Go, Skai commanded her legs. Just move. She’d halted at the edge of the Trance gathering place, a unique dip in the land surrounding an overhanging rock. A curtain of water poured over it from above, creating a liquid mirror broken only by black, geometric chunks of metal left there by the ancestors long ago. Most of them came in the form of narrow rectangular pieces, lit from the inside with a cyan light. It was an old place, vastly untouched by the numai’s progress.
From her rocky perch, Skai observed her own kind showing up in small groups and disappearing underneath the veil of water. She pulled her hood up, bit her lip and scanned the tops of their heads. Just go, she tried again. It was easy before.
Her foot scraped over the rock and, as if reminded of its purpose, the other followed. Skai exhaled another breath. Her heart beat wildly as she neared the overhang; she was close enough for the others to see her now. Feeling their eyes on her was almost as unnerving as the numai’s vacant staring, but it was one pair of eyes in particular that she dreaded seeing most.
She led one hand over the front of her coat, grappled for the clasp and squeezed. Her hands were slippery again; she made sure to hold onto her broken wisp. Don’t look, she demanded of her eyes. They shot to the ground and she found solace in the rock’s texture, the quiet scrape of her boots, the ground’s waving, ridge-like protrusions that carried minuscule streams from the overhang’s border. She realized they looked a lot like veins. They lit up with a thread of wisps as the small lights led her forward.
“I’m going,” she grunted at them, still fiddling with the broken one in her pocket. The wisps scattered and darted ahead of her.
She paused at the veil of water, momentarily startled by her own reflection. It had been awhile since she’d looked at it. Bruising had formed beneath her eyes and her hair had gone wild, escaping from her hood in untidy lengths. Her eyes shot back to the ground and she went on fiddling with her pockets, realizing those inside were likely watching her through the water.
Don’t look at them, she reminded herself before taking a deep breath and parting the water with her hand. Don’t look at her. She quickly passed under the triangle that formed, nearly tripped over a rock on the other side and cringed at her wet sleeve.
“Afraid of a little water?”
Skai shot upright and glanced around. About a dozen organics like herself sat cross-legged before her, some of them apparently already in a deep trance, eyes closed and hands folded in their laps. Some peeked up at her.
Tempus sat at the center of them all, one arm braced behind him. He was a massive being, standing several heads over Skai — even taller than the numai. He was just as translucent as his synthetic relatives, though he often painted over his skin wherever he could reach. Today, he was a soft bronze.
He raised an eyebrow as Skai went on staring at them all, his cyan eyes lighting up like the old constructs outside. “It’s been awhile,” he noted.
Skai cleared her throat and rolled the broken wisp around between her fingers. “Yeah.”
“We’re glad to see you back.”
A couple more of Tempus’ students opened their eyes and stared at her unabashedly. She glanced around at them without settling on anyone in particular, enough to glimpse smiling faces and a few tentative waves. I don’t see her. She’s not here.
“Skai,” one of them called. Tempus twisted around and shot the girl a pointed look as Skai quickly lowered her head and focused on her own boots.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Tempus offered. “You’re distracting Pakka.”
Skai rolled the wisp in one hand and squeezed the inside of her pocket into a ball with the other. She wanted to turn on her heel and bolt back into the open expanse. She wasn’t ready.
“S-sit, yeah.” She shuffled forward and plopped into a cross-legged position, reminded of the way she’d been told to sit in the isolation chamber. Close your eyes, the numai had told her. Clear your mind. It always started the same way, like any typical Trance.
“Everyone relax and imagine yourselves in the room,” Tempus directed in a soft voice.
Skai peeled an eye open and glanced sidelong at him, distracted by the luminosity of his hair and the way it drifted on end as though underwater. Same Tempus. Same Trance. Nothing’s changed.
“Clear your mind,” Tempus went on.
Skai observed the others: eyes closed, relaxed, some of them sitting with their mouths hanging open. She studied them one face at a time, slowly recalling their names and the last time she’d spent time with them.
She turned her attention to the back wall where Tempus often left drawings and diagrams in luminescent paint. They detailed what Tempus called ing’ai: the concept of soul growth and tiers, from the smallest life form to the most complex. Skai thought of the wisp in her pocket and the variations of strange beetles and flies she would sometimes find scurrying around the upper layers, nameless creatures that survived the ancestor’s time.
Her gaze came full circle to find Tempus openly staring at her. He gave her a stern nod and gestured for her to close her eyes. “Concentrate.”
Skai exhaled an annoyed huff, brushed her fingers over the rock at her sides and let her eyes fall shut. For a while she simply stared at the backs of her eyelids, expecting nothing to happen. It had been too long. Her mind was too empty, too listless. Nothing.
Clear your mind, Tempus said again.
His voice was in her head this time, lapping at the edges of her consciousness like a message from a dream. She stifled the urge to yawn and lowered her head. It was easy to remember why she had always enjoyed this time. It was quiet, peaceful, and she could close herself off from the rest of the world, if even for a moment.
Imagine yourself in the room.
Skai squinted into the bright light that materialized ahead of her. It illuminated a white, endless space, silent and empty. Empty.
This is your space, Tempus’ voice carried on overhead. Direct it in any way you want.
My space, Skai remembered. She exhaled another breath and leaned back, surprised when her hands brushed sand instead of rock. It’s working. She collected a handful of it and watched it pour from between her fingers, so soft it could have been powder. It fell as though time had come to a stop, like the world had turned inside out and no longer knew up from down.
Remember, Tempus went on, remember everything that you see.
Skai swiped through the airborne sand and pushed to her feet. The dunes were all around her, as far as her eyes could see — endless waves of white. There were no walls, no columns of rock, no buildings or people. In place of the Underside, there was blackness, broken only by swimming ribbons of golden light. They moved as slowly as the sand, awaiting her command.
Who do you see with you? Tempus asked. Who shares this place with you?
Skai squinted into the horizon, where dark met light. She moved forward in search of a visitor, though she seemed to have abandoned her body entirely. She was a moving pair of eyes, a particle amidst the flying sand.
Waves of sleek, blazing hair slid into view. It was hazy, somehow both far away and wavering just in front of her eyes. Golden, glistening skin followed, heavy with some unidentifiable scent, strangely familiar and otherworldly at once. Skai drew in a shaking breath as it filled her up, knowing exactly who it reminded her of. It danced at the edges of her consciousness, teasingly out of reach.
Focus on your companion, Tempus went on overhead. Follow them through your space.
Sand collected ahead of Skai to form an outstretched hand. She reached for it with her own, mesmerized by the particles that rushed to build her body anew. Not organic, she realized, or synthetic. She was energy and light, moving through a timeless space.
Her companion’s hand pulled her closer but led her nowhere. Skai rotated around in search of a face and eyes, finding only blinding energy.
Follow your companion.
An unusual tug slowed Skai’s movements to a crawl. The swirls of red and gold evaporated and she was drawn farther and farther back until a hard gasp escaped her lungs. Stinging tears rushed to her eyes as she fell to her knees.
I can’t, she panted. Nothing. There’s nothing.
Follow your companion, Tempus pressed on. Discover where they lead you.
The endless dunes, the blackened Underside, the forms of energy all vanished. Skai’s real surroundings took place around her: the still, glass-like waters, the cool lumps of rock, the group of fellow students and Tempus.
Skai’s trance had broken.
She swallowed her heaving breaths and pinned her head between her knees, pleading with her mind to return to that safe place with the warmth and the sand. Too late, she realized. It’s broken. I’m broken.
She reached into her pocket and collected her broken wisp, finding a small amount of comfort in rolling it between her fingers.
Maybe Tempus can fix me too.