The person leaving the house for work,
the child heading to school,
the wealthy man leaving home for vacation,
the wealthy woman surrounded by earthly pleasures,
the adolescent flipping through papyrus book pages,
they are all running from something.
“Ugh! Can you believe those two hooligans?” Cadence snapped, inspecting her nails. “How shameless can you be?”
“Completely apparently,” Francis replied, tapping his fingers on his crossed legs. “I’m glad you’re alright at least. Hopefully the guidance officers teach them a thing or two about shame.” His eyes narrowed. “Though preferably I’d teach that to them myself.”
“Now you’re concerned.” Cadence huffed, crossing her arms. “You didn’t seem up in arms about it when we were all together earlier.”
Francis turned to her. “Oh, believe me. I was upset then and I’m still upset now. But being rash has never solved anything. If I could do what Werner did, I probably would’ve.” He smiled. “Am I not living up to your big brother idealizations?”
Cadence huffed, then sighed. “No, obviously not. To both things. But I don’t want to see you going around getting hurt because of me.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ugh. Werner… He’ll be the death of me.”
Francis merely chuckled before turning his attention to Carl. “How are you, Carl?”
Carl, who’d been watching the back and forth, startled. “Er…”
They were sitting in the back of the limousine together. Francis and Cadence side-by-side. Carl directly across from them and facing the front. Feliciano was driving and again kept glancing at them through the rear view mirror. Carl had given up glaring half an hour ago.
“Just our luck that you caught VNW right before our grand opening.” Francis rested his head against the window. “It’ll definitely be one for the books.” He sighed. “Funny how dreams are never how you imagine them to be. Even in a place like Ndoto.”
Carl studied him, then studied Cadence, then studied him again. “So you’re not a member of ELPIS, Francis.”
Francis arched a brow at him before glancing over at Cadence. “Not… on paper. Wouldn’t be very good for our businesses, would it?” He smiled and placed a hand on his chest. “Our corporation are gentle supporters of the movement.” He spread out his hand and studied it. “That’s where I met my precious magpie actually.”
Carl noticed there was a ring on his finger. “Wait. What?”
Francis pointed to the ceiling of the v-ehicle and Cadence followed suit with a nod. “The man dictates who can enter Ndoto. That’s not very fair, is it? We’ve gotta stick it to the man.”
“Who the hell is this ‘man’? Why are we sticking things to him?” Carl grumbled. “And can he book me a ticket out of this hellhole.”
Francis arched a brow and chuckled. “The man, big brother, etcetera—it’s slang, Carl. For the chief guidance council. Not very jive for a handful of people to decide whether or not children deserve to be let in here, is it?”
Carl ran his hand down his face. “What the hell is jive?”
Francis opened his mouth then closed it before glancing over at Cadence. “Jive is jive. You don’t know it. You feel it.”
Cadence offered a familiar sly grin—all teeth. “That sounds like something who doesn’t actually know what it means would say.”
“Well, the word features heavily in your songs, doesn’t it? I guess I don’t know what half your songs mean then.”
Cadence scowled. “How dare you?”
They went back-and-forth a while.
“So where’s Allen?” Carl asked, half-listening.
“Al’s on a business trip,” Francis answered. “He should be returning soon. But don’t worry about that. You should worry about getting better—”
“Speaking of worried…” Cadence sighed. “Carl’s condition started getting me worried about you and Allen getting VNW… Francis, you were acting peculiar earlier and Allen too…”
“You know, Al,” Francis replied. “He’s always got it together. As for myself…” He chuckled. “I admit I was nervous for that dance.”
Cadence placed a hand on her cheek and sighed. “You two are so cute together!”
Carl interjected. “Did any of you get stabbed recently?” He’d been trying to get more details for his Scorpio-being-the-one-behind-this idea despite not knowing much about Scorpio—just because Captain Ditzy claimed he wasn’t stabbed didn’t mean Francis and Cadence hadn’t been—but as soon as the question slipped from his mouth, he suddenly remembered that autumn night when they’d found Francis lying face-first in his own blood.
“What?” Francis and Cadence exchanged looks again. “Stabbed…?”
There was silence.
Cadence huffed. “Well, if you count my feelings then yes. I can see it now. They’ll say my new song caused a riot or something. Ugh.”
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
“Says the one who’s not a part of ELPIS ‘on paper.’”
They went back-and-forth again.
“So, Francis.” Carl figured he’d try a different approach though he didn’t really know what his first approach was in the first place. “About Omicron.”
“Charite. She’s your—”
“Fiancée,” Francis confirmed. His face softened and he sighed. “She was kind enough to swing by the bar even though it’s busy at her work place. She went back after, but you’ll probably see her when she comes by for dinner—”
“So she really is alive. ‘Alive.’ In wherever the hell this is.”
The corner of Francis’s mouth twitched slightly. “Neither of us are planning on visiting the tree for a long time if that’s what you’re saying. No one in our family is.”
* * *
Carl figured he must’ve fallen asleep at some point listening to Francis and Cadence go back and forth about dry topics like fashion, news, and the damned weather. Next thing he knew he was being shaken awake by Feliciano who was squeezed halfway in through the open door.
“We’re here, sir.”
