The Awakening of James Island
The laboratory lights changed from blue to red, signalling not only the start of the procedure, but also the beginning of the end.
In their previous existence the walls had been an angelic white, though to Dr. Tallas Radagan they now appeared blood-soaked in the artificial light. They had begun their descent into hell; or at least it felt that way to the pallid doctor.
Looking at the machinery and equipment that lined the square room, Tallas watched his colleagues finish their preparations.
The senior attendee, Dr. Ofslow, stood by the large bio-com unit, tapping commands into the wall console while reading from his clipboard. Every few presses initiated a series of interchanging tones from the console. The metal tube extending from the machine met the low ceiling and continued to the engine room above. The tube returned in the far corner of the laboratory, connecting to the hanging main machine.
Under the corner bank of monitors, the long legs of Dr. Ihugov stretched out awkwardly as he completed his last minute checks, fiddling like a mechanic under a vehicle. He lay uncomfortably in his v-suit—a customised version of the brown metallic coveralls they all wore—his backpack grinding on the hard floor as he adjusted his position. The Alhimoan’s long flat shoes hid his webbed feet, though his scaled moss-green skin could be seen below his trouser hem.
Dr. Hammas, the youngest and most inexperienced member in the room, moved carefully between her stand and work station while she checked her apparatus. Her soft features were furrowed with an intense look. Glancing up briefly, she quickly looked away when her eyes met Tallas’s. The young doctor appeared almost embarrassed as she curled a stray lock of hair over her ear. Despite his mood, Tallas found a weak smile pass his lips. He was fully aware that the Daan Dolian blood within him was to blame for a particularly attractive appearance, a fact most women wouldn’t let him forget. Finding a mate, however, was the last thing on his mind right then.
The stocky scientist, Dr. Kessla, whom Tallas had only met the day before, worked back and forth in the far corner. He moved between the two strange, balloon-like consoles hovering by the main machine. His square head and round glasses reminded Tallas of an old lecturer, though their present situation was a far cry from the Galamastra University. Kessla had been referred to as a specialist in field containment. They were assured that his Outer Reach equipment would contain the ensuring energy. Tallas frowned at the thought of the specialist doctor’s foreign equipment not living up to its promise.
It was no secret that Tallas had been apprehensive of the procedure from the beginning, when the biological division heads of the Cyta Corporation first told him of its delicate nature. Although if Tallas had learned one thing from his professional years, it was that the most dangerous theories usually yielded the greatest advances. That, or they caused the biggest catastrophes.
“Doctor Radagan?” a hard voice said beside him. Tallas turned to look upon the sharp features of Dr. Ofslow. The thin man’s strong jaw line and metallic sheen to his general sallow complexion—a product of his half-Zadi heritage—often reminded Tallas of a mechanoid. Or perhaps the resemblance was in the doctor’s cold and abrasive manner, which often branded him as emotionless by some of his peers. A curt bedside manner, someone had once called it. “I said we’re ready for you.”
Recovering from his thoughts, Tallas said, “Yes. Yes of course. Thank you, doctor.”
Dr. Ofslow’s dour face was dark and heavy in the red gloom of the room. He held his stern look a moment longer, a thousand computations at work behind his hooded eyes, before returning to his station. No doubt he noticed Tallas’s moment of hesitation and uncertainty, and he would be sure to mention it to their superiors after, no matter how well the procedure went.
A small sense of security washed over Tallas as he approached his light-screens. At least these were something he could control. The electrical readouts came to life as he waved over the corner sensor of the bulky frames. Fingers moving through his screens, Tallas set his levels and checked the readings. He remembered his struggles when he had first tried to use a light-screen, overwhelmed by the rapidly streaming data that would be gibberish to the untrained eye. The thought of how green he was at the beginning of his studies usually brought a nostalgic smile to his face. But not this time. You didn’t lose the flowers, you lost me.
Refocusing, as if to run from the memory, he now studied the crystal.
Within the glass unit under the main machine, the large translucent crystal was surprisingly calm, as if it were allowing them to play with it. A younger Tallas would have taken that as a godly sign, but today’s Tallas truly did not know what to make of it. The crystal emanated its usual faint aura that could never quite be seen directly, but when looking to its side, out of focus or from the corner of your eye, you could see the aura was there. The crystal’s energy was so powerful it couldn’t be touched with bare hands. A reminder it wasn’t meant for mortal men. Tallas looked on with a hunger growing within him, a dark curiosity that fuelled his ambitions. Fuelled everything. Meant everything.
He knew he was frowning again even before he saw his distorted reflection through the electric screens. His eyes, usually jet-black, reflected as a glowing red, making him look demonic. His brown hair was unkempt as usual.
A golden liquid from one of Dr. Hammas’s apparatus built up and popped three times, their bursts sounding like tortured cries to Tallas. The thick glittering substance ebbed lazily, like rolling waves in a tiny ocean.
Tallas grimaced at the sight of the liquid, repressing a pained memory.
He told himself he had survived worse than this, and that was true. It was dumb luck, with a little quick thinking, that he survived the attack from the ancient Sand Serpent his team had disturbed on one cursed expedition. Although uncovering the nest of Akrilleii was burned into his memory as his most horrifying moment. The screeching jumping spiders had swarmed onto them in a frenzy of bites and scratches, all while the thought of them laying eggs in their wounds terrorised him. He shook the memory away.
It was almost time now.
“All readings are stable,” Dr. Hammas said to the room.
“Confirmed,” Dr. Ofslow replied flatly, his eyes darting between his monitors and the main machine. “Begin the cypher phase.”
