Part III Thirty More Years
Chapter 8: Secrets
Synod life wasn’t all work. Exemplians celebrated things, not many things, but every year, citizens from all sectors—except Heterodox—celebrated Sine Custode.
Who wouldn’t want to rejoice the day Exemplar’s advanced population figured out how to function without a Warden? Whatever happened to the guy—disregarding the fables many passed to younger citizens, the lies—the end of nature became the beginning of a new standard. A synthetic nature.
Tarek threw back the rest of his whiskey and grimaced from the burn. The low murmuring of “celebrating” in the commons wing of the main building aggravated him. So many people crammed in here: Synod members from both Cynosure and Shalen, and retired members from Abrogation. People from all levels of the Synod hierarchy attended to thank…well…each other for science and the nonexistence of those pesky miracles nature always provided.
Everyone, excluding the elders.
No one ever saw them, knew who they were, or how many hid behind opaque shields from the rest of the world. They could have been anyone, since talking to them in their little room with their omniscient voices piping in through the speakers—
No, damn it. Thinking about all this shit only made his aggravation escalate.
The origin of the one Exemplian holiday, or the mystical elders, wouldn’t get his attention tonight. None of these people interested Tarek, either, not Farren hitting on some Guide in a far corner or Mateusz in deep conversation with a few other overseers, including Avery Larkin.
Only one person concerned him now.
She should have been here an hour ago. No doubt she used this opportunity to pry. Everyone who was anyone corralled themselves in this room, away from their computer systems and confidential information. She’d become stealthier these past thirty years, since that day in Empyrean, knowing when to snoop and when not to. He clenched his fist tighter around his glass. That night, after they returned from their first collection, was the best and worst of his life, and another something he didn’t want to think about.
He strode to the closest drink hydrator and punched in another whiskey. As he watched the brown powder moisten and flare with ethyl alcohol, Kendal drifted by, catching his attention.
Well, there you go. A miracle: looked like one other person interested him, and he wished like hell she didn’t—not for this reason. He missed her, the woman Kendal was before her last death. His pseudo-mother, who now refused to allow him in her home, wasn’t Kendal anymore; she was Kendal’s ghost.
Her robes hung on her thinner frame, and air blew from a vent above, lifting the ends of her limp hair to show just how sunken her cheeks had become. A year she’d been this way, since her last rebirth. She’d died three times before and had always bounced back in the month the Synod allowed for acclimation. What made this one harder? What information could she have possibly carried over into her new life that turned her so utterly different?
Tarek sighed. Too many questions with no answers. But she’d come around—she had to. Mateusz wouldn’t be able to hide her condition from the higher-ups forever.
He grabbed his drink when the hydrator dinged and watched her float through the crowd, not at all pulling off normal, until she reached Winston standing near the door. Seemed Kendal spent more time with the authority captain than Mateusz since her death.
And another situation he had zero control over.
He downed his whiskey in one gulp, concentrating on the burn coating his throat, his gaze remaining on Kendal.
“Is this how you spend your time now? Peeping on other people while sulking in the corner?”
Tarek sputtered, his glass slipping from his hand and landing with a splattering clunk on the spongy floor. Janitorial machines scuttled to snatch up his mess without a sound, their robotic limbs dumping the glass shards into their canister bodies. A few people glanced his way as the machines cleaned, their faces showing no interest, just mild irritation as they returned to their conversations.
Yes, those mindless drones weren’t surprised.
But his body tingled with both excitement and a fair amount of apprehension. He swallowed, attempted to turn, failed, and swallowed again. No, she couldn’t be here, not her…
“Well? You planning on growing enough balls to say hello, or are you gonna keep staring at that poor girl talking it up with Winston?”
He smiled and frowned at the same time—missed and cringed at her way with words. Her lack of couth, rather. Finally, he grew those balls she spoke of, and faced her with his hand out. “Wilma. It’s nice to see you again.” Weak, but the greeting was the only one tripping around his mind.
She snorted, not moving to shake his hand. “Is that right?”
