“What?” Fane opened the door to Sophia’s banging as Ishan pulled his kurta on. Sophia tripped forward through the door frame, startled at the sudden change. Ishan tossed the black compression top to Fane.
“The orb connected fully!” she boasted excitedly. Fane pulled his shirt on over his head as he raised a suspicious eyebrow at her. Realizing what she had done, she turned a soft shade of pink as she glanced between the two men and then to the room as a whole. “The fuck happened to the footboard? And the floor?” she demanded when she saw the bent metal and melted linoleum.
“You said it.” Fane grabbed up his boots and exited the room.
“How hot can you get?” she asked.
“I appreciate the compliment, but I’m taken.” Fane encouraged them to walk down the hall with him.
“Oye! Not what I meant, and you know it!” Sophia stocked after him while Ishan locked the door behind them.
“Give me some thermal strips or whatever next time, and I promise I’ll wear them for you, labrat,” Fane offered.
“Really?” Sophia could not hide the excitement in her voice.
“Long as you don’t come pounding on the door next time,” he forewarned as she caught up with his quick steps.
“Promise,” she conceded.
“Where are we going?” Ishan called after the two as they descended the stairs.
“Off to find Bern, as usual. A thought occurred to me while I was getting dressed,” Fane offered.
“You’re gonna do the ritual, aren’t you?” Ishan slipped his hand in Fane’s.
Fane squeezed it reassuringly. “In a way.” He led them to the cafeteria where he found Bern and Dietrik in close conversation over cups of coffee. “Perfect. Now I don’t have to find both of you,” Fane announced, startling the two. He let go of Ishan and went to grab a couple paper cups of coffee. Ishan and Sophia sat down at the table with the Glendweller and the Fyskar. Fane set one of the cups down in front of Ishan before seating himself.
“How can we help you, Shaman?” Dietrik asked amiably. Both he and Bern were edgy and stiff. Fane could guess why.
“I want to do the coming-of-age ceremony.” He sipped at the lukewarm liquid. Dietrik and Bern turned to him, shock smeared across their faces. “Is it necessary to conduct such a ceremony in the physical plain?” he persisted. Dietrik furrowed his brow at the question and turned to Bern.
“How do you mean?” Bern in turn sipped at his coffee.
“Conduct it in the void.” Fane finished off his coffee, making a face at the bitterness. He still didn’t care for the stuff, but he wanted the caffeine. Bern and Dietrik shared a silent communication of questions across their faces before Dietrik shrugged at the unknown.
“I have never dealt with tattooing or branding an individual in the void,” Bern said.
“I could not answer if the Bai had ever tried it during my service,” Dietrik added.
“The pain is the point of the exercise, correct? Something to open up the memory. I understand from when I took the music from Yeller, that it caused him pain.” He fiddled with the paper cup, pushing in the sides nervously.
“It is worth the attempt,” Dietrik nodded to Bern encouragingly.
“And the monster?” Ishan pressed.
“We stop if it surfaces and continue when it is calm?” Fane offered, hopeful.
“I don’t like either of these options,” Ishan admitted.
“Is it even necessary at this point? We got the gate open,” Sophia pointed out.
“Maybe more necessary than you’d think,” Corbin pulled a chair out from the table and joined in the conversation.
“You were messing with satellite images last I left you. See something interesting?” Sophia asked.
“Grey Monster floats.” Corbin slid a print off across the table to her. She held it up to look at the foggy blue and grey image carefully. Grotesque tentacles spread across the surface of choppy water. A black and white ruler running along the edge of the paper provided an unbelievable scale to the creature.
“Where’s it heading?” Sophia handed the paper back to Corbin.
“Across the Atlantic. I have a program running to predict its destination. The current landing point is Carolina.” Corbin pulled a cheap pen from his pocket and drew a makeshift line of the East coast and a couple rough lines across the sheet to emphasize his point.
“Think it’ll head our way?” Ishan asked the question everyone in the room did not want to know the answer to.
“It made its way to the New Punjab the day we collected you. It’s been trampling around Asia and Africa for two years with no motivation to swimming. It is now making its move for America. Wanna guess at what I’m thinking?” Corbin leaned back in his chair to regard Fane.