Tallas’s eyes wandered from the glass cabinet to the table next to it, which held the precious carcass. Sparing a look at the ancient remains—mostly charred bone fragments and samples of corroded muscle tissue—he morbidly wondered if their own remains would look similar, if they were found after this experiment failed. He scowled, telling himself to stop being so pessimistic, or risk ruining the procedure himself.
He forced himself to focus on his screens, but he could feel hidden eyes on him now. He couldn’t help but look up at the robed figure by the wall.
An icy coldness ran through Tallas as he acknowledged the presence of the Red Monk. Standing completely still by the wall, shrouded in heavy red robes, his face was hidden beneath a large cowl. The air around the monk was thicker, almost heat-hazed, as if he were emanating some sort of aura, like the crystal.
The thick robes brought a tortured memory back to Tallas. You didn’t lose the flowers, you lost me. He turned back to his screens with a severe look on his face.
Something buzzed by his head at that moment. As the black ball circled the unit encasing the crystal, Tallas found the probe-cam’s low hum and controlled movements more of an irritant than usual. A second probe hovered across the far side of the room, showing the Seniors and Advances all they wanted from the safety of a few thousand miles away. The buzzing spheres reminded him of the seeker-balls he played with as a child—another reminder of his brother Benny—which did not help his fears of the past reaching into the present.
“Ready on my mark,” someone said. It must have been Dr. Ofslow.
Are we there already? Tallas had not realised the moment had come so soon, somehow hoping to fight off the inevitable with time.
Ofslow announced the initiation, and pulled the lever on his wall console. The machine began to vibrate and emit a whining pitch.
Tallas studied his screens, anxiously reading the rapid streams of data.
Ihugov’s golden eyes watched the main machine intently as he thumbed his control pads.
Braced between the balloon consoles, Kessla held a hovering hand over a large multi-button, his fingers twitching.
Hammas stood by her monitors with a grave look on her face, eyes darting to the golden liquid.
The monk remained as still as ever.
Slowly, a hazy blue-white energy gathered around the main machine. It charged the air around it, ebbing and growing. A moment later the energy erupted downwards in a thick beam, connecting with sensors that funnelled the power into the glass unit.
Wavy tendrils of energy reached out, groping at the crystal, gradually taking hold as it gathered strength, until the crystal was obscured in a wash of light.
The shimmering energy continued to grow. It expanded out toward the scientists menacingly, searching for a victim. A fear-stricken Kessla stood motionless—his back against the partition—as the energy came within inches, before gravitating back to the crystal.
A rivulet of sweat trailed down Tallas’s face, though he dared not remove his hands from his screens to wipe it.
So far so good.
Risking a brief glance at Dr. Ofslow, he saw the man’s eyes had grown heavier with concern. Something about Ofslow’s scowl told him they had a problem, and Tallas’s heart sank. He shot his eyes between his screens and the doctor’s expression, trying to read both. Perhaps the wild theories of inanimate cell fusion were somehow wrong?
The remains on the table held no answers, yet.
Dr. Hammas’s golden liquid continued to bubble and pop in a controlled sequence, though it didn’t show signs of aggravation. Maybe the procedure had—
The tube above Ofslow’s console erupted in a powerful burst, sending him across the room and throwing out a shower of sparks.
A howling wind was expelled from the hole in the tube. Papers and apparatus swirled and crashed around the furious wind. Their own contained tornado.
Someone called out, though the words were inaudible.
A disorientating ringing accompanied the sounds that soon returned to Tallas. He realised the muffled boom that pounded was an alarm sounding.
A screen had disconnected from his hand, but he didn’t need it to see the machine was no longer sustaining the energy. He shielded his eyes as he looked on at his damnation.
Kessla sprinted across the room. Tallas thought the man was fleeing, though he saw him shove Ihugov aside and frantically punch in commands on his console.
The booming alarm grew louder by the second. Or perhaps his hearing had improved.
A probe-cam fought against the wind as it wavered by, drawing Tallas’s eye through the maelstrom to Dr. Ofslow. The dishevelled man had recovered and fought against the wind. Shockingly, he moved toward the main machine. Taking another heavy step, he reached out to open the glass cabinet. Toward the crystal.
What is he doing? Isn’t anyone going to stop him? Would someone—the monk! Where is the monk? Tallas froze in place when he saw the empty wall where the monk had stood. He scanned the room frantically, but no red robes could be seen. The monk had left them when they needed him the most.
A fierce heat washed over Tallas as Ofslow lifted the cabinet window. The doctor’s silhouette was stained against the torrential waves of blinding light flowing around him, his backpacked suit forming a large and monstrous shadow.
Tallas could not comprehend the man’s actions. Without the crystal the beam would tear a hole through the room, and would surely rip through the hull, sucking them all into the infinite blackness of space. He knew everyone else on the ship would be evacuating right now, not daring to enter the room and expose the uncontrolled energy.
Fear and adrenaline pushed Tallas across the room, his legs stronger than ever. He threw himself against his colleague as Ofslow reached toward the crystal. Both doctors fell to the ground in a heap.
Ofslow let out an otherworldly scream, a near match for the howling wind. Tallas looked on incredulously as black smoke drifted through the air. Ofslow must have touched the crystal. His hands had turned charcoal black and were now flaking in the wild wind like burnt paper.
The crystal, to Tallas’s great relief, was still held in place, sensors undisturbed. He hadn’t realised how close he was to misaligning it when he tackled the doctor. Ofslow’s screams were inhuman, his black hands falling away in a charred mess, a bone jutting from one of his stumps.
Tallas pushed himself to his feet, searching frantically through the storm, looking for a way to stop the beam.
Where the hell was their supposed protector?
Kessla pushed buttons on Ihugov’s console—though the Alhimoan doctor was nowhere to be seen.
Tallas fought the wind and approached the specialist, hoping to help in some way. Mostly he hoped to find that Kessla knew exactly what he was doing.