“Yes, of course. I… It’s been…what? Over a hundred fifty years? Tarek lowered his hand, wiping his clammy palm on his breeches. “I’m surprised to see you at something so tedious.”
“Are you, now?” She crossed her arms over her chest, giving him nothing else.
What the hell did she want to hear? Not a thing came to mind, so he kept his mouth shut and stared at her, feeling like a new energy again. A new energy in the presence of greatness.
Her unruly dark curls went everywhere as they always had, framing her pudgy face. The woman was about a foot and a half shorter than he was and as round as she was tall, but her stature never fooled him.
Wilma, on record, was the strongest Protector ever to grace Exemplian soil. Stronger than him, than Winston, Cassondra, everyone.
She kept drilling him with those blue eyes full of life and power, and he cracked. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said.
Her lips twitched, and her eyes danced with what he could only surmise as humor derived from his noticeable discomfort. Finally, she laughed, a loud, obnoxious sound, and slapped him on the chest, sending him back a good inch or two. “You always were too easy, boy.”
Calling him “boy” after he had lived for over two hundred years in his first life, and fifty in his second, sounded absurd—but not from Wilma. Who knew how old she was or how many lives she lived. Simplest answer: a lot.
Tarek rubbed his now-aching chest, actually happy to see her. She was another anomaly. Strong, capable, and the most “alive” person he knew besides Lena and Farren. An oddity, especially since Wilma had lived for centuries upon centuries.
“So…” What to say to a legend? What? “Where’ve you been? What…ah…branch are you with now?”
She crossed her arms again and jutted a hip. “Well, that’d be none of your business.”
His face burned as he grasped for an inane question that wouldn’t sound intrusive, though asking her where she worked was as mindless as asking about the weather.
Okay… Let’s try this again. “Fair enough. Are you still in the north building? I hear they’ve renovated the dorms.”
Such drivel to ask her, and if he didn’t have so much damn respect for the woman, he’d literally run to the other drink hydrator across the room.
She tilted her head with a quick glance over his shoulder. “Nope. Moved on.”
“Really? Where?” He crossed his arms, too, mostly to hide his fidgeting.
“That would also be none of your concern.”
“Ah…” He let his arms fall to his sides, defeated. Talking to her was like being a newbie and going through ERP training all over again.
Wilma looked over his shoulder a second time, thankfully indifferent to his embarrassment. “Looks like your Guide made it to the party,” she said, her gruff voice a little rougher than he remembered.
“How’d you know about my Pairing?”
“I still keep tabs on you, boy.” She snorted again, a sound Tarek remembered well, despite over a century of not hearing it. “You were my least annoying student, after all.”
“I… Thank you?” he said, and then all his attention turned to his beautiful Guide.
Even after all these decades, she was still his beacon, as if a room hid in gray and misery until her color saturated it with life. At fifty-years-old, she appeared twenty, younger than twenty. But her eyes were haunted, their collection trips stealing small chunks of her soul.
If only he could take her pain and give her back the innocence she had before Empyrean.
Relive that night, after they had returned, but under better circumstances.
He wiped the sides of his mouth, watching her as she shuffled toward him, acknowledging people here and there. Wilma went ignored, which had never happened when he occupied the same space as her.
But Lena had that magic…
She made it to his side, careful not to touch him. A precaution they had both adopted after that night. A celibacy he forced on himself that was both torture and the only other option available. No other women—none—they didn’t even exist for him anymore.
And he was certain if Lena found interest in another man, that man would no longer be breathing. Jealousy was a nasty beast, but an emotion he fortunately hadn’t had to experience in reality. Knowing Lena wanted different as much as he did, he settled with what neither of them could give.
Though tonight, Lena barely glanced at him, her cheeks flushed and awe turning her sherry eyes to jewels. He didn’t put that reverence on her face. No, her veneration belonged to the irritable, paunchy Protector in front of him.
Lena bunched the front of her robes in her fists, gawking at Wilma is if she were a hologram exhibit. “Protector, it’s… Wow… I’m…”
Wilma squinted, nodding with every broken word Lena spit out. When she finally gave up, Wilma raised a brow, and said, “You got some sort of stuttering problem, girl?”