Carl nearly kicked the man back in surprise but decided that since Cadence and Francis seemed to be in a good mood—compared to their moods back home, that was. He rolled out of the car and slapped away Feliciano’s helping hand. Cadence and Francis were standing side-by-side, looking into the distance. After a beat, Carl joined them. He didn’t look in the direction they were looking and instead gave the two a look over.
They were basically claiming that he himself was crazy. Carl knew he wasn’t crazy though. But these two didn’t look crazy either.
A long road extended down the hill to a gate. Beyond that gate was a strip of forest and beyond that was a sparkling city made up of spiderwebbing lights. It looked too clean—the city, that was. Usually when things looked this spotless it meant something that something real messy happened just before. Something that required a lot of ‘cleaning’ to not draw attention.
“Could use a smoke,” Carl grumbled.
Francis side-glanced at him and smiled with a wink—
“I saw that!” Cadence whipped around. “You promised me you’d stop smoking!”
Cadence was loud.
Carl turned away from her and
Carl swore. “The hell is this? A castle?”
Cadence arched a brow at him. “No, it’s home. My home, at least. We were supposed to have a dinner party after our opening but the whole VNW debacle put a damper on things.” She cast him a worried look . “Oh, Carl, it’s not your fault. You know I didn’t mean it that way. It’s something you can’t help.”
The house on the hill looked even bigger than old man Romano’s estate. And it was Cadence’s. And Cadence was his sister. And Francis was only a part of ELPIS ‘on paper.’ He was normal. No wordy speeches Carl could only half understand. No moodiness, bitterness, anything.
They had money here. More money than they had before it looked like. They had a good gig too.
There was a catch. There was always a catch. At least that was what Allen and Francis and Fortuna always said. That was what the Romanos said, what the Campanas said. They were always the ones throwing out that catch though.
* * *
Not only was Cadence’s house bigger than old man Romano’s, it was way nicer looking too. Well, if Carl ignored the gaudy style. For some reason people here loved wood-panel walls and that ugly green wallpaper and too many mirrors. Some of the art pieces hanging— ‘art’ pieces— were also uglier than ugly. Jagged puzzle pieces, weird lamps with bubbles in them that Cadence called ‘lava lamps’, and ugly twisted pieces of metal. There was one that wasn’t too bad—an acrylic painting of a bunch of tents fluttering over a sandy dune. Apparently four-eyes—the suit-case peacekeeper—had painted it.
Carl was led through a bunch of fancy corridors, a trophy room that hosted some of Cadence’s singing awards, and a gigantic ballroom containing a life-sized portrait of Carl himself, Francis, Allen, Carl, and a man and woman that Carl didn’t recognize. He’d always found it weird when people put up those big family portraits. They called it tradition. Carl called it creepy. He’d been hoping the trend would die with the turn of the half-century but apparently that was a no go.
Eventually, they reached a dining room lit by a crystalline chandelier that unfortunately illuminated gaudy artwork hanging on the walls and a gaudy table with bright green chairs. The only thing not gaudy about the decor—if he could even call it that—was the food. The feast more like it. Duck, pasta, chicken, fish, bread, and everything in-between. Looked more like something that’d be prepared for a meeting between families than a meeting between family.
A man stood at the forefront of the table. Not a man but a corpse. A man that should’ve been a corpse. Donato. Like father, like son.
“This looks absolutely lovely!” Cadence sighed, clasping her hands together. “Thank you so much, Donato!”
“You’ve certainly outdone yourself, Donato,” Francis praised. “You and Feliciano can take the rest of the weekend off.”
“You’ve gotta be shittin’ me,” Carl muttered as he watched Feliciano and Donato exit together. He wanted to laugh at the hilarity of the situation—at the fact that Donato had prepared him a full-course meal and was working for Cadence. But it was the kind of hilarious that was too hilarious to even laugh at.
Carl rubbed his chin as Cadence took a seat. Francis checked his wrist where a watch gleamed. He smiled then moved to the sidewall and pressed his palm against it. A bright tangerine light erupted from his hand and spilled out onto the wall until it formed the shape of a doorway.
No blood? Conductorless conducting? The color of his vitae…?
Francis then offered his opposite hand to the light. A pale hand slithered out from the light. He guided that hand out from the gate—arm, shoulder, torso, head, leg.
It was the woman he’d caught a glimpse of earlier dancing with at the shitty version of TwinStars—the roller rink. Her hair was long and braided, swinging down against her slender frame. She was no longer in a suit but a bright purple flower-print dress with hanging sleeves.
“You look adorable!” Cadence gasped, rising from her seat. “I knew you’d look fantastic in that!” She sent Francis a look and huffed. “Francis, you should’ve worn that matching suit I got you! It would’ve been perfect!”
“Thank you again, Cadence. It’s lovely,” Charite replied, pulling away from the gate as it dimmed. She trailed a hand along his cheek. “Sorry for being so late, darling. You didn’t have to use up a VP for me—”
Francis took her chin between his fingers. “I would’ve spent more on it if it meant that I could shorten our time apart to zero.”
Cadence made some weird squeaking sound and clasped her hands together.