“Kessla!” he called through the storm and booming alarm, but his colleague didn’t respond. He dared not touch the doctor while he worked for fear of interrupting an important procedure.
A series of small sparks flew from the edges of the console Kessla worked on. Soon after, the monitor exploded with a powerful burst that sent both scientists to the floor.
The room was dark and silent for a moment.
Regaining his senses—a light fixture fell from somewhere nearby—Tallas saw flames spewing from the monitor’s casing, spreading further along the work station. The wind was no match for the flames, and the heat instantly smothered Tallas.
Kessla lay next to Tallas, splayed out grotesquely on his backpack. His head was thrown back, arms and legs spread out, glass shards studding his frozen face.
Tallas reeled from the sight and dropped his head back in defeat, not realising he was mimicking his dead colleague. He felt a stinging sensation. Reaching a hand up to his forehead, it came back covered in dark blood.
An inactive probe-cam rolled alongside him. Its path drew his attention to Dr. Hammas, lying across the room. Her cold dead eyes stared at him, her expression calm in the storm. The serene face against the tumultuous surroundings flashed an involuntary childhood memory of his mother, and he could have cried right then.
A shimmer caught his eye. The golden liquid from Hammas’s apparatus had escaped, and was now slowly spreading across the floor. It appeared to move toward him, as if it had a mind of its own.
Ignoring the liquid, ignoring the deafening alarm and fierce wind and the growing flames—ignoring everything—Tallas dropped his head again and resigned himself to his fate.
Exhaustion overwhelmed him. The world began to fade.
Suddenly the sound of the energy beam changed. The machine’s funnel convulsed violently, threatening the inevitable. Shocked back to his senses, Tallas scrambled to his feet, almost falling back in the process.
He thought frantically. If he didn’t act now, and make the right choice, he would be killed along with everyone else left on the ship.
With a great snap, the funnel broke loose, throwing rods and cables out to join the maelstrom, and the beam disconnected from the sensors. It moved slowly, incinerating all it touched.
Tallas remained frozen as the beam changed course to—toward him! The energy tore through the station beside the glass unit, devouring the ancient remains, and continued its path of destruction toward him.
His face contorted into the pained grimace of a person knowing he was about to die. In that moment, Tallas saw the futility of his whole life and, he realised, he didn’t want to die. He still had so much he wanted to do—to see the people he wanted to see again. He didn’t want to die. But that meant nothing. Everything meant nothing now. Everything that had led him to this point had all meant nothing.
What did it really mean for him to have been touched by the people that meant the most to him, if it all led to him being a victim of a magnificently failed experiment? His interest in medicine, which led to his path through ancient godly artefacts, had only been the beginning of his journey into death.
The beam tore through the floor as it searched for him. In the instant Tallas felt its incredible power close in, something large and forceful fell onto him. Thick red robes covered his view as the world filled with a searing light, and burned everything into nothingness.
You didn’t lose the flowers, you lost me.
The desert sun shone fiercely in the midday sky as James Island made his way through the bustling crowds. The market heaved with the calls of merchants vying for the attention of passing people. With shouts of bargains, arguments and laughter, the languages and tonal range of the Sab Sina Market’s patrons roared as one glorious mess.
Hot, spicy aromas bombarded James as he passed a stall with hanging meats. The short, unkempt woman behind the counter called out to anyone who neared, spouting offers in several dialects. James tried to mentally name all the animals he could see hanging, knowing all but two of them. He had gotten better.
A soft breeze thankfully cooled the light sweat on his face. It had taken him a while to adjust to the persistent heat that smothered the city of Tyken Town, and he often wondered if his discomfort was his body’s way of telling him it wasn’t accustomed to such heat. But by the time he figured that out it would be snowing.
James wondered why Tam, his foreman, had asked him to collect supplies on such a chaotic day. But if there was one thing James had learned in his time working for Tam the Man, it was how to follow orders, however insignificant they seemed. This was the least James could do for the man, after Tam had taken him in, given him a job and a place to live, when James had nowhere else to go.
A group of men standing by an apothecary stall caught his eye. Dressed in light weather-worn armours and loose fitting clothes held tight with thick straps, their large non-sheathed swords hung low from their belts. Possibly on their way to an exciting, dangerous and important mission. It troubled James to see people with weapons so casually worn. What kind of people would need their swords in a marketplace? Hunters, soldiers, mercenaries, he guessed, as they didn’t look like any lawmen he’d ever seen, especially as they weren’t carrying rifles.
Pushing his way to the edge of the crowd on one side of the market, James gave himself more room to move. He ran a hand through the sweaty underside of one of his toughlets, the metal bands of compartments that stored various tools and equipment along his forearms, letting the air cool his hot arms.
He could now see the dull orange sign of his destination. The words Erry’s Electrics flickered in the distance.
Wading through the rowdy crowd outside, James entered the small confines of the store.
Roughly square shaped with a domed ceiling, the dim store had a dusty smell that reminded him of rusting electronics. While they were mostly for display, one of the defunct mechs—a blocky humanoid shape with large shoulders and thin arms and legs—lay in the corner, hollow eyes watching the customers in its inactive bliss. James had often wondered if there were security cameras within the eye sockets.
The owner of the store was a wiry gangly man with strong veiny forearms and long dirty hair, named Erry Boscida, whose dark-red skin gave away his Canarrian heritage.
James browsed the shelves while Erry finished with a customer. The cool air in the store felt refreshing on his face and armpits, making him realise just how hot he had been. He picked up a handful of power screws—the ones he kept running low on—from a shelf container and continued to peruse.
A low roar came from a monitor in the corner. James guessed it was showing a sport of some kind, though its volume, the only sound in the store besides the air unit and Erry and his departing customer, was too low to determine which.
