「I had a dream where I was a book.
Unread and forgotten but inherently important.
I thought my duty was to ensure remnants of the old world prevailed after the end.
However, it was not the end.
Only a transitional period.
I was merely a bridge connecting the old world to the new.
Once I arrived on the other side,
I had a deep-rooted desire to
burn the bridge.」
“You alright, girly?”
Even though Atienna knew that she was breathing, she felt as if she was not. Her ears rang with the sound of laughter, chatter, splashing water. Her eyes burned with the bright blues, oranges, greens.
A dream, she thought. It had to be. A lucid dream.
She could feel that her hair was short, that the swimsuit was clinging to her cold skin, that her feet were touching the smooth tiles at the bottom of the pool. The water was lapping against her waist. The sun—without a single cloud to hold it back—blazed above her head. The heat licks combated the water’s icy cold touch.
These were sensations that grounded Atienna in reality.
The man who had just saved her from drowning—the man who stood before her now, one who she had never seen before in her life—had too many precise features to have been conjured from a dream. She could count the fine hairs that made up his bushy mustache, could see the red splotches of sun burn on his back, and could see the wrinkles crinkling the corner of his green eyes.
“Hello?” the man asked.
Atienna moved away from him and eyed the red plastic tube under his arm.
The man followed her and laughed. “What? Am I scary? You got VNW or something?”
An acronym clearly, but what exactly did it stand for?
V as in Virgo?
The light from the man’s eyes faded. He frowned. “Hey… are you serious? Show me your ID.”
ID. VNW. Connected?
“I don’t… have a conducting license.”
“A conducting what? I’m asking for your ID.” the man arched a brow. He grabbed her by the wrist. “Hey, if you don’t have it, you’re going to have to come with me—”
Atienna grabbed the man back, kneed him in the gut. When he doubled over, she leaned in and—using her body as an axle—flipped the man right over her shoulder. He landed with a loud splash behind her, but Atienna didn’t stay to see him rise to a stand. She made a break through pool, bypassing the children bobbing up-and-down in donut-shaped plastic tubes, the adults floating on their backs. She stumbled up the checkered stairs at the end of the pool and looked up to find a handful of onlookers staring down at her. They were all dressed in tight swimsuits—some with boasted frills, others with polka-dots. The color was jarring.
“Well, that was a big splash,” one of the men said, cracking a grin before whistling. “That’s one way to thrash.” He looked Virgoan.
Atienna squeezed past him, exiting the pool and rising up onto hot cement. Her body felt heavy from the loss of water buoyancy; her head pounded from the smell of chlorine that clung to her skin.
As she moved past the crowd, she took in the sun loungers dotting the area—made of shiny plastic instead of the wood she is used to—and the ones who laid on top of them barebacked.
There were people everywhere. There was no space for her to move. The only thing that stood out was the banner fluttering above her head—
WELCOME TO THE NDOTO ANNUAL POOLSIDE THRASH OF 1969
Was there even an exit to this place?
Ndoto—one letter away from Ngoto. Her hometown. And its meaning…
Someone threw a towel over her and guided her forward with it. Atienna pulled away for a moment but confirming hands on both sides of her arms gave her pause.
“I just want to help,” the person said. “I promise.”
Atienna hesitated, thinking. As she ruminated, the person pulled her forward, forward, forward, until they came to an abrupt stop together. Atienna pulled the towel down so she could see.
She was standing in front of a white-painted fence. A sign on top of it read HARVEST IN THE GRAINERY SOUTHSIDE COMMUNITY POOL. There was an entrance just to her left, and there was a constant stream of people exiting and entering the pool area through it. Atienna turned to the person—the woman—who had guided her here.
The woman looked vaguely of Sagittarian descent and was dressed in a light blue swimsuit with floral print. A rope of braided black hair swung wet and damp at her back.
The woman tugged the towel tighter around Atienna’s shoulders before shoving something rectangular and small into her hands. “Take this, okay?” she said. “Lie low for now. It’ll be okay. I promise.”
Abruptly, the woman pushed Atienna through the entrance past the crowd. Atienna stumbled forward before whipping back in confusion. She, however, couldn’t find the woman anywhere behind the fence. She looked down at what she had been given. It was a slender, plastic card, and it reminded her of a sturdier version of a conducting license.
When she flipped it over, she found a photo in the upper-right corner of the card and a slew of information on the left. She paused, eyes widening. Captured in that photo was her own face, smiling brightly.
