Matters had deteriorated rapidly over the last thirteen cycles.
A good half of the planet was no longer able to sustain life on the surface due to extreme temperatures and even in northern cities such as Quagum, spending more than an hour outside posed significant health risks.
The Assembly had held fast to their narrative that the increased solar flare activity of the sun was merely a temporary condition but by now, several independent scientists were seriously disputing this interpretation of available data and large parts of the population were close to all-out panic.
The construction of underground cities was no longer an open secret, in fact, mandatory evacuation orders were in full effect and Themysa spend the majority of her days supporting that effort.
She had recently switched back into a new sleeve, one which looked a great deal like her former body, albeit younger than it had been when she had lost it.
Although society had started to crack, the production of synthetic bodies remained at an all-time high, feeding the people’s ongoing desire to switch out shells at will for no other reason than vanity or excitement. With all the problems facing their world, the government highly encouraged sleeve swaps now that they were cheap enough to be affordable even for the non-wealthy.
Themysa knew that it was nothing more than an opiate for the masses, something to take their mind off the fact that their world, their way of life, was crumbling all around them.
But that belief hadn’t stopped her to jump on that same bandwagon. She had felt a little guilty, sure, but she had rationalized it with the fact that her current synthetic sleeve had started to deteriorate--it had been an early model after all. Not in any significant way, but enough to slow her down when she could least afford it.
And she had to admit that she had grown increasingly nostalgic for the old her and eager to be a woman once more, both in mind and body.
“Let’s keep it moving, people,” she shouted, not for the first time, as she herded a crowd towards an access tunnel to Quagum’s designated underground city.
It was a thankless task, most of these people were strugglers who had no desire to leave the homes they had known for most of their lives to move to a barely completed and barely adequate home underneath the surface.
Fights and resistance were commonplace and she had been forced to use her stun baton on a number of people who had refused her directives or tried to incite riots.
She grabbed a particularly slow-moving man by the shoulder and dragged him forward. “Keep going. Don’t hold up the line.”
The man glared back at her and then shoved back so hard, it caused her to nearly topple over.
She responded in kind, bringing up her baton and striking him hard until he fell to the ground bleeding from his face.
A few cycles ago she had been hesitant to use force against evacuees but things had changed. Their reluctance to cooperate only put more people at risk. She didn’t like herself for doing it, but she understood that decisive action was required for the greater good.
She gestured a few of her colleagues over who quickly took the beaten man and dragged him away.
The disturbance had given some others in line a chance to try and make a run for it. She knew the drill.
She activated her comm unit and within moments hover drones appeared above, their bright spotlights quickly identifying the runners and firing tranquilizer rounds to neutralize them before they could escape deeper into the city.
Themysa noticed that one escapee had seemingly eluded the drones and she took off after him. “Stop,” she yelled.
The man didn’t listen.
She hated this part. Chasing down evacuees through the narrow alleyways of the mostly deserted city was a chore with all her armor and protective gear.
And he wasn’t making it easy on her.
She could tell that he had a synthetic shell as well, and it was young and strong and doing a more than adequate job at running and jumping or dodging obstacles to keep his distance.
What he didn’t have, however, was the law enforcement package. It had been a requirement when she got her new sleeve and it afforded her greater strength and stamina.
In the end, it was enough to catch him.
When she had closed in on her prey, she used the remains of a burned-out skimmer abandoned at the side of the road to propel herself into the air and forward to tackle the fleeing man from above.
They both went down hard, with the runner taking the brunt of the fall.
She rolled on the ground and when she came back up, her helmet beacon revealed a face she knew well.
He looked younger than the last time she had seen him which, of course, was no longer much of a surprise.
Finding him here was.
She raised the dark visor of her helmet to show him her face.
He didn’t seem nearly as startled at finding her. “You had an upgrade,” he said, breathing hard, as he slowly sat up against the destroyed skimmer. “I recall that you didn’t trust sleeves.”
He uttered a laugh but there wasn’t much humor to it. “So very true,” he said and glanced up towards the night sky that refused to provide any relief from the relentless heat.
“Where have you been?”
He reached into the pocket of his vest to retrieve a small flask and took a sip.
She could smell the spiced rice wine from where she was picking herself off the ground. Protocol required her to bring up her weapon or call for backup but she kept her sidearm holstered and her comms offline.
“Oh, I’ve been busy. I’ve been so very busy,” he said, laughing again.