“I’m bait,” Fane supplied, unsurprised. Corbin nodded. Bern went to protest, but quieted under Dietrik’s gaze. “How long till the ship is finished? And are we going before or after the children arrive?”
“Sibor told me this morning that she expects two weeks at this rate,” said Dietrik.
“The ship still has three weeks, at least,” Corbin chewed on the pen cap in contemplation.
Fane rose from the table and took Ishan’s and his empty cup to the trash can. “And the Grey Monster? When will it arrive?” He couldn’t face the room at the question. His heart was in his throat. He could not forget the feeling of slime across his skin from the morning when Corbin and Sophia had rescued them.
“The current calculation is predicting five days to make the full crossing. If it is dead set on coming here, tops seven days.” Corbin took his and Sophia’s cups and joined Fane at the trash can.
“What’s been thrown at it?” Fane leaned against the wall. He wasn’t sure what was to be done to keep everyone safe.
“In the beginning, when it was first freed, it was so fast and all-encompassing in its destruction that no one had time to prepare. Too many of the large first-world nations with the technology to destroy it were gone before they had time to formulate a plan. By the time reports were coming in, so many had died that there was very little documented as to what it was attacked with,” Corbin admitted.
“Someone knew that Ishan and I had died by the plate in my head. You said that. There were enough people left alive for you to get that documentation,” Fane pressed.
“Drought and bombings. They nuked it several times. Then those that had been left out, bombed us, everyone else. No one knew where the Grey Monster came from. Profiteers saw an easy way to control the population in the panic and confusion. We’ve been dealing with the fallout since then,” Deck supplied quietly. Corbin nodded in agreement.
“What is there to be done then if it comes this way?” Ishan asked.
Corbin turned back to the table. “Fane needs to go through with the ceremony.”
“You think his abilities can kill the thing?” Ishan brushed back his hair in thought.
“We are not equipped for all-out war, let alone a small skirmish. He’s our best bet.” Corbin returned to his seat.
“Where do you suggest we try this, Dietrik?” Fane turned the decision over to the Glendweller.
“If it’s in your void, it probably doesn’t matter,” he shrugged.
“Coldest spot you’ve got, Sophia?” Fane asked.
“I could put you in a cryo-chamber?” she offered.
“Colder than the freezer?” He thumbed back to the kitchen’s backrooms where a massive industrial freezer contributed to the low hum of the building.
“Drops the brain to -72 C in three minutes. I won’t have you at that cold, but still,” she shrugged with a nod.
“I don’t have to be plugged into one of those, just lay in it, right?” he asked.
“It’s the liquid you’re lying in, not the chamber itself necessarily,” she rubbed at the back of her head. She gazed at the picture in front of Corbin.
“Do you have spares available?”
Ishan cleared his throat. “You sure about this, Fane?”
“Nope. Doesn’t look like I have too much time to make up my mind, though.”
The tank warehouse was creepy. He had seen it momentarily back when Bern had given them a tour of the compound but had avoided it since. Sterile, sealed racks of large pods glowed blue in the dark. Motors and pumps whirred in the background, providing a hair raising din to the already strange space. Naked sleeping bodies floated in the blue-lit liquid, not relieving that horror house vibe. A series of drained pods were near the front of the warehouse. With quick work, Sophia had one laid out and open. She hooked hoses up to it from an individual tank. Fane stood in little more than a medical bathrobe and disposable booties, having been cleaned to within an inch of his life in a bio-radiation level shower at the front of the warehouse. He, Bern, and Dietrik watched her work while Ishan walked the length of the warehouse.
“Ready?” she turned to Fane.
Fane shrugged, staring at the empty pod. “Probably as close as I’ll ever be. What do I need to do?” he asked.
“Lay down, get comfy. Close your eyes and put these on. It’ll keep your eyes from freezing and getting your eardrums messed up.” She offered him a pair of thick goggles that fit to his eyelids and tight-fitting earplugs. “You don’t get to have the luxury of being asleep for the next bit. Try not to scream about the cold.” She held a myriad of chords that were hooked up to machines to keep track of his heart and his oxygen. He sucked in a breath at the already chill warehouse and pulled the bathrobe off. He sat down on the edge of the pod and kicked off his shoes. She stuck him with more sticky dots. He worked the earplugs into his ears before pulling the goggles over his eyes. This was going to be the closest thing he would ever get to a sensory deprivation pod.