CITIZEN IDENTIFICATION CARD
NAME: Atienna Imamu
RESIDENCY: Baobab Tree District
KM LEVEL: 7
[ INAPPLICABLE/UNLIMITED ]
Atienna felt faint and odd—like how she’d felt when synchronizing for the first time. An out of body experience—looking at this photo of herself she didn’t remember ever having been taken.
Confusion aside, she knew she couldn’t remain in place here. She had to move.
Palming what she assumed was the identification card that had been demanded of her earlier, Atienna hesitantly stepped forward onto the sun-bathed sidewalk in front of her. It bordered a wide asphalt road beyond which stretched another sidewalk. It was almost as crowded out here as it was in the pool area.
There were strangely shaped v-ehicles parked all along the road—more round and narrow than the cube-shaped ones Atienna had grown familiar to seeing. The buildings rising around her were brick-and-tiled with awnings extending out from their fronts. Their large windows were cluttered with various items. Shops, it seemed.
She had seen these oddities once before when she had traversed to the Great Tree to complete her part in their plan to escape the saint candidates’ grasp. A misfire from Francis, she had assumed then. The only difference from then and now was the people crowding the streets. The people—they were all dressed so peculiarly. Bright, patterned clothing. Untamed hair. Dangling jewelry.
Mind spinning, she reached out for the other five but again was met with a fuzzy distance.
“Hey, watch it.”
Atienna stumbled back after colliding with a disgruntled pair of woman dressed in suits. They were wearing the oddest earrings that she had ever seen in her life—twisted yellow metal painted over with orange polka dots. The pair stared at her as they passed.
Atienna continued down the street and tried to take everything in—understand everything.
A group of adolescents clustered in front of a parked v-ehicle and chattered while sharing the cheesiest cut of pizza that Atienna had ever seen before. They were eating it straight out of a cardboard box. The adolescents themselves were dressed oddly. Long hair, baggy shirts, bottoms of pants flared out, pastel headbands. One was casually strumming a wooden guitar while being fed a slice of pizza by another.
“Hey, hey, miss!”
Atienna turned just to have a paper shoved into her hands by a woman wearing large hoop earrings and floral-patterned pants. Atienna accepted the paper half out of curiosity, half out of confusion before continuing down the street.
A billboard caught her attention. On it was the upper profile of a woman’s face—just her caramel brown eyes which were crinkled as if with a smile. Orange locks of hair obscured the rest of the woman’s face and also curled around a slew of bubbly text—
A CADENCE FROM ME TO YOU.
APPEARING LIVE AT
THE GRAND OPENING OF
THE TWINSTARS ROLLER DISCO BAR!
Those eyes, Atienna thought, are a bit too familiar.
Atienna’s attention was pulled away from this board by something flickering inside the display of a shop window to her right. Inside that display were boxes with moving color captured on their surfaces—like a film being projected on the screen of one of the theaters in the Twin Cities but without the projector. On top of those boxes rested a sign that read in the familiar language of her tribe, TELEVISION SETS FOR SALE! BRING THE ENTERTAINMENT OF THE MARKET DISTRICT TO YOUR VERY OWN HOME! The boxes were all projecting the same moving image—a woman who was sitting at a peach-colored desk against a backdrop of blue.
Atienna moved closer to take a look, placed her hand on the window of the shop, and then froze.
The woman captured in the screen of the box was Marionette Engel—dressed in a blazer with a sharp dark blue collar. Her hair was teased to a dizzying degree. A far cry from the rain-drenched woman Atienna recalled as the Week of Blindness neared its end.
“WELCOME TO NDOTO—” Marionette Engel said with a crescent grin“—’S DAILY NEWS BROADCAST: THE VERBUNDENE AUGEN WHERE WE”—she thumbed her chest—“ARE ALWAYS WATCHING OUT FOR”—she pointed to the screen, to Atienna— “YOU!”
Atienna took a step back.
A pre-recording of Marionette before she died, Atienna tried to reason. No. A dream. It had to be.
Atienna’s heart felt like it was on the brink of collapse, but simultaneously she felt an itch of curiosity that she needed to scratch. A feeling of restlessness that needed to be expunged. This itch watch momentarily displaced as she looked down the sidewalk and spotted a strikingly familiar figure standing at the corner there.
Chiamaka, the diplomat whom Atienna had served as advisor to during the tripartite meeting between Aquarius, Virgo, and Pisces.
Atienna had not seen the woman in almost a year, and—secretly—she had felt relief over this fact. Now as she laid eyes on Chiamaka again, she could not help but feel that very same relief once again. A paradox. Or perhaps she was being as hypocritical as she usually was.