“I know,” she said. “Out in the Mora Flatlands.”
He seemed surprised by this.
“I’ve followed you there once. Saw your contraptions. Shooting missiles into the sky. What for?”
He regarded her for a moment. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand,” he said and took another sip but found his flask empty. He dropped it as he stood back up. “But I still have a lot of work to do. So you see, I cannot go down yet.”
“What work could you possibly be doing?”
“I’m reshaping the world, Themysa,” he said as he turned his back on her and began to walk away. “I’m reshaping the world.”
She got some chatter on her comms, one of her fellow units required assistance. By the time she looked back up, he had slipped away into the darkness.
She considered for a moment if she should follow him and take him in, force him back into the underground city as was her duty.
She turned and left to return to her post.
Day Zero -0 cycles
Themysa uttered a little curse under her breath as she held on to the computer on her desk to keep it from falling off as the entire building around her trembled.
It was bad enough that she now had to reside in a cramped underground city and spend the majority of her life below the surface, the recent tremors caused by sporadic solar flares could turn certain days into a living hell. The nights were worse.
The shaking subsided after less than a minute, as it usually did, and everybody around her quickly went back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired.
After two cycles of this routine, it had become a fact of life.
A young man stepped up to her desk. She knew he was young in appearance only, Gethra was on his third sleeve and had been one of the department's laboratory technicians for at least two of them.
“My team managed to get caught up on some of the work we’ve been behind on and we found a number of your requests in the queue,” he said and handed her a data slate.
She took it and looked it over, her eyes widening slightly as she scanned the content. “Are you serious? Some of this stuff is thirty cycles old.”
He simply shrugged. “We’ve been behind quite a bit.”
“Some of this goes back to the time I first joined the department,” she said. “When we were still on the surface. What do you expect me to do with this now?”
He didn’t seem all that interested and turned. “Not my concern.”
“Wait a minute, what is this?” she said as she found the one entry on the slate that had no conclusive lab results listed against it.
Gethra turned back. “Yes, that one. Must have been a contaminated sample.”
“Because otherwise, the results do not make sense. The sample showed chemical elements that are not native to Celerias.”
He smirked as if she had made a bad joke. “Sure, if that’s what you like to believe. But if you want a scientific explanation, based on those quantities, it is far more likely that the sample you obtained was contaminated,” he said and then quickly left, having accomplished his mission of sharing his findings with her, no matter how useless they were after all this time.
She was mostly annoyed by his attitude and the implication that she had somehow corrupted evidence when obtaining it and decided to follow up on it. She had to search her case files to find what this particular sample related to.
Although much had been lost in their rushed evacuations to the underground cities, thankfully data had not been among the things left behind and it didn’t take her long to bring up the correct file.
She remembered it immediately.
It was the sample she had collected from the launch station out in the Mora Flatlands. It had been part of the payload of the missiles he had shot into the sky.
With everything else that had been going on, she had all but forgotten about that incident. But things were coming back to her now and she decided to dive into it a bit further.
She checked the records and was surprised to learn that he was once again registered and employed, this time as an assistant to an Assembly science advisor. Something she found suspicious.
She realized that over the cycles she had missed plenty of opportunities to attempt to get to the bottom of her old mentor’s strange behavior and probably let him get away with things she shouldn’t have because of the relationship they had once shared.
But he had changed. So much so that he may as well have become an entirely different person with each new sleeve.
She was surprised how little data she could find about him in the records but she did locate his registered residence.
“We have another riot in Sector C,” Heleria, her supervisor, said as she came rushing over to her desk. The woman had just recently upgraded into another shell that looked identical to her old one and kept her eternally youthful in appearance. “I need all available bodies there now.”
But Themyra had made up her mind. She was going to confront him once and for all and this time she would not let herself be distracted.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Heleria called when she walked away from her.
“Dealing with some unfinished business.”
Her supervisor said something else but she couldn’t make out what it was as she was already out of the door. She very much doubted that one extra person would make much of a difference dealing with yet another riot, an almost weekly occurrence as of late.
She had to cross almost half the underground city to reach his residence, a task made somewhat easier thanks to her security credentials.
She still had to stop at least once when the city was gripped by another quake, this one felt worse than the others and she watched on as part of the buildings around her took serious damage. A few unlucky bystanders were hurt and she dutifully called it in but refused to stay and help.
She had questions she needed answers to and she’d be damned if she didn’t get them.