Carl meanwhile felt a chill run down his spine. Seeing Donato and Feliciano walking and talking was one thing but seeing Omicron walking and talking was a different story. She already had a foot half in the grave when they first met and then both feet in the grave the last time they met so this was unsettling.
Their dynamic here was definitely different from how Carl remembered it—
Charite pulled away from Francis and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Hello, Carl.”
Francis led Charite to the table, pulled out a chair for her to sit, before taking a seat himself.
“You coming, Carl?” Francis asked after.
Now Carl was not the reading type. Hadn’t cracked open a book since he was ten. But he did listen when people read books. Back in Francis’s rooms, Francis would often read Capricornian fairy tale books to the children. Creepy stories where witches ate children, mystical creatures drained people of their vitae, and so on. Now Carl was never good at connecting dots but this scenario seemed like one of those fairy tales. Especially since the feast was cooked by living corpse Donato himself.
“Come on, Carl.” Francis quirked a brow at him from where he’d seated himself beside Charite. “I know things aren’t turning out the way we wanted them to be, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy what did turn out, right?”
Damn. Hearing Francis sound like himself made Carl feel a certain way. No word for it really. Made more sense to act on it—so he sat down in-between Cadence and Francis and took a plate of pasta for himself.
Cadence immediately began to chatter. They were talking about boring things again. All three of them.
“So. Fortuna ‘here’? Is she like the both of you? And—er—Charite?” Carl tried, moving a noodle around his plate. “How about Ricardo and Agape? The kids?”
“Like us?” Francis arched a brow. Before he could answer Charite leaned over and fed him a spoonful of pasta.
Apparently no one here knew discretion. Not Nico, not Captain Ditzy, not Cadence, not Charite, not Francis. Everyone was all over everyone here. Carl guessed the posters about the ERA OF LOVE he’d seen lying around hadn’t been exaggerating.
“Fortuna’s still studying in the Child of the World District,” Cadence replied. She sighed and waved her fork in the air. “I haven’t seen her in ages! Ricardo and Agape—oh!” She clasped her hands together and set her utensils on the table. “Let me get the photo album!”
She left and returned shortly after with a thick leather-bound book. She daintily pushed aside his plate and placed the book in front of him. Kneeling at his right, she began to flip through the photos.
It was creepy.
The photos in the album started out black-and-white and featured a young-version Carl himself, a teenage Allen, and that couple he didn’t recognize from the portrait standing in front of a gate of some kind. The next featured them along with a very wobbly-looking Francis holding a small infant Carl could only assume was Cadence. In this one, they seemed to be standing on a bridge that overlooked a ginormous tree.
The ones after that were all in color.
The following photo featured all of them—minus the unfamiliar couple—along with a young smiling Fortuna and a scowling young Nico. It was almost an exact replica of the photo of them when they were kids back in the 30’s Carl used to keep in his pocket.
“So what’s up with Nico?” Carl asked, vaguely creeped out by the photograph.
“Hm?” Cadence seemed thrown off by the question.
“You guys don’t get along. What’s the deal with that? He’s our family’s doctor.”
Cadence scoffed. “I can’t imagine him being anything like a doctor.”
“When Nico decided to be a guidance officer—that’s when things started being tense between us,” Francis explained. “Our opinions and the guidance council’s opinions sometimes don’t align. I’m not the type to let politics get in-between relationships.”
“Can’t say the same for Nico obviously,” Cadence huffed, aggressively turning the page.
The following picture showed Carl himself, Allen, Francis, and Cadence surrounded by a handful of smiling faces.
The kids, he realized. They were here too? Good to see them smiling.
“We host children and families who are new to Ndoto,” Francis provided. “We have the means to do it, so why not?”
Carl nearly choked as he saw the next photo. It captured an adolescent-looking Francis, the suitcase peacekeeper, Vincente Giustizia, Conta, Iota—the version of them Carl had seen with Captain Ditzy— and Charite all standing in front of a banner that read OPEN THE GATES, OPEN YOUR HEARTS. Bright flower circlets topped their heads and hung from their necks.
Again Carl wanted to laugh but he couldn’t. Instead he snorted. “What’s with all the flowers?”
Charite flashed a loose V-sign.
Francis followed suit, forming a W with Charite when their fingers touched. “What’s a better representation of passive resistance than being like a flower?”
Maybe this wasn’t paradise, after all.
Carl noticed something in the photo. He counted heads, went over his memories from last autumn. “That one doll isn’t in the picture.”
“Doll…?” Francis chuckled. “Well, I hope not. Dolls are pretty creepy in my opinion. I remember when Cadence used to be obsessed with them.”
“You know….” Charite drew. “Playing with dolls can help children develop empathy and social skills. Children usually love playing with them so that says a lot about children.”
Francis smiled at her, placing an elbow on the table, resting his chin on his palm, and leaning towards her. “Is that so? So what does that say about adults—”
“No, not ‘doll.’ Doll. The one with the fancy suit,” Carl explained, squinting at the photo. “Hair bleached white. Long hair. Kept flipping it over her shoulder. Tattoo right on the back of her neck. Think she was a Manipulator—”
Someone kicked him beneath the table.