Atienna headed towards the woman, but slowed her pace when she registered the fact that Chiamaka was dressed as oddly as everyone else. There were large triple hoop earrings dangling from Chiamaka’s ears above the flared out collar of her polka-dot orange blouse. Her pants were flared out outrageously at the bottom, and she was wearing heels. The frame of her glasses were purple and polka-dotted.
“Chiamaka?” Atienna tried as she stopped at the woman’s side.
Chiamaka peered at her from above her glasses. “Oh, yes, Atienna. You’re back already? It’s nice to see you. I’ll have those reports in for you by this weekend…” Looking Atienna up and down, she arched a brow. “Are you coming right from the poolside thrash? You should enjoy yourself instead of throwing yourself into work all the time.”
Chiamaka glanced at her wrist—at her watch. “Oh dear. I’m late. Well, it was nice speaking with you, Atienna. See you later, alright?”
She departed with a crowd across the street.
Atienna did not pursue her. Instead, she tentatively pulled back, turned the corner, and walked down the connecting street. She pulled her towel tighter around her body as she felt the stares of passersby.
This side of the street had less storefronts than the other one. In place of those stores were alleyways with walls plastered with colorful fliers. Most were empty and desolate aside from this. The fourth alley Atienna passed by, however, hosted some commotion.
Down this alley she spotted two men pressed up against the alley wall behind a large garbage bin. One man was much larger and taller than the other. They were both dressed in beige-colored, stripped blouses and pants that looked just a little bit too tight. Their faces were familiar—not to her personally, of course. If these two men were not close to two of her ‘important people,’ she was certain she would have moved right on past them.
Atienna ducked into the alley and slinked forward quietly, hesitantly. “G-Gilbert…? Carl…?”
The two men look up at her in unison. They stared.
After drawing nearer, she froze. Gilbert’s… arm. It was back. Intact. As if it was never gone in the first place. It was a sight she had only witnessed in a dream—one of Werner’s dreams.
“You’re… Atienna, right?” Gilbert released Carl.
Atienna’s heart hammered in her chest.
“One of the people connected to Werner?” he continued. He looked her up and down. “Fuck you look different too. What the fuck is going on here? Is Werner okay?”
“Is Werner okay?” Carl mocked before jerking his chin out at her. “What’s Cadence saying? This one of her party tricks again?”
Gilbert scoffed. “You think that swindler can pull something as complicated as this?”
Carl sneered at him. “The hell is that supposed to mean?”
Gilbert waved him off and looked Atienna over. “Well, as long as you’re okay, that means the others are okay, right?”
Atienna paused, then nodded. She felt relief and reassurance at the familiarity of the two men. Pausing, she glanced down at Gilbert’s arm again before averting her eyes.
Gilbert noticed and grabbed hold of it. He flexed his fingers, clenched his fist. “Oh yeah. This. Well, yeah. Can’t say I’m complaining, but it’s fucking… weird. Some cruel fucking joke.” He stared at his hand as if it was a foreign object. “Or… fuck it. I don’t know.”
Gilbert clenched his fist and looked over at him. “You got a problem?”
When Atienna saw that Gilbert and Carl were about to go at each other’s throats again, she interjected, “Perhaps… we should go over how exactly we ended up here? That would help us find common ground, don’t you think? We all agree that this is a… strange circumstance, right?”
Gilbert and Carl nodded, so she quickly explained everything leading up to her meeting them here: falling asleep, waking up with all of the gates open, falling, arriving at a pool, wandering, finding.
“Same deal here,” Carl said afterwards. “I was takin’ a nap and then woke up in some weird lookin’ v-ehicle.”
Gilbert nodded in confirmation. “I fell asleep too after Werner and Nico left and just woke up on a random bench a couple blocks from here. With my fucking hand back. I came across Herr Foxman here shortly after that.” He shook his head. “From what I can gather, this place is called the ‘Harvest in the Grainery District.’ Half the signs are in Virgoan, I think.” He looked up at her. “Right?”
Atienna nodded as her mind raced. Had everyone who was in Francis’s domain ended up here? Her family. Kichea, Kamaria, Bachiru—Safiyah. Olive, Cadence, Werner, Maria, Jericho. She knew the latter group could take care of themselves perfectly fine—especially if they were in contact with each other.
But why could she not hear or feel them? It was almost like what happened in Capricorn. Lonely. Empty.
However, perhaps this was a dream. And if it was a dream, should she be concerned at all?
Gilbert peered down the alleyway towards the crowded streets. “Everyone’s dressed like the they’ve come out of some weird ass… I don’t know. They’re dressed like clowns.” He pulled on his shirt and ruffled his hair—longer with sideburns. “I’m dressed like—I don’t even fucking know.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Shit.”
