Autumn and Alice
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Autumn feels her skin burn under the security guard's stare, as though his eyes force her blood to the surface of her skin as he searches for dishonesty, for the lie she feels pulsing all though her.
"Mr. Suzuki," he pronounces, and she strains not to flinch.
"Yes?" she says, both relieved and nauseated at how deep her voice emerges from her throat, like an animal coming out of hibernation.
"You're not from around here." The statement is so matter-of-fact she's not sure how to respond, or even if she's expected to. She shakes her head, feeling the strange tug of her hair, tied back in a masculine fashion. "Why did you come to Blackfeather?" It's obvious what he really means is How did you get in?
"Oh, you know," she says, wanting to smack herself for the obviously fake nonchalance. She strains to keep her voice from jumping an octave. "I'd heard so much about it – the opportunities for work, school-"
"You're a student?"
That would be the perfect excuse, but she doesn't dare risk it, not when he can access the city's school records and have her arrested with a snap of his fingers. "Not... presently."
"I'm planning on going back, though," she says. "Taking night courses when I get the money. That's why I was interested in this job, actually."
He nods as though she's made an extremely dull comment on the weather, then turns his back on her and walks. After several steps, he says, "Come."
Autumn follows the uniformed figure past several blocks of chainlink and concrete to the sandstone steps of the Blackfeather Gardens. The Gardens, although bursting with green life, look irrevocably artificial, cut into a mile-long square and surrounded by untarnished stone. Behind the Gardens, the palace-like Governing Station stands in the distance.
Rather than enter the Gardens, Autumn follows the man into a box-like shed nearby. Inside, another guard sits in front of a computer in a room filled with wires and mechanical hum. Autumn can't help the lightning charge in her brain – if she and Kale could get access to this kind of technology, and some instruments, the kind of music they could make –
"This the guy?" says the computer guard. (For a half-second, Autumn wonders who he is talking about.)
"Yeah," says the guard who led her here.
Computer-man rakes his eyes over Autumn. "ID," he says, and she hands over the card. "Suzuki, Alexander." His voice is military, spitting split-staccato syllables like gunfire. "Grew your hair out, eh?"
"Y-yeah," says Autumn. "I like changing up my look." Shit, is that a bad thing to say? Does it sound too flippant, or untrustworthy, or just weird? Do guys talk like that? Do people talk like that? She briefly considers sticking to grunts and vaguely-accusatory remarks like her two possible-but-probably-not-because-she's-fucking-this-up-future-coworkers, but knows she'll never be able to manage it. Besides, if she's blown the interview, that won't save her now.
The keys clack like rattlesnakes as the second guard types in the identification number on the card. Each whirr of the machine and click of the mouse seems too loud. Autumn's heart beats like a bass guitar.
The man looks at the screen and starts to laugh. It sounds like a bark. Autumn, unsure whether to smile back, feels her face spasm between expressions.
Then the man says, "Oh Mr. Suzuki, this does not look good for you," and her blood turns to ice.
Alice and Tanya used to sit beside each other twice a week during lecture. Tanya was an exchange student, a few years older and working on her medicinal wizardry degree, and the two had been in the same chemistry class. Now, Tanya lives in the basement of the biology building, in a pocket-dimension she's constructed behind the water heater.
Alice has never seen another person in that basement besides Tanya and Ghost, so she feels fairly safe on her tri-weekly trips to bring Tanya food and water. Prior to Tanya's hiding, the two had never been close, but Alice feels she owes her, as Tanya's whole situation wouldn't exist if not for her work with the ODPs.
This is what their group has started calling people like Ghost, short for Other-Dimensional People. For one thing, no eavesdroppers will know what it means.
And it's better than calling them demons.
After she teamed up with Tanya and Ghost, Alice finally started understanding the physics class she took last year, as the theoreticals became matters of life and death. The fabric of reality is thin, almost threadbare, in places, Tanya explained to her. And sometimes things, or people, find ways to slip through the holes – intentionally or not. Any living thing that ends up in the wrong place is referred to as a demon. And anyone who finds a demon is legally obligated to either A; kill it on sight, or B; report it to the Blackfeather Guard – who will kill it on sight.
Not surprisingly, some people take ethical issue with this.
But 95% of the time, the things that come through are small, crop-destroying pests that probably slipped between dimensions without even noticing they had done it. Sometimes more dangerous creatures came through, which have to be dealt with by those trained in the aggressive forms of magic.
But people, in either intelligence or appearance, are a rare occurrence. Alice only remembers it happening three times in her lifetime before the arrival of Ghost, though it is possible it happens more often and the Blackfeather guards deals with the issue more efficiently than they let on.
Alice started caring about these things seven months ago, when she met Ghost. It was back in the spring, not that seasons meant much in the concrete-covered Blackfeather, where the only scraps of vegetation grew under heavily regulated magical conditions and the air between the tall buildings was always dry and cool.