Carl yelped and sent a glare in Francis’s direction but he just stared in confusion. When Carl looked at Cadence, she stared as well—also in confusion. The only person who didn’t look thrown off was Charite.
Carl eyed her, but all she did was flash a smile at him.
* * *
Carl had no idea what the hell was going on when he first arrived at Ndoto, and with each passing second he had less and less of an idea. He’d reached such a peak of not knowing what was going on that he didn’t even make a face when Cadence ushered them into her ballroom and began to play on the grand piano there. The tune that she played was familiar—something she’d played for them back at the Sognare.
Around and around Charite and Francis danced. At times it looked like Francis was leading and other times Charite. Their dance was thankfully not like the dances Carl had seen in the roller rink. It was more familiar and sensible. A waltz.
Carl didn’t really know what the hell to do or where the hell to go so he sat himself down in an ugly chair and watched them go at it. Around and around they went without breaking a sweat. Weird.
Carl began to doze off but was startled awake as Cadence hit a loud chord. He blinked and rubbed his eyes before focusing back on Francis and Charite. He did an immediate double-take as he found a completely different couple dancing where the other two had been.
A beautiful woman with long, sleek black hair wearing a dark black robe with dark lacing. A boyish young woman with blonde hair and broad shoulders.
He recognized those two. He’d seen them briefly when he’d sneaked a peek at the sketchbook that belonged to the suitcase peacekeeper. Francis had identified them for him later.
Altair. Vega. Omicron. Theta.
Carl leapt up to his feet in alarm—or at least he thought he did. Next thing he knew Cadence was shaking him awake.
“Are you okay?!” she asked. “You suddenly started shouting.”
Francis’s and Charite’s faces eclipsed into his view. Both looked surprised—though Francis looked worried.
“Looks like you fell asleep,” Francis said lightly with a reassuring smile. “Did our dancing bore you that much?”
Carl raised a finger. “I was not sleeping. What the hell is going on here?” He pointed to Francis and Charite. “Altair. Vega!”
“Oh no…” Cadence bit her lip. “Is it the VNW? Is it getting worse?”
“Maybe we should all call it a night,” Charite suggested. “It’s been a long night for all of us—”
Carl snapped, “Hell, no—”
The lights flickered on and off.
In that flickering, Carl witnessed small little pores opening up on Cadence’s and Francis’s faces. From those pores grew stems that bloomed flowers. Carl watched in horror as the flowers consumed the entirety of his siblings’ faces. He lurched forward to rip the flowers off only to stop short when he realized that Charite’s face was clear of them.
Francis’s and Cadence’s faces were clear of them now too.
“I think,” Charite said, “you should go to sleep, Carl.”
* * *
This weird version of Cadence worried way too much. It was the exact opposite of the Cadence Carl knew—suave, relaxed, collected. At least on the surface. All he did was nod off slightly and apparently hallucinate flowers growing from his siblings’ faces, and the next thing he knew, Cadence was immediately ushering him into bed.
The guest room she settled him in had terrible zigzagging wallpaper and too many of those lava lamps. She gave him a cold glass of water, a warm hug, and a wet kiss on the cheek before departing.
She was sweet. And apparently his sister. And apparently she didn’t just have flowers growing out of her face.
Carl didn’t know what to feel.
He sank down into the ginormous bed—covered with a hideous zebra-print blanket—and sank immediately. He leapt up with a yelp and watched the bed jiggle back and forth like jelly.
It took him five minutes of poking and prodding to realize that the mattress of the bed was filled with some kind of liquid. Water maybe. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to pump a bed full of water? Seemed like more of a torture device than anything. In fact, Carl reckoned that he’d bring the idea back home. A souvenir. Had to bring home something worthwhile from whatever trip this was.
Carl tossed and turned in the bed for about half an hour before deciding to hell with it. He exited the room and entered the adjacent hallway. It was dim and dark. Thank saints. He didn’t have to look at all the ugly furniture.
With no particular destination in mind, Carl began to wander the place. He passed the dining room again and found that the table had been cleared. By who? Carl had no idea.
He eventually found his way back at the doors of the ballroom. There was light seeping through the crack in the door and muffled whispers from within. The first signs of life he’d seen since wandering around. He cracked the door open just slightly and peered inside.
Charite was sitting on the sofa Carl’d been sitting on earlier. Francis was kneeling in front of her with his head draped over her lap. Carl couldn’t see his expression but there was a familiar melancholy gloom that hung over his shoulders.
Charite ran her fingers through Francis’s hair as flowers began to bloom along his body.
“Darling, shall we wake up now or stay asleep?”
Carl threw open the door in alarm only to be blinded by a sudden flash of light and a burst of opposite-sweeping wind. He immediately lifted his arm to shield his eyes as wind continued to whistle around him. When he lowered his arm, he paused, blinked, and rubbed his eyes.
Not the limestone path that now rolled out in front of him. Not the bushes and trees that lined the path. Not the Ophiuchus-like cream-colored pillars that stood tall in-between all the green. Not the bright blue sky that opened up above his head.