Pounding footsteps echoed around the alleyway.
Atienna looked in the direction and froze. Now, she was absolutely certain she was dreaming because it was Klaus Kleine bounding on towards them. He was wearing a thick pair of glasses, a large sweater vest, and khaki pants that looked uncomfortably stiff.
“A-Atienna…?” Klaus slowed to a stop in front of her.
Atienna remained silent, staring.
“Oh yeah.” Gilbert shrugged. “That gave me a heart attack too. I stumbled across him right after Carl here. I haven’t debriefed him fully yet, but—long story short—it turns out he faked his death with Emilia and Alwin and joined some ELPIS sect for a bit. They went to Virgo to investigate something together. He says he doesn’t remember anything after that and just woke up in some library down the street around the same time we did.”
It sounded too good to be true, but Atienna could not help but feel relief and hope small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. Once Werner learned about this…
Gilbert eyed Atienna. “You’re Virgoan, aren’t you, Atienna?”
“I am…” Atienna turned back to study him. She smiled. “What are you suggesting, Gilbert?”
“Nothing.” Gilbert shrugged, looking away. “I was just asking.”
“How… How is the captain?” Klaus drew in heavily accented Capricornian. “Atienna?”
Atienna looked back at him. “I…”
Klaus extended his hand awkwardly. “It’s good to see you again—er… if you remember me—”
“Stop flirting, Kleine.” Gilbert sighed before motioning him forward. “How was reconnaissance?”
Klaus tensed, stiffening. “I… you should see for yourself, Lieutenant.” He handed the crinkled newspaper in his hands to Gilbert.
Gilbert took it and scanned it. Only a second later, he was pale. “Why… the fuck does the date on this paper say June 14th… 1969—”
“The hell?” Carl snatched the newspaper from Gilbert’s hands and scans it. “They don’t teach you to read in Capricorn—” He paled too. “Shit. It really does say 1969—”
Gilbert snatched the paper back from him.
Atienna managed to catch a glance of it as he did so—just a portion of an article. It read—
DON’T FORGET TO ATTEND THE SUMMER TREE FESTIVAL OF 1969.
STARTING MID-JULY AND RUNNING UNTIL JULY 30th!
Gilbert rubbed his fingers on the 6 and the 9 printed at the corner of the page as if it would change if he wiped hard enough. It didn’t.
Atienna studied him before uncrossing her arms and pulling out the paper that had been shoved into her hands earlier. It was a bright flier with a pale tangerine background. Swirling green, red, and yellow lines cut across the paper, and this was paired with random cartoon flowers that blossomed at random spots on the page. A faded symbol of a familiar white snake was printed behind it all. The flier itself read—
MARCH TO OPEN THE GATES FOR THE CHILDREN
A street address and the date July 30th, 1969 was printed in the far right corner of the flier.
“What the fuck…? So ELPIS is just giving out flyers now?” Gilbert arched a brow after he skimmed the flier. He eyed Carl. “So this is another ELPIS situation then. Your brother is an ELPIS Leader, isn’t he? The one who nearly sank the Twin Cities? Is this another one of those things—”
“You watch your mouth,” Carl snarled.
Gilbert held up an apologetic hand. “Sorry. I’m trying to touch all bases here.”
“What… does this mean, Lieutenant?” Klaus whispered.
“This is fake.” Gilbert threw down the newspaper and grimaced. “It’s all fake. Some kind of scheme.”
“Scheme? But by who?”
“A saint candidate maybe?” Gilbert suggested. “A new one.” He grimaced. “They just keep coming.” He nodded at Atienna. “What’s the word from Werner?” He eyed Carl. “Or the swindler?”
“I…” Atienna hugged her waist. “… can’t hear or feel them. They’re distant…”
Carl and Gilbert exchanged looks.
“Well, shit. That’s not good.”
Gilbert placed a hand on his hip. “Well, any ideas? Werner said you were smart.”
“I… There are only three possibilities that come to mind… don’t you think?” Atienna draws, placing a hand to her chin. “One, this is all a dream. Two, this is real and this setting is devised by an external party. It could be a Virgoan construct or it could be constructed to appear as if it is one.” She sighed, lowering her hand. “Three… this is time travel. Each theory is more ridiculous than the next, don’t you think?”
There was a beat of silence.
“Well, we can’t all be havin’ the dream.” Carl frowned. “I sure as hell ain’t a figment of any of your dreams. That’s for sure. Feels too real to be a dream too.”