It was the late evening by the time she reached his residence, a modest apartment inside a large tenement building that like so many others had been constructed in a hurry and was already overcrowded.
The door to his unit was slightly ajar and so she let herself in unannounced.
She was surprised how bare the apartment looked as if he had only just moved in and had not had the time to unpack his belongings. According to his records, he had lived there for over five cycles.
She found him in the living area.
He still looked young, younger perhaps than she had ever seen him in his natural body and she wondered if he had replaced his shell yet again since she had last run into him during the evacuation.
“What a pleasant surprise,” he said with a wide grin upon seeing her inside his apartment. “An old friend has come to see me.”
His voice was slightly slurred and her experience immediately told her that he was inebriated. Then again, it didn’t require a detective’s instinct to draw conclusions from the many discarded cans littering the room.
“Don’t have many of those anymore,” he said and headed for the open kitchen area. “Can I offer you a drink? I’m sure I’ve got one left here somewhere.” However, he seemed to struggle to find a can that wasn’t already emptied.
He turned to face her. “How have you been? You joined the peace corps, I see. Never took you for an authoritarian.”
“I joined to be an investigator. As the cycles went on there was less and less need for investigators and I became a peace officer. But you know that. We’ve run into each other during the evacuations.”
“Oh, we did?”
“Yes, remember? You told me that you were reshaping the world.”
He laughed. “Yes, yes, of course.”
She wondered how drunk he had been back then. “And how did that go?”
He finally found another can but instead of offering it to her, he opened it and took a sip himself. He laughed again and then spread his arms as if to indicate their surroundings. “Can’t you see? It is reshaped. I’m certain neither of us would have expected to live out our lives buried deep below the surface seventy-five cycles ago.”
“What are you saying? That you’re somehow responsible for all of this?”
He laughed again. “You are the investigator. You tell me.”
A fit of sudden anger gripped her and she stepped up closer to him, slapping the beverage out of his hand and causing him to stumble back.
“Maybe I’m starting to believe that you are,” she said. “A lot of things you’ve done haven’t made a lot of sense to me. The way you voted when you were still a member of the Assembly, for example. People are saying that if we had invested in a space program in those days, we could have established colonies on other worlds by now, instead of hiding ourselves away underground. But you and your vain assembly members supported the sleeve program instead.”
He shrugged. “Neither of us would still be here without it.”
“And what exactly did you fire up into the sky all those cycles ago? Lab tests show that it was material not even native to this planet. Did you shoot it into the sun? It seems to me things got a lot worse after that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said and turned away.
But she wasn’t finished. “Your behavior changed so much over the cycles I hardly recognize you anymore. And don’t blame the sleeves. I switched from a female body to a male one and back again, and while my appearances may have changed over the cycles, I never lost track of who I truly am.”
“Good for you.”
“I’m starting to wonder if I ever knew who you were,” she said as she continued, following him across the apartment as he seemed desperate to keep her distance. “I checked your records and there is nothing there about you before about a hundred cycles ago. No records whatsoever. No reference to where you were born or who your parents were.”
“That’s a long time ago. Records get lost.”
But she shook her head. “Just yours, it seems. See, I remember back when I was a young student and we were together at the university, I remember how you let me talk for hours about my life, my past, and my dreams. But you know what? Not once do I recall you ever speaking about your life.”
Another tremor hit the city, strong enough to force them both to hold on to the walls until it had subsided.
She reached out for his back now turned to her and spun him around. “Tell me, once and for all. Who are you and what have you done?”
He looked at her and then started to laugh again.
She shook him. “What have you done?”
“Are you familiar with the stories of the Worldtaker?”
“The legend,” he said.
She shook her head. “Ancient myths and superstitions of a long bygone area.”
“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Then again, maybe not.”
“What does any of that have to do with you?”
“Oh, my dear, lovely Themyra, can’t you see? It’s me. I’m the Worldtaker. I’ve burned it all down, I’ve destroyed your world.”
This time he lunged at her, grabbing her and holding her so tight to his body that she couldn’t escape. “What are you doing?”
“This is it,” he whispered in her ear.
This tremor didn’t end.
Instead, it only got worse.
Panic began to grip her as she felt the building around her crumble and yet he still wouldn’t let go of her.
“What have you done, Bensu?” she screamed.
Then came a sudden burst of heat, worse than anything she had ever felt before.
Then came nothing at all.