Shock rounded Lena’s eyes, her hands clutching tighter to all that white cloth. “N-no?”
Tarek moved as close to Lena’s side as possible without touching her. Yes, he protected her from everything, even her stuttering tongue. “Nice seeing you again, Wilma,” he said with a smile; he couldn’t help it. The woman’s lack of filter was refreshing. “I hope we can get together, catch up.”
Wilma ran a hand through her messy hair, getting her fingers stuck at her nape. “Yeah, don’t hold your breath. Ouch, dammit!” She yanked her hand from her head, bringing with it a clump of black hair she let fall to the floor for the janitorial machines. “As much as I’d like to stay and listen to your Guide try to speak, I gotta go deal with some of these blowhards.”
Tarek laughed even as Lena stiffened beside him, forgetting how idiotic this holiday was, and forgetting Kendal’s depression. If only they all could view life as Wilma did. “Try not to hurt anyone while you’re at it.”
“I’ll do my best.” She punched him in the shoulder on the way to a huddled group of overseers. “They’ll be sorry they demanded my presence, I’ll tell ya that!”
Tarek tried not to wince as he pressed against his throbbing shoulder. Damn, the woman could throw a punch.
“Oh, no.” Lena covered her face, shaking her head. “I made a complete ass of myself.”
Tarek pulled her hands away, chuckling. “I wouldn’t say complete.”
“How do you know her? You never told me you knew her?”
“I don’t know, know her. She was one of my instructors many, many, many moons ago.” Tarek shrugged, finding Wilma with her dull audience, some of them with bulging eyes and pursed mouths. Whatever she said to them was enough of a surprise to garner real emotion. “She’s rough around the edges but smart.” He frowned, rotating his shoulder. “And strong.”
“More than that! She has telekinesis and telepathic abilities. Her skill with manipulating minds is legend—”
“Wait, wait, wait.” He blocked her view of everything in the room but him. “How do you know all this?” Dumb question.
Lena lifted a dainty shoulder, her blush deepening. “I found her file.”
“Really? Because I’m almost positive her file is classified.” He bit the inside of his cheek to curb his smile.
“Oh, come on! How could I not look? I didn’t see all of it, just the important things—her history. Her background is so much like mine, and she’s so different. Plus—”
Tarek tamped down the air. “Okay, all right. Save the excuses. I get it.” Wilma, like Lena, had no given last name—both original Heterodox citizens. Difference between the two was Wilma had refused to take any arbitrary last name, opting to maintain her one-word moniker. “Anyway, where have you been?” Another dumb question.
Color drained from Lena’s cheeks as her Wilma-envy left to make room for worry. She glanced at Cassondra, who held court with some of her minions across the room. “I found out something.”
“What?” That look, thinned lips and hardening eyes, meant one thing: whatever she discovered wouldn’t be good. Hell, it usually never was.
She tugged on his arm for a split second to get him moving toward the exit. “Not here.”
Lena didn’t answer until they were out of the room and in the lift heading toward the underground shuttle hanger. “Nan’s.”
Perfect. Where else would they go? He glanced up at the lift’s ceiling, counting the cameras pointed at them. No one lurked over shoulders in Shalen, not at their spot, anyway.
Ten quiet minutes later, Tarek landed in the orchard. Lena had already shed her robes to reveal her usual Shalen attire underneath—breeches and a form-fitting top that most Protectors wore. And before the engine cut off, she had her door up and her feet on the ground.
She beat him to Nan’s stone and placed the rock she took from Lyrion, a mid-evolved world they had collected from days ago, on a pile of others. A habit she’d begun after their only trip to Empyrean. One stone from every world, and now she had about thirty in her little collection. Some so large he had to hold both the rock and Lena during their return trip home, while others were small enough to fit in her palm. And so many colors made up her pile, from vermilion to onyx to colors so exotic, Exemplar didn’t even have a name for them.
They’re for our pretend house, she had told him. We’re going to build our pretend fireplace with these real stones.