“What’ll it be?” Erry’s gravelly voice croaked as he approached.
“Hi, Erry. I’m here for Tam’s order. Tam Borral?”
The store owner’s eyes narrowed. “That’s right. You’re one of Tam’s. ’Sai, how goes it?”
Been coming here for over a year now, and he still doesn’t recognise me. “Going fine, Erry,” James nodded, smiling. “How’s business?”
Erry Boscida shrugged and frowned. “What can I tell ya? If it ain’t the Judges raising my prices, it’s these raal-brained know-nothing freshlings opening up their cheap hami’s all over the place. And don’t expect them to help when you go running back to them with a burnt-out power coupling or synthetic drive-core. If they’re even still there when you go back.” He grunted as he snatched a hammer off a shelf and wiped it with a faded cloth.
“So same old, then,” James said, familiar with Erry’s rants.
Erry shook his head dismissively, wiping the vines of loose hair from his face. “You kids…” He replaced the hammer. “So I’ve got your order back here.”
He brought out a small sack from behind the counter, which made a loud clanking sound as it dropped onto the desk.
“And these power screws,” James said, raising them. Erry nodded without looking as he scribbled on a small pad, his extra-long little finger nail scraping on the paper.
Erry’s hand shook as he scribbled; a sign of old age, although James knew from the dark splotches on the backs of his hands that it meant something else. Likely a form of Hoodro’s, the skin condition that could be fatal if left untreated for long periods, common among some Canarrians and Canthians. James hoped it was a mild case, as he didn’t want to think of Erry as being ill or in pain, despite the man’s crude exterior. Tam’s father had a similar condition, although his was a strong case and he’d had to visit the specialist doctors in Victory City on several occasions.
James inserted the stubby screws into a compartment on one of his toughlets. The clanging screws rang in the quiet store until he clasped the partition shut and rendered them soundless.
The hum of the corner monitor grew as a crowd roared with the fuzzy sounds of celebratory trumpets. At this Erry shot a fist in the air, scraggy hair flapping as he looked up at the monitor.
“Aaooooh! There it is!” he declared. “There it is, sonny. That Calvin Fisskle does it every time. My money were on him from the start, I tell ya. Who’d you have?”
James searched for the words, debating how to tell Erry he didn’t know what he was talking about, but found that none came, and so ended up just looking at the old man awkwardly.
Erry was taken aback. “You do watch ’em, don’t ya? Just coz they don’t show ’em on the major channels here in town don’t mean you can’t find a cast to see ’em on.”
“I ain’t familiar with this one,” James admitted.
Erry frowned, looking at him incredulously. “What you mean? How can you miss ’em? Ain’t no one never seen a Jump Race before.”
“Well I ain’t from around here, remember?” For once James had a good reason for not knowing something, as Erry knew he had moved to the city only two years earlier.
“But still, sonny. Just where’d you come from that you ain’t never heard of a Jump Race?”
“Well… far from here.” James was the one to frown now.
Erry considered him for a moment, and nodded. “I see. You’re an itchy one, young man. You know that? Doda knows, sometimes I wonder just what you know.”
James gave a weak smile. He picked up the B-splinters and dropped them into the sack with the rest of the tools. “So do I.”
He thanked Erry and left the electrical store, not looking back.
A rumble thundered above as a shuttle pod crossed the bridge outside the store, casting animated shadows for a moment as James joined the crowd. Pushing his way through, he now saw they were watching a large screen hanging from the bridge, showing the race that had just finished.
A large adboard hung between two buildings further on. The choppy video showcased the benefits of Tygal Travel, the company most responsible for transporting people around the planet, and even off it. They had the ability to go anywhere they wanted, with all the technology to do so. They were gods, to James.
He turned away from the adboard and found he couldn’t look anywhere but the ground.
He intended to make his stop back at the construction site brief, wanting nothing more than to dive into his current read, The Legendary Rise of Canaan, a historical book with particular emphasis on the various myths and legends of Carnan.
The framework of the parking station tower currently stood at four of its intended five levels. Dozens of workers went about their business as James approached the construction site. A motorised drill rang in the afternoon air over the knocks and buzzes of various equipment at work. He felt a warm sense of comfort and familiarity as he walked through the site.
Motors whirred as a stomping worker mech moved near a stack of concrete slabs. Its large blocky arms loaded the slabs onto a loading trolley, the eye bulbs on its small head flashing its status. James held his gaze a moment, still uncertain of the few robots they had labouring on sites. He had little interaction with mechs so far, although he felt a strange distrust for them almost instantly. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of what went on in their heads. James thought it strange that an entity could exist for a specific task and not have any other purpose. He considered them mindless slaves, and was troubled by the thought.
As he looked around, wondering what to do with the sack, Helena Jositt rounded the building and approached the work station ahead of him. The contract architect carried coloured binders on top of the hefty design booklet that was always with her. She paused, her eyes glazed for a second before blinking and shaking her head.
“Oh, hi, sorry, didn’t see you there. My mind’s all over the place. I thought: who’s this guy now? Anyway, how’s it, James?” She grinned ear to ear, showing a mouthful of teeth as she placed the binders on the desk. There was a slight gravely undertone to her light voice, a sign of tiredness.
“Hey, Helena,” James responded. “Tam’s out for the day, right?” He knew the foreman was away, although he asked the question as an easy route of conversation, which was preferable to any awkward silences or more personal talk. Although right then he knew he should have begun with a pleasantry instead of getting straight to business.
“Right, he’s overseeing the set-up of the big fancy new site in First Hold.”
She smiled as she rubbed her hands together, trying to remove a patch of ink from a palm. Her tanned heart-shape face gleamed with a light sheen, thin lines under her heavily lidded brown eyes.
