Eyes. They’re just eyes. Skai shook her head and tore her own eyes from the creature that gazed on her from across the dim enclosure. She focused instead on her hands, curled into fists in her lap. They’re shaking again, she realized as she turned them around and examined her perspiring palms — anything to distract her from her surroundings: a small, suffocating place with a domed ceiling and polished floor.
No matter how she tried to convince herself, the eyes studying her were anything but eyes. They were two round, unblinking orbs. Another glance confirmed she was facing a machine. It was metal and glass, moving parts and a whirring brain. It was function without meaning, cold and artificial.
Skai curled in on herself and tucked her head between her knees in an attempt to block out the buzz moving in and out of her ears: static. Waves of static. The creature, one of many synthetic beings Skai’s kind called the numai, was trying to get in her head again. Like in every previous session, she refused to let it.
“Look at me,” it directed.
Skai dug her fingers into her knees and shook her head. Sweat bled through her clothes, more damning evidence of the effect this thing had on her.
“Look at me!”
Her head snapped upright. She trained her eyes on the numai once more, this time with the intent of fighting back.
“Get outta my head,” she snarled, sounding far more ferocious than she felt. She gripped her knees harder at the numai’s lack of reaction. It simply stared, its unblinking eyes bright enough to blot out the rest of the isolation chamber: a place she’d been forced to visit several times before.
“I’m trying to help you,” it said in what could have been a calm, dreamlike voice had it not been for the metallic ring that accompanied it. In the enclosed space, it reverberated several times before fading. The static returned, as loud as ever.
“Can’t help me,” Skai gasped. She couldn’t breathe. The air was too thick, her lungs too tight. “I can’t—” But she found it impossible to voice what she couldn’t do; the list was endless. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t feel. She was empty, just like the thing across from her.
“I can help you,” it said again.
No. She crushed her eyes shut as the static amplified. It matched the frenzied beat of her heart until it was all she could focus on, until her throat clenched and her eyes watered. Get me out of here. Get me out—
“Please, you only need to tell me what you’re feeling,” the numai begged. “Even one word—”
“Nothing!” Skai cried, wanting nothing more than to be let go. “Nothing! Nothing—”
In a single breath, the dome slid up enough to reveal a larger, circular room beyond the dome. Skai nearly collapsed beneath the wave of air that followed. Nothing. She wished she could scramble upright and evacuate the room as quickly as possible, but she was rooted to the floor by more than her own weakened state. Nothing. The air itself had weight to it; it pressed down all around her, attempting to subdue her.
“Relax,” the numai pleaded.
Skai squinted at it through labored breaths. The light did little to ease her discomfort. It lit up more of the numai’s artificial body: translucent skin, bones like metal rods and an unmoving face. It was different from the hundreds of other numai she’d grown up around, hanging from the ceiling by its midsection and wired directly into the dome. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned away.
“Relax,” it repeated in its meditative voice, “and you will be let go.”
Skai didn’t argue. She took a moment to steady her breathing until the weight lifted. The dome rose further up as she found her feet, making enough room for her to fumble for the archway leading outside. The numai said nothing as she disappeared down the hall; its eyes only pierced hers until out of sight.
It only took one word.
Skai slid a trembling hand over the glossy walls, attempted to brush off her unease and stumbled down hall after brightened hall, most of which were so eerily barren that another barrage of prickles ran up her spine. She imagined several more chambers like the one she’d been kept in and wondered if there were others like herself, paired with their own numai to make sense of their ‘aberrations of the mind’.
Probably not, Skai thought as she continued toward the exit, each hall as conforming as the last. She couldn’t tell them apart. It was a wonder she remembered the way out of such an enormous place. The numai called it Arc: home.
Their home. Not Skai’s.
It wasn’t until a new wave of cool air rolled down the hall that the clamp on her lungs released. She paused at the final exit and inhaled a deep breath.
Done, at least until the next time two numai sidled up next to her in an open space with the ‘request’ to follow them. She’d argued with them once, only to be blasted in the face with something cold and smelling of foul chemicals.
Done, she thought one more time, hoping it was the last, and pushed out into the open world.
Aiur’s cavernous expanse lay spread out before her: hills of smooth, bone-white rock, trickling streams and the occasional mark of Skai’s ancestors in the form of tall, solid black buildings. Organic columns of rock dotted the landscape, some of them wide enough for twenty numai to link hands around. The natural formations helped to hold the Underside in place, the last layer of earth before the Surface.
All light came in the form of iridescent particles. They swept through the air and flit over rock in sluggish, weaving lines. They clustered in large orbs near the columns, the Underside, the glossy buildings. Everywhere.
Skai had always liked them — wisps, the numai had called them — even though they were a microscopic variant of the numai themselves, running off the same energy, the same signal, the same static. There was something simple and peaceful about them. They gave a sense of order to the world, directing light and accompanying the artificial and organic alike.
There were numai all around Skai, passing into the Arc through dilating archways and carrying various objects. Working. Always working. Skai took in a breath, still dizzied from her time spent in the enclosure. The numai’s static was inescapable, trailing from each of them like a scent.
Bodies, she realized as the beings moved past her with a purposeful gait, distracted from their work only by her passing. Not people. They looked at her like she might combust, like she was something to be careful around, like they knew about her breakdown inside the Arc. Going nowhere, she thought as one of them brushed her arm. Just like me.
She averted her gaze, focusing instead on her boots as they trudged over the sloping rock, a material that had yellowed like aged bone. Her own legs were as alien to her as the numai, carrying her forward without any real direction. She turned her hands over and studied them in the same way. Just a body.
The crowds dispersed as she went, the clatter of the numai’s glassy feet turning into nothing more than background noise. She made a slow turn to look back on the Arc, a massive, pearl-white building so tall that it breached the Underside. It was as polished as the bodies of the numai: a glass with no obvious markings. It seemed almost organic in shape, with wide swells and curves that made up what resembled a face, neck, and shoulders.
Aberration of the mind, Skai reminded herself before scrubbing at her eyes with her fists. The longer she studied it, the more she wondered if the shape was there at all. Her mind often made up images where there were none.
She shook her head and tried to remember where she’d been going before being escorted to her session. Everything leading up to it had been a haze.
As if answering her, a low thud echoed across the landscape three times. It seemed to emanate from the world’s core, as deep and resonating as a heartbeat. The numai called it Pulse, a sound meant to regulate time. Its reverberations ran up her legs, a small reminder that she could still feel.
The wisps collected around her almost instantly, laying out a path for her to follow. Three pulses means Trance starts soon, she remembered. She hadn’t attended Trance in a long time — one of the reasons, she assumed, for her increased sessions in the isolation chamber. Open up willingly, Skai thought with a grimace, or forcibly. The wisps went on fluttering around her like pests until she slapped them away. One of them met the rock with a tiny snap and flickered out.
“Ji,” Skai swore, bending to pick it off the ground. It stuck to the tip of her finger, a carcass of its previous form. “Sorry.” She rolled it between her thumb and forefinger with a tilt to her head. She never realized just how small they were. Abandoning it on the ground didn’t seem right. “I’ll get you fixed,” she promised. The lightless bead gazed back at her from the tip of her finger. “Let’s go find Tempus.”