But it was spring, which meant her exams were finished, which meant she was sitting at the CoffeeStar patio by the alchemical gardens, listening to the wind and the snap of the flytraps, thinking of absolutely nothing.
And then she heard the crash of breaking branches, and Tanya's scream.
If she'd paused to think she would have realized anything Tanya, a much more advanced magic user, couldn't handle, she stood no chance against. But she didn't pause. She jumped up, vaulted the chain link, and dashed into the thick of the forest, slowing only to dodge the more dangerous plants. Thistles needled at her skin through her jeans, and leaves swatted at her face, but she didn't notice the pain until that night, looking in the mirror at the red scratches painted over her body. In that moment, adrenaline had taken over entirely.
All her life, Alice had been getting into fights. Not because she was especially difficult to get along with, but because she couldn't turn off her instinct to help those unable to stand up for themselves. This does a lot to explain the events that followed.
As the trees began to clear, Alice made out the source of the noise. A few yards away, by the thornblossom patch, Tanya's hands shot a stream of darts at the dendrake tree, which swatted them away with its thick, scaly branches as though they were nothing. Wrapped in the branches of the tree was something bright red and blue. The colourful thing squirmed, and Alice realized it was alive.
A typhoon of azure energy swarmed the tree as Alice spoke the words of a confusion charm, each sound pulling at the stream of magic inside her. It left her quickly, like thread spinning off a spool, leaving her feeling small and exposed. The tree flailed, spitting acid from the small mouth-like openings on its leaves, and then its branches drooped and grew still. The figure fell about six feet and hit the ground hard.
Alice called off the spell, dragging it back into her. It was like drinking an entire violent river in one swallow. She felt the energy thrashing inside as she ran to reach the fallen person.
They were unconscious and badly bruised, clothing ripped and skin covered in scrapes. But they were breathing. Alice picked the strangely-dressed figure up in her arms and moved as fast as she could. "Come on!" she called to Tanya, as she ran towards the clearing under the skunktree, which smelled awful but was otherwise harmless. She placed the figure on the ground and heard them moan.
The person was a girl, with short blonde hair and freckles. Although she was as small as a child, her facial features showed her to be in her early teens. She made another small noise and her eyelids fluttered.
"It's okay," Alice said. "You're safe now."
"Who are you?" said Tanya, a note of urgency in her voice that surprised Alice. "How did you get here?"
"She's hurt," said Alice. "We should take her to the med cent-"
"No, Alice. That's about the worst thing we could do."
"She's not from – here." Alice was growing frustrated with Tanya's vagueness, and it must have shown in her face because Tanya added, "As in our world."
"Stop!" the girl's voice was weak, and she struggled to sit up as her eyes flickered open. "I'll give you anything you want, please don't turn me in!"
"No one said anything about turning you in," said Alice. "You should lie back down. You're hurt."
Tanya came closer and looked down at the girl. "I'll start working on a healing spell for you if you'll tell me why you're here." It was a bluff, or perhaps a reverse-bluff. Alice knew Tanya well enough to know she believed in the traditional healer's oath to do all in her power to heal the injured, and Blackfeather law wasn't going to stop her.
The girl's eyes were forest green and loaded with suspicion. "I followed someone," she said finally.
"Who?" said Alice.
Tanya murmured the words to the start of a healing spell, and a soft white light emanated from her hands. The girl wasn't doing anything to heal herself, which Alice thought was odd. Even elementary students knew some first aid. Had the girl tried in vain to fight off the tree, to such an extent that she didn't have any magical stores left at all? But no one ever let themself get that tired – it would be like running a marathon after being up all night.
"And why did your brother come here?" said Alice.
"Magic-users aren't common in our – where we're from. There are rules against it. But he's really strong, he's always been able to do things. And... they found out."
The idea of people who can't do magic struck Alice as exceedingly bizarre, much harder to get her head around than the concept of different worlds. It was like finding out there was an island composed exclusively of people who couldn't see. A part of her wanted to accuse the girl of lying, but she didn't know why she would lie about such a thing.
"And you followed him through a portal he made?" said Alice. She watched absently as Tammy's spell closed up the worst of the cuts. Scar tissue shiny as a white shell filled the torn skin.
"I waited first. For a few weeks. He was supposed to come back. He promised he'd let me know if he was okay. But... I have it in me too, the magic. Not like he does, but he showed me some things, and I can use it if I try really hard, or if I'm really emotional. And I was upset enough that I was able to reopen it."
"Did you find him?"
She smiles indecipherably. "Of course."
"Where is he?"
"I appreciate the healing and all, but you can't really believe I'd tell you that?"
"It's okay, Avery," intoned a male voice. Alice looked for the source, but it seemed to be coming from nowhere. She heard footsteps drawing nearer. "We can trust them. Or at least –" a boy dressed in black stepped out of a gap in the air "-we're going to have to."