Author's Note: This was more a challenge for myself, to see if I could take an idea from when I was a kid and make it work. The original was nothing like this. I just stripped out the idea of dreamers and saved that, the rest had to go because it was... not good. I'm not sure how far I'll take this, but it's a fun challenge to myself.
The problem with mistaking technology for science was that it was extremely difficult to explain to someone why something was, in fact, impossible. It was even more difficult when the person in question stubbornly believed that your insistence that this was actually technology – very advanced technology – was merely a cover for avoiding the attention of the mages in the upper echelons of the city. This was a reasonable assumption, however incorrect it might be. I had no doubt that if the mages were to discover what we were, we would vanish, all of us, regardless of our lack of magical ability. While our desire for secrecy was aided by my superior's belief in the nature of our abilities, it did little to help when he asked for the impossible. This, and the dead body at my feet, meant that it was going to be a very awkward night.
I tried to look at the corpse without actually looking at it. I was no stranger to violence and certainly no stranger to dead bodies. We'd been part of the City Guard for almost a year and a half now and before that, we were vagrant mercenaries, taking jobs only when we were forced to by our lack of funds. There is little honest employment for a foreigner. However, despite my familiarity, there was still a part of me that recoiled at the sight, especially the more horrific deaths. I didn't truly see them in the heat of combat, as it was like a part of my mind shut down, rendering me cold and without conscious thought, not until it was done and over and I could slink off to be alone and sob uncontrollably. This, here with the pile of tissue that used to be a man at my feet, was different. I had full capacity of my logic and reason and I could see how half his chest was crushed, reduced to an indistinguishable gray mass. That seemed to be all I could see, my eyes fixed on that one horrific injury, and I so looked away, at his other shoulder that remained intact, the skin utterly white, and for once I was grateful that this city was so cold that the body was frozen through. I couldn't imagine how long it had been here.
"Well?" Captain asked. He was a big man who didn't so much as hover at my shoulder as he loomed. We didn't call him by his name. That was reserved for his superiors.
"I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing here," I replied.
"Tell me what happened."
"His chest was crushed."
There was a significant silence. Around us were a handful of men, also members of the Guard, and they poked about in some semblance of competence. Investigation was not something the Guards typically did very much of. If a death was important enough to find out the cause of, the nobles and the mages brought in their own private soldiers and it was taken out of our hands. Captain was one of the few officers that pushed for something more at our level and I suspected it was more out of a sense of being a perfectionist rather than any true desire for justice. He hated leaving things undone.
"By what?" Captain asked, "And why?"
He was starting to sound impatient. I sucked in breath through my teeth and regretted it as the cold stung against the top of my mouth. I was dressed in layers, many of them, which alone would mark me as an outsider. The residents of this city – and indeed, this entire world – were used to the cold. It was bred into them, somehow. I turned, taking my eyes off the cadaver, and stared up at Captain. The top of my head barely reached his shoulder and he was likely twice my bulk, mostly muscle, with a hard face riddled with black stubble and a receding hairline that fell across his back in a rough ponytail. He wore a cloak made of a wolf's hide that he'd bought at market, pinned with the insignia of an officer of the Guard at the shoulder. He was the only officer that would deign to work with myself and my small bands.
"Okay," I said, forcing myself to remain patient, "We can't see events that have happened in the past without a bit of prep-work beforehand. If we'd bugged this warehouse with cameras in advance then yes, I'd be able to tell you at least what had happened. Maybe not why though. But that wasn't done, so I can't help you right now. Let me go get someone from my team that at least has a passing knowledge of forensics."
There was no word for 'camera' in their language and so I used the English name. He didn't know what it meant and had steadily ignored any attempt on my part to educate him. I suspected he feared that if we were ever taken by the mages, he'd be taken as well unless he remained ignorant. So he knew only a vague idea of what we could accomplish and assumed it worked the same as magic did.
"Brandon?" he finally asked. I was surprised he remembered the man's name.
"I don't want him."
I drew my shoulders back, unconsciously. It was a futile effort, this act of making myself look bigger. I was a woman and I would never out-intimidate an avalanche of a man like Captain. Furthermore, Captain had long ago nicknamed me 'scribe' on account of my glasses, and that just failed to conjure up the respect as a soldier that I would need to argue with him. The gun underneath the second layer of my clothing would do little to command respect either, as there was no comprehension of what such a thing was here. The warhammer across my back only made him laugh, to see such a tiny woman with such a big weapon.
"It's because of his accent, isn't it?" I said, "I'll go along with him and translate. I really can't tell you anything more about this myself."
"No, don't bother. We gotta get the body out of here, the warehouse owner is quite insistent." Captain sighed and stared dully around him at the unmarked sacks, stacked in piles, lit only by the light of the torches the Guards carried. I had a flashlight on me but I tried not to use it in the presence of the locals.
"Fine. Give me ten minutes alone in here then, and I'll have someone look at the body once we get it back to the tower."
Captain accepted this as a compromise. I waited for the warehouse to empty and then, as soon as the heavy door at one end thudded shut, I slung my satchel off my shoulder and rummaged through the contents. I pulled out the flashlight – a LED one that could flip out into a tripod to illuminate an entire area – as well as a cheap digital camera. No one here would appreciate the quality of a high resolution photo and considering the work of a Guard tended to be violent, I didn't want to get something too expensive smashed. I took photos of the entire area, knowing with a cold feeling in my heart that I was bound to miss something important in my carelessness. I really wasn't suited for this sort of thing. I was the unofficial leader of our company simply because I was the first to cross over into this world, because I was the nexus, the vortex of this strange power that drew in everyone around me and pulled us into another world.