James was secretly glad Helena had been overworked lately, as it meant she was more likely to spend time on site, and he enjoyed her company whenever they happened to meet.
“So what’re you up to?” she asked, adjusting the band holding up her wavy sun-dried hair. “Or are you just feeling the wind?”
“Just dropping off a supply order for tomorrow,” James said, holding up the small sack. “Tam didn’t mention where he wanted them.”
Helena nodded dismissively, pressing her hands against her lower back and letting out a sigh. James noticed the widening gap between the buttons of her white blouse as she stretched and decided to look away before he was caught looking. “Give ’em here,” she said, extending a hand. “I can drop them in Tam’s office before I head out tonight.”
He brought the sack up, and then held his hand back, raising an eyebrow. “I dunno about that, handing over sensitive Rimas materials to a contractor. What would Old Man Rimas say if these ended up on a black cast or in the high markets in Rio?”
Helena showed another big toothy smile. “He’d probably say as much as he has to say about anything else. How do you know I wouldn’t keep them for myself to use in the construction of my own spacecraft, which I can make my escape in?”
James smiled too, happy his playful joke was reciprocated. “A spacecraft out of a few screws, bolts, and wedges? That’ll be a nice trick. I could use your services sometime.”
She raised a thick eyebrow. “You couldn’t afford me.” Although her voice was still pleasant, her smile had lessened considerably, and she now looked away.
James reeled internally, having hoped for a better response to his attempt at flirting. “But I guess I can afford to take the risk,” he told her, and handed her the supplies.
She placed the sack on the work station and picked up a cup of juice, nearly spilling the contents as she did so. “Don’t worry, you can trust me.” She had to raise her voice at the end as an electric saw came to life somewhere further away, the whirring motor drowning out her last words. Her southern accent was more prominent when she shouted. James tried to remember where Helena said she had come from. Somewhere south of Medropon, around Corefield or Memassi. One of the Silver Sands regions, anyhow.
When the saw stopped, James took a small step away and said, “Good to know. I’ll leave you to it; looks like you’ve got plenty to get through.” He nodded toward the workstation.
“Aye,” she said with a loud sigh. “You know me, stuck to this place while they need me.” She placed the cup down carefully with both hands and picked up one of the coloured binders. James took this as a sign she was done talking.
“Enjoy your juice,” he said, and then wondered why he had said it, wishing he had said something better.
“Thanks,” Helena said as she sat down, pulling blueprints from the binder. “Enjoy your work.”
He nodded and left her, not wanting to explain he had the rest of the day off. He had realised a while ago that, having spent so much time with his own company, he shared little details about his activities with others. There was also a danger of sharing too much with other people. Perhaps he preferred talking to people like Helena who weren’t often around, someone he could keep within the boundaries of small talk and none of the deeper getting-to-know-you talk.
He found his personal chest along the corner wall of the communal space, and collected his book from within it. Looking over the various mythological beings depicted on the cover, he felt the warm and reassuring feeling of spending the rest of the day stuck in its pages.
He left the construction site thinking he would make the most of his half-day off.
Walking toward the nearest shuttle pod station in East Belam’s Way, it took James a moment to realise someone was calling him.
A hand grabbed his shoulder, turning him roughly.
Large blood-shot eyes met his. An old man with a bony face, rough pocked skin and dirty wind-swept hair studied him. He reeked of sweat and dirt. There was an uneasy quiver to his demeanour, causing James to repel from his sudden closeness.
“A man who knows his fate is a man who can control it.” The older man’s voice was strained, yet not unpleasant, with a shakiness that made James think of someone unwell. “Aye, so it is. Tell me, young man, do you want to know how you’ll make your riches, or when you’ll meet your beloved who’ll rob you of them? Eh he he.”
James reeled at the harsh odours attacking him. “Sorry, another time,” he told the beggar. Many were known to trick you, play a game or provide a service of some kind in exchange for coin. He found it best not to humour any of them.
A wild laugh left the man’s cracked lips, his eyes widening. “Ha ha! It’s you! It’s you, sir! I know you, don’t I?” His laugh turned into a bout of terrible hacking coughs. He looked James over, a moment of confusion twisting his face into an ugly scowl, showing yellow stained teeth.
“Sorry, you’ve me confused for someone else.” James took a step away, trying not to appear rude, but the man persisted.
“Now I know it’s you. I see it, so I do. I see all now. Can’t help otherwise. ’Tis a curse, aye, so it is. One of many.” He leaned in closer, his eyes glaring like he was about to share the secrets of the universe. “I can tell you what you want to know. Everything you’ve been yearning to know. I can tell you! For… some spare coin. For an old friend, would you? For old times’ sake? Times have—well, they sure ain’t what they used to be. Eh he he.”
Though hearing the distant sadness in the man’s troubled voice, James now saw through the act of a beggar at work. “I’m sorry; I’ve no money on me right now.”
He turned from the man, hoping he wouldn’t be followed.
“James Island!” the man bellowed, sending a shiver through James’s core. “That’s you, isn’t it? Prince James, as I recall. Your Majesty.” He performed an awkward bow, stumbling in the process.
James stood frozen a moment. He studied the strange man. Everything about him was dirty and weathered, the look of someone who had spent many seasons travelling and sleeping rough. The man’s dark green eyes could have showed intelligence in them once, but were now dulled with a weariness that hinted at a troubled soul.
“Now I’m sure you’ve the wrong man. I’m no prince.” The words passed his lips and James wasn’t sure if he believed them himself.
He was finally allowed to walk away, though the beggar was soon by his side once again.
“Yes, that’s right,” the stubborn man continued. “You and your father. You don’t remember your visit? Oh, but what world was that? What a world it was. What a world it is now, I ask you? Hah!” He circled James, a jerky bounce in his step, energised by his search for memories. “But you are James Island, are you not?” Wide bloodshot eyes studied him intently, a desperate hope behind them.