“Might be better for you if we get into your void before she starts running the frost cycle,” Ishan offered as he came back to the pod.
“I’m good with that option,” Fane said emphatically. He shifted his feet and slid into the form-fitting chamber. He arched against the cold of the plastic against his back. “Jeez!” he cringed.
“Told you.” Sophia shrugged indifferently.
“You’re bedside manner sucks,” Fane growled behind a gasp. He was having a hard time getting control of his breathing.
“Reason I never went into general practice,” she smirked as she cranked a knob on the tank. A viscous blue liquid glugged in the pipe before it seeped into the chamber at a snails pace.
“He’ll breathe the liquid in if you can keep him down long enough to take it,” she offered. Ishan took one of Fane’s hands to reassure him.
“Wait, I’m breathing liquid?” Fane gulped. He had a difficult time hearing what was being said due to the earplugs and the blue liquid quickly rising around him. His skin was burning with cold already.
“You can’t breathe liquid,” Bern protested.
“Perfluorocarbon you can. Has enough oxygen that your body will accept. The tank has a series of filters, coolers, and pumps to clean and temperature regulate the fluid as it circulates. Fun to play with. Useful for liquid ventilation. It’ll keep all these guys going. Re-engineered so that the viscosity level is less dense, allowing the lungs to actually push it in and out comfortably without need for mechanical assistance,” Sophia smirked as she pointed back to the chambers behind her.
“That doesn’t stop the ageing process,” Ishan pointed out.
“No, but there are other chemicals I’ve introduced into the IVs. Could discuss the intricacies with you over dinner?” she offered.
“I think you’ll just give me a headache. Benj will probably enjoy it,” Ishan turned her down.
“He’s already shown great interest in it,” she smiled back as she opened the valve further. The liquid flowed more freely, quickly filling the floor of the chamber. “Fane should hit hypothermia of the brain in three minutes if we can get him to calm down. That’ll give you thirty minutes of working time before I need to bring him back out if we aren’t storing him in here asleep,” Sophia turned to Fane.
“Calm? No one told me you were going to drown me!” he protested.
“You aren’t drowning, long as we invert you once you want out to get all the liquid out,” she reassured.
“Easy for you to say! Ever tried this?” he asked.
“Yep, with an endotracheal tube in the airway when I went into cardiac arrest as a teenager. Weird as hell, but useful. Good for burn patients with smoke inhalation too. Didn’t want my people suffering from a trach, so I redeveloped the system. Long as they go in under anaesthesia, they don’t have a problem taking the solution.” She tapped at a series of her machines. “All right, guys.” She pinned the men around the pod with a look. “Ya’ll gonna have to hold him or else it’s not gonna work, so dive in now. Fane, you’re gonna need to breathe,” she directed.
Fane wasn’t sure about breathing. He wasn’t sure about much at that moment. The liquid was rising over his throat and chest. It was freezing and slimy and gross. He desperately wanted to get away from the burning cold. Bern and Dietrik pushed in on his shoulders to hold him to the back of the pod. Sophia leaned over and snapped a clamp over his nostrils. He squeezed down on Ishan’s hand and dragged all three of them into his void before he had to think about the cold for much longer.
They all came crashing down into the plush chairs that circled his ring. Protests rose from all of them at the ill-treatment. “I’m the one drowning out there; I get to complain more,” Fane quipped as he stood up. His hair was long again in the void. He brushed it out of his face in frustration, pushing it up in a stack of braids that cascaded down his back.
Once everyone was straightened out they looked to Fane expectantly. “So, how do we want to go about this?” Fane asked, still not sure how this was going to work in the void.
“Give us a flat area to work with first,” Dietrik eyed the black ring warily. They all turned to the ring, and Fane nodded at the unspoken question. “Here, follow me.” He led them around the ring to the opposite side where a camouflaged door led to the back rooms of the theatre. The walls were covered in corkboard with posters and notes tacked up in an array of colours.
