Is Teenesee as dangerous as the histories claim?”
Tarek walked forward, silent for a moment, adjusting to the bounce and sway of the bridge as they advanced farther into the air. Dangerous? Yes, the woman was probably one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. But she was also fair—and smart. All attributes that added up to instant respect on his part.
Finally, before they reached the towering doors, he answered her. “Just remember the truth, Lena. Never forget it.”