James found no reply for the man. Ahead was an alleyway which he was sure would lead to the nearest shuttle pod station.
As they entered the alley the man let out a frustrated growl and grabbed James by the arms. The force of the hold made James drop his book.
“Why do you lie?” the beggar spat. His voice became a hideous snarl, a wild look blazing in his eyes. “You think I’m crazy. Unless it did happen to you. Do you see the hood, too? Do you taste the blood? Tell me!”
James called out, and felt the harsh brick of the alley wall as he was pushed against it. “What’re you—hey, let go of me.”
Sweaty breath was on him. “You want to ignore me, like the rest. But I won’t go away. No. You underestimate me, like all the others. Like all the others!” With a fierce cry the beggar pulled James to the ground, shaking and clawing at him.
James tried to get a hold of the wild man, throwing his arms out while shielding his face from his attacks.
“You should be my friend,” the beggar shrieked. Dark spit jumped from his mouth as he lost control. “We still can be. But you need to be like me. I’ll make you see.” A sweaty hand curled around James’s neck and squeezed hard.
James reached a desperate hand out as he felt his strength depleting, searching the ground for something, anything to help. His fingers soon found something hard, and he managed to grip it in his palm.
With a wide swing, the rock bashed against the man’s temple, sending him reeling sideways. His head slammed into the wall with a sickening thud.
Kicking his way to the opposite wall, James choked back the breath struggling to find its way through his bruised throat. The beggar lay against the wall, a thick red trail streaming from his battered temple. What had moments earlier been an angry, crazed scowl was now a frightened, somewhat peaceful expression.
Steadying his breath, James stared at the lifeless body. The life he had just taken away—
A blinding white light explodes in James’s mind, and the world changes, becoming a dead land of black rock and vast mountains. Desolate hills and valleys stretch out on all sides of the horizon. The scorched sky is made of flames, dark smears moving fast like storm clouds, giving the impression he is under a dome of fire. Tortured screams and distant howls echo all around. A severe stench of decay fills his lungs and he gags, struggling for breath as the suffocating heat burns his nostrils and mouth, fighting back the urge to vomit. He feels like he’s being burnt from the inside. Sweat falls into his eyes, blurring his vision, and drips to the dead rock, sizzling in wisps of black smoke. Trying to wipe the sweat only smears charred dirt over his face. Several feet ahead is a cliff edge, and he steps toward it without knowing why. His legs ache, every step pained. Something dark flies overhead, howling a shrill screech, though he fails to focus on it beyond its large wingspan. He stumbles, snatching his hand from the ground as it burns him, and he falls on his back. His shirt gradually burns away and his skin begins to blister. The pain overwhelms him. Feeling the hopelessness of it all, he cries, a fierce emotional moan, begging for mercy. For his life. As the pain threatens to overcome him completely, he sees a dark blur forming within the flames above. It wavers in the haze and grows, becoming the form of a man. A hooded figure, shrouded in heavy dark robes. Waves of dark energy surge from the figure. It grows to encompass the sky, becoming the dark world, and grows further, its legs fading, becoming a torso and then just an enormous hood. The face, if there was one, was hidden within. He feels an immense wave of hatred and aggression like he has never felt before, never thought possible, emanating from the hood. It wants him. It wants to devour him. The hood slowly rises, revealing an impossible darkness beneath. As James gratefully succumbs to the cold darkness within, he spins, inverting in on himself, and with a blink of an eye thrust back into the reality of Tyken Town.
His back cracked hard as it found the ground. He gagged and spat, feeling like the death and decay of the fire world had entered his mouth.
Suddenly realising he was lying next to a dead body, James jerked away from the corpse, scrambling to his feet. He checked his hands, expecting to see severe burns on them, but they were only scratched and dirty. There was no indication that what he just experienced was real.
Even now the man’s eyes seemed to be watching him; that serene look still on his face.
Overwhelmed with fear and regret, the next thing James knew he was running out of the death alley. Running aimlessly, just to get away, to take back, ignoring everything around him, he eventually found himself in a direction toward home.
The sky had darkened considerably as he approached his small house. He had never felt so relieved to see the single-storied building, though he studied the large windows either side of the door, suspicious of any movement behind the tinted screens.
Slamming the door behind him, he felt the warmth and sanctity of his home embrace him. He stood against the door, absorbing the silence, his heart racing. The pale light from outside cast ominous shadows around the open-spaced room.
A blue light caught his attention and he turned to see his personal terminal flashing, signifying a new message. The normality of such a familiar everyday event shook James out of his trance. His mind working again, he wondered if it were sent earlier or just now received, and with a shiver wondered if the message was in any way connected to the man he’d…
Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to shake the thought away. The eyes of the man he had killed continued to stare at him beyond his fate. The vision of that terrible burnt world… that hooded thing… the endless darkness beneath its hood… It was all too much for him. For the first time in his life James wished he had fewer memories.
He tried washing the day away with a shower, hoping to clean the blood off his soul. As the cleansing water washed over him, James slid to a crouch and cried as hard as he ever had before.
Perhaps if James had known that it was the last time he would sleep in his bed, he may have done a few things differently. Maybe if he knew it would be his last night in his house, he might have packed a few possessions that had become dear to him. Or perhaps he might have gone to sleep sooner, eager to leave, happy to be finally taken away from what was now his home.
He lay curled up in bed, trembling with dark thoughts and haunting images, sobbing softly. Letting the drowsiness of sleep eventually take him, he slept for the last time in the only home he had ever known.