He led them past the first door labelled Dressing Room to a second one and let them in. Ishan and Deck stalled at the doorframe. To the left was a wall-length mirror surrounded by bulbous lights. The desk was covered in a variety of makeup, hair accessories, cold compresses, and ankle wraps. Costumes hung from hooks, and a ballet barre on the far wall. To his right sat a patched-up sofa, and a large masseuse table was pushed up against that wall. At the wall next to the door was a giant corkboard filled with notes and a set of finger grip boards. Shoes littered the space beneath it. The smell of leather, wax, and hairspray was a hit from Ishan’s theatre days that he had thought he had forgotten.
Fane had Bern and Dietrik move the masseuse table off the wall and shift the sofa to the wall. Fane extracted a collapsable poker table from behind a series of costumes and opened it up near the masseuse’s table. He produced a pair of tall stools that would allow at least two of the three working around the table to sit down.
“This work?” he asked the men.
“This was your dressing room?” Ishan asked as he ran a finger along a series of eyeshadow palettes.
“Sort of. From the age of ten to seventeen.” Fane turned to smile at Ishan. His age slipped across his face. He shivered before turning to Deck. “Not sure if you can help or not. Why don’t you grab a seat on the couch for now?”
“Sounds good to me. Let me know if you need me,” Deck pointed the last comment to Dietrik. The glendweller nodded and waved to take a seat. Deck sank into the couch to watch.
“So, what have we decided, Bern’s tattoos or Dietrik’s brands?” Fane turned to the poker table. He snapped and a blue paper sheet spread across the surface, along with a series of stainless steel trays and a box of medical gloves.
“You know you won’t get an infection in here, right?” Ishan offered.
“Feels real enough to me,” Fane shrugged.
“If it makes you comfortable,” Ishan pulled one of the stools to the head of the table.
“I think letting Bern conduct the tattooing would be better. I may remember watching the burning, but I never did it. I could not say I’d know how to do it properly. I can provide you with a template of what the Bai tattoos originally looked like if that would help with taking you back to the Red Hare’s time,” Dietrik offered.
“I’m good with that.” Fane leaned against the poker table and crossed his arms to regard Bern.
“What about the tattoos I’m familiar with? Are they not the same from your time?” Bern asked Dietrik.
“They’re almost like short form. They weren’t as thick either.” Dietrik walked over to touch the dressing room mirror. A slew of red and white-haired people crowded against the reflection. Extensive, intricate tattoos and burn patterns spread across chests and backs. “Each had meaning, station markers, prayers, demands, expectations. Here, Fane, see if you can find one you like.”
“I recognize some of these. We painted them on in woad for ceremonies and festivities.” Bern looked over the ghostly images.
“Not surprising,” Dietrik dragged in a deep breath and sighed slowly.
Fane rose from the table and walked around to the dressing mirror to look over the images closely. One stood out prominently to him. A male a row back, facing away from the mirror had caught his attention. Pungent red hair burned brilliantly compared to the others. Black-stained branding swirled in mesmerizing symmetrical labyrinths across his back. He possessed an average warrior’s build. A short sword hung at his hip. A soft leather skirted apron protected a brown and gold kilt. “Who is he?” Fane pointed the man out to Dietrik.
Dietrik glanced between the image and Fane. “Why him?” Dietrik asked.
“The design is cleanly finished. Got a good strong back. Works with his hands more than that sword by the way his shoulder muscles are developed,” Fane mused as he studied the man’s build.
“He was Cashia’s last master,” Dietrik provided, sweeping the other people from the mirror to bring the man further into the light. Fane checked Dietrik’s face. The Glendweller was glaring at the image.
“Bad guy?” Fane pressed.
“Best Red Hare he served under as far as any of us were concerned. Better than most I showed you. Jian proved to be one of the most talented blacksmiths of his generation. He was entrusted with Cashia when Jian’s father died. He provided scrolls to him and Tereza for freedom for when he died. Until then, he protected them with his station. Other Bai would have taken Tereza otherwise. Jian taught him everything he knows about the art. Cashia’s why we escaped our servitude when Jian died. The village was going to bury him and Tereza with his master. They tried to deny the papers Jian had provided them with. That’s his story to tell, though, not mine,” Dietrik mused.
“And the meaning of his brands?” Fane studies a particular looping pattern that resembled the face of a dragon in a fashion similar to the face of the Picts’ dogs.
“Wards and charms for strength and fortitude. A particular blessing for fire and ice. Protection and wisdom. He did not hold a high position of power, but rather a service job, so he did not have position markers.” Dietrik moved away from the mirror.