It was just me, at first, and I only crossed over as a spirit, a ghost-child in strange clothing that watched the world and spoke a language that no one knew. As I grew older, the effect grew stronger, and soon I was here in flesh, living two lives – one in my own world, in America, and the other here, when I slept. When I reached highschool, the pull started affecting others. Now, at age thirty, I could pull in ten people from my everyday life. Combined with those I'd pulled in the past who refused to leave now that we were no longer physically close in the real world, my company numbered thirty.
I exited the warehouse only when the camera informed me it was running low on memory. I slung the satchel back across my body and rejoined Captain and his men outside. He ordered them to see to carrying the body back to the tower and I was to accompany him on ahead. It was not unusual to spare me the dirty work like this. There were biases at work here, and although foreigners were considered to be different enough to be exempt from traditional gender roles, there was still an unconscious thought that as a woman, I had no place carrying dead bodies. I wasn't about to argue, not on this one.
"Did you get what you need?" he asked as we walked. The streets of Astalle were narrow, barely wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side in some places. There were many places where the streets actually wound indoors, as the buildings connected overhead to form almost a single complex that sprawled like patches of moss before dwindling back out into spaces open to the air. A city built on a giant floating rock required creative architecture.
"I don't know," I replied, "I wish you'd have told me what we were going to look at in advance, I'd have brought someone else along."
"I like having you."
"Look, I know Brandon's accent is bad-"
"It's terrible. I can't understand a word."
I wasn't going to win this argument. This entire world hated foreigners and it wasn't on account of our looks. In fact, they seemed to hate someone more if they looked like them, as if they were angry they'd been tricked by appearances. Knowing this, I had determined that we would make ourselves distinctive, so there would be no doubt. Our skin was tan, as if we came from a place where we could actually see the sun without five layers of clothing, and our hair was white, our eyes pale gray. Appearance, at least, was one thing I could dictate about our dreaming. I had little enough choice over who got pulled into the undertow. Our accents, however, was a different story. We were American, one and all, and the language of this world was nothing like English. I spoke it like a native, having grown up here each night in my dreams, and so Captain insisted on dealing with me – and often, only with me. This was what made them hate us and why we had taken a position with the City Guard. It was steady employment and our access to technology ensured that we were valuable enough that the Guard would overlook our accents and odd habits.
We kept it discreet, however. The Guard could only protect us so far, if the mages decided to take a concentrated interest in what we were.
Sometimes, I wished I could trust the mages. I wished they weren't so – dangerous. I wanted nothing more than to go up to them, to their high towers on the outlaying islands in the sky, across those narrow bridges so far above the valley below, and tell them everything that had happened to me. To see if they had some sort of understanding of how and why, if there was even a name for what I was. Show them the stone that rested on my chest, just above the sternum, as part of me as my skin and bone, fused to the flesh. Ask them what it was and why it was there when I woke in this world, so long ago, and why everyone I pulled through in my wake bore one as well.
They'd pull it free, rip it from my chest, and if I died in their attempts to find the answers, then they would not consider it a great loss. This I knew, and so I remained ignorant and afraid.
"How much longer do you have?" Captain asked.
"A few more hours."
We were about another twenty minutes of walking from the tower. The Guard had four of these stationed throughout the city and we resided in the eastern one, where we were assigned a barracks to ourselves for privacy in the third sub-level. The city built up and down, and only the poorest inhabitants lived along the sides of the mountains that ringed the floating city. Long ago, it used to be a mountain, but the opening of a well beneath it blew out the middle of its mass and left a significant portion of the summit floating above, suspended in the currents of raw magical power that drifted free of the well below. Eventually, the mages had harnessed some of that power and used it to stabilize the island, to raise up smaller ones of their own, and now it was a city, connected to the rest of the mountain range by thin rope bridges that seemed too delicate to survive the high-altitude winds. I often questioned our decision to settle into some semblance of residency in Astalle. The world was a cold one and Astalle made it that much worse. I supposed it also didn't help that I was a resident of Texas, as was the vast majority of the people I had pulled through.
The Captain considered his options on what he could order me to do in the time remaining. He did not question our peculiarity of not allowing anyone to disturb us while we slept or why we would not wake during this time. We slept like the dead, and in a way, we were. Our souls had fled back across the chasm, back to our bodies in our own world, and these forms were just shells we left behind. The translation of hours between waking and sleeping was not exact and I had no explanation for this, but it meant that we spent roughly seventeen hours in each world. Since Astalle was not on a twenty-four hour day, it made scheduling an interesting affair, and one that Captain left to my discretion.
"We'll store the body outside in one of the sheds then," he said, "Your man can take a look at it tomorrow. I want Jessica's team on patrol tomorrow. Yours will be standing watch in the aviary. We've got a caravan coming in tomorrow and the merchant has requested additional guards."
"I... hate dragons," I spat.
"We all do." There was a pause. "Do you have dragons back home?"
It was unusual for Captain to ask about where we came from, but not unheard of.
"We don't," I said, "We have legends of them, though. They're said to be incredibly strong, with hides that can't be pierced by swords, and they can breath fire. Oh, and they're sometimes said to be extremely intelligent, depending on where the legend comes from."
"You come from a strange place, Bridget."
"You have no idea," I agreed.