A lone figure stood on a cliff edge in the early morning light, taking in the world around him. The city below had already woken, and the endless dunes all around welcomed the rising sun, filling the skies with spectacular oranges and reds. Brilliant sunbursts reflected off the few craft entering and leaving the city, their whirling engines reaching him through the wind.
The sensation of being high above the world, the peaceful calm it stirred in him, was the only real feeling he could say was his.
His name was James Island. And he was alone in the world.
Perhaps what made James Island different to most people was that he was born two years earlier. Or so it seemed to him. One day he just became conscious, born into the world a grown man.
Though the only knowledge he had of himself was his own name, he knew many other things. He could name dozens of planets, species and races. He knew the majority of the galaxy was governed by the Uri-Thuren Council, and of the Armament Restriction Law and the Great Wars that preceded it. Though he could not recall anything of a childhood, a family, or first-hand knowledge of having visited any specific places, he still knew of these other things.
Awaking those two years earlier, he found himself on this cliff top. Bewildered and disorientated, he saw his reflection in a small pool inside the inner cave system of the mountain. Where he first met himself. It took all his courage to eventually leave the mountain and venture into the city beyond it.
James had the general functions of an average grown man, an apparent lifelong ability to walk and talk and such, which allowed him to integrate into society fairly successfully.
Despite the life he had made, the cliff edge remained the closest to a real home he had discovered so far.
James awoke with the morning sun, travelling to his mountaintop hoping to find some peace and resolution from the horrors of the day before.
The image of the man he killed had burned into his mind—those cold eyes still stared at him. James often wondered what death felt like, even though he hardly knew what it was to be alive.
He called me a Prince… is that even possible? Did he really know me? James felt the welling of tears he was so familiar with, although none flowed then. How can I know anything when I don’t even know myself? That was a thought which passed through him every day.
His temple throbbed, remembering the pain that had erupted within him when he went to that awful, terrible fire world. It felt like that giant figure had crawled into his mind, coursed through his veins, joining him in an endless blackness that reached into his soul.
The size of the figure reminded him of one of the mythological gods of Carnan, sometimes depicted as a great luminous being in the books.
He realised earlier he had left it in the alley, next to the beggar’s body. He wondered if the body was still there, or if someone had found him. Perhaps a passer-by. Perhaps a child. Or maybe a patrolling lawman had come across the body and, somehow, was in the process of tracking James down from the book. He fought the urge to vomit, trying to find calm within the usually soothing breeze.
The wavering sun had now cleared the Dusk Mountains that lined the horizon. The southernmost region, The Ten Fingers, looked to James like the knuckles of a giant hand gripping the earth. He thought of them as a god keeping hold of the planet, if there ever was such a thing.
A rustle from behind shook James from his thoughts.
He turned at the sound, losing his footing. Stumbling back over the cliff’s edge, he found himself falling.
James instinctively grabbed onto his beloved cliff. He hung there helplessly, muscles tight and burning. Dust dispersed around him, several tiny stones falling free, and the muddy smell of the mountain filled his nostrils.
A head appeared over the cliff edge.
It belonged to a small figure wearing a wide rimmed pointed hat, which immediately blew off into the open air, revealing ruffled wavy hair.
James had no choice but to grasp the small hand that reached out, and with an effort he was pulled up over the edge.
Scrambling on his knees, James hugged the rocky ground. His heavy breath brought up dust into his face, causing him to cough and heave. Taking a moment to master himself, he finally saw the stranger in the morning light.
James recognised the boy as a Voarn, the strange small beings he had only read of in books. His ears were pointed at the tips, though much less than his sharply pointed nose. The slant of his large brown eyes gave them a feline quality. A dusty green tunic billowed over his thin frame, baggy trousers tucked into silver highboots, and a short-cape clasped with a silver ornament hung behind him.
James’s eyes were drawn to the large sword on the stranger’s back, and his breath caught. The polished hilt was adorned with intricate gold and jet-black engravings. The sheathed blade was as wide as the decorated cross-guard, seeming far too large for the little Voarn.
James managed to say, “Thank you,” in a shaky voice. His hands were shaking from the near fall, and a shiver ran through him at the thought of what could have happened.
Large trembling eyes searched James—dusty shirt, long shorts, wearing what must seem like peculiar items on his forearms—with an odd look of puzzlement.
“Where am I?” the Voarn asked finally. His light voice sounded hoarse, as though he hadn’t spoken in a while.
James was taken aback at the question. “Mount Volton,” he answered, though he had a feeling this wasn’t the answer the stranger was looking for.
“Where…” The Voarn searched for the words. “What planet?”
James watched the stranger incredulously. “Carnan. You’re in the Carnan Sand Dunes.”
The stranger continued to search the area with a mixture of wonder and confusion. His open-mouthed gaze accentuated his protruding upper front teeth.
“Unified Land of Medropon,” James added, finding it an odd feeling to explain to someone else where they were. “Who are you?”
The Voarn composed himself. “My name is Evan Goodheart, of the Illan. I have been looking for you, for you are James Island, are you not? You must be. I have come seeking your help.”
James’s insides went cold. What in the Abyss? Another stranger from my past, right? With this ridiculous thought came the disturbing notion of a stranger claiming to know him, and the cold dead eyes of the beggar stared back at him once again.
“I’d say you got the wrong person,” James said, careful of his words. He realised he echoed his earlier claim with the beggar, and the thought gave him pause. “You do. But…” But he had to take a chance. “Do you know me?”
“I do not,” Evan admitted. “Though I have… been told of you. I must admit, you do not look much like a saviour in person.”
James recoiled at the sourness, and absurdity of the Voarn’s words. “Well, that’s greatly kind of you. Though I’m partial to say that’s because I ain’t a saviour.” Crazy person it is, then. This one’s surely a moonbrain. The thought did not relax him.