Ishan walked up behind Fane to look over the image he was studying so fervently. “You like this one?” he asked.
Fane continued to stare at it, uncertain. He liked the flow of the image, but he wasn’t sure about the fact that it was attached to a meaning that might not be well regarded by the Glendwellers. “Will it upset Cashia?”
Dietrik regarded Fane and the image in the mirror. He shrugged. “I don’t know. It may or it may not. Cashia was close to Jian and devastated when he died,” Dietrik provided.
“Fire and ice. Were they that close?” Bern begrudged a question. The question hit Fane in the gut.
“That’s his story to tell,” Dietrik bristled quietly.
“Tell me this much, even if it is his story to tell, before I get a deadman’s pattern placed on me,” Fane directed Dietrik’s gaze.
“Was it consensual?” Fane sat down on the counter of makeup.
Dietrik’s eyes widened at the question, and his cheeks went red. He coughed to clear his throat and dashed his eyes away. “Cashia triggered Jian’s abilities. There’s still a soft spot he and Tereza have for the man. He never said a negative word about him.”
“That wasn’t a yes or no,” Fane pointed out gently.
“As far as I know, those three and Jian’s wife were happy together for years. I never pressed, and Cashia never complained. I can’t give you a yes or no,” Dietrik answered.
Fane dragged in a thoughtful breath and sighed. He was torn between getting on with the batch of pain that was needed for pulling out his memories in some ordered fashion that would let him get a grip on his talents and respecting those around him.
“Would you suggest a different person to emulate?” Fane presented Dietrik with the option.
“I think you and Jian would have gotten along better than many of the others. You remind me of him in a way. Gentle, but a core of steel with the resolve to use it when needed. I believe you would honour his memory,” Dietrik shrugged.
“Last question before I psych myself out of this. How is this acceptable to you? Why would you even help a descendant of the Bai if you were slaves to them?” Fane left the last question open to the room.
“You aren’t your ancestors. Just get on the table, Fane Anson. Let’s get your talent checked. You haven’t enslaved us. The worst you’ve done is ask for our help.” He smiled reassuringly at the man.
Fane grimaced at the table and finally stepped to it. He pulled off the cropped shoulder top and tossed it over to the pile of costumes. “You sure about this?” he asked the room at large.
“That’s up to you. We can come out of this and find another way,” Bern offered.
“I haven’t heard a lot of other options other than a coming-of-age ceremony so far,” Fane quipped.
“I don’t know any other solution right now, but if you’d rather wait…” Bern let the statement hang.
Fane sucked in another breath and laid down on his stomach on the table. “Let’s get this over with. The point is to open up my memories anyways,” he muttered. “What do you need to work, Bern?”
Bern gave him images in the mirror of tapping sticks, needles, brushes, ochre, water, and a special mortar and pestle. It took him more time than he would have liked to pull the images from the mirror and make them into reality in the void. Dietrik provided Jian’s tattoos on the mirror once more for Bern’s guides.
“Ishan, I’m going to have you sit down where you were earlier. You’re going to lay your hands on both sides on the back of his neck. You sure you want to take the brunt of his memories?” Bern asked Ishan who went to sit where he was instructed.
“Yes,” Ishan responded. Fane was beginning to tremble. Ishan ran a hand up the back of his lover’s neck into his hair to massage it gently before returning to where he was supposed to be. Bern and Dietrik took on the painstaking job of painting the tattoo pattern onto Fane’s skin as a guide while they assigned the task of grinding ochre to Deck. Nervous energy resonated around the room. Fane slowly zoned out to the constant sweep of the brush against his skin. He was on the verge of sleep when Bern set his brush down in one of the metal pans, bringing Fane out of his meditation.
Bern checked the ochre that Deck had ground into fine powder. Bern sat down on the arm of the sofa and incorporated the powder into a fine red ink. He checked his needles and the sticks for tapping. Fane shifted uncomfortably. “Ready?” Bern asked as he tested the skin low on Fane’s back.
“You sure about this?” Ishan whispered in his ear.
“You all right with me doing this?” Fane returned the question.
“As long as you’re happy. It’s your body,” Ishan kissed the back of his head.
“I love you,” Fane whispered as Bern drove the needle into his skin.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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