Carl could still feel the cold metal knob of the door he’d shoved open only moments before so he whipped back. The door was still there—frame and all. But the wall wasn’t there. It was just the door. Contained within the door frame itself was the hall he’d just been in. Behind and beyond the door frame, however, was a set of marble steps that led to an open hall with a triangle stone roof held up by a series of pillars. Along that walkway drifted clusters of people dressed in vaguely familiar robe-like garments.
Fashion just kept getting worse and worse, didn’t it?
It was disorienting. The gaudy furniture of Cadence’s hallway trapped in the doorway laid on top of the outdoor sprawl. Two sceneries.
Wait.. Was this one of Francis’s gate things? Even though it looked nothing like that? Carl had no clue. Whatever was happening—he knew he had a choice here and the choice was obvious.
Carl threw himself back into the doorway and slammed the door shut behind him—
—only to find himself stumbling up the steps leading to the hall just behind the door.
He blanched and then paled once he realized he could no longer feel the doorknob in his hand. Upon turning, he realized the door was no longer there.
“You’ve got to be shittin’ me—”
Whispering from above cut him off.
Glancing up the staircase, he found that some of the people moving up there had started to stop and stare.
“Hey! Where am I?” he shouted up at them.
They began to whisper amongst themselves with furrowed brows.
Carl had half the mind to cuss them out but immediately forgot the swears on his tongue when he realized Francis was among them. He was holding a book under his arm and was flocked by a ring of men and women.
Carl waved with. “Francis—”
Francis glared, shook his head, and walked away. His flock followed him.
“Wha—” Carl didn’t even bother getting angry. Instead, he clambered up the steps and stormed through the hall after him. “Francis!” He shoved members of the crowd aside, nearly tripping over the length of their robes. “Francis!”
After a lot of pushing and shoving, Carl found himself wandering down a closed hall and heading up a spiral staircase. He pushed and shoved his way up the staircase and stumbled into a marbled corridor lined with doorways draped closed with silk.
What the hell? Was this a ‘hippie’ thing? Wait no. That didn’t make sense—
Someone grabbed him by the arm. Another robed person. A woman. “!ατητύχατ ετψόk .ιορώχ ίοκιτωιδι ιανίε ίοτυα ⸮ώδε ςιενέμ”
“Huh?” Carl ripped his arm away from the woman as he caught sight of Francis entering a room down the hall by himself.
He shoved himself through a crowd of women glaring at him with hushed whispers before stumbling into the room he’d seen Francis disappear into. Inside he found a small bedroom furnished with an uncomfortable wooden bed and a woven art-piece hanging on the wall. At the corner of the room, Carl finally found Francis sitting on a wooden stool in front of a mirror. He was halfway through taking off his shirt when he paused and locked eyes with Carl through the mirror.
Carl threw up a hand. “Francis! What the hell—”
Francis whipped around, covered his chest, eyes wide. “Ποιός είσαι? Πώς μπήκες εδώ μέσα; Διαστρεβλώ!”
“What?” Carl shook his head. “What are you saying? Why you speakin’ gibberish?”
“Βγες έξω! Βγες έξω! Αδιάντροπος κρετίνος!”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean—” Carl was cut off when Francis abruptly drew out a bristle brush out from nowhere and hurled it in his direction. He ducked beneath it. “What the hell, Francis—” He cut himself off as he caught another glimpse of Francis’s reflection in the mirror.
The thing was— it wasn’t Francis’s reflection there. It was some other woman’s reflection. A woman with pale skin and long black hair and—wait a minute. Carl recognized her. He’d just seen a glimpse—a hallucination—of her only an hour ago.
“What the hell’s wrong with your reflection, Francis—”
Carl was tackled to the ground before he could finish his sentence. When he looked up, he found that it was none other than Charite who was pinning him to the ground.
“What the hell? Let me go! Get off of me!”
She was strong.
As he struggled against her, he caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. Fair, blonde, white-robed.
He stared at the mirror image before whipping to Francis who was backed into the corner.
“Francis, it’s me!”
Francis frowned at him apprehensively before narrowing his eyes at Charite. He said something Carl couldn’t understand again.
Charite merely chuckled in response and responded in that gibberish Carl couldn’t understand. She dragged him up to his feet with his hands pinned behind his back as she went back and forth with Francis for a while. There were only a couple words that Carl could understand thrown between them— ‘Itero Recino’, ‘Mathitís,’ and ‘Ophiuchus.’ Eventually, their conversation died down—though their eyes lingered on each other. Finally, Francis waved his hand and turned back to the mirror to face Vega’s reflection.
“What the hell…”
Charite’s breath tickled Carl’s ear as she pulled him close. “You don’t belong in this utopia.”
The next thing Carl knew he was being thrown into a dingy cell with white limestone walls and rustless iron bars. The door of the cell slammed close with a metallic rattle before Charite walked away humming and swinging a ring of keys around her finger. She was joined at the doorless entrance of the room by a man who threw his arm around her shoulder before pulling her around the corner.
Carl took a sweep of his cell—a small barred window, a hard rock bed, three stone walls, and a wall of iron bars that led into a hall. A hall lined with similar cells. He grabbed the bars and shook them. “Are you shittin’ me…?”
With difficulty, Carl squeezed his face partially through the bars of his cell and peered into the cell to the left of his. He could barely make out the face squeezing out from behind the bars. Angled features, dark eyes, sharp and searching even in these kinds of conditions.