“Impossible.” Evan’s eyes hardened. “I have been sent on a mission of great importance, requested by the great Thaenos and the Light Gods themselves, and they have named you, James Island, as my aid on this mission. A great many people depend on us.” Evan took James in with a look. “You must be a formidable warrior, I would imagine.”
“Mission?” Surely this boy was part of some practical joke. It seemed too ridiculous to even contemplate, and at once James could name a number of his colleagues who would have put the little Voarn up to the prank.
“I understand this would be hard to believe,” Evan went on. “The Light Council has assured me you are the one to help. If you would just listen—”
“No, you listen.” Enough was enough. “Who’s put you up to this? Was it Pete? That swine.” James strained a laugh, looking around as if embracing this failed joke. “Or Waterman? It was Waterman and Nevalle weren’t it? As if the sink prank weren’t enough. I knew the cooling fan was off.”
“I do not know these people,” the little Voarn said with a shake of his head. “I was told of your father and your search for him. It should have been…” He appeared confused at his own words, searching for the right ones. His head lowered, defeated.
Any thoughts of this being a joke now left James, and in its place was a disturbing puzzlement. The Voarn’s words stirred an uncomfortable feeling within him. The feeling that he could very well be speaking the truth. But who was this stranger to speak of his father? The beggar man yesterday mentioned a father too.
“I am afraid I do not know much of what is entailed,” Evan continued. “You may not appear the hero, though I have faith in the gods’ judgement. I must admit I am not much of a guide myself, though perhaps once we find your father, if that is—”
“Stop!” James cried, waving a hand to hold back the onslaught of absurdity. “Stop. Just… just wait.” For this stranger to come along and speak of something that should be so common to someone as their own father, something James had a discomforting ignorance of, had awoken an angry force within him. An anger that had boiled for two years. “Who are you?” he demanded, sitting forward now. “What you want from me? What you know of my father? Do you know me? Do you know me!?”
Evan appeared wounded, his shimmering eyes fear stricken.
James mastered himself, feeling like he had just scolded a small child for not knowing right from wrong. “I… I ain’t getting you. But what… what do you want?”
“I apologise,” Evan said. “I do not rightly understand all of this myself. There was only so much said to me in the room, and most of which I could not fully comprehend. I did not quite understand how I would proceed once I found you. But you must help me. My people depend on us. On me. Many thousands of people. Please, James,” his voice broke. “I cannot do this without you.” He bowed his head, his whole body shaking as he began to whimper.
James knew the sound. The Voarn’s tears echoed what he often felt inside.
A sudden thought struck him, and his heart raced. He considered the possibility that Evan had arrived here, like he himself had done two years earlier. Could whatever had happened to him have happened again?
Although Evan had spoken of past events already; so he was not exactly like James had been. He may or may not have arrived here like James had two years earlier, but the Voarn was lost in an eerily similar way.
He now observed the Voarn with new eyes, studying his every movement, seeing a mirror of himself.
He considered his next question, almost too afraid of the answer. “How did you get here?”
Red-rimmed eyes looked up at him, and lowered again. “I do not know,” was the defeated response.
An all-too-familiar shiver ran through James. Did it really happen again, then? Was this mountaintop some sort of mystical focal point that—what? Transported… created, people? Maybe James wasn’t the first person this had happened to, and he was now looking at the latest person brought to this place.
He wondered how things could have differed if he had someone here when he had awoken. Perhaps if Tam had met him on this cliff edge, helped guide him into the city, saving him from those awful first seasons…
“What do you want from me?” he found himself asking.
Evan shook his head. He wiped the flowing tears, smearing his dirty face even more. “The way I see it, is we can guide each other, as we look for someone that can help us. Someone in your city, below. I was told of you and your search for your father, and that your search will aid my own mission.”
James’s insides twisted. Every time the Voarn spoke he unloaded a fresh headache on him. This strange kid spoke of his father like he was just in the next town. Someone who could be found with a search.
“I weren’t looking for my father—not exactly,” James explained. After a moment he decided to leave it at that.
He tried to read Evan’s expression, wondering if the Voarn looked like he had done when he first found himself on this mountaintop. Now he was faced with someone who could possibly understand what it felt like to be so lost, someone who could truly know him more than anyone else. He couldn’t turn his back on someone who was so clearly in desperate need of help; a kind of help only James could understand.
“You’re heading into the city?” he finally asked.
A strong nod. “If that is our path, yes.”
James wasn’t sure he liked the wording of that statement. “I don’t know anything about this mission of yours. But I can help you find your way.”
A great smile spread across Evan’s face. His pronounced upper teeth gleamed, reminding James a little of Helena Jositt. “You would have my eternal gratitude, James Island.”
On his feet, James helped Evan up, finding his full stature even smaller than he first thought.
“We are destined for great things, you and I,” Evan told him.
An uncomfortable laugh left James, the absurdity of the situation getting to him. He really didn’t like the way the Voarn spoke.
“Let’s start by getting off this mountain,” James simply said.
Island Legends is set in a galaxy reeling from devastating wars, filled with countless alien species, a rich history of powerful magical forces and the interventions of many gods and dangerous spirits and demons constantly at war. After awakening two years earlier as a fully grown man, James Island has managed to make a life for himself in the city he found himself in. Until the day a lost young alien named Evan Goodheart appears, claiming to be on a mission sent by the gods, who have named James as his aid. Despite trepidation, James finds an affinity with the lost and bewildered Evan and takes it upon himself to help him find his way; all while attempting to maintain some order in the life he's made and his construction work responsibilities. Throughout the course of the day James will come to realise the extent of Evanâ€™s claims of their fates being entwined, as the truth of his unknown past is revealed to him. [This is a sample of the first few chapters of the full novel which is available on Amazon, published through Solstice Publishing]