“Time travel…”Klaus murmured, slipping into Capricornian “A saint candidate who can use vitae to time travel…?”
Gilbert made a face. “Klaus, don’t be stupid.” He glanced at Atienna. “I’m not saying it’s a stupid theory. It’s just a bit far-fetched.”
“There are a couple caveats to the time travel theory—though that’s why it’s called a theory…” Atienna agreed, drawing out the card she had received from the Sagittarian woman earlier “Firstly…” She handed it to Gilbert.
Gilbert looked it over in confusion. Klaus cocked his head while Carl arched a brow.
“I also came across a diplomat that I used to work with,” Atienna continued, “ and she… seemed to be comfortable with the situation…”
Klaus began, “So maybe it’s time travel mixed with some—”
“Do you hear yourself?” Gilbert elbowed him slightly. “You need to get your head out of those books, Klaus.” He grimaced and handed Atienna the card back. “This must be what that one… ‘officer’ was asking about then.” He eyed Carl with an annoyed look.
“Officer?” Atienna queried.
“Hey. It’s not my damned fault,” Carl grumbled, crossing his arms.
Atienna noticed that there were gold chains hanging around his neck.
“Look,” he explained, “I was tryin’ to find my way out of wherever the hell this place is, and this random bastard walks up to me and says ‘totally tubular’! The bastard called me a damned tube!”
“Tube?” Klaus asked in confusion. “What does… that mean…?”
“Hell if I know, but it sure as hell sounded like an insult, didn’t it?” Carl snapped. “So I gave him a scare. Some bastard came to us after that—law enforcement or whatever. He said we were causin’ a disturbance and gave me damned shakedown askin’ for my ID. Thought he was talkin’ about a conductin’ license so I told him I didn’t have one, and—well—he started gettin’ handsy. I got handsy right back.”
“That’s when I found him surrounded by ten of those ‘officers’.” Gilbert crossed his arm. “And now we’re basically on the run. Well, we were on the run before, so I guess saying that’s redundant.”
A shadow spilled down the alley.
Gilbert tackled Carl to the side behind the garbage bin. Atienna grabbed Klaus and followed suit. She nestled beside Carl. Gilbert was squeezed just beside the man beside the side of the trash bin. Carl glared at him, but Gilbert just put a finger to his lips.
They remained silent together.
Footsteps echo down the alleyway towards them.
Atienna maneuvered over Gilbert and Carl and peered beneath the garbage bin. There was a small space between its bottom and the ground that allowed her to see a portion of the alleyway. The first thing that she saw were four fuzzy paws moving in their direction from the lip of the alley. A head dipped down in front of those paws—a pink nose surrounded by thin whiskers. Above that nose twinkled bright blue eyes. A kitten.
As the kitten drew closer and closer, Atienna studied it with hesitation. She then recalled that Alice was the last living she had seen before arriving in this place. Atienna’s hands itched at the realization. She started to reach out for the kitten from below the bin—
“Psss psss psss.”
Atienna retracted her hand as Carl and Gilbert tensed.
Atienna saw another figure enter the alley from the slit beneath the garbage bin. A human, not an animal this time. Whoever it was—they were dressed in what appeared to be dressed a uniform of some sort. White and long-sleeved with black buttons running down its front. A black apron hung down from their waist. The outfit was honestly the most normal thing Atienna had seen since arriving in this place—though that was the only normal thing about the person moving towards them. After all—the person was crawling on all-fours along the ground. Their bare hand was extended out towards the retreating kitten.
The kitten meowed in protest.
“Meow,” the person answered back. “Meow meow. Psss psss psss. Mreow.” A pause. The person’s hand wiggled welcomingly. “See? I’m friendly. I can talk meow-meow too, so come on, buddy. Come here—”
Atienna took in a breath.
That voice. It was one of the five that had been carved delicately into her heart. But.. that manner of speech was—
The kitten finally rounded the corner of the bin. Atienna didn’t reach for it even as it meowed her. Instead, she kept her vision trained on the corner of the bin until the unknown person pulled out from behind it too.
Pale skin, blonde hair unusually not smoothed down in a tight comb-back, and wearing large sunglasses that concealed eyes Atienna knew were a cold ice-blue.
A/N: Okay! first chapter of p5 is now out. as you can see it is a bit different from other parts //waves hands mysteriously. there will be lots of extra media accompanying this part for reasons™. while some media will be found in special footnote links in chapters if you pay attention, other special meida things will be found on the new website designed for p5 right here. the pages for the website are password protected and updated with each new chapter. they contain some in-world material. the passwords can be found in each chapter.and the hints will be found in the author’s notes.