“Agape…?” Carl did a double-take. “Agape, is that you?”
It was Agape Rosario in the flesh. He couldn’t make her out quite clearly but she was dressed normally—as in no crazy, ugly colors, no wild hair, just normal. Like how she’d looked when he’d last seen her.
She squinted at Carl. “Carl Foxman. I see your brother’s gone on another rampage—”
“Hey! Don’t go pointin’ fingers!” he snapped. “That’s not what’s goin’ on here…”
“Then what is going on here?”
Agape was wearing normal clothing. Clothing from the time he knew, so that meant—
“I knew it!” Carl gripped the bars tightly and let out a sigh. “I knew I wasn’t crazy! VNW my ass!”
“Saying it is different than actually being it, Carl. Now what in the world are you talking about—”
“What year is it, Agape?”
“What year is it?!”
“I knew it—wait what?” he did a double-take. “No, no, no, that’s not what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say it’s 1969!”
“Why in the world would I say it’s 1969?”
“I meant 1942. This place is getting to me.”
There was a stretch of silence.
“Agape?” Carl pressed, tense, nervous.
“It was 1942 last I recall. We were supposed to be making profit from stopping a war instead of fueling it despite the paradox of it. And now this. The people here dress and act like it’s the golden era of Signum. I’m assuming this has to do with that Ambrose—Epsilon—”
“Yes, yes, yes! Exactly—wait. Epsilon? That bastard. Maybe you’re right. Either way—exactly!”
“What? What’s gotten into you, Carl?” The frown in Agape’s voice was apparent. “What’s going on here?”
“Whatever it is, Francis isn’t behind it. He’s bein’ played too. His reflection was What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Falling asleep. Cadence’s associates, Cadence, and your brother were going to head to Virgo to do some political scheme. Next moment I’m being thrown in this cell.”
“Yes, yes, yes—”
“That voice—” another voice called out from the cell to his right. “Would you be… Carl Foxman of the Foxman Family? Organized crime executive—”
Carl tried to squeeze himself further forward between the bars to identify the person in the cell but they pulled away before he could catch a glimpse of their face. He was able to, however, catch a glimpse of their brightly dyed hair. “Hey! I recognize you! You’re that one peacekeeper the suitcase peacekeeper brought along! Ferris wheel or whatever—”
There was a pause. “It’s Ferris Hart.” Another pause. “Jericho? Have you seen Jericho?”
“Yeah, back in 1969,” Carl grumbled. “He’s a hippie now.”
“Hippie? What is… hippie? 1969….?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Agape’s voice cut through. “Carl, what is going on? Is this Francis—”
A shadow eclipsed the room. Three figures stood in the open doorway. Among them was Charite. The central figure was a familiar man wearing square glasses and sporting a mustache and scowl.
“Giustizia?” Agape drew. “No. Tau.”
“An ELPIS leader?” Ferris whispered.
Agape took in a breath. “That woman—”
The man who flanked Tau’s left was dressed in the same weird robes everyone else here was dressed in. His hair was golden, his skin tanned, his white robes unwrinkled. He looked like one of those statues he’d seen in the papers—the ones that were all over Ophiuchus.
Tau said something in gibberish.
Charite responded lightly before propping an elbow on Tau’s shoulder and gesturing to the cell right across from Carl. Tau walked himself right into the cell before swinging it shut himself. The man with the golden hair smiled gently in response while Charite chuckled briefly. Carl realized the golden man kind of looked a bit like that peacekeeper—the less creepy peacekeeping saint candidate: Leona.
“Charite!” Carl shook the bars. “Let me out of here!”
Charite locked eyes with him momentarily before guiding Tau into one of the cells and locking it shut.
“Open the damned door!” Carl snapped, shaking the bars.
Charite and the golden man rounded the cells side-by-side. They peered into each cell as they walked around and made comments here and there. Eventually they reached Carl’s cell. Carl felt the hairs on his arm rise as the golden man’s gaze swept over him.
He said something that Carl couldn’t understand. Unlike everyone else here, he seemed to understand that Carl didn’t understand what he was saying because he said something else in what sounded like a different language. After a pause, he seemed to try again in a different language. Then again and again and again. Until—
“How about now?”
The man smiled. “Ah, do you understand me now?”
Carl frowned. “Yeah. And can you understand that you need to let me the hell out of here?”
The man stared at him before he chuckled. “You trespassed on the privacy of a maiden. Privacy and respect are important things, no? What may seem like a passing interaction to you may live in the memory of the other person for a very long time. You chose to be here because you made that choice. You understand, yes?”
Instead of responding, the man turned and shook Charite’s hand with a smile—all teeth—before exiting the room. Charite glanced back at Carl momentarily before she pressed her finger to her lips and followed the gold man out of the room.
“What is going on here, Carl….?”
Carl rattled the bars one more time for good measure before he sank down on the stone cold bed. “Hell if I know.”
There was a pause.
“What are foreigners doing here?” Tau suddenly broke the silence. He was peering at them through the “Where do you hail from? What crimes have you committed? You are aware that you’re just helping to prevail stereotypes against foreigners, aren’t you?”