Their pretend. A pretend saturated with love as tangible as those stones.
“So,” he said, sitting beside her as she dug in the center of her pile until she found her book. “Tell me.”
“Wait. Let me get it down first.”
His skin itched as she wrote in her book before speaking, knowing she wouldn’t say a word until everything she’d learned sat on a page. Those books were her back up, her “just in case.” In case of what, he really didn’t know and a question Lena hadn’t been able to answer clearly.
What he did know was her mission for most of the last thirty years had been to peel away the lies surrounding Exemplar’s nucleus. In their rock pile, right in the center, Tarek constructed a compartment for what had to be at least ten books full of the info she excavated not only on Exemplar, but different worlds, more worlds than he knew existed.
Finally, she slammed the book shut and tucked it into its hidey-hole. “You’re not going to believe me.”
“Doubt that.” Of course he’d believe her.
Lena smoothed back her hair, the wind catching it and flapping it around her pale face. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and focused on the glowing moon, hovercrafts blinking occasionally with the stars. The only sounds penetrating their small piece of bliss were night birds cawing to one another and the sporadic plop of an apple dropping from its branch somewhere in the orchard.
After a few moments, she focused on him, breathed in deep, and said on the exhale, “Cassondra has a brother.”
He froze, the twig in his hand falling to the ground. A sibling? Births were rare, but—a brother? “Explain.” This wasn’t the worst of it. Knowing Lena, she saved the most horrid detail until the very end.
She bit her lip, her face shaded with the undulating shadows that always accompanied the trees at night. “I…I didn’t believe it at first. I thought it was some sort of mistake, a glitch, but then I kept reading the histories.”
“What histories, Lena?” he whispered, not sure if he really wanted to know.
As if on reflex, her hand moved to still his bouncing leg. “Arcus’s. He…he lives there.”
Instantly, his body began to tremble. So, so bad. The world populated with giant tree-squid, the dominant species. Not one human lived there, except Casimir—the Warden.
“No, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.”
Tarek stood, too fueled by…what? Anger? Fear? “Impossible.” He paced, the birds’ song now screaming in his ears. “How could that be? Humans can’t live there. Only Casimir can survive the elements.”
She stood, too, her eyes shining with excitement. “Exactly.”
“What? No.” He backed up, as if the distance would separate him from her words. “That’s—no. Casimir couldn’t possibly—”
She straightened her back and lifted her chin.
Oh, no, that look. Not good. Not good at all. “What are you thinking?” he asked, leery.
“I’m thinking this is why Cassondra has given Andor good energy and why elders keep allowing it, no matter how many of us complain. I’m thinking she wants to show those crotchety bastards it can be done. You know, save a world from itself, evolve it into a functioning part of the universe.”
He stared at her, not comprehending. Then, as if the answer slammed into his brain, everything clicked.
Why the elders denied his request to stop distribution and collection for Andor.
Why Mateusz got nowhere with them, either.
Why Cassondra sent good energy to Andor, energy like the Empyrean woman who still invaded Lena’s dreams.
“She wants to get permission to do the same with her brother’s world,” he said. “Start with the most dangerous, change it, and then maybe…prove Arcus won’t be as difficult?”
She nodded so vigorously, he feared her neck might snap. “Yes.”
“But humans can’t survive there,” Tarek repeated, as if that were enough information to argue the point. “And… if you’re right, Casimir’s Exemplian. How could he be Warden of a different world?”
“I don’t know, but going to the elders is out. I’ve no doubt they know already, and asking them would only put me in danger of a Tainted judgement for infiltrating classified files.” Lena went to him and cupped his cheeks. “Only a Warden could give us the answers.”
“And which Warden do you propose we ask?” But he already knew the answer, and it terrified the hell out of him. He covered her hands, absorbing her warmth and selfishly holding onto her touch for a few stingy seconds longer.
Lena moved her hands from his cheeks to rest on his chest—another clear violation of their unspoken, no-touching rule. “You know who. It’s time we go back to Empyrean—and finally have that talk with Teenesee.”