“What are you babbling about?” Agape half-snapped. “What is this, Tau?”
Tau stared blankly in Agape’s direction. “Tau? What’s the meaning of that? What sort of vernacular are you putting on me without my permission?”
“So…” Ferris’s voice cut through. She sounded nervous, hesitant. Not very peacekeeper-like. But she also sounded curious—nosey. Very peacekeeper-like. “Are you… saying you aren’t an ELPIS leader?”
“A what?” Tau frowned.
“What’s your name?” Ferris pressed.
Tau squinted at her. “My name is Alshain.” He paused as if for dramatic effect. “Daughter of Androcles…?”
“Daughter…?” Agape whispered. “What?”
“Daughter…?” Carl parroted before guffawing. “I feel sorry for your parents if they had a ‘daughter’ like you—”
Tau’s image flickered for a moment. In that flickering, Carl swore he saw the figure of a robe-wearing young woman with auburn hair done up in an intricate bun standing in Tau’s place.
“What’s the date?” Ferris pressed.
Tau arched a brow. “Are you lucid?” He then answered, “It’s the first month and 20th day of the year 1441.” He took in a deep breath and continued on. “Several moons from now will see Signum officially signed into reality, but I have doubts about the laws that have been put in place so I’ve taken it upon myself to test them through self-imprisonment—”
Carl swore and went up to the bars of his cell again. “1941 was a bad year. 1942 was even worse. 1969 is hell. And now I’ve gotta categorize 1441 on the hell-hole scale? Call me a damned ELPIS Leader or a saint candidate because I’m only in my early thirties and I’ve already damned well lived five centuries!”
Agape half-snapped, “What are you talking about, Carl?”
Tau stared at him before looking towards Agape. “I think your friend here is suffering from some kind of ailment.” He scowled. “That’s another flaw in our system. Not rehabilitating and fixing the problem but instead just pushing it aside and locking it away. The backbone of society is law and order, but without it we have no stability and place to step off from—” He paused not to cough or choke like Carl expected but instead to stare at the entrance. “Who’s there? You’re not allowed here. How did you get here?”
Carl followed his gaze.
Two dark-skinned young girls stood at the threshold of the door. They were dressed in gaudy clothing from 1969. Flower-print dresses, headbands, and slacks that flared out at the ankles. Carl put the older around fourteen to twelve and the younger around eight or six. Their fashion was a baffling sight against the archaic look of them.
Tau shouted something loud in gibberish.
Carl assumed the idiot was shouting for guards. Ignoring the man, he continued to stare at the girls in confusion before recognition settled in. “You! I recognize you! You were part of the group that was brought in earlier! Quick. What year is it?”
“I’ve been told not to talk to strangers,” the older girl replied, lifting her chin up and pulling the younger girl behind her. “Much less with a man who only calls me ‘you.’
“Kid, I swear I’m gonna—” Carl swallowed his words as he thought of the kids back home. “Okay. Sorry. But I promise you I ain’t a stranger. Would you, miss, please kindly tell me what year it is? Or what year you think it is?”
The girl looked him up and down. “Depends on when you’re at. Sometimes it’s now. Sometimes it’s then. Hasn’t been ‘now’ for a long time.”
“Look, kid, Atienna is my friend. You’re related to her, right?” Carl tried. He grumbled, “Well, she’s a friend of a friend. Well… a friend of a sister apparently. So if you find a way to get us out of here, I can
The older girl studied him. “You know Ati…?”
“Was with her just an hour ago.” Carl thought for a moment. “Or maybe five centuries ago.”
The two girls moved towards him.
“Don’t you dare unlock the door or do anything of the sort,” Tau said in a hard tone, gripping the bars of the cell. “He needs to stand trial for his crimes. We all do. We all have to deal with the consequences of the choices we’ve made.”
The girl eyed Tau before stopping in front of Carl’s cell. “The door isn’t locked. None of them are.”
Damn. Were kids really that stupid these days—
Carl wasn’t able to finish the thought as the older reached forward and pulled open the door to his cell with one loud creak.
The two girls stepped aside as Carl stepped out of his cell in disbelief. He grabbed his cell door and gave it a good shake just to confirm that it was indeed open.
Rattling echoed as Agape and Ferris tried their own cell doors. Neither budged.
Carl went to Agape’s cell and gave the door a pull. Didn’t move. He whipped to the older girl. “Do your weird thing and open this door.”
The girl frowned.
The girl reached for Agape’s door before freezing as popping sounds resounded from all corners of the room. Vaguely familiar. Before Carl could find the source of it, the girl grabbed him by the wrist and began dragging him to the exit.
Carl pulled back. “What the hell, kid? Didn’t you hear me—”
The older girl snapped, “Shut up, you stupid old man—”
The younger girl pointed behind him—which Carl knew was never a good sign. He whipped around.
Vines were growing up the bars of all the cells at an unnatural rate. Buds popped up along the vines and began to open into flowers. Ferris and Agape immediately backed away from the bars. When Carl whipped back around, he found Tau still standing at his own bars—even as the vines grew up them, even as those vines grew up his arms and onto his face and into his mouth. The flowers bloomed up the vine and all over his entire body until it consumed him completely.
Carl barely had the time to register the sight before the older girl pulled him right out of the room and through the open doorway—
* * *
Carl jolted up to a sit. He was drenched from head-to-toe in sweat, and his heart was hammering wildly in his chest. It took him a moment to get his bearings. It took him another moment to realize he was not where he expected to be.
Gaudy wallpaper and gaudy art pieces hanging from it. A bed that was wobbling beneath him.
He was back in the guest room.
Carl tumbled out of the room and into the hall before making his way to the dining room. He burst into the chambers only to find that the table was already set with cutlery and food. Eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes.
Cadence, Francis, and Charite were already sitting at their table and working on their meals. Cadence was wearing some sort of lacey nightgown and her hair was done up like a tower in a bunch of curls. Carl stormed over to them, slapping his hand on the table.
“Didn’t know you were this excited about breakfast, Carl,” Francis responded, brows raised. He was chewing on some pancake Charite had just fed to him.
“I’m not excited about damned breakfast!” Carl snapped. “What the hell happened last night? With Altair! Vega! The jail!”
“What? What are you talking about, Carl?” Francis frowned. “You were so tired last night so Cadence took you to bed. We all called it a night after that.”
“Carl…” Cadence cast him a sympathetic look. “VNW can come with unpleasant dreams that feel startlingly real.”
“It’s not a—”
“Not a dream. I know. It never feels like it is.” Cadence let out a sigh. She gestured to the seat across from her. “How about we eat breakfast together first and we can talk about all of that later?”
Carl snapped. “Are you serious?”
“Come on, Carl,” Francis insisted. “It’s your favorite kind of sausage.”
After looking back and forth between his supposed siblings for a couple minutes Carl finally conceded and sank down into his seat with a grumble.
Smiling, Cadence clapped her hands. Feliciano entered the room rolling a cart with what Carl had recently learned was called a television resting on top of it. Feliciano flipped a switch on the device and its screen flickered on with a loud whine.
A cheering, colorful crowd appeared on the screen. The words LIVE FEED appeared in the top right corner. The scene switched to an empty stage manned by a podium. Carl watched with disinterest until he saw a man stop onto the stage. It was Gilbert. Gilbert, wearing a hideous colorful suit that flared out at the arms and legs. The screen zoomed up to his face. He smiled. Then he waved to the crowd, to the screen, to everyone who was watching, to Carl.
What the hell?
“Shit…” Carl stared in disbelief. “Come on, Capricornian. Don’t do this.”
“Oh my goodness! It looks like Gilbert’s recovered already.” Cadence reached across the table and held Carl’s hand. “Maybe it’ll be the same for you…?”
On the screen, Gilbert lowered his hand and gripped the podium’s edges. “Now, I’m sure some of you have become aware of the recent changes to how we’re handling VNWs. You may have become aware that more and more VNWs.”
“It isn’t that the prevalence of VNW infections has increased. It’s that we are decreasing the amount of VNWs that we send to the Small Services District.”
Mumbles rippled through the crowd off-screen.
Gilbert held up a hand. “There’s been no evidence that isolated treatment in the facilities in that District improves people with this condition nor is there any evidence that minimal exposure to individuals with VNW causes infection. That’s simply prejudice.” He paused before gesturing to himself. “I myself had VNW just two days ago. I was allowed to continue living my life normally, immersed in public, without too many restrictions. This morning, I made a full recovery. That’s right. In just two short days, I overcame my condition and now I’m able to be standing in front of you now as one of your policy makers.”
Wait, Carl thought. He had to be acting. He had to be. Or whatever was showing on this was fake.
“We left stigmatization behind us once we entered Ndoto. Everyone here deserves to have another chance at the life they deserve to live, so ‘let’s keep on steppin’ as the kids say,” Gilbert continued before smiling at the crowd, at the screen, at those following along, at Carl. “Let’s make sure everyone here is allowed and able to live their best and happiest life.”
Atienna woke up gasping and covered in sweat.
A face hovered over her. “Did you have a bad dream?”10
Please be sure to check out the footnote 10 associated with the chapter!!!!
Whew okay. Sorry for the late chapter update. We adopted a new kitty—his name is jericho uwu. He is a handful but he’s also very cuddly. Will happily send pictures if asked.
Anyways, with this last chapter of the first section of part 5, we now officially begin hiatus. I’m going to spend this time re-reading and editing SC in it’s entirety up until this point here. I’m not sure how long it’ll take but just to give you an estimate…
Time between Part 1 & Part 2 re-reading/editing all of SC: 1 week
Time between Part 2 & Part 3 re-reading/editing all of SC: 2 weeks
Time between Part 3 & Part 4 re-reading/editing all of SC: 1 month
So maybe it’ll take 2-3 months depending? Maybe more. I definitely know for sure it won’t end during 2022. There’s a lot of material to go through ahah
Anyways anyways, thank you for reading, commenting, reacting up until this point again. Spreading SC would mean a lot to me. I’ll be uploading SC on tapas I think over hiatus as well to hopefully draw more people in.
Hope you all had a great turkey day if you celebrate and hope you have a great Christmas and New Years too ((if you celebrate that))!!
See you next year o/!!